Aptitude: the missing link in 21st century educational theory

Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it.
– Lou Holtz

My daughter has started her own company, one that seeks to promote and to support entrepreneurs. We’ve spoken often about the things that she encounters but the one detail that I find consistently amazing concerns the number of jobs available in New Brunswick that cannot be filled. The problem? We lack people with the skills to fill those jobs.

In a recognizably simplistic approach, any number of individuals and organizations decry the educational system’s failure to provide the training necessary to ensure that young people graduate from schools and universities with the skills that the economy requires. Fundamentally, such a claim fails to acknowledge the complexity of human achievement and ability.

Perhaps the “economy” requires 100 computer programmers. In the minds of those who are so often critical of the system’s failure to produce those 100 programmers, it should be possible to fashion a curriculum that will produce those 100 programmers from the first 100 students that are enrolled in a school. If this strikes you as absurd, I say simply, good! The product oriented mentality that has come to infect so much of the discourse surrounding education has promoted a view of students as empty vessels waiting to be filled for whatever “outcome” is desired, primarily with an eye to economic concerns.

Please don’t think that I am deaf to economics. When I was teaching, I always assured students that seeking a good job that paid the bills required their attention. At the same time, somewhere along the line, we seem to have lost sight of the importance that, to my mind, was once given to aptitude and ability. Because of the ironic homogeneity of our society’s school system – which claims diversity as a central value – students are exposed to a curriculum standardized and uniform for virtually everyone. The little flexibility that exists is bounded by consistent messages that direct one and all to dream of university degrees and jobs that require advanced technical skills.

My teaching career was restricted to the high school level so my observations necessarily arise from that experience. When I started teaching, various trade opportunities existed at the high school level. Additionally, there were programs designed for students who realized they either lacked the interest or innate ability to be successful at the university level. I’m fairly certain that my last sentence would cause a measure of outrage in certain circles as it has become a brand of educational heresy to use a phrase such as “lacked innate ability”.

Rather than apologize, let me say it again, in another way, by virtue of a personal example. Somehow, I managed to make it through childhood without really learning to skate. I owned skates and even went skating a few times but I never really became anything even approaching adept. That being said, even if I had learned to skate and had practiced constantly, I do not believe I could have been the next Wayne Gretzky.

I really don’t believe many people would challenge the notion that certain athletes have abilities that are exceptional and cannot simply be learned. Why, I ask, is this realization so easily acknowledged when it comes to athletics? Why is it so difficult to apply it to other features of human endeavour?

What frustrated me so frequently throughout my teaching career was the determined unwillingness of those with the power to decide curriculum and the design of the school system to recognize that not all students are the same. I have always held that each of us has aptitudes and interests that need to be identified (primarily by ourselves!) and nurtured.

In my perfect school system, such would be the case. I applaud the many teachers I have known over the years who have held on to that ideal even as the system, driven by a product mindset, has been dominated by an underlying presumption that all students can be molded to fit only the most evident economic needs of the day.

The greatest irony of all? The system’s determined efforts to insist that the proper application of uniform curriculum will provide the needed workforce instead produces a few very well-prepared students and a generation of young people with few skills and little clear idea of what interests them or where they might fit in this advanced economy of ours. Hence the continuing inability of New Brunswick to make any improvement in the rate of illiteracy among adults even as the number of graduates from high school increases.

Until we are ready to acknowledge, in a real way, that differences matter – through curriculum designed to account for students of varying aptitudes and interests – we need not look for any substantial improvement in literacy and numeracy. Consequently, neither need we expect to see those many unfilled jobs being filled by graduates from New Brunswick schools.

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Education: understanding what it is (and isn’t)

If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.
― Albert Einstein

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As a retired teacher, I have been profoundly frustrated by the current government’s approach to education in New Brunswick, although I recognize they are simply following the example set by governments through many decades. The current state of education – reflected most recently in the Department of Education’s assessment results – requires a complex response to a complex issue.

 

Instead, typically, Premier Gallant offers the simplistic recommendation that we need to “invest in education”, with no reference to or recommendation regarding where such an investment should be targeted. As someone who has watched any number of initiatives implemented and later abandoned at a cost I would not want to calculate, I contend that such vague pseudo-optimism is distracting and fundamentally irresponsible. Rather than contributing to an analysis of the ever-escalating cost of public education in the face of continuing failures within the system, this simplistic approach stifles real and frank debate of where we have gone wrong.

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I say “where we have gone wrong” because of a distressing reality. Even as we have, year-to-year, increased spending in education, literacy has seen little sustained improvement among adults (those who have completed their formal education) and numeracy is notoriously problematic at virtually every level. While the recent assessments reinforce this reality, I don’t want to overstate their significance as a benchmark for success (or lack thereof) in schools. To emphasize my central concern, New Brunswick’s educational system has been in crisis for many years and throwing more money at it isn’t going to solve anything.

