Here’s a list (in no particular order) of some of the changes in U.S. education, from kindergarten to professional school, either invented or finalized in the Taylorist era (the same era that produced the assembly line, statistics, standard deviation, spreadsheets, blueprints, punch clocks): mandatory public secondary schooling, research universities, majors, minors, divisions, certification, graduate school, collegiate law school, nursing school, graduate school of education, collegiate business school, degree requirements, grades, required courses, electives, distribution requirements, IQ tests, multiple choice tests, item response college entrance exams (SAT), school rankings, class rankings. And learning disabilities.
There are some great things in that list. My point in this open-ended meditation, though, is that these are invented things. Like all inventions, they are historically situated, created for a specific time and place, to solve problems of an era and address the possibilities afforded by the society, institutions, wealth, ambitions, and technologies of that time and place. Like statistics and the assembly line, the system of education we have inherited is not “timeless.” It is an industrial age invention. So is the practice of ranking students from best to worst (“one best way”), using standardized forms of testing (extending Galton’s questionnaire form to the one-best-answer or item-response test).
We invented these standardized, regulatory, categorizing, statistical, practices for determining educational success or failure for the Fordist era of the assembly line. We can invent better ones for our own era.
So, I’m stealing this line: “The system of education we have inherited is not timeless.” I’ve been asking audiences lately what did we do before we had this thing called school? How did we learn? How were we graded? It’s not a great conversation starter. I think most have such little context for anything different that it’s almost impossible to see beyond the structures we’ve built. It echoes, once again, Tom Carroll’s astute question over a decade ago:
If we didn’t have the schools we have today, would we create the schools we have today?
(BTW, Clay Shirky instigated a similar discussion about higher ed a couple of years ago that makes for a pretty interesting read.)
I wish I were smart enough, creative enough, focused enough to see the edgy meme that we need to start around education to invent these new things, whatever they are. I keep thinking about how back in the 70s, Wisk basically branded a problem to sell it’s detergent. “Ring around the collar” for those of you too young to remember. We need to brand this assessment problem in a way that helps the masses see it as an embarrassing inadequacy of the system.
Thoughts on how to do that?