The meaning of facts

Someone shared this comic on facebook (from drawninpowerpoint):

I criticized the comic because, although the comic clearly portrays one character as the more ignorant, the two characters are really behaving similarly; their viewpoints are just based on articles from sources they trust. They are not doing the work of exploring or questioning the reasons they trust those sources in the first place, or the implications of accepting what those sources say. One character just takes for granted that her source is “objective” and “scientific”, as though the other character would just accept such an analysis at face value. Not only are they not questioning the foundations of their disagreement, they seem unaware that such foundations even exist; it’s just one source of information versus another.

This points to the larger issue that these characters (and many people in the real world) seem to take for granted: facts are never “just facts.” News, even if it is accurate and factual, is never “neutral.” The facts, the news stories, are embedded with meaning. Editors at a news outlet (or even a prestigious scientific journal for that matter) selected that article or that set of facts for a reason. You, as the reader, will interpret the meaning of those facts. How you interpret that meaning will be based on a lot of personal factors, but it won’t be objective. A fact, in and of itself, may be objective, but its meaning is never objective. The meaning of a fact must be formed through your understanding of the world, your interests and values, and even the choices you’ve made.

So arguing with someone that, “You just believe that because you watch too much Fox News!” or “You just believe that because that’s the consensus on Tumblr or Twitter!” is a useless argument, a sort of reverse appeal-to-authority fallacy. Perhaps it is true, but it takes for granted that there’s some other source more worthy of trust. That is, what news sources you trust is itself founded on something deeper, including the way you form meanings from facts.

This also goes for arguments of “this news is neutral, this is more biased, etc.” It’s all biased because it’s all filtered. And you get meaning from that filter whether you like it or not, so you might as well be conscious of it and think about it while you consume it. Why is this news outlet reporting this news story? The significance may or may not be political or controversial, but a reason exists, even if you do not have enough information to guess why.

And what about all the facts and the news you don’t know about because it never reaches you? You can’t use news that doesn’t reach you to form any meaning at all! But it still exists.

My point with all this is not to argue that news should be “more fair” or “more objective” or anything. My point is that news can never be “fair” or “objective” in the first place, so you, as a consumer of news, should be aware of the set of presuppositions with which you form meaning from the news, and you should think about what meaning the presenter of the news wants you to have, whether or not it’s controversial.

A digression, but this is the same sort of problem I’ve ranted about before in regards to our formal education system in the US, especially in the higher grades. Many parents, students, and teachers take a lot learning material for granted. So much of what is taught in high school and college is just useless information because the student is never going to use it. The facts lack meaning. Very few students are going to end up using chemistry and calculus, and certainly not to the extent that they need to memorize and regurgitate a bunch of facts about them this year or else. But then the student grows up and forces his child through the same wasteful system.

This whole topic is also interesting to me because it relates quite a bit to artificial intelligence. What does it mean for a set of facts to “mean” something at all? How could we program a computer to form “meaning” from a set of facts? It’s easy to understand how a human might do it, but when we try to define it formally, it’s like trying to catch a cloud. Get too close to a cloud and you lose the shape of it and you’re just lost in a fog. But I find it a fascinating question.

This also relates to how science is not nearly as “objective” as the usefulness of the scientific method may make it seem. Much of what we call “science” is in fact subjective interpretation, the forming of meaning from facts. The scientific method provides a useful way of honing in on the most practically useful sets of factual interpretations, but they remain just that: useful interpretations. Not immortal objective truths. This does not mean immortal objective truths about the material world don’t exist, only that science doesn’t tell us what they are; rather, science only provides us with a “most useful guess for a given set of purposes based on a given set of data.” (The scientific method should also not be confused with merely interpreting meaning from statistical data; collected data for which we could not control certain variables is much more tricky to interpret, despite our mind’s natural inclination to do so.)

Professor turns test into a game, blogger remains unimpressed

Here’s an interesting article a friend shared on Facebook. The article has gotten a lot of likes and tweets, and commentators on the article congratulate the author, a professor of Behavioral Ecology at UCLA, for his wonderful brilliant idea.

