Education and Weight Lifting

There is a huge difference between training and education.

There is nothing wrong with job or skills training. But, both have the same limitations: they are, by necessity, narrow and tightly defined. We must not allow “education” to be taken by either of these cul de sacs. 

Training is necessary but limited. It focuses on a narrow concept and teaches that. In the next generation job training will be only partly useful. A person who needs to change jobs five times can’t do a two year training course every time. Which brings us to education.

What is the purpose of education?

Education teaches to expand the mind and allow it to become flexible. It must be a way of broadening horizons, introducing new ideas, and helping people learn to be adaptable. It supports training in that if that person has been taught how to learn quickly, and how to be flexible then they could learn each new skill set in a fraction of the time, and perhaps with only a minimal amount of skill training as opposed to one to two years. Some people are innately good at this, but not everyone is, and that’s why formalized education exists.

Now there are many factors that affect this. I don’t plan on hashing out what education is here because others have done it much better, and in much greater depth than I ever could (I was going to give links, but honestly there’s been so much written about the history and purpose of education that I can’t even summarize it here, and that’s ignoring everything before 1960 (aka most of history)).

Dr. Steven Conn, a professor of History at Ohio State University, has a very thought provoking article in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “The Rise of the Helicopter Teacher“. It discusses the increase in teachers in American post secondary institutions making their classes easier for students. I’m not going to debate whether or not he’s correct, though I feel that this is exactly what Côté & Allahar feared was coming to Canada).

Dr. Conn compares his take on grade inflation and decreasing academic standards as being similar to helicopter parents.

Either way, like those parents who swaddle their kids in bubble wrap before letting them use the slides, too many faculty members now are scared to watch their students struggle and fail. Bad for their self-esteem, worse for my annual evaluation from my department chair.

Having worked as a teacher in both a suburban and rural high school and having worked for eight years in post secondary student affairs I feel that I have a unique perspective on helicopter parents. In the high schools I worked in I had fairly frequent encounters with helicopter parents and I have to say that although I can understand that at the extreme end of the spectrum that would make it difficult to do my job properly, I think that for the majority of parents out there it’s just trying to help.

But Dr. Conn does have a bit of a point here. Although the helicopter parent is trying to help, what they’re actually doing is making it harder for their students in the long run. It is like the student who has someone else complete an assignment for them, yes it technically checked off the box for completing that assignment, but they didn’t learn anything from it. And the point of education is not to get through and get a credential, the point is to learn, grow, and expand your horizons.

Education, and a liberal arts education in particular, is just as useful as going to the gym. Lifting weights doesn’t prepare me for my job. Running doesn’t help with my career. Neither helps me with what I do for fun (mostly cooking, reading, and computers). But it improves my way of life by increasing my strength, helping keep me healthy, etc. Education strengthens your brain, it keeps it healthy, it makes your ability to learn more flexible.

This brings up the problem of standardized tests. The problem with standardized testing is that it doesn’t allow you to judge learning, only content retention. It doesn’t look at complex thinking. It assesses the method of education but not the purpose of education. It’s like assessing health by how much you can bench press.

We are now in a world where almost everyone is carrying a dictionary, encyclopedia, and calculator in their pockets. Why then is content memorization the key. Basic concepts are important, but beyond that the ability to understand, dispute, and analyze information is more important than memorization. Frameworks become more important as you need a general idea of what content fits where but, for example, knowing the exact year of a battle is less helpful than knowing the order of key battles and decade.

Content should be used as a way of building skills and a way of gaining a general gist of an area but there is no reason to keep that content after it’s done its job.

The point isn’t weightlifting, weightlifting is a means to an end. The point is overall health.

Education By Algorithm

John Warner over at Inside Higher Ed had yet another great colum. More States Adopt Robo-Grading. That’s Bananas. It’s regarding more places wanting to use algorithms to assess work. Seriously, go read it.

Grading by algorithm is stupid. Here’s the example of a computer generated paragraph that got perfect marks on the GRE essay algorithm given in the article:

“History by mimic has not, and presumably never will be precipitously but blithely ensconced. Society will always encompass imaginativeness; many of scrutinizations but a few for an amanuensis. The perjured imaginativeness lies in the area of theory of knowledge but also the field of literature. Instead of enthralling the analysis, grounds constitutes both a disparaging quip and a diligent explanation.”

Did that make sense? Nope.

What’s the point of essay writing? No seriously, what’s the point? It’s to train students to explain their point or argument in long form and back it up. From that they learn to tailor their writing to their reader, to structure an argument in a way that makes sense to others, and it helps them understand the purposes of supporting arguments. When you replace the reader with an algorithm that can’t assess the strength of an argument you change that. The reader is no longer a person, so they’re not learning how to write so a human can understand. The purpose of supportiong arguments never comes into it because the algorithm can’t tell the difference between a strong and weak argument, so the only thing they’re learning is how to structure their argument, except the reader is an algorithm, so they’re learning a single structure that “passes” the test.

If this is how they’re going to grade essays then there’s no reason to write essays.

Lets expand this. What’s the point of essay writing? To learn how write so a person will understand. If a person isn’t reading it, what’s the point?

What it does is make it easier to require teaching to a test, or in this case an algorithm. And once you’ve done that you can start removing anything that doesn’t help when being tested by that algorithim. Once that’s happened then there’s no real reason to teach the course at all, since no one learns anything important from it.

Something similar is happening in mathematics. Tests can’t determine if you followed the right procedure, only if you got the final answer right. So why bother teaching multiple methods of getting there? Besides that it helps give you a fuller understanding of mathematics and makes future math lessons easier. And for history why teach anything that won’t be a multiple choice question on the final test? Besides that by doing so you reduce history to a caricature that an unscrupulous rhetorician or politician can hang whatever they want on regardless of what the truth is.

I’m not saying this would lead to the downfall of mass education, but it would definitely contribute to it.

Soft Skills and Standardized Tests

The governor of New York recently proposed that 50% of teachers evaluations be based on the results of standardized tests. I’m not going to go into great detail about how much of fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of standardized tests that is. The short version is that standardized tests give the most useful information when it’s not too specific, so for example looking at a district by district sample, or by selecting randomized classrooms from the entire state/province to give an overall picture. Other people have explained what a problem it is to hold teachers responsible for things they don’t have full control over. I’m not going to go into that today. Instead I’m going to focus on the labour market.