Share and discuss this blog

Announcing Schank Academy Logo

Welcome to the future of learning - the way it was always meant to be.

Courses start June 2017. Enroll today.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Understanding Understanding: real AI vs. Modern AI

What does it mean to understand? This seems like a simple question but it isn’t. These days, AI is a field that attempts to understand simple English sentences like “Alexa play me a Beatle’s song.” But the understanding required to perform this command is considerably different than what is needed to read A Tale of Two Cities and understand it.  Trying telling Alexa that “it was the best of times and it was the worst of times.” Say that to a person and they might say: “what do you mean?”

Or, consider this from today’s New York Times:

President Trump, ramping up his assertions of extraordinary powers, declared in a tweet that he had “the absolute right” to pardon himself for any crime.
            The claim was the latest in an aggressive series of moves, as Mr. Trump and his legal advisers have argued that his authority places him above the reach of obstruction statutes.

What does a person do when they read this? They have  to rely upon knowledge about the situation that they had before they read this. You have to know, for example, about Mueller’s investigation of Trump and you have to know about Presidential pardons. You also have to have the ability to realize that no one worries about pardons unless they are afraid of being found guilty of a crime. So, an intelligent reader who realize that this is discussion is based on the idea that the reader, and Trumps’ legal advisors, must have been thinking about what happens if the President is indicted. We have nothing like that in modern AI, no could we, because counting words won’t help. Why not?

Because the word “indicted” doesn't appear anywhere in the Times story. How would Alexa or Siri understand this article? They wouldn’t. Any intelligent reader knows that indictment is the underlying issue. And what would modern AI systems be able to do with this? Nothing. Modern AI systems are not actually about understanding no matter what IBM says about “cognitive computing" 

The imminent arrival of AI is in everything we read these days due to a serious misunderstanding of the real issues in AI, which haven’t changed over the last 50 years.

Old time AI folks like me were always concerned with what it means for a human to understand. 

Yesterday, there was a interesting article in the Boston Globe about an old AI guy (Patrick Winston) at MIT who is trying to address what understanding really is:

It won’t get much attention because what Winston is doing is not what the AI hype is all about.  

Monday, April 9, 2018

School shootings, teacher's strikes, anxious kids; solution? eliminate cumpulsory schooling

Compulsory schooling has been around so long that nobody questions it. But in today's world we need to re-think. Here are some of the problems with compulsory schooling:

school shootings: Why do crazy people shoot up schools? One reason might be that school was one of the great miseries of their childhood and they are angry. If school were optional, school shootings would most likely disappear.

bullying: One reason kids hate school is that they are picked on by other kids. This is difficult to control in a classroom of 30 or 40 kids. We have set up school so that it enables kids to pick on the kids who wore the wrong clothing, or didn’t know the right answer, or said something dumb. In real life, we can avoid people who belittle us. In school we cannot.

poorly paid teachers: If kids had their choice of schools (or the choice to not go to school) we would value teachers more. No one would choose to go to a school where the teachers were unhappy because they were just eking out an existence. Happy teachers help make happy kids and we would find a way to encourage those teachers to stay in teaching.

buildings in disrepair: More and more we hear about the disrepair of older schools. No money to fix this? There would be money if anyone really cared about kids, but kids don't vote and politicians are really not worried about them. Fancy private schools keep their buildings in good repair. Let kids opt out of school and we can close down these dangerous places and build places kids can’t wait to go to.

segregation: We live under the delusion that segregation is over in schools. Really? Schools reflect the neighborhoods they are in, and neighborhoods tend to be homogenous. If school weren't compulsory, kids in “bad” schools (which means there are lots of poor people really) could opt out and live less danger-filled lives

constant test prep: Why do we permit school to be about testing and test prep? We seem to have no choice. But, if schools didn't look at test scores, this would go away. Colleges look at test scores in order to spend less time considering each kid. Special high schools use them because otherwise it would be difficult to decide who gets the privilege of going to a school that has only smart kids in it. If school were not compulsory, schools would need to compete with each other on the quality of the experience provided in order to attract kids.  

high anxiety: It is compulsory education that makes school such an anxious experience. Students are tested, graded, and constantly compared against each other, There are winners and losers. Every day is a kind of contest. Who thought that up as a way to learn? Learning is supposed to be fun. Proponents of school typically claim that learning is hard work. That is only true if you are learning something that doesn’t interest you.    

government propaganda What is school really for? I can say it simply —Indoctrination. We want you to sit still, do what you are told, and do mindless repetitive tasks so you can work on a low level boring job when you grow up. We want you to know who is in charge and to respect their right to be in charge, We expect you to believe that we have the best country in the world, and that you should be thrilled to fight for and defend that wonderful country. How can we do that without compulsory education? Who would voluntarily attend a school where such rules are hammered in daily?

truth Lastly, we know the truth. Students need to know the truth as well. No matter that the “truth” might be in question. We want you to memorize simple truths: the quadratic formula, the laws of physics. We want you to know that George Washington never told a lie and that Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. We don’t want to hear any other point of view. (Please don’t tell me that Washington owned 300 slaves.) We want to make sure you learn lots of mathematics because mathematics teaches you to think and we don’t want you to ask how we know that or what evidence we have for that. We want you to memorize facts about science, not actually do science (which might include questioning things we tell you and demanding evidence for them.) 

What would happen if school wasn't compulsory? We would have to find other methods of day care for children. We would have to invent hundreds of new curricula that students could choose between. We would have to have teachers who weren’t actually teaching but were helping kids do what they want to do. We would have to realize that experts are everywhere (but maybe not in your home town) and find ways for those experts to be available virtually as needed. We would have to make sure that our day care locations are safe and that the kids who choose to go to them are happy.

Please… no more compulsory school.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Best way to oppress women: more math tests!

I happen to be a regular viewer of the “Judge Judy” TV show. The reason is simple enough. She looks (and acts) just like my mother (who is long gone.) So it is nice to be reminded of her.

Judge Judy (who is phenomenally successful by anyone’s standards) can’t add. She counts on her fingers to figure how far April is from October and for anything more complicated she asks her assistant (Byrd) to do the math for her.

Why am I writing about this, you wonder? Because the news lately has been running segments extolling that the Girl Scouts now offer STEM merit badges.

STEM is a nonsense idea being touted by the educational establishment. STEM is so important that no one has bothered to create high school engineering courses for it (That’s the E in STEM.) Science is the same old memorizing formulas as it always was and, well, then there is math.

I have written elsewhere and often about why algebra is a waste of time and why the “math teaches you to think” argument is totally unsupported by facts. I suppose there might be a worldwide mathematician shortage but I missed it. Math is important because the testing industry loves it. OECD and ETS thrive on math scores and panicking kids into learning it.

But, and here is my main point: math oppresses women. I don't normally concern myself with women’s issues, particularly not now when that is all you hear about in the news. But, why don't we ever about the number one oppressor of women? Really? How does math oppress women? Let me explain.

Judge Judy can’t do math. Neither could my mother.(She was pretty successful too.) Neither can my wife. Neither can my daughter. Neither can my granddaughter. Surely this is just odd. Not really. I just IM-ed the senior designer in my company (who was one of the smartest PhD student I ever had):

me: how did you do in math in HS?

me: how are you at math now?

Tammy: Are you kidding me? I'm afraid of the word

Don't get all worked up. I'm not claiming no women can do math or that women have an innate inability to do math. There are certainly women who are accountants, scientists, etc. and many who just love math. That's not my point. Let's focus on the point.

My daughter has a major book coming out in June and also has a very successful career as a user interface designer. Can she do math? She is also afraid of the word.

In 1986, when my daughter was 14 and taking algebra I thought she was going to have a nervous breakdown. Since I was a math whiz as a kid I couldn't understand what her problem was. I still don’t. But I know she did just fine without knowing algebra (as did my mother before her and Judge Judy.) In 1986 I began to examine why we taught math at all. Being a math whiz as a kid didn’t mean I would ever use algebra as an adult. I haven’t.

Back then I learned about the Committee of Ten that created the modern day high school curriculum (in 1892) and read about the math professor who was on that committee who was trying to sell an algebra textbook at the time. So, I figured the reason for algebra was just random and as usual, had to do with money.

I have since changed my mind. 

I now believe that math is emphasized is school as a subtle way to oppress women. It is commonly stated that woman are bad at math for any number of reasons having to with their lack of confidence or male oppression or stereotyping. But how about considering another idea? This is the right question:

So what?

The normal answer to this is that then women can't be engineers or scientists.

And I say again: So what?

Are these the most important professions?   Many women are kept out of a great many professions because of the math test score obsession. They are kept out of professions that do not require mathematics but nevertheless require math scores to gain admission to the schools that teach them  (Medical and law schools rare two good examples.)

My wife wanted to go to medical school but couldn’t because of her math scores. How many women want to get a PhD or a law degree or an MD but can’t because they had bad math scores? Tammy got into graduate school to study with me because I don't care about math GRE scores. Others are not so lucky.

So here is a good idea: let’s make Girl Scouts learn math. I checked the Boy Scouts site and found that Boy Scouts have STEM Merit badges as well. Here are two STEM merit badges for boy scouts: archery and softball.


Maybe I misunderstood. Then I found out that a Girl Scout can get a cyber-security merit badge. I got the idea. They are marketing to parents who are desperate that their kids go to college and STEM is an obsession that parents have been told to have. The kids are simply pretending. That is ok with me.

But what is not ok with me is that we continue to make girls feel less than adequate because they are bad at math. Instead of writing endless articles about how girls are not really bad at math or how there are Girl Scout STEM merit badges, can we simply get over the math thing?

Do I think all girls are bad at math or all boys are good at it? Of course not.  No one is watching out for how boys are oppressed by math either. We just accept it.

My company (Socratic Arts) has way more females than males. I asked some of them how they felt about math. Here is what one them (Susan Ward — a senior designer) wrote:

In high school, I particularly loved science. In fact, one of my best subjects was biology. I found it very easy to understand and sailed through regular and advanced biology, botany, and basic Chemistry. In fact, I had dreams of becoming a marine biologist, or perhaps going into some aspect of veterinary medicine. But, in the end, I was turned off by the emphasis on higher math that is typically required to enter those fields. While I got As and Bs in math, when it came to trigonometry and calculus, I was turned off. It didn't feel as applicable to the world around me in the same way that science did. Fast forward many years, to my chosen career as an Instructional Designer. In my role, I've designed a number of CME programs for the medical field. I worked with doctors and other medical experts on disease state training, as well as education for pharmaceutical sales reps. The more I learned, the more I regretted not going into some aspect of medicine. Being a horse and dog owner, I have also loved learning from vets over the years about diagnosing and treating various issues (when you own a horse, you often have to be your own vet tech!). In my observations, while medical professionals do use math when writing prescriptions, administering medications, and analyzing x-rays and CAT scans, most aren't solving complex, abstract higher math problems in their day-to-day practice. I wish schools would de-emphasize higher math as a requirement for entering careers in the sciences, and instead give students the opportunity to learn the math needed for their field in context with their specific areas of interest. 

Really? Do I believe that math is there to oppress women? I was reading a book by the only guy more radical than I am about education —John Taylor Gatto. He points out that school was always meant to keep the lower classes in their place and that we adopted much of what we do in  school from the Hindu education system which was specifically designed to keep the Brahmins in charge. This is from Gatto’s book (paraphrased):

Hinduism had created a mass schooling institution for children of the ordinary, one inculcating a curriculum of self-abnegation and willing servility. In those places, hundreds of children were gathered in a single gigantic room divided into groups of ten under the direction of student leaders with the whole ensemble directed by a Brahmin. In the Roman manner, paid pedagogues drilled underlings in the memorization and imitation of desired attitudes and these underlings drilled the rest.

A military chaplain, newly arrived in India, named Andrew Bell decided to try the Hindu system in an orphan asylum he was running. He found that it led students quickly to docile cooperation, like parts of a machine. Furthermore they seemed not to have to think, grateful to have their time reduced to rituals and routines. He praised Hindu drill as an effective impediment to learning writing and ciphering, an efficient control on reading development. Joseph Lancaster concluded that this would be a cheap way to awaken intellect in the lower classes ignoring Bell’s’ observation that it did just the opposite.

In 1798, Lancaster opened a free school for poor children in London. Word spread and children emerged from every alley, craving to learn. The Duke of Bedford provided Lancaster with an enormous schoolroom and a few materials. Transforming dirty ghetto children into an orderly army attracted many observers. Bell opened competing schools based on the idea that schooled ignorance was better than unschooled stupidity.

Harvard and Yale were set up originally as the Brahmin schools. (Google “Boston Brahmin.”) I assume that there was no required math score for admission in their first 100 or 200 years. Harvard and Yale were all about keeping the elites in power. The SAT was created in order to enable the lower classes to get into places like Harvard. But, not that many women were going to Harvard and Yale (did I say none? -- because that was the number.)

Harvard and Yale have stopped barring the lower classes  and women are no longer barred from admission.  Yale kept Jews out, but when the SATs came into being, many Jews scored very well and couldn't be rejected. (They were kept out of social clubs of course.) Here is something from Commentary:

By the 1920’s, however, nearly 10 percent of Yale undergraduates were Jewish, and the Jewish applicant pool was expanding every year. Worse yet, to Yale administrators, most of these Jews were poor New Haven “townies,” who concentrated on their studies and did not participate (whether voluntarily or involuntarily) in extracurricular activities.
Faced with what it considered a crisis,  Yale enacted an unwritten quota to keep the level of Jews at or about the then-current 10 percent.

Here is the problem. While they could easily keep women out of Yale, when they did admit them they did too well. In Princeton’s first coeducational class of 1973, women were 18 percent of the class but 32 percent of those elected to Phi Beta Kappa. It is obvious what happened. The requirements for women to gain entry were tougher. They admitted only ones whom they were sure of and they were better on average than the men.

If women were able by judgment of strict merit to be 90% of the entering class at Yale, Yale would flip out. They were quite upset at Yale when Jews started taking over the faculty. The last two presidents of Yale have been Jews and Yale has lost its role as a Brahmin university.   The make up of the student body and the faculty is a constant issue at Yale, not that you will hear about it publicly. In the late 1970s, at a faculty meeting of the Computer Science department we were discussing why Yale never did what we asked of them. One person suggested that we hire a non-Jew to the senior faculty. Every senior faculty member in Computer Science was Jewish and we all knew that the administration was not amused.

We let it drop, but we all knew it was there.

Harvard and Yale have a long history of keeping people out. They were started for the elites and are still controlled, but less so, by the elites. This attitude includes keeping women out. But, how can they do that and get away with it? Math test scores. Using the math SAT they can make sure that they only get the very best women (those who will follow the rules and not ask why.)  Why would Harvard and Yale care about this? Ask yourself this simple question: if the entering class were 90% women what do you think the reaction of those who rule these schools would be? The math SAT ensures that this will never happen. 

Am I saying women are not good at math? No. Hardly. I am saying they tend to dislike it more than men do. I don’t know what the reason is.

The other day I was doing a TV show via Skype, shot from a colleague’s home in the UK. We were discussing math and then the man’s 9 year-old daughter walked by. I said to him “stop her and ask her how she likes math.” He did and she said “I hate it.” (I know that not all females hate math. One of the smartest women in my company has a master’s degree in math.)

If women want to make their lot in life better they should start lobbying against the math SAT. Instead of offering math merit badges in the Girl Scouts, they should be making scouting fun, no?) (And the Boy Scouts should stop the BS. Softball is a STEM activity. Really?)

I will give the last word to Wendy Lehnert (the woman with the math degree whom I mentioned earlier. She was my student at Yale and is a retired professor of Computer Science):

 I taught calculus to premeds at Yeshiva University, to all-male classes of guys hell-bent on getting into medical school. This was a long time ago.

Some of them really got it and some of them didn't - but everyone was determined to get into medical school - that's all that mattered. Calculus was a "do-or-die" hurdle. Nobody ever showed up in my office to talk about how the course was making them rethink their life goals. There was plenty of "point grubbing" - everyone wanted to make sure they got the best possible test scores and therefore the best possible grade and therefore the best possible chance of getting into med school. But there was absolutely no evidence that anyone took the course as a serious indication of self-worth. Calculus was just a hurdle. It was just part of a big game called "succeeding in life" - or - "making it into the club"

A few years later I was teaching undergraduate courses in CS, and I was struck by how many bright students in my introductory programming course seemed to really take programming to heart. Turns out these were all female students, who had probably always gotten straight A's and were thoroughly traumatized by the anything less than an A. Getting a B on a test was enough to make them question their choice of major, their self-image, and their self-worth. The female students were just not playing the same game as the guys. They were actually internalizing all these test scores and then reacting accordingly. I've never seen a guy do that.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

"you are dying of kidney failure" -- a lesson about AI BS

This is a story about AI, but its starts off as a personal story.

I returned to New York from a trip to the U.K. feeling very badly. I was guessing that I had a kidney stone but I had had those before and this seemed different. I didn’t have a doctor in New York, but a friend told me he could get someone to see me immediately. I saw him and then I got a call from him telling me I was very sick and I needed to see a kidney doctor right away. He set up the appointment for next day.  The kidney doctor examined me and told me that I was dying of kidney failure. Needless to say, I was upset.

His nurse came in and asked me what the kidney doctor (who was listed as one of the top 100 doctors in New York by the way) had said. I told her and she said she had seen a lot of patients who were dying of kidney failure and I didn’t look like them at all. 

The doctor gave me a diet to follow which he said might help. I started it only to realize that it pretty much described how I normally ate. I returned to Florida getting sicker every day. Finally I called a wealthy friend who had a “concierge doctor” who agreed to see me. The doctor told me to get on the next plane to New York and go to Columbia Presbyterian. 

I went and met a kidney doctor there (Jai Radhakrishnan) who did something very strange — he listened. He asked me about every detail of my time in the U.K. and in New York and then told me that I was not dying of kidney failure. He said I had a very high Creatinine number which confused the other doctor because it is strongly associated with kidney failure, but what had actually happened to me was that both kidneys were blocked, one by a kidney stone and one because I had managed to dehydrate myself which caused a perfect storm. “Remove the kidney stone and you’ll be fine” he said, and they did and I was, and still am six years later.

Why am I telling this story?

Today we hear endless AI BS as I often point out. Lately there has been a lot of BS about Ai and medicine. For example:

What is the problem with this nonsense? One consistent problem with reporting on AI is that they say AI when they mean “a statistical algorithm.”  Computer programs can be written to examine reams of data more easily than a person can. This a good thing. But data is easily misunderstood by people (especially when they don’t understand the context), and you can be sure these “AI’s” won’t have a clue. The first kidney doctor I saw looked at a creatinine number over 5 and simply went no further. The nurse looked at me and compared me to other patients she had seen. The Columbia kidney doctor listened and used his vast knowledge of prior cases to reason from.

Modern medicine is full of doctors who are already robotic. But good medicine is like any other subject that requires one to make judgements based on prior cases. You can follow rules, or you can think. The first kidney doctor (who I saw multiple times) never bothered to actually think.

Years ago, in the last AI BS movement of the 1980’s, rule-based systems were all the rage. Doctors were interviewed and rules were extracted from them and then computers were given these rules. Suddenly there would be ‘expert systems’ and they would rule the world. VC’s dove in head first.

I responded to this expert system nonsense with the idea of case-based reasoning. I said that people reason from past experience, and they do not use rules. (A doctor can glibly give you a rule when asked, but that doesn’t mean that they use that rule in decision making. People are notoriously bad at understanding how their own minds work.). 

You want a doctor who has seen a lot of cases similar to yours and can do what that nurse did: recognize something by really looking at the patient. The rule-based systems that caused the AI winter of the 1980’s and early 1990’s were promising to do something that people don’t do: to reason from rules. Now, modern day “AI” is proposing that it can reason from massive amounts of data that the computer really doesn’t understand (just like my NYC Top Doctor did).

Case-based reasoning proposes that people store and index cases based on many factors and then get reminded of old cases when various factors partially match. Then, and this is the important part, they think about the prior cases more deeply and try to draw the lessons that they learned from the earlier cases to reason from.

We had some success at building case-based reasoning programs and many others are still doing that, but when the funding dried up this became more difficult. This loss has been magnified by the current “AI” which has no way of reasoning from experience and can only promise conclusions based on data it really doesn’t understand. The current AI and medical programs would have had me dying as well.  

Dr. Radhakrishnan did something very weird. He asked and he listened carefully to my answers. Until computers can do that they will not replace human doctors (or anyone else who needs to think actually.)

Now, of course, I believe in AI. I worked in it my whole life. But the current AI fad promoted by the media and backed by VC’s can only lead to the very thing that people are afraid of: dumb computers replacing thinking people.  

Do I think a computer could ever make a good diagnosis? I think they could, after thousands of cases have been analyzed and indexed so that they pop up at just the right moment, first to help a doctor make a decision, and then  after we are confident that our case base is deep and that the cases has been indexed properly, to actually make that decision if no doctor is available.  But, this isn’t being worked on at all (well, I still get to work on it from time to time) because of the AI winter of the 80’s.

So, for now, we need to stop thinking AI will do anything important and ask instead if an algorithm might help us supply better data to doctors, (Of course, this still wouldn't  have helped in my case.) The algorithms need to be seen as data analytics not as “AI.”  In other words, current AI is only worthwhile if it can help people make better decisions.

I would love to work on building the AI doctor that is based on reasoning from cases, but alas, there is still no funding for that.(Too hard. No quick money to be made by investors.)

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Please stop delivering content (and stop saying "AI" while you are at it)

A friend and colleague, Donald Clark just published a blog about how AI will help deliver more content: 

He wants content to be created automatically so that it can be created quickly and then delivered. But why is that even worth thinking about? AI, at least as I understand it after having worked on it for 50 years, is about getting a computer to be able to discern what knowledge is relevant  based on analysis of the situation at hand. AI is not, nor should not be, about gathering words that the computer  doesn't understand, and then telling them to you. We can use AI to find information just in time based on analysis and understanding of what a user is trying to accomplish, and then determining what knowledge would help.  That is the kind of AI worth doing for education.  Tell me what I need to know because you (the computer) realize what I need to know that right now.

But the real problem with his proposal is the very idea of the “delivery of content" in the first place. I never liked the metaphor that is in common use about delivery of content. But, now, I am concerned that this idea is totally out of control.

We need to deliver content shorter and faster

We should use AI to deliver content

Presenters need to be more effective in delivering content

Last I heard, content delivery was an issue for internet service providers, or newspaper deliverers, or television broadcasters, to worry about.  I turn on the TV or the computer and content is delivered. Wonderful.

But the notion of content delivery as a mechanism in education is simply wrong.

Where did the idea of content delivery as education come from? The Romans are to blame for what we do in education. They were specialists in content delivery. The education system we have in place today comes from the Roman education system which was deigned to train orators in the Forum. Talk about content delivery!. Citizens competed with each other for whom could deliver content the best. They trained for doing that by the studying the Artes Liberales. Why learn literature or philosophy? So you can quote it when speaking in the Forum. Romans were very impressed by good speeches. And so, today, we have lectures and content delivery and an education system which is barely different from the one the Romans employed. Mathematics? It is in schools today because if you were a Roman who was speaking about land use, you needed to be able to make calculations about acreage.  

Things have changed since Roman times of course. 

Really? Not so much.

Why does anyone think lecturing is an effective teaching method?  Actually, I am not really sure they really do.  Most people couldn't even name a lecture they heard ten years earlier much less can they recall it’s content. Lectures exist because they are seen as being cost effective.  Professors like to give them because they like hearing themselves speak.  And MOOCs? Don’t get me started.

Classrooms exist to enable lecturing. But, today, we have new technology available. So, should we use it to more effectively deliver more content?   

Why should you use technology to deliver content when content delivery is a wrong-headed idea in the first place?  

What should the role of AI in education? To answer this we need to go back to the Ancient Greeks. 

Real learning, as Plato pointed out, is done while doing, followed by lots of practice, New technologies can easily enable doing. We should be thinking about how to encourage students to be trying things out, as opposed to being receptacles for delivered content. Real teaching must be done Socratically. We  should never be telling anyone anything. (“What do you think the answer is? How would go about finding out? Try it.”)

We need to hear about something just in time. Friends say things to you when what they feel that what they are about to say fits in with what was being talked about or they recognize that some missing knowledge would help you do what you want to do.  This is what good parenting looks like as well and it should be what good education looks like.

Education is not about content delivery but about helping people try new things out.  We need more air flight simulators (but they should be able to help you when you are having trouble.)  

We need to stop delivering content and start enabling experiences mediated by experts just in time.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

In 1995 I posted the Student's Bill of Rights. What has changed?

More than 20 years ago I wrote something called The Students Bill of Rights. Harold Jarche tweeted it to someone yesterday and I realized it was still available online after all these years. I looked at the list and got very sad. What has changed in that period of time? Here is the list:

  1. No student should have to take a multiple choice test or fill in the blanks test

Something has changed in this area. Things have gotten worse. Now we have Common Core tests, and PISA tests, and every school being judged on how their students do on these tests. (It is a rare adult who could pass any of them.)

2. No student should have to learn something that fails to relate to a skill that is likely to be required after school.

No good news here. We still teach phylla, balancing chemical equations, and the Quadratic Formula. The fact that almost no adult ever uses this hardly seems to matter to anyone in charge.

3. No student should be required to memorize anything that is likely to be will be forgotten in six months.

No change here. Students invariably forget what they learn in school within six months. You cannot recall knowledge without constant practice that uses that knowledge. Since most of what we learn in high school we do not use later, it is mostly forgotten.

4. No student should be required to take a course where the goals of that course do not relate to the goals of the student.

Good luck with changing this. Common Core and Ivy League admissions standards have taken all choice out of the hands of the student. Don’t want to take algebra? Too bad. Not interested in History? We don’t care. Now we have added coding to that list, which is almost certainly something hardly anyone will have to do in real life.

5. No student should have to spend time passively watching or listening to someone unless there is a longer period that is devoted to doing something related to what was heard or seen.

This has simply gotten worse. Thank to MOOCs there are now more people promoting lectures.   “Online” education mostly involves listening, and reading, and answering questions. Doing is less important in school now than it was 20 years ago and it wasn’t very important then. We used to teach trade related things in school, for example. Now that everyone has to go to college, good luck with finding an electrician.

6. No student should have to jump through arbitrary  hoops decided upon by a teacher or a school system.

No change. Things are simply worse than ever in that regard. Personalized learning which should mean we will help you learn what you want to learn, really means we will keep hammering on you in order to make sure you pass the test.

7. No student should be required to continue to study something that he or she has already mastered.

There has been some change here. Mastery learning is an accepted idea and some schools are allowing students to show they have mastered something and then allow them to push on after that. But, unfortunately that mastery is usually demonstrated by a multiple choice test.

8. No student should be required to learn something unless there is the possibility of that student being able to experiment in school with what he or she has learned.

We rarely let students go out on their own to try things, which is sad because in the age of sophisticated computers they could go out and try things without leaving school. But the idea of allowing students to experiment (by that I do not mean running an experiment where it is already known how it turns out) is rarely tried.

9. No student should be barred from engaging in activities that interest him or her because  of some breadth requirements defined by the school.

Why does a college require Art History of all students? Real reason: because they don’t want to have to fire the art history faculty because no one is interested in the courses they teach. So their courses are required. My son was prevent from taking transportation related course (which was, and is, his main interest) by Columbia University because they required that he take something called ArtHum. I told him to blow it off and he got way with it, but this isn’t always easy to do. Breadth requirements are always about making sure that there are students for faculty to each so that they can retain their jobs.

10. No student should be placed in the situation of having to air his or her views on a subject where the opposing view is not also well represented.

Arguing and defending one’s ideas is something one could, and should, learn in school. But there is almost  always a right answer that the teacher believes in, or the school system believes in, or that the other kids will try to enforce. School should be a place where you can say what you want without penalty. If anything, this situation has gotten worse with the advent of safe spaces and political correctness.

School is all about marching in step rather than about self discovery. This is very sad. The enforcers of this in the U.S. are the Ivy League colleges. They define what every student must take in high school and continue with that rigidity through the first few years of college. Freedom to learn what you want, when you want, is what school should be about, but it simply isn't easy to find places that allow that.

Online education, conceived correctly, can allow students to choose from any number of things that can be learned by doing. But, professors do not want change. They like not having to really work at teaching.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Meghan Markle's Big Test

I was amused by the news that Meghan Markle needs to take a UK citizenship test in order to marry  her Prince.   The NY Times printed one for us so we could know what she had to learn:

Here are my favorite questions. I like them because  I don't know the answers to them.  I believe they are beyond idiotic and in no way a test of whether is one is fit to be a citizen:

The Union Jack contains which cross?
St. George’s
St. Peter’s
St. John’s
St. Thomas's

How long did the Hundred Years War actually last?
99 years
116 years
200 years
75 years

Which is not a cricket term?
Maiden over
Sticky wicket
Virgin bat
Bowled a googly

Who built the Tower of London?
Dame Zaha Hadid
William the Conqueror
Sir Norman Foster
Lancelot “Capability” Brown

The Butler Act of 1944 did what?
Enshrined into law the rights of butlers to have first pick of a cottage on the land of their employers upon retirement
Establish a lifetime pension for servants of the monarchy
Provided free education for servants’ children
Provided free secondary school education for all children in England and Wales

Where was Shakespeare born?
Essex, England
Gloucestershire, England
Stratford-upon-Avon, England
Manchester, England

The British Royal Navy fought the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 against:
The combined French and Spanish navies

Why do Britons eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday?

