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Monday, September 30, 2013

Why do we let the general public decide what should be "taught" in school?

An article caught my eye the other day which you can read here


It contained the following paragraph:
Ivan the Terrible encouraged his subjects to drink their last kopecks away in state-owned taverns to help pad the emperor’s purse. Before Mikhail Gorbachev rose to power in the 1980s, Soviet leaders welcomed alcohol sales as a source of state revenue and did not view heavy drinking as a significant social problem. In 2010, Russia’s finance minister, Aleksei L. Kudrin, explained that the best thing Russians can do to help, “the country’s flaccid national economy was to smoke and drink more, thereby paying more in taxes.”
Now this column is about education what could this have to do with education?
There is a cynicism in government that includes the idea that the people really aren’t that important. “So they die early, but at least they pay taxes.” This isn’t too far from “so they are stupid and can’t think clearly, but at least they pay taxes.”
Do most governments want their citizens to be stupid? Here is a link to article in the New York Times yesterday.

The headline of the article was: Creationists on Texas Panel for Biology Textbooks. In summary, a committee of people with a religious agenda is deciding how biology should be taught in Texas. 
In today’s Time magazine, we see the following:
The headline of this one is: Atheism Added to Irish School Curriculums A new lesson plan will teach 16,000 Irish schoolchildren about atheism, agnosticism and humanism.
I was reminded of the famous remark made by Mark Twain (about 100 years ago).   
“In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.”

Why do we let the general public decide what should be taught in school? The answer is because we really don’t care what they are taught. We also don’t care that they are taught. By this I mean that the verb “to teach,” when used in a school context, means to tell students what is true so they will believe it. What does it mean to teach atheism (in Ireland) for example? It means people will attempt to teach ideas that oppose Catholicism which is what dominates the schools there. I am sorry but did it ever cross anyone’s mind that both sides are wrong?
Schools should not “teach” anything. Why not? Because what we really mean by “teach” is “indoctrinate.” We want to tell students what to think. Little thought (but much lip service) is devoted to teaching them how to think. We want to “teach” students to be good citizens, to “teach” them about our history, to “teach” them math and science. These last ones are not exactly indoctrination. But what they actually are reminds me of the story I started with about drinking in Russia.
Math and science are meant to teach thinking (or so it is said). They could actually teach thinking of course, but when the scientific questions are given to you, and the right answers are taught to you, science ceases to be about observation, experimentation, hypothesis creation, and reasoning from evidence, and becomes memorization to get good scores on multiple choice tests. 
How does this relate to Russia’s drinking problem? Those who follow the rules and memorize everything they are told to memorize will probably turn out to be obedient tax paying citizens. It is all the same idea really.
Yesterday I was watching NFL football. The face of Sal Khan came on -- I don’t know how many times -- talking about videos that Bill Gates and now Bank of America are backing. Why do they back these small lectures that are meant to get the current high school curriculum banged into student’s heads? Why national TV ads? Because those in power want everyone to do what they say, memorize what they say to memorize, and avoid thinking hard about real issues. Cutely done math tutorials are the latest thinking in how technology can fix education. No one thinks about changing a curriculum that was written centuries ago.
You can’t fix something that doesn’t want to be fixed. You can help those who have bought into the system do math better and aid their chances of getting into Harvard. But what about all the rest of the people? As long as they shut up and pay taxes, Bill Gates, Sal Khan, and now Bank of America, will be happy. No one really cares about the average Joe (or Ivan.) 
They never have.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

why educate the elite? a lesson from yale and george bush while hanging out in Spain

I have been doing press conferences lately on behalf of our new XTOL Europe which is offering our learn by doing courses. You get some strange questions whenever you talk to the press, but today I got one that was not only odd but set me thinking about something new. In Spain, which is where I am as I write this, there has been a lot written about me, so reporters come armed with what they read about me in some other press coverage. The question that set me off was this:

“You say school was designed to educate the elite classes and you don’t care about them. Why don’t you care about educating the elite?”

Gee, I had never thought about it that way. I have been  saying that Harvard, Yale etc can get away with letting people major in History, English, and Classics etc., because historically their graduates were the sons of the rich and ruling class and no one expected them to get a job. While that is no exactly true today, believe me Yale and Harvard haven’t changed that much. But truly I have never been concerned with changing those institutions. I loved my time at Yale, and kids don’t exactly come away ruined from spending four years there. My complaint has always been that all the other universities have copied this elitist model. In fact, in Spain, one hears constantly about the value of studying literature in a society with massive unemployment amongst youth precisely because so many students have studied relatively useless subjects.

