10.4 Issues in Formal Learning

The compilation of issues discussed in this section is far from comprehensive--they are only a few of the major concerns about learning: those that fit in to the themes of this book, those that deal with the broader society, that are ethical in nature, or that touch upon the techniques of learning.

Why is Learning Undertaken?

Groups with an interest in the learning process were mentioned in the first section of this chapter, along with their possible conflicts. The idealist's answer to this first question is that learning is undertaken to make the learner functional and preserve and enhance the knowledge and values of the society wherein it occurs. However, there are many groups with special interests in learning for the benefits or changes it can bring to them. For its part, the state often wishes to develop willing citizens, and to this end an authoritarian state will dictate the entire curriculum, perhaps in both a comprehensive and an arbitrary fashion. At the same time, a democratic state must use the curriculum, albeit much more subtly, in an attempt to convince students of the superior virtue of democracy. In any case, the state that fails to achieve this persuasion of students that it is legitimate will soon cease to exist, for there are other voices prepared to persuade them differently.

The state (at the national or regional level) may have a variety of specific agenda items to achieve and hope to use the school system for these purposes. For instance, catching up with the Soviets became the byword of the early 1960s after the United States' perceived humiliation by the Sputnik launch of 1957. For a time, being beaten into space provided the motivation for an extensive rewriting of the national curriculum to emphasize mathematics and science. Academic theoreticians were called upon for a quick fix of the mathematics curriculum, and produced the impractical and abstract "new math" with its scores of axioms and abstractions and few examples, applications or exercises. It did not seem to have occurred to anyone to ask whether it was necessary for grade two students to become mathematical theoreticians, nor whether any practical needs were being addressed. Not many teachers even understood what the purists had given them, and some ten years went by during which few had the courage to deprecate theory and try to relate mathematics to students' lives or to the surrounding culture. It is not clear at this point whether much is accomplished by such dramatic changes, nor even what the general effect of state dictated or influenced curricula is in general. Neither is it clear that the uniformity demanded in such cases is actually achieved; the classroom teacher has opportunity to implement other agendas than those of the state.

There may also be specific social reasons for undertaking schooling--it could be done in order to perpetuate class differences or an existing division of economic spoils by keeping certain groups "in their place". Since information is available from many sources, such uses of schooling are becoming more difficult and could be effectively impossible in the more open society of the future. Others have the opposite view--that schooling ought to focus on the elimination of socioeconomic distinctions; that it ought to be the great class leveller. Thus they promote "lowest common denominator" curricula, on the assumption that if not everyone comes into the school system the same, they can surely be made to leave it the same. Even though this philosophy has very strongly influenced North American school administrators, it is seldom carried out to such an extent in the classroom, because its premises are observed by practising teachers and by their students to be untrue.

For instance, by the time students finish high school, there may be five to eight years difference in reading and arithmetic capability, and there may be no immediately available means to close this gap. This does not mean it will never close, or that those that are either less able at that point or are completely and permanently dysfunctional; it merely suggests that the modern school lacks techniques, resources, and the mandate to produce a uniform product in factory-like fashion. Formal learning is not, for a variety of reasons, a class leveller, though it has some trends in that direction, nor is it likely to become effective as one. Quite the contrary, the provision of equal opportunity to excel in learning might result in an entirely new class structure based on ability. Whether this turn of events is a desirable outcome or not is questionable.

Another social agenda may sometimes be followed by employers, for whom the number of years of schooling may be a screening device, on the understanding that those who have successfully cleared one set of hurdles in life are better equipped to clear another. However, this will work against the employer who hires people who are overqualified, for when the reward offered by the job fails to match the expectations of the jobholder with respect to responsibility or remuneration, the result is dissatisfaction and a high turnover rate. Employers who hire those with slightly lower paper qualifications than needed and train their employees on the job will have higher job satisfaction, lower turnover, and a better retention rate. Some employers know this, and deliberately hire overqualified workers for menial jobs on the theory that they will not be around long enough to organize effective demands for improvements in working conditions (See Berg--Education and Jobs: The Great Training Robbery).

