All over North America, improving education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics is a hot topic. It was not surprising to read that the Province of Manitoba included this in a recent press-release:
“working with all deans of education to strengthen teacher training, looking at entrance prerequisites, course composition, practicum supports, teacher certification requirements and new initiatives to encourage more math and science graduates to enter the teaching profession.”
Hey, I’ve been there. I was part of the Maths/Science Push back in the 1970s. They encouraged we geeks to enlist. I did. I was not widely accepted in educational circles. “Professional” educators looked down upon us as not being professional enough. Why, instead of following the latest educational fads we taught the basics well and challenged students to excel rather than scrape by. I used to ask my maths students if they felt comfortable flying with a pilot who made 50% of his landings… I relished in the Western Canadian Protocol initiative which included teaching mathematics the way it was actually used in the real world with calculators and computers and databases… My “professional” cohorts demanded retraining… I obtained as many Computers For Schools PCs to pack into my classroom as I could. My “professional” cohorts thought even 1 PC per classroom was distracting. Eventually, I switched to being a computer teacher because at least no one objected to me having a room full of PCs. I did magic with those providing better IT than most schools running that other OS by bringing in GNU/Linux which worked for us rather than holding us back. I taught students to use IT for everything possible from writing books to making music to maths to networking… while my “professional” cohorts were using some minimal interpretation of obsolete curriculums.
No. Injecting knowledgeable people into education won’t fix the problem. Turning them loose to teach might. Trying to mould them into the kind of people who aren’t doing the job now won’t.
I’ll recount a few more stories, besides the raw number and kind of PCs in the classrooms…
I was at one high school where I figured out how to get students extra credits by running courses in parallel. It was a bit more work for me but the students got to learn faster and have actual usable skills in programming when they were done. I learned that my “professional” cohorts were teaching snippets of programming over 2 or 3 years claiming they were doing their jobs. The curriculum explicitly encourages teaching different aspects of programming in parallel because it made sense. You couldn’t actually write much of a programme these days without considering subroutines, I/O, data-structures and the like. Why bore the students with 3 years of courses before they could write “Hello World!” with style? Nope. The principal sat in on a class and pronounced the work too hard. In 3 weeks, I had students indexing the bible, solving Tic-Tac-To by multiple methods, searching, sorting and generally keep track of problems that took them ages by paper and pencil. Students were awake and participating in my classes but that mattered not. The employer wanted to cut my pay by $5K per annum. They cut others’ pay too claiming teachers were a year or two back on the pay-scale for no good reason. I was teaching elsewhere in two months. The others were limited in job-prospects and stayed. The guy they replaced me with left at the end of the semester and so did that principal… Is an educational system so messed up going to be fixed by injecting knowledgeable people into the lower levels? I doubt it.
At another place, I discovered local politicians were providing housing to a drug-dealer on campus. My students were getting stoned at night instead of organizing their learnings every night. I wrote a memo suggesting some steps we as a professional staff could take to reduce the harm to students, simple things like contacting the police and monitoring exits during school hours to make sure students didn’t get high in class. I was fired with no notice the next day. 10 days later I was working in another place because my skills were in demand. Not many teachers knew how to set up a computer lab in those days let alone keep IT humming in remote communities. How would injecting knowledgeable teachers into such situations improve education if they can be stifled by arrogant politicians?
How are governments going to get knowledgeable people to stick it out in such chaotic systems when they can get better pay and working conditions elsewhere? I eventually retired a bit early just because it was easier to stay home, hunting and shooting, gardening, blogging and landscaping than putting up with the nonsense in the educational system. There are lots of things that need to be fixed in education before injecting knowledgeable people into it will do any good. In the meantime, the dead wood accumulates. By that I mean people so “professional” that they feel the profession, as sick as it is, needs to be protected rather than forced to evolve in a sane way.