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.