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Monday, December 12, 2011

Career Choices: Please don't make me be a dentist!

I attended a family occasion the other day. I saw people from one side of my family most of whom I hadn’t seen in some years. I was introduced by my first cousin to her grandson. I was told that he was graduating college and would soon be attending dental school.

I broke out laughing.

Behind him were his two younger brothers. I asked if they would be going to dental school as well. At this point his mother chimed in that she certainly hoped so.

Now I was just sad.

Now, rest assured that I have nothing against dentists or dental school. A fine career choice I am sure. I have left out some information here. The mother of this boy is a dentist. I also left out that his father is a dentist. I also left out that his grandfather is a dentist. And, I left out that he (and I) have other cousins who are dentists as well. My uncle was dentist. His son is a dentist. His sister married a dentist. Her son is a dentist.

All these dentists are perfectly fine human beings and they all seem to be living well. It is funny to come from a family of dentists but really, so what?

At some point in the party we were all attending, as the music blasted and people danced, I saw that the young man whom I had first been introduced to had sat down next to me. He said that his grandfather had told him that I was some kind of professor and he asked me what I taught. After some chit chat I asked him if he really wanted to be a dentist.

He said that he had worked hard in college, struggling through required science courses and that it would soon all be worth it.

I asked him if had ever considered any other profession. He said ‘No.” I asked him why not and he said that there had been a lot of pressure from his family to be a dentist. I asked why and he said they had had good experiences and it had worked for them and they thought it was a great life.

I asked if there was anything else he could imagine being. He replied that he really wanted to work with people and that he liked talking to people and as he went on I got the idea that it wasn’t the teeth part of people that he was referring to.

I told him that when I taught at Yale I devoted one class every term to the subject of what the kids in the class wanted to be when they grew up. I challenged them to be something other than what their parents wanted them to be. But for the most part, the children of doctors were going to be doctors and the children of lawyers were going to be lawyers.

We don’t realize as parents how much we talk with children about what they are going to be when they grow up and how much we limit their choices by talking about the limited things we actually know about or by inadvertently putting pressure on them to look at the world in a certain way.

When I suggested that this young man not make any choice right now except simply deciding to decide all this in a few years while trying some other stuff out, he was mostly concerned about how he would explain this to his parents.

Now, usually I am writing about schooling in this column and this one is no exception. Except for my weird one day class, students at Yale got no real career counseling. They only get role models (who are all professional academics) or they get pressure from their parents, or advice from their peers about what is a hot choice right now. Why aren’t we teaching our children how to think about making career choices, or life choices for that matter? Because we are too busy teaching them calculus or macro-economics.

Governments complain about the lack of skilled workers but they don’t try to help in any way except to push more math and science courses which are irrelevant and in no way help one understand one’s career options. Calculus is not a career choice.

Schools need to start helping kids figure out what they can do in life or else the advisors will all be parents who are limited in their world view.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Jeffrey Sachs, The Stanford on line AI course point to why it is so difficult to reform education

My attention was drawn to this blog post:

which was written by a very well respected professor at Columbia University, named Jeffrey Sachs. In it, he asserts that productivity is improving in our society and he cites the following as evidence of this in education:

1. At eight on Tuesday mornings, we turn on a computer at Columbia University and join in a “global classroom” with 20 other campuses around the world. A professor or a development expert somewhere gives a talk, and many hundreds of students listen in through videoconferencing.

2. At Stanford University this fall, two computer-science professors put their courses online for students anywhere in the world; now they have an enrollment of 58,000.

I found these pieces of evidence of hopefulness astonishing in their naïveté. Of course the man is an economist and not someone who thinks much about education one would assume. But still.

I have often said the that the main problem in fixing education is professors. “We have met the enemy and it is us” applies very well to why education is so hard to reform.

Really Professor Sachs? You are excited by that fact that more people can listen to your lectures? Ask any college students what he can recall from a lecture an hour after he has listened to it and see how much he remembers and how much he simply remembers wrong. Lecturing is a completely archaic way of teaching. It exists today at top universities only people because hot shot professors at top universities (of which I was one) think that their time is better spent doing almost anything else except teaching. Talking 3 hours a week seems like a pretty good deal enabling them to go back to doing what they really like. No one learns in a lecture. If you cared about education you would stop lecturing. But you care more about research which is fine, so did I when I was a professor. But recognize that you are the problem in education and video conferencing is the solution to nothing.

Sachs makes the same point twice when he cites the Stanford course. The Stanford on line AI course has gotten a lot of media attention. AI is my field (and one of the instructors was a PhD student of a PhD student of mine.) I don’t know what is in the course and I don’t care. The media doesn’t care either, nor does Sachs. They just like the 50,000 number. What if I said that a former student of mine was a great parent and so he was now raising 50,000 children on line? Would anyone think that was a good idea? This may seems like a silly analogy unless you really think about it.

Teaching, as I point out in my new book:

is basically a one on one affair and is about opening new worlds to students and then helping them do things in that world. This will not happen in a 50,000 person course any more than it happens in a 100 person course. Lecture courses are just rites of passage that we force students to endure so they can eventually start working with a good professor in a closer relationship (at least this what happens at in a good university.) A book would do as well for this, better would be a well constructed learning by doing on line course.

