Unsustainable schooling

You may think the U.S. education system is daffy, but just look at the Brits’ struggle with the national curriculum: A government education adviser wants to stop teaching academic subjects, which are “middle class.” Instead of history, geography and science, Professor John White thinks students should “learn skills such as energy-saving and civic responsibility through projects and themes,” reports the Daily Mail. White believes that “traditional subjects were invented by the middle classes and are “mere stepping stones to wealth.” Which seems preferable to preparing students for poverty.

White served on a government curriculum committee that “reformed” schooling for 11 to 14-year-olds by “sidelining large swathes of subject content in favour of lessons on issues such as climate change and managing debt.”

Schools are supposed to focus students on meeting “personal aims.”

The aims include fostering a model pupil who “values personal relationships, is a responsible and caring citizen, is entrepreneurial, able to manage risk and committed to sustainable development.”

To be fair, many British educators think their students are poorly educated enough already. That is, they think White is crazy and that he should be dropped as a government adviser.

An elite British university, Imperial College will require applicants to take an admissions test: Too many students have A grades on the A-level exam, making it impossible to tell who are the most qualified.

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Comments

  1. Can learning to save energy be taught without learning what energy is? Can it be taught without learning thermodynamics? Doesn’t this require bourgeois knowledge like math, physics and chemistry? Can civic responsibility be taught without learning geography? If the subjects he objects to are “stepping stones to wealth”. What he proposes are stepping stones to poverty and barbarism. Is Professor John White educated enough to deal with the issue of what should be taught in school? I would like to see Professor John White complete a test of personal skills to see if he knows anything about the subject he is promoting in place of the academic subjects he claims have no value.

  2. Mark Roulo says:

    Can learning to save energy be taught without learning what energy is? Can it be taught without learning thermodynamics?

    Of course it can! You don’t need to know very much to be trained to purchase low-power lightbulbs, turn off the lights when you leave the room, take public transportation, purchase a fuel efficient car, etc.

    Now, being able to select between competing experts who are pushing different ideas on how to save energy … well, that’s a different thing entirely. But one can certainly learn to follow specific instructions to save energy without understanding why in any great detail (and, honestly, you don’t need to know any thermodynamics to know that a car with high MPG uses less fuel than one with a low MGP).

    -Mark Roulo

  3. Reality Czech says:

    The students of this “curriculum” (actually, indoctrination) would be the perfect activist/sheep:  schooled in a set of talking points and pre-defined actions for goals they cannot understand and fighting villians designated by the educators.

    Yes, if you follow certain instructions you can save energy.  But how do you know if those instructions are the right ones, or that they do not create unwelcome consequences?  Perfect followers will be outraged when they are told to be outraged, attack those whom they are told to attack, and march in the direction they are pointed even if that goes right over a cliff.

  4. Mark

    Really, is light energy? How do you know? Because you were told? Light is something we value. So is gold. We pay for both. What is energy? It had no meaning centuries ago. We were taught light is energy and its ability to do work was demonstrated to me long ago. How does turning off a light save energy unless you know how it was created?

    This is all fundamental scientific information. Yes, you might be able to avoid the laws of thermodynamics, but how do you explain the lack of a perpetual motion machine, otherwise we would be paying engineers to develop them.

  5. Mark Roulo says:

    Really, is light energy? How do you know? Because you were told? …

    … but how do you explain the lack of a perpetual motion machine, otherwise we would be paying engineers to develop them.

    The question was, “Can learning to save energy be taught without learning what energy is?” My answer is, “Yes.” Are you seriously arguing that people can’t follow directions like “buy type-X light bulbs” without a solid physics background? It is true that if nonsense becomes common, then the people trained to purchase a given type of lightbulb may be instructed to do silly and counterproductive things AND WILL DO THEM. But this doesn’t mean that someone needs to understand physics to be able to learn to save energy.

    The students of this “curriculum” (actually, indoctrination) would be the perfect activist/sheep: schooled in a set of talking points and pre-defined actions for goals they cannot understand and fighting villians designated by the educators.

    Yep 🙂 One could imagine, in some hypothetical world, a situation where switching over to bio-fuels resulted in clear-cutting rainforests. Hypothetically, of course. And one could imagine a lot of trained/indoctrinated people righteously purchasing that fuel and helping to clearcut rainforests.

    Yes, if you follow certain instructions you can save energy. But how do you know if those instructions are the right ones, or that they do not create unwelcome consequences?

