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Thursday, August 13, 2015

Pragmatic university education is coming soon

This is not my usual “outrage” article; I am not outraged. I am excited.

Something I have been advocating for years seems actually to be happening.

Twenty years ago, when companies barely understood training via computer much less online training, I was out there trying to make them understand that something new was happening. Twenty years later, training via computer is the norm, but I can't say that I am impressed with what the results. Too often it is still the CBT of old, all about reading, page turning and answering questions. (But now there is animation!)

But, I am not writing about that.

Also, 20 years ago I was talking to the companies with whom we were working about a bizarre situation that I had hoped they would try to fix.  

When we worked with engineering companies, for example, I would take note that their normal procedure was to hire engineering graduates and then train them how to do engineering in a way that was useful for the company.

While this sounds reasonable, it wasn’t. 

At the time, I was on the Engineering faculty of Northwestern, so I would say, why don’t you tell Northwestern what you want in a graduate and help them build a curriculum that would allow you to abandon these massive training facilities that take new engineering graduates and train them all over again?

They refused to consider this. When they did talk to me about it, they usually said that Northwestern (or any Engineering School) wouldn’t go for it. They were, of course, right. 

All university have faculty who feel they know exactly want students should learn and they don’t really care that that isn't what the companies that hire them want in a new graduate.  They justify this by saying they are trying to teach theoretical concepts that will last a student a long time and that they do not work for companies that have particular interests.

I used to be astonished for example, while I was at Yale, that while Microsoft hired nearly of all our Computer Science graduates (this was in the early 1980’s), they then had to teach team how to do the things that Yale faculty found unimportant to teach. Today the world is only slightly different. In fact, the Yale Computer Science students were recently protesting that Google didn't want to hire them because the faculty wasn’t teaching things that made them hireable by Google. 

What a surprise! I was once the Chairman of that department and know full well the difficulty of telling  such a faculty what to teach.

I often wonder why Microsoft didn't create a curriculum and offer it itself with an agreement to hire the graduates of that curriculum. The answer, I suppose, is that this would have infuriated university computer scientists with whom Microsoft wanted to have good relationships. (There are a lot of “Gates Buildings” that house Computer Science departments around the country.) Faculty “know” what students need to know. Companies know nothing.  

But then something weird happened. A not very well known university, one that wants to become better known, started discussions with big companies that are located near them about what their training needs were. The companies are engineering companies that had some highly technical skills they need their employees to learn, and fast. The university does not have a famous engineering school. What they do have is a pragmatic approach to education, which in this case meant contacting me and my team to ask for help. We met with the companies and designed a learn by doing online curriculum that works perfectly for them (they were part of the design team after all). The university wants very much to do this and there are no faculty to say why they know more than the companies about what skills to teach. 

So, what we have is an aggressive university that wants to compete by offering high quality pragmatic education designed by employers who will immediately hire their graduates.

(I can hear my old friend Bart Giamatti screaming from the great beyond: we don’t do training at Yale, Roger.)

This is indeed the future of education.  (Sorry, Bart.) You can only have so many liberal arts curricula and so many faculty who are out of touch with what companies actually need and what employers want.

School needs to be of some use. (Yale and Northwestern not think so, but try asking an English major about what happened to them after college.) Professors all agree on producing people who can think, but this only rarely turns out to be true.  Analyzing literature in not a key thinking skill. (In any case, building a machine that works also requires complex thinking.) This elitist view of education has to stop. Humanities faculty always looked down the noses at Engineering faculty. It never made any sense to me.

I am happy to say that I beginning to believe that change is coming. It sounds very anti-academic to say that employers should dictate university curricula. I know that. But think about it for a while. (Imagine a world in which high schools taught practical employable skills instead of the 1892 curriculum designed by Harvard.)

I am hopeful.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Reading and Math are very important, but I am not sure why: a message for those who can't see very well

My daughter recently wrote an article about how her vision-impaired daughter was being treated by the NYC education system. She is a smart kid and my daughter wanted her to be in the smart kid class. But, since she can't see all that well, it was difficult for her to pass the required tests to get into this class. You can read the article here:

My daughter was, and is, concerned with her daughter’s reading ability. In order to pass the tests she needed big print texts. Her daughter reads very well, but that doesn’t mean she can see the tests very well.

But this article is not about my daughter, nor about my granddaughter. It is about reading.

The problem for people who can’t see very well is that they are expected to read a great deal in school and they are therefore in a very difficult situation. The blind have books in Braille and signs in Braille. This sounds reasonable but it really isn’t. What is with this emphasis on reading?

Throughout the history of education, reading has been a big component of the system. Since religions are mostly responsible for how school developed, this is not surprising since religious texts are typically a big part of religion.

When people are concerned with the education of blind children they worry about classrooms that accommodate them, and books that accommodate them, and various teaching materials that can be made to accommodate them.

