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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Why can't school be more like camp?

My grandson Milo (age 9) camp back from four weeks of summer camp last week. He was not happy. He loved camp and didn’t want to leave. He said now all he had to look forward to is another year of boring stuff until camp starts next summer.

I asked him what he did in camp that was so much fun. He loved playing around with a whole new set of friends. And he loved the activities. He loved that he could choose to do whatever interested him. He loved the freedom. What interested him? Water skiing, archery, crafts, and the various all camp competitions in a variety of sports. He told me that when you choose an activity they set goals for you. He told me he got to level 3 in radio. I asked what that meant. He said he learned to operate the equipment, make a jingle, and put together a music show. He was very proud of himself.

I asked if they set goals for him in school. He said “school is a lot of test prep.” “Camp is more free.” At camp he is active. “School is more strict.”

Finally he said: “We need to do something other than sitting around and test prep. Most of the year is test prep.
What we learn is how to prepare for the test.”

Congratulations New York City School System. You have taken a child who is bright and eager to learn and made him into someone who would do anything to avoid the boredom and absurdity of school. What a great way to educate people.

(I might point out that Milo learned about communication, writing, physics, mechanics, and a range of other “school subjects” while learning to achieve his goals in camp.)

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Reading is no way to learn

This is a column that attacks reading. No one attacks reading. Let’s just assume I am crazy and push on.

Reading is a pretty recent idea in human history. It hasn’t worked out. It has given us some pretty good things, like literature, for example, or the possibility of communicating with my audience right now. But these things will be going away soon, and good riddance.

For years, I was an advisor to the Chairman of The Board of Encyclopedia Britannica. My job was to eat dinner with him every few months. At each dinner he asked me if there would still be books in five years. I said that there would be except there wouldn’t be his book. “Encyclopedias will disappear” I asserted.

I was thinking about this on a business call the other day. The man I was speaking with was concerned with how training was done at his very large engineering firm. He was rightly worried about “death by Power Point.” He used as an example of what he wanted to build people who learn to change a tire by changing one and then went on to describe quite accurately how we learn in such situations (by practice was the point, something you can’t do in Power Point.) But, he started his explanation by saying the first step in tire changing would be to get out the instruction manual on how to change a tire and read it.

I said that I had never actually read an instruction manual  and that they haven’t actually been around for very long in human history. When a young boy wanted to learn to hunt lions he didn’t read the instruction manual, nor did he take a class. Throughout human history we have learned by watching someone older than ourselves, trying to copy that person, trying to be part of the team, and then trying things for yourself, and asking for help when we have failed. It is not that complicated. This is what learning has always looked like. And then, someone invented instruction manuals and we all forgot what we knew about learning. We replaced human mentors by Power Point lectures and asking by reading.

Great. And we wonder why we have trouble teaching people to do complex skills. There is nothing difficult about it. When you need to try to accomplish something that you want to accomplish, you need to have someone who knows how to do those things watch over you and you need to have someone whose work you can observe and copy. You need to be able to try and fail and you need to be able to practice. Reading doesn’t come up.

When I say things like this it makes people nuts. The other day I had a conversation with a woman in which I asserted that no learning takes place without conversation. She objected and said that she could look up something in Wikipedia any time she wanted and learn something that way.

No I said. You can’t. She was flabbergasted.

First, let’s ask why Wikipedia exists. In part, it exists because Encyclopedia Britannica couldn’t keep up. But also, it exists because we live a in a world where we don’t know whom to ask. I get asked nearly every day what certain words mean or what certain ideas are about. I am asked because the people I am interacting with know I might know and know that I am always happy to teach. But mostly I am asked because people know that I give quick short answers to their questions. When you have someone to ask, you ask. Reading is the alternative when there is no one to ask. 

Let’s assume you always had available at your disposal a panel of experts who could be asked any questions you needed to ask. Would you ever read? (That panel is coming soon.) This morning I had a medical question. There was no one to ask. So I started to read. But this is rarely anyone’s first alternative. 

The second problem with the “I can always look it up” model is simply this: You won’t remember what you read. Now we have had a lot of practice at attempting to remember what we read. That practice is called school. We read. We study. We memorize. We take tests. And we are somehow all convinced that we have remembered what we read.

Every year I would ask my students on the first day of class at Yale and Northwestern if they could pass the tests they took last year, right now. No one ever thought they could. They studied.  They listened. They memorized. And  then they forgot. We don’t learn by reading nor do we learn by listening. 

We do learn by talking. Assuming we are talking with someone who is more or less our equal and has ideas not identical to ours, we learn by challenging them and ourselves to think hard. We mull ideas. We try out ideas. Even after a good conversation, it is hard to remember what we were talking about. If we do remember it, it means we were changed by that conversation in some way. Something we believed we now have a different perspective on. And we have enabled practice. Practicing talking is like practicing any physical skill. You won’t learn to hit a baseball unless you repeatedly hit one over years of practice. The same true of ideas or facts. Students can temporarily memorize facts but if they don't use them again they will forget them. We need to practice what we know until we are barely aware that we know it, until what we know becomes instinct. We don’t know how we talk for example, but we can talk, because we learned how to talk and practice it every day.

