When everyone’s an expert

Incestuous, homogeneous fiefdoms of self-proclaimed expertise are always rank-closing and mutually self-defending, above all else.
― Glenn Greenwald

I feel the need to remind myself – and anyone who might be reading – of the origin of this blog’s name: unabsolutedotcom. The founding premise was that even the seemingly simplest of issues is far more complex than it might first appear. In and of itself, I wouldn’t blame anyone for saying “so what?” What is to be gained by acknowledging complexity? Shouldn’t we leave the details (of whatever) to those who have the knowledge and expertise? As Hamlet would say, though “there’s the rub”. What constitutes expertise these days? Do we know? Have we given it much thought?

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In fact, my recent observations lead me to conclude that our current view of the very notion of expertise is tinged with a persistent cynicism. If someone presents him or herself as an expert in subject X, should such an expert’s view of an issue differ from our own, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that view dismissed. As a general rule, would-be experts are valued only inasmuch as they validate our established positions on issues. In fact, the nature of information these days is such that an “expert” can be found to support just about anything.

Accounting for this phenomenon isn’t that hard. I’m old enough to remember a time when information of the more esoteric variety could be found only in books. Even then, if you were looking for something especially obscure, the public library wasn’t enough. If you were lucky enough to have a university in your community, you might visit its library but even then, depending on just HOW obscure your topic was, that could be a dead-end. When I was working on my thesis for my M.A., I had to physically visit archives as far away as Boston in order to find materials relevant to my topic.

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Compare that to today. I don’t think I’m so much different from anyone else: if a question about something occurs to me, I immediately head to the nearest internet connection (phone, tablet, desktop, laptop, etc) and “google it”. For the most part, that poses few problems since I’m usually looking for simple information. When that same internet becomes the chief source of our understanding of complex issues, I become concerned. I’m not the first one to say it but it bears repeating: finding it on the internet does not make it true.

The same warning used to apply to newspapers, as in, “just because you read it in the newspaper doesn’t mean it’s true”. This warning becomes all the more compelling when applied to the online world. At least newspapers then and now answer to editorial staffs and to a general code of conduct that helps them to avoid the worst inaccuracies. Internet sources, as far as I can tell, answer to no one. That isn’t to say that all things internet are unreliable; rather, it is the unfiltered quality that makes the entirety problematic. If something is found on a website whose pedigree is clear, we can take comfort. Determining that pedigree, however, can be difficult in its own right.

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As more and more people, organizations and interest groups come to understand the freedom the internet offers to present a particular point-of-view, it should come as no surprise that objective information on any subject is hard to come by. At the same time, those offering information online commonly make arguments that are intended to prove just how objective they are, even if their partiality is especially evident. Perhaps the clearest example of this would be Fox News whose tagline, “fair and balanced”, is laughable to all but the most indoctrinated. At the same time, the continuing insistence by such a prominent and mainstream source that it is fair and balanced feeds the very cynicism that I find so regrettable.

I would argue (and it’s an old argument) that where news reporting is concerned no such thing as absolute objectivity exists. By virtue of the fact that a certain thing becomes news while something else doesn’t, we know that someone, somewhere, has made a judgement call. In the end, the most surprising reality, to me, is that we seem to have lost sight of that fact. Perhaps we choose to ignore such an understanding as long as the source of our news confirms our point-of-view?

I suppose that simply makes us all human. What one of us doesn’t like to have our point-of-view confirmed as appropriate and right? All the same, what happens when easy access to “expert” information makes anyone who takes the time to read a few articles imagine that he/she is now well-informed?

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Our oversimplification of notions of equality has fed this delusion. In our continuing preoccupation with ensuring that no one is offended, we imagine that anyone’s opinion on anything is equal to the opinion held by anyone else. Maybe we should call it the democratization of opinion, a phenomenon where no single thing can ever be considered simply correct; rather, all opinions – no matter how outlandish – have weight because someone has them. And if you doubt the validity of a certain position, be prepared to counter the online experts who can be summoned in defense of just about anything.

True expertise in anything is a product of time (study being a large component) and experience. These days, loudness and aggression can often substitute. While such behaviours make for good copy on news feeds, they seldom lead to good decisions. Passion by itself is no substitute for understanding. The former is often easy to summon while the latter takes effort, far more effort than entering a subject line and pressing “search”.

Two different inclusions

Under popular culture’s obsession with a naive inclusion, everything is O.K.
– Stanley Crouch

The Supreme Court’s recent decision that prayer in public institutions – specifically at a council meeting in Saguenay, Quebec – shouldn’t be allowed provides an interesting entry point for a discussion of inclusion, a hot topic in New Brunswick, especially as it relates to public schools. At first glance, someone might be moved to question how the two could possibly relate to one another. Prayer at a council meeting segues into a discussion of inclusion in schools? Understandably, it seems like a stretch to want to talk about the two things in the same breath.

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A story on the Supreme Court’s decision piqued my interest when it used the word “inclusion” in reference to factors which determined the justices’ conclusions. Needless to say, inclusion here means something quite different from inclusion when employed in an educational context. The fact that the same word can be used in such radically different situations points to the problematic quality of such terms when they are used as if their meaning is crystal clear. In fact, as the radically different contexts suggest, definitions and their implications can serve as profound examples of the commonly expressed truth that “the devil is in the details”.

