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 STEM ((Science, Technology, Engineering, Math)) 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.

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.

A Good Start to Your Lesson: Stimulating Interest and Enthusiasm

“Welcome to my job!” —Comedian George Carlin at the opening of his show.

Teslas's Lab
Nikola Tesla’s Lab, Colorado, 1899

The start of anything is always an important opportunity to set the tone for what follows. In teaching, particularly, a good opening can determine the eventual success of the classroom experience.

By the time you meet them your students have acquired the skill of adaptation. They adapt to each new school, each new teacher, and each change in curriculum and teaching technique. When they end up in your class they are expecting more of what they have already lived and are preparing to adapt once again. Good class beginnings can break this pattern, generate interest and enthusiasm, and encourage engagement.

Ideally students will come to your class wondering what unusual thing will happen today. Imagine that for your first lesson on the Greek philosophers they arrive in class to see you wrapped in a bed sheet ready to read directly from Aristotle as he would have spoken in the Greek agora. (Or maybe it is your students who are invited to come dressed for the occasion.)

The great minds of any discipline are, after all, people, and many have led interesting or complicated lives. This makes biographies a great source of interest. Since when are Canadian women persons under the law? Since 1929, thanks in large part to the country’s first female magistrate, Emily Murphy and four other “persons” who took the case to the British Privy Council. Women had previously been barred from being Senators or even attending court cases because they were not deemed to be persons under Canadian law.

Inventor Nikola Tesla was a contemporary of Thomas Edison. He acquired a long list of patents, greatly influenced the design of the electric power grid in North America, and anticipated devices like the cell phone. Tesla was also a fastidious dresser and always arranged to be photographed from his good side.

Story, or narrative, is a powerful way to bring history to life. Perhaps a modern headline would lead to curiosity about one of history’s best known philosophers: Greek Teacher, Accused of Corrupting Youth, Commits Suicide at Age 71.

It is useful to have a repertoire of personal stories that have been well received in the past. Practice them and use them when appropriate. Humorous is good although humor can sometimes be dangerous. The safest way to use humor is to ensure that you are the butt of the joke. And Mother’s advice still stands: stay away from sex, politics, and religion. A good story has a beginning and a middle which build to a strong punch line, rehearsed and well delivered. Good stories are short and contain no unnecessary details. It is an art that is worth practicing and is a great way to get things started.

Demonstrations are also powerful ways to begin. I will never forget the high school chemistry teacher who managed to create a small explosion while introducing his lesson. Attention was keen for the rest of the class (especially in the front row). A prof at teachers’ college set a hard-boiled egg on top of an empty milk bottle and asked how we might get the egg into the bottle without breaking it. When no correct answers emerged he set fire to a piece of newspaper, dropped it into the bottle, and replaced the egg. Within a few seconds the egg slammed into the bottle with a bang and settled there unbroken. Attention was keen for the rest of the class (especially in the front row).

How about posing a problem? In the absence of a speedometer, why might it be difficult to calculate the speed of a car at an instant in time? Or, How can a country best balance the civil liberties of individuals against the need for security?

If, in the previous class meeting, you asked for feedback from your students you could share some of it, along with your comments, at the opening of the next session.

In one course I taught I began each class with a very short book review. I pulled something off my bookshelf and explained to the class how it had been valuable to me.

Displaying quotations at the outset, and possibly having a short discussion, can get minds engaged and ready to tackle other ideas.

The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.—Groucho Marx

I had a university professor who always had music playing before he started his lecture (to a small, intimate group of 600 students). I never found out why he did this butI read subsequently that he had received an award for being one of the best teachers in the entire university. (I just told you a story 🙂  ).

For the braver teacher you might want to ask, “Has anyone heard any news today that they are concerned or excited about?”

The possibilities for openers are, of course, unlimited. It’s worth noting that openers are part of our normal way of coming together with other people. We do it with colleagues and friends, usually automatically. Some people might even be offended if you didn’t begin your conversation with an interesting warm-up, before getting down to business.

