Sunday, March 06, 2005

Education Vents

Did I mention how much I dislike the education system in North America?

So Intel VP Pat Gelsinger says, "We have a lousy education system." I agree. But the biggest problem I have with the Canadian education system in particular is what I call the "Black Box Phenomenon."

I've seen way too many high school teachers (and university professors for that matter) focus on teaching black box concepts, rather than actual knowledge. Let's use the parabola as an example. I remember we had to graph parabolas by looking at the function but avoiding any actual math to calculate individual x and y points. This was taught to emphasize the fact that all parabolic functions had similar attributes. We'd break the the function down to the form y=a(x-p)^2+q. So for example, y=2x^2-4x+1 would become y=2(x-1)^2+3. Then we'd be able to immediately conclude that the function's vertex was at (x,y)=(1,3) because p=1 and q=3, and that the graph was twice as narrow as a regular parabola, since a=2. This allowed us to draw our graph. But nobody ever was taught why the vertex was always at (p,q), nor why a determined how "narrow or wide" the parabola would be. We were expected to figure it out on our own, or maybe the teachers never really cared whether we figured it out. I'll presume that we were expected to figure it out on our own, since it was an honours class.

But the point is, drawing parabolic functions was like using a black box. We were given a model, inputted stuff into the model, and took the outputs to get our answer; we never thought about what happened inside the black box. I found that educational mentality everywhere among my non-honours peers and in my non-honours classes. I was appalled at how many teachers focused so much on making sure students passed or achieved a good grade that they ignored whether the same students were actually learning anything. It got to the point where the BC Provincial final exams (at the time worth 40% of a grade 12 course's grade) seemed like a system that needed to be beaten, rather than a way of benchmarking the knowledge and analytical abilities of students. Can you believe that? Teachers taught more about tips to handle specific types of questions than about what the intended learning material actually was.

When we get to the point where we're just learning how to use tools, rather than how to actually create tools, we are prone to make profound mistakes even when we're simply using tools the way we were taught. I think the E. coli crisis in Walkerton, Ontario epitomizes this. Here was a man who essentially knew how to push buttons in a plant, without knowing the true significance of each button. It was that lack of knowledge (in combination with various other breakdowns in the process no doubt) that allowed the E. coli disaster to happen.
Koebel spoke for the first time on Monday, saying he was sorry and describing himself as unqualified for the job he held for 12 years as manager of the water utility.

"Words cannot begin to express how sorry I am," Koebel, 47, said. "I am one of the pieces of the puzzle that came together in May."

Koebel spoke in a calm, measured voice on Monday in confirming much of what others had said about him during the two months of hearings so far by the inquiry led by Justice Dennis O'Connor.

"I didn't have enough educational background and experience," he said at one point during six hours of testifying.

Koebel told the board he was never given tests to prove he could handle the job before he was hired as plant manager in 1988. He was unable to explain several technical terms, and admitted he regularly falsified records.
It reminds me of the Simpsons episode where Homer uses Eeny Meeny Miney Moe to avert a nuclear disaster. And it's scary. Anyone can push buttons and handle a situation with a black box. Few people can do it and actually understand what they are doing.

I think our education system became like this because it thinks too lowly of our students. It actually thinks they are incapable of thinking. And it's sad. I posed it this way in a speech to a high school teacher conference in my grade 12 year:
I’ve observed several types of teachers in my brief high school career. There were autocrats, good cops and bad cops, jokers, and leaders. They all took their own approaches to teaching and all try to come up with the same result. However, there seems to be (from my limited case study of a small sample) an alarming trend. Teachers seem to be focusing on the delivery. Well, teachers are the deliverers of education. It is their job. But picture education as a gift. Now picture this gift wrapped in the shiniest paper in the world and adorned with sparkling ribbons and tantalizing decorations. Open this gift. Some might expect treasures. I see… air.

Education has become air. It still exists, but for an inactive student, it is intangible. Students who care will try to do something to taste it. They will move their hands swiftly, breathe deeply, or listen for the faint sound of wind. Some might even peer closely enough to be able to see dust particles floating. But the gift box is still void of substance. There are two problems here. Firstly, the student who wants to learn is being stymied by the lack of content. Secondly, the student who doesn’t care has little chance of learning anything.

