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Saturday, January 24, 2015

Why do we give lectures? Why does anyone attend them?

I found myself in the unusual position (for me anyway) of being a tourist in Brazil about a month ago.  For various reasons, I was on boats, and busses, and other vehicles, on which I found myself being lectured at. 

This was a bit ironic since as my readers know, I hate lectures. It is also ironic, because, I am a frequent lecturer at meetings of one sort or another.

I found myself wondering why people love to give lectures so much, and why I seemed to be the only one irritated by having to listen to them. (One was given beneath a tree, so I walked away, but no one else did, and one was during a walking tour of a winery which I left, but again no one else did.) Now, I understand why no one left the busses or the boats, but I certainly wanted to. On one boat ride the man giving the lecture (which I had thought was just a trip around the harbor) mentioned at least 8 times that there were (fill in the number) states that comprise Brazil. I had no idea why he was telling us this, and, obviously, I have no idea what the number is, (I am guessing between 5 and 50). I don’t care any more now than I did then.

My question is: why was he telling us this fact once, much less 8 different times?

There is something about lectures that is fascinating to me because while I hate them, I love giving them. In fact, it seems like most lecturers love giving them, so my question is why anyone listens.

As a professor (but one who did not lecture) I understand that students are there because they have to be and for the most part they aren’t listening much either. But, I have noticed that most people will not admit this about themselves. When I ask people to try and remember a lecture they heard, they usually say they can and then say a sentence or two about one they happen to recall. But the average educated person has heard hundreds of lectures and they usually cannot even remember what the subjects were or whom the speakers were after a while.

So my question remains. People do voluntarily submit themselves to this and they do think they learned something. Why do they do it?

So here are my best guesses as to why we give lectures and why people seem to want to attend them.

5 reasons why people give lectures

  1. Everyone is looking at the lecturer and the lecturer is performing. People love performing in front of an audience.
  2. A lecturer feels as if he or she is the smartest person in the room while lecturing. Everyone is paying rapt attention (they think), so they must be very smart and very important. People like being the smartest person in the room. Even the boat guy felt he knew more about Brazil then anyone else on the boat and so he was sure he must be very wise indeed.
  3. The lecturer feels that he or she is saving time. If the lecturer can convey lots of information in an hour then  think of the time the audience and the lecturer are saving by putting everything in one neat place.
  4. The lecturer is also saving money. Instead of having a conversation with each member or the audience. He or she can talk to everyone at once. This makes university education very cost effective and does the same for corporate training. One person and five hundred listeners makes great economic sense.
  5. A lecturer, not this one of course, believes that facts are the currency of education. The more facts that he or she can provide, the better off everyone’s life will be. If he or she could only talk faster, think how many more facts could be provided. The providing of facts must be thought of as being very important, even if one of those facts is the number of states in Brazil.

Why do people listen to lectures?

5 reasons why people listen to lectures

  1. Everyone likes watching a performance. People listen to the State of the Union address to see the performance.  People attend a keynote lecture at a meeting to see the performance. After more than 40 years of giving them, I have come to believe that most people haven’t much of an idea what I am talking about and they don’t much care, but they like when I make them laugh and they like when they can come up and talk (or argue) with me later.
  2. People like feeling that they are smarter than the guy who is supposed to be the smartest person in the room. They get to tell their companions that the speaker was a dope, or make fun of something he did. They like feeling superior to the guy who clearly thinks he is the smartest person in the room.
  3. People attend lectures because they are saving time. They get all the stuff they need in one place in one hour and then later they can “explore more deeply” if they want to. This is a nice myth anyway. I am not sure that much “exploring more deeply” actually happens, but it is nice to think that it does.
  4. The attendee is spending money, not saving it. The lecture usually costs something one way or the other. But typically mom and dad, or the government, or the company, is paying for it so they don’t care.
  5. The listener agrees that facts are the currency of education. They like facts. They like them because they can pop them into a conversation at a cocktail party and seem erudite. (My wife heard these same tourist lectures. She is the opposite of me. She got all A’s in school and was actually listening to the boat man. I asked her, while I was writing this, how many states there are in Brazil. She said 21, she guessed. I looked it up after she answered. There are 26. Later when I told her what I was writing, she said “oh its 26.”) But, even the good students don’t really care much about the facts. They may say they are important but they know they are not (unless of course there is a test, in which case they are important for the test.)

