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

credential four
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.

Credential creep 1
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.

Credential 2
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.?

credential 3
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)

Define “education” – I dare you!

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals.” Hamlet, 2.2.303-312

While the specifics of my concerns with education are complicated and often difficult to articulate, the essential core of the problem is neither. It all boils down to what is meant by “education” and, by extension, what it means to be educated. As I’ve tried to make clear in my previous blogs, even those things which seem simple, seldom are. Should you happen to find yourself in a conversation and the word “education” is used, how likely are you to stop whoever is speaking and ask them what they mean by the word? We use language with a kind of understandable indifference – after all, if English is your first language, you’ve been speaking it since before you can remember and you’ve managed to get by.

Einstein genius
Additionally, “education” isn’t a word commonly subjected to the quibbles that might accompany “love”, “faith”, or “integrity”, for example. These are but three words that can mean very different things depending upon any number of factors including context, who is using the word, or when or where it is used. Education, though? Surely we all know what we mean by that? After all, we attended school in our time and we had some great teachers. Most of us would readily assert that he/she is or isn’t educated according to an unstated scale that might use university degrees attained as a partial measure. Still, most of us probably know someone who doesn’t have the credentials in place, someone we would, nevertheless, consider “educated”.

I’ve quoted Hamlet above because, in this passage, Shakespeare articulates a view of human beings that was somewhat new at the time. A child of the Renaissance, Shakespeare (and his contemporaries) were embracing a view of human beings very much at odds with a medieval view of humanity as largely debased and sinful and very much in need of divine intervention if we were to rise above our lowly station. The “renaissance man (person)” notion exemplifies these high-minded assertions. He/she is someone who develops to the maximum possible extent the potential Renaissance thinkers imagined we might have.

As a confessed lover of literature and the arts, I can’t avoid being moved by Shakespeare’s expression of such a noble ideal. An equally adept portrayer of human evil and depravity, Shakespeare does not pretend that Hamlet’s vision of humanity’s grandeur is all that needs to be said. But through this passage, he does provide a vision of what COULD be – an ideal, the details of which are, hopefully, to be actualized in the individual life.

Of necessity, such an ideal lacks specifics. The manifestations of human achievement are as varied as we are. At the heart of Hamlet’s speech is a conception of human possibility that is not tied to measurable “outcomes”; rather, we are invited to participate in a suggestive vision, the details of which it is up to each person to imagine. When I read passages such as this one from Hamlet, I am caught in the dilemma I often described to students as the central quest of probably all significant literature: trying to find words to express that which cannot be expressed. Another way of putting it: Shakespeare and any number of other writers inspire me, provide me with a sense of connection to the world, even provide an inexpressible grasp of life’s meaning.

Maya Angelou
Excuse me?!? The majority of those with whom I have had contact and/or discussions regarding trends in modern education would dismiss my last paragraph, out of hand, as utterly irrelevant. Such abstractions have no place in modern educational theory. The analytical model that currently dominates educational research and the theories and applications that arise as a result demands “data”. Inspiration and vision, in my experience, have little place in a world of tools and outcomes.

In order to illustrate what I am suggesting in, hopefully, a more accessible way, consider the following: have you ever had good teachers? Even a couple of great ones? I know I have. When I look over my academic path from kindergarten through university, I can say that I had quite a few good teachers. The great ones I can count on one hand. I’ll choose two. One was a history teacher I had in high school.

good teacher
Based upon my understanding of current notions of what makes for effective teaching, this guy was an abject failure. He rarely emerged from behind his desk, seldom provided a visual aid, tested infrequently at best and, overall, seemed indifferent when it came to assessment in any form. That being said, I can say without hesitation that any student who had him would include him as among the very best teachers of their lives. History to him was living and, through his telling of history, he brought it alive for his students. His thirst for knowledge – the implicit respect he had for his subject (and for so many other things that were of interest to him) was infectious. He made those who had him as a teacher want to know more.

My second example was a professor I had as an undergraduate student. She was the most unforgiving and demanding teacher I have ever had. She had a deep and profound respect for writers and for writing and expected that the study of literature would be undertaken with an effort commensurate with the work that went into the creation of the works we considered.

