Higher education?

A couple of things have converged on me in the last couple of days that have really made me wonder about the education we provide our kids.  I’m not limiting to just high school or just university.  I’m throwing my arms around all of it.

A couple of weeks back, I sat down with my son’s Grade 10 Mathematics book and taught myself how to factor complex trinomials.  No, I won’t bore you with any examples or throw a pop quiz at you.  But yes, I had to re-teach myself Grade 10 math.

Last night, my daughter came to me and asked me to change the passwords on her Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook accounts.  She was trying to get through her readings for first-year Journalism and didn’t want to be tempted away from the horridly boring texts.

Finally, this morning I opened my work email where I receive a once-weekly email from LinkedIn on the stories they feel I must read to carry my career onward and upward.  One of the stories was titled When an adult took standardized tests forced on kids.  I’ll let you read the article on its own, but the gist is here:

I won’t beat around the bush,” he wrote in an email. “The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62% . In our system, that’s a “D”, and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.

He continued, “It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate.

“I help oversee an organization with 22,000 employees and a $3 billion operations and capital budget, and am able to make sense of complex data related to those responsibilities.

“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.

He goes on to say:

If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t ‘college material,’ would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had.

Now, I live in Canada, and that’s also where my daughter is attending university, so things are a touch different here in the Great White North.  But not that much different.

So let’s revisit my first scenario…my re-learning Grade 10 math.  In high school, I dug math and science.  They were my things.  My Grade 13 courseload consisted of Algebra, Functions & Relations, Calculus, Physics, Chemistry and English.  What, out of all that do you think I use today?  More than you’d think.  Mostly the English, but I do delve into the others a bit.  For work?  No.  For fun?  No again.  No, I use all my high school learnin’…to help my son and daughter get through their high school years.

There.  I said it.  The only thing I use it for is to perpetuate the same stupid system I went through 30 years earlier.

Do some people use all those equations and formulas?  I’m sure they do.  I’m sure, right now, there’s probably some poor bastard factoring a complex trinomial using only pen and paper.  I couldn’t guess why, but I’m sure somewhere, it may be happening.

But why?  We live in the age of computers that can do a lot of this for us.  I’m not saying we need to forget it.  Far from it.  But I’d like to take a survey of a large metropolitan area…say, Toronto and its surrounding communities.  Survey every single adult out of university and nail down a percentage of them using this information that they had to sweat through in high school.  I can’t imagine how low that number would be, but hell, let’s be generous and say it’s 20%, just for shits and giggles.

Why are we punishing our youth to learn this when a generous one out of five will actually use it?  Instead, in these days of financial crises and mortgage failures, why not teach these kids how to balance a home budget?  Or how to look at a 765 g box of cereal at one price point, and a 400 g box of the same cereal at a different price point and be able to figure out which one is the better deal?

How about giving these kids some damn life skills?

And then there’s my second point.  My daughter’s boring readings.  The fact that virtually anything is more exciting than the homework assignments she’s getting.  And remember, this is at a post-secondary institution that’s costing better than $20K a year.  This, by the way, is in the same world where someone out there can create a video game that will suck my kid’s attention for hours at a time.

On that same track, though, I can also remember a few years back where, in the course of three days, I was helping my daughter with two different high school assignments.  One was on our Canadian government at the municipal, provincial and federal levels.  We went over the stuff and I happened to be driving with her later that day and quizzed her on the election signs we passed.  Yes, we were in the throes of an election at the time.  And you know what?

She didn’t know.

At no point did the teacher…teaching children about municipal government…ever mention that there was currently an election happening.

The other assignment my daughter worked on was in geography and had to do with the various cloud formations.  There were lovely drawings in her texts and in handouts.  I took her to the patio and pointed at a cloud and asked her what kind of formation it was.  Again, she flabbergasted me by not knowing…because she’d only ever been shown drawings.  The teacher never took them to a damn window in the classroom.

My son said to me a couple of weeks back (during the trinomials), “You know, it’s pretty sad that you can teach this stuff better than my math teacher.”  He wasn’t being sarcastic.  He sounded almost saddened.  You could almost hear his worldview shifting.

Bear in mind, my kids’ high school is actually a good one.  They do a lot of good things, and they have some of the best teachers I’ve ever seen and I don’t want to paint all of them with the same brush.  There definitely are some brave souls–those teachers who are teaching for the right reasons–who push the envelope and challenge the norms.  But they’re so damn few and far between…

So my point of all this is, here we are staring down the barrel of 2012 and we’re still teaching kids like it’s 1950.  Oh sure, now we have smartboards and computers and the handouts don’t get you high when you sniff them like the old photostats did, but overall, really, what’s changed in over half a frigging century?

