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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The math lobby makes Obama bang the drum for more math

I am on my way home from Portland, Oregon where I spoke a meeting of teachers interested in technology. I went to Palo Alto before I went to Portland which meant that when President Obama visited Palo Alto and Portland last week I was there too. This mattered because I was blocked on both ends of my trip by the President's entourage. Those things happen -- no big deal.

But what is a big deal is that the President was going on that trip to speak with people about education. And so was I!

Curiously, we were speaking with different folks. Obama was speaking with Larry Ellison, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and the President of Intel. Now, these guys know a lot about business and entrepreneurship and innovation. Education? Not so much. They did go to school. After that, there is no reason to assume they any more about education that anybody else.

Of course, Mr. Obama could use some help with respect to education. He announced yet again the critical need for more math and science, by which he means higher test scores. Why he cares about this I don't know. I guess he thinks maybe we can beat the Chinese in something if we just all study harder in high school and win the math competition. I wonder why he doesn't promote a business competition. I could get my arms around that. Teach kids business -- it might help.

But no, math and science again. He makes it sound like we just don't have enough mathematicians and scientists. There were 10000 applicants to MIT's freshman class last year and they took 1000. So, if anything, we have plenty of kids interested in science but not enough MITs. But the truth is, all the applicants get into some other school that will teach them what they want to know.

And then what will happen? They will become part of the great mass of unemployed, or underemployed, mathematicians and scientists. Really, we have plenty already Mr Obama. Look at the statistics on the number of applicants for each professorial position in these fields.

I don't know what this math and science obsession is really about, but I do have a guess. The testing industry is banging the drum and sending money to push for more testing and as usual, the lobbyists are winning.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Artificial Intelligence, Jeopardy, and the inane reporting of the New York Times

I usually write about education in this column. But, yesterday, the New York Times ran a front page article on Artificial Intelligence. They ran it because there is an upcoming competition between an IBM computer and the champions of the Jeopardy TV show. It is being billed as a man against machine competition to see if people are smarter than computers or vice versa.

Whenever there is nonsense to print these days, the Times seems to be right on it. The time claims that:

machines (have begun) to “understand” human language. Rapid progress in natural language processing is beginning to lead to a new wave of automation that promises to transform areas of the economy that have until now been untouched by technological change.”

Long before I worked on education I was a leader in the field of Artificial Intelligence. My specialty was Natural Language Processing. I worried about how computers could possibly understand language in the same way that humans understand language. I came to the conclusion that while this was a daunting task, it was probably not an impossible one. But, in order to make computers understand language they would need dynamic memories and they would need to be able to learn (because what you hear and read changes what you know). They would also need goals (because we understand in terms of what we care about) and plans, because we learn in order to help us do something better. I began to work on learning and memory, and understanding how planning works. And, while there has been much progress in AI in those areas, we are still far from having very intelligent machines that can do such things very well.

Not according to the New York Times, of course. There headline was


A Fight to Win the Future: Computers vs. Humans

Gee, will computers suddenly take over? I have been asked this question by every reporter and TV person who ever interviewed me about AI. The nonsense behind this question is too long to discuss her. But here is what the Times said:

“Machines will increasingly be able to pick apart jargon, nuance and even riddles. In attacking the problem of the ambiguity of human language, computer science is now closing in on what researchers refer to as the “Paris Hilton problem” — the ability, for example, to determine whether a query is being made by someone who is trying to reserve a hotel in France, or simply to pass time surfing the Internet.”

All this because a computer will try to play Jeopardy.

Computers have been getting by for decades now on key word search. Google has made key word search an art form. The “Paris Hilton” problem is not a problem for people however. In spoken English, the hotel is pronounced with an emphasis on Paris (as opposed to London.) But, people don’t really need that spoken cue so much because context tells you what is being talked about. We see or read about Paris Hilton. We make a reservation at the Paris Hilton. “The food is bad at the Paris Hilton” is not a confusing sentence. It is only confusing to a computer that doesn't know what you are talking about and processes only key words. In other words, the Times is discussing ideas about how to use statistics to make a best guess about what the words might mean. And then, seeing that a program might be good at this, the Times then predicts the takeover of mankind by smart computers.

The New York Times used to be a great newspaper. I have subscribed for over 40 years. But these days much of what they have to say is nonsense. When Bryant Gumbel asked me on the Today Show, many years ago, whether computers would soon take over, I attributed his question to the need for sensational junk on morning TV. The MacNeill Lehrer Report on PBS asked sensible questions. Redes in Spain asked sensible questions. But, alas the Times doesn’t care that the average reader is going to draw conclusions about a computer’s ability to understand that simply aren’t true. And I don’t think they give a damn.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

No more factories! How about we stop training students to be factory workers then?

The New York Times ran an article today about the closing of the last silverware factory in the U.S. While the shutting down of factories in the U.S. is sad, sadder still is the continuation of the "factory model" of education which was indeed, designed to make compliant factory workers.

