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Monday, April 20, 2015

Stop teaching "science"; Teach rigorous thinking

Yesterday I visited my grandson, Max (age 7), who was holding a small stuffed penguin in his hand most the time that I was in his house. I asked him why he was carrying this thing and he told me he was learning science. I asked him how exactly he was learning science and he named various penguins whose names he knew and then proceeded to give me a speech about penguins. I pointed out that he had learned what he knew about penguins already and that carrying the stuffed animal around was teaching him nothing. He responded by saying that he was experimenting. He had placed the stuffed penguin in the freezer to see how it responded and now he was dousing it with a hose for the same reason.

I was taken aback by this conversation because it could never have taken place at any time until recently. Suddenly “I am learning science” justifies all behavior. Of course, Max was not wrong about the link between experimentation and science, but he was not, of course, learning science. Who cares? He was playing, which is just fine. What is not fine is that playing now has to be “science” too.

The fallacy here is the same one that I wrote about two weeks ago when I chastised Fareed Zakaria for defending the liberal arts because (he claimed) the liberal arts teaches you to think.

I have news for Max and Fareed. Nothing teaches you to think. You are born knowing how to think. Dogs and cats can think. The defenders of the school system, both those who promote science and those who promote liberal arts haven’t a clue what they are talking about. (Maybe they do need to be taught to think.)

Does studying philosophy teach you to think?

It would depend on what the course was like naturally. Philosophy, is, in my point of view, an exercise in thinking rigorously about everyday issues. But philosophy courses are unlikely to teach you to think because, unless you are studying with someone who will fight the system, the system has questions like these that you must answer in order to pass the course:
A branch of study in philosophy concerning how people ought to act toward one another is



____ involve goodness or badness of human behavior or character.




Enduring beliefs of what is worthwhile that reflect the value holder's worldview, culture, or understanding of the world is





Which of the following statements is true with regard to values?
Values are abstract and difficult to define and communicate

Values are powerful and drive our choices about what we wish to do and what we would like to have

Values focus our energies and choices

All of these
A counselor working in a southern state is very religious. He has been routinely including information about his church and its teachings relative to abortion, sexual identity issues, and discipline of children within each counseling session regardless of client goals or concerns. Which of the following statements is true regarding this situation?
Counselors should advise their clients of what would be best for them from a religious perspective

It is highly unethical for a counselor to impose his or her values upon a client.

It is appropriate only if the counselor is working within a religious facility.

It is important for the counselor to be viewed as a source of guidance and strength for the client.

This type of information sharing could build trust with the client.

Philosophy could teach you to think rigorously, which is the only kind of thinking we could teach to people who already can think, but rest assured most liberal arts courses will have multiple choice tests like these and will teach you nothing but inert facts.

How about science? I don’t know what Max has been learning about penguins but it was easy enough to find a first grade “science” test that was about penguins:


Grade 1 :: Zoology  

1 They go and hunt for food.
2 They get their food from inside their mother's throat.
3 Their dad feeds them.

Grade 1 :: Zoology  

1 True
2 False

Grade 1 :: Zoology  

1 The fat in their bodies keeps them warm.
2 They know how to build homes for themselves.
3 They leave to a warmer place in the winter.

Grade 1 :: Zoology  

1 Yellow-eyed penguin
2 King penguin
3 Emperor penguin
4 Fairy penguin

Grade 1 :: Zoology  

1 Emperor penguin
2 Fairy penguin
3 Rockhopper penguin
4 King penguin

So, let us assume that Max has been learning to answer questions like these in school. Has he been learning science? Has the student who has been learning philosophy in a college course with test questions like those above, been learning philosophy? Have either been learning to think?

We need to stop talking about teaching students to think and being to talk about teaching them to think rigorously. Clearly there is no rigorous thinking going on in these courses as they are being taught.

Can the liberal arts teach you to think rigorously? Of course.

Can science teach you to think rigorously? Of course.

But what we have created: lectures, and tests, and courses to pass, teaches no one to think at all. We are teaching students to mouth words, memorize vocabulary, and say how they are learning “science” to anyone who will listen to this noise.

Max can be excused because he is 7. Steven Pinker, on the other hand who recently published his very clever Harvard psychology multiple choice test should know better. 

