The real education gap

The teacher had to stay back to do their homework.

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.

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Published in: on November 16, 2010 at 1:47 pm  Comments (13)  
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  1. Can’t help but agree with much of what you’ve written here – I am constantly frustrated by the spouting of opinions on “how we should teach” by “experts” who have little or no real knowledge of how school / formal education works beyond their own time in school – often decades ago.

    I have to declare that, since writing that piece in The Guardian, I have been contacted by a number of skeptics, some of whom I would happily work with, but some of whom simply want to use me to promote their own agenda, not really engage with what students and teachers might *actually* need. The arrogance is astounding as is the subtle disrespect they display for me as a professional. Some of these so-called skeptics are far from skeptical about their ideas, an irony that seems to escape them.

    Ok, so it looks like I’m skeptic-bashing again, but you know what? Someone needs to be sceptical about the skeptics…

  2. Thanks for the response, Alom. It’s good to know that there is an ‘affirmative’ to my question of the impact your piece made, and I take that on board. You do touch on an interesting point, though; the question of the difference between wanting people to accept a belief versus the development of thinking skills or a general interest in a discipline. I fear a lot of skeptics are more interested in the former than the latter.

    I’m constantly reminded of a point made by Deanna Kuhn in one of her books – (to paraphrase) when it comes to education, politics and law enforcement, there’s no such thing as an expert.

  3. Yes engaging the genuinely curious (fellow skeptics) is the easy part.

    For the rest, I suspect most attendees of TAM already have in mind a desire to have all young people taught Critical Thinking skills. That topic comes up often.

    The assumption being that there already exists some form of education that’s known (shown by the evidence) to achieve the desired outcomes. Presumably schools that produce adults more discerning between good information and the not-so-good. I surely hope this assumption holds true.

    I hope too that there exists the equivilent for successfully teaching young people other useful (and traditionally adult) topics such as introductory philosophy, about world religions, human well-being, democracy, etc. But perhaps I am being naive?

  4. Blamer, one thing I’m discovering is that while a lot of people who might attend events like TAM would state they desire children to learn critical thinking skills, I’m not confident a lot really even know what this implicitly means.

    “The assumption being that there already exists some form of education that’s known (shown by the evidence) to achieve the desired outcomes.”

    There is. While there is no single, sure-fire way of promoting an evaluative epistemology in others (especially children), some methods are better than others. It’s a rich area of research. And while the research isn’t always definitive, it is better than guessing or relying on one’s distant memories of the classroom. I only just came across this paper today, in fact: http://bit.ly/9vHKr4

    Like most things in science, it’s a field open to research, debate and investigation. Which is why it’s unfortunate that those people who arguably stand to reap the rewards from such studies or benefit from implementing their findings are also the ones who remain somewhat ignorant on it.

    “I hope too that there exists the equivilent for successfully teaching young people other useful…topics”

    There is. Philosophy programs exist in Australian schools, for instance. I’ve taught comparative religion and cover healthcare in science and other disciplines. Some schools cover such topics better than others. What is disappointing is that so few skeptics really know much about the system they wish produced more critical thinkers.

  5. A thoughtful piece. I would be interested in your suggestions as to the solution.

    For instance, should the current generation of “presenters” (by which I include scientists who would like to help educate people) who have homes, families, mortgages etc, be encouraged to become educators? And how might that work?

    Is this a problem of not enough teachers? Or not enough schools and resources? If the former, do we have to wait for the next crop of school leavers to go and study teaching, or can we do this better, sooner?

    I ask because I am one of those ‘scientists who’d do some teaching’ (or at least thinks he is one of those) but I find it impossible to find a pathway (because my other committments preclude training in education as the timetables and things are ‘traditional’).

    Another thing:
    I notice that some of the skeptics out there are former teachers. Perhaps they could educate the skeptics on the system we all fail to understand.

  6. Thanks for your response, mike. First of all, I think the issue is that it is commonly thought to be a single solution. While I don’t think you intentionally used a definitive, ‘the’ solution is often how it is presented to me. I think the issue is complex and needs different approaches that are evaluated, based on prior experiences and are coordinated with goals and performance indicators in mind.

    Nonetheless, I think there are a few things to consider here. One is the culture of how education is viewed as something everybody has equal experience in, where it is ill defined and barely debated as a concept. I went into education after a career as a scientist who found a place in the skeptical community. I did it to better understand how people learned and formed beliefs. Ironically, it was only when I tried to engage skeptics in what I was learning that I grew frustrated with grassroots skepticism and distanced myself from it.

    “For instance, should the current generation of “presenters” … who have homes, families, mortgages etc, be encouraged to become educators?”

