So far I've been able to identify four key different areas of learning and understanding. The most primitive form of learning, is just factual. Just knowing facts. Like you know your name, you know which country you live in. Facts are important to some extent, because they set the context for everything else. They are limited though and we cannot consider memorising hundreds of facts to be a good standard of education.
The second of these is what I'd call "black box" learning. This is something we do every day, it's things that we know but we don't know how or why, we just know. Like many people know how to use a computer, they do not know how a computer works. They know how to drive a car, they do not know how a car works. The inner workings of the object in question are completely hidden and unknown, as if they were sealed within a black box. Again, this is a valid form of learning, as we do not all have the time to learn everything in great detail and do sometimes need to use things that we do not fully understand. We know what we need to know.
The third type of learning, I'd call just simply understanding. Like you're told how and why stuff works and what's going on "under the hood". Many people who are at this level in their field are considered experts or professionals. Take for example a good electrician. He not only knows how to wire a house, he knows the importance of the various components in the circuit, and he knows what he can do without and what is an absolute necessity. With this level of understanding, you have enough knowledge to tinker and adapt the "recipe" of what you're doing. You can predict the likely outcomes of any changes made, you can create and improve or adapt depending on the situation. I think this is important, as it allows you to be the one that makes decisions, to be the one that causes things to happen, not be always dancing to someone else's tune.
The fourth level of knowledge, I'd say comes from actually creating knowledge. Being the person that comes up with the solution or the method. Not to say that none of the other three are less important than this one, because they all have their parts to play in society, but this one can become important when a new unsolved problem arises. Before we had mains electricity, there was no textbook with the answer at the back, somebody had to figure it all out for themselves. In reality I think the cycle of knowledge goes in the reverse order to what I put here. Somebody poses and solves a problem, they develop a method of reliably handling the problem, then they teach other people to understand it. People that don't have the time or need to understand it, but do need to use it, simply "know" it on a black box level. Scientists developed or created the ideas of mains electricity, electricians and engineers understand those ideas, the rest of us simply know how to flick a light switch.
I think one of the main problems we have in the UK state education system, is that learning is largely restricted to the first two levels, of simply recollecting facts and memorising and drilling methods. Applying a known method to an already studied type of problem is called "problem solving", which I feel stretches the definition a bit. It's more of a memory test. I think the brighter students naturally develop some of the level three actual understanding, and they really do know what they are doing and why, but I think this is the minority. I know this because I regularly teach students that barely even approach this level, and interestingly enough some of them are able to get good marks on the exam without even touching it. And I think that's precisely the cause of this, mainly that teachers are under so much time pressure to get students up to scratch, that they mindlessly drill them on methods and methods until the students can reliably reproduce them in an exam.
What's quite sad is the fourth level has been completely stripped out of the national curriculum, and I think the reason is very simple - it's extremely hard to test. In fairness, it's not that easy to teach, but it is very hard to examine. But by removing it altogether, by shirking away from that challenge, we're training a nation of people only able to follow instruction. People who, for the most part, don't really understand what they are doing or why, they simply know that they're supposed to do it. The great advances in civilisation are left to chance, the shining stars among us who, for whatever reason, are capable of going against the grain. With some of the challenges we face as a society, neglecting this problem is a severe risk to take.
(Published on 1 Feb 2016)
I'm not completely down on school, but let's face it, it's not the most fun place to be. When school finishes you can usually see hordes of relieved students flooding out of the school gates to go home, when a theme park is closing the security guards are having to round everyone up to get them out! I'm going to highlight why I think this is, and point out the reasons I think contribute to what can be a pretty uninspiring experience for the majority of students. Now, to be fair, I can only comment on my experiences of what I went through, what I've read in newspapers, and what I've spoken to my students about. All of these things happened in the south east of England (where I live) in state schools, so what I write here may not be true for other areas of the country or private schools. I'd appreciate any comments on this post.
I think you get a whole mix of different types of teachers, and they are all there for their own reasons and have their own goals and attitudes. I think though they can be broadly split into two categories, basically those that are very passionate about teaching and are doing it because that's what they love to do, and those that are simply doing it because they need a job and teaching happened to be a good solution to their current circumstances. I actually have a lot of respect for teachers because they are in there trying to get the job done, with limited resources and sometimes difficult students and situations. They are doing a very important job, they are educating the next generation and the future of our society depends in a large way on how good a job they do of it. Nevertheless, in my experience some teachers were just better than others, they made the subject more interesting, they had better control of the classroom, and they were generally more engaging. For whatever reason, whether due to personality, personal circumstances, past experiences, motivations (or lack of), poor training, or any other things which I can only guess at, it was still the case that some teachers were just not very good. And I for the most part (being a bit of a nerd), enjoyed school and wanted to learn and there were still teachers that I just did not like and did not look forward to their classes. All of those teachers were in the same system, in the same school, sometimes teaching the same subject, and yet there were clear differences. Whatever way you look at it, to some degree, there are teachers that are making the school experience boring for the students.
