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Saturday, April 27, 2013

Bill Gates does it again; this time computer games to meet Common Core Standards; kids lose again

Gee, I have a really good idea. Let’s make school look like a lot of fun, have it all be on a computer. We will let kids play games all the time, while in reality what we will do is make sure students are doing constant test prep and test scores will go up. 

Isn’t that a great idea?

It sounds positively nauseating to me but what do I know? That is what is happening. Here are a few companies that have come to my attention lately

Amazingly every one of these companies primary mission is to help students meet Common Core standards. (For my non-US readers, Common Core is something bad that is coming to your country soon I am sure.)

Let’s put this another way. Bill Gates pushed through common core and now is funding combines to make school into an exercise to meet common core. In the process he encourages companies to build software that looks like fun and games but is, in fact, drill and practice on math and reading all leading to testing to meet common core standards. 

Here are three such “games;”

Tr swer when mistakes are made.
Treefrog Treasure is a platformer game that teaches whole numbers and fractions as players hop around a variety of worlds.

Refraction focuses on teaching fractions and discovering optimal learning pathways for math education.

Creature Capture is a strategy game that teaches relationships between whole and fractional numbers.

Those sure do sound like fun.

Take a look at the sites I listed above. See if you come away with a different conclusion than I did. 

Big business has set its sights on making money on education by insisting on standards and then funding companies that will insure that children meet those standards.

There is lots of money to be made and states will be able able to announce that test scores are up. School will appear to be less miserable experience because kids will be playing games on a computer all day. But, of course, what will really be happening is that we will produce a generation  of children who can pass tests, but who cannot think clearly and who have never been taught to think for themselves, plan, diagnose, determine causality, make good judgements, understand the value of something, communicate clearly, or know how to experiment with ideas. But they will be good consumers of more junk being produced by these very same companies.  

Congratulations Bill Gates. You have done it again.

But why exactly do you hate children?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

JFK, the Boston Bombings: why can't we express emotion properly? A call for new school standards

I was in college when John F Kennedy was killed. We were finishing lunch at the fraternity house. We walked around in shock, or were glued to the TV. Those were simpler times. Less political. Everyone loved the President.

Not knowing what to do with myself, I went to my next class. All the class was there. It was an Economics class. The professor thought it would be a good thing to discuss the potential economic impact of Kennedy’s death.

I never took that class (or economics as a subject) seriously again. I didn’t know what I thought he should have done, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t a discussion of the economics of assassination.

I was reminded of my feelings about those events, and that class, by the recent events in Boston. The news coverage is more elaborate now, but the newscasters said then, and said again this time, most of the time,  that they had no idea what was really going on.

But there was something different this time. While everyone I knew then was simply in shock or angry or numb, the people in Boston, at least according to the TV coverage, were singing, waving flags, applauding, and going to Red Sox games where Red Sox songs were being sung. There was a lot of cheering for the good old USA, and lots of being proud of Boston. 

Didn’t people die? Weren’t people horribly injured? I would have expected more crying and less cheering and singing.

It is possible I am out of touch after all. The world changes as you get older and young people’s behaviors change. But this is a column about education, and I can’t help see this as another failure of our education system.

Why would it be wrong for children to be discussing their feelings and thinking hard about what can be done 
to prevent such horrible events? Or thinking about why people do things like this? 

Why can’t adults think clearly about these events. Heightened security at the London Marathon?  Did someone expect a series of Marathon attacks? Heightened security at Airports? Maybe in Boston if the bad guys were leaving the city, but at every US airport? 

This is not meant as a criticism of Boston of course. Look at this headline from Yahoo Sports:

Citi Field breaks into ‘U-S-A!’ chants after Boston Marathon bombing suspect is taken into custody

Of course I am not the only one to be appalled by this. From the 21st century wire:

How did Friday become such a huge ‘patriotic moment’ for the people of Boston? Was this some kind of victory for America? 

My answer to all this simple enough. Its school. In school where we should be discussing things, expressing points of view, trying to figure things out, we are instead preparing for tests. We are learning right answers and one of those is that the USA is the greatest country on earth. We are not learning how to think. We are not learning how to express emotions in a reasonable way.

