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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Pragmatic university education is coming soon

This is not my usual “outrage” article; I am not outraged. I am excited.

Something I have been advocating for years seems actually to be happening.

Twenty years ago, when companies barely understood training via computer much less online training, I was out there trying to make them understand that something new was happening. Twenty years later, training via computer is the norm, but I can't say that I am impressed with what the results. Too often it is still the CBT of old, all about reading, page turning and answering questions. (But now there is animation!)

But, I am not writing about that.

Also, 20 years ago I was talking to the companies with whom we were working about a bizarre situation that I had hoped they would try to fix.  

When we worked with engineering companies, for example, I would take note that their normal procedure was to hire engineering graduates and then train them how to do engineering in a way that was useful for the company.

While this sounds reasonable, it wasn’t. 

At the time, I was on the Engineering faculty of Northwestern, so I would say, why don’t you tell Northwestern what you want in a graduate and help them build a curriculum that would allow you to abandon these massive training facilities that take new engineering graduates and train them all over again?

They refused to consider this. When they did talk to me about it, they usually said that Northwestern (or any Engineering School) wouldn’t go for it. They were, of course, right. 

All university have faculty who feel they know exactly want students should learn and they don’t really care that that isn't what the companies that hire them want in a new graduate.  They justify this by saying they are trying to teach theoretical concepts that will last a student a long time and that they do not work for companies that have particular interests.

I used to be astonished for example, while I was at Yale, that while Microsoft hired nearly of all our Computer Science graduates (this was in the early 1980’s), they then had to teach team how to do the things that Yale faculty found unimportant to teach. Today the world is only slightly different. In fact, the Yale Computer Science students were recently protesting that Google didn't want to hire them because the faculty wasn’t teaching things that made them hireable by Google. 

What a surprise! I was once the Chairman of that department and know full well the difficulty of telling  such a faculty what to teach.

I often wonder why Microsoft didn't create a curriculum and offer it itself with an agreement to hire the graduates of that curriculum. The answer, I suppose, is that this would have infuriated university computer scientists with whom Microsoft wanted to have good relationships. (There are a lot of “Gates Buildings” that house Computer Science departments around the country.) Faculty “know” what students need to know. Companies know nothing.  

But then something weird happened. A not very well known university, one that wants to become better known, started discussions with big companies that are located near them about what their training needs were. The companies are engineering companies that had some highly technical skills they need their employees to learn, and fast. The university does not have a famous engineering school. What they do have is a pragmatic approach to education, which in this case meant contacting me and my team to ask for help. We met with the companies and designed a learn by doing online curriculum that works perfectly for them (they were part of the design team after all). The university wants very much to do this and there are no faculty to say why they know more than the companies about what skills to teach. 

So, what we have is an aggressive university that wants to compete by offering high quality pragmatic education designed by employers who will immediately hire their graduates.

(I can hear my old friend Bart Giamatti screaming from the great beyond: we don’t do training at Yale, Roger.)

This is indeed the future of education.  (Sorry, Bart.) You can only have so many liberal arts curricula and so many faculty who are out of touch with what companies actually need and what employers want.

School needs to be of some use. (Yale and Northwestern not think so, but try asking an English major about what happened to them after college.) Professors all agree on producing people who can think, but this only rarely turns out to be true.  Analyzing literature in not a key thinking skill. (In any case, building a machine that works also requires complex thinking.) This elitist view of education has to stop. Humanities faculty always looked down the noses at Engineering faculty. It never made any sense to me.

I am happy to say that I beginning to believe that change is coming. It sounds very anti-academic to say that employers should dictate university curricula. I know that. But think about it for a while. (Imagine a world in which high schools taught practical employable skills instead of the 1892 curriculum designed by Harvard.)

I am hopeful.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Reading and Math are very important, but I am not sure why: a message for those who can't see very well

My daughter recently wrote an article about how her vision-impaired daughter was being treated by the NYC education system. She is a smart kid and my daughter wanted her to be in the smart kid class. But, since she can't see all that well, it was difficult for her to pass the required tests to get into this class. You can read the article here:

My daughter was, and is, concerned with her daughter’s reading ability. In order to pass the tests she needed big print texts. Her daughter reads very well, but that doesn’t mean she can see the tests very well.

But this article is not about my daughter, nor about my granddaughter. It is about reading.

The problem for people who can’t see very well is that they are expected to read a great deal in school and they are therefore in a very difficult situation. The blind have books in Braille and signs in Braille. This sounds reasonable but it really isn’t. What is with this emphasis on reading?

Throughout the history of education, reading has been a big component of the system. Since religions are mostly responsible for how school developed, this is not surprising since religious texts are typically a big part of religion.

When people are concerned with the education of blind children they worry about classrooms that accommodate them, and books that accommodate them, and various teaching materials that can be made to accommodate them.

