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Brain, Education, and Inquiry - Fall, 2010: Session 1

Paul Grobstein's picture

Brain, Education, and Inquiry

Bryn Mawr College, Fall 2010

Session 1


Class is itself an experiment in a particular form of education: co-constructive inquiry

Learning by interacting, sharing observations and understandings to create, individually and collectively, new understandings and new questions that motivate new observations

Depends on co-constructive dialogue, being comfortable sharing existing understandings, both conscious and unconscious, in order to use them to construct new ones.  Need diversity of understandings, need to be able to both speak and listen without fear of judgment.  Need to see both self and others as always in process, always evolving.

Starting where we are   

Introduce yourself, what makes you usefully different from others here?

Tapping into the unconscious

What does/doesn't work in education in our experience?

"the overall 2007/8 graduation rate for Black males in the U.S. was only 47 percent. Half of the states have graduation rates for Black male students below the national average." ... Schott Foundation

"Those who decide who gets special treatment categorize students and place them in slots that allow little to no room for growth and development.  Perhaps it would be best to start anew and resist the pull toward categories that do more harm than help.  If we are to place students on equal footing with each other, regardless of interests or background, an educational overhaul might prove valuable." ... Teal

"it was first in middle school that I got a taste of what high school would be like, the "working towards a goal" style of learning, i.e. learning to get ready for high school, to take state standardized testing, etc. I didn't particularly like it ... Some of the teachers there, too, had grown frustrated or jaded when it came to teaching students who found school pointless and boring.." ... kgould

"Why do kids learn? To get good grades. Why get good grades? To get into a good college. Why a good college? Because then, as everyone knows, we will be more likely to lead a happy, successful, and fulfilling life" ... Rachel Grobstein

"The first disadvantage of an elite education ... is that it makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you ... The second disadvantage ... is that an elite education inculcates a false sense of self-worth ... the final and most damning disadvantage of an elite education: that it is profoundly anti-intellectual ... If so few kids come to college understanding this, it is no wonder. They are products of a system that rarely asked them to think about something bigger than the next assignment. The system forgot to teach them, along the way to the prestige admissions and the lucrative jobs, that the most important achievements can’t be measured by a letter or a number or a name. It forgot that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers ... elite schools speak of training leaders, not thinkers—holders of power, not its critics. " ... William Deresiewicz

"Enriched environments are making kids smarter. With creativity, a reverse trend has just been identified and is being reported for the first time here: American creativity scores are falling." ... Newsweek, 10 July 2010

What should be done about it?

"The competition was designed to reward what President Obama considers exemplary educational ideas and practice, in hopes that other states will adopt similar practices.  The president’s goals include expanding the number and quality of charter schools, updating the way school districts evaluate teachers’ effectiveness, improving student data-tracking systems to help educators know what students have learned and what must be retaught, and turning around thousands of the lowest-performing schools" ... "Eastern states dominate in winning school grants," NYTimes, 24 August 2010

What is/should be the objective of education?

Can thinking about the brain help?

conversation beginning next week

This week, post

  • in course home page forum, an introduction to yourself, what you bring to the conversation, what you hope to get from it
  • in forum on this page, your thoughts from today's conversation


skindeep's picture

threading through the gaps

eveytime i think of school, my mind immediately backracks to my years of kindergarden through high school in bombay. the system of education followed there is the british one and it seems to be very different from the one followed here.

the british system is based on rote learning and in bombay, education is a privilage, not because it isnt accessable to everyone - technically it is. but peoples lives outside of the classroom is what causes more of a hinderance than anything else. it's what prevents people from getting to school. so the schools are there, and can be easily reached from most of the slums in the city, but the kids dont have a chance to get to them. what im reinstating is something that was brought up in class, in order to effectively deal with the problems in education, we need to work on the society, because education is primarily directed towards the society, and bringing aroud societal change.

for the most part, im excited about this class and the conversations we're bound to have. i like that we have such a diverse group of people, who undoubtedly come with their own experiences, ideas and ideals about what eduation is, what the system is, how it works and how it should work.

