March 26, 2014

“Many reformers have tried to jigger the school system, to improve it by making small changes in the hope that it would eventually be transformed into a new modern, well functioning system. But I think these reforms are victims of the same illusion that beset Gorbachev in the early days of Perestroika. Reforming School requires more than jiggering. Here too we have to call into question the underlying, structuring ideas. But what are the structuring ideas of school?

A relatively easy step towards an answer is to note that what is wrong with our schools is not very different from what is wrong with the soviet economy–both suffer from rampant centralism. In fact, if we ask what aspect of American life is most like the Soviet economic system, it might well turn out that education is the closest parallel.

But it is easy to criticize bureaucracy superficially. It’s harder to realize that, in both cases our schools and the Soviet economy–the bureaucratic organization reflects underlying “structuring” ideas. I believe that a critique of bureaucracy can only be effective if it proceeds on this basis. Otherwise it cannot intelligently guide reform that will be more than jiggering. Gorbachev’s Perestroika started as jiggering but was forced to move quickly toward calling in question the fundamental ideas of Soviet society, among them its deep commitment to a centrally planned economy.

Does the parallel between the central plan and our school’s concept of curriculum need more explanation? In one case, a central authority decides what products will be manufactured in 5-year plans; in the other, it decides what children will learn in a 12-year plan: two-digit addition this year, three-digit addition next year, and so on. It is in the nature of this centralized planning that teachers be cast in the role of technicians whose job is to implement the plan. The very nature of a curriculum requires subordinating individual initiative to the Great Plan. Schools can see no way to make it work other than by exactly the methods and principles that have now been discredited in the Soviet system. All over the world, more and more people are recognizing that these principles do not work in economics. I think that more and more people are also beginning to see that they will not work in education either. These principles fail in the two cases ultimately for exactly the same reason: They hamper individual initiative, and deprive the system of the flexibility to adapt to local situations.”

Papert. S. (1990, July). Perestroika and Epistemological Politics. Speech presented at the World Conference on Computers in Education. Sydney, Australia.

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