    I note your emphasis on the time demands on scientists. You’ll find a few articles on my blog which present my views on scientists being encouraged to be presenters and educators as well, which for the reason you allude to, I’m not in favour of. My point is not that there should be no presenters, but that there is a love affair with science presentation while science education is relegated to the shadows.

    “Is this a problem of not enough teachers? Or not enough schools and resources? If the former, do we have to wait for the next crop of school leavers to go and study teaching, or can we do this better, sooner?”

    Neither. It is a culture problem where educational expertise is diminished in light of celebrity opinion and an over-reliance on science presentation as if it were synonymous with education. It is that we can readily find numerous celebrity academics and intellectuals talking up science education, but very rarely do we have relevant experts discussing the real challenges, critically evaluating strategies and having their opinions sought on what education is about in the real world.

    “I ask because I am one of those ‘scientists who’d do some teaching’ … but I find it impossible to find a pathway….”

    If you’re based in Australia, I can easily help you out there with suggestions on where your experience can be of benefit. In any case, it isn’t a matter of personally needing to be an expert in education if you’re a scientist. Working with a local school – even just delivering a talk or participating in a science club – can be a good start. Some schools will of course be more accommodating than others, however it does not diminish the fact the need for better collaboration exists.

    “I notice that some of the skeptics out there are former teachers. Perhaps they could educate the skeptics on the system we all fail to understand.”

    Not only former teachers – but current ones as well. There are also cognitive psychologists, curriculum designers, board members and all manner of other people with varying degrees of educational experience. Some do a good job of speaking up. Kylie Sturgess of Podblack is one example. So is Alom Shaha. ICBS Everywhere blog writer Barb Drescher is extremely knowledgeable in the field. I admit, the JREF has finally brought on board an educational consultant, Michael Blanford. They exist. Maybe once the celebrities have cleared away, and we’ve heard from the other voices, there just might be a moment when they can speak. In some circles, such as DragonCon, it does happen. Sadly, at events such as TAM, education isn’t regarded as an expert field.

  7. Thanks for your considered response!

    I see your point (and see that I’d missed the central point) about the culture. It is interesting how ‘public intellectuals’ are able to pass judgment on the topic without much in the way of personal expertise, and yet would not expect the same treatment in their own field. An interesting state of affairs indeed.

    Perhaps if more stories came out of education experts in TAM like forums? I don’t know the answer there – fact is that there are so many blogs and talk fests out there, I’ve probably missed 90% of them.

    To cite personal experience (and I know this is precisely one of your gripes) I have to say that my skepticism and rational thinking crusade comes not from my school or uni education, but from what I have read as an adult whilst in the workforce – ergo, it is the presenters who finally got my attention. However, that doesn’t diminish the solid grounding I received in school (its just that it wasn’t put in a skeptical frame there).

    I worry about the ‘preaching to the converted’ aspect of TAM, but then I’ve not been to one. I do love how TED talks are online though. But I’m an easy win-over on this stuff BECAUSE of my education and ways of thinking. How to get to the ‘uninitiated’ – there’s the rub.

    I do hope, however, that the celebrity thing doesn’t stop completely. It is one of the very thing that draws an external audience. I really think that rational thought would suffer if these things were relegated back to the academic world and not given the air-time that they are given (largely because the likes of Myers, Dawkins etc are so popular).

    “Educating”, “teaching”, whatever it’s called, is something I’d like to do more of, at some level. I think you’re right, a talk can be a good start. Now, what to talk about?

    Another curiosity is the difference b/w researchers (which I’m not) and “professional” scientists (can’t think of a better term). Should we reach out more to people like me, who don’t have the benefit of a research career?

  8. “It is interesting how ‘public intellectuals’ are able to pass judgment on the topic without much in the way of personal expertise, and yet would not expect the same treatment in their own field.”

    It is something of a frustration. 🙂 As Alom said above, it is a matter of turning the tools of skepticism back onto its own outreach. It doesn’t make us very popular, but without doing so, we risk not just being hypocrites, but ineffective hypocrites.

    “Perhaps if more stories came out of education experts in TAM like forums?”

    Maybe. I suspect, however, that there are several confounding factors. One is that education isn’t as sexy as presentation. There are plenty more people who want to be on tv, radio, a writer, a show host etc. (or meet said presenter) than there are people who want to rub shoulders with a teacher, or listen to a talk on epistemological practices. I also think that like much in science, the overwhelming passion can’t be given a simple outlet. Joining a protest march or presenting a homeopathic suicide is far easier and more direct that the subtle social changes required to encourage critical thinking in diverse areas. Lastly, education is scary. Between litigation anxieties, fears of safely and ethically dealing with children, legal checks and apprehensions stemming from our own school days, it’s little wonder few people want to have much to do with education beyond conceptual contexts.

    “…However, that doesn’t diminish the solid grounding I received in school.”

