[Its.an.education.project] Constructionism (was Re: XP on OLPC - a contrarian view)

Alex Belits abelits at phobos.illtel.denver.co.us
Fri May 23 20:10:16 EDT 2008

Eben Eliason wrote:

> For what it's worth, I would be careful to portray "the low-achievers"
> and "the brightest" as opposites.  As I note below, I frequently find
> that some of the brightest are also some of the low-achievers, due to
> certain aspects of the educational system.  This doesn't change your
> point, of course, which is noted.  It simply means that the way we go
> about raising the overall educational level might not be as
> straightforward as many think.

What is important, higher overall education level ALWAYS benefits 
society given other equal conditions, and lower overall educational 
level ALWAYS hurts it.

Ex #1: The above mentioned Republicans (or to be more precise, Social 
Conservatives that in US are represented by Republican Party) who are 
mostly supported by either rich or ignorant.

Ex #2: Modern industrial development that contrary to the popular belief 
goes well in any social and economic system as long as skills and 
education level that society provides are sufficient to develop 
technology locally (such as all parts of "China" -- PRC, ROC and Hong 
Kong). Social development follows the economy that in its turn follows 
education, science and technology, what, of course, depends on social 

Ex #3: Countries that made their bet on developing specific and narrow 
industries and skills oriented entirely for export (Mexican industry in 
the past, current Indian remote technical support and software 
development) only to lose demand after greener/cheaper pastures become 
available to foreign importers of their services. Real education is not 
a machine tool operator manual, or an English textbook and a phone script.

>> * What has gone wrong that teaching to the test so often ends up being seen
>> as being in conflict with teaching to the skills ? To the extent that often
>> teaching to the skills is neglected ?

Why there ARE tests that are not a part of the teaching process in the 
first place? US turns everything into some kind of adversarial system 
where government acts as both public schools' owner and adversary that 
challenges schools with tests instead of co-operating with them, thus 
basically not trusting its own employees to do their job, and doing it 
through students for whom both government and teachers are supposed to 
be figures of authority.

 From student's point of view it's about the same as a customer going 
into a bank only to become an unwilling participant in a fire or bank 
robbery drill every month.

> I don't think this is the fundamental problem; teaching to the test
> can happily coexist with teaching to the skills, in theory.  In
> practice, I feel that this is seldom the case, because the "teaching"
> doesn't happen in a manner which actually imparts true understanding
> of the concepts.  That is, teaching to the skills frequently manifests
> itself as memorizing to the skills, which might provide short term
> results (in the form of good test scores and further funding), without
> providing any long term educational benefits.  The means are put
> towards the wrong ends (the test scores, not the learning).

When tests exist to evaluate students' progress, and minimum curriculum 
is already predetermined, tests are not a problem at all. When "minimum 
curriculum" only exists disguised as "standardized tests" and the 
fundamental relationship between the entity that determines the 
curriculum and the entity that teaches it is adversarial, tests serve a 
completely different purpose -- evaluating school in the eyes of the 
government. If government was confident that schools' actions are always 
directed at teaching the curriculum, the need for government tests would 
be eliminated, however thanks to US federal/states/local split schools 
have to serve three masters -- two with money, one with local political 
influence (and occasionally with saddled dinosaurs).

>> * What has gone wrong that the claim "it is extremely important for society
>> that we raise the educational level of the low achievers" is so often used
>> as the justification for "a system which does not do much for the brightest"
>> as if this the only way things can possibly be ?
> This is another big problem.  Clearly in the top-down
> teach-as-the-source-of-knowledge model, more attention is often given
> to those who need help.  Understandably so.  One might even argue that
> this is expected, since the bright kids are not only capable of doing
> the required work, but are often self-empowered learners capable of
> going beyond that which is required.  In practice (at least in my
> experience), two things get in the way.  First, I have seen the bright
> ones who "get it" actively discouraged from going above and beyond by
> teachers, who desire to keep everyone at the same level.  Second, some
> of the bright ones who lack a real challenge often lack (or lose) the
> desire to put in any further effort at all; it's boring.

Not to mention, without a learning process that actually challenges 
students and requires application of their abilities, schools often 
descend into being a truly toxic social environments for both categories 
-- idle hands, and all.

> It seems like a relatively hard problem to address with the strict
> teacher/student model, but seems it could naturally be resolved in an
> environment which encourages peer collaboration, since a) the teacher
> can depend on the bright students to assist in helping those who
> require a little more time to grasp the concepts (and let's face it,
> you can learn just as much by teaching) and b) because the bright
> students can work together to challenge each other as well.

I disagree. Most kids, bright or otherwise, are completely unprepared 
for the role of teachers, and they should not be forced into it. To 
improve education one has to make it interesting (what is not the same 
as entertaining), so students have positive motivation to learn. Fear of 
anything that a school can impose on a student will never overcome fear 
of social ostracism that a well-performing student will face in the 
environment where students find learning to be an unnecessary burden 
imposed by adult oppressors, even if the student independently finds the 
subject of study and learning process to be interesting.


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