27 November 2009

Crossing America: An Education

Michigan is firmly in the US Midwest, but, despite the feelings of both Midwesterners and Northeasterners, the Midwest is firmly in the "East." No, not the "Euro East" of the New York Megalopolis, but a land Europeans would recognize, did recognize, and did settle in their own self-images: Green and scaled to towns separated by a day's walk, a place in which the works of God and the works of humans are clearly differentiated in form and color.

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.

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


Ann said...

Once again, you are able to see through the mire and show the rest of us the truth that is often missed. I constantly learn from you.

Byron Davies said...

Awesome post, Ira Socol: insightful, personal, educational.

Modern life is rife with large systems screwed up: education, health care, food, government, car manufacturing. While the industrial model brings us lots of stuff, cheap, it often fails to deliver the right stuff. By focusing on the mass market, it delivers billions of things that the masses want, but often fails at delivering what individuals need.

As you say, education needs to be fully individualized, not just to the community, but down to n=1. That's the goal of our school, http://starshineacademy.org.

Each of our three Phoenix schools has a highly distinct character. Although all three are in urban, at-risk areas, one is mainly Hispanic, one is mainly white, and one is primarily refugees, from over 40 different countries. Each school has characteristics -- some good, some that need work -- due to its demographic, but every student is treated as an individual.

HomerTheBrave said...

From about.bloomberg.com: A stock trader in Bangkok. An options house in Moscow. An attorney in San Fransisco. Financial and business professionals in Mexico City, Copenhagen, Singapore, and Sao Paulo, and over 150 other countries.

Bloomberg is their source of news and information that drives decisions that move billions of dollars every day.

Behind the products are the people of Bloomberg, each giving outstanding customer service to our clients, each empowered to innovate in order to keep the markets as transparent as possible.

Yah, so basically, a universal, codified literacy, independent of local environment and culture, is Mike's business model, whether it actually exists or not.

(Also, those paragraphs need a copy editor.)

Anyway. Add mine to the pile of 'amens.'