Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Education Reform

Although I quickly became not a fan of TED talks, and there's nothing that ensures a lasting uncomfortable distance between myself and a new friend like sending me a link to the Eat Pray Love ladies TED talk. It's not like the success of TED came from nowhere, there's good content on there even if it is incredibly low yield.

And one talk that not-accidently everyone's seen and is now - despite very little progress - old news, is Sir Ken whatever's 'Thinks schools kill creativity' in which he observed and is true to my experience, that everybody is interested in education.

Which probably doesn't help reform, because if the education system is horribly flawed, a lot of people who were subsequently poorly educated will want to weigh in. Which may conjure up some image in your mind of the 'uneducated masses' however, I'm referring to people educated into functional stupidity - economists come to mind as a ready example. And consider the teaming masses of educated people who take pride in their mathematics performance and consider the arts a waste of time.

I don't intend to rehash Ken's speech and talk about the importance of dance and shit. I will rehash a conversation I had at a birthday dinner with an educator about school lunches who introduced me to the compelling idea that one function of education is 'to eliminate advantage' hence hencely one of the things a school can do is equalize the nutrition of the students ensuring that the kids endowed with nutrition conscious parents don't surge ahead of their more convenience parented peers.

It's an interesting idea, and in which case the first reform I'd like to see is the abolition of Private Schools. There may be some cross cultural confusion because I have a vague understanding that in England the Public/Private correlation to elitism is reversed. In Australia Private schools operate in the way I would feel is intuitive - they receive government funding (sometimes more than Public Schools) but also are free to charge tuition fees to parents - in country towns this can be thousands of dollars a year, in the big smoke tens of thousands.

The best argument for private schools is a laboratory - that is resourcing up a school system to experiment and break the molds of education - constant revolution. A school with resources can not just potentially design new and innovative trial programs but it can also double down should one of those programs fail so the test-subject students aren't penalized.

That's the best argument and it isn't a good one. Namely because private schools are run as business, and the main reason I believe them (opinion, not necessarily fact) to exist is that people of wealth/advantage would never abide that their children be judged on their actual merits all else being equal. Those parents are the customers of the private school business and my own personal experience, and secondary experience of my siblings for various reasons attending other private schools suggests that rather than discovering innovative new ways to enhance learning - private schools are actually evolving into gaming the tests that are used to distribute scarce Tertiary places. (Private primary schools exist but there isn't an argument for their existence at all, unless that argument is I want my children to never socialize in their formative years with children different to them.)

Lest you have no experience of private schools to speak of, when I say 'gaming' the VCE tests I'm not suggesting that anything shady and illegal has gone on. There is basic stuff like having the resources to hand every student a phone book sized selection of practice exams and past exam papers to learn by rote. There's also the well intentioned subject scaling system - a frank admission that not all subjects are equal under the sun, so more challenging subjects get scaled upwards so students aren't penalized for studying something difficult or rewarded for studying something easy. Except that students are, precisely because of scaling - so my brothers school offered Latin as a language for it's generous scaling, and both our schools encouraged their best mathematics students to do Further Mathematics in year 11 because it is easy to get a perfect score in and not penalized enough. (If you follow that link you'll see that often easy subjects scaled down will be adjusted at the top end of scores so the penalty is less to zilch).

So fuck private schools they are out, and I believe there's a dash of Hammurabi's laws in their as well, namely that those who are responsible for designing and maintaining the standard of education has no recourse but to apply that standard to their own children. What would indeed happen if politicians children had to attend the least resourced school in their electorate?

Then of course there's the inefficiencies like homework which world leader Finland ousted and even reduced the hours children attend school. Michael Moore's latest film covered that and I don't have anything of particular interest to add.

So get fucking nationalism out of schools, in all forms. There's a throwback to assumptions that probably predate the industrial revolution. Some progress was made - I believe my parents had pictures of the Queen in their classrooms. But I'm talking about having kids do projects on the Olympics or Commonwealth games in the classroom, singing the National Anthem at assemblies, learning that Australia Day commemorates the landing of the First Fleet (or whatever it commemorates) and everything and anything else that gives kids the notion that there is pride or shame in anything completely out of your individual control.

As one of my dismayed British friends posted to his facebook post-Brexit 'Nationalism teaches you to take pride in shit you've never done & hate people you've never met.' and there's not much more to it than that. I feel strongly though that nationalism being all around useless does not come in benign varieties as a result. I don't feel nationalist exercises in school can be defended by crying 'slippery slope' arguments.