So, why do we have lectures? Because we always did. No one wants to change this really. We are all just used to it.

I will end with a quote from Max Sonderby. Max was the TA in the first learn by doing mentored simulation based master’s degree program we rolled out at Carnegie Mellon’s Silicon Valley Campus, in 2002. The year before, he had finished a typical masters degree at Carnegie Mellon using the classroom based approach to education:

I am almost jealous, in a way. I see that they are gaining skills more readily than I gained them in the program which I attended in Pittsburgh on Carnegie Mellon’s campus. They get exposure to things that we just talked about in a lecture hall.

They are actually doing it, implementing, building software, putting designs into practice, whereas we mostly just did homework and talked about it in a lecture hall.

I am jealous in that respect, but its also a lot more work, but that work definitely pays off for the student.

Max was right. Lecturing is a lot less work for everyone. We still have lectures for one main reason. They are the lazy person’s approach to education. Both lectures and listeners agree that neither of them wants to do much work. Real work, and real doing, and real conversation, is all that matters for learning, but education is really not about learning.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Only poor kids in school; why would someone send their kid to public school if they didn't have to? Mr Obama surely doesn't

This news appeared today (from Washington Post):

For the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families, according to a new analysis of 2013 federal data, a statistic that has profound implications for the nation.

The Southern Education Foundation reports that 51 percent of students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in the 2012-2013 school year were eligible for the federal program that provides free and reduced-price lunches. The lunch program is a rough proxy for poverty, but the explosion in the number of needy children in the nation’s public classrooms is a recent phenomenon that has been gaining attention among educators, public officials and researchers.

Why is this true do you think? Seems simple enough. If you can possibly afford it you wouldn’t even think about sending your kid to public school unless there happened to be a safe school with interesting and fun teachers who did exciting things in a public school nearby. And what are the odds of that?

Thank you Mr Bush, and Mr Obama, and especially Mr Duncan, for making school even worse than it was before by having a policy of constant testing to see how everyone is doing. Under the guise of helping poor people do better you have pushed richer people out of the system. No one wants to use your public schools. Try thinking about that the next time you make more standards that make school a nightmare of test preparation and testing.

The latest salvo was from Mr Obama and his henchman Tom Hanks, trying to convince everyone that it is ok for high school to be an awful experience because you can go to Community College for free and that will solve everything, The New York Time printed that and I am guessing that Obama;s staff wrote it. They will do anything to avoid the obvious conclusion that the schools aren't working.

Here is a simple idea: let people who want to make changes in high schools make them. We can teach job skills, life skills, and make it fun. Or, we could make all the poor people learn algebra, chemistry, and history so they can remain poor having learned nothing of use to them.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Free Community College? How about we fix the high schools Mr. Obama?

The New York Times explained this morning what is behind the free Community College plan of President Obama. In this article they said

The United States built the world’s most successful economy by building its most successful education system. At the heart of that system was the universal high school movement of the early 20th century, which turned the United States into the world’s most educated country. These educated high school graduates — white-collar and blue-collar alike — powered the prosperity of the 20th century. 

That may well be true. The high schools of the early 20th century taught employable skills (in addition to the absurd 1892 academic curriculum still in place.) Eventually all practical high school programs were eliminated from high school because everyone “must go to college.”

Mr. Obama, instead of restoring all the practical things that were taught in high school, wants to make everyone go to college in order to learn employable skills.