When it comes to the issue of prayer, the view of the Supreme Court seems fairly straightforward to me. While the article notes that our constitution, unlike that of the U.S.A., makes no specific mention of the separation of church and state, the principle of ensuring that PUBLIC institutions are inclusive suggests that favouring a religious stance over an expressed irreligious or atheistic one, has the potential to make someone in the latter category feel left out or uncomfortable. And the solution to this dilemma (let’s leave any discussion of how much of a dilemma really exists to another day) is so simple: before this decision, identifiably Christian prayers were said before council meetings; from this point forward, they won’t be said. Case closed.

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When the word “inclusion” is used in reference to education, on the other hand, it just isn’t that simple. Inclusion has become both a stated policy and a guiding principle in education in the New Brunswick school system. To speak publicly, in a negative way, about the policy is anathema for teachers. If anyone is fool enough to do so, an abrupt rebuke is likely to follow. Having worked in the system at a time when current inclusion policies were being developed but had not been implemented to the degree to which they are now, I have limited experience with the impact such policies have had to the present moment. Based upon discussions I’ve had with former colleagues who are working amidst the current inclusive environment, however, it sounds as though the challenges are many, to put it mildly.

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Just so no one reading this thinks I am someone deserving of one of those afore-mentioned rebukes, I am not writing to voice my opposition to inclusion in schools. As Canadians, we have many things of which we are rightly proud and I would like to think that our capacity for welcoming diversity within our communities is among the most highly regarded. Creating an inclusive society is on a par with any other element which might come to mind when envisioning the best Canada we can imagine.

But, in schools, inclusion isn’t on a par with the Supreme Court’s decision. In the latter case, a judgement is rendered and from that day forth, no prayers in council chambers ensures that one and all are “included” in such sessions. Unfortunately, in our rush to achieve inclusive schools, we employ a similarly narrow view. The prohibition that governs commentary on inclusion prevents anything resembling assessment of its effectiveness from occurring.

When I’ve tried to bring this subject up with people who are proponents of current practice, I am commonly confronted with the assertion: “Inclusion is working”. Considering our penchant for researching everything in education before we allow that it even exists, I am surprised on the one hand that such views are offered without qualification. On the other hand, the defense of inclusion as a principle has become ideological; hence, no time can be allowed for any opinion that questions the central article of faith, namely, that inclusion of all students in common classrooms without consideration for differences of any kind is an absolute good.

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In the case of a classroom, though, what does it mean to say that “inclusion is working”? Do we assemble students in classrooms with nothing more than the express purpose of gathering them together without consideration being given to anything beyond their age and grade level (assuming grade levels exist)? Most people, I’m guessing, would think that what is being learned and the environment in which learning is, hopefully, going to take place would be at least as important.

Perhaps the core of the problem with inclusion in reality – as opposed to inclusion in theory – lies with the either/or mentality that is so prevalent in this age of oversimplification. I’ve been privy to conversations where someone tries to raise a concern regarding a personal experience with inclusive classrooms only to be shut down before the concern can be adequately outlined. This is a siege mentality that imagines the issue exclusively in the framework of “you’re either with me or against me”.

Surely there is room for some honest examination of the impact inclusion is having on classrooms. Good teachers speak of more time being spent in raw classroom management than is spent on actual instruction. And even as I say that, I know that I could easily be assailed by someone who would question my formulation of a classroom as a place where instruction occurs: “we facilitate; we don’t instruct”, or something along those lines.

Even that, though, helps support my point. Classrooms are dynamic places and inclusion is just one element of that dynamic, albeit an important one. Focusing on just one element to the exclusion of all others costs all concerned. If improving schools is our highest aspiration, we need to recognize the true complexity of the inclusion model. If our PROOF that “inclusion is working” is simply that everyone is now in similar class groupings, we end up serving no one well.

Criticizing critical thinking

Critical thinking is thinking about your thinking while you’re thinking in order to make your thinking better.
― Richard W. Paul

I’m struck today by the irony implicit in the conception of this blog of mine. “Unabsolutedotcom” exists as a result of my frustration with what I see as persistent oversimplification in just about everything that touches upon our lives, but especially as it manifests itself in public discourse. And yet I try – in some 900-1000 words usually – to unravel that same complexity. While that might strike some as more than enough to dedicate to such a project at one time, I frequently feel constrained.

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Getting lost amidst the details (the devil’s in them, as the saying goes) constantly threatens clarity, but then I shouldn’t be surprised by that either. No matter the story in the media (I choose that as a reference point since so much of our grasp of current affairs is controlled by what we read, see or hear through print, television and radio), seldom do we learn much beyond the statement, the proclamation or the conclusion.

To be fair, in many instances, we really don’t need much more. If our concerns are limited to a bare understanding of events or facts without qualification, then our conventional media sources can be commended for doing a fine job. As I’ve noted in previous blogs, never have we had so much information so easily accessed (maybe “acknowledged” is a better way to put it since I’m at the end of a very long list when it comes to noting that). I’ve finally arrived at a point in my own life where I seldom sit around wondering how I will find an answer to something only to have it occur to me that the answer is literally an entry on my smartphone away. “Automatic” is the best word to describe my readiness to turn to the nearest electronic device whenever I am looking for simple information.

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What about reflection and analysis, though? A common theme these days (especially in education, my favourite topic) concerns the need for critical thinking in all kinds of situations. This information age of ours, however, creates a habit of mind that discourages such thinking. For that matter, I’m not even sure that we really mean “critical thinking”, per se, at least not my understanding of the term. “Problem-solving” better describes what most are looking for, which is a VERSION of critical thinking that is well-suited to an age of technological innovation.

