Stupid things

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!

By S P Hannifin, ago
Stupid things

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.

By S P Hannifin, ago
Stupid things

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.

By S P Hannifin, ago
Stupid things

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.”

By S P Hannifin, ago
Stupid things

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.

By S P Hannifin, ago
Philosophy

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.

Conclusion

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?

By S P Hannifin, ago
Philosophy

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.

By S P Hannifin, ago
Emergent properties

Five ideas to change the way you see the world

1. The idea of emergence
2. There are no secrets to success
3. School is stupid
4. There’s no such thing as a genius
5. There’s no such thing as a teenager

Here are my top five worldview convictions; ideas that I was not raised believing but came to accept through thought, observation, and communication with others.  In a sense, they are like epiphanies; for each idea there was a time I had either no idea about it or believed the opposite.  And all of them are subjects of debate; for each one of them there are plenty of people out there who vehemently disagree with my position.

The books listed are simply the best ones I’ve read on the subject.  Although certain books have certainly helped convince me of some of these things, please do not think that I believe anything blindly; there are plenty of authors I disagree with.  A book’s contents and ideas are always subject to my own observations, analysis, and judgment.

1. The idea of emergence

OK, this first one isn’t necessarily that anti-intuitive, but it’s something a lot of people still seem to have trouble understanding or accepting.

There are still ongoing debates about how exactly to define this idea of emergence, but I’ll define it like this: an emergent property is a large scale property that emerges from a bunch of small, usually simple, interactions on a small scale.

A simple example might be a rush hour traffic jam.  A bunch of people get off work and drive home at the same time.  A traffic jam emerges from a bunch of individual decisions to drive at that specific time.  A traffic jam itself is a collection of cars; one car is not traffic jam, and a traffic jam can be made up of different cars at different times.

A famous example is John Conway’s Game of Life.  Conway made a grid and came up with a few simple “breeding” rules.  A square on the grid is either living or dead, on or off.  Then the player (or, more efficiently, a computer) uses the breeding rules for each square to determine if it would be living or dead in the next iteration (or generation).  Might seem boring, but playing around with it for a while, one can easily see patterns emerge, structures that cycle through patterns, structures that cycle but move around, structures that build other structures, etc.  All from a few simple rules applied to a bunch of grid squares.  The point is that they all interact with each other, and the patterns emerge.

Another example would be life itself, and nature’s use of DNA.  When combined with the machinery of a living cell (life doesn’t just pop up around a DNA strand all by itself), DNA contains instructions on what proteins to create.  From a bunch of small physical chemical interactions, a body grows.  Hands, brains, eyes, teeth, hair, etc.  It’s all encoded in the DNA, and it all emerges with trillions of tiny chemical interactions.  It’s important to understand that a physical body is the outcome of these interactions; though it’s encoded in the DNA, it’s not actually in the DNA.  Similarly, a music file encoded in a computer is just a long string of 0’s and 1’s, but it’s not music until this sequence is interpreted by a computer, played back through speakers, and ultimately heard by ears.  We can’t just look at the string of 0’s and 1’s and know how the music would sound.

One reason emergence can be hard to grasp or agree with, especially in the context of living systems, is that we humans tend to perceive intent, even when there’s no intent.  (There might be a more technical word for this problem, but I don’t know it.)

When we seek a reason for an event (or for the existence of something), we can seek two sorts of answers: intent to be fulfilled (a purpose), or a causal reason (cause and effect).  For example, if we ask “Why does the heart pump blood?” we can give two sorts of answers: an intent to be fulfilled (“The heart pumps blood to provide the rest of the body with supplies that travel through the blood”), or a causal reason (“The heart pumps blood because the brain sends a signal to it and its muscles contract”).  We can understand both these answers, but one is wrong: the heart has no consciousness; it doesn’t care what the rest of the body needs; it doesn’t do anything on purpose.  So why is it so natural for us to give the heart the human ability of having intent?

