The Educational Conundrum

October 22, 2006

This week’s interesting and thought-provoking readings get right to the heart of a very is the complex question – what is the current and future state of education in this computer age.  The Pace article on professionalism and applying similar standards to education as are applied to historical scholarship will probably provide the most grist for the discussion mill.  The question raised is why is there not such a standard already for educators?  The answer is implicit – Pace never states what the criteria and standards should be, he only says that they should be developed. He admits that “the precise definition of scholarship of teaching and learning has been contested” and that there is research to be done.  Part of the reason for this unfinished condition must certainly be that education possesses one major attribute that historical or scientific research does not.  Education is a two-way, active process requiring effort and success on both the side of the sender and receiver.  Scientific and historical research is more one-way, with a passive subject that is inanimate.  The interesting quote toward the end of the article about having children taught by amateurs rather than experts is telling.  Pace provides a counterpoint of pediatricians, but there is less subjectivity in how the pediatrician’s treatment or ministrations are applied to the patient.  But there are a multitude of different learning styles for these children. Some are auditory learners, visual, or kinesthetic. There are few diagnostic tests that can determine this, especially because the children don’t typically fall 100% into one category.  There are different types of intelligence as well.

The Cohen and Rosenweig article about the ability of computer searches to answer multiple choice questions seems to be more of an indictment of that testing style than a demonstration of computer potential.  If a question about history can be distilled to a “when was” or “who was” question, the ability of a computer to find the answer is an interesting parlor trick.  It’s the subjects that don’t already have a vast amount of material about them already posted on the web that pose the biggest challenge.  The question about filtering information on the web being handled by the textual equivalent of the Law of Large Numbers depends on the presence of the large amount.  Where does this leave the facts on the fringe of scholarship?  The idea of putting legions of mathematicians to work reducing the rest of on-line material into algorithms seems a poor use of those mathematical resources.

Of the three articles, the best in terms of provoking thought is the Kelly article on the use of the web in the classroom.  Instead of posing unanswered questions, Kelly documents the methodology and results of a study that attempts to determine how the web use affects classroom performance.  The results and accompanying discussion were interesting, but seem to point not so much at the web as an enabler of additional insight but simply making sources easier to access.  If insight is enabled by accessibility, then the web should have a permanent place in the classroom.  If it’s just a shortcut or a substitute for the library, then it hasn’t earned its way into the classroom yet.

I have always told my own children that the reason they have to go through the tedious required courses in secondary school is that they are learning how to learn.  The world will not adapt to them as often as they must adapt to the world, so they must learn how to process information that come to them in numbers, pictures, words that they understand, words they don’t understand, and many other formats.  Teachers of math, art, English and foreign languages must try to get this information across to a room full of students who all process information differently, and these teachers must rely on subjective feedback to determine how they are doing. It’s a monumental challenge, and trying to establish standards for education is akin to setting standards for a minister of religion.  Come to think of it, are the two processes that different?


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