Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

The life you want

January 10, 2008

Everything starts with education. Everything.

That word, education, evokes a lot of feelings and memories in most people. Most people think back to their own education. They picture rows of desks containing kids with a teacher at the front of the room, lecturing or writing on a chalkboard. That’s not the education I’m talking about. That isn’t a foundation for anything, it’s a swamp that sucks one down.

Educate yourself. Learn to learn. Read. A lot.

Study people. Discover why they behave the way they do. Figure out how they manipulate you. Understand the incentives that drive the world. It helps you to understand the world.

Find out what you’re passionate about. Figure out the things you can do that no one else can. That’s where you’re most useful. Do something you love that helps make the world a better place. Be the change you want to see in others.

Give up television. Things things it gives you aren’t worth having and it takes from you a lot of things that are. You don’t need it and you’re better off without it.

Spend more time with those you love.  Have more fun.  You only get one shot, don’t leave any gas in the tank.

Lies, damned lies and Christians

April 19, 2007

There’s been a feeling building in me over the last few months that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I figured it out recently; a whole bunch of Christians are completely, utterly full of shit. They lie. They lie like it’s their fucking job. Maybe it is.

The first stage of me figuring this out was to realize that I reacted in a very strong negative way to certain writings and speeches by Christians. At first I really thought that maybe I was just reacting negatively because I disagreed with them. At first I thought that maybe they were just honestly mistaken. Then I saw the video by Ken Miller about the ID movement and its collapse. Ken is a devout Roman Catholic which would seem to put him squarely among the class of people that I disagree with most often. Then, however, I realized that I loved listening to him speak and respected his opinions.

How could this be? I thought about it for a while but couldn’t quite nail it down. Possibly I just liked him because he understands evolution and explains it well (he’s a fantastic speaker, I highly recommend checking out his work). That didn’t quite seem to explain it completely, but I moved on. I started reading a book called Misquoting Jesus, given to me by a friend. In it, the author, Bart D. Ehrman starts out as a fundamentalist evangelical “crazy” Christian. I mean, he goes to the Moody Bible Institute at one point. The MBI might be the place where you’ll find more religious nutbaggery than anywhere else on Earth. If it’s not, it’s certainly a contender. His book chronicles his quest to discover the text in the original versions of the Christian gospels.

Anyway, so I’m reading Mr. Ehrman’s words and they’re not grating on me like religious tripe normally does and I couldn’t figure out why. The writing was light, quick and humorous which is rare in such a scholarly work. It was just a good read and I was having no bad reactions. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks; Ehrman cares about what’s true! He knows that the current form of the bible isn’t what was originally written down. He wants to know what was originally written down. I find this quest admirable. Ehrman says at one point that knowing the inspired word of god was written down is wonderful, but given that those words have changed over time, how inspired are they now? Doesn’t it actually matter what god originally said rather than what fallible humans have written in the intervening 2,000 years? Of course it does.

He highlights a couple of very interesting places that scholars know that large tracts were added. They can wait for a more detailed review of his book. I’ll do that at some stage. Regardless, the godless and faithheads alike should read it, it’s a simply wonderful analysis. You’ll learn things.

Anyway, back to me for a second 😉 I have this dawning realization that I seem to not object to Christian claims when the claims are made by people who care about what’s true. This leads me back to the video of Ken Miller and the discussion about the Kitzmiller trial.

Miller recounts how, during the trial, it was exposed that as a result of a ruling in 1989, Creationism “textbooks” were altered to be Intelligent Design “textbooks”. In some cases this was done using search and replace. I’ve come to understand that this bothers me for a number of reasons:

1) It’s dishonest

2) It borders on illegal

3) It involves denying (or at least hiding) god

I did a little more investigation into the people involved with the ID case and found the Discovery Institue. I won’t link to it. Their articles just instantly started making me angry, although now I know why; it’s because they do not care about the truth.

