Archive for December, 2006

How schools will hurt your kids.

December 10, 2006

Conventional schooling in America is a shambles. We’re not teaching our kids the stuff they need to know. The system produces outcomes almost directly in opposition to what we want and we don’t even see a problem. Teachers are stuck in their ways and if there’s a group more defensive when criticized, I can’t imagine what it would be.

This rant is to encourage you to think about education in different ways than you have before. It’s to encourage you to read some different view points and try to solve some of our nation’s educational problems. After years of thinking (and arguing) about this issue, I’ve come across some books which encapsulate most of the problems with education in this country. They even cover some alternative approaches and solutions that have worked elsewhere.

The only prerequisite for reading further is that you need to be ready to challenge some beliefs you might hold fairly deeply. If you can’t do that, take a hike 🙂

Schools should teach creative thinking and problem solving. They don’t. The majority of American schools teach method and process. They teach the “How?” rather than the “How come?”. It’s an important distinction. John Taylor Gatto believes that this is not an accident. He believes that the schools of today are not fatally flawed or off track. Gatto believes that schools are designed to crush creativity and critical thinking. He believes that in a capitalist society, those that control the money (and hence the power) are happiest when there is a ready supply of consumers who are trained to accept authority and not think too critically about what they’re told. Of course, he sounds like a conspiracy theory nut but that doesn’t make his points less valid. They stand on their own merits. This comes from a teacher who has done enormous amounts of research into the early history of conventional schooling and the theories he’s developed are disturbing.

Judith Rich Harris‘ book The Nurture Assumption outlines a position that will shock most parents. The book claims that the effect of peers on a child’s personality are more powerful than anything parents can do at home. So not only will a child’s career prospects be impacted hugely by the education they (fail to) receive, so will their personality. Her theories involve the concept of multiple “socials contexts” and, if true, mean that the ways in which parents matter to their kids’ futures is different than mainstream society currently believes.

James W. Stigler is the author of The Learning Gap and The Teaching Gap. These books investigate differences between foreign schooling and schooling in the USA. The comparisons presented are not flattering for the US. Educational outcomes on every measured dimension are better in the countries he studied (China, Japan & Germany). A lot of it comes back to John Taylor Gatto’s complaints regarding the regimented nature of school practices. In Japan, students are rarely shown how to solve problems. The teacher presents the problem in the broadest possible terms, giving no hint to the process that should be used. Children are encouraged to shout out their ideas, which the teacher proceeds to write down. Each potential solution is then evaluated by the class (under the knowing guidance of the teacher) until a workable method is developed. In this way, the kids are taught to understand the underlying principles rather than memorizing formulae or processes. In US schools, it’s the other way around. The teacher walks students through examples of how to solve various problems. The students then grind their way through problems from a text book or work sheet. They repeatedly solve large numbers of similar problems. These problems are very similar to those they’ve just had demonstrated in class. They can master the process without the slightest idea about why the process produces the right answer at the end.

If you only listen to one of my recommendations, make sure it’s this one; Read Alfie Kohn’s stuff. Make sure you read The Homework Myth and The Schools Our Children Deserve. They will permanently change the way you think about education.

In The Homework Myth the central premise is that schools should not assign homework. Kohn claims that at best homework is useless for the purposes to which it’s currently being put. At worst, it’s outright harmful and is crushing our kids’ abilities to think critically and their love of learning. Homework has never had any experimental data produced and corroborated that demonstrates its value to the students who are tasked with completing it. Think about that. There’s absolutely no evidence to demonstate a benefit to homework. Even if you’re a diehard proponent of homework, that’s a tough pill to swallow. You’d think that, if homework was such a silver bullet, it wouldn’t be too hard to find some supporting evidence. Try to find some. If you can, you’ll be the first.

Kohn is also a firm believer in making our educational system more about learning and less about testing. The central premise of The Schools Our Children Deserve is to create educational environments that nurture childrens’ innate desire to learn. In Kohn’s world, it’s less about motivating kids to learn and more about not crushing the motivation that every child is born with. The idyllic imagery he paints is as tantalizingly appealing as it is seemingly achievable.

The thrust of all these works is that public Schools in the US have degenerated to the point where they’re harming our kids. The problem won’t be solved by talking about it, however, without talk, people might not realize there’s a problem at all.

I’ll probably come back and expand this at some point. I really just wanted to get it started. Eventually, I’d like to provide a more detailed review of all these books. They’re really worth the effort.

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Religious fervor and its proximity to madness

December 3, 2006

Rob’s blog came to my attention a while back. I’ve read a lot of his stuff and the kid can write. He loves George W. Bush and everything the man stands for, which doesn’t say too much for his ability to think critically but hey, he’s not Robinson Crusoe there.

My beef with young Rob isn’t about his political beliefs, it’s about his religious ones.

