(Brick and Mortar) Schools

It’s time to stop using the expression “brick-and-mortar school” as if there is any other kind. I mean in particular to oppose the terms “virtual” and “on-line” being applied to schools, for such network-connections-and-data-bases don’t act as schools except in a threadbare and impoverished sense.

Or are they even as good as threadbare? The standard of “progress” mandated by No Child Left Behind, described generously as “very crude” by Professor Gary Miron of Western Michigan University, would qualify as threadbare. And yet applying even that standard, a recently released study co-authored by Professor Miron showed that on-line “schools” did worse at “improving” their students than “brick-and-mortar” schools did. (It also showed that for-profit “schools” did worse than non-profit schools.)

The late sociologist James S. Coleman did a large study reported in his 1987 book Public and Private High Schools. In it he found that the single strongest correlate of effectiveness in ordinary high-school education was that the schools in which the effective education took place were functional communities. A network is not a community, though some communities do function partially through networks. There is certainly nothing communitarian in an arbitrarily collected group of young people sitting by mandate in front of screens. Nor do such groups bear any resemblance to the ad hoc groupings (not communities) sometimes found on social networks, whose members make a choice to share some limited interest or focus. That is one reason we distinguish between communities and interest groups or single-interest constituencies; but we should also distinguish between networks and any of those other collections, for a network need have none of the above.

For something to be “virtual” in the traditional sense, it must operate under some kind of power or agency (a “virtue”) that has an essential and sufficient effect even though the thing in question does not take its usual form. What essential and sufficient agency is at work in a “virtual” school? Surely the answer can’t be “instruction”! Of the three kinds of learning—knowledge, skill, and understanding—educational software can hope to deliver only knowledge. Skill requires coaching, and the last time I looked, almost all coaches were genuine human beings, for how could they not be in order to adapt themselves to their students’ needs? And the promotion of understanding requires Socratic questioning, which software cannot provide, for something like the reason that it cannot play a good game of gō.[1]

When I think of software providing understanding, it puts me in mind of the electronic confessional in THX 1138. The Donald Pleasance character receives “understanding” from his “confessor,” but the movie invites us not to congratulate the effectiveness of future cybernetics but to mourn the threadbareness of a life to which that “confessor” could offer anything significant.

In the most famous example of Socratic questioning, Socrates himself hears his acquaintance Thrasymachus assert that justice is the interest of the stronger party. Socrates asks him a series of questions whose answers lead Thrasymachus to understand that justice cannot possibly be what he has just claimed. Socrates holds him to each answer he gives by asking one more question about that answer till Thrasymachus grasps fully why he was in error to make that assertion. This is not something that can be programmed because—in real life, if not in a dialogue planned by Plato—the programmer cannot know what a respondent’s next answer will be to an open-ended question, and it is these open-ended questions that force the respondent to step out of the box of slogans and memorized lines that he brought to the discussion. Until then, “justice” might as well be the montillation of traxoline.

Good teachers understand all of this, which is why some teachers in Idaho (and elsewhere) are protesting the mandating of online “schooling.” One of them, Ms. Ann Rosenbaum, sounds like a formidable person and a dedicated teacher, and one not to shrink from a struggle. It is a pity that she must come up against such sorry adversaries as Idaho’s governor Otter and its schools superintendent Luna. Luna falls back on vacuous clichés like “schools of the 21st century,” while Otter says that if Ms. Rosenbaum “only has an abacus in her hand, she is missing the boat.” Of course, that is not the only thing that Ms. Rosenbaum has in her hand, as the article shows. (Thankfully, it doesn’t show what Governor Otter has in his hand.)

But she doesn’t need anything in her hand when she is using the Socratic method: “engag[ing] students with questions” and “using each answer to prompt the next” question. Of all the questions Socrates asks Thrasymachus, only the first one could appear on question-and-answer software. Ms. Rosenbaum doesn’t want to give up a rich line of questioning for haring around fields of knowledge with questions asked arbitrarily, which is basically what question-and-answer software does.

A “virtual school” is not a community, nor can it be one. It does not have a sufficiency of action by virtue of which it offers a complete education. It will provide coaching for skill at about the same time that country clubs can replace the pro shop by the machine shop. It cannot impart or ratify understanding. Why are we calling it a “school,” and why are we moving towards such things? I am afraid the answers to these questions have little or nothing to do with education. While we are turning up the answers, let us refrain from “saying the thing that is not,” as Jonathan Swift called it[2];for an on-line “school” is not a school.



[1] This was written before Alphago, but I still find it unlikely that educational software will be able to respond in a genuine way to students’ comments any time soon. In the meantime, human beings should do just fine as teachers, and barkers of “educational” software should wait till it does before touting it. (17 March 2016)

[2] While Gulliver was in the land of the Houynhnhms

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