Kevin Currie‐Knight joins us this week to discuss why we can’t seem to change the way we educate schoolchildren. Is there one best way to educate kids?
Where did our current system—splitting kids up by age, dividing knowledge up into subjects, having teachers stand at the front of the room and give lectures, testing knowledge with exams, summer holidays, etc.—come from? Why does education still look pretty much like it did hundreds of years ago when everything else in our modern world has changed?
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Ross Powell: Joining us today is Kevin Currie‐Knight. He teaches in East Carolina University’s Department of Special Education, Foundations and Research. He’s also the host of Schooled: Conversations about Education, a video series where he interviews practitioners and scholars about all things related to education. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Kevin.
Kevin Currie‐Knight: Oh, thank you Aaron and Trevor. It’s good to be here.
Aaron Ross Powell: So we want to talk today about a theme in some of your recent writing and a talk that you gave that we will put in the show notes, which is this odd thing about education that – I think a lot of us probably don’t know this until it’s pointed out, which is that we’re used to – especially now, we’re used to living in a world of kind of constant change. The way we did things 10 years ago looks an awful lot different from the way we do things today.
We’ve got new technology coming in all the time. But education, when we think about what school looks like, how we go about acquiring knowledge, looks roughly the same as it did hundreds or even thousands of years ago.
Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah. I would say hundreds of years ago. I mean thousands of years ago, the idea of kind of organized schooling was – you know, you think of getting together with smart people. It’s apprenticeships, things like that. It was really an informal organized schooling at least in the United States. You could probably date towards – you know, around about 1800 or something like that. So I would go about – to 1800 and Prussia had existed longer than that.
But it’s still a relatively new thing and especially as you pointed out for how familiar it seems to us. It’s still – it’s kind of shocking to think of how new the system that we call education or school is. Yeah, absolutely.
Trevor Burrus: We still think about this sort of one‐room schoolhouse picture in the kind of prairie schoolhouse, red and with the chimney. But a bunch of kids sitting in rows, looking upfront at a teacher and maybe they were writing on slate chalkboards at that time. But still doing their lessons, writing things by hand, reading things out of a book.
Aaron Ross Powell: Listening to lectures.
Trevor Burrus: Listening to lectures. We still just don’t – we still kind of think that that’s the best way of educating children. So I guess there are two questions which will be the kind of theme of the episode, which is – are we wrong to think that and why can’t we seem to change it? So I guess the first one, is that the best way of educating children?
Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, the interesting thing is – so in my role here at East Carolina, I teach some classes that go over kind of learning theory and theories about what motivates people and stuff like that. It’s funny because when you delve into the literature, it would probably be a mistake to say that it’s absolutely the wrong way, that it wouldn’t work for anybody. But the way we do schooling, you can take almost any feature of how we do schooling from the fact that we organize subjects, by subjects, or the fact that we have periods throughout the day. You know, first period English, second period Math.
You could take almost any of those and you will find a good amount of literature saying that that probably isn’t a good way to do it and you don’t find a whole lot of literature that really supports these ideas. It’s just – it’s almost like the sense that I get in doing this research is these are more things that evolve for organizational reasons rather than pedagogical or good teaching practice reasons.
It’s really hard to find people who will say yes, the best teaching principle is you organize into 40‐minute periods per day and do this for 40 minutes and then go down the hall and go in another room and do that for 40 minutes. Then go down the hall and do this for 40 minutes. It seems like it’s more of an organizational principle than a pedagogical idea.
Aaron Ross Powell: This research on alternatives that would work better, how universal is the condemnation of the existing system? Not in terms of like consensus but we often hear that different people learn in different ways. So we – there are visual learners and auditory learners and people who need to work through things themselves and people who can just listen to a lecture and get it.
So when we say that like this particular make‐up of coming to school very early in the day and going through these 40‐minute periods on different subjects and sitting in the rows and looking at the teacher, is it that that’s just kind of uniformly bad in the same way that say bloodletting we know didn’t really work for anyone or is it more like there’s – we’re just not realizing that there are segments of the population that have different needs.
Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah. I’m always really cautious about saying that one particular method would not work. I’m very cautious about saying that any particular method is just uniformly bad, because usually that’s what the tendency is, is to say well, that – if that method is bad, what’s the right way to do it?
The more I think about it, look at it and what not, the more it really looks like it’s – that there may not be any best way that works for all or even the majority of the population.
Now you mentioned learning styles. It’s funny but that’s actually one of the areas of literature where there actually is a fairly strong – I don’t want to say consensus because it depends on the literature you look at. But most of the people who have really done in‐depth studies of the idea of learning styles find that learning styles don’t actually exist.
It’s tempting to think they do, especially if you’re like an educational pluralist like I am. The tendency is to think there are kinesthetic learners, there are auditory learners, there are visual learners. But what people – so like psychologist Dan Willingham has undergone a massive literature review of all the stuff on learning styles.
He has found that while there really aren’t learning styles, there’s no indication that there are some people who learn best in auditory and some who learn best in kinesthetic. But he does say there are such things as learning preferences and what we’ve done is we’ve mistaken learning preferences and learning styles. It’s a bit of a complicated discussion. So I won’t sidetrack too much there.