His writings on Jesus pretty much qualify him as a nut-ball. You see, Rob believes that Jesus Christ is literally controlling his life. He believes that Jesus is making decisions on his behalf and overtly guiding him on his journey through life.

I realized that was no longer capable of running my own life. In desparation I cried out to Jesus, begged His forgiveness for all that I had done in the relationship that was sinful, my sloth, and most importantly my turning from Him. I pleaded with Him to run my life for me, that I would do whatever He told me to do. When my tears seemed to supernaturally stop, it was as if Jesus said, “You’re on.” Jesus was now my Lord.

The quote above is from Rob’s post “Jesus has guided every one of my steps“.

“Why I’m a Christian” has more stuff in a similar vein:

the whole time I could actually seem to hear the Holy Spirit whispering to me, not in words but in pictures I could see in my mind

and

I was hearing God everyday. He seemed to tell me everything to do – when to call someone, when to give a hug to my sister, when to buy something (usually when NOT to buy something)… it was the strangest thing. When I obeyed, my life was smooth. When I doubted what I was hearing, there was a “bump in the road of life,” if you catch my drift. Could Jesus have actually taken me up on my plea, to run my life for me? YEP!

Wow. Seriously, wow! My purpose isn’t simply to mock Rob’s beliefs. It’s more to consider the question of how far Rob would have to go before his beliefs could be clinically described as crazy.

I’m claiming he wouldn’t have to go much further. In fact, I believe if he claimed that he heard the voice of Moses, or Mary, instead of god or Jesus, he’d qualify. In the world I live in, hearing voices and claiming to be driven by forces outside oneself automatically qualify one as crazy. How come religious belief sidesteps the nut-ball label?

Good luck to Rob. I hope the voices and pictures don’t tell him to start hurting people. God has a reputation for dishing out the hurt, like that one time where he drowned everyone on Earth except Noah. That wasn’t too nice.

Why arguing about religion matters

December 2, 2006

Recently, I got myself invovled in an argument about religion with a guy named Lou.

Lou was objecting to a claim made by George Carlin. Carlin was stating categorically that there is no god. Lou was up in arms because Carlin cannot possibly know, nor can he prove, that there is no god.

Now, as many atheists know, the legendary thinker Bertrand Russell dealt with this argument 50 odd years ago. His response was the Celestial Teapot. Summarized, it says that we have no way to disprove the existence of a small china teapot orbiting the sun. The fact that we cannot disprove the teapot thesis does not make the teapot thesis true. It doesn’t even make it likely to be true. Russell’s point was that this accurately describes one of the cornerstones of the “religious debate”. The religious often claim that our inability to prove that god doesn’t exist somehow increases the likelihood that god does exist. According to Russell (and anyone prepared to think about it a little) this is complete hogwash.

Russell’s teapot is the original idea that spawned things like the Pink Unicorn and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. They’re simply better packaged for modern marketing than the original. However, they embody the same basic idea.

Lou simply refuses to believe that the FSM analogy has any relevance whatsoever to his belief. He’s claimed that it’s completely different because the FSM never walked the Earth and it’s a fact that Jesus did. It’s completely different because Christianity has billions of adherents and the Church of the FSM doesn’t have as many.

The most frustrating part about it is that Lou simply refuses to consider the opposing view point. He’s like an ostrich, burying his head to hide from the scary ideas bearing down on him. Poor Lou can’t see the purpose of these other “religions”. He doesn’t understand that he faces the same situation with the FSM as Carlin does with god. Lou claims the FSM doesn’t exist but can’t prove it.

I’ve been arguing with Lou about this for days. Many have wondered why I bother. The reason I bother is simple. It doesn’t even have anything to do with religion on the level it appears to.

I argue because religion inhibits one’s ability to think about things critically and critical thinking matters. That’s the only reason. The best example I can think of is astronomy. At various points throughout the history of humanity, astronomers have made claims that contradict the church’s accepted dogma. Astronomers have been tortured and killed for claiming such outrageous things as the Earth orbits the sun. Things that today people take for granted were, at one point, thoughts punishable by death.

That bears some serious consideration. What if everyone throughout history believed without doubt the things that religion said they should believe. It’s a pretty horrifying world to imagine.

So, ultimately, if people want to believe ridiculous fairy stories, I pity them. I understand it, certainly, but it’s not to be admired. That fact in isolation doesn’t bring my condemnation. What brings my condemnation is that religion promotes blind acceptance of claims without evidence. Specifically, that’s what faith means. Faith is incompatible with critical thinking.

Humanity has increasing access to powerful forces. In my view, this means we need more critical thought and less blind commitment to belief systems that promote ignorance. That’s why arguing with Lou matters. It doesn’t matter whether Lou learns anything or not. It matters that both sides of the discussion are laid out clearly so that people are exposed to critical thought. It matters that kids raised in a religious setting have easy access to informed discourse on the subject.

That doesn’t matter to Lou. It matters to me.