Banner
    Why A More Conservative Approach Would Fix Science Education
    By Hank Campbell | September 13th 2012 02:01 PM | 21 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0®.

    A wise man once said Darwin had the greatest idea anyone ever had. Others may prefer Newton or Archimedes...

    View Hank's Profile
    In a recent ScienceDebate questionnaire response, speechwriters for Candidate Mitt Romney tried to distinguish themselves from speechwriters for President Obama on education(1), and then proceeded to say the exact same thing Candidate Obama said in 2008 about education - that the union system of protecting the teachers who have been around the longest rather than rewarding the ones who are the best is a big mistake.
     
    Basically, Romney believes that science education should be more of a meritocracy - just like science is.  Oddly, scientists in academia, who support the idea of meritocracy in their jobs, disagree with it when they vote on other social issues.  Liberalism is not meritocracy, it is an economically tempered version of freedom and most scientists are liberals. A few, though a lot more in the humanities, are instead progressives and therefore social authoritarian and they have no business in any discussion that does not involve jeering and ridicule.  In science, while progressivism is a cancer, liberalism is essential - you instinctively know that transformative science is not done by being conservative. 

    Yet when it comes to raising kids, being conservative is essential; they can't make decisions for themselves, so we don't let them buy cigarettes or raw milk or anything else that could kill them. Those standards are always in flux; when I was a kid you could buy beer at 18 but today it is 21.(2) You can still go to war, you just can't legally have a beer after you shoot at terrorists, because you might hurt someone. Baffling, but evidence that despite what the shrillest kooks on the fringes will claim, a one-size-fits-all approach does not work and we should instead use the cultural tool that matches the goal.  We don't want people starving on the street but penalizing the best students in order to create a zero-defect mentality about the worst is not the way to have a 21st-century science enterprise. 

    Some countries embrace both liberalism and conservativism and simply use what works best. Let's talk about one.


    Kalevala heroes on wall of Old Student House, Helsinki.  Traditional, and therefore works better than newfangled experiments and union activism. Credit: Shutterstock

    In Finland, education is decentralized and primarily under teacher control.  Even the grading metric is customized. Children only take one standardized test, basically at the end of high school.

    A program with no accountability, subjective grading and the students don't even wear shoes?  That has to be left wing, right?  No, it's actually right wing, Finland's school culture is what they call 'pedagogical conservatism'. To see why it works we have to go back in time to the period before America became overrun by progressive tinkering and a modern union juggernaut that protects weak teachers at the expense of students, a topic Alex Berezow and I cover in detail in our science education section of Science Left Behind.

    By the end of the 19th century, more Americans than ever were getting an education and the overall baseline quality was consistent but it was harder for elites to stand out using that collectivist approach to education.  Enter John Dewey, a progressive full of new ideas about how to make education better - he championed an entirely new structure, with a core tenet that social acclimation was the key benefit of government-controlled education and his ideas were brought on by a desire to nurture the exceptional students.  A contemporary named E.L. Thorndike created a stimulus-response definition of intelligence that lent some science credibility to Dewey's beliefs.

    Thorndike
     imagined the human mind as a switchboard with neural bonds connecting stimuli and responses. He believed that students of higher intelligence formed those bonds more quickly than students of lower intellect, and by focusing on thinking rather than teaching facts, the schools would be more easily able to identify the students who matched his idea of intelligence ... With a plan for how elites could stand out from other students, Readin’, Ritin’, and ‘Rithmetic gave way to word problems, and vocational programs were created for those with less psychological “connectionism” aptitude. Progressives thereby were nurturing elites and meeting the labor demands of America's burgeoning industrial society.  

    (Science Left Behind, pp.182-184)
    You read that right; the benevolent paternalism of futuristic progressive education was to find students who did not match a psychologist's 1920s definition of intelligence and train them to be laborers for intellectual elites who did. Sounds dystopian and cynical, right?  It's actually what we have still today.  You can also thank Dewey for the legacy of the modern School Board populated by elected people who know nothing about education, and the lingering patriarchal system where a male superintendent oversees a workforce that is primarily female. 

    What has Finland instead done right and why do they embrace conservativism in education? One obvious thing is to disqualify the 'scientization of opinion':
    A professional disease among teachers is the tendency to individualize and psychologise
    problems. In other words, they look for reasons first of all in their own (or their pupils’ or
    principal’s) personalities, and are thereby blind to the factors that define and limit the action possibilities of teachers (and pupils).