Multiple choice tests are the culmination of an exercise in pretending to learn. Learning to think rigorously means being able to create an argument for a point of view based upon evidence that supports that argument. We could teach that in first grade science or in high school science, but we don’t. We could teach that in college philosophy, but we don’t. 

On the other hand, I am sure that in a graduate course in any of these fields they do teach students to think rigorously.  In PhD programs we expect students to really think. But we are talking first grade here, and high school and college, where multiple choice tests rule the day and no rigorous thinking goes on.

There is a big difference between recognition and recall memory. Multiple choice tests are about recognition not recall. We ask students to memorize right answers. The schools have abdicated their responsibility for teaching rigorous thinking every time they teach facts and test them on a recognition test.

Max knows no science. He does know some facts about penguins however, which he will soon forget.

Let’s stop pushing science, or the liberal arts, and start pushing rigorous thinking.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Why it makes no sense to teach history. "The Appomattox Myth"

I frequently write and speak about why “subjects” need to be eliminated from the school curriculum. While there are those that hate it when I say we need to get rid of algebra, many people do understand. But, almost universally, when I say we need to get rid of history, everyone objects. This is especially true in Europe where people are often extremely upset about my distaste for the teaching of history.

As it happens, today is the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War in the U.S.  The New York Times has a lovely article that is worth reading about the myths we have been taught about this.  

A sample of this article:

In the ensuing celebration, a relieved Grant told his men, “The war is over.”

But Grant soon discovered he was wrong. Not only did fighting continue in pockets for weeks, but in other ways the United States extended the war for more than five years after Appomattox. Using its war powers to create freedom and civil rights in the South, the federal government fought against a white Southern insurgency that relied on murder and intimidation to undo the gains of the war.

And yet the “Appomattox myth” persisted, and continues today. By severing the war’s conflict from the Reconstruction that followed, it drains meaning from the Civil War and turns it into a family feud, a fight that ended with regional reconciliation. It also fosters a national amnesia about what wars are and how they end, a lacuna that has undermined American postwar efforts ever since.

History consists of some very nice stories.Telling them to children makes very little sense unless it sparks a discussion of how you can know what is true and how you can find out what is true. But, of course, in school, history just leads to a test with questions like:

Who did Lee surrender to at Appomattox?

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Zakaria and Ivy Graduates Keep Defending the Liberal Arts, but clearly the liberal arts didn't teach them to think

 The problem with working on changing education is that everyone has an opinion. You went to school didn’t you? So, you are an expert. And, if you have a well known name because you were on TV a lot about entirely different issues, you are still an expert on education. Fareed Zakaria has published a book on the value of a liberal education and a part of that book appeared in yesterday’s Washington Post. Here is a quote from that article to give you an idea about his point of view:

public officials have cautioned against pursuing degrees like art history, which are seen as expensive luxuries in today's world. Republicans want to go several steps further and defund these kinds of majors. "Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?" asked Florida's Gov. Rick Scott. "I don't think so." America's last bipartisan cause is this: A liberal education is irrelevant, and technical training is the new path forward

Since I am always talking about education, I can tell you that this is a very typical response to what I say. Earlier this week I was asked about Shakespeare: “Don’t you think kids should still read Romeo and Juliet?” And in a different conversation the same day, when I questioned the wisdom of teaching algebra: But algebra teaches you how to think.  My usual reply is that it is sad that these people never were able to think before they learned algebra.

The issue is neither liberal arts nor algebra nor the idea of training everyone to become a programmer. I think people should learn what they want to learn. What a radical idea! Teachers should be guides and mentors, not fountains of knowledge. Learning should be fun. We should not “teach evolution” nor should we not teach evolution. We should not teach Dante or Cervantes (which any Italian or Spaniard will tell you we must teach). We should let kids follow their own interests. What are their interests by the way?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics polled several hundred children who live in and around New York City (in 2012) who were between 5 and 12 years old. These are the career aspirations that they found the kids had in order of most desired:   

  1. astronaut
  2. musician
  3. actor
  4. dancer
  5. teacher
  6. firefighter
  7. policeman
  8. writer
  9. detective
10. athlete

In the U.K. they surveyed 1,000 children aged 6-16 and the results were similar.  They found that the top ten dream careers for children were:

1. Professional Athlete
2. Performer
3. Secret Agent
4. Fire fighter
5. Astronaut
6. Veterinarian
7. Doctor
8. Teacher
9. Pilot
10. Zoo Keeper

Since it was the STEM Centre that did this survey they determined that were all STEM careers and wasn’t that wonderful?

