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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Some Thoughts on Education

Several months ago, I attended a meeting sponsored by the IEEE, entitled "Forum on Motivating Our Students to Become Engineers: How to Make It Happen."

I was there only during the morning session, and also missed some of the earlier talks.  From some of the presentations, I got the feeling that there was too much focus and emphasis on racing to the top, and over-reliance on standardized academic curriculum, standardized testing results and academic "rigor", especially in the presentation and the accompanying commentary by Ms. Linda Murray, former San Jose Unified Superintendent.  This was quite disappointing, in my opinion. 

There was a teachers' panel that was the most interesting, I think.  As far as I understood, the main problems the teachers were facing -- that they were able to discuss -- were crowded classrooms not giving them enough time to attend to the needs of a very diverse group of kids, the extremely busy schedule, and the state mandate to cover too much material (which inevitably means too shallow) ...  I am sure there were other issues that they were not very comfortable sharing or discussing.

As I was listening to the presentations, the following questions were raised in my mind:
  • What is more important quality to have in a teacher: One how inspires and instills the love of learning in the kids, but does not necessarily know the subject very deeply, or one who knows the subject extremely well, but has little patience or understanding on how to transfer that knowledge to the kids, or has too much arrogance to accept their mistake or lack of knowledge, and as a result might very well turn quite a few students away from the subject.
  • What is more important:  Instilling curiosity and the passion for learning, making mistakes, learning from them, inviting challenges and criticisms to enhance their understanding ... and thinking out of the box who are capable of finding creative solutions for many of the increasingly challenging problems that the world is going to face as we head into the future?  Or creating an army of high-school graduates who more or less have unlearned to think outside the box, because the system penalizes non-standard modes of thinking and problem solving and is merely interested in having them learn how to find the "correct" answer in a multiple-choice standardized test?
  • What is going to happen when you give the teachers an impression that their job is to help raise the students' test scores on the standardized tests, and that is how they will be evaluated, promoted, etc.  .... as opposed to assuring them that their main goal should be to help the kids become life long learners who are genuinely passionate about the subject and related areas?  Think how would that impact the student-teacher relationship.  Whose student would you, your child or grand-child rather be?

If you have not done so, I urge you to see this entertaining and enlightening TED talk by educationalist Ken Robinson.  Professor Bruce Alberts is a Biochemist at UCSF and the Editor-in-Chief of Science, the flagship Journal of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  He wrote a very interesting editorial in January 20, 2012 of Science, entitled "Trivializing Science Education", which is a must read for anyone who aspires to help in science education.

As you contemplate your roles and plans for teaching and/or volunteering in schools and classrooms, I hope that you consider some of the above issues. Over the past few years, I have been increasingly concerned, and disappointed at the trend that is described by Bruce Alberts in his insightful editorial, and the direction that some of the so-called leaders are taking us and the education of our kids.

We have managed to make education a boring and dull activity.  No wonder most people coming out of schools and joining the workforce do not enjoy their work either.  Reminds me of this insightful clip (alternate link) by the late scholar and philosopher, Alan Watts, entitled Work as Play.

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