Lazy children are not allowed to fail: Behold the result
I received this in response to Lazy children are not allowed to fail and was immediately blown away by what I read.
I asked for permission and have reposted it in its entirety, minus a few identifying details. I have also interspersed some comments throughout.
I will say that this professor seems to be unique in their views, as I recently heard on the podcast: Tell me something I don’t know, Episode 5 Passion Plays, a Mr. Jason Tavares, an Associate Chemical Engineering Professor at Polytechnique Montréal (not associated with the one in France at all; I mention because it angers all the ones who have gone to the truly gruelling L’École Polytechnique in Paris and are incensed about this mistake), who appears as a contestant about 34 minutes into the podcast saying:
“If you’re designing the exam, and I tend to write fair tests, I set the bar.
So if everyone in the class gets an A, everyone gets an A.
I teach a fourth year class so at that point I don’t want to fail them any more anyways.”
Can we let that sink in?
A chemical engineering professor who is writing tests that are fair (subjective, depending on what you consider ‘fair’, obviously), who DOESN’T WANT TO FAIL THEM ANY MORE ANYWAYS.
I heard that and almost fell off my seat.
Okay. So…. Engineering is everywhere in our society, from the way our bridges are being built (in Montreal, I can tell you that they did not use local engineers for the new bridge, I heard they brought in Americans to do the job correctly this time so that the bridge doesn’t collapse after only what, 55 years? It was built in 1962 and currently it is being rebuilt from scratch.)
Chemical engineering, deals with handling chemicals, producing, transporting and using them properly.
Think: Nuclear plants, like the one that is still currently spewing radioactivity in Fukushima Japan in 2011.
NUCLEAR PLANTS, folks.
AND WE DON’T WANT TO FAIL THESE GUYS IF THEY DON’T GET IT RIGHT?
Anyway. You’re in for a long post.
Get a cup of coffee and settle in.
Without further ado:
I moved to Canada from Europe four years ago, and I recently taught an undergraduate course in a science degree at a Canadian university.
It was hands down the most stressful and shocking experience of my life.
DUMBING DOWN THE CURRICULUM
On the first day I gave students a questionnaire to verify their background knowledge, asking them a few basic questions about things they were supposed to remember from previous courses, when I went home and looked at their papers, I could not believe my eyes.
Nearly an entire class of around 80 3rd-year students was baffled by the simple questionnaire, miserably failing to give decent answers to almost any question.
Let me reiterate that the questions were among the most elementary I could come up with. I was not even asking them to think or solve problems, but merely to remember a few things they should have already mastered.
Some of the students even made jokes instead of answering my questions.
After that first day, I understood that I had to drastically modify my initial plans and dumb down the course a lot.
[Editor: This is a common thing I hear and see. The teachers I know, when they first started bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, had fantastic dreams of bringing all the wonders of their subject to the students but were knocked back on their butts after the first test or so.
It is kind of sad, to be honest, that the quality of education has to suffer because we just don’t hold our children up to any kind of standard.]
GRADING HOMEWORK AS THE NORM
One thing I don’t really understand about Canadian education is that university teachers are not only supposed to give students homework, but they should even grade their homework!
[Editor: I remember getting homework, but I don’t recall being graded on it. This must be new.
I only had professors say: “Tomorrow, we are covering concepts X and Y, so you can go ahead and read chapters 3 and 4 to have a base before coming to class.” Then if you were a keener, you’d do the readings and come to class already with the concept there, and have it reinforced by the professor.]
I studied in Europe, and needless to say I was never given any homework at university, simply because a university student is supposed to be mature enough to know how to study and how to prepare for an exam, and that of course includes doing homework!
I had a second shock when I graded the first homework assignment.
It was clear to me that none of the students (with one notable exception) had understood anything of what I had been teaching that week.
[Editor: Also, sadly a common plight of all teachers. I hear it all the time. Students on the whole don’t care, and don’t think it’s their job to care, which is the way they act in their careers as well]
But that’s not saying much, because most students had much more basic and compelling issues.
Apparently, Canadian university students are unable to spell.
[Editor: Yes. Canada and the United States have a lot of students who are unable to spell. It is the reason why I am starting Baby Bun early on making sure he understands proper spelling and the root of words. It is very important to me that he has strong language skills because it really raises my ire when I see it done incorrectly.
With the rise of texting, and this new internet-based lexicon consisting of “LOL” and “R U SURE” substituting as words, it is no surprise. I even see it on signs here in both English and French. I am not a Francophone but it is embarrassing that even I can see they mis-conjugated the verb or mis-spelled something.]