Lo and behold, the entire notion of criticism falls victim to over-simplification and serves to further illustrate the difficulties inherent in even trying to address the issue. Instead of critical thinking being a vehicle whereby we illuminate the nature of a problem, where subtleties and nuance are revealed, or where questions are developed, refined or discovered, we pursue it solely as a means to a particular end.

Once again, my personal pursuit – of the more nuanced version of critical thinking – demands that I qualify the previous paragraph. The pursuit of a particular goal through critical thinking isn’t a bad thing. Of course it isn’t! But neither should that be regarded as the ONLY valuable use to which it might be put. The best critical thinking allows us to go wherever the mind might lead us, to confront the uncomfortable, to consider things in ways that might have eluded us and yes, to find solutions to problems that may have been, themselves, unclear to begin with. Allowing for critical thinking of the best kind, you might say, is the defining element of a free society.

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So why am I ranting about this today, you might ask? No surprise to anyone who has been reading this blog (or listening to my ponderings throughout the years), a story regarding education got me on a tear. The president of the New Brunswick Teachers’ Association was offering his opinion that a proposed cut to the budget of the Department of Education would decimate education in the province. Of particular interest to me as I read the article were his references to two studies conducted over the last ten years, both of which deal with the subject of inclusion in schools. To be clear, I do not want to discuss inclusion itself at the moment. If you are not even sure what I mean when I say “inclusion”, that’s okay, too. I will come back to it on another day.

All of this is happening in the context of the provincial government asking departments to suggest what cuts of between 5 and 10 percent in their budgets would look like. I don’t even want to spend time considering how problematic such an exercise is in and of itself. Considering the inherent complexity of anything as massive and varied as our public schools, such calculations can’t help but seem like a fool’s errand to me but that too I’ll save for another day perhaps.

No, what bothered me most was how the article suggests that the NBTA and its leadership fail to even question the assumptions that drive the system. Haven’t they heard enough to know that the current system is already in big trouble?!? If the article is reporting accurately and thoroughly, the lone response from the representatives of professional educators is to challenge any planned cutbacks exclusively on the grounds that resources currently are insufficient to ensure that policy is implemented as outlined.

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I’m not surprised, though. It’s easier to spend all of your critical thinking energy on trying to solve the math problem of the budget than it is to look closely and CRITICALLY at WHY schools are not improving even as the budgets increase and teacher-student ratios are the best they have ever been. The best critical thinking tends to make us uncomfortable and few nowadays, especially in the public arena, have the stomach for that.

The road to hell

“God save us from people who mean well.”
― Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy

When I hear the outcry over cuts to funding for education – whether it be freezes to university grants, the elimination of teaching positions or other measures – my reaction is predictable: you’re missing the point!! As if the quality of education can be assessed through some one-to-one correspondence between allotted budgets and results. Even though I am not surprised, I can’t help myself. Again and again, in any number of arenas, I hear quality reduced to a mere accounting line.

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Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting that budget cuts and funding freezes are incidental and without consequence. A harsh reality sometimes overlooked by the more starry-eyed among us is that virtually everything has a cost attached. Even the most charitable of undertakings (think foodbanks and homeless shelters) comes with a price tag. When drives are mounted to collect canned goods, for example, such commodities do not emerge out of the ether. That can of baked beans was manufactured somewhere and is the end product of a long line of supply beginning with someone who cultivated the beans (maybe themselves purchased from a supplier) and sold them to someone else and so on. The point being, simply, that all along the way someone is being paid.

When applied to simple commodities of any kind, the correspondence between product and cost is fairly straightforward, even when the context in which it is applied might seem obscure. If you’ve ever wondered how lawyers can justify charging hundreds of dollars an hour for services or, even more, how an executive can “earn” millions of dollars in bonuses, you can still say that the connection between service and compensation is clear, even if you might not regard the compensation itself as reasonable.

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Similarly, even the most expensive of objects leaves no room for doubt: if you want that Rolex watch, it will cost you $10,000. You think it is overpriced? So don’t buy it. The retailer knows from experience that someone out there is willing to pay. All the way back to the time when our earliest ancestors traded a rock for a stick (or some other equally primitive artifact), the value of a product has been determined, at its most basic level, by what someone is willing to pay, whether that payment is for an object, for expertise or for a service. And again, make no mistake, no matter how generous something might seem, someone, somewhere, is being presented with a bill. If such were not the case, fundraising drives for relief of all kinds would become obsolete. Generosity, however much we might hope to conceal the reality, comes at a cost.

By now, someone might be ready to accuse me of cynicism. That, too, to my mind, would be indicative of an unfortunate modern trend. In this era of political correctness, voices that are raised to point out certain realities are seldom welcome. As I’ve argued in earlier blogs, few areas are more prone to this than education. Most recently, I tried to point out that the elephant in the room where literacy rates are concerned is the fact that people who are essentially illiterate still manage to graduate from high school and obtain a diploma. Considerable angst might be felt over illiteracy itself but no one seems to have the fortitude to ask a simple question: what is wrong with the system that allows such a thing to happen with such frequency?

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Criticism of spending cuts in education (and the randomness of the cuts themselves, to a certain extent) is further evidence of the superficiality with which such things are handled. A luminary no less than the president of the New Brunswick Teachers’ Association contends, without qualification, that a reduction in the number of teachers employed in the system means students will be affected negatively. By implication, an increase in the number of teachers in the system should equally mean that student performance (almost exclusively measured by standardized tests of some kind) improves. Considering that over the last thirty years the student population has decreased substantially while the teacher to student ratio has done nothing but improve, logic dictates that student results should be doing nothing but improving. And, as we all know, that hasn’t been the case.