Could we just let kids be firemen (in simulation) until they get bored with that and then let them keep a simulated Zoo? Could we let them try to be detectives and astronauts  (in simulated worlds) or let them try to be actual writers and actors if that is what they want to be?

Why wouldn’t it be the school’s job to make sure that the fireman curricula taught about the physics of firefighting, and the chemistry of what causes fires, and how to deal with stressed people, and how to address the public in a crisis? Are these things STEM or are they the liberal arts? Who cares?

Could we let an aspiring actor play Romeo but allow him to research the part and think about how to rewrite Romeo for modern times and to learn why Verona was different from modern day Duluth? Why can’t we help our aspiring musicians learn to think hard about music, write music, and figure out how the music business works? Could all those things teach you to think too?

What definitely does not teach you to think is learning the right answer to put on a multiple choice test about Romeo and Juliet, or Cervantes, or Dante.

The problem here is that any university graduate (especially ones from the Ivies it seems) think that the courses they were forced to take in college have broadened them and made them better people. (This is the very definition of Cognitive Dissonance.) They never got to live an alternative life however. They never got to do something other than sit in a classroom and listen to lectures and prepare for tests or write essays about subjects they were forced to study, but may not have found very interesting. People are different. They should be allowed to be different.  

Our idea of education is a very elitist one. We are worried that everyone should have to read Romeo and Juliet. But why? How often does that come up in real life? We don’t need literature in order to discuss these same life issues. Discussing life through the works of Shakespeare sounds appealing to intellectuals, but it really is the hard way to do it and may never actually get the attention of most of the population who could be, and should be, in these same discussions.

I,  on the other hand, am worried that everyone should be capable of asking hard questions of politicians who spout nonsense and that everyone should learn to do something that is valuable in the society in which they live so they can earn a living. By no means do I think that they should be taught only technical skills but neither do I think that kids should be forced to study the liberal arts.

We learn to think by thinking. We think even as small children, amazingly, without the help of algebra or art history. What happens is that people stop kids from thinking by telling them the truth and failing to have  conversations with them that might challenge their beliefs or force them to defend their ideas. We learn to think through intellectual engagement and intellectual combat, not through indoctrination. 

Our entire notion of school is wrong. We need to stop “teaching” and we need to start letting kids explore their own interests with adult guidance. There is no need to defend the liberal arts. Make the choices interesting and then give them many choices. By this I do not mean choices of courses to take. Enough with courses and classes. Let them choose experiences to have. It is our job to build potential experiences for them, guide them through the ones they have chosen, and offer alternatives when they change their minds.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

In education, the goal should not be test scores but happiness

  1. I did an interview in Spain about 5 years ago which has been tweeted all over the Spanish speaking world the last two weeks.
So I thought I would post it in English. (To do that I had to edit Google Translate's output and try to guess what I was saying.

Anyhow I thought this would be fun to post.

The Spanish web site that posted it is:

"In education, the goal should not be test scores but happiness," Roger Schank

“We spent half our lives memorizing things we are unable to remember shortly after.” Roger Schank 

That is a waste of time and brain power. And he knows of what he speaks. He has spent 35 years working as a teacher in three of the most prestigious universities in the world. Now he is determined to create new schools that train citizens and not intellectuals, in which students are happy and learn to understand the world in which they live. He offers alternative learning systems from his company Socratic Arts and his nonprofit organization, Engines for Education .

It makes no sense. You know that, right?


The current education system! It is based on many  bad assumptions. One is that memorizing like a parrot is something useful. But it’s not!

For small children this works.

The real reason we are taught to learn by rote is because the school concept was invented at the time of the industrial revolution and at that time the only thing they cared about was training workers for the factories. They were training people to get used to doing the same thing over and over again for many hours a day. They wanted school to be boring and repetitive. They began to teach little kids dull things over and over to ensure getting compliant workers. And that's why we memorize things in school.