Abby Em's picture

Some Credit to our Colleges

We discussed last week the deficiency of an education (or simply an understanding of education,) that focused simply on classroom learning rather than life experience and more personal growth...and I couldn't help thinking that it was unfair to use this is blanket criticize institutional learning, particularly when you consider Haverford and Bryn Mawr. I did customs week for the third time this year, a whole week with barely any mention to the academic side of college. We taught each other about our backgrounds and the effect on multiculturalism, the honor code, how to keep ourselves and each other safe while exploring new opportunities, and how our secrets and the ability to trust each other with them makes us aware of our capacity for unity and compassion in disagreement as well as when on the same page. We spend about 12 hours a week in class (if we're lucky humanities majors ;) ) in class, and though another block of time is then devoted to homework, we make a life here at school, not a life that is school in the structured sense of the word. We come here to learn, but learning happens at Plenary too, and afinity group meetings, and just living side-by-side with others. The institution is designed to teach freedom, and to teach outside of the realm of academic achievement. I just think that's important credit to give.
On a completely different subject, not related to last class but to what I hope to get from the rest of the class, I want to emphasize a focus on not only policy, but how individual brain development factors into processing new information (and dealing with new social requirements- c'mon, you know that was the harder part of kindergarten) through childhood as well as adulthood. What causes us to retain new information? What individual differences account for different learning styles, focuses, and speeds? There's a lot of information, as well as the discussion, that I'd like to learn from this semester. :) 

Abby Em's picture

Some Credit to our Colleges

We discussed last week the deficiency of an education (or simply an understanding of education,) that focused simply on classroom learning rather than life experience and more personal growth...and I couldn't help thinking that it was unfair to use this is blanket criticize institutional learning, particularly when you consider Haverford and Bryn Mawr. I did customs week for the third time this year, a whole week with barely any mention to the academic side of college. We taught each other about our backgrounds and the effect on multiculturalism, the honor code, how to keep ourselves and each other safe while exploring new opportunities, and how our secrets and the ability to trust each other with them makes us aware of our capacity for unity and compassion in disagreement as well as when on the same page. We spend about 12 hours a week in class (if we're lucky humanities majors ;) ) in class, and though another block of time is then devoted to homework, we make a life here at school, not a life that is school in the structured sense of the word. We come here to learn, but learning happens at Plenary too, and afinity group meetings, and just living side-by-side with others. The institution is designed to teach freedom, and to teach outside of the realm of academic achievement. I just think that's important credit to give.

On a completely different subject, not related to last class but to what I hope to get from the rest of the class, I want to emphasize a focus on not only policy, but how individual brain development factors into processing new information (and dealing with new social requirements- c'mon, you know that was the harder part of kindergarten) through childhood as well as adulthood. What causes us to retain new information? What individual differences account for different learning styles, focuses, and speeds? There's a lot of information, as well as the discussion, that I'd like to learn from this semester. :) 

L Cubed's picture

Access, Agency, Knowledge, Power

A couple of words/phrases stood out to me in the last class: “access”, “agency”, and “knowledge is power”. In thinking about theses words and how they pertain to education, I couldn’t ignore the fact that they are deeply interconnected. If access and agency are two things that are dependent on capital then “knowledge is power” is relative- intentionally, in my opinion.  The fact that society defines knowledge and education so heavily in the context of schooling is no coincidence to me. Like someone stated in the last class, the purpose of education is to reestablish social norms and to maintain and feed into the existing societal structure…its to keep the people at the bottom at the bottom and visa versa, to separate the “have” from the “have nots”. Without access there is very little agency in obtaining the education (as defined by society) needed to reach the top, wherever that might be.

This summer I worked with students from Public Schools, all facing adversity of various forms. In speaking with them about school and college as well as witnessing how they approached their participation in the program, it was evident that one of the main issues was their lack of information and understanding- their lack of knowledge. They simply did not know and were not aware of certain things which had a huge impact on their current circumstances. These things include, but are not limited to, the existence and access to magnet public high schools, the existence of millions of scholarships, information regarding AP courses, facts about the college application process and college in general, and how to dress and act appropriately during an internship.  As some have mentioned, there are so many factors such as lack of resources, unhelpful and disengaged faculty, and discrimination that contribute to their lack of knowledge and therefore lack of "power". But as some have wondered, what is this power?

I agree that knowledge is something that you can gain from outside the context of schooling and in some sense I think that the most meaningful knowledge is one gained outside of the traditional classroom. But does society value that knowledge? My instinctive answer is no, but does it matter?



D2B's picture

Frustrated vs. Tired

  In the interest of discussing the strong "I am soo over school" sentiment expressed by one/some of our peers and the discussion that resulted pertaining to privilege and its expression within education, specifically higher education, I would like to speak on frustrated vs. tired groups of students within education systems (on all levels). I find that frustration is usually a feeling ascribed to or used by students of debilitating disadvantage, whether it be socioeconomic, racial, or mental disadvantage or even issues concerning ableism. Frustration comes from a source of wanting to accomplish but not being able to, at least to the level one may anticipate or desire due to a hindering circumstances.