We often fall into the trap of thinking that teaching a class comes with restrictions that impose a formality not typical of our daily human interactions. Teaching a class is not just a meeting of the minds but a coming together of many other things that we share as humans. A class may struggle to really get going if we forget to relax and enjoy a few human moments at the start.

Let’s Sleep On It

“The clearest finding is that sleep does not serve just a single purpose. Instead it appears to be needed for the optimal functioning of a multitude of biological processes—from the inner workings of the immune system to proper hormonal balance, to emotional and psychiatric health, to learning and memory, to the clearance of toxins from the brain. At the same time, none of these functions fails completely in the absence of sleep. In general, sleep seems to enhance the performance of these systems instead of being absolutely necessary. And yet anyone who lives for months without sleep will die.”Robert Stickgold, Scientific American, October 2015

Borg Regenerating
Borg Regenerating
Sleep deprivation and the effects of reduced amounts of sleep are now being studied seriously at several universities. According to Robert Stickgold, director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, lack of sufficient sleep reduces the creation of antibodies produced by vaccination and thereby undermines their effectiveness, reduces the ability to clear glucose from the blood (the function of insulin), increases blood levels of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin, and decreases the quantity of a hormone called leptin which inhibits hunger by signaling the brain that there is no need to eat. The results are increased feelings of hunger which contribute to obesity.

Other research suggests that memory fixation occurs during sleep and that with sleep deprivation we are likely to form twice as many memories of negative life events as of positive events. This results in biased, and potentially depressing, memories of the day’s events.  Under certain circumstances, this can lead to major depression and may contribute to other psychiatric disorders as well.

An important finding for educators is that sleep after learning leads to the selective stabilization, strengthening, integration and analysis of new memories. In this way sleep controls what we remember and how we remember it. It also prevents the deterioration of memories over time and can actually improve them. It selectively strengthens memories that our brain deems valuable. What is valuable for the brain is information that can help enhance future performance.

Other lines of research are exploring the implications of the increase in inter-cellular space that occurs in the brain during sleep. This results in a better flow of cerebrospinal fluid between the brain and the spine. Experiments with mice demonstrate that betaamyloid (the precursor of the amyloid plaques found between neurons in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients) is cleared from the brain during sleep at twice the rate seen in awake animals.

Overall, the results of studies on the role of sleep in hormonal, immunological and memory functions suggest that a lack of sufficient sleep could result not only in being very tired, but sick, overweight, forgetful and very blue.

Black Holes and General Education

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”—Albert Einstein.

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein

College students in Quebec, Canada find that their chosen program of study always includes General Education courses in Humanities, English, French, and Physical Education.

While there is some controversy about the General Education requirement educational authorities continue to see benefit in it, perhaps in preparing graduates who are “better rounded” and able to continually enrich their own lives as adults.

While languages, Humanities, and Physical Education seem reasonable inclusions in General Education, excluding other disciplines from the core curriculum may leave students with important gaps in their understanding of the physical world.

It has been just over a hundred years since Albert Einstein experienced a series of eureka moments that overthrew conventional understandings of our universe. Despite the overwhelming impact of his Special Theory of Relativity and, four years later, his General Theory of Relativity most students  studying a century later know little of such important notions as spacetime and gravity.

Scientists had come to understand gravity as a pull to Earth and later, thanks to Isaac Newton, as a force of attraction between any two masses. Then came Albert Einstein. In 1915 he revealed, in his general theory of relativity, that gravity is not a force so much as the by-product of a curving universe. In other words, what we think we know about gravity from everyday experience is wrong.

Einstein’s spacetime continuum connects the three dimensions of space to time as the fourth dimension. To describe the position of any object we have to define its distance from the three axes of 3D space but also indicate when, in time, it was there. This seems counter-intuitive since we customarily think of time as a totally separate dimension from space. For Einstein it is seamless and endless.