To begin the new season of “The Great British Bake Off”
To honor Ireland
To use up all the eggs, milk and fat in the home before fasting for Lent
To prepare for marathons

The distance between John O’Groats on the north coast of Scotland and Land’s End in the southwest of England is:
870 miles
1,000 miles
650 miles
999 miles

What did the Chartists campaign for in the 1800s?
Women’s right to vote
The right to vote for 18-year-olds
To raise the voting age to 21
The right to vote for all men, including those from the working class

What’s not true about British television?
U.K. households need a TV license to watch live TV, even on a computer or smartphone
You can be fined up to 1,000 pounds if you watch live TV without a license
Blind people get a 50 percent discount for a TV license
The BBC is the second-largest broadcaster in the world

In the 1960s, when a woman got married, it was not unusual for:
The church to demand she no longer work
Her employer to cut her wages
Her employer to shower her with maternity pay and child-care vouchers
Her employer to ask her to quit her job

Of course I am not British but I have spent a fair amount of time in the U.K. Oddly none of this ever came up. Just to be clear, we have a citizenship test in the U.S. too, which is just stupid. Here are some questions from it:

What is the "rule of law"?

A Everyone but the President must follow the law.
B Government does not have to follow the law.
C Everyone must follow the law.
D All laws must be the same in every state.

What is one thing Benjamin Franklin is famous for?

A youngest member of the Constitutional Convention
B inventor of the airplane
C third president of the United States
D U.S. diplomat

The House of Representatives has how many voting members?

A four hundred thirty-five (435) 
B four hundred forty-one (441)
C two hundred (200)
D one hundred (100)

What ocean is on the East Coast of the United States?
A Atlantic Ocean
B Indian Ocean
C Pacific Ocean
D Arctic Ocean

What territory did the United States buy from France in 1803?

A the Louisiana Territory
B Alaska
C Hawaii
D Quebec

I happen to be staring at the above mentioned ocean as I write this. I know its name, so I could pass the test, but how is that something that indicates that I am a good citizen of the U.S.? Wouldn't the real questions be whether I was willing to help my country if called upon to do so, and if I am good local citizen, a good neighbor for example, someone willing to help others in their time of need? I am rather sure that terrorists know the name of the oceans bordering the U.S. I am also quite sure that not knowing the number of representatives in the House means absolutely nothing with respect to being a good citizen.

So what are they really asking Meghan Markle to do? First they are asking her to make up for the fact that she didn't study British history in high school. What did she miss out on by growing up in the U.S.? Here are thing she surely missed out on learning:

1.Who the chartists were

I had no idea. Then I did something radical. I Googled it. Now I know. Except I have already forgotten it because I don’t care.

2. The distance between someplace in the U.K. to another place in the U.K.

I will not Google that. How could that possibly matter to me (or to Meghan)?

3. Who built the Tower of London.

I have been there are few times so I guess some tour guide mentioned it, but here again I don’t care. Should Meghan care?

Now, that is the real question. I can well see that the British might care that Meghan know a great deal about the new country she will be living in and representing. The questions in this test might actually matter to her in her new life. But to every immigrant wanting to become a British citizen? That makes no sense at all.

Yes, we have school. And school is about indoctrination. So what the demand that she pass this test is really about is that it would look funny if she didn’t know the stuff that every British school child has had to memorize.

It does make sense for her to learn some British history. And certainly she needs to know that she will need a license for her TV in the U.K. because surely that will be her responsibility in her new castle.

Of course, the real question is that if you are going to make people take a citizenship test, which makes no sense, but governments are rarely trying to make sense, what should be on it? Here are some suggestions.

  1. Questions about empathy for others
  2. Questions about one’s willingness to sacrifice for others
  3. Questions about one’s responsibilities in society
  4. Questions about one’s country’s responsibilities in the world 
  5. Questions about what a citizen can do to take action on things that he or she cares about.
  6. Questions about one’s civil rights and protections offered by the government .

There are things citizens should know about their new country. But these tests are pure nonsense, as is every multiple choice test that has ever been created. In real life we don’t take quizzes. As I have said before, the only government agency that gets it about tests is the bureau that issues drivers licenses and they only half get it. They have two tests. One that is completely idiotic, and another that actually tests to see if you can drive. 

The time has come to abandon multiple choice tests in every area of life, forever. Put people in situations (in simulation, or in real life) and see if they can do it.  No one needs to know how long the Hundred Year War lasted.