But there are such things as learning preferences. So it may not be that I would say learn best when I learn auditorily but it might be that I prefer to learn auditorily. Of course if I prefer to learn auditorily, I’m going to be more engaged, which probably will mean that better learning outcomes will happen.
So I think very few people would disagree with the idea that at the very least, there are learning preferences. Some people are going to make sense of certain things this way and other people are going to make certain sense of things another way. The problem is trying to think that there’s one best way for learners to make sense of a thing.
Trevor Burrus: Let’s go back and talk about some of the history then because we are always updating – especially the government’s involvement of course in trying to research learning preferences or – they do research new ways of doing things. They may not be very good at changing. But let’s talk a little bit about how we got to this point of schooling that we think is sort of the best way of doing it and we can’t imagine what you’re – how do we get to this by age – grouping students by age, subject matters, teachers sitting in front of classrooms, 7 o’clock to 3 o’clock or 9:00 to 5:00, summer vacation, all these. How do we get to that point?
Kevin Currie‐Knight: Sure. Well, I mean all of those things are going to have a different story attached to them. So I will give you a little bit of a truncated version. This is a very truncated version. So I’m going to kind of oversimplify a few things. OK. So in the very early start, let’s say of American schooling, which is what I’m kind of focusing on, schooling was kind of the responsibility of the family, of the community and sometimes the locality depending on where you are.
So some localities, especially in the northeast, the New England states, there was always kind of an urge towards a public system of schooling. So they had pretty well‐organized – at least for the time, what were called common schools that were somewhat tax‐supported. Usually tuition subsidized them but it was really kind of a locality affair.
The Middle Atlantic States had usually something that looked more like a voucher system, believe it or not. So a state like Pennsylvania would often – its district would often say something like this. We know that there are certain poor kids in our district or area. So what we’re going to do is the locality will keep track of how many poor kids there are in that district and we will allocate tax funds usually through property taxes and things like that towards those kids, so that they can buy whatever education they can afford with the money and everyone else is kind of on their own.
The southern states very rarely had any sort of formal education and it kind of makes sense if you think about how spread out the southern states were and how agricultural they were. Usually, their education was family level. You might do an apprenticeship. You might go to what’s called a Dame school where someone opens up a school in their house and you might go there. Basically, it was very unstandardized. Every district had or every area had their own way of doing it.
So enter the school reformer Horace Mann in Massachusetts and Horace Mann was kind of a visionary for his time. Horace Mann in the New England states and Massachusetts in particular saw his mission as the head of the Board of Education there. He said, “Our goal is going to be to standardize the system that works best, because what we have in Massachusetts is this area does it this way and this area does it this way and this area does it another way, and your education is going to depend on where you live and we want to make sure everyone gets the best education.”
So his idea was we want to, as a Board of Education, be like a clearing house for all of the ideas of how a school runs and we’re going to figure out the best of those ideas. When we do that, we’re going to disperse that information to all the localities because his dream was to have a – almost a uniform school system and for really altruistic motives, right? You don’t want a system where poor kids are going to get a horrible education because their locality doesn’t know how to do it and rich kids are going to get a great education because their locality is really well‐informed.
So he wanted to have this really more centralized, standardized system. So in – I think it was 1832. He went to Europe and he looked at all sorts of European schools, Scottish, Irish, English, Austrian, Prussian, German schools and he really, really liked the Prussian system. The Austrian system as well. They were very similar systems.
So he wrote an essay. If I recall right, it’s his seventh annual report on education. He gave an annual report every year and he wrote, “We have to try to institute this Prussian system.” What he liked about the Prussian system was that it was very organized and it was very centralized. From what he saw, all the schools looked roughly similar and they had a lot of the features that we have in schools today. So they had things like students were divided by age and/or ability level, which usually was the same kind of thing.
You know, ten‐year‐olds were together unless you had extraordinary ability, in which case you might go up a grade or whatever. They used letter grade kind of a system, which makes sense. If you want to progress up an ability level, obviously you need a graded system to do that, to figure out if you’re above average, below average, whatever.
It was – I want to say it was completely teacher‐centered. The Prussian system tried not to be teacher‐centered. But it has a lot of the features that we have today. It was very centralized, very organized, very academically‐based subject divisions.
Trevor Burrus: What do you mean by teacher‐centered by the way? How is something teacher‐centered?
Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yes, so meaning teacher‐centered is kind of the idea that the teacher stands in front of the classroom and delivers a lecture.
Trevor Burrus: OK.
Kevin Currie‐Knight: The Prussian system actually tried to be more interactive in that, at least as Horace Mann described it. So instead of the teacher giving a lecture and students would memorize things and they give recitations, which is kind of how a lot of schooling works, especially in the United States, the Prussian system really was – tried to be more let’s say Socratic. So the teacher would ask a lot of questions to students and students would respond and it was almost more of a conversational thing.
