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Monday, September 1, 2014

Music, Golf, Humanities, or Algebra: why we must make students study stuff that some adult likes

We are constantly being told why kids must take subjects in school that they obviously dislike. Someone is always promoting the benefits of forcing kids to do what they hate. So, for fun, I found some lists. I start with things very few kids are being forced to study which apparently would be very good for them, and end with things kids are also forced to study because they are also very good for them. See if you can tell who is right (and what we should make kids do even if they hate it.) (Hint: the last one is the best (or anyway, the funniest.))

18 Benefits of Playing a Musical Instrument  

1. Increases the capacity of your memory.
Research has shown that both listening to music and playing a musical instrument stimulate your brain and can increase your memory.
2. Refines your time management and organizational skills.
Learning how to play an instrument requires you to really learn how to be organized and to manage your time wisely.  

3. Boosts your team skills.
Playing an instrument requires you to work with others to make music.
4. Teaches you perseverance.

Learning to play an instrument takes time and effort, which really teaches you patience and perseverance.  

5. Enhances your coordination.
The art of playing an instrument requires a lot of hand-eye coordination.  

6. Betters your mathematical ability.
Reading music requires counting notes and rhythms and can help your math skills.  

7. Improves your reading and comprehension skills.
When you see black and white notes on a page, you have to recognize what the note name is and translate it to a finger/slide position

8. Increases your responsibility.
Maintenance and care are very important in keeping an instrument in working condition.  

9. Exposes you to cultural history.
Music itself is history, and each piece usually has its own background and storyline that can further your appreciation of other cultures.

10. Sharpens your concentration.
Playing music by yourself requires you to concentrate on things like pitch, rhythm, tempo, note duration, and quality of sound.  
11. Fosters your self-expression and relieves stress.
It's your instrument, so you can play whatever you want on it!  

12. Creates a sense of achievement.
Overcoming musical challenges that you thought you'd never quite master can give you a great sense of pride about yourself.  

13. Promotes your social skills.
Some of the best people join bands and orchestras, and many times the friends you make here become like family.  

14. Boosts your listening skills.
Although it's pretty obvious, playing an instrument requires you to listen very carefully to things.

15. Teaches you discipline.
The best musicians in the world are masters of discipline which is why they are so successful on their instrument.

16. Elevates your performance skills and reduces stage fright.
The more you get up in front of people and perform, the more you'll reduce any stage fright.  

17. Enhances your respiratory system.
Air is one of the key components in making wonderful-sounding music.  

18. Promotes happiness in your life and those around you.
Playing a musical instrument can be very fun and exciting.  

Sounds great. Let’s make every kid learn to play an instrument.

1. Humility and Respect
Golf requires that you show courtesy to others and that you communicate with respect.   with an exchange of a hand shake.
2. Punctuality
If you are late to the tee box, you are automatically disqualified, no questions asked.  
3. Confession
Golf is a game of honor, and recognizing that a transgression has occurred and taking responsibility for the transgression is a part of the game.  

4. Safety
Golf balls and clubs are very hard and dangerous instruments, and one of the first and foremost rules of golf is safety.  
5. Quiet
Golf requires an amazing amount of concentration, and quiet is required at all times on the golf course.  
6. Visioning
Teaching them how to "see the end in mind,"  is a key to goal achievement.
7. Problem Solving
Rain, wind, trees, multiple sand traps, and deep rough can make for a challenging day of tournament play. These are a normal part of golf and can be an amazing opportunity for clever problem solving and personal growth.
8. Focus
Golf is a tough sport. It requires that you not only know the physics of hitting the ball (and what club to use when) but requires intense mental and emotional concentration.  

9. Practice, Persistence, and Listening
In life, it is important to know that we rarely reach our goal in one "stroke." By practicing, making corrections along the way, being open to coaching, and being persistent, we can tackle most of life's tough challenges.
10. Graciousness
At the end of each tournament, competitors thank and shake the hands of the tournament chairmen and follow this up with a handwritten note of thanks

Wow! Who knew? Every kids should study golf.  

