Tag Archives: education

Who Needs Education?

misd-proposed-stadium

Here’s a great example of the value that some citizens place on education in the United States. It’s one more recent example of a distorted system that ranks sporting success, or just dreams of success, over learning, teaching and intellectual accomplishment.

McKinney independent school district (MISD), part of the Dallas-Ft.Worth metropolitan area approved a $70 million bond package to finance a new 7,000 capacity stadium and other city improvements. By Texas’ standards this is small potatoes, nearby Allen ISD completed a 18,000 capacity high school stadium in 2012.

Put into perspective: most non-premium level, professional sports teams in Europe have lower capacity stadiums [stadia, for my British readers].

From Guardian:

In the middle of the change from small town to booming Dallas suburb is football. Celina could end up with more than one high school and therefore more than one football team, a division of the local talent pool that would vex some. But a more immediate question is over the future need for a new stadium to house the existing team and its swelling fanbase. The current 3,800-capacity Bobcat Stadium, regularly packed, might soon be unable to cope with demand.

These are interesting times for high school football stadiums in Texas. Nearby McKinney recently approved the construction of a new $70m, 12,000-seat stadium to be shared by the city’s three high schools. That followed hard on the heels of a $60m, 18,000-capacity venue for neighboring Allen – which has one high school – completed in 2012. Local media have called the sprouting of expensive stadiums among rival school districts in affluent suburbs an arms race. The adjacent Frisco, meanwhile, entered a partnership with the Dallas Cowboys for its schools to play in the NFL team’s new indoor practice facility built in the city. The Frisco independent school district is chipping in $30m so area kids can run out at The Ford Center at The Star, capacity 12,000.

Critics argue the money could be better spent elsewhere in the education system.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Proposed McKinney High School Stadium. Courtesy McKinney Independent School District (MISD) press handout.

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Democracy and Education Go Hand-in-Hand

Thomas_Jefferson_by_Rembrandt_Peale,_1800

Yes, it’s time to muse on the current state of affairs in the US and the current presidential election cycle. The race, in some quarters, has devolved into a peculiar hybrid of vulgar reality TV show and absurd adolescent popularity contest (with my apologies to adolescents the world over).

The incessant bloviating, bragging, lies, bigotry and hatred espoused by some of the current political candidates has me considering two elements that are vital to our democracy.

The first, our right to freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly is enshrined in the Constitution. However vile and repulsive their speech, the peddlers of caustic words have a right to speak. Their opponents and detractors have an equal right as well. But, this must be done by all sides, free of intimidation, threats and violence.

The second, is no less important, but you’ll not find any requirement or right listed in any statute. Yet, our democracy fully depends upon it. Our system of governance requires a citizenry that is educated and also versed in the political process. The alternative, as we increasingly see in the United States, is a politically-savvy uber-class with its moneyed handlers and benefactors, “the so-called establishment”, to which most ordinary citizens have outsourced their reasoning, and a growing underclass fueled by distrust, anger and resentment — a recipe for divisiveness and anarchy.

While founder Thomas Jefferson never did say, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people,” many of his writings confirm his fundamental belief that a strong democracy is existentially linked to an educated citizenry. Jefferson did say the following:

Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government;… whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.

It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves, and that, too, of the people with a certain degree of instruction.

Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to, convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.

Light and liberty go together.

Jefferson’s powerful words as so especially important today. I have to agree with Michael Lynch professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, “Googling” a snippet of information is not a substitute for internalizing established facts, reasoned political discourse or wisdom.

We can all love the “poorly educated”, but it is our duty to ensure each and every citizen is well-educated. Anything less fails to open the door to personal opportunity and further reinforces a system of division.

Image: Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800. Courtesy: White House Historical Association. Public Domain.

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Wot! Proper Grammar?

It seems that there are several ways to turn off a potential dating connection online: a picture of your bad teeth, tales of your poor hygiene, political posturing, and now, a poorly written profile or introductory email. Is our children learning?

Seriously, can it be that the younger generation is finally rebelling against the tyranny of lowercase Twitteresque, incorrect punctuation, nonsensical grammar, fatuous emoticons and facile abbreviations? If so, this is wonderful news for those who care about our language. Now, perhaps, these same people can turn their talents to educating the barely literate generations holding jobs in corporate America. After decades of subservience to fractured Powerpoint haiku many can no longer string together a coherent paragraph.

From the WSJ:

When Jeff Cohen was getting ready to meet his OkCupid date for drinks in Manhattan, he started to have second thoughts as he reread the glaring grammatical error in her last message: “I will see you their.”

The date flopped for a couple of reasons, but bad grammar bothers Mr. Cohen. Learning a potential mate doesn’t know the difference between “there,” “they’re” and “their” is like discovering she loves cats, he says. Mr. Cohen is allergic to cats. “It’s like learning I’m going to sneeze every time I see her,” he says.

With crimes against grammar rising in the age of social media, some people are beginning to take action. The online dating world is a prime battleground.

Mr. Cohen joins a number of singles picky about the grammar gaffes they’re seeing on dating sites. For love, these folks say written communications matter, from the correct use of semicolons, to understanding the difference between its and it’s, and sentences built on proper parallel construction.

“Grammar snobbery is one of the last permissible prejudices,” says John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University. “The energy that used to go into open classism and racism now goes into disparaging people’s grammar.”

Mr. Cohen now uses an app that ranks the message quality of prospective dates. Called the Grade, the app checks messages for typos and grammar errors and assigns each user a letter grade from A+ to F.

The Grade demotes people whose messages contain certain abbreviations, like “wassup” and “YOLO,” short for “You Only Live Once,” popular among young people who want to justify doing something risky or indulgent. Clifford Lerner, chief executive of SNAP Interactive Inc., the company that makes the Grade, says the app downgrades these types of phrases in an effort to promote “meaningful conversations.”

Dating site Match asked more than 5,000 singles in the U.S. what criteria they used most in assessing dates. Beyond personal hygiene—which 96% of women valued most, as compared with 91% of men—singles said they judged a date foremost by the person’s grammar. The survey found 88% of women and 75% of men said they cared about grammar most, putting it ahead of a person’s confidence and teeth.

“When you get a message that is grammatically correct and has a voice and is put together, it is very attractive, it definitely adds hotness points,” says New Yorker Grace Gold. “People who send me text-type messages, and horrific grammatical errors? I just delete them.” She recalls the red flag raised by one potential suitor who had written his entire dating profile in lowercase.

Language has always played a part in how people judge others, but it has become amplified in recent years with increasing informal and colloquial usage, says Ben Zimmer, a lexicographer and chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.

Read the entire story here.

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Focus on Process, Not Perfect Grades

If you are a parent of a school-age child then it is highly likely that you have, on multiple occasions, chastised her or him and withheld privileges for poor grades. It’s also likely that you have rewarded the same child for being smart at math or having Picasso-like artistic talent. I have done this myself. But, there is a better way to nurture young minds, and it is through “telling stories about achievements that result from hard work.”

From Scientific American:

A brilliant student, Jonathan sailed through grade school. He completed his assignments easily and routinely earned As. Jonathan puzzled over why some of his classmates struggled, and his parents told him he had a special gift. In the seventh grade, however, Jonathan suddenly lost interest in school, refusing to do homework or study for tests. As a consequence, his grades plummeted. His parents tried to boost their son’s confidence by assuring him that he was very smart. But their attempts failed to motivate Jonathan (who is a composite drawn from several children). Schoolwork, their son maintained, was boring and pointless.

Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 35 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.

The result plays out in children like Jonathan, who coast through the early grades under the dangerous notion that no-effort academic achievement defines them as smart or gifted. Such children hold an implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, making striving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart. This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them.

Praising children’s innate abilities, as Jonathan’s parents did, reinforces this mind-set, which can also prevent young athletes or people in the workforce and even marriages from living up to their potential. On the other hand, our studies show that teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on “process” (consisting of personal effort and effective strategies) rather than on intelligence or talent, helps make them into high achievers in school and in life.

The Opportunity of Defeat
I first began to investigate the underpinnings of human motivation—and how people persevere after setbacks—as a psychology graduate student at Yale University in the 1960s. Animal experiments by psychologists Martin Seligman, Steven Maier and Richard Solomon, all then at the University of Pennsylvania, had shown that after repeated failures, most animals conclude that a situation is hopeless and beyond their control. After such an experience, the researchers found, an animal often remains passive even when it can effect change—a state they called learned helplessness.

People can learn to be helpless, too, but not everyone reacts to setbacks this way. I wondered: Why do some students give up when they encounter difficulty, whereas others who are no more skilled continue to strive and learn? One answer, I soon discovered, lay in people’s beliefs about why they had failed.