This is, of course, not limited to the US. I received a letter from Spain yesterday from a mother concerned about her son. She said (among other things about how her son hated school):

As most kids his age, he loves music and sports ( I do encourage it as far as I can). He also writes beautifully, I know, because he complains in writing and always impresses me how successfully he does it too. But at school they don’t encourage it at all as they’re always more concerned with spelling and so on than with the content. So he just complains in writing instead of using that talent more creatively.

At school his results in music are always low as they value the theoretic part of exams (you’d never believe what all that is about), so, the practical part of the subject is always buried  and he loses interest in that also. Same goes for sports. I wonder if our Spanish sports talents such as Rafa Nadal was successful in theoretical sports at school?

Of course if he was engaged in music and writing it would be because he had been emotionally engaged. Learning is emotional because we care about we learn, and get excited about what we learn, and share what we learn with others.

Well that would be the case if school were about what people wanted to learn. Yesterday there was some discussion in the press about college readiness of High School students (as there usually is, this being the topic of the day) and a report from the ACT (the testing people for my non-US readers) complained about how students aren’t college ready. The translation of this is that they need more test preparation (sold by the ACT of course.) Here is a paragraph from that report:

Especially at the high school level, where there are differing degrees of familiarity with the improved standards, state and local efforts to implement the standards have not yet achieved their goals. This suggests that not enough teachers are yet ready for the necessary changes in curriculum that are likely to accompany the switch into a classroom environment driven by college- and career-ready standards.

The translation of this paragraph is they want more testing, more test prep, and making sure the new standards in math science etc are being met.

I would like to call for some new standards too. 

I would like to see a happiness standard. 

If kids aren’t happy in school, the school is failing and we need to fix it.

I would like to see an emotional readiness standard.

If kids can’t express what they are feeling, in writing, in discussion groups, to friends, then they need to learn how to do so. If we express emotions about bad guys getting killed by dancing and waving flags and singing we have clearly missed the lesson on how to express empathy, relief, fear etc.

I would like to see a clear thinking standard.

We need to teach people how to react to events they don’t like by planning new courses of action that make sense. Learning to plan a course of action is very important, but if that happens in school I missed it.

And, lastly, I would like to see the following standard:

Schools are not allowed to bore their students so badly that they see school as being irrelevant to real life.

Here is an ACT question that comes from the practice tests you can find on line. I fell asleep reading it. But I learned that no one can express or feel real emotions because any real emotion you might have while taking this test would not be dealt with well by the school administering it.

It starts like this (and goes on and on):

Passage I
Unmanned spacecraft taking images of Jupiter's moon Europa have found its surface to be very smooth with few meteorite craters. Europa's surface ice shows evidence of being continually resmoothed and reshaped. Cracks, dark bands, and pressure ridges (created when water or slush is squeezed up between 2 slabs of ice) are commonly seen in images of the surface. Two scientists express their views as to whether the presence of a deep ocean beneath the surface is responsible for Europa's surface features.
Scientist 1
A deep ocean of liquid water exists on Europa. Jupiter's gravitational field produces tides within Europa that can cause heating of the subsurface to a point where liquid water can exist. The numerous cracks and dark bands in the surface ice closely resemble the appearance of thawing ice covering the polar oceans on Earth. Only a substantial amount of circulating liquid water can crack and rotate such large slabs of ice. The few meteorite craters that exist are shallow and have been smoothed by liquid water that oozed up into the crater from the subsurface and then quickly froze.
It is followed by exciting questions such as:

  1. According to the information provided, which of the following descriptions of Europa would be accepted by both scientists?
    1. F. Europa has a larger diameter than does Jupiter.
    2. G. Europa has a surface made of rocky material.
    3. H. Europa has a surface temperature of 20°C.
    4. J. Europa is completely covered by a layer of ice.
  1. With which of the following statements about the conditions on Europa or the evolution of Europa's surface would both Scientist 1 and Scientist 2 most likely agree? The surface of Europa:
    1. A. is being shaped by the movement of ice.
    2. B. is covered with millions of meteorite craters.
    3. C. is the same temperature as the surface of the Arctic Ocean on Earth.
    4. D. has remained unchanged for millions of years.

