What Really Ails our Educational System
There are a multitude of forces which affect our schools and the
education they impart, but the ones' we generally think, like money,
equipment and the class size are not the culprits. The reasons for our
school's dysfunction are buried deep in our psyche. They stem from the fact
that subliminally, we view schools as buyers of goods and services and not
as sites of learning and educating.
WHAT REALLY AILS OUR EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM
Riaz-ul Haque, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, University of Illinois Medical Center, Chicago,
One of a series of monographs aimed at building global infrastructures in
South Western Avenue
DEDICATED to two staunch educators, James Redmond, General Superintendent
of Schools and Marjorie Molyneaux, Director of
Science, Chicago Board of Education, who, despite all odds, did the best
they could to improve the quality of education for Chicago.
Center for General and Applied Education,
Chicago, Illinois USA
S. Western Ave., Chicago, IL
This essay was prompted by John Leo's commentary entitled “A University's
Sad Decline" which appeared in the US News and World Report of August 15, 1994. John Leo's
commentary pertains not just to the City University of New York (CUNY) but
could be extrapolated to apply to the decline of the entire academia.
Standards have been progressively going down even in many of the
prestigious universities but the reasons are other than those John Leo
indicated in his commentary. Even Yolanda Moses, the President of CUNY, is
off the mark for there are no such things as masculine values. There are
only human values and both males and females have always been aspiring for
The cause of the decline of CUNY and other institutions can't be so easily
explained away in terms of affirmative action or ethnic norms and
expectations. The causes are rooted in three separate yet intertwined
phenomena. One is the curriculum, the other is the mechanism by which we
learn which is a process very different from the means we
use to teach, and the third is the business sector of our economy
which finds schools and colleges as deep pockets, with ready money to buy
anything that can be convincingly marketed in the name of education.
Let me take these points separately. The development and implementation of
a curriculum has never been critically looked upon. At the present time, a
curriculum consists of subjects which are taught
by autonomous departments where teaching these subjects is the assigned
duty of the departments and not necessarily their priority. Under these
circumstances, subjects either get condensed beyond recognition or they
become so exhaustive that they lose their essence. Subjects also get
divided into quarter or semester long courses which are assigned so many
quarter or semester hours each. Eventually, it is these courses and not the
entire subject which go into the making of a curriculum. A curriculum thus
exposes a student to bits and pieces of a number of subjects instead of a
conceptual network of interconnected ideas. The ability of a student to
analyze information, to capture observations and to solve problems thus
fails to develop. Instead, he learns to learn by rote and concentrates on
earning the required credits for graduation.
We can certainly design better curriculum than this. Such a curriculum
would consist of whole subjects which would be taught without the subject
ever losing its cohesiveness. This is generally possible when a subject is
delivered in its entirety over a short period of time. But that would mean
less credit hours for the entire subject, affecting cash flow of the
college, for the tuition fees are charged by the credit hour and not by the
subject. This will also affect school budgets because school funding is
tied to hours or days of residency of each student.
The current system of credit hour based curriculum is thus good for
business and not necessarily for learning and producing informed citizenry.
If academia has to live up to its promise, it must choose to be a place of
learning and not business and this choice must begin by reforming
The second cause of the decline of academia is the learning process itself
which, as I have mentioned earlier, is different from the way we teach.
Having designed and secured the curriculum in place, our teaching format is
now dictated by the curriculum while the learning process which we humans
use requires not an exhaustive presentation of every bit and piece of
information about the subject but an overview, rather a bird's eye view of
the subject presented to us in a chronological and evolutionary format.
With the available overview, we then fill in the details. That is the
learning part which our current teaching format deprives us from
Students thus get bogged down with details which they memorize and
regurgitate. Those students who can do it successfully are rewarded and are
even called scholars. The real scholars probably are those who refuse to
regurgitate and run away from it all. These, unfortunately, we punish by
labeling them as drop outs, quitters, incompetents, and even learning
disabled and require that they be placed in remedial education for which
the school administration can request additional funding. This is a far
more serious drain on our limited educational budgets than it appears to be
especially when learning disability has not been adequately defined. The
current definition in vogue regards any person as learning disabled who has
difficulty functioning in a classroom setting. But have we ever questioned
the classroom setting. Isn't the classroom setting determined by the
curriculum and isn't the prevailing curriculum contrary to the human
Let me illustrate how humans learn by using chess as an example. Teaching
people to learn chess by having them memorize the innumerable moves of the
masters would drive anyone away from ever getting near a chess board. On
the other hand, showing anyone the 7 or 8 rules which form the basis of the
chess game and then playing with them one or two games has the potential of
producing a few chess masters.