His idea? He let his students “cheat” on an exam by letting them work with each other and with any other resource they wanted. The “meta” idea is that they’d learn something about behavior by how they take the test.

What would they learn?

I don’t know. The article is rather vague on the specifics, save for an idea any idiot should know, “If we all work together, we can do more.” That doesn’t mean working together is automatically a good thing, obviously; it depends on what people are trying to achieve. If two or more people are trying to achieve the same thing and lose nothing by another person achieving it, then, of course, work together. I think the human species would’ve died out long ago if humans didn’t innately understand this, so I fail to see anything very amazing or brilliant by exemplifying this in allowing such cooperative behavior to emerge in a set of unconventional exam rules.

The professor writes:

In the end, the students learned what social insects like ants and termites have known for hundreds of millions of years. To win at some games, cooperation is better than competition. Unity that arises through a diversity of opinion is stronger than any solitary competitor.

But did the students themselves realize this?

Is that supposed to be profound?

What really bugs me more than anything, however, is when the professor writes:

Is the take-home message, then, that cheating is good? Well…no. Although by conventional test-taking rules, the students were cheating, they actually weren’t in this case. Instead, they were changing their goal in the Education Game from “Get a higher grade than my classmates” to “Get to the best answer.” This also required them to make new rules for test taking.

What student’s goal is merely to “get a higher grade than my classmate”? Is the value of a D worth more if everyone else got an F? I think the goal for most students is to “get the best grade I can based on how much I value it.” Because, in the end, for the purposes of the student, the true worth of a grade is decided by himself, not a professor or an institution’s arbitrary rating system.

You see, you silly professor, your test was never a “game.” At least, not in the sense you thought it was. You do not get to decide what the students are playing for, so you never had control of the rules in the first place. The students have always been in control of the rules, because they’re in control of their own goals. The rules any educator establishes for his students are part of the educator’s goals, what the educators are playing for, what the educators want to do with their student’s grades and what they want those grades to reflect.

So I fail to see how the professor accomplished anything worthwhile.

If you want to accomplish something worthwhile, follow my education philosophies!

Make high school mandatory?

Whenever anybody starts talking about solutions for education, I get very sensitive about how wrong they usually are. So when Obama said that he thought it should be mandatory for people under 18 to stay in school, I had trouble understanding why.

I suppose the theory is that they shouldn’t drop out of school because it will just make it that much harder for them to get a job later on. This is partly true, but I don’t think it’s just the lack of a high school diploma that prevents them from getting a job, it’s also the factors that went into them not getting a high school diploma.

I don’t personally know anyone who didn’t graduate from high school. But my guess is that when people don’t finish, it’s because they’ve got problems, both financially and emotionally, with their home life. I don’t see how forcing them to stay in an often prison-like environment until they’re 18 is going to help much. Even if they get their diploma, their backgrounds will hinder their ability to find a job.

Perhaps the other theory is that law enforcement will better be able to prevent drop outs from forming gangs and committing crimes? Eh…

I have already described a better solution in a previous post: If I were the God of Education. If educational institutions followed my system, high schoolers wouldn’t want to drop out in the first place. School would naturally be a fun and interesting place to work in, not the prison that it is today.

So… should we make it mandatory for high schoolers to stay in high school until they’re 18? To be honest, I don’t know. Ideally, no. I don’t think teens should be forced to do anything in general. But with all the other societal enforcements that are already in place, will a new mandate such as this ultimately make life better for them? Since I have no experience with an environment in which dropping out of high school was ever a possible option, I really can’t say. Which is not to say that I would immediately trust the opinion of someone who was from such a place; I just have little basis to form an honest opinion myself.

However, the idea that a law such as this is needed completely misses the point of the problem. The problem is not that high schoolers are dropping out of high school. The problem is why they’re dropping out. It would be wiser to search for and attack that problem.