In particular, attributing poor performance to a lack of ability depresses motivation more than does the belief that lack of effort is to blame. In 1972, when I taught a group of elementary and middle school children who displayed helpless behavior in school that a lack of effort (rather than lack of ability) led to their mistakes on math problems, the kids learned to keep trying when the problems got tough. They also solved many more problems even in the face of difficulty. Another group of helpless children who were simply rewarded for their success on easier problems did not improve their ability to solve hard math problems. These experiments were an early indication that a focus on effort can help resolve helplessness and engender success.

Subsequent studies revealed that the most persistent students do not ruminate about their own failure much at all but instead think of mistakes as problems to be solved. At the University of Illinois in the 1970s I, along with my then graduate student Carol Diener, asked 60 fifth graders to think out loud while they solved very difficult pattern-recognition problems. Some students reacted defensively to mistakes, denigrating their skills with comments such as “I never did have a good rememory,” and their problem-solving strategies deteriorated.

Others, meanwhile, focused on fixing errors and honing their skills. One advised himself: “I should slow down and try to figure this out.” Two schoolchildren were particularly inspiring. One, in the wake of difficulty, pulled up his chair, rubbed his hands together, smacked his lips and said, “I love a challenge!” The other, also confronting the hard problems, looked up at the experimenter and approvingly declared, “I was hoping this would be informative!” Predictably, the students with this attitude outperformed their cohorts in these studies.

Read the entire article here.

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Education And Reality

Recent studies show that having a higher level of education does not necessarily lead to greater acceptance of reality. This seems to fly in the face of oft cited anecdotal evidence and prevailing beliefs that suggest people with lower educational attainment are more likely to reject accepted scientific fact, such as evolutionary science and climate change.

From ars technica:

We like to think that education changes people for the better, helping them critically analyze information and providing a certain immunity from disinformation. But if that were really true, then you wouldn’t have low vaccination rates clustering in areas where parents are, on average, highly educated.

Vaccination isn’t generally a political issue. (Or, it is, but it’s rejected both by people who don’t trust pharmaceutical companies and by those who don’t trust government mandates; these tend to cluster on opposite ends of the political spectrum.) But some researchers decided to look at a number of issues that have become politicized, such as the Iraq War, evolution, and climate change. They find that, for these issues, education actually makes it harder for people to accept reality, an effect they ascribe to the fact that “highly educated partisans would be better equipped to challenge information inconsistent with predispositions.”

The researchers looked at two sets of questions about the Iraq War. The first involved the justifications for the war (weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda), as well as the perception of the war outside the US. The second focused on the role of the troop surge in reducing violence within Iraq. At the time the polls were taken, there was a clear reality: no evidence of an active weapons program or links to Al Qaeda; the war was frowned upon overseas; and the surge had successfully reduced violence in the country.

On the three issues that were most embarrassing to the Bush administration, Democrats were more likely to get things right, and their accuracy increased as their level of education rose. In contrast, the most and least educated Republicans were equally likely to have things wrong. When it came to the surge, the converse was true. Education increased the chances that Republicans would recognize reality, while the Democratic acceptance of the facts stayed flat even as education levels rose. In fact, among Democrats, the base level of recognition that the surge was a success was so low that it’s not even clear it would have been possible to detect a downward trend.

When it came to evolution, the poll question didn’t even ask whether people accepted the reality of evolution. Instead, it asked “Is there general agreement among scientists that humans have evolved over time, or not?” (This phrasing generally makes it easier for people to accept the reality of evolution, since it’s not asking about their personal beliefs.) Again, education increased the acceptance of this reality among both Democrats and Republicans, but the magnitude of the effect was much smaller among Republicans. In fact, the impact of ideology was stronger than education itself: “The effect of Republican identification on the likelihood of believing that there is a scientific consensus is roughly three times that of the effect of education.”

For climate change, the participants were asked “Do you believe that the earth is getting warmer because of human activity or natural patterns?” Overall, about the beliefs of 70 percent of those polled lined up with scientific conclusions on the matter. And, among the least educated, party affiliation made very little difference in terms of getting this right. But, as education rose, Democrats were more likely to get this right, while Republicans saw their accuracy drop. At the highest levels of education, Democrats got it right 90 percent of the time, while Republicans less than half.

The results are in keeping with a number of other studies that have been published of late, which also show that partisan divides over things that could be considered factual sometimes increase with education. Typically, these issues are widely perceived as political. (With some exceptions; GMOs, for example.) In this case, the authors suspect that education simply allows people to deploy more sophisticated cognitive filters that end up rejecting information that could otherwise compel them to change their perceptions.

The authors conclude that’s somewhat mixed news for democracy itself. Education is intended to improve people’s ability to assimilate information upon which to base their political judgements. And, to a large extent, it does: people, on average, got 70 percent of the questions right, and there was only a single case where education made matters worse.

Read the entire article here.

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Texas and Its Textbooks: The Farce Continues

Just over a year ago I highlighted the plight of accepted scholarly fact in Texas. The state, through its infamous School Board of Education (SBOE), had just completed a lengthy effort to revise many textbooks for middle- and high-school curricula. The SBOE and its ideological supporters throughout the Texas political machine managed to insert numerous dubious claims, fictitious statements in place of agreed upon facts and handfuls of slanted opinion in all manner of historical and social science texts. Many academics and experts in their respective fields raised alarms over the process. But the SBOE derided these “liberal elitists”, and openly flaunted its distaste for fact, preferring to distort historical record with undertones of conservative Christianity.

Many non-Texan progressives and believers-in-fact laughingly shook their heads knowing that Texas could and should be left its own devices. Unfortunately, for the rest of the country, Texas has so much buying power that textbook publishers will often publish with Texas in mind, but distribute their books throughout the entire nation.

So now it comes as no surprise to find that many newly, or soon to be, published Texas textbooks for grades 6-12 are riddled with errors. An academic review of 43 textbooks highlights the disaster waiting to happen to young minds in Texas, and across many other states. The Texas SBOE will take a vote on which books to approve in November.

Some choice examples of the errors and half-truths below.

All of the world geography textbooks inaccurately downplay the role that conquest played in the spread of Christianity.

Discovery Education — Social Studies Techbook World Geography and Cultures

The text states: “When Europeans arrived, they brought Christianity with them and spread it among the indigenous people. Over time, Christianity became the main religion in Latin America.”

Pearson Education – Contemporary World Cultures

The text states: “Priests came to Mexico to convert Native Americans to the Roman Catholic religion. The Church became an important part of life in the new colony. Churches were built in the centers of towns and cities, and church officials became leaders in the colony.”

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – World Geography

The text states: “The Spanish brought their language and Catholic religion, both of which dominate modern Mexico.”

Various

All but two of the world geography textbooks fail to mention the Spaniards’ forced conversions of the indigenous peoples to Christianity (e.g., the Spanish Requerimiento of 1513) and their often-systematic destruction of indigenous religious institutions. The two exceptions (Cengage Learning, Inc. – World Cultures and Geography and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – World Geography) delay this grim news until a chapter on South America, and even there do not give it the prominence it deserves.

What’s Wrong?

The Christianization of the indigenous peoples of the Americas was most decidedly not benign. These descriptions provide a distorted picture of the spread of Christianity. An accurate account must include information about the forced conversion of native peoples and the often-systematic destruction of indigenous religious institutions and practices. (This error of omission is especially problematic when contrasted with the emphasis on conquest – often violent – to describe the spread of Islam in some textbooks.)

One world history textbook (by Worldview Software, Inc.) includes outdated – and possibly offensive – anthropological categories and racial terminology in describing African civilization.

WorldView Software – World History A: Early Civilizations to the Mid-1800s

The text states: “South of the Sahara Desert most of the people before the Age of Explorations were black Africans of the Negro race.”

 Elsewhere, the text states: “The first known inhabitants of Africa north of the Sahara in prehistory were Caucasoid Hamitic people of uncertain origin.”

What’s Wrong?

First, the term “Negro” is archaic and fraught with ulterior meaning. It should categorically not be used in a modern textbook. Further, the first passage is unforgivably misleading because it suggests that all black native Africans belong to a single “racial” group. This is typological thinking, which disappeared largely from texts after the 1940s. It harkens back to the racialization theory that all people could be classified as one of three “races”: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, or Negroid. Better to say: “…were natives of African origin.” Similarly, in the second passage, it is more accurate to simply omit reference to “Caucasoid.”

From the Washington Post:

When it comes to controversies about curriculum, textbook content and academic standards, Texas is the state that keeps on giving.