However, such exceptions aside, it is remarkable that employers have so far had little interest in or opportunity to influence schools, even though they are entirely dependent on them for their human resources. This is probably due to their concentration on the short term bottom line--a practice that may be necessary to meet immediate competition and satisfy shareholders, but tends to limit long term potential. Such limitations are most problematic when, as in the fourth civilization, the business milieu is changing rapidly and markets can appear and disappear overnight. The ability to respond sufficiently rapidly in such situations requires a flexible generalist work force that can reinvent themselves and their enterprise at a moment's notice. Finding and training such people requires that long term commitment to change have priority over the immediate bottom line.

Perhaps it is most accurate to say that society organizes learning for economic reasons. These include the ability of a nation to compete effectively in innovation and high-tech production, and the ready availability of a well-trained labour force so that employers can make quick changes or additions to their staffs. There is also the benefit to the state accruing from higher taxes paid by better trained workers, who usually obtains a higher salary for the effort. However, these observations apply mainly to training in technique. On the other hand, the benefits to society of education--the ability to think and evaluate ideas--are much less immediate and tangible, especially at the close of an age that has been obsessed with training in technique for short term rewards, and wherein education is ideas has largely been an incidental by-product of such training.

One could advance the suggestion that education produces a better and more complete person, and is therefore desirable for ethical reasons, but this would be unlikely to impress those who have to pay for the process, and it would be difficult to establish as true, even if it seems to be self-evident. A better argument might be that more highly educated people are likely to be the very kind of versatile problem solvers that a fourth civilization enterprise needs to survive and thrive. Thus, in the future, education in ideas may be undertaken for economic reasons, because it is more available, or because there are time and money to pursue it. These may not be profound reasons, but they are pragmatic ones, and will likely serve.

Who Should Control Education?

Since there are public, family, and business interests in learning, and since there are both societal and individual concerns, the issue of control over organized learning is a difficult one indeed. Teachers claim the right to oversee it in the same way as other professionals control their work. But, doctors and lawyers police only the entry to their professions and, to some extent, the ethical standards of practice. Hospitals are built and their administrators are appointed by their owners, which may be private organizations, churches, community boards, or officials of government health departments. Likewise, judges are either elected or appointed by government. That is, in neither of these cases is the entire medical or legal apparatus operated by the professionals for their own ends. Thus, teachers cannot expect to gain such control over schools, curriculum, and the administrative aspects of learning, except as they are appointed by and represent the broader society.

Yet, just as hospital administrators have usually been doctors, and judges are usually lawyers, the educational apparatus is normally run by teachers, or former teachers, even if it is not their organizations that appoint them, for government education departments are often operated by those whose training is as classroom teachers, just as are the schools. There is not necessarily any direct conflict of interest in this, because such people generally cease to be teachers and become instead administrators--removed from and possibly unsuitable for the classroom environment after a time. They have the time to be the developers and pursuers of educational techniques of all kinds, and the persuaders of classroom teachers to experiment with these techniques, but gradually become divorced from the practical realities of the classroom and immersed in the business, politics and public relations of schooling. Indeed, just as hospitals have in more recent years begun to create a separate profession of medical administration, so also there is beginning to become a distinct breed of educational administrator.

However, such comprehensive control by teachers, former teachers, and professional administrators, while not a conflict of interest, is very narrow. Parents and children have the most at stake in learning, but there has not been much mechanism for their voices to be heard. Employers also have a major interest in the learning process, for they are expected to hire the students afterward. Yet, very little attention is paid to their needs, and they are seldom represented in the design of curriculum. Likewise, universities may set entrance standards, but their influence on the grade school is otherwise confined to the trickle-down effect of their graduates who take on teaching positions there. This gives them a delayed-action philosophic control over the grade school, but no direct voice in decision making. There are exceptions to these observations. In some cases, universities have worked closely with grade schools on curriculum, and some states in the United States are mandating a broader business and community representation on the boards of technical colleges. However, these are usually experimental or isolated test cases, and it is not clear how soon these will become general practices. That they will so become is one of the information society paradigms, but it may take some time.

