Archive for the ‘education’ category

The technology problem

August 28, 2017

As has been noted previously in this blog, there are differing opinions on the extent to which universities should develop education strategies to provide skills needed in the economy. Some of those who might be sceptical about such strategies argue that universities should not be vocational training institutions; some point out that we don’t really know what skills will be needed a few years from now, so that universities should not try to meet every passing request for specific skills training. Then again others will point out that shortages of people with particular degree qualifications will influence key corporate investment decisions; and this might suggest that universities should recognise the need for graduates in specific disciplines.

Ever since the dot.com bubble burst some 16 years ago, schools and parents have become cautious about advising your people to take degrees in subjects such as computing and software engineering. Over the past 10 years or so this has led to a growing number of vacancies in the IT industry in the United Kingdom and Ireland, seen as a key industry with the ability to secure economic growth. So it is being described as a matter of concern that the number of students applying to take relevant subjects continues to be lower than desired. This has recently been again reported as a serious problem in Ireland, and in England the same problem is thought to be growing due to the inadequate number of GCSE pupils taking computing classes in schools.

It is of course right that universities must play a longer game and that they cannot just redirect their resources to meet changing demands of industry or government. General and transferable soft skills will always remain important. But ever since universities initiated what are essentially vocational disciplines – such as engineering, accounting, law, and so forth – they cannot easily suggest that equipping students with profession-specific skills is not part of their mission. But then again, universities cannot meet these demands if pupils leave schools not well prepared for courses that address society’s specific needs. Solving this problem will need intervention much earlier in the education system.

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Foolish, in anyone’s language

August 1, 2017

The benefit and the curse of living in an English-speaking country is that so many people around the world speak some English – we have come to expect that of them. And so it doesn’t seem so surprising that, in this case in Scotland, over ten years there has been a drop of 59 per cent in the number of school pupils taking foreign languages, with only Spanish seeing an increase. The same trend has been observed for a while in England, and all this has had a predictable impact on universities.

There are countless reasons why this is not good news. We may be able to order our pizzas in Tuscany without learning Italian and order our Volkswagens in English, but success in global interactions is critically enhanced by understanding other peoples’ cultures, particularly including their languages. A Chinese colleague once told me that winning in business dealings with British and American businesspeople is made so much easier by their lack of linguistic and cultural awareness.

This trend can be stopped, but such action has to be led visibly and audibly by government and the business community. Right now that is not happening. It needs to happen.

The literacy imperative

May 15, 2017

The history of social progress, of public health, of prosperity has all been closely connected with the advance of literacy. Societies with high literacy rates are capable of social and technological progress that evades those with low literacy. The fact, for example, that the Central African Republic has a literacy rate of 37 per cent, while in Germany it is 100 per cent, gives you a very close idea of the difference in wellbeing between the two countries.

Literacy itself has become more complex. It has always been discussed alongside numeracy (which in turn strongly affects scientific capacity), but increasingly literacy is seen to include digital literacy in the information technology age. But even ‘traditional’ literacy is not always straightforward: employers in western developed countries often complain that people looking for employment are inarticulate and unskilled in basic writing tasks. In explaining this state of affairs it is sometimes suggested that ‘progressive’ learning methods have undermined literacy. For the generation entering school in the 1970s and 1980s, children were often given books in which, without basic spelling and phonetic instruction, they were encouraged to associate written words with pictures and related context (a programme known as ‘real books’). But this, it is argued, makes literacy depend on remembering how words ‘look’ rather than the ability to make connections between combinations of letters and sounds. It has been suggested by some that this pedagogical fashion did at least instil in young people a respect for and love of books; though whether it supported basic literacy is more questionable.

I do not myself belong to the tribe of nostalgia pedlars who believe there was a golden age (probably in the 1950s) when everyone could read and write perfectly. It was never perfect. Nevertheless, we do well to keep a real focus on literacy, because so much else depends on it. The attainment gap between rich and poor is directly connected with literacy.

Those who think that graduates today lack literacy often blame the universities. There are certain remedial initiatives that universities can undertake to help students who enter higher education with literacy problems, but overall the issue needs to be addressed at a much earlier age if such methods are to be effective. In Scotland the government is supporting some pilot programmes in primary schools to improve vocabulary – and that is where the initiatives need to be undertaken.

Curiosity and education

April 17, 2017

Professor Chris Morash, who is Vice-Provost of Trinity College Dublin, made an interesting observation when interviewed for a recent article in the Irish Times: that the Irish secondary school examination system ‘is dampening students’ innate curiosity and leading to a culture of dependency among students on class notes and exam expectations.’ The question this raises is a profound one for educators: are we making students adopt a gaming approach (guessing what those examining them will want them to say), or are we stimulating their minds?

There has been lots of valuable research into curiosity. We know for example that the brain reacts in a particular way to heightened curiosity, so that information is processed more effectively and retained better. Curiosity is also a vital tool in discovery, leading for example to better diagnosis in medicine.

Yet we find all too often that education systems set out to kill curiosity and focus the student instead on securing a functionally efficient outcome to examinations.

