The Failure of Grades (Part 1 of 2)

Image from Baloo's Cartoon Blog
Image from Baloo’s Cartoon Blog

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Every year, around March, many parents all over the Philippines get extremely anxious and nervous. What is this time of the year? It’s report card distribution day! Of course, there are a few who look forward to this day. They are mostly those who can’t wait to take photos of their children’s report cards and post them on Facebook.

The silent majority, however, comfort themselves by saying “grades aren’t really that important” and things like that. The apparent hypocrisy of that remark, however, will be sorely tested if their usually-average or summa (sabit) kid suddenly gets high marks — guess who’s going to be posting photos of the report card on Facebook? The reverse also holds true. Very few parents will remark that “grades aren’t really that important” when their kids get failing marks and have to take summer classes or worse, repeat the entire year, or change schools.

It is funny how our emotions, and even our judgment of our children and others, are ruled by a bunch of numbers. When I was a teacher, there was no day I probably hated more than the day I had to submit my students’ final grades. I hated it because it was such a cold and impersonal assessment that said very little about the student. I hated the way grades could instill false confidence and pride. I hated the way grades could cause unnecessary despair, harsh judgments, physical abuse, and even suicide. I hated the way grades cause people to wrongly use it as an indicator of future success in one’s career or life in general. By now, we have thousands of anecdotes of successful people to know that their grades in school have little bearing on future accomplishments.

Do you know how the grading system began? One of the earliest documented records of grading was in the late 1700’s, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, by a tutor in Cambridge University named William Farish.

He probably got the idea of grading students from the way factories exercised quality control for their products. A shoe factory, for example, would pronounce a shoe as “up to grade” if it was good enough to be sold in the market. In the same way, a student was judged by a singular mark which pronounced him up to standard to move on to the next level. At that time, this was revolutionary because it allowed Farish to “process” a large number of students at any given time. This rapidly caught on with other teachers because it provided a shorthand and impersonal method of evaluating students. A teacher could grade a student even if he didn’t know anything beyond his name and ID number. In short, the grading system paved the way for the mass production of education, which was probably a good thing for that particular era. But it is now high time we reviewed this method of evaluation because we have already shifted from the Industrial Age to the Information Age.

Education in the Industrial Age was mostly memory-based. You memorized facts and procedures. In this respect, grades work. Getting a grade of 98 on a test means you have memorized 98% of the facts correctly.

The landscape today has changed drastically as tons of information is available freely at the flick of a finger. Education today, supposedly places great emphasis on creativity, and interdisciplinary connections. However, I say “supposedly” because the grading system is still largely based on how well one has memorized the material or the procedure, or in the case of essay questions, how well one’s answers conform to the teacher’s opinion.

In short, we are emphasizing 21st century values but are using 18th century tools to evaluate those values. Clearly, there is a mismatch, and even teachers feel this difficulty but find it very hard to break free and still retain their jobs. But how does one grade creativity? How does one grade effort? How does one grade resourcefulness? How does one grade the ability to learn?

So a teacher in a traditional system is forced to go back to quantifiable and objectifiable measures of grading, and thus lose a lot of richness and depth of material and methodology that could have been possible if grades were not a hindrance.

Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. How would you grade this article? Send me your thoughts at andy@freethinking.me.

Our Educational System is a Funny, Contradictory Mess

Photo by Richard Philip Rucker
Photo by Richard Philip Rucker

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

As a former teacher and now a parent, I cannot help but observe a few things I find dissonant in how we educate our children.

A child usually starts out in pre-school, and a lot of pre-schools adopt or adapt some principles of the Montessori system or some other progressive system. The basic idea is we encourage pre-school children to explore, play, and socialize. We are happy when they become interested in learning. We ooh and ahh at their drawings. We answer their incessant questions as best we can. We give high marks for leadership and communication when they can talk to their classmates, carry a conversation, or spearhead a game or activity. When they assist their classmates, we tell the parents, “Your child is very helpful.”

When they enter grade one, however, those natural inclinations are curbed by more rigid rules and schedules. Learning is encouraged as long as it is within the bounds of the teachers lesson plan. If the child is curious about cooking or carpentry or how to train a dog, he is told to be quiet and learn his addition, or to memorize the different legal holidays in the Philippines.