So I think the Prussian system gets maybe a bad rap for being really authoritarian and at least as Mann described it. Maybe he had starry‐eyed glasses on or something. He thought it was a lot less teacher‐centered than a lot of the American schools.
So the American schools at the time for instance were really – here’s your lesson and the book that we’re going to read. You’re going to memorize these grammar rules and you’re going to repeat them to me and that’s what the lessons will be like.
So it’s very, very dry. The Prussian schools, as he described, were a lot less dry than that. But again, maybe he had kind of rose‐colored glasses on. OK. So Horace Mann really advocated for this Prussian system and we brought in kind of a lot of the pieces of the Prussian system into Massachusetts and other reformers, Henry Barnard in Connecticut, some in the Mid‐Atlantic States and things like that.
We’re also really taken by the Prussian system and Mann’s description of it. So they kind of imported this system also. You know, we tried to centralize localities. We tried to make sure the schools in each locality were doing roughly the same kinds of things.
So I guess from there, we can go up to the early 1900s because they really set the stage. You know, Horace Mann and the likes set the stage for what would happen in the early 1900s when we bring in what was, you know, known as the “Progressive Moment”.
The Progressive Movement really sought to standardize even further. In fact, one trend in particular called “scientific management” really swept through education. Scientific management is kind of the idea created by Frederick Winslow Taylor, who’s an industrialist and he figured as an industrialist, we need to figure out the one best way to do every job in our factory.
So no longer is it going to be up to laborers to decide how to shovel and dig ditches and create these products. We’re going to figure out the one best way and we’re going to have managers oversee laborers and laborers will do things in a very standardized, orderly fashion.
Educators loved this idea because they thought, “Oh, we can use this too. We can figure out the one best way to educate so that we can make best use of time, best use of resources, so that we don’t have to trust individual teachers, to figure out how to teach individual classes. If we can figure out the one best way, we can standardize this whole process.”
Trevor Burrus: And that got into this sort of – did that include then the school day and the subject matters and things like that?
Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah. Well, subject matter I guess came with – it’s tough to say when we really started organizing into subject matter. I’m going to have to plead a little bit of ignorance on exactly where – I know in the Prussian model there were subject divisions. I don’t know exactly what the subject divisions were. I think there was – you know, divided into language, math, science. Penmanship I think was kind of a separate subject area, as least as far as Mann describes it in his seventh annual report.
Trevor Burrus: Well, it seems like you have – maybe some of it could do with urbanization because you do have this – the specialization is limited by the extent of the market. So you have the one‐room schoolhouse. It might have been less subject‐matter‐oriented than the large urban place where – also you couldn’t group all the kids into age when you only had 25 kids in the town who were going to the school.
Kevin Currie‐Knight: That’s right. I mean the one‐room schoolhouse, not to glorify it, because there were definitely some big challenges with that. But you’re right. I mean when you had 10 to 15 kids coming to school, let’s remember that the one‐room schoolhouse in the early 1800s, even late 1700s, you know, education wasn’t compulsory. You didn’t need to send your kids. So a lot of families in fact didn’t send their kids to the one‐room schoolhouse.
So you have 10 to 15 kids showing up and often they would show up with whatever book they had from home. So sometimes that would be the bible. Sometimes that would be whatever “reader” they could afford. The teacher would just kind of teach everyone individually because there was no option.
So yeah, you’re right. I mean subject matter divisions and period divisions and age grouping really happened once school started expanding and that happened during Horace Mann’s kind of period is when you saw schools start to really expand in size. So now the best way to do it is well, if there’s going to be one teacher for 20 kids, and another teacher for another 20 kids, you might as well divide kids by ability level, because that’s going to make the most sense for one teacher to teach 20 kids and you might as well divide them by subject because that’s going to make a lot of sense for one teacher to teach 20 kids of similar age grouping on the same subject.
Aaron Ross Powell: What does not divided by subject look like? Because like I’m trying to imagine what it would look like to say, OK, we shouldn’t keep math separate from English. We’re going to somehow blend those.
Trevor Burrus: Aaron is having a Statrix problem. There was an episode, the thing I’m writing called the Statrix. He can’t imagine the other world.
Aaron Ross Powell: No, I can’t. So this is – what strikes me as interesting when you’re describing these characteristics of the traditional or the Prussian model is my wife – before we moved out to DC, when we were living in Denver, my wife taught at two different private schools, private elementary schools and in both of those, the model was the kids were still grouped by age. But you had basically two years with the same – in the same grade. So like first and second graders were together. Third and fourth graders were together and then – so you got that – that kind of abilities could be mixed and you moved along or you spent extra time and things and then also it was – stuff was not broken into subjects.
So she as the teacher of 20 kids would figure out what topic interested each kid and these were all gifted kids. So they’re often strange. So sometimes it would be …
Trevor Burrus: Wonderfully strange. He’s not saying …
Aaron Ross Powell: But it would be like – you know, they would be really obsessed about dinosaurs and another kid would be really obsessed about hockey and another thing, I remember, was really obsessed with vomit. Then you build a curriculum around that particular topic. So we’re going to use hockey with this kid to learn about math and history and social studies and science. Then the next kid, you have to build – so it’s very work‐intensive for the teacher but it seems like it’s –
Kevin Currie‐Knight: Right.