I raise this issue not because I undervalue teachers or, equally, not because I believe funding for education somehow deserves to be less than it is. Focusing exclusively on such “manageable” elements, however, prevents us from confronting the far more complex problems confronted WITHIN the system which this money is funding. Our data-driven world longs for the obvious and the educational system has succumbed to that illusory longing. Literacy or numeracy scores are down? Hire more teachers and increase funding. If we can afford it, maybe we can throw in a few more external tests along the way.

Businesses, lawyers and other professionals, retail salesmen lend themselves well to the measurement of output. The business makes a profit, the lawyer wins the case, the real estate agent sells a house. Even doctors, regardless of the complexity of the professional task, have a clear goal in mind, namely, the health of the patient.

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But education just isn’t that straightforward. If expenditure and achievement had a direct correlation, things would be so much easier. Please, keep as many teachers as we can afford and fund the system to the max. But don’t confuse funding with achievement. Nothing will truly improve until all parties admit openly that something is seriously wrong with the system as it is. Most regrettably, the crisis we see today is largely the result of good intentions gone wrong. But then, we all know where they lead, don’t we?

And the question is . . . .

Reading and writing, like everything else, improve with practice. And, of course, if there are no young readers and writers, there will shortly be no older ones. Literacy will be dead, and democracy – which many believe goes hand in hand with it – will be dead as well.
– Margaret Atwood

An article in the local newspaper caught my eye today. No matter how hard I try to avoid it, I am inevitably drawn to issues surrounding education or, more specifically, to matters concerning public education here in New Brunswick and, by extension, elsewhere in Canada and in North America as well. The conventional wisdom throughout my career in the classroom was that ideas coming from the States made it to Ontario first and found their way to NB approximately five years later. Another pillar of that same wisdom suggested that those ideas only made it this far after they had been proven ineffective in the previous jurisdictions. Perhaps that can be a topic for another day.

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Anyway, in this article, a representative of a local adult education group (one that is best known for working to improve literacy among adults) voiced the concern that many students graduating from high schools do not possess sufficient literacy and numeracy skills “to cope at colleges and universities”. Chances are, this comes as no surprise to many people. Certainly employers, for some time now, have lamented the lack of fundamental literacy and numeracy among prospective employees, a matter distinct from the lack of “skilled” workers in any number of fields. In light of their concern it shouldn’t come as any great revelation that many receiving a diploma might not seem, according to traditional notions of why one SHOULD receive a diploma, especially deserving.

But that’s a field upon which most are very afraid to tread. Nowhere in the course of the article was any mention made of it being inappropriate that someone would graduate from high school without having achieved at least a passable level of literacy and numeracy. The article mentions that over half of New Brunswick’s population “over 16 lack minimum literacy skills”. We are told about the remediation efforts of universities, specifically the institution of tutoring programs and writing centres where students can get help with those basics that they seem to have missed through their years in the public system.

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This unwillingness to confront something fundamentally ineffective in our schools has become a predominant theme in many of my musings about public education in New Brunswick. Among any number of things that regularly come from the Department of Education about purported improvements in the public system, statistics about graduation rates has long been a favourite. Side by side with that number, you might find another, related percentage concerning student retention. Those reporting such numbers will also usually offer some kind of historical comparison suggesting that in the last 20 or however many years, both numbers have increased substantially and – here comes the conclusion – this proves that education in New Brunswick is constantly improving.

I have long decried the emptiness of this particular claim. How can the QUALITY of an education be summarized by a numerical assessment of graduation and retention without some accompanying account of the real achievement of those staying in school long enough to graduate? If New Brunswick’s functional literacy rate remains less than 50% among adults after almost 35 years of ongoing adjustment, change, innovation, tinkering , etc., surely someone should ask the simple question: “What’s wrong with this picture?”

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But that question is not one that either governments or those responsible for changes in the educational system are eager to confront. Here in New Brunswick we have created an educational system that costs over a billion dollars to operate year over year. Class sizes at all levels have been reduced on numerous occasions; specialists and experts have been hired in great number and work in schools or district offices; programs are added, subtracted, modified, replaced. You get the picture. And yet, something as simple as a measure of literacy suggests that all such innovation has amounted to virtually nothing in terms of real improvement.

But then, “improvement” is another one of those complicated words. The official who trumpets retention and graduation rates can’t really be faulted in one way. The measure of success in his/her account is clear and simple and can be reduced to a statistic. 20 years ago, let’s say, 75% of 18 year olds graduated from high school and now it’s 90%. Who can argue with the contention that this suggests an improvement of sorts?

As I was reading the article that served as a springboard for this blog, I was struck by how much it avoided any suggestion that something was wrong with the system itself. It chose to focus on remediation, reassurance, suggestions of circumstances external to schools that might contribute to the situation.

Strange where the mind can go. As I was reading this article and wondering how it was that no one was wondering WHY students were graduating in such numbers even though they did not possess what might be thought of as the bare essentials you could expect from 12 or 13 years of formal education – being able to read, to write and to do basic math – I thought of the movie I, Robot where a hologram of a dead scientist cautions the lead character, played by Will Smith, to “ask the right question”.

So it is with education in New Brunswick and, again, as far as I’m concerned, in many other jurisdictions. One of these days someone is going to have to ask the right question, no matter how uncomfortable it may be to do so.

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If only we could all be learned!

