Education

CESI annual conference next weekend

Once (and only once) a year do teachers come together from all sectors of education to share ideas and resources on teaching. You don’t get paid for attending, you don’t get a day off school and it doesn’t count as in-service training (although that wouldn’t be a bad idea) so the only teachers you will meet there will be enthusiastic and hard-working. Just like you.

CESI (the Computer Education Society of Ireland) is holding its annual conference next weekend (5th and 6th of February) in Portlaoise. There will be a highly-energised Teachmeet on the Friday night followed by a full day of presentations, workshops and seminars on Saturday.

Teachers are renowned for hoarding their resources, but here you are quite likely to see the swapping of usb files and at the very least the swapping of email addresses.

The theme for this year is Creative Technology in Challenging Times but don’t worry if you are a complete novice when it comes to technology – the very fact that you will make the effort to turn up means that you are a teacher keen to see what’s out there, and that’s all you need.

To find out more (including how to register, but you can also just turn up on the day), see the CESI conference page at http://cesi.ie/conference-2010

And to find out more about how CESI can help you why not sign up to their discussion forum (it now contains over 400 members, again from all sectors of education) at http://cesi.ie (look for the “Join the CESI mailing list” heading at the bottom of the page).

See you there.

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Passion and Inspiration

Rule no. 1: Passion

I had only been teaching for about three years (mostly junior cert science and leaving cert maths) and was getting fed up with it. I would have liked to have been teaching Physics but there were already two physics teachers in the school so it wasn’t looking like that was going to happen any time soon. I reckoned a change of career was in order but had no idea what I wanted to do. When a colleague mentioned a masters program in science communication offered jointly by DCU and Queens I figured why not, so handed in my notice and bought a few homework copies.

I don’t remember much about the lectures in DCU – mostly they were to do with communication theory but the lectures were pretty boring (the irony wasn’t lost on me). There were two exceptions to this; one was the director of the program – Professor Kirk Junker, and the other was Professor Helena Sheehan. Kirk was an inspiration in that he was professionalism personified. I never once saw him get annoyed and every student was respected and treated as if they were the only student in his class. It was an example I have tried to follow ever since in my own teaching, but it is for others to decide how successful that has been.

Helena was most definitely a different kettle of fish. While she also had a deep respect for her students, the one word I would use to sum her up would be passion. I have never met anyone so passionate about their teaching and their subject matter.

For me it was a complete revelation. Apparently a teacher’s job is not to just impart knowledge to students – you can actually let them see how much the subject matter means to you as a teacher. And students won’t laugh at you as a result, in fact they will actually respect you a whole lot more. I can still remember sitting in her class and thinking that I have to get back into my own classroom and give this a go. If nothing else I owe it to my students. It has now become one of the first pieces of advice I would give to any new teacher – be passionate; if you find the subject matter to be fascinating then for God’s sake let the students in on it. No amount of technology can replace that gift.

It helped that I also found the subject matter of Helena’s lectures to be fascinating; philosophy of science? – I never knew such a thing existed. Science was just science, a disinterested pursuit of knowledge, and no proper scientist could be interested in dirty words like money or fame. How wrong I was, but that’s for another day (to get a feel for what Helena was teaching us just go to her web-page . To see a 25 min video of Helena in action click here for the 54 mg download or here for the 27 mg version (I don’t know why these aren’t just on YouTube – it’s powerful stuff).

This was all prompted by a wonderful post written by Helena as part of A University Blog: Diary of A University President

Helena finishes with the following words. They could only have been written by Helena.

When I was young, I was a 60s generation activist and I wanted to change the world. Much older now, I still do. The ensuing years have brought many disappointments and defeats. It has been difficult to sustain dissidence over the decades. The secret of doing so was to learn not be so all or nothing about it as I was then, to find what I believed and what I could do about it and to do it every day ‘like exercise’. I haven’t changed the world in any grand way, but perhaps I planted a few seeds that made it just a bit different than it would have been otherwise.

Evolution to be taught in UK primary schools

Evolution is to be taught in UK primary schools

And we still can’t get it on the Junior Cert Biology syllabus at secondary level.
Now when I say ‘we can’t get it on the syllabus’ that may be a little misleading – it may well be that no biology teacher cares enough to do anything about it. That may be a little harsh, but I have yet to hear any teacher raise the issue, and that’s what hurts.

