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Nominated for the Worst Educational Idea Ever

It’s no secret that American college students pay high tuition fees.

Average fees at US universities, 2017-18
Public two-year colleges Public four-year colleges (in-state fees) Public four-year colleges (out-of-state fees) Private non-profit four-year colleges
Tuition and other fees $3,570 $9,970



“The total 2018-2019 cost of attending Harvard College without financial aid is $46,340 for tuition and $67,580 for tuition, room, board, and fees combined”.

The result is that many students accumulate insurmountable levels of debt.

“Americans owe $1.5 trillion in higher education debt, a burden that weighs down their dreams and the U.S. economy. The Federal Reserve says millennials are now less likely to buy homes than young people were in 2005, and even senior citizens find themselves still making payments on their student loans.”

Many European countries offer free or low-cost university education, often in English. Mexico, Brazil, and even economic rival, China offer competitive educational opportunities. One would expect that the US would want to make its higher education more accessible to its own citizens in a bid to maintain its economic dominance, trading on the strong reputations of it universities.

Income-Sharing Agreement (ISA)

But no. Why solve the problem when you can invent something more insidious? American investors are turning students with debt into investments.

In return for an investment in their education students promise to pay investors a percentage of their future earnings. For example, one graduate of Purdue University, presently earning $50,000, pays her investor $279 per month, and this for eight and a half years. This could go up or down as her salary changes. It could go to zero if she becomes unemployed.

Unequal Risk

This exploitation of American students necessarily adds a layer of discrimination to a system already overwhelmed by different forms of it. Not all students are of equal risk and so, often, the university is involved in rating a student’s investment attractiveness.

The following table shows how different educational specializations are rated for investment consideration.

Discipline Share of Income Owned Term, in years
English 4.5% 9.7
Mass Communication 3.9 9.3
Spanish 3.7 8.7
Economics 3.4 8.3
Finance 3.0 8.0
Mechanical Engineering 2.7 7.7
Computer Science 2.6 7.3

Young People In America

As with Health Care solutions, the American psyche seems to require the intervention of some corporate interest. Education in the 21st century is clearly of top importance in all nations of the world. Yet many Americans can’t proceed directly from the needs of its own citizens (in this case mainly young people) to some of sort of aid or solution to the important problems the group faces. There must be some opportunity for capital investors to score profits, usually substantial.

The ISA is abhorrent as it views university students as immediate sources of profit and not as human beings, people who can contribute much to their country. The fact that many universities are complicit is scandalous.

Wake up America! Taken alongside recent experiences with un-redressed school shootings, limp objection to the separation of parents and children at the southern border, and the already untenable financial demands on US college students young people must be wondering how well loved they are in their own land.

Interest in Education

Interest in Education
Cardiff University Family Science Fair

The Importance of Interest

Interest may be one of the most fundamental, most important concepts in education.

When we scramble from one strategy to another in our pursuit of a modern, successful education system we miss the importance of interest. It is interest that drives discovery in the evolution of human understanding.

Student success, one of our most central educational goals eventually leads to a discussion of what motivates students to learn. The answer is interest.

But teachers will claim that not everything they are obliged to teach is interesting. Then they fall back into a debate about ways to motivate students. What tricks can teachers learn to make the subject seem more interesting? When students drop out of the education system prematurely we once again point to the failure to make learning interesting to them.

But the pleasure of learning new things is inherent in our human nature. Just watch young children. Adding games or play to the learning environment, while often completely legitimate, is at other times a poor deception which tries to fool students into learning. This often results in a dumbing-down of challenging concepts and skills. It also produces a host of gimmicks.

Among the greatest deceptions is the marketing of technology as an essential tool for motivating students. Teachers have been told to “integrate technology into teaching” because that’s what young people like. However, this form of pandering is no more likely to motivate students than the use of chalk and blackboards.

Some educators transfer the responsibility for motivation to the student. They would say, “You can lead students to water but you can’t make them drink”. While it is true that learners do control their own motivation, leaving them solely responsible for it is an abdication of professional teaching responsibility.

