Sunday, March 27, 2016

Curriculum Problem in the 21st Century

Modern school curriculum is designed using the assumption of the form of knowledge as set up in the categorization of disciplines in the higher education system.  The specification model takes precedence as the organization principle in the higher education system.  For the sake of convenience and for the purpose of focus, knowledge is compartmentalized based on what is considered belonging to the compartment.  For example, the study of physical living things is put under what is called as biology, whereas the study of physical non-living things is put under what is called as physics.  Even within those categories there are myriad of divisions set up in order to assist the focus.  This setting up of divisions within each category is done through the narrowing down of the scope of research in order to figure out the simplest understanding of the complex knowledge.  Consequently, as each division goes deeper into the narrow scope, the coherence of each category is compromised.  To bring each division together would be quite a challenge.

Let me illustrate it.  In the junior high biology lab, the teacher gives a task to figure out the inside of a frog.  So the students dissect the frog.  As they cut the frog’s body open, they find the internal organs of the frog.  They find the heart, the lung, the kidney, the liver, the intestines, and so on.  Now, each internal organ is complex in itself.  Heart has its own function that needs to be figured out.  It also has its own mechanism.  Liver also has its own function that needs to be figured out.  The same as heart, liver also has its own mechanism.  With all the internal organs figured out in its own respective division, the teacher asks how all the internal organs work together to get the frog alive and well.  Here the problem suddenly becomes extremely difficult.
In the same way, when we try to figure out a machine.  A machine has so many components that each has its own function and mechanism.  Putting them all together to get the machine works well is way more difficult than to figure out each component’s function and mechanism.  Because here it is extremely important to know how each component work and how they act and react when they are all put together.  Also they must be put in the right order for the purpose of making the machine to work properly.

Now let us look into the education enterprise.  Knowledge is complex.  Just like a machine.  So it is broken down into simpler divisions.  There you have biology, physics, history, math, chemistry, sociology, economy, art, music, and so on.  The question is then: “Are we to learn all of that knowledge comprehensively?”  We know that it would be impossible to do so.  Not only we are limited in our capacity to absorb and to understand them, but also our time is limited.  Even if we are given a thousand years we might not be able to understand them comprehensively.  So we resort to the most logical problem solving that we know so dearly at this point, that is to reduce the complexity of it by breaking it down.  To break it down we can’t do it in random.  We need to prioritize.  To set the priority means we organize importance.  We set values on each thing we consider to break down.

Then we have the heavy discussion of which division is more important than which.  Is biology more important than physics?  Is music more important than math?  Is chemistry more important than art?  How do we set it up?  To complicate the matter, educators attempt to figure out the use of knowledge in order to assist on the priority.  The most common valuation method is set up based on the professional outcome as the students graduate from the formal education domain.  Say one would graduate as a doctor, the other as a lawyer, or as a business people, etc.  The priority is set based on what is assumed as the most usable knowledge for each respective profession.  A medical doctor, for example, would need sufficient understanding of biology and chemistry in order to fulfill their task as doctor.  So in their course of study, they got load of biology and chemistry in their program.  A mechanical engineer, on the other hand, would not need courses in biology or chemistry, but instead they would need sufficient understanding of physics and math so they would function well as a mechanical engineer.

Now, the problem in the education enterprise is not yet solved by setting up the valuation like discussed above.  Because when we measure it according to the reality we stumble upon yet our human limitation.  Our human development proves to be quite difficult to tackle.  Most of us, when we grow up, we do not yet know what profession we would like to take up for the rest of our life.  Even a twenty year old might not yet know what they want to do with their life.  How on earth are we to force a six year old to know?  But then how can we set up the curriculum for school age kids if the valuation method above can’t solve this problem?  But the assumption of the knowledge division has become a huge contributing factor in curriculum design for primary and secondary school.  It is categorized much simpler in the younger level.  In grade 1, for example, students do not yet learn about chemistry or biology or physics.  Instead they got simple science.  There is another assumption at work in the design of curriculum here.  Educators are focusing on the developmental logic.  We all start from the simplest to the most complex.  Babies do not right away learn how to run.  They must first learn to walk before even able to learn how to run.  So before we can learn advanced knowledge we must first learn the basic.  So this assumption intersects with the assumption of the knowledge division.  Since the knowledge division still takes precedence, the most common way to design the curriculum is to trace the division to its simplest.  So for example, grade 1 math won’t study integral or differential.  That would be too complex to grade 1 students.  Grade 1 students learn about addition.  Math experts consider addition as the basic of all math equation and calculation.  Without mastering it one would not be able to do all the more complex equation and calculation.  So after in kindergarten students learn to recognize numbers, they are to learn the relationship between numbers.  And one of the most important relationships between numbers is addition.