    Den Dolda läroplanen [The hidden curriculum] (Broady, 1987) translation by Hannu Simola, University of Helsinki, Finland
    That's right, they treat education as an issue and do not make it about individuals.  No fluff about how it takes perfect teachers or that children have ADD or bad parents or anything else, teachers have to perform in their job, which is teaching.  Finland does not use education studies or test results as hammers in their culture war, to create new rules for governance and reasons for union control. By focusing on making the system the best possible, and not being handcuffed by tenure-based rules on who gets to teach, Finland achieves more parity than the US today, where we clearly see "have" and "have nots".

    The American education system instead uses under-performing schools to claim that more money will solve the problem, or advocate hiring more employees to replace the ones who quit out of frustration with a flawed system. We could learn another lesson from the Finns.  Finland has also cast off its agrarian school year mentality. Who insists that the patriarchal, be-home-to-plant-crops-during-the-summer school year of 1860 remain in effect even today?  Education unions, not parents. People forget that teachers only work 180 days per year (and that is being generous - California schools have dozens of 'minimum' and 'super-minimum' days designed to make sure the school gets a whole day of funding though no kids are being taught) while most Americans work 240 - that is two solid months of extra vacation time.  On a per-hour basis, teachers are paid quite well but student scores suffer in a legacy system no one in education wants to change; instead, when it is time for funding, unions note how 'low' the salaries are.

    Finland was among the last countries in Europe to establish compulsory education, they did not create a government system until 1921. The people there were so conservative 80% of the public was against it and yet now teaching is a prestigious profession; because you can fire bad teachers and not simply lay off  the new, enthusiastic ones. Competition, a meritocracy, has made teaching a high-class career where the best and brightest gather.

    In Finland, education is conservative and traditional yet collectivist, there is no focus on 'nurturing the individual' or framing education through social justice issues.  To American progressives, it's almost like a Pink Floyd song, except all the people complaining about being 'Another Brick In The Wall' failed to realize that subjective, ever-changing cultural engineering is actually a lousy way to teach.  Then those same people will note how poorly American students due on international standardized tests compared to Finland.

    So Finland is a right wing, capitalist nation?  Absolutely not, they are as collectivist as it gets economically too.  But they are not hampered by the simplistic left and right modes we get in modern American politics.  They can be collectivist about money and individualist about letting teachers have control and firing bad ones; they are collectivist about students being the priority, not teacher unions, and the result is a better education overall.  Liberal about economics, conservative about students.

    And it works. Because no society should embrace a giant tent when it comes to diverse issues; that mediocrity is why this presidential election we have a choice between two really underwhelming candidates yet 40% of people on each side refuse to vote any other way.

    References:

    The Finnish Miracle by Hank Pellissier, GreatSchools.org

    School leadership for systemic improvement in Finland: A case study report for the OECD activity Improving school leadership by:Andrew Hargreaves, Rapporteur Gábor Halász, Beatriz Pont

    The Finnish miracle of PISA: historical and sociological remarks on teaching and teacher education by Hannu Simola, Comparative Education Vol. 41, No. 4, November 2005, pp. 455–470

    NOTES:

    (1) Not to be too hard on the guy, since others have done it already, but Pres. Obama really phoned  in these responses.  His handlers know science academia is in the bag for him and acted like they could barely be bothered whereas someone in the Romney campy really took some time.  It won't matter, of course, ScienceDebate did not change a single vote among the science community and wouldn't have even if Obama had no bothered to answer at all. As I noted in Do Democrats Really Care About Science?, this is why scientists are not treated like a legitimate constituency but could be again some day. They just need to vote on their core issues and stop adapting to any issue Democrats roll out and tell them to accept.

    (2) Changes don't always get more social authoritarian. When I was a child, the speed limit was 55 MPH, now it is generally 65.  Why did society suddenly stop caring about kids dying at 56 MPH and up? "It's for the children" thinking only goes so far on long road trips. California, at least, has bolstered social authoritarianism about kids in other ways; the next round of 'child seat' laws could have teenagers required to use them.

    Comments

    Gerhard Adam
    When I was a child, the speed limit was 55 MPH, now it is generally 65.  Why did society suddenly stop caring about kids dying at 56 MPH and up?
    It didn't and that isn't what the speed limit was about.  The mandate for 55 MPH was to conserve gasoline.  Whether it took on a separate life of its own later, is irrelevant.  Formerly it was 70 MPH and I believe it was during the Carter administration that it was reduced.


    Mundus vult decipi
    Hank
    1974, but Nixon was as social authoritarian as Carter so it's no surprise people get them confused.  The reason not to repeal it, since it was found to save no gas at all worth thinking about, was "55 Saves Lives".

    There was no national speed limit before that, 65 was the most common.  And there is no national speed limit now.  As before, it is the domain of the various states so if you are alone in Texas or Montana and want to go 80, you can.
    Finland does not use education studies or test results as hammers in their culture war, to create new rules for governance and reasons for union control.
    Finland also has better hiring standards; the majority of teachers there have at least a bachelor's degree in a subject and then learn something about the teacher's craft in a graduate degree. Majoring in "education" does not make a teacher, and yet the unions have let our government lower the bar.

