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Education Is Farce - Part 2

By Professor Doom

Last time I introduced Education as a scholarly field, one where its members get their degrees via special courses (a la The Special Olympics), before going out and teaching despite having no real knowledge of the subject they teach. A natural question is “what do these people really do?” Mostly, embarrass themselves, at least when they talk to anyone who knows anything.

(The entire college faculty is gathered to hear the latest words of wisdom from another Educationist. This one specializes in multiple choice questions, and asked us to bring our course textbooks to help us make up a multiple choice question using her ideas—as though college faculty, like Educationists, don’t know our basic material well enough without the textbook at hand.)

Educationist: “So, here we have a test I gave to my learners. To each question, I’ve associated a number computed using my SPSS software. If the number is positive, that means students that did well on the test generally got that question right. If the number is negative, that means that the students who did well on the test generally got that question wrong.

Me: “These numbers your software is getting. These are just correlation coefficients, right?”

Educationist: “Yes, they’re called that.”

Me: “What conditions, say, certain class averages or scenarios, would allow for some sort of maximum to be achieved?”

Educationist: “I don’t know.”

Me: “Negative correlations seem fairly interesting, as they represent problems that good students tend to miss, more so possibly than poor students. What conditions or types of questions can lead to negative correlations in this case?”

Educationist: “I don’t know.”

Me: “Is there any known relationship between class scores and these correlations?”

Educationist: “I don’t know.”

Me: “Do you know of any research that might have led to some answers to these types of questions?”

Educationist: “I don’t know of any.”

--I bet another faculty member money that the Educationist knew very little about the topic she was explaining to us. He paid up. What a curious field where you can be an expert on a topic, but never to have considered in that topic, “What causes good things to happen? Or bad things? Or anything in particular?” The more mathematically inclined reader might want to consider what kind of class scores on say, a 20 question test would lead to correlations of 1, -1, or 0, to get an idea of just how little the Educationist knows.

Educationists have their own language and terms. You know instantly when you’re talking to one when you hear them refer to “learners”---a decidedly optimistic term for what us normal folk call “students.” If their only influence was a mere change in vocabulary (no more noxious than exchanging “remedial” for “developmental”), they probably wouldn’t be held in such low self regard by many faculty—even as I acknowledge I have met the occasional Educationist who does know what he’s talking about. Unfortunately, Educationists very much influence college activity and coursework, seldom improving anything.

Suggested Group Project: Read A Book

Once again, the faculty is gathered to hear the words of wisdom of our latest Educationist, to tell us the wonder of Learning Communities:

Educationist: “I’m here to present to the latest methods on building Learning Communities. The foremost method by far is group projects, every course should be built around them. You should divide your class into groups of four or five learners within the first few class meetings, to get that community built as quickly as possible. Learners that form groups like this can have lasting friendships throughout their college careers. They stick together a long time, and that allows for better retention.”

Faculty: “We lose at least a third of our students by mid-term, my groups won’t last that long. I don’t see how this works.”

Educationist: “Might be best to reform groups if you have lots of drop-outs. By having groups, the learners can work together, taking advantage of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.”

Me: “But that won’t help individuals gain skills. Each person does only what he’s good at, and never grows. What is the purpose of everything being done in group projects?”

Educationist: “Research shows Learning Communities increases retention.”

Me: “But how does it help with learning?”

Educationist: “If they’re not retained, they’re not learning, right?”

--Educationist using the ultimate trump card. The book Academically Adrift shows that simply being retained doesn’t cause learning, although it most surely generates revenue for the institution.

In addition to taking math out of math courses, another tidbit of advice that comes up often is to have more group projects. The theory that each person in the group will contribute according to his or her strengths and leave the others to compensate for his weaknesses is really quite beautiful. It is also crap. Anyone who has been in a group project knows full well how it works: the one or two students that care about the course do all the work, and the other students coast along, learning nothing. Thus it’s no surprise that Academically Adrift (page 101) shows a negative relationship between group study and learning: students with little interest in learning seek out group project coursework.

Administration, of course, still pushes hard for group projects in classes. Negative impact on learning is not a concern because studies consistently show that being in group projects increases retention (i.e., warm bodies and sweet checks)…and that’s all administration cares about. It’s obvious group projects increase retention—it teaches the uncaring student that he can just coast by on the backs of his associates.

This coasting can go on for years, but is rather disastrous once the student encounters a course that either requires actual learning by the individual, or assumes the individual learned something earlier. If it goes on for a whole degree, the “lucky” student escapes into the real world, albeit with no skills or knowledge anyone is willing to pay for. You can see people like this on Wall Street, holding signs.

Suggestion: break your class into groups, and have them work on the problems together.”

--Administrative suggestion after observing my teaching.

The reason why faculty are subjected to a stream of Educationist indoctrination is simple: administration hires the speakers. With this being the case, it’s no surprise that we mostly get speakers on the topic admin cares about most: increased retention. We never get advice on how to get students to do more, instead, the Educationist always says to do less, less, less, in our courses.

Complementing this is the change in how faculty teaching is analyzed. In the 80s and early 90s, a senior faculty member would come into my classroom for a day every semester, and watch me teach (sometimes I’d even be recorded via video camera, which we’d watch together). Afterwards, this experienced expert would then meet with me and we’d discuss what I was doing in the classroom. Even faculty with 30 years of experience teaching would still undergo this process regularly.

Administrator: “Those little numbers you sometimes put on the top right?”

Me: “You mean ‘exponents’?”

Administrator: “Yes, those. You should always put those on everything, so students don’t get confused.”

Me: “…”

--- Instead of writing 2x + 3x = 5x, I really was told to write 21x1 + 31x1 = 51x1. I wish I didn’t have to keep saying “I can’t make this stuff up.”

Those days are long over, and it’s been at least 15 years since my teaching has been observed by a peer. Now, my teaching is judged, not by an experienced professional that knows the subject and has taught the course, but by an administrator, one who has never actually taught a course or knows even the slightest bit of my subject (mathematics). The administrator comes to my classroom, then afterwards lectures me on how to teach the subject better. Administrators take Education courses to get their Administration degrees, and are firmly indoctrinated in the wonders of Educationism. Thus administrators constantly reinforce wacky Educationist ideas that anyone with real knowledge knows are ridiculous.

"Content knowledge is not seen to be as important as possessing teaching skills and knowledge about the students being taught."

-- "New Designs for Teaching and Learning," by Dennis Adams and Mary Hamm, a popular Educationist book.

Should a field that firmly believes you can teach a subject without knowing the subject really control education? Should teaching be judged not by teachers, but by people with no knowledge of what they are judging?

Think about it.





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