What unites these two, regardless of their differences in style, is the ability to inspire. Without ever really articulating it, they were presenting an argument that “education” – as opposed to the modern substitute, “learning” – was not about utility but about personal fulfillment. As students, we were being invited to have a glimpse of that humanity, of that world, that Shakespeare allows Hamlet to suggest. Whatever problems we might believe are present in education today, the root cause of the overall crisis, – and this is the central tenet of my overall argument – is the abandonment of an IDEAL of the educated person in favour of a pseudo-scientific IDEOLOGY that imagines human beings as component parts awaiting improvement if we can only identify more clearly what parts need adjusting and/or enhancement. And so the system and its many supports carry on with their futile quest to develop the “strategies” and “tools” that will provide us with the outcomes individuals purportedly need. Speaking personally, is it any wonder such a notion fails to inspire?

Data be damned

When will you learn that there isn’t a word for everything?
– Nicole Krauss, The History of Love

Consider the following. In his book, Getting It Wrong From the Beginning, author Kieran Egan tells of a study in education, conducted in the 1990s, that concluded the following: “To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must (a) have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, (b) understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework, and (c) organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application”. (168-9) Sound familiar? Does anything about those findings bother you?

For the record, Egan has been extremely valuable to me as I have tried to articulate the many problems I have had with reform in education as I have seen it practiced both throughout my career in the classroom and while I was a member of the provincial government. In both instances, I watched enormous resources brought to bear in ways that have, to my mind, done little more than further complicate a situation that was exceedingly complicated to begin with.

So what about the study Egan notes? If you are lost within the language employed in reporting the results, wondering what the problem is, or simply curious, consider the following: what does it mean to be “competent in an area of inquiry”, maybe botany, let’s say? I admit I don’t know much about the subject but someone judged competent would, I think, need to know many things about plants since botany, by definition, is the science of plant life. A working knowledge of biology would seem essential as well since botany is a more specialized pursuit within the larger field. Finally, if someone were judged competent, I think we would need to see proof of some kind, whether through good advice on how to grow my geranium or an explanation, maybe, of why some plants need more sunlight than others.

I’ve tried to abbreviate an example that Egan takes far more time explaining but I’m hoping my version will suffice. The study I’ve noted represents just one brand of educational research with which I have a problem. If you take a look at the “conclusions” reached through the research, the “findings” could quite properly appear in a dictionary defining “competence in an area of inquiry”. In other words, a study was undertaken to prove that competence is properly defined as competence. While I cannot point to a specific “study”, I’m pretty sure there are any number of them out there that have spent enormous sums of money and considerable time proving that young people who are read to frequently and who are raised in a home where a great deal of reading material is available are more likely to be good readers.

The fourth chapter concerns the teacher and the classroom and notes that an indisputable conclusion of research is that the quality of teaching makes a considerable difference in children’s learning.
– from the abstract for “Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission on Reading” (1985)

If any or all of these examples strike you as absurd, welcome to one manifestation of educational research: that which purports to lend the weight of scientific validation to an already established definition or a commonly understood reality. The fact that someone perceives a need to provide such a thing is as frustrating to me as the fact that it can gain acceptance and validation among those commonly tasked with making decisions that have an impact on so many facets of our public schools. The determination to forego any comment on educational practice unless “data” accompanies the comment leads naturally to my next point.

If, like me, you have spent any time trying to offer alternatives to certain practices and/or trends in education these days, you have, no doubt, been questioned regarding data. The thing is, I don’t really mind the question; rather, my issue is how one defines “data”.

Some 7 or 8 blogs ago I started in on this issue and I warned any potential readers that this was going to be long. Now, however, I can circle back to a point I tried to make early in the argument: avenues to understanding and to action should not be restricted to those things bounded by a model of research that is either ineffective or inapplicable. Education has been subjected to a bevy of research that imagines “learning” can be understood in much the way a physicist might determine the conditions under which water can be brought to a boil. Can it?

boiling water
In the latter example, the scientist can do something that, to my mind, is impossible in education: control the variables. Even then, the identification of the variables can be more complicated than we might assume: what vessel is being used to hold the water? At what atmospheric pressure is the experiment being conducted? What is the temperature in the surrounding environment? My guess is, a proper physicist might have a few more questions that I wouldn’t think of.

In the educational example, how can we even begin to identify the variables? The scientific method demands that a hypothesis, followed by observation, lead to some statement regarding the truth or falsity of the hypothesis. In social science research, rather than an absolute proof, trends and/or possibilities might be the result. The problem remains the same, however: supportable results, within the necessarily limiting confines of traditional scientific research methods, demand a control of variables. In something as complex as a classroom, how could that ever be deemed possible?