But what about multiplication tables?

The only useful thing to memorize are the multiplication tables. Right. Because when you're buying something you might want to know what 8 times 6 is. Now, tell me another thing that it matters to memorize.

The rivers, the capitals of the countries …


Because it is useful.
Oh, no! You believe in the system! [We laugh out loud] Come on! There is not possible reason why you have to learn the names of rivers. Or the capitals. Or the names of kings. Or the names of wars.

We can look at Google

Forget Google. Let's talk about how we would learn such things without school. When I travel somewhere and look at a map. For example, if you go to New York you will have to figure out where it is, how far it is, what things one can do there. Once you have gone, you will remember the trip. You might remember the name of the river, however because it is not relevant to your trip. You can memorize a lot of information about the city, but it is meaningless unless you experience those things. Memories are linked to emotions and experiences. School is the almost the opposite of real education, because real education comes through real experience. Rather than teach the names of the rivers and cities, why not have students take a trip and visit the cities and learn at the actual site?
And what about history?

History is the most useless subject ever created! Let me explain why, because every time I say people get very angry. In America, we say it is very important to know about George Washington. When I ask why, no one knows, but we all know that it is very important. But when you read about George Washington you find that he had 300 slaves, he married a rich woman for her money, and maybe he wasn’t all that heroic. So what are we talking about when we talk about history? Should we skip the real stuff and just stick with “he was the father of our country?”
Many people quote to me the words of George Santayana: "Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it". Nice sentence, but nonsense. Consider wars: World War I and II, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan ... still? At school we studied these conflicts. George Bush studied them too, and instead, he took maybe a minute to think about it when he decided to invade Iraq. That worked out real well.   Teaching history in school usually spreads propaganda, typically about how great one’s country is.

And so? What do we have history books in school?

Because it is the way for the government to tell you things that make them look like the good guys. Surely, in Spain you teach that the conquest of South America was positive. Try asking how the Indians in Peru feel about it! In America we are taught, for example, we have never started a war, we have always been good, we've always done best for everyone ... Oh yeah ?!

Now that does not mean I don’t think history is interesting. I think it is. And I think some people should be experts on history, and citizens should know something about their history. But its not all for everybody. It is for people who are intellectuals with deep knowledge, who are able to discern two sides of an issue. Do we really need to understand the role of ancient Rome? Sure it's interesting to many, but if we force all students to learn about them what exactly does that accomplish?

So if we do not teach mathematics, nor history, nor geography ... what do children learn at school?

You want to know what kids could learn at school and how it would be useful?

How to educate children. 

This is a very important issue in yet it seems that nobody really knows what to do or how to do it.  Not so long ago,  kids spent the day with their grandparents, and learned about life from them, but now that doesn’t happen so much. Kids don’t learn about everyday life. Instead of learning about medicine they learn about plant and animal taxonomy. Instead of learning about how drugs work for example, we learn how to balance  chemical equations. Have you learned them in school?

I loved it!

Wonderful! And it served some purpose in your life? Chemistry could help us understand what happens when we take a medication, how our bodies functions. Or business. We learn economic theory in school, not business. And yet, we live in a world ruled by business So why, instead of teaching math, language, literature, history, children, don’t we give teach them about psychological issues, such as how to get along with others; how to raise a child; or how to handle daily economic issues, not the theory, but how to run a business, for example; or how to find a job …

First things first. What should a child learn at 4 or 5 years of age?  

At the moment, I am creating a school for my four year old grandson. And for this, the first thing I did was ask him what he likes to do. I often talk to him on Skype and we do things together, like playing, drawing. So I know that he loves trains and what is interesting is that I can teach reading and writing through them. I can take advantage of any interest of the child to help him learn. So in my school, the kids that age would learn things from trucks, airplanes, cars. They will play with them, draw them, write about them, and read about them, Also I have a granddaughter, but she is still too young to go to school. But when she is old enough, I would also design one for her. First, I would need to find out what she likes.

You will need 30 teachers in each class, one for each child.