 In contrast, tiredness/fatigue is commonly felt by an individual who has been afforded many educational opportunities and is consequently fatigued by its continued presence in his/her life. The privileged student is more prone to feel tired than frustrated although when used lightly, frustration can manifest itself in a student of privilege. While one can argue that frustration can also be expressed within a privileged arena, it is usually one where goals are not reached despite the achievements already acquired.

 But how one defines a student of privilege and the definitions of tiredness and frustration can run me into trouble here, which brings me to my next point (one also raised in several other posts) about the diversity of values, ideas, definitions and notions. My views are clearly biased and based in my subjective experiences with my own and viewing of others’ education. Here I am defining a student of privilege as a student afforded educational opportunity and advancement in a consistent rather than effortless manner. To not take into consideration financial, economical, geographical circumstances would be faulty because they play a great role in access to education. If I were to hold these factors in suspension my definition of privilege would solely and directly relate to continuity, the fluid and uninterrupted flow within the system (pre-K to college). 

 It is this predominantly smooth move on the school-based education "highway" that can cause the passenger more fatigue than frustration.  The frustrated passenger is the one who has yet to reach his/her destination within the normative time, personally anticipated time frame and/or at all. I'm very interested in hearing others' takes on this/my conception.



LinKai_Jiang's picture

Educate to live a good life

People asked a lot of important questions in class about different aspects of education: power, systematic inequality, methods of evaluation, effectiveness and usefulness...etc. I vaguely remember someone asked "where is the fun in all this?" This is the question that I go back to the most often at the end of the day. The reason for my attachment to this question is that I believe no matter how one defines education it should contribute to one's living of a good life. Some of you would have guessed that I'm referring  to the "good life" in the Greek tradition: a life of constant reflection. I'm not committed to the Greek tradition 100%. But I think its insights on how to live a good life can illuminate how our education should be like, and thus the systems that support this sort of education.

I want to say that I go to school because I want to change the world in a positive way: fighting against unequal access to education, changing faulty systems, and developing effective methods to help people to learn better. But i have to admit that those are not my instinctual reactions. My instincts tell me to have fun with school (and with life in general) in whatever way I can. I do not think that fun is all that there is to a good life (or a good education). But I do think that it should be part of it. It seems to me that living a enjoyable good life is the most fundamental human right and education should prepare people to live such a good life. However, it is debatable as to what exactly is a "good life".












eledford's picture

Language... and a lot of questions.

How have our societies shaped us, our thinkings, our beliefs... as to what an education really is?

I find myself interested in how a certain language has developed around education. For example, terms like primitive, indigenous, savage, are often indicative of being uneducated, just as advanced, civilized, cultured, hint at being educated. It illustrates this idea of progressing to a point of greater knowledge than before, enhancing one's position in society (or power, as some of you have suggested). Hello Western Civ?!?!

What is the evolution of education? We learn by watching, doing, mimicking. We tell stories. We remember. We recreate situations. We regurgitate information. We cannot know everything yet we strive to know more and more each day. Perhaps it's biological? Do we learn to be more efficient? Do we learn to survive? How much of learning is done on purpose or consciously? Perhaps most of our learning is unintentional? There may definitely be an interplay between power and ownership. Power over others? Power over self? Why is education equated with an institution rather than with life or experiences?



mmc's picture

System of Education:Thoughts and An Article

Based on the assumption that American citizens will be able to reap the benefits of said education “privileges”, one would wonder why a disproportionate number of students are receiving a substandard education and an education gap is developing. Many questions come to mind when thinking about the issues of American education. For example: Why are some students given access to adequate resources while others aren't? Why is the American education system deemed or seen as being so unbalanced? Is education an equalizer? Do grades actually indicate knowledge or how much one learns and synthesizes the material? Should we value academic education more than experience-based education? Does language influence the way one thinks and therefore what one can achieve in an education system of a different culture? To what extent does culture, family, religion and society play a role in the definitions of the aforementioned ideas brought up in class (success, power, control, a “good” education)? etc.

I found an interesting article published in The New York Times today titled “Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits.” The article focuses on study habits, which clearly can have an effect on one’s education and the process by which one learns. Several individuals in class have brought up the fact that different people utilize different learning styles as well as teaching approaches and many have heard about “left brain” and “right brain” learners etc., and the article at hand in turn questions the truth behind such commonly known ideas associated with education and types of learners. It also embraces the point that “the brain makes subtle associations between what it is studying and the background sensations it has at the time…regardless of whether those perceptions are conscious…and give the information more neural scaffolding,” (Benedict Carey) which I believe touches upon our discussion of the brain, learning and consciousness. Do you think that what is learned in education research should be utilized more immediately and brought to the table in our quest for educational reform as sufficient evidence for supporting a revised system? Standardized tests to cognitive scientists was thought to be a “powerful tool of learning, rather than merely assessment” how true is this statement based on your own experiences? Do tests help or change the way we think or approach future academic related coursework problems in various disciplines or even real life situations?

