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Monday, April 28, 2014

the NY Times and Nick Kristof are hysterical about the humanities again, but this time the argument is absurd

I must say I am getting used to reading ridiculous columns about education on the NY TImes op-ed page, but yesterday Kristof’s took the cake. He made up a paragraph to test reader’s knowledge of the Bible, that was intentionally full of nonsense. It started like this:

Noah of Arc and his wife, Joan, build a boat to survive a great flood. Moses climbs Mount Cyanide and receives 10 enumerated commandments;

He then asserts that most Americans wouldn’t be able to spot the errors he deliberately made, which might well be true. And then he says:

All this goes to the larger question of the relevance of the humanities. Literature, philosophy and the arts have come to be seen as effete and irrelevant, but if we want to understand the world around us and think deeply about it, it helps to have exposure to Shakespeare and Kant, Mozart and Confucius — and, yes, Jesus, Moses and the Prophet Muhammad.

So because Americans are generally ignorant and think Joan of Arc was married to Noah we should teach them Kant, Mozart, and Shakespeare. Wow!

First I’d like to point out to Mr. Kristof that we do teach Shakespeare, and most Americans get a lot of information about Jesus. Many of the Americans who would not spot the errors Kristof made have indeed learned about Mozart.  

And that is the point. All that teaching didn’t work to do what Kristof imagines school does. Students don’t remember what they are taught for the most part.  Yes, the more intellectual students remember some of what they learn, but the more intellectual students are not confused about Joan of Arc. If the people who have trouble with Mr Kristof’s paragraph were taught to think more clearly, it might help. But that is not the point.

The issue here hasn’t changed for years. “Americans don’t know where the Ukraine is and if we only told them more about the Ukraine we would all be better off.” This is a tragedy but is not the concern about what Americans know that is the tragedy and the real tragedy will not be fixed by more humanities study.

The real tragedy is that most students find school so unappealing that they just work to pass the course and immediately forget everything they learned. The second tragedy is that even if they remember what they learned (how to balance a chemical equation: what Hamlet said about Yorick, or what Beethoven’s Fifth sounded like, it would make no difference. This information does not make them better thinkers, more capable of earning a living,  more capable of making well thought out voting decisions, or more capable of having better and more meaningful relationships with other people.

Having more of the Great Books crammed down one’s throat just makes one resentful of the cramming. Not everyone wants to be an intellectual or is likely to be an intellectual, something that curriculum designers tend to ignore.

I am glad Kristof wants to learn about all the religions in world. He should do that.   But the four he refers to are just four of many. Why not learn about every religion? 

If a student likes Shakespeare let him read (or better yet see) a play or two. We simply have to stop this idea that we must decide what everyone needs to know and then ram it down their throats. Students have been resisting that ramming for as long as there have been schools, which is exactly why Kristof is correct in assuming grown up don’t know much.

School has to change radically, but the Times keeps wanting more of the same. The subjects we teach were decided in the Middle Ages. A lot has happened since then. I don’t notice Kristof demanding more computer science, or more psychology, or more biotech. Those subjects help people think too you know. He promotes the humanities because that is what he knows I assume. There is nothing wrong about learning from the humanities, but the argument for it would have to be stronger than that made in Kristof’s column. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Out with the old and in with the new: a plan for redesigning high school so that it is fun and useful

What might high school look like if we really thought about re-designing it in a serious way? By this I mean, in a way that ignores what text book makers, test makers, Common Core advocates, and teachers who do not want to change how they teach want.

Or, to put this another way, how can we make high school, fun, exciting, useful, and something that sends children off on a path that reflects their own interests and passions?

We need some clearly defined outcomes first, so let’s state upfront that there are some core skills that must be learned in any curriculum but that these are not the ones that we usually talk about when we go through the usual litany of mathematics, science, history and literature.

I assume, therefore that for any curriculum I discuss below, there will be a heavy component of reading, writing, teamwork and reasoning. And, I assume that reasoning would include, planning, prediction, judgment, evaluation and other core cognitive skills I have discussed in the past. (Teaching Minds, Teachers College Press.)

The First Year of High School

The goal is to get students excited about something. This means that students would be offered the option of working on projects with clearly defined goals in the following areas:

Science, engineering, design, art, music, health, construction, architecture, computers, business, law, finance, anthropology, philosophy, history, psychology, film, television, foreign languages, foreign cultures, service industry.

This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. It is meant to reflect the range of jobs one can have in the world. We can always make it bigger. Some of the terms above are quite general. So, by “business” one could mean wholesale, retail, investment banking, insurance and a range of other things. The idea is to enable a student to do any of those that a student chooses to do.

