Kevin Blissett: Out of the Cave

Leadership, Classroom 2.0, Curriculum, China

The Chinese Educational Robot Factory

20090415_397679_01Is the Chinese educational system as high-stress as one might think? You’d better believe it. Wan Lixin provides a startling view of the extreme competition inherent in the system and suggests that a return–at least in part–to the moral education of the past may be the solution. From the article, here is a taste of what most Chinese students apparently endure:

The student’s nightmare began when he was a fifth grader, when his father began to keep track of his academic ranking in the class.

Ranked only within the top 10, he was frequently subjected to ridicule by parents and relatives.

“If you fail to enter a key university, you had better kill yourself, and I would not drop a single tear …” he quoted his father as threatening.

Like nearly all students of his age, he was put on a quasi-military regimen.

A college can provide a brief respite from pressure, but soon the specter of employment expectations will begin to loom.

This approach to education is not limited to China, but is evident throughout most Asian countries. I think it’s clear that the effects of such an approach to education are having and will have deleterious effects in the long run; the question is whether Asian nations believe the trade-off is worth it.

Cartoon by Zhou Tao

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April 15, 2009 Posted by | teaching quality, university | Leave a comment

The Death of the Classroom?

I just happened upon an interesting though logically incomplete article entitled “Long Live Instructor-Led Education” by Saul Carliner of Concordia University outlining his reasons for believing that face to face classroom instruction is not being threatened by e-learning courses and training. While I tend to agree with him in principle, I do not believe he offers the strongest arguments for his position. Carliner begins by suggesting that instructor-led classrooms are not being hurt by the current world recession:

For those of you thinking the current recession is the jarring event that will result in a revolution in learning; think again. Although a speaker at Online Educa in Berlin this past December predicted that entire training departments will be obliterated in the recession, that’s only likely to happen if the rest of the organizations these departments serve are obliterated. Otherwise, what we have learned from previous recessions is that training receives—on average—equal treatment. That is, if the overall staff of an organization is cut 10 percent, then the training staff is cut 10 percent, as Training magazine reported in 1993 when it analyzed spending on training during the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s, and in 2002, when ASTD analyzed spending during that recent recession.

Fair enough. I accept the statistics as accurate. However, he does admit that the recession will likely increase the number of instructor-led e-courses. Won’t an increase in the number of these online courses lead to a decrease in face to face courses and, accordingly, an overall decrease in the number of teachers/trainers?

Carliner next approaches the meat of his argument by averring that formal classroom learning will not be replaced by informal learning–exemplified by blogging, social media, etc.–for the following reasons:

a) Informal learning is flawed. It is too narrowly focused and “sporadic.” That is, the learning does not have a proper context and is, consequently, unconnected. I tend to agree with this point.

b) Informal learning is inaccurate:

  • Content errors are higher.
  • Sources are unverified or not properly documented.
  • Bloggers, for example, are relying on other inaccurate bloggers, which compounds the problem.
  • Writing is not as meticulous.

These points do not appear to be very convincing. Ultimately sourcing a piece of writing, be it a university research paper or a blog post, depends entirely on the writer. You can have sloppy essay writers as well as sloppy bloggers. I suppose his point is that having face to face interaction reduces the possibility of error due to accountability to the instructor. However, aren’t bloggers accountable to a far larger audience, which has no compunctions about “calling out” and correcting the poster on shoddy writing? Wikipedia is a good example of this. Errors tend to be pointed out fairly quickly, perhaps even more quickly than a teacher would do in marking a term paper.

c) Interruptions cause a breakdown in the learning process.

No problems with point “c.”

d) Social media is often not a proper mode of training:

  • Quantity of users does not equal quality of content. (Ain’t that the truth.)
  • A study shows that only 21% of social media users actually create their own content and multimedia.
  • Research indicates that face to face interaction is still more effective socially.

Carliner seems to echo my own thoughts here.

He concludes by posing a question: Then, why are many bloggers trumpeting the “Death of the Classroom”? Carliner explains this–rather simply–by reasoning that bloggers hold this position because they feel that they have learned effectively via e-learning so everyone else can too. While he may be correct, this is not a very strong point.

We are a long way from abandoning the tried and true learning practices of the past in the face of the technological onslaught encircling us; however, using a high dose of technology in the classroom setting is not only preferable but essential.

April 2, 2009 Posted by | social media, teaching quality, technology | Leave a comment

The Problem with “Fuzzy Math”

This article by Matthew Clavell brings forth a strong indictment against so-called “Fuzzy Math” (a.k.a. “Constructivist Math) as exemplified in the Everyday Mathematics program. I’m particularly interested in this because my boss is directing my school to use it. I have to say, I have not been impressed with the program, nor the philosophy behind it, either before and after reading the article.

Defenders of critical thinking say we need to rescue our schools from a repressive “drill-and-kill” pedagogy that makes children automatons, spitting back the facts and rules that teachers have drummed into their heads and never learning to think on their own. The truth, of course, is that no one claims that knowing how to think independently isn’t important. But thinking can’t take flight unless you do know some basic facts—and nowhere is this more the case than in math. If you really want your students to engage in “higher-order thinking” in math, get them to master basic operations like their times tables first. When a middle schooler is learning to factor equations in eighth grade, it’s a crippling waste of mental energy if he needs to figure out how many times four goes into 20. Mastering fundamentals through practice can lift a child’s confidence to do harder work.

“Cooperative” learning that leads to classroom chaos, schizoid lessons that fail to impart mastery, ill-conceived and overly difficult homework assignments, lousy results, parental outrage—shouldn’t every teacher have done as I did and thrown Elementary Mathematics into the garbage? I certainly wasn’t alone in hating it. Indeed, I never heard a good word for it from my fellow teachers. At a grade conference one day, one our most respected fourth-grade teachers, a veteran who worked hard and cared deeply about the achievement of her students, summed up the general frustration with the new program: “I can’t teach it.”

Read the rest here.

April 1, 2009 Posted by | teaching quality | Leave a comment

Creating Great Teachers

At about the 8 minute point of this video, Bill Gates poses the question, “What makes a great teacher?” I’m not sure that he ever gets to outlining specifically what those qualities and practices are; however, he does indicate that there is a huge gap between the great ones and the poor ones.

He goes on to point out that our current system, which is controlled by the unions, doesn’t reward the great teachers or give them incentive to remain. He indicates that some teachers’ contracts only allow the principal to enter the classroom once a year, and then, only after giving notice. He compares this practice to a factory manager who is only able to observe workers on the factory floor once a year and rightly implies that such a business would quickly fail.
Gates is very high on the KIPP charter public schools which seem to be doing a masterful job of preparing disadvantaged kids for university. Ultimately, he posits that there needs to be better tracking systems to determine which are the good teachers, frequent observation, and bonuses in place for doing a good job. Great advice!

March 24, 2009 Posted by | rewards, teaching quality | Leave a comment