Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Integrated Programmes (Part IV): Towards a Golden Age

In 1972, the official press release for the Apollo XVII mission included this sentence: "The colors of the emblem are red, white and blue, the colors of the U.S. flag; with the addition of gold, to symbolize the golden age of space flight that will begin with this Apollo 17 lunar landing."

It was a horribly cynical statement, even by American standards. Two years earlier, it had been decided that the 17th Apollo mission would be the last. Man would stop at the moon; operations would be suspended for the forseeable future. Perhaps it would have been more accurate to say that the myth of the 'golden age of space flight' would evolve from the history that ended on 19 December 1972, the day the America command module splashed down in the Pacific, off Samoa.

I remember the sensations of the 21st century, as Integrated Programmes launched all over Atlantis. The Argonaut left in 2004, Gnomus arrived. We were all hoping that our 'Apollo 17 mission' would usher in a golden age of education. And in that year, after five years of planning, it all began to fall apart at the Citadel.

The programme was being driven towards accountability and a strong theoretical basis by two members of the working group (or Commissariat, as some of us joked). However, some people realised they would be sidelined because of their lack of one or both of these elements. They began a counter-revolution.

Using the structures and terminology prepared for the new programme, they began to institute a newer programme that looked exactly like the old one, but had been gutted of its main systems. In the messy coup that followed, the intelligentsia were purged from the Commissariat and the true Stalinist era began. The golden age had been erased and replaced with an age of steel.

Nobody outside the Citadel noticed. After all, the advertising material was still the same. Yet, as careful examination shows, the advertising hype no longer matched the programme as deployed. Teacher development for the IP ended in 2004, with subsequent development completely outsourced (except for one last-gasp training effort nominally led by Iron Man in late 2007).

Meanwhile, at the Gryphon Academy, big plans were afoot. The Sith Lord in residence called me up and asked for my opinions. Treading on dangerous ground, I offered some. After all, it was not as if I was doing useful work anymore at the Citadel. It was the beginning of my life as a consultant.

Back at the Citadel, the main idea had crystallized. Instead of teaching the students, the focus would be on producing results. That sounds odd, but you who read this should understand that the two need not necessary be coupled together.

There are some decoupling strategies: 1) you can make the students teach themselves, by dumping huge amounts of material on them and insinuating that any real IP student should know all of it; 2) you can focus on meeting examination rubrics as disconnected objectives rather than as a whole; 3) you can take in students likely to succeed and maintain that likelihood till the endpoint arrives. There are some others, but these are the main ones.

Up to the time I left the Citadel, I had not seen a serious official discussion of the theoretical basis of teaching, the methodology of teaching, nor the art of classroom teaching, in the Citadel. It was assumed that teachers were proficient, and if not, that the system could compensate by administrative fiat.

Accordingly, teachers were assessed largely by political utility, under the guise of 'pastoral care' (which meant how well they got along with the right people and projected the right image) and 'co-curricular activities' (which meant the ability to win gold medals and complete projects). There was no open appraisal; such a thing would have exposed certain deficiencies.

This was why the 'Apollo 17 mission' of the Citadel's IP heralded a golden age that would result in space shuttles and Skylab rather than in spaceships and starships. We ended up with an orbiting experimental station, instead of Moonbase Alpha — although at times, especially in the basement staff room, it felt like the latter.

To cut a long story short, I stayed behind in Samoa. The life was better there.

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