Another relevant example would be of putting a 1001 piece puzzle together.
How many of us would be able to put such a puzzle together if the lid with
the picture was thrown away. Now further think, how much harder and trying
a task this puzzle would become if in addition to not having the lid, you
get a few pieces of the puzzle a few days apart. Isn't that what we do in
schools? Can we really expect any learning from this? Low self esteem for
sure, but definitely not learning.
I would like to extend these illustrations to the teaching of science not
because I am a scientist but because science is the! dreaded
subject considered to be the domain of a chosen few and also because we
want desperately to create a scientifically literate society and we have
been unable to do so via the conventional mode of teaching.
The reason most students run away from science is because, like the puzzle,
we are giving them bits and pieces of information and we are not giving
them the overview. Instead, we are making them memorize minutia which they
find irrelevant. We are also not giving them the rules with which we make
science. Science is not chemistry, physics, or biology. These are the
subjects which emerge as we apply the rules of doing science. These rules,
which in the case of science are called concepts and skills, surprisingly,
amount to only about 150*. Teach these instead of chemistry, physics and
biology and then see how many students would run away from science. Also,
subsequent to teaching via the format based on 150 concepts and skills, see
how many students then understand and enjoy the once dreaded subjects of
chemistry, physics, and biology. You will be pleasantly surprised.
I have been doing just that for the past 28 years in Chicago
and what I have been finding is that practically everyone, of any ethnic
group, young or old, male or female, even physically challenged persons, not only learn remarkably well but retain and
use the information. One sees them overnight transforming into confident,
thinking and analytical beings. That is how one begins his or her journey
on the road to becoming a true scientist or a balanced analytical being.
This approach which was accidentally discovered 28 years ago should be more
widely publicized and tested so that it can be further improved and its
benefits harvested for the good of humankind. But unfortunately, the
nation's mind set is far too deeply committed to conventional format of
teaching, testing and labeling. We are too well schooled to know any
different. We are designed to do our system's bidding.
*A booklet describing the story of how science got reduced to 150 concepts
and skills is available from the Center for General and Applied Education,
Here I believe that the group which is most to blame is the press. But
being a product of fragmented and compartmentalized knowledge itself, one
should not be that hard on the press. But then isn't it the press which
failing to be analytical has actually allowed to have the Education 2000
Bill run through the Congress and hail it as the savior of our future
generations so that they could be at par with if not exceed the rest of the
world. This bill legalizes fragmentation of knowledge into even smaller
pieces. This, again, is analogous to giving someone a few pieces of the
puzzle at a time, never showing him the lid with the picture and then
expecting him to put the puzzle together; and if he fails to do so,
branding him as learning disabled or worse yet as genetically inferior.
This Bill, which is the law now, will do more harm to education than
another attempt of improving education. If you think fragmentation of science
after Sputnik by learned societies and eager professors in 1957 was bad
enough, wait till you see the havoc in learning that will be caused by this
Bill. This Bill will tax human processes of learning, processes designed to
work through overviews, to their breaking point.
Now let us look what businesses are doing to education. I think business
has no right to blame schools for the inferior quality of school's products
especially when it is the business which indirectly determines the
character of the school and the format of teaching that the schools follow.
Schools have money and schools can always get more money for no one would
like to commit political suicide by refusing to grant as much money as the
schools may demand. Business also knows how to put pressure on the body
politics by forming citizens' committees and study groups who come up with
reports denigrating schools with large class rooms (so the building
industry can build more schools), or poor equipment (so instrument makers,
audio-visual industry and now the computer industry can reach into the
school's deep pockets), or outdated books (so the publishing industry can
get its cut by rewriting the same material in different format and calling
it the current and the updated edition).
The worst culprit of the three groups of businesses mentioned above is the
publishing industry for it causes more mental stress and doubt about ones
ability and knowledge by coming up with frequent revisions and updates. The
real truth, however, is that new material necessitating revision of a text
book comes very infrequently; for man over the past 5,000 years of recorded
history has really not learned all that much. It is the volume of the
written material, much of it redundant, which makes it look that way. Just stop
and think how many new principles we have uncovered during the past 50
years, a period regarded as the most dynamic of our recent history. Even
the vast fields of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering are based on 10 or
so new concepts at the most. So why publish volumes after volumes of new
books. These are certainly not for facilitating learning. That can be
readily done by explaining the 10 or so new concepts which would also make
everyone feel good about themselves. Isn't this what
self esteem is all about. Books generally do not generate self esteem; they
rob it and belittle us in the process.