Motivation is about interest. Young children, for example, are always interested in something. Starting school is often the beginning of a process aimed at focusing their attention on things that are important to others. This is a process that can overlook the importance of genuine interest. Getting students to perform at grade level becomes the reason for them learning anything. This has little motivational value for young learners.

Any attempt to understand the motivation to learn comes back to interest. This is a very important word. It defines not only a state of  curiosity but also something of value, as in “I have a vested interest in the future of the planet.” It also represents a reward for investing, as in “interest income”.

This raises the obvious question, “Where does interest come from?” Can we affect another person’s level of interest? When a child, or anyone, is truly interested they will invest considerable effort in understanding and doing. In a typical educational program, spanning several years, there are many different things to study. Is it possible for a learner to be genuinely interested in all, or even most, of them?

The Latin word interest means “it is important” and the prefix inter implies a connection between things. This suggests that connection is central to the interest something can create in us.

Most systems of education presume that proper sequencing is essential to connecting concepts and skills. Hence the lock-step advancement through grades or levels — in learning arithmetic, for example, before higher mathematics. But good sequencing is surely no guarantee of student interest.

Learning might be enhanced if the subject being studied was connected to the learner’s personal experience. However, through decades of public education large scale customization has been largely unattainable. (It is comforting to note that there is now a discussion of “personalized medicine“. One might hope that it will spill over into education.)

Is there a universal kind of connection that can link any subject of study to something important for any learner? That would be the solution to the problem, if it exists.

Educator Parker Palmer describes what he calls Teaching from the Microcosm. For Palmer every small concept that might be presented to a learner connects to something higher. For children, learning to count and do basic arithmetic allows them to better understand their world and how to manipulate its elements.

Children are surrounded by adults who are able to do interesting things. For children the main goal is to become an adult with all the rights, privileges, and possibilities. Everything they learn brings them closer to that goal. They need to speak the languages of their parents and of their peers in order to demand the things they want and to communicate with those who can help them. They need to be able to walk in order to approach things that are attractive.

As children near adulthood their learning priorities shift. What is interesting to them has changed but it is still interest that is driving them. In structured public education we seem intent on trying to interest learners in what interests us. We invent the programs and curricula and set the markers that show progress. We should not be surprised then when learner interest is lacking and we are running off to a conference on how to motivate students.

This kind of experience leads teachers to become disconnected from the very subjects that once attracted them. They now define themselves as the expert who must create the motivation for their students’ learning or, in the worst case, simply throw the responsibility for motivation back on the student.

This widespread failure is largely a result of being focused on the outputs of the educational process, at the expense of the inputs. The outputs are the grades and success rates that are contrived to measure progress, but which often measure very little. The inputs are the inventory of elements provided by the educational system. The list varies but might include qualified teachers, solid pedagogy, physical environment, class size, and numerous other elements. More on this.

The more education authorities aspire to meet the educational needs of their changing world the more they risk losing touch with the genuine interests of their clientele. Learners live in the same world as educational decision makers. Allowing educational experiences to build upon genuine learner interest doesn’t seem like a great risk to take and will likely lead to real student success.


Defining Public Education: Its Biggest Challenge

Citizenship Tag Cloud: Defining Public EducationIn the twenty-first century defining public education is the first and most important step in assuring its relevance and effectiveness.

In some places schools use standard tests to measure their success. These tests only measure knowledge acquisition. By not defining other learning objectives schools may under- or over-rate their success. They may also fail to see ways to improve their results.

Debate about the goals of public education, in North America at least, focuses only on knowledge acquisition. This is the core goal of almost any such system. All public educators hope that students have learned  something they were intended to learn. This is usually in the well known disciplines (Science, Math, Social Studies, Literature, for example). In defining public education more accurately educators must at least include goals in employability and in social stability.


Public education always has additional key aims. Graduates are expected to be employable. Many countries see a key role for education in ensuring that their citizens can participate in the global economy. A growing call for more STEM1 education across the world reflects this drive.

The fees for educational programs are normally only paid by governments when there is a clear employment destination.

