Monday, February 18, 2013

Inspirational Quotes on Education

It is time for another post with inspirational quotes. This time Id like to focus on something I find very useful: education.
School may have been – or still be – boring, a killer of creativity or downright awful for you.
But education is still important because it opens the mind and expands it. And if your years in school were bad or boring you can still educate yourself now.
Anyways, here is some wisdom and inspiration from the people who have walked before us.
It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.
Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding line, and no way of knowing how near the harbor was. “Light! Give me light!” was the wordless cry of my soul, and the light of love shone on me in that very hour.
Helen Keller
If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.
Abraham Maslow
You can teach a student a lesson for a day; but if you can teach him to learn by creating curiosity, he will continue the learning process as long as he lives.
Clay P. Bedford
Aim for success, not perfection. Never give up your right to be wrong, because then you will lose the ability to learn new things and move forward with your life. Remember that fear always lurks behind perfectionism.
David M. Burns
A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.
Henry B Adams
Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.
Mark Twain
The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn.
Gloria Steinem
Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.
James Baldwin
Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.
Will Durant
The difference between school and life? In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.
Tom Bodett
Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.
Chinese proverb
If someone is going down the wrong road, he doesn’t need motivation to speed him up. What he needs is education to turn him around.
Jim Rohn
People learn something every day, and a lot of times it’s that what they learned the day before was wrong.
Bill Vaughan
Education cost money, but then so does ignorance.
Claus Moser
What sculpture is to a block of marble
education is to the human soul.
Joseph Addison
Education makes a people easy to lead
but difficult to drive: easy to govern, but impossible to enslave.
Peter Brougham
Do not train children to learning by force and harshness, but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.
It is in fact a part of the function of education to help us escape, not from our own time — for we are bound by that — but from the intellectual and emotional limitations of our time.
T.S. Eliot
If people did not do silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done.
Ludwig Wittgenstein
The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you.
B.B. King

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Benito Juarez, Don Quixote, and Mexico City street kids; Really?

I have just returned from a long trip which included Mexico City and Riyadh among other places. Riyadh was certainly fascinating in many ways, but my mind keep returning to Mexico. This is because the people who invited me to Mexico (Telefonica Epsana) made a serious mistake -- they invited me to visit a school. 

Now this wasn’t just any school. It was school for street kids, those who sweep up, sell Chick-lets, run errands, or do anything else they can to earn money. Telefonica had convinced the parents of these kids to let them go to school until noon, enabling them to work the rest of the day. Clearly Telefonica is trying to help, but the result isn’t so clear. They don’t have the freedom to design the half day they provide for these kids. The Mexican government, like all governments, still dictates the curriculum. So, the first lesson I heard was about what a wonderful man Benito Juarez was. 

The picture above is of the teacher asking questions of the class about Benito Juarez. Notice that the children are all sitting in front of computers, but they are not using them, they are hearing lecture/quiz kind of thing. They were using them at an earlier point to play with a jigsaw puzzle that had a map of Mexico on it that as far as I could tell was just abut finding pieces that fit and not really about Mexico at all.
Later the students went to into the yard to sing a song about Benito Juarez and to march around while singing it.

The next day I gave a speech about “the role of the teacher in the 21st century” which was the theme of the two day meeting. That speech can be found here. 

It is in English of course but there is a louder Spanish translation above it. Telefonica has been holding discussions about my speech in most of the Latin American countries and in Spain for the last few weeks. Some of the basis of those discussions can be found here (in Spanish.)

For years I have been pointing our the absurdity of the curriculum taught in schools. It is outdated and irrelevant to most children. But in Mexico, I saw a serious need for which I have much empathy and still the school authorities don’t get it.

Really Benito Juarez? (I have the same point of view about George Washington by the way.) So, when these kids go back on the street (and quit school at 14 as I was told they all do) they will know about their national hero. They won’t know how to get a good job however. 

We could be teaching them how to run a business, how to program a computer, how to raise a family, how to find ways to make money -- really anything that might help them get out of poverty. But no, they sing about Juarez.

Now I wish this were just a problem in Mexico but it is problem anywhere and everywhere.

As it happens I speak in Spanish-speaking countries more often than I do in English-speaking ones, so I have learned what I can say that will drive Spanish-speaking intellectuals mad into to get them to think harder about what they are doing to kids.  

I always say for example, that they should stop teaching history. This remark is generally hated in Spain, but apparently I upset a few people in Mexico as well. But how accurate is the history we teach? Mexican history as I understand it is about Spanish occupation and the mistreatment of the local population, some of which is still going on as can be seen from the color of the faces of the children in these pictures. The descendants of the Spanish are not selling Chick-lets.

