January 28, 2006

Education Failing

I'd like to think I'm not that old. I don't feel very far removed from high school, CEGEP and University, but I already find myself sounding antiquated, waxing nostalgic about "back in my day..." I often find myself discussing how children today have no idea about anything, just as my parents probably thought of me and my world. I fear for the coming generation, raised on Google and TiVo, where anything less than instant gratification is not enough. I worry about the overwhelming stupidity which accompanies the high school culture that students are growing up in. I worry about the few options available for Muslim children to be protected from all the nonsense in school.

So when I was asked to help some struggling Muslim middle-school students with English and Math, I accepted without hesitation. The children I am tutoring right now are fairly recent immigrants, and their parents have absolutely no idea about the world their kids are living in. Thus, I take my responsibility as a tutor very seriously; not just as one who can teach grammar and geometry, but as one who made it through that challenge of trying to hold on to some religious values while somehow fitting in.

But even leaving aside all the Islamic/Western culture issues, there is still so much wrong with the way children are being educated today - particularly in Ontario. I recall elementary school evenings when our assigned homework would include answering 50-100 math problems. For us, it wasn't enough to simply understand the concepts - we needed to be extremely efficient in taking numbers and deriving results from them. Multiplication tables were drilled into us. In the end, the students - even the weaker ones - were computational machines with minds that were capable of processing a lot of data. It wasn't fun, and we all hated it at the time.

Today, a typical math textbook is a colourful scrapbook full of pictures of multicultural, trendy teenagers saying things like "Math is cool!" or "I can use geometry to design a ramp for my skateboard!" As I teach my students, I study their textbooks closely; looking through them, I realize that their brains are not processing anything. I had to help one of my students with a problem which involved putting together a ramp for a circus trick; underneath the ramp, there had to be room for a performer to hide. Without giving any numbers except for the cost of materials - 16.50$/m2 - students were asked to "discuss" how the performers should design the ramp. In the end, there are rarely actual answers - just "discussions". While it may sound like a good idea to have students discuss applications of what they study, no students actually discuss these things; in the end, they don't actually do anything except draw a few pointless diagrams. Unfortunately, this is usually enough to give them the marks they need. As Calvin correctly observed, all students are learning is how to manipulate the system.

I had the fortune of having some excellent English teachers throughout high school and CEGEP. When I entered high school, I was admitted into the advanced program. As a grade seven student, highly experienced at the age of 13, I was insulted when our Advanced English teacher told us she was going to teach us grammar. My classmates and I thought to ourselves, "what do we need grammar for? We're the smart students!" Little did we know how much we had to learn. And while students of the regular English classes laughed at us for learning grammar, I knew that I was learning something valuable. Ultimately, I learned more in that one year than many of my friends learned throughout all of high school.

During CEGEP, I participated in the John Abbott College Writing Tutors programme, a special English course reserved for the better writers in the college. Our professor did not teach us classical literature or essay writing; she taught us how to teach. Our reading material was a combination of timeless essays about writing itself, and a collection of poorly written student essays. Our job was to understand where other students struggle, and how to rectify their situation. She taught me that critical thinking was something that can be taught, and that it is the foundation of all writing skills. She used to rail against the education system for assuming that Anglophone students will know how to write English, and for failing to teach grammar and critical thinking from the outset.

The students I teach, in grades 7 and 8, have never learned grammar. When I told them that I was going to teach them as I had been taught, they thought I would be wasting their time as it appeared to be unrelated to what they were actually doing. (What one was actually doing was making a bristol board presentation about the top ten events in his life during 2005 - the sort of mindless busy work that my Writing Tutors professor cringed at.) I quickly discovered, however, how important it was - they could not determine which words were nouns, adjectives, or verbs in a sentence. Seemingly, they had never been taught these terms, though they had been educated in British Columbia for 4 years prior to coming to Ontario in 2004. Today, I feel a sense of pride when my students can pick out not just basic word types, but can also identify different types of phrases, understand how appositives are used, and identify subjects and predicates in any sentence. My next lesson is on dependant and independant clauses.

The main objective of all of this is to eventually bring the students to a point where they can critically think about an issue, and articulate their feelings about these issues. I once had a discussion with a friend about the importance of teaching Critical Thinking from a young age. This friend grew up in Saudi Arabia, where Critical Thinking was never taught - in any language. I have spoken with many other immigrants who all attest to the fact that they were never expected to objectively analyze opinions or literature; they were only expected to write gramatically correct sentences. None of them ever understood logical fallacies until learning about them in University, nor did they learn how to structure arguments, or how to maintain a cohesive thesis. These things simply were not taught. Somehow, this eerily reminded me of Orwell's 1984, where the vocabulary itself prevented citizens of Oceania from formulating critical opinions about their society.

