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Friday, May 13, 2011

STEM in the U.S. and U.K. We need "Science Idol"

I am in U.K. at the moment, and today attended a breakfast organized by Donald Taylor, meant to have good conversation with some of the thought leaders in learning in the U.K. I enjoyed it a great deal.

But, there was one conversation with a man who was clearly very smart and a delightful person that shocked me. He was thinking about getting involved with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. He was amazed when I suggested that this was a terrible idea.

Money and a push for STEM has driven the U.S. Education scene in the last years. As always, anything ridiculous that the U.S. does it convinces others to as well, so the U.K. has followed suit.

Why is STEM ridiculous? The idea behind STEM is that we need scientists and engineers and that our schools aren’t producing enough of them. Both premises are wrong.

I was a member of the science faculties of three of the top ten universities in the U.S. Never was there a lack candidates for faculty jobs. Quite the opposite actually. Too many good candidates, many of whom have to work in industry after they can’t get a faculty job.

Does industry lack talented engineers and scientists? Hardly. Silicon Valley is overflowing with talented job seekers.

What is lacking, any scientist will tell you, is sufficient funding for science research. Why doesn’t the government spend their STEM money on research?

Because the driver for STEM education is about two things. First, our old friend the testing lobby wants testing to be more ubiquitous and more important than it is now and they have big bucks to spend and math and science are easy to test.

And then there is the real reason. Any science or engineering faculty member at top U.S. and U.K. universities can attest to the fact that an enormous percentage of applicants to graduate programs in those fields are Chinese and Indian. The Chinese and Indians aren’t desperate to study those subjects because they love them or because they are so well taught in those places. They know that these subjects are a ticket out. They want to move to the U.S. or U.K. with a high paying job: Voila! They study math and science.

And, clearly, our governments want less Chinese and Indians to emigrate. Why I don’t know. They usually make wonderful colleagues.

And why don’t U.S. and U.K. Students study these subjects? For one thing they are not trying to get to a place that they already live. More importantly, the place where they live does not idolize the engineering student who made it out and who sends money home. We have American Idol and Football, and Movie Stars. We have taught our kids that being successful means being famous and being on TV. Our culture doesn’t produce scientists, it produces aspiring actors and singers.

If the government really wanted to produce more scientists it should create TV shows. How about “Science Idol” or “Science Court?” Nah. Too complicated.

To understand those shows kids would have to be able to think. And the schools have never wanted to produce students who can think clearly. They only want to produce students who behave, and who can memorize whatever facts are deemed important to know by the test makers.

My U.K. colleague quickly understood this. But there is no stopping the math and testing lobby.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Measuring teachers as a means of education reform! You have got to be kidding!

Last week, in the New York Times, there was an Op-Ed column contributed by a Professor Emeritus (of Nursing) from the University of Maryland. Why the Times considers this man’s opinion worth publishing is anyone’s guess, but his article fits in well with the Times’ continuing insistence on always being on the wrong side in education.

The article starts with this gem:

Of all the goals of the education reform movement, none is more elusive than developing an objective method to assess teachers.

Really? That is the issue? Measuring teachers? Funny. I thought the issue was making schools that excited students and made them into people who loved learning and were learning things that they chose to learn and were excited to learn. Silly me.

I was a pretty good teacher if I do, say so myself (and many of my students say exactly that in my forthcoming book (Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools.)) But I couldn’t make algebra interesting to those who are bored to death by it. And, I couldn’t make literature interesting to those who think reading nineteenth century novels is tedious and irrelevant. In fact, I avoided teaching introductory programming my entire career because there was no way that I could make that interesting. Now, there are people who can make these subjects interesting (Saul Morson and Chris Riesbeck, both at Northwestern do exactly that in their respective subjects.) But they have an advantage. No one makes students at Northwestern taken Russian Literature and no one makes them takes Introductory Programming either. Motivation matters.

But this is not the case for the high school teachers that this Nursing professor wants to measure. (One would assume Nursing students take nursing because they want to be nurses by the way, which would have made his job as a teacher a lot easier to do.)

No, he wants to measure:

the amount of time a teacher spends delivering relevant instruction

Really? This sentence is so wrong on so many levels that I find it impossible to believe this man was ever a teacher.

Let’s start with the concept that the job of a teacher is information delivery. This model of teaching is not only out of date, it is simply wrong. If it were right, you could apply the speed principle. If one teacher were to talk twice as fast as another teacher, he or she would deliver twice as much information and thus be twice as good.

A teacher’s job, in today’s world, is unfortunately, to get students to do well on standardized tests that test how much information you can temporally memorize and how many test taking tricks you know.

Here is another gem from this article:

the teachers who taught more were also the teachers who produced students who performed well on standardized tests.

Wow! Teaching couldn't possibly be about motivating students or helping students be better people or helping students think well or live their lives well. No, it means teaching more (really teaching faster would do the trick!) and not even noticing if anyone is listening or anyone even gives a hoot about what you are teaching. Test scores! Test scores! Test scores!

What about re-thinking the subject matter that we teach and the idea that classrooms are really bad places to learn?

The New York Times has never had a clue about education, as I have said many times before in this column.

But this article is a new low. As one Emeritus Professor to another, I suggest that Mr. Nursing Professor go back to thinking about how to teach nurses and leave education reform to those who have some idea what the real issues are.

Teachers are not and have never been the problem. You can’t make algebra interesting to someone who isn’t interested in it. Teachers are forced to rely on that old canard “you will need it later” which is, of course, simply untrue.