Another difference between teaching and the practice of law or medicine is in the direction of accountability. All may be somewhat administratively accountable to government, and to institutional bureaucrats, but lawyers and doctors are always understood to be responsible for the outcome of their work directly to the client. Although the ideal professional teacher has a deep sense of responsibility to students, there has in the past been little to hold teachers externally accountable for the work they do, or for the interests of their clients to be directly taken into consideration. If they used the techniques promoted by their superiors and did not offend anyone, it was unlikely that any enquiry would ever be made about whether their teaching had been effective or if it had achieved the desired learning outcomes. Moreover, there is frequently sharp disagreement about what outcomes are desirable, how to achieve them, or how to measure them. It is also in the vested interests of teachers and their unions to oppose any measurement of teaching effectiveness.

This too is changing, however. The combination of easy access to information and the litigious nature of American society is already starting to produce educational malpractice suits, and there have already been cases involving students who sued because they were allowed to graduate while still illiterate. There is nothing like the threat of legal responsibility to concentrate the mind on making improvements. Thus, in far more learning situations, specific goals are being delineated before the process begins, and these are being tested for once it is finished. Also, more people are becoming involved in the making of curriculum decisions, in the development of teaching strategies, and in the measuring of outcomes, and the premise of the information society is that such integration of the efforts of the interested parties will increase substantially in the future.

Since the learning process is addressed to a critical ethical point --the completing of functional human beings--the question of effectiveness and the matter of accountability to the student are crucial issues. It would be inappropriate to have the student, if a young child, control the process and the curriculum, even though this may well be suitable for an adult learner. However, if teacher-student accountability were practised, and the outcomes of the process measured, it might become possible to determine which, if any, of the many educational techniques are most effective. However, it should be noted that the institution of teacher performance assessments will probably take a long time and the process will likely involve much pressure by clients and much resistance by unions. Theory may indicate that such assessments are desirable, but theory must still be put into practice. The wide variation in control over education will continue to ensure that the move from theory to practice is uneven.

What is the Status of Teachers?

At the present time, teachers are often regarded as professionals only at the university level, and those in K-12 schools may find themselves accorded a rather low status in the community, especially considering the importance of the task in which they are engaged. Yet, there is little evidence that university professors are better teachers. Indeed, as a rule they are not expected to be competent in anything but research--for that, and not teaching, is their profession. In the public eye, there is often suspicion that the K-12 teacher does little that could not be done by anyone. There are sometimes deep concerns about the results of grade school education that are said to be partly justified by the scores on some standardized tests, and many of those concerns are focused on the teacher.

The problems of the broader society also impinge on the classroom, making the job more difficult still. Because public schools can operate with training or educational goals that are either few in number, not clearly defined, or that contradict one another, and because of the competing desires of society, teachers find themselves at the conflict point of the various demands made for learning. Instructors in technique have an easier time, because they know what the outcome of their work is supposed to be. University professors have the least problem of all with such conflicts because the general public does not expect to know what they are doing, and they need not have educational goals, so they are virtually immune from criticism. They are, however, academics and not men and women of action, so they are extremely vulnerable to direct frontal attack, especially with the threat of violence. Thus, in the 1960s academic standards and course content came to be dictated by the most violent student radicals, and few academics were courageous enough to withstand the onslaught. After a period of relative calm, such attacks were renewed in the 1990s, this time focusing upon the removal of the last vestiges of cultural relevance and values, and on the grading system (see Bloom--The Closing of the American Mind).

