The Importance of Community in Education

Martin Rezny
Words of Tomorrow
Published in
9 min readMar 30, 2016

From a first person point of view


In most of my previous articles about alternative approaches to education, I’ve focused either on what an individual can do if they’re left to their own thoughts and choices, or on impersonal systemic changes. Your article has made me realize that I’ve neglected the remaining piece of the puzzle, the community. Unfortunately, it tends to be true that organized educational systems are designed to isolate and atomize both students and teachers.

Team, Team, Team, Team, Team!

What I mean by that at the most basic level is what was identified by Sir Ken Robinson as the ubiquitous principle of no cheating on a test. Which, in real life, is called cooperation. Even assuming that students in any given school get to do a team assignment every once in a while, most of the conventional education is not supposed to be highly community-based or cooperative.

The theory behind that, if there indeed is any, is that intelligence is a property of an individual mind. As long as you cannot solve a problem on your own, you’re not a problem solver. As long as you need to look up a fact, you don’t have it. Of course, real life isn’t like that at all, because other people exist.

The example I remember using when arguing with my high school math teacher was that if I was an engineer and my task was to draw a viable design of a bridge, I wouldn’t have only fifteen minutes to do it, no calculator or tables allowed, no time for a revision, no chance to consult it with anyone else, etc. Also, I would be doing it on a computer, but that’s another thing.

Teaching teamwork and how to use sources or tools to make one’s work easier and more effective should be way more emphasized than it is right now, but the failure of conventional education goes much deeper than that. When you create an environment where students are not encouraged to cooperate and simultaneously are pitted against each other in a competition where losing means a life of little opportunity and poverty, you’re crippling communities.

The Damage of Learning Against Each Other

This is a multiple-step problem, so let me deconstruct it for you. As far as I know, the first step of competing on the level of grading of students is typically okay because if one student gets a good grade, it doesn’t mean that another students has to get a bad grade. There isn’t a limited supply of As, and why should there be, right? If you know your stuff, you should get an A. If the whole classroom passes a test with flying colors, it’s a good thing, isn’t it?

Well, in our current educational system, it becomes a problem somewhere down the line. There’s only a limited amount of good career opportunities, which is why there’s a limited amount (or limited usefulness) of college degrees. Since everyone is required to work in order to make a living, some people have to lose. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a perverse incentive.

What it has already caused in the testing business, in the US especially, is that there suddenly is only a limited supply of As and all other passing grades. Because if everyone passes, the test doesn’t function as a filter. That’s a real directive that test scorers are being given. Even if that wasn’t the case, this incentive motivates students to not wish their peers (=rivals) to succeed.

Why would students band together in such a system to collectively ensure that everyone does well and passes every test? Some do cooperate, and thank atheist god or your favorite deity for that, but it’s far from the default situation, and it can only make rational sense in relatively small groups. Helping each other within a small circle of friends still leaves enough “enemies” unhelped.

What many may not realize is that the lesson this kind of education teaches is that society is an unforgiving place where every individual is left to their own devices, surrounded by merciless competitors. But this is what makes the society that way. If education was a community where everyone made sure that no one ever falls through the cracks, that would become the status quo.

Misers Reproducing Misery

It is an undeniably human instinct to act out of fear, wishing harm on others while promoting one’s own self-interest. But is that actually always a sound strategy benefiting one’s own self-interest? Not every game is zero-sum, there exist situations where a win-win solution is possible and many good and practical things can be achieved that way. Let’s not just assume otherwise.

What is the real goal of education? According to professor Wes Cecil, there are two basic answers available ever since the beginning of education — it’s either indoctrination (preparing people for specific careers, reinforcing the current social order), or growth oriented learning (increasing and realizing individual potential of people, challenging the current social order). Which is it for you?

From my point of view as that of a futurist, we should be preparing people for change, since change is inevitable, and only one of these models is preparing people for an undetermined future. At an ever increasing pace, the careers that we force young people to fight over getting access to are ceasing to exist, and if we leave caring after one another to the 20th century economics, the time will soon come when there will be a lot of destitute people, young and old.

The solution to the problems of where the young people will get jobs to make a living or who will pay for retirement is one of those that are so simple that they seem impossible — it’s for all human peoples to start functioning as a community again. If more people get better education in a highly cooperative mode, we may come to remember that the purpose of technology is to end forced labor and to provide for the needs of everyone, because we can.

Instead of petty recrimination and accusations of laziness aimed at people who mostly by happenstance, genetic lottery, and systemic necessity become losers at the current education and career game, we can learn that it is in our power to take care of everyone. It still serves the selfish instinct as well because that way, we ensure that someone will take care of us in case that we run out of luck.

