SOME THOUGHTS ON
Ed U Kay Shun
How serious is our educational malaise? Can we cure it? These thoughts come from one who, after an RCAF career full of challenges and achievements, earned his university degree at age 50 then entered the world of public education back in the 1970s, full time and substituting over 20 years, in ten schools including two parochial schools. My earlier teaching in Air Force schools was a different world: high entrance requirements, top motivation, and limited to the few.
How best do we mold, world wide, the younger generation that is well documented as being lazy, disrespectful, indolent, resentful, radical, and a deep disappointment to their elders? Sumerians, Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Romanized Britons, and others have all left writings that tell us so. Written by the elite they describe their own children, born into sheltered lives but who failed to leave the shelter at puberty. When noble youths thought it no longer necessary to accept the burdens of their parents they set in motion a theme, too often repeated. Wealthy Egyptians hired Scythians, Romans hired Germans, Britons hired Saxons, and Byzantians hired Turks to fight their wars. In each case the mercenaries eventually took over. Is this any different from us today hiring the Japanese, Chinese, and others to build the products we desire or in hiring immigrants, illegal or otherwise, to do the work we despise?
Why worry? Our high standard of living is still getting better! But, are we different from Nature? The day is hottest some two hours after the sun passes our meridian but night is closer; the year is hottest a month after the summer solstice but winter is closer. We are still basking in the afterglow of the protestant work ethic and the industrial revolution. We can not yet alter the movements of the solar system, but we can and must improve our social priorities. Ignorance, wars and other woes have plagued us for much too long.
Today, in wealthier countries, schools are palaces compared to those of long ago. We have excellent libraries, films, and computers. Our woodworking, automotive, music, sports, electronic, and home economics rooms are filled with up-to-date equipment. In the near past our learning was mostly from textbooks - much reading and writing, and homework averaging three hours per night. We had many students from nearby farms, unable to engage in after-school activities as they had to be bussed home to numerous chores to share with homework. Nor could they enjoy their summer holidays free of work. How come so many of them got better grades when town dwellers had so much more time for study? Why are many immigrants with little knowledge of English soon leading their classes? Can we make this high motivation contagious? Example: a new Korean student heard my world history course was one of the toughest the school offered so she applied for it. Her advisors and I told her that her ability in English was well below that needed for all the research, role playing, and essay writing required. Her insistence and enthusiasm were so infectious that I accepted the challenge and daily gave her extra help after school for months. She amazed me at how rapidly she learned the language to engage in class discussions, submit good essays, and remain among the class leaders. She then gave me two lovely Korean carvings which I still treasure. Is such motivation prompted by Parents, Self, Siblings, or inputs from all?
Today we should have much brighter and more learned students than ever, if only for the easy availability of information. Yet we hear many teachers lament that parents insist on top grades for work at best mediocre, that administrators surrender, that standards have been lowered dramatically,
and that a high school diploma is now meaningless?
In the days when a handful of administrators went out from the tiny United Kingdom and ruled 25% of the world, we said it was all due to the playing fields of Eton. Perhaps we should examine the generalized education of these top British schools because they did produce able administrators plus good engineers. Yet, then, only 4% of scholars attained university degrees; and it was believed that number was enough. The beautiful craftsmanship of cathedrals, sailing ships, woolen mills, railways, and the like were due to an apprentice system in which it took some seven years for one to learn a trade. Today we need a high school diploma to get a job and a university degree to have any status at all. This state of affairs dictates lowering standards as the percentage of people motivated to benefit from a school environment has not increased.
The front line is the home, soon shared by the classroom where frustration is the great killer of teachers. We have always had excellent parents, students, and teachers, but too many others are apathetic. I have seen far too many teachers who were superb a decade earlier gradually lose their exuberance and simply put in time for the pension because the students are simply putting in time for the diploma that will get them a job but not an education.
Large, crowded, high-school parking lots tell a story. Students at age 16 get a car, so can no longer afford time to study. Car costs dictate finding a job, usually starting moments after school is out for the day. Mother and Dad also work, so there is little home life, and even less in the broken families that make up half of our student body, resulting in a dangerous lack of moulding in the formative years. Many homes contain no books, no encyclopaedias, and no good periodicals. Too few students are encouraged at home to read or watch TV news or educational programs. Students arrive at school tired, disinterested, and often hungry. They retain little of what they hear from teachers, see in the fine films we have, or read in the great books we have. As students no longer read or write well most teachers rely on multiple-choice tests which can be graded quickly by machine and which require no knowledge of spelling or grammar. A teacher, who routinely required 4-page essays a decade or two ago is lucky today to get half a page from students who write in generalities without supporting facts. This makes life easier for teachers who no longer spend four hours a night grading papers, but will still take the pay increases. Too many math teachers allow students to use calculators, thus robbing the brain of much-needed exercise. Some teachers simply check a few of the questions on a student's worksheet to use as a grade - or have tests corrected in class by other students. Why should teachers do homework when students will not and parents do not care?
Current·classroom sizes of 30 or more are much too large. A few unruly students can disrupt a class making the teacher spend more time on discipline than on teaching. Teachers retreat to endless worksheets to keep the little monsters busy, so meaningful discussions are few. Because no physical restraints are now allowed we must rely on persuasion, on being entertaining to bored audiences, on accepting vulgar and sarcastic backtalk, and on letting students have much of their own way. Six strokes from the old rubber strap was more humiliating than painful but it was a great deterrent.
The best system I have known was the modular system, adopted by some high schools in the 1970's. Sadly, most have now abandoned it. Each teacher had 120 students divided into 7 classes. We worked a 5-day week but a 6-day cycle (A,B,C,D,E,F days). For each subject, students attended small groups every second day. Once or twice a cycle all of a teachers' classes in one subject met in large group for a lab, a film, or a lecture. We had able assistants in superb resource centres where the students prepared for their next small group in which there would be much discussion and, in history classes, role playing, so it was essential that all come prepared. Each teacher wrote his own syllabus that required students to use numerous sources and each teacher had office time in which to see as many as 20 students a day for individual help.
With this system l had many students at age 15 doing good university work. It permitted me to have academic courses to rival the professionalism of our football and marching-bands which, while limited to a few, are vastly superior to those of the old days. Dedication on the part of teachers and students was a must as was a closed campus, which we did not have, to prevent unmotivated students from spending their many spare periods in nearby shopping malls. Without this and without strict hall supervision the system was bound to fail, and it did, ours after 10 years, much to the regret of the many students who looked forward to each day’s challenges. Extra-curricular activities included 2-day sessions at Model United Nations meets 4 times a year at various universities. For this I used my car and students’ cars, a habit now lost due to lawsuits in the event of accidents. Many years later I still have former students thanking me for what the modular system did for them.
Today, teachers who stick to old standards have high failure rates so are criticized by the administration while thanked by motivated students. More money for schools will not correct the life styles and attitudes that make a farce of our educational system. Sadly, we are too often glorified baby-sitters. We must first put meaning and desire back into education knowing we have new threats. How can a teacher police the use of miniature electronic devices using new abbreviated spellings for communicating during class, doing mathematics the easy way, or finding, copying, and pasting the thoughts and wordings of others into their essays? The ability to write in cursive is fading quickly.
Good and bad aspects accompany every advance in technology from the printing press that slashed memory training to devices for immediate communication permitting Arab Springs. Education remains vital to understanding the interdependence of ourselves and all living things with the environment and the need for each of us to accept our share of the responsibility during the brief period of existence allotted us.