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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Design Needs To Be Its Own Thing

design thinking
I think therefore I design

On 19 March, BusinessWeek published a piece by Bruce Nussbaum on the future of design, in which the author previewed a talk he gave to a group of design thinkers.  While I agree with some of his points, I really wince at the thought that Nussbaum’s vision might be the future of design.

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Discipline in education and social networking: a tempest in a teapot

Pondering the impact of social networking on discipline in education is a total waste of time.

This item was brought to my attention:

OJEN Newsflash: Great Debate: Student Discipline in the Age of Social Networking!
A student is disciplined for writing unkind comments on

  • Is this a violation of students’ freedom of expression under the Charter?
  • Who protects the teacher or maintains school order?
  • How far does the school’s disciplinary responsibility extend?
  • When is students’ expression harmful or damaging to others in the school community?

With increasing frequency Canadian students are being disciplined for remarks made on social networking websites.  Join us on April 15th at this year’s Great Debate where debaters will argue the perspectives of the student, teacher and school board.  Expert legal commentators will lead a post debate discussion, followed by a wine and cheese reception hosted by The Law Society of Upper Canada.  Classroom resources and lesson plans will also be distributed to attendees.
The Great Debate is an OJEN Law Week program designed to enliven discussion about the justice system, particularly for high school teachers and students.  The Great Debate is filmed and a DVD version with accompanying lesson plans is made available free of charge to teachers across the province for use in their classrooms.
To attend this free event, email

First off, the web site’s real URL is  A little background research wouldn’t hurt, folks.

So we have some kid who used a perfectly legitimate web site to express an “unkind comment” about his teacher.  And the poor kid gets “disciplined” for expressing an opinion and having the guts to let himself be identified as the author.

Is this a violation of the student’s rights?  Absolutely! He can go to the corner store with his friends and diss his teacher all he wants.  He might be unkind; he might even be wrong.  But he has the right to express himself – even if he is “unkind.”  Students have been hanging out at the corner store talking badly about their teachers for as long as there have been teachers.  But it seems that only recently have teachers become so delicate and emotionally sensitive that they need protection for students’ comments.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me – unless I’m a teacher.

The fact that this case took place on the web instead of at the corner store is irrelevant.  The difference is only one of quantity, not quality.  I’m no more a murderer if I kill 10 people than if I kill only one.  Similarly, the fact that many more people are likely to see the comments on RateMyTeacher than would hear them at a corner store is not the point.  If it were, then we’d need to define the size of audience that sets a limit, beyond which disciplinary action is acceptable.  But how arbitrary would that be!  If 10 people hear/read you, that’s fine; but if 11 people hear/read you, then you’re in big trouble!

To discipline a student for speaking his mind – even unkindly – is to teach the student that his opinion doesn’t matter.  That’s not education; that’s an intellectual lobotomy.

The school should have given him a good talking to and sent him on his way.  (I assume that a good talking to is not what they meant by “discipline.”)  They may have explained to him how his sort of behaviour reflects poorly on him.  They might have explained how he might express himself differently.  They may have done a hundred things better than just disciplining the kid.

Who protects the teacher or maintains school order?  No one! Oh, what an Orwellian ring “school order” has!  The school’s ability to exert any power over students stops at the ends of the school’s property.  If the student used school computers to post his comments, then the school is to blame for not blocking that site.  (Of course, if the school does block the site, then one must then ask What are they afraid of?)  If the student was off school property, then the school has absolutely no power over him whatsoever.

And what kind of spineless and feeble teachers are we talking about, that they need “protection” from harsh language?  Obviously not the kind who should actually be teaching!  There’s a related website,, in which I and many of my colleagues have been trashed by students.  We just laugh – indeed, some of us enjoy reading the terrible reviews we all occasionally get.  Indeed, I tell my students about the site, and show them the particularly bad reviews I’ve gotten.  It’s great fun, and it tells my students that I’m not afraid of what they think.

Do teachers really have such poor self-esteem, compared to professors, that they need all this gentleness and protection from those rude brats?  If they do, then why are we allowing such people of weak character teach our children?

How far does the school’s disciplinary responsibility extend?  To the edge of the school property, not one inch further! Schools are surrogate parents under only very specific circumstances.  Only parents have the responsibility to “discipline” their children otherwise.  This is part of the social contract in which we all participate.  A school that attempts to undermine this contract is placing itself above the society that gives rise to it, when it is, in fact, in service to it.  The school is therefore in violation of its own most basic principle: to show children how to function well and happily in society.

When is students’ expression harmful or damaging to others in the school community?  Never! It doesn’t matter how callous or vulgar a student’s statements may be, they all mean something more than just a crass utterance.  Since we’re talking about a site called RateMyTeacher, we can assume the student is 17 years old or younger.  Given the utter lack of education students get in how to express themselves these days, it’s no wonder they must resort to “unkind comments” to express themselves.  It’s absurd to think that the same teachers who have not taught students how to express themselves get upset when the students show a lack of that very ability.  It’s certainly got to be a slap in the face, to see your own students behave in a way that so comprehensively contradicts what you’re supposed to have taught them….

Sometimes, students use inappropriate language and behaviour to get attention.  Well, disciplining such a student is giving them a lot of attention.  Students: 1; teachers: 0.

Sometimes, they do it because they’re angry – but they don’t know why.  In my experience, anger comes from confusion or frustration.  In either case, the anger is a symptom.  Treating the symptom (with discipline) only hides the symptom but does not address the underlying cause.  Students: 2; teachers: 0.

In any case, the point is this: dealing with students’ behaviours is rarely well-handled by discipline, whether or not the behaviours are mediated by online tools.  Online tools are only that – they cause no qualitative changes whatsoever.  So this whole mess about the impact of discipline with respect to social networking is a contemptible waste of time and money.