Howard Zinn, MUN, & The Future of Education

After spending weeks thinking about the presentation and education panel I would be leading at ChoMUN, I found a new perspective on our current systems. The group at the Da Vinci Institute had a great deal of experience in “Futurist” thought. In the first few paragraphs of their treatise on the future of education, they cite the inefficiency of systems as they exist today.
It is a distant past, but before I continue I want to explain their first reference to an inefficient system that hindered progress in the ancient world: the Roman Number system. It is accepted by most mathematics historians (yes, they exist) that the progress of the Greeks ground to a complete halt when the Romans asserted their grip over most of Europe and the Mediterranean coastline. RomanNumeralsWriting a number in Roman numerals is an addition and subtraction equation in itself! Think about the number MDCCCXLIV = 1844. Imagine trying to do bookkeeping and data entry with this system. Imagine division problems… never mind exponents and decimals!! Now go a step further and imagine how engineering and finance must’ve been held back by this inefficient numerical system.
In our country today, we have developed a tax code that is now 64,000 pages long. We have so many laws that most lawyers believe they are uncountable. Another system that is becoming utterly decrepit is the education system. Each of us were born with the natural proclivity towards learning (we witness, we crawl, we walk, we speak, we write, we develop language and vocabulary…) Education gap wideningyet by the time we’ve reached adolescence, most students grow sick of the tedium of grades, papers, exams, standardized tests, rigid classrooms, and they question the “reasons” for knowing math or history.
Something has gone wrong with our current investments, and our future deserves a fresh perspective. Students deserve to be inspired and teachers deserve inspired students. Our system has been slow to adapt to the revolution of the internet. The academics who are revealing a renaissance of education research are slow to push their discoveries into the classroom. The local public education districts are so oppressed by budgetary constraints that they struggle more with balance sheets, completely losing sight of advantageous reform. As a graduate student in the most quantitative field that currently exists in education (An outline of a program in psychometrics), I am a first-hand witness of the trench that lies between the practices of policy makers and educational researchers.
When imagining the future of education, we must make room for the creativity of learners to pursue their interests and motivations. The extent of subject matter that can be learned has become so vast, each with a depth unrivaled in any historical context. Molecular ThoughtsWhen we restrict each student to read a subset of classical novels, whitewashed interpretations of history, and terse outlines of science, we dull the beauty and richness of the human experience. Then we take it a step further and force today’s students to bubble in dots for more than two weeks of the school year, instigating anxieties and insecurities that negate the confidence building activities that should be inspiring students to learn more…
Confidence-based learning belongs in the classroom, and teaching/lecturing needs to transform into guided learning. Model UN is a beautiful example of a confidence-based learning environment. Rarely does a teacher even enter the room. Students refer to their own research, they formulate their own arguments, they mediate the debate with their peers, and they present solutions to problems that are subject to their peers’ scrutiny. Let’s make a quick comparison to a social studies classroom reviewing the US Constitution:

  • Teacher gives dates, administers reading homework, and demands lists of dates, authors, and memorization of the preamble, bill of rights, and key amendments…
  • Students do as the teacher says, maybe research for an individual report on an author, and memorize as many details as possible for the test.

SecurityCouncilIn Model UN, a student will be assigned TO BE a person who was a member of the Constitutional Convention. The student would be given a 2-3 page document that coarsely details the political and economic environment of the United States in the 1780’s highlighting key historical developments and figures. The student would arrive for the committee and begin formal debate to concommitantly develop THEIR OWN VERSION of the Constitution.

This is a learning environment. It forces the student to collaborate, defend his/her position, optimize language, and interact with others for a common goal. It is how policy is actually created… and the memorization process is not routine, it is constructive. This is the modern classroom now transformed into a learning environment. The moderators are guides. They steer an ordered chaos with the assistance of Parliamentary Procedure, and as such it is an incredibly creative forum of dialogue and compromise.

Mindfulness

Our history, as it is currently taught, does not allow much room for creativity. Dialogue is far too often a monologue. But there are diamonds in the rough canvas of history that can allow for much more interaction, specifically the Zinn Education Project. Howard Zinn is a historian and veteran of WW2. He wrote a book called A People’s History of the United States. The book is written from the perspective of a witness; it is not the typical declarations of historical justifications for the winners of our past conflicts. It presents facts with questions of whether things could have been done differently. It makes history feel alive rather than a passive pool of segmented events and characters.

Our students depend on us for this view. They depend on their parents to be honest about the physical, mental, and emotional hardships of life. They depend on their teachers to give them the skills that will propel their feelings of preparation for a successful future. We at MUN-E are deeply invested in this vision. We didn’t write this book for our health, we wrote it to help develop the mind and emotion of our future policy makers. We want to give a taste of the character traits that assist the communication practices of students in these collaborative learning environments. We want them to develop their own learning organizations. We want to help them change their own future for the better… because it certainly isn’t getting better by itself.

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