It’s really not difficult to criticize schools. Just pointing at anything that happens in schools and then stating something like: “That sure looks old, why hasn’t it changed?” is enough, really. You might want to add: “Does this [random thing in school] adequately prepare students for the future?” Since nobody knows the answer to such a rhetorical question, the answer might as well be: no. The TED talks with the most views and likes are about exactly this, the most famous of which are the talks by Sir Ken Robinson. I analysed those a few years ago. What struck me most about these talks was the use of many rhetorical devices to get the point across. When you remove all those elements, what you are left with is a fairly bland argument about, for example, the lack of attention to particular talents in schools. Hold the revolution. In my view, talks like this make people believe that everything is wrong in education, and that therefore everything should change. To someone like me, who knows a thing or two about educational research, this never ceases to irritate. To a teacher, it must be even more annoying to be put in one’s place by someone who is usually far removed from the field of education. In any case, if everything is so wrong in education, it sure is a miracle most of us have turned out to be fairly successful in life. Still, Ken Robinson is very popular. His ideas certainly touch a nerve. Criticism of the school system is probably as old as the school system itself. Undoubtedly, criticism has been a driving force behind many reforms and innovations in teaching and learning. My own work is, to a certain extent, based on criticism of educational practice. Still, I try to approach educational questions from a scientific viewpoint, something that can’t be said for everyone.
Some time ago, a video appeared on Youtube with the interesting title: “I just sued the school system!” (in all capitals). It quickly gained over a million views. The video was created by Prince Ea, an American spoken word artist, poet, rapper and filmmaker (wikipedia). If you haven’t yet done so, you might like to watch the video first.
It’s beautiful, isn’t it? The cinematics, lighting, the acting, and the music are all first-class (there’s even a ‘making of’ video). Prince Ea makes a persuasive case for educational reform Or does he? In this blog post, I analyze the case Prince Ea makes. Let’s say I’m the lawyer representing the school system (a devil’s advocate, indeed!)
To be able to comment on the case Prince Ea makes in this video, first I transcribed the whole movie to focus on the words themselves. The transcript is written below (in italics). I have divided the text into different parts (unrelated to cuts or camera changes in the movie), and my specific comments on the movie are written below each part. So bear with me, and let’s see if I can persuade both you and the presiding judge that Prince Ea is wrong in sueing the school system.
Albert Einstein once said: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will lead its whole life believing that it is stupid.” Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, today on trial we have modern day schooling. Glad you could come. Not only does he make fish climb trees, but also makes them climb down, and do a 10 mile run.
We’re off to a bad start. The quotation that is used here was most probably never said by Einstein, as the quote investigator has pointed out. Referring to some authority figure, especially Einstein, is a popular rhetoric device that has also been used by Ken Robinson on multiple occasions. Still, does school make fish climb trees? Maybe it does, but certainly not in every case. More importantly, this is an example of a false analogy. Is it fair to say that school asks students to do impossible things? Maybe if teachers did not, that would be even worse. The implication here is that this video is about the ‘fish’: the people who have trouble in school because the school system presumably requires them to do stuff they are incapable of doing, and that this situation is undesirable.
Tell me school, are you proud of the things you’ve done? Turning millions of people into robots, do you find that fun? Do you realize how many kids relate to that fish, swimming upstream in class, never finding their gifts, thinking they are stupid, believing they are useless? Well, the time has come, no more excuses, I call school to the stand and accuse them of killing creativity, individuality, and being intellectually abusive. It’s an ancient institution that has outlived its usage. So, your honour, this concludes my opening statement, and if I may present the evidence of my case, I will prove it.
A second analogy is introduced, and it is pretty weird, again. Schools are machines that turn people into robots (and they enjoy doing this, too, for unknown reasons). I would have used the term ‘zombies’ myself but I guess they are not this year’s meme anymore. Prince Ea seems to finds the idea acceptable for most people, but adds that it may not be appropriate for some: the already mentioned fish. Instead of allowing themselves to be turned into a robot, these people feel stupid and useless. From his remarks on unhappy fish, Prince Ea jumps to the conclusion that schools ‘kill’ many abilities that we value much in humans, such as creativity and the ability to think. This is the well-known ‘schools kill creativity’ rhetoric that has been praised in Ken Robinson’s popular 2006 TED talk. I’ve discussed those talks before. It’s also discussed as myth 19 in our book on urban myths in learning and education. It is simply not true. If children seem less creative during the years they visit school, it is mostly because of natural development. It is true, however, that schools do not specifically nurture creativity. The question whether or not they have to (and how) is interesting, but really should not start with an accusation.
Prince Ea concludes that schools are ancient institutions (which is true), that have outlived their usage (which is a statement that he will now try to prove to the judge).
Exhibit A. Here’s a modern day phone, recognize it? Here’s a phone from 150 years ago. Big difference, right? Stay with me. Here’s a car from today. And here’s a car from 150 years ago. Big difference, right? Well, get this. Here’s a classroom of today. And here’s a class we used 150 years ago [gasps from the audience]. Now, ain’t that a shame. In literally more than a century, nothing has changed.
