Education May Be Its Own Worst Enemy

“Your objectives are harshing my mellow, man.”

I talk to a lot of people. People who knew me in high school would be surprised by this. I barely uttered a sentence throughout high school, never participated in any social events. I would speak with my teachers, but my peers – not so much. But, I was paying attention. I lived by the adage, “If you have nothing good to say, then don’t say anything.” The corollary of the adage also guided me: “Better to keep your ignorance a mystery, than to reveal your ignorance by speaking.”

People who know me today know that to ask me a question means to set aside several minutes. Or, to engage me in a hallway or in my office means to attire one’s self in a conversational flak jacket.

Sometimes, my conversations don’t go well. I decided some time ago the only way for me to overcome my own ignorance meant to engage people in conversation, to ask questions, to interview, to probe. I know to some people I come across as badgering. When I ask a question, I’m very passionate about getting an answer directly related to my line of questioning. Some people might think of my inquiry as interrogation. In fact, I think some have said, “Why are you interrogating me?” To which I respond, “I need to know if you have the information I need. If you do, I want that knowledge, to learn from you. If you don’t have the knowledge, I need to move on to someone who does. No offense.”

Over the past month, I’ve had a series of interesting conversations with individuals who are heavily invested in the discipline of Education. To a person, they all share a peculiar trait. Based on this trait and how current education appears to be infused with this trait, I have to say, I’m really concerned with the philosophies and strategies infusing current education philosophies. To me, these strategies seem nearly at odds with the intent of education, almost counterproductive.

The only way I know to effectively communicate my concern is to provide a couple anecdotes. Bear with me; I cannot promise you will agree with me but perhaps you understand the concern.

A month ago, as classes were beginning, I ran across an administrator in the local College of Education, “Ed.” I began my pitch about encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship in high school by introducing students to 3D printing, 3D scanning, and code camps. His reply was this:

“Well, you can’t just go out and buy a 3D printer. You have to have a plan. Thought has to be put into this. There have to be clearly defined objectives, goals identified. You’ve got to produce a plan; these printers are too expensive to simply buy one without having a plan.”

Also about a month or so ago, I attended my semester-opening collegiate meeting. In a nutshell, we were challenged to be “nimble” in thought, in teaching, in outreach; then when offered new ways and current ways of presenting outreach, we retreat to the mean, retreat to the status quo. Here is how that discussion went.

During the collegiate meeting, our dean ran through the list of faculty accomplishments, accolades, awards, grants, etc. These distinctions came on the heels of the college being challenged by the dean to think about new ways of outreach, to be “nimble.” When he said, “nimble,” he had me. He is right, I thought. The university needs to be nimble. He is speaking my language.

I manage the social media for two areas in my college. In my cursory analysis of academic based social media outreach of my university, how we “push out” academic news to the world, I found three accounts were primarily responsible for all the content. Two of those accounts are the ones I manage; the third account is based in our library. When the dean challenged us to be nimble and being the self-appointed social media manager for two areas in my college, I took out my new Samsung Galaxy S5 and emailed the dean’s secretary while he read aloud from the list of accomplished.

“Betsy [not her real name], email me that list of awards and stuff. I want to push out all that info via my social media accounts. Thanks!”

Later that Friday afternoon I received a phone call from Betsy. “The dean says, Thanks, but no thanks.”

“What?! Look, we need to push out good details like this. People need to be aware of what our university is doing. Evidently, I need to come talk to him. Put me on his calendar for next week, please.” The following Monday I was added to the dean’s afternoon schedule.

I brought my laptop to the Monday afternoon meeting. I could not simply debate or argue; I had to demonstrate. I had to show. I given many talks on using social media in a positive way. Personally, I do not have a Facebook account. I did, years ago. But, getting involved in the morass of people’s lives I do not find interesting. Additionally, the shear amount of insipidly stupid details was damaging my mental health. I became a heavy Twitter user, though. I made a conscious decision to follow other users who were mostly positive, who posted good content, and who I felt I had something I could learn about. When I did this, social media for me changed.

I created Facebook pages for my areas and associated Twitter accounts. I linked the accounts so I could post from Twitter and have my comments appear in Facebook. Doing this, I could glean good content from Twitter from my excellent collection of Twitter influencers, like ESRI, USGS, faculty from across the country, and other organizations. I use the social media accounts to keep in touch with students over academic breaks, to inform them about internships, scholarships, grants, funding opportunities, continuing education opportunities like those available from MOOCs, and I give away free stuff like cups, mugs, t-shirts.