    As I said, there’s plenty of room for the skeptical big names reinforcing the sense of rationalist community. But as you suggested, there is also a difference between learning how to critically evaluate information, and engaging with a community of like-minded individuals who make you feel comfortable about your beliefs (or lack of). We need to learn how people become critical thinkers and do more of that, rather than promoting pre-fashioned beliefs and rely on it as a short-cut for teaching critical thinking skills.

    “I do love how TED talks are online though. But I’m an easy win-over on this stuff BECAUSE of my education and ways of thinking. How to get to the ‘uninitiated’ – there’s the rub.”

    I couldn’t have phrased it better myself. 🙂

    “I do hope, however, that the celebrity thing doesn’t stop completely.”

    I don’t think it could even if we desired it (which, personally, I don’t). There will always be the celebrated leaders who rise to prominence for various reasons. My concern is that amongst the big names and influential voices, there are too few who make it their business to engage with the research on how people learn to think.

    “Now, what to talk about?”

    Honestly? Not skepticism. 🙂 Simple science concepts and numerous examples of demonstrations are efficient for their time and cost. I write a publication called Science by Email that is a free service with economical science activities for kids and teachers. Why not pick a few activities from the archive and share them with a group of kids to explain some of your favourite science concepts. The key is to have fun, encourage discussion (as per the article with the annoying number of pages that I tweeted) and encourage kids to explore the concept through playing with it. From that, you make an evaluative epistemology easier to develop.

    “Should we reach out more to people like me, who don’t have the benefit of a research career?”

    I was a medical scientist, rather than a researcher. I think all people with a passion for science should be encouraged to do contribute what they can. Not everybody needs to be in the limelight – the smallest contributions in the right place can do far more than the most popular presenter.

  9. “Honestly? Not skepticism. 🙂 Simple science concepts and numerous examples of demonstrations are efficient for their time and cost. ”

    Yep, I agree. I leave skepticism to adults who are still interested (and hopefully a few who are going to be interested if you just gently bash them over the head with it a little!). Mind you, socially, if I happen to be talking to a teenager, I’m not afraid to speak to them about these things in ‘adult terms’, especially if they seem up to it. “Adult”, in the 18+ sense, is pretty arbitrary anyway.

    To me, the real value is in what you said – to reach out and actually show what is great about scientific discovery and to demonstrate how that was obtained. That is why I am a big fan of docos like Attenborough’s – if it sparks curiosity and interest, then the battle is half-won. Same applies to shows like “Sleek Geeks”, although frankly I don’t like the title, as when I grew up, ‘geek’ was derogatory (and I copped it!). I think it still is and I harbour doubts to the efficacy of “reclaiming a word” here.

    I’ll look at “Science by Email”. Sounds interesting (though I never really encounter groups of kids to be honest!! I think I have a minor kid phobia!! Is that bad for a teacher? Kidding!)

  10. Really good post Michael, and lots to think about in your comments.

    Can you clarify something for me though? Are you saying that skeptics should not be teaching on traditional skeptical topics but rather the basics of critical thinking and science as methodology? I’m not arguing, because I think there’s always room for that (even among skeptics). I’m just not quite clear on exactly what you think skeptics should be doing more of in the way of outreach.

  11. Really appreciate your response and that link, TS.

    I agree. Education and science are intrinsically constructive endeavours that require deeper levels of understanding and engagement by us TAM enthusiasts who’re currently looking in through our (potentially non-constructive) lenses of skepticism, rationalism, atheism.

  12. Leo: Personally, I have no issue with anybody presenting on a topic, even if it is a persuasive argument as to why X should or should not be believed. I do find it frustrating, however, when education is generalised in such a vague manner that such presentations have come to represent the sum of the educational issue.

    I feel that there needs to be a greater understanding of what education comprises. As comments here have politely demonstrated, there is agreement on education being an important issue worth addressing, yet there is no active effort to learn more about it. There are plenty of presenters or university lecturers willing to talk about education in non-specific terms, but educational experts are all but unheard from, let alone encouraged to participate in an informed discussion. I get sick of hearing from presenters how we should ‘make science fun’ for kids…yet believe me, as somebody whose nine-to-five job deals with science engagement for children, such a statement couldn’t be more simplistic to the point of being virtually useless.

    By all means, there should be talks on why homeopathy is nonsense, or why Bigfoot probably doesn’t exist. Have presentations that make science fun and appealing, or television programs that aim to engage the public with science. I think they’re beneficial, and I see no harm in having such resources available. But if skeptics are interested in changing HOW people think, they need to stop treating education as a unidirectional, deficit-model method of teaching and engaging with the experts on how they can develop suitable programs for developing an appropriate epistemology in others.

  13. […] up – Mike McRae from The Tribal Scientist talks about the real education gap – between science and maths communicators and their students – and makes some really […]


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