Adult fails student test… adults somehow surprised by this

According to this blog / article:

A longtime friend on the school board of one of the largest school systems in America … took versions of his state’s high-stakes standardized math and reading tests for 10th graders, and said he’d make his scores public.

After taking the tests, the guy said (quote abridged):

The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62%.

I have a wide circle of friends in various professions. … Not a single one of them said that the math I described was necessary in their profession.

It might be argued that I’ve been out of school too long, that if I’d actually been in the 10th grade prior to taking the test, the material would have been fresh. But doesn’t that miss the point? A test that can determine a student’s future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life. I can’t see how that could possibly be true of the test I took.

It makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student’s entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world functioning. Who decided the kind of questions and their level of difficulty? Using what criteria? To whom did they have to defend their decisions? As subject-matter specialists, how qualified were they to make general judgments about the needs of this state’s children in a future they can’t possibly predict? Who set the pass-fail “cut score”? How?

I can’t escape the conclusion that decisions about the [state test] in particular and standardized tests in general are being made by individuals who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.

Yeah! That’s what I’ve been saying! As I wrote in this previous post:

… it is a waste of time for a student to be forced to study material that is unusable and uninteresting to him. This is a completely foreign concept to most people working in education, because they tend to just take the actual content for granted.

Part of me is a bit angry that this adult had to take the test in the first place to prove to himself what every sensible student already realizes and has been complaining about for years and years. (“When am I ever going to use this?” Teachers, c’mon, how can you be so comfortable teaching for a living when you can’t even answer this question well enough?) But another part of me is happy that someone out there finally gets it.

The article then goes off an a tangent about teacher accountability, which, I think, is an entirely different issue. Nobody’s really forcing teachers to do what they do, the way parents and teachers can force students to do the dumb tests and assignments they have to do. That is, the article seems to victimize teachers, when the real victims are the students, and teachers are part of the problem.

This related article makes it clearer to me why the first article diverged into the accountability issue. The test in question is the FCAT:

The FCAT, begun in 1998, has been given annually to students in grades 3 to 11 in mathematics, reading, science and writing. It is the bedrock of what is regarded as one of the nation’s most extensive and widely studied school accountability systems.

I can’t really comment too much on the FCAT or the accountability issue; I don’t know all the details. These articles sure make it sound like a really stupid and harmful system. But if it’s an issue of accountability that encourages teachers and others to question their curricula, then I’d argue we need more teacher and administrator accountability. A lot of it. Ideally, we shouldn’t — I believe a good education should be in a students’ hands more than anyone else’s — but if teacher accountability forces teachers into action (or deliberate inaction), then I’m all for it.

The real issue to me is the dumb curricula, forcing students to learn and be tested on skills and information they are not interested in and are never going to use in the real world. (I definitely have other problems with the education system, of course, but this is probably the biggest one.) Although these articles talk about the FCAT specifically, which I’ve never had any experience with, I think curricula problems exist nation-wide. If students are the only ones who have to suffer the effects of bad grades, even while they’re in the least powerful position to do anything about the material they’re tested on, nothing can change until those students themselves get out of school and do something about it, and most of them are more likely to just forget about it. Making teachers suffer for their students’ bad grades should perhaps get them to care a bit more about what specific material students are being forced to deal with, making them realize that, duh, this material is useless and is a waste of time.

Instead of connecting what we learn in school with being successful in the real world, we are doing it in reverse. We are testing first and then kids go into the real world. Whether the information they have learned is important or not becomes secondary. If you really did a study on what math most kids need, I guarantee you could probably dump about 80 percent of math scores and leave high-level math for the kids who want it and will need it.

I think this applies to many more tests than just the FCAT.

Teenage creativity… unheard of!

The full article was in our paper this morning, but here’s a snippet:

The 17-year-old senior is the drum major of the school’s Lightning Regiment Marching Band. For a Governor’s School project, he took the complicated music based on Dante’s Divine Comedy and rearranged it for a marching band.