The plan would allow anyone admitted to a community college to attend without paying tuition, so long as they enroll in a program meeting certain basic requirements and they remain on track to graduate in three years. Its broad goals are clear: to extend the amount of mass education available, for free, beyond high school — from K-through-12, to K-through-college. “The president thinks this is a moment like when we decided to make high school universal,” said Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.
Here is a wild suggestion, Mr Obama. Fix high school. Teach practical subjects there. Eliminate the 1892 curriculum. Here are some suggestions for what could be taught in high school today:  

Some Proposed Curricula

  1. Criminal Justice
  2. Sports Management
  3. The Music Business
  4. Music Technology
  5. Law
  6. The Legal Office
  7. Military Readiness
  8. The Fashion Industry
  9. Electrical Engineering
  10. Civil Engineering
  11. Robotics
  12. Computer Engineering
  13. Computer Networking
  14. Homeland Security
  15. Medicine
  16. Nursing
  17. Medical Technology
  18. Construction
  19. Television Production
  20. Real Estate Management
  21. Landscape Architecture
  22. Computer Programming
  23. The Banking Industry
  24. The Investment World
  25. Automobile Design
  26. Aircraft Design
  27. Architecture
  28. Biotechnology Lab 
  29. Film Making
  30. Travel Planning
  31. Financial Management
  32. Accounting
  33. Parenting and child care
  34. Animal care
  35. Zoo Keeper
  36. Urban Transit
  37. Hotel management
  38. Healthcare industry
  39. Food industry
  40. Graphic Arts

Could we do this? Easily. Online education allows teaching anything anywhere. Every kid could choose what they were interested in and then change his or her mind and do something else if they got interested in something else. And there are many more possibilities. Spend our money more wisely Mr. Obama. Build that.

Community college wouldn’t be necessary if the high schools weren't broken.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Hawking is afraid of AI without having a clue about what AI is; don't worry Steve

The eminent British physicist Stephen Hawking warns that the development of intelligent machines could pose a major threat to humanity.

"The development of full artificial intelligence (AI) could spell the end of the human race," Hawking told the BBC.

Wow! Really? So, a well known scientist can say anything he wants about anything without having any actual information about what he is talking about and get world wide recognition for his views. We live in an amazing time.

Juts to set the record straight lets talk about AI, the reality version not the fantasy one.

Yes, we all know the fantasy one 2001, Star Wars, Her. We have been watching intelligent machines in the movies for decades.

Apparently, Hawking is using a voice system. That’s nice. Maybe he should find out how it works. The new system learns how Hawking thinks and suggests words he might want to use next, according to the BBC. So that makes it very smart does it? That is statistics. We can easily count what you have been saying and guess what you will say next. It is not that complicated to do, and it is not AI.

What is AI? AI is the modeling of mind such that you have created a new mind. At least that is what it is to people who don’t work in the field. To people who do work in the field, the issue is not what word comes next as much as it how to have  a idea about something, or how to have an original thought, or how to have an interaction with someone in which they would think you are very clever and are not a machine.

You average five year old is smarter than any computer today and is smarter than any computer is likely to be any time real soon. Why? Because a five year can do the following:

  1. figure out what annoys his little sister and do it when his mother is not watching
  2. invent a new game
  3. utter a sentence that he has never uttered before
  4. understand what his parents are telling him
  5. decide not to do it because he has something he would  rather do
  6. be left alone in the kitchen and make an attempt to cook something possibly burning down the house but in any case leaving a giant mess
  7. listen to someone say something a draw a conclusion from it and ask an interesting quetsion about it
  8. find his way school without help if allowed to do so
  9. throw a ball
  10. get better at throwing a ball by practice
  11. eat certain foods and hate them,  and others a love them
  12. cry when he is felling anxious
  13. be thrilled with a new toy
  14. throw a temper tantrum
  15. make his mother think he is the best thing in whole world

Why am I listing such mundane things as hallmarks of intelligence? Because in order to build and intelligent machine, that machine would have to grow up. It would have to learn about the world by living in it and failing a lot and being helped by its parents. It would have to have goals and tastes and make an effort to satisfy those goals every day. I would not be planted with goals. I didn’t grow up wanting to work in AI for example. That interest developed while I was in college as result of a wide variety of experiences and interactions with others.