When the child starts drawing in class, she is told to stop and instead pay attention to the teacher’s lecture on the different kinds of rocks. When they talk to their classmates, they are no longer possessing “good communication skills” but instead are now labeled “talkative.” When they assist their classmates or when they ask for help, they are now thought to be cheating.

So for the next ten years or so of his life, the many of the child’s desires are suppressed and he is forced to spend most of his day (and night) learning six or seven subjects that we adults have deemed important for him to learn — even if we ourselves have forgotten most of those supposedly important things. If they are really that important, why have we forgotten them? And if they are not important after all, why inflict them on our children?

I mean, seriously, the average adult does not know the difference between metamorphic, sedimentary and igneous rocks, and yet my daughter was taught these things in first grade. She had to memorize the definitions because they were going to have a quiz the next day. They were not even shown pictures or told why it was important to differentiate those rocks. Most likely, the teacher taught the lesson just because it was in the book. Up to this day, I cannot understand why we need to torture first graders with this lesson, most of whom will not grow up to be geologists anyway.

Before you know it, it’s time for college — time to choose a school and a major (which we call “course” in the Philippines). And we adults wonder why these teenagers cannot decide what to take. Why should we even wonder when the school has systematically drummed out most of their desires and has not even exposed them to a wider array of things to learn? Yet we now expect them to choose between hundreds of possible courses with names such as Industrial Design, Management Engineering, International Studies, Multimedia Arts, Management Economics, and a lot more. Is it any wonder they are confused?

What’s even worse is that once they have decided on a course, we expect them to stick to it, even though most of the time they chose it because it was their parents’ desire, or they just imitated their friend, or they just simply could not choose and had to do eenie-meenie-miny-moe. Shifting is highly discouraged and mostly looked down upon as a mark of indecisiveness, lack of focus, or lack of direction.

We end up with a lot of graduates still not knowing what they want. We have musicians who are engineering graduates, or nursing graduates who are graphic designers, or math majors who are English teachers. And wonder of wonders, we have flunkers, cheaters and dropouts who are highly successful business owners.

Our educational system is a contradictory mess. It is funny, but it is also sad. Make no mistake. I am not blaming our teachers but the system itself. The teachers and administrators are victims themselves of the system. And my next few articles will attempt to explore this in more detail.

Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. Send me your thoughts at andy@freethinking.me, but please don’t send rocks.

Thoughts on Prayer

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

PrayerDuring lunch at a restaurant, I overheard a conversation at the other table where there were two boys with their parents. The little boy was complaining, “I don’t want to pray. Prayer doesn’t work!”

The father asked, “What are you talking about? What do you mean prayer doesn’t work?”

The little boy replied, “I keep praying for Kuya to be good, but he’s still bad. He still teases me. Prayer is no good.”

Then the mother said, “Remember your Sunday School lesson? Sometimes, when God doesn’t answer your prayer, he’s telling you to wait and be patient.”

It has been a while since I prayed, but hearing this little exchange made me reflect on prayer once more. I was brought up on the ACTS model of prayer – Adoration (praise), Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication (to ask or to petition) ever since I was a kid. I followed this model methodically at first, then I learned to pray as if just having a conversation and I would talk to God at various times during the day as if he were always there beside me. Then I had a praise and worship phase. I would even lock myself in my room while playing praise music at full blast while singing and dancing to God. I went through a meditation phase where I simply sat in silent reflection and listening.

But I look at things quite differently now.

On adoration – I do not understand why a god would want people to constantly tell him how great he is, how majestic he is, how powerful he is, and so on and so forth. If you know you’re good, you don’t need other people fawning over you all the time. Sure, it’s nice to hear people praising you for this and that. For example, I like it when I get emails from people saying how they enjoy my writing. But if someone starts writing me three times a day, every single day telling me how good I am and how great I am, it won’t take me long to press the spam button.

On confession – I understand the value of this as there is some release of guilt being done here. However this can be done in non-religious contexts. One can, for example, confess to a trusted friend, relative or mentor. One can even confess to oneself. I think the primary issue here is not so much the confession but the willingness to let go and forgive oneself. Learning to forgive myself, to move on, and to accept full responsibility for my life was one of the best things I experienced so far in my short life. Ironically, I experienced it, not in church, but in a non-religious seminar series I attended around 3 years ago.