    You don’t, of course. That’s why you have better people around to tell you how to live your life! 🙂

    -Mark Roulo

  6. Mark,

    Unless you make the type of bulbs you do not want them to buy unobtainable, yes, merely telling them will not work. Why should they spend more to save something they do not understand?. What is the connection between saving energy and buying the bulbs? What is it we are saving? Why should I care about kilowatts, ergs, horsepower and BTUs? Why shouldn’t I buy some black market Freon? Why shouldn’t I drain my oil pan into a storm sewer? People rally do need to understand or they will ignore you or actively work against you. In some polio plagued counties they activley resist polio vaccination. Words and exhortations are not enough.

    I suggest you look up the history of medicine and see all the stupid things people did to be healthy. It was perfectly logical before the rise of scientific medicine. The “better people” were encouraging these treatments. Do you think a doctor would get away with bleeding his patients today? How would you like some medicinal mercury?

    By the way, you do not need to save energy if you can build a perpetual motion machine. Knowing thermodymanics makes it all clear. Thermodynamics, its out of this world.

  7. Catch Thirty-Thr33 says:

    From the looks of things, it seems that the British desperately want their society to begin a long march towards nowhere, like so many of the societies on the Continent are already doing.

  8. How many light bulbs does it take for commenters to change the subject?

    Actually, a good bit of what Professor John White is suggesting makes sense–integrating instead of isolating and boxing up disciplinary knowledge, for example (you know, they way knowledge is integrated in the workings of the real world). And his comments on how our sacred-cow “core” subjects came to be is right out the educational history textbooks. Of course, while we revere “history” in the canon, the history of education falls under the caption of actually studying education, and nobody seems to think that’s important or relevant these days.

    The entire tone of the article reminded me of Schopenhauer’s dictum: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” White’s ideas are passing from the first to the second stage. In a few years, we may see him as a 21st century learning visionary.

  9. “From the looks of things, it seems that the British desperately want their society to begin a long march towards nowhere, like so many of the societies on the Continent are already doing.”

    The British began their long march soon after WWII. It stopped for a rest in the 80s but soon beagn again. We here in the states are desperately trying to catch up with them.

  10. Nancy, I have to disagree with you. It looks quite the opposite to me. I don’t think White’s ideas have much of a future, but they certainly have a past. As I understand it the progressive education ideals of the early twentieth century had a strong bent toward utilitarianism. The “Cardinal Principles” of 1917 reflect this. The Cardinal Principles, and progressivism in general, were certainly influential, but they were also resisted by many practicing teachers. I can look back on the schooling I received in the 1950’s and conclude that my teachers rejected them, and for that I am thankful. The Cardinal Principles did not seem relevant in 1957 when the Soviets launched Sputnik into orbit and America into a crisis of confidence in our educational system. Nor did the Cardinal Principles seem very relevent in 1983 when “A Nation At Risk” did the same thing.

    “Integration” of subjects is also a theme that has deep roots in the history of education, but I think it is an idea that has never been well analyzed. Terms like “interdisciplinary” and rhetoric about “breaking down barriers” always seem to get a positive response from both educators and the general public. However I think there is another side to it. Integration has its place, but so does differentiation. My thinking along these lines has led me to the conclusion that good teaching must alternate between two modes. First there is the “isolate and concentrate” mode, and then there is the “spread and relate” mode. Yes, we certainly want to relate what we learn in one subject with what we learn in another subject. And yes, in the real world subjects are integrated. But it does not follow that that is the way to teach them. As a math teacher I could teach only how to solve different types of problems. But I don’t think that would be a good way to do it. I think it’s better to teach mathematical ideas, to isolate and concentrate on one little topic at a time and to work for a high level of understanding and fluency in that limited area. Only in this way can we actually integrate the math with other disciplines. And only in this way can the math really be useful in the long run. Without isolating and concentrating on mathematical ideas, problem solving becomes recipe following. So, in my humble opinion, we have a very good reason to “box up” disciplinary knowledge. The reason is to transmit it, to transmit it effectively and fully, not to pass along an abbreviated version of it.

    So I can’t imagine White as ever being seen as a visionary. I think he’s got it backwards.

  11. The best way to save energy is to use dim bulbs like this White fellow. That may be his real asset.

  12. Brian, thank you for your respectful tone and the invitation to dialogue. I really appreciate those qualities. Much of the article we’re discussing had a “can you believe this guy?” tone–the same reaction that people with forward-thinking ideas (say, Darwin) often draw.

    Most of my teaching career has been in music, but I taught Math for three years in a middle school, two years in the early 80s, and also in 2004. In the 80s, my students were fearful of “story problems” because all of their math instruction had been copy-the-algorithm and they were quite dependent on the teacher to set up problems. They struggled with even the easiest arithmetic-based problems. In 2004, my 7th graders came to me with some experience in a constructivist math program, where they had had to connect mathematics with other disciplines, and they were more willing and skillful at using multiple learning modalities (drawing images, for example) to solve problems. They got stuck occasionally, and needed direct instruction, but they could identify extraneous information, and “play” with data and manipulatives to set up, even create, algorithms.