I have no real background in Education, nor have I ever been at the front of a classroom teaching 30-40 students simultaneously, so perhaps my lofty ideals on education are not practical on a large scale. I still feel, however, that there is so much more that can be done. Children should not be using calculators in the second grade. Children should not be relying on computer spellchecks and grammar checks from such a young age. Children need to learn that there is more to research than Google and Wikipedia. Something must be done to challenge these young minds to prevent the stagnation that will likely occur otherwise.

I may continue along this theme with a later post, as I haven't even started on the social aspects of high school education. That's where things really get messy.


  1. Fantastic post. Having worked within the public school system, I'm actually very critical of the education most children receive (is receive the right word? I think not). In one case, I was teaching in a grade 3 class and the teacher handed out calculators - yes, calculators - so the students could multiply numbers like 3x4. I was horrified to say the least. Needless to say, the students were very slow in conceptualizing the multiplying and dividing of numbers.

  2. You're right in that children today are being educated in a way different than what we were ingrained with. However, it should also be mentioned that kids today, as with any new generation, seem to have more to learn. Generally speaking, kids today seem smarter than the kids of the past because of all the things they must familiarize themselves with. It's a more complex world today than in the past.

    As for the quips about Ontario - go back to Quebec then and see if the kids there are being educated at the high level that you expect. I'm sure you'll find that teaching methods and problem-solving skills have varied in Quebec as well...

    Sad to say but the use of a calculator has become the norm at all levels. What will society do one day when the sun is unable to shine through the pollution-infested sky to power those wee-little solar batteries that the calculators use? Chaos will ensue and people will have to learn how to solve 3x4 in their heads or on paper...

  3. Assalamu'alaykum,

    Sister Safiyyah: I've also noticed that even the youngest students, still learning basic multiplication, are expected to keep a calculator. I'm glad that my thoughts are shared by someone who actually has had the opportunity to teach an actual class; if the teachers themselves didn't realize this was an issue, I would be quite worried.

    (The right word may be "acquire". ...the education most children acquire? "Receive" sounds fine too, actually. And here I am lecturing on writing skills...)

    Nauman: Do you really think kids are smarter these days? I know what the kids are learning; not just my students, but others as well, ranging from kindergarten to high school. They aren't learning much; at least, no more than we did. I can agree that they're probably learning much more on their own time; there are tonnes of high school students who are probably better programmers than I am, without the formal education I've had. They also have much better access to resources, so it's easy for them to acquire knowledge in even the most obscure subjecst. But that's not stuff they're learning in the classroom.

    I know Quebec is not much better anymore; I saw where things were going in the high schools when I was tutoring throughout CEGEP. It actually started while I was still in high school, when useless, colourful textbooks were being chosen over the boring but practical ones we used before. But it's easy to target Ontario because the Quebec students consistently fare much better in Ontario universities than the locals. Having studied in Ontario after living in Quebec, I found it quite telling that 2nd year Math and Physics courses in Ottawa were review for things I did in CEGEP. Basically, material that Ontario students were struggling with at the age of 20, we were covering when we were 17.

  4. This is my first comment on your weblog. I must say that I am a little nervous. I am worried that I will make some embarrasing mistakes. (I am even tempted to use Word, and then use some good 'old-fashioned' Ctrl-C Ctrl-V.) Wouldn't that be ironic, eh?

    More ironic is how I can't seem to put into words how I feel about the subject.

    I do not think grammar is as important as you make it out to be. Sadly, it is a lost art; however, language is always evolving. As are the mind-sets of readers. New School writings should be written in New School language.

    I also agree with calculators not being allowed. They will no doubt be extinct soon. If they need to be exact, let them write functions in Excel (or preferably on a comparable open source application.) Math is much more than arithmatic, even at a young age.

    I like to write, and I like to solve problems and I always have. So my comment is most likely...irrelevant.

  5. Don't worry Charlie; I'm not a grammar-nazi or anything. But I love how you spelled the word "embarassing" wrong. Knowing you, somehow I think that was intentional.

    Is grammar that important? Maybe not. What I do believe is that if someone cannot write well, it is likely that the person cannot think well. If a person does not learn how to write about complex topics, they will likely not be able to even think about complex topics.

