Technology Changes Everything. Or Nothing.

This from a recent segment of the BBC World Service podcast, 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy, caught my attention.

Two economists… published research showing that many companies had invested in computers for little or no reward, but others had reaped big benefits. What explained the difference was whether the companies had been willing to reorganize to take advantage of what computers had to offer.

You couldn’t just take your old systems and add better computers. You needed to do things differently.

The program1 is about how the technology of electricity failed to improved businesses who remained organized around steam, in the same way that computers failed to improve businesses who remained organized around manual practices.

With that in mind, go back to that first paragraph of the pull quote and replace “companies” with “schools”, minus the published research part.

Over the past twenty years or so, many, if not most, schools simply added computers to the old systems. And then wondered why the promised revolution never appeared. It’s still happening today.

The presenter ends the podcast with a few lines to consider the next time you hear or read about some service, app, or system someone claims will “revolutionize” learning.

The thing about a revolutionary technology is that it changes everything. That’s why we call it revolutionary. And changing everything takes time. And imagination. And courage. And, sometimes, just a lot of hard work.

Instead of just accepting the statement as fact, dig deeper and look for that imagination, courage, and hard work required to produce genuine change.

The Weekend Collection

A small collection of good things to read, and hear (no watch) when time allows this week.

Read: This past Tuesday, March 14, was Pi day. 3/14 = 3.14, the approximation of this classic irrational number. From two years ago, a writer for the New Yorker goes beyond the trivia to briefly explain in relatively simple terms Why Pi Matters. A little math for all you non-mathematical types. (about 3 minutes)

Listen: If you’re not between the ages of 18 and 34, you’re not in the target demographic for SnapChat. You may not even know how the service works, or why so many young people check in and use it over, and over, and over every day. A recent episode of the Note to Self podcast tries to explain why this app is worth more than $10 billion, as well as “how far Silicon Valley will go to capture and control your eyeballs”. (18 minutes)

Read: Rolling Stone celebrates the 20th anniversary of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer with a nice essay that summarizes what made the series both fun and meaningful. I actually like the very flawed movie on which it was based and the series hooked me from episode 1. (about 6 minutes)

Listen: I’m late to Jenn Binis’ very informative podcast, Ed History 101, in which she discusses the background to our profession that you probably missed in college (or which they got wrong). A good starting point is the segment on summer vacation, a topic that generally falls into that got-it-wrong category. (23:11)

Read: Although I disagree with the central premise that Google is making us dumber, this interview with the author of a new book about how adults learn is still interesting. I do believe that many of the techniques we were taught in high school (and that are probably still taught) are not particularly effective. (about 6 minutes)

3-2-1 For 12-18-16

Three readings worth your time this week.

Area 51, the top secret military base in the Nevada desert, is the stuff of conspiracies and legends. And, yes, it does exist. While there’s nothing about space aliens and their crashed spaceships, the real story of how the myth developed is still an interesting read. (about 6 minutes)

Although their animation technology is amazing, Pixar’s greatest skills lie in telling engaging and entertaining stories. One of their storyboard artists has been tweeting for years about that process and a graphic artist has put together 22 of the best ideas into a slideshow that includes some great inspiration for your story telling students. (about 10 minutes)

The US is facing a major shortage of qualified teachers in the next decade, and I don’t think the reasons are difficult to determine. But for some great insight into the problem, read this story about one talented science teacher who is planning to exit the profession because “US schools are broken”. (about 14 minutes)

Two audio tracks for your commute.

We walk into a room, flip a switch, and expect that we will have light. It wasn’t always so, of course, and for most human history “getting light was a huge hassle”. That history of light parallels economic growth in the world and it’s an interesting story. (20:29)

One summer night in 1979, at a Chicago stadium, disco died. Or at least that’s the verdict of many cultural historians. A new podcast called Undone examines events only to find that they “were actually the beginning of something else”. This first episode is an entertaining story about how disco actually got wrapped into many other musical styles. (39:20)

One video to watch when you have time

Stephen Johnson writes about innovation, both where it comes from and where it leads. In an unusual video from the TED people (no lectures here), he uses stop motion animation to illustrate the idea that innovations like the computer come as much from people playing around as they do from necessity. Maybe more from play. “You’ll find the future wherever people are having the most fun.” (7:25)

3-2-1 For 10-16-16

Three readings worth your time this week.

