Religion in Schools

America has long since got it wrong about religion in schools.   I am an atheist, but I completely disagree with what some atheist students did in this school.  It should be OK to talk about and discuss religion at school as long as it is openfree, and does not require people of one religion to participate in another.   Any student or staff member should be able to talk about religion and there should be a religious education program in the schools that teach about all religions of the world.

One of the main reasons for this is that I find far too often people of the USA are ignorant of other cultures and peoples of the world.  The only way they hear about other religion or cultures is through an increasingly biased and sensationalized television news.  Most Muslims are not terrorists.  Most Buddhists are not monks sitting in some temple in Tibet.  People of any religion are about equally likely to become corrupt or saintly.  People have always tried to corrupt or selectively follow religion to serve their own needs.

Here are some examples of where I think the line is when dealing with religion in school.

  • Fine: Mentioning something in a religious text if the situation warrants it.
  • Not Fine:  Requiring others to read your religious text (and not others) and insisting to people that they should believe what you believe.
  • Fine: Leading a prayer in school in a selected area
  • Not Fine: Leading a prayer in morning prayer or in a school assembly where some students present may not share your religion
  • Fine:  The pledge of allegiance
  • Not Fine:  The pledge of allegiance including the phrase “under God” since that almost suggest that you cannot be a member of the country without first being Christian.  It immediately makes people of other faiths not feel like they can be part of “the nation”
  • Fine: Having religious education in schools that talk about the major world religions
  • Not Fine: Having religious education in schools that says that only one religion is correct and demonizes the others.
  • Fine:  Having science education in schools
  • Not fine:  Having science education in schools that suggests that only one religion’s interpretation of history and events is correct (e.g. Creationism)
  • Fine:  Putting up sculptures and monuments related to religion
  • Not fine: Putting up sculptures and monuments related to only one religion and banning all others

What a lot of people fail to see is that there is a lot to learn about life by studying other religions.  There are thousands of years of wisdom, stories, advice, and ways to deal with problems contained in religious texts.  Just because you are of a particular religion does not mean that the other religious texts are junk.

I have been brought up to respect others no matter their culture or religion.  Where I loose respect is when religion hurts people (physically or emotionally).  If your religion is modern and promotes the sacredness of life and liberty then I am glad to share the same space with you and talk with you.  Wisdom, knowledge, happiness, and a productive society all come from when people of different backgrounds are able to reach an understanding and live together.

So, to all of those who want religion more in schools and in public locations, that’s fine.  The price, however, is that you will have to give the other major religions equal time.   Sure, make children read the bible in school, but you will also have to make them read the Torah, Koran, Ādi Granth, atheist texts, the Sutras, the Vedas, and others.

The only way we can fight extremism, really, is through education.  Part of that education needs to be to learn about other cultures and religions.  The problems arise when you have people in isolated regions who only learn about their own culture’s beliefs.  When these people eventually encounter strange cultures, then they tend to react in extreme ways no matter what the religion.  If they learned about the world religions in a non-threatening, non-judgmental way, then we would able to solve quite a few of the problems around the world.

If you start labeling some group as evil, then eventually someone will retaliate.   There is one thing I have learned about religion in my 30 years of being an atheist, and that is that religion is personal.  If you restrict a person’s beliefs, or start to force people to believe a different religion, then you attack their very core.  It should be no surprise if someone reacts when they are treated like outcasts.

So, in America, and even in the United Kingdom, I am increasingly seeing a return of religion to the public sphere.  I increasingly see the stereotyping of other religions and the segregation of people into different religious schools and areas of cities.  I increasingly am seeing leaders saying that they will impose their religion and religious views in government.

There is a danger there that without understanding of other cultures, and without integration between the cultures there is a risk that isolated people will continue to retaliate against the other groups who are “in power”.  I only hope that the retaliation never becomes large-scale again as the one thing I have learned from history is that religious wars can never really be won or lost.  The only losers are the people who are caught up in the crossfire.

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Hiding the Windows Start Menu

I know quite a few people who work (or have worked) at Microsoft, and I think they are genuinely smart people, but these UI decisions present in Windows 8 are truly maddening when using a desktop:

  1. The start menu button hides unless you move the mouse very carefully in the corner that is unmarked.   When I remote desktop to a computer running this, or am running windows in a VM, it sometimes takes way too much time to hit the sweet spot to make the button appear.
  2. The right-click menu has been moved down to the bottom of the screen for some (but not all) actions.   I never really know where to look.  The right click menu should always be right next to the mouse cursor.  When pull a handle in the kitchen to open a cupboard, you don’t expect the cupboard two down to open instead of the one you’re trying to open.
  3. Menus have vanished.   This one is a particular pet peeve of mine.  Especially since a lot of things still refer to the menus.  For instance, Internet Explorer often talks about going to the “Tools” menu which is nowhere to be found.  If I didn’t know about ALT+T to get the menu, I would seriously consider throwing the computer out the window.
  4. Related to number 3: everything is hidden.   I know clean interfaces are key to get people to like something now, but when you’re used to knowing all of the possible things you can do on one screen, it is hard to get used to everything being hidden except what it thinks I should do (which usually isn’t correct).

There are other things which annoy me, but I won’t go into them.  Suffice to say that I find myself using the command prompt more and more lately, which brings back memories of Windows 3.1.