This discussion leads directly to the question of qualifications for teaching. In the formal sense, these vary widely from one jurisdiction to another. Until well into the twentieth century, many teachers took only one year of teacher education beyond high school at a "Normal School," and were never formally tested for competence once they were certified. They were at the mercy of superintendents, inspectors, and board members, and could be fired for any reason. Later, the single professional year of training came to be appended to the end of a standard university degree, and teachers were also able to form powerful associations or unions. In some places, it became virtually impossible to fire a teacher, regardless of competence. However, many certification boards now have rigid formal standards, and periodically require recertification or upgrading of skills and they make every effort to remove those unable to perform the task set to them.

There are three aspects to teacher qualification: personal suitability, teaching skills, and subject competence. A degree of administrative ability may be included in the first of these, and the last has traditionally been directly equated with academic background. At the primary school level, the first two are held to be more important, but as one moves up through the years, they suffer in regard by comparison to the last, and at the university level, the latter becomes paramount. Yet, at all levels, the learner is also searching for role models to assist in the becoming of a whole human being. This fact would seem to suggest that the order of priority should always be: (1) who teaches, (2) how it is taught, and (3) what is taught. Care must be taken not to allow such a shift in emphasis to become an anti-intellectual relegation of subject matter to a low priority, or an emphasis on charismatic leadership at the expense of content. All three are important factors in education, but the industrial age has tended to diminish the human element, and it may need some restoration.

Such a realignment of priorities might be achieved if the essential unity of learning at all levels is realized, and teaching becomes a more professional, self-policing discipline (with public input). Given the size of the teaching force, this goal seems difficult to achieve, but the ethics of the task of completing human beings would seem to demand much more careful selection for personal suitability to the task. In addition, it requires both a greater subject competence at the lower levels, and a greater ability to teach at the higher ones. These will not come about by accident, but requires deliberate action on the part of educational administrators.

Information paradigms seem to encourage such action, however, because it will become increasingly difficult to hide incompetence of any kind in an open and highly competitive society, and this will force these issues into public view where they must be faced. It is also possible that the passing of the baby boom and the increased demand for more highly trained and educated workers will put heavy pressure on schools, and this will help to ensure that teachers are suitable, do become competent, and are effective. Here, too, change does not come easily, and there are sure to be teacher organizations that will fight any perceived loss of power and influence.

Who Should Pay for Education and Training?

Population stability also means that North American school enrolment has peaked and will begun to decline. However, increasing participation at the upper levels, raised expectations by students, the great number of new capital-intensive techniques, and higher teacher salary expectations, continue to put upward pressure on school expenses. Like the health system, the learning system has potential to break the budgets of even the wealthiest funding agency. This has resulted in two trends.

First, there is a search for new technology in order to turn over some of the teaching process to machines--this in the hope that it would make learning more capital intensive and less salary intensive. Whether this is a good thing or not will be discussed at length later in the chapter. This is, however, yet another illustration of demanding that technique solve problems, without considering whether the problems ought to be solved first, and then technique applied to make the solution more efficient. As in the computerization of a bad office system, when it is done the other way, with technique before solution, it is the problem itself that becomes more efficient, that is, it becomes worse faster.

Second, there is a growing lack of enthusiasm on the part of the state for the whole process, at least in some places. Governments, and the people who elect them, have in some cases begun to lose both ability and will to fund the learning system to the extent that it has come to expect. The result has been a series of conflicts between governments and teacher unions, and in some jurisdictions a sharp decline in the percentage that formal learning has of the overall government budget.

Quite apart from long-term survival issues, this has created a funding vacuum for existing schools that can be met only by appealing for funds to the private sector or by going out of business and turning their students over to private sector institutions, which charge fees, but on average spend much less. In either case, it would appear that, over the short term, private sector involvement in and private funding of education is likely to increase dramatically. The companies and individuals providing these funds will of course demand a corresponding control. Whether the resulting competition with the public sector will improve learning or fragment it remains to be seen. It is likely to mean that education and training will become more distinct, for the private sector is much more interested in the latter than in the former; it will not pass up the opportunity to influence schools to produce graduates who are immediately useful to them.