If you look at the Spanish text in the last link you will see questions that the debates held after my talk have been   centered around. One of these is about my remark that teaching Don Quixote is not necessarily the cleverest idea I ever heard. Don Quixote is required reading in Spain, and as far as I know ,in every other Spanish speaking country. It is defended as learning about their culture. How what happened in Spain in 1605 (or really a novel set in 1605) is of value to Mexicans who really have no need to know about Spanish culture I don't know. Many say that Don Quixote was the best novel ever written. Maybe it was . I don't know. I have managed to live a good life without ever having read it, which is probably true of most Americans (and American Intellectuals) as well.

The only relevant question for me is how these street kids can be helped to live better lives. I don't get how making them read Don Quixote and sing about Juarez will help.

Further I don't get why the Mexican government and the Spanish speaking intellectuals who argue with me about this, are not getting that idea that what they are doing is simply wrong.

It is all well and good to have a view of education that says we need to teach our culture and history and where we came from but this idea flies in the face of reality.

Spain isn’t where most Mexican street kids came from. (A little known fact here is that Spain is actually where my ancestors came from and this makes me not one bit more interested in reading Don Quixote.)

Culture and history is very nice for intellectuals. Let them have it if they want it. And maybe, through Telefonica’s efforts one of these kids will stay in school and become an intellectual. But is that really anyone’s goal? We have plenty of intellectuals. What about the rest of the people? What about the kids who will, at best, live ordinary lives?

Why can’t we start teaching them skills that will help them with their lives and why and why can’t we start doing this now? Teach them to be healthy, productive, have some fun, think clearly, be good to others. Teach them life skills.

The answer that there is no government that I know that actually has that goal. (Maybe Saudi Arabia -- they hinted at it while I was there, but I don’t know if they meant it.)

Governments design schools to make citizens behave themselves, who won’t don’t threaten the status quo. But the status quo isn’t so good in Mexico (or in my country either frankly.) It is time we stopped trying to turn everyone into an academic scholar and help students become functioning adults who can earn a living, raise their children, and all get along with each other. Don Quixote wont help a bit in that kind of education and neither will Benito Juarez.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Princeton Professor teaches Coursera course; you must be kidding me!

I don’t recall ever agreeing with anything Thomas Friedman has ever written in the New York Times, but this Sunday’s article was especially ridiculous.

He was again extolling the glories of the coming education revolution led by MOOCs.

This is part of what he wrote:

“Mitch Duneier, a Princeton sociology professor, wrote: “A few months ago,  40,000 students from 113 countries arrived here via the Internet to take a free course in introductory sociology. ... My opening discussion of C. Wright Mills’s classic 1959 book, ‘The Sociological Imagination,’ was a close reading of the text, in which I reviewed a key chapter line by line. I asked students to follow along in their own copies, as I do in the lecture hall. When I give this lecture on the Princeton campus, I usually receive a few penetrating questions. In this case, however, within a few hours of posting the online version, the course forums came alive with hundreds of comments and questions. Several days later there were thousands. ... Within three weeks I had received more feedback on my sociological ideas than I had in a career of teaching, which significantly influenced each of my subsequent lectures and seminars.””
Friedman mentions this because he thinks it is a wonderful thing, I suppose. Let’s consider what this professor actually said:
My opening discussion of C. Wright Mills’s classic 1959 book, ‘The Sociological Imagination,’ was a close reading of the text, in which I reviewed a key chapter line by line.
Well, isn’t that just education at its finest? Princeton should be proud. Not only are they still lecturing, a relic of the Middle Ages when students didn’t have books and monks read them to them, but the professor is reading it line by line. The analysis of a text is a scholarly activity done by intellectuals, and when done with students, it is part of an effort to create more intellectuals. Does Professor think that the world needs 40,000 more sociology intellectuals? When this stuff happens at Princeton, it is still isn’t really good educational practice, but Princeton does try to produce intellectuals for the most part.

When done with 40,000 students from 113 countries, this is is simply fraud. There is no need for them to read a text in this way. Far from being a revolutionary new practice that will eliminate universities as Friedman says, this kind of activity is perpetuating the very thing that is wrong with universities --- their distance from the real world.

within a few hours of posting the online version, the course forums came alive with hundreds of comments and questions. Several days later there were thousands. ...

It is nice that there were thousands of comments. How many did you respond to Professor Duneier?

I assume the answer is “none.” As a professor, not responding to a student, is, in my mind, the worst thing one can do. Education is about the dialogue between professor and student. This is why classrooms, especially large classrooms, are a terrible idea. They limit discussion. When I taught at Yale and Northwestern I never assigned readings. just topics for discussion. And then we discussed. If you had 30 or 40 students you could get into some good arguments, especially if I had assigned a provocative question to think about. (“What does it mean to learn” was one I often used.)

Your job professor is not to notice how many nice discussions students have with each other. But it is his last line that got me:

Within three weeks I had received more feedback on my sociological ideas than I had in a career of teaching, which significantly influenced each of my subsequent lectures and seminars.

So, the Coursera experience was good for you eh? Nice to hear.

But the issue is that universities have always been good for the faculty. Places like Princeton are run by the faculty for the faculty. No one teaches much. No one cares about anything but PhD students and research.  Undergraduates sit in lecture halls in order to pass the time between football games and parties. No one cares because they all windup with impressive Princeton degrees.

Friedman is right that online will change universities, but not the kind of online that Coursera is providing.

Just yesterday, there were thousands of visits to a lecture of mine that is on line because it was assigned as part of a Coursera course. I find that very funny since my lecture was about why lectures don’t work (oh the irony!) and why learning requires doing and why universities should stop teaching scholarly subjects and start teaching students skills they can use in real life.
Yes change is coming. Too bad Mr Friedman doesn’t have clue why. Here it s. We can build mentored learn by doing courses online that challenge current teaching practice. They won’t be offered by Princeton because Princeton likes what it has now. But change is coming, just not the change Coursera or Friedman had in mind.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Teacher's Despair: We cannot afford to be focussed on training intellectuals

As part of a presentation to teachers in Mexico City that I am to make at the end of the month, Telefonica of Spain has set up a forum for teachers to ask me questions here:

It is in Spanish and my Spanish is minimal at best, so they have been sending me translations of the questions and comments that have been posted. What I am struck by, as always, is the difficult situation in which teachers find themselves these days. It really doesn’t matter what country a teacher is in, they are faced with two truths:

1.    They are not quite sure what they are doing in school is really the right thing to do
2.    They know they have very little power to change things

Here is one question I got for example. (Excuse the awkward translation, I received them all in that form.)

·       We learn something new every day, depending on our attitude towards learning, and even if we are not going to put it into practice, we need to take it in as part of our general knowledge. For example, why is philosophy important for someone who is going to study engineering? There is some material that is simply useful in life. Is this assessment correct?

I can’t help but feel this teacher’s pain when reading this. I am saying, as usual, that we only learn by doing and this teacher is trying to figure out how what he or she is doing is still ok. “If we don’t put it into practice, isn’t is still ok to teach?” Now of course, for me the answer is “no” since I believe that we only learn by doing, but consider the teacher. The teacher stands up in front of class trying to teach general knowledge that will never be used. The teacher’s hope is that philosophy would be of use somehow to someone and that the “general knowledge” that is the staple of the school system will someone turn out to be useful even though this teachers isn't really so sure it will.

Consider this next question:

·       Learning depends more on the person doing the teaching, on the strategy and methodology applied, than on the student. This is because a good methodology can make the student take interest in what he/she is doing and be enthusiastic. Is that right?

Here we have another teacher saying that a good teacher can make students excited about anything so isn’t that a worthwhile thing to be doing? Well of course it is. Turning students on to things they didn’t know about and getting them to care about it is very enjoyable for a student and could possibly have a large affect on the rest of the student’s life. What’s the problem then?

The problem is well expressed by this next question:

·      It is possible to learn almost anything. All we need is motivation. We must try to somehow involve, motivate and encourage students to participate in their lessons... Is it possible to learn through practice, even when what is learned is of no use to the student?

This teacher is willing to accept the fact that what is taught in school may be completely useless to the student’s future life. I for one, find that idea very difficult to accept. I realize that teachers teach what they are ordered to teach, but what must it be like to teach material that you know is completely useless to the student?

I ask this question as If I didn’t know what it is like, but of course I know it all too well. Exactly the reason that I became an education radical is that I was teaching a course in Semantics at Stanford and realized within a few days that no student in the class cared about, or would ever make use of, what I was teaching. They were simply required to take Semantics. I knew right then I needed to re-think.

I will now consider the last (of the one’s I have chosen to write about) three questions together:

·       Would it be wiser to focus more on the theoretical basis than on practice? Students show more interest in classes in which the outcome is an object constructed upon a scientific foundation.

