Tuesday 29 November 2016

STEM future

Last week saw the launch of another report about the future of teaching STEM [Science Technology Engineering Maths] in schools. As a country we've given up on de Valera's vision of dancing at the cross-roads and making butter; and have signed up to a business model where we whore ourselves out to multinational Pharma and InfoTech. It's sort of working: the Pharmaceutical Biotech industry has created a number of jobs in various peculiar locations around the country depending on which TD was minister of employment at the time when the IDA struck a deal to provide a shed and tax-breaks in return for jobs-for-voters. A lot of Viagra is being manufactured in Cork. The IT sector has seen a great many of the tech giants set up their European Hubs in Ireland; not usually in Ballygobackwards because the broadband is not there. AirBnB, Dropbox, eBay, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Oracle, PayPal, Twitter, Yahoo, Yelp in Dublin; Apple in Cork; Uber in Limerick; Cisco in Galway. And of course a rake of other billion $ companies so hip and trendy that I haven't heard of them.

The argument is that Irish school leavers are highly educated, fluent in English, reasonably docile and so this is a good place to recruit interns. If the education is so cracking good, it will also serve as a come-on to more senior executives who will have children and don't want, or can't afford, to ship them to Switzerland for the International Baccalaureate.  As my Boston boss explained to me when the U.S. Morrison Visa program allocated 16,000 work-visa to the Irish in the 1990s "If you ask an Irish kid to saw a baulk of timber into three equal lengths, they have the math; the average US high schooler wouldn't know where to begin". As the father of three successful working autodidacts, I have my doubts about whether Irish schools really deliver the goods. And when I see the extent of math knowledge among incoming students to The Institute, I get to be afraid for our ability to thrive as a technological nation.

If there's a problem, real or imagined, form a committee and have them write a report. That's the Irish Way. It keeps the optics polished. We wouldn't want to address the niggling idea that some teachers are scarcely competent drones who are 'teaching' to such a curriculum-crammed schedule that they can barely think straight, let alone have creative and inspiring ideas about how to convey the difficult concepts. We had a diktat from our Union last week that we workers at the coal-face of education should resist any move to allow our Heads of Department sit in the back of one of our classes. When I had a part-time contract at the place 10 years ago we were obliged to hand out and collect evaluation forms at the end of each module . . . but that these were to be treated as private to the lecturer. I asked my senior class for feedback in the last lecture-slot and was gobsmacked at the response.  The lazy, the out-of-depth, the out-of-date could thus carry on teaching the same-old same-old regardless of how useful / useless was the process for the students.

And the report? It says that STEM teachers should be formally qualified in the subjects they teach. Having the gym-guy teaching remedial biology will no longer be acceptable. That's an optics solution, if ever. You may have a brilliant, inspirational physics teacher who has been doing the biz for 20 years churning out top qual graduates who will now have to take evening classes to get a redundant slip of paper. The crap physics teacher may get better if he has to sit the Leaving Cert himself but then it might be better for everyone if he was let go entirely.

Then the report  has predictable gender-balance aspirations. As if when we have more girls signing  for physics we'll have sorted the fact that Google and LinkedIn will later pay them 79c on the dollar compared to their male counterparts. If you make physics interesting and relevant, girls are sharp enough to dump the gender stereotypes and embrace the madness of the inclined plane.

And now, according the the Minister of Educ., Richard Bruton, within a couple of years we'll have a Leaving Certificate in Computer Science, including coding. That last phrase must be important because it is used twice in the RTE report of the report launch.
Q. How can you teach computer science without coding !?!?
A1. The way you teach the calculus without ever giving an example of its use outside the classroom.
A2. The way they taught me french for ten years in school and I couldn't buy a loaf of bread in Paris.

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