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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Even a 7 year old knows how to re-design first grade

I have been thinking about what we will do in our new Alternative Learning Places in first grade. I was talking with someone who may work with us on this and she in turn asked her 7 year old nephew what projects he would like to in school and what he thought he might learn from those projects. Here is some of what he suggested:

1. Model rocket
How far can we shoot it? How do we measure height? How do we measure distance? How fast is it going?

2. Rubberband Model airplane out of wood
How can we get it to fly more than 17 yards in the sky? What happens if we take off wings, wheels, back wings? Can the stick fly without wings?

3. How high can we build a building? With wheels so we can move it everywhere when we want to.

5. Model truck
How much can the truck carry? How far can it go with a lot of weight in it.

6. Money
How sell and buy things and count money.

7. Build robots that walk until they run out of battery. See how many miles they can go.

8. Make a remote control airplane or helicopter.

9. Build a catapult.

11. Make a model sail boat, remote control moves the flag to change directions in the wind.

12. Map & Compass to find a treasure inside and outside

So, I guess the message is that a bright seven year old has a better idea of what a good first grade curriculum would be than does any Education Department in any State.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Hana reminded me that Milo will have to go to school soon

Milo will enter first grade in September 2011.

I find this news so frightening I hardly know where to start. It is time for me to start building an alternative. This is the plan. We will construct an on line First Grade curriculum. What we will build is actually a teacher's guide on what to do and how to do it. We will not be building a school at all. It will be an Alternative Learning Place (ALP), housed wherever we can find the space. We will build many ALPs but the first one will be for MIlo so I have started to plan a curriculum for him. We plan on having 12 boys in each ALP with a teacher. The ALP day will focus around projects and activities and will, of course, all be learning by doing. Here are the activities I am thinking about right now:

First Grade Activities (all of which focus on reading, writing, speaking, arithmetic, and working with others, in context)

Robot building
Airplane building
Bridge Building
Kite Flying
City Planning
Food Preparation
Map Drawing
Football, Basketball, Soccer, and Baseball
Newsletter Writing
Computer Use
Diagnosis of Illness and Treatment
Spanish language
Movie Making
Trip Planning

We will build other activities for kids with other interests than these, including ones for girls. They will be located in places where the private school tuition is prohibitively expensive and the public schools are considered unusable. New York, Chicago, Washington D.C. and South Florida are my first thoughts. If you have a 4 or 5 year old and are thinking about 2011, write to me. We will have to charge tuition I am afraid but should be able to charge a lot less than the fancy private schools.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

what college should I go to? (The concept of a “hot college.”)

The Daily Beast posted a list of “hot colleges” the other day which reminded me of exactly how insane this country has become about going to college. It is actually quite difficult to choose what college to attend. But, as a retired professor I find the concept of a “hot college” rather amusing. I can recall, when I was working at Yale, that every now and then, Brown was determined to be hotter than Yale. It was hard to fathom what this might mean. We had the same faculty we had the previous year, more or less, as did Brown. The quality of students was more or less the same at both schools. The campus hadn’t changed. How did Brown get hot, and then, later, get less hot?

When I was working at Northwestern, one year we were suddenly “hot.” This time I knew why. Our football team had played in the Rose Bowl the year before. This is, of course, a very clever way to choose a college – by examining the quality of its football team.

As a professor one is aware of other faculty in one’s field and in allied fields all across the world. Ask any professor about another university and he will judge the quality of that school by the quality of the faculty he knows or has heard of who teach there. This is not a bad measure, although it is an idiosyncratic one. Thus, I was surprised to find, on the Daily Beast’s top 15 list, some schools that I had either never heard of or certainly could not name a single faculty member there, namely: Elon University, University of Georgia, Washington and Lee, Ohio Wesleyan, University of St. Andrews.

Now, I have no ability to judge the quality of these schools, nor do I have any interest in disparaging them. I am concerned instead with the folly surrounding college entrance and college choice. So with that in mind what makes these schools “hot?”

According to the Daily Beast:

Elon is hot because: “Elon has gone out of its way to recruit applicants interested in the sciences by luring them with the possibility of undergraduate research,”

Ohio Wesleyan University is hot because: “Loren Pope’s called OW, “one of the best academic bargains in the country.”

University of St. Andrews is hot because: “More than a third of the students at St. Andrews’ come from abroad, and one academic year’s fees total less than $25,000.”

Washington and Lee is hot because: “funds went to establishing the merit-based Johnson Scholarships, which promise a full ride to about one-tenth of freshmen each year.”

University of Georgia is hot because: “$2.9 billion in aid has been meted out to students in the past 15 years.”

Clearly hotness has something to do with price, but that doesn’t explain why any state university isn’t considered hot in comparison to any private university since they are far cheaper and often quite good. And that certainly wouldn’t explain why Brown was hotter than Yale every now and again.

I found “being able to do undergraduate research” to be the funniest explanation of hotness. Why is that important exactly? And if it is important to a student, wouldn’t that be the kind of student who ought to attend a research university?

College counselors, the media, and the general paranoia about college that runs through the high schools these days, has made college selection a complex and frightening busyness. So here, without regard to “hotness” I will make a few points about how to choose a college.

1. Don’t put yourself in debt to go to college. Price does matter. If you can’t afford Yale, don’t attend Yale.
2. Know what a college actually offers. Attend a research university because you think you might want to do research in later life. A list of the top 50 research universities can be found in U.S. News and World Report. They are mostly the extended Ivies and the important state Universities. If you aren’t interested in research go somewhere else. I know that Yale is a nice brand name. If you want a brand name, go there, But there are plenty of places that will educate you as well.
3. Know what you want to be educated in. Do not go to college with no idea of what you want to learn about or are interested in doing later on. If you do that you will major in “sex and drugs and rock and roll” like everyone else and you will waste your time and your parent’s money. You can always put off college until you do know what you are interested in learning.
4. When you think you know what you want to learn find out if the people who are good at what you want to do actually teach that at the place you want to go. People say that schools are “good schools” without having a clue what the criteria might be. What is good for you may not be good for the next guy. You must know what the school is good at teaching. Find out.
5. Choose a place that looks like you. Visit. See what the students look like. They differ from place to place for many reasons. Find out where you feel comfortable.

Do not go to college because everyone you know is going to college. Go with a purpose. And -- avoid “hot schools.”

Let the parents vote for their favorite curriculum

There was article in the Huffington Post today headlined: "Merry Hyatt, Tea Party Patriot, Wants Mandatory Christmas Carols In Public Schools". Apparently she has proposed an initiative to the California Legislature that "would require schools to provide children the opportunity to listen to or perform Christmas carols, and would subject the schools to litigation if the rule isn't followed."

Now you might think I would be against this, but I love the concept. Let's determine the school curriculum by having the public suggest stuff that they like a lot and make all the kids do it. We could make all kids watch TV because the public likes doing that. We could have kids read magazines about movie star's lives because many parents like doing that. We could have a going to Burger King curriculum because lots of people like doing that.

Perhaps this is the way we can finally get rid of algebra, chemistry, history, and the other nonsense they teach in school. Let's let the public vote on their favorite activities and we can have kids do those all day.

Christmas Carols instead of algebra. It works for me.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Alex Trebek: hero of vocabulary preparation

I was waiting for a football game to come on TV and there was Alex Trebek selling a vocabulary building software program. It was one of those half hour infomericals which was packed with the most amazing garbage about education ever assembled in one half hour. It seems that the company he was touting, Wordsmart, was founded by a "world renowned educator" named David A. Kay. I thought I knew all the world renowned educators. Even google seems to have missed this guy. He sells a piece of software that will not only get your kids great SAT scores and get them into Harvard, but also guarantees (not really, they just make it sound that way) them a high paying job. (This last nugget is based on the idea that Harvard graduates make more money on average than Joe Schmoe.) And will this all be done by building your child's vocabulary. And why is it important to build your child's vocabulary? Because people who succeed have large vocabularies.


I guess people must believe this nonsense so I checked to see what the software did. Predictably, it tells you a word and than asks you some multiple choice questions about it. It is has many ways of doing this but drill and practice is just drill and practice by any other name. They are making enough money on this to be able to buy half hour spots on national TV. (And they are able to buy Alex Trebek!)

Now, I assume that most of my regular readers would know why this is nonsense, but in case you happened onto this site randomly, here is the point. Because successul people have large vocabularies it does not mean that if you have a large vocabulary you will become successful. Vocabularies are acquired quite naturally by speaking to people and by writing to people and by reading by otherwise interacting verbally with people who have vocabularies a little larger than one's own. This is how we learn words naturally.

This is pretty much the only way to acquire a large vocabulary. You can try to memorize the dictionary if you like, which is more or less what this software is about, but if you don't use the words regularly you will forget them.

Another piece of nonsense brought to you by those wonderful folks who believe that testing and education are the same thing.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Don't worry. Mr. Obama will fix the stupidity problem with more math and science

From today's Chronicle of Higher Education, just in time, we have the Obama administration deciding that:

Corporate donors encouraged by the Obama administration will spend at least $260-million over the next four years to help improve student achievement in mathematics and science through specially designed television programs and video games.

The plan, announced today by President Obama, will include new television programming fromSesame Street and Discovery Communications, as well as video games developed by Sony and other members of the Entertainment Software Association.

Sounds like a plan: get the voters who can't think (as illustrated below) to be able to think by teaching math and science to them. It's just that they didn't take enough algebra. That's why they can't explain why they like Sarah Palin.

The product of our education system looks like this..

Does anyone wonder why politicians like voters to stay stupid?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Duncan talks eloquently and kids lose

While the testing companies make great profits, the nation’s newspapers, having a vested interest in those profits, tout testing as the country’s salvation. The most visible touter is, of course Secretary of Education Duncan, who gives eloquent speeches that are, of course, printed in the Washington Post (who owns Kaplan Testing) . Here is an excerpt from one of them given in September, together with my comments:

Let’s build a law that respects the honored, noble status of educators – who should be valued as skilled professionals rather than mere practitioners and compensated accordingly. 

Duncan is saying that teachers are wonderful people so therefore it follows that No Child Left Behind is a great law.

Let us end the culture of blame, self-interest and disrespect that has demeaned the field of education. Instead, let’s encourage, recognize, and reward excellence in teaching and be honest with each other about its absence.

Then he says that we should like teachers a lot because they will help raise test scores.

Let us build a law that demands real accountability tied to growth and gain in the classroom – rather than utopian goals – a law that encourages educators to work with children at every level – and not just the ones near the middle who can be lifted over the bar of proficiency with minimal effort. That’s not education. That’s game-playing tied to bad tests with the wrong goals. 

Then he says there should be accountability which is the code word for testing that makes it sound like it doesn’t mean that number 2 pencils and bubble sheets are what education will be all about.

Let us build a law that discourages a narrowing of curriculum and promotes a well-rounded education that draws children into sciences and history, languages and the arts in order to build a society distinguished by both intellectual and economic prowess.

Then he says that the curriculum should be exactly what it always has been and no other ideas will be accepted.

Let us build a law that brings equity and opportunity to those who are economically disadvantaged, or challenged by disabilities or background – a law that finally responds to King’s inspiring call for equality and justice from the Birmingham jail and the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Next he argues that black people should have good schools. Does anyone disagree with that? What is his plan? More testing.

Let us build an education law that is worthy of a great nation – a law that our children and their children will point to as a decisive moment in America’s history – a law that inspires a new generation of young people to go into teaching – and inspires all America to shoulder responsibility for building a new foundation of growth and possibility.

I ask all of us here today – and in school buildings and communities across America -- to roll up our sleeves and work together and get beyond differences of party, politics and philosophy.

Next he argues that a good education law would encourage good people to become teachers. While that is true, he certainly isn’t proposing such a law.

Let us finally and fully devote ourselves to meeting the promises embedded in our founding documents – of equality, opportunity, liberty – and above all -- the pursuit of happiness.

More than any other issue, education is the civil rights issue of our generation and it can’t wait -- because tomorrow won’t wait – the world won’t wait – and our children won’t wait.

Then he equates education with civil rights, which means mostly that he is looking to woo the black vote.

Impressively said. Duncan can sure talk. But the speech means nothing and flies in the face of reality. This is all a justification for continuing the policies of the Bush administration in education. Why would Obama want to do the same thing as Bush did especially when he campaigned against No Child Left Behind as I pointed out earlier? The answer is simple. There has been lots of money invested in testing by powerful players that Obama doesn't want to offend. Sadly, the kids are no one’s main concern.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

We voted for change (in education) remember that Mr. Obama?

Here is a piece from then Senator Obama’s education speech given during his campaign in Dayton Ohio in 2008:

We will help schools integrate technology into their curriculum so we can make sure public school students are fluent in the digital language of the 21st century economy. We'll teach our students not only math and science, but teamwork and critical thinking and communication skills, because that's how we'll make sure they're prepared for today's workplace.

Some advisor of his had read my writings obviously and was quoting me on that one. I usually say reasoning and not critical thinking, but this is taken from my book Dynamic Memory Revisited, Cambridge University Press, 1999:

Learning to communicate, function with others, and reason, are the most important parts of any curriculum

I talk about this constantly and am quoted about it constantly:

And what has the President actually done? Zero. Zip. Nada.

He said in that same speech:

And don't tell us that the only way to teach a child is to spend most of the year preparing him to fill in a few bubbles on a standardized test. I don't want teachers to be teaching to the test. I don't want them uninspired and I don't want our students uninspired.

Uh huh. Did he change No Child Left Behind? No. Of course not. Testing dominates education as much as it ever did.

We are killing off anther generation of students Mr. Obama.

Do something.

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?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

George Washington one more time

I happened on an article in Huffington Post written by someone named Schweitzer who is listed as “having served at the White House during the Clinton Administration as Assistant Director for International Affairs in the Office of Science and Technology Policy.” Here is a piece of what he said:

“The health care debate cannot be understood in historic context because many Americans have never heard of Thomas Jefferson. Extrapolating from state surveys, only 14% of American high school students can name who wrote the Declaration of Independence. Nearly 75% do not know that George Washington was our first president… We can say that our educational system has failed when the vast majority of American students do not know enough to pass an exam to qualify as American citizens.”


First let’s talk about why we have such a failed system. Could it be the policies of Presidents like Clinton, who pursued a policy of never offending the teacher’s unions by doing anything threatening to them like changing the curriculum?

Or, could it be that fools like you define education in terms of random facts you wish everyone knew? The problem is not that people don’t know who Thomas Jefferson was. If citizens knew who he was would that mean that they can now think clearly and not be Influenced by all the special interests who are trying to tell them what to think? If they knew who George Washington was, what exactly would they know about him? That he could never tell a lie? -- obviously untrue. That he was a brilliant general? Doubtful. That he owned 300 slaves? Not usually mentioned. That he married a rich woman probably so he could get her land? Nah. You are upset because our students don’t know our national myths and some random facts.

I am upset that people can’t think clearly. Surely this is the problem with our so–called national debate on health care. Surely the schools could address this issue. Nah, it would mean giving up on tests that see if students can memorize a right answer.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Children can read any book they want. (Really?)

The New York Times, in yet another of its front page articles extolling improvements in education is very excited that: “Starting this fall, the school district in Chappaqua, N.Y., is setting aside 40 minutes every other day for all sixth, seventh and eighth graders to read books of their own choosing.”

Woo hoo!

You mean occasionally they will allow children to do something that they are actually interested in doing in school?

Not so fast.

Will students be able to bring in Popular Mechanics or even the New York Times? No, of course not. They will choose books approved by teachers. But, even this appalls the Times approved Bush appointee Diane Ravitch, who is always on the side of everything backward in education. She worries that no “child is going to pick up Moby Dick.”


The Times goes on to say that: “In the method familiar to generations of students, an entire class reads a novel — often a classic — together to draw out the themes and study literary craft. That tradition, proponents say, builds a shared literary culture among students, exposes all readers to works of quality and complexity and is the best way to prepare students for standardized tests.”

It didn’t take them long did it? Yea tests.

This is just more baloney intended to make the public feel like things are getting better in schools when In fact things are so bad that no one is happy (except maybe Diane Ravitch.) You can’t allow real choice in school because then you can’t test it to see what kids have done.

I once built a program meant to get kids to learn the geography of the U.S without really trying, as they searched around the country for stuff they were interested in. It worked quite well. Kids loved it and they learned geography.

Nope. Rejected. Why?

Because some students might go to California and others might go to New York. How would we test them? As soon as the tests appear innovation goes out the window. You mean kids would learn different stuff? Omigod!

In any case, this “choose what to read program” is an illusion. It is better than being force fed Moby Dick for sure but what it is the real goal? The Times says; “Letting students choose their own books, they say, can help to build a lifelong love of reading.”

That is the goal. Making kids read a lot in the hope that some of them will like it. Same as the math goal of shoving algebra down their throats in case any one likes it. Kids rarely like what you make them do, or am I the only who has noticed that?

Can you live a long and happy life without having a love of literature? I think so. It is important to learn to read but that does not mean, by any means, that one needs to read “literature.” If it isn’t obvious to people by now, literature will soon be ancient history anyway. While humans have always told stories and always learned from them, they have not always had “literature.” Novels have become common place for a very brief moment in human history and are now clearly being replaced by television and movies (for better or for worse, that is what is happening.)

Teachers and politicians hate this of course. What I hate is that the idea of discussing life choices and issues in getting along in this world, which is a positive benefit of discussing literature, can only be done by reading Moby Dick according to the experts. There are any other ways to do learn to think about life.

We have, as a society, lost the forest for the trees. While we could be teaching deeply about why they do what they do, instead we are teaching them to pass tests. We insist that they learn what was fashionable for the elite to learn a century ago. And we torture them and wonder why they drop out. Moby Dick indeed!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The "myth" of educational reform

The Obama administration is very busy bemoaning the "myths' that the general public believes about their proposed health care package. In a recent statement they mentioned myths such as: "About five out of 10 believe the federal government will become directly involved in making personal health care decisions." and "Roughly six out of 10 Americans believe taxpayers will be required to pay for abortions."

Who is to blame for the fact that the American public cannot separate truth from myth and cannot think their way out of a paper bag? Here is my best guess: the schools. The schools do not teach people how to think, how to discern truth, or how to figure out what the real agenda of talk show hosts might be. They learn algebra, and they analyze Shakespeare, and they memorize physics formulas, and still they can't think. Amazing!

Could we try teaching them to think so that they won't believe "myths?" Apparently not. Mr. Obama insists on a national curriculum and more testing on the same old crap. Rest assured Mr. President, that future Presidents will have to deal with these kinds of myths as well, because the students you will be creating will be just as incapable of thinking as the citizens that you have to deal with now on a daily basis.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Answering: “what should I go to school for?”

These days one can easily find out how people get to one’s website. My outrage column is often found via the question "what should I go to school for?" This question drives the answer seeker to my column on “why little girls shouldn’t go to school,” which is certainly not what they were looking for. (Of course, I don’t think little boys should go to school either, in case you were wondering.)

So, I thought I would attempt to answer their question since people keep asking it. The problem is that the question is ambiguous. They could be asking why go to school at all and they could be asking what should I study in school? As I have no idea which meaning predominates, I will take a shot at answering both questions. I will make the assumption that the people asking these questions are in high school and perhaps thinking about going to college

Why go to school at all?

In a society other than the one in which we live, this is a very good question. I think school, as it exists today, is a very bad idea. Still, I would be remiss in answering this question by saying drop out. Drop outs are viewed badly in our society. School is stupid, but dropping out is stupider. Why? Because, as one travels through life one accumulates a set of accomplishments. Quitting, no matter what you quit, is never a great accomplishment. Unless, of course, you quit for something better. If have a good plan that will net you something better and enable you to say I quit to start Microsoft or the equivalent, by all means quit. One learns very little of value in high school. Still the credential entitles you to a minimal amount of respect that you may need at some point. So stick it out if you can.

Now to the more important question. What should you study in high school, or more importantly, because there are more choices, in college? Let’s start with what you shouldn’t study. Study no academic subject. Do not study English, History, Math, Physics, Biology, or any of the other standard subjects that one always starts with in high school. Whoa! Did I really say that? Heresy. So, why not then?

It is important to realize that there are many myths in our society and that these myths are usually offered by people who stand to gain if people believe in them. The you must drink 8 glasses of water a day myth, for example, is offered up by companies that sell bottled water. In school the significance of studying literature, or mathematics, or history, or science, is offered up by those who teach those subjects, those who make a living testing those subjects, and more importantly by book publishers and others who have serious vested interests in selling things related to those subjects. In addition, the educated elite, having been educated in those subjects, can pooh pooh anyone who doesn’t know them and keep the high ground for themselves. If you don’t know what they know you can’t be much. This attitude has always been with us, in every society, but the subjects change. Sometimes the subject is religion, sometimes astrology, sometimes some secret knowledge that only the village elders have. These days it is literature, which certainly won’t last, mathematics, which makes hardly any sense at all in the age of computers, and history, which never made any sense since history is written by those who come out bets in the telling . Science seems to be making a big move these days. When I was young science was for geeks and those who knew it were looked down upon by the people who knew important stuff. Things change.

There is, not surprisingly, a serious lack of employment possibilities in those areas of study. So many people have been pushed to study those subjects that there is a serious oversupply of job seekers who were English majors, for example. It should not be possible to be an English major, but tell that to English professors.

So what should you go to school for? This is really an easy question to answer. First ask yourself what you really like to do in life, what you think about on a regular basis, whom you admire, and whom you wish to be? Only you can answer those questions. When you come up with answers, ask if there are jobs in that area. Be creative. Make up a job if you don’t think one exists. Ask what you need to learn to do in order to become a person who thinks about or does all day whatever it is you like to think about and do all day. Extrapolate up. If you like working on your car, maybe you would like working on airplanes or ships for example. If you like hanging out and talking, ask yourself who gets paid to do that (salesmen?). Find out where those who do what seems to be fun learned to do it. Often the answer is “on the job.” If that is the answer ask yourself how you can get a low level job in that area and work your way up. People learn by doing. Ask how you can start doing.

If you do need training to start doing what you want, find a community college that offers that kind of training. Most of all do not go to school if you have no inkling at all about what you think you would like to learn to do. Work for a while and start finding out more about the world, then ask the above questions again.

In the U.S. most people go to college immediately after high school. My experience as a professor was that those students who did something else, who went into the army, the Peace Corps, traveled around, worked for a while and such, made much better students in college. They knew why they were there. Do not go to school if the only reason you are there is to get a degree. Wrong reason. Know yourself first, then learn what you need to know that will make you become a person who you would respect.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

What is Wrong with Trying to Raise Test Scores? Five short answers.

I had the opportunity to meet with the great test score promoters in Washington but turned it down. What would be the point? The entire administration is devoted to raising test scores. I would convince no political person to change his or her view. That having been said, what could be really be wrong with testing and emphasizing test scores?

  1. Testing teaches that there are right answers. The problem is that is that in real life, the important questions don’t have answers that are clearly right or wrong. "Knowing the answer" has made school into Jeopardy. It is nice to win a game show, but important decisions are made through argumentation and force of reason not knowing the right answer.

  2. Testing teaches that some subjects are more important than others. The tests are small in number. If there were thousands to choose from, then perhaps people could get tested in fiber optics instead of history. But the system has determined which subjects are the most important. Just remember that the system made that determination in 1892. Some things have changed in the world since then. No one in Washington seems to have noticed.

  3. Testing focuses teachers on winning not teaching. Many teachers are extremely frustrated by the system they have found themselves to be a part of. They cannot afford to spend time teaching a student or getting a concept across if the issues being taught are not on the tests. They are judged on the basis of test scores. So, any rational teacher gives up teaching and becomes a kind of test preparation coach.

  4. Students learn that memorization is more important than thinking. Teaching students to reason ought to be the beginning and end of what education is about But in an answer-obsessed world, "go figure it out for yourself" or "go try it and see what happens" are replaced by more memorization. Giving kids a chance to fail helps them learn. Actively preventing failure by telling the right answer just helps kids pass tests.

  5. Innovation in education is eliminated. How can we offer new curricula and new ways of learning if no matter what we do children must pass algebra tests? The administration says science is important over and over again but since science in high school is defined by boring tests of vocabulary terms and definitions for the most part, who would be excited to learn science? If a really good scientific reasoning curriculum were created the schools could not offer it unless it helped kids pass the very same tests that that curriculum was intended to replace.

Oh. One more thing. Testing also reduces knowledge to short answers like the ones I have given here. In reality, serious argumentation is much more lengthy.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

My Transportation Policy son sends me a job announcement about Education

My son, who works in transportation policy in Washington, forwarded the following announcement to me:

Job Announcement for Executive Director
The nation's largest coalition of education associations seeks new executive director
starting January 1, 2010. The Committee for Education Funding (CEF), established in 1969, is a strong, unified voice in support of federal education funding, ranging from pre-school to postgraduate education in both public and private systems.

I wrote back saying that I was against federal funding for education and he responded that of course I was right. This is a funny thing for someone who works on funding issues in transportation to say. What is the difference between transportation and education?

Highways that don't connect to highways in other states would be a problem for the country. Airlines that followed different rules in each state would create chaos. That is why we have a federal government. Making rules about infrastructure is critical. But education is not infrastructure. States can, and should, have different rules. Farming matters in some places and managing casinos matters in another. Some states have aircraft jobs and some have marine related jobs.

The federal government, nevertheless, insists on national standards, treating everyone the same, which usually means lots of algebra and literature for some unknown reason.

The President announced $12 billion in funding for community colleges the other day. Yippee, Yahoo. Real education for real people related to real jobs.

Uh oh. Maybe he means to impose national standards on community colleges too. Please don't do that Mr. President. Community Colleges are not interstate highways.

Friday, July 10, 2009

all opinions all the time aided by technology

I read an article the other day about a 3 year old child talking on a cell phone and infuriating the doctor he was going to see by walking right past him while talking. The writer of this article was asking for people to express their opinions about it.

We live in a world where all opinions are equally valid and must be expressed.We also live in a world where children must all have cell phones and will imitate their parents who likely treat their phone call as more important than the people they are having dinner with. This is the technological world we have created. I am all for new technology of course, but at some point we need to ask software companies to start creating intelligent applications for that technology.If kids are going to play with electronic gadgets at dinner, could we at least make the software on them something that opens their minds in some way? When we build e-learning software could we try to make it better than school and not worse? When we report news constantly could we be done with Michael Jackson in something less than all day every day for weeks in every country in the world?

The fault is, of course, due to Google and Microsoft. They have plenty of smart software people whose main intention, it seems, is to beat the hell out their competitors. How about harnessing their abilities to help education?

We are heading for a time when no one talks to anyone except via technology any more. This wouldn't be so awful if they had anything of interest to say. Everyone expresses their opinion all the time. No one gets any smarter as a result. (Me too.)

Monday, June 15, 2009

Duncan and Obama are actively inhibiting education change that is meaningful

Bill Maher made an important statement last week when he criticized President Obama for failing to do much to satisfy those who had voted for him.

"But when I read about how you sat on the sidelines while bailed-out banks used the money we gave them to hire lobbyists who got Congress to stop homeowners from getting renegotiated loans, or how Congress is already giving up on healthcare reform, or how scientists say it's essential to reduce CO2 by 40% in 10 years, but your own bill calls for 4%, I say, enough with the character development, let's get on with the plot."

But Maher left out education. How is our President doing on education? His education secretary has announced plans for national standards:

"This Sunday Duncan proposed a system in which schools signing on to the standardized benchmark will benefit from a $350 million pot aimed at assisting in the development of the new test needed to measure the potentially nationalized educational standards."

He has also announced his intention to lengthen the school day and school year with the express intent of helping students prepare for tests.

Or, to put this another way. The President has so failed on education already that his failures on banking, health care, and the climate pale by comparison, He has effectively said, to people like me, who are actually trying to make real change in the schools: forget your ideas about teaching modern subjects (like scientific reasoning, medical decision making, internet startups, or how to take care of a child) because we are going to continue to ram the algebra, US history, and science facts formulas view of education down everyone's throats and will actively prevent meaningful change. And forget learning by doing. There will be none of that. There will learning by memorizing.


I asked my sources in the White House. "We are trying to get re-elected here. The voters care about test scores." That is what they said. Really.

Bill Maher, you don't realize how bad it really is.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Why students major in history and not science

My 25 year-old niece offered to drive a friend of mine to the airport. As she was leaving she returned to get a bottle of water. She said she needed to stay hydrated. I asked her is she was planning on taking the long route through the Gobi Desert. She seemed confused. I told her to look up the 8 glasses of water a day myth on the web. She is a young lady who fights big corporations with her every breath yet she had bought into the bottled water company’s campaigns to make everyone carry water with them at all times. She was truly astonished to find out she was being manipulated.

I had less success with two other college students in recent weeks, both of whom had decided to be history majors because “history teaches you everything.” Now I have nothing against history or history majors, although I suspect that are way too many of them for the available historian jobs out there. But I couldn’t help but note that these kids had been sold history in the same way that my niece had been sold water. Every liberal arts college is desperately trying to stay relevant by selling the advantages of majoring in history or English to a group of young minds who have no idea how to make these decisions. The sellers look askance at practicality and tout students into their fields because if they don’t their departments would cease to exist. If no one majored in history there would be no history departments except at the most elite and wealthy universities.

Would this be a bad thing? It is easy to assume that this would be a terrible thing. We assume this because we see universities as repositories of scholarship and wisdom. If that is indeed what they all were all would be fine. But they are primarily places where young people start the rest of their lives. I asked one of these students what she loved about history and she replied that she really was only excited about astronomy. I asked why she wasn’t majoring in that (she attends a university where should do exactly that) and she replied “what could I do with that, discover another planet?”

There was no convincing her that the path she had chosen for herself was nuts. She planned to go to law school next – because it helps you think, she said– she does not intend to be a lawyer.

Universities are doing students a disservice by perpetuating ideas of what is worth studying that are really mostly intended to keep their most irrelevant faculty member employed. Science has been marketed badly and history has been marketed well. Business is marketed (and taught) terribly. Medicine is made so annoying to study in college that we have less doctors than we need. But we have plenty of history majors. Maybe it would be a good idea if universities stopped looking out for their own needs and starting acting more on helping students make decisions that are right for them and their actual areas of interest.

Of course this won’t happen. Faculties run universities and faculties are always interested primarily in maintaining the status quo.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

AI winter, AI history, and history in general

For some reason I found myself reading an article on line about AI Winter. AI winter was a clickable term and suddenly I found myself in a Wikipedia article with that title. I read the story and discovered that Marvin Minsky and I had invented that term in 1980 to describe bad events for AI that we expected to happen due to unwarranted exuberance by venture capitalists.

I remember worrying about that, and even running a panel on it at an AI conference but I didn't remember inventing the term. The next day, as luck would have it, I found myself sitting in a small office with Marvin Minsky (and others). I asked him who invented the term AI Winter and he had no idea. We began to discuss the events of those days and the fallout from AI investments at that time and had fairly different views of what had happened.

All this reminded me of the column I posted here a couple of months back about Lamar Alexander and his insistence on making kids learn history. History is very nice as long as it is true. I wonder how he knows what is true.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

On line learning one more time

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a run a few articles on the perils of on line learning lately. It seems that students:

1. take on line courses just to get the credit

no? do tell

2. need to be prodded into having discussions on line

really? might this be because they are just trying to get a credit?

3. don't get the full value of the lecture using this medium

actually this one is beyond my sarcasm; do people really think lectures are a valid way of teaching? still?

4. have trouble forming "virtual communities"

you mean that nonsense is nonsense?

5. find that the quality of education is compromised

apparently a lecture hall of 500 students does not compromise educational quality?

and my favorite: teachers of on line courses find it a lot of work

So, let me set the record straight about on line education. It is a disaster. Why? Because the idea that every school that offers it has is that they will "put their existing courses on line." In other words they will provide the same junk they provide now but will use a method not suited for that junk. Current lecture courses work for faculty not students. Students are forced to take them and they sleep (or text) through them. They take them to get credit not because they want to and teachers like them because they are not a lot of work to produce.

But, get this, on line education will win in the end. It cannot be any other way.   This will only happen when what is offered is exciting, experiential,  and adapted to the new medium. In other words, it will happen when we re-think education and when we re-consider what it means to teach. Helping somebody do something that they want to do is the right metaphor, not forcing them to endure a set of hurdles in order to get a credit.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Why do we still have schools? Part 2

Part 2: What should we teach students?

 It is very difficult to think about replacing sacred institutions. The only way I know how to think about it is as a thought experiment. Just imagine that we live in a different world, maybe a colony in the 1st century, and ask yourself how we might educate our children in this environment pretending that schools are the one thing we cannot build for some reason. As we think about this, we need to bear in mind that we must also not assume that what we teach in schools now needs to be taught in some other way. We simply need to ask: what should one teach children? while making no assumptions that we have been teaching today is the right thing.


To put this another way, the right question to ask is what do we need to be able to do, in order to function in the world we inhabit? The next question is, of course, how would we teach children to do those things?


Now admittedly I am prejudicing the answer here by simply leaving out the word “know.” The usual question is what should children “know?” It is this question that leads crazies to make lists of things every third grader should know and allows school boards to create lists of facts students need to be tested on. So, let’s leave that word out of the discussion and see where it gets us.


A good place to start is to ask what a highly functioning adult can do and moreover has to be able to do in order to live in this world. While we ask this question the phrase “21st century skills” will not come up. Every time that phrase comes up somehow the answer turns out to include algebra and calculus and science, which, the last I heard, were 19th century skills too.


In fact let’s not talk about particular centuries at all. To see why, I want to diverge for a moment into a discussion of the maritime industry, a subject with which I have become more fascinated over the years. What did a mariner from Ancient Greece have in common with his modern counterpart in terms of abilities?


The answer is obsession with weather, ship maintenance, leadership and organization, navigation, planning, goal prioritization, and handling of emergencies.


Effective mariners from ancient times would have in common with those of today is understanding how to operate their ships, the basic laws of weather, tides, navigation and other relevant issues in the physical world, and an ability to make decisions well when circumstances are difficult. They would also have to know how to get along with fellow workers, how to manage those that report to them, as well as basic laws of commerce and defense.


In fact, the worlds they inhabit, from an educational point of view, that is from thinking about what to teach and how to teach it, would be nearly identical except for one thing: how to operate and maintain the equipment. Their ships were, of course, quite different.


So, let’s re-formulate this question that seems to haunt every modern day pundit on education (usually politicians or newspaper peoples). What are 21st century skills? can be transformed (for mariners) into what does a 21st century mariner need to be educated about that his Ancient Greek counterpart was not educated about?


The answer, it seems obvious to me, is 21st century equipment and procedures: Engines, navigation devices, particular political situations, computers and so on. But, and this is an important “but,” none of this stuff is the real issue in the education of a mariner. The real issue is decision making. What one has to make a decision about is secondary to the issue of knowing how to make a decision at all.


You can learn about a piece of equipment or a procedure by apprenticeship. Start as a helper and move on gradually to being an expert. But this is not what school emphasizes.  School typically attempts to intellectualize these subjects. Experts write books about the theory of how something works and the next we know schools are teaching that theory as a prelude to actually doing the work. Scholarship has been equated with education. You do not have to know calculus to repair an engine. You might want to know calculus to design an engine, but that is no excuse for forcing every engineer to learn it. Similarly you do not have to know theoretical physics to master the seas. Mariners do know physics of course – practical physics about load balancing for example, but they do not have to know how to derive the equations that describe it.


What I am saying here about the shipping Industry holds true for every other area of life as well. 21st century skills are no different than 1st century skills. Interestingly, Petronius, a 1st century Roman author, complained that Roman schools were

teaching “young men to grow up to be idiots, because they neither see nor hear one single thing connected with the usual circumstances of everyday life.” In other words, schools have always been about educating the elite in things that don’t matter much to anyone. This is fine as long as the elite don’t have to work.


But, today the elite has extrapolated from what it learned at Harvard and decided that every single school child needs to know the same stuff. So, they whine and complain about math scores going down without once asking why this could possible matter. Math is not a 21st century skill any more than it was a 1st century skill. Algebra is nice for those who need it and useless for those who don’t. Skill in mathematics is certainly not going to make any industrial nation more competitive with any other no matter how many times our “experts” assert that it will. One wonders how politicians can even say this junk, but they all do.




My own guess is that, apart from the fact that they all took these subjects in school (and were probably bad at them  -- you don’t become a politician or a newspaper person because you were great at calculus), there is another issue: They don’t know what else to suggest.


Thinking about the 1st century will help us figure out what the real issues are. People then and people now, had to learn how to function in the world they inhabit. This means being able to communicate, get along with others, function economically and physically, and in general reason about issues that confront them. It didn’t mean then, and doesn’t mean now, science and mathematics, at least not for 95% of the population.


How do we choose who studies the elite subjects? We don’t.


Offer choices. Stop making lists of what one must know and start putting students into situations where they can learn from experience while attempting to accomplish goals that they set out for themselves, just as people did before there were schools. Education has always been the same: learning from experience with the help from wiser mentors. School has screwed that all up and it is time to go back to basics.














Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Why do we still have schools?

People often find my blog when they ask "should I go to school?" So, today, I thought I would answer that question in depth. The answer will appear as a downloadable paper on my web site as well.

Part 1: What is the problem with school?

People get used to the institutions that have been a part of their lives. This is especially true of institutions that have been around for many generations, and of institutions whose purpose is seen as doing something worthwhile. Add into the mix that the absence of that institution in certain places around the world is always correlated with poverty and you have a situation where no one ever questions the value of that institution.

Nevertheless I will ask a heretical question: Why do we have schools? Instead of answering this question by listing all the good things that schools provide, which anyone can do, I will turn the question around: What is bad about having schools?

Competition: Why should school be a competitive event? Why do we ask how a kid is doing in school? Learning in life outside of school is not a competitive event. We learn what we choose to learn in real life.

Stress: When 6 year olds are stressed about going to school you know that something is wrong. Is learning in real life stressful? Stress can’t be helping kids learn. What kid wouldn’t happily skip school on any given day? What does this tell us about the experience?

Right answers: School teaches that there are right answers. The teacher knows them. The test makers know them. Now you have to know them. But, in real life, there are very few right answers. Life isn’t mathematics. Thinking about how to behave in a situation, planning your day or your life, plotting a strategy for your company or your country – no right answers.

Bullying and peer pressure: You wouldn’t have to have "say no to drugs and cigarettes" campaigns if kids didn’t go to school. In school there are always other kids telling you how to dress, how to act, how to be cool. Why do we want kid’s peer groups to be the true teachers of children? Being left out terrorizes children. Why do we allow this to happen by creating places that foster this behavior?

Stifling of curiosity: Isn’t it obvious that learning is really about curiosity? Adults earn about things they want to learn about. Before the age of 6, prior to school, one kid becomes a dinosaur specialist while another knows all about dog breeds. Outside of school, people drive their own learning. Schools eliminate this natural behavior.

Subjects chosen for you: Why algebra, physics, economics, and U.S. history? Because those subjects were pretty exciting to the President of Harvard in 1892. And, if you are interested in something else – psychology, business, medicine, computers, design? Too bad. Those subjects weren’t taught at Harvard in 1892. Is that nuts or what?

Classrooms: If you wanted to learn something and had the money, wouldn’t you hire someone to be your mentor, and have them be there for you while you tried out learning the new thing? Isn’t that what small children have, a parent ready to teach as needed? Classrooms make no sense as a venue for learning unless of course you want to save money and have 30 (or worse hundreds of) students be handled by one teacher. Once you have ratios like that you have to teach by talking and then hope someone was listening, so then you have to have tests. Schools cannot work as places of learning if they employ classrooms. And, of course, they pretty much all do.

Grades: Any professor can tell you that students are pretty much concerned with whether what you are telling them will be on the test and what they might do for extra credit. In other words, they want a good grade. If you tell them that 2+2=5 and it will be on the test, they will tell you that 2+2=5 if it means getting a good grade. Parents do not give grades to children and employers do not give grades to employees. They judge their work and progress for sure, but not by assigning numbers to a report card.

Certification: We all know why people attend college. They do so primarily to say they are college graduates so they can get a job or go on to a professional school. Most don’t care all that much about what hoops they have to go through. They do what they are told. Similarly, students try to get through high school so they can go on to college. As long as students are not in school to get an education, you can be pretty sure they won’t get one. Most of our graduates have learned to jump through hoops, nothing more.

Confined children: Children like to run around. Is this news to anyone? They have a difficult time sitting still and they learn by trying things out and asking questions. Of course in school, sitting still is the norm. So we have come up with this wonderful idea of ADD, i.e. drug those who won’t sit still into submission. Is the system sick or what?

Academics viewed as winners: Who are the smartest kids in school? The ones who are good at math and science of course. Why do we think that? Who knows? We just do. Those who are good at these subjects go on to be professors. So those are certainly the smartest people we have in our society. Perhaps they are. But, I can tell you from personal experience that our society doesn’t respect professors all that much, so something is wrong here.

Practical skills not valued: When I was young there were academic high schools and trade high schools. Trade high schools were for dumb kids. Academic high schools were for smart kids. We all thought this made sense. Except that are a lot of unemployed English majors and a lot of employed airplane mechanics. Where did we get the idea that education was about scholarship? This is not what Ben Franklin thought when our system was being designed, but he was outvoted.

The need to please teachers: People who succeed at school are invariably people who are good out at figuring what the teacher wants and giving it to them. In real life there is no teacher to please and these “grade grubbers” often find themselves lost. When I did graduate admissions, if a student presented an undergraduate record with all A’s I immediately rejected him. There was no way he was equally good at, or equally interested in, everything. (Except pleasing the teacher.) As a professor, I had no patience for students who thought that telling me what I just told them was the essence of academic achievement.

Self worth questioned: School is full of winners and losers. I graduated number 322 in my high school class (out of 678). Notice that I remember this. Do you think this was good for my self-esteem? Even the guy who graduated number 2 felt like a loser. In school, most everyone sees themselves as a loser. Why do we allow this to happen?

Politicians in charge: Politicians demand reform but they wouldn’t know reform if it hit them over the head. What they mean is that school should be like they remember rather than how it is now and they will work hard to get you to vote for them to give them money to restore the system to the awful state it always was in. Politicians, no matter what party, actually have no interest in education at all. An educated electorate makes campaigning much harder.

Government use of education for repression: As long as there have been governments there have been governments who wanted people to think that the government (and the country) is very good. We all recognize this tendency in dictatorships that promote the marvels of the dictator and rewrite history whenever it is convenient. When you point out that our government does the same thing you are roundly booed. We all know that the Indians were savages that Abraham Lincoln was a great President and that we are the freest country on earth. School is about teaching “truth.”

