The Alchemist’s Apprentice: Revision of Our Education System

About two year’s ago I began a separate blog about my theories of education. I only wrote one post before I focused all of my efforts on While We Can, and the post just sat there…until this morning. I thought I would repost the ideas there as a starting point forward as I have spent the last week reading Gladwell, Robinson and Gardner’s novel concepts of where the education system needs to go. 


The most effective way of teaching is by learning and letting others watch.                                                                                   -Chandler

When I was in Grade Six, my teacher did this crazy thing: he let me learn. He had a simple system that allowed students who scored 90% on his bi-weekly tests to go, unsupervised, to The Learning Centre. If you learned what you needed the first week, then you did not need to be in class for the second week. Instead, you were able to create an independent learning schedule where you learned about whatever you wanted to, and then reported what you learned back to him in the form of a log/report/presentation of  your choosing. It allowed him to have more one on one time with those students who needed it and it rewarded those for whom the material was simple.

One week I read about sharks and wrote a book report. I read National Geographic articles, picture books with images so frightening that I stopped swimming in pools, and even looked at a shark jaw for inspiration. Another week, I spent playing with the cutting edge Commodore Vic-20 computer system, learning how to program in Cobalt or some other obscure language; I made the screen change colour and flash my name over and over until it almost started a seizure. In later weeks I listened to The Beatles, read The Lord of the Rings, wrote love letters[1] to the pretty girl in class, did a live radio show for my peers, wrote a screenplay and produced a movie starring the cool kids. I loved going to school.  By the end of the grade I had scored the second highest mark in my class and was chosen to participate in the French Immersion program. Perhaps more importantly, my teacher gave me a writing journal featuring hobbit drawings in the corners; it was meant to inspire me to continue writing and do something great with my life.

While it may sound like nostalgic revisionism, I can honestly say that the rest of my academic career and my professional achievements can be traced back to those six months spent in that room. Writing, music, film, computers and media have been what I love to do. I even went to South Africa to chase down the Great White Shark, and perhaps it was because I spent so much time learning about it in Grade Six. My family was not wealthy, and we were not well-educated. Yet, I spent eight years in universities learning about what interested me, and I have spent twelve years teaching students about what interests me most right now. I am not that interested in either the best teaching practices outlined by my professional association, or co-ordinating interdisciplinary multi-modal curriculums from a down-designed paradigm, but rather I am fascinated by why electronic books will fail because they cannot emulate various fonts, how Hasselblad makes camera lenses from sand, and what is the best way to organize my tax receipts so that I maximize my resources in a failed economy.

The premise of this blog series is to explore why humans learn, how educators can maximize their own growth while improving their students’ chances of success, and to examine my own learning process within a period of one year. My part in the experiment will be to tackle my areas of weakness and loathing: mathematics, science, religion, drawing, music notation, and the basic mechanics of machines. The theoretical framework for my research will examine current ideas on intrinsic motivation, flow, mastery, creativity and productivity. This is not a reflection of the educational gobbley-gook that one studies in universities, although I may reference it in passing, but rather a reflection of the human brain, our curiousity, and how to foster an imagination in our children that will outperform the all products of the current teaching models that aspiring teachers follow like a cookbook.

Ironically, I hope to inspire an absolute subversion of how teachers perceive their purpose, while looking to the most arcane and institutionally conservative subjects I could imagine. I will inevitably discuss how technology becomes the ideal foil for exploring arcane ideas of creativity and production, and briefly look at how trends like the steampunk movement and hackers entwine themselves within these concepts of learning. The true goal for this project is to allow me to learn more about the world that fascinates me and to permit myself the guilty pleasure of taking the time to figure out what purpose an equation serves, how to make a machine that works and to expand my drawing beyond my beautiful stick figures.

The White Noise of Wonderland

Our world is a cacophony of information. The white noise of new media has successfully drowned out the human ability to maintain extended focus, to question the validity of knowledge, and to synthesize what we receive into what we perceive. Within the realm of education, teachers find themselves assaulted by constantly changing mantras of new curriculums, the application of brain science to the classroom, and the assertion that since knowledge is now superfluous it is our role to instruct how to access the plethora of sources with ease and speed.

