What is Education and Why Can’t We Seem to Get it Right?

Stephen Stollmack May 8, 2013 0

By Stephen Stollmack
Arizona Community Press | www.azcommunitypress.org


With all this resistance to Common Core Standards and high-risk testing, it is time we pause to ask basic questions about education. For example, Victoria M. Young (April 20, 2013, in Federalist Paper) asks “Is Common Core a Tool or a Weapon?”, a catchy question which she really does not even attempt to nail down. She quotes Bill Gates as having said; “It’s incredible that we have no national standards.”

She goes on to say:

“Standards are a teaching guide to help ensure all children are taught what we judge to be important. But as the sequence of events goes; we develop standards, we develop tests to match those standards, and then we align.. the curriculum .. with the tests.”

It is a time when we should be asking: “What is Education and to what degree do we need to have a common set of standards adopted by all states and in what way are these standards to be used as a mechanism for controlling education?”

First and foremost, education is a process not a thing or a set of rules or standardized tests; It is a continually evolving process of handing down knowledge from one generation to the next and, since generations or family trees have roots in various areas and cultures, one should expect the public realizations of this process to look and feel different from state-to-state across the country. Private schools, usually started by individuals with unique views can be expected to show the influence of their founders more than the their geographical location.

Education is not a set of standard bits of knowledge that can be written down and digitized to be entered into a child’s mind assisted by some computerized processes, as Bill Gates, the primary proponent of this view and with the bucks enough to shove it down our throats, says it is.

One defining characteristic of knowledge is that it is not predominantly a static body of facts or observations or even relationships. Similarly, becoming educated, especially in the earlier stages, does not translate primarily in terms of the facts that one memorizes. Although that might become truer later in life, especially in fields like Medicine and Law, an oversupply of facts to memorize especially during the ages of like 8 to 12 or 15 or so, has been found to interfere with the mind’s development of the capability to reason or deduce answers to questions based on what is already known about a subject.

The ultimate metaphor for ‘knowledge’ is water that springs forth and runs clear with ever changing riffles and eddies around and between fixed objects like rocks and trees. It is up to the teacher and the student to study and come to a consensus about how each flow can nourish each student or groups of students. When water slows down and forms a pool it is most likely to stagnate and become hazardous to one’s health. Situations where one side is recognized to have not only the ‘knowledge’ that needs to be communicated but also the authority and foresight to know how to best communicate it are unrealistic and stultifying for young minds and also cause a false sense of grandeur or self importance to develop among the assigned ‘teachers’ and knowledge instrument developers (book authors and learning program developers as well).


Since they – the school administrators and state governments – conceive knowledge as being a stagnant set of facts to be impregnated into the minds of the students, they see ‘teachers’ and schools as being isolated from the students, especially when the process is labeled mandatory. A process that is so labeled cannot remain a process; it is bound to become a stagnant pool that fails to excite all whom test its waters. When students view this stagnant pool, we want them to search for connections and flows that are not so obvious. The pools are the books of ‘knowledge’ and we learn how to use them by ‘feeling’  the flow (the author’s direction) not by counting the words and memorizing the names of each character (each rock in the rapids). The meaning of each relationship in a novel has to be created in each student’s imagination. We can’t see inside each student’s mind, so we need to develop tests to determine if they getting the flow. We need them to learn new words to express what they see. The ‘words’ then carry their own images in their definitions. In having them search for the right word we can often interfere with feeling and sensing what they first saw or read?

So, all processes are defined (in our minds) as something that flows with ebbs and tides and episodes of frustration and fulfillment. By nature a flow is a metaphor for life. You are born and you flow with nature towards a higher being or towards higher degrees of refinement. Some flows have defined start and finish points but with others, like education, there must be always at work a sense of convergence. No one trip through the rapids is the same and the true master mostly knows only how it feels when it is right.

Together the student and the teacher look downstream; the teacher says “see that rock and the eddy to the right; that’s bad so we should go left.” The student says; “but look to the left, there is like a wall of water pushing back.” “Your right”, remarks the teacher as he tries to remember what it felt like the last time he past this way. ‘Maybe, I am remembering it wrong’. When they get there (to that point), they will remember primarily that they discovered it together. But, then, next time it may look a little different again.

