Balneus

Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Handing over the fish

Posted by Dave Bath on 2008-12-01


Today (2008-12-01) The Age opinion pages ran "School is about more than tests", a warning by a teacher experienced in both US and Oz systems about the federal plans to rate schools.

Personally, I’d say many of the warnings are of the "shut the gate after the horse has bolted" variety, although the federal plans will only make things worse.

From what I can see (and the staff at my coffee haunts will often bring me their maths/science problems), students are no longer asked to approximate anything, and this may stem from the human-intensive activity required to mark approximations (including hand-drawn sketch graphs).

It’s not that the kids are stupid, because it only takes a few minutes to give them what they need: the unit circle for trigonometry, real-world examples for calculus (acceleration, speed, distance), and playtime with a makeshift slide-rule for logarithms and indices.  I’m sure there are analogous things for many parts of other subjects (apart from irregular verbs).

The response from students to a "why and wherefore" is usually amazing: "Why don’t they teach us that way rather than just give us lots of formulae?", or "Wow!  If I know that diagram I don’t have to remember anything else!", or "So that’s what indices really are!", or "I won’t panic in my exam, because I know I can sanity-check my work if I have to".

Here’s an example question that gets a very different response before and after a bit of grounding, using indices and logarithms as an example:

Without using a calculator, just pencil and paper, in under two minutes, approximate the value of the natural logarithm of the square root of e to two or more decimal places?

Before?  This gets a look as if you are asking the impossible.  After?  You get a look of derision for asking such a simple question.

Here another diagnostic, for whether a kid understands what calculus is about:

Here is a sketch of a cartesian function’s curve (no values included on the x or y axes).  Without even knowing what that function is, sketch the derivative and integral curves.

But what can we expect of an education system where universities themselves rely on the production of graduates that are ill-prepared for a working life?

After all, if an information technology degree imparted an understanding of information management and programming issues, there’d be no need for further courses every five years just because another language or version of an operating system comes along!

Then again, increases in the number of people going through post-tertiary vocational training are generally considered a good thing by politicians… as everyone forgets that except where people are changing disciplines, there shouldn’t be much of a need for such courses if the normal bachelor degree was worth the paper it was printed on.

What did Confucious say?

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.  Teach him to fish, and you feed him for life.

I guess our educational institutions are only taking the money, and handing over the fish.

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