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Monday, September 26, 2016

Our kids are being badly treated by school and newspapers act like nothing terrible is happening

Must we continue to make kids miserable in school? It seems every day we find new ways to accomplish this. The New York Post (a paper I read because they cover the sports teams that I follow) had this to say yesterday:

Good news: The State Education Department is doing the right thing, recommending only innocuous changes to the math and English standards in the controversial Common Core curriculum. 

How this is good news I don’t know since Common Core means that every kid must learn the same things so that kid’s can become the same, just like “compatible electrical sockets” (Those are Bill Gates’ words, not mine.) I suppose we would all die if one kid decided to follow his or her own interests and those interests were different than the kid next to them. Oh My God! A kid might not know the Quadratic Formula! (Hardly any adults know it or use it… but who cares?)

Back to the NY Post

The Common Core national academic standards outline the knowledge and skills that every student should have in math and English at the end of each grade.  Clear, universal standards make it easier to see which kids — and which schools and school systems — are falling behind. And that’s a threat to certain special interests — above all, teachers unions and their allies, who’ve done their best to feed hysteria over Common Core.

No, NY Post. There is nothing that every kid must know. Teachers unions and anyone with half a brain, except, of course, the politicians and special testing interests who passed this nonsense know this.

The goal of school ought not be to make it easier to see which schools and school systems are falling behind. We are not in a World Cup competition in education. The competition that we have put people in, unfortunately, is to get their kids into a “good college,” and parents trip over one another making sure their kid is “doing well.” 

We might measure how well they are doing by how happy they are, by how much they can’t wait to get to school that day, by how much a school lets a kid set his or her own goals and then helps them achieve them. No. That would be too rational. School is a triathlon isn’t it? We want winners and losers. 

I was one of the those winners. I went to a special smart kids high school in New York and I got into a “good college.” I did it by blowing school off and letting the chips fall where they might. Today, I doubt I could get away with that. Instead of playing baseball and football which is what I did as soon as I got home from school each day, today I would have to study to cram facts into my head that I would never need to know ever again. I would never have been able to satisfy Bill Gates, the Common Core Standards, nor the New York Post. (Oddly, The New York Times and the New York Post agree about Common Core which makes one wonder just how much money is out there pushing all this.)

To see the rest of this article go to this link:

I was nauseous enough from seeing the NY Post article but then I saw this:

The following appeared in the Washington Post yesterday:

As kindergarten ratchets up academics, parents feel the stress

Jo Ann Bjornson spent her early childhood in the care of babysitters until it came time for her to board the bus to school for half-day classes, an event that came with little fanfare. For her daughter Isabella, the days before kindergarten started this month included structured preschool, a bevy of summer camps and months of agonizing over whether the smart, sensitive 5-year-old was academically and socially ready to start school.

Kindergarten, where children were once encouraged to play and adjust to the rhythms of the school day, has long been evolving. But many parents new to modern-day elementary schooling say they have been shocked to find their children in a pressure cooker of rigorous academics, standardized tests, homework and what seem like outrageous expectations.

Huh?  Kids are getting anxious about kindergarten? Why is that a good thing?

The nation’s earliest grade — if you don’t count pre-K — now comes with packed orientation nights, school tours, Twitter chats, warnings to make sure children brush up on their skills and “dress rehearsals.” Some parents have come to view the first year of school not as a transition but as a make-or-break gauntlet that will shape their child’s academic career.

What are parents nervous about exactly? The competition. They are afraid their kids will lose — whatever that means — and they will be doomed forever. Has no one ever heard of kids who did poorly in school and then did well in life or vice versa? When did school become so important? When did grades and tests became so important? Why are we allowing this?

I should point out that societies have been allowing this for some time. 

This is from the Satyricon written by Petronius in the First Century:

This is the reason, in my opinion, why 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.  

We have been teaching nonsense in schools forever. Why?

