[unrev-II] Improving education (why are we doing what?)

From: Henry van Eyken (vaneyken@sympatico.ca)
Date: Sun Feb 20 2000 - 03:30:08 PST

From: Henry van Eyken <vaneyken@sympatico.ca>

After listening to the audience participating on the topic of
bootstrapping (Session 5A), I dug out something I wrote ten years ago. I
had gone back to school at age 39 for a B.Sc., teaching certificate, and
an M.Ed. in spare time, but because of previous experience got hired by
a large community college within a year to set up the chem. and chem.
tech. department. The director-general of the college was highly
experienced and a great leader with refreshingly progressive views. The
government bureaucracy was fairly new at things, because not many years
before, provincial public education was mostly in the hands of
non-governmental (i.q. religious) institutions. Skip to 1990. One
wouldn't have recognized the place after those two decades: sparkling
physical facilities run by a don't-rock-the-boat career administration
sandwiched between a government bureaucracy and unionized teaching
staff. Government imposed teacher-to-student ratio staffing quota
controlled numbers of students admitted with as inevitable consequence
performance degradation in terms of failure rates and academic
standards. It was in that environment hat I jotted down some
observations, with the following among them.

May 6,1990. -- At times, I wonder why students should formally learn
what. "What is worth knowing most," is, I believe, how a practical
philosopher (Locke?) put it. And during my twenty years of college
teaching, I often questioned the relative importance of the topics I am
obliged to cover. This can be rather cruel on the mind and, hence, on
the mortal coil if one is obliged to work, year in year out, in
harmonious step with a committee of teachers all giving the same
chemistry course.

Back in 1977, I had reason to go through some twenty or so years of the
U.S. Journal of Chemical Education in search of an answer. I had gotten
somewhere. I found reports on two surveys of opinions held by chemistry
professors about what they believe the content of a first-year chemistry
course should be. One was published in 1961, the other in 1973. In both
articles topics were ranked by perceived relative importance. The 1973
questionnaire went something like this:

(new ranking) (previous ranking) (respondents) (topic)
1, 12, 101, chemical bonding
2, 29, 103, acids and bases general, &c.

Of the 353 questionnaires mailed out in 1973, 55% drew a response. We
don't know how much time on the average the respondents allocated for
polishing off the irksome task so as to get on with bigger and better

On another occasion, I got a letter from an author of a general
chemistry text, and as a professor of quantum chemistry had some ideas
of his own of what should be taught in first year. He wrote me that his
publisher had frowned upon original thought. He had to conform,
otherwise the textbook market wouldn't take it.

In 1988, I asked the editor of the Journal of Chemical education,
another well-known, reputable professor of chemistry, just what
determines the general chemistry course content. He responded,

"Publishers are, indeed, an influence on the content of textbooks and
... this dictates what is taught. Pragmatics directs us to use 'someone
else's notes' .... organic [chemistry] colleagues ... are the most
immediate 'users' of our general chemistry products.... my best guess
is that our organic chemists would just like to have their students
exist in a mileu of chemical terms for about a year before they attempt
to teach them organic chemistry.... Put bluntly, ... general chemistry
appears to be a 'holding pen.' Perhaps that is too harsh."

Isn't it amazing that the academic community has no better rationale for
that costly, educational project called first-year general chemistry? A
project known in North America as the killer course? Imagine a junior
engineer developing some industrial gizmo. Would he get away with such
flimsy design criteria? And don't for a moment think this only goes for
chemistry. I wager that the contents of the general course of
instruction in all subjects are cut from similar cloth. [I'll inject
here a term much used by Dr. Engelbart: the contents of math and science
courses had not properly co-evolved.]

How about embedding such fickle designs in human minds -- the
true-and-tried bureaucratic way?

Begin with pencil and paper and draw grids. First draw grids that become
hours of recitation, hours of lab work, and hours of homework. In a new
CEGEP (Québec Junior College) science program, slated for 1992, these
total 44 hours per week for each and every student in each and every
semester. Then draw grids for programs of study in which every career
program is neatly stretched or shaved to exactly three years. Next come
grids called timetables and grids that become classrooms, labs,
corridors, and offices, and expenditures on furniture and equipment.
Draw grids that define contact hours and grids that set salary scales.
Grids for grads everywhere. And if you don't think this can lead to a
whackey way of doing things you either have become too used to it or you
are not critical by nature.

Not that those grids are without benefits. They permit the allocation
of resources and they help bureaucrats and administrators to figure out
when their next promotion is due. They also provide a framework for
student behavior and for the social and professional conduct of their
mentors. They tell us when to get up and where to get off. But notice
that I listed the making of those grids in some sequence in which mosts
grids support the next. Further notice that the weakest grid, the one
that contains the allotted time for the assumed mental assimilation (to
say nothing of accomodation, which is the real learning) of a minimum of
an undefined 60% of prescribed knowledge, is the foundation for the
whole structure. With that poorly designed foundation collapsing all
around us, the rest gets to be a bit ramshackle too.

Surely, we must find a better way of doing things.

Grids can be so wasteful. Contemplate, if you will, a case of a student
who needs 50% more time to ingest the contents of a certain one-semester
(15 weeks) course. Assume he gets lost so badly that he may need two
retakes to learn enough to build on. The taxpayer forks out money for a
total of 3 x 15 = 45 weeks in that course -- if our sample student
doesn't get discouraged before completing the job. If time were cut to
suit the student, it would come to 1.5 x 15 = 23 weeks, a pretty hefty
savings. Feel free to create your own variations on this theme. I might
add that with failure rates at the 50% level, it would be a simple
matter to rearrange classroom populations a couple of weeks into the
course such that failing students do not need to sit out the remaining
time in a pre-established system of grids. There courses would not end
"on time," at the end of a pre-established semester. But are semesters
holy units of time?

One design principle essential to creating a solid foundation is
educational psychologist Ausubel's observation that the most important
single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows.
Far too many students enter CEGEP courses insufficiently prepared. An
uncertain and fast-paced future makes a higher level of educational
attainment more urgent and it is, therefore, even more vital that we
optimize Ausubel's principle, which demands that fundamental skills such
as listening and speaking, reading and writing, comprehension of
algorithms and expressing oneself through them be acquired by students
as early as their mental maturation allows. This requires, alog with a
detailed tracking of what students understand, a close cooperation
between separate sectors within the Québec educational bureaucracy: the
sector responsible for K - 11 schooling and the one that looks after the
college system. But I have learned the one sector does not even look at
the curriculum of the other.

That's from my notes. Skip forward to the present. People who come
through that with top marks are likely to do well in their studies. They
have not only learned to learn,they have learned to learn
notwithstanding .... But what about the others, the intellectual middle
class -- whose minds, if they had not been mangled somewhere along the
way, probably would also have been tops? How well are they (we!)
prepared to co-evolve in high-performance organizations, which should
not only be corporations and government departments. Should a family not
be a high-performance organization? Should't a town council be? And in a
"genuine democracy," shouldn't the electorate be a community of
high-performance individuals who know what they are doing?

I hope we all agree that these questions, too, ought be very much a
pre-occupation of this colloquium.


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