Stop Replicating Google

Seth Godin:

The job is no longer to recite facts, to read the bio out loud, to explain something better found or watched online.

No, the job is to personally and passionately make us care enough to look up the facts for ourselves.

As always, Godin is talking about the process of marketing.

For me, however, that’s a near-perfect description of what school and teaching should be in this time when much of what we still do in the classroom is replicate Google.

Just a thought to start the week.

The Joy of Stupid Questions

From the introduction to a wonderful new book called What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hyptothetical Questions by Randall Munroe.

They say there are no stupid questions. That’s obviously wrong; I think my question about hard and soft things1, for example, is pretty stupid. But it turns out that trying to throughly answer a stupid question can take you to some pretty interesting places.

When I was still in the classroom with teenagers,2 we called those side trips triggered by “stupid” questions “teachable moments”.

Unfortunately, too many educators now don’t have time for that kind of explorative, interesting, unexpected learning. They’re too busy “covering material”.

  1. Told earlier in the introduction.

  2. As opposed to now where my students are adults, some of which act like teenagers. :-)

Preventing Math Anxiety

In a recent segment, the New Tech City podcast presented a rather superficial analysis of the topic of “math anxiety”, with the host exploring research to alleviate her fears of the subject using video games and “power poses”.

Or something like that. The show is something of a muddle that also ties in a TED talk on body language and studies showing the relatively small percentage of women involved in math-related careers. Missing, however, was any serious consideration of why people learn to be afraid of the subject.

Math anxiety is a learned behavior, not something dependent on gender, inherited traits or psychological disorders. It is directly related to how the subject is taught in most K12 schools. Someone in the program even acknowledges that dislike of math often begins around the 6th grade, which is probably right around the time most kids are getting their 1000th worksheet.

As a recent op-ed in the LA Times points out, we are largely still working from a basic curriculum that is nearly 1000 years old, one that emphasizes learning the basic mechanical algorithms of arithmetic and geometry over any real understanding of mathematical concepts and their real-world applications.

Especially in elementary grades, students are trapped in a highly repetitive program of studies,1 while banning almost all hand-held computing devices that can do the same work far more efficiently. And ignoring the fact that even young children can grasp advanced mathematical concepts when given the opportunity.

In middle and high school, students are run through the same gauntlet as many, many prior generations starting with Algebra, moving on to Geometry, pointed straight at Calculus, again with a heavy emphasis on the process and providing few chances to view the underlying structure and to apply it. Other than extremely artificial ones like the classic two trains leaving from different stations and that damn supernatural fly moving back and forth between them.

I’ve heard many educational “experts” claim it’s economically critical to the US for kids to study more math (along with the other hallowed pieces of STEM) and that we must do a better job of teaching the subject. But continuing to present the subject in the static, boring way we have for centuries ignores this simple observation from the math professor author of the LA Times piece.

If we are to give students the right tools to navigate an increasingly math-driven world, we must teach them early on that mathematics is not just about numbers and how to solve equations but about concepts and ideas.

If we made that change, I’d bet in a few decades we would see the tragic epidemic that is math anxiety all but wiped away. Maybe even have fewer suckers wasting money on lottery tickets.

  1. Many publishers call this “cyclical” learning but the kids recognize that it’s just the same crap they did last year with a few new things added.

More Than Delivering Content

Larry Cuban recently posted a commentary on MOOCs about three years after their introduction into the education hype machine, and offers three reasons why they will not revolutionize higher education.

All are good observations but I think number two also explains why they and other mass teaching platforms won’t revolutionize K12 schools.

The fundamental error in policymaker thinking is that teaching is solely delivering subject-matter to students. There is far more to teaching that content delivery such as creating a learning culture in the classroom, organizing lessons involving students in tasks that build understanding of what is supposed to be learned, and applying and practicing newly-learned knowledge and skills.

There aren’t many K12 MOOCs (yet) but we still have any number of highly-lauded subject-matter delivery systems promoted by billionaires and politicians, like Khan Academy, that are also neither revolutionary or effective, and do little or nothing to build a classroom learning culture.

Just my observation.

Essential Skepticism

I’ve always considered myself a skeptic, but have been a little fuzzy on how to explain to people what that means. Certainly I have a set of beliefs and convictions but always try to stay open to new information that may cause me to revise them. And I’ve certainly changed my mind about things over the years.

In a new joint project between the Huntington Post and the TED organization1, the editor of Skeptic Magazine2 addresses that question of what skepticism is and what being a skeptic means to him.

Skepticism is not “seek and ye shall find,” but “seek and keep an open mind.” But what does it mean to have an open mind? It is to find the essential balance between orthodoxy and heresy, between a total commitment to the status quo and the blind pursuit of new ideas, between being open-minded enough to accept radical new ideas and so open-minded that your brains fall out. Skepticism is about finding that balance. Here is a definition of skepticism:

Skepticism is the rigorous application of science and reason to test the validity of any and all claims.

He continues on to talk about having a “Baloney Detection Kit”, inspired by Carl Sagan, “which consists of a list of questions to ask when encountering any claim”. It’s a good list but certainly not a new idea.

I first encountered the concept of “crap detecting” in Neil Postman’s wonderful 1969 book Teaching as a Subversive Activity3. And he borrowed the idea from Ernest Hemingway who told an interviewer that “to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.”

Here in the internet age, Howard Rhiengold carries forward the concept and preaches that the skills of crap detecting are even more important as we rely on the web for information.  

However, whether you call it “crap detecting” (my preference), “baloney detecting”, or simply skepticism, I agree with Postman’s view that this is an “essential survival strategy and the essential function of the schools in today’s world”.

At least it should be. The centerpiece of every curriculum should be to help kids understand how to question the world around them, not in a cynical way or simply to be contrary, but to clarify for themselves what is worth their time and what is crap.

1 This association may give the Post a little more credibility but I’m not sure it enhances the reputation of TED.

2 One more publication I didn’t know existed.

3 The book is still in print but you can download the full text from here (pdf).