But what is happening in today’s world is that the action in educational change is all about getting bigger numbers on line without trying to improve quality. Stanford is making a lot of noise with this course but nothing good can come form this.

Professors need to stop and really think about education. Of course, the problem is that they have no motivation to do so. They are well paid and having a good time. Only the students suffer.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The King of Spain, classrooms and subjects

Last week I was interviewed by phone from Spain. I was talking to authorities who were preparing a report for the King of Spain on how education might be improved in Spain. I am well known in Spain so it is not odd that they were calling me. They were certainly calling many others as well.

I started by saying that I am really radical and they said they already knew that. I then talked with them for about a half an hour about the kinds of improvements to education that I have been writing about for years in my columns and of course in my latest book:

They seemed to be enjoying talking to me and hearing what I had to say. Then, they asked one final question: “if you could just say one thing that need to be changed, what would it be?”

It is easy to imagine that they wanted a one liner for an executive summary here. I don’t think I gave them what they wanted, judging from their reaction.

I said “just eliminate classrooms.”

They audibly gasped.


First why did I say it?

Because if you eliminate classrooms everything else follows. No teacher talking to kids who aren’t listening. No tests to see if they were listening. No kids distracting other kids who are bored by what is going one. No subjects that in no way relate to the interests of the child. Instead, without a classroom you can re-invent. We can think about how individuals can learn and while doing that we would need to confront the fact that not all individuals want to learn the same things. We would have to eliminate the the “one size fits all” curriculum. We would need to create curricula that met kids interests. We would be able to let kids learn by doing instead of vainly attempting to have them learn by listening. We could eliminate academic subjects. We could make learning fun. Classrooms are never fun.

Why did they gasp?

Because they can’t do it. They knew it and I knew it. They don’t really want to fix education. They want to make schools function better. And schools have classrooms. And that my friends is the beginning and end of the problem.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Mr Obama wants big ideas? Here are 10 in education

At a fundraiser yesterday in San Francisco, President Obama said that "We have lost our ambition, our imagination, and our willingness to do the things that built the Golden Gate Bridge..."

No, Mr. President, it isn’t “we” it is you. There are plenty of good ambitious ideas out there, you just aren’t listening.

Here, off the top of my head, are ten outrageous big ideas about education. You will listen to none of them. You have considered none of them. You haven’t even tried to understand them. Yes, they sound crazy, as do all new ideas.

Ten Big Ideas In Education

1. Shut down high schools

2. Stop preparing students for college

3. Stop insisting everyone go to college

4. Re-focus colleges away from academics

5. Eliminate all testing

6. Get big business out of education

7. Make learning fun again

8. Let children choose what they want to learn about

9. Help children find mentors who will help them learn what they want to learn

10. Build on line experiences that engage students and that teach thinking skills

I have written about these ideas in more detail elsewhere and won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that a high school system designed for the elite in 1892 could not possibly be right-headed today, yet instead of changing it you are making sure that we test every students to tears to make sure they have memorized the Quadratic formula, disregarding the fact that hardly any adult actually uses it.

Re-think what you are doing in education, Mr. Obama. You have become the problem.

There are plenty of ideas out there.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Pat Tillman, truth, stories, and why our education system is the way it is

About the last thing I am likely to do in this space is to write about a movie. But, as it happened, I chanced upon a movie on TV in which I had no interest. Yet it had an impact on me anyway. The movie is “The Tillman Story” which would mean nothing to non-U.S. people and maybe very little to many in the U.S. as well. Pat Tillman was a U.S. football star who suddenly left the National Football League and his millions of dollars of salary to enlist to fight in Iraq after 2001.

The politicians in Washington loved this story since it justified the “all American hero fighting for his country” story that Bush and his cronies were trying to sell at the time. They played the story up in all the media. Tillman was killed in Afghanistan after some years and Bush and his buddies were busy touting the “our hero died for his country” line they love so much. The problem was that after some investigation on the part of Tillman’s family, it seems he wasn’t killed while fighting the enemy. Instead he was killed by U.S. troops who just seemed to be having fun shooting anything that moved one day.

The movie details how the family fought back and uncovered the cover up that the Army had created to obscure what really happened. The movie is unkind to the Army, but, as someone who has worked with the Army for a long time, I was skeptical that the Army would be that involved in telling such an elaborate lie. Eventually the movie points the finger at Donald Rumsfeld who appears to have been calling the shots and makes it clear that George W. Bush would have had to have been involved as well.

My first reaction was that it says something that they were allowed to make this movie at all. A repressive government doesn't let you make anti-government movies. The U.S. government may have many faults, but freedom of speech still exists here.

But then, my thoughts turned to the real subjects that always interest me which are stories, and the general stupidity of the American public.

The lengths to which Bush and friends went to tell the Tillman story that they wanted to tell and to cover up the real story are well documented in this film. Why? Why lie, cover up, misinform, hush people up, manipulate the media, and otherwise be hysterical about the fact that a soldier was killed by his own troops? This happens all the time. It is called the fog of war.