One technique is to narrow the focus. Consider: a special class is established to help students who did poorly on a standardized exam, specifically to prepare them for the next administration of that exam so that they might do better. Lo and behold, a year later, students rewriting the exam do better. The conclusion? The intervention (creation of this special class) worked.

I won’t even try to list the many factors which might have had an impact on the improved results. Suffice to say that, to my mind, claiming that the improved results are directly attributable to the class that was established is roughly equivalent to suggesting that a certain team won the Stanley Cup because the guy who scored the crucial goal just got married and that made him a better goal scorer.

In the quotation I provided at the outset, a character in Nicole Krauss’s novel questions whether we can really have a word for everything. Are there elements of human experience that are truly inexpressible? Personally, I think there are but that’s a topic for another time, perhaps. I chose the line because it hints at another problem: what if we give a name to something without being entirely able to say exactly what we intend, even when we have a definition? “Education” is just such a word.

The rise (and fall) of expertise

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

Expert 1
Following from yesterday, I want to focus on the idea of expertise and the expert. Definitions of either tend to focus on excellence – in a specific, identifiable area or pursuit – of technique, skill, judgement and/or ability, ordinarily obtained through study or practice, or some combination of the two. If we happen to be interested in a particular sport, for example, and enjoy watching that sport on television, we might look to the opinion of those who have played the game, or been involved in it in some other way for many years, as more informed or thoughtful than we might expect ourselves to be. So it is that networks commonly empanel former players and coaches for commentary during intermissions or in the course of the game itself.

Don Cherry
Part of the entertainment inherent in such a process is the potential for disagreements that arises among the “experts”. We at home might weigh the merits of one commentator vs another with an eye to determining which one best supports our own assessment. No one would question your right, as a viewer, to think that any one – or even all – of those opinions expressed is wrong. Any sport, whether team or individual, involves too many factors for the result to be accounted for with absolute certainty. Yes, a game or a match between opponents adjudged to be in the same “league” can be subjected to a brand of expert scrutiny, but conflicting opinions of outcomes are what keep bookies in business.

The sports example stands in stark contrast to how we regard expertise in a field such as physics or, perhaps, cosmology. In either of those cases, if you are like me, I will acknowledge that I have some sense of what either pursuit is concerned with, but I would never presume to have anything to offer by way of insight or understanding in either area. Granted I took physics in school, and both physics and cosmology have been of interest to me throughout my life, but interest and familiarity, when it comes to things requiring deep and very specific knowledge, are entirely unlike expertise. I think most would readily agree with me.

Medicine is a more complicated case, as current controversy over vaccinations indicates. When it comes to things such as surgery, for any number of ailments, few would dispute the need for sufficient experience and training being required by the person performing the operation. If we know that Dr. ______ has performed _________ surgery 100 times and has a 99% success rate, we are liable believe he/she is a good choice for the procedure. Such considerations are not unlike the choice of a quarterback in a football game: the one with the best “stats” and proven results through many games will, no doubt, be the starter.

When it comes to treatment and diagnosis, however, in many instances these days, we are operating more in the realm of the commentators sitting around at intermission, i.e., everyone has an opinion and one person’s expertise is not necessarily the expertise of someone else. Practitioners of holistic medicine often find themselves at odds with university educated MDs. “Alternative” treatments for this and that can be found over the counter in most pharmacies and grocery stores, online, or advertised in magazines and on television. Claims are made for the efficacy of products and approaches too numerous to mention. And, routinely, the purveyors of these products are described (usually by themselves) as “experts”, sometimes because they have credentials (an MD, PhD or some other degree or certificate) that seem to support such a designation or simply because they have worked long and hard to develop whatever it is they are offering.

alternative medicine
The current concern over the anti-vaccine movement, and the parallel reemergence of diseases thought largely eradicated years ago, suggests that diluted notions of expertise and/or competence can have grave consequences. I’m sure the previous paragraph reveals my particular bias in this regard. While acknowledging that traditional, historical medical practices – as exemplified in our public health system – can be imperfect, I would still rather place my future in the hands of my cardiologist than those of my Naturopath (no, I don’t actually have one). Ideas of expertise, in this instance, are largely validated by the SCIENCE of medicine and the data that clinical trials, and other such experimental methods, provide. Certain “alternative” activities gathered under the umbrella of ”medicine” may be fine and good, but I view all such alternatives skeptically.

