Archive for the ‘education’ category

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.

Creating an educational problem

December 9, 2014

Where in the course of education information, speculation, analysis or assertion is presented to students, it may be right or it may be wrong – or maybe just debatable. But it will not be right or wrong because legislation tells us so. Therefore it was inappropriate for the Tennessee legislature in 2012 to enact a law that protects the teaching of creationism and teaching that attacks global warming theory. Legislators have no special scientific or general scholarly insight that equips them to declare or indeed debunk received wisdom.

But before we get all indignant and superior about Tennessee, let us look at something closer to home, right now. The Scottish Secular Society has been lobbying politicians to do the reverse of Tennessee, that is to issue guidance to prohibit the teaching of creationism, or as the Society puts it, ‘evolution denial’. Interestingly, this move has been resisted by the trade union Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS).

Law or government action should never entrench a view as being ‘correct as a matter of law’. Whether something is right or wrong should be left to analysis and debate, and nobody should ever be told that a particular perspective, even where this perspective is rejected by society as a whole or parts of it, may not legally be addressed in schools or educational institutions. If today government can prohibit any reference to creationism in education, then tomorrow it could use the law to prohibit the teaching of other matters it considers to be uncomfortable. Truth needs to be discovered and tested, not declared to be truth by state power.

I do not myself regard creationism to be valid science (as distinct from theology), but I trust the teaching profession to handle this appropriately. If the enforced teaching of creationism is wrong (as it undoubtedly is), then so is a legal or governmental order that prohibits any reference to it in schools or colleges. Finding the truth is an intellectual pursuit, not a legal one. The Scottish Secular Society should be robustly resisted in this matter.

A hundred years on, lest we forget

August 5, 2014

A few years ago I needed some emergency dental treatment while on a visit to Germany. As I was waiting for my turn in the dentist’s surgery I picked up an old book from the shelves there and was immediately engrossed in it. It was the autobiography of a major scholar who became Rector (Principal/President/Vice-Chancellor) of an Austrian university in 1913. In June 1914 he was about to preside over a graduation ceremony for 52 graduands. As he was entering the aula maxima, an assistant whispered to him that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, had just been assassinated in Sarajevo.

In his autobiography he wrote that he had an immediate sense of the potentially awful consequences of this act, but he continued to conduct the ceremony, and gave a short speech in Latin on the benefits of education. What he did not know then was that, of his 52 graduands, 40 would die during the 1914-18 Great War. He himself (a Jew) would spend much of the Second World War in a concentration camp (although he survived it), while one of the twelve surviving graduands would be tried for war crimes in 1946. He himself wrote his autobiography in 1947, and he died two years later at the age of 86. He wrote of that day in 1914: ‘The waves and torrents of history were about to engulf us, and I knew it. But I could only say a few platitudes about the civilising power of education.’

As we reflect on the events of 1914 and all that follows, it may be worth remembering that a reference to the civilising power of education is not a platitude. It is, sometimes, all that we have, and it is everything.

Perhaps I can end this post with a short family note. The photo below is of my grandfather, a Lieutenant in the German army during the Great War. He made history by being the first in the history of warfare to drop a bomb from a plane; it landed in the Vicarage garden in Dover, thankfully hurting nobody. On 10 November 1918, just before the war ended, he was hit in the face by shrapnel. The somewhat basic treatment available at the time involved the insertion of a metal alloy to replace parts of his broken jaw. This subsequently proceeded to poison his blood and he died a few years later of the complications. May we all heed the lessons of that terrible war, and of all wars.

Lieutenant Alfred von Prondzynski

Leutnant Alfred von Prondzynski