Now, while my granddaughter does not see very well, I personally have never taken much note of it. Why not? Because I talk to her. She talks to me. She sees well enough to grab my hand when we walk and to notice and deal with things that she encounters. She has lots to say. If this child and been born 5000 years ago, she would not have been expected to go out on a hunt I suppose, but she would work and function well enough with the other kids in the village and could do whatever she wanted to do. She can talk and negotiate in the world. She is very smart. In the ancient world she would never have been seen as being seriously impaired.

But, in our society we have reading and math tests. And then, we have more reading and math tests. We all agree that math is important for reasons that have eluded me and we memorize equations because someone said we have to and then promptly forget them. When I attack math, I have many supporters, but I never win that argument because the tests makers, and book publishers, and the people in charge of the system all think math is very important because it just is. (“It teaches you to think” being the usual argument with no evidence provided.)

So, now, I will make an even more ridiculous argument which will be ignored by most of the population. Reading doesn’t matter either.

There. I said it. Yes, I know we have set up a system where reading matters a great deal. (Indeed, I am part of that system. I write books. I build online courses that require reading, and so on.) In our world, I type this and someone else reads it. The internet has made reading even more important now than it was when I was a kid. When I was kid it was important to read so we could read The Scarlett Letter and A Tale of Two Cities and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, all of which I have forgotten, did not find engaging, and have no idea why I was required to read.

Well, actually, I have a very good idea why I was made to read them. The schools were designed by intellectuals to create more intellectuals. Intellectuals  discuss literature. Maybe they used to discuss mathematics, but they don’t any more. Intellectuals don’t discuss science much so science is on a back burner in schools. Intellectuals do discuss history so history is taught with great devotion.

(As I write this there is noise being made outside my office. It is being made by people who are working — building things. These people go to school too, but school is not meant for people who want to build things or even for those who want to discuss things. It is built to ensure that the people outside my office feel they are failures because they had bad math and reading scores in school.)

As I have said many times before, we teach the wrong things in the wrong way.

What should school look like? No reading, no math. Yes, I know, that is insane. No one could possibly think this. But, give it a shot for a minute.

If there was no reading and no math what would happen in school? Could we let kids do what interests them? (No, I don’t mean video games although anything can serve as an avenue into learning and thinking.)  Could we help them find their interests? If reading interests them, by all means teach them to read. The same with math. My grandson, the brother of the granddaughter who can’t see very well, is set to go off to a math and science middle school. I asked him if he likes math and science. His answer was that he didn’t actually like math and I discerned from what he said about science that he had no idea what science actually was about, thanks to the “science” they teach in school.

When I asked him what interested him, he said “robots.” We talked more and I got the idea that he liked learning how things work and engineering would be his choice if anyone actually gave him that choice.

I can hear the chorus now. “But engineering requires reading and math.” Well, not necessarily. In order to learn how to be an engineer you do not have to read at all. The way people have learned throughout history is from each other and they learn from each other by talking and by asking and by getting good advice.   We have allowed the people who invented schooling to   screw up the natural leaning process which is a combination of talking and trying again. That is what engineering has always looked like. It is also laziness that allows a teacher to tell a student they must read.

I happened to be watching a movie from 1943 the other day, called Princess O’Rourke. In one scene, women were trying to sign up for volunteer work at the Red Cross. The conversation below was between an obviously uneducated lady who wants to sign up and the Red Cross person who is signing people up:

What would you like to do Anna?
I’d like to learn Red Cross
Can you read?

It would be very hard Anna. There are things you’d have to study
You tell me and I will learn

You would be most useful doing what you know. Do what you can do best.
I can do everything. I have nine children

Why would she have to study? Because they didn’t feel like teaching her. They wanted to make it easy for themselves and have her read. And that is why we have kids read. Because we don’t have the time to teach them properly. And since we mostly don’t remember what we read, this is absurd. It is time we realized this.

Any good parent talks to their child. They don’t answer questions by saying “read this.” But the school is about mass education and someone has decided that mass education means attempts to make intellectuals for reasons that elude me.  

Is there math in engineering? Sure. But it needs to be learned as one needs it. When you need it you can  learn it. And you shouldn’t be learning from a book anyway. Socrates and I agree on that one:

Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. 

This obsession with reading and mathematics is just that, a convenient obsession that keeps the test makers happy and makes kids miserable. 

There should be a school for the blind that has no reading in it. There could just be talking, and reasoning, and planning, understanding causation, and all the other cognitive processes I have discussed in Teaching Minds. My granddaughter would be just fine in a reasonably designed school system. But we don’t have any schools that let kids be kids and learn what they want to learn. We make them study. And that means reading.  

One day we will stop texting and stop writing and go back to talking to each other. We will lose nothing from that evolution. We will still tell stories and still learn from experts. And we will do it without reading. There will be plenty of new media. A thousand years from now no one will be able to figure out what all those strange marks were on all the ancient stuff.

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.