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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

In 1995 I posted the Student's Bill of Rights. What has changed?

More than 20 years ago I wrote something called The Students Bill of Rights. Harold Jarche tweeted it to someone yesterday and I realized it was still available online after all these years. I looked at the list and got very sad. What has changed in that period of time? Here is the list:

  1. No student should have to take a multiple choice test or fill in the blanks test

Something has changed in this area. Things have gotten worse. Now we have Common Core tests, and PISA tests, and every school being judged on how their students do on these tests. (It is a rare adult who could pass any of them.)

2. No student should have to learn something that fails to relate to a skill that is likely to be required after school.

No good news here. We still teach phylla, balancing chemical equations, and the Quadratic Formula. The fact that almost no adult ever uses this hardly seems to matter to anyone in charge.

3. No student should be required to memorize anything that is likely to be will be forgotten in six months.

No change here. Students invariably forget what they learn in school within six months. You cannot recall knowledge without constant practice that uses that knowledge. Since most of what we learn in high school we do not use later, it is mostly forgotten.

4. No student should be required to take a course where the goals of that course do not relate to the goals of the student.

Good luck with changing this. Common Core and Ivy League admissions standards have taken all choice out of the hands of the student. Don’t want to take algebra? Too bad. Not interested in History? We don’t care. Now we have added coding to that list, which is almost certainly something hardly anyone will have to do in real life.

5. No student should have to spend time passively watching or listening to someone unless there is a longer period that is devoted to doing something related to what was heard or seen.

This has simply gotten worse. Thank to MOOCs there are now more people promoting lectures.   “Online” education mostly involves listening, and reading, and answering questions. Doing is less important in school now than it was 20 years ago and it wasn’t very important then. We used to teach trade related things in school, for example. Now that everyone has to go to college, good luck with finding an electrician.

6. No student should have to jump through arbitrary  hoops decided upon by a teacher or a school system.

No change. Things are simply worse than ever in that regard. Personalized learning which should mean we will help you learn what you want to learn, really means we will keep hammering on you in order to make sure you pass the test.

7. No student should be required to continue to study something that he or she has already mastered.

There has been some change here. Mastery learning is an accepted idea and some schools are allowing students to show they have mastered something and then allow them to push on after that. But, unfortunately that mastery is usually demonstrated by a multiple choice test.

8. No student should be required to learn something unless there is the possibility of that student being able to experiment in school with what he or she has learned.

We rarely let students go out on their own to try things, which is sad because in the age of sophisticated computers they could go out and try things without leaving school. But the idea of allowing students to experiment (by that I do not mean running an experiment where it is already known how it turns out) is rarely tried.

9. No student should be barred from engaging in activities that interest him or her because  of some breadth requirements defined by the school.

Why does a college require Art History of all students? Real reason: because they don’t want to have to fire the art history faculty because no one is interested in the courses they teach. So their courses are required. My son was prevent from taking transportation related course (which was, and is, his main interest) by Columbia University because they required that he take something called ArtHum. I told him to blow it off and he got way with it, but this isn’t always easy to do. Breadth requirements are always about making sure that there are students for faculty to each so that they can retain their jobs.

10. No student should be placed in the situation of having to air his or her views on a subject where the opposing view is not also well represented.

Arguing and defending one’s ideas is something one could, and should, learn in school. But there is almost  always a right answer that the teacher believes in, or the school system believes in, or that the other kids will try to enforce. School should be a place where you can say what you want without penalty. If anything, this situation has gotten worse with the advent of safe spaces and political correctness.

School is all about marching in step rather than about self discovery. This is very sad. The enforcers of this in the U.S. are the Ivy League colleges. They define what every student must take in high school and continue with that rigidity through the first few years of college. Freedom to learn what you want, when you want, is what school should be about, but it simply isn't easy to find places that allow that.

