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Monday, October 27, 2014

The NY Times and Nick Kristof want mass education. I want individualized education.

Sometimes when I read the New York Times on education, I find myself wondering if they just sit around and think how they can write dumb stuff. 
Sunday. Kristof wrote a column that included this:

Until the 1970s, we were pre-eminent in mass education, and Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz of Harvard University argue powerfully that this was the secret to America’s economic rise. Then we blew it, and the latest O.E.C.D. report underscores how the rest of the world is eclipsing us.
In effect, the United States has become 19th-century Britain: We provide superb education for elites, but we falter at mass education.

We were pre-eminent in mass education and now we are not. Here is why we were pre-eminent in mass education. Our system was designed to train the masses to be factory workers. In 1905, Elwood Cubberly—the future Dean of Education at Stanford—wrote that schools should be factories:

“in which raw products, children, are to be shaped and formed into finished products…manufactured like nails, and the specifications for manufacturing will come from government and industry.”

William Torrey Harris, US Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906, wrote:

“The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places…. It is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature. School should develop the power to withdraw from the external world.”

And now, we don’t have any factories. Should we still strive to lead the world in mass education?
Kristof also wrote this:
The United States is devoting billions of dollars to compete with Russia militarily, but maybe we should try to compete educationally. Russia now has the largest percentage of adults with a university education of any industrialized country — a position once held by the United States, although we’re plunging in that roster.
We have been pushing everyone to go to college in this country for many years. The result is that college has become about football, partying, and suffering through lectures to accumulate credits for the degree. It also leaves students with large amounts of debt. It is mass education all right. 1000 people crammed into a lecture hall is mass education, except it isn’t education at all really.
What the US should strive to do is lead the world in   -- individualized education. I am sure Russia is good at treating everyone as a cog in the wheel of the great machine. Maybe that is even good for their economy. I don’t know. But mass education is a terrible thing to be hoping for. We have no more factories and what students learn in college usually does not render them particularly employable. 
On ether hand we have the ability to do individualized education now. We can match mentors to students online. We can offer courses chosen by students as opposed to one’s required by faculty. We cab help students learn what they want to learn when they want to learn it. We can help employers find employes by allowing them to offer education that leads to employment. The one size fits all concept of education that has dominated the US for the last 125 years needs to go.

To create individualized education, we need to start spending money on it. E can and should build all kinds of learn by doing experiences for children so they can try them out and see what they might like to do. We must stop shoving the old curriculum down everyone’s throats and stop assuming that education for the masses is actually a good thing. 
More from Kristof:
In effect, the United States has become 19th-century Britain: We provide superb education for elites, but we falter at mass education.
What the elites that Kristof refers to in his article have, is the opportunity to get some individualized education. That opportunity should be available to all, but it won’t be as long as we spend money on mass testing instead of new curricula and new ways of teaching.
The Times just seems to love the word massive. They have been touting MOOCs which are just lectures without a professor around to talk with. Apparently the Times now wants to make sure that the masses are sufficiently educated. The usual reason for mass education throughout history has been to prevent revolution. The Communists and Nazis were very good at mass education.
Individualized education Nick. Its coming. Ask any homeschooler.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The big education debate in Florida. Really? Can any candidate think about education at all?

In general, when I hear that politicians are discussing education, I am wildly skeptical. I live in Florida where there is a gubernatorial contest going on and the word education keeps coming up. I would love to see a debate about education, so I checked into what the Miami Herald was saying about this education ”debate.”
Here is the headline and a link to the article:
Reviewing the record of Charlie Crist, Gov. Rick Scott on education
Here are some lines from this article followed by my comments:
Education has been one of the most divisive topics in this year’s contest. 
Wow! Education is a divisive topic. Good to hear it. Who is against Common Core? Who is against standardized testing? Which one is for not grading teachers by how well their students do on tests? Which one is for letting students out of the standard curriculum in order to pursue their own passions?  Who is against pushing everyone to go to college?  Who wants to allowing training in actual job related areas to take place? Who thinks algebra is a waste of time? Who thinks the 1892 curriculum ought to be abandoned?

Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican Party of Florida have defended his record on education while bashing the record of his rival, Democratic front-runner and former Gov. Charlie Crist.
Who has something they want to say about educational change and not about how they are right?
Most of the attacks and claims about education have related to funding — and they have covered the gamut from preschool through college.
Funding? Really? The issue is how much money goes into a school so that they can buy newer textbooks? Or helping get more money for sports teams? Or repairing buildings? The schools are broken, I know, but funding is not the issue. It costs nothing to get rid of the FCATs. In fact $300 million a year is spent just on grading the FCATs. Get rid of the FCATs. There, I just found money for education.
Crist often says that per-pupil funding for K-12 students was higher under his watch. During a July interview with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, Crist said that despite the state’s current surplus, Scott “still hasn’t matched what I did during the recession for per-pupil funding for kids. In fact, he’s about $200 less.”
Wow. Terrific Mr Crist. what did that $200 go towards?
During his announcement speech in St. Petersburg last year, Crist said, “I am proud of my record as the governor investing in public education, and stopping the layoffs of some 20,000 school teachers during the global economic meltdown.”
In Florida, the stimulus dollars affected about 19,000 full-time equivalent jobs for instructional personnel, which included teachers as well as guidance counselors, librarians and audio-visual workers.
Without stimulus dollars, there could have been massive layoffs, though it’s difficult to pinpoint the precise number of teachers. While Crist was a huge stimulus fan, the real credit goes to Congress and Obama. 
I am that happy you may or may not saved some teachers jobs. 
Meanwhile Scott’s campaign in a TV ad blamed Crist for “3,000 teachers laid off.”The number was derived from media reports about possible layoffs, not actual layoffs. Crist and the Republican-led Legislature signed off on budget cuts amid a national recession — and no single politician is responsible for that economic meltdown. Clearly some teachers were laid off, but the ad didn’t prove the actual number and put too much blame on Crist.  
So this is the big issue according to the Miami Herald: someone might or might not have saved some teachers jobs and someone may or may not be telling the truth. This is the big education issue in Florida.
No, folks. The big education issue is whether the schools will continue to be awful in exactly the way they have always been awful.
Here are two quotes to think about:
young men grow up such blockheads in the schools, because they neither see nor hear one single thing connected with the usual circumstances of everyday life

That was written by Gaius Petronius, in the Satyricon.  (2000 years ago more or less)
Over a 1000 years later, the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote this:

Our teachers never stop talking, as if they were pouring water into a funnel. Our task is only to repeat what they tell us. Teachers need to stop doing this and instead begin to have the student try to do things, choose among options, make decisions for themselves, and let them find their own way. Schools want to take different students who have different ways of thinking and make them take the same courses and tests. It is no wonder that most children really learn nothing from this experience. I wish that actors or dancers could teach us to do what they do, simply by performing before us, without us moving from our seats. I wish that we could be taught to cook, or to play the piano, or learn to sing, without practicing at it. School wants to teach us to judge well and speak well without having us practice either speaking or judging.

Could someone who wants to be governor think about making school more relevant to real life, more likely to help people get actual jobs, and less of teachers talking, and testing, with more doing? These ideas have been around for a long time Mr Crist and Mr Scott. Could you stop arguing about nonsense and actually talk about education -- maybe for just an hour?

The schools you are arguing about are boring and irrelevant. Ask any kid.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Some of the dumbest remarks on education ever (by Bill Gates); My replies

Bill Gates on education: 
My replies:

He cited as a model unnamed Asian countries, which he said have pared down their standards so they give kids “nice, thin textbooks” and focus on teaching fewer concepts in more depth. “And what are the results? Well, they spend far, far less money and get far, far better results,”

Translation: China has better test scores than the U.S. Are these the results that matter? Then why are Chinese students trying desperately to get into U.S. schools? Is it possible Bill, that you have no idea what you are talking about?

 He said he thought of Common Core as “a technocratic issue,” akin to making sure all states use the same type of electrical outlet.

Translation: Gates wants to plug every kid into a place where they can work as effective parts of the machine. No differences will be tolerated. Curiously, this was exactly the plan in 1900 when the U.S. schools were designed. The goal was to make compliant factory workers.

“Common Core is, to me, a very basic idea that kids should be taught what they’re going to be tested on and that we should have great curriculum material,”

Translation: Teaching to the test is now official U.S. doctrine. Teaching is not a discussion but the ramming in of facts. One might ask: “which facts?” That is easy: the ones decided upon by Charles Eliot in 1892. Great plan Bill. By the way, facts aren’t actually what matters. Clear thinking matters. Oh, except on tests. Bill, did you take a test that allowed you to start a company? No? Then maybe some other skills might be needed in order to learn to do that eh? Did you learn to do that at Harvard?

 “We didn’t know when the last time was that somebody introduced a new course into high school,” Gates told me. “How does one go about it? What did the guy who liked biology — who did he call and say, ‘Hey, we should have biology in high school?’ It was pretty uncharted territory. But it was pretty cool.”