We can create interest groups. My grandson could be in a group of 12 children with a teacher. All these children would have agreed that they like trucks for example. Not only will play with trucks, but they can also do other things that interest them, make some music, play football, anything. In another room, there will be another group with other interests and so on. The idea is that not everyone has to do the same stuff, we should be allowed to choose to learn what we want to learn. For example, why isn’t there a course in fashion design in elementary school ? I'm sure the girls would love it. I am proposing offer it, not forcing it on anyone. What children really need to learn when they are young is to get along with peers, to communicate well, to think things through, to read, and to write. And all that we can teach in any context. There is no need to bore children.

Teaching them through practical things will motivate them.
Of course, this is what parents do, for example, when they teach their kids to speak. Parents don’t teach the theory of subjunctive case or tell them that this is an adjective or a verb. They just talk to them, and correct them. When children don’t know a word, they ask what the word means. That's real education. And this is how school should work as well. The current idea of school is outdated, outmoded.

What about general education? There is so much to know. How can school just teach about what we want to know and nothing else?

But what we are doing now does not work. In Spain there is a 30% dropout rate. In the United States, in some places it is as high as 75% !! You cannot get to discuss general education when you have people who can neither read nor write. The first thing is to make school fun. Make them want to go to school. Learning is fun when you are 5 years old, why must learning become boring?

The transmission of culture is one of the things that the government uses asa way of controlling content. I recently spoke with the minister of education in Italy and he told me that Dante must be part of the school curriculum, which is important for the Italians. But is it really? Here in Spain they say you have to read Cervantes. But you have no idea why. The world will go on without him. If you want to read Cervantes, then  do it. Nobody is stopping you. But why does it have to be part of the school curriculum?   WE should try to create interest in reading. But, we cannot force everyone to read the same things. The culture of a country is the culture of a country is a kind of made up anyway. Countries are mixed up places and culture is different for each person. Surely, your vision of Spanish culture is different from another person’s in this country. So it is not important to teach Spanish culture through reading.

You mean to revolutionize the whole system!

From kindergarten through college. The United States has 3,000 universities; I have taught in three of them, the best, supposedly. The problem is that they create people with PhDs who become professors at other universities, who create other PhDs who become professors at other universities and so on. The 3000 universities are teaching exactly the same curriculum. For example, all have copied the curriculum of the Faculty of Mathematics at Yale. The problem is ... who wants a PhD from the University of Utah in Math?  Someone who teach the same curriculum in Montana. Many universities are teaching without purpose. Instead of everyone copying Yale’s math curriculum, different schools could something radical like not require mathematics.  The could teach other things, like how to get a good job. But all schools around the world insist on mathematics. No one remember why. This should stop.  The goal of students should not be grades, but the happiness that comes from an exciting life, incorporating job skills, thinking skills, personal skills, without learning mathematical formulas or literary works that are considered sacred in different cultures. We must teach what matters today and stop teaching things that are useless in the real world. My son in law, for example, got a doctorate in Russian literature. He was at one of the best universities in the country and was an excellent student. But when he said he was going to get a PhD in Russian literature, I thought he was pulling my leg.


What was that going to do for him? Was he going to be able get a job? The only thing you could choose is to be teacher and this isn’t exactly a growing field. He, of course, did not agree with me.  Now he develops online courses for me. He's a smart guy, but the degree was of no value to him.

What did you do in Barcelona?

I collaborated with the University of La Salle. We built an  online MBA program consisting of seven parts, each of a month or six weeks. One of those parts have to do with business ethics, culture. I went to university professors in the US and asked them if they could help us design the ethics course. But they were just going to teach the usual classroom stuff. And we will not do that. Then I remembered I once met a professor of Russian literature.   I knew he was an excellent teacher, so I asked him why he taught Russian literature. Then he told me that he did not teach his students about novels. They read War and Peace, Anna Karenina, to learn about life. The circumstances in which the characters live, human relationships, how they faced problems, love, heartbreak. And this is what he was teaching in class. I suggested to my son-in-law that he write a novel that was on ethical issues in business, in which the characters are faced with ethical dilemmas and the reader has to move in one direction or another.

As in those Follow your adventure book?

That's how you understand ethical dilemmas, by dealing with them.  Humans communicate and learn through stories. At a party, for example, everyone continually exchanges stories. And you can learn a lot each other by exchanging stories.  