Back in 2010, we had an uproar over proposed changes to social studies standards by religious conservatives on the State Board of Education, which included a bid to calling the United States’ hideous slave trade history as the “Atlantic triangular trade.” There were other doozies, too, such as one proposal to remove Thomas Jefferson from the Enlightenment curriculum and replace him with John Calvin. Some were changed but the board’s approved standards were roundly criticized as distorted history.

There’s a new fuss about proposed social studies textbooks for Texas public schools that are based on what are called the Texas Essential  Knowledge  and  Skills.  Scholarly reviews of 43 proposed history, geography and government textbooks for Grades 6-12 — undertaken by the Education Fund of the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog and activist group that monitors far-right issues and organizations — found extensive problems in American Government textbooks, U.S. and World History textbooks,Religion in World History textbooks, and Religion in World Geography textbooks.  The state board will vote on which books to approve in November.

Ideas promoted in various proposed textbooks include the notion that Moses and Solomon inspired American democracy, that in the era of segregation only “sometimes” were schools for black children “lower in quality” and that Jews view Jesus Christ as an important prophet.

Here are the broad findings of 10 scholars, who wrote four separate reports, taken from an executive summary, followed by the names of the scholars and a list of publishers who submitted textbooks.

The findings:

  • A number of government and world history textbooks exaggerate Judeo-Christian influence on the nation’s founding and Western political tradition.
  • Two government textbooks include misleading information that undermines the Constitutional concept of the separation of church and state.
  • Several world history and world geography textbooks include biased statements that inappropriately portray Islam and Muslims negatively.
  • All of the world geography textbooks inaccurately downplay the role that conquest played in the spread of Christianity.
  • Several world geography and history textbooks suffer from an incomplete – and often inaccurate – account of religions other than Christianity.
  • Coverage of key Christian concepts and historical events are lacking in a few textbooks, often due to the assumption that all students are Christians and already familiar with Christian events and doctrine.
  • A few government and U.S. history textbooks suffer from an uncritical celebration of the free enterprise system, both by ignoring legitimate problems that exist in capitalism and failing to include coverage of government’s role in the U.S. economic system.
  • One government textbook flirts with contemporary Tea Party ideology, particularly regarding the inclusion of anti-taxation and anti-regulation arguments.
  • One world history textbook includes outdated – and possibly offensive – anthropological categories and racial terminology in describing African civilization.

Read the entire article here and check out the academic report here.

 

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The Future of History

Take and impassioned history professor, a mediocre U.S. high school history curriculum and add Bill Gates, and you get an opportunity to inject fresh perspectives and new ideas into young minds.

Not too long ago Professor David Christian’s collection of Big History DVDs caught Gates’ attention, leading to a broad mission to overhaul the boring history lesson — one school at a time. Professor Christian’s approach takes a thoroughly holistic approach to the subject, spanning broad and interconnected topics such as culture, biochemistry, astronomy, agriculture and physics. The sweeping narrative fundamental to Christian’s delivery reminds me somewhat of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, two landmark U.K. television series.

From the New York Times:

In 2008, shortly after Bill Gates stepped down from his executive role at Microsoft, he often awoke in his 66,000-square-foot home on the eastern bank of Lake Washington and walked downstairs to his private gym in a baggy T-shirt, shorts, sneakers and black socks yanked up to the midcalf. Then, during an hour on the treadmill, Gates, a self-described nerd, would pass the time by watching DVDs from the Teaching Company’s “Great Courses” series. On some mornings, he would learn about geology or meteorology; on others, it would be oceanography or U.S. history.

As Gates was working his way through the series, he stumbled upon a set of DVDs titled “Big History” — an unusual college course taught by a jovial, gesticulating professor from Australia named David Christian. Unlike the previous DVDs, “Big History” did not confine itself to any particular topic, or even to a single academic discipline. Instead, it put forward a synthesis of history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields, which Christian wove together into nothing less than a unifying narrative of life on earth. Standing inside a small “Mr. Rogers”-style set, flanked by an imitation ivy-covered brick wall, Christian explained to the camera that he was influenced by the Annales School, a group of early-20th-century French historians who insisted that history be explored on multiple scales of time and space. Christian had subsequently divided the history of the world into eight separate “thresholds,” beginning with the Big Bang, 13 billion years ago (Threshold 1), moving through to the origin of Homo sapiens (Threshold 6), the appearance of agriculture (Threshold 7) and, finally, the forces that gave birth to our modern world (Threshold 8).

Christian’s aim was not to offer discrete accounts of each period so much as to integrate them all into vertiginous conceptual narratives, sweeping through billions of years in the span of a single semester. 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. “I hope by the end of this course, you will also have a much better sense of the underlying unity of modern knowledge,” Christian said at the close of the first lecture. “There is a unified account.”

As Gates sweated away on his treadmill, he found himself marveling at the class’s ability to connect complex concepts. “I just loved it,” he said. “It was very clarifying for me. I thought, God, everybody should watch this thing!” At the time, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had donated hundreds of millions of dollars to educational initiatives, but many of these were high-level policy projects, like the Common Core Standards Initiative, which the foundation was instrumental in pushing through. And Gates, who had recently decided to become a full-time philanthropist, seemed to pine for a project that was a little more tangible. He was frustrated with the state of interactive coursework and classroom technology since before he dropped out of Harvard in the mid-1970s; he yearned to experiment with entirely new approaches. “I wanted to explore how you did digital things,” he told me. “That was a big issue for me in terms of where education was going — taking my previous skills and applying them to education.” Soon after getting off the treadmill, he asked an assistant to set a meeting with Christian.

A few days later, the professor, who was lecturing at San Diego State University, found himself in the lobby of a hotel, waiting to meet with the billionaire. “I was scared,” Christian recalled. “Someone took me along the corridor, knocks on a door, Bill opens it, invites me in. All I remember is that within five minutes, he had so put me at my ease. I thought, I’m a nerd, he’s a nerd and this is fun!” After a bit of small talk, Gates got down to business. He told Christian that he wanted to introduce “Big History” as a course in high schools all across America. He was prepared to fund the project personally, outside his foundation, and he wanted to be personally involved. “He actually gave me his email address and said, ‘Just think about it,’ ” Christian continued. ” ‘Email me if you think this is a good idea.’ ”

Christian emailed to say that he thought it was a pretty good idea. The two men began tinkering, adapting Christian’s college course into a high-school curriculum, with modules flexible enough to teach to freshmen and seniors alike. Gates, who insisted that the course include a strong digital component, hired a team of engineers and designers to develop a website that would serve as an electronic textbook, brimming with interactive graphics and videos. Gates was particularly insistent on the idea of digital timelines, which may have been vestige of an earlier passion project, Microsoft Encarta, the electronic encyclopedia that was eventually overtaken by the growth of Wikipedia. Now he wanted to offer a multifaceted historical account of any given subject through a friendly user interface. The site, which is open to the public, would also feature a password-protected forum for teachers to trade notes and update and, in some cases, rewrite lesson plans based on their experiences in the classroom.

Read the entire article here.

Video: Clip from Threshold 1, The Big Bang. Courtesy of Big History Project, David Christian.

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The Diminishing Value of the Ever More Expensive College Degree

graduationParadoxically the U.S. college degree is becoming less valuable while it continues an inexorable rise in cost. With academic standards now generally lower than ever and grade inflation pervasive most recent college graduates are in a bind — limited employment prospects and a huge debt burden. Something must give soon, and its likely to be the colleges.

From WSJ:

The American political class has long held that higher education is vital to individual and national success. The Obama administration has dubbed college “the ticket to the middle class,” and political leaders from Education Secretary Arne Duncan to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke have hailed higher education as the best way to improve economic opportunity. Parents and high-school guidance counselors tend to agree.

Yet despite such exhortations, total college enrollment has fallen by 1.5% since 2012. What’s causing the decline? While changing demographics—specifically, a birth dearth in the mid-1990s—accounts for some of the shift, robust foreign enrollment offsets that lack. The answer is simple: The benefits of a degree are declining while costs rise.

A key measure of the benefits of a degree is the college graduate’s earning potential—and on this score, their advantage over high-school graduates is deteriorating. Since 2006, the gap between what the median college graduate earned compared with the median high-school graduate has narrowed by $1,387 for men over 25 working full time, a 5% fall. Women in the same category have fared worse, losing 7% of their income advantage ($1,496).

A college degree’s declining value is even more pronounced for younger Americans. According to data collected by the College Board, for those in the 25-34 age range the differential between college graduate and high school graduate earnings fell 11% for men, to $18,303 from $20,623. The decline for women was an extraordinary 19.7%, to $14,868 from $18,525.

