Liberate Knowledge

…to democratize power in all its forms.

“What if instead of debate teams we had solutionary teams?”

Ever since I first listened to this TEDx talk, “The World Becomes What You Teach,” I’ve repeatedly returned to a question the presenter – Zoe Weil of the Institute for Humane Education – brings up:

“What if instead of having debate teams we had solutionary teams?”

What if, indeed.

I don’t see eye to eye with every argument Weil makes in her presentation (more on this below), but I feel that this one particular point is of significant importance and should be drawn out further. Hierarchal education – in schools, universities, and other settings (workshops, trainings, etc.) – is in many ways a replication of our economic structure. It is based off the philosophy of extreme competition, where there are winners (straight A students; CEOs and bosses) and losers (those who flunk out; workers making minimum wage and who have no rights) as well as everyone in between. Extreme competition is exercised in classrooms formally through debates and informally/indirectly through tests and grades (where some succeed and some fail). On a slightly more macro level, most schools have one or a few valedictorians who are recognised as “the best of the best” by their institutions.  And, just like with capital, the higher GPA you have, the easier it will be for you to get into the university/college of your choice and then, consequently, the job/career path of your dreams.

And, of course, many of our society’s classically classist tropes also exist within the education system, e.g. people from disadvantaged backgrounds only need to “pull themselves up by their boot straps” (by working hard; by studying hard) and they will “make it” in school and then life – even though it’s long been established that students from disadvantaged backgrounds often face seemingly insurmountable odds in their educational careers.

Extreme competition-based education therefore replicates an exploitative economic system that only has an interest in promoting individualistic (and corporate) desires, rather than cultivating the ability of learners to make an impact in their communities and world. In education and in life,  a few come out on top while the rest are fodder for the system (or “good foot soldiers in the economy”).

That’s why this idea of “solutionary teams” that Weil has proposed strikes me as so interesting. It’s by no means a revolutionary discovery, but it is certainly a uniquely framed concept within the larger community-based education movement. Instead of pitting students against each other formally and informally when thinking about problems, why don’t we put them in situations where they collaboratively work to improve each others’ lives?

Specifically, in Weil’s presentation, she argues against having debate teams in classes where students are arbitrarily assigned a predetermined position on an issue (“Mexico’s drug woes are their own fault” vs. “US demand is the culprit of Mexico’s drug wars”) – and thereby simplifying incredibly complex issues into either/or discussions. While these class debates have the potential to be good brain exercises, Weil posits they have two major faults: 1) these complex issues are reduced into simple, dichotomous answers that do more harm than good for students’ understandings of the situations; and 2) the time and energy put into these debates could be better used by having students look for actual solutions to local and/or global problems. (Of course, debates can be healthy – as dialogue is required for advancing and evolving ideas, but that’s a post for another time).

Now, try to actually imagine if that energy students spent debating sides arbitrarily assigned to them was instead used to look into issues that impacted their schools (lack of funding and resources, lack of student interest, etc.); their communities (high violence rates, etc.); their families; their lives; their interests; and more. While it is indeed critical for learners to understand how their world works, it is equally as important for them to comprehend how they can shape and improve that world. At the moment, however, it seems as though the education system puts students into a position where they acquire “information” about the world without realizing how it affects them and how they can act on that knowledge.

Unfortunately, where I disagree with Weil is when she makes the argument that these “solutionary teams” should be pitted against each other in various competitions on county, state, and then national levels. By doing this, Weil is essentially replicating the system of extreme competition education (but rather than debating causes students are simply debating solutions). Instead, there must be cooperative and collaborative means for students and communities to determine which “solutions” they view as plausible and effective.

Despite this, Weil makes an absolutely excellent point that the students’ “solutionary team” proposals should – where possible – be implemented by the student and/or their communities. People learn best by practicing and doing, and they are significantly more interested in learning when they A) see the relevance of the knowledge and skills to their lives/communities, as well as B) understand that their efforts are making a tangible difference. Therefore, this model of “solutionary teams” would allow students to learn how to make a difference and impact in their communities by actually making a difference.

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