The Dilemma of Choice and Questioning in Education

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In the “Story of Evolution and Evolution of Stories” course this spring at Bryn Mawr College, the class discussed and questioned truth.  We questioned whether anything can be a Fact, or if everything we thought of as fact was truly an interpretation of observations, an interpretation that could change with time or new observations.  Because of this questioning of Fact, the class began to question our conventional educations.  Education in America generally consists of instructing a class with the guidelines of a set curriculum, and having tangible goals for the end of the teaching period.  Students are expected to know names, places and dates.  At times students are asked to interpret the Facts, or names, places and dates, that they have been instructed in, but rarely are they asked or encouraged to question the Facts.  In the “Story of Evolution and Evolution of Stories,” the class pushed back on this type of traditional education, questioning if students should be taught in terms of absolutes, or if they should be given more choice in their education, and be taught to question what is considered Fact.  As Eleanor Duckworth inquires in her book of essays, “The Having of Wonderful Ideas” and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning, “How can it [the world] be uncovered for children in a way that gives them an interest in continuing to find out about it, a way that gives them the occasion to take their own initiatives, and to feel at home in this part of the world?” (Duckworth 9).   An extreme answer may be to give students absolute freedom in the classroom – discussing and questioning whatever they find interesting or puzzling and allowing true learning and curiosity to be the product.  However, I believe that it is possible to have too much choice, and too much questioning.  With too many choices and possibilities for question, education would refuse standardization and a base of knowledge would never be created.  Although choice and questioning are important, they aid education only to a certain extent.  After that elusive point, they hinder learning and leave children and young adults with no practical tools for survival and higher learning.
The education that is provided to students should reflect the evolution mankind has gone through as a species and therefore education should help mankind develop to it’s fullest in the context of our evolution.  Our evolution has led us to become a questioning species.   We question our own existence, knowledge, intelligence, and all other aspects of our being.  We have also evolved to become a story-telling species, one that instructs its young in traditions and knowledge we consider important to our specific cultures.  Through an evolutionary lens, diversity should be brought into education, because with diversity comes options, and with options comes further evolution.  In an Op-Ed featured in the New York Time regarding an ideological and practical shift in the educational, especially higher education, system, Mark C. Taylor asserts that “[t]hrough the intersection of multiple perspectives and approaches, new theoretical insights will develop and unexpected practical solutions will emerge” (Taylor).  Taylor is saying that with diversity, comes not only an improved system of education, but a much more practical system of education and problem solving than our current one.
Education should undoubtedly be an evolutionary force – it should change with the times and capabilities of our species, and should be reevaluated from time to time in order to make sure that change is actually occurring and that education is becoming as effective, or “fit” as possible.  Evolution usually springs from increased choice or options, from diversity.  However, my educational experience has not been a very evolutionary one.  I haven’t felt like I have had many options in my own education and therefore possibly my future. Most students seem to become trapped on a certain path or track and their evolution as a student, and therefore as an adult, is planned out for them – influenced by the evolution of their family and community.  Although we have the ability to evolve beyond our background, few people do.  Students are herded along a path of “narrow scholarship” (Taylor), which “encourages an educational system that has become a process of cloning” (Taylor).  Even young children, although thought to have more freedom and choice in materials such as art or music, are rarely given an option to diverge from a set curriculum.  
As an assistant to an elementary school art teacher, I observed children at work on what should have been a creative endeavor – the learning of art, a creative subject.  Instead of being given free reign over their artistic expression, the children were instructed in specific styles, and taught to replicate the styles that they had seen and studied.  If their work varied too much from the lesson, they were usually lightly reprimanded and told to get back on track.  This style of teaching follows what Stanley Aronowitz describes in his introduction to Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of Freedom – Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage as the “banking or transmission theory of school knowledge” which Freire discussed, and goes on to explain that, “[a]ccording to this view, students are ‘objects’ into which teachers pour prescribed knowledge” (Aronowitz 4).  Initially, this lack of freedom in what is thought of as an imaginative and original discipline bothered me, but I also came to recognize that a base of knowledge might be fundamental in eventually allowing increased choice in education.
