Saturday, August 18, 2007

A Glimpse Into the Israeli Education System

A few incidents concerning writing and reading skills at various levels seem to illuminate a bigger problem in the education system and for once - it isn't money:

Several years ago, just as I was finishing my studies in the School of Education, a friend of mine, who was an assistant teacher, informed me that the faculty of the School had instituted a new, obligatory course for the freshman class called "ELEMENTARY SKILLS IN ACADEMIC READING & WRITING". Apparently, the students who were arriving at the university were so deficient in these skills that it was deemed necessary to invest in a new program to teach them what previous generations had known before ever arriving to study in the Hebrew University.

By coincidence I was teaching at the same time a similar class intended to prepare high school students for academic life. The skills involved were the same in both cases: how to summarize text, how to headline a block of text, how to recognize what is important in a text and what isn't, what is the difference between fact and speculation and opinion and how to differentiate between them and why this is important, how to write a foreword, a table of contents, a summary and so on. These high school students were seniors in their last year of school and they still did not possess most of these skills, not even at the level needed for high school.
The following year

I got a job at a teachers college and I was fortunate enough to be asked to grade students' seminary papers. These were important enough to be graded by a teacher not familiar with the student. The pay was excellent and I was very proficient in checking them quickly and writing down everything that was wrong or right about the paper. I am sad to say that I quickly noticed that most of the papers would not get a passing grade in any respectable university and some would not pass muster in a high school setting. I remarked upon this to the person responsible for these papers and she agreed that the level of the students' writing is terrible but, she added, " there is nothing we can do about it".
I did not dare suggest that actually teaching the students how to write a paper can and should be considered a worthy endeavor in a teacher's college and would actually constitute a fair return for their tuition. I did not do this first of all because I was happy to do this job. Second, I did not want to antagonize anybody before I quit, which I knew would be at the end of the year because of three - I had already realized how corrupt the system was.
One example will suffice: one day I was called into the principal's office for a talk. The issue was that my students had complained that I was giving them homework. I was asked to stop giving them homework. I was told clearly: "These are our students and they pay the rent. If they are unhappy they will leave and we will go out of business. It is your job to keep them happy."
I cannot not tell you what I said because I didn't say anything. I was shocked into complete silence. Afterwards I was depressed. I did not wish to continue teaching in such a corrupt atmosphere but I didn't want to leave in the middle of the year either. I stuck it out till the end and did not return the following year.
What is clear to me is that if the teachers-to-be do not know how to write a paper then they will not be able to teach the necessary skills to their pupils in elementary and high school. These students will then continue on to academia where the system will try to plug the holes in their education - as a friend told me recently:
ust last week I was back at the university for work with a client when I happened to meet an old friend, a fellow student, who had now become a mid-level administrator in the social sciences. While talking, it came out that they too had to institute a new course in academic reading and writing skills because the level of the students arriving had gotten so bad. He also said that this course was the one that students flunked the most – even more than the statistics course! He did admit that the lecturers, usually the youngest and most inexperienced ones, were too busy to teach properly, especially since the lesson combined their own subject matter with academic skills. Obviously they are more comfortable with their specialty than with teaching the academic skills which some of them, I am afraid, do not possess at a very high level.

I told him that I was both glad and sad to hear this.
I was sad because this reflects upon our culture which is raising an ignorant "educated" class, whose influence is growing and contributing to the dumbing down of public discourse in almost every field. These are people who finish college without the ability to think and articulate themselves clearly and what is worse – they have no idea that such a thing is possible because they had not been exposed to this standard. Very few lecturers retain this ability so the students do not have many good examples to learn from and also they are held to such low expectations that they really do not know any better. This situation is described clearly in the well known critique of the American educational system from the eighties, Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind". It seems to me that the same thing is happening in Israel.

On the other hand, I told my friend, I am glad to hear it because as editor many of these people come to me to help them so, in a way, I make a living off the failures of the system.
That isn't so nice perhaps, but I have a much cleaner conscience than the teachers who remained at the teachers college and continue to betray the trust of their students and the professional academics in the universities who are too busy climbing the steep, slippery slopes of academia to give their students the education they deserve.
Many times we hear that the problem of the education system is money. But none of this has to do with financial resources but rather with moral resources. All that is needed is the moral character to fulfill the teacher's mission: to educate. Do not lie, do not shirk from your duty even when it is unpleasant or when it conflicts with your own personal agenda. Set the proper standards and teach your students up to them – that is educating. Lowering or abolishing the standards to please the students and make it easy on yourself is a betrayal of the trust that exists between teachers and the students who pay to get an education and between the teachers and the tax-paying public who finance the system and expect the teachers to do their job, not pass the problems on to the next level.
It is as if the city garbage men would pick up the garbage from your street and throw it into the streets of another neighborhood. We would never allow it would we? So why should we allow it in the education system? I guess "Teachers" is alive and well in Israel.

My conclusion from this experience has been that morals, not money, is what we lack most in the education system.

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

I Dream of Jeannie - The Free Child

I really enjoyed using a Seinfeld episode to demonstrate a psychological theory so I started thinking about a lot more possibilities of combining fun video evidence with what may be, for some, stale theory. In this post I will be using a clip from "I Dream of Jeannie" as an excellent example of a term from Transactional Analysis I explained in the previous, aforementioned Seinfold post - the "Free Child".
"I Dream of Jeannie" is a TV series from the sixties which remains pretty popular to this day. It is about an astronaut who finds himself on a deserted island somewhere in the Pacific. There he finds a bottle with a genie which quickly becomes his very own "Jeannie". She returns with him to civilization and much laughter and hilarity ensue.