Even the names of their websites and organizations are dishonest: Evolution News and the Discovery Institute. Evolution News is a bunch of people making ridiculous claims about evolution being wrong. The Discovery Institute is basically a religious organization promoting the teaching of creationism. The dishonesty is in how these people portray themselves. It sickens me. For fuck’s sake, be up front about it. They want to teach creationism but they hide behind this disgraceful veneer of ID.

The first article I came across while trawling Evolution News was by Michael Egnor. It is entitled “What if Darwinism were true”. The title sounds promising until you realize the nuanced meaning contained in the term Darwinism. Darwinism is a manifestation of yet another dirty trick used by ID proponents. I call it the “you’re just as silly as us maneuver”. I think that deep down (some deeper than others 😉 ) most religious people know that they’re on shaky logical ground. They know that they can’t coherently explain the things they believe because the things they believe don’t cohere all that well. So, with varying degrees of subtlety they imply that Darwinism is like a religion. “See you believe a bunch of crazy shit, just like us!” It’s transparent and tacky, but it’s used all the time. A great example is the debate between McGrath and Atkins recently where McGrath continually insisted that atheism is a “faith”. Or this recent article by David Klinghoffer. Do these people not understand that they’re denigrating their own faith by doing this? Sheesh.

Believe what you want, just make sure you care what’s true. And to the ID clowns out there; when you talk about an intelligent designer but deny that you mean god, you’re actually denying god his due. Don’t sweat that too much though, it’s been done before.

The collapse of intelligent design

April 1, 2007

I just watched a video entitled “The Collapse of Intelligent Design”. It contains a lecture style presentation by Ken Miller, a Professor from Brown University. The video is well worth the investment of time to watch. Professor Miller eviscerates the ID movement with a lot of brilliant analysis.

It is worth noting that Ken Miller is a devout Roman Catholic. He is confident in his faith and comfortable reconciling his belief with his understanding of evolution. Kudos to him for being a modern, intelligent Christian. The world could use more people like him.  In the course of his remarks, he touched on morality and how the ID movement equates  acceptance of evolution with denial of any moral foundation.  This is so stupid that it will require a future post all of its own.

Miller was involved in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial in 2005. The case that the ID people together was simply laughable and, reassuringly, laughter is the response it got in court. The ID crowd were simply destroyed. The memorandum of opinion is an interesting read. In places it’s a mind blowing indictment of the ID concept and many of its proponents. Judge Jones does not hold back. Given his conservative outlook, the condemnation from Jones is quite stunning.

Even beyond the shudder inducing stupidity of the ID movement, it’s their blatant lies that bother me most. I really enjoy the fact that the trial exposed the outright dishonesty of this crowd. For supposedly Christian people, they sure lie a hell of a lot. Then again, based on their holy book, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.

To me, two of the most interesting quotes came in the Q&A session after Miller’s presentation.

Miller explains that science and religion are not at odds:

I do think that most people within the scientific community have come to accept the notion that one can be a genuinely religious person in the traditional Abrahamic sense and still be fully accepting of science as a way to learn about the natural world.

and follows up with a jab at James Watson (in response to a question) for his narrow view of the world:

He may see no place for god in his view of the world. I do. That means we differ on matters of philosophy and theology but I don’t think it necessarily means we differ on matters of science.

I love these comments because they demonstrate true rationality. Miller is basically saying that he knows god exists and that he knows science is the best way to understand god’s creation. Obviously, I think Miller is wrong about god. That being said, I admire Miller a great deal and would love to hear him speak in person. I think I’ll also be buying his recent books. I hope they’re as much fun as his speaking.

The Evolution Project

March 5, 2007

A very large percentage of the people living in America (I believe it’s about 53%) do not “believe” in evolution. That’s very frustrating to me. I can’t think of any other piece of knowledge I’ve acquired that rocked my world like understanding the laws of evolution did. Well, maybe when I discovered that girls were not just for throwing things at. I guess that rocked my world too. Anyway, evolution is such a mind blowingly powerful concept that it irks me to see how widely misunderstood it is. I chose the word misunderstood quite carefully there because I have to believe that the only way you can reject evolution as an explanation is if you don’t understand it.