Online education, conceived correctly, can allow students to choose from any number of things that can be learned by doing. But, professors do not want change. They like not having to really work at teaching.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Meghan Markle's Big Test

I was amused by the news that Meghan Markle needs to take a UK citizenship test in order to marry  her Prince.   The NY Times printed one for us so we could know what she had to learn:

Here are my favorite questions. I like them because  I don't know the answers to them.  I believe they are beyond idiotic and in no way a test of whether is one is fit to be a citizen:

The Union Jack contains which cross?
St. George’s
St. Peter’s
St. John’s
St. Thomas's

How long did the Hundred Years War actually last?
99 years
116 years
200 years
75 years

Which is not a cricket term?
Maiden over
Sticky wicket
Virgin bat
Bowled a googly

Who built the Tower of London?
Dame Zaha Hadid
William the Conqueror
Sir Norman Foster
Lancelot “Capability” Brown

The Butler Act of 1944 did what?
Enshrined into law the rights of butlers to have first pick of a cottage on the land of their employers upon retirement
Establish a lifetime pension for servants of the monarchy
Provided free education for servants’ children
Provided free secondary school education for all children in England and Wales

Where was Shakespeare born?
Essex, England
Gloucestershire, England
Stratford-upon-Avon, England
Manchester, England

The British Royal Navy fought the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 against:
The combined French and Spanish navies

Why do Britons eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday?

To begin the new season of “The Great British Bake Off”
To honor Ireland
To use up all the eggs, milk and fat in the home before fasting for Lent
To prepare for marathons

The distance between John O’Groats on the north coast of Scotland and Land’s End in the southwest of England is:
870 miles
1,000 miles
650 miles
999 miles

What did the Chartists campaign for in the 1800s?
Women’s right to vote
The right to vote for 18-year-olds
To raise the voting age to 21
The right to vote for all men, including those from the working class

What’s not true about British television?
U.K. households need a TV license to watch live TV, even on a computer or smartphone
You can be fined up to 1,000 pounds if you watch live TV without a license
Blind people get a 50 percent discount for a TV license
The BBC is the second-largest broadcaster in the world

In the 1960s, when a woman got married, it was not unusual for:
The church to demand she no longer work
Her employer to cut her wages
Her employer to shower her with maternity pay and child-care vouchers
Her employer to ask her to quit her job

Of course I am not British but I have spent a fair amount of time in the U.K. Oddly none of this ever came up. Just to be clear, we have a citizenship test in the U.S. too, which is just stupid. Here are some questions from it:

What is the "rule of law"?

A Everyone but the President must follow the law.
B Government does not have to follow the law.
C Everyone must follow the law.
D All laws must be the same in every state.

What is one thing Benjamin Franklin is famous for?

A youngest member of the Constitutional Convention
B inventor of the airplane
C third president of the United States
D U.S. diplomat

The House of Representatives has how many voting members?

A four hundred thirty-five (435) 
B four hundred forty-one (441)
C two hundred (200)
D one hundred (100)

What ocean is on the East Coast of the United States?
A Atlantic Ocean
B Indian Ocean
C Pacific Ocean
D Arctic Ocean

What territory did the United States buy from France in 1803?

A the Louisiana Territory
B Alaska
C Hawaii
D Quebec

I happen to be staring at the above mentioned ocean as I write this. I know its name, so I could pass the test, but how is that something that indicates that I am a good citizen of the U.S.? Wouldn't the real questions be whether I was willing to help my country if called upon to do so, and if I am good local citizen, a good neighbor for example, someone willing to help others in their time of need? I am rather sure that terrorists know the name of the oceans bordering the U.S. I am also quite sure that not knowing the number of representatives in the House means absolutely nothing with respect to being a good citizen.

So what are they really asking Meghan Markle to do? First they are asking her to make up for the fact that she didn't study British history in high school. What did she miss out on by growing up in the U.S.? Here are thing she surely missed out on learning:

1.Who the chartists were

I had no idea. Then I did something radical. I Googled it. Now I know. Except I have already forgotten it because I don’t care.

2. The distance between someplace in the U.K. to another place in the U.K.

I will not Google that. How could that possibly matter to me (or to Meghan)?

3. Who built the Tower of London.

I have been there are few times so I guess some tour guide mentioned it, but here again I don’t care. Should Meghan care?

Now, that is the real question. I can well see that the British might care that Meghan know a great deal about the new country she will be living in and representing. The questions in this test might actually matter to her in her new life. But to every immigrant wanting to become a British citizen? That makes no sense at all.

