I suppose that we have to concede that in a complex society, dedicated educational institutions are a necessity, although Illich (1970) argues cogently that they are not. Nevertheless, being taught something formally is never better than second-best. The mistake made by people who advocate ever more additions to the standard curriculum, such as "citizenship", "managing personal relations" and "parentcraft" — and even some of the so-called "key skills" — is their naive belief that these can be taught and learned out of context, at a time and place of the teachers' (or state's) choosing.
Lave and Wenger (1991) and more vividly Becker (1972) have demonstrated that to put learning into a formal educational context has a number of consequences, all of them negative. Hunter (1994) has discussed the impact which the "social technology" of setting up a school has on the formulation of the curriculum (because a curriculum, however inarticulate, exists whenever and wherever learning takes place). And Holt (1977) in somewhat utopian vein, has explored these limitations and their alternatives. Together, these features add up to the process I call "teachification".
Time and place
First and most obvious, setting up schools requires that learning take place in a defined place at a defined time. It brings together a group of people who do not necessarily have anything in common apart from their ignorance, and requires them to learn a subject through a sequence of arbitrarily defined attendance slots in a physical setting selected for the convenience of time-table administration rather than any but token consideration of how people naturally learn.
The experience of schooling throughout their childhood has usually taught students not only what to expect in practical terms, but also created a emotional mind-set towards the learning environment, for better or for worse. The last thing many people want to feel is that "I have to learn this...". They would rather feel they were doing something, and "learning as I go along". But the former message is the one which is received most strongly.
Decontextualisation and Re-Sequencing
Nothing to do with DNA! In order to construct a taught curriculum, teachers have first to isolate what needs to be taught, and then put it in a teachable order. They have to isolate elements because what has to be taught has by definition to be new. We do not waste time on teaching things which people already know. But, in the real world, everything we undertake as we acquire new skills and knowledge is a combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar.
I have just cooked steak au poivre for the first time. (Consumer tests — my partner and myself — indicate that I was reasonably successful, thanks in part to Delia.) The actual recipe was new, but much of it relied on established knowledge — how to coarse-grind peppercorns, how to marinade, how to judge when to add the red wine, and when it was sufficiently reduced... This minor "learning project" (Tough, 1973) had a real-life context: the desire to produce something tasty for dinner, the need to use up the steaks in the fridge... It was embedded in normal practice, in a way in which it would not be if it had been part of some cookery course. I was ready to learn, and the assessment was — well, the proof was literally in the eating.
Not only does the teacher have to take skills and knowledge out of context — in a way which makes considerable demands on the student who is just beginning to learn in a vocational area, and even more on the student who is just venturing into an academic field — but a formal curriculum will almost always have to start with the easy bits and proceed to the more difficult. Educationalists tend to have a vastly over-simplified view of the nature of knowledge.
(I have only ever taken one course in IT — on MS Access (tm, blah, blah). I still can't use it, but I can make Excel jump through hoops.)
Incidentally (writing in 2009) the above is no longer true. I have had no occasion to use Excel in anger for years, and I no longer have any idea how I constructed those macros, or how a lookup table works... Use it or lose it.
One of the few exceptions to this artificial re-sequencing is the so-called "communicative" or "direct" approach to second (or third...) language learning. Here there is an attempt to put language in context, and to provide learners with tools to get by in specific contexts, such as "in the restaurant". Unfortunately it doesn't work.
- Learners acquire standard phrases which they learn by rote. Contrary to the simple-difficult progression, some of these are quite complex, but the learner does not necessarily learn what they actually mean or how they are constructed, so there is no established basis for progression.
- The phrases work as long as the other person in the foreign country plays the game and give a standard response.
I remember as a backpacking teenager, asking someone in France, "Ou est l'auberge de jeunesse, s'il vous plait?" ("Please can you tell me where the youth hostel is?") He replied (as I now know) "J'sais pas. C'est par ici, quelque part." ("Dunno. Somewhere round here.") I was flummoxed and forgot even how to follow up. Had he said "Marchez tout droit jusqu'au rond point, tournez a gauche..." (Without translating, the kind of directions we had learned in class) I would have understood, but unfortunately he had not attended the same French class as me!
- So unless you are actually there, immersed as they say in the language, the context offered is phoney, and you are just learning to play an artificial language game (not in the Wittgensteinian sense) invented by well-meaning teachers.
- It gets worse. As Phillips (1996) argues, this approach does not provide the grounding in grammar which enables you to go on and compose original utterances. It has a built-in ceiling at the level of standard phrases, and militates against the acquisition of real fluency.
So what about when people don't know that they don't know? Surely formal training is necessary, then? Only when they know that they don't know that they don't know. Then they are ready—until then, the need to learn is just something stipulated by teachers, principally because they are teachers.
So educational institutions tear embedded knowledge out of its context, then re-assemble it in an order which suits them. Then they arrogate to themselves the right to assess it. They (we—I used to be in the business and thus as "guilty" as anyone) then assess what they have taught. However, that is not necessarily the same as what students needed to learn.
Even assuming that the assessment is valid, reliable and fair, it is merely assessment of what has been taught. The formal curriculum becomes "reified" (this bit of jargon simply means that an idea is substituted by concrete representations, such as the notorious case of performance and quality indicators, satisfaction of which becomes all that there is to a "quality" service). In the UK, even the National Vocational Qualifications initiative, which was about the assessment of workplace "competences", as specified by employers, has been hijacked by training providers who assess the courses they offer, rather than real performance.
The effect of all this is to lead people to believe that learning is something which happens on courses, in schools and colleges. Thus the current UK government "Life Long Learning" initiative has become identified with taking courses: they have set up the LearnDirect organisation to promote and disseminate them. Even if you do not take the courses, the discourse leads you to believe that unless the learning has been accredited by some kind of educational institution it does not count.
The reductio ad absurdum of this is "Key Skills". Apart from the vote of no confidence these pass on the educational process to date, they suggest that these routine abilities which are common to the majority of socially-competent citizens need to be examined before anyone will believe that you possess them. Fortunately, there is little evidence so far of employers taking them seriously, but the hegemony of the educational establishment is moving in the direction of a consultant coronary doctor not being able to touch a person collapsed in the street because he can't show his first-aid certificate.