The answer is that stories matter. Politicians love to tell stories and the stories they tell often have little relation to the truth. They get away with this because stories are simple and easy to understand. The truth is often much more complex.

This points to one reason why politicians all seem to agree on testing and generally making our education system about memorization of facts (otherwise known as “official stories.”) What we want students to learn is what the true stories are. We want them to know the facts about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and Pat Tillman. We really don't care if those facts are true. In all nations, the job of education is the telling of official government-approved stories about everything from history to economics to how to be a success and why to fight for your country. No one cares about the truth all that much. They just care about having good stories to tell.

We are all susceptible to a good story. (That is why we like to watch movies in the first place.) It is not just poorly educated who like simple stories. We all do. It is part of being human. But how do we learn to determine if a story is true?

We wouldn’t have known the truth about Pat Tillman if it hadn’t been for his family being smarter than your average family and really wanting to know what happened. They were capable of separating truth from fiction. But this is a skill which we are more or less explicitly taught not to do in our schools.

What can be done? Ask students to think instead of memorize? I have been saying that for years, but, no surprise, no government official is ever on my side on that one. They like being able to tell simple stories that remain unexamined by their listeners.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Parenting 101: every now and then you do something right

I have been in the UK for the last couple of weeks, now back in New York. While I was on the train going to Brighton, my daughter called with a business question. She was submitting a proposal and wanted to get the numbers right. When she needs advice she usually calls.

I mentioned this to my dinner companions that night and they reacted as if a grown child asking for advice, much less listening to it, was very weird.

Parents may not actually want their kids to be calling, but I do. So this is how I made that happen:

One day at Yale there was one of those pink while you were out slips that said my daughter had called. She was seven at the time and had never called before. I asked my secretary why she hadn't put the call through and she said I was busy with a graduate student at the time. I told my secretary that if I was busy with the President of U.S. and my daughter called, she was to put it through. My children always came first.

I then told my daughter that she was never to let anyone tell her that I was busy. She said she didn't want to disturb me and said she could disturb me any time she liked.

It was just a knee jerk reaction. I hadn't thought out what I wanted to say. My advice to parents is that you will get what you ask for from your children, so be sure when you ask. As for me, I have never regretted that initial reaction I had to that phone message.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A message to Bachman, Duncan, and every other politician who thinks he knows how to fix education

Michelle Bachmann, who is beginning to look to be someone who those of us who have been scoffing at will have to take more seriously, has an education agenda. All politicians have an education agenda. They all are sure the schools are broken.

This leads to two obvious questions:

1. Why do they all agree the schools are broken?

2. Why are their solutions always to the left of insane?

As for the insanity question, bear in mind that this is simply not a matter of politics. Bush’s policies in education were insane. Obama’s policies are insane. And, all the people running against Obama have insane educational policies. Why is this? How can this be?

The obvious question is what is insane about them. To answer that we need to address question #1.

Here are some reasons we hear about why schools are broken:

1. There is a lack of discipline

2. The teachers are often not very good

3. Tests scores in basic skills are bad

4. The average American doesn’t know: (fit your favorite in here, who George Washington was, the capital of Delaware, where Iraq is on a map, the quadratic equation…)

5. Everyone needs to go to college and high school isn’t preparing them properly

6. We need citizens with 21st century skills and school isn’t doing this

7. We need more scientists and engineers

8. There needs to be more religion in schools

9. Schools don’t teach everyone to love America enough

10. Schools are dangerous places

Here are my quick responses to each of these:

1. You try making 30 kids sit still all day, especially in the modern era.

2. There certainly are mediocre teachers but there are also some very good ones, which is amazing because it becomes more difficult each day to put up with the rigid system we have created for them to teach in.

3. Tests are moronic. Yes, moronic. If the tests tested performance they might have some credibility, but multiple-choice tests test nothing. Every driver who has to take a multiple choice test to renew his license has to study the manual first no matter how good a driver he may be. Multiple-choice tests test only one’s ability to prepare for and tolerate multiple-choice tests.

4. Knowing facts really doesn't matter in any way. Because schools teach facts and test facts we have become convinced that facts matter. Facts that do matter in your life tend to be learned while doing (like the names of streets are learned by those who walk or drive on them.) Otherwise it is knowing how not knowing that that matters.

5. Everyone does not need to go to college. College as it exists today bases its curriculum on a research model that is driven by faculty recruitment. Universities teach students to be researchers not practitioners. Even masters programs which are supposedly designed to train practitioners, tend to be dominated by theories and arcane subjects that will never matter to a practitioner. We need to move to a more practical notion of education that leads to jobs. Liberal Arts colleges eschew this notion. We can’t afford many more Literature majors.

6. I am not sure what 21st century skills are but I am pretty sure they include reasoning, communication, and human relations, which were good in any century and are really not part of K-12 curricula. What we need is a populace who can think clearly, which, judging from the extant political candidates, we clearly do not have.

7. We have plenty of scientists and engineers. If anyone thought we really needed more they would create a high school engineering curriculum. But that would mean throwing something out and the 1892 curriculum has become sacred.

8. Really? There needs to be religion in schools? Whose religion exactly? And why? So we can ram more facts into kids heads. Facts are only the medium of education because religious institutions were the designers of the schools in the first place.

9. School should teach students to criticize America not love it. With thoughtful criticism comes change.

10. This last one is right. Schools are very stressful places and they are places where bullying happens and where kids learn to feel bad about themselves unless they have a really good teacher who can make sure none of that happens.

My message to Michelle Bachmann and Arne Duncan and all the other fools who pontificate about education is simply this. If we had a good education system, maybe you all could reason better and would stop saying and doing insane things about education.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A short conversation with a teacher in Florida

I was playing softball in the old guys league again. The last few days there has been a very good player in his 40s playing as well. He is a teacher, so I guess he has the summer off.

Sitting wait for my turn at bat, I heard the following conversation:

Teacher: my students never heard of the great ones, like Dick Groat or Roberto Clement. (These are old famous baseball players.)

Teacher: Things are different nowadays. When I was a kid I knew the names of the old guys like Phil Rizzuto and Mickey Mantle. (These are even older baseball players.)

Other Player: Are you kidding? These days kids don’t know who George Washington was.

Teacher: I gave a test last year to my social studies class. I asked them “Who discovered the Dominican Republic?” There were four choices, one was Christopher Columbus, and another was Sammy Sosa. Would you believe that many of them thought it was Sammy Sosa! (A famous baseball player who is from the Dominican Republic, at least I think he is.)

I walked over to the teacher and quietly mentioned that no one discovered the Dominican Republic since it is a country and countries are founded, not discovered, and I doubted that any of his choices has founded that country.

What I didn’t say was that Sammy Sosa was a better answer since at least he had been in the Dominican Republic.

This is not a column blaming teachers. I am simply concerned that our multiple choice test-driven society has reduced our conception of knowledge to random facts about nothing. It is so bad that even teachers have no clue what they are asking any more because they too were taught in this way.

Monday, June 20, 2011

NO to subjects and NO to requirements

I have been spending a great deal of time in Europe lately, where the talk is about what to do about the awful governments that countries like Italy, Greece and Spain seem to be saddled with. (I am not saying the U.S. Is any better, maybe it is even worse -- I am simply reporting what I am hearing.)

In the course of one of these conversations, the talk turned to education, as it tends to do when I am around. The suggestion was made that schools should require students to learn about how government works, or maybe how it should work, in order to help citizens make better choices about who governs them and to be better at it when they are actually part of the government.

I replied that this was a fine idea, especially if we let students run simulated governments rather than simply learning political theory. Feeling emboldened, a woman who had raised a family and who, I think, felt that she hadn’t done such a good job, asked if maybe some courses in child raising shouldn’t also be required.

I certainly agree with this as well. I tried to convince the developmental psychologists at Columbia, when I was building Columbia on line, to do exactly that but they, of course, wanted to teach about research.

Whenever there is a roomful of people talking reasonably about education there are many reasonable suggestions. The problem is, that soon enough, well meaning people would wind up designing a system that looks a lot like the one we already have in place.

No one ever agrees to eliminate history and all agree that mathematics must be useful even if it never has been useful to them. This goes on and on until students, in the hypothetical system being thought about by intelligent people, is as awful as the one we have now.

At some point people, and by this I mean school boards, governments, universities, and average citizens have to get over the idea that there should be any requirements at all in school.

Now I realize that this is a radical idea. Do I mean students would not be required to learn to read or write or do basic arithmetic? No. I mean after these skills have been mastered, students should be let alone, or rather enticed, to find an interesting path for themselves. The schools ought to be constantly and diligently teaching students to think clearly and should not be trying to tell them what to think about.

We will never change education as long as we hold on to our favorite subjects and insist that they be taught. Everyone has a favorite subject, or has an axe to grind, or has a stake in something not being eliminated. Soon enough it is all sacred and school is deadly boring and irrelevant.

Anyone who has ever been part of a curriculum committee in a university knows what I am talking about. Everyone fights for their subjects.

NO to subjects and NO to requirements. Let students learn to do what they want to learn to do. Schooling should be about helping students find a path and succeed at what they have chosen to do.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Fidel Castro, Greece, Spain; how education can fix an economy

A friend of mine went to visit Fidel Castro a few years back. (He is not your typical guy and I have no idea how this was arranged.) They got into a conversation about education. My friend mentioned me and Castro asked whether I might want to be the Minister of Education of Cuba. When my friend told me about this, he asked what I would do if I had that job. I replied that I would ask Castro what Cuba wanted to be.

My friend found that an odd response. Some days later, Castro shot some people and the U.S. prevented my friend from visiting Castro again so that was the end of that.

I was reminded of this incident because, as I write this, I am on a Greek island and, not surprisingly, talk centers on what to do about the economy. Having recently been in Italy and Spain as well, it is obvious to me that the problems these countries are having stem from issues in education.

When I say that, the response is usually less than enthusiastic, because it seems an odd idea, so let me explain.

