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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Learning through Conversation; Part 3; persuasion

Teaching students how to move people to their point of view is a very important thing to do. Challenging students to try to persuade fellow students, by debating in public for example, is a very useful thing to do in education. It is useful because constructing and backing up arguments and causes you to think hard. The more you have to think hard the better you get at it.

So, I have a simple suggestion for school. Teachers should stop having persuasion conversations all together (where they are the persuader) and help students learn to persuade each other better. Students learning to persuade is a very valuable educational goal. We need to make that part of any school we create.

But, of course this is very difficult to do within the current system. Here is an article from the today's New York Times:

AUSTIN, Tex. — Texas’ State Board of Education has approved new history textbooks, but only after defeating six and seeing a top publisher withdraw a seventh — capping months of outcry over lessons that some academics say exaggerate the influence of Moses in American democracy and negatively portray Muslims.
The board on Friday approved 89 books and classroom software packages that more than five million public school students will begin using next fall. But it took hours of sometimes testy discussion and left publishers scrambling to make hundreds of last-minute edits, some to no avail. A proposal to delay the vote to allow the board and general public to better check those changes was defeated. “I’m comfortable enough that these books have been reviewed by many, many people,” said Thomas Ratliff, a Republican and the board’s vice chairman. “They are not perfect. They never will be.”
The history, social studies and government textbooks were submitted for approval this summer, and academics and activists on the right and left criticized many of them. Some worried that the textbooks were too sympathetic to Islam or played down the achievements of President Ronald Reagan. Others said they overstated the importance of Moses to America’s founding fathers or trumpeted the free-market system too much.
Bitter ideological disputes over what is taught in Texas classrooms have for years attracted national attention. The new books follow the state academic curriculum adopted in 2010, when Republicans on the board approved standards including conservative-championed topics like Moses and his influence on systems of law. They said those would counter what they saw as liberal biases in classrooms.
Friday’s 10-to-5 vote, with all Republicans on the board supporting the books and Democrats opposing them, was the first of its kind since 2002. The books will be used for at least a decade.
Mavis Knight, a Democratic member from Dallas, said she could not support books adhering to the 2010 academic standards.
“I think it’s a disservice to the students when we have a particular bent in which we present things to them,” said Ms. Knight, who is retiring and attended her last board meeting.
Texas is such a large state that textbooks written for it can influence the content of classroom materials sold elsewhere around the country — though that clout may be waning. A 2011 state law allows school districts to buy books both on and off the board list. Technology, including electronic lessons, has also made it easier for publishers to design content for individual states.
The final vote was supposed to be without rancor, but an effort earlier in the week to give preliminary approval collapsed. Board members raised concerns about a series of issues, including Moses, Muslims and the Common Core, a national set of curriculum standards in math and English that is forbidden by Texas law.
Why does the government think that it should direct the conversation? The government is after all just an assortment of politicians with what is probably a rather limited view of history.  The answer is simple enough. Politicians understand persuasive conversation well enough, and they want to direct it. They could, of course, simply participate in it,  allowing others with different points of view to participate as well. But they don’t. Politicians see school as way of indoctrinating students, and they always have. If we are ever to change our schools to ones that teach thinking, we must allow students choice in what they learn, and choice in what they choose to believe. We must encourage them to reason from evidence and not from someone older than them told who wants to tell them what to think. This is not easy to implement.
The kind of thing we see happening in Texas here, happens in one way or another everywhere. “Truth” ought not be taught in schools. Students need to learn to verify, not memorize. 
What should a persuasion conversation be about? How should one be conducted? How can we help students be persuasive?
Instead of teaching history, how about if we asked students to convince other students why it was important to learn history and what history it was important to learn? Instead of politicians having that debate (not really, they all know the answer) let’s let students have the debate.
This weeks assignment: was Moses important to America’s Founding Fathers? 
How could we find this out? What evidence is there? Why would it matter if it were true? Who benefits from believing it was true? What would happen if it weren’t true?
Next week’s assignment: "how good a President was Ronald Reagan? How can we know if a President succeeded? What should the criteria be for success for a President? Whose interests does it serve to have Ronald Reagan be seen as a great President?
Another assignment: What is the free market system? Who wins? Who loses? Why does the Texas School Board care about this?

Now I am making a simple point here about persuasive conversation. It can be about anything. But students need to be involved in making judgements of the sort the Texas Board is making. They should be in this conversation, not for political reasons but because it is within such conversations that real thinking takes place. While no real thinking probably goes on in any actual Texas Board meeting, students would not be serving vested interests when they addressed those issues and would not be making any real decisions anyway. They would just be learning how to be persuasive using evidence, facts, and reasonable argumentation. They would be learning how to attack and defend such arguments in a reasonable way. This is what learning in school or out of school looks like, or should look like.