The developmental logic can’t stand alone.  It is very helpful in curriculum design.  Jean Piaget’s cognitive development theory has been used almost in every curriculum design up to age 12.  But that logic is based on the learner’s capacity.  This logic, however, doesn’t cover the knowledge itself.  Learning must consider the knowledge in itself.  The sequencing of knowledge is not to be taken lightly when appropriated to the learners’ development.  The logic of each knowledge division and the logic of knowledge as a whole are vast, but since we are limited in the linear working of time, we must translate knowledge into sequences of knowledge that will be understandable for the mind of man that is built up in the restriction of time.  In addition, the sequences of knowledge are designed in such a way so that it won’t start with the most advanced to the most basic.  To determine which one is basic which one is not is an area of debate in itself.  Perhaps in math it is a bit easier to determine because the mapping of the knowledge can be more clearly seen.  But with other social divisions we would find it harder to sequence them.  For example, which one is more important, the study of man as a being or the study of the relationship between humans?  We can’t easily determine which precedes which.

What is more challenging is how to integrate all the divisions of knowledge into one coherent whole.  Like how to connect math and sociology and biology and ethics for example.  If we persist on the assumption of knowledge divisions without any attempt to integrate them, we would be used to the idea that knowledge is fragmented – that there is no connection between math and ethics for example.  In fact this is the struggle we face today in the formal education sector.  We are in too deep in the knowledge divisions that the mathematician speaks a different set of language and uses a different set of logic, so different than many other knowledge divisions that it would be quite impossible for a mathematician to discuss anything with a sociologist.  The setup of the specification in the professional level influences the logic of the curriculum down to the primary school level.  The assumption of the knowledge divisions and professional specifications dominates the design of the curriculum, and so consequently the students who go through the curriculum – which serves as a programming tool for them – will end up enhancing the idea of division and thus becoming professionals who can only tackle matters within their respective specializations.  To illustrate it further, for example, a neurosurgeon would not dare to diagnose a patient who comes to his/her office with a severe diarrhea problem.  The neurosurgeon would quickly refer the diarrhea patient to a gastrointestinal specialist.  Even if the neurosurgeon is the only doctor left in the universe, he/she would still hesitate to diagnose the diarrhea patient.  Such is the power of the knowledge division.

Needless to say that it would be absurd to come to a plumber to fix your broken bones except if the plumber is also a doctor.  On the one hand the specialization divides knowledge to the point of degrading its integrity, but on the other hand we need experts who could handle matters accurately.  This dilemma is one that the education paradigm finds difficult to deal with.  Something is missing in our modern curriculum.  Knowledge integrity is always the problem every time we enter into the discussion of education and particularly of curriculum design.  We struggle mightily to integrate the knowledge divisions into a coherent whole.  A part is missing since the start of the curriculum.  The assumption that governs the design ignores knowledge integrity.  In that struggle chaos is born.  And in the chaos the more powerful wins over the weak.  Priority is given to the less abstract–more concrete knowledge division.  So math and science for example take precedence in the design of curriculum as something that must exist.  Given our limitation as humans, restricted in space and time, some divisions would not be prioritized.  Art and music would only occupy the last slots in the curriculum.  Even to the point of scratching them off from the curriculum altogether would not be a problem.

Howard Gardner protested the discriminating assumptions of the traditional schooling, which only favors math, logic, and linguistic skills.  In his most famous book called “Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences” he proposed that intelligence is actually multiple instead of only one.  Then he elaborated his findings in his extensive research about the many forms of intelligence.  His second book “Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century” discusses more intelligences that he found.  Contrary to the traditional view, Gardner spoke of logical-mathematical intelligence, verbal-linguistic intelligence, musical intelligence, spatial-visual intelligence, bodily kinesthetic intelligence, inter-personal intelligence, intra-personal intelligence, naturalist intelligence, and existential intelligence.  And each person has a different dominant intelligence.  Therefore, in his protest, Gardner argued that considering only logic-mathematic-linguistic as the standard of assessment for all people is actually discriminating those who have other intelligences dominant in their life.  This discriminating assumption governs traditional curriculum design and thus pressures unnecessarily people who are stronger in musical intelligence or spatial intelligence, etc.  In the end traditional schooling reaps only logic-mathematic-linguistic people as the top graduates, whereas anybody outside of that boundary would be sidelined to second class or even third class.  This assumption unfairly forces people with less desired intelligences to fit their curriculum mold.  It is like forcing kids who are left handed to be right handed.  It creates massive disequilibrium in the growth of many kids as they enter school.

