Balancing the individual and society in a vision of education

If we need any evidence to suggest how education in Canada is failing, we need look no further than the rates of voter turnout in our elections. The Conference Board of Canada cites a few reasons non-voters give for non-participation in elections. Most of them are reasons of inconvenience. These reasons suggest that non-voters put their immediate individual needs before the needs of the overall society. Voting simply wasn’t seen as important enough for them to disrupt their schedules. Somehow, their education has failed to impress upon them the importance of participating in the democratic process.

I have cause to believe that this sense of individualism, and lack of societal obligation has its roots in our vision for schools. There seems to be a misunderstanding about the purpose of education in general, and about what is meant by “individualization” of education, to the point where people believe that the goal of education is solely to benefit the individual, or worse, to simply engage the individual.

This morning I read through a bunch of Grade 8 journals in which students told me about their hopes for the school year. A very interesting theme emerges from their writing. They would like education to be more fun, and more targeted at what they “want” – not at what they need in order to become vibrant members of society – but at what they “want”.

To be fair, they’re 12 and 13 years old. They have neither the experience nor the intellectual capacity to have a more global perspective for their learning. This is why they come to school. But they certainly subscribe to the idea that their personal preferences are important in their education.

They talk about their individual preferences. They don’t like teacher lecturing. They would like to learn at their own pace. They prefer watching videos. They claim to be “hands on” learners, whatever that means. (We all think we know what that means, but defining the term in all of the various subject areas is not easy to do).

Where do they get these ideas? The answer is: they get them from us – from teachers. We rightly strive to address the learning needs of individuals. And we rightly attend workshop after workshop about how to best reach as many students as possible – how to access prior knowledge and pique students’ interests, and in doing so, we have taught them either explicitly or implicitly, that individualization is what they should expect. We have somehow become pedlars of the notion of individuality, and forgotten the more universal purpose of education, which has to do with citizenry and the social good.

We have done this with all good intentions. We want to be inclusive. We want to allow for full participation of all kinds of people. We want to prevent “learning disabled” people from giving up out of frustration. We want to recognize the little Einsteins who don’t fit into a traditional student role. We want students to build on their individual talents. These are all laudable desires. Good teachers know how to reach kids, and we do whatever we can to improve our efficacy in this.

But the expectation that we will actually be able to completely individualize education is absurd from a logistics perspective, and worse, it’s antithetical to the vision of a nation. From the very smallest tribal societies to the largest nations, people work together toward  common vision – literally, a “university”.- in order for their society to succeed. Schools’ mandate is to impart the knowledge, skills and attitudes that society deems to be important. Schools are the means by which individuals learn to contribute meaningfully to their society, not the other way around. And for the sake of efficiency, students come to school en masse to learn these things. We don’t send teachers out to individuals.

It is absurd to think that we can tailor school programs to fit the personal preferences of everyone. And it is equally absurd to think that the material we teach should always be engaging. It doesn’t work this way. If individualization were what we are after, we would be spending many times more money on a model of education in which students could have hours of one-to-one time with teachers, and we would not have any global curriculum at all – but rather, a menu of topics for students to choose from, disregarding the collective needs and vision of the overall society, and risking the future happiness of children who can’t possibly know at a young age what they will need in order to be productive and happy their whole lives.

An example of the problem with this model is in the teaching of composition in English class. It is difficult for most people to learn to write well.  They need to learn to write in subjects and styles that they may not find particularly interesting, and they have to learn through mistakes, making corrections and revisions. We try to make the the content and the method as engaging as possible, but this is really a courtesy. The students need to do it whether it’s engaging or not. Really, they need to take initiative themselves –  to engage themselves. And let’s face it, most kids would rather do other things than work on writing skills – no matter how engaging the material is.

In  English class, as in so many other aspects of life, the grind of day-to-day exercises is unavoidable, and the work is not always particularly exciting. Students simply have to do it. We are doing our students a disservice if we allow them to blame the teacher or the system for their lack of engagement.

In a nation that envisions a participatory democracy, the ability of all citizens to understand, interpret and contextualize the communications of their government, and the ability respond articulately, are critical. Furthermore, students’ ability to look beyond the self – to develop an attitude of altruism, and a sense of positive activism for the good of the whole society, is critical. Otherwise they will not be able to engage in the political process. Ultimately, the success of democracy depends on their learning of these things. And these thing need to be taught in schools.


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