Yes, we have school. And school is about indoctrination. So what the demand that she pass this test is really about is that it would look funny if she didn’t know the stuff that every British school child has had to memorize.

It does make sense for her to learn some British history. And certainly she needs to know that she will need a license for her TV in the U.K. because surely that will be her responsibility in her new castle.

Of course, the real question is that if you are going to make people take a citizenship test, which makes no sense, but governments are rarely trying to make sense, what should be on it? Here are some suggestions.

  1. Questions about empathy for others
  2. Questions about one’s willingness to sacrifice for others
  3. Questions about one’s responsibilities in society
  4. Questions about one’s country’s responsibilities in the world 
  5. Questions about what a citizen can do to take action on things that he or she cares about.
  6. Questions about one’s civil rights and protections offered by the government .

There are things citizens should know about their new country. But these tests are pure nonsense, as is every multiple choice test that has ever been created. In real life we don’t take quizzes. As I have said before, the only government agency that gets it about tests is the bureau that issues drivers licenses and they only half get it. They have two tests. One that is completely idiotic, and another that actually tests to see if you can drive. 

The time has come to abandon multiple choice tests in every area of life, forever. Put people in situations (in simulation, or in real life) and see if they can do it.  No one needs to know how long the Hundred Year War lasted. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Sexual Harassment Training? You must be kidding me

I feel inspired to tell an old story because of a story I read in the Washington Post yesterday:

What’s the point of sexual harassment training? Often, to protect employers.

Here is one paragraph from that article:

Unfortunately, there is little evidence that training reduces sexual harassment. Rather, training programs, along with anti-harassment policies and reporting procedures, do more to shield employers from liability than to protect employees from harassment. And the clearest message they send is to the courts: Nothing to see here, folks.

About 20 years ago, my company had a contract for building training (it wasn’t then called e-learning) on the computer for a company which was at the time one of the biggest technology firms in the world. We built a lot of things for them that they liked a great deal. Then, they asked us to build a sexual harassment training course. My model for building courses was, and is, to create as realistic a simulation as we can so trainees can try and fail. Then, and now, I believed that we learn by doing and cannot learn from being told. But, this contract presented a problem.

What could we build? The obvious choice was to build a fictional attractive woman and then put the student in a situation where he might want to harass her in some way. This idea was so profoundly stupid that there was no way we would build that. We needed to think of something else.

We often hear about training that works great to deal with compliance issues. Here is something  I found in the National Review on diversity training:

In the United States, it’s just a fact that you’re supposed to arrive on time to your appointments. According to materials from a diversity-training course at Clemson University, it’s culturally insensitive to expect people to show up on time because “time may be considered fluid” in some cultures. Clemson’s “Diversity Benefits for Higher Education” initiative — which cost the school more than $25,000, according to Campus Reform — presents its participants with slides featuring hypothetical scenarios, and asks them to select the correct, culturally sensitive action from a list of options. “Alejandro scheduled a 9:00 a.m. meeting with two groups of visiting professors and students from other countries,” one of the scenarios states. “When he arrived, he found that the first group had been waiting for fifteen minutes.” “The second group arrived at 9:10 and wanted to socialize first,” it continues. “What should Alejandro do?”  

The slide then lists three options: 

1.  “Politely ask the second group to apologize.” 

2.  “Explain, ‘In our country, 9:00 a.m. means 9:00 a.m.’” 

 3.  “As the meeting organizer, he should recognize cultural differences that may impact the meeting and adjust accordingly.” 

The correct answer, according to the slide, is option three.

The correct answer, according to the slide, is option three. “Time may be considered precise or fluid depending on the culture,” the slide explains. “For Alejandro to bring three cultures together he must start from a place of respect, understanding that his cultural perspective regarding time is is neither more nor less valid than any other.” Sorry, but — nope.

Sorry to say that that is the kind of “training”  that our client expected. But, sorry, I won’t do it that way. You can’t learn by being told the right answer.
But, you can learn from doing so we had to come up with some doing. 

We decided to “train” students to do something that they would never have to actually do in real life. We trained then to be sexual harassment adjudicators. Cases were presented to them, (both sides of the story) and they had to determine, by consulting the company’s guidelines, whether this was a case of sexual harassment, and if so, what to do about it. It was an interesting course and the students really enjoyed it. Moreover, the company really liked it. They had expected nothing like it. It was fun and it seemed to  work.