We can simulate similar systems in which emergent properties arise on a computer using genetic algorithms.  For example, we can program a robot to roll through a maze based on simple rules.  But we can also program the robot to figure out those rules on its own.  When it’s done, the rules might seem intelligent to us, as if the robot thought about his problem and solved it with intent to solve.  But really it’s just all the outcome of the simple rule-making rules of our program. (Unless, of course, we have succeeded in programming consciousness!)

If you think about genetic algorithms, it’s not really an amazing feat.  You just have the program come up with a bunch of random rule sets, test them, and weed out that ones that don’t produce the results you want.

The same thing happens in real life.  If the rules of making a life form (as dictated by the DNA) cause the life form to die before it breeds, its rules won’t be passed on.  Duh.  So in the end all we get are rules that “passed the tests.”

Although we do not yet know the exact science of it, emergence makes it quite plausible that God is not needed to explain the emergence of life on earth, or human life specifically.  This is enough to lead some people to atheism.  But to me it seems if your belief in God is dependent on ignorance regarding the origins of life, your faith is rather thin to begin with.  This really isn’t any sort of proof that God doesn’t exist.

There are quite a few books on this subject, and many more that relate to it, or utilize it in some way.  The two best books I have read on this subject are Emergence: From Chaos To Order by John H. Holland and Complexity: A Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell.  (Complexity: A Guided Tour is really about the subject of complexity, obviously, but the concept of emergence is an important part of it.)

2. There are no secrets to success

If you understand the idea of emergence, this isn’t a big leap of logic: success, at least in terms of fame and money, is an emergent property.  The fame of a person or a person’s work emerges from thousands, or millions, or billions of human interactions that take place each day.

This is anti-intuitive because it’s just too complex to understand.  When something becomes popular, we want to know why, and we feel that we should have the ability to know.  So we analyze the work of art (and the perhaps the traits of the culture that made it popular) and try to pinpoint what factors must’ve made it popular.  We try to reverse engineer its success.

Ultimately, though, the system is just too complex.  There is no way to guarantee success.  There are no key factors.

And yet so many people want to analyze and analyze and analyze.  Why?

OK, this might not actually be very anti-intuitive to a lot of people.  But it implies something else, something that might be more anti-intuitive.  Eventual popularity is not inherent in anything, be it a person or a work of art or whatever.

What I mean by this is that people sometimes look at famous things and take it as an objective measurement of greatness, as if there’s something undetectable but inherent in the work that makes it have such widespread appeal.  However, by feeding into this, they are unknowingly becoming a part of the social system that makes the object famous in the first place.  For example, it’s easy to look at the popularity of Mozart’s music and claim that it’s popular because genius is simply inherent in it, even though we can’t identify what factors make it so genius.

This sort of thought has pervaded through cultures for centuries, and it’s wrong; it’s a complete misunderstanding of what exactly popularity is and how it comes about.  That is, more specifically, it’s a wrong guess about how it comes about.

You’ll notice that many of these ideas simply involve giving different, sometimes anti-intuitive (but more correct!), answers to the question “why?”

The best book about this sort of thing is The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  OK, it’s not exactly just about objective greatness and popularity in art; it deals with the bigger problem of induction in general.  But the two subjects are very related.

3. School is stupid

This really seems to get people riled up for some reason, I suppose because the idea of school being necessary is so embedded in our culture; we grew up with it and simply can’t imagine (perhaps even fear) a world without it.  It’s odd, because when people are young students, they usually fully agree that school is stupid.  But for some reason, as they get older, they change their minds.  Usually they’ll defend the necessity of school when they are no longer required to go themselves, as if that’s suddenly a more objective position from which to judge it?

Notice that I did not claim that education was stupid.  And I don’t doubt that school is about education; it just has an extremely inefficient and overall harmful way of educating.

There are quite a few reasons formal schooling is dumb, and I won’t go over all of them here (there are books on the subject, after all), but I’ll mention the big ones.

