Thoughts on compulsory education

Although i do accept the premise that mandatory education acts as a demotivational force, destroying creativity, i have seen counterexamples where the demands of the educational system lift individuals to accomplish what lethargy and indolence otherwise prevent them from doing. It was mainly the idea of grades and being judged that served as a motivator, but for some, it only drove them to panic attacks and sleepless nights.

Last friday on the TED blog,  the attention was devoted to education. Starting with the influential Sir Ken Robinson (without whom a post on education would be incomplete), a whole adventure in link maze opened up to the avid explorer. I couldn’t say it more eloquently than Robinson himself; the dominant culture of education is a bit analogous to dieting without losing/gaining weight. In other words, the purpose of teaching is lost when no learning occurs. Curiosity and imagination constitute the engine that drives learning, but if we’re all part of a manufactural process, forced onto a conveyor belt of testing and involuntary group projects, there’s no wonder that the spark of curiosity doesn’t ignite. If students are not treated as individuals, creativity diminishes. The problems of teaching and the stressful responsibilities of a teacher takes time and energy away from engaging with students. That fruitful feedback loop between teacher and student is forgotten in this mechanical process. As are the conditions under which people thrive. According to Robinson, this is a cultural problem prevalent throughout most of the world.

But what is that force that makes people flourish, what are the causes of creativity and what are its effects?

In psychology, the term ‘flow’ is used to describe the balance between challenge and automaticity that gives rise to a sense of devotion to a single task, often coupled with euphoric feelings and productivity. Since this state is dependent on the task being sufficiently challenging but not too difficult, the individual differences make a classroom learning style most likely an impossible means for achieving this effect in everyone. In other words, some are bound to fall behind, while others are bored to tears. Few or no one fits the narrow point of balance.
Sadly, students have little or nothing they can do to influence this, and at an early age it’s common to think the actual way is the only way possible. Or at least the only probable, since change is unlikely to come about. I still believe in this pessimistic outlook, even though my frustration drives me to write about it in an attempt to spread the dissatisfaction that i think many students share.
It’s quite clear that both under – and over-stimulation is harmful to creativity, but why is creativity so important in the first place? The reasons are both the subjective well-being it induces, the role as a basic need (as necessary as eating and sleeping in some individuals), and the practical contributions being produced because of an underlying creative desire.

Let me mention an inspirational person as an example of this, neuroanatomist Santiago Ramon y Cajal. By the end of the 17th century he hypothesized that neurons were individual components as opposed to the contemporary doctrine of a continuos neural mass as seen before the invention of electron microscopy. He illustrated this through a series of drawings and is also known for his artistic work. I’m biased to mention Cajal, as i am currently reading his book, Advice for a Young Investigator (which i would recommend to anyone interested in the processes of science and learning). Some of the quotes found there are mind-blowingly prescient and accurate still today. It’s interesting to find oneself guilty of many of the examples described as errors or “diseases of the will”. This quote for instance;

“I believe that excessive admiration for the work of great minds is one of the most unfortunate preoccupations of intellectual youth—along with a conviction that certain problems cannot be attacked, let alone solved, because of one’s relatively limited abilities.”

Maybe my own admiration for people with great minds (like Cajal himself) places this ingenuity as an unreachable ideal, and thus all efforts exerted in such a direction are perceived as futile. On a more encouraging note, however (the following is also taken from Advice for a Young Investigator);

“I continue to believe that there is always room for anyone with average intelligence and an eagerness for recognition to utilize his energy and tempt fate. Like the lottery, fate doesn’t always smile on the rich; from time to time it brings joy to the homes of the lowly. Instead, consider the possibility that any man could, if he were so inclined, be the sculptor of his own brain, and that even the least gifted may,like the poorest land that has been well cultivated and fertilized, produce an abundant harvest.”

Honestly, i don’t care much for this preoccupation with the results or recognition of ones labour, at least not yet. I believe the pursuit in itself not only has instrumental value, but also serves as a mechanism for individual and collective development, albeit subjectively.

This digression leads back to the intended subject of education, where the measurable results (grades, qualifications, report cards) shadow curiosity and devotion to the subject in terms of importance. I find this quite sad, not seeing how they need to be mutually exclusive.
A possible combination perhaps, could be achieved through learning at one’s own pace. Online education is in my opinion, a neat example of that. Ironically, the work of compulsory education takes much time away from an individual’s own pursuit of knowledge. Most people seem to only want to learn what they ‘have to’ learn, for a test to achieve the grades they strive for. Obviously i’m generalizing from personal experience, this might not be as common elsewhere (i live in Sweden by the way).

A final sub-topic i wanted to mention, is group work. It has been found that work efforts of individuals are often greater than those of groups, where productivity actually diminishes. This is due in part to the ‘free rider’ and ‘sucker’ effects, similar to the tragedy of the commons, but concerning the motivation of group members to collaborate on a mutual project. An individual can choose not too contribute at all to the group (the free rider) yet still enjoy the benefits of the others’ work, provided they don’t do the same. Or one person can do all the work for the rest of the group members (the sucker), and not get any extra credit. In both cases productivity is lost.
Furthermore, most introverted people i’ve heard from (myself included) have had bad experiences from group work. Unfortunately it still has a prevalent role in education, which i think is both disturbing and unnecessary.

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