Oddly enough, the best spellers are the foreigners.
[Editor: Agreed, but that’s because we had to learn the language, so when you do that, you study it more intensely. I see that in French. I am really memorizing the right way to spell the words and pronounce them, in ways native Francophones never had to, most of the time.]
To be fair, Canadians under 30 can’t even speak English properly: I’ve never met one who was able to utter a single sentence without abusing the word “like”.
I’ve asked my students to stop saying “like” all the time, at least when they talk to me, just because English is not my first language, and it’s hard for me to understand someone who just carelessly spews out lazily pronounced words as fast as possible, and half of those words are “like”.
[Editor: Like.. really?.. Just kidding. ]
However I had to give up pretty soon: they simply can’t help sprinkling all their sentences with that word, and there is nothing I can do about it. But I digress.
Let me just say that their spelling is atrocious.
The most common mistake, which all (and I mean ALL) the native English speakers among my students made was writing “it’s” instead of “its”.
[Editor: ARRRRRRGH. *tears hair out*]
To be clear, I am not saying that they were omitting an apostrophe, but that they were adding an unnecessary apostrophe. I guess they are aware of the existence of apostrophes, but they never use them in casual writing.
As a result, when they write formal papers such as university assignments, they have no clue where apostrophes are supposed to go, and systematically add them to pronouns, plural nouns, etc., regardless of their grammatical functions.
[Editor: I am sure you even got smiley faces in papers, and emoticons. A few professors have complained about that to me.]
So, for instance, all occurrences of the possessive pronoun “its” become “it’s”, all occurrences of “his” become “he’s”, the plural form of “pen” becomes “pen’s”, and don’t even get me started on homophones such as “there”, “their” and “they’re”, which are basically interchangeable.
[Editor: Appropriately, I wear this shirt on occasion.]
So, I don’t know what’s going on in Canadian elementary schools; all I know is that Canadian kids don’t learn any grammar or orthography.
[Editor: I can tell you what happens. Read my post here on how lazy children can’t fail.]
CHEATING IS RAMPANT
But what really disappointed me was the amount of students who blatantly cheated on assignments.
Assignment problems were taken from the course textbook, and evidently someone had the solutions manual (which is sold only to teachers) and shared it with the class.
Several students were not even smart enough to slightly rephrase what they copied.
A lot of them didn’t realize that there was a pagination mistake in the manual, and a figure was misplaced, so they drew the same figure in the same wrong place, exactly as in the manual.
[Editor: I present to you what I thought of the minute I read that…]
There are official regulations against plagiarism, and I was supposed to report the “suspicious” papers, and let the authorities handle the situation and “re-educate” the mischievous students.
I just thought all these regulations were a bunch of nonsense, because a 20-something-year-old university student is supposed to already know that cheating is wrong, and even if they don’t, maybe it’s a little late to re-educate them now.
Besides, I thought it was obvious that they were not supposed to do their homework to get that extra 5% on their final mark, but because studying and doing exercises at home is kind of useful if you want to pass the final exam!
So I didn’t report anyone, but I strongly advised them to stop cheating and start working hard, or they would have failed the final exam. My mistake was assuming to be talking with mature adults who genuinely wanted to get an education.
As it turned out, I was dealing with spoiled Canadian brats who couldn’t care less about learning, and thought that university was a big joke, and their teacher a clown.
Roughly half of them kept blatantly cheating no matter what, and the other half clumsily tried to make it somewhat less obvious. Once again, I had to conclude that cheating on assignments was another well-established part of a Canadian student’s culture, and there was nothing I could do about it.
NO ORAL TESTS OR EXAMS GIVEN
Another peculiar thing about Canadian education is that there are no such things as oral tests or oral exams.
[Editor: Yes, my partner from France found that strange as well when I told him I had never done one.]
I still don’t understand how a teacher can evaluate a student without ever asking them a single question!
Sure, there are written tests, but how do you determine if a mistake in a paper is just a typo or the result of a serious gap in the student’s knowledge? How do you grade it?
To give a meaningful grade, you should question the student, and ask them to explain why they wrote that, and ask them further questions based on their answers, in order to “zoom in” on the problem and see how deep the gap is.
I tried explaining this to the director before I started teaching the course, telling him that in Europe teachers ask questions to individual students every day since they are six years old, grading them based on their answers (we call them “interrogations”).
This is perfectly normal in Europe: the final grade of every subject is the average between your written tests’ marks and your oral tests’ marks.