The biggest problem with school is the material taught.  School systems simply want to teach too much.  This comes from a misunderstanding of intelligence.  People seem to think (and I’ve blogged about this before if this is sounding familiar) that intelligence is merely about knowing stuff, and the more you know the better.  I suppose it’s a bit like the idea behind hoarding—it’s better to just keep everything you can in case you need to use it someday.  But hoarding makes it difficult to live, difficult to have room for the stuff you want later, etc.  True, memory doesn’t work quite like that, but the point should be obvious: knowledge that you don’t use is useless.  The time and effort spent acquiring it is wasted.

And people already know this, otherwise students would be taught to memorize phone books.  Some knowledge is clearly useless; it’s not like the concept of useless knowledge is simply foreign to educators.  They’re just bad at figuring out which knowledge is useful and which isn’t.  In fact, usually someone figures it out for them, and they’d rather not think about it or question it.  How many times is a teacher asked “When will I ever use this?” and the teacher replies something like “You’ll use it on the test!” or “You’ll use it on your homework!”?  It’s easy to say that a teacher who utters such words should be immediately fired, but the intellectual crime he is committing and that instance probably deserves worse.

Figuring out what knowledge is useful and what isn’t shouldn’t be a difficult feat, nor should it be up to the government or any collective institution to determine.  It’s very simple, you just ask yourself: will I use this knowledge?  If you are interested in the knowledge, then yes, of course, it’s automatically useful because it gives you pleasure.  If you need the knowledge to get something you want (like a job), then yes, it’s useful; you are going to use it to get something.  If it does not fit one of those categories, it is, at the moment, useless.  What if it will be useful later?  Then learn later!  That’s why people write books.  Books store knowledge.  You don’t have to know it until you need it!  Amazing, huh?!

But you might protest: “How will I know whether or not I need a piece of knowledge until I know it?”  Easy: if you find yourself asking yourself a question, then you need more knowledge.  You could be asking yourself a question because you’re just curious (“What’s the population of the USA?”), or you could have a specific goal in mind (“How do I play the piano?” or “Can I make this work I have to do easier somehow?”).

Then you must search for the answer.  It is (or should be) up to you to find it; you can’t (or shouldn’t) just sit back and hope someone will come along and tell you.

Sometimes the answer can be found through a simple search query in Google.  Sometimes you want a deeper understanding that a book can provide.  Sometimes you might need several books.  Sometimes you might be interested in talking to a professional.  Sometimes taking a well-designed school course in the subject is appropriate.

Sometimes no one really knows the answer, and you must figure out how to find it yourself (that’s why people do experiments) or get used to the disappointment of ignorance.  (We’ll never know how many hairs were on Thomas Jefferson’s head.  Too bad for us.)

The point is that you know beforehand that there’s some sort of knowledge you want to gain, and then you seek it.

You probably realize that public schools have the process almost completely backwards.  They teach (or try to teach) students things before the student has any use for them.  This is completely counterproductive.

There is only one case in which this is justified, and that is in the teaching of young children.  Children are too inexperienced to understand what they want to learn, or why they need to learn certain things.  Some things are hard to learn, and they might naturally resist.  Most parents would agree that children need to learn to use the toilet, to pack up their toys, to not throw things at the wall, to not hit their siblings, to eat their vegetables, to tie their shoes, to dress themselves, to act politely, to read, etc.  Adults naturally need to guide their children in learning these things, even if the children claim they don’t want to learn.

This is not the case with many subjects taught in school.  There is no reason to force-teach calculus, the phases of the moon, the date George Washington died, how to calculate torque, the names of the big rivers in California, etc.

How do adults figure out what should be force-taught and what doesn’t need to be?  Again, the answer is simple: do most adults use the knowledge on an everyday basis?  If not, then force-teaching anybody such knowledge is a waste of time.  (Note that just because most adults know a piece of knowledge does not make it useful.  Most adults could know that the USA has fifty states, but that does not imply that children need to be taught that specifically.  It’s not useful information; it’s just common sense trivia.  As with all common sense trivia, children will naturally pick it up eventually.)