I am excited that so many questions, ideas and challenges will be faced and explored in this course. Hopefully the co-constructive inquiry implemented in the course will lead us to answers, extended knowledge, and varied viewpoints regardless of whether a common foundation exists.


mmc's picture


Click here for link to correct article mentioned:

I copied Angela's link by mistake after I read hers.

Kwarlizzle's picture

Did the system ever get anything right?

I am currently reading "The Education of the British-Protected Child" by Chinua Achebe, and something that struck me was a quote he had that Kissinger what American was doing in Africa. When told that the America was doing EVERYTHING wrong in Africa (implying that they shouldn't have been there in the first place) Kissinger responded:

"Statistically that is impossible. Even if it is unintentional, we must be doing something right."

It made me think of education (both in Ghana and here).... We wax poetic about the failure of the school system and of teachers and administrators and everything in-between..... but truly, many of us are a product of many of the same systems we berate. The scholars and businessmen and white-collar and blue-collar workers, the activists, the tycoons - we all are products in some way, shape, or form, of that system. Surely the system coulddn't have gotten everything wrong. So the question becomes: "What did the system get right? What has it so far done correctly? And as we forge ahead and create new and better systems for education, is there anyway we can still incorporate what the old system got right?"

ellenv's picture

Education as a subject

Like many other people in the class, I was struck by the fact that the idea of "education" is very broad. Under the umbrella of education one can find traditional things like schools and teachers while at the same time under the same umbrella there can be feelings, ideas, emotions, and experiences outside of the classroom. After class, I began to think about education as a subject. If education can be defined in so many ways and if so many people disagree on what exactly education is, then how does it work as a subject of study? Aren't you then studying what you are participating in? how does that work exactly? There is also a great deal of variation that exists in the types of education classes that colleges such as Bryn Mawr/Haverford offer. Some classes attempt to focus in on the actual practice of teaching and what makes a good teacher while other classes look more at the theory behind educational practices. I am wondering whether or not education/the ability to teach is something that can be taught in a classroom, or whether it is something that has to be experienced in different capacities in order to gain the title of "teacher." I also wonder whether or not schools would consider individuals to be qualified teachers if they did not show some type of teaching experience outside of the classroom. If people were forced to learn to teach outside of the realm of the traditional educational system, would there be a marked difference in the types of teachers we encountered in the classrooms?

Evren's picture


I think of education as a process of learning that isn't restricted to the classroom, and I think if we were discussing education outside of the setting of a college class, we might have been more likely to describe it in a broader sense. However, because "education" classes in college are about academic education we naturally assume that this will be the topic of discussion, and cater our thoughts to meet this expectation. Thus we begin talking about education as it relates to school, and are now taking a step back and saying, "wait, isn't there so much more to education?" During class I was thinking about how our setting is affecting our discussion and I wonder if there are other ways, in addition to how we're thinking about education, in which our setting is creating subconscious biases.

Angela DiGioia's picture

Interesting Article...

I was perusing the New York Times this morning and found this article to be very interesting: The topic that struck me the most was the concept of “ownership” for a school and the success of its students; if teachers were also administrators, they would be more invested in how the students performed. Thinking about my future as a physician, this is a concept that intrigues me. If a physician owns their practice privately, do their patients do better than the patients of a physician whose practice is owned by the hospital? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I can’t help but think that there is a big piece of the picture that’s missing from both of these scenarios—what the students and patients do outside of school or the doctor’s office that leads to their success or, perhaps, lack thereof. Ultimately, if a student (or patient) does not do their homework or follow the instructions of the teacher (or doctor) outside of the classroom, how can they be expected to succeed? Where is the mention of the responsibility of the parent? 

I mentioned in my previous post that my parents were instrumental in my education and success as a student over the years. We had systems of accountability in place and I was not allowed to do the things that I liked to do unless an adult had verified that I had completed my nightly homework. The onus was as much on my parents as my teachers to make sure that I was receiving the help that I needed at home to augment what I was learning during the day. It seems that this arrangement does not exist in the same way that it used to. Parents (and patients) don’t seem to feel as responsible their children’s success in school (or their own health). With national scores markedly down (and with health care costs soaring at all-time highs), perhaps it’s time for a shift towards parents and patients accepting more personal responsibility for their children’s success (and personal health).


epeck's picture

what exactly does that mean...?