Gardner began finding the missing link that has haunted formal education for ages.  His findings explain a lot of the problems we are having in the traditional curriculum.  From a different viewpoint, Daniel Goleman contributed to the discussion by finding that an emotional intelligence or EQ (Emotional Quotient) is more important than IQ (Intelligence Quotient) that is always assumed to be the rational domain of the human mind which is always considered to be superior over emotion and will.  This old assumption is being challenged by Goleman.  The old assumption can be traced back to the Greek philosophy that considered reason to be more important than emotion and will – reason is to be trained in such a way so as to control emotion and will.  Now, Goleman argued that EQ is the main determinant factor of anyone’s success.  He found that people with high IQ (low EQ) whom graduated with high honors from traditional schools or colleges do not stand a chance in the real world against people with high EQ (low IQ).  Here Goleman also found another missing part that has caused problems in the world of education.

The traditional curriculum favors people with high IQ (regardless of EQ) and promises success for them.  But the system collapses.  When these graduates enter the workforce, they fail miserably.  The reason for their failure lies with their humanity not being developed properly.  And so they can’t communicate and relate well with their colleagues or their bosses or even their clients and customers.  They also fail because they are so boxed in their comfort zone of their respective knowledge division.  In the real world they do not just deal with issues within their respective discipline, but often they too must deal with other issues that are known within other disciplines.  When issues outside of their comfort zone surfaces, they froze.  All their training becomes futile all of a sudden.  Yet another reason that contributes to their failure is that they often can’t truly channel their dominant intelligence because it has been stifled since day one they enter elementary school.  And so they do not operate in their most potential, but instead their knowledge and skill is the result of mechanistic behavioristic program that forces them to master the minimum in order to fit in and graduate.  For those who find it comforting to work in the logic-mathematic-linguistic intelligence, they too only focus on those three and never develop the other intelligences.  Their reliance on them creates an illusion that since they are always successful in the sterile environment of school using those three, they would also be successful in the real world using the same thing they use in school.  Little do they know that there is a great discrepancy between the real world and school.  These problems, when combined, become a very powerful kryptonite that weakens even superman at his most powerful moment.

This kryptonite lies hidden in the foundation of education.  It weakens education participants undetected.  It even alters the entire society.  For this reason Ivan Illich protested in his most famous book “Deschooling Society.”  The entire system of society has been altered in such a way so as to conform to the way formal education works – with all its assumptions including the assumption of specialization of knowledge.  And so, when parents send their kids to school, it is for the expectation that their kids will one day, upon graduation, hold the title as engineer or doctor or lawyer and the likes.  And as time goes by, the professions that the world “appreciates” the most through the handsome package the holders receive are the ones sought out by the parents.  Since young, therefore, kids are indoctrinated to pursue such materialistic goal.  For people to get a good job, school diploma is employed as the candidates’ tag whether they are desirable or not.  As this method is known to the commoners, they compete to get school diploma.  And as more people get school diploma, the competition becomes fiercer.  Holding a school diploma alone is no longer enough.  One needs a school diploma from a prestigious school.  One also needs a school diploma of a highly coveted profession from a prestigious school.  An MD diploma from John Hopkins University is very desirable.  Much more desirable than many other medical schools in the US except Harvard and Stanford.

The entire society system is filled with competition for the pursuit of material gain.  Illich saw this problem and he called to stop this decaying process.  But a system this massive has been going on for hundreds of years.  It has permeated to every corner of life.  Consequently it would be almost impossible to uproot it.  The entire system will have to be changed.  Illich’s call is dismissed as being unrealistic.  But even though the actual “deschooling” of the society is unrealistic to do, his warning is true.  His keen eye found the disastrous impact formal education has made to the fabric of humanity.  But at this rate, nothing we can do to remedy it, unless we completely halt everything.  This is the battle of paradigm.  The commoners grow up thinking that if they get diploma, their life will surely be better.  To some degree yes, because the entire system has been following such model.  Society rewards the ones with the school diploma.  Only rarely some geniuses break through the system and make a name for themselves.  But they are very few.  Out of 100 million people, only one comes out that way.  The rest runs within the system.  It is a system that binds people.  Binding people for life.  Illich’s call is for the purpose of liberating the people from this bind.

This reality is something that we can’t deny.  A simple solution can’t be found.  This is a project that will require centuries to do.  The practice of education as we know it today is to be revised significantly if we are to optimize people’s gifts and talents.  Just to consider Goleman’s finding alone would dramatically change the curriculum planning.  Add it with Gardner’s finding and Illich’s warning, we got our glass full to the brim.

