Philosophical Multicore

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

Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

RE: Is It Just Us, Or Are Kids Getting Really Stupid?

Posted by Michael Dickens on December 13, 2010

Yes, this is going to be one of those posts.

So some parent named Sandy Hingston has written yet another article about how kids these days are so stupid and education just isn’t like the good old days anymore. And, as you might expect, her arguments are contrived, silly, and just plain ridiculous. It must be just another crazy blogger, right? Oh, wait, she’s a columnist for Philadelphia magazine.

She starts out with an anecdote about how her son’s AP English class doesn’t actually read any books, they just watch the movie versions. (This supposedly proves that kids are dumb and don’t ever read anymore.) I’d be interested to know how well those kids do on the AP test. Oh wait, I wouldn’t because I already know they’re all going to fail it. Any legitimate English class will involve the reading of books, and I don’t know why in heck this English class is spending all its time on watching movies.

And then Hingston criticizes schools for not teaching the same pointless facts that she learned when she was in school:

They may be taking every AP and Honors course their schools offer, but they can’t tell you who invented pasteurization. (They do know who invented Facebook, because they saw the movie The Social Network.)

I for one would much rather know who invented Facebook than who invented pasteurization. Knowing about pasteurization may be useful but knowing who invented it certainly isn’t, and the name Mark Zuckerburg comes up in real life a hell of a lot more than Louis Pasteur. It’s a more interesting name to know and definitely more useful in the modern world.

They spend an average of eight and a half hours a day in front of screens — computer screens, TV screens, iPhone screens.

[citation needed] Oh wait I forgot, journalists don’t have to cite their sources because everyone is supposed to believe them anyway.

Technology was supposed to set us free, to liberate us from mundane, time-consuming tasks so we could do great things, think great thoughts, solve humanity’s most pressing problems.

And it has, even for school-age people. I personally have used the web to read philosophy, improve my computer programming ability, and learn about Milton Friedman’s economics, among myriad other things. Yes, technology has its Facebooks and Myspaces which arguably do not offer any profound sense of happiness, but to focus on that is to ignore the Wikipedias and the Project Gutenbergs.

But Western civilization is built on literacy. . .

Therefore Facebook is bad and our kids are wasting their time and not learning anything? Let’s read on and see if Hingston has a serious point here.

Reading is highly unnatural in that it requires us to filter out distractions and focus our attention on a single task.

I actually have to give Hingston some credit here — not that her point is valid, but that she is pointing out reading as unnatural without saying that it’s a bad thing. In fact, she is talking about how reading is a good thing. Unnatural doesn’t necessarily mean bad. (This point is irrelevant to the main subject but I think it’s worth saying.)

Her next point seems to boil down to this: modern technology is distracting which reduces attention spans and makes it harder for kids to absorb information more deeply. This is true. But it is not nearly as bad as Hingston seems to think it is. Focusing is more difficult now than it was back when everything was boring, but it’s far from impossible. The problem of distractions is far outweighed by the benefit of all the resources at our fingertips.

And that explains why my son doesn’t know the days of the week.

If your son doesn’t know the days of the week then any reasonable person would have to assume that you are to blame, not the internet.

There are certain things my kid — any kid — should know by the time he’s a high-school grad — that Wednesday follows Tuesday, and his nine-times tables, say. That Jake can use his cell phone to retrieve this information — can use it, for that matter, to learn how to refine weapons-grade plutonium — is beside the point.

Explain exactly why it is more useful to know your nine-times tables (which you use maybe once every few days) than it is to know how to use your cell phone (which you use several — even dozens — of times every day).

I would argue that kids read more now than they did at any other point in history. Sure, a lot of what they’re reading is shorter and probably less meaningful. But a lot of it is good old literature. Teenagers definitely read books — just ask J. K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer. Sure, these books are no Crime and Punishment; but just try telling me that Crime and Punishment is what kids were reading for fun back in your day.

Isn’t it self-evident that my son would be a better student, better future employee, better human being, if he spent six hours a day reading Tolstoy and listening to Bach instead of playing [World of Warcraft]?

No. Tolstoy may have merits but it just won’t equip you with the sort of interpersonal problem-solving skills you’ll get from World of Warcraft. And I don’t see how listening to music — even Bach — is even remotely comparable to actually developing useful skills.