He took a 30-minute piece of music, composed for a symphonic band, and came up with an 8-minute score for the band’s competitive field show.

“That is completely unheard of in a regular school setting,” said Ryan Addair, band director at Chancellor. He added that bands typically pay $1,000 to $3,000 for original music.

I certainly don’t mind an article that showcases anyone’s art. But this sort of article bothers me because it makes teenage musical creativity seem too special, when it’s not. At all. One need only to search around on YouTube for a few minutes to find plenty of young composers sharing their original work. I think such creativity is unfortunately not as common as it could be, but I think that’s because adults, both parents and teachers, are terrible at encouraging and supporting such creativity in young people. The kind of creativity that is supported is usually restricted to the confines of a specific assignment. Such as: “This month, class, you must work in groups of 4 to create 10-minute documentary videos! Yay, I’m encouraging creativity!” (As wonderful as Nerds in the Midst is, it’s not exactly exemplary of my creative ambition.)

Perhaps most people don’t really understand the nature of creativity; perhaps it’s thought of as some sort of mysterious elusive trait that you either have or you don’t, you’re either born with or you’re not. That’s why creativity is often only encouraged in students who have already shown their creativity. Now, there is some justification for that, since the students that show their creativity on their own time are obviously more interested, but I can’t help but wonder how many more would be just as creative if (as corny as it sounds) adults actually believed in them, and encouraged and fostered their creative potential instead of filling their evenings with paper and pencil homework. Perhaps many adults don’t even really believe in themselves?

The truth is: everyone is creative. Everyone creates new daydreams and plans and sentences on a daily basis. Some forms of art, like music arranging or painting or piano playing, involve skills that require more concentrated practice, and that can be difficult and time-consuming (especially when you have to write some useless essay), so most people avoid it. But if you put in the practice hours (real practice, not just going-through-the-motions practice), you can do just about anything you desire.

So, as nice as it is that a teenager can be recognized for a musical arrangement, it’s a truly sad reflection on the utter stupidity of our local parents and teachers (or maybe just newspaper article writers) if such projects are truly considered “unheard of.”

Death to high school English… ?

My friend Scott posted this article on Facebook: Death to high school English.

My reply:

It’s funny (in the ironic sense) that the author of the article complains so much about how bad her students’ writing is, yet she never actually defends its importance. Her reasoning behind why writing is important seems to be: “It just is.” This prevents her from seeing the heart of the problem: No one cares how they communicate subjects that bore them. Writing is not just about coherent communication, it’s about communicating something that’s important to the communicator. And that’s not something a teacher can ever decide.

I like how her friend says in reply to the question of importance: “No one asks this question about calculus, but who uses calculus besides math majors? If the question’s going to be asked about writing it should be asked about every subject.” She should read this blog! I certainly ask the question of every subject. Unfortunately she seems to have no reply for it, other than she hates it. That’s a pretty poorly reasoned argument.

If I were the God of Education

In the comments section of this post I made a while back, someone asked the following:

Your criticism of the Khan Academy, as well as the current public educational systems, all the way from elementary schools up to college is not entirely without merit. I agree with your major premise. However, it’s always easy to criticize, but much harder to solve a problem in a constructive manner. So, with that idea in mind, what would these systems look like, if you were the God of Education, and could tailor-make them exactly to your own whim? How would they be so different from what we already have?

So here is my ideal education system…

Firstly, this answer is based on the belief that it is a waste of time for a student to be forced to study material that is unusable and uninteresting to him. This is a completely foreign concept to most people working in education, because they tend to just take the actual content for granted. Anyway, if you do not agree with this premise, I don’t expect you to agree with my thoughts that follow.

Secondly, I know there are a lot of details that would need to be figured out. One person is not going to have the complete set of solutions for how to run such a large system. There are many factors that would need tweaking. Such a complex system is not going to be perfect right out of the bag.

