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Exploring assumptions in the institution of education

January 25, 2016

Following my last post about educational institutions, I went exploring the institutional aspect of education. What does it mean to be an institution? W. Richard Scott is considered an expert in institutional theory so I thought his book “Institutions and Organisations” might be a good place to start.

The first thing I learned from Scott is to distinguish between organisations – the schools, colleges and universities that provide education – and the institution of education, which is a much bigger thing. The institution of education encompasses the broad social belief that education is a good thing, the laws that govern education, the things that parents, teachers and children do from day to day as well as the organisations that offer education.

Scott defines an institution (p.56) as follows:

Institutions comprise regulative, normative, and cultural-cognitive elements that, together with associated activities and resources, provide stability and meaning to social life.

Now the “regulative, normative and cultural-cognitive elements” that he refers to mean (broadly) that institutions have rules, ways of behaving and assumptions associated with them. The rules for school include, for example, local laws that children must go to school from some agreed age (in South Africa, six years old). The ways of behaving are social norms, include that most parents send their children to school. So that, when your child is around five years old, you will find yourself having conversations with friends and family about your choice of school and how to enrol your child. The assumptions of the institution of education include the idea that education is good and will benefit your child in the long run. Such assumptions are deeply-held collective beliefs upon which institutions are constructed.

So, the institution of education is the collective idea that education is something we want, together with the social norms that education involves being taught in schools, colleges and universities, as well as the laws and regulations that have been put in place to ensure that these desirable things happen. The institution of education also includes activities, like going to a particular place, sitting in a classroom or lecture theatre, reading and writing, being subjected to examinations, parent-teacher evenings and the like. And the institution requires resources – buildings, knowledge stores, people, equipment, time, money and energy to function.

But what I found most interesting about Scott’s definition is the idea that institutions provide stability and meaning to social life. Stability and meaning are good, they reassure people that what they are doing is OK. Stability and meaning make people feel comfortable by creating some semblance of certainty (when the very nature of human existence is one of endlessly unfolding uncertainty).

So education provides a generally accepted thing to do with children, without us having to think too much about the reasons or possible consequences; send them to school for around 12 years, then send them to university for another 3 to 5 years. Why? Because education is a good thing. That’s a great relief when the alternative might mean having to grapple with questions like: What is the best way to grow this child into a really great, happy human being? What does my child need to learn and why? What is the best way for that learning to take place? Thank goodness we don’t have to answer those!

I can see why people set up institutions in the pursuit of stability and meaning and why such institutions are important to society. And this thought made me re-evaluate my thinking about education. At first I was thinking that we need to remove the institution – that learning is too individual and important to institutionalise it. But removing the institution of education would leave a lot of uncertainty, so perhaps what we really need is to think about how the institution could be better. How should the institution of education change?

Change in education is often focused on the activities and resources – more group work in the classroom, continuous assessment, and different funding mechanisms, for example. But to really change an institution means changing the assumptions, the accepted ways of behaving, and the rules that govern the institution. To me, change would have to start with those implicit assumptions – that education is a good thing.

The assumed causal sequence: that if you go to school, work hard, get into university, graduate and get a good job, then you will get your deserved material rewards and live happily ever after is being shown up as a cruel lottery. At each point in this sequence, you may or may not go on to the next step, and most people do not, because there are too few places in the next stage. For those who make it as far as formal employment, the promise is fulfilled and education is indeed a good thing, but for all those who lose at some point in the lottery, the implicit assumption of the institution is wrong.

School dropouts find that school has not taught them the knowledge and skills to subsist, to set up micro businesses, to find and hold down piece work, to identify and balance their risks across multiple sources of income, to use social networks to their advantage and to remain optimistic and confident after being labelled by the institution of education as failures. For them, education is not necessarily a good thing.

Perhaps the assumption that underpins the institution of education should be replaced with: Learning is good, provided each person learns what they need to know in order to survive and thrive in the world that they find themselves in. Then we can start to explore the ways of behaving and rules that would be needed for the institution built on that assumption.

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From → Higher Education

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