When I mentioned what I would want to ask Castro, this is what I had in mind. Education is meant to achieve something, although this is usually forgotten in education reform conversations. The people who designed the U.S. education system around 1900 knew this well. The country needed factory workers, so keeping students “in dark, airless places” doing mindless repetitive work, seemed like a good strategy.

Today we have the factory worker strategy still in place, reinforced by a push for standards and multiple choice tests everywhere. The fact that there are no more factories seems to have skipped people’s attention. Also we have a big push for making sure everyone goes to college, despite the fact that college produces students who study what the professors happen to teach which means English, History, Mathematics, Philosophy, Sociology, and any number of subjects that will not make students in any way employable.

In the U.S. we have gotten away with this attitude for many years because we simultaneously had a big push by the Defense Department for new technology and thus were able to create Silicon Valley and enable an atmosphere of technological innovation. So while we have no factories, we do lead the world in software. It is almost as if someone in the Defense Department in the 60s and 70s were planning this. (I was there. They were.)

Now think about Spain. Its number one industry is tourism. You would think therefore, that in Spain the schools would be pushing hospitality or cooking or hotel design. But they are not. They have their enormous share of useless language and history majors as well and the University establishment works hard to keep things as they have always been.

Or think about Greece. Their number one industries are tourism and shipping. I have been an advisor to a Greek shipowner for over a decade now, and I can tell you it isn’t all that easy to learn about shipping in a Greek university. Nor is it easy to learn about tourism, because Greek universities, like those everywhere, are run by people who are worried about insisting that things stay the same so that their professorships are still relevant.

What Greece and Spain need to do, what Cuba needed to do, what any country that is not big enough to do everything needs to do, is pick its spots.

Universities offering a classical education are fine when only the wealthy elite are being educated. But mass education requires that schools be run people who are trying to educate for the future. This does not mean educating for “21st century skills” whatever that might mean. What is does mean is that schools need to do two things.

First, they need to teach general thinking skills, not math, but planning, not literature but judgement, not science but diagnosis.

Second, countries need to decide what they want to be when they grow up. Cuba, had I been running the educational show there, would have had to decide what the wanted to be the best at. Biotech or Agriculture or the Technology of cigar making. And they would have had to offer something less than everything under the sun to their students.

To fix an economy in the long run requires planning. The planning has to start at the beginning by creating citizens who can both think and find useful employment in the sectors of the economy that the country already has or wants to have.

Education is where everything starts. Countries can simply decide to be good at something and make themselves good at it. The U.S. decided exactly that about computer science 40 years ago. But it doesn't require the wealth of the U.S. to do that. Modern educational techniques, especially high quality experiential on line education, can make any country a specialist in any industry that it can realistically dream about.

Friday, May 13, 2011

STEM in the U.S. and U.K. We need "Science Idol"

I am in U.K. at the moment, and today attended a breakfast organized by Donald Taylor, meant to have good conversation with some of the thought leaders in learning in the U.K. I enjoyed it a great deal.

But, there was one conversation with a man who was clearly very smart and a delightful person that shocked me. He was thinking about getting involved with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. He was amazed when I suggested that this was a terrible idea.

Money and a push for STEM has driven the U.S. Education scene in the last years. As always, anything ridiculous that the U.S. does it convinces others to as well, so the U.K. has followed suit.

Why is STEM ridiculous? The idea behind STEM is that we need scientists and engineers and that our schools aren’t producing enough of them. Both premises are wrong.

I was a member of the science faculties of three of the top ten universities in the U.S. Never was there a lack candidates for faculty jobs. Quite the opposite actually. Too many good candidates, many of whom have to work in industry after they can’t get a faculty job.

Does industry lack talented engineers and scientists? Hardly. Silicon Valley is overflowing with talented job seekers.

What is lacking, any scientist will tell you, is sufficient funding for science research. Why doesn’t the government spend their STEM money on research?

Because the driver for STEM education is about two things. First, our old friend the testing lobby wants testing to be more ubiquitous and more important than it is now and they have big bucks to spend and math and science are easy to test.

And then there is the real reason. Any science or engineering faculty member at top U.S. and U.K. universities can attest to the fact that an enormous percentage of applicants to graduate programs in those fields are Chinese and Indian. The Chinese and Indians aren’t desperate to study those subjects because they love them or because they are so well taught in those places. They know that these subjects are a ticket out. They want to move to the U.S. or U.K. with a high paying job: Voila! They study math and science.

And, clearly, our governments want less Chinese and Indians to emigrate. Why I don’t know. They usually make wonderful colleagues.

And why don’t U.S. and U.K. Students study these subjects? For one thing they are not trying to get to a place that they already live. More importantly, the place where they live does not idolize the engineering student who made it out and who sends money home. We have American Idol and Football, and Movie Stars. We have taught our kids that being successful means being famous and being on TV. Our culture doesn’t produce scientists, it produces aspiring actors and singers.

If the government really wanted to produce more scientists it should create TV shows. How about “Science Idol” or “Science Court?” Nah. Too complicated.