Daily interrogations terrify students, because they never know who’s going to be interrogated on a given day, but we understand it’s part of education, and the only serious way to test a student’s knowledge, but the director looked at me as if I had just said the most blasphemous thing ever.
He explained that it was out of the question, because no one ever does oral examinations.
Regardless, I decided to award 10% bonus marks to students for participation in class; moreover, the day each assignment was due, I let volunteers explain their solutions to the class, and awarded them bonus marks as well.
In my view, this was a good way to make them interact and discuss things without putting them under pressure, because I wasn’t forcing anyone to talk in front of the class, and for them, it was an awesome opportunity to boost their marks, because they just had to talk about a small exercise they had a week to solve, and basically say whatever they wanted, with no questions asked and no surprises.
Still, only a couple of them ever took advantage of this opportunity.
[Editor: Yes, sounds familiar. We had mandatory participation in my business classes but to be honest, because everyone was forced to speak as part of their grade, I just became a lot more shy in voicing any opinions.
Also, you just feel intimidated trying to do it in front of thousands of students; I once had a lecture class of 1000 students.]
The vast majority of the students were either too scared to talk, or just didn’t care.
And those who did talk should probably have remained quiet, because all of them were so clueless and just unable to make any sense at all, that I felt embarrassed for them. I don’t know what’s going on with these people, but they can’t form a coherent thought in their heads and express it without mindlessly talking nonsense.
It’s not just that they didn’t know the course material, perhaps because they didn’t study or they were lazy, or whatever…
My impression was that they lacked basic skills such as formulating simple logical thoughts and deriving simple consequences from known facts without making up random statements.
Evidently, Canadian schools don’t teach these things any more.
SABOTAGING OR BLAMING THE TEACHER
The third big shock came around the midterm exam.
Students were clearly panicking, and I started getting daily e-mails from the director, informing me that students kept complaining about me.
Apparently, instead of simply applying themselves and studying for the exam, they thought it was a better idea to sabotage my course and get me in trouble.
[Editor: This one really makes me angry. I cannot believe the things I hear from the teachers in my circle about what they have to endure. They have to be so politically correct and careful, that they’re almost paralyzed in what they can say any more.]
They basically took random things I said in class (even months before!), decontextualized them, twisted them around, made them sound really wrong or offensive, and reported me to the director for saying them.
Someone even accused me of being sexist (I was later told by other teachers that pulling the sexism or racism card to make someone look bad is relatively common in Canadian schools).
They said I told students to shut up, implying that I refused to answer their questions in class, or something. Actually I yelled “shut up, please” only once before a lecture, because everyone kept making noise, ignoring my polite requests to be quiet.
Fortunately the director wasn’t passing any judgements, and was well aware that students tend to exaggerate things, especially when they get low marks. So I didn’t end up getting in serious trouble.
[Editor: You were lucky. My experience has been that some teachers are even forced to take mandatory leave from such accusations. It’s sad, really.
I am all for empowering the student and making sure that they are heard and not steamrolled by an authority figure, but this really goes too far]
I just felt terribly humiliated, partly because of all the random accusations, and partly because the director insisted on assigning me a “supervisor” who was supposed to watch me teach and make sure that I wasn’t saying anything wrong, or teaching stuff that was too hard or out of scope.
I told these facts to some other Europeans, and they could not believe their ears.
In Europe, professors are authorities who are generally respected by students.
Don’t get me wrong, teachers are made fun of a lot, but never seriously disrespected. And even if some teachers are clearly nuts and take pleasure in failing students and mocking them in front of everyone, I’ve never heard of a teacher being reported for this.
Telling on teachers is not something we do, and the reason is quite simple: no one cares.
There are no such things as counsellors or people you talk to when you don’t like a professor.
If you want to report a professor for some wrongdoing, you go to the police. And unless it’s some serious abuse you’re reporting, they will just tell you to go home and stop wasting their time. Period.
[Editor: Agreed. If it isn’t abuse, then there should be no cause for complaint, but these days in Canadian schools, children are given such agency to bitch and moan. It is even worse if their parents are prominent in society, they get away with it.
I know of at least one sad case of a girl wrongly accusing a male teacher of sexual assault because she was angry at him, and then later admitting she made it up, after she ruined his life and reputation (he became a pariah).
That is not to say all those who complain are lying about it (a lot of it goes unreported like in my case), but it makes everyone paranoid and walk on a knife’s edge now.]
The frustrating part for me was that all I cared about since the beginning of the semester was to teach quality material and make it as simple as possible, helping students in every way I could.
I doubled my office hours (for free, of course), I made an on-line forum where students could share their thoughts about the course and discuss exercises, and I interacted with them daily, answering every question and proposing new topics.