Spacetime can be compared to a large mattress which is easily compressed by a large object such as a bowling ball. The depression made by the bowling ball creates a curvature in the “spacetime” mattress. Any neighbouring small objects will naturally roll toward the depression. In short, it is the presence of large objects in the cosmos which bends the spacetime continuum and creates the effects we call gravity. The curvatures of spacetime dictate the movements of the heavenly bodies and create our sensation of always being pulled to the ground. Even light can be bent to follow its contours.

In the wake of Einstein’s work Physicists grapple with a number of problems. The various beaviours of matter in the universe require at least two separate theories to explain them. Relativity and Quantum Mechanics cannot yet be harmonized to produce one theory of nature, sometimes referred to as the Theory of Everything. In addition, more recently explored phenomena must be incorporated into whatever theory will triumph. These include dark energy, dark matter, and dark holes. Understanding dark holes, which are plentiful and far away, is important in building and correcting theories that describe our universe.

Do the implications of Einstein’s work constitute important general knowledge in the same way we now understand that the earth is round and that we are not at the center of our galaxy?

General Education implies general knowledge. The difficult question is, “What constitutes an adequate general knowledge?” The answer is complicated by the fact that it changes, almost daily.

Evolving Cognitive Skills: The Flynn Effect

The Flynn effect is the substantial and long-sustained increase in both fluid and crystallized intelligence test scores measured in many parts of the world from roughly 1930 to the present day. When intelligence quotient (IQ) tests are initially standardized using a sample of test-takers, by convention the average of the test results is set to 100 and their standard deviation is set to 15 or 16 IQ points. When IQ tests are revised, they are again standardized using a new sample of test-takers, usually born more recently than the first. Again, the average result is set to 100. However, when the new test subjects take the older tests, in almost every case their average scores are significantly above 100.—Wikipedia

IQ Curve
IQ Curve

Based on the results of new test-takers on standard IQ tests James Flynn (see Ted talk, 2013) has postulated that we are getting cognitively more intelligent with time. What is interesting are the ways in which our cognitive skills seem to be evolving.

Flynn cites three main evolving cognitive skills:

  1. the ability to classify
  2. the use of abstraction shaped by logic
  3. taking the hypothetical seriously

These are illustrated by examples. In the first case, a man of a previous generation is asked, “What do a crow and a fish have in common?” The man sees nothing in common: one flies, one swims, and so on. When asked if the crow and the fish are not both animals, the man says, “no, one is a fish and one is a crow”. He sees only how the creatures exist in his own concrete world and cannot see the common features that would enable their classification as animals.

An inability to use abstraction governed by logic is illustrated in this example. A man is told, “There are no camels in Germany. Hamburg is a city in Germany. Are there any camels in Hamburg?” The man speculates that there might be, if the city is large enough. He is incapable of following the logic of the verbal abstraction.

In the third case a subject is told, “At the North Pole there is always snow. Wherever there is always snow the bears are always white. What color are the bears at the North Pole?” The subject replied that one would have to go and verify. He, himself, had only ever seen brown bears. He wondered why anyone would waste time on such a problem. As a further example of a lack of respect for the hypothetical he describes the reaction of his racially-biased parents to the question, “How would you feel if you woke up black and were treated as inferior?” The response was laughter and, “When was the last time someone went to bed and woke up black?”. No respect for the hypothetical.

These three cognitive skills, the ability to classify, the use of abstraction shaped by logic, and taking the hypothetical seriously appear to be the major factors which differentiate our cognitive abilities from those of our grandparents. These same skills are essential to doing science and, as Flynn maintains, engaging in moral argument.

He also notes that now fully a third of us are engaged in cognitively rich professions and that most professions are undergoing upgrade to become more and more demanding of the cognitive skills described above.

Related: PISA: New Skills Measured in International Student Test