Except, well, our point of contact at the client was a very attractive woman. She dressed in a way that called attention to herself. She was also a friend of mine (which is how we got the work.) At the end, she told me that her two male bosses (whom I knew because we were working with them) had been harassing her the entire time that we were building this course.
Compliance training is “often to protect employers”? No. It is always built to protect employers.

This from the Los Angeles Times:

Former Google employee James Damore was supposed to come away enlightened by his diversity training, armed with a newfound sense of empathy for colleagues who did not look like him, a white male.

Instead, the software engineer was so enraged by the experience he decided to write a now-infamous 3,000-word memo on a flight to China railing against Google’s “ideological echo chamber” and arguing that women land fewer tech jobs because of biological differences.

“I went to a diversity program at Google and … I heard things that I definitely disagreed with,” Damore, 28, told Stefan Molyneux, a libertarian podcaster and author. Damore said he had some conversations at the program, but “there was a lot of, just, shaming — ‘No, you can’t say that, that’s sexist’; ‘You can’t do this.’… There’s just so much hypocrisy in a lot of the things that they’re saying.”

Much of what companies build for training purposes is just meant to tell employees the “truth.” But, it turns out you can tell people anything you want to tell them, but they are likely to forget it, they may often disagree with it, and you aren’t going to change their prejudices or natural inclinations by talking at them. But, we are really used to this kind of “education"  (which I like to refer to as TT&TT tell them and test them) so that is what people build.

The issue here is not about compliance training, which is almost always nonsense, but about education itself. We need to get past TT &TT. We need to do it in corporate training, and we need to do it in school. Can we?  Only if we realize that “one size fits all” is not an educational philosophy. People are different and we need to deal with those differences. We don’t have to accept bad behavior, but neither will it go away by TT&TT. It won’t even go away if you build interesting simulated experiences.

What can we do? One method we use is Observe and Critique which we have used for years. A good example can be seen here: (It is training  we built to teach doctors how to talk to their patients about cancer.).

The difference here is obvious. Doctors would like to learn how to talk properly to patients, one would assume. What you cannot assume, is that trainees want to learn what you are teaching them. If they don’t want to learn it, you can be sure they won't learn it. 

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

If you build it they won't come; making the schools change is hard

Yesterday there was announcement about the urgency of teaching computer science in K-12:

I don’t know about the “urgency” but I can say that we have already built what the schools need: a year long all day, everyday, intensive online, mentored, deep dive into learning to program:

All the companies that say they want to help need to know where the problem lies. If you build it, they won’t come. 

How can you get the schools to launch something like what we built? You can’t. You would have to eliminate one of the sacred liberal arts subjects that we all endured in high school. Throw out history or literature or chemistry? Not happening. Until Harvard stops requiring these subjects of its applicants, no one can make a single change.

Apart from the sacred subjects we also have the sacred notion of a “course.” A course is one of five students take at the same time, and therefore needs to be taught one hour each day. You can’t really learn to program except by programming a lot. Listening to the teacher talk (who probably does not know how to program anyway) and then coding at night for an hour will not turn a kid into a programmer.

As it happens, I met Monday with a college (who I will not name) that understands the urgency of cybersecurity and wants their students to be able to learn about it. So, they have a course or two to offer. We have another deep dive (a six months all day intensive online mentored learn by doing course.) 

Can this school offer it? Of course not. The faculty would never agree to such a thing. Professors want to teach 3 hours a week. They won’t agree to teach more hours and none will agree to the idea of a student doing only one thing in a semester.

So, while I am heartened by the idea that the government and industry would like to help the schools change, it is important to remember that the schools do not want to change.

All that money would best be spent on building new schools that don’t have an embedded faculty with vested interests. And, until we abandon Common Core (ironically Bill Gates’ contribution to education), we will not have computer science in the schools in any serious way. 