Meanwhile, the cost of college has increased 16.5% in 2012 dollars since 2006, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ higher education tuition-fee index. Aggressive tuition discounting from universities has mitigated the hike, but not enough to offset the clear inflation-adjusted increase. Even worse, the lousy economy has caused household income levels to fall, limiting a family’s ability to finance a degree.

This phenomenon leads to underemployment. A study I conducted with my colleague Jonathan Robe, the 2013 Center for College Affordability and Productivity report, found explosive growth in the number of college graduates taking relatively unskilled jobs. We now have more college graduates working in retail than soldiers in the U.S. Army, and more janitors with bachelor’s degrees than chemists. In 1970, less than 1% of taxi drivers had college degrees. Four decades later, more than 15% do.

This is only partly the result of the Great Recession and botched public policies that have failed to produce employment growth. It’s also the result of an academic arms race in which universities have spent exorbitant sums on luxury dormitories, climbing walls, athletic subsidies and bureaucratic bloat. More significantly, it’s the result of sending more high-school graduates to college than professional fields can accommodate.

In 1970, when 11% of adult Americans had bachelor’s degrees or more, degree holders were viewed as the nation’s best and brightest. Today, with over 30% with degrees, a significant portion of college graduates are similar to the average American—not demonstrably smarter or more disciplined. Declining academic standards and grade inflation add to employers’ perceptions that college degrees say little about job readiness.

There are exceptions. Applications to top universities are booming, as employers recognize these graduates will become our society’s future innovators and leaders. The earnings differential between bachelor’s and master’s degree holders has grown in recent years, as those holding graduate degrees are perceived to be sharper and more responsible.

But unless colleges plan to offer master’s degrees in janitorial studies, they will have to change. They currently have little incentive to do so, as they are often strangled by tenure rules, spoiled by subsides from government and rich alumni, and more interested in trivial things—second-rate research by third-rate scholars; ball-throwing contests—than imparting knowledge. Yet dire financial straits from falling demand for their product will force two types of changes within the next five years.

Image: college graduates. Courtesy of Business Insider.

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A Kid’s Book For Adults

book_BoneByBoneOne of the most engaging new books for young children is a picture book that explains evolution. By way of whimsical illustrations and comparisons of animal skeletons the book — Bone By Bone — is able to deliver the story of evolutionary theory in an entertaining and compelling way.

Perhaps, it could be used just as well for those adults who have trouble grappling with the fruits of the scientific method. The Texas School Board of Education would make an ideal place to begin.

Bone By Bone is written by veterinarian Sara Levine.

From Slate:

In some of the best children’s books, dandelions turn into stars, sharks and radishes merge, and pancakes fall from the sky. No one would confuse these magical tales for descriptions of nature. Small children can differentiate between “the real world and the imaginary world,” as psychologist Alison Gopnik has written. They just “don’t see any particular reason for preferring to live in the real one.”

Children’s nuanced understanding of the not-real surely extends to the towering heap of books that feature dinosaurs as playmates who fill buckets of sand or bake chocolate-chip cookies. The imaginative play of these books may be no different to kids than radishsharks and llama dramas.

But as a parent, friendly dinos never steal my heart. I associate them, just a little, with old creationist images of animals frolicking near the Garden of Eden, which carried the message that dinosaurs and man, both created by God on the sixth day, co-existed on the Earth until after the flood. (Never mind the evidence that dinosaurs went extinct millions of years before humans appeared.) The founder of the Creation Museum in Kentucky calls dinosaurs “missionary lizards,” and that phrase echoes in my head when I see all those goofy illustrations of dinosaurs in sunglasses and hats.

I’ve been longing for another kind of picture book: one that appeals to young children’s wildest imagination in service of real evolutionary thinking. Such a book could certainly include dinosaur skeletons or fossils. But Bone by Bone, by veterinarian and professor Sara Levine, fills the niche to near perfection by relying on dogs, rabbits, bats, whales, and humans. Levine plays with differences in their skeletons to groom kids for grand scientific concepts.

Bone by Bone asks kids to imagine what their bodies would look like if they had different configurations of bones, like extra vertebrae, longer limbs, or fewer fingers. “What if your vertebrae didn’t stop at your rear end? What if they kept going?” Levine writes, as a boy peers over his shoulder at the spinal column. “You’d have a tail!”

“What kind of animal would you be if your leg bones were much, much longer than your arm bones?” she wonders, as a girl in pink sneakers rises so tall her face disappears from the page. “A rabbit or a kangaroo!” she says, later adding a pike and a hare. “These animals need strong hind leg bones for jumping.” Levine’s questions and answers are delightfully simple for the scientific heft they carry.

With the lightest possible touch, Levine introduces the idea that bones in different vertebrates are related and that they morph over time. She starts with vertebrae, skulls and ribs. But other structures bear strong kinships in these animals, too. The bone in the center of a horse’s hoof, for instance, is related to a human finger. (“What would happen if your middle fingers and the middle toes were so thick that they supported your whole body?”) The bones that radiate out through a bat’s wing are linked to those in a human hand. (“A web of skin connects the bones to make wings so that a bat can fly.”) This is different from the wings of a bird or an insect; with bats, it’s almost as if they’re swimming through air.

Of course, human hands did not shape-shift into bats’ wings, or vice versa. Both derive from a common ancestral structure, which means they share an evolutionary past. Homology, as this kind of relatedness is called, is among “the first and in many ways the best evidence for evolution,” says Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education. Comparing bones also paves the way for comparing genes and molecules, for grasping evolution at the next level of sophistication. Indeed, it’s hard to look at the bat wings and human hands as presented here without lighting up, at least a little, with these ideas. So many smart writers focus on preparing young kids to read or understand numbers. Why not do more to ready them for the big ideas of science? Why not pave the way for evolution? (This is easier to do with older kids, with books like The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and Why Don’t Your Eyelashes Grow?)

Read the entire story here.

Image: Bone By Bone, book cover. Courtesy: Lerner Publishing Group

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Elite Mediocrity

Yet another survey of global education attainment puts the United States firmly in yet another unenviable position. US students ranked a mere 28th in science and came further down the scale on math, at 36th, out of 65 nations. So, it’s time for another well-earned attack on the system that is increasingly nurturing mainstream mediocrity and dumbing-down education to mush. In fact, some nameless states seem to celebrate the fact by re-working textbooks and curricula to ensure historic fact and scientific principles are distorted to promote a religious agenda. And, for those who point to the US as a guiding light in all things innovative, please don’t forget that a significant proportion of the innovators gained their educational credentials elsewhere, outside the US.

As the news Comedy Central faux-news anchor and satirist Stephen Colbert recently put it:

“Like all great theologies, Bill [O’Reilly]’s can be boiled down to one sentence: there must be a God, because I don’t know how things work.”

From the Huffington Post:

The 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, results are in, and there’s some really good news for those that worry about the U.S. becoming a nation of brainy elitists. Of the 65 countries that participated in the PISA assessment, U.S. students ranked 36th in math, and 28th in science. When it comes to elitism, the U.S. truly has nothing to worry about.

For those relative few Americans who were already elite back when the 2009 PISA assessment was conducted, there’s good news for them too: they’re even more elite than they were in 2009, when the US ranked 30th in math and 23rd in science. Educated Americans are so elite, they’re practically an endangered species.

The only nagging possible shred of bad news from these test scores comes in the form of a question: where will the next Internet come from? Which country will deliver the next great big, landscape-changing, technological innovation that will propel its economy upward? The country of bold, transformative firsts, the one that created the world’s first nuclear reactor and landed humans on the moon seems very different than the one we live in today.

Mediocrity in science education has metastasized throughout the American mindset, dumbing down everything in its path, including the choices made by our elected officials. A stinging byproduct of America’s war on excellence in science education was the loss of its leadership position in particle physics research. On March 14 of this year, CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, announced that the Higgs Boson, aka the “God particle,” had been discovered at the EU’s Large Hadron Collider. CERN describes itself as “the world’s leading laboratory for particle physics” — a title previously held by America’s Fermilab. Fermilab’s Tevatron particle accelerator was the world’s largest and most powerful until eclipsed by CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. The Tevatron was shut down on September 30th, 2011.

The Tevatron’s planned replacement, Texas’ Superconducting Super Collider (SSC), would have been three times the size of the EU’s Large Hadron Collider. Over one third of the SSC’s underground tunnel had been bored at the time of its cancellation by congress in 1993. As Texas Monthly reported in “How Texas Lost the World’s Largest Super Collider,” “Nobody doubts that the 40 TeV Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) in Texas would have discovered the Higgs boson a decade before CERN.” Fighting to save the SSC in 1993, its director, Dr. Roy Schwitters, said in a New York Times interview, “The SSC is becoming a victim of the revenge of the C students.”

