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Saturday, December 6, 2014

Hawking is afraid of AI without having a clue about what AI is; don't worry Steve

The eminent British physicist Stephen Hawking warns that the development of intelligent machines could pose a major threat to humanity.

"The development of full artificial intelligence (AI) could spell the end of the human race," Hawking told the BBC.

Wow! Really? So, a well known scientist can say anything he wants about anything without having any actual information about what he is talking about and get world wide recognition for his views. We live in an amazing time.

Juts to set the record straight lets talk about AI, the reality version not the fantasy one.

Yes, we all know the fantasy one 2001, Star Wars, Her. We have been watching intelligent machines in the movies for decades.

Apparently, Hawking is using a voice system. That’s nice. Maybe he should find out how it works. The new system learns how Hawking thinks and suggests words he might want to use next, according to the BBC. So that makes it very smart does it? That is statistics. We can easily count what you have been saying and guess what you will say next. It is not that complicated to do, and it is not AI.

What is AI? AI is the modeling of mind such that you have created a new mind. At least that is what it is to people who don’t work in the field. To people who do work in the field, the issue is not what word comes next as much as it how to have  a idea about something, or how to have an original thought, or how to have an interaction with someone in which they would think you are very clever and are not a machine.

You average five year old is smarter than any computer today and is smarter than any computer is likely to be any time real soon. Why? Because a five year can do the following:

  1. figure out what annoys his little sister and do it when his mother is not watching
  2. invent a new game
  3. utter a sentence that he has never uttered before
  4. understand what his parents are telling him
  5. decide not to do it because he has something he would  rather do
  6. be left alone in the kitchen and make an attempt to cook something possibly burning down the house but in any case leaving a giant mess
  7. listen to someone say something a draw a conclusion from it and ask an interesting quetsion about it
  8. find his way school without help if allowed to do so
  9. throw a ball
  10. get better at throwing a ball by practice
  11. eat certain foods and hate them,  and others a love them
  12. cry when he is felling anxious
  13. be thrilled with a new toy
  14. throw a temper tantrum
  15. make his mother think he is the best thing in whole world

Why am I listing such mundane things as hallmarks of intelligence? Because in order to build and intelligent machine, that machine would have to grow up. It would have to learn about the world by living in it and failing a lot and being helped by its parents. It would have to have goals and tastes and make an effort to satisfy those goals every day. I would not be planted with goals. I didn’t grow up wanting to work in AI for example. That interest developed while I was in college as result of a wide variety of experiences and interactions with others.

If we have to build an intelligence that acquires knowledge and motivation naturally we would have to know how to build the equivalent of an infant and teach it to interact with the world. Would that infant have arms and legs and be trying to learn how to walk and get stuff it liked and be angry and hot an hopeful? If not, it wouldn’t be much like a human. 

But maybe Hawking doesn’t mean AI that is human-like. Maybe he just mean a computer program that is relay good at prediction by statistics. That is not AI my view, but it is something. Is it something to fear? Only if you are worried about a machine that predict certain things in the world better than you can. That could happen.

To build the AI that I have always had in mind, requires more money than Mark Zuckerberg is willing to invest and requires a purpose. Before someone builds a general purpose AI they would have to try building a special purpose one, maybe one that is smart enough to kill Bin Laden. Interestingly, while the Defense Department has invested plenty of money in Ai it still sent humans to do that job. The Defense Department would undoubtedly have preferred to send an AI robot to do the job, but they are nowhere close to having one.

Could they have one? Yes, someday. But it would be talking to you, or predicting what works not what Hawking wanted to say next. It would be about navigation and inference and figuring out things just in time and son on. It needs to know how to talk and comprehend the world (to think really.)

Special pursue AI machines, ones that do things like clean our house will be around long before any AI Hawking fears. As much as we all would like one, I don’t see any AI cooks and maids around. 

