[unrev-II] Re: Improving education (a view to bootstrapping)

From: Henry van Eyken (vaneyken@sympatico.ca)
Date: Sun Feb 20 2000 - 05:03:34 PST

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

Just going back over those old notes again.. I should have told you
perhaps that what was in my previous post came from one of 13 weekly
letters I wrote to colleagues in a huge inner-city college where
middle-class teachers lecture to mostly lower-class kids. Each of those
letters addressed some different aspect of education, views of what goes
on in the classoom, at board meetings, in one of the very offices of the
provincial Minister of Education.

Administrators and union officials were quite upset about my rather
unorthodox activity and instructed the printing department not to print
my letters, unless I myself paid the cost. Well, I did, and I had 700 or
800 copies distributed through the inter-office mail each week. Kind of
got my colleagues off-balance in our social relationships.

Here. in this second letter, is my take on the potential for true
bootstrapping in the educational enterprise. Bear with me. It may be
long, but I can guarantee you that this nightmare for management
consultants is very much to the point.

And you can see why people got quite upset. They sure gave me my
opportunity to practice being unflappable.


Letter To My Dawson Colleagues


Lakefield, Qué,
February 25, 1990

Dear Colleague:

Twenty years of teaching experience is a lot of experience and at this
time in Dawson's history our students ought to benefit from it
handsomely. But do they? I really don't have much of an answer, but if,
perchance, you do, please share it with me.

How do you measure progress, I wonder, in the educational enterprise?
Students, and teachers, and student-teacher interactions engulf us with
unknown or, if known, not readily measurable variables. And this makes
the getting of timely information for designing our day-to-day
educational approaches neigh impossible.

That doesn't prevent researchers from trying their darndest. Hypotheses
are framed and tested and reported on in such massive numbers that the
educational literature has become more of a desease than a remedy.
Unless I am badly mistaken, not many teachers dig into it to find the
answers to their professional problems. Anyone who'd try is likely to
get lost in the heap, never to be heard of again.

But if Mohammed sees no point in going to the mountain, the mountain can
always come to Mohammed. Educational speakers and writers exhort
teachers, usually without proof of potential benefit, to set aside just
a little of their precious classroom time, five minutes say, for,
perhaps, some informal exchange with their students - maybe to let them
reveal a little about themselves so as to reduce fright rooted in awe -
or to let students compare and fix up their classroom notes, or let them
communicate in writing something to their teacher.

Even though a dozen of these folk medicines and snake oils add up to 120
percent of available classroom time, they are in line with
well-established, good-old North American tradition. Don't we already
spent a scant fifteen minutes each day to become a little healthier,
another fifteen minutes to become a little wealthier, and another
quarter of an hour to become a teeny-weeny bit wiser? What is a mere
fifteen minutes in a 1440-minute day if we take into account such
excellent benefits? And why not let a student tag on another fifteen or
so to keep a diary for his chemistry teacher ... and, for added returns,
another one for his humanities teacher as well?

Sorry, I don't want to use cheap rhetoric, but is it not just about here
where things stand? Are we not as individual teachers simply left to
our own devices? Will those advisors step in and really help us when
things go awry? When we don't get the results - and satisfaction - we
seek from our work?

Well, I have my experiences and so, I guess, have you. And when all is
said and done we are left to muster any needed fortitude from within
ourselves so that we may carry on with a process in which we let
unwarranted optimism alternate with helpless-but-cheerful acceptance,
stiff upperlip bent into a smile eternal.

Part of our weakness is that we are such a compartmentalized lot. Even
when we teach sections of a course in which more than one instructor
participates. Narrowly localized in time and space, and with enough
burden to prevent us from gathering and studying the available facts and
assessing what end is up.

* * *

Pulpwood is a variable material. Not as variable as students, I am sure,
but sufficiently so to require careful attention in a mill whose
management values a healthy balance sheet. I used to work in the pulp
and paper industry, sixteen years, and I know a little bit about it.

Four of those years I worked as a sulphite control engineer. The Control
Department's function was to gather and analyze informa tion about raw
materials, intermediate materials and products, and information about
the industrial conversion processes in use. We assembled and attempted
to interpret data in daily and weekly and monthly and annual reports and
added to them commentary about what went well and what did not go so
well, always looking for reasons, plausible reasons. The ultimate
purpose was to learn. To improve things. To create a better balance
sheet. As sulphite control engineer I was assigned to that part of the
mill that produced a wood pulp by the sulphite process and alcohol from
the wood sugars in the chemical waste liquor.

The Ontario Paper Company in Thorold started up its Control Department
way back in the thirties. Once, looking through old reports, I found, if
I remember the figures correctly, that the efficiency of the pulping
process was then in the order of 35 to 37 percent which means that the
weight of sulphite wood pulp produced was 35 to 37 percent of the weight
of the wood used. By the time I became sulphite control engineer, in
1956, that yield had increased to a little above 50 percent, and, as far
as I know, that had been done without much detailed scientific unde
standing of precisely what combination of factors made every little step
of progress happen.

