Twitter Droppings

Being a small collection of links from my Twitter posts this past week that deserve a few more than 140 characters.

For many years we’ve been told that we need to differentiate our instruction. But, according to one writer, it doesn’t work. More specifically, “Differentiation is a failure, a farce, and the ultimate educational joke played on countless educators and students.” I wouldn’t go that far but I’m concerned the concept is being used to push “personalized” or “individualized” instruction which, as I wrote in an earlier post, is often about automating the learning process. That could be the ultimate joke.

One writer seems to believe there’s Too Much Damn TV: “1,715 TV series aired in 2014, of which 352 were scripted.” Yes, that is insane. It also makes me wonder how producers found 1363 subjects in the “real” world that were interesting enough to record.

Last week saw the first serious talks with Cuba in nearly 40 years. It’s great progress but also represents just how pig-headed US leadership can be. This “normalization” is long overdue and hopefully will lead to rethinking some of our other stupid foreign policy.

And finally, a milestone for anyone who has flown on US carriers in the past thirty years, Sky Mall is filing for bankruptcy. The cause is supposed to be “internet access and more gadgets on planes” but I’d like to think that people just got a little smarter about spending their money on that catalog’s crapgadgets. Or maybe not.

Bill’s History Class is Not New

So Bill Gates Has This Idea for a History Class…

Anyway, that’s the headline and, considering that Gates already thinks he knows how to fix American education, it’s not a big stretch for him to replace the traditional high school history curriculum.

The story began when Bill had some time on his hands following his retirement as Microsoft CEO and started watching a series of lectures by Australian professor David Christian titled “Big History”. In his classes, Christian wove together topics from history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields “into nothing less than a unifying narrative of life on earth”.1

A lecture on the Big Bang, for instance, offered a complete history of cosmology, starting with the ancient God-centered view of the universe and proceeding through Ptolemy’s Earth-based model, through the heliocentric versions advanced by thinkers from Copernicus to Galileo and eventually arriving at Hubble’s idea of an expanding universe.

In the worldview of “Big History,” a discussion about the formation of stars cannot help including Einstein and the hydrogen bomb; a lesson on the rise of life will find its way to Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey.

Gates thought this approach could be used to replaced the standard chronological approach to teaching history in high school and started working with Christian to adapt his work.

I don’t often agree with Gates, about his ideas for education reform or much else, but in this case he’s on to something. In most high schools, the major curriculums are highly segregated, especially when it comes to math and science. As a result, students get a very unauthentic view of the world.

However, before praising Gates and Christian too highly, it needs to be pointed out that “big history”, the idea of using interdisciplinary approach to understanding history, is not at all unique.

In the 1970’s, science historian James Burke wrote, produced, and hosted a wonderfully entertaining series for the BBC (later shown on PBS) called Connections, an “alternative view of change”. In the series (plus two sequels and a half dozen books) Burke takes a storytelling approach to illustrate the many links between science, philosophy, world events, art and more, all with great humor, a sense of curiosity, and a large dose of caution about our reliance on technology.

The original series is on YouTube, although somewhat difficult to find,2 so if you have 50 minutes or so, watch part 1 to get a good idea of Burke’s pre-“big history” approach to explaining how our current world developed from seemingly unrelated connections in our past.

Anyway, original or not, Gates’ idea to punch holes in the silos in which we keep high school academic subjects is a good one, something that’s long overdue. I’m just not sure he is the person to make it happen.

  1. For those without the vast free time of a retired billionare, watch Christian’s 18 minute TED talk to get the idea of “Big History”.

  2. Most of series 2 and 3 is also there and much easier to locate.

Twitter Droppings

Being a small collection of links from my tweets of the past week that deserve a few more than 140 characters.

The Bootstrap Myth, an episode of the always interesting DecodeDC podcast. It’s all about the fact that “as compelling as the story is, the data show it’s not nearly as common as we’d like to believe”. Or that lazy  and/or deceitful politicians want us to believe. Go listen.

The Post headline begins The U.S. has more jails than colleges. Unfortunately, the article is mostly statistics and an infographic about where those prisoners live, not about the much larger issues of why we have so many Americans in jail. Another big issue, however, is why the Post spends so much of its energy on trivia instead of covering issues.

