Educators Succeed Despite Adversity

A/K/A “How I Learned to Overcome my Short-Sighted Administrators, State Bureaucracy, and Reach Students”

Office Lens 20160626-100235.jpg

This image requires a little explanation. Reading from top-left down, 47,000 presents data collection. All maps are in essence a graphical depiction of numbers, of data, either qualitative or quantitative. The data is processed into a machine (computer) readable format, binary 1’s and 0’s. The top-center is a GIS “button” representing the spatial processing converting said data into a map, depicted in the lower-center. “Buttonology” is the term I use to instruct the mechanical aspect of GIS, the button-pushing, the “Click on the folder button and choose your feature dataset. Then, choose your file. Then, click “OK.” No concepts, methods, or techniques are communicated, simply demonstrating to students how to properly hold a hammer and drive a nail.

Some output results, illustrated above by the oblique perspective of a map with an “X” highlighting the presence of some phenomenon. A person, the human element, then is charged with interpreting and analyzing results, asking questions and contemplating the output.

This illustration was the result of an exercise to close-out participation in an Esri education-based focus group. “Draw a picture, or use some words or phrases, to illustrate what GIS means to you in your educational environment.”

From 8.30 to 10.-ish this morning I took a friend’s spot in an education-based Esri focus group. Most attendees were from middle and high schools. Myself and another attendee were from universities. A common theme pervaded our discussion this morning, a theme I have covered more than once.

The educational system in the United States is becoming stifled by heavy attention given to performance-based initiatives. While these programs superficially mean well, they are doing nothing but hindering teachers from inspiring students and turning thought-leaders, teachers, and coaches into cogs in an industrial educational machine.

Teachers are mandated to lock-down their curriculum and find ways of improving test scores. Yes, I know my statement seems at odds with itself. Test scores are improved by modifying lessons to better mirror the tests, i.e. teaching to the test, and do so efficiently and quickly because time is limited. Administrators are forced by school boards to improve test scores. School boards are forced by state education offices to impose rules and restrictions upon local schools to improve test schools in order to capture more education funding. And, there we have it – everything becomes a competition for funding. Thus, emphasis is not especially on encouraging critical-thinking and reasoning skills, but upon getting students to follow a pattern of behavior which will carry over to the state or national test, making them familiar with the test rather than developing a successful problem-solving mentality.

Sure, some schools are doing amazing projects and making amazing progress in providing students with unparalleled access to technology and challenging learning environments. I heard this morning from a fellow in Texas how his students use Esri’s CityEngine to develop 3D cityscapes. These cityscapes are then imported into Unity in order to develop a simulator for emergency services. How freaking cool is that?

I live in a geography/GIS/spatial learning desert. As far as I know, anyway. As a local geomentor I have conducted workshops to help advocate for geospatial learning in our local school districts. I can’t report any success, really. So much resistance, push back, feigned interest, real interest yet no time.

Schools and universities, in my opinion, are rapidly becoming bastions of calcified thinking, e.g. “We’ve always done it this way and we were fine. It was fine before and what was good then should be fine now. Why should I change?” Well, you, as an educator, or an education administrator, or faculty, or a thought-leader, or education coach, you – accepting your role in education – are both mandated to and obligated to ensure you change ALL THE TIME, to resist the temptation to become complacent, to resist teaching from the same collection of notes day-after-day, semester-after-semester, year-after-year. That is dangerously lazy behavior which may benefit you but you are damaging your students, your department, your college, your school, and your ossified pedagogy is a detriment to a vibrant U.S. economy.

Our schools have become pleasant, fence-less, well-landscaped penitentiaries, essentially thought-prisons where people pay thousands of dollars to become mildly educated yet are devoid of understanding what they are supposed to do with knowledge. “Why do I need Western Civilization? Do I even live in Western Civilization? I have no idea.” Schools have to look like literal prisons. No or few windows, monolithic brick walls wrapped around masonry blocks painted with bland institutional colors, with hundreds if not thousands of children locked away in pods for 45 to 55 minutes.

Schools need to forget these massive school buildings built as homages to our penal system. We need to return to small local buildings near family, friends, and home. We need small class sizes (16 students per teacher or fewer) with at least 2 recesses per day with music and/or art taught at least twice per week. School superintendents and school boards need to back teachers, support teachers, and support learning experiences meant to focus on the future, not clinging to the misguided notions of the past, but embracing the arts and sciences of tomorrow.

Business and industry are sending mixed-messages. “We want people who are imaginative and can communicate but they also need to know how to show up for work, stay at their desk all day, answer phones politely, and know what a deadline is and can meet deadlines.” These are called, “soft skills,” and will soon be formally incorporated into curricula across the United States, metrics established and measured, data collected and analyzed, analyzed and over-analyzed by thoughtful people who will eventually come to the conclusion our school systems are really screwed-up and blaming misguided policy-makers of the mid- to late 1990s who thought giant school buildings were the wave of the future and teachers should be able to handle 30 students in a crowded classroom.

Educated adults can be frustratingly ignorant and stupid in their attempts to be well-intentioned.

I’m not sure these traits of creativity and promptness are mutually exclusive; people can be creative during normal business hours, no doubt. But, what about after-hours? What about while out with friends, riffing on ideas over drinks and dinner, or listening to a local band, or participating in an open mic at a neighborhood bar? Those kinds of interactions can certainly stir the creative juices outside the workplace and then carry over into the workplace. It’s almost as if students, after graduation, must untrain themselves from the rigid and confining workflows they have been trained to adopt during their formal education in order to achieve the necessary clarity of thought in which ideas thrive.

As I mentioned today, education is supposed to be about nurturing thoughtful creativity, yet we are often forced to “stay on script.”


Hey; Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment! Your feedback is greatly appreciated!

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s