Like many people who have posted, I found one of the most thought-provoking (and at the same time frustrating) things about our first class to be the labels we tossed around.  We mentioned things like “education,” “teaching,” the “problem(s)” with education, the important “things we’ve learned” outside of the classroom, and many more discussion-worthy topics.  Each of these phrases or terms probably means something very different (as someone pointed out about the brain drain activity) to each member of the class, yet we never set a common definition to refer to.  Perhaps this is because all of these terms are so focused on the individual’s experience and are hard to pin down for a group of people.   I think it would be a worthwhile exercise to try and really understand each of these terms and see if and how our personal definitions overlap.   

One of the other things I am most interesting in discussing further is the “problem with education.”  I know there are many small and large problems that need to be addressed, and I would be interested in hearing different perspectives on what the problems actually are and how they would ideally be fixed vs. the reality of how they can and are being worked on.  I am excited to see how the workings of the brain play into this discussion.  I was talking about these issues with a friend and she mentioned that she believes the innovation in education should come about in its execution rather than an overhaul of the entire system.  I agree with this and think that although it’s tempting to theoretically scrap the entire system and work from a clean slate, it’s important to look at what’s being done well within education (maybe related to more modern research about how the brain works) and keep those elements while making modifications to those parts of the system that are not shown to be worthwhile - although how we define "worthwhile" is yet another question and discussion to have…


Paul Grobstein's picture

finding common definitions

I agree "it would be a worthwhile exercise to ... see if and how our personal definitions overlap."  Hopefully that's what we're about here.  See Education: where is the "beginning"?

Ameneh's picture

Education and Issues

I thought it was really interesting to see how the responses to the ‘Brain Drain’ covered a broad spectrum ranging from apples to policy. There were also some recurring words, though, like grades, students, etc. What struck me, however, was how presumptive we were about what people meant. The two people who said grades, for instance,  probably meant very different things. I feel like it’s things like this that create a disconnect in general conversation as well. When we don’t define our terms, we end up talking at each other or past each other and that creates confusion and misunderstanding. That applies to education as well. Like others have mentioned, I think it’s very important to define education before we can talk about its issues. 

As far as knowledge and power is concerned, I think education is grossly over-rated. For me the idea just serves to reinforce the stereotype that the college graduate is better than he who didn’t go to college and although that may often be true, it isn’t set in stone. Realistically, college or grad school or post-grad school, none of it guarantees success (especially with the recent state of the economy). There are so many other factors that play a part in how well a person will or not will not do. Is it possible that society has made us biased towards education? Do we, maybe, overplay its importance? If after 20+ years of education and schooling success still isn’t guaranteed, then what’s the point? This is, of course, assuming that education equals schooling that serves to get you power/success/status/respect. And assuming that is what we define education as, the whole system has failed miserably. 
It was also brought up in class that our dissatisfaction with the educational system is a privilege. Yes, our education system is far from perfect. However, we are still so much better than so many other people. Being from a part of the world where less than 50% of the population can read and write their own name, I feel like maybe we are focusing on the wrong issue. Maybe making at least primary education accessible to all would be a better goal.
Paul Grobstein's picture

Should education start with definitions?

bennett's picture

What is an education?

I feel, as it seems several of my classmates do, that it might be useful for us to begin at or somewhere near the/a beginning: what is (an) education, really? Is it a thing? Is it a process? Who does it? To whom is it done? Is it something we "have," and so capable of being discarded or abandoned? Is it a part of us? What is its relation to power/money/success/control? What does it have to do with the brain? I doubt there are obvious answers, never mind any definite ones. How might we work towards understanding these questions and imagining what their answers might look like?

Here I think we'd do well to be careful, and maybe even a little skeptical; education is something that most people think is important (maybe for a litany of reasons) but, it seems, eludes even a simple definition. To rely on a simple (and almost certainly wrong) "definition" of education, how is it possible that so many people who have been through years of schooling can hold such a broad plurality of often contradictory beliefs about the world? How can a system be complex enough to effectively accommodate the staggering degree of difference between individuals? When educated people agree on a particular belief about the world, does it reflect a common knowledge, or rather a kind of conditioned of receptivity toward a particular kind of belief about the world? These are all things that a lot of people vastly smarter than I am have been thinking about for hundreds of years, and have come to different conclusions about. Just because we are in school does not mean that we know what education is -- in fact it seems more likely that we would be self-serving in how we think about it.

