Written with Michael Brown
Mary: Focusing on the dialogue of teaching and learning rather than the monologue of training requires a fundamental shift in our current “outcomes-based” approach to education, in which the teacher is viewed as solely responsible for a student’s learning. This approach attempts to measure the input of teaching through the outcomes of learning. However, we all know that what a student learns depends on much more than his teacher. He is situated in a series of networks that includes parents, friends, roommates, media, and the rest of the sociocultural elements in his daily life.
How do we hold the rest of these inputs accountable? How do we evaluate his parents, friends, media, society, and roommates? What does the report card for his parents include? For a child, is it a checklist that includes providing a healthy breakfast, daily reading, and limiting exposure to television? What about the college student and his roommates? Should we create and implement an evaluation system for his roommates? Do we hold them accountable for his learning outcomes?
All of these scenarios seem completely ridiculous. However, we are well aware of the fact that professors and other teachers are not the only ones involved in the education of a student. Yet we suspend this knowledge when we hold teachers fully responsible for the outcomes of a given student in the assessment of his learning. If we cannot control the inputs, what irrational logic prompts us to believe that we can predict the outcomes?
Mike: I would add that professors and other teachers are only part of the setting of education. To focus exclusively on the complementary roles of teacher and student ignores the educational significance of all the activities and background factors you mention, and still more. The success of teachers depends not only on how well they communicate information and ideas within a formal curriculum and sequence of classes. It also depends on their acknowledgement of the non-formal aspect of education. This is essential, and it cannot be accounted for in a strictly quantitative way. The mistake we make when we pay attention only to formal aspects, is to consider this other essential aspect as evidence of a decline in student culture and a failure of teachers to demand more of students. What you seem to be describing as inputs to education I would see as conditions that are internal to the process itself no less than part of the ongoing activities of people with which education must be continuous if it is to be meaningful and, in that sense, succeed.
Mary: Although there is much talk of the importance of play in children and leadership development in young adults, both of these require a great deal of independence on the part of the learner. My fear is that we are rapidly eliminating this independence. When you talk about the “ongoing activities of people that education must be continuous with if it is to succeed,” this sounds like meeting students where they are. Although I would never advocate abandoning students, I am concerned that we are overly involved in their lives.
Mike: Perhaps it is better to say it involves meeting students on the ongoing and self-expanding social terrain that they share with their teachers, that is, as part of society and not momentarily apart from it. To think of education as if it takes place away from life is not to think about education at all. When school is organized to such an extent that the informal aspect is either minimized or simply vanishes assumes the validity of a mechanistic view of learning and a monological view of teaching. That type of organization is never valid in life, and it cannot be valid in the process of life we call “education.”
Student life needs certain autonomy and cannot be organized educationally as strictly accountable activities.