Students need to be in persuasive conversations in order to learn.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Conversations about Learning Part 2: real life learning

Learning is profoundly misunderstood by the school system. People learn all the time, typically when they are trying to accomplish something and are having some trouble getting what or where they want. 

They may have to ask for help. That’s learning.

They may have to think hard about what is going wrong. That’s learning.

They may have to recall some prior similar experience and figure out its relevance to the current situation. That’s learning too.

But when someone is talking to you about a subject that that person has decided you need to know about, that is not learning or anything like it.

We typically call that “teaching” but it really isn’t teaching at all. It is something teachers do. It is something tour guides do. It is something drill sergeants do. It is something that leaders of organization do. But it is not teaching. It is talking at people and hoping they are listening. But, they usually aren’t.

What if they were listening? Would that be learning? Probably not.

Notice I didn’t say absolutely not. It is possible to hear somebody say something and learn something. Just today, I asked where something was, was pointed in the right direction and now I know where it is. Today that is.

By next year I will likely have forgotten where that place is unless I continue to go there regularly.

We only learn by listening under two conditions:

  1. we continuously practice or rehearse what we have learned
  2. we didn’t really need to retain what we learned so we only remembered it temporarily

The first of these conditions I will call “real life learning.”

The second of these conditions I will call “school.”

What is the difference between real life learning and school? In school we learn things we are likely to never practice after school and thus are unlikely to retain in our memories. We might randomly retain some of it, enough to answer a question on Jeopardy or in a game of Trivial Pursuit, but we don’t need it and so it is not part of real life learning.

In real life learning we learn how to do things, usually things we will need to do again. We are not attempting to retain information, although that may happen, we are simply trying to attain new skill like driving a car, or selling, or drawing up plans, or designing a house, or programming a computer. Schools don’t usually teach useful skills until graduate school, although they may not teach them then either.

Learning happens when we try something, practice something, make something, use something, respond to something, change something, fail at something. 

But how does learning take place actually? What is the medium of learning?

The answer is very simple indeed. We learn through conversation.


Because a conversation only happens when two people both want to participate. This immediately differentiates it from school in which there is only one willing participant typically — the teacher.

In order to understand what I mean here we need to grasp that conversation takes place not between two people, but between two memories. Learning happens if the memory of at least one of the participants is altered in some way. But in order for that to happen, the memory of the other participant had to be part of the process. Whatever the first memory retained had to be in the memory of the second participant in the first place.

Well, not really.

It is possible for two people to both have their memories altered by a conversation in the sense that they both come to a mutual realization about something that neither them fully understood in that way prior to the conversation

It is also possible for the memory of one person to be changed by a conversation due to thoughts initiated by the conversation in that person’s memory that were not there before the conversation started but were not in the memory of the other person at any time.

The first of these situations we call knowledge transfer. It is typically what we think of as teaching although neither participant in the conversation may see it that way at the time.

The second of these situations we call mutual inquiry. It is typical in research and intellectual conversations when both participants are trying to figure something out and attempt to do so by talking to each other about what they are thinking about.

The third if these situations we call reflection. Often during or after a conversation we come to realize something we had not realized before. Reflection is an internal process but it it is quite often initiated by conversation.

This is how learning happens. It happens through conversation and involves the memory of individuals which are altered in some way by the conversation.

This could happen in school of course, But, typically it doesn’t happen in classroom.

In conversation, what we hear reminds us of something we have already experienced. From this reminding, we make responses. We may change the other person’s idea. We may use their idea to tell our own story. But all of this is non-conscious. We don’t know what we will be reminded of in a conversation. We don’t know what we will say next. We don’t control our thought process. Conversations with other people initiate our thought process by inciting reactions and ideas that we feel the need to try out on others. We need to find out what we think. We need to talk. We need to respond. We need to defend our ideas. We need to come up with ideas. In conversation, we are certain to learn.

Conversations are often contentious. That’s not the only kind of conversation that works for learning, but it does work well. When people are passionate about what they are talking about, especially in the context of a project or problem they are working on, the world opens up for them.

A conversation with someone wiser than you, someone who takes time to listen to you will make you wiser. A conversation in which you must struggle with what you think, where you must defend your point of view will make you think more carefully. Conversations matter when you are discussing things that are important to you. In order to write about the importance of conversation for learning,  

Despite how natural and essential conversation is to living and learning, we have neglected its power and importance in school. School has become primarily about facts and tests. School used to be a conversation. The Oxford tutorial system was about conversation. Plato wrote about conversation. Even the Bible is all about conversation. But today school has very little real conversation. 