On thanksgiving  – I once wrote that the best prayer possible would consist of only two words – “thank you,” and that still holds true. Many of the people I admire the most have an attitude of gratitude. They are simply thankful for being alive, for the opportunity to breathe and experience life. There is a huge space of acceptance and openness to experience, even “bad” experiences like tragedies and loss – not that we are happy because of the tragedy, but that we are able to survive, move on and grow in spite of it. Being thankful, in its simplest form, is being happy with your life and enjoying every second of it.

On supplication – this seems to me the most discordant of these 4 types of prayer. If you trust in God to supply your every need and have faith that he knows what is best for you, why do you keep asking for stuff? If you need it, he will give it to you, and if you don’t, he won’t. That’s simple enough, isn’t it?

The usual answer I get to this is something along the lines of – God wants to hear you ask, like a parent who wants to hear his children asking for things. But that’s not a very satisfying answer. I give my children what they need whether or not they ask for it. It would be quite cruel for me, for example, to let my daughter starve until I hear her ask me for food – and even then, I would not let her ask me again and again until I give it to her.

And so I wonder at the oft-given advice that if your prayers aren’t answered yet, you should keep praying, keep asking, get other people to pray for you or with you, etc. Does God have a quota then of how many times you should pray or how many people should be praying before he grants the request? Does he have a sincere-o-meter or a faith-meter to gauge whether your prayer meets the desired sincerity or faith level (which is supposed to be just as small as a mustard seed)? I find this quite absurd.

What really works for me now is acceptance, forgiveness and responsibility. I do what I can to improve myself and make things better. I forgive myself and others for all the shortcomings and broken promises. I accept what life throws at me, and am thankful to be alive to experience it.

 

Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. Send me your thoughts at andy@freethinking.me. If you want to listen to or engage in meaningful discussions, I’m inviting you to the Filipino Freethinkers Davao meetup on April 27 (Saturday) at Café Demitasse, 730-930PM. See details at www.filipinofreethinkers.org.

TINK!

I am an educator for life. Teaching does not end when the bell rings.
– Miguel Antonio Lizada

tinkI smiled when I read those words. How appropriate that they came from the son of the teacher who inspired me to be one.

It was June of 1989 when I entered my senior year of high school. I was all set to run the last lap before entering college. I was pretty sure of what I wanted back then. I was a math and computer guy. I would take up computer science or engineering. My dream job was to be surrounded by electronics, and to have as little to do with people as possible.

Being a teacher was the last thing on my mind. In fact, it wasn’t in my mind at all. You see, I had a speech impediment – one that had haunted me since I was in first grade. I stuttered terribly when I had to recite in public, even if it was just to introduce myself. Having a job that required me to talk in front of people on a daily basis was simply not in my life’s equation.

That first day of class would change everything.

The bell rang for English class and the teacher walked in. He was wearing a polo shirt (neatly tucked-in), jeans, and sneakers. He was tall, thin and had thick glasses. He didn’t smile and he looked like a very serious person. The class was quiet.

It took only around five minutes before that silence turned into wave after wave of laughter as we were introduced to the wit and humor of Sir Rene. When the bell rang, I found myself excited for the next class. For the first time in my life, I found myself liking English class more than any other.

Rene’s classes were enjoyable but they were never easy. He was relentless in making us rack our brains analyzing poetry and short stories. He would let us pore over every word, flipping our dictionaries for secondary and tertiary meanings, symbolisms and metaphors. He would never tell us the meaning of a poem or story, but he would listen to our attempts, and would either tell us we were on the right track, or shoot down weak and outlandish arguments.

But all this was done in a very light and easy environment. We could see that our teacher was having fun, so we were having fun as well. If this seems hard to understand, think of yourself having fun while being serious in your favorite sport or activity.

Whenever we were stuck, he would write “TINK!” on the board and patiently wait for us to squeeze more juice out of our brain cells.

To this day, he never gave the answers, content to let us either discard the unresolved questions or to continue discovering the answers by ourselves.

In the movie Dead Poets Society, the teacher Mr. Keating (played by Robin Williams) hops on his desk and tells his students to always look at things from a different point of view. “Things look very different from up here,” he says, “You don’t believe me? Have a look.” And one by one he tells his students to get on the desk and see the difference with their own eyes.

