Monday, 5 December 2011

Does the Education System Need a Check Valve?

I have had a long uneasy relationship with the Ontario education system. The further I got away from the education I received, the less relevant that education appeared to be. I tried to chalk this experience up to a personality quirk, and didn't dwell on it too much further.

And then I became a dad, with two sons entering our education system, and that has resurrected all my negative feelings and emotions all over again. I am going to have a hard time being a supportive uncynical parent for my sons as they deal with our elementary and secondary education systems.  Twelve more years, only twelve more years, and then they're out of the system.

This article crystallized a lot of my objections for me (and also illustrated that these problems also exist outside Ontario's education system). This guy with a bachelor degrees, two masters and a doctorate in progress failed the math and reading components of a 10th grade standardized test.

I found these comments particularly telling:

“I have a wide circle of friends in various professions. Since taking the test, I’ve detailed its contents as best I can to many of them, particularly the math section, which does more than its share of shoving students in our system out of school and on to the street. Not a single one of them said that the math I described was necessary in their profession

It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.”

Relevance. Every student at some time wonders the relevance of the material they are learning. Math was always the gold standard for relevance. We were told that everyone uses math, we use it every day when we go shopping, when we cook dinner, etc. etc. And then we learned things like finding the angle of a point on a curve or how to arrange numbers in matrices......

Since I've left the education system, I've rarely had to do any math beyond addition, subtraction multiplication and division. So that's what now? Grade 3 math? Everything else I learned, I never used. And then I started doing home reno work around the home. As with all homes, a lot of work does not involve 90 degree square angles. Finally! I am going to be able to apply that geometry I learned (and was pretty good at) all those years ago. The first time I ran into this I ransacked my brain trying to recall how to calculate the angles of a triangle. Something called SOHCAHTOA fell out, as well as the phrase Pythagorean Theorem. I was close, but after 15 minutes of hard thinking I finally recalled that all the angles of a triangle added up to 360 degrees. Wait.... umm, 180 degrees right? Yeah. I hope. Wood is expensive....

So I happily used my dredged up memories to plan, measure and cut wood to build a corner.  Nothing fit. Damn it! Where did I screw up? Looking at the pieces of wood before me I realized that I was translating 2 dimensional concepts and measurements into 3 dimensional reality. Unlike a line on a piece of paper, wood has width and thickness. There is a difference between an inside measurement and an outside measurement. Son-of-a-bitch, I was never taught how to actually apply geometry into a 3 dimensional world. We abstracted 3D in the classroom, but that was always done using two dimensional tools, like pencil and paper. Covered in sawdust,swearing and cursing I rediscovered that there's a vast gulf between applying knowledge and having knowledge. Funny thing about this, that kid that dropped out of high-school and apprenticed as a framer or carpenter knows how to apply geometry to a 3D world. It's instinctive to him now. Me with my higher learning? I'm sweating bullets every time I cut a piece of wood.

This gulf is what some teachers will exploit when they announce an open book test. "Woo Hoo! I don't have to study! Teach said I can bring my notes and textbook with me to the test!" And then test day comes and the questions are worded in such a way that we have to apply the facts learned, not just repeat them. Many of us that had trouble applying the concepts learned felt cheated. All semester long we focused on reciting facts, and than bang! we had to know how to apply them. In retrospect this was probably the most important real-life lesson we were being taught. Since (in my experience) this trick was usually pulled at the end of the semester the opportunity to learn how to apply the knowledge gained was lost. I simply learned that I had to no idea how to apply chemistry to solve a problem.

While I eventually muddled my way through applying geometry to carpentry I did start to wonder how much of those 13 years in elementary and secondary school were a complete waste of time.  Teachers poured thousands of facts into me, but like gas going into a tank, I just overflowed and a lot of that effort went to waste. I needed a check valve on what I was learning, I needed time to consume and apply that which I had learned.

As I have blogged about before, being in the IT field means that facts have an expiry date. Since every piece of technology eventually becomes obsolete, many of the concepts and facts that apply to that technology also become obsolete. There is no foundation to build from, that foundation is constantly being redesigned (often to the detriment of the structure built on that foundation, which is why many system upgrades to newer releases take so long, live say the transition form IPv4 to IPv6 but that's another topic). The single most important skill for an IT admin to have is the ability to apply new knowledge and discard the obsolete. Surprisingly, I actually have that skill. My test results from school would not lead you to that conclusion.

So here we are about to go into 2012. We're well into the supposed age of the "knowledge economy." My 7 year old son is being crammed full of facts in grade 2 that I swear I didn't learn until grade 4 or 5. The curriculum has been "accelerated" because we have to "compete" with the other smarter countries in the far east. He's doing quite well, as the school system measures such things, but he still struggles to apply the facts he has learned. This task has fallen on us, his parents, as we help him with his homework. He is fortunate that we (primarily my wife) have the time and patience to help him with this. But the system is still focused more on learning the what rather than the how or the why, and this frustrates me. We find we have to home-school to fill in the gaps. This will only work for so long as he will eventually hit material that we no longer have the skills for.

The issue with identifying the problem, is that I don't see a solution. Not one that doesn't require an instructor to pupil ratio of 1:1. Teaching how to apply knowledge is more of a master/apprentice solution. Something the trades do quite well. In theory the lab portions of science class were supposed to do this too, but somehow science labs just wind up reinforcing facts and how to follow instructions. So the system always defaults back to pouring facts into our kids, like they're some sort of portable storage device.

I do strongly believe that if we could somehow focus the education system in such a way that students applied knowledge as they went, and were allowed to follow those applications into areas that held their interest we would pump out many more students equipped to solve problems in the real world. Instead of thousands of overfilled gas tanks, we would have sleek high-performance vehicles taking on the challenges we face as a society. It can't be as impossible as it sounds, can it?

So while I try to keep my personal frustrations in the background, I will do what I can to ensure that my sons can apply themselves in ways they find rewarding and fulfilling. I just wish it didn't feel like such a lonely endeavor.


Jonathan said...

My eldest is 3.5 years old, and I am terrified of all the problems in the Ontario educational system - so much so that my wife an I are seriously considering homeschooling (there's litte chance we'll be able to afford private school). I spent about 18 months working for a private high school, and what I learned about the way the Ministry and the school boards function was pretty horrible. We really need to do a big re-think about how we approach education.

Catelli said...

Public education is still the better option IMHO. Most teachers do try their best and are better equipped to teach than parents trying to home-school. That's a huge commitment to take on.

But yeah it isn't perfect either. Somehow we make do with it, but I swear we could do better.

Ken Breadner said...

Catelli, this is one of your best posts ever, and I'm not saying that just because I could have written most of it myself.
As you say, much if not most of what is taught today is not relevant...and yet there is a great deal of material, not covered, that should be. And I'm going to have to blog about it now, so thanks.

Catelli said...

Thanks man! Look forward to reading it.