A Call to Action

I have been thinking a lot lately. I suppose I am a fairly contemplative guy most of the time. I try to glean meaning from the things that I observe in the world around me. I have been struggling with that of late. I just don’t understand why the people that are the nastiest rise to the top. I understand that we are living in a world where we have more access to news than has been the case in the entire history of the world. We know more about what is going on in Europe than our ancestors knew about what was going on in the next state.

Is this a good thing? I think so. It depends on how reliable the information is. If we don’t trust the information it is worthless. If someone manipulates the news, filters it, slants it, it becomes propaganda. When I was growing up propaganda was an emotionally charged word. It was what America’s enemies, the Communists, told their people to hide the atrocities they were committing. It never occurred to us that our own government was guilty of similar cover ups.

In the modern world the problem has evolved somewhat. Sure, governments still spin their news releases but the big culprits are the rich. Corporations hire armies of public relations staff to craft the story that puts them in the best light and then see that it is delivered as written. For the most part, our news channels have become entertainment channels that are more concerned with delivering eyeballs to advertisers than reporting the truth.

And we, the consumers of this mislabeled drivel are not free from blame. We don’t think critically about anything any more. We were schooled by an educational system that has been on a downward spiral for at least fifty years. Educational standards were adjusted to fit the bell curve of the performance of the classes instead of holding them to absolute standards of achievement. Then, when those students were turned out as the teachers of the next generation, they let the standards slip further.

We have tried several strategies to address this problem, with little success. We mandate universal testing only to find that the students are not being taught the fundamental principles of their subjects but rather how to pass the standardized tests on them. Such rote learning does not engender the kind of critical thinking necessary for a democracy.

Then there is the fact that we are so bombarded by information and entertainment we have become complacent. It’s too much trouble to go to the local city council meeting and take an active role in the community. I might miss the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory or Survivor. That is clearly more important than first hand civic involvement.

It is easy to point out what is wrong. It is hard, and becoming harder, to come up with viable solutions to these problems. Again the problem is, we haven’t been taught critical thinking skills. And those of us that have developed them are typically using them in a narrow scope, namely our professional endeavors.

I feel like the old man yelling at the neighborhood kids, “You kids stay off of my lawn!” I doubt that anyone will listen or if they do that they will do anything about it. I know that I haven’t done anything myself other than write this indictment. It isn’t that these problems haven’t been pointed out repeatedly over the years. It’s just that we still haven’t done anything about it.

Here’s my proposal. Everybody pick one thing that bothers them about the world. Think of some way that you can help make it better. And then do it. If it helps, good for you! But if it doesn’t immediately help, think of something else that you can try. Because in the final analysis, we’ve got to all pitch in and keep trying or just give up and lay down and die.

Challenges of Preparing a Class

First, a quick note for my Facebook readers. You might want to click through to my blog. I tend to put hyperlinks to related pages in my blog posts and these don’t seem to show up on Facebook. Consequently, when I put a link to Airtable in my last post (http://airtable.com/), some Facebook readers didn’t realize that I was talking about a program that I was using as opposed to one that I wrote myself. Now on to today’s post.

I am developing a class on how to build and program a robot. It is intended as a follow-on class for people who have already taken the class on building simple circuits and writing programs to control them with the Arduino. For those of you that haven’t yet encountered the Arduino, it is a small computer, roughly the size of a credit card, that is easy to learn to program and has the necessary hardware to control a lot of different hardware circuits. Some of the early projects that most people do while learning to build things with an Arduino are flashing LEDs and buzzing buzzers. It is also able of controlling servos which are often used to provide robots with wheels.

It is going to be challenging to put together a class that meets all of the criteria that have been set for me. It needs to be about two or three hours of instruction. Check. It needs to have a budget for lab materials of roughly $15. Ouch! That is going to be challenging. Also making it interesting for a variety of ages is going to be its own challenge. I’ve got a rough draft and I’m still shopping for lab materials. I think it is doable. I’ll just have to be a little bit clever. I’m excited.

The Erosion of Educational Standards

The tone of this blog has always been conversational. It seems less pretentious to structure the posts like a conversation, albeit one sided, rather than use the stilted formalism that is advocated by most English teachers. It is not that they are wrong; learning to write within traditional formal constraints is good discipline. At one time, it sent the message that the author was educated.

These days it seems that most writers, particularly technical writers, paid little attention in English class. Or maybe it can be explained by a process of slowly eroding standards. Each new generation of teachers held their students to a more lax standard than that to which they were held.

Another factor is the lack of respect that English receives in the public school system. Science, math, history, all seem to have more direct relevance to success in a modern world that values technological prowess over rhetorical skills. You get the behavior that you reward.

When my grandfather was a teacher back in the first half of the twentieth century, he advocated teaching to mastery. In other words, the student did not move on to new material until they completely mastered the material at hand. There were no such thing as “social” promotions. This resulted in extremely well educated students.

Somewhere along the line, we decided that everyone that puts in the time should be able to get a diploma. This is a bad idea. It cheapens the achievement of those who work hard and master the curriculum to relax our standards and certify those who haven’t earned it. It engenders an attitude of entitlement.

It is also a bad idea for another reason. It has reduced the stature of American secondary education. Students from other countries are still held to traditional academic standards. Consequently, they out perform American students on standardized tests. This isn’t an indictment of the American students’ abilities, rather an indication that they were never challenged to meet their potential. My dad often said, “Always expect the best from your students and they will rarely disappoint you.”

The third and most important factor in the decline of American secondary education is that we refuse to pay for quality educators. Our teachers are so poorly paid that most of the teachers that we end up with are those that can’t get a better paying job in industry. There are some teachers that teach for the love of teaching; those whose salary is a second income or that are independently wealthy. But it is hard to make a living as a secondary teacher most places in America. We are trusting these people with our children. Why aren’t they the best paid professionals in our society?

There has been a movement to hold educators accountable for the education of our children. While I agree with the concept I think it has been poorly thought out and executed. By putting the emphasis on performance on standardized tests, we are forcing teachers to teach students to pass the standardized tests rather than to master the material. By threatening teachers with penalties including loss of their jobs if the students don’t pass the standardized tests we are creating fearful school environments that are actually detrimental to learning.

If we want to reclaim our world supremacy, we must start by paying the right kind of attention to our public school system. Better pay for teachers, less emphasis on numbers, more emphasis on qualitative analysis of student achievements are all part of this right kind of attention.