Aaron Ross Powell: It’s kind of addressing a lot of the concerns that you’re – so is that like how you would do it or is there some other – you know, just mixing subjects? Because again you get back to like the math and English, seeming to mix counterintuitively.
Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah. Well, the best way to think about this – because there are a whole bunch of different models. I mean the cool thing about my study of different schools and what – there’s just a whole bunch of different models. There’s a whole bunch of different ways to do it. So if you want to collapse subjects, there are so many ways to do it.
So the best way to think about it, Aaron and Trevor, is to imagine problems you face day to day or whatever. How many problems neatly divide themselves into subjects? I mean do you ever have a problem that you can solve purely by doing math or do you ever have a problem that purely falls into the subject of social studies?
It’s fairly rare to find real world problems that do that. So I guess one model that comes to mind is a school system. I guess a school model called High Tech High which is located in California, San Diego. They are a completely project‐based curriculum and what they do is every semester, students are assigned in a group to work on one really big project. But the idea about the project is it traverses several different disciplines at one time.
So at East Carolina, we just previewed a documentary film about High Tech High called Most Likely to Succeed and one of the projects – so I will give you an example is students work in groups and they have to put on a particular play. That’s from 5th century Greece and they have to perform the play as authentically to 5th century Greece as possible.
But they realize of course that in 5th century Greece, female can’t act. So what do the females do? Well, they have to take the same play and translate the play, so that it would fit 21st century Pakistan.
Now think about how many subject areas and putting on this play would traverse. There are incredible numbers. Obviously social studies is a big thing. You have to figure out what does it look like in 5th century Greece. You have to figure out art. You have to figure out how to do the set design. You have to figure out any math that would help you put together the set or put together stuff that’s involved with the play. You would have to figure out obviously languages.
You would have to potentially even learn a certain amount of Greek, so that you could potentially read some original sources in Greek, so that you can kind of check your understanding of the play against original sources.
What they find at this school is that when you design projects that are really big projects, you can design stuff that traverses a whole bunch of different disciplines. So it’s not like we’re going to learn math today and then we’re going to learn science tomorrow. It’s well, no, math and science are quite related. There’s no reason you should be learning these things separately from each other.
I will give you another example. I just interviewed from my own show a guy named Sam Levin who created a school within a school called The Independent Project and he was – when he created the school, which is entirely student‐run by the way, he had a problem of figuring out what the disciplinary categories should be that they learn from. So he created four. There were social sciences, natural sciences. There was arts and there were languages. Well, where do you think math falls?
Trevor Burrus: I was just thinking that. I would say – this is a very philosophical question. Natural science would be my guess, yes.
Aaron Ross Powell: My parents though always told me math was a language.
Trevor Burrus: Your parents would say that.
Kevin Currie‐Knight: Aaron for the win. Aaron for the win here. He grouped it into language because he said if you think about it, math is simply a set of symbols that are expressing ideas. So it has a lot of – it not only has relational language. It is a language and what he found – at least one of the things he found from doing this, it was kind of unexpected, is he found a lot of the students who had trouble with math or math phobia or “I’m not a math person,” once they were presented with math as a language, a lot of them were more hospitable to it because we’ve all learned languages. I mean even people who aren’t math people, we know English, we know some language.
So once he presented it as a language, at least he found that it made a whole lot more sense to a lot more people who – that math didn’t really make sense to as much before. So I mean these are just examples of how arbitrary our subject divisions are. I mean my favorite arbitrary subject division is reading. Why in the world would you separate reading from the subjects you’re reading about? Because if you’re reading, you’re reading about something.
So it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to say we’re going to study reading and then second period, we’re going to read about art or …
Trevor Burrus: Maybe at the beginning though when you’re – when reading is a subject for first graders, they’re reading about Dick and Jane. But I guess they can read about something that has more substance to it.
Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, that’s definitely a common argument for kind of separating out reading at the beginning. But there are also schools who really integrate those. You read in other areas. So when you first learn to read, you’re reading about something. So going back to Aaron’s earlier point of taking a curriculum that you’re interested in, it seems like it may be a whole lot more effective to teach people to read through a particular subject that they’re interested about, that would require reading rather than here’s reading class where you would read about Dick and Jane and then you go to your other class where you learn content.
Trevor Burrus: Dick and Jane are really boring. It’s true.
Kevin Currie‐Knight: They are absolutely boring.
Aaron Ross Powell: The Derridean reading of them can be pretty exciting. You see, you teach at a university and so I’m curious. Do these criticisms of subject grouping and other parts of the model apply less in a university setting? Where obviously things are broken up by subject. But these are highly, high specialized subjects in a way that they’re not in elementary and middle and high school.
Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, I don’t – I haven’t really thought about that. I’m not really – I don’t know if I can really answer that question terribly well. I mean the only thing I can say is colleges and universities are pretty much bound by what they get from K-12.
