on the task of education

March 24, 2018   |   by oemb1905

I recently applied for the Ed.D. program at UNM. I was asked to write about my educational beliefs, or positions rather, and to specifically focus on how I would meet the needs of Education given what are often conflicting and differing demands. I am planning a position paper on education, and although this article was somewhat restricted in its focus, there are some ideas I wrote about herein which I will return to later, and that I saw fit to share for review. The applicants were also asked to respond to Schooling for America (Graham 2005).

The task of education is traditionally considered to be the process by which the previous generation transmits a body of knowledge, beliefs, and practices to the next. This definition is not usually challenged, however, etymology is often helpful when teasing out the full meaning of oft-used terms in education, and this case is no different. Education, in its purest form, means to //lead out//, i.e., to lead one out of ignorance to understanding. The traditional definition works well when considering primary education, however, it begins to fail in regards to secondary and collegiate institutions. Colleges often utilize young professors and post-doctoral fellows to teach students older than the instructors themselves. This is even more apparent in credentialing, graduate, and community college programs. Young and charismatic leaders often shape educational policy, take over schools and educational reform, and guide masses of veteran teachers far older than themselves. In academic research, there is an admixture of tenured professors, postdoctoral researchers, and younger graduate students that cycle through each epoch and discover new ideas and approaches to learning. The reality is that the task of education beyond primary schooling is more intergenerational than the prevailing narrative reveals.

The task of education has been the source of much debate since formal public schooling began, but I also see the debate in other historical forms of schooling. The task of education before approximately 1700, often conducted by educational leaders that were also explicitly religious authorities, looked far different than it looks in U.S. public schools of today. In the western past, the traditional offerings of grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy were taught alongside religious indoctrination, while the primary Eastern model wed together Confucianism and the Six Arts. Graham, on the other hand, was writing almost a hundred years after Dewey’s Democracy and Education, during what was the heart of the No Child Left Behind epoch, during which achievement gaps between economic, ethnic, and other subgroup divisions were the prevailing topic in educational leadership. Regardless of the age and cultural approach, the Discourse of measuring student learning outcomes is still important, but the present task of education in the technological age might benefit from an increased focus on institutional redesign. Online and self-guided learning opportunities should be at the forefront in bucking the traditional schoolhouse model, a model which herds masses of students together for largely behaviorist style socialization and uniform instruction. This antique model is ill suited to the needs of most demographics, and is arguably out of touch with today’s technological infrastructure and digital learning. Large schoolhouses and reified bodies of learning will always retain some purpose in the greater ecosystem insofar as they provide an efficient manner of meeting educational goals for a large audience, but I would argue that access and equity will only be reached by expanding alternative programs, whether charter, voucher, online home-school programs, or what would be best, more independent-study learning centers with teachers who shift their role to mentoring and tutoring, rather than explicit instruction. These changes will help shift the onus of learning slightly more towards the self-responsibility of the learner and the learner’s family, rather than expecting the massive schoolhouse to be a panacea for all things educational.

But I think the educational community, within each generation, needs to first re-define and answer the question of what education means and how educators accomplish that task. And in order to accomplish that task, educators must at least have some idea of what the common social compact and goal of life is predicated upon. Is the educational compact housed within the greater effort to create and nurture democratic citizens, or is a more classical vision, such as the quest for the good life, once again more germane to the present day? The communities of learning have debated this tension since the inception of public schooling, whether it was within primary, secondary, or collegiate institutions. Is the goal to create vocational workers, or students well versed in the liberal arts; which pole is correct? At present, the strictly vocational schools are out of vogue because specialization was conflated with minority subgroup needs. The new dual-credit approach, involving a partnership between secondary and collegiate institutions provides the same real-world skills at graduation but avoids this ostracization. The polarity fluctuation in education reveals a larger false binary, namely, that pedagogical optimization might not be inherently wed to one form of government. In the U.S., it is an oft-repeated phrase that education’s purpose is to create democratic citizens, but there are socialist, communist, and monarchical governments with admirable records of student achievement. I think the present U.S. political climate, being so far removed from its roots as a representative republic, only makes redefining why societies and educational centers are formed, an even more germane task to the U.S. educational leader than ever before. I would argue there is much value in keeping the model of implementation somewhat neutral to political fluctuations to avoid binding learning outcomes to one particular epoch, but at the same time, there are core values and ethical principles that nearly every successful society shares. Articulating what those values are is a valuable and difficult task and among those values are the freedom to learn and teach ideas without persecution, safety of learning environments, access to content and tools of learning, mentors and teachers with expertise, and a testing ground for the new tyros. The historical role of the quadrivium, trivium, the Six Arts, and the modern reincarnation of those traditions as the four content areas, might need to give way to a classical-modern synthesis in order to remain relevant.

