Some Further Thoughts on Education

“The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.” – C.S. Lewis
“Intelligence plus character-that is the goal of true education.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela

Learning

Does the educational system betray the trust of parents?

No, I do not believe it is the educational system that is betraying the parents.

As long as the decision making is top-down and void of real meaningful collaboration with stakeholders (schools, teachers, students, etc.), the educational system is doomed to failure. Equity must be applied across all students so that they have access to the same opportunities; their assessments should be based on individual differences not differentiated opportunities otherwise, a number of school districts will needlessly suffer. If the disciplines of algebra, geometry, physics and chemistry (if it hasn’t already occurred) have not shifted to a more formal presentation in middle school and therefore in-line with the rest of the world then our students will lose their competitive edge. When a top-down authority arbitrarily decides to “raise the bar” on our students, it demeans the principles of the educational system and demoralizes both teachers and students; it is an action void of lofty thought that inadvertently punishes the very people it heralds to want to help.

The following quote sums up how I think about our teachers and the need for all stakeholders to be actively involved in shaping a better future. Deflecting blame for our failures only hurts the ones we love; accountability means taking ownership and that must include all of us.

At a time when other countries are doubling down on education, tight budgets have forced states to lay off thousands of teachers. We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000. A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance. Every person in this chamber can point to a teacher who changed the trajectory of their lives. Most teachers work tirelessly, with modest pay, sometimes digging into their own pocket for school supplies — just to make a difference. Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. And in return, grant schools flexibility: to teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn. That’s a bargain worth making. President Obama

Teaching: My Point of View

RESPECT, APPROACHABILITY, AVAILABILITY, UNDERSTANDING, TRUST, SUPPORT formed the base upon which I worked from with my students.

Phobias and negative attitudes associated with mathematics on the part of most students formed the barrier that I often, as a mathematics teacher, expended the greatest energy trying to overcome.

Effective learning is an empowered partnership in which both student and teacher are accountable to each other through on-going dialogue; there should never be a power struggle between the two. I continuously used their feedback to tweak my course and encouraged the students to do likewise.

Students must be an integral part of their learning experience, not outside of it. The best way I knew how to do that was staying connected with them through constant dialogue and, most importantly, acting on it in a tangible way. They had to see that I listened to them. Once students believed that I did indeed ‘walk the talk,’ the classroom took on a whole new meaningful learning experience.

A simple gesture like standing at the entrance to a classroom and welcoming each student goes a long way toward changing attitudes toward learning in that classroom. Posting full solutions to tests and assignments and allowing time for students to check them and ask questions establishes a level of accountability for both teacher and student.

Students have a right to understand where and why they went wrong and how to correct it. Anything less, in my opinion, cheats the student.

I could never have imagined teaching the same course the same way year in and year out. If I had taught that way I know I would have gone flat and so would have the learning experience in my class. Each class taught me something different which was incorporated into the next class and so on. When I considered the variety of learners in each class, how would it be any other way? As a result, a variety of learning experiences were built in to each week’s set of lessons reflecting the new information I had learned the previous week.

Teaching can never been done in isolation. If a particular student had difficulties, I went to the different departments on the student’s timetable to speak to their teacher. Often, much was learned by doing that.

Finding My Way

My dad impacted me the most. His steadfast perseverance, intelligence, fair play, honesty, foresight, courage, sacrifice and unconditional love for his family set the standard by which I measure my life each day.

Each stage in my life—often, when I needed help the most—has had a mentor to guide me through it before s/he handed me off to the next. This is a blessing that visits so few of us and I will always be grateful for their wisdom, patience and understanding.

One mentor, if for no other reason than the longevity of his contribution, stands out: Dr. H. L. Ridge, Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto. He was my mathematics instructor at the Faculty of Education, University of Toronto. He not only challenged me to think differently and apply my learning in a creative way but, he was the model of commitment and professional standard that I became as a teacher. Like him, I encouraged my students to do better and be better than they were because I understood the benefits of that attitude to not only myself as a teacher but for my students.

My greatest growth as a teacher occurred five years into my career when Dr. Ridge asked me to co-author the first mathematics textbook series in Canada for Prentice-Hall: “Mathscope.” That opportunity to work with him was nothing short of “awesome.” His patience as he taught and guided me through each stage propelled me to levels of expectation, achievement, knowledge and personal-growth that—to this day—fill my life.

