All posts by phocomelus

Less austerity, more philosophy


When deprived of funding educational systems respond by centralization and efficiency. These concepts make sense when mass-manufacturing ketchup, but undermine curiosity, creativity, and wisdom when applied to education.

The logic of efficiency demands that more be done with less. Inevitably, this translates to teachers having more students with the same time available to teach them. In consequence, teachers have less time to establish a rapport with their students and must learn to treat them like they are all the same tomato being squished into the same bottle. Over-standardization and the installation of often-inflexible rules, at all levels, is the outcome. Ministers, administrators, and teachers must employ ever more efficient methods to assess outcomes and demonstrate progress. In Cegep, where learning the names of 120 students is already challenging, the human-ness of students recedes. In short: education – when funneled through the logic of efficiency – is at threat of becoming cold, impersonal, and soulless.

All is not lost, to be sure. Knowledge, as the saying goes, is generated. Vocabulary is improved, logic is strengthened, morals are considered, and skills are acquired. Society benefits from this. But at risk of being lost is a whole set of skills that are at the heart of learning, even if they are not easily quantifiable, or quantifiable at all.

Ignoring the triaging tactics that assessment and feedback demand of large classes, consider how efficiency and the overloading of classes alter the nature of conversation. There is the risk of there being no conversation, for starters. In a classroom of 40 – 42 students – typical of Cegep – there may be too many personalities, too much social pressure, and too many people for an open and inclusive conversation to develop. This can be a curse for the social sciences and humanities, in particular. What should be a dialogue, dialectic, conversation, etc. may become an extended monologue. Some larger classes can develop great discussions, to be sure, and some teachers are particularly effective in such settings. Quite often, though, the same 3 or 4 personalities dominate, while most others remain silent, often in opposition to the more confident personalities. Knowing that they will not be called upon, many students recede into their cell-phones or internal preoccupations where they have more skin in the game, so to speak. Whatever they miss in class they will make up for with cramming later. The more students that teachers have to instruct, the greater the distance between them and their students, and the more the educational system becomes less responsive to students’ thought processes.

I was recently speaking with a student about a project that she was developing on whether violent imagery perpetuates violent behaviour. The student is smart, patient, and creative, and she was applying a unique and thoughtful analysis to a question that is wrought with clichés and oversimplifications. While speaking with her she divulged that she believes in the theory that aliens have built the pyramids. I prompted her by suggesting that the type of experts she has used as sources for her class project are similar to the experts that, by consensus, reject the idea that aliens built the pyramids. ‘Yeah, well we all know about “experts”,’ was the reply.

My mind began to race as the words fell from her mouth. Here we have one of the more able students in the class – a 90s student who can deliver a 15 page, university-level, APA formatted analysis – who by her own words does not trust the sources that she is using to deliver her work, but knows that they are required in order to gain good grades. Administrators can check all of the boxes for her in terms of “meeting competencies”, “obtaining objectives”, “demonstrating knowledge”, etc. without knowing that she doesn’t believe in any of it and is probably more concerned about the dangers of chemtrails (not unlikely given the way ideas overlap).

It occurred to me that this could be an excellent learning opportunity. By what criteria can we establish truth about the building of the pyramids? If the criteria are defined and accepted, does one or the other theory better survive the scrutiny demanded by the criteria? This situation could have been developed into an engaging exercise in the philosophy of science, and might have reframed the way that she approaches important questions throughout her life. As I thought all of this I realized that her time was up and that the next student was at the door, waiting for her 10 minutes of conversation time. We had to leave it there. Next.

Geoffrey Pearce – Montreal, Qc

Why We Strike

student-demo-20150321Over the upcoming weeks you will be seeing an increase in footage and reporting about Quebec teachers on strike and protesting. I wanted to take this opportunity to give you a bit of context that will most likely not be provided by news outlets so that you understand what is being protested.

The popular perception of teacher protests is that they are mainly motivated by cuts to salaries and benefits. While this is undoubtedly a motivator, I do not think that I speak only for myself when I say that this is not the primary issue that is bringing me to the picket line. We have already accustomed ourselves to salary increases that lag behind the cost of living, and while the proposed salary freeze is even more regrettable, it is only the tip of the iceberg.

Mixbook Beautiful Possibilities A Graphic Introduction to the Examined Life by John Faithful Hamer - Google Chrome 2015-09-27 103535 PMFor me, the main concern is a series of proposals whose effect would be to undermine the quality of education that students receive by reducing the autonomy, working conditions, and quality of living of teachers. We are being asked to increase class size and work load, to allow non-departmental figures to select department chairs and coordinators, and to deal with budget squeezing that has already had a marked effect, among other proposals.

IMG_3390But the most toxic issue by a long shot is one that you have probably never heard of: the continued growth of the two class education system that is taking over Cegeps and has already poisoned higher education systems across North America. While day teachers enjoy a decent salary and good working conditions, Cont Ed teachers must perform the same job as day teachers but at a much lower salary and with access to fewer resources and less support. The students in Cont Ed classes often come from underprivileged backgrounds and have weaker skill sets. They clearly require more support, and yet they are placed in a situation where they must pay more than daytime students for classes taught by teachers who are given working conditions that discourage any extra effort, and that do not pay them for the obvious efforts that they already make. Try to tell a teacher worthy of the name that they do not have to meet, speak, or correspond with students outside of class time because they are not paid to do so (which they are not). The teachers that I know feel a moral and professional obligation to do this regardless of whether they are paid for it, and it is an insulting policy to assume that teachers should appeal to their pay check to excuse themselves from the basic duties of their profession.

411704_10150630542152683_897430939_oThe corporatized lens through which education is increasingly filtered will mean that the public will probably not hear about these issues. The proposed cuts are ways of promoting “efficiency”. Teachers must learn to “do more with less”. Cont Ed is a great “profit centre”, even if this profit is at the expense of anyone who should profit from it (students and teachers, in case you were wondering). Austerity is “inevitable” (it is not). Given the climate where this type of thinking dominates, it is not surprising that Cont Ed has experienced rapid growth at a time when daytime enrolment is projected to decline.

It is a cliche to point out that investing in education is investing in the future, and since we have heard the cliche so many times we probably forget just how profoundly true it is. The ideas, skills, and values made possible by our education system determine the economic, social, and environmental well being of our country. If you have been disturbed by displays of ignorance over this election, you might have a sense of what is at stake.

Investment in teachers and their working conditions is an investment in students and the future that they will create. The more that this system provides teachers with good working conditions and benefits, and ways of implementing creativity and innovation, the better the outcome for students and society. This is not something that should be so readily compromised.

—Geoffrey Pearce, Dawson College (Westmount, Quebec)