Because we allow academics to dictate what kids must know. You must take algebra, geometry, and calculus, in order to get into Harvard. Why? Because the professors at Harvard don’t care about that stuff and they hope someone else will teach it to you so they don't have to. Then, they hope you want to study theoretical mathematics or physics because that is the stuff they know. Parents who push children to get into college never think about what is really taught there. As far as I can see, going to Harvard allows you to say that you went to Harvard, which impresses many people. But people rarely mention what they learned there.

The other day my 8 year old grandson announced he was going to go to Brown. I asked him: “Why?” “What do they teach there that you want to learn?” Of course he didn’t know. What he did know was that his mother went there. So, I asked his mother what she had learned at Brown that she uses in her daily life. She said “nothing" and then went on to say why it was a wonderful experience. I am sure it was. 

College is fun after all. And you can get to learn some interesting things if what they teach there happens to be of interest to you. Is this a reason that we have to make everyone hysterical about kindergarten?

Something is really wrong here.

We need to find a new approach to education.

We might start with asking newspapers to stop promoting all the nonsense that is there now. The we could ask them to press politicians, who did all this, to start talking about. Neither of the candidates ever seems to say anything about education. IT is time to start asking hard questions of politicians about why school can’t be fun and less stressful.

School shouldn’t be a competition. It should allow true exploration and let kids find their way with help from teachers, teachers who are not grading them, but mentoring them. Is that too much to ask?

Monday, September 19, 2016

Is "learning to code" the new way to promote factory job-based education?

Recently, I happened to spend some time with the back office software development groups of two major financial institutions.This would have been unremarkable except that the same week, Tim Cook, of Apple, was busy announcing that schools would be improved by Apple’s  “everyone can learn to code” program. Now, at first I found Apple’s intention to teach every kid to code unremarkable. Apple can say it is doing something for education when it is really making sure it will be able to sell more MacBooks to all these coders. Nothing new here.

I was amused when President Obama said that everyone should learn to code, since while I am guessing that Cook can code, I am pretty sure Obama cannot, so why does he care? And, what does he actually know about coding?

Now, I confess to thinking 30 or 40 years ago, that learning to code helped one learn to think. The students in my AI classes who couldn’t code typically just didn’t get what we were talking about — kind of like the writers who write about AI today.  

I used to say that thinking algorithmically was pretty important for thinking in general. In my undergraduate classes I often had a graduate student play “robot” and told the students in class to give the robot orders. What happened was always pretty funny because the students (who could not code) never really understood that the “robot” couldn’t interpret what they meant. They would tell him or her what to do and they were orders that couldn't be executed because the “robot” took everything quite literally and would just “get stuck” with orders that were imprecise. What anyone who programs learns is that you can’t just say something nonspecific and then hope that a miracle will occur. You have to spell out every step and you have to think about the best way to say those steps. So, coding just enables clear thinking and precise communication.

Having said that however I am usually cynical about “everyone should learn to do this" statements and have been getting more and more cynical about this.

Then, last week, I got it.

In my most recent column I quoted this:

Edward Cubberly, Dean of the Stanford University School of Education around 1900):

"Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of twentieth-century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down."

So, the quote was on my mind when I was visiting the software development groups of these companies. “Everyone should learn to code” is the new way of saying we need to create compliant factory workers and that the real purpose of school is to make sure that we are training people for the “factory jobs” of the future. 

While this is not a terrible idea, one has to see what the programmers at these institutions are actually doing. They are monitoring, responding to bug reports, and trying to update legacy code that supports the internal workings of their institutions. In other words, it is rather dull work. 

Now dull work is better than no work, but we have glamorized coding so that we imagine everyone who learns to code will be building the next great app. And some, no doubt, some will. I am sure that some of the people we trained to be factory workers actually learned to run the factory and some people invented new methods and tools and new factories as well.

My immigrant grandmother worked in a sweat shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I assure you this wasn’t the best time of her life. She was very bright, but as an immigrant a sweat shop seamstress was her only option. Eventually she opened and ran her own hotel, and as she used to say, it was all so that I could become a Professor. 

Many of the people programming in these institutions are from other counties where a job in the US programming seems pretty glamorous.

