Bad requirements in curriculum design

A new degree program is being set up.  I won’t say in what, or who’s leading the charge, or any of that – because it’s both irrelevant and unnecessary, and also I don’t want to be seen as trying to torpedo the exercise. However, I find that the foundations upon which the program is based is rather flawed.  I think these flaws constitute a good case study in requirements elicitation, so I’ve put some notes together on it.

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An oversupply of PhDs? Is that even possible?

I recently came across an article in Globe & Mail from 2013, titled “Who will hire all the PhDs? Not Canada’s Universities.”  While not especially deep, the article does raise some interesting questions that got me thinking about how the state of satisfaction of PhD-holders is a reflection on the society that contains them.  Or maybe, vice versa.

Update, 5 July 2014. I came across an article in The Economist (Dec 2010), that peddles the same tired and narrow arguments as the Globe & Mail piece.

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Courting disaster: treating children like adults

Maura E. Charette.  Photographed by her father.

Maura E. Charette. Photographed by her father, who wrote an equally questionable article in the same issue of IEEE Spectrum, on the “myth” of a STEM “crisis.”

August must have been a slow news month at IEEE, because they’ve published a staggeringly bad article, Is a Career in STEM Really for Me? The piece is so shallow and naive, I felt compelled to write about it.

Maura E. Charette wrote the piece. She has just started Grade 8.

(I’ll give you a moment to let that sink in.)

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Education as business? Are you kidding?

CBC offers us a show ludicrously called Type A, described as “a series that celebrates strong personalities who are not afraid to speak their minds.”  Notice that expertise or domain knowledge on a subject appears not to be a requirement for participation.  This is unfortunate, because it is apparent that, sometimes at least, this show spouts the most uneducated nonsense.

Such is the case in a recent episode titled The Business of Education, that starts with the question: “Should a business model be applied to public education?”

The answer is obvious to anyone who’s ever been both in “business” and in academia: NO!

Indeed, this applies to education generally, and not just so-called public education.  It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching kindergarten or university graduate studies – business, and its fundamental tenet of competition – is no way to run education.

The reasons for this are many; here’s a few, any one of which is enough to prevent the notion from moving further (but for the twits who are either too stupid or too ignorant to understand it).

Competition doesn’t improve education, it worsens it.  A direct result of competition in business is that some companies fail and disappear.  Shall we let schools and universities disappear?  Competition pits instructor against instructor – leading to wildly different approaches designed to curry the favour of whoever defines “success.”  Competition pits student against student – so much for learning how to work in teams.  Competition pits one school against another – so much for collegial research, educational exchanges, and shared educational knowledge.

And who shall be the arbiter of the competition?  In business, it’s the market – and it’s certainly not a good arbiter as recent history clearly shows.  In education, what substitutes for the market?  Students.  They’re students for a reason – they lack the skills to make proper decisions.  The human brain doesn’t fully mature until about the ago of 20.  Yet the obvious arbiter of an education market would be exactly those students.  So the schools with the highest graduation rates, the lowest tuition, and the best parties will certainly come to dominate the market.  And educational quality will then summarily go right down the toilet.  There is already the disgusting habit, in some quarters, of referring to students as “customers.”  This is perverse.  Educators don’t sell students anything.  Educators provide to students the clarity of thought, the skills, and the knowledge to be contributing members of society.  Students aren’t buying hamburgers, for chrissakes, they’re learning what they need to live full and meaningful lives.

Education takes time.  Learning takes time.  Different people learn at different rates.  Education simply does not move at the speed of business.  It’s bad enough that we have to tolerate grade inflation, a rampant sense of entitlement among students, and the abomination that is social promotion. No matter how good the teacher, the student will learn only as fast as the student can learn.  Trying to expedite matters for the sake of meeting “business goals” only produces unnecessary stress in educators and in students alike, and poorly educated people.

Competition stymies social development of students. Are we really willing to tell little Johnny that the only way he’ll succeed in life is to memorize his multiplication tables faster than all the other kids?  Are we going to tell university freshmen that teamwork is only some Machiavellian tool to climb the ladder of success?  Are we going to turn academic research into a rat race where ethics takes a back seat to scoring that extra patent or prestigious publication?  That’s what it would be like if educational institutions were run like businesses.  And that would result in generations of people even more self-absorbed and disinterested in the well-being of others than we already have.  If that’s the kind of society we want, then you need to stop the world cuz I want to get off.

Business is about “increasing shareholder value.”  Running education like business means… what?  Selling shares in school boards?  Making universities publicly traded commodities?  Education is how we pass on the knowledge of past generations to future ones.  The only reason the developed world has it as good as it has, is that we are constantly relying on the educational institutions to act as the gatekeepers, generators, and disseminators of knowledge.  In a business world, all that would vanish under a bunch of legal fine print and intellectual property agreements.  And we would all end up living in caves again.

Indeed, I’ll go further and say that business models of competitiveness are the antithesis of what education should be.  Education needs to be collaborative, not competitive.  We, I and my colleagues, form a team – we work together towards a common goal.  It doesn’t matter if we’re at different universities, or in different countries.  Educators all over the world share a single goal: to help make the next generation capable of building on what we’ve done, to make their lives even better than ours.  There is no room for competition there.  We don’t need it; we don’t want it.

So, let me summarize thusly: educators have their responsibilities and we stick to them.  We don’t tell business-people what to do, and we’ll be damned if we let them tell us what to do.

And to those who think that education is just another business: you’re all fucking morons.

Technology, needs, and analogy in design

T-shirt reading "life is like an analogy"

Analogies can be very useful.

I’ve been thinking about Don Norman‘s notion of technology driving needs ever since I read and wrote about it some months ago. I’m still trying to understand the implications of it, and how it fits into my own views. One thing I’ve realized is that a design is constrained by the designer’s ability to recognize analogies between needs and existent technology, and that, as an educator, I have to urge my students to remain current about available technologies and to understand them as deeply as possible, because knowledge of those technologies and their impact on people will inform their designerly acts as much as their knowledge of process and method.

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Why, How, and Engineering Education

A stack of books

I sincerely believe the best was to learn is "just in time."

Science tells us why the universe is as it is and why it works as it does. Engineering tells us how we can change and control it (to a degree).  But I think that the order in which engineering students learn this stuff in Canada can severely hinder one’s ultimate capacity to practise engineering.

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Learn to practise; practise to learn

thinking monkey

Hmmm. I learn, therefore I teach.... I think.

While in England in 2007, it took me several weeks to get used to looking the other way when crossing a street.  Exactly how that happened has led me to revise how I think students should be taught, how “teaching to the test” is bad, and how we might be able to help make our students think more deeply and creatively.

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