The examples I’ve used to this point, regardless of their differences, do have a common thread that differentiates them from my real concern: education. However much I might agree or disagree with the commentators, coaches and players of a sport, the desired end result is clear: to win the game. Similarly in “hard sciences” such as physics, cosmology, et al, even if “the answers” are, themselves, sources of ongoing debate and disagreement, the SEARCH for those answers is understood and shared. Even in medicine, where there can be so many disagreements regarding proper and improper treatments, diagnoses, approaches, drugs dispensed, etc., all are united in their understanding of the end goal: good health or health as good as is possible in the individual case.

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.
-Shunryu Suzuki

Education is a far more complicated beast. Repeatedly we hear the mantra that virtually all of the world’s persistent problems – poverty, war, injustice, disease, social inequity and unrest, _____(fill in the blank)____ – can be solved through education. The thing is, I don’t think you need to be an expert to believe in the fundamental truth of that claim. That being said, problems arise when someone is tasked with the job of ensuring that education is deliberately applied to the achievement of very specific ends. And, in my experience, the insistence that education equals training leading to the completion of a specific task is just the beginning of a decline that continues to this day. Unfortunately, the continuing insistence that “experts” have problems in our educational system in hand, regardless of the many complaints parents, businesses and other groups within society might have, obscures that decline to the detriment of the system and to those it purports to serve. (to be continued)

The simpler things seem, the more complicated they become

The single best machine to measure trust is a human being. We haven’t figured out a metric that works better than our own sort of, like, ‘There’s something fishy about you’.
– Simon Sinek

The dehumanizing I referenced yesterday at the conclusion of my blog is a commonplace in modern society. Its most recognizable manifestation is heard in the common complaint that we are, as individuals, too often treated as numbers or that the system (whatever system you might choose as an example) doesn’t deal with us personally. In the latter instance, all you need recall is the last time you phoned any organization and were treated to a variety of voice prompts that may have, if you persisted long enough, led finally to a live responder. Increasingly, though, as the technology advances, it is entirely possible to conduct your business without ever actually conversing with anyone. I suspect we don’t take much time thinking about the pros and cons of such a system, other than to complain, perhaps, about how annoying it is. But then, why should we? Irritating sometimes? Yes. Reason for a crusade against automation? Hardly.

I mention this, however, as an example of how we have come to accept technology as a complement to virtually every activity we undertake as human beings. I received a Fitbit for Christmas so now I can monitor my physical activity. I can know how many steps I walked, how “active” I was (beyond simply walking), check my sleep patterns, link to other apps, and monitor food intake and calories consumed. I’m sure it does other things of which I am unaware.

Some thirty-five years or so ago, I remember having moved in the middle of a strike by some union or other from the phone company. I ended up without a phone for the better part of six months. If anyone wanted to contact me, or me them, a real effort had to be made. I actually enjoyed the sense of freedom that seemed to be a consequence of being so “offline” if you will.

These days, I am very familiar with cellphone anxiety (if it isn’t a recognized condition, give it a while). It can strike me when I’ve gone out, regardless of the reason, and forgotten my phone at home. I’ve seen it at work in others on any number of occasions. If anxiety is related in any way to frequency of use, then young people are in greatest danger of infection. Who has not been privy to a room full of teens and twenties where virtually everyone is, in some way, attached to his/her phone, even if involved in conversation or some other activity?

I no longer need to use a key in my car; if I want to watch a show, I have any number of avenues that will allow me to watch it whenever I feel like it; if I’m traveling, a physical map – if I even have one – is there exclusively as a back-up to my GPS; I don’t have to remember an appointment – I simply enter it in my phone and make sure I set an alert. Add anything that occurs to you – by way of technological innovation – that has significantly changed the way you live your life.

While much discussion could be had over the positive or negative elements of all, or any one, of these changes, whatever they might be, I am more interested in what I believe is the “meta-message” (to coin a term) that arises from the growing predominance of technological advance in public consciousness over the last fifty years or so. While naysayers exist, the dominant conclusion that is trumpeted again and again – whether through news outlets, corporate entities, governments, individuals or some other means – is that technology is GOOD.