The best argument for national pride curriculum is probably variety, as in it gives teachers an easy exercise in coming up with lesson plans in primary school etc. but that's not a strong argument, nor would its removal devastate uninspired teachers. The second best argument I can imagine is a vaccination/prisoners dilemma type argument - that is that we're acknowledging that nationalism is taught in other countries and this may result in some disadvantage when kids with no national pride go out into the world and are confronted with people with national pride. I'm not sure if that's even an argument, although there are circumstances where people with irrational beliefs can trump those with rational beliefs - like optimists are often bad at estimating actual odds which across populations (not necessarily individuals) can result in an advantage over a majority that actually estimates odds more accurately. But I'm not sure that would translate into any advantage with Nationalism, looking at the world mediascape, Nationalism appears to be a disadvantage.

I can't imagine an argument for nationalism that isn't the equivalent of a 'Yeah I won't turn my phone off I just won't look at it' argument, which is to say I'd be biased listening to a pro-nationalism (or patriotism or whatever other euphemism for nationalism) argument because I don't believe it to come from any other place but 'I don't want to believe my national pride is irrational.'

As for adding curriculum in? I'd like to see more soft skills or transferable skills - I feel everything in my own education overemphasised hard skills. Which isn't so bad, at some point one needs to acquire specialist knowledge. But specialist knowledge applies mostly to the specifics of a job, and I believe most jobs can generally afford to do the fine tuning on the job - with notable exceptions like medicine, but even surgery is study undertaken by working doctors post-graduate. More valuable pound-for-pound would be inculcating transferable skills like search skills - the ability to seek out and inform oneself - or critical thinking, logic, fallacies.

Most importantly, the ability to bet and gamble. Not mathematical probability (which does get covered) but the more generally applicable in life. Since publishing my previous post on Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares I've laid awake feeling I neglected to mention the major flaw of the show's format (particularly the US series) which is that it rewards negligence and incompetent owners - investing money in businesses unlikely to succeed and often faced with crippling debts. But such a show can serve a greater good in creating an educational research on how to detect fire from smoke. That's something every kid should learn - the ability to detect bullshit, to recognize woo woo.

I firmly believe the simplicity and value of educating people to recognize and categorize the major ways people avoid taking responsibility should be basic curriculum. Every last person society wide should be able to count off '1. Denial 2. Excuses 3. Blaming. 4. Deflection' so such behaviors are easy to call out and you create a culture of accountability. I can see parents growing uncomfortable that their headstrong teenagers can suddenly out manouvre them in arguments, that's a danger, but you could also teach kids the donning-kruger effect rather than preaching values of humility in religious instruction.

Speaking of which we live in an age where I believe there to be actual expertise on what contributes to quality of life, what doesn't and what detracts from it. For example, we know that increasing income hits a threshold after which it doesn't increase people's happiness and life satisfaction can actually decrease as income increases.

I believe educational institutions can teach values, and with more license than religious institutions. A lot of people feel squeemish about teaching values because it can seem like indoctrination. However it's already happening in the aforementioned nationalism - take the outrageous claim that Australian's believe in 'a fair go' not only is there contrary evidence available that we don't, whether it be in sporting scandels, economic policies or even immigration, but a belief in fairness is not unique to Australians. It's not like the people of Iran teach their kids that Iranians believe in 'getting yours at anyone's expense'. But a kid can grow up believing that their nationality has them being so fair minded, even when they aren't.

Dr Gordon Livingston wrote a book called 'How To Love' about values to avoid and those to seek out in partners. Indeed, who we partner with and how we partner with people probably has a bigger impact on quality of life than the careers we choose. To take it full circle to the 'eliminating advantage' my friend Sez once pointed out that as it stands, we basically rely on kids having not fucked up parents to model the skills of partner selection. Attachment theory bares that out.

That should be valued, in proportion to its ability to make citizens enjoy their sole shot at life. Warren Buffet in turn addressed a graduating class of MBAs and asked them to look around their class and ask who among their fellow graduates they would invest a 10% ownership stake in the future of, and furthermore who among them they would sell a 10% ownershup stake of their future (predicted) losses. He observed there that it was unlikely to be the students with the best grades - something that endears me to Buffet, as an investor particularly where his competition often confuse the map for the ground.

You could probably abolish grading, I might go too far their, but I wouldn't mind it if we basically forced the next stage institutions to simply go through the effort of interviewing candidates face to face. Both tertiary education institutions and employers. I personally feel from what I've observed that neither academic grades, resumes or references are reliable predictors of best candidates and that the face to face meeting is indispensable.

Malcolm Gladwell is obsessed with the problems of education and he and other thinkers all make better points and better arguments than I can. I've tried to touch on those and particularly the ones I don't hear enter the discussion as often.

I expect most educational reform will in practice address the over-inflated impact of technology and attempting to bridge a digital divide that actually probably works counter to our perceptions of it.

No comments: