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Friday, October 30, 2009

Madrassas, Indoctrination, Education and Kristof



It is always disappointing when a writer who says sensible things about most issues decides to turn off his brain when it comes to education. I complained about a nonsensical article about education in the New York Times written by Nicholas Kristof a few months again, and now he has gone off and done it again. He is writing about spending less money on troops in Afghanistan and the suggests that that money should be spent on education. Kristof:

Since 9/11, the United States has spent $15 billion in Pakistan, mostly on military support, and today Pakistan is more unstable than ever. In contrast, Bangladesh, which until 1971 was a part of Pakistan, has focused on education in a way that Pakistan never did. Bangladesh now has more girls in high school than boys. (In contrast, only 3 percent of Pakistani women in the tribal areas are literate.) Those educated Bangladeshi women joined the labor force, laying the foundation for a garment industry and working in civil society groups like BRAC and Grameen Bank. That led to a virtuous spiral of development, jobs, lower birth rates, education and stability. That’s one reason Al Qaeda is holed up in Pakistan, not in Bangladesh, and it’s a reminder that education can transform societies.


Why am I complaining? This seems reasonable enough. Indeed, Kristof is usually reasonable. And then he says:
When I travel in Pakistan, I see evidence that one group — Islamic extremists — believes in the transformative power of education. They pay for madrassas that provide free schooling and often free meals for students. They then offer scholarships for the best pupils to study abroad in Wahhabi madrassas before returning to become leaders of their communities. What I don’t see on my trips is similar numbers of American-backed schools. It breaks my heart that we don’t invest in schools as much as medieval, misogynist extremists. For roughly the same cost as stationing 40,000 troops in Afghanistan for one year, we could educate the great majority of the 75 million children worldwide who, according to Unicef, are not getting even a primary education. We won’t turn them into graduate students, but we can help them achieve literacy. Such a vast global education campaign would reduce poverty, cut birth rates, improve America’s image in the world, promote stability and chip away at extremism. Education isn’t a panacea, and no policy in Afghanistan is a sure bet. But all in all, the evidence suggests that education can help foster a virtuous cycle that promotes stability and moderation. So instead of sending 40,000 troops more to Afghanistan, how about opening 40,000 schools?

On the surface this seems right, but it is very wrong. Americans have the view that Pakistan is full of terrorists and people who take money from the U.S. and make no good use of it. There is some truth to this I assume, but Pakistan is also full of very reasonable and intelligent people who behave a lot like people in the US. They go to good schools in Pakistan, they run successful business there, and they worry about fixing their country. I have been to Pakistan a few times, always talking about education and am usually very well received. I have talked with Mushareff and with various ministers in the government on many occasions. I am on the board of a private school there that is trying very hard to make great and innovative schooling available around the country.

I have never visited a Madrassa but I have seen the kids that go to Madrassas and they look happy and healthy. Here is a picture I took:

What is the issue here? The issue is indoctrination.
Madrassas have a goal. Their goal is make the kids that attend them believe certain things that the teachers are sure is true and to think and behave in certain ways in their every day lives. In short, Madrassas, like many other religiously run schools, know what the end product should be and they have a long history of being successful in creating what they want. The fact that we don’t like what they produce is irrelevant.
When Kristof says he wants to build more schools what he means, apart from the obvious -- getting kids capable of reading and simple math -- is to create more schools like the ones we have in the U.S. In the U.S. we have thousands of schools where kids are packed in like sardines learning a set of subjects will neither help them live their
lives reasonably nor help them to make a living. The education they receive is all about getting them into college, which is pretty irrelevant for the majority of the students who just need to be able to function well after graduation.


We offer indoctrination in our schools too. We constantly indoctrinate our children to believe that college is very important and that memorizing facts to help them pass tests is how to get there. This is the system we would be exporting and it is even more useless in Pakistan than it is the U.S. Just saying the magic education word is of no
help Mr. Kristof. You actually have to understand the difference between education and indoctrination. Madrassas do it and the U.S. schools do it too. You are saying that we should indoctrinate Pakistani students with our kind of indoctrination.
I say we should consider what learning is really about is, help our children learn things that are, or will be, important to them. (This would not include say -- our indoctrination about the significance of Algebra or the wonderfulness of our glorious history.) Build a school that does that, use it to help our own children learn, and then export that.
The U.S. schools aren’t as good as Madrassas. They have no goal, they don’t know what they want to produce and they have no agenda at all except raising test scores. How would spending millions on building these kinds of schools, the ones with the horrific drop out rates, and the pregnant students, and the drug dealers on campus, be a good thing? We are not doing so well over here in education. (The Beaconhouse School in Pakistan is every bit as innovatve as any school we have in the U.S.) Here is a picture of me helping the teachers at Beaconhouse think about learning:

Saturday, October 17, 2009

what cognitive science tells us about what we really need to learn

We have all gone to school. We all know that school is organized around academic subjects like math, English, history and science. Why?

