Monday, September 16, 2013

Schools and Education: A worldbuilding hangout report

The Schools and Education hangout was just two of us - me, and Erin Peterson - but we had a great time and talked about a lot of fascinating stuff.

Our first concern was to look at some very basic questions surrounding schools and education in a secondary world. For example, is there a school system? What form does it take? Is there more than one type of school for different types of people? Or is there a single schoolhouse for the community? Do people learn mostly by independent study, homeschooling or home tutoring? I mentioned that Thomas Jefferson did a lot of self-teaching through literature - but it's important to note that he was also very wealthy and had access to lots of books.

Erin asked, "What are people trying to learn?" That question is also critical to understanding the kind of schooling that people will require. A large school system often focuses on basics of citizenship; it's paid for communally and mandated for all, because it functions as a source for good citizens of the larger community. There are also religion-based schools, vocation-based schools, work-based schools. In fantasy, you often find apprenticeships, because they are a really effective way for individuals to pass their work onto the next generation without needing generalized formal training. In the US there is a common cultural view that college should be for everyone. Erin argued that high school prepares you for the American Dream, but that college makes that dream easier to achieve.

Education is an accomplishment. How is education valued in the society? Is it revered? Is it considered overly esoteric "ivory tower" stuff? Both? Depending on where you are and the cultural norms surrounding you, finishing high school may be a big deal, or advanced degrees might be a big deal. Erin said her grandmother lived in Hawai'i in the 30's and for her community, High School was a major accomplishment. Depending on the context, just being able to read might be a big deal. On the other hand, what kind of "big deal" it is may also differ. It could be celebrated, admired, resented...even considered holy or arcane.

I have an example of a very complex education system in my Varin world, because each of the seven caste levels approaches educating its people in a different way. The nobles have a very low population, so all of their children go to the same school and there they are groomed for the government and administrative tasks they specialize in. The officer caste has special academies for firefighters, police, and army groups, etc. The servant caste can work in bureaucracy, law, prison administration, or as personal advisors and servants to the nobles. They are therefore thoroughly educated in the topics they choose to specialize in; the special servants for the nobles have their very own Academy that teaches them everything from grace to bodyguarding to medicine and politics. The University, however, belongs to the caste that includes artists, engineers, electricians, writers, and other knowledge workers. The laborers have apprenticeships and certain kinds of centralized Union-based instruction, while the merchants have their own special focus on mathematics. The undercaste has no structured education but receives on-the-job training, while reading is handled as an apprenticeship-based skill. At every level, each group believes that it is superior to the other groups in some way, and there are different criteria they use to judge how successful they are.

Erin mentioned that schools can be used for indoctrination, especially when they serve as gatekeepers for selection of particular people into elite groups. She suggested that there is a stereotypical pattern, which I have also seen before, where upper classes tend to have individual tutoring, middle classes tend to have schools, and lower classes tend not to have any schooling at all. This is not the kind of pattern that can be considered universal. (No cultural patterns are universal!)

Education systems can serve as enforcers of existing cultural biases, even when they are not ideologically committed to those biases. They can be places of active oppression, or just of subtle institutional bias where behaviors are enforced along double standards, and people are quietly treated unequally without notice (as when boys get called on more than girls).

We made a few general social notes: women can oppress other women in these contexts just by force of precedent and habit. It's important to avoid placing modern beliefs in non-modern scenarios (not all downtrodden people will be jealous revolutionaries). Furthermore, if social roles are complementary, people typically won't be keen just to switch roles with their counterparts - women won't want to reject all their traditional roles and become men with their differently restricted roles, for example.

It's quite common for the US/Western view to see schools and education as being secular institutions, but this is not the case everywhere. Religion is often a form of education. Priests are very often scholars, and the church or other religions can be deeply connected with literacy in a community. A small group of people with specialized education can constitute a knowledge elite, depending on whether they freely share their knowledge or whether they carefully guard it. Knowledge of the Bible was restricted for many years to those who spoke Latin - and translating it into English was a huge deal.

In a small community school there may be differential teaching in the same classroom, as when many children of many levels are studying in the one school. The teacher's job is to teach as much as each individual can handle.

School scheduling is another thing that can vary widely. In a community whose seasonal schedule is determined by the needs of the harvest, schooling may also bend to that necessity, depending on how important the presence of each community member is to the success of the endeavor. The schoolteacher may be exempt from participation, or he/she may not. It's possible that the one person who doesn't need to participate in the work can be asked to take on more than one function (as a priest/teacher, for example).

