(The following article appeared in the 21 February 1999 edition of the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch and is copyrighted by them. It is reproduced here only as a temporary measure for educational discussion purposes and will be removed as soon as the Post-Dispatch indexes it electronically for free public retrieval via the Internet.

Where's Common Sense in Education?

By Greg Sagan

A chief petty officer I knew in the Navy once posed the rhetorical question, "If common sense is so common, how come there's so little of it?" Man had a point.

One example is education. It's hard to find another field of social policy in which the objectives have become as confused, the methods as Byzantine, the issues as irrelevant and the solutions as ineffective and desperate as education. Would this tempest not benefit from a hard, practical look from someone beyond the storm's reach? Presuming to answer my own question, I offer this:

First, teaching is what we do; education is what we hope for. (For my old English teachers who may read this, read "education is that for which we hope.") We have a pretty clear idea of teaching methods, but our understanding of education is either blissfully superficial or dauntingly complex. I challenge anyone to define education in a way everyone else will accept. And yet education is what we talk about, just as though we knew exactly what it was and as though everyone else agreed with us.

It might help us to remember that the goal of education is to produce educated people. Not people who have served time in public schools, not people who have merely passed a test, not people who have excelled in non-academic fields, and not robots, but people with knowledge of their world, able to operate successfully in it, willing to learn even more as they go, and capable of adding to humanity's store of knowledge.

Second, we might keep in mind a test is not a subject. Passing a test is probably the best way we can establish what someone else knows; but it's possible for someone to pass a test and know nothing the next day, and it's possible for someone to fail a test and know a subject quite well.

But beyond this paradox there is a subtler issue, one more relevant to how we teach others. If our students learn the way I learned in school, they sit through some sequence of "lessons" and then take a "test" to find out what they've learned. This process is repeated 10,000 or 20,000 times over the course of formal education, and with enough passing grades the student is granted a diploma or degree and sails into the deeper waters of life.

We then find out that life is organized exactly the opposite - first comes the test; then, if we survive, comes the lesson. Not just one lesson, either. Every life experience offers at least two, and we may live to old age without knowing for sure that the lessons we learned are even useful, much less "right." But there is a vast difference between teaching a subject and processing an experience, and the ability to process one's own experience is a crucial part of continuous learning.

Third, we really ought to keep in mind that teaching and learning are symbiotic. There is no broken axle that, if repaired, will guarantee our arrival at our destination. We have teachers, we have schools, and we have students. When a legislature debates spending more money on teachers versus more money on schools, they offer a false choice, like a choice between water and air.

We need teachers with content mastery in the areas they are to teach and process mastery in the art of learning; and we need schools designed, equipped and maintained to support what the teachers are trying to do. If state legislatures haven't figured out yet that their job is to fund both facets of education - out of existing taxes - they obviously haven't been sufficiently stimulated by public opinion.

Finally there are the students. The young are amazingly adroit at figuring out games and winning them. When our youth figure out that the game of education is to jump through hoops, hoop jumping is what they do. When our youth figure out that the game of education is to learn facts, think critically, and apply insight to what is already known, they do that. When we set high expectations for students, over time they tend to live up to them. When we set low expectations for students, they tend to live down to them.

We must expect them to do more than acquire grades. Eventually we must insist that they show what they know and convince us they go into the world as more than just stationary targets for the unscrupulous. They must possess facts, of course. And they must be able to apply reason and judgment. But they must also know some concrete things about how society really operates, from the law of contracts to the operations of money to the nuances of customer service, if they are to pass the test that really matters.

We will know we are winning when we see our young managing life successfully and we say, "Gosh, that kid shows great common sense!"

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