One widely advocated proposal to fund publicly while allowing the competitive advantage of a private system is to issue vouchers for all children in a jurisdiction. They, or their parents, would then select a school and turn over the voucher, which would then be exchanged for a fixed number of dollars from the state. Such a method would have been cumbersome to implement without computing equipment, but would now be relatively easy to administer. Critics have attacked the proposal as a way to create two standards and two tiers of education and so divide society--all at public expense. A way around this objection might be to use a partial voucher for half of the estimated cost, or some other suitable proportion. Public schools would receive the other half from the state as they do now. Private ones would be expected to raise their second half from the private sector. This system could possibly reduce the total cost of education, allowing the public sector to redirect money, say, into the inner city schools and actually provide improved learning experiences--if politicians could avoid the temptation of using it elsewhere, such as in reducing deficits or increasing other spending.

A further objection to a voucher system in the United States is that it would necessarily result in government funding of religious schools, including Catholic parochial schools and various other Christian institutions. Some believe this to be unconstitutional.

Other funding methods are possible as well. As the corporate sector grows in power and influence it may set up its own schools for employees and their children. Corporations in fast-changing technologies that must engage in continuous retraining could become more like technical schools or even universities than like the businesses of old. Indeed, this is already true to a great extent of companies like IBM, Apple, and Microsoft. However, since the average size of corporations will likely decline in the information age, and these may undergo very rapid and continuous change, the ability to run formal schools in this way may be rather limited.

In theory, universal public schools are the prime agency for democratization and socialization, but this ideal is difficult to maintain in a divided society. Privatization may have the advantages of maximum efficiency and precise targeting, but it has the disadvantage of potentially severe fragmentation. This is already taking place, and seems likely to continue until some time after the broader society has reached a new consensus on its values and priorities. What seems certain is that schools will have to find new sources of revenue and support in the private sector. Where these will be, and what this will lead to is not yet clear.

Is Learning Fair?

Every society has a variety of socioeconomic groupings or classes. As mentioned earlier, one socialist ideal is the levelling of these through learning, but what may well happen is that either the existing class structure is exacerbated or that new ones based on ability are established. There can be little doubt that the wealthy have access to better and expensive private schooling for their children, and therefore to substantial opportunities to perpetuate their economic advantage for another generation.

Even in the public system, schools in better neighbourhoods or wealthier regions have a greater capacity to raise money for school projects, equipment, field trips, and even renovations to the physical plant. They may also attract the better teachers, and people of poorer districts may not be able to complain effectively about such inequities. Thus, in some inner city schools, problems with low status, poor self-esteem, broken families, despair, inability to speak the language, and skepticism of the value of schooling, all conspire to make the schools relatively ineffective. Since wealthy suburbs may be under different school boards, and the city core often lacks a solid tax base, these problems get worse as time goes on. Such schools have little pride, little of the latest technology, and few outstanding graduates to any kind of post-secondary institution other than the local prison. Some have relatively few graduates of any kind, and some become focal points and breeding grounds for crime, substance abuse, and yet another despairing generation. It is important to note that although such problems are often complicated by the fact that particular ethnic or racial groups may dominate the inner city, these difficulties are social and economic, and have nothing to do with race, though in some cases official reluctance to address them might.

Busing students to and from the inner core was once seen as the panacea for such problems, and it did focus the attention of uncaring suburbia for a while and was an interesting social experiment, but the experience has shown that this does not in itself solve the real problems, and it is now generally recognized to have been inappropriate. This seems to be an instance where only the centralizing of control and the funding of education over much broader regions can spread out the tax base enough to equalize facilities and salaries. That, and a broad-scale injection of private funds may have some potential to improve such situations, but these are long-term problems and will not go away soon--there is no quick fix for complex problems.