Why do the humanities matter?
Insights Into Everything
Through exploration of the humanities we learn how to think creatively and critically, to reason, and to ask questions. Because these skills allow us to gain new insights into everything from poetry and paintings to business models and politics, humanistic subjects have been at the heart of a liberal arts education since the ancient Greeks first used  them to educate their citizens.
Understanding Our World
Research into the human experience adds to our knowledge about our world. Through the work of humanities scholars, we learn about the values of different cultures, about what goes into making a work of art, about how history is made. Their efforts preserve the great accomplishments of the past, help us understand the world we live in, and give us tools to imagine the future.
Bringing Clarity to the Future
Today, humanistic knowledge continues to provide the ideal foundation for exploring and understanding the human experience. Investigating a branch of philosophy might get you thinking about ethical questions. Learning another language might help you gain an appreciation for the similarities in different cultures. Contemplating a sculpture might make you think about how an artist's life affected her creative decisions. Reading a book from another region of the world, might help you think about the meaning of democracy. Listening to a history course might help you better understand the past, while at the same time offer you a clearer picture of the future.

That was from Stanford, so they must be right. Every kid should study the humanities. Sounds a lot like golf though.  Let’s hear from another university (that I have never heard of, but what do I know?)

Ten Reasons to Study the Humanities

1.            To practice the analytical thinking skills you need to be a successful student and employee.
2.            To improve your skill at oral and written communication.
3.            To see the interconnectedness of all areas of knowledge - how it all fits together.
4.            To develop a global perspective by studying cultures throughout the world.
5.            To deepen your understanding and appreciation of other's cultures and other's points of view.
6.            To support and strengthen your local arts community by learning to appreciate the importance of creativity.
7.            To clarify your values by comparing and contrasting them to what others have thought.
8.            To deepen your sources of wisdom by learning how others have dealt with failures, success, adversities, and triumphs.
9.            To appreciate what is enduring and to be able to tell the difference between the meaningless and the meaningful.
10.        To be inspired by some of the greatest minds and thoughts of the ages.

Sounds like golf and music put together. How about algebra?

10 Everyday Reasons Why Algebra is Important in your Life

The key to opportunity
Having the ability to do algebra will help you excel into the field that you want to specialize in.  
Taking a detour on not
Having the ability and knowledge to do algebra will determine whether you will take the short cut or the detour in the road of life.  

Prerequisite for advanced training
If you want to do any advanced training you will have to be able to be fluent in the concept of letters and symbols used to represent quantities.
When doing any form of science, whether just a project or a lifetime career choice, you will have to be able to do and understand how to use and apply algebra.
Every day life
Whether we drive a car and need to calculate the distance, or need to work out the volume in a milk container, algebraic formulas are used everyday without you even realizing it.
When it comes to analyzing anything, whether the cost, price or profit of a business you will need to be able to do algebra.  
Data entry
When working on the computer with spreadsheets you will need algebraic skills to enter, design and plan.
Decision making
Decisions like which cell phone provider gives the best contracts to deciding what type of vehicle to buy, you will use algebra to decide which one is the best one.  

Interest Rates
How much can you earn on an annual basis with the correct interest rate.  
Writing of assignments
When writing any assignments the use of graphs, data and math will validate your statements and make it appear more professional.  

So, algebra teaches you everything and you can’t function without it.  But there are all those people who can buy cell phones without it. What do I know?

What subjects should be required then? My vote is for golf. It teaches quiet and graciousness which is better than interconnectedness and data entry any day.

Oh wait. Here is an idea. Stop telling kids what to study and let them follow their own interests. Nah. Too radical.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Learning is a Conversation

We learn by talking.

Wait, haven’t I always been the guy who said we learn by doing?

Of course. Talking is a kind of doing. But that is hardly my point. Plenty of academic courses insist that they use learning by doing as a methodology. After all, writing an academic paper is a kind of doing too. So, one would learn how to write an academic paper by writing one. But, some clarification is needed as to what kind of learning matters. Is it important to learn to write an academic paper? It is if you plan on becoming an academic.

