Updated: Jul 19
It might seem a little odd to begin an education blog with a post about leaving the classroom, but if all goes according to plan (and there isn't much of one at this point), this will be my last year teaching.
"...44% of teachers left the profession within 5 years. And that was before Covid-19!"
So why am I quitting? Far from jumping on the bandwagon of the mass employment exodus known as "The Great Resignation", I've been considering it for several years already. Having spent more than a decade teaching science across multiple countries and curricula, I've been fortunate enough to observe and employ a wide variety of teaching methods to an equally varied student body. All of that change and diversity has been great, but there remains a persistent problem in education; an axiom that has been consistent for generations of learners - school isn't fun.
A 2018 study from Yale surveying more than 20,000 students found that 75% of them reported negative feelings towards school. Most of these students said they were tired, stressed, or bored. These were American students, but the trends appear to be similar for most countries. That was my experience at public school in Canada more than 20 years ago, and it's the same experience many of my current students have now. School isn't just loathed by students, however. Teachers have and continue to leave the profession in high numbers for a variety of reasons. A 2018 American study by the University of Pennsylvania found that 44% of teachers left the profession within 5 years. And that was before Covid-19!
"...results often determine (or limit) a student's future in a very direct way. As such, competition is fierce, cheating is rampant, and in the process, curiosity, creativity, understanding, and enjoyment are all sacrificed."
Clearly something is wrong with education, but what? There are plenty of issues in education, and each has received significant attention and a share of the blame. Bullying, too much homework, lack of community support, large class sizes, and stressed out teachers have all been investigated and tackled with varying success, but I propose that the problem is our educational system itself.
Education was and continues to be content-driven. In most parts of the world, students are assessed and compared using standardized tests at various points in their educational journeys. These results often determine (or limit) a student's future in a very direct way. As such, competition is fierce, cheating is rampant, and in the process, curiosity, creativity, understanding, and enjoyment are all sacrificed. Career knowledge is now so specialized that no educational system can adequately prepare students for it. Education has attempted to solve this problem by trying to include more content and by keeping students in schools longer. As a result, an undergraduate degree is the new high school diploma, and a masters or PhD may soon replace it as the employment standard. What's the endgame here for our society? Are we planning to keep our kids in school until they're 30? Alternatively, can we expect children to select a career path from an early age and then receive only job-specific training? Neither of these options seem particularly attractive.
I've tried to change the system. I started by giving students a say in what they wanted to learn and how. Next I did away with tests and exams. Then I stopped teaching content altogether, replacing my old units with project-based learning. I think students appreciated my efforts (and my eccentricities), but unfortunately, schools are traditional institutions, and the negative associations with them manifest early. By the time 8th and 9th graders walk through my door, they've already decided that math and science are not for them, that most of what they learn is irrelevant, and that all they have to do is get a good grade and then they can forget everything. I also can't avoid giving students grades and preparing them for exams in order to get into college, but I absolutely would if I could.
"...schools are traditional institutions, and the negative associations with them manifest early."
My final nudge out of the classroom will come next spring when my son enters elementary school here in Japan. I am, unsurprisingly, very critical of Japan's school system, which is nearly the complete opposite of what I want for my kids, so we will be moving across the country to where there are more progressive options. As such, I'll be out of work and unlikely to find any local jobs in education. That got me thinking - Maybe I can influence science education from beyond the classroom.
I'm excited for the change. I'm starting to share my resources and hope to be doing consulting work soon. I'm also going to be delving into the research on what an ideal education system really looks like and sharing that as well.
Beyond educational topics, I'd also like to explore evidence-based lifestyle choices that science suggests will improve the health of my family and/or reduce the impact we're having on the Earth. We've made many such ethical and environmental changes over the years based on the best available scientific evidence and I'd love to help others do the same.
I hope you'll join me on this educational adventure, wherever it may lead.
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