In this instance as well, there is pressure to find technological solutions to social inequities, but it must be appreciated that neither money nor technique alone will solve human problems; it takes people motivated by an ethical compassion, love, and a desire to break the cycle of poverty. On the other hand, if the fourth civilization's information industries have a sufficiently high demand for workers, they may only be able to get them from the thus-far neglected inner city schools. Thus the cycle might also be broken by economic pragmatism.

Another fairness question has to do with ability. As mentioned earlier, and notwithstanding socialist doctrine, it is readily observed in real classrooms that not all people of a given age have equal ability to learn. Since training will continue to be important and education will likely make a comeback--with either or both becoming more necessary for job holders--there is a distinct possibility for the creation of new and very sharp class distinctions in the future. For instance, one could worry that if the Metalibrary came into being, the 10 percent or so who were sufficiently well-learned to use it effectively would have the potential to control it, even to the point of denying its use to those they deemed unfit. On the other hand, with the proto-Metalibrary now known as the Internet/World Wide Web, such trends do not appear to be very evident.

One possibly longer term alternative to such a class structure is to find technological fixes for the learnability problem--drugs or electronic implants that erase the advantage of the more able by raising everyone's ability. In some ways, the latter of these especially seems like a rather inhuman solution, for it appears to make cyborgs of all, but if the alternative is a meritocracy or dictatorship of the learned, there may be those who will prefer to become part machine instead. Yet another possibility with problematic overtones is that genetic selection could be employed to change the next generations and make them more able. Such eugenics programs are still closely associated with fascism and would not likely be well received in the West. Indeed, there are more frightening alternatives still, for there will always be demagogues who wish to initiate a neo-Nazism based on hatred of the less able, and propose a new "final solution". These dangers are as real as the lack of resolve by society to solve the problems of educational and other inequities in real and lasting ways. Whether such a resolve will ever come about or be effective is yet to be seen.

Finally, the premise of public schooling is that there is a shared set of fundamental values that society has the duty to transmit to the next generation. As long as North American society was viewed as a melting pot with a homogeneous result--one that presupposed an essentially British view of law, justice and civilization, and assent given to a Judeo-Christian moral background, public schooling was workable and generally acceptable. However, in a multicultural environment that presupposes no absolutes of culture or morality, each group would appear to have an equally legitimate right to demand either that the schools respect its ethnic or religious traditions or to insist that it have its own schools in order to survive.

Thus, some religious groups (often including Christians) find that they cannot tolerate a school or university system operated on principles antithetical to their existence, so they set up their own schools. Others do the same for linguistic, cultural, and religious reasons. Such efforts result in fragmentation, and mitigate against the long-term survival of a recognizable uniformity of culture.

Is there a short-term way out of such a dilemma? Short of a new totalitarianism, there is probably not, for even using the Metalibrary for much learning may be potentially more fragmenting than unifying. Indeed, it will almost certainly be used by some at first to promote industrial paradigms such as further fragmentation and isolation and only later be seen to enable something better.

In the long term, the very existence of the fourth civilization will mean that a new consensus has been reached, and a new stability may well come to the school system along with it. But the shape of moral/ethical and societal consensus is still very much up for grabs in the marketplace of ideas, and it is not now possible to confidently predict a stable or unified immediate future for North America's schools and universities.

Is There a Right to Learn?

At first, the answer to this question may seem to be an obvious and unqualified "yes". Everyone must learn certain basic techniques and background context to function in society. But as some of the above discussion indicates, it may be difficult to determine how much each individual has a right to learn, and there are subsidiary questions:

o Is there an obligation on the part of every person to learn?

o Does any right and obligation to learn extend to the provision and forced acceptance of twelve years of schooling?

o Does it extend, as asked above, to a fundamental right to become equal in ability by technological means? ...to be born equal in the first place by genetic selection or manipulation?

o What limit, if any, is there on the obligation of society to provide training and offer education, and at what point do both become the individual's responsibility to society?

o If twelve years of schooling produces an inept, illiterate, and ignorant graduate, who is responsible? Is it the parents', for passing on a poor genetic heritage or providing an anti-education atmosphere; or the schools' for not overcoming the inability or lack of interest; or is it society's in some general way? On the other hand, is it no one's fault but the student's, or perhaps no one's at all?

o Is there a right to be educated in one's own moral, religious, or cultural heritage, or is there a right and duty to become part of that of the historical majority in whatever nation one finds oneself living? Or, is there a correct mix of rights and obligations in this connection?