    To American progressives, it's almost like a Pink Floyd song, except all the people complaining about being 'Another Brick In The Wall' failed to realize that subjective, ever-changing cultural engineering is actually a lousy way to teach.
    Don't insult Pink Floyd. From  '72 to '78, technically and artistically, they showed far more talent than the cultural engineering phoneys have ever had.
    People forget that teachers only work 180 days per year (and that is being generous -)
    In most Canadian provinces teachers report to school 200 days a year, which excludes the overflow of grading into weekends. The 200 days also exclude the many hours spent during the summer(out of our own will) on subject-related work.  However, the first problem is that for 20 of those days, students are not in school, which in theory is supposed to give us more time to plan. But those days are being increasingly hijacked by bureaucrats. The other problem(more serious) is that the 180 student days are being increasingly hijacked by excessive testing, pseudo-educational trips, poorly-designed "career fairs" and other non-academic activities.
    Hank
    I'm not knocking teachers, in the book I defend them against the onslaught of critics saying 'children are stupid' - and if if someone told me I could work 180 days a year (having it bleed over into off hours is irrelevant, really, since everyone who is not an hourly employee has that) I'd adjust to it, unless it was a union job where I was going to get sent to a school no one wanted to be at. And that is the issue with out current state, every president coos that we need to hire more teachers, yet we lose as many each year as we hire and it is not because of the salary.  It is because the idealistic, enthusiastic ones can't teach and their only job openings are in crappy schools that someone who has been there 3 years longer does not want.

    Finland can be pickier about choosing teachers but we don't have some lack of quality people that would force us to choose bad teachers in a meritocracy, we lose as many each year as we hire including a lot of good ones.

    We're so obsessed with a pretense of financial parity - these people in Chicago are striking, they claim, because of poverty, but everyone knows they are striking to defend weak teachers and the union - that countries with actual economic socialism think we are too economically socialist about how we educate.
    I'm not knocking teachers, 
    I didn't think you were, and I wasn't on the defensive. I was just venting about what happens to the precious half of the year when students are in our schools. 

    we lose as many each year as we hire including a lot of good ones 
    The same is happening here, but politicians are afraid of losing the support of unions and civil servants who have plenty to lose if the necessary changes are made. Finland's population is slightly smaller than that of our province, but Finland manages to outperform us with an education ministry that's 1/6 th the size of ours.

    Hank
    Finland manages to outperform us with an education ministry that's 1/6 th the size of ours.
    What a statistic! I never even thought about comparing bureaucracies per capita and seeing how nations fare in scores.
    OK, so now we see clearly the kind of person Hank Campbell is, and it's much worst than I thought personally.

    If we set aside the extremely political devises of the introduction, you have to realise your categorical dichotomies building the conclusion are far too coarse to grasp the bouquet adequately. Maybe that's why you openly support Romney.

    Good luck for 2016 then...

    Maybe that's why you openly support Romney. 
        You're not reading the article carefully enough, especially when it ends with:

    that mediocrity is why this presidential election we have a choice between two really underwhelming candidates yet 40% of people on each side refuse to vote any other way. 
    Hank
    Right. In America we seem to have raised a generation or two of simplistic, black or white people; if I don't agree with every raft of goofy positions on the left, well by golly I must be working for Romney.  If I am okay with gay marriage, well by golly I must be a Commie Pinko Liberal.  It's that mentality I wrote the book about, it is a real cancer even in the science community.

    Anonymous clowns who lack critical thinking and have to label and stereotype people are traditionally on the far left but it happens on the far right too; that comment told me which one they are.
    Great article.
    By the way, there's no contradiction between "progressive" and "conservative" in this case. I'm from a working class background - my father was a coal miner - and I know there's nothing more progressive than a good, "conservative" education. I'm still grateful I had all those conservative teachers for whom my background was irrelevant and who concentrated on their job: teaching.

    Science is about trying to see the world without filters such as politics, religion or convention.

    Apparently, you choose to view much of the world through the lens of politics. Fine, that's your right, but you really have no clue what real science is all about. Imposing a particular political or religious view on science has been done many times, always failing but science marches on.

    Too bad you're not a scientist; it might help you see that any ideology can be a blinders.

    Don't bother to reply for my sake; I won't be around to read it.

    Hank
     Fine, that's your right, but you really have no clue what real science is all about.
    I don't reply for your sake, I reply for the people who see through platitudes like "Science is about trying to see the world without filters such as politics, religion or convention" yet who then bristle when anyone actually advocates removing those filters - unless you match a particular set of filters they happen to share. 