In her collection of essays, Duckworth encourages choice and unconventional education, yet also recognizes the need for a foundation of knowledge.  She acknowledges that “[w]onderful ideas do not spring out of nothing.”  Instead, “[t]hey build on a foundation of other ideas” (Duckworth 6).  Furthermore, she suggests that “[schools] can help to uncover parts of the world that children would not otherwise know how to tackle.  Wonderful ideas are built on other wonderful ideas” (Duckworth 7).  I agree with Duckworth – ideas must be born out of some starting point, since nothing comes from nothing.  Schools should provide a base of knowledge for students to build off of.  The ability to form “new connections depends on knowing enough about something in the first place to provide a basis for thinking of other things to do – of other questions to ask – that demand more complex connections in order to make sense.  The more ideas about something people already have at their disposal, the more new ideas occur and the more they can coordinate to build up still more complicated schemes [or ideas and solutions]” (Duckworth 14).  In this sense, a base of unquestioned Facts can lead to more extensive, advanced and better-informed questioning.  
The main problem with establishing a base of unquestioned Facts for students is that again, the question of a reality of Fact comes up.  If there is no such thing as Fact, why should students be taught to not question certain things and complacently accept them?  Duckworth tries to remedy this problem by clarifying that she “react[s] strongly against the thought that we need to provide children with only a set of intellectual processes – a dry, contentless set of tools that they can go about applying” (Duckworth 13).  Instead, Duckworth argues for a “person’s own repertoire of thoughts, actions, connections, predictions, and feelings” as the base of knowledge.  She respects that  “[s]ome of these may have as their source something read or heard.  But the individual has done the work of putting them together for himself or herself, and they give rise to new ways to put them together” (Duckworth 13).  In this argument, because the base of knowledge required for students is not one of facts and figures but instead one of feelings and interpretations, Duckworth seems to contradict herself.  She recognizes a need for a uniform platform off of which students can build their own thoughts, yet wants it to be based in something that is not uniform and not truly a base of hard knowledge.  Instead, it sounds like Duckworth would like a base of shared experiences off of which to later base and compare other academic experiences.  She also comes to the conclusion that “[t]he virtues involved in not knowing [rather than in knowing] are the ones that really count in the long run.  What you do about what you don’t know is, in the final analysis, what determines what you will ultimately know” (Duckworth 68).  Aronowitz also discusses the problem of a base of knowledge and brings up that “[i]f Freire does not go so far as to declare that there are no ‘facts’ for which power is the underlying legitimation or that every statement about the world is an interpretation, he does criticize the positive doctrine according to which the ‘givens’ of the taken-for-granted world must be viewed as the immutable starting points of learning…”(Aronowitz 14).  After consideration, I find several faults in both Duckworth and Aronowitz (and therefore Freire’s) argument.
If students are taught from a young age that everything is up for questioning, as there is no such thing as a true Fact, conclusions can never be made.  Basic ideas that are now foundations of study would be up for unlimited and unstructured debate, as limits and structure would also be up for question and debate.  With no real way to form a societal consensus, young students would be flooded with possibility – something that seems positive, but in practice would make any education impossible, unless everyone came to a consensus based on their own thoughts, questions and experiences.  In classes, teachers often encourage questioning to a certain point, to allow students to connect the material they are learning with their own lives and therefore more fully understand what they are being taught.  However, if this time for questioning and connecting ideas were unlimited, progress in a student’s education would halt until the questioning could be resolved for each student in a given class.
Accepting a base of education still leaves room for an unconventional education -- an education that could more uniformly and effectively prepare students for their lives beyond formal schooling than the current system does.  Choice still should be valued, although perhaps limited.  Choices, such as what to major or focus in during higher education could be expanded for the benefit of problem solving and sharing and broadening ideas.  Opening up disciplines would be “effective to bring people working on questions of religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, religion and philosophy to engage in comparative analysis of common problems” (Taylor). Taylor’s dream is “that colleges and universities will be shaken out of their complacency and will open academia to a future we cannot conceive” (Taylor).  