(Sometimes people say: “I have very eclectic interests.  Sometimes I just read random books without searching for any specific answer.”  Well, that’s great; go for it.  But that’s not the same as subjecting yourself to a strict classroom setting, where tuition is paid, schedules are followed and tests and grades are given. In other words, this doesn’t justify anything; it’s irrelevant to the argument I’m making.)

So, from what I can tell, that is the biggest problem of our (the USA’s) current public education system.  I’ve met a lot of people who agree that public schools have problems, but they completely miss this point.  They argue for fewer grades, less work, better teachers, smaller classrooms, etc., but they uphold the belief that so much knowledge should be force-taught in the first place.  As long as so much is force-taught, schools will be flawed and wasteful.  You can’t solve any other problem without first answering: why are we teaching this in the first place?

The other problems do include the grading system.  While it provides numerical assessment, it is wrongly used as a motivator (“If you don’t do this, you’ll get a bad grade!”), punisher (“You got a low grade, so you must do more work!” or “You got a low grade, so no TV for a week!”), and comparing system (“Sean had the highest grade in the class, so he is the best!  No one else is as good as him!”).  All of these hinder the actual act of learning.  There are other ways to assess educational progress.  Note that if the knowledge is useless in the first place and the student knows it, there is no honest way to motivate the student to learn it.  This is an example why solving these smaller problems will not help if the previously mentioned bigger problem is not dealt with first.

Another problem is that schools are thought of as factories (they are “systems” after all).  Students go in ignorant and come out smart.  But in structuring it like a factory, students are treated like prisoners: they are split apart by age (what purpose does that serve?), they are required to sit as long as they are told, they need permission to use the bathroom, they all must work at a similar pace, they are all taught the same material at the same time, etc.

There are problems with teachers: they are underpaid (people who might be good teachers don’t become them), they cannot be fired easily, and they sometimes aren’t very good.

Creativity is not cultivated as well as it could be; it is sometimes considered a detriment.  Music programs are sometimes cut before math programs, for example.  Why is math considered inherently more important?

There are probably books on this, but I actually haven’t read any.  As I’ve said before, people, including authors, usually discuss the smaller problems, but don’t see or agree with the bigger one.

4. There is no such thing as a genius

There is such thing as one person having more skill than another.  However, the notion of “genius” comes from a human misunderstanding of where that skill comes from.  Sometimes a skill seems to come so easily to another person that we simply can’t attribute it to practice; therefore, we suppose, it must be innate, it must come from DNA, it must be a gift from God.

Sometimes intellectual fame is also considered an inevitable product of genius.  Mozart, Beethoven, Einstein, Newton, Edison, etc. are considered famous because their minds were special and the rest of the world just naturally recognized it.

But, as discussed in idea #2, their (and their works’) fame (“success”) is actually the product of our complex social interaction system.  That is, it’s an emergent property.  Mozart was not special.  Newton was not special.  Edison was not special.  Yes, they’re special in the sense that they’re famous, but they never had greater intellectual potential than anyone else.  Their status of fame is the result of both their hard work and luck. (By “luck” I don’t mean pure random chance; I simply mean it is an emergent property, a product of a system that is otherwise far too complex for us to understand.)

You, yes you, whoever you are, can play the piano and compose symphonies as well as Mozart.  But you have to put in the time, and a lot of it.  But it’s not beyond your mental abilities (though perhaps it’s beyond your time resources).  You can understand the theory of relativity, you can study quantum mechanics, you can paint a beautiful sunrise.  But you’ve got to put in a lot work and practice.  Sometimes it does seem like a skill comes to some people faster than others, but no one is ever just born with it.

