"A Question of Heroes" - A Question of Education Reforms

I was still in high school when the late Nick Joaquin published his book, "A Question of Heroes":
I did not get to read the book until I was in college. The book was quite different from the history lessons I had learned in schools although it did parallel the tone of some of the conversations I had with my father regarding Philippines' revered personalities. It always seemed that I had received better lessons in history from my father. My father had the audacity to venture into people's motives and agenda. Doing so, he was able to paint, in my opinion, a more realistic and engaging story-telling of the past. It required reflection and critical thinking. He raised questions.

The ideal versus real is a constant battle. Heroes from the past woke up in a society that was facing huge challenges and problems, and devoted their lives to changing the conditions. In a way, we also woke up to an educational system that had been struggling for decades so we feel the need to reform education.

A conversation on Twitter highlighted in Alexander Russo's "This Week in Education" caught my attention. Since a new year is near, it has been a custom to come up with resolutions. This Twitter conversation is about resolving to avoid "meaningless education phrases". It is less confrontational to analyze phrases instead of personalities. This is an exercise then that should not be taken personally.

The five meaningless educational phrases are:
  • High expectations
  • Student-centered
  • Data-driven
  • Innovative
  • Professionalize
Examining these phrases is in fact a question of education reforms. What do these phrases really mean and why should they be abandoned? These phrases are excellent sound bites. They all sound good like the lives of heroes we are taught in grade school. They are ideal, but then again, what do these phrases really mean? Paul Bruno thinks these phrases really mean little. The phrases have been used to sugarcoat stands in education reform. These phrases have been overused to make reforms sound good and arguments appear stronger. The following are Bruno's brief explanations on why these phrases should be avoided (I have added some of my thoughts).

First, no argument in education reform can claim ownership of "high expectations". Bruno suggests to focus more on the appropriateness of standards and not on "high" versus "low. Lobbying to incorporate a formal subject of science in the early grades is not about having "higher" standards. It is resting on the fact that science education is appropriate for young children.

Education is about learning. "Student-centered" is another phrase that has been hijacked by education reformers. There is no classroom in the world that is not built for students to learn. This, after all, is the main purpose of education. The real question is how are the needs and well-being of the students addressed inside a classroom. If we do care about the students, should we not treat fairly and with respect the teachers to whom we entrust our children? 

"Data-driven" must be carefully qualified. Anecdotes are not data. Data are not chosen to prove a point. We should not choose data. Data should be gathered and used to inform. Data must be peer-reviewed.

"Innovative" - This one I could relate to quite well. Someone told me that a well known chemistry professor at MIT cautions his students to avoid the word "novel" in papers that they write. We need to be extra careful in describing something as "new". Oftentimes, our ideas are simply recycled from the past.

"Professionalize" can mean so many different things. For this reason, I think it is better to use the word "respect" instead to describe how teachers should be treated.

It is important to ask questions every now and then. It could be a question of heroes, a question of education reforms, a question of ideals. And as I sit back, prepared to hit the "Save" button on this blog page, I saw the following:

Solon wants Pacquiao's story taught in schools

Posted at 12/10/2012 3:29 PM | Updated as of 12/10/2012 11:08 PM

MANILA, Philippines - The rags-to-riches story of People's Champ and Sarangani congressman Manny Pacquiao could soon be taught in grade schools all over the country based on the resolution of Pacquiao's colleague in the House of Representatives.

Bacolod City Rep. Anthony Golez Jr. filed House Resolution No. 2946, which seeks to express the unified support of the House of Representatives behind Pacquiao despite his recent loss to Mexican Juan Manuel Marquez. House Resolution No. 2946 cited the humble beginnings of Pacquaio and his resilience and hard work in becoming a world renowned sports icon.

"The achievements of Honorable Manny Pacquiao brought the Philippines unprecedented honor and fame; he is a modern national hero and treasure. His discipline, resilience and hard work should be emulated by young Filipinos," the resolution read.

It also said the Department of Education should include Pacquiao's life story in the curriculum of grade school students "so that the virtues of hard work, discipline, resilience and respect will be instilled to young Filipinos."

Boxing, or any sports or worthwhile endeavor, requires grit. Grit is "perseverance in pursuit of a passion" (See "How should we challenge learners?").  It is important that children realize early in school the importance of hard work, patience, and persistence. For this reason, schools must be challenging. It is equally necessary to allow for pupils to succeed as well so that the children realize that perseverance bears fruits. It is useful to cite models taken from real life and Pacquiao's climb to boxing fame is indeed a worthy example. One should not confuse heroism from grit, however. A question of heroes is a question of values. I was looking for the phrases Bruno mentioned but these were absent in the news article above. So perhaps, this new year's resolution should not really be so much about avoiding phrases. It should be about being faithful to what basic education really means....