It’s a national holiday in Canada, Canada Day, and I am working at the university. Despite this, I wanted to share with you a post by Danika Barker, an Ontario teacher at my former high school, entitled My Toaster is Broken: An Analogy about the Current State of Education. Danika is witty, insightful (check out these analogies) and integrates blogs, nings and other tech tools with her classes. Plus, she’s been “putting the racy in literacy since 2008”–with this paragon of characteristics, who could resist a new follow?
Most of my teaching career has not been in the public sector, so I cannot truthfully comment too much on the current state of elementary or secondary education, but in the private sector, what I can suggest are two broken toaster parts: first, teachers are often in a popularity contest by vacation English students. Student evaluations of teachers often occur on a monthly basis, and those that are younger, cooler and have the trendy personality do quite well usually. Sure, without being prepared and knowledgeable too, students will complain, but in any case, responsibility is solely placed on the teacher to rectify the situation. For this reason, employers can be quite selective with regards to age, appearance and personality, and less so about experience. This perpetuates the edutainment business and our lack of respect as a profession.
Beyond this, many schools still design their syllabi from a grammar-based, prescribed course-book, PPP-style approach. When teachers do what they’re told and follow the book (in part to justify its purchase), students can be left feeling a lack of improvement, especially with regards to communication. Consequently, employers prematurely open an optional course, attractively titled something like Focus on Speaking, not knowing much about how to administer this course except that students should speak a lot and leave grammar out so as not to overlap. Both are fundamental issues that need addressing without the bandaid fixes. The bottom line is that the private sector is a business first, which does not bode entirely well for academics.
Currently, I collaboratively teach in a content-driven EAP model at University of Toronto, which for the most part, I’m very proud of. Without going into too much detail for this blog post (I’ll write a proper post on it sometime soon), our department has had primary freedom to design the courses the way we feel will most benefit students towards their future academic success. Still early on, we continue to work out kinks noticed in the previous year and modify the program accordingly. Having said this, we are confined by the university grading system and their pass/fail cut offs. Students continue to be driven by marks as their emphasis continues to be proven by credits and subsequent acceptance or rejection from succeeding years’ classes. What I’ve noticed in the Arts & Science faculty, however, is that short of not completing a few assignments or missing the final exam entirely, it would take a certain effort to actually fail.
As much as anyone would like to abandon standardisation and rubric-based grading, it simply cannot be done until everyone agrees to do so–something I don’t see happening, at least in higher education systems, anytime soon. Wishing it will happen, tweeting repeatedly or constant blogging about it often is just preaching to the choir. Yes, let’s keep the discussion open; let’s keep the hope there; let’s show by example; let’s work with the systems we are given and find ways to motivate students, collaborate learning with students and create individual assignments that can manipulate the grading in a fair way. By nature, teachers are inventive and it’s that inventiveness, that resourcefulness, that gives us power to move beyond the talk and into action.