So if K-12 divides certain things a certain way, it’s going to be really difficult for colleges and universities to take students from a K-12 system that divides it that way. Then they will say, “Well, we’re not going to divide it this way. We’re going to divide it this way.”
So you still have math departments and English departments and political science departments. I mean so you still definitely have these subject divisions. But yeah, if I were to guess, you’re right. The material is more specialized, especially the farther up the system you go. You know, seniors are going to be more specialized than freshmen.
So yeah, I mean – you know, so my courses for instance I teach future educators. I teach a course on the philosophy and history of education. I teach a course on learning theories, motivation theories, and assessment theories. It’s hard to see how any of those courses line up with the traditional subject division.
Trevor Burrus: It is interesting though when you think about how much just the general public – the K through 12 public school affects obviously universities and a lot of the way that we live our lives and our movies, Breakfast Club, things like this. It’s a little bit disenchanting if you really start thinking about challenging the assumptions of how we ought to do this. I’m thinking about the possibilities that simply are going on or at least on a very broad scale for different types of schools and different types of ways of doing things.
Why are we so stuck in our ways? What is going on to make us just continue to use this Prussian model? I mean I always tell students when I lecture. I say it’s a pretty good bet if something hasn’t changed in 130 years, despite airplanes and computers and everything else, that the government is running it. So it’s generally a good bet. So why are we so stuck in the rut?
Kevin Currie‐Knight: Well, I mean there are probably several reasons that are all kind of I guess colliding together. I mean one is kind of what you mentioned, is that not only is it government that’s in control of it and of course they don’t have any real price incentives or anything like that, that would exist in a market to kind of change things.
But there’s – I mean there’s some sort of cultural entrenchment as well. I mean if you think about schooling, everyone has been through some sort of schooling and most of us have been through the schooling that we’re talking about now with age divisions and subject divisions, stuff like that. So actually historian David Tyack and Larry Cuban have written a book on why schools don’t change very much and why reform efforts meet with a lot of resistance.
One thing they said that I think is just very true is once people get used to a certain type of schooling, it’s really hard to think about what an alternative model would even look like. It just becomes so obvious. For instance, in my Foundations of American Education class, I tell students, “We’re going to just look at some of these features of schooling that I bet you probably haven’t really paid that much attention to before. Most of us haven’t.”
Students come out of that class saying, “It never really dawned on me to question the idea that we divide people by age. Why wouldn’t we?” But now it’s kind of like why – why does that make sense? What’s the rationale? So another story about that is I have a friend – teaching friend who was talking about how his district was thinking about not requiring Shakespeare – I think the 11th grade year in English, because they read Shakespeare in 10th and 11th grade. So the idea was there are a lot of other authors we could use. Why do Shakespeare twice in a row? And he said when the district entertained this to parents and stuff like that, I mean there’s just a huge outcry. Like, why would you take away Shakespeare in 11th grade?
So the district and the teachers were asking, “Well, what is your objection?” and their objection was that’s just not what you do in school. Eleventh grade, you just do Shakespeare. That’s the way it is. I think we think – I think that’s kind of what happens in education. It gets this kind of cultural lock‐in. We just assume the way we did it is the way school looks. So, any other way, if there are reform efforts or whatever, we just kind of say, well, that’s not what school looks like.
Trevor Burrus: It’s even bigger. You mentioned this with summer vacation. It could be bigger than just the school effects. Like why do we have summer vacation? The story has always been it’s because of farming. But you say it’s not true.
Kevin Currie‐Knight: No, it’s actually not true. It turns out that it’s – and it wouldn’t make sense for it to be true either because a great majority of people who went to school weren’t on farms. But people just did summer vacation. It just kind of swept through and it – from what I’ve seen, it’s actually because of air conditioning. It has more to do with the fact that summers were hot. This was an age before air conditioning was a thing.
So it made sense to break during the summer and then come back. But of course now that’s not a problem anymore. So why do we do it? Well, I don’t know. I can’t say for sure. But as best I can tell, it’s – again, it’s, well school just looks this way. We just have off on summers. If you think about it, a lot of people are kind of dependent on having off on summer as well.
Parents get used to it first of all. But I mean everything from summer resort kind of places. They depend on people having summers. They have an economic interest in something like that. Any business or group who’s dependent on students being off during the summer would potentially object to that. But I mean to my knowledge, not a lot of people have even thought about – or very seriously about why would we have summers. Why wouldn’t we just change the model?
Although in a lot of other countries, it’s not typical to have summers off. UK doesn’t have summers off. Australia I’m pretty sure doesn’t have summers off. They will go for a several‐week chunk and then they will have a week or so off. Then they will go for a several‐week chunk, have a week or so off.
Summers are actually very ineffective. A lot of the research says that at the end of the year – I mean the idea is you learn and you retain stuff throughout the summer and then you come back and you pick up where you left off.
But taking three months off a year turns out people do a lot of forgetting in those three months. Like, yeah, who would figure, right? But people do a lot of forgetting. So one of the big complaints is people come in from summer break and they forget half of what they know whereas I don’t think the same thing has been reported as a big issue in a country like Australia where you would go for a few weeks. You take a week off. You go for a few weeks. You take a week off.