Discovery not valued: The most important things we learn we teach ourselves. This is why kids have trouble learning from their parent’s experience. They need their own experiences to ponder and to learn from. We need to try things out and see how they go. This kind of learning is not valued in school because it might lead to, heaven forbid, failure, and failure is a really bad word in school. Except failure is how we learn, which is pretty much why school doesn’t work.

Boredom ignored: Boredom is a bad thing. We drug bored kids with Ritalin so they will stop being bored. All of my best work has come when I was most bored and let my mind wander. It is odd that we keep trying to prevent this from happening with kids. Lots of TV, that’s the ticket.

Major learning by doing mechanism ignored: And last but not least, scholars from Plato to Dewey have pointed that people learn by doing. That is how we learn. Doing. Got it? Apparently not. Very little doing in schools. Unless you count filling in circles with number 2 pencils as doing.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Lamar Alexander fails to save the day (again)

I happened on C-SPAN yesterday and there was Lamar Alexander, former Secretary of Education and now a US Senator, speaking in the Senate on restoring teaching history to it "rightful place" and making sure that history was part of the NCLB act. Since he says this same stuff all the time, here is a quote from him from 2006 taken from what was pretty much the same speech:

"Just one example of how far we are from helping our children learn what they need to know. The fourth grade national report card test asked students to identify the following passage, quote, "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 are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." Students were given four choices: Constitution, Mayflower Compact, Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation. Less than half the students answered correctly that that came from the Declaration of Independence. Another question said, "Imagine that you landed in Philadelphia in the summer of 1776. Describe an important event that is happening there." Nearly half the students couldn't answer the question correctly that the Declaration of Independence was being signed."

Of course, since science and math is so very important as we all know, one wonders what history being restored to its importance does to STEM. When something comes in, something has to go out, in education. But this is not my point.

My point is that politicians never seem to get it about education. What history do students "need to know?" None actually, unless they plan on being historians or maybe senators. Now I realize this is a radical point of view, but just like math and science, history is not something anyone needs to know.

Why not?

Because knowing what happened in Philadelphia in 1776 does not in fact make you a better citizen, no matter what Alexander says. A good citizen would be one who carefully considered the issues when voting. That would mean being able to think critically and ask hard questions of politicians.

In 1776 we had a bunch of politicians who, if the present is any example, were surely voting for their own special interests. The fact that we, as a country, feel the need to make them into folk heroes does not make it one bit more likely they they were any better or worse than the current people who govern us. What Alexander is really arguing for is more indoctrination - more informing students what to think instead of teaching them how to think.

Students don't need to know any official facts. They need to know how to live their lives intelligently. It is quite obvious that schools and school reform movements do not have this as an item on their agenda. Just more cramming for tests.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The phone rings... its Milo

"I was wondering if you would like to play grandparent games with me..." says the small voice on the other end of the line.

Milo is 3 years and 4 months old. We read words for 30 minutes. You want to know how to educate children? Make it fun.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

What were your test scores Mr. Obama?

“It means treating teachers like the professionals they are while also holding them more accountable,” Mr. Obama said. “Good teachers will be rewarded with more money for improved student achievement."

Really? Is that how professionals are treated these days? Do we measure other professionals by how those they mentor do on standardized tests? Would you, Mr. Obama, like to be measured by how your staff does on standardized tests?

Treating teachers like professionals might include letting them actually teach to a student's interest and concerns rather than helping them raise their math scores.

And, while we are at it Mr. Obama, what were your scores on the SAT? Did anyone ask you that while you were campaigning? Would you have thought it was stupid if they had?

Tell me the quadratic formula Mr. Obama. Can't? Might that be because it doesn't matter in any way to know it? Stop making kids memorize nonsense and you will be treating teachers like professionals.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

More College Graduates? Say it ain't so Mr. President.

Mr. Obama has promised that by 2020, America will "once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."

Can we think about that for a minute? Why does this matter? We Americans so believe in college that we rarely ask why. I asked my students at Yale and later at Northwestern why they were in college. I heard a lot about parties, a four year vacation, going because their parents made them come, and a lot about how you need a college degree to get ahead.

I never once had anyone say they were there to learn. Never.

College offers diplomas. Education, not so much. And to the extent that colleges do offer education, a Yale English major is typically considered well educated by modern standards, what difference does it make to the country? Those English majors don't easily find careers and in bad economic times even a Yale degree may not buy you much.

I am sure what Mr. Obama meant to say was that by 2020 our population will be able to reason effectively, work well with others, and communicate well. At least that is something he quoted from me while he was campaigning. But alas, now it all about making sure those 3000 colleges we have survive regardless of whether they are turning out more productive and reasoning citizens.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Why study what we have been teaching?

When I was at Yale I occasionally did some freshman advising. I once had to advise a student who had just arrived from the LA ghetto as to what courses to take. I said to take what interested him since there were very few requirements. That is not what he wanted to hear.He asked what I had taken as a freshman. I had attended Carnegie Tech 20 years earlier than the date of this advising session. There were no choices. You took Calculus, Physics, Chemistry, Western Civ, and English Lit. No exceptions. He said that he would take those courses. I said that was absurd. He said that I was very successful and that had been how I had started so that was what he would do. And that is what he did.

I was reminded of this story when I had my little encounter with the Obama administration last week. They are about to propose spending hundreds of millions of dollars on education to ensure that we do a better job of teaching the curriculum that has been in place since 1892. Re-examining what is taught and why it is taught will not be considered because they are worried about class warfare. They don't want people saying that a new education system will be different than the one that got them to be the successes that they all are.

If Duncan, Obama (and Nick Kristof) got where they are by taking algebra and physics then we can't take that way from the next generation of students.

This argument is so stupid it is hard to know where to begin to counter it. Let me just say that not all my friends from Carnegie Tech nor from Stuyvesant High School for that matter have become great successes. And that those that have succeeded did so in spite of the mind-numbing "study for the test fact retrieval system" still in place in our schools.

I learned to think from my father, not from school. Most successful people fare well because of good parenting and good genetics not good schooling. We will always have winners of any system that is in place. School should help people live happier, more productive lives. School should not be about winning the competition. Of course, that is exactly what school is about now. What is needed desperately is to pour money into an absurd system?