Some bright educators speak of a technical starting point that is very reasonable to consider, which is assessment.  If the assessment is tinkered with following the suggestions and findings of Gardner, Goleman, and Illich, education as a whole might have hope to change.  If the assessment stays the same, there is no hope of education to change.  With our situation as it is right now, we might as well tinker with assessment.  Why assessment?  The answer is simple, it is because assessment is what people look at, be it to determine the value of the education, the worth of the graduate, the success of the process, and so on.  Assessment is the first and last place people look at.  The weight of education usually is placed on its assessment.  For example, if the assessment of the graduates proves them to be below average, then their destiny for job search is at risk.  With the compartment dictates students’ outcome, the “unfit” students will certainly be disadvantaged big time.  These “unfit” students are not the minority.  If we follow Gardner’s findings, we will soon realize that they are the majority.  This alone shows how education has betrayed its own purpose.  The students’ full potential cannot surface.  Rather their potential is suppressed in order to fit in the compartments.  So, if the assessment of the graduates can be liberated so as to assess each student’s true potential, the result would be quite different.  But there is no such system in place yet.  And even if there is an assessment system that would accommodate it, many institutions would not wish to pick it up.  The entire system is running already, and according to many of them it runs very well.  Pragmatism dictates that the focus is on what works.  The old model works.  Why bother fixing it?  Remember the saying “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.”  The problem is that it is broken, but they just don’t see it.

This critique attacks the idea of uniformity that has been employed for ages, which has forced students to conform.  This is depressing if seen through the eyes of educators.  Because for people like me we see a triangle being forced into a square box, or a hexagon being forced into a trapezoid box.  I see the gradual sedation of the uniqueness of each person for the sake of knowledge organization that is designed for the success of the industry.  In the educational philosophy classroom we always discuss about models of education.  And one model being critiqued very often is the factory model.  In which each student is being processed by school just like a material being processed in a factory.  This process is to mold students into the pattern of the school.  And the result is the production of the exact same graduate.  Just like when a Toyota produces a Camry, every single Camry produced in the same year (the same sub-model and type) will be exactly the same.  This discussion remains a discussion.  The entire system is so massive that even until today it still is run with the factory model in place.  This is not an imaginary talk.  If you look at BF Skinner’s “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” you will see what I mean.  Behavioristic method of education is employed to make sure the “product” of school is uniformly the same.  Even the “product” of education in general will be uniformly the same.  In that case, our educational system produces robots and not humans.

Now, this problem is our inheritance from the past.  Adding to the problem is that the passing-on-ritual dictates that the current educational leaders find successors who think like them.  It is the tendency to maintain the status-quo.  Whenever power and control are involved, this route will always be the one very appealing.  And so the process of conformity happens also to those who are to be bestowed all the power in their little kingdom.  Someone completely different may not succeed the current leader.  Or otherwise it would be a revolution.  But revolution only happens, as we know it from history, when misery or tyranny or oppression is rampant during the leader’s “reign.”  If the atmosphere is peace, then the “revolution” will be named differently.  It would be remembered as a “rebellion” instead.  Therefore change comes very slowly.  The realization of a mistake may not be responded quickly for fear of rattling the entire cage of the educational system.  But the good change is exactly what we must make, speedily and not a second later.  The impact of the curriculum problem that we have today is staggering.  There are many kids are left behind.  Not necessarily in their minimum basic knowledge and skill academically, but they are left behind if we see it through the perspective of their very potentials.  The US has had the motto “No Child Left Behind” since 2001.  But the curriculum of the educational system and the entire society has naturally forced many of the kids to be left behind by leaving behind their God given talents and potentials simply because the system can’t accommodate them.  As Jean Piaget’s explained that there are two principles of adaptation: 1) Accommodation, and 2) Assimilation.  Since the system is massive and very difficult to change, the principle of accommodation for the system can’t work.  What works is only the principle of assimilation.  Meaning that every student entering the educational system must be assimilated to fit the system.  The system won’t accommodate every child’s uniqueness and potential.  So the children must adjust to the system, even at the expense of throwing away their talents and potentials.  If “No Child Left Behind” act is to be executed with the child truly in mind, then we must not force the child to fit our imperfect and limited mold.  But instead, we must enhance our system to accommodate the child.  This is by no means an easy task.  This is extremely difficult.  But this we must do.  Or we risk leaving most children behind.  How are we going to give account to them and to humanity as a whole?

I will leave this discussion here at the moment.  Let this serve as a reminder for all of us who really have concern over education and the education of our children.  An effort more massive than the current system we have must be attempted.  Not just an effort, but a concerted effort that takes the entire nation, culture, and even the world to work collaboratively together must be in place for a change for good can be started.

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