Education: the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.
― Mark Twain

So school is canceled yet another day. I haven’t been keeping count, but that must take it to 12 or so this winter, at least by my very dim reckoning. I don’t have to pay attention to those details anymore but voices are raised in an expected chorus of alarm over the number of instructional days students are missing. If you are detecting a certain “tone” in those first few sentences, you’re right. Maybe not for the reason you’re thinking, though. I’m far less concerned with the hand-wringing over time away from class than I am with the things that such concern obscures. Another way of putting it: Time away from class – on the list of things that should concern us about our schools – has perhaps the least impact on our system.

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I remember very clearly when the shift occurred that gave us the now common phrase “time on task”. I had been teaching for seven years and a change was coming to high schools in New Brunswick: semestering was about to be adopted and the primary rationale was identified as the need for students to spend more time in class, especially at the high school level. Under the old system, a couple of weeks before Christmas were taken up with the administration of exams. A similar regime existed at the end of the year. With semestering, all exams were expected to be administered over four days and the year was divided into equal halves. If you were wondering, that is how we ended up with a school year where exams occur in January.

When this change began, any number of us decried the loss that this entailed, chief among those losses the continuity that was a key element of the old system. As a teacher of English, I was especially concerned; I firmly believe that a mastery of language requires constancy. With semestering, in its earliest form, it was entirely possible for a student to take an English course in the first semester of one year and not take another until the second semester of the following year. My colleagues at the time and I (and any others in other schools with whom I might have spoken) were united in our opposition. I won’t bother you with the details of all that followed. Suffice to say that I mark the institution of semestering in high schools as the beginning of a decline in student achievement which, to me, was ongoing for the remainder of my career. Things began to go downhill and they have never recovered. Now things get complicated. Semestering, per se, isn’t the problem. The deeper issue is embodied in that phrase I mentioned earlier: “time on task”.

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Depending on your mindset, you might view the demand that more time be given to a task as a good thing. Additionally, as the actual processes of education within schools become increasingly obscure to the average person (and to a great many of those who are supposedly practicing and/or implementing such processes), worrying about the number of hours students spend in classrooms can seem reasonable and, at the very least, manageable. I think it is a fairly common truism that we all tend toward those things that we find manageable or that don’t intimidate us.

The “time on task” mantra satisfies the same demographic that takes comfort in the numbers of students retained in school until a certain age, or in the increasing numbers of high school graduates as a percentage of the student body. All three offer only the most superficial measure of success (?) in schools but the key word here is “measure”.

In no way am I opposed to having time made up that is lost to weather. Should all subsequent winters prove to be as ridiculous as this one has been, having taught high school for almost thirty years, I could not argue against allowing for some time to be made up. But the amount of time someone spends in a classroom can in no way stand as a measure of the effectiveness of a school system. Unfortunately, the “time-on-task” mentality presupposes that all facets of education are objectively measurable and so easily compartmentalized that we need only establish and maintain a clear timeline in order to ensure that all the necessary “educating” gets done. I hope the last part of that sentence sounds as dumb to you as it does to me; in the end, all of my ramblings about education can be illustrated through my rejection of the notion that education is something that “gets done”.

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As I’ve tried to outline in a number of my other blogs, when you try to reduce something as complex as education to a series of strategies and outcomes (or whatever the jargon of the moment might be), leading to some kind of “improved” education or, in tune with another feature of current eduspeak, “21st century education”, you will never succeed. In the same way that you cannot teach literacy (you can teach reading and writing in hopes that people would BECOME increasingly literate), you cannot quantify education in such a way that it becomes objectively measurable in any absolute sense.

People, especially those in power, rarely feel comfortable with things they cannot control. As we have come to look upon our schools more and more as almost exclusively a conduit for the workers of the future (schools as training facilities), and as instruments of social engineering, “education”, as a term, has become increasingly uncomfortable for those who want to exercise such control. I believe the preference for “learning” in reference to what schools do is a consequence of that discomfort. Learning can be objectively measured, or at least that is the argument. Education is far more nebulous and immune to objectification.

“Time on task” is not about quality education; it is about control. Someone, some time ago, bought into the idea that education and test results were the same thing or, at least, that test results can allow one to quantify education. Can you think of any other arena where little or no objective improvement (a decline, in fact, both in literacy and numeracy, by most measures) in thirty years would have people continuing to pursue the models consistently proven ineffective? All I can say is: welcome to education in the 21st century. Or should I say “learning”.

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When education equals product – part 3 (conclusion)

A University should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning.
– Benjamin Disraeli

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As I bring this discussion to a close (for now), I find myself referencing an unlikely source for my lead-in. I happened to be on Facebook over the weekend and dropped in on an ongoing discussion regarding Daylight Saving Time, a topic that has stirred increasing controversy over the last few years. United in their frustration, the contributors wanted DST banished, largely – at least according to their posts – because it interfered with sleep patterns, necessitating an unwanted adjustment from which they never quite recovered. The fact that such an adjustment had to be made twice a year simply compounded the misery.

As it turns out, I am the contrarian in this regard: I like the time changes. I agree that they throw your sleep patterns out of whack for a period of time, but I enjoy the ritual and the connection it has to seasonal changes. Amidst a winter such as the one we have “enjoyed” this year, anything that tells me we are approaching the end of winter and the onset of spring is welcome indeed. When I think of these time changes, I consider them as a kind of social ritual, not unlike Christmas, Easter, and whatever other days on the calendar have a common social import. So, from my perspective, I want to hang on to the time changes. I now know that a significant constituency exists on Facebook that disagrees with me and I’m okay with that.