And I’m not suggesting for a moment that it is bad. What concerns me, however, is the application of that meta-message, “technology is good”, to areas where it should be viewed somewhat more critically. From the outset, I have wanted to use this blog to argue for the realization/recognition that few things are simple. By making so many of the commonplace features of daily activity “simple”, “simple” has a tendency to become a value in itself. Technology, in its application, aims to simplify tasks, to lessen the need for human activity or thought. No need to remember a phone number: put it in your phone. Televisions without a remote control? I’m not sure if you even CAN change a channel on a TV these days without one.

If technology can provide increasingly successful simplification of onerous tasks, it becomes all the more likely that we, as a society, would accept the idea that technology can be employed to “improve” pretty much anything. Our acceptance of that notion is all the more understandable when just such a claim is made by the “experts”, regardless of the field in which they are working. The result of this process is the “techno-faith” I’ve tried to outline in earlier blogs.

And this is where “techno-faith” and education collide. When we use our cellphones, we rarely stop to ponder – if we ever do – how they work. They work and such is the nature of modernity. If we think about it for even a moment, though, I’m sure we can summon at least a smidgen of awe over what it is we are able to do. From virtually anywhere in the world, I can be in contact with anyone else who has a phone on him/her (providing I have the number) no matter where he/she is in the world. The people who design such things understand how it all works, but we don’t have to bother ourselves with such matters.

When it is an object such as a phone that we are concerned with, our faith in the technologists and the developed technology seems justified. Today’s phones are better than those from even 2 or 3 years ago (maybe even 6 months ago). But what happens in schools if an idea takes root that we can treat children in the same manner as any other “thing” that we would hope to make “better”? In the peculiar doublethink of modern educational theory, we talk about embracing diversity even as we strive to develop “tools” (the system’s word, not mine) that – should the technology of delivery/instruction be perfected – will lead to near-uniform “outcomes.”

The “experts” in education want you to have the same faith in the system they say they are building (fixing, tweaking, creating, modifying, reforming – choose your participle) that we are asked to have in Apple as it releases its latest iPhone. In this instance, Apple alone has credibility.

Education is like the weather . . .

When the number of factors coming into play in a phenomenological complex is too large scientific method in most cases fails. One need only think of the weather, in which case the prediction even for a few days ahead is impossible.
– Albert Einstein

You are here 2
A frequent criticism I heard throughout the time I was involved in politics concerned the political “system”. Repeatedly I was told that the system was broken, that it doesn’t work, that it has failed – you get the picture. I mention this, not because I want to begin a defense of our political system; rather, it serves as an excellent launching point for an examination of the notion of “system”.

I’m fairly confident that most people don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about what words mean. Most of us reach for words in conversation, ordinarily confident that whatever word we’ve chosen is appropriate for the context in which we are employing it. Using the wrong word can lead to laughter or to embarrassment, by times, but, for the most part, all of us conduct the business of our days secure in the belief that as native speakers of a language – English for most of us – we’re on pretty solid ground.

And we’re right about that, inasmuch as language, for the sake of day-to-day discourse, is a fluid tool that we use with varying degrees of confidence. Any one of us, when confronted with someone who is more articulate or has a larger vocabulary, can feel intimidated and perhaps be less inclined to have our say but that, I suspect, is more the exception than the rule.

I bring all this up to make a point. As a matter of habit, we rarely spend time examining how words are used or what they mean. I began with the political example simply because it is the “system” that most people are likely to criticize. In response to such criticism, consider the following definition: “system: A set of detailed methods, procedures and routines created to carry out a specific activity, perform a duty, or solve a problem”.

Canadian political system
In other words, to strip the definition somewhat bare, a system is a structured undertaking seeking a specific result. As I said, I don’t want to get into (at the moment; I will later) a lengthy defense of our political system. Consider, however, Canada’s legislatures in light of the above definition. What is the political system of our country supposed to achieve? While a great deal can be said about the conduct of those involved and the limitations, flaws and imperfections of the day-to-day application of the components of the system, surely the system is successful in the big picture? After all, Canada has managed to go 200 years or so without a major war occurring within its borders. Canadians, by and large, conduct themselves without fear of tyrannical dictatorships foregoing elections, or of military leaders undertaking coups and/or rebellions. Ours is an ordered society and, I would argue, our political “system” has had a very important role to play in ensuring that such is the case.

Politics and business share a certain good fortune in that regard. Again, looking at the big picture, the desired RESULT of the system operating effectively is clear: in the political realm, the enactment of laws that ensure justice and good order; in business, policies, structures and practices that aim to make the business profitable. Again, I’m not suggesting that either is perfect – we all know that the devil is frequently in the details. Nevertheless, the overarching, desired result is pretty clear in either instance.

