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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Education Reform

I complained about school pretty much nonstop while I was in it, and now that I am a teacher, I see even more that I dislike. Nonetheless, education is important and it is useless to criticize without proposing alternatives. Here are a few of my ideas:

1. Less grading

In real life, some things have to be properly almost all the time (e.g. landing an airplane) or they just need to be done well enough. Evaluating everything is not really necessary. Grading also wastes time and encourages cheating.

2. Fewer assignments

Matching, multiple choice, fill in the blank: these are objective and easy to grade but do not require much thought. A smaller number of meaningful assignments will be more instructive than a continual flood of busy work. All assignments should involve a tangible result: writing an essay, drawing a picture, building something, etc.

3. Exit test

It is completely possible to graduate from high school (in the US at least) without having learned much. You can't drive a car legally without passing a test; so a high school diploma should be issued until you can demonstrate a certain minimum set of skills. An exit test would clear out the ambitious students and give the underachievers a reason to study.

4. More opportunities vocational training

There are jobs beside doctor, lawyer, engineer, etc. All jobs are important and can be rewarding. So why all the emphasis on academics?

I teach upper-level math at a high school in Tanzania. The students are generally hard-working and motivated, and the administration are supportive. My only real complaint is the laser-like focus on academics when about 1% of the students who begin primary school here will make it to university. The first president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, chose education as one of the priorities of the new independent nation he lead. In regard to reform of the existing colonial education system, he said:

"We should not determine the types of things children are taught in primary schools by the things a doctor, engineer, teacher, economist, or administator need to know. Most of our pupils will never be any of these things."

"It [education] must not be aimed at university entrance."

And yet the current education system is largely geared toward university entrance. I would interested in finding out how much control donor agencies like the World Bank have in the content and structure of Tanzania's education system. I will try to teach math as best I can and encourage my students to pursue their ambitions.

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