The above is a description of rather obvious ploys which business has used
but business has affected schools in more devious ways than these. Let us
go back to Sputnik, when the nation felt humiliated by being left behind in
the space race. What did the businesses do if not capitalize on the
nation's remorse. In the name of boosting science and helping the nation
catch up with the rest of the world, especially Russia, it came up with
mobile classrooms which were nothing more than converted trailers which the
business sold to School Boards overnight. I know the Chicago Board or
Education bought its snare of mobile classrooms and this sale became the
precedence to sell the same to other Boards of Education around the
country. These mobile classrooms also introduced a new concept of teaching
called the Island Concept where the students were to sit around a round
table and face each other and not the teacher. You know why this concept
was introduced. Because the trailer manufacturers had dining room sets
which could be readily set up as islands as opposed to classroom seating
which would require additional input of cash for designing or tooling.
I attended a class of physics in one of these mobile classrooms. The
Director of Science of the Chicago Board of Education had kindly arranged
for me to see where an experimental curriculum proposed by some prestigious
professional society was being tried out. In this mobile classroom, it was
the kitchen which was sold as the laboratory space and it was in this
kitchen space where the host principal and I stood for 40 minutes because
there were no extra chairs in the mobile class room for two visitors. As
the hour started, the students came and sat around the tables (the
islands). Then the teacher entered who sat on his podium and asked the
students to open their book on the chapter of light and read the chapter
quietly. While the students proceeded to do that, so did the teacher and we
stood in the kitchen observing all this in
silence? Five minutes before the end of the period the teacher asked the
students if they had read the chapter on light and if they had any
questions. No one had any questions and so the class ended, evidently,
without anyone seeing the light! I left wondering what we could have done
if, instead of buying the mobile class rooms, the School Board had spent
that money on exposing the teachers to the human learning process and then
designing the teaching format to fit that process.
Industry at this time also came up with additional high pressure sales
strategies in the name of improving science education. The stony goes that
a salesman came to sell microscopes to the Chicago Board of Education but
since the microscopes were a bit beyond the available budget, there was no
sale. The salesman reported this to his sales manager who reprimanded the
salesman for trying to sell college level microscopes to high schools and
forthwith called his design department to put together a high school
microscope within a certain price range. This was done and the salesman was
able to make the sale. But the story does not end there. These microscopes
did not have oil immersion lenses so they could not be used to see bacteria
or other similar microorganisms, but the School Board purchased these
anyway thinking that eventually when the School Board could afford it, they
would buy oil immersion lenses and upgrade the microscopes. But what they
did not know at that time that when they would eventually want to upgrade
the scopes, they would find the threads on the oil immersion lenses to be
different than the threads on the microscopes. But the sale was made and
the school was not any better than prior to Sputnik. Needless to say, since
the Chicago Board purchased these high school microscopes, other Boards of
Education around the country also bought their share in hopes of upgrading
science education within the constraints of their budgets. These were
probably the easiest of sales, especially when sales to the Chicago Board
of Education could serve as a precedent.
Let us take another example of how industry siphons resources out of
schools. In the early seventies the emphasis was on audio-visual aids.
Prior to that time schools and colleges used to have hands on laboratory
classes and these were wet labs where students actually did the work.
Companies marketing audio visual aids convinced the universities and
colleges that via their products they would be able to teach more students
more things faster, consequently freeing faculty time which could then be
used for research. And since research brings prestige, to the institution
as well as the researcher, and it also brings in soft money in the form of
indirect cost for operating the grants from the granting agencies, the idea
was embraced by the administration with open arms.
There was also another reason for this acceptance. The public relations
people of the industries marketing the audio-visual aids saw to it that the
public, especially the parents, and specifically the mothers, believed that
schools without audio-visual aids were not imparting quality, state of the
art education to their children. Now who can fight that? Schools had to
adopt this and so did the legislature by granting additional funds for
conversion to audio-visual format. This conversion required two things.
one, capital expenditure for purchasing and installing video monitors and
other audio-visual equipment including creating an audiovisual support
department; and two, diverting funds, previously used for purchasing
laboratory supplies, to the purchase of audio visual materials such as Kodachrome slides, film strips, movies and videos, thus
bringing an end to teaching lab based science and in fact end to science.