Our world has gotten obsessed with reading. Every entrance exam is at least half about reading.  People one up each other by citing what books they have read. If you haven’t read one they think is important they can look down on you. (But, it is actually unlikely they remember much from the actual book. They might remember what they were thinking or talking about after reading the book.) This is the modern era. Things have been like this since the invention of texts. Lecturing followed the invention of texts (so the text could be read to you). But this is all going away soon. Socrates noted this in discussing the invention of reading and writing:

“For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.” (Phaedrus 274c-275b)

Reading is going away. Books are going away. There are already better ways of disseminating knowledge. But the schools are difficult to change. Training is difficult to change. People who use the internet can’t imagine a life without the tools that are on there now. But there are new tools coming.

The main advantage of reading is that we can skip around. We skim rather than read. It is hard to skim when someone is talking. And then one day, maybe it won’t be.

Monday, June 1, 2015

What I learned from the movies about education

I have always liked to use movie clips in my talks, since the movies get it about education. My favorite was always Ferris Bueller's Day Off, especially the scene where the teacher drones on about economics and everyone is asleep or simply ignoring him. But, yesterday I found two new ones (well neither are new) that I thought I would share with my readers. 

The first is from a 2003 movie, Cold Mountain. The scene here is where Ada, a young woman with fine schooling is being helped by Ruby, a young woman with no schooling but much practical knowledge for difficult times. (The movie takes place in the South in the US Civil War about 1864)

Ruby: What’s this wood?

Ada: - I don't know, - In,

Ruby: - I don't know, - Pine, - Locust? - Pine, Where's north?

Ada: North? Uh,,,

Ruby: Name me three herbs that grow wild on this farm,

Ada: I can't, I can't, all right?

Ada: I can talk about farming in Latin,

Ada: I can,,, I can read French,

Ada: I know how to lace up a corset, God knows,

Ada: I can name the principal rivers in Europe, just don't ask me to name one stream in this county!

Ada: I can,,, I can embroider but I can't darn!

Ada: I can arrange cut flowers but I can't grow them!

Ada: If a thing has a function, if I might do something with it, then it wasn't considered suitable!

Ruby: Why?

Ada: Ruby, you can ask why about pretty much everything to do with me. This fence is about the first thing that I've ever done that might produce an actual result,

The second clip is from Romance in Manhattan (1935.) A newly arrived Czech immigrant (Karel) is trying to learn and work and is being helped by a 10 year old boy (Frank):

Frank: I got you fixed up

Karel: fine

Frank: you start Tuesday night

Karel: What am I going to study?

Frank: English composition, American history, spelling, and algebra

Karel: Algebra? I have to know that?

Frank: No, but I do and you could help me.

What do these clips have in common? School was dumb in 1864, was dumb in 1935, and continues to be dumb. Movie writera know we should be teaching practical skills that someone might need as adult. Instead we teach algebra and the names of rivers. Still today. New technology won't help. Throwing the curriculum out will help. And then, we would be able to create fun new curricula using the latest technology.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

How do you know if you are college-ready? (a reply)

Someone I follow on Twitter (@sisyphus38) (I don't follow many people, but this guy is a frustrated teacher and I appreciate his pain) tweeted today:

Can someone explain what "college ready" means?

Here is my response:
  1. if you know how to study for, and can pass a multiple-choice test
  2. if you can sit through a boring lecture and stifle the impulse to jump out the window
  3. if you can drink heavily all night and still get up in time for an 8 AM class
  4. if you know how to skim a textbook
  5. if you have a lot of money in the bank
  6. if you know what courses you safely can blow off
  7. if you know how to go and talk to a teacher to explain why you should have gotten an A and instead of a B
  8. if you can figure out how not to show up for class and still pass it
  9. if you don't mind not actually doing anything in school except reading and listening
  10. if you understand that college is actually pretty much a four year vacation from the real world and you won't have to do much
  11. if you understand that college won't get you a job and there is no point thinking it will
  12. If you're capable of doing your own laundry
  13. if you are capable of understanding that the University you are attending is not particular interested in you and your needs and you just have to go along with whatever obstacles they put in your way
  14. if you understand that the university is mostly about the needs of faculty
  15. if you know never to ask the question “why do I need to know this?”
  16. if you know that the question “are we responsible for this?” is the best way to irritate a professor
  17. if you know that a professor’s opinion will never matter to you ever again

or, you could just worry about these two:
  1. if you have some idea what you might want to do with your life;
  2. if you know that somewhere in the university there is someone who is willing to take you under their wing and that your real job is to find that person and seek their guidance

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.