A Meditation on the Cultivation of Education

“In our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence. A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.”

David Hume, Section 10, Of Miracles, Part 1, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1758.

Why haven’t we “fixed” education yet? Does it actually need to be fixed in the first place? In a recent post, I discussed five things that we needed to assume were true, to avoid the self-fulfilling and negative outcomes should we assume that they were false. One of these was that fixing things was something we should be doing and the evidence does appear to support me on that. I wouldn’t call myself a wise man, although I’m definitely learning as I grow older, but my belief in this matter is proportional to the evidence available to me. And that evidence is both vast and convincing; change is required.

One of the biggest problems it that many attempts have been made and are being made on a daily basis to “fix” education and, yet, we seem to have many horror stories of these not working. Or, maybe something good was done, but it “won’t work here”. There are some places that regularly maintain high standards of education and this recent post in the Washington Post Answer Sheet Blog talked about how Finland does it. They don’t test teacher effectiveness as their main measure of achievement, they conduct a highly structured and limited entry program for teachers, requiring a masters level degree to teach above the most junior levels of school. By training teachers well and knowing what path people must take to become teachers, we can greatly raise the probability of getting good teachers at the end of the process. Teachers can then work together in schools to achieve good outcomes. That is, there is an excellent teaching environment, and the school plus the educational system plus the teachers can then help to overcome the often amazingly dominant factors of socioeconomic status, family and peer influence.

Finland has looked across the problem of education and carefully thought out how they can develop everything that is needed for success in order to be able to cultivate a successful educational environment for their staff and students. They develop an educational culture that is evidence-based and highly informed – no wonder they’re doing well.

If we look at the human traditions of agricultural cultivation, it’s easy to see why any piecemeal approach to education is almost doomed to fail because we cannot put in enough positives at one point to overcome negatives at another. About 11-12,000 years ago, humans started taking note of crops and living in a more fixed manner, cultivating crops around them. At this stage, humans were opportunistically taking advantage of crops that were already growing, in places that could sustain them. As our communities grew, we needed to start growing more specific crops to accommodate our growing needs and selection (starting with the mighty gourd, I believe) of more desirable variants of a crop lead to the domesticated varieties we enjoy today.

A field of scattered pumpkins

Things were not this easy 12,000 years ago.

But plants need what they have always needed: enough sunlight, enough food, enough water, enough fertilisation/pollination. Successful agriculture depends upon the ability to determine what is required from the evidence and provide this. Once we started setting up old crops in new places, we race across new problems. If a plant has not succeeded somewhere naturally, then it is either because it didn’t reach there or it has already failed there. Working out which crop will work where is a vital element of agriculture because the amount of effort required to make something grow where it wouldn’t normally grow is immense. (Australia’s history of monstrous over-irrigation to support citrus crops and rice is a dark reminder of what happens when hubris overrides evidence.)

After 12,000 years, we pretty much know what’s required (pretty much) and we can even support diverse environments such as aquaculture, hydroponics, organic culture and so on. Monoculture agriculture is not just a bad idea at the system level but our dependency on monocultural food varieties (hello, Cavendish Banana) is also a very bad idea. When everything we depend upon has the same weakness, we are not in a very safe position. The demand for food is immense and we must be systematic and efficient in our food production, while still (in many parts of the world) striving to be ethical and sustainable so that feeding people now will not starve other people, now or in the future, nor be any more cruel than it needs to be to sustain human life. (I leave further ethical discussion of human vs animal life to Professor Peter Singer.)

Everything we have domesticated now was a weed or wild animal once: a weed is just a wild plant that grows and isn’t cultivated. Before we leap to any conclusions about what is and what isn’t valuable, it’s important to remember how much more quickly we can domesticate crops these days but, also, that we’re building on 12,000 years of previous work. And it’s solid work. It’s highly informative work. You can’t make complex systems work by prodding one bit and hoping.

Now, strangely, when we look at educational systems, we can’t seem to transfer the cultivation metaphor effectively – or, at least, many in power can’t. A good teaching environment has enough resources (food and water), the right resources (enough potassium and not too much acid, for example), has good staff (illumination taking the place of sunlight to provide energy) and we have space for innovation and development. If we want the best yield, then we apply this to all of our crops: if we want an educated populace, we must make this available to all citizens. If we put any one these in place, due to limited resources or pilot project mentality, then it is hardly going to be surprising if the project fails. How can great teachers do anything with a terminally under-resourced classroom? What point is there in putting computers into every classroom if there is no-one who is trained to teach with them, if students don’t all have the same experience at home (and hence we enhance the digital divide) or if we are heavily constrained in what we can teach so it is the same old boring stuff but just on new machines?

Yes, some plants will survive in a constrained environment and some can even live on the air but, much like students, this is most definitely not all plants and you have to have enough knowledge to know how to wisely use your resources. Until we accept that fixing the educational system requires us to really work on cultivating the entire environment, we risk continuing to focus on the wrong things. Repeating the same ineffective actions and expecting a new and amazing positive outcome is the very definition of madness. Teachers by themselves are only part of the educational system. Teachers in a good system will do more and go further. Adding respect in the community, resources from the state and an equality of opportunity and application is vital if we are to actually get things working.

I realise students aren’t plants and I’m not encouraging anyone to start weeding, by any stretch of the imagination, but it takes a lot of work to get a complicated environmental system working efficiently and I’m still confused as to why this seems to be such a hard thing for some people to get their heads around. It shouldn’t take us another 12,000 years to get this right – we already know what we really have to do, it just seems really hard for some people to believe it.

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