September 20, 2013

The #EducationPapers Project

In the midst of a mind-blowing sprawling online discussion group on the topic of Education, which I have the pleasure of moderating.

Here was the first post:

"I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.  Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed."  

        -- David Foster Wallace, This is Water

Hello All-

There are so many possible places to start, but let's start here.

To set up the first question, a quick introduction.  Earlier this week, I went to lunch with some potential clients and the conversation turned to education.  One of our party, who had been raised in Singapore and England, was asking about how charter schools worked (and whether they did).  From there, we got into topics such as teaching to the test, incentives set up for public schools based on legislation like No Child Left Behind, and so forth and so on.  Towards the end, another of them, an older gentleman, and quite a sharp guy said something to the effect of this: 

The problem with education in this country is that its politically wrong/incorrect to say what needs to be said (which he then went on to say, and he said this:) There are some small percentage of students (say less than 10%) that are extraordinary/curious/motivated/supported and will truly excel.  There is another relatively small percentage (say 15%) that are in the middle that, if given the right support, can also excel.  But there is a large percentage that are, he said, hopeless. And in our system, in our public schools, instead of dedicating resources to the first two groups, we are dedicating 90% of the money/time and resources to those for which it probably won't matter, while at the same time short-changing the first two groups.

His statement rankled me.  Putting aside with whether it was true, it seemed to take such a . . .  utilitarian and striated view of education.  On the other hand, I suppose though, if it is systematically true, isn't it problematic if there are classrooms in schools where the brighter kids are not challenged adequately or given enough attention, or where the lowest common denominator sets the bar.  (Oooh - starting off somewhat controversially..!!).

This leads me to discussion Question Number 1:  What is your reaction to his statement and what do you make of it? 

Second piece of background is this: Last night, at my parent's house, my dad gave me a copy of Richard Feynman's Lectures on Physics.  Feynman was a brilliant physicist and teacher, who taught at CalTech in the 1960's.  He is also a very thoughtful person on the nature of education and learning.  These lectures are serious stuff.  In his preface, Feynman states: "The lectures here are not in any way meant to be a survey course, but are very serious.  I thought to address them to the most intelligent in the class and to make sure, if possible, that even the most intelligent student was unable to completely encompass everything that was in the lectures - by putting in suggestions of applications of ideas and concept in various directions outside the main line of attack."

Towards the end of his preface, Feynman ruminates on whether his course was a success: "My own point of view - which, however, does not seem to be shared by most of the people who worked with the students - is pessimistic.  I don't think I did very well by the students.  When I looked at the way the majority of the students handled the problems on the examinations, I think that the system is a failure."  Which led to this thought:

"I think, however, that there isn't any solution to this problem of education other than to realize that the best teaching can be done only when there is direct individual relationship between a student and a good teacher - a situation in which the student discusses the ideas, thinks about the things, and talks about the things . . . . But in our modern times we have so many students to teach that we have to try to find some substitute for the ideal. . . . "

I found this to be an interesting statement about education.  Also interesting that it was made 50 years ago!

So, Question Number 2: How do we most effectively build (or make sure that we have) a gigantic scalable system that effectively teaches, motivates, inspires curiosity and thirst for learning, and prepares our children with necessary skills for not only a good career but a good life?  (Yup - that one is open-ended as hell.  Go for it!)

P.S. - For more Feynman - sorry that he kind of took over the first post here....see this very interesting transcript of him explaining the complexity and multiple layers to any question.  Feynaman on Why Questions:  Which my Dad remarked reminded him of the probing dynamic mind of a child asking why.  But why?  But why? 

Even more on Feynman here:  Good good stuff.

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