Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Archive for November, 2010

A Parenthetical Writing

Posted by Michael Dickens on November 29, 2010

This parenthetical writing is a proof of concept designed to show how it is possible to sustain a paragraph using no punctuation other than parentheses (and apostrophes for contractions) and still have it be perfectly legible (to an extent (of course (because it is impossible to be perfectly legible when using parentheses (for we as a culture are not adjusted to using only parentheses for punctuation (and for good reason (it is impractical to write using only parentheses (but it is possible (as I intend to prove (although I should probably tell you what inspired this writing (I was thinking about imperative versus functional programming (and I realized that the English language is almost entirely imperative (it works as a list of statements or instructions (rather than a series of functions that call each other (but using parentheses it is possible to have language flow in a more functional way (with statements contained inside of each other instead of being written out in sequence (functional programming languages are generally considered to be better than imperative languages (so it seems as though functional speech would be considered to be better than imperative speech (but this theory must be wrong since this paragraph is so confusing to read (except maybe language is easier when written using more parentheses (it’s just that we are not used to seeing all these parentheses (and (of course) they have to be taken in moderation (and not piled on top of each other for such a ridiculously long time (like I’ve been doing (but there may actually be something to this idea of writing with more parentheses (but not this many (because at a point it’s just too much)))))))))))))))))))))))))).

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Changing Education: Thinking Big

Posted by Michael Dickens on November 27, 2010

Making education work, and I mean really work, is a difficult problem. Plenty of people complain about the state of education, and they certainly are justified in doing so — there’s a lot to complain about. But how do we actually improve it?


Probably the reason there is so much talk about problems and so little about solutions is that before we can improve education, we have to identify what exactly is wrong with it. That’s what a lot of people have been doing for the past few decades. But it’s time to move on. Let’s stop talking about what’s wrong with education and instead talk about what to do differently.

The goal of formal education is to prepare its students for the world. This is a widely accepted concept. However, I propose that it has — or at least should have — a second, implicit purpose: to be fun. If you do something for seven hours a day for thirteen years (and even longer if you go to college or graduate school), you had better be enjoying at least most of that time. That’s way too long to spend on something you don’t enjoy. Preparing students for the future world seems much more difficult than having them enjoy their educations, but the latter purpose is still present and we would be wise not to forget it.

The future is going to look quite different from the present. Even so, let’s assume for a moment that it will look exactly the same. Education is still a difficult puzzle for many reasons, starting with the fact that no one is simultaneously being prepared for something and doing the thing that they’re being prepared for. Even college students who work regular jobs are not in the jobs that they’re being prepared for. It is not logically possible to be simultaneously successfully accomplishing a task and learning how to accomplish that task — you have to learn how to do it before you can do it.

This poses a problem because it means that no one can know for sure if her education was effective. Someone in school doesn’t know what his future will be, and someone with a career doesn’t perfectly remember school or know if school really worked. Still, one can get an idea. Someone who has graduated still remembers the essence of her education, and someone still in school has an idea of what his future world will look like. Looking forward is more difficult when we realize that the future will not be the same as the present. Our best idea of whether education is working is only in retrospect, and even then it is far from perfect.

Given that we can’t predict the future, what’s the best we can do? (1) We can teach people certain skill sets that historically have been useful. (2) We can teach people to be creative. (3) We can teach people to learn.

Education as it exists today tries to teach skills that historically have been useful. The main school subjects are math, science, English, and social studies. These subjects were fairly lucrative back when public education was first introduced, but not anymore. These four primary subjects are not necessarily the most beneficial in today’s world. They do cover a somewhat broad range, but the range certainly could be broader. Teaching based on what was useful in the past has limited efficacy when the future is changing as rapidly as it is. Better than teaching what was historically useful is to teach what we think will be useful; the problem with this, though, is that it is so difficult to predict what particular skills will be useful for tomorrow’s generation. It doesn’t help that the educational system has so much inertia — it’s very difficult to change, and changing it takes a very long time.

The second thing a good education can do is teach creativity. A creative person will be better able to fill whatever role he wants. Every career involves finding solutions to problems, and creativity at the lowest level is the ability to just that. As a person gets closer to a career she can specialize in a particular type of thinking, but early on the best we can do is teach creativity in a general sense.

Creativity is very obviously important, but the other side of the coin is not to be neglected. This other side is critical thinking. If creativity is the process of finding solutions, then critical thinking is the process of deciding which solutions will and will not work. We need critical thinkers as much as we need creative thinkers; too many solutions is just as bad as none at all, and critical thinkers know how to narrow them down.

The third element is teaching people to learn. Someone who is good at learning can adapt to any path. Children naturally love to learn, and a good education should foster this love and broaden it.

