Saturday, June 30, 2012
Everything we do has unintended consequences. When we try to remake society on a large scale, our efforts have large unintended consequences. Here are four major social projects whose consequences may outweigh their benefits:
People want to control who is allowed to become a part of our society. The results are tragic and counterproductive. If you haven't read this Pulitzer prize winning piece about an illegal immigrant trying to follow his mother into the US, please do so now.
Plus, strict immigration rules hurt the economy. See the aftermath in Arizona, Alabama, Georgia.
The US has spent around $1 trillion fighting the war on drugs, and the results are not encouraging. People still have access to drugs, cartels rule Mexico, gangs dominate many American neighborhoods, and prisons are overflowing. The prison problem has massive unintended consequences on its own. Nearly 2.5 million Americans are incarcerated. It is insane.
This one is new for me, but if you haven't read the book Summerhill you should take a look. Basically, kids will learn on their own if they are left to their own devices and allowed to choose for themselves when they will engage. It is madness to force every student to suffer through 12 (or 16, or more) years of school learning things they will never apply in their real jobs. My experience as a math teacher tells me that if kids want to learn there is no stopping them. If they don't, our efforts will mostly be useless. Even if they do pick up a few fragments of knowledge it will not make them better members of our society. Furthermore, preventing children from living out their childhood creates neurotic and childish adults who lack any sense of self-determination.
Not only do we want to control our own society, we want to control the world and it isn't working very well. Let's face it, we can't make Afghanistan into a functional country unless their own people are the driving force behind the change.
Plus, the military is obsessed with internal discipline. Everyone assumes that there is no way to run a military except by fear of authority (we call it military discipline). But this is based on a history of military that originates in a time when people were conscripted against their will and basically forced to fight as slaves. A modern military could conceivably be based on trust rather than fear. There was a famous study by SLA Marshall, an army historian in WWII, that said only 25% of soldiers in combat actually fired their weapons. There is some controversy about his methods, but I think it is probably close to the truth. It represents the fact that people really won't fight effectively if they are motivated by fear.
Thursday, June 14, 2012
I have written previously that education should be more game-like, so I was interested to read a discussion of games in Summerhill. Basically, the author says that kids should just be allowed to play. Education should not be made game-like. Education should be education and games should be games.
I agree with this to a point, but I haven't fully processed it. The author's opinion is that when a student wants to learn they will learn. If they don't want to learn than they should not have to. Trying to make learning into a game is artificial.
The book has already had a significant impact on me. We live in a society where people are not free. We live in fear. I live in fear. When students are freed from that fear they do just fine, even if they spend years without learning anything. We actually don't need to learn school subjects as long as we are able to find something that interests us...and so on.
Again, I can't be too articulate because I haven't processed it. More later.
Thursday, June 7, 2012
This is one of the best articles on the economy that I have read in a long time.
(Look at that...I linked the whole sentence. Is that as bad as using all caps?)
The article attempts to explain the economy by making an analogy to a few famous quotes from Star Wars. (Behold the totally unnecessary link.) But that isn't why I like it. It is just a simple and believable explanation of why we are still in the recession.
The reason? The Federal Reserve has failed to set a solid target for the economy. Other central banks (the author mentions Sweden, Israel, and Switzerland...and no, that one isn't a useless link) have simply declared their intentions and their economies have followed suit.
So there. Read the article. The economy is solved. Now I am going to make an analogy to my own life. I am currently looking for a new job since my current school didn't want to keep me. But I can't find one and the reason is that I don't really have a target. Perhaps if I knew what I wanted people would believe me when I tell them.
Or perhaps the fact that I have to spend the next three months with the Air Force is getting in the way.
Monday, June 4, 2012
I can't believe I didn't start reading Diane Ravtich's blog earlier. It has given me a lot to think about and, often, to disagree with.
In a post today she points to an Idaho teacher who wrote an opinion column in her local newspaper decrying the growing use of computers in the classroom. Among other things, she states: "the point is that I teach the values that were taught to me, including respect for others, hard work, honesty, self-discipline, patience, integrity, kindness, etc."
And of course, computers can't teach those things. But to be entirely honest, I don't think teachers really teach those things. Well, they try. But are kids these days any more honest or hardworking than kids who lived before the age of universal public education? Now obviously a lot of other things have changed since then, but I don't think that teaching part of a curriculum through computers is going to result in lazy, lying kids.
In fact, I see computers as one of the keys to improving our teaching force. The fact is that in the United States we can't afford to pay our teachers enough to make the job competitive with other professions. Teaching is a relatively low status job. Part of the reason for this is that we need so many teachers. If we had fewer of them, we could afford better ones. If we automated those things that can be automated in education we can do those things that can't be automated even better (if we want to).
It is likely that someone dreaming of ways to destroy our education system could think of a plan that includes computers. The devil is in the details. I would love to use computers for some of the tasks of teaching math. They would be great for exercising and reviewing basic algebra skills, for instance. I can't always give the kind of immediate feedback that students need for those things. I would rather spend my time talking about problem solving strategies.
I respect that the Idaho teacher may be risking disapproval from her administration by publishing her opinion. But in the end, I don't agree. I think computers are underused in the classroom.
Sunday, June 3, 2012
I just started reading a book called Summerhill. It is about a school in Britain, founded in the 1920's, that takes discovery learning to the extreme. Students choose their own rules and don't have to go to class if they don't wish to.
In the forward, Erich Fromm complains that modern society is trying to make us all consumer automatons. His only complaints with the authors perspective are that he places too much emphasis on sex (apparently he is a Freudian) and he favors the arts over the sciences.
I probably would have enjoyed a school like that, although I would have also appreciated a little more mentoring in mathematics at a younger age.
Diane Ravitch proposes that all politicians should be forced to take standardized tests to emphasize that these tests should not affect student grades or teacher and school evaluations.
Dan Meyer argues that this undermines the purposes of math education. After all, it will inevitably show that a lot of very successful people can't do math.
Kate Nowak then states that the motives of those in favor of accountability are not to improve schools but to destroy the public school system.
Where to start? First of all, I think it would be interesting to subject potential political candidates to a standardized test. But hopefully it would be one that measures general problem solving ability instead of content mastery. I would be very interested to know whether my representatives are good problem solvers or just full of hot air.
Unfortunately, I don't think that our current standardized tests do a good job of measuring problem solving ability. Now, this is not to say that I think we should ignore content altogether. But I actually agree that the vast majority of Americans don't use anything more than arithmetic in their everyday lives. For most people, I really don't think that the content of a high school math course is that important. But exercising their brain has some value. And seeing whether a course effectively exercises the brain has value.
Ultimately, I am a big fan of data. And standardized testing is perhaps the only way to get good data. But we haven't made our tests well enough to give us good data. That is a problem.
Finally, I think Kate has made a huge error. We may think our opponents are wrong, but to impute bad motives to them is not justified. It exacerbates the 'us v. them' mentality. I think that the public school system is based on a lot of problematic assumptions and that it needs to be questioned and eventually disrupted. I may not agree with the accountability politicians on how to do it, but I assume we all have basically the same objective: teach kids what they need to know to reach their potential.