What I am not okay with is the more pronounced objections that we hear of in more conventional media settings, i.e., newspapers, television and radio. There the focus tends to be pretty much exclusively on the economics of the change. Statistics are rolled out suggesting that any perceived savings are just that and nothing more: perceptions. In truth, so the argument goes, it would be cheaper to leave the clocks alone. Case closed. By now you might be asking how does this connect with my earlier reflections on the business education symposium I attended?

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In both cases, any discussion of the issue inevitably swings to a consideration of the current and always dominant preoccupation with “economy”. As I’ve indicated, when it comes to Daylight Saving Time, I don’t care about the economics of it; I value the “ritual”, you might say, because it represents something that has value for me beyond dollars and cents. You might as well try to quantify a sunrise, a sunset or the pleasure of rocking an infant to sleep in your arms.

University, and “education” in general, as concepts, are rooted in a similar kind of idealism. Products of the Renaissance and a key to the emergence of what most of us might call the modern world, universities were rarely regarded as places people went in order to be able to find a job. These were the redoubts of those tasked with thinking about the world and humanity’s place in it. As time went on and the various disciplines began to define themselves more clearly, practical applications in the sciences began to be found for scientific discoveries especially. As I’ve suggested in an earlier blog, university was not regarded as essential for employment when I was leaving high school. By 1975 (my graduating year), it had become a preferred route for many; still, it was more an option than a necessity.

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Over the course of the last 40 years, that has changed dramatically. Now, the need for some form of post-secondary education has become a given for most. Community and private colleges are well-suited for such a demand. Both offer programs that are very skills oriented. Everyone is clear on why you are there: employment upon receipt of your diploma. I’m sure we’ve all known people who chose the “tech” route following high school graduation, most of whom have gone on to very successful careers. Few who attend such institutions experience the handwringing common among undergraduates at university as they approach the receipt of their Bachelor’s degree. Virtually all of them expect that further study and accompanying debt will be needed before gainful employment can be realized.

Few universities want to talk about how the university model has failed to adjust to this changing reality. In conversation with one of the young people attending the business education symposium, I spoke about the role of a university “fellow”, essentially someone who is granted a salary (stipend, if you prefer) in order to free him/her to pursue research without other obligations, such as offering courses, interfering. This represents the exceptional but the ordinary circumstance of professors and the granting of degrees holds to a model that I, personally, believe in but one that is singularly unsuitable for programs that purport to be designed to provide job opportunities upon completion.

Universities were imagined as places where the learned could gather so that knowledge might be deepened and greater understanding of a plethora of concerns might be achieved or, at least, studied. As such, they were forged out of a Renaissance ideal of the emerging human being, one who was noble, capable, and to be admired in his/her own right without reference to divinity’s approbation. And so the quiet, forested campus with majestic buildings was born, a monument of sorts and a kind of metaphor for the conduct of the university: quiet, reflective, long-term, free somehow of the demands of the larger world.

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Need I say that that has changed? Universities are now viewed – as is virtually everything else – largely in light of what they can or cannot contribute to the supply and demand imperative of the marketplace. Personally, similar to my preference for Daylight Saving Time, I prefer the older conception. But reality for business and other programs increasingly precludes the university being regarded as the hallowed halls of academe. When it costs as much as $100,000 or more to obtain an undergraduate degree that offers a shaky guarantee of employment (now your primary reason for attending in the first place), the “customers” understandably want some kind of guarantee that their money is being well-spent. If universities continue to be driven toward a model that sees them as job training facilities, they will no longer be universities in truth. And that would be a sad day for all of us.

When education equals product – part 2

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

– T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

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At the event I referenced in my last post, a young man, during the question period, made a claim which I now include in my list of current, clichéd observations and comments: “we are the most educated generation in the history of the world”, or something to that effect. Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to disparage the young man and his offering. I’m simply using his assertion as an example of how public discourse easily avoids real scrutiny when the opinions expressed run in concert with the reigning orthodoxy.

The second topic of my opening comments (the first having been credential creep) was what I have dubbed the “positivity myth”, more for convenience sake than for any inherent value. I’m trying to capture a sense of a phenomenon we see in so many arenas in our modern world, one where certain things, while they might be subject to certain mild criticisms, are held to be essentially unassailable truths. And the irony is, they may very well be either true or expressions of admirable aspirations.

The problem I have arises when someone (usually me) tries either to challenge or to qualify such “truths”. Not the least among those truisms would be any configuration that asserts the value of an education. If my theory is correct in any way, if you are reading this, somewhere inside a little voice is saying: “surely he isn’t going to say that education isn’t important?” Even to countenance such a thought might make you uncomfortable. Hopefully, my concern re education has been made clear even if certain of the specifics may yet require explanation. That, after all, is my persistent premise: we live in a world too ready to accept the pat answer, the clichéd solution, or the comfortable optimism of the purveyors of modern positive-thinking, self-help mantras (I’m thinking of the Deepak Chopras, the Tony Robbins, and others of a similar ilk).

So this young man’s claim to being a member of the most educated generation in history would ordinarily be a throwaway (others heard later would include “government has a role to play in education”, “we need to foster innovation and creativity”, “strategic investments in education will pay dividends”, etc.), but I found it provocative in light of my interests so I challenged his claim on the most basic of grounds: what do you mean? In other words, what underlying assumptions are you making regarding the educational attainments of previous generations, the quality and/or relevance of whatever education you attained, and other factors too numerous to list?

After a pause, the young man smiled, nodded some form of acknowledgement and I moved on with my comments. As the discussion proceeded throughout the morning, the cavalier use of the word “education” became all the more apparent. Whether we know it or not, when we find ourselves in such public forums, any number of unstated assumptions are in play. Foremost in an environment such as the one for this symposium stands the meaning of education. Just about everyone assumes that we don’t need to spend any time defining such a commonly used word; we KNOW what education is – let’s move on.