    I would challenge you to find a greater advocate for legitimate science agnosticism than me; it sure ain't in academia and it isn't anywhere else I can find.
    MikeCrow
    To funny, I'm starting to wonder how smart can someone actually be, yet can't understand that they carry a bias around. And what does that say about academia?
    Never is a long time.
    Hank
    It says that even though most scientists don't believe in psychology, psychology sure believes in them.  When you have an overwhelming supermajority, even knowing someone politically different becomes 'both sides are equal'.  It's like people in the 1960s who said there was no racism because one of their friends was black.

    So we have outreach campaigns and concern if only 48% of math classes are female but none at all if 10% of science academia is right wing; that is dismissed as choice. If the percentage were 30% though, there would be a lot more tolerance and outreach, because these would be people they see in the hallways and therefore harder to demonize.

    I was just chuckling at that commenters irrational bent; I wrote "Some countries embrace both liberalism and conservativism and simply use what works best. Let's talk about one" and that was far too inclusive so I became some political shill by being in the middle, it seems. 
    MikeCrow
    I too think it's choice, conservatives of equal intelligence go get high paying jobs in industry. Are there any surveys on intelligence and employment?

    As a side note, I don't think I've met anyone who catches as much flack as you do, you seem to piss almost everyone off :)
    Never is a long time.
    Hank
    Yep. People who take one side and then write articles about the other only get crap from one side.  Being in the middle and criticizing whoever is speaking rubbish means I get it from both the left and right.
    John Hasenkam
    Good post Hank. People are always complaining about education. Just tonight I heard our employment minister(Australia) stating in parliament how Australia will soon be in the top 5. Bollocks to that. One interesting aspect of the Finlandia experiment is the freedom accorded to teachers to design their own lessons and learning. That is completely opposite to what happens in Australia where teachers are heavily constrained by an externally imposed curriculum. Psychologically it is interesting because the teacher as part of their daily work is not just following some guidelines from above but must think creatively to design a curriculum and hence will be more committed to making that work. They fully own their job and that can make a huge difference to motivation which the students will pick up in subtle and none too subtle ways. 
    A big issue which is constantly neglected in talk about education is the role of home life. I am so grateful to my parents because at the start of high school the family TV broke and they said "you're on your own, we're not replacing it for months". Changed everything for me, started reading and never stopped. Politicians don't raise this issue about the home life because they don't want to lose votes. Teachers don't want to raise this issue because it threatens their status as the sole providers of education. A good home life can save a kid from a bad education but a good education is a poor substitute for a home life devoid of learning. 

    In a culture that celebrates teaching I assumes it also celebrates education and learning. That may be much more important than all this rather mechanical stuff we bring to education. 

    Hank
    I wouldn't ban TV, I think that kids who grow up without it as an external punishment by their parents tend to resent it, but you have a point that it may help if it is introduced as a fact of life, such as 'we don't have the money to buy a new TV.'  Kids can't resent not having money for a TV.  

    Growing up in the country in Pennsylvania, there was no cable television available.  There was a giant antenna on a pole in the attic that had to be turned to get a new station (and it needed lucky weather too).  It sat on top of a table with bracing around it and turning it meant using a pipe wrench while someone yelled up if the reception was clear.  As a result, I only remember watching one television station before I went to college (and then PBS during summer rerun season). If nothing good was on, we just did other stuff.  That meant we did a lot of other stuff, like reading, writing, drawing, fishing, playing guitar, etc.  Not a bad way to grow up.

    A few years ago I mentioned those old days and my brother was still able to accurately recite the Monday night CBS network lineup from 1982.  Pretty funny.




    Growing up in the country in Pennsylvania, there was no cable television available.  There was a giant antenna on a pole in the attic that had to be turned to get a new station (and it needed lucky weather too).  
    That brings back memories of hoping for clear nights so we could catch snowy versions of PBS and other networks from northern New York or Vermont. (Being cableless in Quebec in the 1960's and 1970's meant having only 4 Canadian channels.) 
    Hank
    Yeah, it would have been pretty boring in the country if alternatives had not been available.  Now, in the summer, during the day, you don't work on a farm (at least the way we did it, manually in the sun) you did a lot in the morning and then took a break and went back later.  So we would sometimes watch the CBS soap operas. They suck you in, man.
    John Hasenkam
    I'm not suggesting it should be banned and my parents made it clear that we were going to get another TV just not right away. It was not punishment, we all knew that, and in those days not being hooked into mass media didn't alienate you like it does today. On the other hand, I have known people who come from work, grab a beer and remote, and no point speaking to them except if it is about sport or some bloody reality TV show. They are alienated from thinking. Hmmm, tough call that one, alienated from thinking or alienated from humans. I'll get back to you on that.