Ideas on education, the English language, and the teaching profession.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Math, Science, and the World of Tomorrow

In 1957, a small satellite called Sputnik was launched from the icy tundra of the ex-superpower, Russia, into Earth's orbit. As a result, American educators posited new fundamentals of learning in their characteristic ambiguity: Children of these modern times need to learn Science and Math. If the communists could send a hunk of metal into space, then it somehow seemed imperative that Americans overhaul their education system so they could send hunks of metal into space as well.

A huge need arose for math and science teachers to train students not only to master arithmetic, but complex algebra, Geometry and its endearing proofs, trigonometry, and even calculus. In Science, kids embarked upon the etymological terminology of Biology, the titrations of Chemistry, the rocks of Geology, and the infinite variables in Physics. The crown jewel of these classes would be the shoddy projects submitted to the school science fair. In modern society, these seemingly abstract disciplines and their charming empirical ventures would help Americans cope with the evolving job markets and world challenges facing us. No one actually verified this hypothesis posited nearly half a century ago but rather pushed it even further. The pundits and politicians prescribed more math and science for everyone.

Naturally, because enthusiasm in space exploration has waned recently, "experts" have employed a different line of reasoning for the perpetuity of abstract mathematical and scientific concepts. Edifying themselves with a few science fiction novels, they claim these disciplines in math and science will lay foundations of understanding new technologies and their functions which will thus help mankind's pursuit of a better life. Furthermore, Americans must compete with the throngs of Chinese and Indians graduates with Math and Science degrees. If they don't, the Asians might steal American jerbs. (Never mind the fact that Indians and Chinese will steal these jobs anyway since they will work for a fifth of the price.)

Unfortunately, this reasoning really doesn't work. While Technology and Engineering might utilize a few concepts of math and physics, most of the jobs in these fields are learned in training or tinkering with the machines. Universities and many community colleges can usually lay the groundwork for any necessary knowledge required to set up networks, repair and construct manufacturing machines, constructing bridges and buildings, etc. However, pumping kids with more formal (remember, most of this material is far from applicative) math and science from elementary to high school seems unnecessary and tedious.

The actual need for formal mathematicians and scientists really remains the same as it ever has in history. The people of today face problems that existed half a century ago that technology was supposed to solve, and most people’s daily concerns remain the same. The changes in society concomitant with computers, nuclear power, internet, and cell phones, in reality, raise more philosophical questions than scientific ones. However, the philosophical disciplines like history, language, and the social sciences take the backseat to math and science. Even practical applications like mechanics, carpentry, computer programming, and robotics take a backseat to math and science. The foundations of humanity and culture in the arts take the backseat to math and science. Students will have to meet today's actual challenges on their own time because schools would rather prepare them for the next superfluous standardized math test.

The problems waylaying the world today can be derived from an ultimate lack of wisdom, practical and moral. The lack of a historical conscience leads Americans to make the same mistakes again and again, on civic and personal levels. The lack of language mastery and the active acquisition of knowledge from literacy lead to the intellectual and professional stagnation and exploitation of the lower classes. The lack of the arts results in a materialist gaudiness that taints and clutters the surrounding environment. The lack of philosophy and social sciences result in so much waste, bureaucratic irrelevance, and spiritual oppression. The lack of vocational training leads to crime, unemployment, and more waste.

Young people really do want to face the world of today and work for progress, but they don’t have the tools to do so. That pivotal enthusiasm to make a positive difference and benefit society wanes as the years of useless classes render them apathetic and despondent. The problems of society remain or actually become compounded by unmotivated graduates. These problems will need attention sometime, but all the algebraic theorems and dissected hamsters in the world won't solve them. The neglected subjects of History and common sense might show this.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Studies have shown...

In a recent study, educational researchers have shown that kids who start kindergarten a year later have an advantage throughout their academic careers and are 7 percent more likely to succeed in school. Many newspaper and magazine articles concerned with the academic welfare of upcoming generations have latched on to this study, promoting the practice of starting school later. Hardly any of them bother to analyze the reasons behind the ever slight advantage older kids have in school, but the reasons are usually negligible in these studies. The conscientious writers will simplistically conclude that older kids equal better students, and all the good parents do it; just look at all the pie charts and graphs that prove it.

To any sufficiently grounded reader who can dodge the over generalizing tones of the writers and their "evidence", these educational studies have very little relevance or accuracy. However, educators and educational certification programs positively live by these studies which are conducted arbitrarily and often poorly. Many of the superfluous inanities that bewildered students encounter at school often derive from the idiotic conclusions made from these studies.

Consider this: An educational guru researcher, Dr. Gaardner has determined that the mind has multiple intelligences, which oddly correspond with subjects at school. For instance, some kids have math intelligence (math), some have verbal intelligence (English), some have artistic intelligence (art), and some even have kinetic intelligence (P.E.). He proves this by compiling some numbers based on children's responses to some inquiries he drew up that probably ask the kids' favorite subject at school. He veils his lack of objectivity with many charts and numbers, and his readers succumb to his apparent hard logic that defies those terrible IQ tests that put some minds ahead of others in ability. Dr. Gaardner triumphantly makes all minds equal in ability by classifying whatever a child likes, be it videogames or soccer, as a simply a different intelligence that schools fail to recognize. Therefore, it's up to educators to recognize and channel these diverse proclivities of students in the classroom.

In response to this logic, fledging teachers learn that they must create lesson plans that utilize music, movement, art, math, science, and foreign languages to effectively educate kids in any subject. Thus, teachers will assign projects with no learning value whatsoever. The concepts and information that are taught become distorted. Inevitably, time and money for the variety of resources necessary (especially computers and a plethora of software) are wasted. Teachers who witness the failure of method advocated by their superiors either leave or become jaded about the students they teach and the administrators they work for.

Gaardner's compassionate originality earned points with people looking for the ultimate quick fix towards academically impaired kids who lack motivation, but it’s counterproductive and just plain wrong. In terms of true mental ability, the closest measurement has been the IQ test. Consequently, studies show that kids with high IQ turn out to have high intelligences in all of Gaardner’s areas while kids with low IQs have low intelligences in the same spectrum. However, actual studies have shown that even the IQ test has many flaws and that the mind can gain in IQ points throughout a person's life, which renders its evaluation of intellectual potential useless and even detrimental in the classroom. Not surprisingly, Gaardner's Multiple Intelligence criteria are even more useless and detrimental.

While he continues to produce more fanciful theories on education, Gaardner is only one among many “experts” who shape the way American public schools look today. Their studies evaluate a human being's response like a rat's response and dictate the direction of school administration and instruction. Maybe that explains why so many campuses operate like rat mazes or sheep farms, or why so many children painfully suppress their human gift of thought and inquiry in the public school setting. The purposes and intents behind schools have become clouded and ridiculous by trying to use Pavlovian experiments laden with flawed judgments and reasoning.

Unfortunately, psychologists will continue to churn out these studies, and readers will follow them. Don't be surprised if the official age of kindergarten moves up to six years old because of this latest study.

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