This brings me to my next point, and it's quite a simple one. As a Maths graduate, I found many options open to me when I graduated. A PhD, teaching, banking, insurance, finance, accounting, business analyst roles, and possibly a whole other range of things I didn't even consider at the time. Each of them were similarly challenging and engaging, yet the one thing that was clear about teaching to me was that the pay was worse and there were less career opportunities. You can imagine working at a bank and within five years you've moved up the career ladder, possibly to a different city or country, or at least to a different department or team, perhaps doing a different type of work. In the corporate world there are a whole range of different jobs and roles and it's a constantly evolving scene with lots going on and a lot more money sloshing around. As a teacher, I could only imagine myself doing the same thing for the next 40 years, and in all honestly not being rewarded for that nearly as much as I would be elsewhere. I think if you really know that you want to be a teacher, and you know it's your purpose and your calling in life, then the pay doesn't matter. But for the many otherwise talented and able individuals, who have a lot to offer schools and their students, teaching just doesn't pay well enough to make it a worthwhile career opportunity. So while the best and brightest get hoovered up into the corporate machine, you're not surprisingly left with lower calibre teachers to fill in the gaps in between the truly passionate teachers, who are not as motivated and are possibly having more difficulty managing their finances. I think one of the reasons brain surgeons and pilots are paid so well is, well you don't want your brain surgeon worrying about his next mortgage payment when he's about to slice into your brain! Do we want the people raising our next generation to be distracted by their personal finances while they teach? I actually sort of stumbled across tutoring, not really planned for, and found I loved it. One to one though is very different to teaching a class and from what I see of the school system you'll see why I will not become a teacher anytime soon:
One interesting comment I read was that the education minister position in the government cabinet is often used a stepping stone to the more senior positions. Like a prime minister will trial out an up and coming minister in the education role, see how he does, and then move him up to home secretary or some higher position. This approach has three major drawbacks:
There is a problem with the way the subjects are taught, and I think maths is a good way to illustrate it. Let's take for example Pythagoras theorem. It's quite a famous one. Most of my students don't know who Pythagoras is. Most don't understand the significance of his work, or why his theorem is of such monumental importance in the field of maths that it has been taught in schools everywhere for THE LAST 2000+ YEARS! They are not given the background to the problem, the reasons why it was important, who solved it and how, or why, or basically anything that would be of interest or bring any sort of understanding as to why this thing was worth taking a look at. Let's imagine that I stormed into your living room right now (or wherever you are reading this) and forced you to listen to a 30 minute explanation of the air ventilation system of the 3rd floor of a building in Ottawa, Canada. Your first question would be probably, why are you telling me this? Who cares? What difference does it make? All the sort of usual objections I get to maths and algebra and those sorts of things. So if we're going to teach students something, we had better first explain to them WHY they are learning it, WHAT difference it makes, WHY it is important. Some of the background to it that makes it clear what the point of it is.
The majority of parents I come across are well-meaning and good natured people. I know being a parent is a tough job, and without any training people just do the best that they can and hope it all turns out all right! The best thing you can do as a parent, I think, is to provide a stable and emotionally supportive environment for your children, give them the best opportunities you can afford, and to teach them to have a positive attitude towards life and to be self-reliant and moral. That's easier said than done, a lot easier said than done! But I have definitely observed students who I doubt had anything even close to that. If a parent doesn't have their own life in order it will affect their children, and a child who is distracted by problems at home is probably not enjoying school, or much else for that matter. You then find they can get into drugs or alcohol and things like that and you've got a whole other set of problems on your hands over and above their education!
We've got other forces working on our children that are outside the education system. Increased TV and internet usage, increase use of psychiatric medication on children under 16 years of age, pornography, advertising, role models in the media. Lots of different factors and things going on in society that negatively impact children. Young girls being bombarded with photo-shopped super models I think can lead to insecurity or excessive attention on their appearance. Looking at things like anorexia show that these messages do have a damaging effect on the younger generation. It's a time when they should be growing and developing, not worrying about lipo-suction and botox. As a business strategy it is very smart to get into the younger generation as they are impressionable and you can make them loyal customers for life relatively easily. I think it's wrong though to prey on children just to make a good buck, let them be kids - there's plenty of time for the rest of it when they grow up. I think it's hard for children to focus at school when they are worried about how they look, if they are "cool" or not, their social standing, if they have a girlfriend or boyfriend, bullies and all that sort of thing. If their role models in the media are all footballers or jumping from burning buildings in motorcycles, they might start to question the value of what they are doing in science class.
Maybe you weren't expecting this one, but in all honestly I think this is a very important factor. I hear students all the time complaining about this and that, things they find boring, or stuff which is "too hard". When I was at school I had some people jealous of my abilities or the results I got in my exams. Interesting though that they were not at the library with me at lunchtime studying when I was, or doing extra reading when they got home just because they were interested in the subject. I'm not saying I was a total recluse, but I did studying I didn't have to do because I wanted to, and I mostly did all the homework I was set, paid attention in class, and took an interest in my education. Is it any surprise that I did better than people who did not do that? It's a bit like being jealous that they guy who goes to the gym and works out has ripped muscles. Now let's take a step back for a moment and take a look at what's really going on here with the state schools: The government have decided that it's sufficiently important to spend literally billions of pounds every year for the past probably 100 years or so to provide FREE education to any child in this country. When you get to the adult world you find out that NOTHING is for free anymore. If you want some help with something, you PAY for it! There are also tens of thousands of teachers who have made it their life's work to provide an environment to help students absorb as much knowledge as they can. The knowledge available to study, is the end result of some 3000 years of human research and study, of the natural world, of history and other people. It's all been lovingly compiled into a syllabus with the aim of making it as easy as possibly for students to understand. This is all funded by adults who pay taxes from their hard-earned wages to keep it all going. And usually when I tell adults I teach maths I get the same reaction:
(Published on 1 Jan 2015)