In class I made a pretty unfortunate passing remark about Foucault. I only brought it up because it's sort of easy to summarize (if imprecisely) the gist of Foucault's central argument in his probably most famous book, Discipline and Punish, and by now the general shape of his worries about education and what he calls normalization seems well-disseminated enough that you can just make a reference to his thought and it's already a cliche. I think everyone's probably heard of "normalization" and the Panopticon and all that already so even if Foucault's name isn't familiar some of his ideas probably are. And I think that however we feel about those ideas, they remain important to keep in the background: education is tremendously powerful because it determines *at least* the context and foundation of all of our (educated) thoughts. Knowledge is power in at least that sense: truth claims can shape and determine the course of behavior in ways too systematic and complex to try to reproduce here. We should, I think, constantly challenge our assumptions about education: about what it is, who it works for and on, etc.

Paul Grobstein's picture

Education: where's the "beginning"?

You and several of your classmates have highlighted a really interesting issue about education itself, one that has come up in another non-education class context:

"If terms like this were clearer, wouldn't our answers be, too?  Shouldn't we start from the same place -- grounded in common definitions of the terms we are using -- in order to understand each other more fully, and use time more efficiently?"

Yes, we might start with "common definitions" but maybe an interest in "efficiency" is part of the problem.  Maybe the place to begin isn't actually with "common definitions" but rather with whatever each of us happens to be thinking at the time we start?   And out of that comes (or doesn't come) "common definitions"?  

"What I would rather have from individuals is their own distinctive understandings [as opposed to their acquiescence in a shared starting point], the alternative ways of making sense of things that I might not be able to get from books [or by imposing a starting framework]. Maybe along this path we could have not only richer classrooms but richer and more satisfying interpersonal, cultural, and political lives as well?"

Lots to talk about here, and we will, from multiple perspectives in the weeks to come. 

FinnWing's picture

An Indulgent Take on One Aspect of Education: Evaluation

Education is a very great thing in many ways, and it also has many drawbacks. It is an important aspect of life for every individual, and the collective education of a society affects all individuals within the society. From the food we eat, to the buildings we study in, to the phones we chatter on, education allows us to create, produce, and consume for the lives we live; and that is neither an endorsement nor a condemnation of education, it is more an observation. One critique of education that does arise in my mind, from how education affects society and individuals, is how shortsighted it can be. 

One example of how education is flawed pertains to “elite education” (narrowly defined).  Last night I read “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” by William Deresiewicz, and I was impressed by how articulately he bashes “elite” students and the framework and institutions that they are reared in.  His final paragraph poignantly points to the flaws of elite education, explaining, “The world that produced John Kerry and George Bush is indeed giving us our next generation of leaders….The disadvantage of an elite education is that it’s given us the elite we have, and the elite we’re going to have.” Thus I say that our educational system is shortsighted because the elites in our country seem to have no idea how to run it!!

Wait though…I feel like I am attributing all of societies ills to an academic education system that is flawed, but that also does great things. I love to learn because I feel that education enables me to better interact with the world around me (this point is debatable). What I find frustrating about education, and a possible reason that it can seem shortsighted, is that good grades enable an individual to ostensibly have more options (this point is also debatable!), and grades are usually given periodically during a semester and the accumulated grade is given at the end of the semester. This system is very fragmented, and when grades, evaluations, and judgments are given in this way, and given such great meaning, then it becomes difficult to keep perspective. How much does our flawed educational system have to do with how we are evaluated (i.e. grades and standardized tests)? I am curious if others feel this way or not…And if it is a common affliction, then what are some individual or institutional remedies that can be beneficial?    


LizJ's picture

A first

Biology and education are both firsts for me. Having never taken a class during college in either of those subjects, I was a little nervous at first. But after our initial class discussion, I have high hopes for the kinds of questions we're going to explore in this course. I have taken a few classes that use "brain drain" exercises as ice breakers and once again I've been pleasantly surprised by the responses and conversation that followed. There were many things I found striking about our conversation. Whether is was the idea of education v. experience, the emphasis on higher education in the U.S., or the feeling of powerlessness within ones own education, there were many insights and opinions I look forward to hearing more of.

One comment, in particular, that I found interesting was towards the end of class when someone mentioned the social and economic implications of getting a good education (and who's to say what makes a "good" education? but I guess that's another discussion...) . The idea of systemic repression and how "you don't get your education, you're education gets you" is intriguing and maybe it's because I love sociology, but I would love to dive more into the "sociology of education" while still not going too off topic.

