Friday, February 19, 2010

If At First You Don't Succeed...

For nearly as long as I can remember, parents and concerned citizens have complained about the quality of public education. And for just as long, educators have put forth a stream of ideas for improving public schools. The fact that these proposals are an almost universal failure hasn't stopped the educational elite from devising new schemes.

The latest brainstorm from the Houston Independent School District is to extend the school year at some poor-performing schools. The motivation is to reduce the information loss that many students experience during the long summer vacation. On the surface, this might make sense--if students forget what they have "learned" then shorten the vacation.

But such thinking is rationalistic. It results from taking two premises and making logical deductions, while simultaneously failing to check the validity of those premises. For example, is the length of the summer vacation the real cause of the student's failure to retain, or is there another cause? On this issue, the so-called experts don't seem to be clear. According to the Chronicle:

Research is clear that students, particularly those from low-income families, lose significant ground during the traditional summer break, said Ron Fairchild, chief executive officer of the National Summer Learning Association in Baltimore. Studies are less conclusive about the best way to keep students from regressing, though some data show that a quality six-week program can counteract summer learning loss, he said.

“We definitely need more studies on the issue, but I think it's encouraging to see more districts like Houston that are willing to experiment,” Fairchild said.

In other words, let's try something and see if it works. Then we will study the results and concoct another idea. We can't say for sure what the results will be because, quite frankly, we aren't sure about the cause. This approach actually illustrates why students regress.

One of the primary purposes of education is to teach critical thinking skills--how to think logically. Which means, how to use one's mind properly. Logic--non-contradictory identification--is the method of proper thinking.

To grasp this fact, one must first understand that proper thinking requires a method, that proper thinking is not random association. One must first understand that the proper means of using one's mind is not arbitrary or a matter of personal choice, that there are specific principles that must be identified, accepted, and then acted upon if one's conclusions are to adhere to reality.

And this is precisely what modern educators, thanks to modern philosophers, have rejected. Seizing upon random facts--the length of the summer vacation, student regression, longer school years in other nations, etc.--educators conclude that the problem is not what is taught, but how long it is taught.

Logic involves more than simply deducing from one's premises. It requires one to validate those premises. Deductions from arbitrary premises does not lead one to truth and understanding, but to arbitrary conclusions. If one starts with the premises that "pigs can fly" and "Arnold is a pig", one would "logically" conclude that "Arnold can fly". But the fact is, pigs can't fly.

Having rejected the entire idea that proper thinking requires specific principles, educators are unable to effectively educate. They spew out an assortment of facts which students must retain in order to pass a standardized test, and then promptly forget. They overwhelm students with concrete facts, but fail to teach the methods required to understand, analyze, and integrate those facts. And so educators blindly experiment, hoping to somehow stumble across something that works. They are teaching their students--in word and in action--that thinking is ineffectual.

The fundamental problem is not the length of the school year. The problem is the rejection of the fact that thinking requires a specific method. Until educators grasp that fact, and everything it implies, they might as well believe that pigs can fly.


Steve D said...

"The problem is the rejection of the fact that thinking requires a specific method."

Assuming of course that the goal is to teach people to think. If the goal is to indoctrinate then I would say their method is working rather well.

In that case the rejection of the fact that thinking requires a specific method might not be a bug but a feature.

The problem is not that students reject learning (no one does that) but that they reject the teaching.

Also, as you imply if you can not think yourself how the heck can you expect to teach someone else how to do it.

And you are also right that deductions from arbitrary premises does not lead one to truth. In fact another type of logic is required to generate (or as you said validate) the correct premises in the first place, one which is not well understoond by most people even most philosophers. (induction)

You can't think in principles unless you can generate them in the first place. That requires induction and only once you have done that can you deduce correct logical conclusions.

Brian Phillips said...

You raise a number of good issues.

They have done well in indoctrinating students. And what better way to do that than destroy their ability to think.

As you say, the teachers themselves are also victims of this same indoctrination. And with each generation it gets carried another step towards its logical conclusion.