It's about learning from experience, yours and others shared at the right time. We must all follow our own adventure. Good luck!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

AI is not coming any time soon. Let's look at why. A look at babies

This is from last weeks Wall Street Journal: 
Robots are becoming more of a reality in everyday life, and movies have started to overhaul their depiction of them. They’re gentler, friendlier and often better-looking. 
Yet the question remains: Could the smart machines we are inventing rise up against us and obliterate humanity? Or could they become loyal, loving companions and world-saving tools? Two new movies, "Chappie" (March 6) and "Ex Machina" (April 10) will explore artificial intelligence in the coming weeks, with more projects to follow.
 Really? Ok folks. Why AI is harder than you think in easy to understand terms. Watch this video:


That baby can look and imitate. More importantly the baby wants to do that. It "feels the music." Computers may not be able to do that ever. Moreover, they wouldn't want to.

Watch this one:


Two babies that are smarter than any machine will be. They are trying to communicate. They don’t know how yet. But they are practicing and will be learning how over time. They feel that they are communicating. Computers? Not so much.

Watch this one:


It is in Russian and yet we understand it quiet well. Why? Because we are humans and it is a human (and funny) situation. It is the beginning of a child learning how to talk to her dad. The baby is copying what she has seen. She can do that because she is intelligent.  She can teach herself by copying and trying. No computer can do that. Probably no computer will ever do that. Still we should be very afraid of computers taking over and killing us.

One more:


This is learning in action. An intelligent computer would have to start the way a baby starts, have conversations like this one, and learn from its many experiences, like this child will. You can’t just shove all the knowledge in the world into a computer. It is acquisition and learning and thinking and feeling that matters. No knowing facts.

I have worked on AI all my life. I would like to build computers that make our lives easier. That is pretty much what everyone who works in AI would like to do. But movies and people who know nothing about AI keep selling a very different and silly message.

When a computer starts imitating you, then you can start worrying.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Parents: Relax. Your kid will get into college; the question is whether or not to go.

The other day I had dinner with a married couple who were worried about their son. I have these conversations quite frequently although not always at dinner. They were worried about the fact that their son didn't always do what he was supposed to do at school and wasn’t getting great grades. They wanted to know if they should pull him out of his fancy private school and put him in public school hoping that he would get A’s there. 

This sounded like an odd idea. I wondered why they wanted to do that, knowing full well the reason would be that they were worried that he wouldn’t get into college. This conversation must go on all the time in homes across the U.S. Everyone has been sold the idea that their kids must go to college. If a kid is bored with school and finds better things to occupy his time, parents panic.

But, this is about to end.

Today, there was yet another article about why. It was in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is not exactly a radical rag. The article is talking about one particular college and in it there is this:

the college’s administrators say that to achieve long-term financial stability, it needs to expand its enrollment, attracting more students even as competition from other colleges and universities increases. It’s a challenge many of the smallest liberal-arts colleges face.

To put this another way, with 4000 colleges in the U.S. many of them charging high tuition, anyone who can afford  it will find that their kid can get into college.

The real question is whether they should go.

My daughter received a letter from someone with a business that related to hers. It was signed with the name of the woman who wrote it and followed by “Harvard class of 2016.” In other words the writer is a junior at Harvard.

Students in college today are not becoming history or philosophy majors in great numbers. We live in a society that now heavily values entrepreneurship and technical skills. You don’t need to go to college to do either of them. My company (XTOL) has launched certificate programs under the aegis of well known universities which are actually teaching real skills and where having a college degree isn’t necessarily required. This will become more and more common soon. Students will be able to learn what they want to learn without having to obsess in high school about AP tests and SATs. They will not have to go to college, and if they do go they should have a very good reason be going there, learn what they want to learn and leave. (Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg did exactly that.)

When I was the Chairman of Computer Science at Yale, one year each Chairman had to address the Freshman about why they should major in their subject. I gave a short speech. I said: “Major in Computer Science. Get a job.”

I was booed. No student at Yale in 1981 was concerned with such practicalities. That year most of our graduates went to work at this startup called Micrcosoft.

Am I recommending that kids shouldn’t go to college? NO. I am simply saying they (and their parents shouldn’t be worrying about this. Colleges will be dying to have them. And, because of that, kids will have the right to blow off high school, which I certainly encourage.