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Lacking a clearly defined, agreed upon definition presents a problem in its own right. When any challenge to such a “positive” assessment of our current situation conflicts with the constant demand that we be positive in all we do, how is it possible to pay real critical attention to matters at hand, whatever those matters might be? People commonly applaud such empty statements as “we need to invest in innovation”, as though simply making declarative statements equals actually providing a thoughtful approach and/or solution. Those same people will usually turn away from or dismiss any reasoned critique as though providing such a thing is inherently negative and, thus, counterproductive.

This reality stands in the way of the apocryphal “adult conversations” which we are frequently reminded we are in need of. I say apocryphal because I’m struggling to recall an occasion where one actually took place. As a general rule, our modern determination to avoid the controversial – to be “politically correct” – prevents such conversations from ever getting off the ground.

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Such a conversation, if we were to have one regarding education, would need to begin with determining just what it is we are talking about. We can no longer afford to muddle along thinking that we all possess a common understanding. My experience at the symposium last week brought that home to me. If education is little more than a place where you are made ready for a job market, why do we need universities? Surely training programs with a far more targeted approach would serve us better?

Somewhere in the back of most people’s minds lingers an image of education – particularly university education – as a “higher pursuit”, the value of which goes beyond simple job preparation. Whether we are fully aware of it or not, that presumption is increasingly being challenged as universities and their defenders lose their ability to articulate just what those higher values might be. If they cannot find some way to reclaim the higher ground, universities – especially smaller ones such as UNBSJ – will be more and more servants of a mindset that says training and education are synonymous. It just so happens that I disagree with any such suggestion as it exemplifies especially well the dangers inherent in oversimplification.

When education equals product

“But when they began handing out doctorates for comparative folk dancing and advanced fly-fishing, I became too stink in’ proud to use the title. I won’t touch watered whiskey and I take no pride in watered-down degrees.”
― Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

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I was a panelist at an event I attended this past Friday and I warned the organizer who invited me that I wasn’t entirely sure what I could contribute. Nevertheless, not one to turn down an opportunity to share certain views publicly, I went as unprepared as one could be. I had no notes, no opening statement, not really any expectations. In order to have the latter, necessity demands that you have some sense of what it is you are facing.

The occasion was a meeting held at UNBSJ concerning the future of business education, a subject in which, as I said (and shared very clearly with all those I attendance) I make no claims to having any expertise. I wasn’t surprised to encounter a number of familiar faces when I arrived. Having spent the last number of years involved in politics, I’ve met many people who look to the university as an integral piece of any plans either for sustaining or for improving Saint John’s viability as an urban centre. Fortunately (for me), I was the last panelist to present so I had time to listen to others and formulate something to say. It didn’t take me long to realize the approach I would take, largely because so much of what I was hearing related so well to an element of the larger problem I have been pursuing in earlier offerings here at unabsolutedotcom.

All three who preceded me brought business experience to the discussion, whether that experience was as business owners, executives in companies or in other roles. Considering that three subsequent keynote speakers had a similar mix of backgrounds, as well as considerable academic experience, I might have expected to be out of my depth.

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Again, fortunately, I was well-served by the very thing which has occupied so much of my time here, namely, a lack of clarity when it comes to just exactly what it is we are considering. Listening and making notes for myself, I detected what I choose to call “muddiness” in our considerations of “business education”, the same muddiness that I believe is so much at the root of problems with “education” at large.

Time and again, speakers, as well as those asking questions, returned to the specific needs of the workforce, those needs being described primarily in terms of prospective candidates’ attributes or – to use an especially popular term these days – competencies. These recruits should be innovative, creative, adaptable critical thinkers. Who wouldn’t want such people as part of the workforce? I can only presume that business schools offer courses in accounting and what might be termed the more “practical” elements of the evolving university program while, supposedly, engendering the other qualities.

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When it was my turn to speak, I chose to focus on what has been called credential creep. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, consider the following. When I was attending high school in the mid seventies, graduates could choose to forego university in favour of direct entry into the workforce without too many concerns. Going to work for a local firm or pursuing a trade from the ground up were perfectly legitimate choices. We probably all know someone who started working at _____?______ right out of high school, worked there all his/her life (maybe still there), and will retire soon if that hasn’t happened already. We all know how much that scenario has changed.

A contributing factor easily overlooked amidst the many technological and other changes over the last forty years or so is the value of that high school diploma. Back in 1975, when someone presented you with one, you could be fairly confident that it indicated the holder had certain fundamental abilities. He/she could read and write well enough, do some basic math and think for him/herself. Few would take that as a given these days.

I think it was in the 80s that universities began offering writing courses to make up for deficits in students’ work. While no one really talked about it publicly, it was clear to professors that students were leaving high school lacking certain fundamentals. Thirty plus years later, a high school diploma guarantees very little, except in the case of those students who have always excelled and whose abilities are evident no matter what system they operate in.

The new bottom line is the Bachelor of Arts and, even then, from an employment perspective, many, I suspect, would not take even an undergraduate degree as proof of competence. Students not looking to pursue professional designations at the graduate level, or academic work for its own sake, increasingly look to community colleges as the preferred path. How often do you hear people disparage the value of a B.A.?