And let’s not forget one important thing. War and Peace is infamously dry. World of Warcraft provides a rich and fun experience. Even assuming that Tolstoy is more beneficial in the long run than playing World of Warcraft for a comparable length of time, is it really worth it if every moment of it you find yourself completely bored out of your mind? There is certainly something to be said for enjoying yourself.

Maybe I’m just crotchety because I had to read dead white men’s books instead of playing games. Maybe kids aren’t stupider at all; maybe the new ways of learning really are just different, not inherently worse. Maybe — oh, God — I should be on Facebook.

I need to talk to more kids Jake’s age before I can decide.

Not that that’s going to help anything. Most high schoolers don’t come across as very intelligent. But what do you expect? They’re in high school. They have limited knowledge and experiences. Go back in time and talk to your high school self and see if you don’t start wondering how anyone could live with you.

And then she goes to a football game to talk to some real life high schoolers.

“What kinds of Skittles do you have?” a customer asks Danielle.

While we’re talking about journalism in general, I rather dislike journalists’ tendency to make everything into a story. Yes it makes it more interesting, but if you’re writing an editorial then it just detracts from your point. It seems at least a teensy bit ironic that you’re talking about how kids don’t have any attention span these days while writing an article that includes completely irrelevant and distracting details. You want to see a short attention span? Look at all the tangential comments in this article.

I see it in myself. I’m trying to write this article, but at the foot of my computer screen, the AOL icon is bouncing up and down. I know — I can be 99 percent sure — that whatever has popped into my inbox is useless spam. (Hey, I’m still on AOL.) And I’m trying my damnedest to ignore the bouncing symbol, to get my important work done … and I. Just. Can’t. I have to click. I have to see. I have to bite the apple.

Wait, I thought it was just our kids who were getting stupider. This paragraph has thrown the purpose of the entire article into question.

If kids would tune out the white noise of the virtual world, they could plow through Moby-Dick in no time.

So you turn off the internet and you can magically do boring things? Sorry, that’s not how it works. I wish it were because I would get a lot more reading done, but it’s not. Boring things are boring with or without the internet. If you try to do something boring and you have absolutely no distractions, you end up lying on the floor doing nothing because that’s more interesting than the boring activity. (Well, at least that’s what I do. That’s normal, right?)

Here’s the thing, though, as we fret about our kids’ online lives: It’s already their world, not ours. Young people have always rebelled against their elders, whether they were wearing zoot suits or listening to grunge. But a hallmark of civilization was that eventually, the kids gave up their rebel ways and folded, more or less quietly, into the adult world. That’s not going to happen with our kids, because their superior technical skills mean they’re already in charge. We’re being forced to adapt. We’re the followers; they’re the leaders. And it’s hard to imagine where they’re leading us, because they’re unlike us on such a fundamental level:

Their brains are different from ours.

What is there to say about this? It’s just unsubstantiated absurdity. It’s an attempt to draw intense emotions out of the reader and create a division between generations: notice the repeated usage of “us versus them” language. This is possibly the most aggressive paragraph in the article and also the most wrong. It serves to give fire to the feelings of people of the older generation who feel unable to keep up with modern technology. I find this paragraph difficult to even talk about because it’s so outrageous.

When you sat at a school desk and recited your times tables over and over, when you wrote out the periodic table of elements, when you practiced cursive penmanship, you were reinforcing memories, creating familiar paths for synapses, literally rewiring your brain for top-down attention. Your children’s neural networks are very different. Thanks to their Internet exposure, in place of steady repetition, they’re confronted, daily, by a barrage of novelty. There’s no pattern, no order, in either the input or the pathways it carves. “You have kids today who start on computers at three, four, five,” says Penn’s Chatterjee. “The younger you’re exposed, the more influence that has on the final configuration of the brain.”

Once again, Hingston is guilty of failing to provide any evidence at all. Since when is there no pattern or order to the internet? Video games are the very opposite: they provide virtually the best learning environment possible by creating a series of similar but progressively more difficult challenges. Patterns in video games are abundantly clear. Elsewhere on the internet patterns are less obvious but they’re still there.

Hingston seems to be arguing that the only thing worth doing is memorizing. You could read War and Peace a single time, and Hingston would say that you’d learn something from it. Knowledge does not have to be repeated to be learned.

LAST JANUARY, a young Florida mother was trying to play FarmVille on Facebook, but her three-month-old son kept crying. So she shook him to death.