Students multi-task themselves through increasing amounts of homework while watching television, listening to fragments of their favourite songs, and social networking with fifty friends. As the old adage goes: garbage in and garbage out. Their ability to fixate their attention span has steadily decreased, but their perception of working has steadily increased; but this is the new paradigm for most of the modern world, is it not?

How many of us spend our day merely reacting to requests for reactions that produce nothing other than requests for reactions?

Humans like to measure our success by days, weeks months and years. We set time-based goals and objectives to provide a sense of accomplishment to our daily lives, and yet, our reasonable, allowable time-frames to achieve those objectives have exponentially decreased.  I am often told by people that they had always wanted to play guitar. Actually, I have been often told that their lifelong dream has been to be able to pick up a guitar and play their favourite songs. When I ask if they have ever tried, the answer is always: “I did, but after an hour I realized that I would never be able to play [insert song here]”. Imagine the frustration on their face when they asked me how I learned and I reply: “I practiced ten hours without any success, but by then I could play three chords and one scale. It only took twenty years after that before I realized that would never be a rock star, but it was worth the time. I love the guitar.”

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell famously hypothesizes that it takes about 10,000 hours to become successful in any field, and his argument does seem to prove reasonable to most adults and children. What does not seem reasonable to the average person is that he would need to spend so long to achieve his goals; to practice hitting a ball, plucking a string, working on an algebraic equation for any longer than absolutely necessary is such a waste of his valuable intelligence. Certainly, there is a shortcut, a quick-fix method, that will enable a man of his intelligence to circumvent time and effort. He is not getting any younger, after all, and there is an infinite world of goals to accomplish before death. Perhaps this is why GarageBand, and then GuitarHero, have become immediate sensations: they provide the illusion of mastery. By following the coloured patterns on a screen, one can feel like a rockstar wielding his favourite axe before a crowd of tens within the hour; there will be no blood on the fingertips unless something goes terribly and inexplicably wrong. While it may never provide the lasting satisfaction so desperately craved by the human spirit, it will provide a junk-food type hit that will fool the hundreds of thousands who really just wanted to play guitar, to stand out from the average Joe.

Personal relationships take years and tears to build. Fortunately, social networking sites have allowed us to foster those friendships in a manner similar to the Japanese electronic games wherein one clicks buttons to feed their pet to let it grow to the ever-coming next level. Sadly, some social networkers have gone so far as to believe that they can build personal friendships by playing such games[2] and then notifying of their most recent successes.

The major flaw in modern education is that its foundations are laid up the cornerstone of the Industrial Age: external motivation. As Ken Robinson[3] muses in his TED talk, the Victorians created our institutional system of education to fill the factories with competent workers who would toil to rise above the poverty levels suffered before the 20th century. Daniel Pink further supports Robinson’s revelation when in his powerful piece Drive, he coins the term of Motivation 2.0 as the methodology used by management to motivate productivity from the unproductive employee base. The fact is that fewer people in the 21st century are motivated by the external motivations promised by the American Dream, as our disillusionment began with the Great Depression and has continued to this day.

The key to reducing the weight of one’s need to commit to learning has to be related to creating a reproducible path from a foundational knowledge that will inspire students and teachers to own intrinsic motivation enough to produce flow to fulfill the 10,000 Hour Rule and thereby produce a level of mastery at which creativity can occur if given the 80-20 Rule of Motivation 3.0.  Simple? I say it is if, and only if, we begin by creating a foundational education based on the masters who were already working in this ideal space of creativity: the polymaths Leonardo da Vinci, William Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyā Rāzī, Galileo Gailei, Isaac Newton, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Jeffrey Willhelm/Vigotsky asserts that we can only develop when we are within our zone of proximal development because it demands our full participation in the moment. David Allen also argues that being in the moment is essential for productivity. It is essentially a Buddhist/Occidental concept wherein we are most productive when we are no longer concerned with our surroundings, no longer concerned with the world beyond our task at hand. Unfortunately, this Zen fluidity moves against the flow of Western productivity. North American measures production through a series of check boxes and obstacles that we prove our mettle against. However, our new god is financial reward and those who approach the upper echelons are often disillusioned to find that their lives have been spent merely overcoming meaningless tasks that produce very little learning.

Education in the Balance

Education is an expensive proposition. The personal cost to become educated makes the least sense to those who might benefit from it the most. Our traditional methods of institutional learning require access to books, technology, teacher/experts.  When a culture has been marginalized they no longer have access to the means for learning other than in apprenticeship with a master tradesman.