Unfortunately – and now we arrive at the point of this latest missive of mine – the same cannot be said for “education”. We live in a time when the word “education” and the term “education(al) system” are tossed about as though the meaning or the intent, in both instances, is clear. That being said, try this some time: ask anyone who is either praising or maligning education, or the system as it currently exists, what it means today to “be educated”. Or, ask instead, “what is the education(al) system seeking to achieve?”

Please don’t imagine I’m suggesting this out of some deep-seated desire to alienate people or to simply criticize for the sake of criticizing. I contend, with absolute conviction, that the mess we call the educational system today has arrived in its current state entirely as the result of good intentions. If you read my blog yesterday, then here we are at the “road to hell being paved with good intentions” moment.

human rights
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the last few centuries is, arguably, the development of the concept of universal human rights, rights which have come to include the right to an education. Problems have arisen within public schools because of how complicated that simple “right” really is. If “education” could be reduced to a simple checklist, wouldn’t the task be simple?

As it turns out, seeking just such a checklist goes along nicely with the predominant techno-faith that I’ve railed against in earlier blogs. Increasingly, a system which claims to be “child-centred” is focused on measurable “outcomes” and the success or failure of a school (and the system of which it is a part) is determined by an analysis of data and research. What I would think of as intrinsic differences in ability and in aptitudes among individuals are barriers which can be “accommodated” so that all those who participate in the system can achieve to the same degree in every pursuit.

Extreme, you say? If your view of human beings is fundamentally mechanistic, then it only makes sense that, with the proper adjustments, the deficit in a particular area of achievement can be overcome if the right “fix” is identified and applied. Again I remind you, these ideas are not malicious; they arise out of a sincere desire to provide real advantages to those perceived as lacking something, seldom identified clearly, that makes it difficult for he/she to acquire a particular “learning”.

As an example, a frequently quoted concern in education these days is “learning styles”. Good enough. I know that I am more likely to learn something well if I read it on my own. Someone else might learn the same thing better through conversation and/or interaction. Perhaps a third would benefit from a video presentation. And so it goes: we process things differently and certain things can help each of us learn BETTER.

Learning style 1

Learning style 3

Learnig Style 2
This well-intentioned understanding goes wrong when the theoretical concept becomes a would-be guarantor of a particular result, a “technology” in other words. If I don’t learn “concept A” well, the criticism might be heard that whoever was teaching concept A failed to take into account sufficiently my preferred learning style. In other words, I, the student, am the object waiting to be adjusted and the teacher is the technician doing the adjusting. To say that such a model is dehumanizing only scratches the surface. (to be continued)

Everything must be made as simple as possible. But not simpler.
– Albert Einstein

Words, words, words

If I were to be asked what my definition of a classic was, I would say it was a work that won’t go away. It just stands in front of you until you deal with it.
– Northrop Frye

Areopagitica image
I’ve been focused on travel blogging for the last couple of weeks but today I was pleased to read – courtesy of a friend – an account of a teacher in the U.S. (http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/02/lets-talk-about-sexin-english-class/385135/?utm_source=SFFB) who ended up in considerable trouble because he dared to allow for frank discussions of sexuality and sexual behaviour through the medium of literary fiction or, to use the term I prefer, simply “literature”.

If literature isn’t your field then you might not know that one of the great debates of the last century concerned the notion of the “classic”. More specifically, elements within academia questioned whether or not anything could rightly be considered a classic, the argument being, in essence, that any such designation was the product of societal and cultural biases.

Perhaps you can see why this particular question matters to me. While it may not appear so initially, further reflection reveals that we have here another manifestation of the dominant techno-faith I’ve spent so many blogs trying to outline. The scientific premise demands clear criteria and observable proof as validation for an assertion. And so it should, if the assertion under consideration is subject to physical laws. In the case of the determination of a “classic”, something else is at play: human judgement.

Judgement is not fashionable these days. By its very nature, it cannot be subjected to objective verification. It demands subjective interpretation and argument, neither of which can be validated using the scientific method. So it is that a certain element can argue that Shakespeare should not be considered any “better” than even a Harlequin romance. Preferring one to the other becomes a matter of time and taste. Such logic underlies the contention that Shakespeare shouldn’t be taught in schools. His work is irrelevant and passé and not to be thought of as any better than what is preferred by high school students today, say The Hunger Games or Divergent. After all, who are “we” to judge?