Current schools do all three of these things at least some of the time, but tend to focus too much on the first one. An ideal school would focus primarily on the third thing: teaching people to learn. Someone who knows how to learn and even loves to learn will be able to prepare himself for anything. When the world changes, he will be able to learn the necessary skills to thrive in the changing world.

How do we teach people to love learning? Changing someone’s mindset is much more difficult than bombarding him with facts. Once this question is answered, education will be able to move forward dramatically.

As explained in Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun, the very process of having fun involves learning. The reason that video games are fun is because they continually challenge you and keep you right on the edge of your abilities. Once you master a game, it’s not fun anymore because you aren’t learning anything.

This isn’t to say that learning always means you’re having fun, but that having fun always means you’re learning. Most people already do love learning, but only specific types of learning. You may love learning how to beat that next boss in your video game, for example, but you don’t love learning your multiplication tables.

Everyone is interested in something. (Most people, in fact, are interested in multiple things.) Ideally, an education can help people learn about the particular subject or subjects that they’re interested in. This becomes more and more true as you move more and more up the educational ladder: in elementary school you do precisely what everyone else does; in middle and high school you can take a few electives along with your core classes; in college you have a much wider variety of classes to choose from; and in graduate school you can pursue virtually anything.

Why is it structured this way? Well, for one, graduate schools have a heck of a lot more money. They can afford a much higher teacher-to-student ratio than elementary schools can, and this means they can offer more classes. Universities also tend to have a lot more people. Most high schools can’t offer a course in the structure of functional programming languages because there wouldn’t be enough students who would want to take it. This example brings up another important point: variety often only comes with expertise. High schoolers might take an introductory programming course, but there are very few students at the high school level who would have the background necessary for a class as specific as the structure of functional programming languages.

Earlier, I talked about the three most important things that education can do. It is now worth mentioning a fourth thing: so that people can have greater academic freedom later in life, (4) they should be taught the subjects that will be most beneficial to their later studies. To an extent, we cannot trust young people to know what they will want to do or study. They often do, but young people are flexible and their thinking isn’t yet set in stone. Their interests could change dramatically, and will almost definitely change in some subtle ways. Pre-college education should therefore be as broad as possible, both to prepare people for many potential paths of study and to help them discover their interests. This is why, for instance, statistics should be the pinnacle of high school education rather than calculus (I could write an entire essay about this subject). Calculus is only really useful if you are going into physics or engineering; even most pure mathematicians would rather learn something else, and non-mathematicians get virtually no benefit at all out of calculus. Statistics on the other hand is not only useful for mathematicians, it’s also useful for scientists, psychologists, sociologists, pretty much anyone who does things with groups — and it’s even useful in everyday life.

Making education as good as it can possibly be requires considering its true purpose — preparing people for the world — and working up from there. We can’t know what skills any individual person will need. We can’t even know what sorts of skills will be useful in the future. But what we can do is teach people to be creative, teach subjects that are likely to be beneficial for students’ later studies, and most importantly, teach students to learn.

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A Proposal for Grade School Testing and Accreditation

Posted by Michael Dickens on November 24, 2010

Standardized testing is broken. The main problem isn’t even that it’s impossible to measure the skills of every student with just one test, although that is true. The main problem is that the state monopolizes these tests. The Board of Education decides what grade school students do and do not need to know. This is a problem: if this one small body makes a poor decision, it will hurt the prospects for millions of students’ futures. I think I have a solution.

The first step to this solution requires that schools be able to compete with each other. Schools or districts should be run independently. This could mean that we privatize education and use a voucher system; how exactly we do it is something of a side point. What’s important is that we introduce competition into grade schools.

The next step is that the United States implements a competitive accreditation system. Accreditation should be done by private organizations. Colleges will accept accreditations from good accreditation organizations and reject accreditations from poor accreditation organizations. Schools, which are working independently of each other, will use material that will be accredited by one or more of the reputable accreditation companies so that their students can get accepted into universities more easily than they would if the school was not accredited.

Although this new system is fundamentally about accreditation, it also would affect testing as testing is intricately linked to accreditation. A test is a way of assessing whether a school is doing its job. Any accreditation will almost definitely include some sort of standardized testing. If there is a problem with standardized testing then there is a problem with accreditation. My proposed system is a solution to both.

If such a system is implemented, the successful accreditation programs will be the ones that colleges find the most useful. Grade school will more effectively prepare students for college. This is both an advantage and a drawback. The drawback is that schools will be oriented towards preparing students for college rather than preparing them for life. But a quick look at another side of this system reveals why this is not such a problem.