The response I get back is pretty positive. Students have told me that without my efforts, they would not have known about MOOC courses, might have registered for the wrong courses, like seeing what is going on in their field, and have received internships based on information I’ve posted. Part of says, “If I’ve made a positive difference in one student’s academic career, then this work is worth the effort.”

In my meeting, I outlined all of these details for the dean. I explained the impact I was having with in my own areas. I provided some anecdotes how my own contacts have grown and my own knowledge as an educator has evolved by following good people on Twitter. I detailed the serious issues our university is currently experiencing with siloing and claim-staking. Siloing and claim-staking are incredibly detrimental to academics and anything hurting academics directly impacts and damages students education by interfering with cross-pollenization of ideas and builds barriers against the fundamental premise of higher education: holistic learning. I showed the dean my own Twitter account plus the accounts of the areas I manage. I use HootSuite to manage my social media, and have several Twitter feeds organized by hashtags applicable to my university. I filter for university-specific hashtags so I can monitor the type of information being driven and who is doing the promoting.

In the end, none of this made any impact on my dean. In essence, his response distilled to two points. First, he and his family had bad experiences on Facebook. “How can you control what people say about you?” he inquired. I’m sure I looked at him with an expression mixed with equal parts of confusion and you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me. Secondly, his sentiments were that each department and each faculty person should be responsible for their own self-promotion. “I think each area and faculty person needs to handle these details in their own way,” he stated. “And, it’s not fair to those faculty who don’t get the recognition,” he added.

I countered; “As a college we need organization and management to provide a unified front, to showcase the talent and efforts our faculty have and the work they are engaged in. As a form of outreach, we need to use social media to reach any and all potential students in our service region. We need to use social media to reach out to other faculty at other institutions to share our efforts and build networks. We need to let parents, and current students, and potential students, and alumni what our colleagues are engaged in. Furthermore, we cannot worry about faculty who get upset about not getting attention. ESPN doesn’t interview the entire team; they interview the coach, the quarterback, the wide receiver, and running back, and maybe a guy who had a good game. Also, that is a problem we want to have. We fix that problem by saying, I’m sorry you’re upset; we will do a better job of pushing out content, and we will get your message out. Thanks for letting us know you are paying attention and letting us know this is effort is important to you.”

The dean then proffered the idea of desiring a better website. “We need a better set of website management tools for building better content,” he said. I agreed. “But that is a passive activity. People have to want to visit our website. Building a website is a passive action, predicated upon a “If we build it, they will come” fallacy. Not necessarily. We still need to actively engage our community, our service region. You never know who is listening, a teacher, a principal, a research at another university, a parent, an uncle or aunt. They see our promoted content via Facebook or Twitter or Pinterest. Our resources are recognized, mentioned to others. People then choose to visit our website. We have to engage them, though. It’s my belief we can’t merely build a new site and expect people to hit our site.”

None of this had any impact. I left the meeting making no progress, made no headway. We agreed to disagree. What I thought was acceptable as a “good idea” and an effective way of engaging people in our region was dismissed.

A week ago, a colleague and I had a meeting with another colleague of mine in biology. NSF has a nice funding opportunity with an rapidly approaching deadline. Our biology colleague is well-versed in the language required for NSF grant documents. She knows what they like to read. Essentially, “inquiry-based learning” language must run throughout all documents. Problem is, no one seems to be able to adequately detail what “inquiry-based learning” is. IBL eludes description but evidently reviewers at NSF know what it isn’t. After an hour-and-half we had made little progress. We aren’t stupid people.

usdaWe met again this morning. NSF does not consider Agriculture a STEM related discipline. (Source: Congressional Research Service) I adamantly protest this exclusion. Not including agriculture simply reveals the hubristic bias of NSF as to what qualifies as a STEM field and what does not. Sociology and psychology are included, as well as economics, and economics began as a field of philosophy. How can agriculture be omitted, a discipline which includes many fields steeped in STEM, and economics be included, a discipline was part of philosophy? The US Department of Agriculture is one of the chief developers of environmental policy, affecting farming, forestry, and our food-production industries. How is agriculture not STEM?  The logical inconsistency of this derails my mind.

