Thursday, August 16, 2007

powerful ideas discourse


I asked Alan Kay, on the Squeak list, for some clarification of the "non universals" slide from his Europython 2006 keynote

This has sparked a discussion about powerful ideas - what are they and why don't they figure more in School or University education?

The 'non universals' thread starts here (my initial post) or for an overview of the August archive (to follow the subthreads more coherently) look here

Some of the discussion points so far:
  • Where does the non universals list originate from?
  • Clarification of the meanings of these terms from the non universals list: 'Theory of Harmony' and 'Similarities over Differences'
  • Why aren't powerful ideas taken up by School?
  • Elaboration on the reasons for the huge gulf between genuinely powerful ideas and the current reality of our formal education systems
One quote from Alan Kay, which is part of this discussion:
Someone once asked Mohandas Gandhi what he thought of Western Civilization, and he said he "thought it would be a good idea!"

Similarly, if you asked me what I thought of University Education, I would say that "it would be a good idea!"
These are important issues, we need to discuss them more. Understatement.

1 comment:

Mark Miller said...

Hi Bill. I was really intrigued by this discussion on Squeakland, particularly as it pertained to "school culture". I did have some comments on a few of the subjects discussed, speaking from the POV of someone who was a student in U.S. public schools in the 1980s, and got a bachelor's degree in the 1990s.

We had Logo instruction as part of a programming class when I was in junior high school (now called middle school). One of the shapes we were taught to draw was a circle. We were not taught the math involved. We were just given the algorithm. Looking back on it I think our teacher just used Logo to teach us about procedural programming. I forget what they were called. They may have been called "methods", but we built procedures and then called them from our code to repeat patterns. We were then asked to create our own drawings in Logo. That was pretty much it. I didn't learn until I got to college, and only by listening to a casual conversation between a student and a computer science professor who taught graphics, that that method for drawing a circle in Logo was implementing a form of Calculus. I remember listening to that conversation and feeling kind of "dumb" and perhaps a bit cheated. I wondered how this student having the conversation came to know this.

Re: why are computer teachers just teaching word processing/Office?

Around my 6th grade year, around 1982, "computer literacy" was starting to become the "thing to do" to "prepare for the future". Back then computer literacy was defined as computer programming. So even though computers hadn't made a widespread appearance in schools every effort was made to encourage kids to learn to program them. When I got to junior high we had only 3 computers in the school. We had a math teacher who held a small computer club after school, showing us how to work with it, and letting us try our hand at it. Eventually the school got a whole lab so more kids could get exposed to them. By my 9th grade year the emphasis had started to change. I remember reading about it. The powers that be in education systems had changed their minds about "computer literacy". Now instead of teaching kids to program, more emphasis would be put on teaching kids to use what you would now call an "office suite": word processing, working with spreadsheets, and databases. The focus was largely vocational the whole time, even when they taught programming. In the early years of this things had not yet come into focus about where this "computer thing" was going to go. Computers in those days were largely custom programmed to do certain things. So I'm sure people looked at that and felt it was necessary to teach kids for that. Once the software market started to mature, people said, "Okay. So they don't need to learn to program to be literate."

I took one of the first courses my junior high school offered for these skills. I figured I should learn them. I don't regret it, but I do regret that over the years there has been a watering down of that passion for getting kids literate in programming.

There are still programming courses taught in U.S. schools, but it sounds like they're not as fun as the ones I took. When I took it teachers encouraged more initiative and creativity on our part. I talked with another blogger about this recently (in the U.S.). He said his son was taking a computer course where all they're teaching is how to use Office, and how to write "practical" programs in Java.

Re: how Calculus is taught

I don't know if things have changed, but I wasn't taught Calculus until I entered college in 1988, and there weren't that many proofs. High schools did have AP Calculus courses then. You could get college credit for passing the AP test.

It was largely memorization of formulas and doing symbol manipulation according to rules. To tell you the truth I didn't see much of the point in it. Most of the math we learned was in learning about the concepts of infinity and limits. The most exciting part for me was learning about McLauren Series, which may have been what Alan Kay was talking about. I had always been curious how calculators were able to calculate logarithms. I remember asking my pre-Calc teacher in high school about it. He assumed that there were tables built into the memory of the calculators, which it used to give the result, but I pressed further. I said that you could put in any number, even a fraction, and still get an accurate log. Further, you could use the anti-log function to get the original number back. How would you use tables to do that? I had stumped him. He had no idea. Perhaps my "computer literacy", if you will, had provided me with an insight he didn't have.

Though we didn't explore it in Calculus, I felt as though I found my answer.

Re: Teachers vying for equal time for their subjects

I've seen this dynamic show up in other contexts (outside of schools). This is just an intuitive reaction to this subject, but it seems to me it's a case of "too many cooks in the kitchen". Each has their own ego to please. Over the decades there's been a tearing down of authority. Now it's expected it will be distributed rather than narrowly focused. Further it seems like these are exercises in egalitarianism, where that's the primary value, rather than merit of the subject matter, because after all, who's to say one subject is more important than the other? By what authority do you claim one is worth less than another?

Probably the one thing that can bring some motivation for people is for the indirect consumers of the knowledge they're supposed to be imparting to students to speak up, such as industry.

One of the things I lament about the U.S. public school system is it's becoming increasingly politicized in the sense that teachers are literally bringing political topics into classrooms where they don't fit well. For example, a year ago I heard about a case of a geography teacher in the course of giving a lecture questioning the validity of capitalism (of which he had no expertise), and suggested that President Bush could be compared to Hitler (maybe he had expertise here, but how does this fit into geography?). And this was in a high income area where educational excellence is typically expected. In any case this sort of approach sounds anti-intellectual to me. Maybe I don't understand. There is such a thing as post-modernist philosophy, though I don't have much respect for it.

Whenever somebody complains about this sort of thing in the classrooms, the retort that always comes back is "We're teaching students critical thinking." To which I say, "Is that what you think critical thinking is? Bringing the 'village idiot' into a class and letting him blab on about his POV on the world whether they have expertise or not?" IMO the kids deserve better than this.

Not to say any of these expressed opinions are invalid, but I think there's a time and place for them in the context of school, and if someone's going to make the argument, they should have the educational background to justify making them in front of students. In other words, they should know what they're talking about.

Re: "93% of teachers like their jobs"

This reminded me of a quote I used in a blog post I'm working on. This is from Stephen Friedman, Chairman of Stone Point Capital at a panel discussion held by the Aspen Institute in July:

"I think the real question is why are the average parents in America willing to live with a school--You know, when they do the studies they find that people tend to be satisfied with their own school system. They're underdemanding consumers. Why are they satisfied with a system that has their kids' comparative standings on the standardized tests so poor against the rest of the world? I don't understand it. I don't understand. There's a market failure."