Rethinking Education for the Collective Good (#9 in 52)

The more things change . . . This week, as part of my 52 in 52 project, I picked up Dr.
Philip Gang’s, Rethinking Education, and was immediately transfixed. The year of publication is 1989 and yet the first line of the Introduction rings a familiar tune:  Transitions. It seems that many of us are contemplating or experiencing transitions in our lives as we approach the last decade of the 20th century. Gang poses the question that as educators we continue to wrestle with today:

What about education? Can we continue to prepare the rising generation according to old principles and old guidelines? What form or structure must education take? What is the nature of adolescence and what special role is there for secondary education?

Gang explores the very issue that has recently arisen with the publication of the BC Education Plan: how can we design experiential learning strategies that enable students to interface academic learning with practical application? He puts forward the premise that it is the doing (one could argue, the personalizing) that actualizes the experience and demonstrates the relationship between body and mind. It is an actualization that has embedded within it an emphasis on the reality of living in a state of flux. Gang explains:

The teacher who explains, “This is what we know about the universe today, but tomorrow a new discovery may come which will transform our viewpoint,” is helping to prepare students for change and adaptability.

In order to address this emerging paradigm (interesting because 24 years later we’re still doing it), Gang introduces a new conceptual framework based on a holistic, experiential, democratic and humanistic philosophy.  With the emergence of this new paradigm there is an emphasis on a “systems view” of life. The systems view looks at the world in terms of relationships and integration. He draws upon physics to reinforce his point:

Quantum and relativity theory emphasize relationships rather than isolated entities, and perceive these relationships as being inherently dynamic.

Rather than review Gang’s exploration of all four philosophical threads, I will write about his belief around democracy in education (and then you can decide if you want to read the book).  In a statement that lays bare the why behind public education, Gang writes that “education must enable the rising generation to embody the democratic ideal.” Therefore, he proposes the following goals for democratic education (as you read them, ask yourself if this serves as the foundation for what you do as an educator – it should):

  • To enable students to experience freedom of choice in an atmosphere that emphasizes personal responsibility.

Education is not a series of adult impositions on the child but a conquest of freedom secured by the learner.  To be free individuals need to develop and exercise their freedom and recognize their responsibilities. The school environment should therefore encourage personal choice in an atmosphere that holds the children accountable for their activities.

  • To encourage self-respect and respect for others, underscoring the meaning of “all people are created equal.”

Self-respect is an outgrowth of family and school experiences that dignify the opinions and attitudes of the individual. It emanates from a caring-loving environment wherein adults recognize the worth of the child. One does not educate for self-respect, but enables self-respect to develop. Students will have difficulty valuing the contributions of others unless they feel their own worth, so the family and school must provide the first steps towards developing respect for others, by valuing the worth of the individual.

  • To provide opportunities whereby children develop self-direction and independent thinking.

Education for democratic citizenship means teaching young people about the ways of society and enabling them to participate. This evolves when the educational process stimulates self-direction and independent thinking. Young people are to be encouraged to make choices and to reap both the positive and negative consequences of those choices. It is in this atmosphere that mistakes become opportunities for further learning.

Independent thinking is the consequence of self-directed behavior. Schools that are socially and academically alive permit students to engage in dynamic interaction at all levels of the school community; that is, student to student, student to faculty, and student to administration. Through active participation, young people test out newly acquired capacities and develop the skills necessary for functioning in a democratic society.

  • To help students understand that a variety of solutions maybe valid in any particular circumstance.

Students should emerge from formal schooling with an open mind – one that can appreciate a range of solutions for a set of given circumstances. Individuals so educated, are not stuck with linear logic; they are not just focused on their own idea, their own solution, but can appreciate other points of view. This leads toward collaboration and cooperation with other human beings which is the foundation of a democratic society.

With all of the talk about new directions and the political furor that seems to impact us
daily here in B.C., it was refreshing to pick up this book and reacquaint myself with the things that
really matter in education and in life.  We often talk about personalizing
education and the individual experience but we must always remember that the personal only develops
gravitas within a group context.  Perhaps one of the best quotes in the book, one that brings home this truth, is attributed to the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead:

There is a proverb about the difficulty of seeing the wood because of the trees . . . The problem of education is to make the pupil see the wood by means of the trees.

In the end, if we change the word problem to goal, we have our life long mission statement as educators.

Dr. Philip S. Gang’s, Rethinking Education: a great read that you don’t even have to buy – it’s online.