To understand those shows kids would have to be able to think. And the schools have never wanted to produce students who can think clearly. They only want to produce students who behave, and who can memorize whatever facts are deemed important to know by the test makers.

My U.K. colleague quickly understood this. But there is no stopping the math and testing lobby.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Measuring teachers as a means of education reform! You have got to be kidding!

Last week, in the New York Times, there was an Op-Ed column contributed by a Professor Emeritus (of Nursing) from the University of Maryland. Why the Times considers this man’s opinion worth publishing is anyone’s guess, but his article fits in well with the Times’ continuing insistence on always being on the wrong side in education.

The article starts with this gem:

Of all the goals of the education reform movement, none is more elusive than developing an objective method to assess teachers.

Really? That is the issue? Measuring teachers? Funny. I thought the issue was making schools that excited students and made them into people who loved learning and were learning things that they chose to learn and were excited to learn. Silly me.

I was a pretty good teacher if I do, say so myself (and many of my students say exactly that in my forthcoming book (Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools.)) But I couldn’t make algebra interesting to those who are bored to death by it. And, I couldn’t make literature interesting to those who think reading nineteenth century novels is tedious and irrelevant. In fact, I avoided teaching introductory programming my entire career because there was no way that I could make that interesting. Now, there are people who can make these subjects interesting (Saul Morson and Chris Riesbeck, both at Northwestern do exactly that in their respective subjects.) But they have an advantage. No one makes students at Northwestern taken Russian Literature and no one makes them takes Introductory Programming either. Motivation matters.

But this is not the case for the high school teachers that this Nursing professor wants to measure. (One would assume Nursing students take nursing because they want to be nurses by the way, which would have made his job as a teacher a lot easier to do.)

No, he wants to measure:

the amount of time a teacher spends delivering relevant instruction

Really? This sentence is so wrong on so many levels that I find it impossible to believe this man was ever a teacher.

Let’s start with the concept that the job of a teacher is information delivery. This model of teaching is not only out of date, it is simply wrong. If it were right, you could apply the speed principle. If one teacher were to talk twice as fast as another teacher, he or she would deliver twice as much information and thus be twice as good.

A teacher’s job, in today’s world, is unfortunately, to get students to do well on standardized tests that test how much information you can temporally memorize and how many test taking tricks you know.

Here is another gem from this article:

the teachers who taught more were also the teachers who produced students who performed well on standardized tests.

Wow! Teaching couldn't possibly be about motivating students or helping students be better people or helping students think well or live their lives well. No, it means teaching more (really teaching faster would do the trick!) and not even noticing if anyone is listening or anyone even gives a hoot about what you are teaching. Test scores! Test scores! Test scores!

What about re-thinking the subject matter that we teach and the idea that classrooms are really bad places to learn?

The New York Times has never had a clue about education, as I have said many times before in this column.

But this article is a new low. As one Emeritus Professor to another, I suggest that Mr. Nursing Professor go back to thinking about how to teach nurses and leave education reform to those who have some idea what the real issues are.

Teachers are not and have never been the problem. You can’t make algebra interesting to someone who isn’t interested in it. Teachers are forced to rely on that old canard “you will need it later” which is, of course, simply untrue.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Educators need to stop telling students what they should learn and should start asking them what they want to learn. How crazy an idea is that?

I am in London as I write this. I have been riding the trains to get to places like Brighton and Sunbury for business meetings. I love riding trains.

Now, ordinarily the fact that I love trains would be of little interest to anyone, but there is more to the story.

Some years ago, when I was trying to get my father, who was over 80 and visiting me at the time, to do something he didn’t want to do, I told him we could ride the Chicago subway to get there and he immediately agreed.

OK. So my father and I both like trains. I loved riding down to Florida when I was a kid and waking up in Jacksonville after an all night trip from New York and seeing the sun shine and feeling warmth everywhere. My father and I rode together while my mother slept in a sleeping compartment. My love of trains started early. So just childhood unconscious emotional stuff right?

Except both of my grandsons, ages 5 and 3 as I write this love trains. Actually obsessed with trains is more like it. One lives in New York City and the other in Washington D.C. They each know every train and route in their respective cities and generally demand to watch trains when I play with them on Grandparent Games.

Is there a train-loving gene? Certainly it would have to be a very recent mutation, so it is a silly idea. And besides, my daughter, whose son is the 5 year old in New York, never seemed to be fascinated by trains.

Of course, I left out my son, the one who has a PhD in transportation and runs a Transportation policy think tank in Washington. My son was so obsessed with trains as a kid that when I showed him the Paris Metro when he was 10 (we had just moved there for a year) he said “why have you been keeping this from me?”

Train gene or not, the point of this story is to talk about education of course, and to talk about how school needs to be re-structured. My son did fine in high school but he wasn’t passionate about much. He decided he wanted to be a history major when he arrived at Columbia University as a freshman. (He chose Columbia because there were trains he ride there of course. He almost died when I suggested Cornell or Princeton.)