A best teacher resignation speech - yep, that happened

The Woe That Is to Be a Teacher

If our current way of teaching is not working very well while simultaneously trying to accomplish an undesirable goal, it begs the question of how come it is that way? Since teachers are those who do the teaching, obviously it must have something to do with them. Based on everything that I know of what it’s like to be a teacher in the current system, I don’t think it’s what teachers want.

If I just focus on examples of resignations of teachers who won some kind of national best teacher award, which is surprisingly a thing that happened more than zero times in recent years, the three basic groups of problems that prevent teachers from doing a good job are revealed. One Stacie Starr, US national top teacher, resigned over Common Core “drill ’em and kill ‘em” policy; Anne Marie Corgill, best teacher of Alabama, resigned over pointless certification bureaucracy; and finally, a headmaster from UK that won separately both best teacher and best manager awards, resigned this time as the main culprit of a managerial bullying of over 20 teachers over pregnancy rights, maternity rights, and statutory rights of newly qualified teachers.

Depending on how strong are teachers’ unions and professional organizations in any given country, some of these problems may be more or less pronounced, but I don’t think you should kid yourselves, whichever country you’re from. Maybe with the exception of Finland. As a general rule, and increasingly so in the last more than a decade, teachers have very little freedom in what and how they teach the kids, they’re pushed to work harder for comparatively lower pay, and are burdened with more bureaucracy.

As a teacher of rhetoric from the Czech Republic, which is a relatively advanced and civilized country with a proud and very long national educational tradition, I know of many of these things either first hand, or from teachers that I know personally, and it is a bleak picture. I’ve heard of shady managerial practices like firing the teachers over the summer holidays and rehiring them for the next school year, and I effectively cannot teach at high schools for a lack of certification in a field that I have undeniable expertise and experience in, because such a certification doesn’t exist for said field.

I’d have to spend time and money getting an entirely unrelated pedagogical degree first, and then I’d still be subject to the same command of curricula and preparation for pointless and cruel tests, both of which don’t even reflect the nature of the field of rhetoric. Just like every other high school teacher, I’d also be expected to do more unpaid work at home, either for made up administrative purposes, or scoring of tests that are supposed to create the divisions among students that ruin communities.

Unless I do something extreme like writing an educational reform myself and convincing the heads of ministry departments to somehow implement it, I can’t even begin to work, despite the interest of teachers and students in the subject, even despite the sympathy of headmasters, who can’t allocate funds easily for something that isn’t already allowed by a decree from on high. I could technically offer my services as a private tutor, which I do for people from different continents, but Czech people nearly completely rely on schools.

And that’s the fundamental problem with the lack of effective teacher or student communities — the powerlessness to change or choose anything. When the parents believe that only nationally sanctioned school education is good education, but good teachers aren’t allowed to teach freely or at all and students cannot effectively express their wishes or follow their interests, the result is only complete frustration all across the board. If there was an actual teaching-learning community, failures of the system could be circumvented.

In case you don’t know what a debate looks like

Learning the Wrong Lessons

Unless, of course, the community instead tries to replicate the failings of the educational system. I can again speak from years of experience as an executive of an alternative educational NGO that specializes in debating when I say that the wrongheaded bureaucratic and managerial practices often make their way even into what’s supposed to be the alternative platform.

I know of a case when one of the founders of the whole debating program in my country, who literally wrote the rules of the main national competition, decided to return to debating after a maternity break, only to be met with a requirement to renew debate judge certification. In the few years of her absence, the organization has bureaucratized itself in the image of national educational institutions to a point when personal dimension within the largely informal debating community ceased to matter to the leadership.

Understandably insulted, the founder decided not to return to debating after all in order to make a point not unlike the aforementioned resignations. It’s safe to say that the end result was to the benefit of no one, and this is just a single symptom of a larger problem that has already lead to paralyzing schisms in several national debating organizations over a major disagreement between the proponents of formal and informal organizational approaches.

After spending years overseeing both of these approaches applied in practice, I believe that what we need is to realize that education cannot be effective without being personal and communal. Centralized bureaucracies simply don’t care about individual students or teachers, and how could they, for they are not a person. People are more exceptional in their needs and talents than they are the same, and no singular curriculum or test methodology or certification standard can accurately address and reflect them. People can.

Top-down centralized bureaucracies and hierarchical managerial structures in education may maintain an aura of efficiency, but it is hollow. It’s an arbitrary efficiency for the sake of formal OCD, a lot of ado for not much betterment of anyone involved. These structures are also incredibly rigid and helpless in the face of change, unlike flexible informal associations. While the basic idea of standards has merit, the community would be much better served if it had the power to police them by itself, rather than have its hands tied by regulations the creation of which it can barely influence at all. Let’s just be human about it.

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