A more disastrous affect of this shift was that those companies and
suppliers who previously used to supply materials for wet labs to colleges
and universities now got forced out of business and they have not returned
yet because in the meantime another phenomenal area of growth called
Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering came into being. These are overpriced
areas and therefore far more lucrative than supplying materials to colleges
and universities for wet labs. Biotechnology, especially the development of
monoclonal antibodies also heavily influenced the diagnostic side of the
health care industry. Products for this sector of the economy now fetch a
healthy profit and that is where the industry is focusing. The academia is
joining with the industry in this pursuit, especially since President
Reagan not only legitimized this interaction but also decreed that all
research done in an academic environment supported by federal grant funds
is now openly accessible to the for-profit sector of the economy.
All this was occurring at a time when the academic institutions, were
finding research funds from the federal government harder to come by and
the emerging Biotechnology industry was finding that starting their own
research and development labs were more expensive than they would care to
spend. Developing such labs also takes time but hungry academic faculty and
the administration, on the other hand, were eager to take whatever they
could get. Industry-university collaboration was thus forged. This was not
a shot gun marriage but a marriage by mutual consent except that the
industry wanted more in return than the academia was capable of giving or
should be giving. The result was that the faculty became less and less
available for teaching* and more and more available to the industry who,
once having their foot inside the door, began to demand and support not
basic research but applied research leading to marketable products. This is
another more recent way how business has disrupted universities and academia
affecting education and learning.
*Consult United States
Senate hearings by House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families
on the Cost of College Education, held September 14, 1992. To obtain a copy, contact your
local depository library or contact the Select Committee at 385 House Annex
2, Washington D.C., USA
I think it is either sheer
ego or some sales strategy when industry every so often comes out and
starts setting up schools and systems for improving education. Isn't it
ironic that in every one of these modern schools the emphasis is on
computers and the upcoming information highway and the multimedia and the
interactive systems? Are we that blind to see that the industry is setting
up these models to once again reach into the deep pockets of the school
systems and exploit the vulnerability of the legislature to get more funds
allocated for selling their goods? Are we that naive about the principles
of marketing that when a customer does not have funds, you arrange credit,
charitable handout, Government subsidy, or instill guilt in the customer so
that you can make your sale.
I think we are that naive for we have been schooled to be naive. We would
have been different if we were educated and the schools were left to do the
educating and the students left to do the learning. So let us quit finding
lame excuses for the decline of the City University of New York or for that
matter the entire academia especially when these excuses can only flare up
an already tense racial and ethnic climate.
Also, next time if any one gets the urge to blame the Hispanics, remember
the contributions of Spain
to the body of human knowledge. Also remember that some of the best
educated people are found in South America; the
oldest university in our hemisphere is in Lima,
Peru not in the United
States and countries like Chile
have the highest literacy rate. Their hang up is that they still have not
come out of thinking aristocratically but they are working on it.
Also remember that blacks would be just as confused as persons belonging to
any other ethnic group if you send them through the house of mirrors in a
carnival and then judge them as geniuses if they come out and morons if
they fail to find their way out of the maze. Human intellect is far more
evenly distributed among all humans than we like to admit. The same is true
of the human process of learning. It is essential to survival. In the long
run, we learn only those things which make our survival possible. When the
schools fail us, which were supposed to humanize us and thereby enable us
to survive as individuals and as a group, we learn the law of the jungle
for in that law we see our survival. violence,
drugs, mistrust, breakdown of family values, feminism, men's movements, are
all part of this alternate, rather desperate attempt at survival. Humans,
in essence, aspire to be humans but for that they must not be exploited.
And this exploitation must never be legitimized through schools for the
schools must remain the sanctuaries of learning.
Net proceeds from the sale of this and other monographs are devoted to
developing global infrastructures in education.
MONOGRAPHS AVAILABLE FROM THE CENTER
1. The story of how science got reduced to 150 concepts and skills and how
you and the society can benefit.
2. What really ails our educational system?
3. Why kids run away from science and what can be done about it?
4. Growth within comes from understanding the world we live in.
Cost of each monograph is $5. 00.
Order your copy by writing to:
Center for General and Applied Education
729 South Western Avenue, Chicago,
Illinois USA 60612
Center for General and Applied Education is dedicated to designing,
researching and implementing teaching formats based on the Nature Actuated
Learning and Teaching* process, the NALT process. As such the center
provides information, guidance, support and training in the NALT format of
teaching and learning to institutions and individuals around the world. The
center is especially committed to developing global infrastructures in
education for without such infrastructures "progress" is but an
expenditure of money where it passes through a number of hands with little,
if any, improvement in the overall quality of life.