Aaron Ross Powell: But there’s also a special risk averseness in education from the – so that the consumer of education or the customer is – when there’s some degree of choice is the parent because the kid is not making decisions about what sort of education they get and a special risk averseness there that’s not the same as like, oh, here’s a new kind of phone service. I will try it out or a different car. I will try it out. Because with your kids, you know – I mean I have three kids and Kevin, you recently became a parent.
There’s this like – I won’t call it overwhelming panic that you’re going to screw the kid up. But there’s a worry that you might and so you – and education is this thing. It’s like you get one shot at it. It’s not like we try out the new cable provider for a month. So this is my kid and there may be other things that are better. But this is what I went through and I turned out OK. So I don’t want to be that one who tries out the new model that’s going to lead my kid to not know how to read.
Similarly with the summer vacation, it’s like we kind of romanticize. Like I remember my summers and riding my bikes around with my friends. I wouldn’t want to deprive my kid of that. So the parents – like even if you convince them this might be better, there’s a high degree of risk averseness.
Kevin Currie‐Knight: I think that’s right. I mean the other thing to add to that is education is cumulative and that obviously plays a big part. So the research suggests that there’s a window of opportunity where kids are really good at learning language, just amazingly good at learning language. The research very well supports that idea.
Yeah. So there’s going to be a sense that if you don’t get that schooling right in those first several years, well, you’re going to have to play catch‐up later. But it’s true for anything. If you take a year of schooling, you go to this new school that doesn’t seem to work out. You’re going to be behind the curve obviously for whatever the rest of your educational experience is.
The difficulty with that though is to assume that we have the best way figured out, that somehow because the state is doing it, they won’t make any sort of mistakes that are similar. The problem is, is if the state is involved in a centralized system where all public schools kind of look the same and do it kind of the same. If they make an error, now it’s not just one student that’s going to be behind the curve and that would be a shame. It’s a lot of kids who are going to be behind the curve and that will be a shame.
Trevor Burrus: They can make errors and they can never go away too. I mean errors can persist in the state for a long time.
Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, right. Right. Yeah. I mean in a market system theoretically, what’s going to happen is a school that just produces really bizarre or bad results is going to be found out fairly quickly and either go out of business or have a huge incentive to change the way they’re doing it whereas I don’t know if the state really feels that sort of pressing concern. I can’t say they don’t but I don’t see any reason that would motivate them in the same way let’s say a private entity.
Trevor Burrus: But that of course is the question about what the critic of a more free market education would say. I mean first of all, they would say that we’re mischaracterizing the state. The education system is sort of lacking in innovation and not trying to do these things. I mean they sit around and they talk about new ways of doing things and they do change a little bit. They introduce computers and they introduce …
Aaron Ross Powell: SMART boards.
Trevor Burrus: SMART boards and things like this. They try. They’re definitely trying.
Kevin Currie‐Knight: They’re trying but their version of change is tinkering around the margins. Their version of change is so – I mean computers is a great example. You know, the big push right now is bringing tablets and iPads. Sounds really innovative, right? But when you go into schools and you look at it, as a lot of my colleagues have, what do they find? Students who are doing worksheets, they’re just doing them on iPads.
So it’s not – they’re not really – they’re doing the same stuff. They’re just doing it with new technology whereas I would – I mean I would have to imagine that there would be a lot of private companies or organizations, non‐profits who would feel a lot more free to actually really try to innovate more than that. You know, so when the state does it, they really tinker around the margins. Their innovations are not generally changing the nature of anything. It just changes the delivery model or whatever.
Trevor Burrus: Is the objection to this sort of state education or free market education – I mean it could be that they think that these kids like – as Aaron’s question, a high desire to choose a safe option for their children and not something risky like a new fangled school that teaches finger painting for two hours in the morning and then has a sensory deprivation tank and lets them sleep for two hours and they have – whatever. That is – as you said, it’s cumulative.
So that fails the kids and so we have a big problem now. These kids are being failed by these free market schools. That could be one objection. But they also – they might think that there is a need – and this is something I didn’t hear you mention in your little history of public education. That there’s a need to standardize the curriculum in order to produce good citizens of a certain sort and I don’t mean something really goose‐steppingly Nazi right here by saying producing good citizens.
You just ask a person what do they think a good person in the society needs to know and everyone has a different answer to that question. Music, math, reading, five languages, travel around the world, whatever. That’s what makes good citizens, environmental stewardship. All these things make good citizens and they might want to control the curriculum in order to do that. That’s also a part of the history of American education too, correct?
Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, those are two objections that you do hear a lot and they’re definitely objections worth taking seriously. So the first one is kind of the risk‐averseness. We know that this model works. It may not be great. But it’s safe and we don’t want to take too many risks.
Yeah. I mean I guess usually my response to that is two things. First of all, that’s presumptuous because you’re assuming that the safe model actually really does work for people.
I wonder – I mean I’ve talked to enough kids and I was a kid for whom the system – I think I survived in spite of the system. I don’t think I survived because of the system. You saw in my talk. I mean I was a very average student and in high school, I skipped a ton of school because I hated it. Hold on. I now have two master’s degrees and a PhD. Something is weird about that, that I almost dropped out.