I was given an illustration of this a few years ago when I was asked to join an event for secondary school students in Dublin. At that time the world’s airline travel had been thrown into chaos by the 2010 eruptions of the volcano Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland. Some of the young people I was talking with told me they had asked to discuss this at school and were told by their teacher that it would be a waste of time because the eruptions had occurred too late to be included in that year’s Leaving Certificate [final school] exams. I don’t believe that I have ever heard a better reason for a total reform of the system.

It is time to remind ourselves that an education that shuts out curiosity is not an education at all.

History man?

November 15, 2016

There is no doubt that the election of Donald Trump in the United States has produced much acrimonious debate and lots of anxiety in the education community, in America and elsewhere. There are clearly many questions that this turn of events should prompt us to address about social, political and educational values, at least over time; but one incident in the past couple of days invites comment now. A history teacher in a Californian high school has been placed on leave for comparing Donald Trump with Adolf Hitler. According to reports, Frank Navarro argued that ‘Hitler’s persecution of Jews and rise to power has “remarkable parallels” to Trump’s comments on Latinos, Blacks and Muslims in his own bid for power.’

I won’t offer a view on the merits of Mr Navarro’s analysis; indeed some might suggest that he has violated ‘Godwin’s Law‘, under which anyone who in an argument invokes an analogy with Hitler loses that argument. It is certainly doubtful whether Mr Trump, whatever one might say about him (and lots is being said) is contemplating genocide or the invasion of Canada.

But that is not the question here. Rather, the question is how far an educator should be allowed to go in developing an argument in front of students, even where that argument might not be thought by others to carry merit, or even where it might be thought to state a partisan political position. To assess that further, one could ask whether Mr Navarro would have been suspended if, instead of comparing Donald Trump with Hitler, he had claimed interesting parallels with Winston Churchill. The latter analogy would also have been partisan, though this time in the other direction. And if we transferred the scene from an American High School classroom to a university, would the same or different considerations apply?

The proper test is whether an argument presented in a classroom is framed as an invitation to students to question assumptions and received wisdoms, or whether it amounts to indoctrination. I cannot tell, from the little evidence I have, whether Frank Navarro crossed a line he shouldn’t have; but I am instinctively uneasy about this form of sanction, however questionable his thesis may have been. As his students see him punished for saying what he did, they may well draw the wrong conclusions about the nature of a mature free society.

Creative dissent versus social inclusion?

April 11, 2016

For anyone interested in universities, it is worth keeping an eye on the speeches and addresses of the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins. Right from the start of his presidency he has made regular incursions into higher education policy, and has in particular bemoaned the dominant influence as he sees it of market-oriented economic theory.

Last week he returned to this theme in a speech given at the annual conference in Galway of the European Universities Association. He suggested that policy-makers in Europe and elsewhere have this perspective on higher education:

‘[They] tend to view universities in a rather utilitarian way, as foundations of new knowledge and innovative thinking, within the confines of existing trade, commercial and economic paradigms, paradigms that are fading but not without damage to social cohesion.’

According to the President, this is the ‘language and rhetoric of the speculative market’. He added:

‘Such a view sees the primary objective of the university, and those who study within it, as being in preparation for a specific role within the labour market, often at the cost of the development of life-enhancing skills such as creativity, analytical thinking, and clarity in written and spoken expression.’

University studies, the President suggested, must be accompanied by the ‘capacity to dissent’.

It is not hard to find this vision of the academy to be rather enticing. But there may be a difficult fact that would compromise the vision of universities as institutions with the primary mission of stimulating creative dissent. The whole package of resources and facilities that the state or its taxpayers or indeed education’s consumers make available is provided on a rather different understanding: that a university education, and the resulting degree, will yield a recognised qualification, and through it employment, and that it will sustain economic growth and technological progress. It is fundamentally utilitarian in nature, and it is so because a university degree has become the essential foundation of growth and prosperity. If you wish to see universities as places of counter-establishment dissent and indifferent creativity, then you need to restore universities as places educating only a small minority (and probably an elite) of the population.

Scholars from medieval times to the 19th century were in a very different place, literally and metaphorically. It is most unlikely that we could (or maybe even should) detach higher education from today’s economic and social targets. But we can still ensure that its practitioners have a new and profound integrity within the fields that they address and that its students expand their minds as well as their opportunities.

Slimming down the lecture

July 7, 2015

One of the regular debates in contemporary higher education concerns the utility of the traditional university lecture: the one-hour-or-so presentation of a topic or related topics by a lecturer to a largely passive audience of students. Given changes in pedagogy and demographics, not to mention new technology, it has been argued that this traditional vehicle for teaching is or should now be largely redundant.

But while it is regularly argued that the traditional lecture has little to offer technology-enhanced or distance learning, there is one adapted form that does seem to be popular: the micro-lecture. Here is how it has been described:

‘Microlectures (snippets) are simple multimedia presentations that are 90 seconds to five minutes long. They focus on a specific concept or skill associated with the course’s learning objectives. Microlectures allow students to access instruction on a specific concept or skill they need to practice.’

The question of course will be whether we are reducing knowledge to bite-size chunks that today’s easily distracted population can manage but which convey little of analytical value, or whether we are using key issues to stimulate learning and intellectual exploration. It is all a part of the continuing need to apply genuine pedagogical insights to new forms of education.