Ever wonder about the practical benefits of theoretical physics? Consider this: without Einstein’s theory of general relativity, GPS doesn’t work. That’s because time in those GPS satellites whizzing above us in space is slightly different than time for us terrestrials. Without compensating for the difference, our cars would end up in a ditch instead of Starbucks. GPS would also not have happened without advances in US space technology. Consider that, in 2013, there are two manned spacefaring nations on Earth – the US isn’t one of them. GPS alone is estimated to generate $122.4 billion annually in direct and related benefits according to an NDP Consulting Group report. The Superconducting Super Collider would have cost $8.4 billion.

‘C’ students’ revenge doesn’t stop with crushing super colliders or grounding our space program. Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly famously translated his inability to explain 9th grade astronomy into justification for teaching creationism in public schools, stating that we don’t know how tides work, or where the sun or moon comes from, or why the Earth has a moon and Mars doesn’t (Mars actually has two moons).

Read the entire article here.

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Innovation in Education?

While many aspects of our lives have changed, mostly for the better, over the last two to three hundred years, one area remains relatively untouched. Education. Since the industrial revolution that began in Western Europe and then swept the world not much has changed in the way we educate our children. It is still very much an industrial, factory-oriented process.

You could argue that technology has altered how we learn, and you would be partly correct. You could also argue that our children are also much more informed and learned compared with their peers in Victorian England, and, again, you would be partly correct. But the most critical element remains the same — the process. The regimented approach, the rote teaching, the focus on tests and testing, and the systematic squelching of creativity still remains solidly in place.

William Torrey Harris, one of the founders of the U.S. public school system in the late-1800s, once said,

“Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.”

And, in testament to his enduring legacy, much of this can still be seen in action today in most Western public schools.

Yet, in some pockets of the world there is hope. Sir Ken Robinson’s vision may yet come to fruition.

From Wired:

José Urbina López Primary School sits next to a dump just across the US border in Mexico. The school serves residents of Matamoros, a dusty, sunbaked city of 489,000 that is a flash point in the war on drugs. There are regular shoot-outs, and it’s not uncommon for locals to find bodies scattered in the street in the morning. To get to the school, students walk along a white dirt road that parallels a fetid canal. On a recent morning there was a 1940s-era tractor, a decaying boat in a ditch, and a herd of goats nibbling gray strands of grass. A cinder-block barrier separates the school from a wasteland—the far end of which is a mound of trash that grew so big, it was finally closed down. On most days, a rotten smell drifts through the cement-walled classrooms. Some people here call the school un lugar de castigo—”a place of punishment.”

For 12-year-old Paloma Noyola Bueno, it was a bright spot. More than 25 years ago, her family moved to the border from central Mexico in search of a better life. Instead, they got stuck living beside the dump. Her father spent all day scavenging for scrap, digging for pieces of aluminum, glass, and plastic in the muck. Recently, he had developed nosebleeds, but he didn’t want Paloma to worry. She was his little angel—the youngest of eight children.

After school, Paloma would come home and sit with her father in the main room of their cement-and-wood home. Her father was a weather-beaten, gaunt man who always wore a cowboy hat. Paloma would recite the day’s lessons for him in her crisp uniform—gray polo, blue-and-white skirt—and try to cheer him up. She had long black hair, a high forehead, and a thoughtful, measured way of talking. School had never been challenging for her. She sat in rows with the other students while teachers told the kids what they needed to know. It wasn’t hard to repeat it back, and she got good grades without thinking too much. As she headed into fifth grade, she assumed she was in for more of the same—lectures, memorization, and busy work.

Sergio Juárez Correa was used to teaching that kind of class. For five years, he had stood in front of students and worked his way through the government-mandated curriculum. It was mind-numbingly boring for him and the students, and he’d come to the conclusion that it was a waste of time. Test scores were poor, and even the students who did well weren’t truly engaged. Something had to change.

He too had grown up beside a garbage dump in Matamoros, and he had become a teacher to help kids learn enough to make something more of their lives. So in 2011—when Paloma entered his class—Juárez Correa decided to start experimenting. He began reading books and searching for ideas online. Soon he stumbled on a video describing the work of Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in the UK. In the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s, Mitra conducted experiments in which he gave children in India access to computers. Without any instruction, they were able to teach themselves a surprising variety of things, from DNA replication to English.

Juárez Correa didn’t know it yet, but he had happened on an emerging educational philosophy, one that applies the logic of the digital age to the classroom. That logic is inexorable: Access to a world of infinite information has changed how we communicate, process information, and think. Decentralized systems have proven to be more productive and agile than rigid, top-down ones. Innovation, creativity, and independent thinking are increasingly crucial to the global economy.

And yet the dominant model of public education is still fundamentally rooted in the industrial revolution that spawned it, when workplaces valued punctuality, regularity, attention, and silence above all else. (In 1899, William T. Harris, the US commissioner of education, celebrated the fact that US schools had developed the “appearance of a machine,” one that teaches the student “to behave in an orderly manner, to stay in his own place, and not get in the way of others.”) We don’t openly profess those values nowadays, but our educational system—which routinely tests kids on their ability to recall information and demonstrate mastery of a narrow set of skills—doubles down on the view that students are material to be processed, programmed, and quality-tested. School administrators prepare curriculum standards and “pacing guides” that tell teachers what to teach each day. Legions of managers supervise everything that happens in the classroom; in 2010 only 50 percent of public school staff members in the US were teachers.

The results speak for themselves: Hundreds of thousands of kids drop out of public high school every year. Of those who do graduate from high school, almost a third are “not prepared academically for first-year college courses,” according to a 2013 report from the testing service ACT. The World Economic Forum ranks the US just 49th out of 148 developed and developing nations in quality of math and science instruction. “The fundamental basis of the system is fatally flawed,” says Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford and founding director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. “In 1970 the top three skills required by the Fortune 500 were the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. In 1999 the top three skills in demand were teamwork, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. We need schools that are developing these skills.”

That’s why a new breed of educators, inspired by everything from the Internet to evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and AI, are inventing radical new ways for children to learn, grow, and thrive. To them, knowledge isn’t a commodity that’s delivered from teacher to student but something that emerges from the students’ own curiosity-fueled exploration. Teachers provide prompts, not answers, and then they step aside so students can teach themselves and one another. They are creating ways for children to discover their passion—and uncovering a generation of geniuses in the process.

At home in Matamoros, Juárez Correa found himself utterly absorbed by these ideas. And the more he learned, the more excited he became. On August 21, 2011—the start of the school year — he walked into his classroom and pulled the battered wooden desks into small groups. When Paloma and the other students filed in, they looked confused. Juárez Correa invited them to take a seat and then sat down with them.

He started by telling them that there were kids in other parts of the world who could memorize pi to hundreds of decimal points. They could write symphonies and build robots and airplanes. Most people wouldn’t think that the students at José Urbina López could do those kinds of things. Kids just across the border in Brownsville, Texas, had laptops, high-speed Internet, and tutoring, while in Matamoros the students had intermittent electricity, few computers, limited Internet, and sometimes not enough to eat.

“But you do have one thing that makes you the equal of any kid in the world,” Juárez Correa said. “Potential.”

He looked around the room. “And from now on,” he told them, “we’re going to use that potential to make you the best students in the world.”

Paloma was silent, waiting to be told what to do. She didn’t realize that over the next nine months, her experience of school would be rewritten, tapping into an array of educational innovations from around the world and vaulting her and some of her classmates to the top of the math and language rankings in Mexico.

“So,” Juárez Correa said, “what do you want to learn?”

In 1999, Sugata Mitra was chief scientist at a company in New Delhi that trains software developers. His office was on the edge of a slum, and on a hunch one day, he decided to put a computer into a nook in a wall separating his building from the slum. He was curious to see what the kids would do, particularly if he said nothing. He simply powered the computer on and watched from a distance. To his surprise, the children quickly figured out how to use the machine.

Over the years, Mitra got more ambitious. For a study published in 2010, he loaded a computer with molecular biology materials and set it up in Kalikuppam, a village in southern India. He selected a small group of 10- to 14-year-olds and told them there was some interesting stuff on the computer, and might they take a look? Then he applied his new pedagogical method: He said no more and left.