And people are having fewer valuable, challenging conversations in their daily lives. Turning off the ubiquitous noise of messages, tweets, and postings to allow the time and space for real conversation and non-conscious thought is rare. A series of 140-character remarks, no matter how clever, is not a conversation. Even a so-called discussion on social media is not likely to challenge, support, or even provoke a person to come up with new or better ideas. Nobody ever seems to post, “Wow, you’re right. I never thought about it like that before.”

Interestingly, when we are mentoring our most advanced students (PhD candidates), we seem to recognize the absolute and essential value of conversation in the learning process. 

PhD students regularly have conversations with their advisors to discuss their thesis progress. They talk at length with their mentors about their problems and ideas in the context of their work. Some might argue that this is a valid learning method for PhDs because they’ve completed years of rigorous knowledge acquisition and are therefore prepared to engage in conversation involving their own questions and ideas. 

So, is it only the academically accomplished who should be learning from conversations? When we are parenting, we unreservedly accept that conversation is the primary tool we use for teaching as our young children encounter the world with questions, ideas, beliefs, problems, discoveries, experiments, and fears. We recognize conversation’s paramount importance in the development of children. And yet we neglect it in our schools. 

What is it about conversation that matters so much in learning? Don’t we learn just as much from reading a book or listening to a lecture? Well, no. You would learn more from talking to me than you will from reading any book I have written. Why? Because you would be able to argue back. I might learn something from you as well.

Consider the last time something interesting happened to you. What was the first thing you did when that experience was over?

You have a choice when something interesting happens to you. You can sit and think about it (having, in essence, a conversation with yourself). But, usually if another person is available with whom you could discuss your experience, you choose to have a conversation. But you don’t tell just anyone. You find a person who will empathize with what just happened, who will help you think about it, who will challenge your assumptions, or who will just be very interested for some reason. No matter the kind of reaction you get, you benefit from that reaction as you fully digest the experience.

Conversation helps us think through what we have experienced, even if it’s the experience of reading a book or watching a movie. Put another way, the only lasting benefit we receive from reading and listening or watching (aside from the entertainment value, of course) happens because of the conversations that we have about our reading or viewing experience. The learning – the changed perspective, the improved ability, the new idea – if it happens at all, happens when we are in the conversation.  And as it happens, because we are humans and naturally want to learn, conversations beget more conversations. This is how human beings work. This is how we operate. And yet most school does not involve nearly enough conversation, so not nearly enough learning takes place. 

Of course, some schools pay lip service to the idea of conversation. Even the MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that have dominated recent news coverage about education are now starting to include so-called discussion groups. And yet with thousands of students, how can the mentors individually challenge their students and engage in meaningful conversation? Most people will admit that MOOCs are terrible, for this reason and more. But most of us have not noticed the stark absence of real conversation in the classroom. And even if we have noticed the absence, we have not recognized what it means. Without real conversation, there can be very little learning going on. 

Learning depends upon conversation. Learning is fundamentally a conversation.

I’m not just lambasting MOOCs as bad. I’m saying that conversation is pretty much all that should be taking place in education and lectures and therefore MOOCs are therefore the worst of what education has to offer. Of course, in learning conversations, you have to have something important to talk about. Ideally, you should be working on something challenging and talking about your ideas, your thoughts, and your problems.

For meaningful conversation to happen, we should get rid of classes (unless they have fewer than ten people and consist of an ongoing conversation), tests (which are the antithesis of conversation), and all aspects of school that do not involve a conversation in which students are learning to challenge and be challenged, express ideas, work together and solve problems. 

Learning unquestionably depends upon our fathers and mothers and all the other parent surrogates and mentors who care about us enough to make the time to think and learn with us, in conversation. 

Here is a conversation I once had with my father. 

I showed him the latest book I’d written. He said it was unimportant. I asked how he knew that. He said that the general public wouldn’t read it, so it wouldn't matter. I said that I was a professor and I wasn’t writing for the general public. He said that my work wouldn’t make any difference then. I was provoked, as usual, by my father. I was angry. I believed I didn’t have to write for the general public to do work that mattered. 

This conversation has carried on, even though my father isn’t around anymore to disagree with me, because that’s how people think. And I think maybe my father was right. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Conversations about learning: Part 1: how should school be different?