    Decades ago, before he died, I heard Ernest Boyer speak about what curriculum would eventually look like–he spoke about communication, symbolic manipulation, building communities, investigation and data analysis, the humanities, and so on. Then he said that new technologies would lead us, inevitably, away from our familiar “subjects” and cautioned that the people who would fight hardest to keep the disciplinary framework we have now would be educators. I think Boyer was right.

  13. skeptic says:

    It is interesting that Professor John White thinks students should “learn skills such as energy-saving and civic responsibility through projects and themes” instead of history, geography and science and other academic subjects, which he calls “middle class”.

    It would be even more interesting if Professor John White would demonstrate how to teach a class “skills such as energy-saving and civic responsibility through projects and themes”. I suspect White talks big, but couldn’t teach much of anything to a class. I hope someone challenges him to “put up” or “shut up”.

    Then after a year of instruction, it would incredibly interesting to compare the achievements of White’s class to a matched class taught by “middle class” methods. For example, if White’s class did a global warming project and the “middle class” methods class had a science class, it would be fascinating to compare what they learned about basic science.

    I wonder which class would learn the following? I suspect neither class would learn the following, because environmental alarmists have made “global warming” a political cause that allows no dissent, just like they made the anti-DDT movement a political cause in the 1970s that allowed no dissent. Now after 70 millions deaths due to malaria, WHO and USAID have finally advocated renewing the use of DDT to fight malaria. I wonder how many deaths global warming alarmists will cause.

    Which class do you think will learn the following?

    · During the past 100 years the earth’s temperature has only increased O.6-degree centigrade.

    · The earth’s temperature increased ZERO degrees in the past 10 years.

    · The UN’s committee on climate, the IPCC, predicts that the earth’s temperature will increase ZERO degrees in the next ten years.

    · Science magazine reported that CO2 increases FOLLOWED temperature increases by 400 to1000 years during all three interglacial transitions on record. Because CO2 increases FOLLOW temperature increases, the global warming alarmists are wrong to claim that CO2 increases cause world temperature increases.

    · The earth’s temperature has been higher than it is now in each of the three previous interglacial transition periods.

    · Long before mankind was adding much CO2 to the atmosphere, there were periods when the CO2 level was much higher than now.

    · Water vapor is the most important greenhouse gas. An astounding 99.9 percent of Earth’s greenhouse gas effect has nothing to do with manmade CO2 emissions. The vast majority of CO2 emissions, about 97 percent, are from Mother Nature.

    · Does the UN sponsored IPCC committee represent the world’s top 2500 climate scientists?
    ANSWER: NO. The IPCC has 2500 members, but probably less than 1000 of the 2500 are climate scientists or scientists who have degrees that qualify them as earth/atmospheric scientists. The rest of the IPCC members include economists, public heath workers, biologists, web page designers and others who are clearly NOT part of the world’s top 2500 climate scientists. For more information see:
    http://www.climate-resistance.org/2007/12/physician-heal-thyself.html

    · Do all members of the IPCC agree with what is called the global warming consensus?
    ANSWER: No. In fact one of the three co-chairmen of IPCC does NOT believe that the temperature increase during the past 100 years is due to the increase in greenhouse gases, nor does he support the IPCC predictions of the potentially alarming negative impacts of global warming. It looks like the IPCC leadership includes a global warming skeptic, so much for the IPCC “consensus”! See the previous URL for more information.

    REMEMBER: H.L. Menken once noted, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” He also said: “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.”

  14. Tracy W says:

    weActually, a good bit of what Professor John White is suggesting makes sense–integrating instead of isolating and boxing up disciplinary knowledge, for example (you know, they way knowledge is integrated in the workings of the real world).

    We always integrate and also isolate and box-up knowledge. There is way too much to know for everyone to know everything – no matter how many interdisciplinary courses are taught. On the other hand, traditional subject divisions generally covered a range of topics. For example, if you teach physics, rather than energy saving, you can cover thermodynamics, Newton’s laws of motion, gravity, and relativity, and show how they all interact – a multi-disciplinary approach as much as teaching about climate change.

    I did a degree in electrical engineering. In one way, very narrow, we only got let outside the engineering school for maths courses. In another way, it was broader than my non-engineering uni friends’ degrees, as we studied topics ranging from thermodynamics to fluid mechanics to software engineering techniques to copyright law to project management and were also taught how to arc-weld. Yes, we were integrating knowledge, and learning in a cross-discipline way, but then because we were spending time learning things like risk management, we weren’t learning things like linguistics.

    There’s only limited school hours. “Interdisciplinary” courses lead to different sorts of integration and isolation than the traditional subject matter, but they still isolate and box-up some areas.

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