Recently, I attend a GIS conference in my state. I was encouraged to attend and be part of a panel discussion. “Best Practices in…” is a common conference session title, and our panel discussion was entitled “Best Practices in Enterprise GIS in Higher Education.” Prior to the panel discussion I was assigned to, the morning began with an intriguing session, “Best Practices in Using GIS in K-12 Education.” A another faculty person and I are very interested in increasing geospatial education in our university’s service region. However, we work in higher education and have no idea how ESRI’s state-wide license agreement for K-12 works. I thought, “What better way to find out how the K-12 state-wide license works than to attend this session, ask, and find out. Someone will likely know. Then, I’ll know, and be able to pass this info along to interested parties. Brilliant!”

Yeah, well, not so much. In fact, I pissed off a presenter so much she didn’t stick around to give her presentation. Here we go.

The session had two speakers from a state university. The fellow is the current director of the state geography group and the administrator of the K-12 state-wide contract. After he and his partner gave their presentation, I asked if we could step back and go back to the very beginning. “Your presentation assumes everyone in the schools already has access to the software. I’ll be working with teachers who have zero knowledge of this software; I need to know how they get access to the software. Who at the state would I talk to? Or, are there already designated people within each school district I need to contact?”

The speaker said, “Oh, great question. I love this question when I hear it. Yeah, so, let me see if I can explain this.”

At that time a woman stands up. Susan is the next speaker. She is from another state university attached and is the next featured speaker. She states, “I’m scheduled to go next. I can answer this. Let me explain how this works.” The last two presenters then smile and differ to her. “First, your students need a problem. When they figure out their problem they need a goal and some objectives, and then you help them figure out their problem. Once they have fully defined the problem, you can introduce them to the mapping software. Then once they use the software to analyze the problem, they can get the community involved.”

She paused and the gentleman from the first presentation looked at me. “Does this answer your question?”

“I don’t even know what she said! No, not really. I need to know who handles the software. Who at the state do I need to talk to so when I walk into a school and talk to a principal I can help them figure out how to get started.”

“I just told you,” Susan retorted. “You have to start with a problem. Then, you have to figure out what your goals and objectives are going to be.”

“I don’t need to know about goals and objectives. I know about those. I need to know how I get the software, who do I talk to?” I said.

“If you would listen to what I am telling you, you would know how to do that.” At this point, Susan is obviously flustered, red-faced, and beginning to mutter. “I don’t know what you’re asking. You don’t make any sense. If listened to what I said, you’d know. You aren’t processing this right. I don’t know what else to say.”

“How about answering a direct question?” But, at this point she is collecting all of stuff, putting her materials into her satchel, as she mutters. The moderator, whom I know, began patting the air, like he was trying to keep the crowd pacified. “Hey, Michael, Michael, Michael, hang I on. I know how you can be.” The fellow from the first presentation then offered, “Michael, why don’t we go into more detail after the session is over. I can show you what I’m doing at the schools I’m working with.” I said, “OK, cool.”

While the moderator tried to assert some control, I ignored him and directed my attention to the KGA director since he seemed interested in actually answering my concerns. I noticed that Susan had sat down and was glaring at me. While the KGA director was speaking to me, I returned Susan’s look. That exchange didn’t last long; she gathered up all of her stuff and stormed off to another nearby table. The moderator went over and tried to soothe her, but she ended up leaving and never giving her full presentation.
It was sort of funny. My question wasn’t even directed at her but she hopped up and started blabbing some bullshit about Common Core, and goals and objectives, and utter nonsense which had zero to do with my question. What she was reciting, I have come to discover, is a recognized form of English in education circles. This new English form is called “EdSpeak,” which I refer to as “EdBabble.”

EdBabble is made up of real English words, organized in such a way they seem to make sense, but when analyzed make no sense. For example: “See, we first need to present students with a problem. Then, we mentor them through an inquiry-based processed of discovery established by an initial set of goals. The goals are coupled to definite learning objectives guiding the student through a holistic journey of discovery resulting in an interpretation of information which can be shared with a community of self-directed learners.”

“The hell did you just say?? Look, I just need to show my students how to use a calculator and work them through how to convert Celsius temperatures to Fahrenheit.”

After this session debacle lunch was served. The first presenter sat to my left and we conducted a postmortem on the morning’s sessions. He related a failed grant of his own. Grants are extremely tedious to write and organize. He spent considerable time detailing goals and objectives and getting faculty from other departments on-board to help support the grant. The grant was not awarded and he was disappointed. However, another education agency in his town picked up his grant, re-wrote using IBL “EdSpeak,” engaged some of the same faculty from the previous grant. The grant was funded.