Colleges prefer to admit students who have been effectively prepared for college. But in the same way, businesses will prefer to hire people who have been effectively prepared for a job. In this way, accreditation programs that ensure students are being prepared for a job will be more successful than those that do not.

In practice, entering the accreditation market will be difficult. Soon after this proposed system is implemented, certain few companies will jump into the accreditation market. For an organization to easily enter the market it must already have a good reputation. This makes introducing competition problematic. This issue is not unique to this market, though: it is shared by any market in which a company must have a good reputation or a lot of resources.

The entering-the-market issue is not quite as bad as it first appears to be. An organization that wants to enter the market could do a thing or two to get its foot in the door. For example it could offer free accreditations to certain schools, establishing itself as an accreditor. It could start by requiring mostly the same sorts of things as other big accreditation agencies. Once it is well-established, it will be able to start to deviate from its original curriculum and bring something new to the market.

This raises another issue: curriculum is sticky. Organizations may be reluctant to change the accreditation requirements for fear that they will lose market share. This is part of the very problem with the current monopolized accreditation system: grade school curriculum today is sticky, albeit for somewhat different reasons. Although curriculum will be sticky in the new system, it will almost certainly be less sticky than it is now. Organizations will still have room to maneuver, and universities and businesses will have room to choose which accreditation organizations they like.

At this point, the details of how exactly such a system would work are vague. What is clear is that such a system, if we were to get it working, would be much superior to the current one. Grade school would actually teach what needs to be taught. Education would no longer be structured by the state and improved only by external measures, but would organically improve itself. Such a system would much more readily adapt to the ever-changing world.

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The Facade of Critical Thinking

Posted by Michael Dickens on November 6, 2010

Schools often claim to teach critical thinking, but do quite a poor job of it. Critical thinking is an essential skill, on which there should be much greater emphasis.

I define critical thinking as the process of determining which ideas will and will not work. The most important part of this definition is the “will not” part. Every time you see an astrologer or an urban myth, you are seeing a failure in critical thinking. Failures in critical thinking abound, and on many different levels. This seems like the very sort of thing that a good education could fix. So why isn’t critical thinking being taught in high school?

I have to cringe every time the College Board mentions that the SAT tests critical thinking ability. Reading a passage and identifying the meaning of a phrase is only critical thinking in the most useless sense. Reading a book in English class and analyzing it does require some critical thinking, but that sort of critical thinking is not enough. A critical thinker must be able to do a great deal more than just analyze.

An effective critical thinker is scientifically skeptical. He must not accept claims without sufficient evidence. This is an important part of critical thinking and a useful life skill, but it is not emphasized in school. In the science classroom, we would do well to spend less time learning about the phases of mitosis and more time learning about skepticism.

An effective critical thinker is able to identify bias. This is related to scientific skepticism, but applies to statements a priori as well. A student on the debate team will likely be familiar with cognitive biases, but teaching about bias is not in the normal high school curriculum. Someone who can identify her own biases and the biases of others will be a much more powerful thinker than someone who cannot.

An effective critical thinker is able to draw conclusions from data. Something like this often happens in high school with the analysis of literature. But drawing conclusions from literature has certain limitations in its ability to expand one’s critical thinking skill. A conclusion drawn from a work of literature (e.g. this particular symbol has this or that meaning within the story) cannot be proven true or false. In fact, drawing conclusions about the meaning of a story or poem could counteract critical thinking in that it heightens one’s ability to believe in perspectives for which there is very little evidence. An effective critical thinker is able to draw objective conclusions, not just subjective ones.

When all is said and done, scientific critical thinking is far more valuable than literary critical thinking. So why is it that high schools spend so much time on the literary side of critical thinking and so little on the scientific side?

Posted in Education | 3 Comments »


Posted by Michael Dickens on November 5, 2010

As children, we learned that happy and sad are the primary emotions, and that they are opposites.


If I were to take a little while to consider the different negative emotions, I would come up with about three: fear, stress, and humiliation. There are two others which I might call negative, but they can be enjoyable from time to time: sadness and anger. Of these, I would say that fear is definitely the most common, not sadness. Also, it seems to me that fear is a much worse feeling than sadness. Some sorts of sadness, like loneliness or depression, are pretty much universally unpleasant. But other types of sadness, such as nostalgia, are not all bad.

Consider the opposites of each of these negative emotions.

Fear: Confidence
Stress: Calm
Humiliation: Confidence
Sadness: Acceptance
Anger: Acceptance

You probably noticed that both confidence and acceptance appear twice. This shows that emotions don’t always have a clear opposite. It doesn’t make sense to say that happiness and sadness are opposites, nor does it make sense to classify sadness as the primary negative emotion.

Posted in Psychology | 3 Comments »

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