If we have to build an intelligence that acquires knowledge and motivation naturally we would have to know how to build the equivalent of an infant and teach it to interact with the world. Would that infant have arms and legs and be trying to learn how to walk and get stuff it liked and be angry and hot an hopeful? If not, it wouldn’t be much like a human. 

But maybe Hawking doesn’t mean AI that is human-like. Maybe he just mean a computer program that is relay good at prediction by statistics. That is not AI my view, but it is something. Is it something to fear? Only if you are worried about a machine that predict certain things in the world better than you can. That could happen.

To build the AI that I have always had in mind, requires more money than Mark Zuckerberg is willing to invest and requires a purpose. Before someone builds a general purpose AI they would have to try building a special purpose one, maybe one that is smart enough to kill Bin Laden. Interestingly, while the Defense Department has invested plenty of money in Ai it still sent humans to do that job. The Defense Department would undoubtedly have preferred to send an AI robot to do the job, but they are nowhere close to having one.

Could they have one? Yes, someday. But it would be talking to you, or predicting what works not what Hawking wanted to say next. It would be about navigation and inference and figuring out things just in time and son on. It needs to know how to talk and comprehend the world (to think really.)

Special pursue AI machines, ones that do things like clean our house will be around long before any AI Hawking fears. As much as we all would like one, I don’t see any AI cooks and maids around. 

The AI problem is very very hard. It requires people who work in AI understanding the nature of knowledge; how conversation work; how to have an original thought; how to predict the actions of others; how to understand why people do what they do; and a few thousand things like that. In case no one has noticed, scientists aren’t very good at telling you how all that stuff works in people. And until they can there will be no machines that can do any of it.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Learning through Conversation; Part 3; persuasion

Teaching students how to move people to their point of view is a very important thing to do. Challenging students to try to persuade fellow students, by debating in public for example, is a very useful thing to do in education. It is useful because constructing and backing up arguments and causes you to think hard. The more you have to think hard the better you get at it.

So, I have a simple suggestion for school. Teachers should stop having persuasion conversations all together (where they are the persuader) and help students learn to persuade each other better. Students learning to persuade is a very valuable educational goal. We need to make that part of any school we create.

But, of course this is very difficult to do within the current system. Here is an article from the today's New York Times:

AUSTIN, Tex. — Texas’ State Board of Education has approved new history textbooks, but only after defeating six and seeing a top publisher withdraw a seventh — capping months of outcry over lessons that some academics say exaggerate the influence of Moses in American democracy and negatively portray Muslims.
The board on Friday approved 89 books and classroom software packages that more than five million public school students will begin using next fall. But it took hours of sometimes testy discussion and left publishers scrambling to make hundreds of last-minute edits, some to no avail. A proposal to delay the vote to allow the board and general public to better check those changes was defeated. “I’m comfortable enough that these books have been reviewed by many, many people,” said Thomas Ratliff, a Republican and the board’s vice chairman. “They are not perfect. They never will be.”
The history, social studies and government textbooks were submitted for approval this summer, and academics and activists on the right and left criticized many of them. Some worried that the textbooks were too sympathetic to Islam or played down the achievements of President Ronald Reagan. Others said they overstated the importance of Moses to America’s founding fathers or trumpeted the free-market system too much.
Bitter ideological disputes over what is taught in Texas classrooms have for years attracted national attention. The new books follow the state academic curriculum adopted in 2010, when Republicans on the board approved standards including conservative-championed topics like Moses and his influence on systems of law. They said those would counter what they saw as liberal biases in classrooms.
Friday’s 10-to-5 vote, with all Republicans on the board supporting the books and Democrats opposing them, was the first of its kind since 2002. The books will be used for at least a decade.
Mavis Knight, a Democratic member from Dallas, said she could not support books adhering to the 2010 academic standards.
“I think it’s a disservice to the students when we have a particular bent in which we present things to them,” said Ms. Knight, who is retiring and attended her last board meeting.
Texas is such a large state that textbooks written for it can influence the content of classroom materials sold elsewhere around the country — though that clout may be waning. A 2011 state law allows school districts to buy books both on and off the board list. Technology, including electronic lessons, has also made it easier for publishers to design content for individual states.
The final vote was supposed to be without rancor, but an effort earlier in the week to give preliminary approval collapsed. Board members raised concerns about a series of issues, including Moses, Muslims and the Common Core, a national set of curriculum standards in math and English that is forbidden by Texas law.
Why does the government think that it should direct the conversation? The government is after all just an assortment of politicians with what is probably a rather limited view of history.  The answer is simple enough. Politicians understand persuasive conversation well enough, and they want to direct it. They could, of course, simply participate in it,  allowing others with different points of view to participate as well. But they don’t. Politicians see school as way of indoctrinating students, and they always have. If we are ever to change our schools to ones that teach thinking, we must allow students choice in what they learn, and choice in what they choose to believe. We must encourage them to reason from evidence and not from someone older than them told who wants to tell them what to think. This is not easy to implement.
The kind of thing we see happening in Texas here, happens in one way or another everywhere. “Truth” ought not be taught in schools. Students need to learn to verify, not memorize. 
What should a persuasion conversation be about? How should one be conducted? How can we help students be persuasive?
Instead of teaching history, how about if we asked students to convince other students why it was important to learn history and what history it was important to learn? Instead of politicians having that debate (not really, they all know the answer) let’s let students have the debate.
This weeks assignment: was Moses important to America’s Founding Fathers? 
How could we find this out? What evidence is there? Why would it matter if it were true? Who benefits from believing it was true? What would happen if it weren’t true?
Next week’s assignment: "how good a President was Ronald Reagan? How can we know if a President succeeded? What should the criteria be for success for a President? Whose interests does it serve to have Ronald Reagan be seen as a great President?
Another assignment: What is the free market system? Who wins? Who loses? Why does the Texas School Board care about this?

Now I am making a simple point here about persuasive conversation. It can be about anything. But students need to be involved in making judgements of the sort the Texas Board is making. They should be in this conversation, not for political reasons but because it is within such conversations that real thinking takes place. While no real thinking probably goes on in any actual Texas Board meeting, students would not be serving vested interests when they addressed those issues and would not be making any real decisions anyway. They would just be learning how to be persuasive using evidence, facts, and reasonable argumentation. They would be learning how to attack and defend such arguments in a reasonable way. This is what learning in school or out of school looks like, or should look like.

Students need to be in persuasive conversations in order to learn.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Conversations about Learning Part 2: real life learning

Learning is profoundly misunderstood by the school system. People learn all the time, typically when they are trying to accomplish something and are having some trouble getting what or where they want. 

They may have to ask for help. That’s learning.

They may have to think hard about what is going wrong. That’s learning.

They may have to recall some prior similar experience and figure out its relevance to the current situation. That’s learning too.

But when someone is talking to you about a subject that that person has decided you need to know about, that is not learning or anything like it.

We typically call that “teaching” but it really isn’t teaching at all. It is something teachers do. It is something tour guides do. It is something drill sergeants do. It is something that leaders of organization do. But it is not teaching. It is talking at people and hoping they are listening. But, they usually aren’t.

What if they were listening? Would that be learning? Probably not.

Notice I didn’t say absolutely not. It is possible to hear somebody say something and learn something. Just today, I asked where something was, was pointed in the right direction and now I know where it is. Today that is.

By next year I will likely have forgotten where that place is unless I continue to go there regularly.

We only learn by listening under two conditions:

  1. we continuously practice or rehearse what we have learned
  2. we didn’t really need to retain what we learned so we only remembered it temporarily

The first of these conditions I will call “real life learning.”

The second of these conditions I will call “school.”