Show me a single instance of someone doing something harmful and I’ll show you an outlier. A single instance is no better than anecdotal evidence (in fact, it is anecdotal evidence). There’s a reason why scientists disregard anecdotal evidence.

Jake can look at his cell phone to see what day it is, but where can he go online to find out what being human means?

The internet. He can read articles, stories, philosophy, even novels. He can talk to friends and make new friends who he would never be able to meet otherwise. As Hingston has emphasized, much of the internet is based on social networking. If you can’t learn what being human means from social networking, and you can’t learn it from the vast resources that the internet provides, then where exactly can you learn it? “Real life”? And where exactly do you draw the line between “real life” and life over technology?

The hours he spends on his computer result in less time studying with friends, or playing pickup basketball, or hanging at the football game.

Facebook is with people. World of Warcraft is with people. What’s the difference? Both have real-time interaction with one person or a group of people. The only real difference is that with Facebook and World of Warcraft you can’t see the person’s face, and Skype solves that problem.

Kids today are less and less able to inscribe ownership boundaries; they hand in papers that are pastiches of plagiarism, steal artwork, words, ideas.

So . . . the internet causes short attention spans which cause plagiarism? That seems like a bit of a stretch.

With Facebook, their cell phones, their laptops, our kids don’t ever have to be alone … and yet they’re always alone. The more they use the Internet to connect, research has shown, the more vulnerable they are to depression, whose incidence has doubled in the past decade.

Okay, now we’re talking about serious problems. Except — wait a minute! Did you just jump from “people use the internet more” and “people suffer from depression more” to “internet causes depression”? That material is covered in Logical Fallacies 101 (a class I took, by the way, over the internet).

A quarter of all Americans report not having even one person they can confide in.

I said this already but I’m going to say it again, because it’s important: CITATION NEEDED.

Some people have short attention spans, yes. But this can hardly be blamed on the internet. Distractions are omnipresent with or without modern technology. What modern technology (especially the internet) does give us is a connection to our peers across multiple media; a greater access to society’s knowledge; more efficient ways to do what we all want to do; in short, any problems it may cause are far outweighed by how it compounds so many of life’s greatest things.

So, to answer your question: Yes. It’s just you.

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Posted in Education, Rant | 4 Comments »

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 »

RE: Why Nerds are Unpopular

Posted by Michael Dickens on May 7, 2010

One of Paul Graham’s greatest essays, and most thought-provoking. The thesis is profound, and the details are fascinating. I don’t have much to say about it, simply because I agree so much with what is said. You should read it, especially if you are in education or are an educator.

Posted in Article of the Day, Education | 3 Comments »

Article of the Day: The Age of the Essay

Posted by Michael Dickens on April 4, 2010

Another wonderful Paul Graham essay. This one is about high school essays.

Remember the essays you had to write in high school? Topic sentence, introductory paragraph, supporting paragraphs, conclusion. The conclusion being, say, that Ahab in Moby Dick was a Christ-like figure.

Graham explains that the reason why high schoolers write essays about literature is because, a few hundred years ago, literature and essays got merged into one subject. And the reason that all essays must take a position and defend it is that essays were originally written in law school.

If we step outside of these restraints, what is the ideal essay like? What kinds of essays should teachers assign? First, there’s nothing wrong with assigning essays where one analyzes a piece of literature. Considering how students are frequently already studying literature, it’s a rather convenient topic. But there are certainly other topics out there. In addition, not all essays need to take a side and defend it. (Read Graham’s essay for more about this.) Essays could be explorations of the literature; the student would learn just as much, if not more.

Students should be given the opportunity to write essays about exploration. I have rarely gotten these sorts of chances in school. But if you read some of the longer essays on my blog, you may notice that I propose something, play around with it, maybe reject it and expand on it more. Then I go on to the next idea. This is because I am not planning these essays out in advance. I just write as I go; and I get my thoughts organized in a nice, convenient format. My school essays are completely different: focused, rigorously organized, and, if you ask me, a lot more boring.

Not that there is a problem with persuasive essays. They’re great. But, as Graham pointed out, being right is more important than being able to argue well (at least in school). So why do we learn how to take a strong with-us-or-against-us position and defend it to the death, but we don’t write essays where we explore the answers in a much more open way?

