Sunday, December 20, 2009

Reconciling Industry Certification with Humanization (and the ghost of my father)

My father was the first one in his family to go to college, earning a degree in Engineering from Drexel University, but he was never completely comfortable with the "title" he had earned.  I can remember him telling me, long before there was an Urban Dictionary, what the BS, MS, and PhD degrees actually stood for.  Fundamentally, I think, it boiled down for him to the question of whether one's self worth comes from within or from without.  Who are they, he thought, to tell me what I am worth?

As a Career and Technical Education (CTE) teacher, I am confronted with a related issue every day as I work to help students prepare for their future careers in the technology industry.  It is policy in our program, and I feel pressure from above to get my students to take Industry Certification Exams, even though I often believe a focus on these exams would be detrimental to learning.

At the root this issue there are basic questions of practice to address. What skills are most important for students to have?  What is the best way for them to acquire these skills?  How can they best demonstrate to others what they can do? Lying deeper, and often unasked, there are the far more important questions concerning the development of young people as human beings.  How best can young people grow to fully realize their humanity?  What experiences will help enable them to fulfill their roles as historical subjects, and give them the tools they need to fight dehumanization and oppression? Is there anything that can happen inside a classroom inside a school toward these ends, and what is the duty of the classroom teacher regarding them?

CTE teachers in a capitalist economy who believe, along with Paulo Freire, that "humanization is our ontological vocation", can find themselves in a tough situation.  Dehumanization is, after all, the unstated assumption of our trade.  Our job is to prepare raw material (our students) for use by others.

I have been able to survive as a CTE teacher for almost two decades thanks to the wonderfully subversive oasis of humanization provided by the Free Software Movement.  Working within the GNU/Linux and Python communities in particular, I have been able to simultaneously provide students with opportunities to acquire the skills they need to succeed in the technology industry while largely avoiding turning my classroom into a dehumanization factory.

The free software world is perhaps the closest thing one can find outside the athletic field to being a true meritocracy.  What you can do is there for all the world to see in the code that you write.  It is not your last name or your title that determines your worth, but your ability to contribute to the community.  I have found happiness for the last few decades as a CTE teacher by making this community my home.

I am often reminded, however, of the broader context in which I work.  Suggestions that we should partner uncritically with private industry to determine what our students need to know and be able to do (as we did in Arlington Public Schools several years ago when we rushed head first into implementing a Cisco certification course with very poor results), or that Professional Certification should be a universal goal in all of our IT classes, without critically evaluating how they would impact our classrooms, constantly remind me of the powerful role private industry plays behind the scenes in public education.

I am not at all the individualist my father was.  On the contrary, I believe that our view of ourselves and of our place in the world is socially constructed.  I strongly support the development of common standards that enable collaboration and communication, and I am not at all opposed to a professional certification process, provided it meaningfully measures real learning and achievement and reflects the democratic input of practitioners.

What To Do About Industry Certification? 

The problem for me is that there is a distinct lack of certifications in the areas in which I am most interested in working.  My supervisor recently handed me a 15 page document titled "Board of Education Approved Industry Certifications, Occupational Assessments, and Licensures".  There is no Python exam on the list.  There is a Java test, to be sure, together with the implication that I should be teaching Java instead of Python for that reason.

If I wait long enough, a Python certification exam may appear on that list.  The fact that companies as large as Google have made Python a core technology make it increasingly likely that an Industry Certification will appear.

By then, however, I may have moved on to something else.  I'm primarily interested in involving students in naming the world.  To be full and active members in a democratic society, students need to know how to think critically, and to seek solutions to problems which often lie beyond conventional wisdom. Humanity faces tremendous challenges which threaten its very survival in the 21st century.  We will need the ideas and voices of all of us to meet these challenges.

There are times when preparing for an industry certification exam can help build student skills and discipline.  I should embrace those opportunities and encourage students in those situations to pursue certification.  There are other times, however, when an uncritical focus on a certification exam would run completely counter to what I want to achieve in the classroom.  I should not let the pressure to give students exams harm their opportunity to grow as human beings.  If I am to effectively model what I seek for my students, I can't uncritically pursue a course of action handed down from above that doesn't make sense and is not in the interest of real student learning.