It is not easy to question something that everyone takes for granted. It is especially not easy when the very source of all our concerns in education can be easily traced to this one decision: to organize school around academic subjects. How else might school be organized? There is an easy answer to this: organize school around thought processes. In 1892, when the American high school was designed, we didn’t know much about thought processes. Now we do. It is time to re-think school.

School, at every age, needs to be designed around these processes, since it is through these processes that everyone learns. Academic subjects are irrelevant to real learning. They are not irrelevant to the education of academics of course. But, how many people really want to need to become experts in the academic fields?

Here is a list of the sixteen critical thinking processes. These processes are as old as the human race itself. The better one is at doing them the better one survives:

The Sixteen Cognitive Processes that Underlie All Learning

Conscious Processes


1. Prediction: determining what will happen next
2. Judgment: deciding between choices
3. Modeling: figuring out how things work
4. Experimentation: coming to conclusions after trying things out
5. Describing: communicating one’s thoughts and what has just happened to others
6. Managing: organizing people to work together towards a goal

Subconscious processes

1. Step by Step: knowing how to perform a complex action
2. Artistry: knowing what you like
3. Values: deciding between things you care about


Analytic Processes

1. Diagnosis: determining what happened from the evidence
2. Planning: determining a course of action
3. Causation: understanding why something happened


Mixed processes

1. Influence: figuring out how to get someone else to do something that you want them to do
2. Teamwork: getting along with others when working towards a common goal
3. Negotiation: trading with others and completing successful deals
4. Goal Conflict: managing conflict in such a way as to come out with what you want

All of these processes are part of a small child’s life as well as a high function adult’s life. Education should mean helping people get more sophisticated about doing these things through the acquisition of a case base of experience. Teaching should mean helping people think about their experiences and how to handle these processes better. Unfortunately education and teaching rarely means either of these things in today’s world.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The New York Times misunderstands education again: this time the GED

The New York Times is at it again, promoting nonsense about education. I can only guees that it owns a test making or grading company because it sure does love this stuff. From today’s editorial:

Millions of Americans are trapped at the margins of the economy because they lack the basic skills that come with a high-school education. This year, more than 600,000 of these people will try to improve their prospects by studying for the rigorous, seven-hour examination known as the General Educational Development test, or G.E.D., which should end in a credential that employers and colleges recognize as the equivalent of a diploma. The most fortunate live in states — such as Delaware, Kansas and Iowa — that have well-managed programs in which 90 percent or more of the test-takers pass. The least fortunate live in New York State, which has the lowest pass rate in the nation, just behind Mississippi. Worse off still are the G.E.D.-seekers of New York City, which has a shameful pass rate — lower than that of the educationally challenged District of Columbia. This bodes ill for the city, where at least one in five adult workers lacks a diploma, and the low-skill jobs that once allowed them to support their families are dwindling.


The New York Times wants to make sure that New York City has great GED courses so poor people can get jobs. For fun, I looked at the web site of the GED testing service. Here are three typical sample questions on a GED:

“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain
unalienable Rights, that among these rights are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Which of the following political actions violated the principleof “unalienable Rights” of liberty that evolved from the above excerpt of the U.S. Declaration of Independence?



1. In 1857, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling promoted the expansion of slavery in U.S. territories.
2. In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution outlawed the practice of denying the right to vote because of race, color, or previous condition of servitude
3. In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution granted women the right to vote nationwide.
4. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act outlawed racial discrimination in employment and public accommodations.
5. In 1971, the Twenty-sixth Amendment to the Constitution extended the right to vote to 18-year-old citizens.





A cook decides to recover some table salt that has been completely dissolved in water. Which of the following processes would be the most effective method of extracting salt from the solution?


1. spinning the solution in a mixer
2. boiling away the water
3. pouring the solution through cloth
4. dripping the solution through a paper filter
5. bubbling oxygen through the solution

In May, I graduated from Prince William Community College. Graduating with an associate of arts degree in horticulture.
Which is the best way to write the italicized portion of these sentences? If the original is the best way, choose option (1).


1. College. Graduating with
2. College, I graduated with
3. College. A graduation with
4. College. Having graduated with
5. College with



I don’t’t know about you, but as an employer I know that I would certianly hire people for low paying jobs if only they could answer these important questions. Perhaps it is time for the Times to notice that employers won’t hire people who can’t do anything useful and that our education system doesn’t teach much that is useful. Pouring money into test passing courses will fix nothing.

Here is the Times again:

New York will need to invest a great deal more than it spends at the moment. But the costs of doing nothing clearly outweigh those of remaking a chaotic and ineffectual system.

Right you are Times. New York needs to invest in real eduation however, not in test prep courses. How is it that the Times is this much out of touch?