I do this already in Linux, but that’s not because the non-functional desktop makes me (Although certain desktops seem to be going the same way as Windows).  For me, I know it is all about choice, and Windows used to be pretty good at this.  Not great, but good.   With the success of Apple, however, Microsoft has moved more and more towards pre-packaged look-but-don’t-change interfaces.

That may suit most people, but not me.  I want the interface of a computer/smartphone/tablet to get out of my way and let me do what I want.  It seems that all the interfaces now are narcissistic and love telling you about how flashy they are.

God I sound old.


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Global Warming Can’t Be Bad?

I’ve heard people say that global warming is a good thing because bad things can’t possibly happen when things are just 1-2 degrees warmer on average.  Well, just wait until things like this more easily spread due to the warmer temperatures.   I feel horrible already about the mess that we’re going to leave our children to have to fix.

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Technology in Education

All too often, I’ve seen schools spend millions on new computer systems without so much as a thought as to training for the staff or structuring how the use of such technology would work in practice.

All too often, laptops, tablet computers, interactive whiteboards and expensive website subscriptions all end up as somewhat less functional versions of the thing that they replaced.  I could go into more detail and explain my thoughts here, but I would like to focus on an aspect of computers that has been troubling me the most: standardized tests.

Computers won’t (and should not) replace teachers much to the dismay of some.  Computers aren’t very good at pretending to be human.  They cannot and should not replace teachers.  Students need human relationships and interactions to learn how to survive in the world.

What computers are good at is number crunching and displaying things in new ways.  Teachers who know how to utilize technology correctly can and do help students’ understanding immensely.  The problem is that because computers are good at crunching numbers, many in power are trying to find ways to turn education into statistics so they can summarize success and failure in a set of numbers that can be charted, categorize and compared.

The problem with statistics, however, is that as soon as you take averages and try to summarize complex beings into data, you loose the whole picture.  Average income, for instance, looses information about the separation between rich and poor.  Increasingly often, schools have relied on things like test scores and levels determined how good students were and what sets they were in instead of their work and effort.  On more than one occasion, I’ve taught students in bottom sets in secondary who were decent at mathematics, but struggled reading or lacked the confidence to perform well on tests.   They were in the bottom set not because they were bad at maths, but because the tests didn’t reflect their true abilities.

What has happened here is that we have a system that makes mathematics and computers make decisions for us instead of giving us the tools to make an informed decision (which they should be doing instead).  The current system doesn’t have the right balance.

As a former maths teacher, I would have loved to have statistics, for instance, on how each student did on their times tables each year through primary and secondary, or perhaps more information as to where gaps where in their knowledge.  When I was a teacher, all I would just be told, “This student is a level 3a,” as if this explained all of the student’s abilities completely.  The students’ strengths and weaknesses were left to me to determine over the course of the year.  I know schools are moving away from levels in general, and this is probably a good thing.  Levels shouldn’t have been targeted at subject-level, but they should have been more detailed than that.   A student that is a level 4c in operations and a 3b in story problems is much more useful information than saying a student is 3a at Maths:  Less information about the student’s capabilities are lost.

This process of working out strengths and weaknesses is part of teaching: working out where you can help each of your students progress.  It just seems that once you figure this out, why not pass the information on to the next teachers?  Most schools I taught at had a “you’re on your own” attitude, and missed the strength that comes when people work together.

The problem here is that in order to have this level of detail at our fingertips, you need to be recording data on each topic, in each subject, and at a detail level that teachers with very little time can manage.  I recorded this level of detail for a few years as an experiment, and it isn’t for everyone.  For one thing it is very time consuming!  Even so, I found it helped me more finely tune my teaching to address weaknesses I found in each students abilities and in my own teaching methods.  This, in turn, helped me raise my students attainment above where they progressed in previous years.  My method, however, is not one I would prescribe to everyone.  It would have to become a lot simpler and automated to work for teachers in general.  Even then I doubt I would try to prescribe this as the next everyone-do-this thing that the teaching field seems so happy with.

Not only this, but most people who have the skills to utilize technology to its fullest typically don’t choose education as a path to follow.  The money, the hours, and the level of respect you receive as a teacher all are good reasons to choose a different profession.  As such, people with the know-how can be expensive, and money isn’t a popular thing to give to schools right now, perhaps in part because of the mostly-aimless push for technology at the same time as governments try to problem with paying for loans to banks and car manufacturers with reducing budgets of schools, health care, and local government services.

In the end, the right path to follow in education is the teacher’s own path.  This is why we receive so much training and why experience matters.  Teachers aren’t just facilitators to just mark papers and hand out books or laptops to students.  Teachers are psychiatrists, IT specialists, physical therapists, secretaries, parents, mentors, and much more all rolled into one.  They are the best people in the best positions to try and work out how to teach children and help them progress.   This is best done when you have administrators, parents, students, and teachers all working together.  This doesn’t happen too often, and in all my years in the education system I have only seen it happen twice, and it is powerful when it does.

It seems, however, that the opinion of the press and the government seems to promote the idea that teachers are on the same level as websites like mymaths, inexperienced teachers or an iPad and that you can just swap one for the other.  The sad state of affairs is that it all comes down to money and I fear that it will get worse before it gets better.   What it will take to change things is money, less bureaucracy, and public backing, and I just don’t see those three happening any time soon on a mass scale.  They will continue to happen on a smaller scale for a very small number of people.

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