What’s in a Degree?

While I believe education, both K – 12 and post-secondary, are vital to society, I wonder if the purpose of these institutions has been skewed – particularly in higher education. This post intends to explore the question: “why take a university degree?”

The reasons for undertaking a university degree are many, but, today, I have noticed a strong emphasis on the belief that it is to “prepare for a job”. While I agree this may be true(er) of some faculties than others (i.e. engineering, medicine, nursing, etc.), I am not convinced this should be the purpose of a university degree; to me, a university degree is to teach you to think, participate as a citizen, and reasonably justify your decisions. Yet, I fear this is not the view of many students in the higher education system today.

I belong to a few university pages where undergrad (and grad) students discuss and share issues from around campus. Recently, a discussion around a required Native Studies course came about. Many students were opposed to this idea but the arguments that stood out to me were a) this is the job of high schools and b) university is to prepare us for our careers. As for the job of high schools, it has been well documented in epistemological literature (see Hofer & Pintrich, 1997 for a nice overview) that it is throughout the university years that humans learn to reason and think. Relegating knowledge to secondary studies robs students of deep thinking skills in any area. Wouldn’t a Native studies course make us all better citizens? How can (as an example) a future engineer claim they don’t need an understanding of these people and the historical issues when there is such an interest in drilling on indigenous land? I digress, the issue here is not a consideration of Native Studies but that a university degree is seen as a pathway to a future “job”.

Typically, people can easily agree with me on the faculty of arts as being a place to “learn to be a citizen”, but have difficulty seeing this in the sciences, and even more so in the professional faculties. Yet, university does not guarantee employment in every area. For example, my university graduates around 1000 new teachers every year, and many of them will not find employment as teachers (despite the fact we have an excellent highering rate). Students feel cheated – they took this degree for nothing! Yet, taking a degree does not promise employment, it promises to teach you the skills and thinking you need to participate in this world.

While I could muse on this topic for awhile, I will leave you with this: What is the purpose of post-secondary education? And for those who have taken a degree, why did you take it and what did the experience do for you?


To my math students

I see you struggling. Looking for a question similar to the one on the assessment. Searching for something that will show you the steps to complete this problem. Desperately hoping that there is some rudimentary pattern you can reproduce. Something has gone wrong in your mathematics education.

Most likely, it happened long before you reached me, but if I have shown you that mathematics is reproducible and regurgitation-based, I’m sorry. Mathematics is understanding. If you take the time to understand the concepts, and what the questions are asking, you do not need to reproduce common examples. Once you understand the theories, you are able to complete any question. Take the time to understand.

I apologize. At no point in our instruction did I complete an example just like the question you are stuck on. You will not find a similar example to replicate. However, if you understood that this question required a basic use of combinations, you wouldn’t be so frustrated right now.

Mathematics requires understanding. I can help you with that. Unfortunately, you didn’t deem that important until your assessment. Good luck.

Excited about Educating

I have had a blank screen staring at me for about an hour. I am attempting to write an article about a topic which I am quite passionate about, but as mentioned in my last post, I have felt less than enthused about teaching lately, so why would I be excited to write an article about educational practice?

In an attempt to refresh my memory, and hunt for some desperately needed citations, I began reading some of my writing from my master’s program. As I was about half way through my major paper, I realized how excited I am to be returning to academia this fall. I was challenged in my masters program; challenged to rethink what education meant to me, and why I had become so complacent and accepting of the current educational regime. I was challenged to improve myself as an educator for myself and my students, not simply asked to implement a division wide practice forced upon me. I was pushed to really think about education, curriculum, and practice – their origins, evolution, and personal meaning.

As I prepare to return to academia this fall, I have been asked to consider teaching undergraduate courses in education. At first I was elated solely because I am considering this as a potential career, but today it took on a new meaning. I may have the chance to make young teacher candidates to rethink education for themselves, to consider what the current system means to them and where they think they will fit into it. I may have the opportunity to gain an entirely new perspective on education from those who have most recently been a part of the system. I will have the opportunity to grow philosophically as an educator; I am extremely excited about this.

Recently, I have been wondering if I made the right decision to move from the trenches (aka the classroom) and into academia, fearing that I may become disconnect from education. However, today I know I made the right decision and I CANNOT wait for this journey to begin.

What is Education?