The AI problem is very very hard. It requires people who work in AI understanding the nature of knowledge; how conversation work; how to have an original thought; how to predict the actions of others; how to understand why people do what they do; and a few thousand things like that. In case no one has noticed, scientists aren’t very good at telling you how all that stuff works in people. And until they can there will be no machines that can do any of it.

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.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The NY Times and Nick Kristof want mass education. I want individualized education.

Sometimes when I read the New York Times on education, I find myself wondering if they just sit around and think how they can write dumb stuff. 
Sunday. Kristof wrote a column that included this:

Until the 1970s, we were pre-eminent in mass education, and Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz of Harvard University argue powerfully that this was the secret to America’s economic rise. Then we blew it, and the latest O.E.C.D. report underscores how the rest of the world is eclipsing us.
In effect, the United States has become 19th-century Britain: We provide superb education for elites, but we falter at mass education.

We were pre-eminent in mass education and now we are not. Here is why we were pre-eminent in mass education. Our system was designed to train the masses to be factory workers. 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.”

And now, we don’t have any factories. Should we still strive to lead the world in mass education?
Kristof also wrote this:
The United States is devoting billions of dollars to compete with Russia militarily, but maybe we should try to compete educationally. Russia now has the largest percentage of adults with a university education of any industrialized country — a position once held by the United States, although we’re plunging in that roster.
We have been pushing everyone to go to college in this country for many years. The result is that college has become about football, partying, and suffering through lectures to accumulate credits for the degree. It also leaves students with large amounts of debt. It is mass education all right. 1000 people crammed into a lecture hall is mass education, except it isn’t education at all really.
What the US should strive to do is lead the world in   -- individualized education. I am sure Russia is good at treating everyone as a cog in the wheel of the great machine. Maybe that is even good for their economy. I don’t know. But mass education is a terrible thing to be hoping for. We have no more factories and what students learn in college usually does not render them particularly employable. 
On ether hand we have the ability to do individualized education now. We can match mentors to students online. We can offer courses chosen by students as opposed to one’s required by faculty. We cab help students learn what they want to learn when they want to learn it. We can help employers find employes by allowing them to offer education that leads to employment. The one size fits all concept of education that has dominated the US for the last 125 years needs to go.

To create individualized education, we need to start spending money on it. E can and should build all kinds of learn by doing experiences for children so they can try them out and see what they might like to do. We must stop shoving the old curriculum down everyone’s throats and stop assuming that education for the masses is actually a good thing. 
More from Kristof:
In effect, the United States has become 19th-century Britain: We provide superb education for elites, but we falter at mass education.
What the elites that Kristof refers to in his article have, is the opportunity to get some individualized education. That opportunity should be available to all, but it won’t be as long as we spend money on mass testing instead of new curricula and new ways of teaching.
The Times just seems to love the word massive. They have been touting MOOCs which are just lectures without a professor around to talk with. Apparently the Times now wants to make sure that the masses are sufficiently educated. The usual reason for mass education throughout history has been to prevent revolution. The Communists and Nazis were very good at mass education.
Individualized education Nick. Its coming. Ask any homeschooler.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The big education debate in Florida. Really? Can any candidate think about education at all?

In general, when I hear that politicians are discussing education, I am wildly skeptical. I live in Florida where there is a gubernatorial contest going on and the word education keeps coming up. I would love to see a debate about education, so I checked into what the Miami Herald was saying about this education ”debate.”
Here is the headline and a link to the article:
Reviewing the record of Charlie Crist, Gov. Rick Scott on education
Here are some lines from this article followed by my comments:
Education has been one of the most divisive topics in this year’s contest. 
Wow! Education is a divisive topic. Good to hear it. Who is against Common Core? Who is against standardized testing? Which one is for not grading teachers by how well their students do on tests? Which one is for letting students out of the standard curriculum in order to pursue their own passions?  Who is against pushing everyone to go to college?  Who wants to allowing training in actual job related areas to take place? Who thinks algebra is a waste of time? Who thinks the 1892 curriculum ought to be abandoned?

Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican Party of Florida have defended his record on education while bashing the record of his rival, Democratic front-runner and former Gov. Charlie Crist.
Who has something they want to say about educational change and not about how they are right?
Most of the attacks and claims about education have related to funding — and they have covered the gamut from preschool through college.
Funding? Really? The issue is how much money goes into a school so that they can buy newer textbooks? Or helping get more money for sports teams? Or repairing buildings? The schools are broken, I know, but funding is not the issue. It costs nothing to get rid of the FCATs. In fact $300 million a year is spent just on grading the FCATs. Get rid of the FCATs. There, I just found money for education.
Crist often says that per-pupil funding for K-12 students was higher under his watch. During a July interview with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, Crist said that despite the state’s current surplus, Scott “still hasn’t matched what I did during the recession for per-pupil funding for kids. In fact, he’s about $200 less.”
Wow. Terrific Mr Crist. what did that $200 go towards?
During his announcement speech in St. Petersburg last year, Crist said, “I am proud of my record as the governor investing in public education, and stopping the layoffs of some 20,000 school teachers during the global economic meltdown.”
In Florida, the stimulus dollars affected about 19,000 full-time equivalent jobs for instructional personnel, which included teachers as well as guidance counselors, librarians and audio-visual workers.
Without stimulus dollars, there could have been massive layoffs, though it’s difficult to pinpoint the precise number of teachers. While Crist was a huge stimulus fan, the real credit goes to Congress and Obama. 
I am that happy you may or may not saved some teachers jobs. 
Meanwhile Scott’s campaign in a TV ad blamed Crist for “3,000 teachers laid off.”The number was derived from media reports about possible layoffs, not actual layoffs. Crist and the Republican-led Legislature signed off on budget cuts amid a national recession — and no single politician is responsible for that economic meltdown. Clearly some teachers were laid off, but the ad didn’t prove the actual number and put too much blame on Crist.  
So this is the big issue according to the Miami Herald: someone might or might not have saved some teachers jobs and someone may or may not be telling the truth. This is the big education issue in Florida.
No, folks. The big education issue is whether the schools will continue to be awful in exactly the way they have always been awful.
Here are two quotes to think about:
young men grow up such blockheads in the schools, because they neither see nor hear one single thing connected with the usual circumstances of everyday life

That was written by Gaius Petronius, in the Satyricon.  (2000 years ago more or less)
Over a 1000 years later, the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne wrote this:

Our teachers never stop talking, as if they were pouring water into a funnel. Our task is only to repeat what they tell us. Teachers need to stop doing this and instead begin to have the student try to do things, choose among options, make decisions for themselves, and let them find their own way. Schools want to take different students who have different ways of thinking and make them take the same courses and tests. It is no wonder that most children really learn nothing from this experience. I wish that actors or dancers could teach us to do what they do, simply by performing before us, without us moving from our seats. I wish that we could be taught to cook, or to play the piano, or learn to sing, without practicing at it. School wants to teach us to judge well and speak well without having us practice either speaking or judging.

Could someone who wants to be governor think about making school more relevant to real life, more likely to help people get actual jobs, and less of teachers talking, and testing, with more doing? These ideas have been around for a long time Mr Crist and Mr Scott. Could you stop arguing about nonsense and actually talk about education -- maybe for just an hour?

The schools you are arguing about are boring and irrelevant. Ask any kid.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Some of the dumbest remarks on education ever (by Bill Gates); My replies

Bill Gates on education: 
My replies:

He cited as a model unnamed Asian countries, which he said have pared down their standards so they give kids “nice, thin textbooks” and focus on teaching fewer concepts in more depth. “And what are the results? Well, they spend far, far less money and get far, far better results,”

Translation: China has better test scores than the U.S. Are these the results that matter? Then why are Chinese students trying desperately to get into U.S. schools? Is it possible Bill, that you have no idea what you are talking about?

 He said he thought of Common Core as “a technocratic issue,” akin to making sure all states use the same type of electrical outlet.

