I have been listening to Prof. Timothy Taylor of Macalester College in his series with the Teaching Company on America and World Trade. It is the second course of his I have listened to. As he works his way through the regions of the world and how they are doing economically, he makes clear that many governments try to regulate their economy in ways that bring strength to their nation and good living to their citizens.
In general, this effort has not been successful. Regulating the business of a country reminds me very much of the debate for nearly 100 years in American educational thought. On one side, we have the conservatives who tend to be tough and have high standards. On the other, we have the liberals who are focused on freeing the student to become what she or he can become.
Often the teacher is in a position to dictate what work must be accomplished. Sometimes, the actual list of required work comes from a state list of requirements but usually the teacher is the main decider of what needs to be done for each grade that can be awarded. So, the teacher or the state are in a position to dictate what the student shall learn and what the student shall do to demonstrate mastery of the learning.
As with a government regulating business, those who set demands, regulations, and restrictions on learning need to be right if they are to avoid causing more trouble than assistance. To be right about the student, the learning and the society the student will live in after graduation, one needs to know the future. Unfortunately, the future is always unknowable. Today, with great emphasis on research and innovation, predicting the future successfully is even less likely than it used to be.
In the past, educators have taken refuge in the three R’s of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic. The general idea has been that those three are fundamental and more or less essential to a successful life and contribution to the society as a citizen. All three of these typically required areas are subject to new questions and doubts today. None of them is a complete waste of time but there are important alternatives that are steadily growing. YouTube permits learning input without much reading. Keyboards and spell and grammar checker permit writing without knowing the Zaner-Bloser prescription for “proper handwriting”. Spreadsheets and calculators and sophisticated cash registers supersede the multiplication tables.
All of these challenges and adjustments come from technology but the world is changing in other ways and from other forces than just technology. In many American schools, many languages are spoken so there cannot be a presumption of English proficiency nor Christian traditions. Much more understanding of the ways that people can and cannot learn is multiplying both the recognition of individual differences and the attempts to find individual strengths and limitations, all to an extent quite unknown in the 50’s and earlier.