Temporary solutions often become permanent problems.
― Craig Bruce

During my time as a teacher, I saw the virtual elimination of vocational education; the institution of semestering in high schools; the implementation and abandonment of the “Foundation Program”; the marginalizing of physical education, literature, art and music courses; a focus on technology as a teaching methodology as well as a necessary component of the daily, in-class experience of students; a demand for evidence of ever-shifting “best practices” (shifting because the research that supports such practices frequently changes opinions regarding what is “best”) in classrooms; the division of high school into the foundation years (grades 9 and 10),where there are no credits, and the graduation years (grades 11 and 12) where there are credit requirements; a denigration of the idea of teachers as experts in a subject discipline which has intrinsic value (in favour of numerous administrative oversight positions that seek to educate teachers in the above-mentioned “best practices”); a corresponding demand that teachers abandon the idea that they should be imparters of knowledge in such areas.

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Any one of the above deserves further elaboration but, hopefully, the sheer volume of items suggests the ongoing demand for change in education; consider further that each of the above involved an “investment” of some kind, whether through curriculum changes, material acquisitions, additional administrative staff or other costs.

 

The evidence (including but not limited to assessments) we do have suggests that any of the above-noted changes have had, at best, a negligible impact on student achievement. The dollar cost of the many initiatives I have enumerated is more than I could calculate. Hopefully, my point is obvious: rather than calling yet again, without offering any specific direction, for additional “investment”, we need to look carefully at what we are doing. More specifically, I believe we need to look at our system and ask the most fundamental question: what do we want this system to accomplish? Until we know clearly what we are trying achieve in public schools, every decision we make will be little more than a shot in the dark; inevitably, it will also be very expensive.

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We all agree that the future depends on education (or “learning” if you prefer), but without a better and clearer idea of what we hope our schools can achieve, we will simply be throwing more money aimlessly at a system that has shown very little real improvement when it comes to the most fundamental of its tasks: graduating literate and numerate young people capable of moving along on their path of lifelong learning. If the future matters to us as much as we claim, we must take the time to know better how we plan to get there. Before we spend more, we need to know what we are paying for.

The best of both worlds?

There is no decision that we can make that doesn’t come with some sort of balance or sacrifice.
– Simon Sinek

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One of the things I like best about where I live is the view. I grant you it isn’t one that everyone would enjoy but I don’t feel the need to sell anyone on its particular attractions. From the small deck in my back yard, I look across Courtenay Bay (part of the Port of Saint John for those of you who might be unfamiliar with the geography) to an oil export terminal. Beyond the terminal, a closer look reveals a wallboard plant, a power plant and, before giving way to natural landscape, various structures with the centerpiece flame that marks an oil refinery. In the distance and to the right, all the way to Red Head, a ridge of greenery completes the horizon, one where the moon is wont to rise and cast its light upon the bay. Full moon at high tide provides the best display, but even when the tide leaves mud flats exposed, the reflection can mesmerize.

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A couple of years ago or so, when my wife was still alive, we thought about giving this place up. We looked at one house in particular, on the West Side, that had a great many features we appreciated. We went so far as to have a tour of the property and we came away intrigued but not yet convinced. I remember talking about it in the car as we were driving back home. Much of what we had seen was easy to like but we were unsettled, unsure, without knowing precisely why. We were ready to give ourselves some time to allow the impressions to settle but when we walked up the front steps, stood on the porch and looked out to Red Head across the water, any thoughts of leaving were abandoned. For whatever reason, we were attached to this very contradictory view.

I say contradictory because few panoramas offer such a stark contrast between the manmade and the natural. While Saint John has many other pockets of industry, the conglomeration of activity from the waterfront to the refinery and everywhere in between is without parallel. Among the many things I’ve learned watching the ships come and go is just how quickly the turnaround is and how constant the traffic. A ship comes in on one high tide and leaves a couple later at most. And with few exceptions, another eager vessel is waiting to take its place. Watching tugboats turn large ships displays both power and agility. Taken altogether, it is fascinating. I never tire of it.

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Courtenay Bay itself provides lots to see. I follow the tide tables and thoroughly enjoy the ebb and flow. Invitations for photographs present themselves almost daily regardless of time of day or season. For all that this body of water is a commercial centre, it still illustrates the persistence of natural forces. My imagination frequently tries to conjure an image of the tidal action of the Bay of Fundy and I have my own little laboratory just out my front or back door. As I said, the view is not for everybody but I’ve grown ever fonder of it through the years.

Many people find the industrial landscape disheartening. They lament the ruination of the natural scene and I do understand such sentiments. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could eliminate all industrial blight and return the land to its original state? Environmental orthodoxy would answer quickly and forcefully “yes”! As for me, I just don’t think it’s that simple. However much we need to be responsible stewards of our environment, we need to recognize equally that the commerce I can observe on a daily basis contributes in large measure to our being able to enjoy a standard of living that is second to none in the world.

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My Courtenay Bay scene provides the perfect study in contrasts. Smokestacks, the persistent hum of machinery, ships coming and going, all set against a backdrop of cold Atlantic seawater and rolling greenery stretching into the distance. As a believer in moderation, I have a hard time with extremism on any front. Those who object to industrial growth and development in virtually any form are no better than those who would ignore every environmental concern for the sake of a profit.