3. Which of the following statements about meteorite craters on Europa would be most consistent with both scientists' views?
  1. F. No meteorites have struck Europa for millions of years.
  2. G. Meteorite craters, once formed, are then smoothed or removed by Europa's surface processes.
  3. H. Meteorite craters, once formed on Europa, remain unchanged for billions of years.
  4. J. Meteorites frequently strike Europa's surface but do not leave any crater

Go here to see the sample tests:

Then ask yourself why people who have gone through a system that is this devoid of emotion, that fails my standards so badly, that is so irrelevant to anything they will actually do in life, do not know how to express emotion  or find solutions, when bad things happen.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Artificial Intelligence. Neuroscience. Education Technology, and the misreporting of science by The Times and others

Reading the newspapers about new technology is a lot like going to a fortune teller to find out about the future. Nice stories, but the reality is unknown. Here are the first three paragraphs from a recent New York Times article on computers that can give a grade to a college essay:

Imagine taking a college exam, and, instead of handing in a blue book and getting a grade from a professor a few weeks later, clicking the “send” button when you are done and receiving a grade back instantly, your essay scored by a software program.

And then, instead of being done with that exam, imagine that the system would immediately let you rewrite the test to try to improve your grade.
EdX, the nonprofit enterprise founded by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to offer courses on the Internet, has just introduced such a system and will make its automated software available free on the Web to any institution that wants to use it. The software uses artificial intelligence to grade student essays and short written answers, freeing professors for other tasks.

Sounds great doesn’t it? Better service for students, less work for professors and smart computers, all in one article.  Except that is all nonsense. The Times doesn’t say the software is AI but most every other paper printing the same story did. Here is the headline from the Denver Post for the same article.

New artificial-intelligence system grades essays at college level

We live in a time where every new piece of technology in education is touted as a great breakthrough. Now, AI is my field and my specialty in AI is processing language. No computer can read an essay. Maybe someday, but not now. So, how they grade them if they can’t read them? By counting how many big words were used? By seeing if the sentences are grammatical? The articles that tout the glories of this stuff never actually say how. But, no computer can tell if the writer had a good idea. This is actually very hard to determine. It is the reason why well educated professors would take on the task of reading an essay -- to see if there were any good ideas in it. But now that we have MOOCs and everything  is about mass education, why bother? No one is listening to anyone’s ideas anyway. Just tens if thousand of students hearing the same lecture. Yet, The Times and other papers keep touting MOOCs as a great breakthrough. They even had the audacity to mention that professors would now have time free to do other things. What other things? Their lectures are already recorded and they don’t grade papers, so what others things?

The answer that any professor can tell you is research. All these MOOCs, essay grading software, and everything else we are hearing about, is meant to allow professors to teach less and do more research. No problem with that. I had that view of the world too when I was a professor. The students get shortchanged by this and will get really shortchanged by MOOCs, but neither The Times nor the faculty of elite institutions care much about students.

The Times doesn’t care much about the truth either, at least when it reports about scientific breakthroughs. This is not unique to the Times however. Here another report from the same day that also hit the press about science:

Scientists 'read dreams' using brain scans

This time it was a BBC headline, but many other papers reported the same scientific breakthrough. The scientists quoted in the reports did not say anything like this of course. The scientists said that they can now detect images in the brain for some people whom have they studied. The sleeping person is awakened and asked what he was dreaming about and the scientists can detect a similar pattern when it occurs another time. Hardly “reading your dreams.”  

Newspapers like to make stuff up and people remember the nonsense they read in a headline. So the public thinks that computers can read and understand an essay and the public thinks that the computer can read your dreams. So what if this isn't even close to true? Another paper sold. 

One wonders if the scientists aren’t complicit in all this nonsense. The answer is yes and no. I am interviewed all the time and I know that the reporter will exaggerate what I said and write a ridiculous headline. I do the interviews anyway on the grounds that some good might come out of it. But many scientists want people to think they are doing stuff that they actually aren’t doing. This is particularly true of artificial intelligence, my own field, where the experts quoted in the Times article must have known full well how their work would be misinterpreted and didn't care.

Scientists are always selling so that people will get excited and give them more money to do research. And newspapers are always writing headlines that aren’t true but catch your eye.

