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.