I am proposing that the list be finite. So, for sake of argument, since I listed about 25 domains of interest, let’s say that a student on entering high school would have to make a choice to pursue one of these 25 areas for one month. That month would consist of one project, with the material for it on line, and with an on line mentor available, and with a physically available teacher watching to see that students were engaged and working and available to help when they were frustrated. The students would work in on line teams of 3-5 kids, who could be located anywhere. The projects would not be teaching theory, just practice at doing something simple within that domain. They would all involve writing, drawing conclusions about how to do things, reflection, and discussion. There would be no grades. At the end of the month, the student would have a simple choice to make between these three choices:

1.     Leave this school and do something else
2.     Do a next project in the same domain that builds on the one what was done in the first month.
3.     Change domains and do a different project.

The first year of high school therefore would have no classes, no tests, and no grades.  It would have lots of choices. Eight months of high school could mean eight unrelated projects, or one project area that gets increasingly complex each month, or anything in between.

The Second Year of High School

The student would be encouraged to change the game plan that he or she has followed so far. So, for example, if the student did only music, or only computers for the first year, they would be encouraged to choose something else to concentrate on, but would also be allowed to pursue what they had started in parallel. The point here is to make sure that a student doesn’t get too narrow too fast, and to allow students who are excited by something to continue to pursue it.

The Third Year of High School

By now, a student would have tasted seriously at least two or three domains. A this point they could choose to pursue two of them seriously, or they could continue trying our new things.

The Fourth Year of High School

In the student’s final year they choose one thing and stick to it. They must produce something worthwhile or invent something or demonstrate the ability to be useful to an employer in some domain. Businesses would be encouraged to hire students as interns to try out the skills that would by this time have been honed for 1-3 years in a given domain of interest.

What would this high school produce? Happy, employable, kids who could choose further study or simply go to work.

How hard is this to do? It simply requires money to build it and help from experts in doing the building.

We can do this. We simply need to abandon the old model and get started.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Stop cheating undergraduates of a useful education

Undergraduates are being cheated. As a professor of 35 years, I always knew that I didn’t care much about undergraduates. I hoped maybe someone else did. The reason I didn’t care about them is pretty much the same reason that most professors at research universities don’t care about them. It’s not our/their job. No, really. It isn’t.

I realize that people who have gone to college and then moved on will think that what I am saying is crazy, but they don’t really get how a research university works. Professors at top universities run large research labs (in the sciences anyhow.) They spend a great deal of time raising money for these labs, keeping sponsors happy, and then actually running the lab and managing all the graduates students and researchers that their money pays for.

Usually these professors are asked to teach an undergraduate class from time to time. It is the last thing on their minds to worry about and most would admit they don’t do the job well. They know that lecturing and then testing students to see if they listened is not really education. Education is what happens when they help their PhD students individually with their research problems.

I am writing this while visiting an excellent research university and just after having been at another excellent one. The only time undergraduate teaching comes up in conversations I have with faculty is when I bring it up and then there is simply a collective sigh. How do you teach 200 students sitting in one room?

Universities like the tuitions these kids pay and fool themselves into thinking that they are prepared for something after taking 40 random courses,  even though they are certainly recommending graduate school to these students as their real option.

The other day, an official at a lesser ranked university asked me in passing what I would do if I were to create a computer science department at his university. It is was an odd question to say the least. I have only been a professor at top research universities and the answer there would certainly be to go after some great researchers and start building a great graduate program that was well funded by outside money. But there are plenty of such departments, and these days my mind goes to education rather than research.

So I proposed something radical. I suggested we could build a computer science undergraduate program that taught students to program. Students sign up to be CS majors because they like programming and then they are led into theoretical courses or arcane research courses by the faculty. (All in the supposed interest of breadth and readiness for some imagined future.) I suggested that instead we combine the student’s interest in building stuff with working people who need stuff built. This particular school happens to have a great medical school for example.There are lots of opportunities to built important medical software and medical apps. This would happen by letting the CS undergraduates hear about the issues in medicine these days and helping them to interact with medical students and practitioners. There is also a great business school at this place. Students could learn how to invent new software for use in business and also how to fund a company to market what they built possibly by partnering with students in these other schools.

So my idea boils down to this: Let undergraduates do what they came to college to do. In computer science this is rather simple actually. They love computers in the first place so let professors simply help students do interesting things that make them able to build a product and run their own company, or else become valuable employees in a  company that might employ them.  

