Teachers are ready for challenge, including the impossible

“Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.” B. F. Skinner (1904 – 1990) 

Ah, education.  What is it?  Psychologist B.F. Skinner thinks that education is the remnants of learning, not the beginning of it.

Almost everyone has an opinion about education.  Ask a dozen people and you’ll get a dozen answers.  Ask one hundred groups, as B.C. Minister of Education Christy Clark did, and you’ll get many more.

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It’s no wonder that everyone has an opinion.  We spend a dozen or more years on the receiving end of education.  Some of us spend many more years on the delivery end.

Students, parents, and the general public rightfully expect results.  British Columbians spend a lot of money on education, second only to health care.  Last year we spent $6.8 billion on education and $9.5 billion health care.

Minister Clark’s recently released goals for Education are ambitious.  She would require school districts to make physical education mandatory for grades 11 and 12.  She wants school districts to enhance student life skills and readiness for employment.  She expects a lot from school boards.

Clark has to be careful with how far she pushes school boards.  School boards now provide a convenient scapegoat for the B.C. Liberals.  They do the governments dirty work in cutting expensive programs and take all the flack.

Recently, some school boards have rebelled and run deficits.   This left the government with no option but to fire the boards and take them over.  In doing so, the government becomes directly answerable to the electorate – – something the Liberals would like to avoid.

Clarke’s plans are potentially expensive and she is not giving school boards any more money to implement these plans.  The B.C. Liberals plan to spend less on education, when you take inflation into account.

In addition to financial and political problems with Clark’s plan, there are logistical problem.  Some goals contradict others.  She plans to introduce “pathway concentrations” in areas like trades and technology, humanities, science, and business and marketing.

That contradicts another Clark proposal: “critical thinking, problem solving and community and social responsibility.”  Whereas pathway concentrations require a focus on a clusters of studies, critical thinking and problem solving require a broad range of subjects.   Specific pathways don’t allow for exploration.  Critical thinking requires a broad liberal education with many paths traveled.

Then there are the pedagogical problems having to do with the design of a curriculum that will meet her goals.  Curriculum design is based on concepts first identified by Benjamin Bloom in 1948.

Bloom categorized three levels of educational abstraction which he called “domains.”  Bloom called them the psychomotor, cognitive, and affective domains.  The first step in curriculum design is to decide which domain your educational goal falls.  Next, write objectives that meet that goal.

The affective domain contains the highest level of abstraction, including Clark’s goals of critical thinking, problem solving and community and social responsibility.  It also includes the teaching of attitudes, values, and commitments.

It’s the kind of life-long learning that B. F. Skinner talks about.  We may forget facts, but things learned in the affective domain last a lifetime.

Teaching in the affective domain requires that students analyze “complex sets of values, possible disparate values, resolve conflicts between them, and begin to build an internally consistent value system,” according to one school of education.

It can be done but it requires not only careful planning but also requires that students are developed to the point of accepting higher levels of abstraction.

Teaching in the other educational domains – – the psychomotor and the cognitive – – are more manageable.

The psychomotor domain is for the teaching of manual dexterity, eye-hand coordination, and fine motor skills.  The cognitive domain is the teaching of knowledge as a result of the presentation of facts and ideas.  Teaching in the cognitive domain requires analysis, evaluation and synthesis.  It’s difficult but can be done.

I agree with Education Minister Clark when she says that “Education must go beyond teaching the skills necessary for university…”  Teachers are always ready for a challenge.

Teachers will train the bodies, educate the minds, and often sooth the souls of their students.  Teachers will do the difficult right now – – the impossible will take a little while.

University ranking system too often based on wrong criteria

Every year, Canadian universities wait with anticipation for comparisons  of their institution relative to others in periodicals like Maclean’s Magazine.  Depending on the results, there is rejoicing or muttering.  But too often such rankings are based on the wrong criteria say the authors of a new report called Missing Pieces II.

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In their report, Denise Doherty-Deorme and Erika Shaker are critical of the assumptions and methods in which these reports have been used to devalue some, or promote others.  For example, universities are often ranked according to their ability to compete in an environment of dwindling resources.

Such contests force schools to compete without any consideration of the fiscal restraints under which they are forced to operate.  The authors consider factors that take into account how institutions serve the society  –equity, accountability, quality, and accessibility.  According to the report,  B.C. has one of the best post-secondary education systems in Canada.

B.C. ranks number one in equity.  The authors define equity as access to post-secondary education regardless of gender,  place of origin, or socioeconomic status.  Our province has high percentage of low-income citizens with a post secondary education — just one of five areas of research in the area of equity.

We are also number one in public accountability.  This is a measure of how well education serves general public needs, as opposed to narrow interests of corporations or private donors.   Rankings are based on each province’s commitment to funding education.  Private funds come with strings attached.

B.C. ranks second in quality, with New Brunswick coming in first.  Quality is determined by not only the amount of funding for post-secondary education, but where the spending priorities are.  It includes student to faculty ratios, and keeping full-time faculty.

Attracting and keeping full-time faculty is vital to high quality education. The trend towards part-time faculty reduces the quality of education.  Since part-time faculty are looking for regular work elsewhere, a consistent commitment to education is hard to achieve.

Only two provinces, Quebec and B.C. have increased full-time faculty in the college sector.  In the university sector, only Prince Edward Island has increased full-time faculty, and B.C. has reduced full-time faculty the least.

B.C. is fourth in accessibility, which is the freedom to obtain and make use of post-secondary education.  Newfoundland P.E.I. have joined  B.C. and Quebec in freezing tuition fees.  Manitoba has actually lowered tuition fees.  Alberta has increased fees by the greatest amount — 209 percent in the last decade.  Quebec is ranked first in accessibility, followed by Nova Scotia and Manitoba.

Low tuition fees have also had the effect of increasing the quality of education, I think.  Low fees have increased demand for courses from B.C. students and out-of-province students from Alberta. This has some Albertans complaining of a brain-drain to B.C.  Post-secondary institutions have reacted to student demand by raising prerequisites.

In turn, higher quality students has increased the quality of instruction.  In my twenty-eight years of teaching in high schools and at the post-secondary level, one lesson I’ve learned is that the level of  my instruction is determined by the skills of my students.

Too much of the public analysis of post secondary education has taken the form of the forces of simplistic rankings devoid of context.  Such methods serve only to reinforce the rhetoric of restructuring — rewarding institutions that  move away from public  accessibility and towards market accountability — without  examining  the  source  of  this  rhetoric and its harmful influence.

Affordable education should be regarded as an investment in the future. Well paid wage earners return that investment through higher taxes.  They problem with privatized education is that it ignores the contribution that low-income students can make to society.

The lesson that Ireland learned is worth paying attention to.  They made post-secondary education free.  It took a decade for it, and other economic measures, to pay off, but now Ireland is regarded as an European tiger.

Although Missing Pieces II is not exhaustive, nor does it claim to be, the authors make use of a wide range of information from students, activists, educators, researchers, Statistics Canada.  The full report is available from the Canadian Centre of Policy Alternatives at http://www.policyalternatives.ca/