The Trans-Siberian Railway, tracks that covers seven time zones and 5,772 miles between Moscow and Vladivostok, is the stuff of travel legend. This package from the UK Telegraph includes a short history of how it was built and a first-person narrative from a reporter and his family making the passage, including some great photos. (about 16 minutes)

As teachers we’re told that we must provide students with specific, clearly defined expectations for all of their work. But what if doing that inhibits creative thinking? That’s an interesting, counter-intuitive idea explored in a new book about creating a culture of thinking in schools. Read this excerpt and see if you think the author makes his case. (about 8 minutes)

Earlier this week, Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature and it was, to say the least, a controversial selection. But it’s hard to argue with the selection committee who say that Dylan “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” This New Yorker piece is one of the better celebration of their choice. (about 3 minutes)

Two videos to watch when you have a few minutes.

This is an interesting confessional from someone turned off to math by his middle school teacher, someone who is now an English teacher himself. How many current educators, math or otherwise, have a classroom management style to the teacher who convinced him to quit math? (4:19)


In this TED Talk, UK comedian James Veitch relates a story about his exchange with a faceless email server after receiving the kind of unsolicited messages we all get and can’t seem to unsubscribe from. I love his observation, “The internet gave us access to everything. But it also gave everything access to us.” (7:40)


One audio track for your commute.

You probably read about the investigation into Wells Fargo where the bank paid a relatively small fine, the penalty for employees who opened tens of thousands of accounts without customer permission, just to meet sales quotas. Planet Money put a human face on the story and spoke to two of those employees, one of whom called the company ethics line multiple times to report the violations. Listen and wonder who was on the other end of that ethics line. (18:32)

Why This Math?

A recent, very short post on the NPR Ed blog covers almost 500 years worth of math curriculum.

However, as a Harvard professor explains, the trip doesn’t really require all that many words since not much has changed in that time. After reviewing some very old textbooks, he says, we find “a curriculum that is so similar to the curriculum we have right now it might as well have been written by the good folks who wrote the Common Core”.

That professor is Houman Harouni, who became interested in this topic when his elementary students asked the question all of us who teach math have heard at one point: why do we have to learn this stuff?

But it isn’t just why we teach math that fascinates Harouni. He is particularly interested in why we teach math the way we do: “Why these topics? Why in this order? Why in this way?”

He says history offers the best answer.

Harouni has studied texts dating to ancient Babylonia, ancient Sumer and ancient Egypt, and, he says, he has found three main ways of teaching math, each associated with a different economic group.

The three types of math Harouni identified are “money math”, used by traders and merchants, “artisanal math”, for carpenters, masons and other craftsmen, and “philosophical math”, which was only studied by “elites”. The first two groups arranged for their math to be taught to their children, trainees, and apprentices, solely with the goal of extending their influence and wealth. Relatively few people outside of colleges studied philosophical math until very recently.

Today the math curriculum used in most schools is a mashup of all three, with elementary kids mostly working in money math, because “we live in a world where money matters”, with some artisanal math in the form of Geometry. That’s followed in middle and high schools with most students receiving a heavy dose of that philosophical math in the standard path from Algebra to Calculus.

The bottom line is, the school math we impose on students in most American schools is largely a legacy from centuries long past. Much of it needs to be thrown out (or drastically rewritten) and replaced with concepts and skills that better fit with the way math is applied in the 21st century rather than the 16th.

For most kids in K12 schools, math should be studied as it was 500 years ago, reflecting how it is used in today’s real world: as a tool for solving problems in many different aspects of life. And not as an independent, overemphasized and excessively tested, stand-alone subject.