I don’t worry about the education of the elite classes. I worry about average Joe who can’t think clearly and whose skills have not been enhanced by school.

But this question made me think about the elites. What should we be teaching them? Harvard and Yale keep graduating future presidents, supreme court justices, governors, and business leaders. What should we be teaching them?

Amazingly, literature etc still doesn’t come to mind. Yes, of course, we would like our President to not say “who” when Dickens is mentioned and not say “what” when the Peloponnesian War is mentioned.

But what should we be teaching them? Oddly, George Bush, famous Yale graduate, come to mind (pick either one here.) Was our problem with these men that they weren’t well versed in the classics? 

Here is a thought. Neither seems to know much about average Joe’s concerns, what it was like to work for a living, what the average schoolroom is like, or for that matter how the economy works or how to govern.

A little more knowledge of history wouldn’t have hurt either, I have to admit. But what history should they have known? I would have hoped they might have known more about Arab society or the history of Iraq or Afghanistan. Why do I feel confident that they did not study the MIddle East at Yale?

I used to be on US Army’s subcommittee on distance education. As part of that I had the occasion to attend the Army War College for a couple of days. I was with a group of majors and colonels who were learning about the history of Islamic revolution. I doubt that the Bushes took that course at Yale either.

So, yes I am worried about the education of elites. I think they should learn how the other half lives (maybe by living with them).  I think they should learn how to govern (maybe by running a smaller country first -- I am joking -- sort of). I think they should learn real economics and how to diagnose a problem and how to say things that are more than sound bites. They should learn how to lie less, and how to manage on less.

I realize this will never happen, but I think it's fun to think about. The French by the way, do have a school for training future political leaders, but I get the idea it hasn’t worked out that well.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Want to give a back to school message to students? Try this one

In the last week or so, many people have been looking at my post entitled “back to school message to high school student who hate high school.” Curiously, it is clear that most of these are principals and teachers who were preparing a “back to school message” for the first day of school for the students. My post is not useful for these speech givers since it is about why the subjects students are learning are out of date and irrelevant. Google just finds “back to school message” and offers them my post no matter what else they may actually asked.

That having been said, I propose here a back to school message that teachers and principals can give to returning students. One that actually is in tune with the reality of our times. Here it is:

Welcome back students. I know that most of you wish you were still on summer vacation and that very few of you are happy to be back attending classes (although you may be happy to be back to the social and athletic aspects of school.) But here you are and there is nothing any of you can do about it. The government requires that you sit here, bored or not.

That having been said, what you should you be thinking about now that you are back? Whether you want to think about it or not, there will be lots of tests. The testing companies have sold the government on the importance of testing, so this year there will be more tests than last year.

But you should not be particularly worried about these tests. Why not? Because they don’t matter. Oh, they matter to the teachers whose salaries may depend on them, and they matter to the principal whose job may depend on them, and they matter to the school boards who will close, open, repair, and otherwise obsess about which schools are doing better than which other schools. And they matter to parents who don’t understand what the testing is all about but who are sure they want their kids in the best schools (with the best average test scores) and, of course they want their kids to have the best test scores (so they can brag to others about it.) 

But test scores don’t really matter at all to you. Why not? Here is why:

  1. Nothing bad happens to you if you get bad scores. Oh people may say stuff to make you feel bad, but nothing bad will happen to you in any way.
  2. Something bad does happen if you obsess on getting good test scores. You will spend time memorizing stuff that will never matter to you and you will be good at test taking, but you will not get any better at learning, thinking, creativity, or having fun.
  3. No matter what, you will go to college. (If you want to.) There are 4000 colleges in the U.S. Most of them will take anyone who applies.
  4. You may not get into the special school that takes only kids who have great test scores, but think about what those schools are like: full of kids who study all day and do exactly what they are told to do in order to get ahead. That’s not who you want to hang out with.

So what should you do this year? Most of all have fun. Follow your passions whether those are in school subjects or things that have nothing to do with school. Make friends. Have a social life. Learn to communicate better. Learn to get along with people better. And, learn to think better. Challenge yourself with things that are difficult to do and try try again to accomplish them.

Oh, and stay off the phone. There isn’t much to be learned from staring at someone else’s party pictures.