Translation: Gates wants to plug every kid into a place where they can work as effective parts of the machine. No differences will be tolerated. Curiously, this was exactly the plan in 1900 when the U.S. schools were designed. The goal was to make compliant factory workers.

“Common Core is, to me, a very basic idea that kids should be taught what they’re going to be tested on and that we should have great curriculum material,”

Translation: Teaching to the test is now official U.S. doctrine. Teaching is not a discussion but the ramming in of facts. One might ask: “which facts?” That is easy: the ones decided upon by Charles Eliot in 1892. Great plan Bill. By the way, facts aren’t actually what matters. Clear thinking matters. Oh, except on tests. Bill, did you take a test that allowed you to start a company? No? Then maybe some other skills might be needed in order to learn to do that eh? Did you learn to do that at Harvard?

 “We didn’t know when the last time was that somebody introduced a new course into high school,” Gates told me. “How does one go about it? What did the guy who liked biology — who did he call and say, ‘Hey, we should have biology in high school?’ It was pretty uncharted territory. But it was pretty cool.”

Answer: It was 1892; Nothing new has happened since in curriculum creation. Biology is in there because it was a subject at Harvard in 1892. Not a great reason, Bill. Good luck with getting it out of the curriculum. Oh, but you want everyone to memorize the names of phyla.

Gates recounted getting a bad grade in an eighth-grade geography course (“They paired me up with a moron, and I realized these people thought I was stupid, and it really pissed me off!”) and the only C-plus he ever received, in organic chemistry, at Harvard (“I’m pretty sure. I’d have to double-check my transcript. I think I never ever got a B ever at Harvard. I got a C-plus, and I got A’s!”).

Response: Everyone should be you Bill because you are the greatest. I only got C’s in college. Maybe that’s why I have the perspective that grades don’t matter and creativity does. What did Microsoft ever create? Should everyone in the U.S. go to Harvard and get A’s Bill? (Except your moron friend.) Is that your plan? Or might there be room for other types of people than you, and other kinds of interests than yours or Charles Eliot's?
Common Core, the idea that what you should know at various grades, that that should be well-structured and you should really insist on kids knowing something so you can build on it, I did not really expect that to become a big political issue."
Response: Why not Bill? Here is one explanation. Because you know nothing about education and think everyone is like you and should learn what you learned (which of course had nothing to do with your success.) Allowing the possibility that a kid could follow his or her own interests? Nah. Too much like having different kinds of plugs and sockets.
Gates said that one improvement colleges should make is to cut down on the number of lecturers and focus on the select few who are the best at talking about their fields.
How about having no lectures? Nah. Lectures are wonderful. No one remembers them; everyone is sleeping or texting to their friends. But let's have lectures anyway. They worked so well in the Middle Ages when no one could read. Lectures are about money, Bill. Lots of students in the class paying big tuitions is a revenue model. You don’t mention it, but you must love MOOCs too. Soon all the professors can be fired and we can all listen to the best MOOCs.

“If you have a high SAT score going in, [the university] is not going to make you dumber. I’d like to see an output measure. I’d like to see a university and say, ‘We took kids with a 400 SAT score and they were super smart when they left our university,’ not, ‘We were sure they were smart when they came in, and we didn’t damage them.”

Response: Wonderful. More measurement! Your friends would like doing that measurement and making lots of money from it. Why not have college be just a giant test taking party? Let’s eliminate talking with professors who can guide you on a project or seminars where one can learn to express one’s point of view and get smarter by arguing. Let all colleges students simply prepare all day for the exit exam. That will be just wonderful Bill.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

MOOCs, the XPRIZE join many others who will never change education

I have been in Computer Science nearly all my life, but I didn’t get interested in education until the early 1980’s. I looked at was going in computers and education work at that time and was unimpressed. Those who were doing that sort of work seemed mostly interested in tutoring programs that helped kids do algebra better or taping and sending out lectures in what was called distance learning.