The other day I had what is a rather typical conversation for me. I met someone at a bar and we chatted about various things. He told me he had just retired from the fashion industry and he told me where he went to college. He asked about me, I said a few general things but he pushed for more information. So, I said, “actually I am trying to overthrow the education system.”

This kind of remark usually gets a rather shocked response. People get defensive about their schooling. I have learned to anticipate that, so I added, “what did you learn about fashion or business in college?  I am pretty sure that everything you learned in your career that was important to you, you learned on the job and that your college education had no relevance at all.”

He responded, as most people do, by saying that his college education provided him the basics, which I always take as a kind of religious remark. They don’t really know what “the basics” are (apart from reading, writing, and arithmetic, which he would have learned by the fourth grade) but they don’t want to believe that their schooling was a waste of time. He insisted, so I asked what I usually ask in this situation. I wanted him to tell me the Quadratic Formula. He responded that he knew it but of course he didn’t. Of course, he had learned it. And he had retained it long enough to get a good score on the SAT. Then he forgot it and never thought about it again.

When we imagine school, we imagine sitting in a classroom and listening to the teacher. We recall writing papers and cramming for tests. College has the additional feature of being fun. Not because of the classes, most of whose names we cannot remember, but because of the outside activities and the people we met there.

Why do we accept a broken education system? Why do we accept that college will not teach us life skills or job skills and that school before college will be an experience that most people would never even consider repeating? Most kids would skip school if they possibly could. Why do we force them to go? And, when we force them to go why do we force them to sit still and listen? And when we force them to sit still and listen why do we force them to listen to simplistic depictions of history or read books that do not interest them or force them to do math they will never use in their real lives?

We do this for reasons that have to do mostly with day care and history. Few parents want the responsibility of taking care of their kids all day. We like government provided day care and really need it if we want to work. But why don’t we ask questions about what is taught and how teaching takes place? Because the same stuff happened to us. We accept it as part of life. Maybe we even enjoyed some of it when we were kids. (“I always liked history.” Really? You liked it better that your favorite childhood activity? “Well no, I meant I liked that subject best in school.”)

Somehow we accept school as a painful experience of no real relevance to our lives and we talk about what we liked when we mean what we disliked least. And we talk about school’s relevance by assuming it provided “the basics” when we really do not know what the basics are.”

“School taught me how to think.” And you didn’t know how to think before? And life after school hasn’t taught you how to think either? Every experience teaches you how to think better. School does it least well of all since your other experiences typically would relate to your interests, needs, goals, and achievements.

What should we learn? Certainly not the “core subjects" in school. Not only shouldn’t there be a Common Core, there shouldn't be any core at all.

Why not?

When you were a child, before school, did you like to do what your sister (or brother) did? Or, did you choose to do things that interested you? Did your parents force you to study and learn certain things when you were 4 or 5, or did they offer things, some of which you found interesting and wanted to do more of?

People are born with certain natural interests. An interest is a terrible thing to waste. The job of a parent (or of a teacher if they have that freedom) is to help a child follow his or her interests. If your daughter likes dolls you buy her a doll house and talk with her about what is going on in her doll house. If your son likes football you teach him to throw and catch and you take him to a game if you can. None of this is radical stuff.

Then school happens and everyone has to be doing the same stuff at the same time. And everyone has to sit still. (I never saw a 6 year old still still unless he or she was forced to do so.) And no one can talk out of turn. These are the same kids who when out of school, run around and yell, ask questions, draw pictures, build buildings out of blocks, try to learn to swim and so on.  But school is about discipline, which is another way of saying the stuff they teach is boring and everyone has to shut up because there are too many kids in the class.

Of course, somewhere along the line, kids do have to learn discipline and how to behave in public, but this needn’t be a constant all day painful lesson. And kids should be together, not in groups of 30 perhaps, but in smaller groups, so that they can learn to function together and make friends. I am not suggesting that kids stay home and learn on the computer, although that is fine with me. There should be teachers enticing them to learn something different and helping them when they have difficulties. But that does not mean that there need to be classrooms nor the inability to speak one’s mind.

It is time for a change. We do not have to accept that the schools we have always had is what we must have now. Times have changed. Now everyone goes to school and now we have computers and the internet. The possibilities are endless. The economics of school can be quite different than what they are now. We can let kids learn what they want to in the way that works best for them. We will have a happier and a better functioning society because of it.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Why don’t we encourage schools to adapt to kids rather than the other way around? Because drug companies need to sell more drugs

A couple of days ago I had a conversation with my daughter-in-law which was mostly about her son Max, (my grandson). Most conversations with her (and with my son) are about this particular child because he is a handful. He is very bright, very verbal, and (today) generally obsessed with street maps. (In fact, I just bought him a wall size one for his birthday -- it is what he asked me for.) He doesn’t do what he is told, he zones out, and he isn’t good with other kids because they usually don’t share his current obsession. They have worked hard to find a school that can handle him and, of course, they have had him diagnosed.