Most people don't know that the schools we have today were meant to behave like factories:

In 1905, Elwood Cubberly—the future Dean of Education at Stanford—wrote that schools should be factories

“in which raw products, children, are to be shaped and formed into finished products…manufactured like nails, and the specifications for manufacturing will come from government and industry.”

William Torrey Harris, US Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906, wrote:

“The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places…. It is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature. School should develop the power to withdraw from the external world.”

Since we now have no factories, perhaps it is time to get rid of the factory model of education and allow children to learn in a way that is less stifling, less dark and ugly, and more likely to produce the kinds of people who can fill jobs that will exist in this century.

Politicians in nearly every country have thrived by producing graduates of school who cannot think for themselves and mindlessly go about their lives. This may have worked in the era of the factory, but there are no more factories. Yet school is still a dreary mind numbing experience.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Third of Russians think sun spins round Earth?

It is headlines like these that allow education people to get on their “we must teach more science kicks. Why do people need to know this stuff? Will it help them live their lives better? Will ramming it into their heads harder make it stick? And would we be better off if it did stick?

Third of Russians think sun spins round Earth?

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Does the sun revolve around the Earth? One in every three Russians thinks so, a spokeswoman for state pollster VsTIOM said on Friday. In a survey released this week, 32 percent of Russians believed the Earth was the center of the Solar system; 55 percent that all radioactivity is man-made; and 29 percent that the first humans lived when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth."It's really quite amazing," spokeswoman Olga Kamenchuk said of the survey that polled 1,600 people across Russia's regions in January, with a 3.4-percent margin of error."All of them (the questions) were absolutely obvious... the data speaks of the low levels of education in the country." However, people tend to forget what they have been taught at school if it is not part of daily use, she added: "I wonder whether our colleagues in other countries would find any different."

The study also found that women were more likely than men to believe the scientific fallacies.

I note that the spokeswoman makes the same point, but in most places she would be ignored and a teach more science furor would ensue.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Obama asks CEOs to help; This CEO responds...

President Obama: "As we work with you to make America a better place to do business, ask yourselves what you can do for America. Ask yourselves what you can do to hire American workers, to support the American economy, and to invest in this nation."

This statement was meant for CEOs of businesses, of which I am one (albeit of a small business) so I thought I would answer the President.

Here are some things I can (and do) do:

I hire American workers. I particularly like to hire American Ph.D.'s (in Russian Literature, History of Medicine and Archeology to name three recent hires of mine.) I like to hire people like that because they are very smart individuals who have bought the stuff that colleges sell and wound up unemployable because of it. I like how smart they are. I have no use for what they learned in their PhD programs however.

I hire American workers. I also like to hire women who have small children who want to work from home. I am happy to let them work the hours that suit them and in most cases I have never met them. I need them to be able to write and think well. Despite the ridiculous education system we have, it doesn't seem to make everyone a bad writer and thinker. Fortunately for me, such workers are in plentiful supply. Why? Because in this country nearly everyone has to work in a office and the skills of writing and thinking are way undervalued. Since my company builds school and training courses you might think I would hire people who had degrees in education. I don’t. Those degrees don’t teach much worth knowing.

I support the American economy by building learning by doing project-based courses and degree programs that teach people how to do things rather than listen and memorize things. Oh wait. That was the Spanish economy since I built those courses for Spain (and for Peru and soon for some other developing countries.) Why don’t I build them for the U.S.? I did initially, but our universities think that what matters most is the brand name of their degree and not the quality of the education entailed in that degree. The best universities in the U.S. are controlled by very conservative faculty who have no incentive to change the system in any way.

I also build high school courses and elementary school courses that would radically change the U.S. economy if they were ever deployed here. They teach students to do things and they concentrate on doing things that would make them sought after in the marketplace. But here again, they are more likely to be deployed in other countries which have some flexibility about what they can offer. Here, in the U.S., in a testing dominated school system that you have both inherited and made worse, no real change can occur. Is it any wonder then that my services are sought after in many countries around the world but rarely in the U.S.? Here we can’t fix the school system because the testing companies and the book publishers have the country in a stranglehold which you seem incapable of fighting.

I want to help this country. I really do. I want to help students live their lives better, make better decisions, learn what it interests them to learn, and learn things that will make them employable. But you have made it very difficult to do that. The schools teach so many subjects that were determined in 1892 and can never be eliminated from the curriculum, that there is no room for change. I want change. The students want change. The teachers want change. But your government stifles change at every opportunity.

The good news is that I can help and have been helping American businesses teach their own employees how to do their jobs better. I can do this because, for the most part, no government regulations prevent it. (When the government does step in and demands certain training, that training is always done in an absurd fashion that copies the school system because in those cases there are government mandated tests as well.) Our big corporations want and need their employees to think better and act better and they do invest in that. Since the graduates they hire don’t know much and can’t do much this has become a lucrative business for us. So, you might think I would really like our graduates to remain dumb so that the corporations we work for will continue to need us. But I don’t. I want change. It is all too sad really.