I propose that traditional English classes spend one month per semester working on writing essays. Perhaps throughout the year there are essays written about the literature being read, but during these blocks, there is a greater focus on writing quality essays. And to better enrich the minds of the students, these essays should be more about searching for the truth than about arguing a point. Perhaps the teacher can come with a list of widely varied topics, or let the students choose their own topics, or both. Students can write essays in response to other essays. (Which happens to be what I’m doing right now.)

I haven’t been writing essays on my blog for all that long. Before my blog, I practically never wrote essays outside of school. Now, I write them all the time; I’m still relatively new at it, though. Yet I keep doing it. Probably the reason I keep doing it is that writing essays gets thoughts into writing and helps me to thing more thoughts. When I write essays, I think of ideas as I go. Just sitting and thinking does not work quite so well.

Another aspect of writing essays that may seems trivial — but definitely is not — is that when I write essays, I stay focused on the essay. Simply sitting and thinking is not enough for some sorts of things, because I will get too distracted. But when I’m writing an essay I can focus on the topic at hand and actually come up with some pretty good ideas.

I want other students to feel this. School is about learning, right? It’s about the development of ideas? What better way to develop one’s ideas than to write essays? But I fear that the current restrictions placed on essays will leave many students dissatisfied, and they will leave school disliking essays, never realizing how useful and fun they can be.

I never truly appreciated essays until I started reading Paul Graham. This man writes about topics that I actually care about. When I read his essays, I learn something. That may be a lot of the problem with essay-reading: students read essays about topics that they don’t care about, or they read essays that don’t teach them anything. This is not how a good essay should go. A good essay should be informative and fun; also, as Graham pointed out in his own essay about essays, when you read an essay you should be surprised. A good essay is one that teaches you something, or makes you think in a new way.

If there’s one piece of advice I would give about writing essays, it would be: don’t do as you’re told. Don’t believe what you’re supposed to. Don’t write the essay readers expect; one learns nothing from what one expects. And don’t write the way they taught you to in school.

I certainly can get behind that advice. The problem with school is that you’re supposed to do what you’re told, pretty much by definition, which makes it hard to write truly good essays. I know that I have never written a truly good essay for any school assignment (by my personal standards); probably the best school essay I’ve ever written is one at the beginning of this year where we had to turn in some sort of writing sample so that the teacher could get to know our writing styles, and I turned in an essay that I had written for my blog. So even that one wasn’t really written for school.

To add on to Graham’s advice: when you write an essay, don’t write it because someone else told you to. Write for yourself. Other people may learn something by reading your essay, but the person who learns the most is you. I find that you can come up with much better ideas by writing essays than simply by thinking, and this is what can really make the art of essay-writing a fruitful one.

Posted in Article of the Day, Education | 1 Comment »

Educational Categorizations

Posted by Michael Dickens on February 23, 2010

In school, we have certain educational categorizations. We have math, science, language arts, social studies; beyond the academic realm we have a wide variety of subjects such as foreign language, music theory, and even typing class. Some of these categorizations make sense. Still, though, why are math, science, language arts, and social studies deemed the “core” subjects, more important than all others?

At first glance, it seems that the purpose of education is to prepare students for the working world. To an extent, this is true. But as an extension of that, the purpose of education is ideally to prepare students for the world. Does it adequately serve its purpose?

It is widely agreed that the public school system in America is flawed. I believe that improvements within each subject could sufficiently improve the education system. I have a whole post regarding science education; I feel that I have the most to say about science, but I have also commented on the other three subjects.

These improvements to the different individual academic subjects are extremely important. At the same time, they are limited by some broad barriers. Subjects may intermix, but only to a limited extent. Ideally, education would form a web reaching across all areas of interest. Music theory and geography would have certain links. This may sound far-fetched, but think of it this way. The way we learn is by comparing our knowledge to something we already know. We make associations. This is why it’s easy to learn vocabulary words if we can identify root words that we already know. Because of our tendency to make these associations, an education branching across all classes and subjects will, if done right, be much more effective than a series of isolated disciplines.

With this considered, are the current divisions between different course subjects really optimal? I suspect not. But when compared to other educational systems, our current courses seems very apt. Look at the medieval Quadrivium as an example: the four main subjects were arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Talk about a narrow education!

