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A Word on Popular Education

I want to expand a little bit on what I talked about in my previous post.  When Papert talks about using computers to let children develop their own learning styles without the authoritarian intrusions of the omnipresent curriculum, he is essentially talking about what many people refer to as “Popular Education.”  Although he uses computer programing as an example, the method can really be applied to any discipline.  Essentially the idea is centered around the belief that true education can only come from a willing community of learners and not from any one “expert” or teacher.  In practical terms, it means that the classroom as a whole, and not just the teacher is responsible for the direction the class goes, as well as the support and empowerment of each individual member.

The point isn’t to let student’s only study what they want and ignore everything else, but rather to find ways to make education relevant and applicable to individual’s lives.  Obviously this is a completely different educational philosophy than the system we currently have that is based on standardized test scores which attempt to apply the same standards on large numbers of individuals without any recognition of different circumstances.

In class, there was a lot of discussion about how teachers are expected to react when certain students are more educationally advanced while others need constant special attention.  Popular education’s answer to this problem would be to have the more advanced students help out those that are lagging behind.  A struggling student may be more willing to respond to someone his own age rather than the imposing presence of an adult.  By encouraging individuals within the classroom to take an interest not only in their own education, but the education of their fellow students, the class takes on a structure that allows the teacher to take on the role of helper and facilitator instead of taskmaster.

Despite agreeing with his philosophy on education, I still strongly disagree with his insistence that computers are the best way to educate young students.  Obviously computers are hugely important to every day life and people need at the very least to have a working understanding of them, but Papert’s whole argument seems to be centered around the idea that learning to program will improve our ability to think rationally and analytically.  It’s easy to see why he was getting carried away, especially when home computers were starting to take off, but to me this kind of thinking has no more inherent validity than any other academic saying that their field is best.  Obviously programming can and is a helpful learning tool for some, but for others (like myself) it isn’t.  The best way to make sure our schools are educating people properly is by giving them as many opportunities to discover whatever they’re good at as possible, putting every kid in front of a computer is too simple of a solution.

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