Erin mentioned Kate Elliott's Cold Fire, which explores the impact of social stratification in school with a scenario where girls are taught differently from boys, and rich kids differently from poor kids. Discipline in the school is also applied differently.

We then turned to the question of science fiction where computers are shown functioning as teachers. Both Erin and I had some trouble with this idea, at least in the case where the computer is not a fully functioning artificial intelligence. Teaching is most effective when there is interaction between the learner and teacher. Another question that is often left unexplored (both in medieval fantasy and in far-future science fiction) is the role of parents in schooling. Do parents help with homework (homework itself is not a given!)? Do they scaffold, or demonstrate, how the knowledge is used or how work is to be done? Are they at work all day, or dissociated from the community that holds the knowledge being learned? Are they somehow abusive? Any change of this variety will have an enormous influence on outcomes. In the science fictional computer learning scenario, there is often very little parental presence shown (the schooling scene in DS9 was a real eye-opening first for me!). Any AI functioning in this environment would have to have extensive social and psychological knowledge. Can it figure out what you are talking about if you are making errors? Can it help you understand what kind of questions to ask to improve your knowledge? These are sophisticated things that need to happen for the education to be most successful. Google, for example, can hypothesize what you are about to ask it - but its metrics are based on what it has been asked previously, so it is still ill-equipped to anticipate questions it has never been asked before. Kids are notorious for making errors and asking questions that are unique and unexpected!

We then talked about how classrooms are arranged, and how learning takes place. Do students sit? Do they learn by doing? Are there lectures, hands-on experiments, or getting out in an environment to explore? Does the teacher employ the Socratic method or something like it? Are students asked to derive their knowledge from examples? Are students expected to work in groups, or does the teacher deliberately separate people who like each other, in order to encourage individual learning? The US focus on individual learning can be problematic for some students, as when a second language learner is separated from a friend who has been scaffolding her language and content learning. There is benefit at a certain point, because the student becomes more independent and must fend for herself, but until that point, her progress may be slowed. A similar difficulty arises when we ask whether to separate twins.

At that point we got around to content. Who decides what is important to teach? What is considered vital, and what is restricted? Are subjects integrated with one another, or are they compartmentalized? What is the role of arts? Are they considered integral, or "extra"? Knowledge is web-like and interconnected, and math and art are everywhere, but the US education system has not seemed to recognize this in its traditional curriculum design.

We also have a rigidly defined school year, with semesters, and a fixed curriculum that must be "covered" by a certain time. This means that constant, consistent attendance is a must, and traveling commitments or illness can lead to "missing the boat" and being significantly delayed in that fixed program. A stigma is attached to missing school, or to repeating a grade. However, repeating a grade can be very helpful. Our own experience has been that especially at the earliest level, repeating a year can lead to dramatic improvements in attention, and social success, which can lead to success later as a student progresses in the system.

Individual learning styles vary a lot, and attention to those styles can be very helpful, but isn't necessarily that common. Teacher and parent expectations combine with those styles in interesting ways. Indeed, at the end of this discussion we agreed that there was a lot more we could talk about! (Like why does math have such a reputation for being hard? Or what about people who establish their own schools for specialized skills like kung fu etc.?)

Thanks very much to Erin for coming to chat with me. I'm a little behind (as you  may be able to tell) on my reports, but I hope to catch up this week. This Thursday's discussion (9/19, 11am PDT on Google+) will be about personal faith in worldbuilding and stories. I hope to see you there!



  1. I love how many facets of education you covered here. I've thought a great deal about education in my worlds, but this went a few places I hadn't deeply thought about.

    1. Yes, we sure went all over the place! :) I think a broad-ranging discussion can be helpful, in addition to deep-reaching ones into particular topics. I appreciate your comment!

  2. Other big things to consider about education are its flexibility, support, and toxicity. By that I mean that my wife and I both have bachelors degrees in the humanities. We can have very interesting conversations for hours and hours. Friends of ours who studied physical sciences, or didn't go to college at all, remark on how learned and flexible we are. My father went to trade school and he loves asking me "how did theys and what ifs" and comparative questions about things his church-educated neighbor told him.
    But then I have worked in physical labor jobs where other "grunts" thought I thought I was better because I went to school, because I didn't know engines, because my chosen topic of conversation might be equal rights instead of fantasy football. I still find it very odd that all my life I was told to get a good education, and to then be looked down upon simply because I had. It's one of the most backwards conundrums I've yet experienced.
    And lastly, when I say the toxicity of education, I mean are students taught to be manipulative, cruel, brutal, deceitful? And that's just today's American high school ;)