We teach stuff they’ll likely never use.

We don’t teach them stuff they need to survive the first few years post high school.

We don’t equate in-class learnings to real-world situations.

And, we seem intent on making the education they do get as boring and unengaging as humanly possible.



11 thoughts on “Higher education?

  1. We’re not the first to discuss the philosophy of education.

    Plato insisted that those suitably gifted were to be trained by the state so that they be qualified to assume the role of a ruling class. What this establishes was essentially a system of selective public education premised on the assumption that an educated minority of the population were, by virtue of their education (and inborn educability), sufficient for healthy governance.

    So the uneducated labourer of Plato’s days would have resented the “educated” because they were likely showing off math equations in governance that would affect him in ways he couldn’t understand. We want EVERY children to have EVERY opportunity to learn, and then learn some more, (heads above Plato’s days), and if that means learning unnecessary complicated math that appears not to be needed in the future, then you have to rethink eduction. It is the process of “learning” that counts. That is what prepares our youth for life. If they can’t pass the grade, thankfully our society doesn’t send them into the labour pool without second chances. It offers alternative opportunities.

    Let’s face it Tobin, extended education is for the cream that rises to the top (and for those whose parents have deep pockets). It’s a privilege, not a right. If a plumber learns his trade through apprenticeship, and earns a better living than the guy with the PHD in something no one values, it was a lucky choice. The sooner we stop making our kids think they are all brain surgeons, the sooner we’ll have a society that respects car mechanics. Most of us fall somewhere in between.

    I know, you are thinking – but my son has to pass this stuff just to get the most basic education. Thank goodness he has you to help him. Remember, it’s the process that will expand his brain. If he passes this test, he builds on this process for the next one. He can eventually forget the math equations, just like I did. Life after education is a constant education. Better we should let the kids know this now.

    So endeth the lesson a la Mary.

    • Thanks Mary, thought-provoking and accurate as always. I agree with you in principle…that is, that yes, any increase in knowledge is a good one, and you never know when you’ll need it, and it all helps you to learn. But the stuff that bugs me is, we’ll spend hundreds of millions of dollars to create a crap movie. We’ll spend hundreds of millions of dollars to create a game so kids can sit on couches, get fat, and not learn how to interact socially with each other face to face.

      But we won’t spend much to consider not only the education our kids get, but how it’s being done. My son shares textbooks because there isn’t enough to cover off the entire class.

      And I don’t feel that schools actually teach kids how to actually learn. I think I’ve done more to assist my kids with adapting what they’ve learned to real world situations. I think I’ve taught them more about actual learning than they’ll ever get out of school. And again, I’m not complaining about that, I’m their parent, it’s my job to teach them. But it’s hard when I see them spend 12 good years in school and, aside from some fundamental math and writing skills, most of what they learn gets tossed out as they reach for their diploma.

      What a waste.

      So endeth the reply a la Tobin.

  2. Having had four children go through the education system in Canada I agree it doesn’t prepare them for life. My kids had some good teachers but they also had many poor ones who were obviously in the wrong profession. Over the years I became increasingly angry at ‘make work’ projects sent home for me to do. I have always been an extremely involved parent and even home schooled one child for a semester when the Principal at her school refused to deal with a serious bullying issue, but when I was working full time the last thing I needed to come home to at 10 p.m. at night was a make work project from a teacher who negated to do their job. Numerous notes went back and forth over the years and I’m so glad it’s over and I never have to sign so much as another pizza slip!

  3. It’s a sad situation. The good teachers get a bad rap and the bad teachers get a free ride. Until the Boards of Education in Canada bring in merit pay, and dismissal for the bad apples, parents and kids are at the mercy of the luck of the draw.

    It’s like a sluggish old-fashioned ocean liner, and we’re not captaining the ship.

    • From my perspective, one of the issues is that the teachers’ unions are so powerful, it seems like they are driving the education funding/curriculum bus. Parents/grandparents who question the system are a nuisance. Remember phonics? And the multiplication tables on the backs of exercise books? When we were ‘bored’, we memorized the tables instead of sexting or watching movies on the devices teachers are not permitted to confiscate, in some schools, in case little Johnny’s mom wants to check on…something.