I even organized extra study sessions (for free, of course).
As a result of my commitment and dedication, I got horrible reviews on RateMyProfessors.com, stating that I was not helpful at all, I was rude and sexist, I couldn’t teach, I was the worst professor at the university, etc.
The anonymous student reports that the university gave me when the course was over went as far as claiming that I had personal issues, and that my exams were “crap”.
The midterm exam was a disaster.
No one could pass it, even though I thought it was easy enough.
In Europe, this would have simply meant that the whole class failed the course.
No big deal; better luck next time.
But not in Canada.
After talking with the director again, I agreed to make a second and much easier midterm and forget about the first one, as if having utterly incompetent students was my fault, and I had to make up for it somehow (for free, of course).
Needless to say, preparing a brand-new exam takes a long time, not to mention that more class hours spent writing exams means fewer lectures and further delay. This second exam was embarrassingly stupid. I wouldn’t give such an exam to mentally challenged high school students, let alone 3rd-year university students.
I no longer asked questions that required thinking or any understanding of the material. I gave students three “recipes” to solve three types of standardized exercises, and I just asked them to use said recipes. A task that a monkey could do.
Even then, much to my bewilderment, roughly half the class failed the exam.
It’s almost like students can’t focus for a few minutes on a routine exercise without making a myriad of stupid mistakes. Either there is an Attention Deficit Disorder epidemic in Canada, or Canadian schools don’t teach kids to pay attention and focus any more, and many of them never learn to do it.
[Editor: The latter. I hate that we use ADD to mis-diagnose children as a catch-all. It exists to be sure, but it cannot be the panacea to all educational problems.]
Anyway, I bell-curved the grades to please the director (“bell-curving” is an expression I had never heard before, and learning its meaning was another shock in its own right), and the last part of the semester went more smoothly.
[Editor: HAHAHAHAHAHA!!! Yes, ‘bell-curving’ is very common here.]
That is, until we approached the final exam.
All of a sudden, students started flocking to my previously almost deserted office to seek help and ask me what chances of passing the course they had.
I heard all kinds of moving stories: poor students who needed at least an A- to maintain their scholarships, students whose grandmother was about to pass away and couldn’t focus on studying, students who kept working hard but somehow got failing grades, students who hated the textbook and therefore couldn’t study properly, soccer players whose increased commitment to the team had taken a toll on their studying and stress levels, etc.
[Editor: Goodness. You should write an FAQ called “Boring & Unoriginal College Excuses”, and pass it out to students before they open their mouths.]
A few students left my office in tears after seeing that their sad stories didn’t seem to break my heart.
As for the exam itself, a student suggested that I gave them a multiple-choice test. I dismissed the request, thinking she was kidding. Later, I learned that several university courses do have multiple-choice exams, but at that point I was too tired to be shocked.
A very honest student explained to me that perhaps people hadn’t learned much in previous courses (which taught material that was a prerequisite to my course) because the multiple-choice exams didn’t force anyone to really understand any of the material, and hence too many people passed without actually learning anything.
I had a hard time deciding what questions to put in the final.
Eventually, I opted for putting lots of questions that demanded some thinking, and multiplied all grades by four. This way, if you barely knew anything and you wrote it, your mark got so inflated that you necessarily passed the course.
The problem is that too many people knew absolutely nothing, and hence there was nothing to inflate!
So, in the end the class was roughly split in two: the insufficient ones, who couldn’t get any answer right in the final, and the rest of the class, who got at least one question right, and automatically got an A. There were no B’s or C’s.
The director noted that the grade distribution didn’t form a nice bell curve, and there had to be something wrong with my evaluations. “There we go, the bell curve again…”, I though.
I pointed out that the people who got an A indeed formed a bell curve around the A. It was just a very thin bell curve, and translated toward the high marks, but it was a bell curve.
The people who didn’t fit in this bell curve, well, their grades were so bad that they shouldn’t have taken my course in the first place (or been admitted in a university, for that matter), so they were the “anomalies” that messed up the curve’s scale.
And the scale was so messed up because there were too many anomalies.
As soon as the final marks were communicated to the students, I was assaulted by the ones who failed.
It was around Christmas, and I started receiving e-mails every day from students who were telling me the story of their lives, again trying to move me or impress me and get me to boost their grades. I’ve never heard of anything like this happening in Europe: if you fail a course, it’s your fault, and you have to retry the next semester. Simple.
[Editor: One would think.]
If you start bombarding your teacher with e-mails, you are only going to worsen your situation. Here in Canada, pestering teachers during holidays to get better grades is the norm.