One major item to test for was moisture content of the wood. A high
moisture content slows down the penetration into the wood fibres of the
calcium bisulfite solution that attacks the wood lignin while diluting
it as well. The ensuing localized variations of the chemical agent's
concentration and the duration of its action within each chip of wood
(on top of naturally variable wood quality) cause an infinite variation
in the ensuing fibre quality from an excessive decay of the wood's
hemicelluloses on the one hand to, on the other, a burning rather than
digesting of wood by an undesired combination of acid and heat. Even
under the best of conditions the raw pulp contains an inordinate amount
of knots, those dark-hearted, broom-ended chunks of undigested wood that
horrify balance-sheet conscious management and must be screened out and
separately refined if they are to find good use. A process not
sufficiently adjusted to suit the raw material affects the quality of
the pulp made and that of the newsprint of which it becomes a part.

Interestingly, for us as educators, many of the applied control
procedures were of an after-the-fact kind. Testers establish (or used to
establish - I am talking thirty years in the past) for each batch of
pulp produced a so-called "chlorine number." The cooks operating the
wood-batch digesters used each chlorine number as one guide to adjust
the rate by which they applied the high-pressure steam for the next
batch. Somewhat like we do when we attack a next semester.

One would think that the sulphite mill's huge woodchip digesters would
be charged with wood of uniform moisture, but the needed segregation of
the incoming wood to meet this objective was by and large not feasible.
As to wood species, however, a certain degree of selectivity was
essential for making pulp of a satisfactory quality. There was too much
resin in pine to allow it to enter the digesters in any substantial
amount, a lesson we have yet to take to heart in our business as I shall
discuss in another letter.

The overall improvement in percent yield had come about gradually by
making some little planned change here, another adjustment there.
Looking at things superficially, it would have seemed mostly a
seat-of-the-pants process, but I can assure you it was based on careful
observations and on hypotheses that exploited every available bit of
information; hypotheses continually challenged and replaced by seemingly
better ones.

Ideas were tested on their merit, not by the dictates of Robert's Rules
of Order or the savvy of those who manage to cicumvent them. In part
they were exchanged at formal meetings ruled over by the plant manager,
who listened more than he talked and who would not permit some upstart
to make smart-alecki statements unchallenged. Mostly, ideas were
exchanged and refined at informal coffee breaks of which we had two a
day in the Control Superintendent's office. Good ideas were valued
because they could be worth big money. Improving the sulphite yield of
wood by more than 40 percent was worth a fortune and the company's
management could hardly afford to ignore those pesky variable data
obtained by examinming and testing materials and the processes to which
it was subjected to. The salaries of the Control Department's staff was
just a tiny fraction of the benefits gained.

Now, one would think that students are worth a lot more than pulpwood -
that variable mixture of balsam and pine coming down the Welland Canal
from the company's woodlands. One would think that before we subject our
students to instruction we should do everything to get potentially
relevant data to work by. That, in effect, we ought to have a good
control operation. Especially since much more than mere money is

Well, I don't need to tell you that this is not so. Not because of a
dearth of data. We just don't attempt to make good use of them. Why not?
My estimate is that this is so because, ultimately, we don't have the
health of a balance sheet to worry about and, hence, are not really held
responsible for our actions where it really counts. The accountant's
balance sheet of a government-funded institution is not performance
oriented the way the accountant's balance sheet of a commercial
enterprise is. That's our major weakness, our supreme problem.

We have been here at Dawson College for twenty years. Except for a
limited number of individuals, we have labored mostly as
compartmentalized individuals. We are easy targets for potshots about
good and bad behavior in the classroom. We may have done things that
seemed good and rewarded with appreciation expressed, but which were, in
fact, bad. We may even have done things that seemed bad, but were
actually the proper thing to do. And we probably did much that was
simply useless; much of it for the sake of appearance more than for the
ultimate enhancement of students' mind. Many of us have probably done
much shooting from the hip, both in our classrooms and at our meetings.

Much of all that is made possible because we - and those who draw up the
rules we work by! - are not held accountable for what we and they do by
virtue of firm data. We have no annual reports other than those data
that bear on the number of teaching positions available - important
data, but data, really, that bear no visible relation to the quality of
our performance. Tell me, what percentage of my students succeeded in
life, and to what extent? Too difficult a question? Then tell me, what
percentage of my students in a given class succeeded in the next
chemistry course - in other words, attempt to tell me, how good or how
bad is my performance and how well do I judge my students?

OK. OK. Enough of such questions at this time. But there is a point in
giving rein to the kind of thoughts they must provoke in your mind.
Please, don't discard them lightly!

Henry K. van Eyken

Fleabyte -- http://www.fleabyte.org -- is
an evolving, experimental web-publication
devoted to public computency, which, like
common literacy, is regarded as essential
to an environmentally healthy, democratic

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