Social Stability

The trouble with the world is not that people know too little; its’ that they know so many things that just aren’t so. —Mark Twain

Social stability is another goal of most education systems. Developing countries often face social or political upheaval. At this date Argentina struggles with corruption, electoral fraud, inflation, default on international debt, and recession. Venezuela adds food shortages, inflation (as high as 700% in 2016), dictatorship, and a large-scale exodus from the country. Social and political unrest in the Middle East and Africa yield tragic levels of violence and destruction.

The root causes of these problems are complex. Political reform requires citizens who can apply critical thinking in order to see through misleading rhetoric and outright deception.

Until the nineteenth century, women everywhere were denied schooling . In underdeveloped countries millions of women are still denied access to education. Defining education as a basic right is part of any modern reformer’s platform.

Education, Economic Growth, and Social Stability: Why the Three Are Inseparable

Further Defining Public Education

Educators in developed countries now view education as a lifelong process. It does not stop at adulthood.

Changing economies, politics, and technologies require new literacies. Many public education systems  add more specific skills to their list of learning goals. These include problem-solving, creative thinking, local and long-distance collaboration, and effective communication. Physical and psychological fitness and the ability to create and maintain a healthy lifestyle are often goals as well.

Full Disclosure

Unfortunately many attempts to design and assess public education systems are short-sighted. They do not recognize the full range of learning needs to be met.

Identifying all the desired outcomes would be a useful exercise for all public educators. Measuring only knowledge acquisition may unfairly condemn a system which succeeds in other areas, or praise it for its only success.

  1. Science, Technology, Engineering, Math []

Brain Science: Building the Brain you Want

Human BrainReal teachers cherish the expertise they have acquired, and are still acquiring. The excitement of education derives, in part, from the never-ending streams of new insights that flow in from other disciplines. Perhaps the most exciting of these are the revelations of neuroscience, a new and fast-paced outpouring of research that is upsetting many of our former beliefs.

For example, we now know that human brains do develop and produce new neurons after the age of two. In fact brain modification takes place throughout life.

We even know something about how the brain actually works. The brain uses a vast array of neuron cells to represent information. The meaning attributed to them is in the particular configuration of the neurons and in the intensity of their signals.

In infants the brain begins to shape itself in response to whatever stimuli are presented to it. This has negative consequences, for example, when noise from a variety of external and internal sources corrupts the sound patterns a child hears. The results are often linguistic impairment or even autism.

Neuroplasticity is the name given to the way the brain changes itself systematically. In the Adult Plasticity phase the brain has begun to take strategic control of its own construction in response to stimuli or behaviors that have acquired some importance to the individual. Individuals who read Braille, for example, have an enhance brain segment which maps the sensations of the hand.

It can be said that the “self” emerges on the way to adulthood as the brain constructs itself in response to the experiences that are unique to  each individual. Each person is, in fact, a unique specialist.

In short the brain changes every time we learn a new skill.

The brain can change itself in three ways:

  1. Chemically, by increasing or decreasing the chemicals which help transmit neural signals.  This can increase short-term performance but does not lead to long-term results.
  2. By altering its structure, re configuring its networks to provide longer-term effectiveness.
  3. By altering its function, moving functions to different parts of the brain. This is often important when parts of the brain are damaged. The affected function can be moved to another set of neurons.

It is behavior that drives changes in the brain. There is no shortcut to activating plasticity. Changes are a response to behavior. This explains why learning new skills requires practice. It has been observed, furthermore, that greater struggle produces better results. According to the research each learner has to do the work that her brain requires.

Understanding brain plasticity must lead educators to wonder about our public education system. Based on an industrial model of just-in-time manufacturing students are expected to be ready for the next step as they move from Kindergarten to PhD. It is a cohort-based education that is always frustrated when students are not functioning at the prescribed level.

Brain science is telling us that intellectual diversity is the norm as brains shape themselves to meet the needs that are important to each individual. This is certainly a plea for some form of personalized education and for students to be metacognitively responsible. According to brain science we each have greater success when we repeat the behaviors that work for us, strengthening already established neuronal patterns.