But the real question about what high school or college should be like should be centered on what learning is like, apart from what is actually being learned. We need to understand what the fundamentals of learning really are.

Many years ago I was having lunch with my closest colleague. I was complaining to him about the way my wife cooked meat. It was always too well cooked for me. He responded by saying that fifteen years earlier he had tried to get his hair cut in England and they wouldn’t cut it as short as he wanted it.

It seemed like an odd response, so I spent some time thinking about it. What did haircuts have to do with rare meat?

At one level nothing. But, at a higher level of abstraction these were identical stories. We both had asked someone to do something for us that they were capable of doing, but they had refused because they thought the request was too extreme.

Instead of focusing on why my friend was peculiar because he had answered the way he did, I assumed something interesting was going on in his head and attempted to figure out what had happened. I wound up focusing on his need to reconcile a failure he had had years ago. (We remember our failures.) I focused on how the process worked. In a short time, I had come up with a theory of how memory is organized (around stories indexed by abstractions such as “refusal to satisfy someone else’s goal.”) This began a long process that I still work on, together with many students and colleagues, to get computers to self-organize their memories. (We work on this by talking about it.)

Thinking by oneself is hard because there are too many distractions. I noticed that I would wake up in the middle of the night with ideas and I wondered how that was happening. I realized that our non-conscious mind does all the thinking (my friend wasn’t consciously looking for his haircut story after all, it just showed up in his head.) I began to realize I could let my non-conscious self do my thinking and then later consciously recognize what I had thought.  

Conversation is a non-conscious act. We don’t know what we will say next. We don’t know what we have just heard will remind us of. And we don’t control our thought process. Conversations with other people enables our thought process to begin by inciting reactions and ideas that we feel the need do try out on others. We need to find out what we think.

Turning off the noise to allow nonconscious thought was hard when I was working on this problem 35 years ago, it is twice as hard today. Your phone is always available, your computer is nearby, and there might be a text message, or a tweet, or a Facebook posting. But those are not conversations, although they may look that way to people at first glance.

A series of cute remarks are not conversations. Even a discussion on Facebook, while appearing to be a conversation, is not likely to challenge one to come up with better ideas and quickly think new thoughts. I have yet to see a Facebook comment that said “you are, right, I never thought about it like that before.”

What does this have to do with learning? Dialogues were used by Plato to discuss how learning works. But one needn’t go back that far in order to understand that the true relationship between teacher and student ought to be one of dialogue.

We see this easily when we consider graduate education. Students meet with their PhD thesis advisors to discuss their progress, their ideas, their problems, and then, presumably, they are ready to go back to working on what they were doing with new insights.

This same sort of thing happens between parents and small children when they ask numerous “why” questions on being confronted with new things, new people, or new ideas.

Why does conversation matter so much for learning? Couldn’t you just read a book or listen to a lecture? Wouldn’t you learn from those experiences as well?

Well, no.

To explain what I mean here, consider the last time something interesting happened to you. What was the first thing you did when that experience was over?

People really have only two choices when something interesting happens. The first is to sit and think about it some. To have a conversation with oneself in other words. But it is rare to choose that option when there is another person available to whom you could tell about your experience. That person has to have some qualifications of course. You can’t just tell anyone. We find people to talk to who will empathize with what just happened, or who will help us think about it better, or who will challenge our assumptions, or will just think what you have to say is wonderful. No matter the kind of reaction we get, we need that reaction. We must tell our story, even if it is just a story about a movie we just saw, a book we just read, or a lecture we just heard.

To put this another way, the only reason that reading and listening aren’t totally useless experiences from a learning point of view (they might be good entertainment of course) is the conversations that they spark later. The real learning takes place in the conversation that follows. And, conversations follow conversations. You hear someone say something and you repeat it to someone else and discuss some more. This how human beings work. But, it is not how school works.