GIS in K12 Education

Finally, many anecdotal stories are hitting the news regarding techniques being taught in schools for performing simple multiplication, for figuring out percentages, and for learning how to round numbers. Kids come home confused, can’t remember the technique once at home, can’t communicate the technique to parents or guardians. Even with instructions parents can’t follow the logic of what I can only describe a bizarre teaching techniques.

Current education pedagogy does not support rote memorization. No memorization of multiplication tables; kids have to follow some maze of instructions to multiply 5 x 7. Rounding a number requires the use of number line.

I don’t know what is going on. I can only guess and speculate. The problems are not limited to K-12 but rise into Higher Education. I had issues in elementary school; I had problems with subtraction. I couldn’t. If the question was “100 – 99 = ?” I would sit there and my head would get hot, I’d sweat, maybe drool, or sneeze. But, I worked, and worked, and practiced, and stayed after school, and did all the extra work, and found other books in my local library. Eventually, the next time I saw “100 – 99” I still sweat and drooled but I sweat less and drooled less and gained more confidence from all my practice.

We all memorized multiplication tables. We practiced with flash cards, we worked practice sheets, and filled out empty grids of multiplication tables. And I have to say those efforts worked.

When I think about it, with our early 20th century educational techniques, what were we, our global society able to accomplish? Well, the United States put men on the Moon. We developed rocket power. We developed atomic and nuclear power. The Internet itself was built. We went from mechanical numeric computing machines to desktop computers. Voyager 1 and 2 are now in deep space. A fleet of space shuttles have come and gone.

The Human Race has accomplished a-maz-ing stuff with simple approaches to education and learning, made radical changes to our global societies and cultures using proven teaching methods.

Where is this movement coming from making education so needlessly complicated? Why are intelligent people being sucked into what seems to me to be a morass of circular logic and education babble? Who benefits from designing all of these bizarre pedagogical methods imposed upon teachers who are at loss to explain these methods adequately to kids, to other adults, and may not really understand themselves?

Addressing the anecdotes above: No, you do not need a “mission statement” to buy a 3D printer. In fact, part of says “this makes no sense.” I’m not going to draw detailed flow-charts and determine best practices before I buy a hammer or any other tool. I’m going to take to hammer owners. I’m going to check out hammers at Lowe’s. I’m going to try to borrow a few and see how they feel, how they balance. The, I’ll buy one. I’ll practice hammering nails, and pullings nails. Then, I’ll think about building something. But, I’m not going to create some detailed plan, with goals, objectives, and outcomes. Not initially.

I don’t see how anyone can develop goals, objectives, and learning outcomes without having some fundamental knowledge of how something works, without having some experience first. 3D printers can be purchased for a few hundred dollars. Buy one; give it to faculty. See what they can do with it. Let students use it. See what they can do with it. See how they react and how their imaginations are affected. Once one gains appreciation for how technology can be introduced, THEN, then develop some goals and objectives and outcomes.

With my GIS conference and the person who got upset with me, she was obviously locked into a mindset and had a pre-arranged script she did not want to deviate from. A person with a Ph.D in Education, who sells herself as an educational consultant, can’t listen to a simple question, refuses to answer a direct question, and throws a tantrum when pulled off script. How does any of that advance education, promote knowledge, and recognize “here is someone who sounds passionate about helping and wants to have some contact information.”

When a higher education administrator encourages his faculty to be “nimble,” then the response should be to consider new ideas. Using social media to reach new students, to maintain contact with current students and keep them informed using social media is a good idea, and to reach out to alumni via social media is a good idea. Initiating contact with other academic schools and organizations can lead to grant cooperation, exchange of research work and ideas, exchange of data and technology. Initiating contact with both private and public entities could lead to internships, employment, grants or scholarships. Yet, I’m faced with nimble in words and not action and the continuation of the status quo.

When I say “education may be its own worst enemy” I mean we really are. Institutions fight amongst themselves. Internally, colleges and departments bicker and fight over domains and stake claims. Administrators who claim to want innovation and creative thinking really only want those from certain people, or don’t really want them at all. Funding agencies require a special form of English involving the use of a lot of big words, commas, cute pictures of kids using computers, and self-referential logic.

Much like the Christian minister who preaches about living a life without sin then being arrested for trying to hire a guy to kill his wife so he can later marry the parishioner with whom he has been having an affair with for the last 2 years, Education is full of hypocrasy.

PAX

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