Along with Taylor, Duckworth has explored unconventional education and she has studied its effect on learning. Duckworth carried out a study to see if children who were in a program in which they were taught in a looser and less curriculum-restricted environment could come up with more original ideas in comparison to traditional (control) classrooms.  She found that “the children who had been in the program did indeed have more ideas…there was no sign that they were running out of ideas…By contrast, the other [traditionally educated] children had a much smaller range of ideas…they tended to copy a few leaders” (Duckworth 11).  In another phase of Duckworth’s evaluation, the children in the program and normal classes were tested individually by using Piaget problems that tested the intellectual capabilities of the children and what Piaget stage they were in. The result was that “[w]hen children are afforded the occasions to be intellectually creative – by being offered matter to be concerned about intellectually and by having their ideas accepted – then not only do they learn about the world, but as a happy side effect their general intellectual ability is stimulated as well” (Duckworth 12-13).  Through her experimentation, Duckworth hypothesizes that “by opening up to children the many fascinating aspects of the ordinary world and by enabling them to feel that their ideas are worthwhile having and following through, their tendency to have wonderful ideas can be affected in significant ways” (Duckworth 12).
Duckworth also participated in teacher education where the teachers were attempting to understand how children learn by participating in learning themselves.  When given free reign over their own temporary education often “two different problems appealed to two different groups, and they went to work independently.”  After working separately for several days, they found that, “through totally different routes, they [the two groups] had reached an understanding of the very same phenomenon” (Duckworth 61).  Duckworth’s experiment in teacher education shows how important the allowance of divergence is in education and through her two experiments she came to see that “accepting surprise, puzzlement, excitement, patience, caution, honest attempts and wrong outcomes as legitimate and important elements of learning, easily leads to their [children’s] further development” (Duckworth 69).  Connecting teacher education with student education also fits into “Freire’s educational philosophy,” in which “the first principle is that the conventional distinction between teacher as expert and learner as an empty bio-physiological shell is questioned.”  By engaging teachers in learning and taking a student’s point of view, the traditional student-teacher roles can be deconstructed and education can be seen as happening “when there are two learners [both teacher and student] who occupy somewhat different spaces in an ongoing dialogue.  But both participants bring knowledge to the relationship, and one of the objects of the pedagogic process is to explore what each know and what they can teach each other” (Aronowitz 8).
With so much room in education to stray from convention, choice and questioning can be embraced to a large extent.  But again, the question of too much choice and questioning comes up. If one questioned everything and everyone, a base of knowledge could never be truly formed.  Without a basic unquestionable belief or set of ideas, one would never be able to move in the world.  A life of questioning would probably be unhappy, lonely, and impossible to fulfill.  Barry Schwartz explores the possibility of too much choice in his book entitled The Paradox of Choice. When describing an experience of shopping with many options of what to buy, Schwartz remarks, “…by vastly expanding the range of choices, they [the clothing store] had also created a new problem that needed to be solved” (Schwartz 2).  After being used to having limited choices (in his shopping), Schwartz was baffled by his new options and practically paralyzed by having so many choices and possibilities.  He points out that  “[w]hen people have no choice, life is almost unbearable.”  However, “[a]s the number of available choices increases…the autonomy, control, and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive.  But as the number keeps growing, negative aspects of having a multitude of options begins to appear.  As the number of choices grow further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded.  At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates.  It might even be said to tyrannize” (Schwartz 2).  