Of course, schools pay lip service to the idea of discussion. The MOOCs that have dominated recent conversations about education have discussion groups for exactly this reason. But, these discussions are not one on one with the teacher. (How could they be with 1000’s of students?) So MOOCs are taking the very thing that is most needed in education, one on one conversations with the teacher, and eliminating their possibility.

My view is more radical than just that MOOCs are bad however. If learning is fundamentally a conversation, then conversation is all that should be taking place in education. Well, not all. You have to have something to be talking about. You should be doing something and talking about what you are working on. Learning is a conversation. We need to get rid of classes (unless they have less than 10 people and are really a conversation), tests, which are the antithesis of conversation, and any other aspect of school that does not involve learning to express your ideas and have them dissected and responded to by interested parties who can help you make your own ideas better.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

NY Times obsesses about math again; every kid loses

I have a confession to make. I did graduate admissions in computer science for more than 25 years. The first thing I looked for was the applicant’s math GRE score. I eliminated anyone under 96th percentile. (Also, to add to my confession. I majored in Mathematics in college.) 

Why did I use this measure? Because ability to reason mathematically is an indicator of rigorous thinking, exactly the same kind of reasoning needed in Computer Science. Does that mean I needed my students to know mathematics? Not at all. Mathematics never came up in any way in our PhD program.

I mention this because there seems to be a national obsession with teaching mathematics and with math test scores. This is especially true when one reads the New York Times. Here are two articles published just this week:

Don’t Teach Math, Coach It

Why Do Americans Stink at Math?

The first article is by a math professor who wishes his kid liked math as well as he likes baseball. It has no business being in the Times except that the Times seems a bit obsessed with math. The second article is really about how to teach better but the math panic headline is obviously exciting stuff to the Times.

Here is one from a month ago:

Math Under Common Core Has Even Parents Stumbling

Naturally the Times draws the wrong conclusion from their own article. Instead of realizing that Common Core math is out of the scope of even the parents of their own children, it goes on about teaching methods so that kids will do better at Common Core.

And the of course, we have the real stuff:

American 15-Year-Olds Lag, Mainly in Math, on International Standardized Tests

There is an international math competition going on and the Times wants the U.S. to win. We also want to win the bobsled competition.

It is time to be honest about what is really going on. Why is math important?

It isn’t.

(Now all the math teachers can tell me I am crazy, as they usually do.)

Why are math test scores important? All you need to know is here:

Harvard College announced Thursday that it has accepted 2,023, or 5.9 percent, of 34,295 students applying for admission to the Class of 2018.

I didn’t really want to read 300 applications for Computer Science when I did admissions. So I took the easy way out. I relied on a simple but reliable metric. If you do well on an absurd math test, then it means you will work hard and can think logically, both of which are important qualities for a Computer Science PhD student.

Harvard cannot read 35,000 applications (nor can Yale, Princeton etc.) So they need test scores. The test makers cannot read millions of well thought out answers to complex questions, so they need multiple choice tests. No one needs any of these tests to be about mathematics  (I assume you the admissions people, don’t know algebra or calculus either.)

But, mathematics has a really good property. There are correct answers. Ask applicants what we should do about ISIS or the Ukraine and you can’t use multiple choice tests to judge the responses. Someone would have to actually read student’s answers. And there would be no “right” answer.  2 +2 really does equal 4. So math wins. And multiple choice tests win. And all our kids lose.

Our kids learn to hate school (because math is boring to most.) They lose self-esteem (because they “aren’t good at math.”)  And, what schools teach continues to be irrelevant to the real needs of children.

How about instead of math we teach how to get along with other people? How abut teaching personal financial management. Teach kids how to get a job. Teach them   to learn real skills (pick any of 1000). Teach them how to raise a child or  how to eat properly. Teach them how to negotiate or how to speak well, or how to plan well.

Ok, enough. Math will win every time for the reasons I stated above and the New York Times (undoubtedly populated by editors who majored in in English and were “bad at math” will continue to make the country hysterical about why Finland or China have better math scores than we have. I have only one question. Are kids (or adults) happier in those countries?