In the increasingly litigious society of North America, these questions need to be phrased in terms of who shall the defendants be in the learning malpractice suit. For that matter, who should the plaintiff be--the student, the parents, or the employer or society upon whom the student is eventually inflicted?

Over the longer term suppose that very capable artificially intelligent artifacts were built. Would they have a right to training because they are able? Would they have more such right than an incapable human student? More seriously yet, would the ability to receive training imply understanding? If so, would it imply also the right to be educated? If so, could it be taught aesthetics? etiquette? morals? Do history, sociology, or human society have any meaning for such a device? The answers are not simple; seeking them forces one to go back to the questions of what it means to be alive or to be human--and the answers shed very little light on the problem of less able humans.

As previously mentioned, there is here much potential for social troubles, up to and including violence; the question of what it means to be human is one whose answer must be universally accepted in the ethical consensus, or the cost in misery and human lives could once again be great.

Is Learning Sexually Biased?

This is another flashpoint question--one that may well have as many answers as there are students or teachers. The author recalls one occasion on which an inner city school teacher from another country held forth at length during a conference on the subject of the inability of women to learn mathematics. He cited the fact that in many years of teaching, no female student had ever taken his analysis (pre-calculus) course. When informed by the author that his own two classes in the same subject were at that very moment overwhelmingly female (and had been for years), he reacted with disbelief.

In many cultures, women have been regarded as ineducable. They were routinely and systematically denied a variety of types of education even in the nineteenth century Western industrialized nations, and this is still the case in many parts of the world.

Some authors claim that North American teachers in all grades still give most of their attention to boys--either because they ask for it more often and more effectively, or because of a built-in cultural bias of their own. On the other hand, it may easily be observed in most high school graduating classes that majority of graduands are female, and this is overwhelmingly so of the valedictorians and other medal winners. By the late nineties, women outnumbered men in Canadian universities by nearly two-to-one. If this latter point were the criterion by which to judge, it would appear schools were at this point heavily biased in favour of female students. Since the majority of elementary school teachers are women, such a conclusion is not only tempting, but also has a ready explanation (though not necessarily the right one).

Interestingly, however, though women have begun to outnumber men even in highly competitive disciplines such as medicine, they still are a decided minority in the mathematical, computing and information sciences, and to a lesser extent in physics and engineering. Typically, first year calculus has still more women than men, but they all vanish from the discipline by second year. Likewise the small number of women in first year computing courses are seldom seen at the higher levels, even though there are many women in managerial positions in the computing industry.

Why are these things so? Is there systematic discrimination favouring boys in some parts of the schooling experience, and girls in others? Some claim there is, and governments through the 1990s have launched expensive programs to change the outcomes, on the theory that equal numbers of both sexes ought to be successful in each endeavour. However, some other questions about the cause of such observed differences in outcome have not been carefully investigated. Are there some innate differences between the male and female brain that affect what students are capable of learning, or perhaps what they want to learn? Or, on the other hand, are boys and girls culturally conditioned to differing social roles and learning modes by the toys they are given as toddlers, so that they become unlikely ever to develop certain interests? One might suppose, for example, that if a person has never as a child played with construction toys or been encouraged to take things apart and put them back together, he or she could never become an engineer or a physicist. It is certainly reasonable to suppose that if female primary teachers conveyed a fear of mathematics to young girls, their students would not likely train for any profession needing that discipline.