We need to get rid of the subjects we teach in school and the way school is structured. Only then can we introduce real change. And while we are at it, we must make Harvard come up with requirements that do not reflect Roman ideas about liberal arts education.t come

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

AI requires an understanding of intent: a look at an old movie

I was watching a movie from 1934 called “Chained.”  Clark Gable plays an American rancher whose ranch is in Argentina. They are rivals for the same woman. Gable’s  rival is a richer and classier man who is a shipowner. They meet in New York (together with the woman they are fighting over) and have the following conversation:

do you ship any of your animals up here?

yes, some cattle

I hope you use our boats

no your rates are too high

well, we’ll have to see about that

my animals are healthy, they can travel on a slower boat; less money

good economics; where did you learn about that?

I was at Yale

I’m Harvard

This conversation tells one all there is to know about AI, education, and learning (my three favorite topics.)

First AI. How would you get a computer to respond to

good economics; where did you learn about that?

with I was at Yale?

First, this is not an answer to the question. Also, the question isn’t what it seems to be. Where did you learn not to waste money? is a fairly obnoxious question. The word “economics” makes the question sound as if it were more than it was. But, one doesn’t ask someone who has said something simple (I try to save money when I can is all he was saying after all) about where he has learned it. Unless of course you are talking to a four year old. This is a remark made by someone who thinks he is much better than the person to whom he is speaking. 

I was at Yale is not an answer to where Gable learned this at all. It is an answer to the underlying snooty question that is really being asked, which is more or less I guess you aren’t as dumb as I thought you were. The answer I was at Yale means I am fancier than you thought I was.

I’m Harvard is a response that says that we are in the same class after all. I feel better about talking to you now.

How would a computer understand the power games going on here? How should it understand that Harvard and Yale are actually answers about social class and that this conversation is in no way about economics nor is it about any economics courses that Gable might have taken at Yale. It is about two people sizing each other up, which is something that often goes on in a conversation where two powerful people meet, and especially one where a woman they are fighting over is at the table.

So here is a translation of this conversation that most people who were watching this movie would have  subconsciously understood:

how do you do your business?

can I make money on you?

no your rates are too high, I’ll explain 

my animals are healthy, they can travel on a slower boat; less money

well; you aren’t stupid, but do you have any actual education? Are you in my social class?

I am as good as you are

So you are.

Can a computer do any of this?  Of course not. 

In order to understand what people’s real intentions are and what they really mean by what they say you have to understand a great deal about the world in which we live. In fact, since is a 1934 movie after all, many younger people might have trouble understanding it. If you don't see Harvard and Yale as class markers, you would miss it. In 1934, Harvard and Yale were the ultimate class indicators. Today, this is still true but in a different sort of way. 

Today, we would see  I’m Harvard as being an odd way to talk, not as a way of being snooty and saying I am as good as you are. But we also, in today's world, understand that anyone who goes to Harvard must be very good at test taking, and must have been an all A student in high school. This was not true in 1934. 

Elon Musk can fear smart computers all he wants, but until computers can glean the underlying intent of a sentence on many levels he hasn’t much to worry about. Modern AI is about key words and search not about ideas. The main ideas in this dialogue are never actually mentioned, so searching key words won’t help much. The shipowner is saying, more or less: let’s find out how good you are because I am sure I am better than you and therefore better for this woman we are fighting over. The rancher’s response is I am as good as you are. In fact the movie has the woman going back to Clark Gable because of this very scene. She had previously said she wanted money and social status and Gable proved he was his rival’s equal.

Where can you find all this? Not in the actual sentences uttered, that is for sure. Understanding is about context and inferences and intent. One must figure out other people’s goals and plans in any conversation. Which of today’s ‘AI’s’  can be in a conversation and figure out just the right thing to say to undercut the other person?

How do we learn to do all this? Might we learn it at Yale? You would, in fact, but probably not in class. Real learning, the kind that forces us to re-think what we are doing and look for the underlying intentions of those with whom we are engaged, takes place in the dorms and after class. The teacher can babble at you all you want but you still have to talk to people, sound intelligent, figure out where they are coming from, and attempt to engage them and perhaps convince them. This is learned at Yale but it is not taught at Yale.

In fact, very little of that we need to teach people and what people need to learn in order to understand the world is learned at school, its learned from experience and reflection on that experience.

We have AI wrong, learning wrong, and education wrong. Other than that we are doing fine.