When Dr. Ridge learned that I had written my first novel “Betrayal of Trust” he was the first to critically read it and to provide his encomium on the back cover. His life and mentorship have given me immeasurable gifts. Nothing would have counted without them.

Standardized Testing – What Does it Do to the Average Student?

“If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.”

Learning Environment-Margaret Mead

This quote by Margaret Mead is the foundation upon which my views as an educator were built; it is the lens (or bias) through which I will attempt to answer (as succinctly as possible) this deceivingly complex question.

Like an onion, the expression ‘average student’ consists of many layers of interpretation beyond the statistic of mean, median and mode especially when it comes to assessing the marvelous elasticity and growth potential of the human brain.

For example, who would be the average student and the below average student in these examples?

John wrote down the following in his notebook:

10+7=17, 9+6=15, 11+5=16, 8+11=19;

While Leanne wrote the following in her notebook:

10+7=5, 9+6=3, 11+5=4, 8+11=7

Leanne was also correct. How could that be?

I think most would say that John was at least average and Leanne was below average. John’s answers are the obvious traditional replies we would expect and, therefore, he would have been credited with a correct response.  Unfortunately for Leanne, the logical path she chose would probably have been dismissed outright. Yet, I would argue that she is—in all likelihood—a more actively engaged learner than John and what we should encourage in our system. Why? She used higher level thinking skills to construct a different mathematical system while he regurgitated ‘superficial’ skills. In other words, she set a new standard of opportunity: opportunity to examine how she had applied what she had learned in a new and unique way.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do believe that the basics must be mastered and are an ingredient for success in our competitive world; but, like all recipes, success depends on all of the ingredients being proportioned correctly. Imagine ranking a cake in a baking contest by only tasting its baking powder?  Yet, I wonder if that isn’t what’s happening when a diploma is denied on account of failing an exit exam.

A student’s initiatives, creativity, imagination, curiosity, effort, judgment—just to mention a few—are invaluable assets that must not be ignored just because it cannot be measured on a standardized test; these assets can and are evaluated every day by our teachers. The following quote says it all:

Every person passing through this life will unknowingly leave something and take something away. Most of this “something” cannot be seen or heard or numbered. It does not show up in a census. But nothing counts without it. –Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

Our schools and teachers are well placed to develop and to deliver meaningful programs throughout a school day that not only recognize and engage the uniqueness of each student but allows for expression, awareness, and development of the multiple intelligences present in their classrooms. If we want all our students (irrespective of ability levels and socio-economic factors) to be lifelong learners in the 21st century, then the intelligences of intrapersonal, interpersonal, musical, spatial, and kinesthetic must be treated with equal importance alongside verbal/linguistic and logical/mathematical. To do otherwise not only cheats students from feeling successful and discovering their potential and the opportunities that await them, but may also deny the community the richness of their contribution.

The goal within our educational systems should always be about enhancing the quality of our students and the schools they learn in: not just about ranking them. The world we live in demands much more of our students than a shallow approach to learning that stresses storage of information in their heads. Higher scores (though laudable) on standardized tests should not be the gauge by which time and money are judged well spent; especially, if dropout rates continue to rise and our placement in the global community is deemed unsatisfactory.

Our choices must always profit our students. Stakeholders must collaboratively work together to find a way to encourage a willingness on the part of the student to trump factors that may impede their success and to find ways to empower our students to reach their educational goals.

Standardized testing has a place but, like the baking soda mentioned earlier in our cake, it is only one ingredient and, as such, must never (by itself) be accorded legitimacy when determining a valid measure of a good education.

An overemphasis on standardized testing impacts negatively on attitudes towards education and what learning is all about at a time when we want students and teachers engaged in a meaningful dialogue of discovery within their classrooms.

Living  in a global community demands a broader, more informed perspective and application of a mixture of new learning ‘tools’ well beyond the regurgitation of facts. Standardized tests emphasize an outmoded emphasis that only hurts our students’ learning if it is allowed a disproportionate part in their educational experience. Twenty-first century education must have an all-encompassing and broader view that emphasizes commitment to fairness, equity, accuracy and quality for all.

How was Leanne right? This is my humble view on this problem.

If she let 10+7=5 (it really doesn’t matter what it is equal to because she always applies the same logic) then

9+6 = (10-1) + (7-1) = 5-2 =3

11+5 = (10+1) + (7-2) =5-1 =4

8+11= (10-2) + (7+4) =5+2 =7

What’s your opinion about standardized testing?