Happily, I spent my entire career judging such things. As someone who studied literature for many years and who has been an avid reader for as long as I can remember, I will happily argue the merit of any work (and the designation of Shakespeare et al as “classics”). In the process of doing so, I may end up identifying certain of the criteria that form the basis of my judgement. That, to my way of thinking, is the very core of reading (and the reason why book clubs exist).

I’ve said many times that I am not someone who can teach anyone to read. If forced, I’m sure I would work my way through it as best I could and, hopefully, achieve a reasonable result, but my expertise was/is in helping students to read better.

Huck Finn
As an example, consider the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (HF). I choose this particular “classic” because of its singular place as a frequent choice of book-banners in schools. I taught it many times throughout the years and did so because of what it can tell us, what it can make us FEEL, about prejudice and racism and the human condition in general.

Condemnations of HF tend to focus on the use of the word “nigger” and the general perception that African-Americans in the novel are portrayed in a negative light. In the case of “nigger”, the developed argument suggests that the word itself is so inherently prejudicial that it can’t be freed of such an encumbrance and so will cause harm regardless of any supposed justifications for Twain’s use of it.

Nonsense! My task in teaching was to help students see that the only decent characters in the novel are the ones most despised by whites. The MOST villainous characters, in fact, are ALL white. To seriously understate Twain’s achievement – it deserves a much deeper and more thorough discussion – , the novel is a vilification of the supposed morality and superiority of those most ready to condemn another based solely upon the colour of his/her skin. This wasn’t some radical reading I dreamt up; this is the considered and carefully concluded opinion of multitudes of readers who have picked up this volume and read it carefully. As for the word “nigger” itself, no student left my class feeling empowered to use it. Through teaching the novel, the word’s power to harm, and its place in demeaning others, were made very clear.

Understanding such things, however, requires time, attention, and a measure of deference to those who can make a supportable claim to being better readers. The nature of judgement and of literary analysis being what they are, such claims can be overthrown by better, more persuasive arguments, perhaps, but the last 130 years of careful reading has supported a predominant belief that Twain’s motives were as I’ve outlined.

teaching reading
That’s why “teaching literature” is what we need in our schools. We do not need “facilitators” and “child-centred learning” (what learning ISN’T child-centred?!?) as much as we need people, in whatever discipline, who know more than those they teach about whatever it is they are teaching. And that might mean choosing a work that tackles challenging, uncomfortable topics. The best teachers help us to see that we do not need to be afraid of such things, neither the books themselves, nor the thinking they might engender.

An education agenda, please! (conclusion – for now)

21st century learningFirst, while purporting to be some brand of novel approach to the development of the person, it is little more than common sense. Does anyone doubt that we learn in many ways and frequently throughout the course of our lives? Even if we might not think much of the “learning”, the child who spends inordinate amounts of time with video games learns how to play with greater and greater skill. While I may be wandering into ideology myself here, I can’t avoid stating –to me, as an obvious reality – that human beings learn even in spite of themselves. The unstated (and, to my mind, insidious) real issue for those who want “learning” to replace “education” is the control of what is learned. This inevitably leads me to another of my favourite topics (one which I will explore in later posts): the ascendancy of a technological conception of human beings.

More significantly and negatively, the “Learning Agenda” assumes that clear directions for significant learning exist while feeling no obligation to provide even a single example. Certain catchphrases are offered in the place of substance: “we need to teach critical thinking skills”; “we need to become lifelong learners”; we need education for the 21st century”. The list could be expanded considerably since an entire language and vocabulary has grown up around the modern “educational industry” (more on that in a later post as well).

The gravity of this cannot be overstated: when definition and exactitude are lacking, how can anything meaningful be developed by way of assessment, analysis or evaluation? Furthermore, when these are absent, how can we ever determine success? And so we find ourselves fundamentally adrift as far as education goes. We look to standardized tests to provide us with evidence that something is working; we lionize the media-friendly examples of “success” (think of the history-or-some-other-subject project in an elementary school that garners attention) while ignoring the ample evidence that most schools and classes do not enjoy such “success”. And, finally, we have innumerable conferences and studies which tell us that all is well and that we are always improving and getting better. And why should we accept that? Because “we” says so.