Before the advent of the second industrialization at the end of the 19th century, most education was done through apprenticeship. However, as industries disrupted traditional forms of work and began to employ increasing percentages of the population, opportunities and advantages of apprenticeships began to wither. Faced with a generation of children from the new "working class" without a place to go, the state opted to employ industrial methods to mass schooling. To quote Crain (2003, p.62), one such system, "promised wholesale acculturation and social control at discount prices."
This changed the nature of learning drastically (Crain, 2003; Giroux, 2005; Halavais, 2005). It moved from learning by doing to rote learning; from the organic to the rational; and shifted the objective of school to raise children to be model workers to join the corporate order.
This method took two parts. First, children were to be ordered, or as Joseph Lancaster said, "A place for every thing and every thing in its place." (as qtd. in Crain, 2003, p.61) Second, children were viewed as tabula rasa, ready to be imprinted upon by the elders' wisdom and knowledge (Crain, 2003). This demoted children's own thoughts in deference to established experts, whose teachings would be passed down through the venerated book. This system reduced the subject of education and curriculum chiefly down to which books and what went in them (Egan, 1978). Further, it presumed children to be homogeneous raw material to be forged in the educative machine (Giroux, 2005).
All of this was set to align with the general Modernist society in its ready step march towards continual (and unquestioned) progress towards final human emancipation. However, criticisms of this inherited system are easy to make. For one, the demographics of the student population are no longer homogeneously European, even though the curriculum has not adapted to match (Giroux, 2005). This has meant that some voices have not found a place yet, and have indeed lost power. Second, the industrial economy is no longer the one driving progress; indeed, it's not clear that we are experiencing progress any longer. Therefore the ostensible need to create a ready supply of credentialled and trained labour (at least from the West) and the system of education created to meet that defunct need is no longer compelling to youth (Giroux, 2005). It's indeed deeply questionable whether the formal curriculum-as-expert-content (i.e. textbook) method of education is either credible or relevant when it no longer prepares students for economic stability. Consequently Halavais (2005, p.7) criticizes, "to place [children] within an institution that artificially keeps them cloistered for many of their waking hours does them an extraordinary disservice. While there is certainly a need for formal instruction in certain areas, the balance that Rousseau speaks of is lacking in education at all levels."
Indeed, the balance between formal vs. informal (and non-formal) education is constructed by this tension between industrial/corporate requirements and real experience of students (of any age). Formal education is typically associated with the (mostly public) institutional education system, whereas informal and non-formal learning is associated with everything else. Colley, Hodkinson, and Malcolm (2002) have conducted an extensive survey of the literature to date that attempts to distinguish between formal, non-formal, and informal learning. While they did not draw strong conclusions about what differentiates those categories, another reading suggests the definition dimension is where the locus of power rests.
Words and phrases such as prescribed, organised, designated teacher, award a qualification, external, authority, pre-established body of knowledge, structured, decontextualized, elders, traditional, passive spectator, paternalistic, the degree of external control, glory for the mentor, privileged, dominant characterize formal education. With formal education, the locus of power rests away from the student, with the teacher or those above the teacher. Students submit to this system (if they have a choice) to receive at the end of formal education a certification for their efforts that will suitably identify them to would-be (industrial) employers as candidate employees.
Conversely, words and phrases such as learners opt, voluntarily, self-determined interests, incidental, spontaneous, guiding, organic, evolving, holistic, contextualized, activity and experienced-based, collaborative, communal, inclusivity, unanticipated, self-development, internally determined, practical, learner-centred, negotiated, democracy characterize informal learning. With informal learning, the locus of power and responsibility rests with the student. Even when the student is not directly in control of the learning situation, the presumption is that whomever is teaching them is doing so for the interests of the student, rather than some externally imposed mandate.
The only counter-discourse is when externally imposed control enforces equality of access across the whole organization. These formal policies act to disempower the teacher in lieu of the benefits of the individual, believing that what benefits the individuals in an organization will benefit the organization as a whole. For instance, an organization may force experienced managers to mentor junior managers with equal access. Leaving this to informal relationships alone will tend to create pairings that reinforce the existing power culture.
Unfortunately, while many people laud traditional education's ability to provide equal opportunity to different classes, this is typically accomplished through homogenization. However, homogenization is also disempowering since it disables and ignores other perspectives that may be central to a student's identity, such as their ethnic background (Giroux, 2005). Ultimately, we can end up in a system such as Lancaster's that stripped students of their identity by putting them permanently off-balance and thus vulnerable to the imposed thought (Crain, 2003).
The real question is why is truly empowering students a counter-discourse? Indeed, if we take on Giroux's (2005) criticism of the Modern school system seriously, we can identify some targets we want to meet. Primarily, Giroux does not dismiss the education system's primary function to prepare students for their future careers. Rather, he criticizes its failure to adapt to a post-modern society that has new needs and concerns that differ from industrial society. A post-modern perspective (Lyotard, 1984) focuses on the immediate, local, and personal. It gives up on the wider project of human emancipation, but rather focuses on an individual's own experience and navigation through the world. It recognizes that Modernism in its goal to put "everything in its place" often failed to locate, identify, and respect people who had no prescribed places yet, and therefore marginalized them; thus, in a post-modern society, diversity is acknowledged, accepted, respected, and even encouraged.
