Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 4 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

The Question of Education: Context, Scale, Binaries & Generalizations


Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 4 seconds

Reading Time: 5 minutes

I’ve been wanting to respond to Dave Cormier’s posts on the problem of education. I love that he’s taking the ideas we’re all discovering as we learn online in open, connected ways, and making connections to what might be wrong with formal educational systems today.

There are many reasons why these discussions are difficult to have. And many reasons why we still manage to have them.

Difficulties include:

Context: when someone talks about the problem of education today, do they mean higher ed or K-12 (indeed, the problems of kindergarten are different from those of high school; public from private institutions differ; disciplines like natural sciences have different problems from social sciences, or humanities). Because these problems are different, I suspect the granular solutions will be very different (duh), but the question is: are the larger questions similar?
Beyond the institution and level of education, context differs by geographical location, so US differs from UK from Finland from Egypt from Saudi Arabia from China from Russia from India from Ghana… You get the picture. Educational problems differ greatly. We may talk about the need for more critical and creative thinking, and I can bet you this problem is much higher in China than Egypt, and in Egypt than the US, and within the US, to differ by not only State, but by size and diversity of the town/city and even by neighborhood within a city.

Scale: how big the problem is differs as well across contexts, and the difference in scale as well as how decentralized and edu system is makes a difference. At my small liberal arts institution we have issues, but with small classes, taught by autonomous and mostly qualified faculty, they seem quite solvable.., this cannot compare to the larger scale of Egyptian public universities, and those in Cairo are on a different scale to those in smaller cities. When we talk about issues of access to higher ed in the US, and talk about elite institutions, it’s a very different thing than access that some girls do not have to education in, say, Afghanistan, or the kinds of risks people take to get an education at all, in, say, Palestine. When we talk about indoctrination, or memorization, the scale differs hugely from one context to another. When we talk about lack of teacher training, the magnitude of what we mean differs hugely. When we talk about teacher autonomy in classrooms, the difference here in Egyptian public schools differs greatly from private higher ed – and must be an even larger divide from universities or schools in Canada or Sweden.

Binaries: binaries can be helpful or harmful (haha joking). I think binaries are useful in showing extremes of situations, but rarely is the reality exactly on one side. And rarely is everyone’s reality the same in the same context. So, not every teacher in the same public school in Egypt is totally helpless to challenge the system and encourage critical thinking in the classroom; it’s just that, structurally, the system does not empower them to do so. Not every person who teaches at Harvard is equally good at promoting critical thinking, but i assume that highly selected student body plus facilities available all help them in that endeavor should they pursue it. It’s not that some teachers promote critical thinking and some not. Critical thinking is a multidimensional, multi-level process and can be understood and taught in different ways not recognized as equally valid by everyone. This means someone can promote a certain aspect of critical thinking like open-mindedness without promoting another, like questioning of authority ; or one might promote questioning authority of media but not questioning religious authority; or one might promote questioning authority to a certain extent but not beyond it. You get the picture.

Generalizations: and so generalizations are harmful when they gloss over these details, because you can’t really solve all the multidimensional problems of education in every context by lumping everything together, using binaries, and ignoring issues of scale.

But here is the catch….

All of what Dave says resonates across contexts and scale

So even though the details of the problems Dave is talking about, the extent, the scale, differs across contexts, the overall ideas he’s discussing apply to a variety of contexts. Sure, not every teacher in every school is failing to promote deep learning. And sure, many of us turn out alright despite all the hazards we imagine schooling must be inflicting upon us. Sure, many people develop agency intuitively or outside of school (easier now with internet, social media and satellite TV, if you have access and understand English, mainly) but as Freire suggests, having teachers who make this their life goal helps. Why can’t we just have more teachers who care to have students care about learning and who care to foster agency?

I’ve recently had the thought that maybe what we really need for well-educated people is the occasional inspiring teacher or learning experience. Not a constant slew of them. Think about it…. Exactly! We’ve all had a bit of both good and bad learning experiences. I ache, though, at the thought that some people get only the bad kind…

When I interviewed students for my thesis about how they developed critical thinking, it was often a couple of teachers and 3-4 important life events or non-formal learning experiences such as extracurricular activities or international exchange study that did it for them. It was sometimes interaction with someone with a different worldview or a parent who supported their open-mindedness or curiosity. Btw, Papert actually says in Mindstorms something along the lines of how we overestimate the impact of deliberate teaching on children’s intellectual and moral and social development (I read that after writing this post but before posting)

I’m not offering up solutions or pretending that “the education problem” is small. It’s huge, and huger here in Egypt than much of the West, I feel. But that’s self-centered. It’s complex. It’s teachers and learners and curricula and institutions and government and media and private interests and global issues and so much more, it’s mind-blowing.

And I understand that a lot of good learning occurs outside formal schooling. Why the heck can’t school just do that?. Because as Papert says in Mindstorms, what inspires each individual will differ (i haven’t finished yet, i know he’s getting at universality of computers and how that might change the roles of teachers and schooling to add value in new ways). I agree with Dave that the edu systems of today are made from historical remnants that no longer apply for what our edu goals for today should be (and we can’t generalize those across contexts, but there seems to be an overall failure in all contexts, with minor successes here and there).

I’m just offering up a different way of looking at this, which at least helps me feel slightly good about myself: that as a teacher, learner, writer and faculty developer, if I can make a small difference to one other teacher or young person, and if they take this forward, eventually there will be enough of us to cause a paradigm shift that will create a revolution. Overly romantic? Maybe that’s just my mood today 🙂 I’ll save something more critical for later


  1. I have made comments here on this annotated link: Thanks for the touchstone.

  2. I like this. It is pragmatic as I feel hope must be.

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