Answer: It was 1892; Nothing new has happened since in curriculum creation. Biology is in there because it was a subject at Harvard in 1892. Not a great reason, Bill. Good luck with getting it out of the curriculum. Oh, but you want everyone to memorize the names of phyla.

Gates recounted getting a bad grade in an eighth-grade geography course (“They paired me up with a moron, and I realized these people thought I was stupid, and it really pissed me off!”) and the only C-plus he ever received, in organic chemistry, at Harvard (“I’m pretty sure. I’d have to double-check my transcript. I think I never ever got a B ever at Harvard. I got a C-plus, and I got A’s!”).

Response: Everyone should be you Bill because you are the greatest. I only got C’s in college. Maybe that’s why I have the perspective that grades don’t matter and creativity does. What did Microsoft ever create? Should everyone in the U.S. go to Harvard and get A’s Bill? (Except your moron friend.) Is that your plan? Or might there be room for other types of people than you, and other kinds of interests than yours or Charles Eliot's?
Common Core, the idea that what you should know at various grades, that that should be well-structured and you should really insist on kids knowing something so you can build on it, I did not really expect that to become a big political issue."
Response: Why not Bill? Here is one explanation. Because you know nothing about education and think everyone is like you and should learn what you learned (which of course had nothing to do with your success.) Allowing the possibility that a kid could follow his or her own interests? Nah. Too much like having different kinds of plugs and sockets.
Gates said that one improvement colleges should make is to cut down on the number of lecturers and focus on the select few who are the best at talking about their fields.
How about having no lectures? Nah. Lectures are wonderful. No one remembers them; everyone is sleeping or texting to their friends. But let's have lectures anyway. They worked so well in the Middle Ages when no one could read. Lectures are about money, Bill. Lots of students in the class paying big tuitions is a revenue model. You don’t mention it, but you must love MOOCs too. Soon all the professors can be fired and we can all listen to the best MOOCs.

“If you have a high SAT score going in, [the university] is not going to make you dumber. I’d like to see an output measure. I’d like to see a university and say, ‘We took kids with a 400 SAT score and they were super smart when they left our university,’ not, ‘We were sure they were smart when they came in, and we didn’t damage them.”

Response: Wonderful. More measurement! Your friends would like doing that measurement and making lots of money from it. Why not have college be just a giant test taking party? Let’s eliminate talking with professors who can guide you on a project or seminars where one can learn to express one’s point of view and get smarter by arguing. Let all colleges students simply prepare all day for the exit exam. That will be just wonderful Bill.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

MOOCs, the XPRIZE join many others who will never change education

I have been in Computer Science nearly all my life, but I didn’t get interested in education until the early 1980’s. I looked at was going in computers and education work at that time and was unimpressed. Those who were doing that sort of work seemed mostly interested in tutoring programs that helped kids do algebra better or taping and sending out lectures in what was called distance learning.

I found these thing totally uninteresting and began to think about how to really use the power of the computer to build simulations or games or activities that would excite kids about learning. But, it was hard to get schools or publishers interested in what I was doing because they were committing to making no changes whatsoever in how education had functioned for the last 1000 years.

Well that was 35 years ago. What has changed? Nothing it seems. There was the MOOC craze, which is a different way of taping lectures. Fortunately this craze seems to be over.

This appeared in the Chronicle of High Education today:

Optimism About MOOCs Fades in Campus IT Offices

So, thats nice, nothing good will happen online for a while because of MOOCs, but we can stop pretending that education is about listening to lectures and passing tests and go back to thinking about how real learning has always been about trying to do something you want to do and having someone available who knows more than you do who is willing to help you do it. (Sometimes these are called teachers.)

But then I read this:

New $15 million Global Learning XPRIZE wants to disrupt education as we know it

Wow! Great! Someone with real money wants to change education. Oh, wait. Too soon to get excited. This is what they are worried about:

As Diamandis emphasizes, what’s needed is a new way of thinking about education if we plan to educate tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of children: “Traditional models of learning are not scalable,” Diamandis said. “We simply cannot build enough schools or train enough teachers, which brings us to a pivotal moment where an alternative, radical approach is necessary.”
So, traditional models of education, (kids packed into classrooms all doing the same stuff despite their interests and being made to pass tests and listen to lectures) are not scalable! Right. That was the problem. If only we could have more of that stuff that has made children miserable for 2000 years:

“I believe that school makes complete fools of our young men, because they see and hear nothing of ordinary life there” Petronius Arbiter  (said in the year 60)
And, there won’t be any more teachers if the XPRIZE has its way:

“there won’t be teachers the way we think of teachers today. Even students learning autonomously will require much more peer-to-peer learning, in which students armed with apps and tablets teach each other about the world. Finally, there won’t necessarily be “courses” or “learning modules” involved in the next iteration of educational innovation. There will be software and apps, and it will be up to the prize teams to define exactly what these do.”
Their intention, as I understand it, is to eliminate the only things that matter in learning. These are, in my opinion:

  1. a goal
  2. a person who can help you more clearly define that goal
  3. people to work with towards that goal
  4. new goals that come from having accomplished that goal
  5. being able to fail and get help
  6. being able to write about and talk about what you have done
  7. fielding reactions from those who can help you improve what you have done
  8. getting help in thinking about what else you might accomplish

Instead they want kids on tablets using apps to learn the same old crap we have always been teaching but this time they are on their own. Yea!

I believe that learning is a conversation, as I have said in this space before. Technology is helpful to the extent that it lets you try to do things you might not have been capable of doing before. Design an airplane, start a business, plan a career, invent something. These require teachers (or mentors) and plans of attack and simulations, and expert advice. Now I still believe that technology can save education, but we need to define more reasonable goals

“We’re aiming at kids who live in villages where there’s nothing. This has to take them from complete illiteracy to basic reading, writing and numeracy.”
Or to put this another way, yet again, someone is trying to teach the same old junk. There is nothing wrong with learning reading, writing, and arithmetic. There is a problem with every subject taken after third grade however. The only thing that is good about the first three grades (apart from the 3 R’s) is the presence of the teacher. The teacher is what they want to eliminate.

Here is an idea. The best use of technology in today’s world would be to hook up those who want to learn with someone who wants to to teach them. You could learn a language on line by talking to someone who speaks that language on Skype. You could learn how to start a business by talking with business experts and discussing your plans. You could learn to think out and discuss complex ideas in a Socratic seminar lead by.... a teacher. The real value of the computer in today’s world is that everyone is connected. And, there are a lot experts (people my own age, who have little to do for example) who would be happy to mentor kids who wanted to do things that were not part of the existing school systems. The XPRIZE,  I assume, will soon have a prize for the computer that tutors algebra most efficiently and we will be back to where we started.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Big Lie: we need to know that teaching never matters in university rankings

There was an almost perfect article in the BBC news on line today:

What makes a global top 10 university?

It starts with the usual list of top universities:
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is in first place in the latest league table of the world's best universities.
It's the third year in a row that the US university, famous for its science and technology research, has been top of the QS World University Rankings.
Another science-based university, Imperial College London, is in joint second place along with Cambridge University.
Behind these in fourth place is Harvard University, the world's wealthiest university. And two more UK universities share joint fifth place, University College London and Oxford
Then, it goes on to list how these rankings are calculated:
But how does a university get to the top of the rankings? And why does such a small group of institutions seem to have an iron grip on the top places?
The biggest single factor in the QS rankings is academic reputation. This is calculated by surveying more than 60,000 academics around the world about their opinion on the merits of institutions other than their own.
Ben Sowter, managing director of the QS, says this means that universities with an established name and a strong brand are likely to do better.
The next biggest factor - "citations per faculty" - looks at the strength of research in universities, calculated in terms of the number of times research work is cited by other researchers.
As a template for success, it means that the winners are likely to be large, prestigious, research-intensive universities, with strong science departments and lots of international collaborations.
So, just to be clear, the rankings are all about how much research money the professors have to play with and how famous they get by utilizing that money. I was a professor at top ranked universities for 35 years. I brought in lots of money. I was cited often. And I helped my university in its rankings.
Great. What about teaching students? Never mentioned. I don’t mean never mentioned by this article, I mean in my 35 year career no one mentioned it. In fact, the more money you bring in, the more famous you are, the less you have to teach. That is one reason poorly paid adjuncts are teaching more these days.
I like this article because it says just this quite plainly:
Is that a fair way to rank universities? It makes no reference to the quality of teaching or the abilities of students?
The idea is that a student wanting to find an undergraduate arts course isn't really going to learn much from rankings driven by international science research projects.
And then this:
Those that focus on teaching rather than research will not be as recognized.
They leave out what I like to call “the big lie of college education.” No one ever tells a student applying to Harvard that he will be taught to do research almost exclusively because that is all his professors do or know how to do. He will not be taught to program by his computer science professors because they haven’t written a program in years. He will not be taught how to start a business by his business professors because they have never started one. He will not be taught anything about being a medical doctor because they don’t teach undergraduates. In fact he will not be taught anything of any use in his life at all in college unless he plans to become a researcher.
I never planned to become a researcher but that’s what I learned in college so thats what I became.
So, parents: when you decide to fork over $50,000  a year for Harvard remember Harvard’s goal will be the creating of a researcher. Do yourself and your kid a favor and ask him if that’s what he wants to be when he grows up.
Last week I had a business meeting in New York, and as I often do, I asked the people I was meeting with where they went to college. One said Harvard. He had majored in Economics. So, I said, “you got to meet some Nobel Prize wiener and hear all about microeconomic theory. Do you use any of what you learned there today in your work?”
“No” he said.
Isn’t it time we started talking about teaching? And, while we are at it, could we make that be teaching things that you might use as an adult?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