I found these thing totally uninteresting and began to think about how to really use the power of the computer to build simulations or games or activities that would excite kids about learning. But, it was hard to get schools or publishers interested in what I was doing because they were committing to making no changes whatsoever in how education had functioned for the last 1000 years.

Well that was 35 years ago. What has changed? Nothing it seems. There was the MOOC craze, which is a different way of taping lectures. Fortunately this craze seems to be over.

This appeared in the Chronicle of High Education today:

Optimism About MOOCs Fades in Campus IT Offices

So, thats nice, nothing good will happen online for a while because of MOOCs, but we can stop pretending that education is about listening to lectures and passing tests and go back to thinking about how real learning has always been about trying to do something you want to do and having someone available who knows more than you do who is willing to help you do it. (Sometimes these are called teachers.)

But then I read this:

New $15 million Global Learning XPRIZE wants to disrupt education as we know it

Wow! Great! Someone with real money wants to change education. Oh, wait. Too soon to get excited. This is what they are worried about:

As Diamandis emphasizes, what’s needed is a new way of thinking about education if we plan to educate tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of children: “Traditional models of learning are not scalable,” Diamandis said. “We simply cannot build enough schools or train enough teachers, which brings us to a pivotal moment where an alternative, radical approach is necessary.”
So, traditional models of education, (kids packed into classrooms all doing the same stuff despite their interests and being made to pass tests and listen to lectures) are not scalable! Right. That was the problem. If only we could have more of that stuff that has made children miserable for 2000 years:

“I believe that school makes complete fools of our young men, because they see and hear nothing of ordinary life there” Petronius Arbiter  (said in the year 60)
And, there won’t be any more teachers if the XPRIZE has its way:

“there won’t be teachers the way we think of teachers today. Even students learning autonomously will require much more peer-to-peer learning, in which students armed with apps and tablets teach each other about the world. Finally, there won’t necessarily be “courses” or “learning modules” involved in the next iteration of educational innovation. There will be software and apps, and it will be up to the prize teams to define exactly what these do.”
Their intention, as I understand it, is to eliminate the only things that matter in learning. These are, in my opinion:

  1. a goal
  2. a person who can help you more clearly define that goal
  3. people to work with towards that goal
  4. new goals that come from having accomplished that goal
  5. being able to fail and get help
  6. being able to write about and talk about what you have done
  7. fielding reactions from those who can help you improve what you have done
  8. getting help in thinking about what else you might accomplish

Instead they want kids on tablets using apps to learn the same old crap we have always been teaching but this time they are on their own. Yea!

I believe that learning is a conversation, as I have said in this space before. Technology is helpful to the extent that it lets you try to do things you might not have been capable of doing before. Design an airplane, start a business, plan a career, invent something. These require teachers (or mentors) and plans of attack and simulations, and expert advice. Now I still believe that technology can save education, but we need to define more reasonable goals

“We’re aiming at kids who live in villages where there’s nothing. This has to take them from complete illiteracy to basic reading, writing and numeracy.”
Or to put this another way, yet again, someone is trying to teach the same old junk. There is nothing wrong with learning reading, writing, and arithmetic. There is a problem with every subject taken after third grade however. The only thing that is good about the first three grades (apart from the 3 R’s) is the presence of the teacher. The teacher is what they want to eliminate.

Here is an idea. The best use of technology in today’s world would be to hook up those who want to learn with someone who wants to to teach them. You could learn a language on line by talking to someone who speaks that language on Skype. You could learn how to start a business by talking with business experts and discussing your plans. You could learn to think out and discuss complex ideas in a Socratic seminar lead by.... a teacher. The real value of the computer in today’s world is that everyone is connected. And, there are a lot experts (people my own age, who have little to do for example) who would be happy to mentor kids who wanted to do things that were not part of the existing school systems. The XPRIZE,  I assume, will soon have a prize for the computer that tutors algebra most efficiently and we will be back to where we started.