EducationSocial Issues

Education Today: An Interview With A Graduate Student

This month, I got the chance to interview an intermediate Master of Teaching student about the current education scene. How has it changed? What are some of the challenges? Here’s what he had to say:

My name is Matthew Colquhoun. I am a second year student in the Intermediate/Senior teaching section, in the Master of Teaching program at OISE. 

My undergraduate degree was completed at the University of Toronto; during the time I spent there, I acted as Coordinator for the English Student Union’s Peer Mentorship Program. When I moved on to my studies at OISE, I noticed that the MTSA was seeking applicants to fill its executive positions, and the position of VP Academic caught my eye. Based on the programs it had run in the past and the roles I was already used to taking on, I decided I’d make a good fit and applied. A year later, here I am — the role has been a fantastic way to give back to the OISE community, and being in a fairly flexible position, I’ve also had the chance to work with several excellent administrators and professors to begin initiatives like cross-department seminars, the SALT Mentorship program, and a bi-monthly student voice piece. 

Education Today: An Interview With A Graduate Student

Image from here.

Can you provide a brief overview of the Master of Teaching Student Association and what it does?

Sure! The Master of Teaching Student Association (usually known as the MTSA) is an organization within the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). We provide academic, professional development, extracurriculars/sports, and social opportunities to graduate students enrolled in the Master of Teaching program here.

What is the difference between the Master of Teaching program and a teacher’s college degree? What are the main focuses of the program to prepare students for the working world?

The Master of Teaching degree is much more comprehensive in that we have the opportunity to more deeply engage with our research. A good example of this is our Master of Teaching Research Project (MTRP). The MTRP gives students the chance to look at issues in education that interest them through the scope of research and interviews with educators. Of course, we also have a range of instructors who conduct similar research, many of whom have had direct experience in K-12 Canadian classrooms.

What are some of the challenges that students within the Master of Teaching Program face?

One of the biggest challenges discussed in the past by me and my colleagues has been the question of how we engage our students in the process of learning. I like to think of the role of a teacher as half know-it-all and half professional Broadway actor. If students aren’t interested by you and your delivery of content, then it’s very unlikely they’ll enjoy or appreciate the subject. I’ve had teachers in the past whose poor style of instruction, cluttered and meaningless lessons, or overall sense of disinterest in what they were teaching left me with a sour taste in my mouth. On the other hand, I’ve also had teachers who knew how to pitch a lesson by showing a genuine enthusiasm in the material; at the same time, these teachers usually found new and exciting ways to present lesson content. 

For me, this boils down to out-of-the-box thinking. In math classes, try building clinometers with students and send them out to measure angles, or in English, have students set up podiums outside and give orations during the summer; in history, try getting students to role-play historical figures, and in biology, let students try growing their own gardens. In meeting the challenge of student engagement, the modern educator might want to take him or herself back to a high school mindset and ask “What would have interested me as a kid?”

Education Today: An Interview With A Graduate Student

Image from Jonathan Kirn via Getty Images.

How are today’s students different from the past?

The biggest change I think comes in the form of how our students learn. More than ever, students these days refer to authorities like Wikipedia and Google instead of real-world sources of information like, oh, say the Toronto Public Library.  For us as instructors, this means we have to consider new ways of looking at how students approach the content of our lessons. For example, if a student has poor oral skills but can express himself very well through a blog, should we allow in our assignments the option for all our students to create a blog? 

The answer to this question will vary from teacher to teacher, and many use strategies like differentiated instruction to give students a variety of ways to demonstrate their knowledge. My own personal response is that it certainly can’t hurt (despite being a little more work for the teacher). At the end of the day, the modern educator has to strike a balance between fostering 21st century skills and continuing to build up skills like reading, writing, and arithmetic that have been around for centuries before.

There is talk about robots/artificial intelligence replacing teachers. Do you agree/disagree with this possibility?

The idea of artificial intelligence is certainly an interesting one, and it’s gained traction in recent years, especially with IBM’s creation of Watson and billionaires such as Elon Musk taking interest. I for one welcome our new computer overlords, though I do think it’s important to realize that as things stand, there are human qualities that computers cannot imitate. Emotions pose a particular problem, and for a profession where a large component of discussion revolves around the persona of the teacher, the rigidity of a robot’s personality might do more harm than good. That said, technologies such as ebooks and interactive textbooks are already starting to show up in classrooms. Furthermore, there’s been a move towards Smart Boards and iPads in schools. I think technology makes a good partner for teachers, but I doubt it has the capacity to overtake us entirely (…yet).

I have heard of cases where schools are considering the possibility of removing certain subjects, such as writing, to focus on subjects like typing. What are your thoughts on these possible changes?

Education has already seen a heated discussion about the downplaying of grammar in classrooms. Of course, smaller details like the removal of cursive have also proven interesting landmarks in terms of the necessary shift that education is forced to take on as time goes by. Maybe one day writing will be given up in place of typing—speaking from my personal experience, in many of my university classes (except maybe those in mathematics), the light from a wave of laptop screens could be seen across the lecture halls; on occasion when I sat towards the back of the auditorium in places like Isabel Bader Theatre, I had the chance to witness what was essentially the Aurora Borealis of the digital age. Maybe that’s just what inevitable change looks like, though personally, I think that to lose a subject like writing would mean suffering the loss of one of our most human characteristics. Perhaps the evolution of communication might take us somewhere we don’t want to go, especially if we become over-reliant on the technology that makes these new mediums of communication possible.


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