But I have a PhD and two master’s degrees. I know so many kids for whom – you know, you go to school because you have to and you go through the hoops because you have to. Do you learn anything? Not really. I always challenge people to think of how much – how much factual explicit – like factual information do they know now that they know they learned in school. Like can you attribute to school? You spent 12 plus years in school. How many things do you think you retained?
So it assumes the system is working and I just – I’m not sure if the system is working. Many people are surviving in spite of the system. But I also say we don’t know how much better we could be. Playing it safe is good in some ways. You want to avoid risk. But also it would be really nice to see if some of these ideas are really good pedagogical principles and the only way we can do that is if we allow experimentation and the only way we can allow experimentation is to allow the possibility of failure.
Maybe the system doesn’t experiment because this is so big. Big systems can’t experiment that well. So if we disaggregate and we decentralize in a school choice kind of model, you could take risks because if there is failure, it will be regrettable but it will be contained and it might weed out fairly quickly whereas in a state system, it won’t.
But then you talk about the second objection being everyone needs to know a certain number of things in common I guess to be good citizens. There’s an argument made most famously by a guy named ED Hirsch who put out a book several years ago with the title Making Americans or The Making of Americans I think it was.
The idea that a society can only cohere if people have a certain amount of knowledge in common. I guess my problem with that is I can see that point that we all have to know a certain amount of stuff. But if we all really had to know a certain amount of stuff, does anyone need to tell us that we know that stuff? Like if I really need to know how to speak English, because I can’t get by in society if I don’t, do I need someone telling me from the school system? Hey, you need to speak English. Probably not.
I will probably feel that in the community because it is a need. If I don’t feel that, the question is, “Is it actually a need?” But secondly, I mean I think we overstate that case. If we think about what makes society work, some of it is because we share common things and some of it is because we don’t share common things. Some of it is because I can rely on other people to know other things than I do. They can learn things from me.
You know, think about the way our market works for instance. It doesn’t work because we all know common stuff. It works because we all know different stuff. So I think we overstate exactly how much stuff we need to know in common and certainly I would say probably not 12 years’ worth.
Aaron Ross Powell: A couple of possible problems with using school choice or freeing up the system in order to experiment. First, we do have school choice. It’s not widespread and we still have this very large public school system that’s very top‐down. But there are alternatives out there. There are private schools. There are charter schools. There are other systems. There’s home schooling. But even in those, there are occasional ones that go really outside the box.
But even those tend to stick pretty closely to the model that is in place in the public schools. They’re not meaningfully different and the other one is the way that competition works. Like the failure – it seems like one of the issues with education is it takes a long time to figure out whether it’s working or not. So I went like – I went through 12 years of K-12 and more than four years of undergraduate study and then law school and arguably, my education didn’t pay off or didn’t get to a point where you could say, “Well, was he educated well or not?” until I was 30.
Trevor Burrus: I think some of us are still wondering.
Aaron Ross Powell: It’s possible. But we’ve largely moved into it. But that’s – I mean that’s a long time to say like – here’s a new model. Let’s try it out. But we won’t actually know if it’s working or not until these kids graduate and go out into the work force and we can do long term studies of whether they’re successful or not on different metrics. So it’s harder to – especially the parents, the ones who are making these decisions to really judge.
Kevin Currie‐Knight: Yeah. So here’s the thought on that and I’m not sold on this thought, but I’m not sold against it because I definitely hear that criticism and I understand the force of it. I don’t know again if we overplay exactly how long term you would have to wait to figure out the results of education. Because I think if you were to ask parents, after a year is over, of their child’s schooling, can you tell if they’ve learned stuff or not?
They probably won’t say, “I won’t know that until they’re 25.” They will probably be able to tell you yes, even on a weekly, monthly basis. Number one, I can tell whether my kid is miserable. I can tell whether my kid is bored to tears or I can tell whether my kid is learning stuff. Like, I can ask. What did you learn today? Tell me. And if he can say something, if he can tell me something, great. If he cannot – but that doesn’t solve the problem entirely because there are things that will show up later.
Like did you develop a critical capacity to think critically? That’s something that you probably won’t see until like kind of the long term. Do you know how to be a good person? Maybe that’s something that won’t show up until long term. But there are short term metrics that you can certainly use. So I definitely feel that criticism. But I think we maybe overstate exactly how long term you have to wait to figure out the results of education. Some are approximate and some are ultimate.
Trevor Burrus: It seems that we have a pretty big opportunity right now because the world has changed a fair amount in the last 15 years. People who are 15 years old now for example go on YouTube. You can learn pretty much anything that you want to learn on YouTube. People are teaching themselves everything from musical instruments to how to change the oil in their car and things in between. Of course we have Khan Academy and open courses and …
Aaron Ross Powell: Libertarianism.org guides.
Trevor Burrus: Libertarianism.org guides and this podcast. We have all these wonderful educational resources.
