By Dr. Harry Tennant
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Monday, September 28, 2015
Will we be learning in greater breadth?
Consider the worm, the lizard, the shark and the bear. What do they have in common? They are loners. Each one has to be prepared to meet every challenge that he is likely to encounter in a lifetime because there is no one else there to rely on. Each needs the full breadth of knowledge and skills to live a lizardly existance or a sharkly existance or whatever kind of life the loner will encounter.
Now consider the ant, the elk, the wolf and the human. We live in groups and get some survival benefit from the fact that others of our kind are usually nearby to help us out of a jam or to take on challenges that would be too much for a single individual. And when we can count on the group being around, we can specialize. Ants have queens, drones, soldiers, scavengers and farmers. We humans have taken specialization to the extreme.
We typically strive for knowledge and skills in depth. We try to be better at some particular thing than anyone around us is. Our success in society often depends upon our knowledge and skills in depth.
The Internet presents a new opportunity: easy learning in breadth. We may need to learn in depth to create a valued contribution to society, but why not learn broadly too? In the past, learning has been hard. Everyone has limited time for learning so learning in depth, the socially valuable learning, took precedence over learning in breadth.
Learning in breadth was called a liberal education and the notion was advocated by the ancient Greeks. In particular, the wealthy Greeks who had slaves to do all their work for them. They had no need to find a way to make useful contributions to society. They were more concerned with how to use their abundant leisure time all the while not appearing "useful" -- that's what slaves did.
The Greeks found pleasure in their liberal education, coming to understand much about the world around them. But today, without slaves, we have largely sacrificed the pleasures of a liberal education for the practical benefits of a useful education.
The Internet has made vast amounts of information easily accessible. It is so much easier to learn subjects a mile wide and an inch deep any time and any where just by picking up a tablet or smartphone and searching. The pleasures of a liberal education may be coming back.
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Monday, September 21, 2015
Could teaching be 10 times better?
It is well known in the world of software development, the world I live in, that some programmers are ten or more times more productive than typical programmers. Ten times! That's a lot, day in and day out. How does it happen? Well, it isn't because one types ten times faster. The key to software development productivity is correct, debugged code.
When your code has a bug, it is usually easy to fix but it may be very difficult to find. You might spend hours finding the bug but take no time at all changing a plus to a minus or whatever the error is. The highly productive programmers quickly write code that is bug free.
The second key to high programmer productivity is to write code in separate procedures. Several benefits accrue. First, if there's a bug, the programmer can often quickly find the offending procedure. It's then easier to find the bug in the procedure, a small piece of code, than in a large body of code without procedures. Second, procedures can be reused. There is nothing that makes writing code faster than not having to write it! Third, bugs again. Once the procedure has been written and is bug free, it is bug free for all the many times it is reused.
So, programming is knowledge work with a huge range of productivity among the workers. Let's consider another form of knowledge work: teaching. How much more effective are the best teachers than the rest?
Teacher effectiveness is measured in terms of performance of students on test scores. Test scores of more effective teachers are cumulative year after year. The test scores of students having had the most effective teachers for three consecutive years are about 35 to 50 percentile points higher (depending on the subject and the study) than students of the least effective teachers for three years. That's pretty good. Could it be better? Could they be the equivalent of ten times as effective than other teachers? How?
Science fiction has suggested the idea of plugging a knowledge chip into the student's head, then bingo, instant learning! Not only that but an even greater benefit is that there is no forgetting. Plug in a calculus chip or a world history chip or a worldwide street map chip and the instant learning is complete and unchanging...until you upgrade your chip. A fantastic leap forward in teaching effectiveness! But why stop at static knowledge? Why not connect to virtual worlds through the Internet full of the avatars of innumerable others who are currently "jacked in"? One downside, we have no idea how to do it. So, any other ideas?
What about that chip idea but keep it external? We have seen a lot of progress here. With our watches we always know the time and date. With our calculators we can make accurate calculations instantly. With our spreadsheets we can readily make models and run through what-if scenarios. With Photoshop we can create "photographic evidence" of any bizarre scenario imaginable. With our Internet connections we can look up any fact or watch a video on how to change a fanbelt in a car like ours. These examples, of course, are not science fiction at all. We do these things every day.
What do devices have to do with teaching? If we were to define teaching as guiding the student to a future state where she has acquired new knowledge and skills, doesn't an electronic device accomplish that?
If the implanted knowledge chip was possible, we would be more comfortable with calling that a form of teaching because it's permanent. Put the chip in a socket behind the left ear and it's not quite so permanent. It might even be accidentally knocked out while brushing your hair, taking your skills with matrix algebra with it...until you plug it back in. But the socket allows you to easily upgrade. And by the way, what's so great about "really" teaching a regular meat brain? Have you ever watched Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? The adult contestants have forgotten most of the details of what they learned from their teachers. Devices are far more reliable over time than human memory.
What if education of the meat brain consisted largely of building skills in using devices to accomplish the same knowledge and skills objectives that is traditionally taught in class? The immediate criticism will be, what happens when you don't have your device? Sorry, but we passed that milestone millenia ago. Where once people were self sufficient in the wilderness, most of us now could not long survive without the support of civilization. And the great majority of what we learn in school is only useful in the context of a functioning civilization.