The teacher can not really teach until he or she learns what it is that the student does or doesn’t know. Education subsumes that there is knowledge that both teacher and student seek to experience. Gifted teachers re-experience the rush of discovery each time they teach a subject. They keep up their enthusiasm by changing their approach in subtle ways each time and by tuning into what might be preventing or distorting the student’s view. Does this process sound like it would be enhanced by setting the same standards for each trip and then replacing the trip with multiple choice questions to prove that students all made it together? Standards are OK for teachers to read and interpret into their own lesson plans. Teaching is an Art that we may be endangering with these “paint by the numbers” games.

Knowledge Transfer; Learn How to Play; Help Become Part of a Joyful Society or What

Is the role of education to guide children to experience Discovery of the world around them or is it teach them disciplines and languages that have been developed by their ancestors? Isn’t it of most value to society to teach children how to learn? These questions are fascinating to consider and complex to connect to a set of rules or standards for a teacher to integrate into her/his teaching plan.

Before coming up with major changes in our systems, it would seem best to celebrate the examples of good healthy systems that have been developed around the country. Instead, what we have is a movement to standardize something that we have a great degree of difficulty in defining.

Why we can’t be like Finland (1)

Finland is universally recognized to have the best education system.  Pasi Sahlberg, director general of Finland’s Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation, states in Washington Post:

“In Finland, there is a strong sense of trust in schools and teachers to carry out these responsibilities. There is no external inspection of schools or standardized testing of all pupils..The United States really cannot leave curriculum design and student assessment in the hands of schools and teachers unless there is similar public confidence in schools and teachers. To get there, a more coherent national system of teacher education is one major step”.

Our system (in the USA) was designed so that the schools would respond to local needs and the only way the constitution could ensure this was to grant the power of controlling education to each state. Was the idea, then, that each state would follow this example and refer this power to counties or Districts?

Well education, in this country, did not become a national priority until the Industrial Revolution created the need to attract children from the farms to the cities where it would be ‘economical’ to educate them so that they could be useful to growing industries.  Get them off the farms and into cities where they had to fend for themselves to get their own housing, provide for their own transportation to and from work, and run up credit bills to get the other toys to keep them amused now that they wre not so exhausted from laboring on the farms all day (or so bored when winter came).

west v finland

“Teachers in Finland are highly regarded professionals — akin to medical doctors and lawyers.  There are eight universities educating teachers in Finland, and all their programs have the same high academic standards. Furthermore, a research-based master’s degree is the minimum requirement to teach in Finland. In this teacher education program and the seven others, teachers are prepared to design their own curricula, assess their own pupils’ progress, and continuously improve their own teaching and their school.”

 • Funding of schools: Finnish schools are funded based on a formula guaranteeing equal allocation of resources to each school regardless of location or wealth of its community.

 Well-being of children: All children in Finland have, by law, access to childcare, comprehensive health care, and pre-school in their own communities. Every school must have a welfare team to advance child happiness in school.

Education as a human right: All education from preschool to university is free of charge for anybody living in Finland. This makes higher education affordable and accessible for all.”

“As long as these conditions don’t exist, the Finnish equality-based model bears little relevance in the United States.”

Furthermore: Finland schools do not aspire to incorporate the newest pedagogical innovations or state-of-the-art technology.  “Based on its global data, the OECD recently drew precisely this conclusion: The highest-performing education systems across the OECD countries are those that combine quality with equity.”

Sahlberg concludes by stating that “Many elements of Finnish successful school system are interwoven in the surrounding welfare state.  Simply a transfer of these solutions would add another chapter to already exhausting volume of failed education reforms” (in the USA).


1 All quoted material in this section taken from What the U.S. can’t learn from Finland about ed reform
written by Pasi Sahlberg — director general of Finland’s Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation –
Valerie Strausse’s Editorial in The Washington Post 04/17/2012