Kevin Currie‐Knight: And YouTube being the second largest search engine.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, yeah. So – and we have an economy that is changing. People are starting to think about job skills and the university is different and there’s a lot more ability to – you know, we have people becoming YouTube stars because they’re teaching everyone how to knit. There are just a lot of things changing. Do we have an opportunity because of this, to actually start getting a widespread rethinking of what education is, what its purposes are, and then maybe start to break a little bit of this stranglehold the depression model has on the system?
Kevin Currie‐Knight: You know, it’s interesting because I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Going back to the criticism that we mentioned about education teaches people kind of the same stuff. Like, we have this idea that in school, if we don’t teach you all the things you’re going to need to know, once you go into adulthood, that somehow it’s going to be catastrophe for people.
Like we have to teach every – you know, this important thing and this important thing and this important thing. I was thinking about like, OK, let me apply that to my own education and see if that was true for me. So I grew up – I’m 39 now. I grew up in the age where computers and the internet kind of rose with me. You know, so in middle school, some people had personal computers. But it was all MS-DOS and it was all – you know, the word processor and there’s no really internet or anything like that.
In high school, internet started to kind of become something people heard about and what not. But it wasn’t really a huge thing and then in college, that’s when the internet started blowing up. So here are some of the things I didn’t learn when I was in school. I didn’t learn what a webpage was. I didn’t learn what a hyperlink was. I didn’t learn what a Google search was or how to do one because Google didn’t exist yet. I didn’t learn how to make video calls. I didn’t learn texting. I didn’t learn any of that stuff.
I learned how to type in high school because that was – people had PCs and I guess my point is if school is the place where you learn stuff to prepare you for adulthood, then I must have been prepared pretty poorly because I didn’t learn a lot of the stuff that I know now – webpages, websites, how to do searches, how to navigate online spaces.
I learned that after schooling is over and I think that’s true for a lot of people. You learn stuff after school happens. In fact, we forget a lot of the stuff from school. We know that people don’t take with them the majority of stuff that they learn in school. So it always seems to me a little bit foolish to think that we can plan – educational planners can know what people will need to know after they graduate high school because if you think about it, that’s 12 years. We can’t predict 12 years from now what people are going to be able to know. We can maybe have a rough idea that they will be able to read. They will need to read because reading will still be a thing.
We can maybe think about the idea that they will need math. That’s questionable. We have devices that are really sophisticated at math. They will need to know certain things. But I mean it’s just foolish to think that we can plan a 12‐year curriculum with any accuracy. You’re going to have so many false positives, things that you learned in school that people are convinced you would need to know. That all of a sudden you get out in the world, you didn’t need to know and things like false negatives.
I didn’t learn anything about the internet and all that I learned about the internet, I learned outside of school.
Trevor Burrus: Do we see this changing the culture? I mean this understanding of a lifelong learning then – for changing how we can reform schools possibly.
Kevin Currie‐Knight: Can you clarify the question? I’m not sure …
Trevor Burrus: The question about all these – this increasing understanding of different ways of learning things, where you learn valuable skills. The speed of the world too that we have to learn how to program a new language. If you learn C++ during the 1990s, it may not be so useful anymore. So all this sort of understanding of the different opportunities, the different ways of learning and the way the economy is changing. Are we – can we help – will this help change the way people think about education?
Kevin Currie‐Knight: Well, I don’t know, and here’s why. We are so wedded right now to the idea that the evidence of learning is your ability to articulate that information on a test. The problem is that the stuff that I think we’re talking about, like you need to – you really will need to know what we might call soft skills. You need to learn how to collaborate. You need to learn how to think critically. You need to learn how to be a good person. You need to learn how to communicate well, stuff like that.
My fear is that those are not the kinds of things you can demonstrate very easily on the kinds of tests that we’re very wedded to in the public model. So tests that we’re talking about, like the end of grade tests, let’s say in North Carolina or the high school assessments that I used to give as a teacher in Maryland. That focuses on like – what I would call like articulable knowledge, what Hayek might have called scientific knowledge I guess, stuff that you can articulate.
If I ask you, “Who was the president in the year 1955?” that’s articulable knowledge. You can articulate an answer to me. But if I asked you to tell – to demonstrate for me how well you are as a critical thinker, there’s really no test I can design for that that’s any kind of – that yields – that lends itself towards standardization.
So I guess my answer is that the school system seems to be going more and more in the direction of standardization and learning being something that is demonstrable on a test. I’m not sure the kinds of skills that people really will need in the future, the kinds that would lead – you know, that maybe other schools could teach better than we do in school systems now.
I’m not sure that kind of information or that kind of knowledge is the kind of stuff that’s articulable for a test. So I guess I’m somewhat pessimistic about that because the school system really is going more towards that. You have to be able to demonstrate this on a test. Otherwise, it doesn’t count as knowledge. That limits the amount of innovation that you could potentially do, at least within the school matrix that we have now.
Aaron Ross Powell: If you’ve enjoyed listening to Free Thoughts this past year, I encourage you to check out Libertarianism.org’s Facebook page where you can vote on your favorite episode of 2016.