Exhibit A is just bad. It’s the third analogy that fails. Prince Ea demonstrates that many things have changed over the past 150 years, but school has not. Indeed, phones and cars have changed, but there is also something that did not change: their function. We still use phones for calling people, and we still use cars to get from point A to B. In fact, it can be easily argued that phones and cars have not really changed in the past 150 years. With schools, it is the same. Many things about schools have changed (and Maria Montessori would probably agree with that statement), but their basic function: imparting knowledge, skills and culture to children, hasn’t. There’s also the fact that if, indeed, phones and cars have dramatically changed, this doesn’t imply at all that schools also need to change. They are just random examples of technology that has changed over the past century. Schools are not technology.
Yet, you claim to prepare students for the future? But whatever if it’s like that I must ask: do you prepare students for the future or the past? I did a background check on you, and let the records show that you were made to train people to work in factories, which explains why you put students in straight rows, nice and neat, let them raise your hand if you want to speak, give them a short break to eat and for eight hours a day tell them what to think. Oh, and make them compete to get an A, a letter which determines product quality. It’s grade A of meat.
So far, this whole talk is a nice demonstration of the use of analogy as a rhetoric device. Here we see the fourth example. It’s the popular ‘schools are factories’ comparison. To me, this is always a strange analogy, because the kind of teaching that is criticized here existed centuries before factories even existed. In a nice article on this subject, Audrey Watters has shown how this factory comparison may present a case of ‘invented history’. Basically, the comparison between schools and factories was devised a long time ago by educationalists who wanted to prove exactly the same point as Prince Ae does here. Educational technology has been heralded as the saviour of this ‘failed system’ for decades, starting with Pressey’s teaching machines in the 1920s, to MOOCs these days. It’s a nice business model, but again, the analogy is simply false. Schools are not and have never been robot-producing factories (and hopefully never will become ones as well).
At this point, you may start to wonder how people in the past were able to survive from these ‘factories’. So, it becomes necessary to introduce a new argument: times have changed.
I get it, back then times were different. We all have a past. I myself am no Gandhi. But today, we don’t need to make robot zombies. The world has progressed, and now we need people who think creatively, innovatively, critically, independently, with the ability to connect.
To my great satisfaction, we get a few zombies after all! The argument here is that in yesterday’s world it was sufficient to have zombies, but not today. Tell that to Albert Einstein. This is basically a repetition of the earlier argument. If you assume that schools produce robot zombies, you can basically conclude anything. Here you also might ask: what do all these abilities actually mean? what is ‘ability to connect’? Connect to whom? These questions remain unanswered.
See, every scientist will tell you that no two brains are the same. And every parent with two or more children will confirm that claim. So, please explain why you treat students like cookie cutter frames, or snap back hats, giving them this ‘one size fits all’ crap [‘watch your language’, ‘sorry your honour’]. But if a doctor proscribed the exact same medicine to all of his patients, the results would be tragic, so many people would get sick, yet, when it comes to school this is exactly what happens. This educational malpractice, where one teacher stands in front of 20 kids, each one having different strengths, different needs, different gifts, different dreams, and you teach the same thing the same way? That’s horrific. Ladies and gentlemen, the defendant should not be acquitted, this may be one of the most criminal offences ever to be comitted.
After this small detour to the world’s progress, we are back on track. People (brains) are different, so education needs to adapt to these different brains. This logic is closely related to the whole learning styles rhetoric that has been thoroughly debunked by research (it’s myth 1 in our book). We are also presented with a fifth analogy, and it’s the fifth false analogy. Schools are doctors who proscribe the same medicine to every patient. This metaphor was new to me, and I think it’s a ill-chosen. Viewing students as patients suffering from some fatal disease, I don’t know. The comparison between teachers and doctors may have the underlying goal of making it easier to argue that both should earn the same amount of money. Also, the way Prince Ea describes the role of the teacher again neatly fits the ‘school as factory’ model that I already discussed. The rhetoric use of hyperbole (‘most criminal offence’) adds a bit of drama.
And let’s mention the way you treat your employees. [‘objection’, ‘overruled, I want to hear this!’] It’s a shame, I mean teachers have the most important job on the planet, yet they are underpaid. No wonder so many students are short changed. Let’s be honest: teachers should earn just as much as doctors, because a doctor can do heart surgery and save the life of a kid, but a great teacher can reach the heart of that kid and allow him to truly live. So teachers are heroes that often get blamed, but they are not the problem. They work in a system without many options or rights.
Now that teachers have been mentioned (I guess they, too, are zombies), it is time to devote some attention to them. I like this bit. It is true that the teaching profession has suffered, and that salaries are relatively low. The question is why this is the case. Prince Ea emphasizes the value and importance of teachers, and both are not really appreciated in society. I think this may reflect a problem in any capitalist culture. The effects of a doctor’s treatment are much more visible to society than the efforts of a teacher. We may tend to value visible, short-term effects more than invisible, long-term effects. What I’m saying is: this state of affairs may be not something to blame schools or the school system for. You’re barking up the wrong tree if you do.