What is the difference between real life learning and school? In school we learn things we are likely to never practice after school and thus are unlikely to retain in our memories. We might randomly retain some of it, enough to answer a question on Jeopardy or in a game of Trivial Pursuit, but we don’t need it and so it is not part of real life learning.

In real life learning we learn how to do things, usually things we will need to do again. We are not attempting to retain information, although that may happen, we are simply trying to attain new skill like driving a car, or selling, or drawing up plans, or designing a house, or programming a computer. Schools don’t usually teach useful skills until graduate school, although they may not teach them then either.

Learning happens when we try something, practice something, make something, use something, respond to something, change something, fail at something. 

But how does learning take place actually? What is the medium of learning?

The answer is very simple indeed. We learn through conversation.


Because a conversation only happens when two people both want to participate. This immediately differentiates it from school in which there is only one willing participant typically — the teacher.

In order to understand what I mean here we need to grasp that conversation takes place not between two people, but between two memories. Learning happens if the memory of at least one of the participants is altered in some way. But in order for that to happen, the memory of the other participant had to be part of the process. Whatever the first memory retained had to be in the memory of the second participant in the first place.

Well, not really.

It is possible for two people to both have their memories altered by a conversation in the sense that they both come to a mutual realization about something that neither them fully understood in that way prior to the conversation

It is also possible for the memory of one person to be changed by a conversation due to thoughts initiated by the conversation in that person’s memory that were not there before the conversation started but were not in the memory of the other person at any time.

The first of these situations we call knowledge transfer. It is typically what we think of as teaching although neither participant in the conversation may see it that way at the time.

The second of these situations we call mutual inquiry. It is typical in research and intellectual conversations when both participants are trying to figure something out and attempt to do so by talking to each other about what they are thinking about.

The third if these situations we call reflection. Often during or after a conversation we come to realize something we had not realized before. Reflection is an internal process but it it is quite often initiated by conversation.

This is how learning happens. It happens through conversation and involves the memory of individuals which are altered in some way by the conversation.

This could happen in school of course, But, typically it doesn’t happen in classroom.

In conversation, what we hear reminds us of something we have already experienced. From this reminding, we make responses. We may change the other person’s idea. We may use their idea to tell our own story. But all of this is non-conscious. We don’t know what we will be reminded of in a conversation. We don’t know what we will say next. We don’t control our thought process. Conversations with other people initiate our thought process by inciting reactions and ideas that we feel the need to try out on others. We need to find out what we think. We need to talk. We need to respond. We need to defend our ideas. We need to come up with ideas. In conversation, we are certain to learn.

Conversations are often contentious. That’s not the only kind of conversation that works for learning, but it does work well. When people are passionate about what they are talking about, especially in the context of a project or problem they are working on, the world opens up for them.

A conversation with someone wiser than you, someone who takes time to listen to you will make you wiser. A conversation in which you must struggle with what you think, where you must defend your point of view will make you think more carefully. Conversations matter when you are discussing things that are important to you. In order to write about the importance of conversation for learning,  

Despite how natural and essential conversation is to living and learning, we have neglected its power and importance in school. School has become primarily about facts and tests. School used to be a conversation. The Oxford tutorial system was about conversation. Plato wrote about conversation. Even the Bible is all about conversation. But today school has very little real conversation. 

And people are having fewer valuable, challenging conversations in their daily lives. Turning off the ubiquitous noise of messages, tweets, and postings to allow the time and space for real conversation and non-conscious thought is rare. A series of 140-character remarks, no matter how clever, is not a conversation. Even a so-called discussion on social media is not likely to challenge, support, or even provoke a person to come up with new or better ideas. Nobody ever seems to post, “Wow, you’re right. I never thought about it like that before.”

Interestingly, when we are mentoring our most advanced students (PhD candidates), we seem to recognize the absolute and essential value of conversation in the learning process. 

PhD students regularly have conversations with their advisors to discuss their thesis progress. They talk at length with their mentors about their problems and ideas in the context of their work. Some might argue that this is a valid learning method for PhDs because they’ve completed years of rigorous knowledge acquisition and are therefore prepared to engage in conversation involving their own questions and ideas. 