Thirdly, in addition to the issue of “what would the ideal education system look like?” there’s the issue of “what practical steps do we take to get there?” This post is not about figuring out those practical steps. I don’t think we could make them anyway until more people agreed with the basic premise that “it is a waste of time for a student to be forced to study material that is unusable and uninteresting to him.” Acceptance or denial of this premise should not be dependent on the practicality of implications. (Abolishing slavery had some huge economic implications, but that didn’t justify slavery.) You start with the premises, and work from there.

Fourthly, my ideal education system has more to do with abolishing and remodeling the education system as it applies to the upper-grades, as that is where I think the greatest problems lie. Remodeling kindergarten and such can come later.

Break the degree system

The ideal education institutions would talk to employers. If people are struggling to get good grades in high school so they can go to college, and if they’re going to college so they can get degrees, and if they’re getting degrees so they can get a job, why the heck are employers hardly involved in this process?

We need employers to tell schools what exact skills they want potential employees to have. Vague qualities like “creativity, agreeability, dedication, independence” obviously don’t help. What do workers actually do? There seems to have been so little communication between employers and schools that schools just teach whatever the heck they feel like, or design these weird hodge-podge curriculums that lack focus. The student ends up learning very little about whatever they might end up dedicating their life to outside of school.

From the employers’ perspective, they want to make money. Taking the time to recruit new hires is a necessary cost as old workers retire, but taking the time to actually train new workers is much more expensive, and possibly less rewarding, so why bother?

That’s why it needs to be up to the education system to teach the more basic skills that are used in a job. They’re going to have to pay employers to take some time out of their day and just talk about what exactly workers do in their company. After seeing what workers actually do, the education systems can break down how they do those things, and then teach them (I’ll get to how they should teach them in a minute).

(It’s possible that there’s an education conspiracy out there. Maybe employers do not want very many people to have high level skills so that they can have more non-independently thinking slaves who will just do what they’re told, and only a small set of elite workers can keep those higher level, higher paying jobs. If this is the case, oh well. I don’t think there’s anything practical that can be done about it. We can’t force employers to reveal all information about their inner-workings. But they’d certainly get some tougher competition with a better education system.)

Now, all that said, I’m not trying to imply that education has to be completely paycheck oriented, as if education was just some fancy training program. But it should be at least that. (After all, even in our current system, that’s what degrees are for! Unfortunately degrees have become very vague impractical ways of going about it, because of the disconnect between employers and educators.) The hope is that students would be pursuing areas that interest them, and they won’t have to have their time wasted by being forced to study things that don’t. If I want to program computer games, I shouldn’t need a long course in statistics, or how RAM works, etc. With the extra time that will give me, I can pursue other areas that interest me.

How to learn / How to teach

So, the preceding section describes where educational institutions should get their content from, the material for their curriculums; it’s guided by what employees out there actually do. (Keep in mind that university research institutions and such are also employers.)

I think just having curriculums designed that way would improve education immensely, but we can and should go further.

Keep in mind our original premise, that the student should not be forced to study information he does not need or has no interest in. How does a student get a job after school? He must demonstrate that he has the skills the employer is seeking, and perhaps has even more skills than the employer is seeking. Schools need to realize that a student getting hired is ultimately completely up to the student. Therefore, schools shouldn’t force students to learn anything. If students choose to learn nothing, or try to skip necessary skills, they won’t get employed and they’ll have to go back and get those skills. There’s no reason for the education institution to have pre-requisites or credit requirements.

But we need to go further still. The current learning fashion involves a teacher standing in front of a class, blathering about his subject of expertise, giving out exercises and tests to students, and then grading them. This is a pathetic and archaic way to learn.

Firstly, the relationship between the teacher and student needs to be more open. Lectures make sense if the teacher needs to talk to a bunch of students at once (and such lectures can always be recorded or written in book form; it’s a waste of time for teachers to keep giving the same lectures over and over). Class time should be conversation time between the teacher and the student, an opportunity for a student to interact with someone who knows the field the student is interested in.