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Similarly, in business, I asked the question re the B.B.A. In light of the many demands that “interested parties” seem to be making of graduating students, how much practical value does a B.B.A. have? My concerns were echoed by one of the students in attendance who was preparing for graduate work. We certainly hear comments about the value of a “Harvard M.B.A.” I can’t recall any occasion where someone remarked on the B.B.A. someone just received received (even if it was from Harvard). Credential creep (and the escalating cost of making it even to the top of the first ladder) threatens the relevance of university courses and programs in a world that more and more associates universities with job readiness. Personally, I’m not sure those two interests intersect nearly as well as might be thought. (to be continued)

When definition fails

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”
– George Orwell, 1984

I thoroughly enjoy the English language. It’s willingness to adopt virtually anything as a word as long as it finds its way into common usage, regardless of origin, is part of its charm. I know some would disagree but, as an especial admirer of poetry, I’m intrigued by the subtle differences that can exist among words with very similar definitions. More often than not, variations on a theme seek precision: do you love, adore, worship, idolize, or cherish a certain someone? Certainly all five possible choices suggest affection of some sort, but a great many factors might influence which one is most appropriate at a given time. I commonly told students that the value of an expanding vocabulary was its ability to allow you to formulate ideas and ultimately express them more clearly. For all that intuition might account for understanding in certain instances, communicating ideas and concepts requires language, the more precise the better.

What happens, though, when we move in the opposite direction? The ultimate nightmare of the reduction of language to its most utilitarian was explored famously in George Orwell’s 1984, a novel I have felt compelled to reread on a number of occasions in order to remind myself of just how profoundly it outlines trends that continue to come to pass. Granted, Orwell’s vision is “wrong” in many of its specifics, but the core ideas are worth examining. His description of “Newspeak” and its ultimate goal of reducing language so that the only things that can be talked about are those concepts acceptable to “the Party” might sound bizarre, but I’m convinced, personally, that a kind of Orwellian misuse of language is happening, minus the malicious intent (the idealist in me speaking).

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In an earlier blog I argued that a perceived simplicity has become so predominant in the world that it has become almost a matter of faith that virtually anything can be reduced to recognizable and definable component parts. If I haven’t made it clear, I do not believe such is the case. In fact, I would argue that the tendency of language to constantly expand over time in order to include both new concepts and further refinements of old ones suggests just the opposite. The language landscape becomes even more challenging when a group deliberately chooses familiar language and uses it in ways not commonly understood (as, I believe, is the sad case in education).

I think most of us would agree that some part of each of us, whether it’s a large or a small part, commonly longs for simplicity. We think of lazy days at the cottage or on the beach, a life free of worries over all the things we commonly worry about, all outstanding issues, whatever they might be, settled once and for all. This desire, when paired with the often overwhelming variety of complications to be found when we open our eyes to see them, cannot help but lead most people to want to tend to their own affairs and leave the bigger issues to those with time to spend on them. Further, when we have been largely convinced that research in every field of human endeavor is ongoing and continuing to provide answers to whatever questions might be out there, why wouldn’t we tend to cocoon ourselves and “leave it to the experts”?

While such an approach might be understandable and acceptable when it comes to technological advances, the same cannot be said for education. More than any other undertaking, perhaps, education should be a reflection of the community’s highest aspirations. Sadly, based upon the direction currently evident in the educational system, with all of its attendant fanfare, the community is largely being shut out. Bewildered parents, by and large, have a felt sense of what it is they want for their children as a result of twelve and more years in school: “success”.

However, that very word – “success” – and the many different ways we try to incorporate everyone within the bounds of its definition, suggests why improving schools has been so difficult through time. While governments, educational researchers, and others who are the determiners of curriculum and of the focus of programs trumpet the ongoing advances being made within the system, parents can’t help feeling that something just isn’t right. What is success? While that might seem like an innocuous question, an answer might not be as easily determined as you would think. Success is more a concept than it is an observable phenomenon. In the past, the aims of a formal education were reasonably well understood: learn to read and write passably, be able to perform essential mathematical tasks and maybe have a general sense of the history of the province or country. Anything beyond the “three r’s” was interesting, perhaps, but the attainment of those basics was paramount.

Welcome to the year 2015. The average parent, when asking about a child’s progress will be buried, in all likelihood, in an avalanche of educational jargon: outcomes, formative versus summative evaluation, anecdotal reporting, learning styles, multiple intelligences, accommodations, learning strategies, peer evaluation, etc., etc., etc. In case you were wondering why I spent so much time at the beginning of this blog talking about language, here’s why.

If you take a look at the list I’ve just assembled, virtually every word I’ve included has a meaning outside a theoretical educational context. As education has become, increasingly, the domain of educational psychologists and an assortment of “experts” in the “field” of education, the distance from which the general public is forced to observe public education grows greater with every passing year. Education, as a system administered by a government bureaucracy governed by policies devised largely by people with little or no real experience in classrooms, is driven by the belief (the one I’ve been discussing for a number of blogs now) that whatever the “problem” might be in education, analysis and experimentation will provide the way forward. As the language becomes increasingly vague and inscrutable – both to those using it and to those hearing it – the distance between the theory that dominates conversations about education and the day-to-day reality grows ever greater.

For at least 50 years, educational theorists – and the industry that promotes both the theory and the products that inevitably accompany it – have been telling us that things are getting better and better all the time. When teachers (and society at large) look around and see fewer good readers and writers, young people who cannot do the most basic math, students whose grasp of the world is limited to what their friends and social media tell them, those same teachers and parents have their doubts. But the aura of expertise and the convolution of the language we employ when speaking of education have become so powerful, most are afraid to speak up. In an Orwellian world, reality as we experience it is always trumped by the reality that the powers-that-be pronounce. Welcome to 1984, the 2015 version.