July 7, 2010

Learning and Schooling

Category: Education :: Permalink

In his discussion of hearing (vs. reading) the Word, Eugene Peterson says that we all suffer from “an unfortunate education,” which “has come about through the displacement of learning by schooling”:

Learning is a highly personal activity carried out in personal interchange: master and apprentice, teacher and student, parent and child. In such relationships, the mind is trained, the imagination disciplined, ideas explored, concepts tested, behavioral skills matured in a context in which everything matters, in a hierarchy in which persons form the matrix…. The classic methods of learning are all personal: dialogue, imitation, and disputation. The apprentice observes the master as the master learns; the master observes the apprentice as the apprentice learns. The learning develops through relationships expressed in gesture, intonation, posture, rhythm, emotions, affection, admiration. And all of this takes place in a sea of orality — voices and silences” (Working the Angles 93).

As Peterson points out, what he is describing here is the way children — even infants — learn from their parents. Interestingly, I noticed that my son picked up the music of “Thank you” before he could say the words: he was imitating our pitches, first a higher one (“Thank”) and then the lower (“you”).

But learning, Peterson argues, has been replaced by schooling:

Schooling is very different from learning. In schooling persons count for very little. Facts are memorized, information assimilated, examinations passed. Teachers are subjected to a supervision that attempts to insure uniform performance, which means that everyone operates as much alike as possible and is rewarded insofar as the transfer of data from book to brain is made with as little personal contamination as possible. In schooling, the personal is reduced to the minimum: standardized tests, regulated teachers, information-oriented students” (94).

Peterson admits that this sort of schooling does not replace learning all at once: elementary school teachers must interact with their students as persons. But he suggests that the replacement increases as the student progresses in his education, so that in the end the student’s education can be “summarized on a transcript in number, the most abstract of languages. Learning, a most intricately personal process, will not submit to such summarizing” (94).

I’m not entirely sure how to evaluate what Peterson is saying here, and I invite your feedback. Some of what he says sounds accurate. Some even seems inevitable: include more than one person in your classroom and you have to standardize; you simply cannot teach Jane at her pace and Wendy at hers, ensuring that each girl learns what you are teaching and has adequate personal interaction with you to do so.

But I can see, too, the problem he points out with standardization: if you are going to require a certain grade point average for admittance into a college or university, you also want that grade point average to mean the same thing, no matter what school the student graduated from. And the best way to achieve that goal is to reduce education to things that can be standarized: facts and numbers and dates and so forth.

I’m still thinking about these things, and again I welcome your thoughts.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:34 pm | Discuss (3)

3 Responses to “Learning and Schooling”

  1. Chris Says:

    This is an interesting discussion topic, John. I am currently working on earning my Masters of Education and there is often a discussion on the best approach to teaching/learning.

    I think this whole discussion has to begin with our view of the child/learner. What is the best way that students learn? It is quite likely that students have very different learning styles and so we need to have a variety of teaching methods. The buzz term these days in education is ‘differentiated instruction’ – google it and find more.

    As a teacher, I find my best lessons are those in which the students are heavily involved in brainstorming and discussing. There are also times when they need to be active listeners, taking notes and organizing them efficiently.

    A word about standardization – In the Ontario school system, we have a number of standardized tests, but they play no role in determining one’s college/university entrance. It is really a benchmark to suggest that a child has reached the minimum level of literacy or numeracy. There isn’t really much riding on these tests. It is true that in grade 10 students must pass a literacy test before they can graduate, but if they fail it once, there are ways to ‘work the system’.

    In BC, where I grew up, the standardized tests were different. In every ‘academic’ (as opposed to applied) course, all the students in the province had to write a provincial exam which counted for a large percentage of the final grade. These exams play a large role in determining one’s entrance into college/university. I am very much in favour of this kind of standardization in the current educational system because there is a real problem with grade inflation in the public education system.

    For example, I was in a public school teaching as a ‘student teacher’ where I was teaching a grade 12 Academic English course. The mentor teacher showed me that there were a number of students at a grade 4-6 reading level. I couldn’t believe it! These students were going to get somewhere around 80-90% in the course where my students in an independent Christian school were getting 75-85% but were at a much much higher reading and comprehension level. I think we need standardized tests to create an equal opportunity for our students to enter universities etc.

    Finally, there is no need for one extreme approach to teaching over and against another. In my current studies I have been reading about 4-6 different philosophical approaches to curriculum and education. We don’t need any one of those 6 approaches, we need to create a blend of the top 3-4. Students should not be viewed as empty receptacles that need to be filled, but neither should they be given absolute freedom to make any choice they so desire about any given situation (as suggested recently by one of my professors, and as he does with his own daughters).

    Anyway… that’s my two bits.

    Take care and God bless,
    Chris deBoer
    Kerwood CanRC – Strathroy, ON

  2. Ed Says:

    Great stuff John. I am fond of saying, as a headmaster, that I “Hate school, but love education.” The schooling of society has many pifalls to avoid. Here is our grading policy as relates to your grades question (page 6) http://www.genevaclassical.org/docs/handbook.pdf

  3. Kata Iwannhn » Schooling and Reading Says:

    […] to give up that project, but I did get sidetracked into a bunch of other things.  In my last blog entry on this book, I talked about Peterson’s distinction between learning and schooling.  […]

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