Curriculums are created by policy makers, most of which have never taught a day in their life, just obessed with standardized tests. They think bubbling in a multiple choice question will determine success. That’s outlandish. In face, these tests are too crude to be used and should be abandoned, but don’t take my word for it, take Frederick J. Kelly, the man who invented standardized testing, who said, and I quote: “These tests are too crude to be used and should be abandoned.”
Prince Ea accuses policy makers, people who are not teachers but do control what happens in schools. This could be a valid argument if Prince Ea had specified what it is exactly that these people are doing wrong, and what they should do instead. Should curriculums be abandoned? If these people are stopped, does that make things right? Instead, he focuses on standardized testing, which is far more easy to criticize because most people don’t really like tests. It is not just something policy makers think about tests, test scores actually do for a large part determine success. You may dislike the situation, but if tests were abolished from schools the first thing any institute for higher education would do would be to implement selection tests. Wait, many already do. Also, the standardized aspect of testing seems much more fair to me than adjusting tests to each and everyone’s personal ability. If you only use tests that persons can pass, then indeed there is no use for them in the first place. After Einstein, this is the second time an authority figure is referred to use the argument from authority. In this case the honour falls on Frederick Kelly, who created the first multiple-choice test in 1914. Apparently, Kelly changed his about testing mind later, but I have not yet been able to trace the quotation that is used here. But even if it is correct, I wonder how interesting it is that someone changed their mind about something. If he had not used these tests, undoubtedly someone else would have.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, if we continue down this road, the results will be lethal. I don’t have much faith in school, but I do have faith in people, and if we can customize healthcare, cars and Facebook pages, then it is our duty to do the same for education, to upgrade and change and do away with school spirit because that is useless, unless we are working to bring the spirit out of each and every student: that should be our task. No more common core. Instead, let’s reach the core of every heart in every class. Sure, math is important, but no more than art or dance. Let’s give every gift an equal chance.
Hyperbole again (‘lethal’), and emphasis on the comparison with medicine once more. I like the rhetoric use of the rule of three here: healthcare, cars, and Facebook pages. The phones got replaced, the cars stayed, but still, what I said earlier holds here as well. Comparing all these to education just poses no argument at all. The most intriguing part is the line about math. Is mathematics overrated? Is it as important as art and dance? The Ken Robinson virus seems to be spreading. I don’t agree with the statement, because I’m pretty sure that in today’s world mathematical knowledge is more important than many other disciplines. Should schools devote more time to dancing? Why? Just a few minutes ago Prince Ea argued that the world has progressed, but does the future involve more dancing? I’m jesting. In reality, this is a repetition of the point that was already made about schools needing to provide for students with different talents. Still, if your son likes dancing, would you want his school to devote as many lessons to dancing as to other courses? What about other talents? And where do we get all these dancing teachers from? The whole idea is romantic, bit impractical and unrealistic.
I know this sounds like a dream, but countries like Finland are doing impressive things. They have shorter school days, teachers make a decent wage, homework is non-existent and they focus on collaboration instead of competition. But here’s the kicker, boys and girls, their educational system outperforms every other country in the world. Other places like Singapore are succeeding rapidly. Schools like Montessori, programs like Khan academy, There is no single solution, but let’s get moving, because while students are 20% of our population, they are 100% of our future. So let’s attend to their dreams, and there’s no telling what we can achieve. This is a world in which I believe, a world where fish are no longer forced to climb trees. I rest my case.
Finland and Singapore perform well on international tests, true. They seem to take education more seriously, there. What’s funny is that students from these countries score high on international, standardized tests (e.g., PISA), the kind of tests Prince Ea was so critical of only a minute ago. Also, if you study the success of countries like Singapore and Korea, you will find a very, very traditional educational regime. One report describes education in Singapore as follows. “In general, classroom instruction in Singapore is highly-scripted and uniform across all levels and subjects. Teaching is coherent, fit-for-purpose and pragmatic, drawing on a range of pedagogical traditions, both Eastern and Western.” (source) Do you want to copy their methods? You’re welcome to do so, and it would probably be useful as well, but it would mean turning back instead of moving forward: exactly the opposite of what has been being argued by Prince Ea.
The plea ends with the animal we started out with. In an ideal world, fish do not have to climb trees. Fortunately, in the real world they are not forced to do so either, but it sometimes does help them to swim upstream.
So, are you still convinced by Prince Ea’s plea? I’m perfectly fine if you are. I just wanted to show that many of the arguments are old hat. They have been debunked or are up to debate: filming them in slow-motion does not suddenly make them valid. I have also tried to point out various ways in which rethoric is used to increase the vehemency of the arguments. Prince Ea has borrowed these arguments from a number of educational gurus, some of whom travel the world expounding their viewpoints on the ‘sorry state of education’. I’d rather they all went fishing, instead.
(‘The verdict: not guilty’)