There may well have been lectures on the topic of evolution over Science Week (because that’s when we show students that Science is interesting) and it is certainly one of the more popular topics when it comes to science documentaries (anybody else watching the incredible BBC series Life with David Attenborough?).

So why can’t we join the dots and teach it in our schools?

So next time you read about those silly yanks who want creationism taught in their high schools spare a thought for us equally silly paddies.

Assessment: the tail that wags the dog

chasing tail

 

All this talk about whether leaving cert results or aptitude tests are better for gaining information about a student’s ability to become a doctor reminds me of the story of the drunk looking for his keys under the streetlight.

 

A cop walking his beat one night finds a drunk on his knees, searching for something on the street. The cop asks the drunk, “What are you doing?” “Looking for my car keys,” says the drunk. The cop asks, “Where did you lose your keys?” “I don’t know,” the man answers. The cop, a bit perplexed, asks, “Then, why are you looking here if you don’t know where you lost your keys?” Responds the drunk, “Because the light is better here, under the streetlight.”

 

Why does our education have such a focus on assessment? Because that’s the only bit we can put a number on.

And we do love to put numbers on things.

The danger arises when this very dubious practice becomes ingrained in us to such an extent that all the stakeholders assume it is a ‘natural’ process.

Certainly students associate ‘points’ with intelligence, and identify ‘good’ teachers as those whose students get ‘A’s.

Of course there are very valid reasons for doing this; the point is that in so doing we are reinforcing the notion that this is right (and again that word ‘natural’).

 

Assessment then turns into the tail that wags the dog.

 

Look at the aims and objectives of any syllabus at senior or junior level – they are full of wonderful aspirations.

This particular one can be found at the beginning of every leaving cert subject syllabus:

 

The general aim of education is to contribute towards the development of all aspects of the individual, including aesthetic, creative, critical, cultural, emotional, expressive, intellectual, for personal and home life, for working life, for living in the community and for leisure.

 

I wonder how much time authors spend reading this when they set out to write their textbooks.

 

Palaeontologist and popular-science writer Stephen Jay Gould looked at the origin of the I.Q. test in his wonderful book ‘The mismeasure of man’.

He used the term ‘reification’ to describe the fallacy of putting a number on something that couldn’t be quantified (in this case intelligence) and with this very simple process an incredible transformation takes place. Because the concept has now got a number everybody assumes that the concept must be measureable and therefore the concept must be valid.

 

Wasn’t it Margaret Mead who said that she was taking her daughter out of school so that she could get an education?

Shhh, I got me this sweet deal goin’ on

shhh

Don’t tell anyone. I got a got a sweet deal with my bosses and I want to share it with just you.
Keep it to yourself.
These are in no particlular order. What have I left out?

  • See where I work nobody checks up on me.
  • I get paid over 60 grand a year and my job description hasn’t changed since I first began fifteen years ago.
  • Truth be told it probably hasn’t changed much in over one hundred years.
  • The material I teach hasn’t changed much in three hundred years. One of the sections I teach is called Modern Physics. This section is almost exactly one hundred years old.
  • My holidays cover over one third of the year. Fully paid.
  • I got job security for life. Nobody can touch me.
  • Over 90% of what I teach seems to serve no purpose whatsover, which is just as well because nobody remembers it after they leave school anyway. Has Hooke’s Law saved your life lately?
  • In theory I teach some of the most interesting subject matter that exists anywhere in this universe; in practice the writers of the Junior Science and Leaving Cert Physics syllabi couldn’t have done a more botched job if they deliberately set out to remove everything but the dry-as-dust ‘facts’ that we are left with.
  • I can take up to thirty days sick leave per year without needing to provide  a cert.
  • Promotion in my job is based on how long in the tooth I am; therefore those longest in the tooth are the highest paid.
  • I can close my door when I step into my classroom for the very first time and hardly anybody ever gets to look over my shoulder between then and the day I retire.
  • Once or twice over the course of my career an outside ‘inspector’ may get to call in to see how I’m getting on, but not unless I get a couple of weeks notice so I can prepare for his visit so that I give him the impression that those few highly prepared and highly artificial classes are the norm.
  • In a world which now cannot function without technology I too have moved with the times; where I once used chalk and a blackboard I now use (drumroll . . .) markers and a whiteboard.
  • In a world where I can be in touch with a colleague half a world away quicker than I can make contact with a colleague across the hall, there is no onus on me to do either.
  • I teach in a pretty well-to-do school where almost all students are interested in going to college, and where discipline issues mostly revolve around top buttons not being done up properly. I get paid the same as colleagues in schools where very few wish to learn and where discipline issues involve physical and verbal intimidation on a daily basis.
  • I got a sweet pension which is fully secure. I don’t really know anything else about it because, well, I guess I don’t need to.