It is my daughter-in-law’s off hand comment to me during our conversation that is my subject here. She said that a lot of the kids she knows of his generation have various issues and the reason is probably environmental. I assume that it is true that where she lives many kids have been diagnosed with some kind of disorder. For all I know, the reason really is environmental. I don’t have much knowledge about how our current environment might be causing weird behavior disorders in kids.

But this is what I do know. Had ADHD been a diagnosis in the 50’s, I would have been diagnosed with it, and my mother, who believed in doctors, would have had me drugged. Since there was no such diagnosis in those days, my mother would just show up at school and say; “he’s bored, try giving something more interesting to do.” She once even suggested to my third grade teacher that I would be better off sweeping the floors rather than trying to put up with whatever they were teaching at that moment.

I also had a conversation with my daughter’s son this weekend. (It was his 9th birthday.) I asked him about school and he replied, as he usually does: “Boring.” I asked him what was boring now and he said they were learning about Indians again just like they did in the 2nd grade (now he is in the  4th) and he was tired of it. I suggested that he ask the teacher why it was ok for us to have murdered millions of them, as that would stimulate good discussion, but no one had ever mentioned to him what became of these Indians he is learning about.

I am writing about this because the New York Times published a phenomenally important article yesterday. One that everyone interested in education should read. Here is some of it:

A Natural Fix for A.D.H.D.

Recent neuroscience research shows that people with A.D.H.D. are actually hard-wired for novelty-seeking — a trait that had, until relatively recently, a distinct evolutionary advantage. Compared with the rest of us, they have sluggish and underfed brain reward circuits, so much of everyday life feels routine and understimulating. To compensate, they are drawn to new and exciting experiences and get famously impatient and restless with the regimented structure that characterizes our modern world. In short, people with A.D.H.D. may not have a disease, so much as a set of behavioral traits that don’t match the expectations of our contemporary culture.

From the standpoint of teachers, parents and the world at large, the problem with people with A.D.H.D. looks like a lack of focus and attention and impulsive behavior. But if you have the “illness,” the real problem is that, to your brain, the world that you live in essentially feels not very interesting.

One of my patients, a young woman in her early 20s, is prototypical. “I’ve been on Adderall for years to help me focus,” she told me at our first meeting. Before taking Adderall, she found sitting in lectures unendurable and would lose her concentration within minutes. Like many people with A.D.H.D., she hankered for exciting and varied experiences and also resorted to alcohol to relieve boredom. But when something was new and stimulating, she had laserlike focus. I knew that she loved painting and asked her how long she could maintain her interest in her art. “No problem. I can paint for hours at a stretch.”

Why are so many kids being diagnosed with problems these days? Here are three answers: 

Drug companies have drugs they want to sell and they push these diagnoses. More illness -- more money for them.

Therapists have therapies they want to sell. More problem kids -- more therapies to sell.

And, of course, the last and biggest. It is very difficult to get a group of kids to want to hear about Indians, or pollution, or mathematics, or “science.” But the schools insist on teaching things that most kids aren’t interested in, and they are lots of kids in a class. The teacher can’t put up with all these individuals who want to do what they want to do and are not interested in what they want to teach. So kids need to learn to sit down and shut up. Milo is a compliant kid so, although he is bored, he does sit down and shut up. Max (and me) would never sit down and shut up when we are bored or have something more interesting that it excites us to talk about or do.

The school’s job is to excite kids about what is out there in the world and let them have a go at it. (Or that ought to be the school's job.) Instead, schools have taken on the job of babbling on about whatever the official (and out of date and irrelevant) curriculum happens to be.  They have decided that kids who would rather be doing something else will not be allowed to do so.

Now this might have been the only possibility in a world of “mass education” and giant school buildings that look like prisons (not randomly). But today we have the internet, and mentors available online, and experiences that can be individualized. 

Why don’t we encourage schools to adapt to kids rather than the other way around?

I always told my children (and now my grandchildren) that when you don’t understand why something is happening the answer is usually “money.” 

How is the answer money here?

Drug companies are making a lot of money on ADHD drugs. Doctors make money on prescribing these drugs. Testing companies are making a lot of money on making sure kids sit down, shut up, and take the test.

The goal seems to be a drugged kid who has memorized the quadratic formula and is having no fun at all.