My granddaughter goes to school; yet another sad story

This is another depressing story about school. Hearing about my children's and now grandchildren's time in school is what has turned me from being an AI researcher and into an education reformer.

This was written by my daughter. She is describing her daughter's first day of school:

We arrived the first day and were instructed to do all the usual first day things - I found her name tag and her desk and her cubby, we unpacked her backpack, hung up her hat, and then I signed her in.  Kids and parents were milling around in various stages of anxiety, ranging from sitting wordlessly in a corner to full on screaming. After a while we were directed to find a seat on the floor and choose a book to read. Mira went over the bins of books that had been placed on the floor, leafed through them, and then looked at me in astonishment.  "They're all ABC books," she said.  She looked back at the books with disdain, and I knew what she was thinking.  ABC books were for pre-schoolers.  She was a big Kindergartener now.  We'd promised her she'd be working on her reading in school (she already knows how to read simple books). Where were the books that were going to help her learn more about reading?

"Maybe that's just for today," I said.

Later that day, after pick up, I asked her how school was.

"The only good part was when we got a cookie," she said.

"That was the ONLY good part?" I asked.  "There must have been other good parts."

"We did math," she said.  

"Oh, that's great, you like math."

"No, it was RIDICULOUS."

I had never heard her use the word ridiculous before.

"Why was it ridiculous?"

"Because we did attendance, and we said how many people were there and how many people were absent, and then we counted the people.  That's not math, it's COUNTING."

The next day Steven dropped her off.  The ABC books were still there, in a bin on the floor.  He told her to ask the teacher if she could pick out a different book.

"The teacher said no," Mira reported back.  "Today we are doing ABC books."

The teacher, I'm sure, thought she was just being difficult.  She probably didn't think, well, obviously this child already knows how to read and doesn't need an ABC book.

When she came home she was most excited about lunch.

"Did you know that cafeteria is another word for lunch room?" she asked incredulously.  "Also, why didn't I get chocolate milk?  Why didn't I get school lunch? Why do I have to have home lunch?  Did you know that Kindergarteners get to eat in the cafeteria?  The preschoolers have to eat in their classrooms, but we're bigger so we get to go to the cafeteria."

This morning I promised her school lunch.  Just wait until she finds out today is Mexican Fiesta day in the cafeteria.

Monday, September 8, 2014

I have always wondered why the New York Times is obsessed with education

The New York Times is obsessed with education, but until now I never understood why. In Sunday’s Times Magazine we have Bill Gates deciding he now wants to change how History is taught. When did he become an education expert? I thought he was a college dropout who used his family’s money to build a giant company that never invented a thing. Well, what do I know?

So Bill Gates Has This Idea for a History Class ...

There are numerous other articles in yesterday’s times about college and the wonder of calculus and the Chinese obsession with test scores. The Times never actually wants to change anything. They like whining about things they don't understand. Still I didn't get why.

Liking Work Really Matters

A College Education Should Include Rooming With a Stranger

A Fairer Shot for Student Debtors

And then I read this: 

Demanding More From College

This article contains the following quote: “If college graduates are no longer reading the newspaper, keeping up with the news, talking about politics and public affairs — how do you have a democratic society moving forward?”

The New York Times thinks that if you don’t read the New York Times you can’t participate in a democratic society. This can’t be true since watching and reading about what politicians say and do simply isn’t something I notice the vast majority of people doing any more. Neither are they learning calculus (except under duress) nor are they interested in history. But the Times marches on demanding that whatever has been done historically in education be done again.

This is just one more vote for making students do whatever the person writing the article’s favorite thing is (see my last outrage). But, people don’t learn from being forced to study a subject. They learn because there is a need that they have that drives them to find out more.

The Times wants them to read the newspaper.


Maybe they can team up with Bill Gates to produce a New York Times test that every kid must pass.