You gotta promise me you’ll keep this secret; I don’t want the word getting out.

Why aren’t we teaching about global warming in schools?

Quietly in public, loudly in private, climate scientists everywhere are saying the same thing: it’s over. The years in which more than two degrees of global warming could have been prevented have passed, the opportunities squandered by denial and delay. On current trajectories we’ll be lucky to get away with four degrees. Mitigation (limiting greenhouse gas pollution) has failed; now we must adapt to what nature sends our way. If we can.

From George Mondiot. Published in the Guardian, 16th March 2009.

In Britain there are a whole raft of differnt syllabii (at secondary level) for each subject, and different school boards have the option of choosing which one to follow, thus making interdisciplinary subject material very much a hit or miss affair.

In Ireland there is only one syllabus for each subject, so you would think someone at the top would be looking at what gets covered in each subject, and how the overlapping material can best be presented to complement this. In fact as teachers we are encouraged to find this out for ourselves, which I’ve no doubt some do. But most of us (while admiring the sentiment) simply put it to the back of an ever-growing ‘to do’ list.

Take Global Warming.
At Junior Cert Science level the words “global warming” do not appear.

The words “greenhouse effect” do make an appearance on the Leaving Cert Physics syllabus, almost as an after-thought in relation to chacteristics of Infra-red radiation.

I think it is dealt with in a little more detail in Leaving Cert Chemistry, but hopefully someone can add more detail.

What I am particularly interested in is to what extent is the following idea taught in our schools?

It is over-consumption on the part of the wealthier nations which is having catastrophic consequences for the poorer nations.

Is it covered in CSPE / Religion / Geography / anywhere else?

If not then I suggest that there is an obligation on us as teachers to try and change it.
One could incorporate the following

  • Science: The science of Global Warming / Extinction and evolution (after all, life will go on long after we’re gone)
  • CSPE: The ethics involved. In particular we need to address the fallacy where people believe that just because they don’t hurt anyone directly in their day-to-day lives, they are not not guilty of any wrong-doing
  • Geography: How/why civislisations have imploded in the past due to distruction of their own resources
  • History: I don’t know enough about History or how it is taught, but I imagine a lot of wars in the past were fought as a result of dwindling resources in one area forcing a whole population to move to seek food in another.

I’m sure there’s much more. the point is that Global Warming is only the most important concept to face mankind in the last generation, and we in school are doing almost nothing about it. And it’s just not good enough. Step one is simply to find our voice. And we’re not even there yet.

Ernst Mach: the problem with Science Education

mach

1859 marks not only the 150th birthday of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, but also a somewhat less well-known occasion; It was the year Ernst Mach published the first of his 500 publications (his last was published five years after his death, in 1921).

Most will know of this man through his association with the speed of planes;  Mach Number is the speed at which an object is moving divided by the speed of sound.

But Mach has offered much more to the world of Science; he lived in a time when Philosophy and Science went hand and hand, and he made many contributions not just in these areas, but also in Psychology and Educational Theory. He wrote a number of text-books for school science, but was very critical of the tendency of cramming as much as possible into the syllabus.
This quote sums up so much of what is wrong with our schooling: 

I know nothing more terrible than the poor creatures who have learned too much . . . What they have acquired is a spider’s web of thoughts too weak to furnish sure supports, but complicated enough to produce confusion.

Mach was also an advocate of what are known as ‘thought experiments’, these later became famous through Albert Einstein and his idea of sitting on top of a light beam.  Indeed Einstein went on to give credit to Mach for his ‘philosophical writings’.  It’s probably no coincidence that Einstein’s views on education were not that dissimilar to Mach’s:

One had to cram all this stuff into one’s mind for the examinations, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect on me that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year.

Of course this was all over one hundred years ago. Obviously it’s all changed since then.
It would appear that we have some explaining to do.