Sacrificing the joy of learning

This week we had “take you child to work day” for our son in Grade 9. He wasn’t interested in seeing what a home-based consultant does, as he sees this every day. Instead, we arranged a day with a family member who is a helicopter pilot. We drove the 150 km to the hangar and on the way our son did his homework.

His math work had to do with exponentials and reducing equations to a less complex form; or something like that. I looked at the equations and realised that I did not have a clue how to do them. Not only that, but I couldn’t tell him where he might apply this later in his life. So here I am, unable to do Grade 9 math, even though I have two years of university-level calculus and algebra, as well as two years of physics [I went to a military college where even those majoring in History had to have a “well-rounded” education in the sciences].

My inability to do Grade 9 math got me thinking about the usefulness of the public education curriculum (again). I can see the requirement for having skills in mathematics. Of particular importance today would be understanding statistical analysis and how stats can be used to tell almost any lie.

A couple of days later, I came across this article by Roger Schank; blaming the laziness of college professors for the focus on arcane subjects:

“Universities dictate curricula to high schools to make professor’s lives easier. If everyone takes physics and calculus and most never use it, well, professors claim it was good for the students anyway when in fact it was only good for making sure professors didn’t have to teach it in college. As long as professors don’t have to teach the basics it is okay that high school students are forced to study stuff they will never use in their whole lives. We have ruined an entire generation of high school students who don’t like learning and think the subject matter is irrelevant because professors only want to teach the good stuff.

We sacrifice the joy of learning for an entire generation so professors can have an easier time teaching incoming students.”

I have 18 years of formal education, 25 years of work experience, have never used exponential equations outside of school, and don’t remember how to do them today. What are we teaching, and why?

3 Responses to “Sacrificing the joy of learning”

  1. Mike

    Years ago when I was a much younger man, I was always slightly intimidated by people that had gone on to university and had received that magical piece of paper called a degree. The more I look back and see what I have learned in life, the more I realise that going to school and sitting in all those classes wasn’t worth much.

    To quote the philosopher Paul (Simon);
    When I think back on all the crap
    I learned in high school
    It’s a wonder I can think at all
    And though my lack of education
    Hasn’t hurt me none
    I can read the writing on the wall

    At some point, and I’m not sure when, I realised that there was no need for me to be intimidated by formal education. I wouldn’t advise everybody to take the route that I did (I pushed hard for my son to attend that same military college that you attended), but for me it has worked out very well. I consider myself a generalist and a survivor. I have also come to realise that many of the people that I have worked side by side with over the years that had two and sometimes more degrees (mostly mechanical engineering types and meteorologists) were overeducated to the point of near brain paralysis when they ran up against real world problems that weren’t covered at school. As well many of them never seemed to have learned the basics. i.e. spelling, basic math without a calculator. Don’t get me wrong, I am a very gadgety/techie type guy and I enjoy drawing in CAD programs, spreadsheets and my ipod very much, but there is a lot to be said for thinking on your feet, and having the right attitude. Which if I’m on a rant/roll (and I seem to be on one…), I have a large problem with people exiting university with their degree held tightly in hand assuming that they are entitled to a high paying job right out of the gate. When this doesn’t happen too many of them seem to think that the problem must be that they need more education, and apply for a masters program.
    We as a society have created a monster that is afraid to get it’s hands dirty, and thinks that it is entitled to have everything served up to it on a platter. As a generation I believe that we have screwed up at the middle/high school level by dropping programs like shop classes, music classes. etc to make room for computer classes and higher maths and sciences. We have also centralised school boards far too much, for far too large an area. What’s right for most of a geographical area is not necessarily right for the whole area. We should allow decisions to be made at the local levels and not in a centralised office that never gets out to see the light of day. I can hear some people out there already saying to themselves that this wouldn’t work because standardised testing would never work Standardised testing be damned! Standardised testing is not about the students, it’s about the administrators. It’s a management/measurement technique for the administrators to control schools and teachers. I believe we have to look at what’s right for us on a local level not what another school/province/state/country scored on a standardised test.

    OK I’m almost finished here…

    Me, I never did go to university, although at times over the years I have very seriously considered it, I’ve even applied to a part time adult learning program at a university and been accepted. They even offered to give me a lot of credits for my “life experience”, but I realised that it was more about the university gaining more students (read revenue), than it was about helping me further my education. I have decided to further my education as I always have, through real world experience, because after all, I’ve done pretty good for a kid that only finished grade 8. I guess I believed Mom when she told me that I could do anything I wanted, and I still believe it.
    As for the professors, I think they need to think more about working with individuals and teaching classes rather than letting assistants teach classes for them. Perhaps some of them could stop worrying about getting tenure and what to do on sabbatical, and start thinking about how to help some of those young people gain some real world skills that will help them after they graduate.

    Sorry for the long rant Harold, and thanks for the soapbox.



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