·       It is extremely important to find the reason behind what we teach and, often, this raison d'etre is the source of knowledge or of its use in other sciences or fields of knowledge.

·       Is it possible to remember what they have heard in a reading if it is truly significant to them? If what is read motivates the reader, does this mean there is a greater chance of learning it? Or do we only learn by doing?

I get an overwhelming sadness from these questions taken as a whole. These teachers are focussed on teaching science, and basic knowledge, and great books. This is what they do and it is what they have always done. They ask if there isn’t some use to it all and of course there is. This is how we create intellectuals. Intellectuals worry about science, and general knowledge, and philosophy, and great literature, Intellectuals can discuss these things and enjoy doing so. They may use them or they may not but it is part of the well-rounded education of an intellectual.

My question is about the percentage of intellectuals out there in world. I find it hard to believe that our school systems in every country are geared towards the creation of intellectuals. I am sure 90% of all students have no interest in becoming intellectuals. They would like to learn to earn a living, and how to take care of their families, and how to be good citizens, and how to have good relationships with people. They would like to know how to function in the world. While we can kid ourselves that making them read Don Quixote, or read about the glories of the Spanish Armada, will somehow contribute to their greater development, this just has to be wrong and irrelevant to their lives.

Our education system was designed to create intellectuals. In the U.S., it was designed by the President of Harvard (in 1892). He wasn’t interested in the average person. He was interested in the elite who would attend Harvard.

All this must stop. We need to focus on getting the general population to be able to think clearly. This does not mean teaching algebra and chemistry and pretending that such things teach clear thinking. It means having students practice making decisions and understanding the consequences of those decisions. It means having them come to a conclusion about something they care about by learning how to examine evidence. It means having them learn to create a plan that will help them get what they want and then executing that plan. The average person does not need to read Descartes no matter how much we rationalize to ourselves that Descartes said some things that might be of use to the average person.

I know teachers can’t change the system by themselves. But they need to band together and try to make some changes or another generation will be lost.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

How does online learn by doing actually work? See the video we made 10 years ago at CMU

This is a movie we shot 10 years ago to describe what a learn by doing projects only mentored, team based curriculum looked like. There are interviews with the mentors, the students, and the faculty (Lynn Carter video referred to in my post yesterday starts at about 3.22).

We learned how to do it and worked well until CMU administrators decided they didn't want to have thousands of online students and didn't want have brand new empty buildings.

XTOL has re-thought and re-built these online learn by doing curriculum taking advantage of ten years of change in computer science. (See my post here from yesterday.)

We are now ready to offer real learn by doing education to everyone, taught be the people who invented it the first place (unless you count Plato or Dewey, which, of course I do.. but they didn't have) computers.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Best and Brightest Teaching Computer Science Online

In the 1990’s I was running the Institute for the Learning Sciences, trying to re-envision education in the age of computers. My former PhD student (at Stanford) and colleague at Northwestern, Chris Riesbeck, was not only designing the technical side of what we were building at ILS, he was also putting our ideas into practice on a daily basis. He stopped showing up to teach his programming classes. Instead he posted assignments on line and responded to questions and problems that students were having with the assignments. He evaluated the work they did and, as they improved, gave them more difficult assignments. He saw no reason for lectures or classes.

Of course, the authorities at Northwestern objected. His students simply stopped coming to class. It was easier to communicate by email. Many people have learned to program from Chris and most will tell you that he is the best programming teacher they ever had. They were learning to do something and that is not done by listening, but by constant practice with help from a mentor.

Some years later, I was asked to design the educational offerings for master’s degree programs at Carnegie Mellon’s new Silicon Valley campus. Ray Bareiss who had been the associate director of ILS moved to California, and the team at Socratic Arts and I designed some radical new ways of teaching on line. Of course, what we did was built upon what Chris had done and what we had done in a previous venture with Columbia University. We added a story line to the projects students did so it would look and feel like they were on a real job. They were not taking courses nor were they attending classes. We were working with the faculty at CMU in Pittsburgh, many of whom objected to this new style of teaching by mentoring projects rather than by lecturing. One who did not object was a former PhD student of mine (at Yale) Jaime Carbonell, who together with Michael Shamos had enough weight to convince his colleagues in the eCommerce program to go along.

One who initially objected was the Software Engineering professor assigned to CMU-SV, Lynn Carter. But after a few months of teaching our way he said (and I have this on video) that he couldn’t see teaching any other way now that he had understood what good teaching in computer science was all about.

We built a great many computer science master’s degree programs for CMU. All learning by doing, all on line, no lectures, no tests, just mentors available as needed and students working in teams to get things done.