Today, at FETC, I was posed an interesting question – “What is Education?” I have spent a lot of time reflecting on this, and limited to my constraints of formal education. The speakers’ response was, “Education is a form of opening up.” Brilliant response. Education is opening up a students’ mind, opening a group of students to new ideas, opening a generation to what it around them. How do we open this next generation?

What does it mean to open up students today? How can we achieve this? Most importantly, how can we integrate today’s most personal piece of technology – the cell phone?

I really all boils down to one question, what do we as human beings want out of education? Do we develop our next generation for success? Do we drive our students to seek happiness in their education? What does our society need? This shift in education needs to occur, because our old model of developing ‘productive members of society’ developed in the industrial revolution, and the technological revolution of today has vastly altered the areas for which we need to prepare our students.

I believe we need to re-develop our educational system to drive towards understanding; understanding of our world, understanding of one’s personal circumstances, and understanding of the tools developing in our world. We need to prepare students with skills, not specifics. The world needs question askers and problem solvers, and our educational system must alter itself to fit accordingly.

Unconditioning Math

Our students are conditioned. Conditioned to expect learning a certain way. Conditioned to find a correct answer. Conditioned to simply follow a teacher-given process. Not all students are conditioned this way, but in senior mathematics and sciences this is an absolute epidemic.

Daily, I encounter students who are not willing to think when ask a question (or more likely don’t know how to). Creativity in math- and science-based has been ‘successfully’ removed from their repertoire. Yes, students are easily able to produce an answer when given a certain type of question and asked to reproduce specific steps; students are VERY good at this. However, typically they cannot explain WHY this process works or HOW to apply it to another situation. As a senior teacher, I am FRUSTRATED to be teaching these skills in their final two years of schooling.

The new mathematics curriculum in Saskatchewan HAS helped, particularly in pre-calculus courses, but the number of students taking these courses with weak algebra skills is ALARMING! Unfortunately, the new math curriculum has taken their approach too far the other way. Students don’t know the basics, and without the basics I can’t go further behind the math.

Science is my passion, my love – particularly physics (ask any of my students), but students in physics want it to look like a math class. As soon as I pull out our Sine Cosine and Tangent functions they breathe a sigh of relief – oh we can just do the math. WHAT?! Just do the math?! They are right to say that the math is the easy part of the question, and while adding vectors is an important skill, it is more important that they recognize what it means to add them. A good example is that I had a student unable to visualize the subtraction required for a problem so they just went blindly into math – and got the answer wrong (despite following the steps [since the steps are a guide in physics]).

Our students have been conditioned to think a certain way, to expect learning a certain way. Unfortunately, we can’t change education (which we have to) until we break this pattern and learn to uncondition our education.

Educating myself

I LOVE teaching Physics and math, but sometimes I get jealous of other disciplines. I mean, English and Religion teachers get to know their students better through writing. Practical classes get to see kids apply their knowledge to life. However, most of all, I am jealous of the humanities.

I am jealous of the humanities because they cannot become stagnate in their knowledge. They teach about the human history of the world – and this is ALWAYS changing. Unfortunately, with our current Physics curriculum this is not the case.

I am helping with a revision of our curriculum and I must admit that I am a bit nervous about it. When I saw some of the topics to be included, I realized that I hadn’t thought about some of them since university. So, I am on a mission to reteach myself the basics.

While on that mission I started watching minute physics videos on YouTube (because I could justify the distraction). There is so much new physics that I just haven’t had to THINK about yet that my students would find interesting. This sent me on a 3 hour clicking tour of the Internet… Again, I was learning.

So, I am jealous of the humanities, but I can only hope our new curriculum fixes that one (and only) problem we physics teachers have.

So why DID you take your masters?

Today, I can proudly say that I finally hold a Masters Degree in Education.

When I tell people I am completing a masters program, I am often asked “so what will you do with it now?” Honestly, not much. Yes, it did bump my pay. No, I DO NOT want to be an administrator.

I have been reading articles from angry grad students about how their degree won’t get them a job. This is not the point of grad studies! Graduate degrees are to improve personal knowledge on a subject, to think critically about an area of academic study. Grad studies is not to get a job.

On that fact, if you choose any degree to get a specific job, you’re “doing” university wrong. University is no longer a place to prepare for a specific job. There were many people I went through the College of Education with that had no intention of ever becoming a teacher, and more who did not wind up becoming teachers even with the degree.

Why did I take my masters? To reflect critically on my teaching and improve my knowledge base; to prepare myself to change in the future; to form a solid academic base to build my philosophy around. Grad studies is for thought, not for a job.