What is education anyways? I feel like we never really came to a class consensus. Do we as citizens need to look at social changes before we look at educational changes? What is truly wrong about the education system and what is working? I hope we can further explore these questions at some point soon.

memyselfandi's picture

I think that at least one of

I think that at least one of the major problems with education in today's world is the societal perception of it. As in many of the quotes above and the observations in class, education is usually linked only with value as a means to success, not for its own sake. In addition, college has become a social necessity because it is assumed that if one does not acquire a college degree, then one will end up flipping burgers at Burger King or the equivalent. In particular, vocational schools are widely considered not to be a viable alternative to college, which can be a huge barrier to those who are not academically inclined but can do skilled labor very well. As a result, many people who are unlikely to succeed in higher education are nonetheless forced by their parents and/or societal expectations to go anyway. Then, when they do fail, the system itself is blamed instead of (or, I guess, in addition to) the root of the problem in societal ideas.

In particular in the US, some of the societal problem is that education is not highly valued or emphasized except, again, as a means to wealth and fame. Even then, one can point to Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, both of whom dropped out of college, and say they "made it" without extensive education. The emphasis on celebrities (who are often home-schooled and/or don't attend college/higher education) and other items of popular culture further diminishes education as a priority; instead, school is something to get out of the way.

Because this is such an elusive problem, I don't believe it can be addressed directly, unless there begin to be more advertisements for alternative schools or something. I really don't know. I believe it will fix itself in time, but I don't know what the solution would be until then.

I would love to discuss vocational schools in more detail and athletic scholarships at at least some point during the course, if not next class. Athletic scholarships demonstrate the lack of focus on education that the US displays that I was discussing before. I think (though I may be wrong) that more athletic scholarships are given per year than merit scholarships. While some students definitely excel more in athletics, I don't believe they should eclipse those who want to go to a higher education primarily to study. The entire career of athletics rather boggles me, to tell the truth.

Basically, this muddled mess is trying to convey that I think that the problem(s) with education are in societal values and ideas.


Also, Jessica, I completely agree.

Angela DiGioia's picture

How are we defining “education”?

This week, I was struck by the fact that the words that were used to describe the “education” were associated with the confines of a university, or formal institution of some sort.  In an ideal world, wouldn’t one’s “education” be defined and recognized as the experiences that one has inside and outside of a classroom throughout their life?  Thinking back to my most formative times as a child, and now as an adult, very few of them occurred within the walls of a formal teaching institution.  These times occurred as a child, playing with my sisters and interacting with my parents and grandparents.  I believe that it was during these formative times when my mind was most open and impressionable, not when I was studying in college or writing a paper.  Perhaps the difference is that, in grade, middle, and high schools, as well as in college, I was given assignments of what to study and topics on which to write papers and was not allowed to let my mind wander in the same way that it was able to when I was a child playing in my Nanna’s attic.    I hesitate to define my “education” as the books that I’ve read and the papers that I’ve written; instead, I would like to say that the experiences throughout my life, both inside of a classroom and out, have created who I am in this moment.


Paul Grobstein's picture

education, formal and otherwise

Interesting indeed that a brain drain on "education" largely left out life experiences outside classrooms/institutions.   Glad to have "experiences throughout my life" added to the conversation.  Is even more interesting to think about the implications of "Thinking back to my most formative times ... very few of them occurred within the walls of a formal teaching institution."  Maybe that is telling us something about formal education and its problems?

simonec's picture

Waiting for Superman

 What Becca was saying in class about how much money it would take to close the achievement gap reminded me of the movie Waiting for Superman.  The movie follows kids trying to lottery into good schools in their areas. It does a great job of showing that the issue does not solely depend on having parents who are educated about their options -- this documentary is heartbreaking in that it portrays families that know what schools their kids need to be in to achieve their dreams, but have very little power over the system. It is a good balance between stats and personal stories, it was featured at this year’s Sundance Film Festival… blablabla its very well done. It is not out yet, however when it is I suggest everyone see it!



I was personally intrigued by the “cultural presumption” topic that we touched on it class, as we tried to articulate the difference between cultures that understand education as defining to the singular person, or supplemental to the individual. Does how we think about this issue change the ways in which we learn? Do some cultures looks for more from their formal education than others? Are our critiques of current school systems partially born from a particular cultural orientation… do we expect a school to be more then it can/should be for the development of an individual?


Paul Grobstein's picture

cultural differences and education

Glad to have the "cultural presumption" issue on the table re education.  Intrigued like you by the possibility/likelihood that different cultures see the relationship between between individuals and societies differently and that this in turn affects how they (and the individuals in them) think about education. 