This was before online suddenly became fashionable in the university world, before putting lectures online became the must do trend, an idea that is absurd it is hard to contemplate. Who remembers lectures they heard in college? CMU actually was decidedly uninterested in the fact that our learn by doing offerings available online or even a way to improve face to face teaching, and with the exception of eCommerce did not bring our new teaching model back to the main campus.

My friends and I are still trying to get good practical computer science education to the world in a way that would allow many people to become effective programmers, software engineers, mobile app developers, ecommerce specialists, big data analytics experts and so on.

So, we started XTOL.

You’ll notice, if you look at that site, that the old gang is back together again. We are committed to getting on line education right and to changing the concept of school from a passive experience to an active one, solving challenging problems in realistic settings.

The first two schools (there will be others) to offer what we have built are:


The latter is offering an MBA we built for them and will be offering some of what we are doing in computer science as well.

In particular we will be launching much of the computer science masters degree programs as short courses, in addition to the full degree programs.

The short courses can be taken by anyone who can complete them. They teach real world skills that a high school or college student would not learn in their school and would give them useful knowledge for employment. (As an example, how to optimize a website for search engine ranking is a short course we will soon offer.)

As a computer science professor for over 35 years, I was always astonished at the extent to which computer science is taught as a series of subspecialties that in the end do not produce skilled professions who can be readily employed the real world.

Why is this the case? In my recent book “Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools” I quoted a very well known computer science professor who did not want his name mentioned:

Every faculty member in the Department of Computer Science at my University thinks that their small insignificant area is important enough that all undergraduates must take a course in it. When you add all those courses up there is simply no time for a student to do anything other than take crazy courses in sub-disciplines represented by the faculty in the department. Everybody’s course is a sacred cow. If you tried to put something new in, something would have to come out, and no faculty member wants his course to be eliminated.

At a big state university, which one would think has an obligation to supply training to the students of that state in a major field in which students can readily find employment, the faculty could care less about that and they only want to do graduate teaching. We teach courses that are modeled after courses in the professor training schools like Harvard and MIT. But how many professors do we need?

There are roughly 60 faculty members in Computer Science. They cover all the traditional areas of Computer Science. Ironically, Software Engineering, which is what 90% of the undergraduates do when they graduate, is not covered.  It is not considered an intellectual or academic discipline. It is considered too practical. There is only one software engineering course and it is taught by an adjunct because no one really cares about it.

There are hundreds of computer science majors here.   The faculty doesn’t feel it needs to change because there are students clamoring for what is now offered. 98% of them want to be programmers. Almost none of them want PhDs.

I cannot go to a faculty meeting any more. I get into a fight at every faculty meeting. I argue about teaching and education and they think they know because they are professors. I cannot subject myself anymore to their abuse.

We are trying to remedy all that. Not just in computer science, but that is where we have started because we are experts in that field. We are ready to work with experts in other fields to start making on line education something worthwhile, useful, practical, and enjoyable. And, we want to start a revolution in teaching and learning. Students deserve better.

Check with Socratic Arts and Engines for Education (our not for profit for high schools) for updates:

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Ban guns? Maybe we should also ban school!

In the wake of the recent school shooting, I can add my voice to the millions who think that easy ownership of hand guns and assault weapons is absurd, but there is another point to be made. Can’t we at least start to debate whether having schools is such a good idea? 

Below are some of the questions typed into google in the last week that landed the searcher on one of my outrage columns. They paint a picture in the aggregate of students who are very unhappy in school.  Were these searches made by just some odd kids? Or is it possible that most children find school difficult, threatening, and uncomfortable?

children should learn more useful subjects at school

public school teach you to conform

why should i go to school

math curriculum completely useless stupid

i hate high school what can i do

why school is bad for children

why i hate year eleven secondary school

students don't need certain subjects

hate high school will college be better

useless classes in high school

hating history class

If the school forced students to learn they are not interested in the course

why does a high schooler start thinking they are not that smart

hating a subject

high school is pointless

textbooks suck

commonly hated high school rules

how to get high school students to like you

Maybe you were one of the ones who loved school. I wasn’t. My kids weren’t. And I am pretty sure that any kid who is made to feel different, lonely, stupid, or miserable in school will come out angry. They may not all decide to shoot other kids or teachers, of course. But, some will. 

We need to re-think the very idea of school and we need to do it soon. They are other ways to teach kids the skills they need in life besides shutting them up with 30 or 100 other kids all day, many of whom also hate being there.