Schooling and cross-functional forma mentis

this article has been sitting on my hard-disk for some time.

I should say- at least since I read on El Pais and The Guardian articles about the GCSE.

But similar complaints are routinely voiced in most developed countries: a puzzling focus on “efficiency” is seeding the educational choices adopted by everybody.

Maybe also due to the costs involved- a misguided attempt to obtain a faster “return on investment”.

Therefore, a focus on “faster” learning- or getting onto a master shortly after the bachelor, when actually you haven’t yet had any experience to master.

I wrote in September few articles focused on patterns (search for “Change2010” in my blog)- mostly casting a positive light on their usefulness on speeding up the learning process.

There is a small issue, that I discussed in the final articles: patterns built on top of your own personal experience are useful to compare anything new that you encounter with what you already experienced.

But learning patterns (e.g. as in “case study” learning) without any supporting experience risks creating a tunnel vision.

I do not know if the same happens in other countries- but, in my contacts around Europe, I saw an increase in specialization from an earlier age- a focus on learning more and more on a “vertical” approach, without ever trying to build bridges across disciplines.

It is efficient, and allows to have teachers focused on their own discipline: but who helps then to build the ability to “connect the dots”, i.e. to move beyond the mere understanding of each new knowledge item, and move onto developing critical thinking skills?

Obviously English isn’t my mother tongue- nonetheless, developing basic reading and writing skills in my working language was something that I learned through schooling in Italian, Latin, French.

Personally, I think that “learn to learn” skills are the best contribution that our school system can deliver, not cramming more and more specialized skills at an earlier age.

Even in later stages, say, high school or college, there is a difference between building the “forma mentis” to learn new material into your chosen field of expertise, and pushing more details about something that you do not know and never experienced- without even giving you the time to understand.

When I was in high school, despite the name (“Scientific Lyceum”), my curriculum was a little bit wider.

I had 5 years of Italian, French, Latin, Mathematics, History, Philosophy, and three years on Physics, with more limited introductory Biology, Geology, Astronomy (along with 5 years in Religion and Physical Education- but those were mainly used as “padding” between other subjects).

Recently I was asked which subjects I studied in high school- and then I was told “all that stuff?”.

Well, when I registered here in Belgium my high school diploma, a letter that I received from Italy stated that I had a diploma from a “Liceo Scientifico Tradizionale” (i.e. traditional scientific high school, vs. the “streamlined” one created few years ago).

Already in my times (1979-1984), the obsession to be “trendy” implied that textbooks were becoming so large, that we had to read sometimes 100 pages per lesson: no time whatsoever to discuss, and a rush to “complete the curriculum” every year in the last two/three months.

I discovered this issue about a decade ago, when somebody from the US, for his Ph.D. on the educational systems, asked if anybody was willing to give him some help on the European system.

An interesting subject, so I volunteered (I was then to receive an e-mail message thanking for all the material, and stating that I was credited in the Ph.D. :D)

The funny part? Thanks to public libraries and the Internet, I was able to review the “convergence” of our educational systems- and see how specialization at an early stage seems to be the rule of the day.

The paradox? While this is sold as a way to “democratize” access to knowledge, by removing the time to build a critical mind, under the coaching of a trained professional (the teacher), actually widens the social gap in access to knowledge.

Those who come from backgrounds where a critical approach to knowledge and new information is cherished, can still see past the demagoguery or misleading information.

And the others? They just learn the new suggested patterns, relevant or not.

I think that most innovations are nothing more than transpositions or “connecting existing dots”- maybe once in a while adding a missing or abandoned dot.

Suggesting to re-assess as beneficial something that was already there, but had been sidelined in the usual urge to be “trendy” or “adopting best practices”, requires the ability to look beyond your own nose.


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