    The brain, like all muscles, becomes stronger when it is exercised. If people relied on machines their whole lives, would they still be able to innovate? There are certain gifted people who will always be at the forefront of delivering innovation, but it seems the trend is that we are favouring quantity over quality. Our machines can process more calcuations in a second than many of us can do in a lifetime, but they will never be more "clever" than the human who designed it. And as humans become weaker in thought, so too will our contraptions.

    Essentially, it seems we favour high-performance over innovation.

  6. Faraz your last sentence quite literally caused me to laugh out loud – touché.

    Here is my attempt at relevance:

    What is the relationship between writing well and thinking well? While I agree that for the average person there is likely a very strong correlation between one’s ability to write well and one’s ability to solve complex problems. That said, I think that external factors have a considerable amount of influence on this hypothesis.

    Therefore, I cannot entirely agree with your assumption that “if someone cannot write well, it is likely that the person cannot think well.” Innovative thinking does not necessarily require writing skills. There are too many examples of great ideas by illiterate people for this statement to be true. One way that writing ability and other communication tools greatly affect innovation is via its diffusion - the faster the communication of a new technology, the quicker the adoption. In other words, it is helps its Marketing, which because of Marketing’s overall fluffiness, the subject is becomes pretty irrelevant when compared against the innovation itself (see outsourcing).

    Where I do agree with you fully is that most of us are subscribing to quantity over quality – (see Rogers’ Mobile, Cable and Internet bundles). However, I do not necessarily think that our brains are lacking exercise. Quite the opposite, I believe that the over-stimulation that we put our brains through each day would probably seem like a mental marathon to an enlightened man of the 19th Century. Therefore, I truly believe that we have to put an emphasis on giving our brains some rest.

    Perhaps this is where writing comes in. Writing allows today’s over-stimulated man to take the time to fully use this muscle he has conditioned into an information processing Ironman - via hours of simultaneous video game playing, multiple window MSN conversations, iTunes shuffling and channel surfing.

    That said, I do not think that writing is necessarily required. What is required is to allow ourselves to log off every once and a while, and to focus our disproportionately healthy brain muscles to creative intrinsic pursuits (see spending 40 minutes responding to a friend’s blog).

  7. Charlie, you're right; there have been too many great ideas by illiterate people for writing to be a good measure of ones capacity for thinking.

    I don't agree that the multitasking we do now is a "mental marathon". It's true that we do many things at once - I'm reading the news, operating a keyboard, and contemplating a reply while maintaining a handful of MSN conversations right now - but I don't think those activities engage our creative side.

    Which is why you, as you said, need to spend 40 minutes away from the non-creative tasks and submit comments on to blogs. Likewise, that's why I wanted to get back into writing a while back - to get myself back into the habit of exercising that creative muscle. This blog is just part of my training equipment.

    Oh, and I'm glad my subtle jab in the last sentence registered a "laugh out loud". A few guys at CPC have picked up on Irrelevant Opinions; I gotta be more careful in what I write now!

    Either way, I enjoy reading your comments. Keep them up!

  8. Assalaamu'alaykum

    The school systems overseas sometimes are much better than I imagine even Quebec to be in terms of teaching for long term use (that is 'real learning'). I'm a shameful product of the Ontario school system, and I recognize it often. Apparently, education just means getting the grade and earning that piece of paper at the end whether it be a degree or diploma.

    I'd say home schooling is a good idea, perhaps combined with public schooling. School-aged individuals (including those in university)waste too much time sometimes and sometimes it's not that they can't understand concepts yet, but no one is really pushing them to learn or willing to teach them. I remember once my Mom wanted us to learn more words so she'd write out a word and it's meaning and put it on the fridge once a week (or each day, I'm not too sure). Suffice to say, that didn't last very long but I give her credit for trying.

    People's grammar is generally hurting a lot, i.e. 'your' as opposed to 'you're.' You speak of technical grammar and being literate in grammar (i.e. being able to identify parts of speech, etc.). I'm merely mention inuitive grammar. Perhaps that has to do with children reading less than before since they have other technological tools to humour themselves with. Allahu'alim.

    I'm not sure who to credit for this quote, but here it is: "Knowledge is not that which is memorized, knowledge is that which benefits."

    Alas, I've read many of your posts, if not all the non-tech ones, in the last few days and I suspect you err in one area of grammar.. unless I coicidentally just noticed the same type of error several times. Who knows :).

  9. Wa'alaykum assalam,

    You're bringing me back to all of these old posts I had forgotten about... it's fun reading them months later, trying to figure out if my opinions have changed since.