The tyrannizing choice Schwartz describes not only applies to shopping and other commercial aspects of life, it applies to education.  With all of the questioning and demanding for choice that the “Story of Evolution and Evolution of Stories” course provoked, the class often seemed to forget that   “the fact that some choice is good doesn’t necessarily mean that more choice is better” (Schwartz 3).  Furthermore, there is “an important distinction between ‘negative liberty’ and ‘positive liberty.’   Negative liberty is ‘freedom from’ – freedom from constraint, freedom from being told what to do by others.  Positive freedom is ‘freedom to’ – the availability of opportunities to be the author of your life and to make it meaningful and significant.  Often these two kinds of liberty will go together.  If the constraints people want ‘freedom from’ are rigid enough, they won’t be able to attain ‘freedom to’” (Schwartz 3).  Students should have a mix of the two – negative liberty from restrictive and ineffective curricula and positive freedom to learn in their own ways and explore their own individual interests.  Schwartz also makes a strong point when he states that the “United States was founded on a commitment to individual freedom and autonomy, with freedom of choice as a core value.  And yet, it is…[his] contention that we do ourselves no favor when we equate liberty too directly with choice, as if we necessarily increase freedom by increasing the number of options available” (Schwartz 4).
Even with books written about the “paradox of choice,” and our own experiences with overwhelming choices, we still are clearly (see this paper) made to question and often second-guess, and there is value in questioning.  Questioning has brought about numerous and uncountable discoveries in all fields and life as we know it would not be the same without our questioning nature.  Duckworth notes that  “The right question at the right time can move children to peaks in their thinking that result in significant steps forward and real intellectual excitement…Once the right question is raised, they are moved to tax themselves in the fullest to find an answer.  Having confidence in one’s ideas does not mean ‘I know my ideas are right,’; it means ‘I am willing to try out my ideas’” (Duckworth 5).  Part of the problem I find with questioning is probably societal.  Although society has taught me to accept certain things as fact, it has also, in a contradicting manner, taught me to question fact and look beyond what I am told. An overarching question that perhaps society needs to answer is “[w]hat happens to children’s curiosity and resourcefulness later in their childhood,” and “[w]hy do so few continue to have their own wonderful ideas?”  Duckworth believes that “part of the answer is that intellectual breakthroughs come to be less and less valued” (Duckworth 6).  Duckworth also believes that if a student spends the extra time questioning possibilities, “it may mean that she holds onto it longer, and moves onto the next stage less quickly; but by the time she does move on, she will have a far better foundation – the idea will serve her far better, will stand up in the face of surprises” (Duckworth 71).  If Duckworth is right, students should be not only allowed, but also encouraged to question everything, and the natural curiosity present in younger students should be encouraged to grow and remain active throughout their lives and academic careers.
Choice and questioning is unquestionably an important aspect of education, and should be expanded in order to improve the education system so that future students would not only become essentially clones of their instructors, but instead follow Taylor’s advice and “’Do not what I [the teacher] do[es]; rather, take whatever I have to offer and do with it what I could never imagine doing and then come back and tell me about it’” (Taylor).  We should also heed Duckworth’s ideas that “[t]he more we help children to have their wonderful ideas and to feel good about themselves for having them, the more likely it is that they will some day happen upon wonderful ideas that no one else has happened upon before” (Duckworth 14).  With a new importance put on independence and questioning, education can bring students to new heights of achievement on a both academic and personally fulfilling level.  However, one cannot forget Schwartz’s cautionary advice to limit our choices and not become overwhelmed by the freedom and choice we may have.  We need to find a middle ground between a culture of questioning and accepting.  With acceptance, one can learn more, although what one learns may not be as important.  However, with too much questioning, true learning would be an extremely slow process.  As we are evolutionary creatures, I trust that the education system will find a way to evolve along with our needs and desires.  Administrators and educators may actively make changes in education systems or methods, but it is truly the next generation that needs to find, and in some way demand the balance they require.

 

Bibliography

Aronowitz, Stanley. “Introduction.”  Pedagogy of Freedom – Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage.          Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998.

Duckworth, Eleanor.  “The Having of Wonderful Ideas” and Other Essays on Teaching and Learning.  New York: Teachers College Press, 1996.

Freire, Paulo.  Pedagogy of Freedom – Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage.  Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998.

Rossatto, César Augusto.  Engaging Paulo Friere’s Pedagogy of Possibility – From Blind to Transformative Optimism.  Lanham, Maryland: Rowman &Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005.

Schwartz, Barry.  The Paradox of Choice.  New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2004.

Taylor, Mark C. “End the University as We Know It.”  The New York Times.  27 April 2009: Op-Ed.

 

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