Furthermore, teachers do not need to be in the business of assigning exercises or tests or quizzes or keeping grades. A student might request an exercise if he’s having trouble understanding something, but it’s not up to the teacher to command it. After all, the education institution is for the student. (This will probably be a new paradigm for most teachers, and they might not want to relinquish so much control. If so, tough! They have to! If they are snobs who think they are imparting grand life-changing truths upon their students, they’ll just have to get over themselves. No man should become a teacher out of love of control.) Grades are unneeded because the only true assessment that matters is whether or not the student can get a job afterwards. (If employers are using grades as a gatekeeper to determine potential employers, they’ll just have to change their ways; too many flaws in the current system. And if hardly any schools are giving out grades and degrees, employers won’t have a choice. It’s not up to them.)

Since after school students will need to be able to demonstrate their skills to potential employers, I suggest students learn skills by applying them to self-directed (but teacher-guided) projects. For example, if I want to learn programming, I would involve myself in a programming project of some sort; probably something small at first. A teacher would give advice and answer questions that come up while I am working on the project. If I want to study calculus, I might do a project detailing how an extra planet in the solar system might orbit the sun or something. Or maybe I’d write a book detailing how to calculate the journey of the Voyager. The point would be to create something (not just read books and watch lectures; those don’t necessarily require synthesis) that demonstrates skill and conceptual understanding. Because the projects would be student-directed, the student’s interest is implied.


So, in the end, this is project-based learning, with an emphasis on employer-based skills. In place of homework, students work on projects that interest them. In place of grades and degrees, students produce projects which can be shown to potential employers. In place of weekly lectures, students talk to teachers about their projects.

You might say: “hmmm, some students will not be smart enough to do this.” Well then they can go die. Um, no, I didn’t mean it! But they certainly shouldn’t spoil it for everyone else. They can go to some special program where someone else tells them what to do and what to think, etc. Give them a magic eight ball or something. They can decide their fates with a shake shake shake. They don’t need to be going to school.

I know there would still be plenty of finer details to figure out and problems to solve with this education system, but that’s the overview of my ideal.

Also, there’s of course plenty of room for students who want to employ themselves and start their own businesses; I’m not trying to imply that all students will want to work for someone else after school. Wouldn’t a project done during school time while you’re still learning be the best time to start building the foundations of a new business?

Does “Race to Nowhere” go anywhere?

I just saw a little news segment for a new documentary on education problems called Race to Nowhere. So I checked out its website.

I can’t comment on the film itself, because I haven’t seen it. And, to be totally honest, it doesn’t look entirely worth seeing; I’m not sure I’d learn much from it. From the promotional videos on the website, and what I just saw about it on the news, its main message seems to be: “Look, we’ve got a pretty serious and undeniable problem here. Students are suffering needlessly.”

Um, yeah. Great observation. Is this really surprising news?

Well, it’s a step, at least. You can’t address the problem if you don’t see the problem, and apparently a lot of people don’t. And the problem isn’t that students aren’t achieving enough, aren’t doing well enough on their tests, aren’t doing better at math than the Asians. The problem is that they’re suffering needlessly. Right?

It’s a step, but it’s still not the holy grail of the problem with schools. The main problem is, as I’ve stated before, the memorization of the material itself is useless. Until parents, educators, and students realize this, the problem will remain. You can put a band-aid on the wound by collectively lowering academic standards to create less stress, but the wound’s not going to heal until you have concrete answers for what your goals are with education (and not just the vague “I want to get into a good college so I can get a good job so I can be happy”). That is, you have to know why you are learning specific material. You can’t be taking a course simply for the credit. If you do that, the actual content is meaningless. That it can be horribly stressful is just a side effect. It’s like doing a documentary on how uncomfortable hospital outfits are instead of looking at the disease.

So… yes, school causes lots of stress, boo-hoo, it’s so hard. Get to the point. Take that final step of logic.

From what I can see from Race to Nowhere, it doesn’t get to the point. It might not necessarily be wrong or bad, but it looks incomplete.