We have long been told, and ignored the fact, that students have individual learning styles. Brain science suggests that the problem goes much deeper. In fact, our brains have been self-designed to meet our individual needs, not always aligned with the requirements of a cohort education.

Furthermore, the ongoing development of a brain is an active process, an adaptation to each behavior we undertake. This fact has a certain gravity since the behaviors involved can also be of a negative character. For example, drug addiction. Our brains can get good at it if necessary.

The classroom implication is that we need to think carefully about the behaviors and skills we want students to acquire. If we require them to learn simply by listening  there will likely be insufficient behavior to stimulate a healthy brain development. We risk having them become good at alternatives to boredom and unwilling to engage in significant learning behaviors because the activities are not truly relevant.

Brain science is generating massive amounts of new insight at a phenomenal rate. Among those poised to benefit are educators. But one wonders whether, after two thousand years of “chalk and talk” we are ready to pick up the pace.


A New Chapter for Quebec Colleges

“At MIT, we are choosing to meet this challenge directly by assessing the educational model that has served the Institute so well for so long. We are experimenting boldly with ideas to enhance the education we offer our own students and to lower the barriers to access for learners around the world.”—MIT President L. Rafael Reif

Higher education is feeling pressure to innovate and this in response to the often-cited globalization effects of international competition and rapid changes in economic and social priorities.

Institutions that are ill-equipped to respond will face the inevitable consequences by jeopardizing their relevance and their viability. In order to facilitate the necessary levels of change college administrations will have to demonstrate unprecedented levels of flexibility and imagination.

College administrations in Quebec spend much of their time responding to the education ministry’s requirements for documentation and compliance. While this preoccupation is largely necessary it has not created an environment noted for innovation and daring initiatives. One example is the absence of significant online learning options across the Quebec college network.

The network is administered hierarchically, the Ministry delegating some of its authority to individual college administrations and these putting the final brush strokes on the operating policies and procedures. Grass-roots initiatives exist but focus mainly on minor details and implementation strategies.

High-tech industries understand the need for a bottom-up approach to designing new products and services. They invest in creating an incubator environment, one which supports, and even seeks out, new ideas that can be developed and brought to fruition. The general tone of administration there is one of supportive leadership rather than of one-way direction.

This is precisely where colleges can, and must, change. An administration which sees itself, and is seen by its faculty and staff, as a support system can thrive in ever-shifting economic and political times.

People know what kind of team they belong to. They will not be fooled by rhetoric, slogans, or mission statements that belie their working reality. Most people want to belong to a winning team that is a leader in its field. This means colleges that are innovating in response to what are clearly fast-changing demands. This means an administration that is ready to make a sharp turn away from the rigid roles, policies,  and college processes that have gone unchallenged; a turn toward a fluid operational environment where administrators are viewed as venture capitalists ready to back their community’s best inventors.

This will require the Ministry to relax its commitment to sameness and understand that equal educational opportunity for all does not necessarily mean the same education for all.


The Folly of “Student Success”

Report card

“I want to adopt a policy on school success. I hope we’ll be able to have consultations this fall to identify the ways we can improve our graduation rate,”

—Sébastien Proulx, Quebec Minister of Education.

It really is no wonder we struggle in North America, and in a few other places, to reform or fine-tune our public education systems. There are two principal reasons for our perpetual failure. The first is a matter of bad science.

Good scientists prefer proofs based on controlled experimentation. They expect that some treatment will be applied to one randomly selected group of subjects while not being applied to another such group. The treatment should be double-blind, meaning that no one involved in the execution of the study knows which group is which. The results of the treatment should be measured in the same way for each group, using a reliable measuring instrument. Only when the two results are significantly different can we conclude that the treatment brought about some important change.

Every teacher is applying a treatment to her students. The problem is that it is the same teacher who then measures the resulting performance! When we use grades to evaluate success we are using a measure which no self-respecting scientist would accept.

Furthermore, we make the same mistake with derivatives of grades, pass rates for example. The number of students passing is simply a grouping of grade results.

This may sound like an appeal for standardized testing. Never!