Harvard won’t go for this. Where are the liberal arts? What about discussing great ideas? Fine, go to Harvard for that. But it is time that some universities start paying attention to undergraduates in exactly this way, by helping them be what they want to be. No courses, just helping students attain skills and practical experience in what interests them.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Pro-Choice (allowing students to make choices about professions in high school)

I have been writing about high school and what is wrong with it for many years. My articles on why all the subjects we teach are absurd and why the curriculum is tremendously outdated are easy enough to find. Often people respond to what I have written by asking what we should have instead. So, here I propose a simple answer. One we can implement, and one we can gradually get into the schools.

)Pardon me for calling this Pro-Choice (by which I mean professional choices for kids.) Yes, I know the term means something else. But I like it in this context.)

My premise is that high school should be a time in which one figures out what kinds of things one can do in life that would be just right for you. This idea has been around for a long time but used in exactly the wrong way. “We must teach chemistry in high school so we can expose children to chemistry to see if they want to be chemists” is the standard argument. It didn’t take me a year of high school chemistry to know I didn’t want to be a chemist. Had we had what I am proposing, my decision would have been even easier. (And I had to take two years of college chemistry too. Believe I knew long before then, but schools just love requirements.) In the school I am proposing there are no requirements. Just professional choices.

I happen to have spent some time with a chemist at Proctor and Gamble a few years back. He was inventing a new bleach. Let us imagine for a moment that Proctor and Gamble funded the building of three week chemistry learn by doing experience that included seeing what chemists actually do at P&G, talking to this man about why loves what he does, and actually doing some of these things in simulation. After three weeks a student would know if this was for him or her and if they wanted more of it, or if they wanted to try out something else.

Years ago we built a simulated firefighter course (at Northwestern’s ILS). Suppose we allowed high schools kids to try out being firefighters in simulation for a few weeks. They might even talk to their local firefighters during that same time.  In those days, we also built simulations about how to run an EPA public meeting and about how to plan an air force campaign. If we had build a version that kids could try, they would know if that kind of career was for them after a short while.

You say you want to be a lawyer? Why not try a case in simulation? Do contract work too, to see that being a lawyer is not all “Law and Order.”

You are thinking about being a doctor?. Be one in simulation. Talk to simulated patients. Do some lab work. Read an MRI. Tell a patient he has cancer (all in simulation of course.) Also, kids could help out in a real local hospital for a few days.

Why shouldn’t GE help us build a three week simulation of what it is like to be an Engineer? Why shouldn’t IBM help us build a simulation of what it is like to be a computer consultant? Why shouldn’t one of the political parties help us build a simulation of what it is like to be legislator or a campaign director? Why shouldn’t Turner Construction help us build a simulation of what kinds of jobs there are in construction and see if they’d be any fun to do?

I am naming particular companies here because I believe the only way education will change is if the big corporations which can easily afford to do help us do this and would benefit from it, helped provide students choices.

How many should their be? Hundreds. A student’s life could simply be trying stuff out, talking to experts, and going on to the next until they were pretty sure about what they wanted to learn more about.

We have built many of these already. Many of them are in health sciences and in computer programming and in entrepreneurship.  

Now. How do we get them to the kids?

No one will allow us to eliminate the nonsense that permeates high school today, but there are electives available to seniors and there are summer schools and camps and their are after school programs. Eventually maybe we can eliminate the entire last semester of high school and replace it with simulated activates that inform kids about what they might like to try in the future.

My long term plan, of course, is have this become high school, gradually replacing what is there.

What is there can easily go. If you actually needed algebra you could learn it in context. (It might be embedded where an advanced engineering simulation when a student was building a bridge or deigning an airplane. (Although I must admit I had this conversation with Boeing for high school aerospace engineering and they couldn’t find a real need for algebra there either.)

English literature?  Needed for nothing (except sounding like an intellectual.)  However, as literature teachers would say that literature is about making life decisions, I have no problem with many making life decisions simulations being part of the choices here. Writing is needed  all the time however, so each simulation should involved writing that is the type actually done in that simulation (legal briefs, medical opinions, police reports etc.)

All of education needs to involve planning, diagnosis, judgment, predication, and experimentation (as I have said in my Teaching Minds book). These cognitive processes must be woven into each and every simulated experience we build.

High school must change. Computers and the Internet allow us to make the change now. We need to think about enabling choices for students and creating individuals who know what they want to do and have trued it out before they finish high school.    

We have built many of these kinds of simulations already and will offer them to anyone who wants to try them. We need money to build more. (All of this is being done my my non profit: “Engines for Education.”)

See the web site for more information (although it it is not there as of this writing.)

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Myth of the Importance of Retention of Information

I heard the other day about a professor who tests his students on line continuously during his lectures and found that his students retain more information than students to whom he simply lectures.