But, I just think it needs to be pointed out that the more things change, the more they stay the same. It is still the plan of CEOs and politicians to make sure that people will be able to do dull jobs. Maybe they aren’t wrong about that. Every job can’t be interesting, and every economy needs to be able to provide jobs for its people. 

But I am tired of this kind of stuff being promoted as a sign of how wonderful the people who are helping change education are. Tim Cook and President Obama are no different than Edward Cubberly. They are all trying to ensure that  “it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.”

And school will continue to be an awful experience designed by people who really do not care if children are miserable and poorly served. Not everyone will become a programmer after all.

Monday, September 5, 2016

"Save Me": a 15 year old girl writes to me about the misery of school

I received this by e-mail today from a 15 year old girl in Central America:

                                 Today my school had a meeting for all tenth graders in which they attempted to terrify us  (and succeeded) by telling us that this year was the most important of our lives and that if we didn't know what we wanted to be we were in for a life of starvation and eternal damnation, but chill, "we can still turn the situation around". Afterwards when I got home my dad had to listen to the complaints and frustrations of my fifteen year old self, but this time instead of trying to advise me he passed me his computer in which he had open an interview in El Pais. An interview with Roger Schank, where he said (in fancy words) that the education system was bullshit (pardon the foul languaqe, you see as a teenager I feel the need to fill everyones expectations and cliches about me). 
     The thing is, I completely agreed. Not in the way of an angry adolescent girl who hates homework, but as a concerned citizen of a country who constantly reinforces the idea that their education is shit by having kids in 8th grade who don't know how to read, or college students in their second year who have already switched majors twice. It makes me angry, in all honesty. The way we teach in our schools isn't the way I think you create successful (and happy) adults, it's the way you create the society we've had until now. 
    When I was five someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my first answer was princess (obviously) but my second one was doctor-soldier-veterinarian-actress-singer-teacher. I later found out that not only was that not a real profession, but that I had to pick one of those. And it seemed so hard, there were so many problems I wanted to fix in the world and I couldn't comprehend how it was that I had to choose at best two. So I made a decision: if I can't solve everything in the world, I can at least educate the people who can. Being a teacher was my main choice, but then I thought that I would have to be a teacher of a system I didn't believe in and didn't trust. So I decided recently that I want to change that system.
     I dream big and naively, I know. But how else do people get things done? So when I read your article, my hopes went up: there was someone out there with my same ideas! Someone who I hadn't talked to but that somehow shared my beliefs. So I got excited.
     The truth is, I started thinking about this because a teacher scared me half to death, but it feels bigger now, more important. And I want to act on it, I don't want to grow up and 30 years later find out that I'm an office worker unhappy in life and that hasn't done anything to improve this world. Because that's my main goal now: leave a positive mark here. So I should be wrapping up by now, so I will; I wrote this email to ask you one question (with possibly many follow-ups): How do I become you? What do I study to get into that life of education?
     I realize now that you probably won't read this, or even if you do you have absolutely no obligation to answer the silly email of a 15 year old girl in Central America. But I had to give it a shot. As long as it might be.
Thank you for sticking to what you believe in and for giving me at least a glimmer of hope towards a potential future.

I find this letter unbelievably sad. And the solution is so simple. We can build a virtual world academy that allows students to learn experientially with a human mentor (who might be anywhere, always available, that relies on team projects so kids are not working alone.) Want to try being a doctor? Be one in a virtual world until you are tired of it, and now want to run a zoo, or build a business, or learn to program. Let kids learn what they want to learn in curricula design by professionals. How hard is it to do this? It requires work and maybe a couple of hundred million dollars. Mark Zuckerberg could fund it in a minute. The US congress could fund it in a minute. (I once asked a US senator about this and he said: “well we could just build one less missile.”)

But we never do it. We just let kids be miserable, or, we use school for it’s true intention: indoctrination. The Washington Post reported today on the countries in Europe that are teaching that their students need to make more babies, by which they mean they don’t want to be overrun by foreigners. The true purpose of the school has always been making kids behave according to the current party line.

To quote Edward Cubberly, Dean of the Stanford University School of Education around 1900):

"Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of twentieth-century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down."

We can, and must, address the needs of girls like this and kids everywhere.