Q: I think about the horse and buggy and how it was used until the automobile came along. Then there were airplanes, rockets and self-driving cars. And schools are still teaching with one teacher in front of a class. Couldn’t we figure out a way to teach each child individually like with a computer/phone? Why does every child in the classroom have to be on the same lesson at the same time?
What you’re talking about is “individualized” (vs. “group”) instruction, and administrators have been trying to shove that square peg into a round hole for the last 10 years. It hasn’t worked for one big reason: schools are not designed for it. I don’t mean the physical buildings. I mean the entire concept of school.
The primary problem is that individualized instruction must find a way to manage large numbers of students with small numbers of teachers. Even going back to one-room schoolhouses, this has always been the key impediment to giving kids personal tutorials. To deal with the reality, schools evolved into places where students were taught in groups delineated by similar characteristics like age and ability.
Thus schools are not individual study carrels; they are communities. They are designed to care for groups of students all at once. Students sit together, listen together, play together, and learn together. Schools don’t have the individual in mind as a means of instruction. They have the entire community in mind. The betterment of the individual is certainly an aim of school; but it is a goal, a destination, not the daily process.
Schools are built for equality, not individualization. They are meant to give all children equal access to a standard education. Teachers are engineered to give their students a common pool of knowledge. They are like coaches of sports teams, not personal trainers.
Some criticize this system. They say it’s like herding sheep. That’s an apt comparison, and I don’t consider it a negative. The shepherds of lore cared for their sheep, protecting and nurturing them as a group. They also cared for them individually. If one went astray, they would follow it and try to restore it to the fold. But they would never do so at the expense of the other sheep.
School does its best to give each child a good education, and it tries to do so sanely. For example, there are usually multiple levels of instruction so that no student is held back by struggling peers. But schools are not designed for 900 levels of instruction.
You suggest that technology can now permit us to accomplish this. If each child could be taught by his own personal phone, then teachers could just enter grades and sign bathroom passes. Then students would receive the highest quality education possible.
There is a movement to do exactly that. It’s called “personalized learning.” But go forward with it at your own peril. Recent government research has established that too much daily screen time thins kids’ cerebral cortexes, reduces cognitive ability, and impedes reading comprehension. Those facts do not sound to me like the drumbeats of a movement that is marching in the right direction.
If we really want to have truly individualized instruction, homeschooling may be the best option. Children who are homeschooled are largely successful and homeschooling teachers and parents say it is very effective. But ask them if they think it would be as effective if they had to administer it to 30 students a day. Square peg, meet round hole.
School definitely has its problems and there are a whole lot of things that we can do better. But I don’t think that turning schools into educational Starbucks with personalized flavors and children staring at screens for seven (extra) hours a day is going to improve anything. So far, personalized learning has yielded lackluster results while running up enormous bills and likely contributing to a generational neurosis that will have to one day be undone.
The things you criticize school for may actually be the things that are working well. I, for one, like school. I like communities. Maybe I’m crazy, but I feel blessed that I am able to be a part of such a system. I will grant that the bathwater is getting dirty and cold, but the baby is still alive and well.