Standardized testing is the other extreme. A standardized test undoubtedly measures something but the obvious problem is knowing what. Does it measure achievement in whatever the teachers set out to teach or the students tried to learn? Most classroom situations are microcosmic to the point where an elsewhere-devised test will not fairly measure what students were actually striving to learn.

And this points to the most fundamental impediment to educational advancement. We refuse to define what education is or to believe that we possibly could. The problem from the get-go is the popular belief that education is about “the transfer of knowledge (or worse, information)” from the full vessel to the empty ones. Real teachers understand this error. They know that the teacher’s task is to be a designer of learning activities. They also know that good teachers experiment, always looking for the best way. This freedom to experiment can cause havoc with any form of fixed testing because sometimes the experiments don’t work. In addition, some strategies may take longer to pay off or may introduce valuable side paths worth exploring.

We have a natural tendency to ensure accountability by measuring outcomes. Maybe we would have better success if we measured inputs. Why not measure the extent to which the necessary inputs are in place to make optimal learning possible? The relevant inputs are numerous and just defining them could lead to valuable insights. They would include an appropriate level of pedagogical expertise on the part of the teacher, and let’s throw in a minimal level of empathy, suited to the learning level. Facilities count: buildings, classrooms, teaching tools. Often support services are necessary, such as counseling, tutoring, special needs support. Maybe family involvement plays an important role and needs to be developed. Whatever the inputs are deemed to be they can all be easily measured. They are either there or they are not; they can either be improved or not. By maximizing the inputs we maximize the outputs. Even those who try to measure outputs end up coming back to the inputs to effect change, unless of course they have allowed themselves to be lulled into complacency by meaningless figures.

Finally, the focus on learning, the kernel process in public education, leaves out of the picture other expectations which are of no less importance. Funders of public education expect more than knowledge accumulation. They inevitably want students to become employable and, in some measure, good citizens, choosing healthy life styles. Sometimes the list is longer. They want graduates to be critical thinkers, creative thinkers, team players, good communicators, and problem-solvers. They may also want students to be strong in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (so-called STEM).

Whatever the list, it makes sense to know what’s on it. Any attempt to measure success needs to take into account all of the goals that constitute success for a public education system. Why is it so difficult to write the list? If we would undertake the task we would find ourselves less susceptible to the clichés and empty political promises of those who talk in vague terms like “student success”, “graduation rates”, and “retention”. They cannot deliver on these. As long as we believe them we are wasting our time and our money.


Plato’s Cave

Plato's CaveA Greek philosopher, Plato lived in the years around 400 BC. He is noted for many ideas, some of which usually emerge in a discussion of education.

In one of his works, The Republic, he defines his just society. In it he presents what has come to be called the Allegory of the Cave.

According to Plato the cave is occupied by slaves who are chained so that they face the inner wall and cannot see outside the cave. There is a fire behind them that causes the life outside to be reflected on the wall. As a result the slaves can only see the shapes or outlines of all real life as they are reflected on the wall. If a slave one day escapes and goes outside he will see the real world of plants and animals and all other things. If he decides to re-enter the cave and enlighten his fellow slaves he may risk his life since his message may threaten the slaves’ hardened view of reality.

In Plato’s just society there are three groups of citizens.

The producers

  • are in all professions other than warrior and ruler,
  • have no share in ruling, but merely obey what the rulers decree.

The auxiliaries are

  • the warriors,
  • responsible for defending the city from invaders, and for keeping the peace at home,
  • must enforce the convictions of the guardians, and ensure that the producers obey.

By age thirty-five, after an appropriate education, which includes mathematics, gymnastics, and the techniques of philosophical discovery, the auxiliaries are ready to educate the producer class and “lead them from the cave”. By age fifty they are ready to join the guardian class.

The guardians are

  • responsible for ruling the city,
  • are known as philosopher-kings.

In Plato’s model, society is permanently stratified and power is in the hands of the philosopher-kings.

Some have suggested that today’s ubiquitous digital screens may be causing viewers to see only the shapes of the world’s reality.