Over the next 75 days, the children worked out how to use the computer and began to learn. When Mitra returned, he administered a written test on molecular biology. The kids answered about one of four questions correctly. After another 75 days, with the encouragement of a friendly local, they were getting every other question right. “If you put a computer in front of children and remove all other adult restrictions, they will self-organize around it,” Mitra says, “like bees around a flower.”

A charismatic and convincing proselytizer, Mitra has become a darling in the tech world. In early 2013 he won a $1 million grant from TED, the global ideas conference, to pursue his work. He’s now in the process of establishing seven “schools in the cloud,” five in India and two in the UK. In India, most of his schools are single-room buildings. There will be no teachers, curriculum, or separation into age groups—just six or so computers and a woman to look after the kids’ safety. His defining principle: “The children are completely in charge.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: William Torrey Harris, (September 10, 1835 – November 5, 1909), American educator, philosopher, and lexicographer. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Someone Has to Stand Up to Experts

“Someone has to stand up to experts!”. This is what Don McLeroy would have you believe about scientists. We all espouse senseless rants once in a while, so we should give McLeroy the benefit of the doubt – perhaps he had slept poorly the night before this impassioned, irrational plea. On the other hand, when you learn that McLeroy’s statement came as chairman of the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) in 2010, then you may wish to think again, especially if you have children in the school system of the Lone Star State.

McLeroy and his fellow young-Earth creationists including Cynthia Dunbar are the subject of a documentary out this week titled The Revisionaries. It looks at the messy and yet successful efforts of the SBOE to revise the curriculum standards and the contents of science and social studies textbooks in their favor. So, included in a list of over 100 significant amendments, the non-experts did the following: marginalized Thomas Jefferson for being a secular humanist; watered down the historically accepted rationale for separation of church and state; stressed the positive side of the McCarthyist witchhunts; removed references to Hispanics having fought against Santa Anna in the battle of the Alamo; added the National Rifle Association as a key element in the recent conservative resurgence; and of course, re-opened the entire debate over the validity of evolutionary theory.

While McLeroy and some of his fellow non-experts lost re-election bids, their influence on young minds is likely to be far-reaching — textbooks in Texas are next revised in 2020, and because of Texas’ market power many publishers across the nation tend to follow Texas standards.

Video clip courtesy of The Revisionaries, PBS.

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National Education Rankings: C-

One would believe that the most affluent and open country on the planet would have one of the best, if not the best, education systems. Yet, the United States of America distinguishes itself by being thoroughly mediocre in a ranking of developed nations in science, mathematics and reading. How can we makes amends for our children?

From Slate:

Take the 2009 PISA test, which assessed the knowledge of students from 65 countries and economies—34 of which are members of the development organization the OECD, including the United States—in math, science, and reading. Of the OECD countries, the United States came in 17th place in science literacy; of all countries and economies surveyed, it came in 23rd place. The U.S. score of 502 practically matched the OECD average of 501. That puts us firmly in the middle. Where we don’t want to be.

What do the leading countries do differently? To find out, Slate asked science teachers from five countries that are among the world’s best in science education—Finland, Singapore, South Korea, New Zealand, and Canada—how they approach their subject and the classroom. Their recommendations: Keep students engaged and make the science seem relevant.

Finland: “To Make Students Enjoy Chemistry Is Hard Work”

Finland was first among the 34 OECD countries in the 2009 PISA science rankings and second—behind mainland China—among all 65 nations and economies that took the test. Ari Myllyviita teaches chemistry and works with future science educators at the Viikki Teacher Training School of Helsinki University.

Finland’s National Core Curriculum is premised on the idea “that learning is a result of a student’s active and focused actions aimed to process and interpret received information in interaction with other students, teachers and the environment and on the basis of his or her existing knowledge structures.”

My conception of learning lies strongly on this citation from our curriculum. My aim is to support knowledge-building, socioculturally: to create socially supported activity in student’s zone of proximal development (the area where student need some support to achieve next level of understanding or skill). The student’s previous knowledge is the starting point, and then the learning is bound to the activity during lessons—experiments, simulations, and observing phenomena.

The National Core Curriculum also states, “The purpose of instruction in chemistry is to support development of students’ scientific thinking and modern worldview.” Our teaching is based on examination and observations of substances and chemical phenomena, their structures and properties, and reactions between substances. Through experiments and theoretical models, students are taught to understand everyday life and nature. In my classroom, I use discussion, lectures, demonstrations, and experimental work—quite often based on group work. Between lessons, I use social media and other information communication technologies to stay in touch with students.

In addition to the National Core Curriculum, my school has its own. They have the same bases, but our own curriculum is more concrete. Based on these, I write my course and lesson plans. Because of different learning styles, I use different kinds of approaches, sometimes theoretical and sometimes experimental. Always there are new concepts and perhaps new models to explain the phenomena or results.

To make students enjoy learning chemistry is hard work. I think that as a teacher, you have to love your subject and enjoy teaching even when there are sometimes students who don´t pay attention to you. But I get satisfaction when I can give a purpose for the future by being a supportive teacher.

New Zealand: “Students Disengage When a Teacher Is Simply Repeating Facts or Ideas”

New Zealand came in seventh place out of 65 in the 2009 PISA assessment. Steve Martin is head of junior science at Howick College. In 2010, he received the prime minister’s award for science teaching.

Science education is an important part of preparing students for their role in the community. Scientific understanding will allow them to engage in issues that concern them now and in the future, such as genetically modified crops. In New Zealand, science is also viewed as having a crucial role to play in the future of the economic health of the country. This can be seen in the creation of the “Prime Minister’s Science Prizes,” a program that identifies the nation’s leading scientists, emerging and future scientists, and science teachers.

The New Zealand Science Curriculum allows for flexibility depending on contextual factors such as school location, interests of students, and teachers’ specialization. The curriculum has the “Nature of Science” as its foundation, which supports students learning the skills essential to a scientist, such as problem-solving and effective communication. The Nature of Science refers to the skills required to work as a scientist, how to communicate science effectively through science-specific vocabulary, and how to participate in debates and issues with a scientific perspective.

School administrators support innovation and risk-taking by teachers, which fosters the “let’s have a go” attitude. In my own classroom, I utilize computer technology to create virtual science lessons that support and encourage students to think for themselves and learn at their own pace. Virtual Lessons are Web-based documents that support learning in and outside the classroom. They include support for students of all abilities by providing digital resources targeted at different levels of thinking. These could include digital flashcards that support vocabulary development, videos that explain the relationships between ideas or facts, and links to websites that allow students to create cartoon animations. The students are then supported by the use of instant messaging, online collaborative documents, and email so they can get support from their peers and myself at anytime. I provide students with various levels of success criteria, which are statements that students and teachers use to evaluate performance. In every lesson I provide the students with three different levels of success criteria, each providing an increase in cognitive demand. The following is an example based on the topic of the carbon cycle:
I can identify the different parts of the carbon cycle.

I can explain how all the parts interact with each other to form the carbon cycle.
I can predict the effect that removing one part of the carbon cycle has on the environment.
These provide challenge for all abilities and at the same time make it clear what students need to do to be successful. I value creativity and innovation, and this greatly influences the opportunities I provide for students.

My students learn to love to be challenged and to see that all ideas help develop greater understanding. Students value the opportunity to contribute to others’ understanding, and they disengage when a teacher is simply repeating facts or ideas.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image: Coloma 1914 Classroom. Courtesy of Coloma Convent School, Croydon UK.

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Good Grades and Good Drugs?

A sad story chronicling the rise in amphetamine use in the quest for good school grades. More frightening now is the increase in addiction of ever younger kids, and not for dubious goal of excelling at school. Many kids are just taking the drug to get high.

From the Telegraph:

The New York Times has finally woken up to America’s biggest unacknowledged drug problem: the massive overprescription of the amphetamine drug Adderall for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Kids have been selling each other this powerful – and extremely moreish – mood enhancer for years, as ADHD diagnoses and prescriptions for the drug have shot up.

Now, children are snorting the stuff, breaking open the capsules and ingesting it using the time-honoured tool of a rolled-up bank note.

The NYT seems to think these teenage drug users are interested in boosting their grades. It claims that, for children without ADHD, “just one pill can jolt them with the energy focus to push through all-night homework binges and stay awake during exams afterward”.

Really? There are two problems with this.

First, the idea that ADHD kids are “normal” on Adderall and its methylphenidate alternative Ritalin – gentler in its effect but still a psychostimulant – is open to question. Reading this scorching article by the child psychologist Prof L Alan Sroufe, who says there’s no evidence that attention-deficit children are born with an organic disease, or that ADHD and non-ADHD kids react differently to their doctor-prescribed amphetamines. Yes, there’s an initial boost to concentration, but the effect wears off – and addiction often takes its place.