Now, while my granddaughter does not see very well, I personally have never taken much note of it. Why not? Because I talk to her. She talks to me. She sees well enough to grab my hand when we walk and to notice and deal with things that she encounters. She has lots to say. If this child and been born 5000 years ago, she would not have been expected to go out on a hunt I suppose, but she would work and function well enough with the other kids in the village and could do whatever she wanted to do. She can talk and negotiate in the world. She is very smart. In the ancient world she would never have been seen as being seriously impaired.

But, in our society we have reading and math tests. And then, we have more reading and math tests. We all agree that math is important for reasons that have eluded me and we memorize equations because someone said we have to and then promptly forget them. When I attack math, I have many supporters, but I never win that argument because the tests makers, and book publishers, and the people in charge of the system all think math is very important because it just is. (“It teaches you to think” being the usual argument with no evidence provided.)

So, now, I will make an even more ridiculous argument which will be ignored by most of the population. Reading doesn’t matter either.

There. I said it. Yes, I know we have set up a system where reading matters a great deal. (Indeed, I am part of that system. I write books. I build online courses that require reading, and so on.) In our world, I type this and someone else reads it. The internet has made reading even more important now than it was when I was a kid. When I was kid it was important to read so we could read The Scarlett Letter and A Tale of Two Cities and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, all of which I have forgotten, did not find engaging, and have no idea why I was required to read.

Well, actually, I have a very good idea why I was made to read them. The schools were designed by intellectuals to create more intellectuals. Intellectuals  discuss literature. Maybe they used to discuss mathematics, but they don’t any more. Intellectuals don’t discuss science much so science is on a back burner in schools. Intellectuals do discuss history so history is taught with great devotion.

(As I write this there is noise being made outside my office. It is being made by people who are working — building things. These people go to school too, but school is not meant for people who want to build things or even for those who want to discuss things. It is built to ensure that the people outside my office feel they are failures because they had bad math and reading scores in school.)

As I have said many times before, we teach the wrong things in the wrong way.

What should school look like? No reading, no math. Yes, I know, that is insane. No one could possibly think this. But, give it a shot for a minute.

If there was no reading and no math what would happen in school? Could we let kids do what interests them? (No, I don’t mean video games although anything can serve as an avenue into learning and thinking.)  Could we help them find their interests? If reading interests them, by all means teach them to read. The same with math. My grandson, the brother of the granddaughter who can’t see very well, is set to go off to a math and science middle school. I asked him if he likes math and science. His answer was that he didn’t actually like math and I discerned from what he said about science that he had no idea what science actually was about, thanks to the “science” they teach in school.

When I asked him what interested him, he said “robots.” We talked more and I got the idea that he liked learning how things work and engineering would be his choice if anyone actually gave him that choice.

I can hear the chorus now. “But engineering requires reading and math.” Well, not necessarily. In order to learn how to be an engineer you do not have to read at all. The way people have learned throughout history is from each other and they learn from each other by talking and by asking and by getting good advice.   We have allowed the people who invented schooling to   screw up the natural leaning process which is a combination of talking and trying again. That is what engineering has always looked like. It is also laziness that allows a teacher to tell a student they must read.

I happened to be watching a movie from 1943 the other day, called Princess O’Rourke. In one scene, women were trying to sign up for volunteer work at the Red Cross. The conversation below was between an obviously uneducated lady who wants to sign up and the Red Cross person who is signing people up:

What would you like to do Anna?
I’d like to learn Red Cross
Can you read?

It would be very hard Anna. There are things you’d have to study
You tell me and I will learn

You would be most useful doing what you know. Do what you can do best.
I can do everything. I have nine children

Why would she have to study? Because they didn’t feel like teaching her. They wanted to make it easy for themselves and have her read. And that is why we have kids read. Because we don’t have the time to teach them properly. And since we mostly don’t remember what we read, this is absurd. It is time we realized this.

Any good parent talks to their child. They don’t answer questions by saying “read this.” But the school is about mass education and someone has decided that mass education means attempts to make intellectuals for reasons that elude me.  

Is there math in engineering? Sure. But it needs to be learned as one needs it. When you need it you can  learn it. And you shouldn’t be learning from a book anyway. Socrates and I agree on that one:

Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. 

This obsession with reading and mathematics is just that, a convenient obsession that keeps the test makers happy and makes kids miserable. 

There should be a school for the blind that has no reading in it. There could just be talking, and reasoning, and planning, understanding causation, and all the other cognitive processes I have discussed in Teaching Minds. My granddaughter would be just fine in a reasonably designed school system. But we don’t have any schools that let kids be kids and learn what they want to learn. We make them study. And that means reading.  

One day we will stop texting and stop writing and go back to talking to each other. We will lose nothing from that evolution. We will still tell stories and still learn from experts. And we will do it without reading. There will be plenty of new media. A thousand years from now no one will be able to figure out what all those strange marks were on all the ancient stuff.