Popular Posts

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Can the Education/Trades Partnership save public education? Maybe.

The education initiatives recently announced by BC Education Minister Don McRae are the best proposals the Ministry has made in 20 years. They should serve as a model for a reformation of public education, but they won’t if the Ministry sees them as merely a minor and temporary component of their much advertised Jobs Plan strategy.
The reason they should serve as a model is that, if fully implemented, the reforms will engage thousands of students who have been perennially unengaged by the school system. The Ministry’s programs were created with the Industry Training Authority; they consist of Discover Trades, Secondary School Apprenticeship (SSA), Accelerated Credit Enrolment in Industry Training (ACE-IT) and Youth Exploring Skills to Industry Training (YES2IT) and put mechanisms in place that will expose students to a wide variety of trades that are interesting, stimulating and lucrative. More importantly the students will come in contact with successful, intelligent, interesting and successful trades people, men and women who make good livings and are enthusiastic about their work. That is of key importance because it provides students with a vision of a positive and attainable future. Of course, they will have to work to attain that future, beginning with school. 
Creating the desire to do the necessary work is a component that has been missing from education reform.  The “student centered” education reforms of the last thirty years have consistently assumed that the responsibility for learning belonged to everyone, but  the students.  Time tables, school structure, teaching methods, course requirements, curricula all have been tinkered with, manipulated and repeatedly revised in order to improve poor student performance. Standardized testing has been increased to make schools “accountable” and to cudgel them into making their students achieve higher scores. Not surprisingly, more testing did not really inspire struggling students. However, they welcomed the eased standards, multiple course options, Alternate Learning centres, and relaxed graduation requirements, and even though none of those things improved overall student performance, politicians and educators continued with their efforts to make the system more student centered. Former British Columbia Minister of Education George Abbott announced before his departure in 2012 that, in the future, students and their parents would be creating their own curricula, based on what they wanted to study and what they thought was best for their own future. Of course, this will hardly help underachieving students and their parents who often have only a vague vision of their future opportunities. The new Ministry initiatives do the opposite, providing real concrete options and possibilities and stimulating the desire to work and succeed.
The “learning gap” between Asian students and our students which has panicked so many politicians and educators is based on no more than a difference in the amount of effort Asian students are willing to exert compared to ours. Their families, their communities, the world in which they live provide for them a vision of a future in which, as educated people, they can and will lead significant, satisfying lives.  As a result, they want to work to achieve that future. That view of themselves has not been generated in many of our students. Of course, our thousands of high achieving students are now and have always been self-motivated and goal oriented, and out perform almost all other students world-wide.   However, they aren’t the students targeted by 30 years of education reform. The joint education/trades programs may finally provide many of those students with a vision of their future that, like their Asian counterparts, will inspire them to put in the effort that a sound education requires: studying, memorizing, practicing, sometimes completing assignments that to a young person seem irrelevant.
For the reforms to be successful, however, they have to be seen, not as a stop gap economic measure to keep jobs in BC, part of a $15 million one time job creation expenditure, but as the beginning of an educational reformation that takes seriously the idea that students must do the work, that high achievement means high effort, but that public education exists to help everyone achieve a place in society that is valuable and satisfying.  And if successful, perhaps the Fraser Institute will finally be forced to consider the number of students accepted into apprenticeships as a standard of success equal to that of university admissions.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Sal Khan’s program: no quick fix

Sal Khan is a young, enthusiastic technophile and educator.  He hopes to solve the problem of poor performance in Math courses that plagues the U.S. public school system with his comprehensive, computer centered teaching program for mathematics.  It allows students to work at their own rate, moving from math topic to math topic in a sequential manner that takes into account individual learning styles and interest levels.  Khan believes that this approach is going to revolutionize public education; Bill Gates agrees, calling Khan’s vision the future of education. Unfortunately, both Khan and Gates have misdiagnosed the problem and, while the program will benefit many students, the students who are the source of the school system’s poor performance will not be helped.
In his promotional video, Khan declares that his program “flips the classroom” because, instead of teachers presenting new math concepts at school to an entire class, students tackle new material alone at home on their computers.  They then come to school to do the exercises that demonstrate how well they have grasped the new concepts.  This, Khan explains, allows teachers to provide individualized classroom help to students as they work their way through their exercises.
Unfortunately, that key aspect of Khan’s program is its Achilles’ heel. Many students in the public system will simply not bother to learn the new concepts at home.  No matter how clever the software or entertaining the program, the work that Mr. Khan imagines will be eagerly completed by students will often simply not be done.  Of course, students who love math, or at least want to succeed in math, will love Khan’s program. But they aren’t the students who are causing the panic in public education.  They aren’t the thousands who cannot achieve acceptable marks on standardized tests, who perform way below grade level, and who swell the ranks of the numerically challenged. Those students will arrive in class passively expecting to be taught, exerting as little effort as possible; or will be so disinterested that learning new math concepts will be impossible.
The problem, oddly enough, is one of metaphor, not mathematics.
The Khans, the Gateses, the eager education reformers all share characteristics that made them successful. They are all focussed and highly intelligent; they were all good in school and eager learners. They share the metaphorical framework that taught them to value hard work, sacrifice, optimism and the postponement of gratification.  They believe that like them all students deep down love learning, and that therefore, if students aren’t learning, it’s the fault of the system.  Their many successes in life make them sure that if they could control all the elements of public education: the delivery systems (computers, smart boards, software), the educational environment and the teachers’ training and methodology, then student performance would reach new heights. Their perception of the problem is empirical; the solution behaviourist.  Let us analyze, then control the educational input, they say, and we can predict the outcomes. 
Unfortunately, the students in need of help have never lived in the world the Gateses and Khans live in. The metaphorical framework that makes up their world view and perception of themselves is far different. They have not received satisfaction from accomplishment; they have not seen the positive results of hard work, or felt confidence in the future. Their concept of a role model does not include any engineers, architects, visual artists or doctors. Like many young people, their peers exert more influence on them than adults, but their peers are motivated and inspired by the metaphors generated by the media, corporate interests, popular culture and the mythology of their own particular environment.  The rewards of a formal education are vague and remote. Gratification, if it is to occur at all, must be immediate and concrete; otherwise it may be lost.  Therefore any education system that wants them to learn the abstractions of mathematics is so outside their experience or interest that it seems ludicrous. 
That is why experienced educators are always concerned about the environment in which students find themselves.  That is why they say that social and economic factors are so important to education and why they are always sceptical of the latest quick fix program.  Until educational reform seriously takes into account the effect of the metaphorical world that students construct in and around themselves, the reforms will fail.  Students have to want to do the school work.  Neither Sal Khan nor even Bill Gates can make them.