Attempts to solve the second problem are the cause of education’s emptiness. Teachers have tackled the problem of the uninspired student in various ways. Some teachers try to be funny. Others use technology to spark curiosity. And others may just give the students work to do and hope that a spark gets kindled. All these may be viable ways to solve the problem, but they will be in vain if the content itself is not appealing. Without the content, the entire package has no substance. Only air. Whatever solution is used to motivate the uninspired student must not neglect what is supposed to be taught.

You see, teachers are so focused on getting the student’s attention that they neglect to fill up the box before handing it over. Instead, they put all their effort into dressing up the box so that it will at least be received. It’s even better if the box is light! The student won’t get so tired of carrying it around! In fact, let’s just hand the box over empty! It’s hard enough to get the student to even want to pick it up! Have you ever heard of the expression, “worth its weight in gold” used to describe anything? Education is worth its weight in gold. Ponder that.
Like my English teacher agreed, we need to put stuff back in the box. But there's also a culture that stymies student efforts to learn. For one thing, it's just not cool. Bill Gates noted the following in a recent speech:
When I visited High Tech High in San Diego a few years ago, one young student told me that High Tech High was the first school he’d ever gone to where being smart was cool. His neighborhood friends gave him a hard time about that, and he said he wasn’t sure he was going to stay. But then he showed me the work he was doing on a special project involving a submarine. This kid was really bright. It was an incredible experience talking to him – because his life really did hang in the balance.
For another, there is this air of arrogance in North America, that since we're currently on top, we have nothing to worry about. Our education sucks? Yeah right, we're #1! How can we not be? We have some of the best standards of living in the world! Bleh. I remember one friend who had moved to my city from South Africa. One of the brightest guys I ever met. The BC government actually mandated that he be put back a year so that he could catch up with Canadian students. He couldn't believe it because the stuff he was learning in South Africa was way more advanced than what he was getting in Canada. He actually went out and bought university-level physics textbooks to keep his mind engaged. He's not alone. I remember in my university-level discrete and continuous mathematics courses how the European and Asian international students laughed and aced exams without studying because they had already learned things like linear algebra in high school. It was sick.

Finally, there's this attitude I already mentioned that kids just aren't capable of learning. If Bill Gates' speech is any indication of what high schools in the US are really like, I'm speechless. Kids are actually forced to learn how to balance checkbooks instead of algebra, based on their demographic group? Now that would be sick. What're these arrogant attitudes and low standards doing to us? Gates notes that these are the results:
When I compare our high schools to what I see when I’m traveling abroad, I am terrified for our workforce of tomorrow. In math and science, our 4th graders are among the top students in the world. By 8th grade, they’re in the middle of the pack.

By 12th grade, U.S. students are scoring near the bottom of all industrialized nations.

We have one of the highest high school dropout rates in the industrialized world. Many who graduate do not go onto college. And many who do go on to college are not well-prepared – and end up dropping out. That is one reason why the U.S. college dropout rate is also one of the highest in the industrialized world. The poor performance of our high schools in preparing students for college is a major reason why the United States has now dropped from first to fifth in the percentage of young adults with a college degree.
We have an education system where kids are taught how to act like computer algorithms, not how to think. And if the trend continues, I'm never sending my kids to a public school.

By the way, that's totally how I remember To Kill a Mockingbird. :D


  1. I totally agree w/ u that our education system is completely lacking. In the area of history, particularly. When I think back on what I know about history that I learned in high school, I dont even think that we covered much of the world war. There is so much that ISNT covered, so much relevant and useful pieces of history that is neglected, its just not acceptable. With History being such an important part of understanding the world and our society, how can it not be included.. I mean, its fine and dandy to learn about Egyptians and mummification for example, but what about recent revolutions and the whole political side of things...


  2. Hehe, wow, you're really trying over there, huh? :) Europeans really make me feel stupid because of how many languages they all seem to know! But I think the arts are just underappreciated, even moreso than the sciences. It's too bad because I think it's in the arts side of academia that we'll find our humanity.

  3. Messenger of DoomMarch 13, 2005 6:22 p.m.

    Dude, did you never have to map a parabola? Then you might have noticed how they work...

    And all those people out there who don't know and don't like history (how do you dislike something you don't know?)... makes me want to beat them over the head...

    *beat* *beat*

  4. Well, I hope I was able to understand or map parabolas, otherwise it was a miracle that I learned any calculus? ;)