I was (and am) a non-typical father, one who always felt happy to direct my children’s pursuits and one who was a college professor and knew a bit about universities. So I told him history was off the table as I saw no point in studying it, and that he should major in subways. He was shocked. “How do you major in subways?” he asked. I said I was sure there were people who did transportation at Columbia and to find them. He signed up for a graduate seminar in his first semester there (putting off a required humanities course) and figured it out from there, later going to MIT for a Masters in Transportation and returning to Columbia for the PhD.

My son loves his work because he is, and always was passionate about trains (and later on planes).

Schools need to allow children of any age to follow their passions. Educators need to stop telling students what they should learn and should start asking them what they want to learn. How crazy an idea is that?

As for the genetics I don’t care really. But there is solid male line of train loving in my family.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

For homeschoolers, education reformers, and open-minded citizens: a paraphrase of Montaigne

Our teachers never stop talking, as if they were pouring water into a funnel. Our task is only to repeat what they told us. Teachers need to stop doing this and instead begin have student try to do things, choose among options, make decisions for themselves, and let them find their own way. Schools want to take different students who have different ways of thinking and make them take the same courses and tests. It is no wonder that most children really learn nothing from this experience. I wish that actors or dancers could teach us to do what they do, simply by performing before us, without us moving from our seats. I wish that we could be taught to cook, or to play the piano, or learn to sing, without practicing at it. School wants to teach us to judge well and speak well without having us practice either speaking or judging.

This is a paraphrase in modern terms of Michel de Montaigne's thoughts on education taken from Essays:Book One published in 1572.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

For homeschoolers, education reformers, and open-minded citizens: a paraphrase of JS Mill

If the general public realized how difficult it is to enforce the idea that every child must go to school and learn what is being taught there, they would not have to constantly discuss what schools should teach and how the schools should teach. If the government would make up its mind to require that every child receive a good education, it might not have to actually provide that education. It could allow parents to get that education for their children where and how they pleased, and only play the role of subsidizing the tuition of those who cannot afford to pay. The problem with government run education is not the requirement that children be educated, but that the government has decided that it should do the educating. No part of education should be run by the government. Because people are different and have diverse personalities and diverse needs, education needs to be diverse as well, with many different options. Government driven education is really just a method of making people exactly alike one another. Every government has the desire to tell students what to think and how to think it and they will do so if given the opportunity.

This is a paraphrase in modern terms of John Stuart Mill's thoughts on education taken from On Liberty published in 1859.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

“Don’t worry, he will go to college”

Someone I know had their three year old son, who was acting oddly, evaluated by a psychologist. He was diagnosed with something that translated as a mild kind of autism. The psychologist then said: “don’t worry, he will go to college.”

I found this remark hilarious at first but now see it as a very sad commentary on our college-obsessed society. The same day that I was pondering this, The Chronicle of Higher Education ran the following story:

Nearly a Third of College Students Have Had Mental-Health Counseling, Study Finds

“About a third of college students have sought mental-health counseling, but they are much more likely to say they experience anxiety and stress than they are to report trouble with more-severe problems like violence or substance abuse.

When responding to statements about academic distress, more than 70 percent of students reported a positive attitude about their academic ability, but 21 percent of students agreed that "I am not able to concentrate as well as usual" and 25 percent agreed that "It's hard to stay motivated for my classes."

32 percent of students have attended counseling at some point.

The report also included statistics about suicide: 9 percent of respondents reported that they had seriously considered attempting suicide before college, and 7 percent said they had considered attempting suicide either after coming to college or both before and after coming to college. Five percent of students reported that they had made a suicide attempt.”

In general, as anyone who has been there can attest, college is a stressful experience. It is an experience that doesn't necessarily result in a better job at the end, and one that allows students to major in subjects that in no way lead to a career. The social anxiety at college is palpable. Students are worried about classes and grades, but not so much they actually show up to all their classes or do the work expected of them. They are worried about their social relationships, but it is rare for them to actually be taught about such things in college.

But yet, going to college is seen as the ultimate issue. As long as the kid can go to college, he will be fine. How sad that we actually believe this.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The U.K. about to shut down engineering and science?

This just in from the BBC:

"Several universities have warned they may be forced to close science and engineering courses if the government limits visas for foreign students.

Sixteen university vice-chancellors have written a joint letter to The Observer saying the plans would have a profound effect on university income."

I really like the honesty expressed here. The reason universities want foreign students is so they can make money from running courses that those students want to attend. The interesting part here is that the issue is science and engineering courses.

I have been noting of late, the U.S. President's obsession about teaching science and math. Although this story is from the U.K. the lesson is the same. Either American and British students simply don't like science and engineering, or else their universities have produced far too many science and engineering degree programs.

It doesn't matter which of these is the case really. It is clear either way, that the reason President Obama is saying science and math nonstop is that he is getting pressure from many quarters, especially universities.

Now as a long time professor of Computer Science, I am well aware that the vast majority of students in U.S. masters programs in computer science are from India and China. This is true of engineering as well. If the supply of Indians and Chinese were limited in the U.S. most university graduate programs would shut down.

Now, I have no stake in this whatsoever, but I do have a point of view, that the British and American authorities might want to listen to. The math and science programs in high school (and college too) are so awful that they put off most prospective students. The Indians and Chinese persevere in their country's version of those programs because they know that that is their ticket out. The U.S. and U.K. students have no such motivation.