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My view across the Bay tells me that we, humanity, are here and we are having an impact. It could not be otherwise. At the same time, it reminds me of the natural beauty that is part of our heritage, a beauty and a heritage that we need to protect. Unless we believe that abandoning all of the amenities of modern life is the way to go, we need to come to an accommodation that reconciles those two seemingly opposing views. As with so many things these days, the public debate might lead you to believe this is a stark either/or question. No surprise, it’s not that simple. “Accommodation” is the key word here, and it works both ways. Balance is seldom easily obtained but rarely has it been so urgently needed.

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.

Is knowing how enough?

Our technological powers increase, but the side effects and potential hazards also escalate.
– Alvin Toffler

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I was struck by a comment a friend of mine made over the weekend. She suggested that when she read my blogs she could see how they originated based upon certain things she had heard me say in the days prior to their composition. Maybe I had read an article, or seen something on the news, or simply shared a reflection on something I had been thinking about. The noteworthy thing, for me, was the recognition of cause and effect, that the thing I ultimately produced had origins that, to her mind, could be detected and, in fact, traced.

Now granted, this was hardly a scientific accounting of cause and effect but it did get me thinking about the entire subject of cause and effect, a concept that has occupied my imagination for some time and that is one of the ongoing concerns at the core of this blog. As it turns out, my being reminded of this in such an immediate and personal way was valuable as I began to consider what I might end up writing about today.

I was already primed for something that would incorporate this theme when an article I saw this morning proved to be the final impetus. The article summarized the findings of a study undertaken at UNB in Fredericton that investigated the link between teens, texting and their propensity to be sexually active. While the conclusions were qualified in a variety of ways, the central assertion was that a link had been established between the amount of texting teens did and how likely they were to become sexually active. The study acknowledged that the closeness teens felt to parents and other factors should be considered as well but the bottom line was that those young people who texted with the greatest frequency were more likely to be sexually active than those who texted less.

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The authors of the study were very careful, as I say, to couch their conclusions in a number of qualifications but that isn’t what made the article significant to me per se. Rather, I was struck by the very fact that such a study existed at all. I’m at a loss to remember when I first noticed just how ubiquitous texting had become among those removed from me by at least a generation but I have to think that its prevalence has grown by leaps and bounds over the last while. I was sending the occasional text myself as long ago as probably 5 or 6 years but I don’t remember things then being quite as they are now.

Now – and this is purely anecdotal – it seems that being buried in your smartphone just about everywhere is commonplace. Walking down the street, sitting on a bus, in a restaurant: you name the place. Virtually everywhere you go, you will see someone engaged with a handheld device. When the population gathered in a room is largely teenaged, it is far from uncommon to see virtually everyone exploring the screen in front of them at the expense of conversation or other forms of social interaction. That being said, this behavior is certainly not restricted to teens. The same friend who suggested she could trace the origins of my blogs has commented more than once on my tendency to be drawn into the world of my smartphone at the expense of more social behaviours.

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If you are thinking by now that I am building toward some kind of critical rant against texting, handhelds, smartphones or some other device or technology associated with the same, I assure you that I am not. I readily acknowledge the convenience – the pleasure even – that can come from such things. As with anything new, it can lead to a great many novel ways to entertain, to engage, to who knows what?

And that last question DOES lead me to my point. The smartphone and texting are manifestations of a much larger transformation. Technology – particularly technological innovation – proceeds at such a pace these days that it is, quite literally, impossible to keep up, at least when it comes to evaluating the impact of something. The UNB study I referenced earlier looks at a very specific issue within a targeted segment of the population and offers conclusions that are clearly to be regarded as tentative and in need of qualification. In some earlier time, we might have waited expectantly for the next study to be carried out and for results to be published, say, two years from now, results which might further deepen our understanding of this phenomenon or dismiss it altogether. Fat chance.

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Two years from now, who knows where we will be as far as phones go. I am no fan of Siri (the voice on Apple devices) but I have a friend who never types a message. He dictates it and makes corrections to the text if it is absolutely necessary. Will we even need to carry a phone in two years? If you think that seems far-fetched, how many of you really believed we would ever approach a time where serious consideration would be given to allowing cars on highways that would drive themselves?

When I look to see how I arrive at a topic for a blog, it’s easy. Maybe I fail to account for the specifics in some way but I’m fairly confident that composition (even inspiration), however mysterious it might seem, can be traced to its source, even if the source itself might seem obscure at times. Where advancing technology is concerned, on the other hand, how do we evaluate its impact when the innovation of the moment is rapidly forgotten as the next great advance captures our imagination?

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We’ve all seen the movies or read the books where technological advance without some kind of oversight or conscience leads to the end of the world or some brand of catastrophe. Hyperbole? Okay, but the pace at which things advance technologically these days does concern me. Changes of any kind bring consequences. At the very least, it is always nice to be able to consider from some distance just what impact such changes have. I’m not sure we’re well-equipped for a world where change comes and is replaced by yet another change before we’ve even quite grasped the nature of the first. And to emphasize the point one more time, in the time it takes for us to consider THAT notion, chances are the world has moved on yet again.