Book Club Week 3: A few peanuts from sunflower seeds
I have an old mayonnaise jar filled with trail mix on my desk. I periodically have to shake it up, because otherwise the cranberries and the peanuts drift to the top and the sunflower seeds all wind up at the bottom. This week we discussed two more chapters (5-6) from Halverson and Collins: one about how alternative learning venues are bridging the gap between traditional schooling and lifelong learning, and one about how educational systems have changed from apprenticeship to public schooling to lifelong learning. Here is one of the peanuts that came to the top for me this week: the amazing success of home schooling.
In the Biology Department we have noted that the occasional home-schooled student who comes through our doors is often very well prepared. Apparently this is not just because they are science geeks. Here is a snip from the book:
Children who are schooled at home score significantly better on standardized tests in every subject area. Overall, they score in the 87th percentile, near the top of the range (0-100) of their peers. They do about equally well whether their parents are certified as teachers or not. And unlike public schooling, home-schooled children’s scores on these tests do not depend on the education level of their parents.
I think that is fairly wowsome information, and I’ll come back to it later, after a few sunflower seeds. Other extra-school venues include workplace training programs, book clubs (a possible neighborhood service project?), community technology centers (like the local libraries) and internet cafes, commercial distance education and test prep programs, skill-specific certification, and quasi-entertainment enterprises like educational television and gaming. All of these provide learning opportunities well beyond traditional schooling, but they are not well integrated either with schools or with one another. Maybe they don’t have to be integrated to be effective in promoting learning, but it seems that schools might need to rethink their role in the midst of so many other (and to some extent competing) learning opportunities.
Before getting back to the intriguing findings from home schooling, some points from the following chapter on the three eras of education (apprenticeship, schooling, and lifelong learning) are relevant. In apprenticeship, learning was basically a one-on-one processive activity with a mentor or master. Having come through the public schools myself, I never thought of them as being odd in any way, but they did have several features worth noting. Responsibility for teaching shifted from households or craftspersons to the state. Education in the school setting was both more focused and more diluted. Students were separated into graded groups which could then focus on specific learning goals under the guidance of professional educators. All each student in each group had equal educational access, but pedagogy focused on the group rather than on individuals. The public schools became a democratizing institution, and students were prepared to become workers and citizens. But educational grouping had some unfortunate side effects. Since students had to meet goals set for the group to pass to the next learning stage, individual failure was possible and some students effectively lost their educational access. Concentrating young people together also generated a youth culture in which peer values became competitive with both family values and societal values. The development of alternative educational programs was fueled by a need to alleviate some of these problems.
Interestingly, the Wesleyan Mission Statement is a kind of historical capsule that reflects the movement from traditional schooling to lifelong learning. Although our mission includes “a focus on professional and career preparation” and seeks to ” develop informed, responsible, and articulate citizens,” the university is also “committed to the principles that each student deserves personal attention and that all members of the academic community must have freedom to pursue independent thought and to exercise intellectual curiosity.”
Although we still want our graduates to be competent workers, the nature of work itself has changed radically since the development of public education. Collins and Halverson cite the 1991 SCANS report from the US Department of Labor, which describes the competencies needed by workers today: finding resources, working with others, acquiring information, understanding complex systems and working with technology. Today’s workers need to be trained not in workplace specific tasks, but in the skills needed to support lifelong learning in a work environment in which specific tasks may be constantly changing. The success of home schooling in preparing students to succeed as learners in the university suggests that some type of “home away from home” schooling might prepare students to go on to succeed in whatever working environment they have chosen. Home schooling combines one-on-one relationships between students and the people who structure their learning programs with close monitoring of individual progress. Responsibility for learning is tilted strongly toward the student. Various electronic resources open the world to students and allow them both to frame their studies in a context that interests them and to expand their area of interest by discovering areas that may be unfamiliar to them or to their parents. At small institutions like Wesleyan, we have the opportunity to find strategies that conserve the strengths of the industrial age schooling, but take advantage of opportunities to create more personalized learning environments that broaden student choice and encourage students both to frame and to take responsibility for their own learning.