Answers to such questions have only sometimes been sought, and then have proven elusive. Performing such investigations would be as politically difficult as doing so on the basis of racial differences. This would appear to be one of those areas of educational mythology and policy where much effort and funds have been expended to fix the outcomes of an ill-understood problem.

Is There a Technique for Learning?

Many attempts have been made to describe what happens when a person learns, and how to induce it efficiently. One ancient method of teaching, the Socratic, attempts to draw out of a student the ability to think via a series of questions. A question this technique begs is whether every person has the ability to think at the desired level.

A modern theory, the behaviourist, couches every part of the process in terms of the actual response to stimuli and the altered behaviour patterns observed. There are champions for the lecture method, for classroom demonstration, and for the discovery method. On the other hand, there are critics of all. Teaching has been attempted with large groups and with small, with "lock-step" lectures and with individualized progress, with rigid structure and with none, by dispensing knowledge and by demanding that students discover it. Along with techniques, cognitive theories to explain how learning takes place have also multiplied. However, there is little convincing evidence of the general superiority of any one of these theories or techniques in all situations. Each one of them may be shown to work given the right teacher, student, and subject material. The challenge is to suit the best available method to all three, addressing the whole person through a variety of strategic techniques.

One thing that does seem necessary is to provide the student with not just factual knowledge, but also systematic (and perhaps formal) techniques for doing their own analysis afterwards. For instance, children can learn to read by memorizing vocabulary as whole words, but this method has its limitations, because not every student can memorize very many words, and all eventually run out of capacity. At some point, children have to learn the techniques of phonics so that they can analyse new words in a systematic way without committing to memory each new combination of letters that arises in their reading. Similar comments could be made about mathematics--only so many number facts and formulas can be learned by rote; sooner or later analytical methods have to substitute for memorization.

The question of learning effectiveness is compounded by the fact that it is not always easy to measure it. If the object is training, the student can be asked to demonstrate the technique after a suitable period; it is for this reason that there are examinations and theses. If the object is education, it is not clear how the outcome can be measured, for the ability to assess ideas is more than an ordinary technique. Questions of motivation are also difficult to deal with. Some students are motivated for training by the prospect of social status, employment, or approval. But, what makes a person want to learn about ideas, and can such a desire itself be taught? In other words, is there a meta-education that must precede education, and if so, where does it come from and how? It is the very difficulty of answering such questions that makes the task of educational administration discussed earlier so very daunting, and the need to develop reliable techniques for learning so pressing.

If a consensus on the answers to such questions remain elusive after thousands of years of schooling, what prospect is there of discovering them now, say, as part of the artificial intelligence agenda? They are so far a part of the human mystery and will need to be understood much better before any kind of intelligence enhancer or autonomous artificially intelligent device can be constructed.

Summary and Conclusions

The questions in this section have thus far been presented without many suggestions for answers. The hierarchical ethical framework developed in Chapter 3 presents an obligation for all involved in the learning process to work in their mutual interest in order that the learners will become more functional human beings and society might become enriched. This wholistic approach would tend to increase emphasis on educational aspects of learning. A Christian would further suggest a larger obligation to God to become (and to enable others to become) the most able human being with the talent available just in order to serve Him and to express this in service to others. On the other hand, a Marxist might aver that the only aspect of learning worth considering is the extent to which it serves the needs of the society.

But, these motivations for an obligation to learn are idealistic, and there are other agendas. For example, the technocrat might wish either to raise everyone's intelligence or to impose a dictatorship of the most able--whichever seemed to be most efficient. Since such an approach is little concerned with the individual as such, it would likely mean that training would come to be the chief factor in learning, because education, and anything else that might produce a "better" person, might not be regarded as relevant to such a society's needs. Moreover, there are many pressure groups vying to dictate what it means to be that better person. Whose agenda will the student be compelled to follow?

The Fourth Civilization Table of Contents
Copyright © 1988-2002 by Rick Sutcliffe
Published by Arjay Books division of Arjay Enterprises