I have seen many articles decrying the way education is delivered in America, for example this one by David Edwards, entitled,
Edwards starts off by asking, “Are Americans getting dumber?” He laments the decline in math, reading, and literacy skills in America compared to other countries, and identifies an education “crisis”.
Then he goes on to imply that the traditional school model separates learning from doing. And from here he offers a solution: “Maker” workshops.
Maker workshops are all-day workshops in which a class identifies a large societal issue (for example, difficulties that might be faced by an aging population). The class is then divided into small groups which collaboratively tackle a specific problem related to the overall issue (perhaps the problem of lifting heavy pots on a stove), and then seeks to invent a device that will address the problem.
The group is given a kit with which to construct a prototype model. The kit contains items like pipe cleaner, thumb tacks, paper plates, plasticine, plastic bags, cardboard, bailing wire, and other things. In addition, some construction materials and tools are made available.
I have attended a Maker workshop. And don’t get me wrong, without any qualification I can say that the workshops truly are wonderful exercises in creative thinking, collaboration and skill building. But as much as the experience offered many educational benefits, it could never replace what I learned over 35 years ago in a grade 8 class called “industrial education”, which was a rotation of woodwork, metalwork, and drafting. Nor could it ever come close to being able to match the depth of conceptual learning that took place in science classes in which the supplementary labs ensured that the theories taught had a chance to be played out in hands-on practice. In fact, I dare say that this old liberal arts teacher got much more benefit out of the Maker experience having first attended those science and industrial ed. classes all those years ago.
The real problem in education is not pedagogical; it is, rather, our society’s lack of financial commitment to producing an educated population. The problem has two branches. First, and most critical, is the brutal cycle of poverty that kills both attitudes toward education, and access to it. Poor kids do poorly in school.
The second finance-related problem is our never-ending search for business-model efficiencies, leading us to cut more and more laboratory and practical courses and to promote more online courses and larger class sizes in theoretical subjects.
What’s worse is that while schools reel under this financial strain, headlines like the one announcing Edwards’ article, whether by design or not, is just the kind of language that policymakers like to use as justification for dismantling public education in favour of a private model that leaves the most vulnerable students out in the cold.
Maker workshops have their place. They create scenarios that allow students to “discover”, to share ideas, and to learn how to collaborate in construction, as well as find out what works and what doesn’t work in design. Maker can encourage people to dream up new inventions. But Maker is far from a solution to declining math and reading skills –the problem articulated at the beginning of this article. And in order to integrate any theoretical depth (for example, understanding of electrical current flow), the students need to get to a classroom. We simply can’t afford to integrate concept-teaching into each student’s individual Maker experience.
Meanwhile, if you want to teach a kid to build a house or a car, you’re not going to be able to do it by giving him a bunch of straws, duct tape and plasticine. No doubt our tech courses should reflect changes in technology, but the way education is delivered in these courses is still relevant.
But try to find a school that offers both high level theory courses and technology courses at the same time. The private charter model leads schools to specialize: in sports, in fine arts, in university transfer, OR in technology. Whereas individual public schools used to offer all of those things, now they are not able to. It is the current new thinking about education that separates learning from doing, and not the traditional public school model. What we really have is a funding crisis.