If it makes you feel any better, most every country in the world is as stupid as we are about education. But that will change soon. Other countries will soon step up and lead in educational change, and their economies will thrive. That will take some time and you won’t be President when it happens, so its not your problem really.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Milo, Obama, and science fairs

Milo was asked, as were all his Kindergarten classmates, to build a simple boat and bring it in to school to see whose boat did best in the water. Milo's boat sank. He was very mad at his mother. She had built a bad boat. The kid who won had a father who built a very good boat.

As long as there have been school competitions there have been underlying parent competitions. Lately, President Obama has been touting the wonder of science fairs. He thinks that science fair winners will go on to become great scientists and that science fair winners should be lauded in the same way as great athletes.

This is so absurd, it is hard to figure out where to start.

There probably is the occasional science fair project that had no parental involvement at all. In fact, I judged a science fair not so long ago. I was asked to help because some kids had done computer stuff and the judges needed help. But, the truth is that I wasn't really competent to judge the only real issue -- which was originality. I saw some things that looked interesting and made it clear that the kids involved had learned a lot about computers, but it looked like obvious stuff to me. I couldn't be sure because I actually don't know everything that has ever been done with computers.

The winners were, of course, those who had built the glitziest displays, ones that had really attracted attention for one reason or another.

Far from the idea that the winners were likely to go on to become great scientists, I would guess that the kids who won had a better future in public relations or advertising because that is what they were clearly good at.

I have known many great scientists in my life. I don't know if any of them ever won a science fair, but I feel pretty sure that most never even entered. The personality of a scientist is hard to make generalizations about, but outgoing and artistic, with a need to make really great displays with the help of their parents, doesn't exactly come to my mind when I think of the scientists I have known.

President Obama is on a science kick lately. I really don't know why. If he wants the country to become more competitive, we might think about teaching kids about business, and encouraging them to become more inventive, allowing them to do more things on their own initiative and worry less about what the school says they must learn.

Of course, the President doesn't know how to do that and doesn't ask for help.

Instead he says "science" a lot.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Obama's State of the Union remarks on education: a response

President Obama made clear in his State of the Union address that he is completely clueless about education. This is a very sad state of affairs indeed, since all the teachers that I talk to are well aware that things in school are getting worse all the time.

Let me discuss some points the President made:

  1. The President said: Over the next 10 years, nearly half of all new jobs will require education that goes beyond a high school education.

Let us remember that a high school education means: algebra, geometry, history, literature, physics, chemistry, economics etc. And it means memorizing facts about these subjects and passing tests. How would this qualify anyone for a job? Of course new jobs require more education that that. It is however possible to change the high school curriculum and teach things that make one employable. The only companies that hire high school graduates are those who intend to re-train them on the job like fast food outlets, or construction companies, or hotels, or airlines. We could fix this very easily Mr. President. Change what is taught in high school!

  1. The President said: as many as a quarter of our students aren't even finishing high school.

And right they are to quit. Unless you intend to go college a high school education is useless and most students realize that.

  1. The President said: The quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations.

Perhaps, but why should we care? First you are talking about test scores again. I assure you Mr. President that you couldn’t pass any of the science and math tests. today. They are just about temporary memorization and you have forgotten it as well you should have. So others nations memorize better. So what?

  1. The President said: America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree.

Why, Mr. President do you think that college degrees are so important? Is it because you know that high school is useless? Or is it because you really want people to know more about literature and history? Or, are you under the illusion that colleges teach people how to get jobs or how to think? I assure you Mr. Present as a veteran of 35 years of professoring, college teaches students how to game the system, how to party, and how to figure out how to graduate. Thinking isn’t really taught all that well and job skills are almost never taught.

  1. The President said: We launched a competition called Race to the Top. To all 50 states, we said, "If you show us the most innovative plans to improve teacher quality and student achievement, we'll show you the money."

Sounds good Mr. President. But “Race to the Top” is all about test scores and it is driving responsible teachers, principals, and superintendents mad. Have you talked to people about the effect of Race to the Top? Most professional educators agree that it is a disaster.

  1. The President said: And over the next 10 years, with so many baby boomers retiring from our classrooms, we want to prepare 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math.

There you go again about science and math. What is this fixation about? I know plenty of unemployed PhDs in Physics and Math. We have plenty of scientists. And this country does just fine in producing great science in any case. Do you really think that we need more scientists? What for? Who would employ them? If you think learning science and math makes you more innovative you would have to work hard to prove that. If you think that doing well in science and math courses means you can build a business or create competitive advantages for the US economy, which must be what you think, I find it hard to agree.

You might Mr. President, start thinking about how we can teach our citizens to think clearly and to do things that matter. School does not teach doing or thinking. It teaches memorizing facts, in part due to the so called reforms you and your predecessor have put in place.

Our schools are a mess because the curriculum they offer is mostly useless information that comes up only on tests. Stop with the testing and start teaching kids to do things, and to think clearly, and innovation will follow.