Rigor and Relevance

Have you ever been told to ‘try and go to sleep’? Or to ‘try and forget something’? It’s one of those things that we just don’t do well. Ironically it is the same with remembering. Some things one remembers well, other things just don’t come. Yet even at higher education it seems to be the make or break for academic success.

Last week I wrote touching upon the processes that take place within learning, and how understanding these processes is the key to understanding learning. Connectivist learning theory furthers this in suggesting that with the changing in times – to the world of information abundance – which the real benefits of being educated are not that one is a walking book, but that one knows how to manage information (Siemens, 2004). Where to find it, what it really means, whether it is valid or not and so forth. Knowing things was never any use to anyone until it could get a job done.

I want to give mention to another topic that affects the learning process: academic rigor. We had a semester of blogging last year. It was one of the most intense experiences of my life. I thought I had been thrown off my feet, and it felt like I had been giving every waking minute across 9 weeks to getting these blogs done. Needless to say it was one of the most time intensive exercises since coming to university. But when I broke it down, I probably spent 15-20 hours a week maximum on it. And I called it hard…

This week I set a goal to have the introduction section of my dissertation complete. Most of my peers thought this was a very ambitious goal – to write a 2500 word argument. And by comparison they would be right. The thesis is by far the largest assignment we will write. But it is only 6000 words. My blogging experiences of last semester, however, have brought me to accept that it is reasonable for the academic world to demand rigor.

On the topic of rigor, I would like to draw attention to the ‘Rigor/Relevance Framework®’ (International Center for Leadership in Education, 2012). This theory postulates that real learning goes far beyond acquisition of knowledge. Assimilation, adaptation and application are all further steps in learning something to a higher level (Daggett, 2005). I might know now the mechanics of long term potentiation within brain neurons. But have I taken that knowledge and found out how it is used in practise? Have I considered how I could add to the research? Have I spent any time really getting into the opposing theories and the critiques? Sufficiently that I might properly be able to form novel ideas? Or am I held to ransom by the tyranny of more course content, to pass the exam?


Image is copyrighted (2012) by the International Centre for Leadership in Education

Even so, the idea of having more analysis, synthesis and evaluation doesn’t sound that demanding does it? Here’s how I see it. The dissertation is demanding, because I have never done it before. And it is a piece of work that does call for the above described skills. I have a novel challenge to meet, I have something to become. A change needs to take place in me.

We all know plenty of tricks for knowledge acquisition. It is often an associative process, so Skinner boxes and behaviourism tell us we will all get there in the end. The problem is that it’s boring! It’s just how it is that actually changing who we are, and learning new skills is hard. We are teaching ourselves new processes. And the content looks after itself.

After I complete my dissertation, I presume the next one will be easier in some respects. On the other hand, it will likely be longer, deeper and therefore harder. But that is its way of breaking my intellectual muscles that I can grow further. With that in mind it is no more complicated than the old adage: nothing ventured nothing gained.

The Rigor/Revelance Framework® is a registered trademark of the International Center for Leadership in Education

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What Ruling the World Did to British Education

Image Credit: Blast Media

Image Credit: Blast Media

I’ve recently just finished reading the book: ‘Empire – what ruling the world did to the British’ by Jeremy Paxman. There’s a few ideas in there that I think apply all too well to todays education system.

I see education as a means to an end. There is utterly no need for me to learn advanced statistics if I will never, ever need to use them. It’s just a waste. With that principle in mind, I want you to consider the question, what are we educating people to do?

By and large, we all think our career will take us into some type of service based job, which could be at a lower level, for example working in a call centre, or if we do better, a professional job, where we could be doing anything, from head hunting to architecture.

And while we’re all talking about equality and getting out of class systems in Britain, we have an incredibly tiered system as far as academic achievement goes. There’s not a lot between being a professional, and minimum wage jobs. One example would be my house mate, who works in a care home, and who earns less than I do at Morrisons.

And that is what Britain’s job scene and economy have become built around. We have strayed away from factories and manufacturing to professional services. That is to what our education system has been geared. So when Carol Vorderman comes doing the rounds telling us all the kids need to learn better numeracy, that’s what she’s talking about.

Why is it then that we have this system? Why is it that there’s nothing in between the top and the bottom?

We call ourselves ‘Great Britain’. Let’s examine where that name came from. In case you had your head in the ground for the last three centuries, we British used to rule the world. Our empire covered about a quarter of it. And it made us a lot of money, and created a lot of jobs, and so, for a while we wanted to keep it that way.

Where did todays education system come from then? Well, it doesn’t really look any different from the victorian school rooms of the 19th century. There’s still classes of about 30, desks, a teacher leading the lesson, and the teacher is the one relaying information for children to return to him/her during the exam. Those who didn’t seem to be academic left at 14 and went into a manual job, while those with wealthier parents and/or more academic capability stayed on and learnt some theoretical stuff. They were trained to run the empire.

So Britain carried on in this way till something bad happened in Ireland, and something worse in Singapore, when before long, everybody very actively wanted independence.

What to do now? Our income was gone! Britain’s income had come through effective capitalism. Keeping the money at home and the labour abroad. But with no empire, there was no economically productive empire leading jobs anymore. The only thing left would be to work with our hands. Heaven forbid, we might have to do manual labour! This didn’t go down so well, as the 70’s and 80’s showed us, which is why now your iPhone is made in China, but designed by Apple in California. We were war heroes, and nobly civilised people, who had granted the rights of freedom to our colonial brethren. Those job’s just weren’t for us. We still considered ourselves better than them.

Fortunately, we were able to find a new distinction between ourselves and others across the world: academia. So for the last half a century, there has been a huge rise in the number of people going to University. Tony Blair decreed in 1997 that everybody should have a University education. And that view is still touted today. Nick Clegg, and the Vice Chancellor of my University sing the same thing. And it is a lovely ideal, but to what end?

Money comes from adding value to things. If I take a tree, and turn it into a chair, I have added value to it. I have literally made money. You don’t need a university education to make a chair. Sure, it plays a role in the innovation and design of the chair, even in the industrialisation thereof. All those things when used in correct moderation are economically productive, but a University education does not produce chairs.

It doesn’t take lots of people to design chairs, it takes a small handful. You only design the chair once. Production on the other hand (which we western snobs consider an unskilled job) is ongoing. The problem we have is that everybody wants to design chairs, but nobody want’s to make them. Nobody in Britain at least.

We have spent the last 50 years doing as little economically productive work as we can, and since the 1990’s we have taken on copious national debt to finance that lifestyle. Now we live in the world where we have to pay back that debt, and where we have to make redundant those whose jobs do not contribute to our GDP. This is why many people do degree’s to find that there is no gold lined job waiting for them at the end.

The answer is simple: we are not too good to work hard or do work that is uncomfortable and inconvenient. Before there was a dole, that’s what we did. Money is a representation of somebody’s work. We have been borrowing work that we now have to pay back. We need to make lot’s of chairs. The time is come to face the music, and embrace reality. Our education system needs to produce more chair manufacturers, and less chair designers, analysts,  accountants and salesmen.