Academic Discrimination: the failure to recognize individual differences.
(Opinion Paper by International Institute for Advocacy for School Children)
Education systems are organized in a way in that pupils are grouped together in classes, usually according to some assessment of their knowledge or intelligence. The paradigm in every class is that when pupils would get the same education, they would develop in an equal way. They each get the same assignments, the same chapters to read… As long as the pupil works hard, finishes his or her exercises on time and gets them right, the pupil would leave the class smarter than it arrived. But is this always the case?
The development of a person is not that straightforward. First of all, a child grows up in a certain social environment. This differs for each child, as the families they are born in are never the same (not considering twins, but even they can experience different childhoods). As children grow up and start making friends, they develop different skills in social cognition. Some research is even focused on prenatal social development.
As children perform different cognitive tasks throughout their childhood, they train these tasks in a certain degree, such that not every child has the same motor skill. Not every child has the same training of problem solving skills, or language acquisition skills.
The human brain is still a major subject of study. Cognitive scientists have mapped and related many parts of the brain to psychological events, yet still not every function is known and not every event can be explained. Nevertheless, we know enough about parts of the brain that are involved in learning activities, in language activities, in motor activities, or social activities. As the brain develops, it improves in performing these tasks. The degree in which each separate activity is improved differs on the training, however.
When someone seems to be a natural in a certain task, one says that person has a ‘talent‘. A talent is usually viewed to be innate. Something that a person magically possesses, or came with birth. I beg to differ with this view. As I said, the functioning of the brain is not yet fully known. The brain is capable of developing and is not provided as-is. The brain can get tired, the brain can be energized, the brain can be trained. Some brains don’t function the way they should. Yet in each case of described talent, a person has had a previous experience of developing the skill of the talent. Especially when a child is stimulated from early on to perform a certain task, and improve it over and over again. When I hear or read a story about a prodigal child, it often occurs to me that these children have been highly trained in a specific task. It could be being stimulated to play on the piano. It could be being stimulated to make drawings, or to speak different languages.
Now, of course genetics should not be ignored. Genetics and intelligence have a correlation. Though in this field, it is also known that intelligence is not fully determined by genetics and also determined by environmental factors.
This is why we need to be very careful in making assumptions about where talent comes from, and how it should be used. It should also be considered that every individual will inevitably have a different development of talent and different environmental factors that influence that development.
It is sad to observe that education systems are generally not designed to take this into account. A pupil gets his or her assessment, joins a group or class and gets exactly the same treatment as every other pupil in the same group or class (save the exceptions for special cases). This occurs in different layers, different age groups and different approaches. Education systems are designed to assume that after any assessment, each pupil has the same kind of development, the same kind of pre-obtained knowledge, the same training of skills and the same social aptitude. As they progress through a distinct course, and differences start to show in the performance of the pupils, one generally assumes that it is basically the motivation and the effort the pupil puts into the course that determines these differences.
Is that really the case? Obviously, motivation and effort play a major role in the success of an educational course. If a pupil does not cooperate, does not do the exercises and does not read the chapters of a book, the pupil will not learn much as he or she would if he or she did do these things. However, taking into account all the different environmental factors; the social differences of friends at school, previously trained skills, pre-obtained knowledge, the pedagogical method, the quality of the teacher and even the mood of both the pupil and the teacher on a specific day; the impact of these factors are immensely underestimated.
For example, a pupil that feels left out, is not part of a group and is perhaps even discriminated against for some reason. Would you say this pupil would develop the same kind of social skills as a person that is in the middle of a group and engages in all kinds of social activities?
For example, a pupil that is constantly given a problem solving task but does not get the opportunity to focus on other kinds of tasks. Would you say this pupil would have the same training as a pupil that has been given the tasks more evenly distributed over time and effort?
Educational programmes are designed to offer the same content in courses to every participant in the course. But in practice, not every participant has the same experience of the course. The courses stigmatize the participant to a certain degree, that they are assumed to have had the same experience, but they actually did not have exactly the same developmental background. They actually did not have identical skills, preobtained knowledge or even the same social learning experience.
And so does it happen that education systems neglect the individual differences of participating individuals. We get a degree in something, because we succeeded in getting a certain amount of questions right in some exams that where designed with exactly the same assumptions about each participating individual. Education systems fail to answer the question: “is the student really better off after having passed than before?”. If the student gets almost everything right the first time, then the student can be happy. If the student has to put much effort in studying, then the student is just a case of hard work. Are education systems really designed to try to understand what keeps the student that needs more effort in studying apart from the student that gets almost everything right the first time? No, usually the student is assumed to be brighter than the other, or the other student is just lazy and the other has already done most of the required tasks.
Furthermore, as a student progresses in the student life cycle, there are even more assumptions. Institutions look at the specializations on a diploma and take another institution’s word for having successfully mastered a certain discipline. Or an institution makes its own assessment of what could be expected of a new student, which is always a tip of the iceberg of what an individual could really achieve. It consists of demanding that certain questions are answered right, and certain tasks can be adequately performed. It completely ignores that knowledge is not directly quantifiable, because knowledge is an interconnected web of concepts. If there is a hole in the web, you have to fix it to solidify the knowledge. Even if a study programme is interdisciplinary, even if former education was already specialized in a certain field; all kinds of knowledge have prerequisites.
Meno’s paradox puts it this way:
“And how will you inquire into a thing when you are wholly ignorant of what it is? Even if you happen to bump right into it, how will you know it is the thing you didn’t know?” (80d1-4)
This shows that knowledge that is not yet obtained is not yet knowledge until it has manifested itself as knowledge. And for this, knowledge about this knowledge is required.
Why not wonder what causes the individual differences in the performance of students, and where the individual differences in preobtained knowledge and trained skills come from? Even if a student passes the same assessment as another student, they do not show identical performance in the course of their education. This is because the assessment is limited only to what the provider of education has put into the assessment, but it is not really an assessment of how the student has already developed their knowledge and skills. Do they have the required meta-knowledge to acquire new knowledge, as Meno’s paradox demands?
This is why we should not always make assumptions about what an educational institution says about a student, because it tells more about the institution than it does about the student. How much did the student learn?, How much brighter is the student now than it was before? These are not the right question when viewing grades and diplomas. The real question is Did the student adequately do the tricks we taught him or her to do? And the answer to that is simple: either the student did so because the institution performed well, or the student is simply a genius, or the student failed because the student did not put enough effort into it, or was not intelligent enough.
My suspicion towards education institutions has grown over the years as I got to know them better overtime. My suspicion grew even more when I found myself practicing autodidacticism. I increasingly became aware of the freedom knowledge should have, as opposed to being put in a box by an institution and only let out for those who agree with the demands of the institution. I also became aware of the liberty an individual obtains, as soon as the individual develops skills to teach him- or herself, and gets to know his or her own knowledge, skills or even personality better. This is what I have started to call ’emancipation of the mind’, from educational institutions.