Silly question. Who cares about that?

Monday, July 21, 2014

E-learning has failed. Time to get rid of it (or at least do it right).

It’s about time. Someone has finally noticed that the training industry is failing at its job:

Learning and development failing to deliver for two-thirds of UK organisations, study finds

There is nothing new here of course. In 1989 when I started the Institute for the Learning Sciences (ILS), our mission was primarily to fix the mess that training had become. Our first sponsor was Andersen Consulting (now Accenture). Their problem was simple enough. Their training was delivered primarily through what they called FGBs. (You figure out what the F stood for, the GB part was Green Books.) These training manuals told you everything you needed to know in order to work at Andersen. Readings were followed by multiple choice tests and other exercises. Other companies soon asked ILS for help and we saw the same problems every time:

1.   Their training was deadly dull
2.  Their training was perfunctory (you just took it so a box could be checked that you had completed it)
3.  No new skills were learned or practiced
4.  The learning methodology was reading
At ILS we able to build simulations, using Goal Based Scenarios, that allowed trainees to practice the skills they were trying to learn, within a fictional scenario that was engaging.

We were doing fine, more and more companies were signing up, and then something terrible happened: The WEB.

The web made it possible for training departments to spend much less money and yet appear as if they were doing something new and modern. Eventually training on the Web got to be called e-learning, but what was meant by e-learning was the FGBs plus cute pictures and animations.

Now let’s look at what the UK’s Training Magazine has found:

1. Only 33 per cent of those involved in designing and delivering L&D said it had a lasting impact on their people or organisation.

2. Nearly half (49 per cent) said their L&D function could do more to improve its effectiveness.

3. Despite the growing popularity of e-learning, practitioners have reservations around its effectiveness in delivering lasting improvement in knowledge and skills.

4. Less than one in ten rated webinars, audio learning or online virtual learning as effective and only 12 per cent said mobile learning packages for smartphones or tablets were effective.

5. Action learning was rated as the most effective L&D practice whether this was through on- the-job training (69 per cent), coaching-based learning (57 per cent), business simulations (43 per cent) or computer-based games (38 per cent).

So e-learning doesn’t work? Shocker. I think I said that here:

Schank: "El 'e-learning' actual es la misma basura, pero en diferente sitio"

What I said was: “e-learning is the same garbage just in a new medium.”

E-learning is dead and good riddance. MOOCs aren’t dead yet, but they soon will be. They both have the same fatal flaw: an attempt to do exactly what was done before, but in a new medium: the computer.

What has been done before in education at all levels has been a lot of telling, followed by quizzes, to see if a student/trainee can temporarily memorize what they just read or heard.

The real question in learning is how to actually attain new abilities. For this there is only one answer: PRACTICE.

The computer should be used to make practice realistic and engaging, with the possibility of failing and being helped to see things in a new way after failing. The practice should be fun, interesting, exciting, challenging --- not boring and perfunctory. Or to re-consider my four points above:

1.   The training should be exciting and challenging.
2.  The training should be a natural part of one’s job.
3.  New skills must be learned and practiced.
4.  The learning methodology must be doing.

Enough with e-learning. It was always simply an attempt to go back to doing training the way it had been done in the FGBs. Just like MOOCs are more boring lectures masquerading as something new and hi-tech.

There are new things to do in education and training. We could do them. Or if we want to go back to old methods, go back even further to apprenticeships. Those actually worked.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The World Cup of Testing; Colombia loses PISA: nation mourns

I recently spoke at a meeting in Bogota, Columbia, sponsored by SENA which is an organization that promotes technical training that leads to useful employment. I had spoken there before and was happy to return since places like SENA are important in the battle against the idea that all students must have an “academic” education.
But, I soon discovered, that Columbia was in an educational existential crisis because they had scored last in the PISA tests. Most Americans have never heard of PISA tests but the rest of the world has. There is a weird competition going on between countries about success at PISA.
Here, courtesy of Wikipedia are the 2012 rankings (and scores) in mathematics:


pastedGraphic.png Shanghai, China
pastedGraphic_2.png Hong Kong, China
pastedGraphic_5.png Macau, China
pastedGraphic_64.png Peru

My reaction to tests is one of contempt. Why do countries willingly engage in this competition? Why is testing in any way relevant to real education for life? We all assume it is. My reaction to tests as a kid was to simply to not care about them. But in those days we weren’t terrorizing kids, parents and teachers about them. 

