Stealing Innovation from the Gods Part 1: Education Bound

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Thy Godlike crime was to be kind,
To render with thy precepts less
The sum of human wretchedness,
And strengthen Man with his own mind
From Prometheus by George Gordon Byron

Settling on a title for the Education Unbound blog was a task that took nearly a year to complete. I wanted a name that captured many diverse elements in a single phrase – no small feat. I settled on Education Unbound after some soul searching and a return to my first academic passion, English Literature. Rereading Byron’s poem Prometheus and Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound in addition to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (The Modern Prometheus) while thinking about technology, education, and societal conflict during times of change led me to the title.

It is my intention that Education Unbound evokes the ancient myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods to enlighten mankind. Prometheus was a uniquely benevolent entity who was brutally punished for his good deed, this also seems to be the case for contemporary educators who are constantly under attack from politicians and the media. Prometheus’ story also evokes a sense of renewal that can arise from difficulties overcome, as I hope education can transcend the troubled times it is facing to deliver learning to all humanity.  I also intend for the title to bring to mind Mary Shelley’s work as an example of the way that new technology and innovations often inspire unwarranted fear in a society in flux. Finally, I hope that Education Unbound makes the reader think of the ways that education is currently shackled to an outdated model and must be set free if it is to fulfill its mission of bringing light to the masses. That said, this two part series examines how education has been bound, and proposes how we as a society can set it and ourselves free.

Education Bound

Evil minds                  
Change good to their own nature. I gave all

He has; and in return he chains me here
Years, ages, night and day; whether the Sun
Split my parched skin, or in the moony night
The crystal-wingèd snow cling round my hair;
Whilst my belovèd race is trampled down
By his thought-executing ministers.
From Prometheus Unbound by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Jacob Jordaens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The goal of education, at any level, in any society, should be to enlighten the citizens in its charge. Essentially, to do exactly what Prometheus was punished for – bringing knowledge and innovation to the masses. Our education system is constrained by both external and internal factors that prevent it from doing that consistently.

External Constraints on Education
Zeus expected humans to quietly and obediently sacrifice and worship the gods. Prometheus disrupted his plans by enlightening mortals to be something more than Zeus intended.
Externally, the needs of an industrialized society and the "right now" intervention of politicians are the two major factors that have kept education from becoming truly innovative. A mass production economy required a factory approach to education that would produce nearly identical workers, conditioned to follow orders and respond to bells and whistles. That is exactly what the American education system became during the industrial revolution, and it has struggled to break free of that model despite the change to an information-based economy. In large part change has been stifled due to the lack of foresight on the part of politicians and educational policy makers.

Education is not an endeavor which can be judged in any single moment. Rather, it is the accumulation of many experiences over a lifetime which build on one another. Educators understand this, but politicians, who are constantly seeking solutions to problems within the very limited timespans of their tenure in office, do not. While the need to change education is obvious to politicians, their solutions focus on short term fixes like standardized tests and curriculums, cost cutting efficiencies, and teacher "accountability" that actually reinforce the industrial model rather than help to move beyond it. To truly break free, a long range plan for learning is needed that looks to expand and enhance education rather than streamline it.

Internal Constraints on Education
Part of the needed advancement in education must also deal with overcoming the internal constraints that prevent innovation. Among these are institutional structures that inhibit change and a failure to make technology a central part of the curriculum. Education is historically one of the slowest to change social institutions. As one of the pillars of society, there is significant institutional inertia at play in education at all levels, particularly in higher education where similar organizational structures and patterns have been replicated for hundreds of years. People, even within the system (maybe particularly within the system) are reluctant to embrace change that will cause discomfort either for themselves or those they serve.

In public education for example, almost everyone has attended a K-12 school for some period of time and thus is familiar with the system as it is and has been. As author Stephanie Coontz points out in The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap people tend to look back on the past through a lens of nostalgia that clouds the reality of what they experienced. In this way, all stakeholders in education feel that changes would disrupt the institution that they remember fondly from their childhood.

Because of this institutional inertia, schools have been reluctant to truly embrace technology as a core component of education. As educator Justin Tarte points out in his Life of an Educator blog, the foundation of our education system is damaged and must be repaired. One way of repairing the underlying structure of education is to make technology the core of the curriculum at all levels.  Educational institutions have been reluctant to make technology the focus of education for many reasons: technology promotes individuality rather than conformity, works against the shortsightedness of politicians, is incompatible with funding limitations, and the rapid pace of technological change counteracts institutional inertia. In a world where teachers are overworked, underappreciated, and have little time or support for professional development, this is a daunting task. Like Prometheus, teachers are isolated and punished for their good deeds rather than being provided with support and resources to help incorporate change.

Education has been shackled by all of these factors which work in direct opposition to its primary mission to create an enlightened population that can actively work for change and seeks out innovative solutions to the world’s problems. Tomorrow’s post will examine the steps we can take to unchain our education system.

 Join the discussion about the ways in which education has been bound on Google+ or Twitter @drjwmarquis.