Education(al) Matters

Education; as university students, we have come together from all walks of life in this lifelong pursuit. For money, career, happiness, and a variety of other reasons, we have gathered here at the U of M because we care, to a greater or lesser extent, about the value of education.

But how many of us entered university with no idea how to research, write an essay, or even a bibliography? How many of us failed those early assignments, exams, and classes for the simple reason that our professors were not prepared to deal with students who were not prepared to deal with these simple tasks? I was one. I suffered through an entirely forgettable first year before I even began to catch a glimmer of what was expected of me, and, not surprisingly, I blamed my profs. I blamed them for being too ignorant, too intelligent, and too uncaring to give a crap about helping one lowly U1 student. I accepted my poor grades as a short coming of theirs and not of my own.

But, the simple fact of the matter is, our professors, as intelligent and as capable as they may be, are just that; professors. They are not teachers, never pretended to be. Most have never taken a course in a faculty of Education, nor have they ever had to suffer through excruciating student-teacher practicum dealing with snot-nosed teens in order to complete their degrees. They are simply smart people charged with the responsibility of transferring a pre-designated amount of knowledge in a pre-designated amount of time, in between those periods of time when they are completing what they see as their “real” job, continuing their research. Rest assured, no professor in any university would willingly deal with students if they could reasonably help it. It is simply a means to an end.

As selfish as this attitude may seem, our inability to function upon entering university does not lie with these individuals or their questionable teaching prowess, nor can you place the blame solely on most peoples’ typically unmotivated high school learning experience. As unmotivated as I was as a teen, I was still never taught how to write a proper, university-grade paper. Therefore, the question becomes how well are these high school students being prepared for university, and how well are teacher-candidates being prepared to teach these skills.

Over the course of the coming year I will be taking my experiences from the U of M faculty of Education and discovering whose fault it really is when our U1 students fail to live up to University 1 expectations. First topic up for debate is the concept of functional literacy. “Functional literacy,” strictly defined, is the minimum level of literacy required to survive in one’s own environment. “In one’s own environment” meaning that each persons’ functional literacy level is unique to that persons situation (friends, work, school).

However, in a nation as diverse as ours, with sub-standard education and horrendous graduation rates through our inner-cities, rural communities and reserves, functional literacy has grown to mean the ability to read a newspaper or bus schedule. When the ideals of our classroom teachers (and the professors educating said teachers) have devolved into believing that this level of literacy is acceptable, is the fault is in the system that has grown to fail our students, not students failing specific classes for which they have not been prepared.

At the U of M, we are a second-chance university. Our entrance requirements, along with our tuition rates, are among the lowest in the country, and although this ranks us at the bottom of MacLean’s ranking year after year, we believe that everyone has the right to a post-secondary education. We also offer a wide range of special needs programs ranging from disability services to academic advisors. With the help of any and all of these services however, the first-year graduation rate for this university still hovers at around 66 per cent. Meaning that one third of all those entering U1 will never make it to year No. 2.

The gap in between what is becoming considered functional literacy for all and what is the realistic functional literacy level for any given U1 course is huge and continuously growing. Not only do our professors not have the time or the inclination to bridge that gap, but many students are finding it difficult to close the gap before they send their GPA into an unrecoverable nosedive. Some recover, some never can, but it has become clear that, as educators, we need to elevate our expectations of what our students are capable of.

Jesse Beach is in his final year in the faculty of Education.