The public loses by being misinformed. At the moment it is is being misinformed about education in a serious way. Things in education are not improving. Technology is not helping (although it could.) Things in education are getting much worse. Let’s see if the Times ever says that.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

ADHD, Test Cheating Scandals, Ivy League admissions, and the state of education today

Today I happened to glance at Time Magazine on line and saw these three headlines on the front page:

Ivy League Schools Accepting Even Fewer Kids

Understanding the Rise in ADHD Diagnoses: 11% of U.S. Children Are Affected

What’s Really Scandalous About the School Testing Scandal

Taken together they tell an interesting story of our education system don’t they? Kids are behaving badly in school so we drug them into submission. Teachers are being judged by the test scores their students produce, so they are inclined to risk jail and cheat. And, last but not least, the Ivy League Schools are taking less kids (well, not really, what the Time headline writer meant to say was that they were getting more applicants and rejecting more kids.)

What story do these three stories tell when seen as one story? -- Wow have we made a mess of our education system! 

Now, let me provide three radical solutions to these three problems. They will be seen as weird of course. All I ask is that people think about them.

  1. ADHD: solution: close the schools. 

Yes, I know, that is too weird for words. I also saw an article about arming teachers and putting police in every school. The solution there? Close the schools.

School is an awful place. Do the adults reading this really remember school fondly? Do they remember sitting in classes and loving listening to the teacher and taking tests? Maybe you had a nice social life with the other kids outside of school, but school itself? It doesn’t work. ADHD isn’t real. It just means that kids can’t focus on doing stuff that bores them to death. I was always in trouble in school. They didn’t have ADHD back then or else I would have  been drugged too. I hated school (but somehow got to be a full professor at Yale before I was 30 -- I didn’t hate thinking hard, just school.)

The alternative? School is really about day care so I propose day care centers manned by specialty teachers who encourage kids to learn what they want to learn. This would be easy to do in an online age. Materials to learn anything could be available. Projects could be designed by experts and teachers could mentor kids who want to learn. Compulsory schooling is a dead idea. Only a matter of time until formal school must go away.

  1. Testing: enough already

Behind testing we find all the publishing and test grading companies, Bill Gates, Arne Duncan and a cabal or business people who simply don’t care about kids. The tests test nothing worth knowing. Apart from reading, writing, and arithmetic, all the other stuff really doesn’t matter. Why don't we teach job skills in school? Why don’t we teach life skills in school? The reason is simple. We used to. But now everyone has to go to college. I am not sure why everyone has to go to college except that most every politician thinks so, every rich person trying to do good in education thinks so, and nearly every parent seems to think so. So it must be true. We could, of course, change the high school curriculum and teach stuff more useful than say algebra or literature, but we won’t. We could also build curricula  ( on line or face to face) where you can learn real job skills. I vote for that one.

  1. Ivy League School acceptance rates

Really, who cares? Kids who apply care, I guess. Parents (especially ones in New York City it appears) care. I never went to an Ivy League school. I taught at them but could have never gotten into them (since I hated high school remember?)

To put this in perspective, consider what you are missing if you don’t get into Yale. You are missing the possibility of majoring the the following subjects.

Anthropology (B.A.)
Applied Mathematics (B.A. or B.S.)
Architecture (B.A.)
Art (B.A.)
Astronomy (B.A.)

And those are just the A’s. Real job skills there eh? Or, consider G through L:

Geology and Geophysics (B.A. or B.S.)
German (B.A.)
History (B.A.)
Humanities (B.A.)
Italian (B.A.)
Japanese (B.A.)
Linguistics (B.A.)
Literature (B.A.)

Attending an Ivy league school is so important that a slight increase in applications causes headlines. But no one ever looks to see what one learns there.

Can you learn something practical at Yale? Harder than you think. I was a professor of Computer Science there. (Notice I left out the C’s.) But even Computer Science isn’t a practical subject at Yale. It is mostly theory. And the students don’t want to learn anything practical. They have been trained to think that they should be the intellectual elite and practice is well, too practical.

At a meeting of Freshman at Yale, back in 1981 when I was chairman of Computer Science there, I suggested that the best reason to major in Computer Science was so you could get a job. The students reaction: they booed me.

We have got something seriously screwed up in our collective minds about school and education. Learning is supposed to be fun. Learning is supposed to be useful. We seem to have forgotten all that and simply want drugged kids who perform well on tests and get into Yale. I taught a lot of those kids. They weren’t so interesting to teach, trust me.