Education is inherently dangerous. The Khmer Rouge, for instance, killed the educated people first. Why? Teaching and learning are powerful organizers. A mind that is able to work collectively and independently is capable of destruction; it is capable of subversion that will undermine unpalatable movements.

Education is what the status quo attempt to keep from the lower classes and give their own children. Private schools are able to teach a more flexible curriculum, while public school education remains within the constraints of a curriculum that teaches far below the average student’s zone of proximal development.

The teacher is increasingly discouraged by her administrators, and by her professional organizations to personally disengage with students. Increased classroom sizes, the threat of being accused of unprofessional engagement with students, and the redirection of a teacher’s time to writing useless lesson plans and to attending purposeless meetings, have all contributed to atrophy within the educational system.

The Shift From Specialist to Renaissance Man

Industrialization and Henry Ford’s brilliant epiphany of creating an assembly line steadily focused a person’s level of specialization to a macroscopic level: the only way to ensure absolute dominance in a field was to carve out such a unique, tiny portion of the field that no one else could possibly compete with you in that space. Family physicians became oncologists specializing in finger cancer, vehicle drivers became certified for specific machines, and teachers became Math Specialists for the Middle Years on Floor Two. We all became masters of our domains, and for the past ninety years this increased specialization differentiated our abilities and allowed us to command higher respect and salaries with each new certification. Our systems of knowledge became so complex that a person working in a field may not understand anything about what their partner does  working on the exact same product. Darwin might hypothesize that if a disease or predator wiped out all of our Ada or Java programmers, then our species would suffer catastrophes as computer systems began to fail. Imagine a historical novel entitled: The Day After All of the Plumbers Died.

I would argue that the internet has also reduced the value of specialization, but not for the reason you might first consider. Certainly, specialized knowledge is available for aficionados of the most minute speciality; just log on to a forum on Leica cameras or Ducati motorcycles, and you will be awestruck at the human energy and knowledge present. The internet has forced us to realize that no matter how perfect our knowledge of a specific area is, there is always hundreds of people who are better and gaining. Before the digital world allowed us to perceive the vastness of humanity, we conceded that Shirley down the street was pretty darn good at painting landscapes. Now a human can search the world and view the millions of artists doing the exact same thing, at a level far beyond what Shirley could ever accomplish. It devalues Shirley’s wonderful talent. Knowledge of the whole forces us to question the value and uniqueness of our talent, the validity of the piece. One can argue that being able to see the true landscape of achievement should inspire us to strive further, but most often we only realize the fragility of our achievements when we search the internet for peer validation, and instead of providing our egos with warmth, we find a bitter pill: we are one in a million even when playing our best hand.

Within the classroom, our small rooms with thirty children, this happens on a daily basis. Teachers attempt to balance the negative realizations and failures against the growth and positive reinforcement. Perhaps it is because teachers understand best, from years of seeing how far a children can grow if encouraged while being gently corrected, that it is never going to be about the final product. Every child’s learning is a work in progress. When I began teaching at the high school level, I somehow believed that I was responsible for molding the minds of those who would soon pass outside my classroom into the real world. Certainly, students would come back to thank me for some faded moment years later, but very little of that ever had to do with my delivery of curriculum. Now that I teach Grade 7, no one ever will return to thank me because what I do is not perceived as being important to the final product. If teaching were a statue, then Primary education would be the initial shaping of the form, and Senior education would be perceived as the final shaping for judgement. The work in between is not valued because it is neither inspiration nor product, but rather it is process. Our industrialized world values only the creative moment and the final product, but places no value on the process of production.

[1] Please note that I received no credit whatsoever for these letters, and that they were a complete utter failure. [2] See the Farmville application in Facebook



2 responses to “The Alchemist’s Apprentice: Revision of Our Education System

  1. Anthony…yesterday I did the famously vain “google yourself” routine and found a link that led me to your blog and to your website. Your photography is wonderful. I retired from teaching two years ago (my last assignment was at Central Queens in Hunter River teaching Music…that was a blast) and was diagnosed with lymphoma not long after that. I have been receiving treatment for two years and luckily the current chemo seems to be working. I read your thoughts about education with great interest and would like to read more of your ideas. Cheers Perry

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s