Certainly among people I’ve spoken to personally, there’s some gaps in what people know about evolution. Now, people don’t say “Hey, I don’t believe in evolution because I’m ignorant”. Obviously at the top of the list of things that ignorant people don’t know is the very fact of their ignorance. What they say in practice when denying evolution is one of two things. They either object to the evolutionary connection between man and monkeys or they invoke creationism to explain biodiversity.

So, this has bugged me for a while. It’s hard to elaborate exactly why it bothers me, but it does. It might be the fact that the President of the USA can spout rubbish like:

Both sides ought to be properly taught . . . so people can understand what the debate is about.

That bugs me. There is no debate. You have scientists on one side with a theory that completely explains the observed fact of evolution. On the other side you have half baked nonsense. You can’t teach this rubbish in science class because, as has been repeatedly demonstrated, it’s not freaking science!

So rather than just railing against the stupidity of Intelligent Design (Creationism in a cheap tuxedo), I wondered what could actually be done about it. My immediate reaction when people don’t understand something is simply that they haven’t been taught about it, or didn’t understand the teaching they received. So this quite conveniently allows me to dovetail two ideas I’m passionate about; Evolution and Education.

The three requirements for evolution to occur are replication, mutation and selection. I think the selection part of the equation is very conceptually easy for people to understand. The biggest, strongest, fastest, fittest, etc. creature survives. Creatures that have a survival advantage are more likely to reproduce than creatures without the advantage (those without it are more likely to get killed). Replication and mutation require knowledge of some genetics. So I’ve been wondering whether there’s an elegant way to teach these concepts. The idea has percolating around in the darker recesses of my mind for a while. Then, recently, I saw an article about a Russian project to domesticate the Silver Fox. The article struck a chord with me and a few days later The Evolution Project was born.

I haven’t clarified all the details yet, but I have a basic skeleton for the concept. I’m sure smarter people than me can fill in the gaps. The main thrust of the idea is for kids to see evolution in action.

The project’s aim is to induce evolution. The goal is evolution on a macro scale, also known as speciation. We start out with a population of mice. These mice are tagged (RFID?) and have their details recorded in web accessible database. Once all the details are recorded, the mice are allowed to breed. It is important for record keeping purposes that males be separated from breeding age females so that lineage can be reliably tracked. The males are only in the proximity of the females specifically for reproductive purposes. It will also be important that only one male is placed with a given group of females until the females give birth. This way the paternity of all offspring can be guaranteed.

The project will specify some criteria to use for selecting which animals to use for breeding. My suggestion would be some combination of size, fertility and intelligence. So for every generation of offspring, the kids involved in the project will measure and test the mice with regard to the desired criteria. The data will be entered into the national database and the best specimens will be selected as the parents of the next generation. There may be some necessity for breeding stock to be moved around the country to keep the population robust. The mice may also be transported to make an ideal match between individuals from different locations.

This simplified version of the project will be enough for kids to get an understanding of the mechanics of heredity. There are some enhancements that I think would make the project more exciting and fruitful, but they introduce complexity and a need for outside assistance.

The main enhancement I thought of was to get someone like J. Craig Venter involved. I don’t know too much about Craig, but I do know that genomes are his thing. I was thinking that with Venter’s organization helping out, the kids could organize DNA samples of their mice and have the lab process these samples. Hopefully the lab could give the kids an “difference value” for each mouse. The DV would be an indication of how difference each individual mouse’s genome is from the population average. That would allow the kids to select for maximum difference and hopefully migrate the experimental population’s gene pool away from the original as quickly as possible. My knowledge is a little lacking here, I don’t know if this is achievable. I also don’t know what sort of impact the DV would have on the animal husbandry process. Maybe continually selecting for DV would lead to a population riddled with infirmities. I guess there’s only one way to find out.

Storing the information obtained from the DNA samples has another, less obvious benefit. The DNA samples could be correlated with the data about the observed traits of the mice they came from. This would result a large collection of DNA samples with descriptions about the physical traits that resulted from the DNA. Seemingly this data could be mined to learn more about how DNA affects physical traits.

That’s all for now, I’ll revise this as I think of more things to add.

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.