My first thought was shock that he put students through this (although lecturing is so dull maybe it makes it more fun), but then I began speculating on the concept of “retention of information.”

We all, it seems wish we could retain more information and most people chastise themselves for forgetting things. I forgot to get English Muffins at the store the other day and I have been chastising myself because there was a practical consequence to that -- I can’t have them for breakfast.

But I have also forgotten nearly anything that I learned in college. I don’t chastise myself for that, since anything I really needed to know I have used a zillion times since and anything else, well I didn’t need to know it.

I did remember about the bubonic plague however -- you hear that story a lot. Yesterday, news came out of the UK that there never was a bubonic plague and the actual plague they had was was not caused by rats.

I retained that information, but it was wrong. Jeopardy, Trivial Pursuit, and most of all endless testing by schools and the anything but student-centric College Board, have convinced a generation of Americans that retention of information is the key to something very important. I am not sure what. Good grades I suppose. And good test scores. It is well to remember that tests, especially those in college are usually an attempt by professors to insure that students at least try to pay attention to what they are hearing about. We don’t learn much from lecturing and every professor knows it, so retention of information has become an idea that professors force students to dwell upon.

I looked up some tricks for retention of information that you can find on the web. Here are some excepts from one site:

Focus your attention on the materials you are studying.

Utilize mnemonic devices to remember information. 

Elaborate and rehearse the information you are studying.

Relate new information to things you already know.

Visualize concepts to improve memory and recall.

Teach new concepts to another person.

Pay extra attention to difficult information.

The gist of this is that key to the retention of information is to memorize better. Some of these suggestions are perfectly reasonable but completely useless to mention. If you can’t relate new information to something you already know than you can’t even hear it, in effect. Learning and listening depend upon retrieving what you have experienced yourself and checking to see how your experience relates to what you are hearing. This is how conversation works and it is why we always have something to say back when people tell us stuff (unless we simply don’t care what they are saying.) In other words, memory and learning are natural processes. Giving people a list of thing they do unconsciously is not of much use. Had the last line said “talk about new concepts” instead of “teach new concepts” I would make the same point. But it didn’t and “teach” is wrong. If we weren’t excited enough about what we heard in a lecture to talk about it with our friends, then we have no chance of remembering it, much less teaching it to someone else.

Here is another web site I found on the same subject:

GULP is an acronym for an effective four step process to improve short and long term memory.
Step 1:  G - Get It
Step 2:  U - Use It (sing or chant it)
Step 3:  L - Link It (make an acronym link; alphabetize it)
Step 4:  P - Picture It

This one just made me laugh. Alphabetize it? Is school so awful and listening to lectures so terrible and studying such a miserable experience, that we must resort to alphabetizing everything new thing have just heard? Or chanting it? I liked that one a lot. Why do they write this stuff? (This one is form a university web site.) The answer is obvious. Teaching is really broken. In fact teaching is so bad that not only do we not know what to teach (stuff you can’t remember) but we insist that you remember it. No one ever says why you need to remember any of this, of course. (“For the test” is the obvious answer.)

Here is another one:

Reading Is Not The Only Way To Learn
(And I thought reading was not even one way to learn. I guess I was wrong. I thought practice, thinking, and experience was how we learned.)
Memory Retention Is Based On Pressure
(It is? Do we push on our head in order to learn? Stress ourselves out in order to learn? Stand up on stage and recite what we have learned?  -- Actually I think this last one is what the author intended. It is a good way way to memorize a song or a part in a play of course. What it is has to do with education eludes me.)
And finally one last one:

Research is unanimous - using drawings in your class and study notes  
There is no “best way” to take notes – you need to experiment and test what works best for you.
One thing is for sure – when highlighting a book – don’t highlight every single line, only highlight what you are sure you’re going to have difficulty remembering.  
This one was written by the author of “Get The Best Grades With The Least Amount Of Effort”, a student guide that has been sold to thousands of students in more than 30 countries and translated into 4 languages.
Good. Now it is clear. No one cares about retaining information with the exception that we care about grades and test scores. We care about grades and test scores because we are forced into taking tests and working for grades by an education system that has abandoned the idea that we learn for any other reason. 
Let me make a radical suggestion: We learn so that we can do something we couldn’t do before. One of those things ought not be test taking, but in our world that seems to be the only one that matters. How sad.
I will put this simply: there is no reason to retain information, (with the exception of things like remembering the directions on how to get someplace you are going.) In other words, short term memorization matters. Long term memorization is basically of no use (except for maybe multiplication tables.)