When you leave Michigan and head west, first entering "The Prairie" in Illinois, the world begins to change, and thus, so do the ways in which people see, hear, think, and learn.
For a long, long time I have been aware of Europe's great divide (a split which has come to define the 1840s-designed US education system), that is the split between Protestant and Catholic cultures. And I have known and understood Europe's other "thought divides" - Colonized States v. Imperial States, Places once within the Holy Roman Empire and those without. Places once within the Soviet Empire and those without - but despite much previous North American travel this month's journey began to help me understand why mass education fails so often in the US in ways I had not deeply considered before.
Near Santa Fe, New Mexico. The third oldest European city in the United States, and longest continuous "capital" city in the nation (1610).
Educational "reformers" and administrators rarely consider environment as a prime issue in learning, consigning the idea to "primitive thought," "pre-rational thought," and "pre-scientific thought." After all, Mike Bloomberg and Michelle Rhee will tell you, there's only one right way to add 2+2 or spell "tomorrow."
And the inherent "truth" of that creates one of the great fallacies of our current educational debate. Yes, there is only one right way to add 2+2 or spell "tomorrow," but there are hundreds or thousands of ways to perceive both "2+2" and "tomorrow," and as many different ways to learn about both.
The world looks different if you grow up observing a place with the subtle colors of a desert or a place where all houses are the same color, or where houses may not have square corners. Where you can step out of your back door and observe the curvature of the earth on dry land, where the "neighbor" is five miles away.
The world looks different and so your learning is inherently different. If you grow up with ocean outside your door you know one set of facts. If you grow up on the desert, you know another. If you grow up in a valley it is easier to perceive the world as flat - if you grow up on a seacoast the roundness of the planet is obvious. If you grow up attending Mass at your choice of times, punctuality means something different than if the whole community gathers for worship at the exact same stroke of the clock each Sunday morning, and thus, time means something different.
If you grow up watching things grow from the earth and watching animals being born and dying you will approach learning differently than if you grow up in a sanitized suburban neighborhood where Trader Joe's is your impression of "natural foods." It is not just that your knowledge base will differ in these two childhood locales, but your filtering systems will as well, as well as your interaction with media. The suburban child can not have the same sensory experiences. The rural child will likely not have the representational dependence.
These children will be fundamentally different in their learning styles long before they get to school, even without the endless individual differences which define humanity. The notion that we can educate them by some mass production script is ridiculous. And this is not just true if we compare the Northeastern and Southwestern United States, but within states - say, Boron and Palo Alto, California, or within cities, say Mott Haven and the Upper East Side [pdf download] in Mike Bloomberg's New York City.
This matters in school. It matters in all communication. A wonderful professor from my undergraduate experience once told me that Americans were completely dangerous in Central Europe because they could not understand the importance of the old eastern boundary of the Holy Roman Empire. Americans were blindsided by the collapse of both Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia because they didn't even know what to look for. Robert Putnam, a brilliant Harvard professor, could write Making Democracy Work and completely miss the cultural learning differences born of this ancient boundary through the center of the Italian peninsula. This lack of appreciation of cultural and physical environment on the process of education makes our teachers and our political leaders look like fools. And it results in diplomatic and schoolroom disaster.
We know that our tastes in food and even our food allergies are being determined from a a point a couple of months prior to our birth. We know that children are born able to hear all the sounds of all the world's global languages but lose most of this before they are two-years-old. Yet somehow we think that where a child "comes from" should have no impact at all on how our classrooms function. And that seems counter-factual to me.
So next time you recommend a "global" solution in education, in your nation or in your classroom, consider if your "globe" is the same one your students know. And if it is the same globe for this student, or that student, or that student...
- Ira Socol