Jeannie - The Free Child
Jeannie is sweet, warm-hearted and loving. She is also very emotional, spontaneous and delightfully creative but also extremely difficult to predict and therefore also quite difficult to live with despite being charming and beautiful and all-powerful. Another problem is that despite her love for her master, Major Nelson, she keeps landing him in trouble. There is a good reason for this which will be explained below.
Jeannie obviously possesses all the qualities of a Free Child and that is indeed her dominant mood. One of the main characteristic of the Free Child, which puts him at odds with the rest of society and especially The Parent, is a complete disregard for the value of time. Since the Free Child is always completely immersed in the present, then the basic elements of time, the past and future, are of no consequence to him. Another way to put is this: for the Free Child, past present and future blend into one.
This conflict is demonstrated beautifully in the chapter "Every Day Is Sunday". In this episode Jeannie decides that Major Nelson has been working too much and needs a rest. He protests that he has to go to work and so she just makes everyday Sunday, announcing that it will remain Sunday until he enjoys himself. But Major Nelson is committed to working and, well, see for yourself.

I made two clips using an amazingly simple free software - Solvieg Multimedia AVI Trimmer - all you have to do is put in the start and end times and press a button and voila – you have a clip. I don't think it can get any simpler. Now, if I can find such an easy way to rip my DVDs I will be able to use a lot more material on this blog.
In any case, here are the clips from the second episode of the second season. You are invited to watch them and read the accompanying remarks. Enjoy!

The first clip is from the very beginning of the episode:

In the beginning of this clip we see Jeannie displaying much concern over her master. She sounds caring and also reasonable – it is true that everybody needs some time off to relax. Many episodes start like this, with Jeannie in a Parental or Adult mode. But soon enough the Free Child comes to the fore. Major Nelson says:
"Too bad every day can't be Sunday."
With an impish smile and a gleeful laugh, Jeannie turns this thought into action. Creativity and laughter are sure signs of the Free Child – and it is such a free, infectious laughter, isn't it?
Tony, on the other hand, is in full Adaptive Child mode: he must ignore his bodily and psychic needs and go to work. He has to be on time. He must hurry. "He must", "He has to", "There is no time for…" - these are all Parental dictates that cannot be reasoned with. The use of the words "must" and "have to" precludes any rational conversation.
Throughout the series Tony alternates between issuing these Parental decrees to himself and to his Jeannie and obeying them as an Adaptive Child. Throughout the series Jeannie does her best to bring the Free Child into his life. Tony's Parent resists valiantly but he never does get rid of Jeannie, does he? Perhaps he realizes deep inside that she is exactly what he needs.
Surely Jeannie realizes that what he needs is some fun and she is out to make sure he gets it:

Here we can see the dynamic explained above: Tony admonishes his Jeannie, telling her what to do without explaining why - the Parent talking to the Adaptive Child. But Jeannie is too much of a Free Child to slip into that role. She listens, and ignores him completely.
Tony says, in a most condescending tone (another sure sign that the Parent is speaking) : "There is a time for working and there is a time for tiger hunting."
But Jeannie is only interested in the experience, in having fun: "Did you bag a tiger?" she asks.
But Tony cannot enjoy himself. He knows he is supposed to be at the office. His Parent is killing him: "Things aren't supposed to be this way," it is telling him. "The regular order of things has been disturbed!" it shouts.Tony's Adaptive Child is cringing and he tries to correct things but to no avail - the Free Child is loose! Only when Tony lets his own Free Child loose, will the world return to normal (Well, nearly.The episode does not end on such a happy note. But I won't ruin it for you.)
By the way, how did Tony get back from safari? Throughout the series Jeannie sends him and Roger all over the earth and yet they always manage to get back within minutes. How do they do it? Am I the only one that is bothered by this inconsistency?

Here is one last clip for your enjoyment. Tony tries to explain to Jeannie why she must turn off Sunday and let everybody work.Actually he does an admirable job. But Jeannie does an even better job explaining why her way is better. I find it hard to argue with her! This demonstrates the difference between the Adult, which is extremely utilitarian, and the Free Child which is immersed in the moment.

Finally, one last point. Tony is right - if everybody stopped working, society as we know it would collapse. This may or may not be a good thing. But the point is - the Free child does not think that far. He is so immersed in what is going on now, in himself, in his immediate interests that all other considerations are mostly beyond him. This is why, with all her good intentions and all her love for her master, Jeannie always screws up.
In order to function properly and be effective in the real world, the Free Child must be accompanied and guided by a strong Adult. Jeannie does not possess such an Adult. But - her master, the successful and intelligent astronaut does.

This suggests that their "Tikkun", the reason God (or fate if you wish) brought them together, is to correct their mutual deficiency: Tony will learn from Jeannie to be a Free Child, and Jeannie will learn the Adult from Tony. In time, each will become a whole healthy human being.
Will they manage to do this? I think it would be very difficult for them to solve their problems using the Transactional Analysis theory by itself. It is useful in describing what is going on and communicating with other people about it but the theory lacks an accompanying, effective practice. This has been supplied by the Imago Theory which has been described on this blog several times (see the all Imago posts here).

In any case, I haven't seen the rest of the series yet so I don't know how the relationship develops. But you can buy the whole series here and find out for yourself!

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