      Where is all of the money going? If there’s not enough books, buy each of the kids a tablet computer and load them up with the texts they need for school. Make learning exciting and challenging. Teach them history, starting with ancient history, so they’ll understand how we got to where we are. Instead of teaching them about multiple genders, teach them how to handle money. And sew on a button. And to be charitable. Do kids today know what the ‘golden rule’ is? Let them kick balls, fall down and problem-solve, so they can become functional grownups.

      We absolutely need merit pay and a robust performance/results evaluation system for teachers. I believe elementary school teachers should be paid the most, because if they succeed in getting the little ones engaged in learning and reading the passion of school, then they’ve set the citizens of the next generation on a strong path. I loved school because it was always interesting. I still remember my favourite teachers names – Miss Juhlicke, Miss Rooker, Mr. Milo, Sister Mary John Frances – because they made an impression that has lasted 50 years. We went outside and picked things up off the ground and if we couldn’t eat them, we put them under microscopes. We brought our lunch to school (eeeuw, cheese whiz and lettuce sandwiches) and didn’t know what pizza day was. We had school nurses, too. Oh Lord, I’m beginning to sound like an old fart, aren’t I?

      Bullying is a huge issue. No one has demonstrated the will or the guts to deal with it in a substantial way. It’s a sin that children are killing themselves because they feel helpless and hopeless. Stop the ugliness and anger that is blighting these young lives. Who are the heroes of today’s students – athletes, movie people? What meaningful contributions have they made to our planet?

      Kids can’t compute mentally, to make change. Many of them have never babysat, so how are they trained to be parents? Most can’t cook a meal from scratch. Carry on a conversation for more than 5 minutes – a lot of adults can’t do that without twitching whenever there’s an electronic sound that might be an email message. My question always is this – what happens when the power goes off? We need people who have learned to make things and fix things and build things. That’s where fulfillment lies, in creating/making a difference. Isn’t that one of the reasons we are writers?

      • TheWorld Alchemist said:
        “My question always is this – what happens when the power goes off? We need people who have learned to make things and fix things and build things. That’s where fulfillment lies, in creating/making a difference. Isn’t that one of the reasons we are writers?”

        That is why we are writers. I don’t fear for the next generation or the next. My grandchildren must learn they will have bad teachers just like they will have bad bosses.

        Can I get a witness?
        oh and i am not Ann hulder..that is a news critic, blog, pen name that I have not been able to
        Diana Simpson

      • “That is why we are writers. I don’t fear for the next generation or the next. My grandchildren must learn they will have bad teachers just like they will have bad bosses.”

        Absolutely, Diana. We’ll always have bad teachers and bad bosses. What I’m worried about is not the bad teachers, but the system that supports them. And supports the apathetic ones. And still doesn’t offer them the life skills they require.

        On top of that, we’re also raising a generation of people who can’t put a simple essay, letter or email together. Anything more than 140 characters of horridly written, barely understandable English is the best they can manage. were iz it gonna lede? wil they b redy 4 da reel wurld?

        I wonder sometimes.

  4. I don’t think my experience matches those of the others here. I had trouble with math and science in high school, but feel that a lot of my other courses were practical. My Grade 10 business course talked about the value of investing early and accruing interest over time. However, I feel that my university education, while extremely enlightening, glossed over a lot of really practical stuff. Shouldn’t we also extend this discussion to what the perceived value of university should be, as well?

    • I absolutely agree. I’ve hired a lot of university grads. I’ve hired a fair amount of MBAs. Personally, I place a reasonably low value on MBAs, because they aren’t as “special” as they once were and they (at least to me) don’t seem to be as stringent about who they let in. In my experience (and I’ll admit, it’s fairly narrow) most of the freshly-minted MBAs I’ve dealt with are divas, prima donnas, pains in the ass…call them what you will, but they have ridiculously high expectations and unbelievably low people skills. I realize I’m painting with a broad brush here, and not all the MBAs I’m come across have been like that…but most have.

      Regular university? Yeah, I’m still shaking my head at some of the things my daughter’s being taught in her first year of university. I also know there’s a marked difference in the quality of education depending on which prof you get, because my daughter’s experiencing it first hand between herself and her friends. I’ve got a lot of problems with the education system, and there’s times where I think we place more of a reliance on that piece of paper they get at the end than the experiences they’ve had getting to that stage.

      The reason I focused more toward public education is simply because if you hit university and you don’t like the service you’re receiving, you at least have the option of changing schools, etc. Changing from one public school to another will net out at nothing. Each one teaches the same outmoded, unneeded knowledge as the one before it, and teaches in the same outmoded, one-size-fits-all method.

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