Air travel is not a fun experience any more and has become much worse in just the past five or so years. A writer in The New Yorker says that change is no accident. Airlines want basic passengers to pay additional fees (which is largely pure profit) for a better experience, and are willing to make the basic one crappy to do it.

To go with that downer about air travel, an essay explaining Why Americans Are Terrible at Vacation. For one thing, “America is the only advanced economy in the world that does not have government-mandated, paid time off”. But there’s also the fact that 41% of us who have paid time off don’t even use it all.

And finally, for many decades we’ve heard all kinds of predictions of how artificial intelligence (AI) is coming. Now some big thinkers (like Elon Musk and Steven Hawking) are afraid it’s here and we aren’t ready. What kind of ethics can be built into self-driving cars and stock trading algorithms? And who decides?

It’s The Poverty, Stupid

If it’s true, this is one of the saddest stories I’ve read in a long while.

For the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of U.S. public school students come from low-income families, according to a new analysis of 2013 federal data, a statistic that has profound implications for the nation.

The Southern Education Foundation reports that 51 percent of students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade were eligible for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program in the 2012-2013 school year.

The worst part of all this is that most of our “leaders”, like the writer of this article, view this situation as an educational problem, not a major deficiency of our larger society.

The Obama administration wants Congress to add $1 billion to the $14.4 billion it spends annually to help states educate poor students. It also wants Congress to fund preschool for low-income children. Collectively, the states and federal governments spend about $500 billion annually on primary and secondary schools, with about $79 million coming from Washington.

No! You don’t spend billions on helping to “educate poor students”. Poor test scores (which, of course, is what these people mean by “education”) are not the primary problem here, and only one symptom of the far larger issue.

Instead, you work to change the situations that cause so much poverty in what is supposed to be an “exceptional” country, according to all those super patriotic politicians.

We spend money on improving communities and rebuilding our rapidly deteriorating infrastructure, especially public transportation. Provide funds to develop clean energy and other forward looking industries. And rewrite policies to support small and medium businesses, where the real job growth potential is, instead of providing welfare for giant corporations.

Unfortunately, we’ll spend at least the next two years arguing over trivial crap while largely ignoring the growing poverty and other elephants in the room.

A Very Unbalanced Compromise

Perceived threats to “national security” make politicians and pundits say stupid things, especially about privacy rights. There’s just no other way to put it. Open almost any information source, or Fox “news” if you must, at almost any time of the day for plenty of examples.

Following the recent events in Paris, came another round of those stupid things, including calls to ban communications tools that don’t allow governments to have “backdoor” access to every bit of information sent, including this one from the British Prime Minister.

He said: “In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which […] we cannot read?” He made the connection between encrypted communications tools and letters and phone conversations, both of which can be read by security services in extreme situations and with a warrant from the home secretary.1

We have plenty of high profile people in this country who also want the government to have that backdoor as a tool to keep us “safe” from bad guys. Even though the NSA, our own literal “big brother”, is already hoovering up every bit of communications data they can find.

However, as Cory Doctorow, the EFF and many other smart people have pointed out, “backdoors” won’t just be used for honest law enforcement.

What David Cameron thinks he’s saying is, “We will command all the software creators we can reach to introduce back-doors into their tools for us.” There are enormous problems with this: there’s no back door that only lets good guys go through it. If your Whatsapp or Google Hangouts has a deliberately introduced flaw in it, then foreign spies, criminals, crooked police (like those who fed sensitive information to the tabloids who were implicated in the hacking scandal — and like the high-level police who secretly worked for organised crime for years), and criminals will eventually discover this vulnerability. They — and not just the security services — will be able to use it to intercept all of our communications. That includes things like the pictures of your kids in your bath that you send to your parents to the trade secrets you send to your co-workers.

Plus, as Doctorow also points our, similar requirements and technological solutions haven’t worked in much more restrictive countries like Russia, Iran, and Syria.

Ok, I’m no security expert, although I do have a good basic understanding of the technology involved. This is simply the rant of someone who is tired of being told by an assortment of largely untrustworthy figures that we must give up rights, Constitutional and other, for an uncertain and vaguely defined promise of “security”.

It all seems like a very unbalanced compromise.

  1. I love that someone from an opposition party in the UK said that the Prime Minister is “living in cloud cuckoo land”.