Friday, March 09, 2007

Institutional learning.

I feel like I'm picking on Richard Chappell today. Ah, well.

Anyway, here, Chappell comments on "assembly line" schooling. He claims that there are benefits to "individualized" or "customized" learning, which is possible with "new technology".

He's not totally wrong. Flexibility in learning is necessary. Unfortunately, he's wrong to suppose that it doesn't already exist. Alternative schools as well as options in post-secondary education do open up different paths for different students to travel. Perhaps, though, Chappell means that the options are not sufficiently expansive. Certainly, the post seems to suggest that's what he means with talk of "individualizing" education.

However, there is a problem here, in that "individualizing" is not the same as "customizing". Let me explain by example. Suppose I want a customized car. I go and choose my car, then I have various parts of it changed: new paint colour, different rims, new engine, etc. But, I started with the same basic item that anyone else could have, merely altering it to suit my tastes. If I want an individualized car, though, then I want to start with something that nobody else has (or, to really follow the analogy through, can have). In any society, the latter option is insane. Unrestrained "creativity" -- the result of an individualized learning process -- is a recipe for chaos. There are certain basic things you just need to know in order to interact with other adults in mutually beneficial ways. So, on basic grounds of self-interest, purely individualized education is a bad idea.

The latter does make sense. But, if it's customizing education that we're after, it's not clear that the current system is really inadequate. As said, there are options, ranging from choosing different classes to going to a different school (or even home schooling). So, in order to argue that education needs to be more customized, there needs to be a realistic assessment of what level of customization already exists, coupled with some defense of what level of customization is optimal (and why that). Else this amounts to little more than a childish suspicion of institutions.

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