Second, the school pupils illicitly borrowing or buying Adderall aren’t necessarily doing it to concentrate on their work. They’re doing it to get high.

Adderall, with its mixture of amphetamine salts, has the ability to make you as euphoric as a line of cocaine – and keep you that way, particularly if it’s the slow-release version and you’re taking it for the first time. At least, that was my experience. Here’s what happened.

I was staying with a hospital consultant and his attorney wife in the East Bay just outside San Francisco. I’d driven overnight from Los Angeles after a flight from London; I was jetlagged, sleep-deprived and facing a deadline to write an article for the Spectator about, of all things, Bach cantatas.

Sitting in the courtyard garden with my laptop, I tapped and deleted one clumsy sentence after another. The sun was going down; my hostess saw me shivering and popped out with a blanket, a cup of herbal tea and ‘something to help you concentrate’.

I took the pill, didn’t notice any effect, and was glad when I was called in for dinner.

The dining room was a Californian take on the Second Empire. The lady next to me was a Southern Belle turned realtor, her eyelids already drooping from the effects of her third giant glass of Napa Valley chardonnay. She began to tell me about her divorce. Every time she refilled her glass, her new husband raised his eyes to heaven.

It felt as if I was stuck in an episode of Dallas, or a very bad Tennessee Williams play. But it didn’t matter in the least because, at some stage between the mozzarella salad and the grilled chicken, I’d become as high as a kite.

Adderall helps you concentrate, no doubt about it. I was riveted by the details of this woman’s alimony settlement. Even she, utterly self- obsessed as she was, was surprised by my gushing empathy. After dinner, I sat down at the kitchen table to finish the article. The head rush was beginning to wear off, but then, just as I started typing, a second wave of amphetamine pushed its way into my bloodstream. This was timed-release Adderall. Gratefully I plunged into 18th-century Leipzig, meticulously noting the catalogue numbers of cantatas. It was as if the great Johann Sebastian himself was looking over my shoulder. By the time I glanced at the clock, it was five in the morning. My pleasure at finishing the article was boosted by the dopamine high. What a lovely drug.

The blues didn’t hit me until the next day – and took the best part of a week to banish.

And this is what they give to nine-year-olds.

Read the entire article after the jump.

From the New York Times:

He steered into the high school parking lot, clicked off the ignition and scanned the scraps of his recent weeks. Crinkled chip bags on the dashboard. Soda cups at his feet. And on the passenger seat, a rumpled SAT practice book whose owner had been told since fourth grade he was headed to the Ivy League. Pencils up in 20 minutes.

The boy exhaled. Before opening the car door, he recalled recently, he twisted open a capsule of orange powder and arranged it in a neat line on the armrest. He leaned over, closed one nostril and snorted it.

Throughout the parking lot, he said, eight of his friends did the same thing.

The drug was not cocaine or heroin, but Adderall, an amphetamine prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder that the boy said he and his friends routinely shared to study late into the night, focus during tests and ultimately get the grades worthy of their prestigious high school in an affluent suburb of New York City. The drug did more than just jolt them awake for the 8 a.m. SAT; it gave them a tunnel focus tailor-made for the marathon of tests long known to make or break college applications.

“Everyone in school either has a prescription or has a friend who does,” the boy said.

At high schools across the United States, pressure over grades and competition for college admissions are encouraging students to abuse prescription stimulants, according to interviews with students, parents and doctors. Pills that have been a staple in some college and graduate school circles are going from rare to routine in many academically competitive high schools, where teenagers say they get them from friends, buy them from student dealers or fake symptoms to their parents and doctors to get prescriptions.

Of the more than 200 students, school officials, parents and others contacted for this article, about 40 agreed to share their experiences. Most students spoke on the condition that they be identified by only a first or middle name, or not at all, out of concern for their college prospects or their school systems’ reputations — and their own.

“It’s throughout all the private schools here,” said DeAnsin Parker, a New York psychologist who treats many adolescents from affluent neighborhoods like the Upper East Side. “It’s not as if there is one school where this is the culture. This is the culture.”

Observed Gary Boggs, a special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration, “We’re seeing it all across the United States.”

The D.E.A. lists prescription stimulants like Adderall and Vyvanse (amphetamines) and Ritalin and Focalin (methylphenidates) as Class 2 controlled substances — the same as cocaine and morphine — because they rank among the most addictive substances that have a medical use. (By comparison, the long-abused anti-anxiety drug Valium is in the lower Class 4.) So they carry high legal risks, too, as few teenagers appreciate that merely giving a friend an Adderall or Vyvanse pill is the same as selling it and can be prosecuted as a felony.

While these medicines tend to calm people with A.D.H.D., those without the disorder find that just one pill can jolt them with the energy and focus to push through all-night homework binges and stay awake during exams afterward. “It’s like it does your work for you,” said William, a recent graduate of the Birch Wathen Lenox School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

But abuse of prescription stimulants can lead to depression and mood swings (from sleep deprivation), heart irregularities and acute exhaustion or psychosis during withdrawal, doctors say. Little is known about the long-term effects of abuse of stimulants among the young. Drug counselors say that for some teenagers, the pills eventually become an entry to the abuse of painkillers and sleep aids.

“Once you break the seal on using pills, or any of that stuff, it’s not scary anymore — especially when you’re getting A’s,” said the boy who snorted Adderall in the parking lot. He spoke from the couch of his drug counselor, detailing how he later became addicted to the painkiller Percocet and eventually heroin.

Paul L. Hokemeyer, a family therapist at Caron Treatment Centers in Manhattan, said: “Children have prefrontal cortexes that are not fully developed, and we’re changing the chemistry of the brain. That’s what these drugs do. It’s one thing if you have a real deficiency — the medicine is really important to those people — but not if your deficiency is not getting into Brown.”

The number of prescriptions for A.D.H.D. medications dispensed for young people ages 10 to 19 has risen 26 percent since 2007, to almost 21 million yearly, according to IMS Health, a health care information company — a number that experts estimate corresponds to more than two million individuals. But there is no reliable research on how many high school students take stimulants as a study aid. Doctors and teenagers from more than 15 schools across the nation with high academic standards estimated that the portion of students who do so ranges from 15 percent to 40 percent.

“They’re the A students, sometimes the B students, who are trying to get good grades,” said one senior at Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, a Philadelphia suburb, who said he makes hundreds of dollars a week selling prescription drugs, usually priced at $5 to $20 per pill, to classmates as young as freshmen. “They’re the quote-unquote good kids, basically.”

The trend was driven home last month to Nan Radulovic, a psychotherapist in Santa Monica, Calif. Within a few days, she said, an 11th grader, a ninth grader and an eighth grader asked for prescriptions for Adderall solely for better grades. From one girl, she recalled, it was not quite a request.

“If you don’t give me the prescription,” Dr. Radulovic said the girl told her, “I’ll just get it from kids at school.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: Illegal use of Adderall is prevalent enough that many students seem to take it for granted. Courtesy of Minnesota Post / Flickr/ CC/ Hipsxxhearts.

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Creativity and Failure at School

From the Wall Street Journal:

Most of our high schools and colleges are not preparing students to become innovators. To succeed in the 21st-century economy, students must learn to analyze and solve problems, collaborate, persevere, take calculated risks and learn from failure. To find out how to encourage these skills, I interviewed scores of innovators and their parents, teachers and employers. What I learned is that young Americans learn how to innovate most often despite their schooling—not because of it.

Though few young people will become brilliant innovators like Steve Jobs, most can be taught the skills needed to become more innovative in whatever they do. A handful of high schools, colleges and graduate schools are teaching young people these skills—places like High Tech High in San Diego, the New Tech high schools (a network of 86 schools in 16 states), Olin College in Massachusetts, the Institute of Design (d.school) at Stanford and the MIT Media Lab. The culture of learning in these programs is radically at odds with the culture of schooling in most classrooms.

In most high-school and college classes, failure is penalized. But without trial and error, there is no innovation. Amanda Alonzo, a 32-year-old teacher at Lynbrook High School in San Jose, Calif., who has mentored two Intel Science Prize finalists and 10 semifinalists in the last two years—more than any other public school science teacher in the U.S.—told me, “One of the most important things I have to teach my students is that when you fail, you are learning.” Students gain lasting self-confidence not by being protected from failure but by learning that they can survive it.