So, is it only the academically accomplished who should be learning from conversations? When we are parenting, we unreservedly accept that conversation is the primary tool we use for teaching as our young children encounter the world with questions, ideas, beliefs, problems, discoveries, experiments, and fears. We recognize conversation’s paramount importance in the development of children. And yet we neglect it in our schools. 

What is it about conversation that matters so much in learning? Don’t we learn just as much from reading a book or listening to a lecture? Well, no. You would learn more from talking to me than you will from reading any book I have written. Why? Because you would be able to argue back. I might learn something from you as well.

Consider the last time something interesting happened to you. What was the first thing you did when that experience was over?

You have a choice when something interesting happens to you. You can sit and think about it (having, in essence, a conversation with yourself). But, usually if another person is available with whom you could discuss your experience, you choose to have a conversation. But you don’t tell just anyone. You find a person who will empathize with what just happened, who will help you think about it, who will challenge your assumptions, or who will just be very interested for some reason. No matter the kind of reaction you get, you benefit from that reaction as you fully digest the experience.

Conversation helps us think through what we have experienced, even if it’s the experience of reading a book or watching a movie. Put another way, the only lasting benefit we receive from reading and listening or watching (aside from the entertainment value, of course) happens because of the conversations that we have about our reading or viewing experience. The learning – the changed perspective, the improved ability, the new idea – if it happens at all, happens when we are in the conversation.  And as it happens, because we are humans and naturally want to learn, conversations beget more conversations. This is how human beings work. This is how we operate. And yet most school does not involve nearly enough conversation, so not nearly enough learning takes place. 

Of course, some schools pay lip service to the idea of conversation. Even the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that have dominated recent news coverage about education are now starting to include so-called discussion groups. And yet with thousands of students, how can the mentors individually challenge their students and engage in meaningful conversation? Most people will admit that MOOCs are terrible, for this reason and more. But most of us have not noticed the stark absence of real conversation in the classroom. And even if we have noticed the absence, we have not recognized what it means. Without real conversation, there can be very little learning going on. 

Learning depends upon conversation. Learning is fundamentally a conversation.

I’m not just lambasting MOOCs as bad. I’m saying that conversation is pretty much all that should be taking place in education and lectures and therefore MOOCs are therefore the worst of what education has to offer. Of course, in learning conversations, you have to have something important to talk about. Ideally, you should be working on something challenging and talking about your ideas, your thoughts, and your problems.

For meaningful conversation to happen, we should get rid of classes (unless they have fewer than ten people and consist of an ongoing conversation), tests (which are the antithesis of conversation), and all aspects of school that do not involve a conversation in which students are learning to challenge and be challenged, express ideas, work together and solve problems. 

Learning unquestionably depends upon our fathers and mothers and all the other parent surrogates and mentors who care about us enough to make the time to think and learn with us, in conversation. 

Here is a conversation I once had with my father. 

I showed him the latest book I’d written. He said it was unimportant. I asked how he knew that. He said that the general public wouldn’t read it, so it wouldn't matter. I said that I was a professor and I wasn’t writing for the general public. He said that my work wouldn’t make any difference then. I was provoked, as usual, by my father. I was angry. I believed I didn’t have to write for the general public to do work that mattered. 

This conversation has carried on, even though my father isn’t around anymore to disagree with me, because that’s how people think. And I think maybe my father was right. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Conversations about learning: Part 1: how should school be different?

The other day I had what is a rather typical conversation for me. I met someone at a bar and we chatted about various things. He told me he had just retired from the fashion industry and he told me where he went to college. He asked about me, I said a few general things but he pushed for more information. So, I said, “actually I am trying to overthrow the education system.”

This kind of remark usually gets a rather shocked response. People get defensive about their schooling. I have learned to anticipate that, so I added, “what did you learn about fashion or business in college?  I am pretty sure that everything you learned in your career that was important to you, you learned on the job and that your college education had no relevance at all.”