Yesterday an article appeared about Sweden (I tweeted it) saying their schools were a mess because they had low PISA scores. The acknowledged winner in PISA is Finland which is just a little odd because a check of the scores shows that they are not the winners. I could care less about this game but Colombia was so upset about it that they invited two representatives from Finland to this meeting as well, of course, as well as a representative from China, the country that is actually winning. The World Cup was going on while this meeting was going on, and one couldn't help but notice the analogy between them.

To get a better perspective I have selected one question from the PISA sample tests available on line so that we can know what we are talking about here. Here they are, one reading question, one math question, and one science question. PISA scores do all three (even though I only showed math rankings above.):

Read the text and answer the questions which follow.
from Arnold Jago
Did you know that in 1996 we spent almost the same amount on chocolate as our Government spent on overseas aid to help the poor?
Could there be something wrong with our priorities?
What are you going to do about it?
Yes, you.
Arnold Jago,
Source: The Age Tuesday 1 April 1997
Arnold Jago's aim in the letter is to provoke


A result of global warming is that the ice of some glaciers is melting. Twelve years after the ice disappears, tiny plants, called lichen, start to grow on the rocks.
Each lichen grows approximately in the shape of a circle.
The relationship between the diameter of this circle and the age of the lichen can be approximated with the formula:
where d represents the diameter of the lichen in millimetres, and t represents the number of years after the ice has disappeared.
Ann measured the diameter of some lichen and found it was 35 millimetres.
How many years ago did the ice disappear at this spot?
Show your calculation.

A bus is driving along a straight stretch of road. The bus driver, named Ray, has a cup of water resting on the dashboard:
Suddenly Ray has to slam on the brakes.
Ray's bus is, like most buses, powered by a petrol engine. These buses contribute to environmental pollution.
Some cities have trolley buses: they are powered by an electric engine. The voltage needed for such an electric engine is provided by overhead lines (like electric trains). The electricity is supplied by a power station using fossil fuels.
Supporters for the use of trolley buses in a city say that these buses don't contribute to environmental pollution.
Are these supporters right? Explain your answer.

My main reaction to these test questions is “I don’t care” which would have been my reaction as a kid as well. It is easy to see why countries like Colombia do poorly on them. (Peru is actually last on all three sections in the 2012 Wikipedia article.) The questions are about issues (with a strong environmental bias in every question) that might not be on the mind of your average Peruvian or Colombian. These are countries with populations often tucked away far from the major cities that have difficulty getting any real education out to the provinces. These are also countries whose issues should be more focussed on better health, more jobs, and a lot less concerned with preparing kids for a university.
But getting a more realistic focus for schools away from academics and the obsession about college admittance gets more difficult with tests like PISA getting all the schools’ attention.
The Finland people at this meeting admitted that it was much easier doing well at the PISA test when you had a very small and homogeneous country. Still the Colombians wanted desperately to learn from the Finns who really had nothing relevant to tell them.
Testing has become a major industry and Pearson is always lurking ready to make more money on test prep and grading tests, not to mention making them. And, yes, Pearson was at this meeting as well. When I said I would skip what Pearson had to say because they were evil, I got a hearty round of applause.

We really need to stop this testing obsession and get on with letting kids try out things that appeal to them and help them get good at them. Every student needn’t learn the same stuff stuff. Kids have different interests. The best thing we can do for kids is to help them explore what fascinates them. But with PISA lurking we can’t let that happen. Losing the World Cup (in testing) is a horrible possibility apparently.