If there is one thing I learned from Rene, it is to think for myself, to find my own voice, and to realize that there is always something more than what we see on the surface, including ourselves, especially ourselves.

It would be dramatic to say that I decided to become a teacher after a year with Rene. It would also be untrue. I would decide that only a year before finishing college, with other reasons in the mix. But certainly, that had a major effect on my decision. I had a living example of the kind of teacher I wanted to be – a teacher who challenges minds, who touches lives and who has loads of fun doing so.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Andy Uyboco is a businessman, trainer and speaker. You may email him (for fun) at andy@freethinking.me.

From Nothing to Something

(originally published in: http://www.sunstar.com.ph/davao/opinion/2013/04/04/uyboco-nothing-something-276011)

Photo by Smithsonian Institution
Photo by Smithsonian Institution

I received an email from a reader named Tony which goes:

I am an admirer and follower of your articles which are thought-provoking.  May I request your opinion to the statement “nothing comes from nothing” as this leads me to believe there is a God. Thank you for your free thinking.

Thanks for the kind words, Tony. To address your query, the statement you gave is actually one of the classical arguments for the existence of God. In Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas gave the Quinque viæ, the five ways, or five proofs of God. “Nothing comes from nothing” is actually the same as Aquinas’ second argument – the argument from causality.

In simple terms, this argument states that we observe in our world the phenomenon of cause and effect. Everything that exists has a cause, and that cause also has a cause, which also has a cause, and so on. If we keep going back, we will eventually bump into a First Cause that is itself uncaused – and that Uncaused Cause is what we call “God.”

Mike Licona, a well-known Christian apologist, uses this argument against atheism: “The Big-Bang actually creates a tremendous problem for the atheist. If nothing at all existed prior to the Big-Bang, then what exploded? Moreover, the atheistic view, that the universe is all there is, requires that the universe, for no reason, just came into existence out of nothing. But again, this seems absurd.”

Now this is a reasonable argument, but I would like to point out a few things worth thinking about:

  1. The argument itself may point to a creator, however, it tells us nothing about the characteristics or attributes of that being.  So now you have a “God” but how does that affect your life? What does this “God” want you to do? Is it even concerned about you? Is it good or bad? Is it omnipresent, omniscient, or omnipotent? Does it have emotions? And so on and so forth. All these questions cannot be answered by this argument alone. So if a particular religion uses this argument, they still have to make the connection between that creator being and the particular “God” they believe in. In other words, why should I believe that this being is Jehovah, and not Allah or Krishna or Jesus or Zeus?
  2. To claim that it “seems absurd” for a universe to pop into existence from nothing might not be as absurd as you think. On what basis is it absurd? Perhaps in the limited experience of humanity, that is true. But what if there were conditions beyond the current human experience and intelligence, in which something could come from nothing? One never knows. There are a few, natural phenomena which seems absurd at first but are genuinely verifiable, observable and accepted in the scientific community. The wave-particle duality of light, for example, which I cannot discuss here in detail because of space limitations. The short version is: there was an argument whether light was a wave (as in radio waves) or was it composed of particles. It could not logically be both. However, experiments have shown conclusively that it is indeed both, contrary to common sense and logic. Hence, one’s logic must give way to reality.
  3. What if that Uncaused Cause were the universe itself? For all we know, the universe could be one big sentient being and we function in it like our cells function in our body. Our cells live, grow, fight their battles and die without any conscious intervention from us. We could very much be in the same situation. So a deity might exist but it is oblivious to our day-to-day activities and in that sense does not require our worship or even our belief.

Perhaps, the deeper, underlying question here is “What meaning is there in life if there is no god and no afterlife?”

It is a valid question but not one which causes me sleepless nights. My life is meaningful because of the lives I touch and the lives that touch me – my friends and family. The way I see it, I get one shot at this life and I want to make the most out of it as I possibly can.

In the words of Seth Andrews, “Life is a precious, brief, fragile, amazing thing. And instead of being so fixated on living after death, I want to truly live before it. And be thankful, that against incredible odds, I was able to witness this particular part of the universe, with my own eyes, firsthand.”

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