We might consider building curricula that cause children to get excited about science and engineering, if that is indeed so important to do, by making some compelling programs. I am building a first grade engineering curriculum at the moment, not because I care about what happens in graduate school but simply because I know little boys like to build things and I think it would be fun for them.

In order to make a change in who applies to graduate school, you will need to change high school. But high school has been the same since the nineteenth century.

Get rid of the nonsense that is high school math and science and teach kids how to reason scientifically and how to build things and we will see a change.

Why isn't this avenue the one that is being taken? Simply -- because it would take longer to do that than any politician's term will take. No politician ever proposes a long term strategy. High test scores and more testing is a short term strategy that will never achieve any result at all.

Make it interesting and they will come.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Confused about what college is about? Sex at BYU and Northwestern

This week we have had a fascinating set of stories emanating from two major U.S. universities, that make clear why our conceptions of college are muddled. Since many of my readers do not live in the U.S., I will briefly summarize these stories.

  1. BYU, a university run by and for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, suspended one of its star basketball players, (on a team headed for the national championship) because he had sex with his girlfriend.
  2. Mike Bailey, a psychologist at Northwestern, had a live sex demonstration in his class on Human Sexuality.

How are these stories related? There has been much discussion of them, not necessarily in the same articles, but as they happened at the same time there have been some comparisons being made in various publications.

My connection to these stories is not too great, but as I was a member of Northwestern’s Psychology department, I am familiar with the Northwestern scene and with Mike Bailey. And, although it hardly makes me an expert on BYU, I did spend a few days there not long ago interacting with faculty and administrators, generally discussing education.

BYU has a strict honor code to which all students must adhere that stems from their church’s religious beliefs.

Northwestern is a more typical U.S. campus which means students come from everywhere and from every culture and all live together and interact with each other in the way that kids in their late teens and early 20’s who have no real supervision are likely to act.

As a professor, I always felt that kids should be kids, that they should enjoy sex and drugs and football if they like, but that it would be nice if they didn’t confuse those activities with getting an education. Alas, there is nothing I can do to change the idea that kids who are on their own for the first time should probably not be going to college. It would be far better if they got the partying out of their system beforehand and pursued serious education when they were ready to be more serious.

So, I am more in tune with BYU’s philosophy than with Northwestern’s only because I think university education is wasted on students who are pre-occupied with growing up and finding out who they are (and drinking excessively in the process.)

But, my view point is actually irrelevant to both of these stories.

The real issue behind these stories is determining the answer to the question “what is college really about?”

At BYU the answer is, one would suppose, preparing students to be productive citizens who live within the rules and philosophy of their particular community.

At Northwestern, the answer would be, one would suppose, the same, except the community is much broader with much more varied rules and options.

But, I can tell you, neither of these schools actually does this.

At BYU, when I spoke there, I chided them on copying, more or less verbatim, the curriculum offered at Harvard and Yale. One obvious reason that they do this is that their faculty have PhDs from such places, so they teach what they learned there. But, the goal of Harvard and Yale, is, pretty much, to produce scholars, and possibly to produce future leaders of the country.

BYU exists in a place and in a community that needs a much different approach to education. They are not producing the nation’s scholars, and while they may produce some national leaders (Mitt Romney comes to mind) that isn’t an everyday occurrence nor should it be their goal.

I think that BYU is right to teach, and to enforce, the rules of its particular world, but curiously they fail to do this, in that the university education they provide is more or less just the same as that offered everywhere else.

At Northwestern, the focus should be on producing people who can get jobs that exist in the real world and making creative people who can function well within that world. Yet, Northwestern emphasizes scholarly pursuits, and it offers up a smorgasbord of courses that allows students to pick and choose ones that seem like the most fun. Of course, Human Sexuality seems like fun. And, since the students actually do need to learn about sex, it makes sense to have such a course.

But that course exists along with thousands of others that are about random topics that fit into no coherent whole that might possibly enable students to have any idea of what they should do or can do after they graduate. Northwestern doesn't care that much about producing people who can go to work. They just let the faculty offer the courses that they want to teach.

Mike Bailey has been pushing the envelope on that for some time. He seems to like the ruckus he causes, and I personally don’t blame him for actually teaching what he is supposed to teach.

But, the fact is that he will be censured in some way for doing this because Northwestern, like most universities, is really about getting students to know things rather than getting students to do things.

The real problem in university education is that no one knows what it is really for any more. It used to be solely about making scholars. Now that the masses go to university in extraordinary numbers, university education is about appealing to the masses. This means providing entertaining courses and Mike Bailey, while he will likely get into trouble for it, has done just that.

BYU, on the other hand, has actual principles. They are not my principles but why should they be? They are at least trying to do more than entertain. At least they should be. But they offer the same stuff that Northwestern offers, more or less.

Perhaps it is time to re-think college education and ask what it is really there for and what students are actually supposed to gain from the experience. When we answer this question we might want to consider what they will actually do with what they have learned after they graduate.

Just a thought.