One student who was majoring in Mathematics told me that he did so poorly in my course because he wasn’t at ease with mathematical proofs and he wasn’t comfortable with logarithms.
As if that was a legitimate excuse, and a good reason not to deal with any of those things!
A mathematician who’s not at ease with proofs is like a lifeguard who’s not at ease in water, and therefore is excused for not knowing how to swim.
WORKING REALLY HARD SEEMS TO COUNT AS ALMOST MAKING IT
The same student tried to convince me that he should have passed my course because he spent some money on a tutor and he worked really hard during the semester.
This is another thing I don’t understand about Canadian students. If you work really hard and you fail so miserably, doesn’t that mean that you’re not cut for the job?
[Editor: It is like saying during the World Cup that you ALMOST made the ball go into the net, so it should have counted as a goal because it was so close.]
At least some people failed because they didn’t try, but if you try really hard and you still fail, so much the worse!
[Editor: I wonder if they would be able to solve this clock..]
He added that he was about to get married, and failing my course was going to be a tragedy for him.
He even called the director on the phone, who then told me that this student had a sob story and I should have double-checked his exam to see if there was something I could do to help him. Wow… A man in his twenties who’s about to get married is probably living the happiest period of his life.
Now he cries like a baby and stomps his feet because he failed an exam, and suddenly he has a sob story?
Needless to say, this poor excuse for a mathematician got his degree in Mathematics and immediately found a job as an investment advisor in a bank.
[Editor: At least he isn’t working in a nuclear reactor. Let’s all be thankful for that.]
I hope for him the job’s simple and he can’t get fired too easily, because I don’t think throwing a tantrum at the bank’s director is going to do him any good, this time.
[Editor: Well investment banking is another can of worms altogether. I have horror stories about that.]
SPOILED & IMMATURE
The net impression I got from these students is that they are extremely spoiled and immature.
Canadian schools don’t forge characters; they nurse crybabies and steal their parents’ money. In fact, part of the problem is that schools are run with a business mentality, and students are their clients.
[Editor: Exactly. And parents who pay for these classes, are the super clients who control everything and can report you.
Generally, the parents who don’t seem to subscribe to this mentality, tend to come from Asia from what I hear. Those parents, don’t want to hear any nonsense has happened with their child, tend to make sure their child faces up to their mistake & enforce it.]
So, schools want to make their clients happy to get their money.
If their clients are lazy immature children in adult clothing who just want to get diplomas with little to no effort, that’s what the schools give them. The result is that Canadian schools have ridiculously expensive tuition fees, and the level of education they give is ridiculously low.
As a consequence, students expect to pass, DEMAND to pass every course, just because they paid so much money.
In Europe, I did all my studies for free, from elementary school to high school to university. Actually, the government gave me a free apartment and free meals so that I could take free courses at my university, which was among the best in Europe.
I was also given a small cash stipend every month for studying at that university, and not because I had financial problems (I didn’t), but because I was a good student, and the country saw giving me the best education as an investment.
In fact, educating young and promising minds is an INVESTMENT for a country. In a perfect system, all schools should be free for everyone (or even pay students to study), and they should only admit the smart and motivated students who deserve it.
[Editor: The only point I would bring up in this, is that a lot of students who ‘make it’ in such a system, have the help of not having to worry about food on the table, their parents supporting & helping them, and may even have extra paid help in the form of tutors.
I have to say that it definitely doesn’t give the children in low poverty areas a chance to excel because they are too hungry to pay attention and no one wants to help them. Such a system would be disproportionately full of richer students as a result.]
Right now, they’re doing the opposite.
Now education is so bad in general that many companies only hire people with a university degree, even if the knowledge you need for the job is barely the one anyone would get from a high school, if high schools were not so bad.
This is forcing people to spend more years in school, learning almost nothing and basically wasting the most productive years of their lives, not to mention their money.
How good is this for a country?
How competitive is Canada worldwide, with this pathetic school system?
To wrap up, at least in my case, these “helicopter parents” were not directly involved.
[Editor: Oh yes they were.
You just didn’t see them in your subject, but they were there trying to help them edit their essays, read it over, help them finish their projects, etc. I have heard stories of students submitting essays with the parental corrections visible on the paper!!]
However, I could clearly see the effects of this kind of culture.
These university students are soft and childish adults, lazy to the core, who are used to getting everything handed to them on a silver platter.
Don’t be surprised when the poor little Canadians become the labor force in their own country, and the immigrants get all the prestigious jobs, because they’re the only people in the country with real professional expertise.