Roughly two decades ago, I read my college freshman English assignment and discovered that I would need to write an extensive research paper arguing for a topic of my choosing. Before beginning, I sheepishly submitted my topic to my professor for approval, believing that she would think its obscure nature quite crazy. Despite my hesitancy, she wholeheartedly approved it, and over the next few months, I carefully formed pages of arguments on why American education should return to the concept of the one-room school.
The main idea of that freshman English paper—the idea that I liked but thought was slightly crazy and rather unlikely to happen—sat on an old floppy disk for years. But in about 2010, it came to fruition in the microschool, a concept that’s gaining steam in the post-COVID years.
Let’s be clear: I had nothing to do with this idea coming to fruition. However, my point is that allegedly crazy ideas from normal people like me can actually have legs. And sometimes, simply verbalizing those crazy ideas and then trying them to see if they work just might be what’s needed to change education for the better.
Author Neil Postman advanced three of these crazy ideas in his book “The End of Education,” published in 1995. To date, it seems that no one has taken those crazy ideas and run with them, so it’s time to take them out for an airing and further consideration at a time when we need some radical measures to redeem American education.
Play Faculty Musical Chairs
Mr. Postman’s first line of attack for improved education is to shake up the teachers.
“We could improve the quality of teaching overnight, as it were, if math teachers were assigned to teach art, art teachers science, science teachers English,” he wrote.
In doing so, teachers are thrust out of their comfort zones and challenged to look at subjects through new eyes—often the eyes of an amateur who must himself study to stay one step ahead of his students.
Such an action forces the teacher “to see the situation as most students do,” thereby creating greater sympathy or connection between students and teachers, while also forcing the teacher to innovate, think outside the box, and bring instruction down to the bottom shelf, so to speak, thus increasing understanding for students who struggle in said subject.
Although Mr. Postman fails to mention it, playing faculty musical chairs would also likely increase humility among teachers. Many educators today—whether through social media posts, interactions with the press, or parent-teacher exchanges—seem to hint that they’re the “experts,” and as such, their ideas and methods aren’t to be questioned. While it’s true that many educators have knowledge that others don’t, having a little humility never hurts anyone. In fact, one of the wisest teachers in history—Socrates—made humility a major part of his playbook, recognizing his own fallibility as he sought to grow intellectually and learn wisdom.
Ditch the Textbooks
Mr. Postman’s second revolutionary idea to improve education hits at the sacrosanct tomes that nearly every teacher makes the central part of his curriculum: textbooks.
The first reason for such a drastic move is that textbooks are boring and inhuman. Although the cut-and-dry, consolidated format of textbooks likely makes classroom preparation easier for teachers, these characteristics automatically disengage a student, convincing him that learning should be low on his list of priorities.
However, worse is that textbooks hide the bias of the writer, “presenting the facts of the case … as if there can be no disputing them, as if they are fixed and immutable.” This leaves the student with little choice but to be the empty head into which knowledge is poured, whereas an education not dependent upon textbooks and the allegedly nonbiased facts that they contain forces students to engage with ideas and look at all sides of a viewpoint before “[stumbling] toward the truth.”
“Textbooks, it seems to me, are enemies of education, instruments for promoting dogmatism and trivial learning,” Mr. Postman wrote. “They may save the teacher some trouble, but the trouble they inflict on the minds of students is a blight and a curse.”
Turn Students Into Detectives
The final recommendation that Mr. Postman makes is geared more toward the higher grades and seeks to train students to discern between fact and opinion, truth and fiction.
Many teachers today pontificate from the podium, Mr. Postman explained, often passing their ideas and opinions off as facts for students to mindlessly ingest. However, students will learn better if teachers purposely insert opinions and errors into their instruction, letting students know that they’ll be doing this and instructing them to watch for such errors to pop up. Once spotted, students must research other ideas, discuss them with their peers, and then present them the next time that class rolls around.
This course of action creates excitement and interest as students stay on their toes, looking for “gotcha” moments to bring to their teachers. It teaches students to not trust everything someone in authority tells them but to test all words and actions for truth. It also trains them to debate and discuss issues with their peers, defending their ideas and teaching one another in the process.
“To try to renew a teacher’s sense of the difference between teaching and learning, to eliminate packaged truths from the classroom, and to focus student attention on error are part of an uncommon but, I believe, profound narrative capable of generating interest and inspiration in school,” Mr. Postman wrote.
Starting at Home
Does it seem unlikely that such radical ideas will ever be infused into the classroom? Yes, but then we would have said the same about microschools once upon a time, and look what happened with them!
The fact is, education will never change for the better unless we’re willing to come up with crazy, innovative ideas that operate outside the restricted norms and then take a risk and try them, not only in our schools but in our homes as well.
So start small! Teach your kids something that you don’t know much about yourself. If nothing else, it’ll show your children that someone is never too old—nor too proud—to learn.
Pick a topic that your children are learning about in school from textbooks—say, the Revolutionary War—and begin reading historical fiction books with them. Chances are, they’ll get caught up in the emotion and story and soon know more about the subject than their teachers.
And finally, train your children to be on their toes, recognizing the fallacious lines delivered by the media and politicians on a daily basis. If you’re unsure of how to recognize such fallacies, check out “The Fallacy Detective,” by Nathaniel and Hans Bluedorn.
We can improve education; we just have to be the first ones to take the crazy steps to try allegedly radical ideas.
This article is republished with permission from The Epoch Times.
Image Credit: Pxhere