However, both Egan (1978) and Giroux's (2005) have equal scorn for post-modernism's failure to have vision or nerve. This comes in part from post-modernism's roots as a scornful, melancholy, cynical, and skeptical reaction to a failed Modern world. Post-modernism builds from a distrust of power structures and the nature of power itself. Post-modernism focuses on the local and immediate because it no longer holds progress to be possible, desirable, necessary, nor even ethical. Thus, a post-modern society, despite alleviating some pressures from Modernity, fails to possess the motivation to prepare students for their future careers, since it does not believe in the integrity of a future career. McJobs do not count.
The answer is to look both forward and backwards at the same time. Looking forward, through the post-modern project of devolution of power and responsibility squarely onto the individual, a new power dynamic based around the network has emerged, particularly the Internet that enforces a sense of fair play and equality by the very architecture of the system (Lessig, 1999). Now, while as an individual you can only truly control your own space on the Internet, through network effects (e.g. building a network standard like HTTP, creating a network service like Google) that become dominant, you can convince others to lend you power. Thus, power in the new era is ever shifting and resembles more of a meritocracy than prior methods. The view is not one of hopelessness, but rather the empowering 'hacker' culture of building viable alternatives and convincing others to join in (Lessig, 2004).
This vision is by no means guaranteed. The network is also part of global capitalism's power structure (Castells, 1996). The conflict we live with is between the grassroots network society that has moved through post-modernism and the still dominant Modern capitalist system.
What's needed then is an educational model that is focused on building up individuals' abilities to identify and comprehend challenges as they arise, face them, and overcome them on their own initiative through collaborative, bottom-up, lateral solutions. This description coincides with the terms applied to informal (and non-formal) education above. One solution would be to simply just throw students into the world and hope they learn informally. This is the extreme form of progressive education, and one that Dewey (1938) criticizes roundly. Students may learn best from experiences, but not all experiences are good ones. Dewey suggests rather that students need a continuity of experiences that build off their existing experiences to grow new good experiences, as directed by an engaged teacher.
Dewey's theories, although old, are particularly well suited to the network-oriented economic model where individuals are now primarily responsible for their own advancement (rather than 'corporations'). He views the teacher not as director of experience, but a facilitator and guide of students through their experiences, helping them evaluate their experiences, choose following experiences, and develop their capabilities to deal with their experiences. Perhaps an alternative metaphor would be one of an athletic coach. While it's the athlete who runs the race ultimately, the coach is the one who helps identify areas where the athlete should develop and teaches exercises to do so.
The view of teacher as facilitator is not a minor shift, as evidenced by the difficulty of the WISE project to shake high school teachers out of traditional methods (Slotta, 2004). Indeed, it is a major shift that undermines the existing power dynamic in the classroom. The traditional model holds the teacher as the expert, and the student as the receptacle. But this is counterproductive. As Halavais (2005, p.9) writes, "All students naturally know how to share information--the idea of knowledge transmission that is at the root of most schooling has trained students to expect knowledge to be fed to them by experts. They are not familiar with the idea of engaging in dialogue to co-construct understanding." What's more threatening, however, is that students armed with the Internet can out-maneuver textbook-based learning. Teachers whose expertise is limited solely to mastery of a static textbook will be undermined when students use Google, Wikipedia, and even direct contact with leading experts. The Internet simply collectively knows more than any one person.
Additionally, if school is ostensibly about growing students to be active, empowered members of society, there is a curriculum of membership (Egan, 1978) that is subverted by separating them in constructed environments that are wholly disparate from the lived experience in the outside world, as Halavais (2005) was quoted above in saying. Disconnection, listlessness, McJobs? (Giroux, 2005) are a spatial problem brought about the organization of labour. Parents leave children in suburbs to do their work downtown. Students leave their offices to go to educational institutions to learn a new skill. Children do not have access to real work as they did with apprenticeships. Halavais suggests, though, that the Internet opens access to students to learn by becoming a member of a community of practice; that is, by doing real work.
This ultimately has the power to counter the dominance of certification. While certification is as old as universities and has important uses (Brown and Duguid, 2000), what's more valuable in a network economy is demonstrable successes. A project-based curriculum, where students build a curriculum vitae of accomplishments, would speak much more loudly than a certification that forces and implies homogeny. By grounding learning in real projects with external dependencies, the teacher as coach will be a lot easier to accept--even if highly structured and prescriptive when necessary--since the student understands the connection between the exercise and the goal (Dewey, 1938). Even evaluations can become pleasant rather than a chore if they are part of the feedback cycle of improving a project or developing a skill in the student's interest, rather than used to compare and rank students against each other, which is against the student's interests. Standardized comparative evaluations are only necessary in the industrial era model of a homogeneously trained labour force.
In practice, accomplishing this sea change will not be easy. Why would teachers in the education system want to give up power, at the risk of losing control of their classroom? Maybe they won't, but this model is not limited to formal childhood education. In many learning environments, students would benefit by training to be competent actors in the network society whilst underneath an experienced coach. The goal then for the 'hackers' on the Internet who want to ensure their grassroots power structure is maintained against the capitalist network is to develop competent methods for facilitating new and old learners as they approach the Internet--indeed, as part of the hacker's very own curriculum of membership (Egan, 1978).
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Castells, M. (1996) The information age: Economy, society, and culture. Volume 1: The rise of the network society. Blackwell, Oxford.
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