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Education Standards

I often hear interesting stories of apparent incompetence from many different areas, and education is no exception. I wont mention any names, or even the school involved, because it is unfair to criticise individuals without giving them the chance to defend themselves. Yes, I know that I do that to public figures but I think that by becoming politicians, entertainers, etc these people no longer require the protection of anonymity.

First I want to mention a materials scientist who was being interviewed in a podcast who claimed the atomic number of iron was 56 and that it had an odd number of electrons. I’m a computer consultant/programmer and have only a passing interest in chemistry but even I know the atomic weight of iron is (approximately) 56 and that it’s atomic number is actually 26. Also, last time I checked, 26 is an even number, not odd!

I guess it’s easy to say something in a pressure situation like a public interview that you would know is wrong if you thought about it in a more relaxed situation but I hear this sort of stuff all the time. Many of the computer technology commentators I hear interviewed for example say some really interesting stuff. The basic knowledge of the public regarding sci-tech is poor enough already without them being mislead by “experts”.

But why is the basic knowledge of science and technology so poor? Maybe it’s because the teaching of the subject is also poor. Here’s a few interesting stories from that school I mentioned above…

The ICT (information and communications technology) teacher uses Netscape Navigator as her web browser. According to Wikipedia (I wonder if she’s heard of that) the final release of Navigator was in 2007. And yes, it does matter, because the web is a very quickly evolving environment where browsers need to be constantly improved to keep up with new standards such as HTML5.

I have also heard in that class that the teacher is just as often the pupil because the more IT literate members of the class often have to show her how to do things. Sure, it’s tough trying to keep up with the latest in an area like IT but you would think a teacher might be able to do a bit better than that!

In the same school I have been told that the class was told by their social studies teacher that global warming is all made up. Luckily a lot of the class hold the teachers, and the school in general, in such low regard that they didn’t take them too seriously, but this is not only incompetent it’s actually malicious. Most global warming deniers have moved on from denying it is happening to denying that humans caused it. Maybe this clown hasn’t caught up with the latest dogma yet.

Again at this school (I have to say this is certainly not the best school in town but it’s not the worst either) there is a maths teacher who told his class that they would get detentions unless they learnt the New Zealand national anthem in Maori in a few days. This was just before the end of year exams when the students probably had more critical things to do. I don’t think he carried out the threat but I do wonder if anyone failed the exam because they learnt something totally useless instead.

Finally I want to recount another anecdote regarding ICT. During the end of year exam the computer systems were so badly set up that the exam had to be postponed. The computers took 30 minutes (I’m assured this is genuine but there may have been some exaggeration) to launch Word, and then the link to the internet failed. This was the PC lab and the Mac lab works better of course, but even so it does seem rather incompetent.

So these anecdotes indicate some teachers are out of date, ignorant, malicious, politically motivated and incompetent. Of course, it is easy to present any organisation in a bad light if you just list the bad points and ignore the good, and I’m sure there are good points about this school, although I can’t think of any right now. I am also sure that I could make any organisation look bad by listing incidents like this (I certainly could for one place in particular which I won’t name here).

You might think that a libertarian agenda of performance based pay and personality tests for new teachers might help in these situations but I don’t think so. The problem with paying on performance is the definition of that word. It often gets back to who is the best at filling out the paper work and who is most skilled at petty office politics rather than who is genuinely the best at their actual core job (teaching rather than filling in forms) so I have no confidence in that process. And the idea of requiring a personality test is frankly quite scary. I dread to think what sort of mindless automatons are likely to arise from a system like that.

So whatever the education system’s deficiencies might be I think it could be worse. The fact is half of the teachers we have are below average, but doesn’t that apply to everyone?

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