Again, hard work won’t guarantee fame.  Since Mozart’s famous touring-as-a-prodigy childhood, there have been plenty of other parents of young pianists seeking the same kind of fame.  But fame was not just the product of Mozart’s skill; it was an emergent property. Mozart got lucky, not just in his time, but throughout history (at least to this day; nobody knows what people hundreds of years from now will think).

Making a breakthrough scientific discovery is a bit trickier.  Again, it comes down to luck.  We might like to think it comes down to natural genius, but once you come up with your discovery, it’s not as if you’ll be the only one who’ll ever be able to understand it (if that were the case, your discovery would be useless anyway).  It might take hard work to arrive at your theory, but there’s nothing you can do innately to guarantee that you make the discovery first.

There are a few books on this subject, such as The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ by David Shenk and The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.

5. There is no such thing as a teenager

Similar to the notion of a genius, a teenager is a purely cultural idea that emerged from a purely cultural way of raising children.  Biologically, after puberty, humans are ready to go out on their own and breed.  For some reason, culturally, we don’t accept this.  We might even think of it as disgusting and wrong for a thirteen or fourteen year old to get pregnant.  But that’s what the body is designed to do.  (Or perhaps I should say that that’s how the nature of the body emerged.) The reason it seems disgusting and wrong is cultural; we were raised in a culture that thinks of it as wrong and disgusting, so we accept the belief ourselves.

What is the basis for it?

Well, you could argue that teenagers are unruly and irresponsible.  But is it really biology that makes them that way?  I think yes and no; that is, biology indirectly makes them that way, and would make adults that way too if they were put in similar environments.  Biologically and psychologically teenagers are ready to take the reins of adulthood.  But they are not given those reins.  Parents, teachers, and lawmakers deny teenagers the reins for several more years, sometimes up to a decade longer than they should.  They exert control, sometimes giving them only more adult responsibilities without adult privileges.

The consequences of this should be apparent and predictable, and they’re exactly what we observe: teenagers resist.

Duh.

But then society makes the mistake of guessing that a teen’s troubles are due directly to biology and psychology; they conclude the teenager is in fact not ready to be treated like an adult, and the vicious cycle continues.

Does that mean parents of teenagers are bad?  Well, I wouldn’t say they’re evil.  After all, the belief is cultural; it’s natural and understandable that most parents would accept the common societal views of teenagerhood.  But they’re still wrong, and usually end up doing more harm than good.

Unfortunately this wrongness is even embedded in national law, so even if a parent wanted to treat their teenagers more like adults, there would be still be lawful limits on just how many privileges the teenagers could be given.

The best book I’ve read dealing with this subject is The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen by Robert Epstein.  However, there are still scientific papers and articles on the differences between the teenage brain and the adult brain that try to explain teenage rebellion, so this is still quite a controversial subject.

Conclusion

I hope that was interesting to some people out there!  I continue to see these ideas all over the place.  Emergence is everywhere and helps shape our world in complex (sometimes mysterious) ways.  The problem of induction leads people to false knowledge and a misunderstanding of the nature of fame and success.  Schools continue to waste so much time and effort, and the people trying to make it better often miss its main problem.  The cultural notion of genius encourages people to underestimate their own true abilities.  And what people think about teenagers leads to vicious endless cycles of strained relationships.

I was considering adding more ideas, such as compatibilism (the notion that free will and determinism are compatible) and Ayn Rand’s ideas on selfishness (I do recommend The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged to everyone), but they didn’t quite make the cut.  Maybe next time.

I’m tempted to think some people get too satisfied with their convictions; they naturally resist any sort of idea that might change how they see the world. I suppose they’re afraid that if they change their outlook, it implies they’re stupid. But the opposite is true. No one is born with perfect knowledge. In fact, you’re really not born with very much knowledge at all. Most of your current knowledge came from somewhere. Your convictions should be changing as you grow older. I’m not saying they have to completely reverse every few years (that would be awful and probably would imply your stupidity), I’m simply saying one should be open and honest with himself in his judgments. Changing your mind about something is not a sign of stupidity.

By S P Hannifin, ago