    One hesitation I have with home schooling is the fear of isolating the children. I think that children growing up in North America need to have exposure to the outside world, so they can learn to live in it. The situation is quite bad, though, so maybe it's not a risk worth taking.

    That quote you mentioned reminds me of another quote, this one by Ali RadhiAllahu'anh: "Knowledge is better than wealth. Knowledge protects you, while you protect wealth." Brilliant..

    In terms of my own grammar, I know that I have a common failing with "it's" and "its". If the errors you've noticed were the occasional sentence fragments, they were only done intentionally. (I strongly believe that grammar rules should be broken for style purposes, but that is not something that should be taught - it should be discovered as the writer develops his or her own style.) In any case, I would appreciate it if you could point out the error - I'm learning too.

    I'm amazed at how much you've had the patience to read thus far. You've had great insight in response to my irrelevance, and I enjoy reading your comments.

  10. Assalaamu'alaykum

    It seems you're an insomniac tonight too. Shucks..

    I completely agree with your concern that children would be isolated. Subhan'Allah, at some point things are going to get better, insha'Allah (but maybe after it gets worse first, Allahu'alim). It amazes me how many Muslims 'want out' of this society because it's so bad, yet they haven't done anything to remedy it. I don't blame the society for the way it is, it's expected because it's not Islamic. That's where we come in..but that's a different topic all together.

    About your grammar, yes the apostraphes caught my eye. I never really paid too much attention to it, but I was surprised to see it because I figured you were uhmm.. a grammatically precise individual. Funny, I remember my Mom teaching me exactly that contraction [it's] one day and somehow it stuck. But I've noticed that you also neglect apostraphes in possessive forms.

    I agree that a writer should find his/her own style. That's what makes writing fun - so many ways to say the same thing.

    It's not patience that keeps me reading, it's interest. Masha'Allah I like the way you write (which is why I visited your blog in the first place) and generally what you write about. Allah has blessed you with an art; insha'Allah you use it in His service. I'm glad you find my irrelevance relevant to your 'irrelevance' (your word, not mine).

    Finally, thank you for the quote about knowledge and wealth. I guess in some way true knowledge is true wealth.

  11. It wasn't that late... the blog is configured for Eastern Standard Time, and I'm in Vancouver right now ... so it wasn't actually 3:30am when I wrote that; it was just after half past midnight, and I was just about to go to sleep.

    I'm far from an insomniac; I like my sleep. :)

    Apostrophes in the possessive form have always been my weakness since I was a child. I often restructure entire sentences completely just so I can avoid finding myself in that predicament.

    For the record, the name "Irrelevant Opinions" was intended to remove any hints of pretention in my writing. Most blogs are full of irrelevant opinions anyway, except the writer often believes that their own writing is full of significance, even when they're writing about what they did that day, or how they hate the guy who runs the laundromat next door. When I started this two years ago, I didn't want to pretend that my writing was that important, thus the frequent use of the word "irrelevance".

  12. Assalamu'alaykum

    Possessives... they're my kind of thing. I tried to convince my sisters to let me teach it to them, but they refused and still refuse. What to do. Life goes on without proper grammar.

    On the topic of education, today Oprah featured a special report on the educational crisis in the States. I found it interesting especially the ideas that some individuals have come up with to find solutions. One in particular is a school called KIPP (forgot what the acronym stands for). I'm sure Google will have something on it. Alternatively, you can go to Oprah's site, I'm sure she has the links there.

    Oh and about the name of your blog, I picked up on the reason for the term 'irrelevance' through some of your other posts. It's an idea that I quite favour, masha'Allah, though I personally can't easily call your writings irrelevant (that's for you to do).

  13. Wa'alaykum assalam wa rahnatullah,

    I checked out the Oprah site. It presents some interesting ideas, and it's nice to know that there are some programs in place to resolve this problem.

    One thing that most programs fail to cover, and probably always will, is the declining morality existing in the schools. This is an area of even greater concern for me; it just seems more and more difficult to have a child go through elementary and high school without being exposed to drugs, teenage promiscuity, and violence. I suppose that's where the importance of Muslim schools is most evident, but then we run into the same risk of isolation. It's a delicate balance.

    I'm always so grateful for having gone through the system having retained my values, and am always happy to see others who have done the same. It's no small feat, when you really think about it. It's a huge favour from Allah Subhana wa ta'Ala that He has protected us from falling into the many traps of academia, while so many others just get washed away in the current.