But how do different learning centers and societies measure the educational task and its efficacy and efficiency? The current educational perspective on assessing how well educators and the educated are doing relies too heavily on low-resolution studies, broad qualitative descriptions, hasty correlations turned into causality, and a cadre of assumptions regarding subgroups that are at best, lightly based on research. Originally inspired by Sowell (1970), I was surprised to find, in my own private work in evaluating achievement gaps across the federally designated subgroups, as measured by five distinct A.P. tests, that there were certain groups that were actually performing worse in STEM oriented A.P. tests than previous decades. To be sure, there was an overall increase on exams as a whole, but some subgroups have not improved in certain subjects, and without high resolution analysis, the averages will cloak these conclusions. Improvement, moreover, is not merely defined as whether average scores have risen for a particular group, but whether those increases are statistically significant in comparison with other groups, or as compared with earlier rates within their own subgroup. Until the educational community wholeheartedly embraces quantitative analysis of achievement alongside other research approaches, the community will continue to miss trends in equity and access that perpetuate the existence of perennially underserved communities.

What should be taught and who decides? Should content remain the same or change throughout time, or both? I would certainly argue that more value should be placed upon the Great Books that have stood the test of times, whether literature, poetry, science, etc. Furthermore, this is not at the expense of accepting new knowledge and discovery, but in addition to those advancements in science, literature, and other subjects. Adler (1983) helped pioneer the idea that there are certain unchanging ideas that span all epochs and cultures, in his development of The Paideia Proposal. Additionally, I must be clear that I do not intend this to be an exclusively Western or elite narrative and just as Adler actively argued against Bloom and the Chicago school, so will I. Whether Sima Xian or Plato, I believe there are lasting ideas and values that span Time, but that there are also inequities and limitations that are inherited from earlier ages. The classical approach must admit of at least a small amount of modernity and change to account for scientific advancement in quantum theory, computer science, discrete mathematics, etc. The educational leadership community must also be careful not to conflate advancement with technological advancement, and should recognize that literature, the social sciences, fiction, poetry, etc., continue to offer new learning insights. Although Graham is correct in noting that there has been an average increase in learning and the efficacy of learning institutions over time, it is precisely these averages which hold the power to cover up relative failures. Only high resolution analysis of the statistics has the power to reveal significant areas where curricular redesign and educational Change is pressing.

It is now necessary to discuss how I intend to balance what are often conflicting and differing demands in education as a transformational leader. My present task is to leverage non-profit educational leadership, adjunct community college level teaching, and private IT work in a collective whole to address the community needs. My goal in entering the IT sector part-time is to help dispel the fallacy that educators do not practice and acquire new ideas, but only regurgitate primary concepts. Since I embarked on this redesign of Self, I have now begun teaching courses in computer science alongside the traditional mathematics courses I have customarily taught. I have increased my leadership at my present institution, having helped with math festivals, curricular changes, and most recently having begun discussions on sponsoring a class or team for the National Cyber League competition. Thus, I have already leveraged my real-world IT experience for a personal educational expansion and I believe the long term result of this redesign will assist in at least partial mitigation of educational outcomes and achievement. I will fail at mitigation efforts, however, unless I balance my Adjunct Teaching and private IT work with non-profit advocacy. Accordingly, as I expand my credentials and advance my professional vitae, I have also deliberately achieved positions on two non-profit educational Boards in order to leverage this professional capital to inspire others to adopt schoolhouse, curricular, and social Change consistent with my beliefs.

I must admit that although I have positioned myself in the above-mentioned manner in order to address the conflicting and differing demands of education, I do struggle at resolving conflicts between myself and other leaders. I find I excel at solving technical problems within leadership and plan to offer the teams I serve those solid skills, but hailing from a classical institution that was predicated on civil discourse, I find my navigation within social-space is not always optimal. I have observed other educational leaders utilizing a more aggressive, or even hostile, approach. At the same time, I can equally see how I am limited by my privilege and pretense about the ethics of the workplace, and have often got into academic trouble by overstepping or adopting an indomitable affect. Thus, my plan is to be an optimal transformational leader by staying humble and learning more with regards to power dynamics, while building buy-in and support by leveraging my technical expertise. Freire (1968) popularized the archetype of the sub-oppressor in educational leadership, and I try to recognize that demon in myself and others in order to temper my work. Nevertheless, rather than accept a system that relies on “taking the arrows out of one’s back gracefully,” I will encourage leaders to stop shooting arrows.


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