Monday, January 23, 2006

A Classical Education

Imagine a world without the Ministry of Education. A thought experiment:

NCEA is dumped and the International Baccalaureate (NZ version) becomes the gold standard. NZ's very best teachers are brought forward to teach the curriculum, their lessons recorded onto DVD and sent to school-age children around the country. Tutors, mainly former teachers, supplement these lessons with small communal classes at community halls, libraries and private homes.

In theory, this is possible right now. In practice, it will probably never happen. Although public education as we know it has only existed for around a hundred years, the institution has become set in its ways like concrete. Turf wars, vested interests and labyrinthine bureaucracy has stared down governments since before Fraser and Savage.

The last National Education Minister to make any impression was Merv Wellington. Not that it was a good impression. Merv wanted schoolchildren to salute the raising of the flag at school every morning. This, naturally enough, went down with the kids like a cup of cold sick. It was just as well my high school didn't have welding classes as the metal flagpole in the courtyard would have probably been cut down, Another Brick in the Wall Part Two playing on the vandal's Walkman.

Labour, its government benches heaving with former teachers, does little to antagonise its support base. Perhaps a pay-parity thing here, a non-contact hour thing there, gerrymander a school zone or two. Strictly nothing more than fiddling around the edges. Novel thinking and trial education programs are by-the-by, Te Reo excluded. In its own way, Labour is just as conservative as National.

So, why present a thought experiment if there's no chance of it ever happening? Well, that's where the consumer-citizens come in.

Not so long ago, DPF posted about a fun way to learn calculus. Unfortunately, such things just don't work. The blood flows to all the wrong places. However, the principle is sound. A worthwhile teacher can spellbind an audience like any other performer. These teachers exist in NZ. For many of them, their skills are monopolised by the elite schools in the nice suburbs.

I wonder how much it would cost to get a film crew to record a year's worth of lessons from these excellent teachers? Sure, you'd pay the teachers a good salary, especially if you didn't want them to prostitute themselves to advertisers like sportspeople and former comedians do. Now, once you've taped the periods, you'll need to burn, print and distribute them to all eligible students. I can't be arsed checking for statistics so I'll make a bold generalisation. Let's say half of NZ's population gets sent lessons. At about $3 from burn to letterbox, that's $6 million to passively educate half of NZ. A percursor to this is already available in Oz, the Interactive Maths Series for Year 7-10 students. Even at $50 a year, it's cheaper than those voluntary annual school fees some of you will be coughing up for shortly.

Of course, DVDs, CD-ROMs and interactive lessons can only go so far, especially while video compression is too large for true learning interactivity to fit through our piddly, overpriced broadband. Which is where the tutors come in. Harking back to Platonic teaching methods (or should that be Socratic?), there's a way to keep the teachers while disposing of all the burdensome crap like principals, the PPTA and most importantly, the Ministry of Education. Contrasted with the existing one-size-fits-none education by assembly-line, a fragmented teaching market would allow greater flexibility for all learning levels, speeds and cultural anomalies.

And, as long as the families remain reasonably immobile, there should be nothing stopping children from continuing with the same tutor over their education. Forging a stronger relationship than the current vacuum not only builds trust but provides an opportunity for mentoring, guidance and encouragement. This would be a bonus for the increasing numbers of people growing up without father figures, stable relationships and genuine role models.

Anyway, it's just an idea. Run it past your bullshit detectors. Mull it over. Because if you want things to change, you'll have to do it yourself.