Richard Nisbett's Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerner's Think Differently and Why is an interesting/provocative and relevant exploration of cultural differences.   Serendip has a resource page on Individuals and Cultures that may also be relevant.  Suppose there are indeed significant cultural differences.  Does that mean that we need to think about how to "fix" education differently in each culture depending on that culture's expectations of education?  Or might we aspire to a set of values for education that is relevant for all cultures? 

jessicarizzo's picture

One thing I was noticing

One thing I was noticing during our first meeting was how very seductive definitive answers are.  Even when we believe we're broadening our scope, doing the opposite of prematurely cutting off inquiry, I think we often move really quickly to answering questions by denying the validity of the question.  Example: Before we can be so ungrateful as to begin dissecting our own scholarly dissatisfaction, oughtn't we recognize that our dissatisfaction is a privilege?  I think yes.  But only because I think it's always desirable to be able to see yourself as one little part of a big world picture.  Not because this way of thinking neccesarily helps us understand anything about what education is or what it does on the more intimate individual brain/mind/soul level that I'm interested in.  I think the preoccupation with privilege is a way of begging the question.  We're trying (or I want to try) to ask what education does, what it might do.  Then after exploring possibilities, maybe we'll able to articulate what a "good" education is.  Then we could hypothetically compare our ideal of a good education with the one we're getting, and the delivery systems in place here, there, and everywhere.  So I'm proposing that we don't let "privilege" monopolize the conversation, because if we do we'll be taking for granted the universal desirability of the only reality we know... brand name degrees and their (at least until recently) solid links to future socioeconomic security.  

I'll toss out a preliminary diagnosis of my own though and suggest that many of the things that "aren't working" in our educational experiences aren't working because we misunderstand and feel dissatisfied because we have the wrong expectations.  Education isn't a thing, but a process.  I guess it's true that, for some people, years spent in school are dues to be paid or time to be logged in purgatory before getting your golden ticket diploma to fame and fortune, but I sort of feel that it can't be a "good" education if it can be treated instrumentally like this, if it changes you so little that you have the same goals before, during, and after its acquisition.  I accept that degrees and money exist, and that they do influence the shape of our reality.  But they're really just pieces of paper.  And they only mean things because we agree to believe in them.  Ideally, the process of education should feel more tangible, more perception-altering and reality-influencing than those pieces of paper.  

"Knowledge is what you get by knowing." -Gertrude Stein

Paul Grobstein's picture

beyond mastery and servitude in education

To say the same thing slightly differently, perhaps?  Yes, a critique is (inevitably?) context-dependent, reflecting one's one status and experiences.  But one can, at least in principle, recognize that and move on to attempt a critique that speaks to contexts beyond one's own.  As Albert Camus puts it in The Rebel, "The rebel undoubtedly demands a certain degree of freedom for himself ... The freedom he claims, he claims for all ... Therefore there is something more in history than the relation between mastery and servitude."  Along these lines, what intrigued me in our conversation was the possibility that a  a sense of "powerlessness" may be an element of a widely applicable critique of education as it currently exists. Perhaps, across the board, we are trying to train "leaders" (and "followers") rather than to encourage everyone to be creative critics?  And doing the latter in turn means learning to avoid the seductiveness of "definitive answers"? 

kgould's picture

 I have to admit that I'm

 I have to admit that I'm wary of saying too much in class. I am eager for us to explore co-constructive dialogue and the brain and education, but I think that I should be more of a spectator at the moment than an active, speaking participant. I believe I'm in the "suspend judgement, be quiet" group Paul mentioned in class.

I love Brain Drains, a habit we picked up over the summer. It is interesting to see how different people respond when asked for an instant association. For instance, I've found that I usually respond to Brain Drains with colors, images, and impressions of the word offered: "green, apple, book." (I attribute this to my desire to doodle and draw almost all of the time.) Others focus on interpersonal relationships, "students, teachers, learners," or policy, or the physical, or the "big picture."

--It would be interesting to look at that in terms of "Multiple Intelligences." 

Mind you, none of those answers are any better or any "more correct" than the others. There is no wrong answer. They're our associations and they work. But it will be interesting to see if those associations change over time.

One of the main questions I wanted to posit for our next class is if we accept that "knowledge is power," what is that power over? That is, what is that power and why is it important to have it? Power to make decisions? Power over career? Power over others? Power over oneself?

What is this "power" and why is it so important to have it?

And, in the end, do we actually get that "power" or are we feeding into a system that only makes us believe that we have more control than we really do?

What is the point of "getting an education?"

Paul Grobstein's picture

Goals of education: acquiring or declining power?

Very glad to have the issue of "power" on the table in our discussion of education and its problems.  I wonder if perhaps "power" and power relationships are things we find ourselves embedded in but might seek, through education?, to minimize rather than contribute to reifying?  We might seek "freedom" for all, rather than "power" for ourselves (or anyone else)?  Its worth thinking about in the context of "co-constructive inquiry;" where there is the "power"?  See A Conversation and on-line forum discussion there for an extended exchange along these lines.

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