Is it Dedication or Delusion?

“Delusion is the seed of dreams.”
Lailah Gifty Akita

Educational reform is a never-ending process, which is, in many ways, good.  The purpose of educational institutions is to provide the best education possible.  The individual teacher learns from experience and improves over time.  Research into learning and cognition lead to better understandings of how people learn and therefor better ways to teach.

However, even with our continually improving knowledge, changes in education seem painfully slow or to not occur at all.  A consistent problem is classroom size.  While just about anyone that has studied education will agree that the best way to teach someone is with a dedicated teacher in a one on one environment (feel free to disagree I would love to hear your reasons). However, in a society that wants education especially higher education available to everyone one on one education is not possible.

Don’t believe me look at the numbers.  According to the US census bureau, there are 76.4 million students in school K through University.  That means we would need 76.4 million teachers if we paid them an average living wage including overhead each teacher would make $41,923 – $46,953 (still a little low if you ask me)  this works out to 3.2 – 3.5 trillion dollars or 17-19% of the US Gross National Product.  As a comparison, the budget for the US national government was 21% of the GDP in 2015.  Also, 76.4 million students are 24.7% of the US population, three and older, if we also had 24.7% of the US population working as teachers, then almost half of the US population would be students or teachers. Remember we would still need all the support staff, and these are with current numbers, not what we would need for everyone eligible for school.

I don’t think any country can afford to devote that much of their population and resources to one thing and survive.  As someone that loves education, I would love it if some economist out there proves me wrong.  So, class size is a compromise between what we can afford to do and the best environment for our students.

However, outside of issues that are constrained by shall we call it a reality.  We have all seen programs and projects that we think can help students get canceled.  We have all seen programs developed by grants get canceled the second the grant ends.  The loss of these programs is not only that future students will not benefit, but also the loss of resources, including time, commitment, and motivation of staff.

I have been asked after several of my programs have been canceled “how many times are you going to keep building programs that just get canceled?” It’s an interesting question and one that is not easy to answer.  I was at the University of Colorado Boulder when Carl Wieman won the 2001 Noble prize for Physics.  After winning the Nobel prize, Wieman went on to advocate for the improvement of science education.  To the extent that he was appointed the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy Associate Director of Science in 2010.  In 2013 I remembered reading an article Crusader for Better Science Teaching Finds Colleges Slow to Change that was about Dr. Weiman and his frustrations with the slow changes in higher education “… Mr. Wieman is out of the White House. Frustrated by university lobbying and distracted by a diagnosis of multiple myeloma, an aggressive cancer of the circulatory system, he resigned last summer. … “I’m not sure what I can do beyond what I’ve already done,” Mr. Wieman says.”

You can’t help but think if someone with the prestige and influence of Carl Weiman can’t encourage change what hope does anyone else have.  The truth of the matter is that how much someone can take and when they have had enough is a personal question.  When thinking about how much is enough, I can’t help but think of a humorous little fable Nasreddin and the Sultan’s Horse.  I have encountered versions of this fable many times.  I think the first time was in the science fiction book The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

Nasreddin and the Sultan’s Horse

One day, while Nasreddin was visiting the capital city, the Sultan took offense to a joke that was made at his expense. He had Nasreddin immediately arrested and imprisoned; accusing him of heresy and sedition. Nasreddin apologized to the Sultan for his joke and begged for his life; but the Sultan remained obstinate, and in his anger, sentenced Nasreddin to be beheaded the following day. When Nasreddin was brought out the next morning, he addressed the Sultan, saying “Oh Sultan, live forever! You know me to be a skilled teacher, the greatest in your kingdom. If you will but delay my sentence for one year, I will teach your favorite horse to sing.”

The Sultan did not believe that such a thing was possible, but his anger had cooled, and he was amused by the audacity of Nasreddin’s claim. “Very well,” replied the Sultan, “you will have a year. But if by the end of that year you have not taught my favorite horse to sing, then you will wish you had been beheaded today.”

That evening, Nasreddin’s friends could visit him in prison and found him in unexpected good spirits. “How can you be so happy?” they asked. “Do you really believe that you can teach the Sultan’s horse to sing?” “Of course not,” replied Nasreddin, “but I now have a year which I did not have yesterday, and much can happen in that time. The Sultan may come to repent of his anger and release me. He may die in battle or of illness, and it is traditional for a successor to pardon all prisoners upon taking office. He may be overthrown by another faction, and again, it is traditional for prisoners to be released at such a time. Or the horse may die, in which case the Sultan will be obliged to release me.”

“Finally,” said Nasreddin, “even if none of those things come to pass, perhaps the horse can sing.”

In 2017 I read an article from Inside Higher Ed Smarter Approach to Teaching Science.  The article talks about a book (Improving How Universities Teach Science: Lessons from the Science Education Initiative) written by Carl Weiman that documents the research and methods to improve science teaching in higher education.  It seems that Dr. Weiman did not give up after all, and he is back and still pushing.  Perhaps the truth is that people that try and change the monolith must be a little bit crazy if crazy is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome. Then again, maybe the horse will learn to sing.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

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