The university system today demands and rewards specialization. Professors earn tenure based on research in narrow academic fields, and students are required to declare a major in a subject area. Though expertise is important, Google’s director of talent, Judy Gilbert, told me that the most important thing educators can do to prepare students for work in companies like hers is to teach them that problems can never be understood or solved in the context of a single academic discipline. At Stanford’s d.school and MIT’s Media Lab, all courses are interdisciplinary and based on the exploration of a problem or new opportunity. At Olin College, half the students create interdisciplinary majors like “Design for Sustainable Development” or “Mathematical Biology.”

Learning in most conventional education settings is a passive experience: The students listen. But at the most innovative schools, classes are “hands-on,” and students are creators, not mere consumers. They acquire skills and knowledge while solving a problem, creating a product or generating a new understanding. At High Tech High, ninth graders must develop a new business concept—imagining a new product or service, writing a business and marketing plan, and developing a budget. The teams present their plans to a panel of business leaders who assess their work. At Olin College, seniors take part in a yearlong project in which students work in teams on a real engineering problem supplied by one of the college’s corporate partners.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image courtesy of NY Daily News.

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The U.S. Education System Through the Eyes of a Student and Sir Ken

Nikhil Goyal is an observant 16-year-old Junior at a New York high-school. He ponders the state of the U.S. educational system, which he finds sadly wanting. Sir Ken Robinson has a young standard-bearer. Adults take note:

From the Huffington Post:

The United States education system really sucks. We continue to toil in a 19th century factory-based model of education, stressing conformity and standardization. This is all true even though globalization has transformed the world we live in, flipping the status quo of the labor market upside down. The education system has miserably failed in creating students that have the dexterity to think creatively and critically, work collaboratively, and communicate their thoughts.

Over the past decade, when government has tried to muddle its way through education, it has gotten fairly ugly. President Bush passed No Child Left Behind and President Obama passed Race to the Top, infatuating our schools with a culture of fill in the bubble tests and drill-and-kill teaching methods. Schools were transformed into test-preparation factories and the process of memorization and regurgitation hijacked classroom learning.

Our society has failed to understand what’s at stake. For the 21st century American economy, all economic value will derive from entrepreneurship and innovation. Low-cost manufacturing will essentially be wiped out of this country and shipped to China, India, and other nations. While we may have the top companies in the world, as in Apple and Google, our competitive edge is at risk. The education system was designed to create well-disciplined employees, not entrepreneurs and innovators. According to Cathy N. Davidson, co-director of the annual MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions, 65 percent of today’s grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet.

I propose that we institute a 21st century model of education, rooted in 21st century learning skills and creativity, imagination, discovery, and project-based learning. We need to stop telling kids to shut up, sit down, and listen to the teacher passively. As Sir Ken Robinson said in his well-acclaimed TED talk, “Schools kill creativity.”

Read more of the article here.

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A Better Way to Study and Learn

Our current educational process in one sentence: assume student is empty vessel; provide student with content; reward student for remembering and regurgitating content; repeat.

Yet, we have known for a while, and an increasing body of research corroborates our belief, that this method of teaching and learning is not very effective, or stimulating for that matter. It’s simply an efficient mechanism for the mass production of an adequate resource for the job market. Of course, for most it then takes many more decades following high school or college to unlearn the rote trivia and re-learn what is really important.

Mind Hacks reviews some recent studies that highlight better approaches to studying.

From Mind Hacks:

Decades old research into how memory works should have revolutionised University teaching. It didn’t.

If you’re a student, what I’m about to tell you will let you change how you study so that it is more effective, more enjoyable and easier. If you work at a University, you – like me – should hang your head in shame that we’ve known this for decades but still teach the way we do.

There’s a dangerous idea in education that students are receptacles, and teachers are responsible for providing content that fills them up. This model encourages us to test students by the amount of content they can regurgitate, to focus overly on statements rather than skills in assessment and on syllabuses rather than values in teaching. It also encourages us to believe that we should try and learn things by trying to remember them. Sounds plausible, perhaps, but there’s a problem. Research into the psychology of memory shows that intention to remember is a very minor factor in whether you remember something or not. Far more important than whether you want to remember something is how you think about the material when you encounter it.

A classic experiment by Hyde and Jenkins (1973) illustrates this. These researchers gave participants lists of words, which they later tested recall of, as their memory items. To affect their thinking about the words, half the participants were told to rate the pleasentness of each word, and half were told to check if the word contained the letters ‘e’ or ‘g’. This manipulation was designed to affect ‘depth of processing’. The participants in the rating-pleasentness condition had to think about what the word meant, and relate it to themselves (how they felt about it) – “deep processing”. Participants in the letter-checking condition just had to look at the shape of the letters, they didn’t even have to read the word if they didn’t want to – “shallow processing”. The second, independent, manipulation concerned whether participants knew that they would be tested later on the words. Half of each group were told this – the “intentional learning” condition – and half weren’t told, the test would come as a surprise – the “incidental learning” condition.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of the Telegraph / AP.

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The Cult of the Super Person

It is undeniable that there is ever increasing societal pressure on children to perform compete, achieve and succeed, and to do so at ever younger ages. However, while average college test admission scores have improved it’s also arguable that admission standards have dropped. So, the picture painted by James Atlas in the article below is far from clear. Nonetheless, it’s disturbing that our children get less and less time to dream, play, explore and get dirty.

From the New York Times:

A BROCHURE arrives in the mail announcing this year’s winners of a prestigious fellowship to study abroad. The recipients are allotted a full page each, with a photo and a thick paragraph chronicling their achievements. It’s a select group to begin with, but even so, there doesn’t seem to be anyone on this list who hasn’t mastered at least one musical instrument; helped build a school or hospital in some foreign land; excelled at a sport; attained fluency in two or more languages; had both a major and a minor, sometimes two, usually in unrelated fields (philosophy and molecular science, mathematics and medieval literature); and yet found time — how do they have any? — to enjoy such arduous hobbies as mountain biking and white-water kayaking.

Let’s call this species Super Person.

Do we have some anomalous cohort here? Achievement freaks on a scale we haven’t seen before? Has our hysterically competitive, education-obsessed society finally outdone itself in its tireless efforts to produce winners whose abilities are literally off the charts? And if so, what convergence of historical, social and economic forces has been responsible for the emergence of this new type? Why does Super Person appear among us now?

Perhaps there’s an evolutionary cause, and these robust intellects reflect the leap in the physical development of humans that we ascribe to better diets, exercise and other forms of health-consciousness. (Stephen Jay Gould called this mechanism “extended scope.”) All you have to do is watch a long rally between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal to recognize — if you’re old enough — how much faster the sport has become over the last half century.

The Super Person training for the college application wars is the academic version of the Super Person slugging it out on the tennis court. For wonks, Harvard Yard is Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Preparing for Super Personhood begins early. “We see kids who’ve been training from an early age,” says Charles Bardes, chairman of admissions at Weill Cornell Medical College. “The bar has been set higher. You have to be at the top of the pile.”

And to clamber up there you need a head start. Thus the well-documented phenomenon of helicopter parents. In her influential book “Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety,” Judith Warner quotes a mom who gave up her career to be a full-time parent: “The children are the center of the household and everything goes around them. You want to do everything and be everything for them because this is your job now.” Bursting with pent-up energy, the mothers transfer their shelved career ambitions to their children. Since that book was published in 2005, the situation has only intensified. “One of my daughter’s classmates has a pilot’s license; 12-year-olds are taking calculus,” Ms. Warner said last week.

Read more of this article here.

Image courtesy of Mark Todd. New York Times.

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Is Our Children Learning: Testing the Standardized Tests

Test grades once measured student performance. Nowadays test grades are used to measure teacher and parent, educational institution and even national performance. Gary Cutting over at the Stone forum has some instructive commentary.

From the New York Times:

So what exactly do test scores tell us?

Poor test scores are the initial premises in most current arguments for educational reform.  At the end of last year, reading scores that showed American 15-year-olds in the middle of an international pack, led by Asian countries, prompted calls from researchers and educators for immediate action.  This year two sociologists, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, showed that 45 percent of students, after two years of college, have made no significant gains on a test of critical thinking.  Last week’s report of falling SAT scores is the latest example.

Given poor test results, many critics conclude that our schools are failing and propose plans for immediate action.  For example, when Arum and Raksa published their results, many concluded that college teachers need to raise standards in their courses, requiring more hours of study and assigning longer papers.

It is, however, not immediately obvious what follows from poor test scores.  Without taking any position about the state of our schools or how, if at all, they need reform, I want to reflect on what we need to add to the fact of poor scores to construct an argument for changing the way we educate.

The first question is whether a test actually tests for things that we want students to know.   We very seldom simply want students to do well on a test for its own sake.

Read more of this article here.

Image courtesy of U.S. College Search.

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