By John Sener
[Author’s note: this article elaborates on an idea described in a previous article.]
Anyone who truly believes the common wisdom that our education system is “broken,” “failing,” and needs “fixing” should try answering these questions:
- When did it break?
- Who broke it?
- Was it working just fine before that?
- What did it look like then?
- If it’s now “failing,” when in the past was it succeeding?
- What did that look like, and what happened to change that?
When you ask these questions, the reality becomes apparent: education has never worked fine for everyone. It has always worked for some and not well at all for many others. The current system needs some repair work here and there, but to say that the entire education system is broken or failing and needs fixing to achieve “success” is at best misguided; at worst, it’s misleading, even pernicious nonsense.
This is so for three important reasons:
First, saying that education is “broken” and “failing” opens the door to would-be “fixers” of education who offer handy “solutions” that bring neither resolution nor success. Children’s author Richard Scarry created a character who helps us understand how this works. Mr. Fixit is “fix-it” incarnate — but as millions of children worldwide wisely know, Mr. Fixit has, shall we say, an inflated sense of his capabilities. He can fix some simple things, but most of his fixes go awry: a once-leaky boat that won’t ever leak (or float) again, a vacuum cleaner that only works on the ceiling, a talking doll that says “Dadda” instead of “Mamma.” Would-be “fixers” of education produce results that are similarly dubious and often a lot more expensive.
This is especially important for educational technology practitioners to realize because many would-be fixers of education are fixated on using educational technologies to solve education’s “problems.” Low-cost online courses could stop higher education’s bubble from bursting; technology is a silver bullet which will transform education by substituting technology for labor (and break those nasty unions in the process); digital technologies will finally allow us to solve the problem of how to produce uniformly excellent results for every student. In other words, solutions that enable their promoters to “fix” education the way they want it fixed, which demonstrates what journalist Eric Sevareid noted some thirty years ago: “The chief cause of problems is solutions.”
Second, saying that education is broken and needs fixing belies a thoughtless lack of serious commitment. Think about what it really means to “fix” some of the items on which our daily lives depend — automobile engines, electricity, drainpipes, gutters, air conditioners. What do each of these have in common? We almost never think about them — except when they need fixing. In fact, they are explicitly designed for just that purpose, and they work effectively by fulfilling their promise to free us from having to think about them.
Education is nothing like that. Education is defined by ongoing commitment, engagement, and dialogue, not by its ability to function so smoothly that we can disengage and forget about it. Even at its best, education never gives us carefree maintenance. But too many would-be “fixers” treat education as if it is a puzzle to be solved and then done with. Even those would-be “fixers” who seem to be in it for the long haul tend toward imposing their particular form of enlightenment with little regard to the values or virtues that already reside within the culture of education. Fixing is usually a monologue; fixers don’t dialogue, negotiate or assimilate.
Other types of would-be “fixers” are even worse: the ones who wish to impose solutions that create dependency, the addictive type of “fix,” or the ones who want to “fix” the playing field for their permanent advantage, or the ones who seem to want to neuter education altogether, the way we “fix” our pets. Education doesn’t need these types of fixes either.
Third and most important, trying to “fix” a “failing” or “broken” education system diminishes its current successes and fails to appreciate the real challenge we face, which is far more serious than restoring a system to some previous levels of functioning or to reclaim some imaginary lost paradise. The challenge we face, should we actually choose to accept it, is an historic, massive, formidable, and worthy undertaking to create something that has never existed before in human history: an education system that works for everyone in a large, heterogeneous society. It involves building things that we don’t know how to build yet, and probably some things we don’t even know we need.
The best way to meet this challenge is not to seek a fix, but to seek massive improvement. This is not simply a semantic distinction, but it is a crucial one. Seeking fixes oversimplifies, looks backward, disrespects the task by trying to shrink it, and ultimately aims for disengagement. Seeking massive improvement engages and sustains; it recognizes the complexity of the situation and the awesomeness of the task; it opens possibilities and moves us forward. So use technology to improve education, not to fix it.
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