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A Thesis Regarding the Intention and Success of the No Late Work Policy

Posted by Michael Dickens on February 2, 2010

This is a modified version of an essay I wrote for extra credit in English class.

Recently, my school implemented a new policy, stating that late work will no longer be accepted. I will be evaluating the successes and failures of this policy in relative circumstances, and proposing that under certain personal circumstances, the policy is ineffective and should not be enforced.

The original intention of the policy was to prevent students from abusing the leniency previously offered regarding late work. Many students treated late work not as an exceptional circumstance but merely as an option resulting in a few points being deducted from one’s grade. As a consequence, many students were intentionally procrastinating until after their work was due and suffering only minor consequences.

The secondary intention of the policy was the fact that it is more difficult for teachers to grade late work; when students are allowed and almost encouraged to turn work in late, it puts more pressure on teachers to be flexible beyond reason.

I will address both of these intentions and evaluate them with respect to the No Late Work policy; I will also evaluate the policy regarding my personal circumstances.

The No Late Work Policy acts as an effective deterrent to abusing the ability to turn work in late, simply by making it impossible to turn work in late. It also effectively addresses the second concern by giving teachers predictable times in which they will need to grade work. However, it has caused numerous problems, which I will now address.

Firstly, the policy causes issues for students who are sick or otherwise have external circumstances causing them to miss a deadline. These students suffer due to something which was for the most part out of their control. This issue is easily remedied by allowing teachers to give extensions in particular circumstances.

Secondly, the policy is ineffective regarding students who otherwise uphold integrity regarding their schoolwork. Suppose a student normally upholds academic integrity, but forgets to turn in a large assignment. His or her grade would suffer disproportionately, and would no longer reflect that student’s level of academic excellence. Under such circumstances, the No Late Work policy effectively supports neither intention.

The primary intention of the policy would not be abused by allowing such an exceptional student to turn in an assignment one day late with only minor grade deduction. Such a student would not have a history of abusing the late work policy, but rather a history to the contrary. But due to a single mistake on one heavily-weighted assignment, the student’s grade may suffer very severely. The student’s grade in that class would no longer appropriately reflect his or her level of achievement or academic integrity. Therefore, the grade is failing to serve the primary purpose of grades themselves, and is instead reflecting the academic integrity of someone who is presupposed to have a history of failing to get in his work on time, which our student does not.

An argument that could be made in response to my argument is that rules are rules, and they should be followed. But this prompts me to ask, Why? Maybe it’s because if one exception is made, then other students will want exceptions too, many of whom will not be deserving. But the trouble with this argument is that it relies on the premises that a) other students will know about the exception; that b) other students will then want unjustified exceptions; and that c) the teacher will be unable to refuse. Each of these premises is flawed, and exceptions have been made in the past. For instance, two years ago I wanted to go off campus for lunch; at the time, I was required to go in a group of three, but could only find one person. I asked for permission to go off-campus with only one other person, and an exception was made, because the administration trusted us. Did this open a floodgate of students looking for exceptions? No, it did not.

As a response to this series of outcomes, I propose a new grading system. The student’s first late assignment should be deducted by 20% per day. The second time the student has a late assignment, the grade should be deducted by 40% per day, the third time 60%, and so on. Such a system would still discourage late work, but would be less severe for otherwise excellent students who make the occasional mistake.

The purpose of the No Late Work policy is to prevent students from taking advantage of the ability to turn their work in late. This has been successful, but other serious problems have arisen. My proposed solution can ameliorate all problems involved.

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Relevant to “A New Model of Education”

Posted by Michael Dickens on January 23, 2010

Kiran Bir Sethi teaches kids to take charge. And it actually works. This is relevant to my post, An Ideal Model of Education.

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Learning More

Posted by Michael Dickens on January 20, 2010

Yesterday I was partaking in a discussion, and it drifted to the topic of communism. I was a little bit frustrated after a couple of people made some uninformed comments (“it looks great on paper, but has never worked”). Then, I realized that I don’t really know all that much about communism. So that day, I decided that I would read the Manifesto of the Communist Party.

This is not the only time that something like this has happened. I frequently find myself in situations in which I observe other people who don’t really seem to know much about a topic, but then I notice that I don’t know much either. As of now, I am taking these opportunities to teach myself something.

My advice to you for today is: if you find that you are ignorant of some subject, then learn about it. You’re never too old to stop learning.

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