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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
An analysis
Riaz-ul Haque, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, University of Illinois Medical Center, Chicago, Illinois USA 60612
One of a series of monographs aimed at building global infrastructures in education.



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, 731 South Western Avenue
Chicago, Illinois USA
60612

Copyright©1995

 



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 those.

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 curriculum.

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 exercising.

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 learning process!

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, 729 S. Western Ave., Chicago, IL USA 60612.

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 and Argentina 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.

LIST OF 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
Phone: 312-243-2016
Fax: 312-243-2041
E-mail: info@iibbt.com

Website: www.iibbt.com

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.