A first stab at understanding what education is missing

Several years ago, while I was taking in as much of Alan Kay’s philosophy as I could, I remember him saying that he wanted to see science be integrated into education. He felt it necessary to clarify this, that he didn’t mean teaching everything the way people think of science–as experimental proofs of what’s true–but rather science in the sense of its root word, scientia, meaning “to know.” In other words, make practices of science the central operating principle of how students of all ages learn, with the objective of learning how to know, and situating knowledge within models of epistemology (how one knows what they know). Back when I heard this, I didn’t have a good sense of what he meant, but I think I have a better sense now.

Kay has characterized the concept of knowledge that is taught in education, as we typically know it, as “memory.” Students are expected to take in facts and concepts which are delivered to them, and then their retention is tested. This is carried out in history and science curricula. In arithmetic, they are taught to remember methods of applying operations to compute numbers. In mathematics they are taught to memorize or understand rules for symbol manipulation, and then are asked to apply the rules properly. In rare instances, they’re tasked with understanding concepts, not just applying rules.

Edit 9/16/2015: I updated the paragraph below to flesh out some ideas, so as to minimize misunderstanding.

What I realized recently is missing from this construction of education are the ideas of being skeptical and/or critical of one’s own knowledge, of venturing into the unknown, and trying to make something known out of it that is based on analysis of evidence, with the goal of achieving greater accuracy to what’s really there. Secondly, it also misses on creating a practice of improving on notions of what is known, through practices of investigation and inquiry. These are qualities of science, but they’re not only applicable to what we think of as the sciences, but also to what we think of as non-scientific subjects. They apply to history, mathematics, and the arts, to name just a few. Instead, the focus is on transmitting what’s deemed to be known. There is scant practice in venturing into the unknown, or in improving on what’s known. After all, who made what is known, as far as a curriculum is concerned, but other people who may or may not have done the job of analyzing what is known very well. This isn’t to say that students shouldn’t be exposed to notions of what is known, but I think they ought to also be taught to question it, be given the means and opportunity to experience what it’s like to try to improve on its accuracy, and realize its significance to other questions and issues. Furthermore, that effort on the part of the student must be open to scrutiny and rational, principled criticism by teachers, and fellow students. I think it’d even be good to have professionals in the field brought into the process to do the same, once students reach some maturity. Knowledge comes through not just the effort to improve, but arguments pro and con on that effort.

A second ingredient Kay has talked about in recent years is the need for outlooks. He said in a presentation at Kyoto University in 2009:

What outlook does is give you a stronger way of looking at things, by changing your point of view. And that point of view informs every part of you. It tells you what kind of knowledge to get. And it also makes you appear to be much smarter.

Knowledge is ‘silver,’ but outlook is ‘gold.’ I dare say [most] universities and most graduate schools attempt to teach knowledge rather than outlook. And yet we live in a world that has been changing out from under us. And it’s outlook that we need to deal with that.

He has called outlooks “brainlets,” which have been developed over time for getting around our misperceptions, so we can see more clearly. One such outlook is science. A couple others are logic, and mathematics. And there are more.

The education system we have has some generality to it, but as a society we have put it to a very utilitarian task, and as I think is accurately reflected in the quote from Kay, we rob ourselves of the ability to gain important insights on our work, our worth, and our world by doing this. The sense I get about this perspective is that as a society, we use education better when we use it to develop how to think and perceive, not to develop utilitarian skills that apply in an A-to-B fashion to some future employment. This isn’t to say that skills used, and needed in real-world jobs are unimportant. Quite the contrary, but really, academic school is no substitute for learning job skills on the job. They try in some ways to substitute for it, but I have not seen one that has succeeded.

What I’ll call “skills of mind” are different from “skills of work.” Both are important, and I have little doubt that the former can be useful to some employers, but the point is it’s useful to people as members of society, because outlooks can help people understand the industry they work in, the economy, society, and world they live in better than they can without them. I know, because I have experienced the contrast in perception between those who use powerful outlooks to understand societal issues, and those who don’t, who fumble into mishaps, never understanding why, always blaming outside forces for it. What pains me is that I know we are capable of great things, but in order to achieve them, we cannot just apply what seems like common sense to every issue we face. That results in sound and fury, signifying nothing. To achieve great things, we must be able to see better than the skills with which we were born and raised can afford us.

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