On 17 November there is an online event bringing together a number of well known and fascinating people in the name of addressing the eternal problem of how to engage young minds in maths and science. I applaud this effort…yet looking through the notables, I am reminded that there is a constant gap that persists in educational outreach, where those who deal with the issue day in and day out might be forgiven for believing they evidently have nothing to contribute to the presentation in spite of their experience.
Of any profession, I’d lay a heavy bet that education ranks amongst the hardest to pull in star speakers. While you’d be hard pressed to find a politician, actor, writer or sporting celebrity who wouldn’t happily promote education as important in modern society (stay in school, kids!), finding one who might attend a gathering of teachers, principles or educationalists (such as academics in pedagogy) is a Herculean task. And who can blame them; given the realistic nature of many of the papers and presentations, it’s hardly considered to be the most glamorous of engagements. Getting popular faces to speak on education might be an impossible challenge.
Yet here we are; rationalist events such as The Amazing Meeting – where intellectual celebrities gather to fire the passion of an audience to go out and change how people form beliefs – are becoming more common. Skeptics in the Pub gatherings are multiplying through taverns faster than London flames in 1666. There is an obvious desire for public ignorance to be attacked and science and rationality to be championed. For so long, educators have dreamed of a day when a popular force would step up and offer them a hand in developing and disseminating decent resources, perhaps even helping them encourage their students with an inspiring word and fight the good fight.
And yet…something is still missing. Like a tornado, the blustering whirlwind is relatively empty inside. Of all of the celebrities who speak publicly on educational matters, the smallest minority have any experience in actually teaching. Of those, even fewer have extended studies in educational practices, curriculum design or epistemology. That doesn’t make them less inspiring or less passionate, yet where is the expertise? Where are the voices from the coal face itself?
I’ve been personally told I’m mistaken, and that any form of outreach can be considered educational. Those who speak on television, write books or regularly stand before a hall of tertiary students and instruct them in the mechanics of chemistry are still teachers. By some regard, they might be considered to imbue others with information, ergo ‘teach’. But to risk pedantry, there is something of a difference between presenting information and engaging with a learner. In today’s world, there is a glut of presenters, and a famine of educators.
In an online Guardian article, teacher, science writer and film maker Alom Shaha ruffled feathers by asking why skeptics seemed to be happier talking to other skeptics rather than engaging with the public. While the responses varied from supportive to defensive (not to mention the irony of a number of skeptics dismissing the message out of a distaste for the tone in which it was delivered), I question how many subsequently contacted their nearest school to inquire about running a monthly science club, or looked up programs where they might get more involved in community education programs. How many asked if they could talk to students about media, or physics, or health? I wonder how many Australian skeptics read it and decided to ask around about national programs like Scientists in Schools, and perhaps invite a local representative to talk at their next pub event.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been told by somebody how ‘broken’ the education system is. And, fair enough, everybody is entitled to an opinion. Yet if it’s broken, there is the question of how to fix it, which means knowing precisely why it’s broken and what can be done about it beyond complain.
I believe this surge in rationalist gatherings is worth encouraging, especially when they advertise their desire for improving the education of others. The virtual town hall meeting described above is by no means to be dismissed, providing worthy inspiration for students.
But education is problematic precisely because it is a difficult field to tease apart. Inspiration is necessary, but limited in its impact. If the issue was simple, there would be no crying out for skilled teachers. Resources would be relatively easy for anybody to construct. Curricula would not be difficult to write. There’d be no education gap. While there is a need for inspirational role models, there is a greater need for a meeting of experienced minds who can offer insight into the reality behind all matters pedagogical.
As long as there is a willful ignorance on what education is and is not, there will be no solutions. While education remains to be seen as an expertless discipline, where there is a substantial gap between those who orate on solutions and those who better understand the actual nuts and bolts of the real problem, there will be a lot of steam with little progress out of the station.