Here's the payoff. If education could be tightly tied to knowledge and skill devices, the effectiveness of teachers could increase at the rate that new devices become available. Not just twice as effective or ten times as effective but hugely more effective than current teaching and learning.
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Monday, September 14, 2015
New instruments in education
We read ancient Greek ideas of philosophy and take it seriously. But when we read ancient Greek ideas of science we dismiss it as being hopelessly outdated and just plain wrong. Why the difference?
The first big difference is, thanks to the scientific revolution, we test scientific theories and compare them to the world they describe. The tests, called experiments, are considered the truth. If a theory and experiment are in disagreement, the theory must be wrong.
Philosophical theories are generally untestable. (If they were testable, they would be science, not philosophy.) If they can't be tested, they can't be disproved. If they can't be disproved, we can't say with certainty that one philosophical theory is better than another. So there is no progress in philosophy like there is in science.
A second difference is the kind of ideas that philosophy considers. Beauty, justice, love, honor... Unlike ideas about the physical world, there is no absolute reference for truth as there is with the experiment. It's all thoughts and thoughts about thoughts. This is where science and religion clash. Much of religious thinking is about philosophical ideas. But most religions also include ideas about the physical world such as creation stories and divine intervention in everyday life.
The third big difference between science and philosophy is instrumentation. We would know little about the planets and stars without telescopes and spectrometers and eventually spacecraft laden with all types of instruments. And we would know nothing of cells and nuclei and DNA without microscopes and all the instruments that followed for peering into the world of the very small. Telescopes and microscopes allowed us to see much more and understand much more about the world than was possible without these instruments.
Is education more like philosophy or science? Our instruments for measuring knowledge and understanding are pretty limited. Tests, and that's about it.
There is a big change afoot brought about through online education. A lot more data can now be easily collected about what a student has been exposed to and how she subsequently performed on her test questions. The volume of data now easily available is similar to a microscope for learning. Much more detail is revealed which may lead to great discoveries.
New discoveries won't be automatic, though. A necessary critical transition is a change in mindset from the view of education as being a lot like philosophy, ruled by fashion and unprovable theories. As the new data leads to new provable discoveries in education, the field will change. And education will get demonstrably more effective in the same way that steam engines did and flying machines did and electronic devices did.
This new "microscope for learning" won't answer all the questions about education. It will be useful in determining if a student has acquired a body of knowledge and skills and knows how to apply them. It will be less effective for questions like, has the student's education been effective in developing good character? Or, can the educated student think clearly? Or does she have good judgement? These questions are more in the philosophical realm and seem to still be beyond the reach of our instruments.
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Monday, September 7, 2015
The change I want to see
There are a few things that I think are important for mankind's future on the planet. They are big things so what can one person do about them?
In the last two centuries we saw several big changes that seemed impossible until the changes came to pass. Slavery. Women's right to vote. Women as (nearly) equal to men in the workplace. Civil rights for minorities. Civil rights for gays. Independence for European colonies. Reduction of smoking. Reduction of the birth rate.
Most of these were not the result of wars. Most were the result of cultural change. And cultural change is the result of changing attitudes in one person at a time.
So, what can one person do to try to bring about the change necessary to solve mankind's most important problems?
First, as Gandhi said, be the change you want to see. Concerned about carbon dioxide and global warming? Reduce your own carbon footprint. You've made a one-person step toward a cultural change. After all, cultural change is nothing more or less than many one-person changes.
Second, keep a log of actions you take. It will help remimd you of what you've accomplished so far, and it answers the question, what have you done lately?
Third, give special attention to a specific focus of change. The more concentrated your focus, the more readily you'll make progress. But keep in mind the larger context where you're special focus fits in.
Fourth, your example can help bring about similar changes in others. At least it may be the trigger for conversations with others to get them started in thinking about the issue. And if they have already been thinking about it, your example may help persuade them to your point of view.
Fifth, question yourself. When talking with others who disagree with you, try to understand why their ideas differ from yours. This can lead to at least two useful outcomes: you may discover you're wrong or you may discover more effective ways of communicating your point of view.
Sixth, advocate. If you have a strong history of making your own change, you have the credibility that authenticity gives to bolster your position. The weakness of many advocates is that they want other people to change, not necessarily themselves.
Seventh, persevere. Cultural change takes time, even when you firmly believe you're on the side of the angels. People are not eager to give up their comfortable habits. People will resist what they see as threats to their personal wellbeing (often meaning economic wellbeing), regardless of benefits to mankind. But the examples above (and many others) show that it happens with perseverance.
So, what do I believe are mankind's most important issues today?
Ok, that sounds good. But is this really going to change the world? Should I even bother? After all, I haven't even been successful at losing weight or getting my daily run up to a reasonable distance or even quitting my addiction to Diet Coke. How can I imagine that my feeble attempts will be of any value on such large problems?
Here's the secret that will puts my mind at rest: I'm not going to change the world. Not by myself. But I can start. And another person can start. And another. We can all be persistent, we will all backslide sometimes, but we mustn't give up. And none of us can change the world. But the world changes. Cultural change takes time. But that's how it has been done. And the world changes.
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