He responded, as most people do, by saying that his college education provided him the basics, which I always take as a kind of religious remark. They don’t really know what “the basics” are (apart from reading, writing, and arithmetic, which he would have learned by the fourth grade) but they don’t want to believe that their schooling was a waste of time. He insisted, so I asked what I usually ask in this situation. I wanted him to tell me the Quadratic Formula. He responded that he knew it but of course he didn’t. Of course, he had learned it. And he had retained it long enough to get a good score on the SAT. Then he forgot it and never thought about it again.

When we imagine school, we imagine sitting in a classroom and listening to the teacher. We recall writing papers and cramming for tests. College has the additional feature of being fun. Not because of the classes, most of whose names we cannot remember, but because of the outside activities and the people we met there.

Why do we accept a broken education system? Why do we accept that college will not teach us life skills or job skills and that school before college will be an experience that most people would never even consider repeating? Most kids would skip school if they possibly could. Why do we force them to go? And, when we force them to go why do we force them to sit still and listen? And when we force them to sit still and listen why do we force them to listen to simplistic depictions of history or read books that do not interest them or force them to do math they will never use in their real lives?

We do this for reasons that have to do mostly with day care and history. Few parents want the responsibility of taking care of their kids all day. We like government provided day care and really need it if we want to work. But why don’t we ask questions about what is taught and how teaching takes place? Because the same stuff happened to us. We accept it as part of life. Maybe we even enjoyed some of it when we were kids. (“I always liked history.” Really? You liked it better that your favorite childhood activity? “Well no, I meant I liked that subject best in school.”)

Somehow we accept school as a painful experience of no real relevance to our lives and we talk about what we liked when we mean what we disliked least. And we talk about school’s relevance by assuming it provided “the basics” when we really do not know what the basics are.”

“School taught me how to think.” And you didn’t know how to think before? And life after school hasn’t taught you how to think either? Every experience teaches you how to think better. School does it least well of all since your other experiences typically would relate to your interests, needs, goals, and achievements.

What should we learn? Certainly not the “core subjects" in school. Not only shouldn’t there be a Common Core, there shouldn't be any core at all.

Why not?

When you were a child, before school, did you like to do what your sister (or brother) did? Or, did you choose to do things that interested you? Did your parents force you to study and learn certain things when you were 4 or 5, or did they offer things, some of which you found interesting and wanted to do more of?

People are born with certain natural interests. An interest is a terrible thing to waste. The job of a parent (or of a teacher if they have that freedom) is to help a child follow his or her interests. If your daughter likes dolls you buy her a doll house and talk with her about what is going on in her doll house. If your son likes football you teach him to throw and catch and you take him to a game if you can. None of this is radical stuff.

Then school happens and everyone has to be doing the same stuff at the same time. And everyone has to sit still. (I never saw a 6 year old still still unless he or she was forced to do so.) And no one can talk out of turn. These are the same kids who when out of school, run around and yell, ask questions, draw pictures, build buildings out of blocks, try to learn to swim and so on.  But school is about discipline, which is another way of saying the stuff they teach is boring and everyone has to shut up because there are too many kids in the class.

Of course, somewhere along the line, kids do have to learn discipline and how to behave in public, but this needn’t be a constant all day painful lesson. And kids should be together, not in groups of 30 perhaps, but in smaller groups, so that they can learn to function together and make friends. I am not suggesting that kids stay home and learn on the computer, although that is fine with me. There should be teachers enticing them to learn something different and helping them when they have difficulties. But that does not mean that there need to be classrooms nor the inability to speak one’s mind.

It is time for a change. We do not have to accept that the schools we have always had is what we must have now. Times have changed. Now everyone goes to school and now we have computers and the internet. The possibilities are endless. The economics of school can be quite different than what they are now. We can let kids learn what they want to in the way that works best for them. We will have a happier and a better functioning society because of it.