I read about Ira Socol’s ideal school today and found myself musing whether mine ought to have vaulted ceilings (like Gothic churches) or open courtyards (like Roman villas) — until my thoughts were drawn to the pile of grading I need to do.

In envisioning the “perfect¨ learning environment , we have to remember not only what learners and those who guide them want out of the process, but how this fits into the larger society.

My sense is that those in  the “wider world” want two things:

1.   They want assurances that the products of schools come out of the experience with demonstrable competencies.  They want to know that they (legislators making appropriations, parents paying tuition) got something out of their investment.

Higher education has to this point been largely successful in letting the school declare someone qualified (by means of a degree or certificate). The K-12 system has granted  diplomas to enough students who didn’t acquire the skills the piece of paper implies  that many now question its value, leading to standardized college admission tests and now exit exams to prove that students have learned something.

2. They want some measure to rank and rate people. Despite the failings of whatever grade system you choose, parents want to compare their children to the kids down the street.  Employers want a rapid way to weed the sixty applications for an entry level position down to the six they will bother to call back, just as I sometimes want pepperoni pizza even though it’s not especially good for me.

Even though incessant comparison may well be a bad thing  and (at least in my experience)  GPA is a useless predictor of how well a person will do a job, the wider world wants these things and will not stand for pay for any school which doesn’t provide them.  It doesn’t matter so much to the wider world what learners learn or how they learn it.

Furthermore, the wider world wants its competent readers and writers created efficiently. Even as I imagined my ideal school, I realized that I was imagining somewhere with, at most, scores of students, surrounded by inspiring spaces and lots of technology (two things on which Dr. Socol and I agree), neither of which comes cheap.  Consider the difference between the learning environments (be they elite universities or private secondary schools) populated by those who are economically advantaged and those populated by those who aren’t, both in terms of tangible amenities and underlying assumptions about process.  Our society made a decision some years ago that an industrial and regimented education was good enough for the masses. Most of our society still believes this to be true.

For the record, I find much to recommend in the educational model of the concents in Neal Stephenson’ s Anathem.  This could broadly be described as a decade long intellectual apprenticeship, with a single intellectual director drawing on expertise of others as needed.  Leave out the complete isolation from the outside world, and I think Stephenson might be on to something.

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