Tuesday, September 23. 2008
Below is a column I wrote in 1996 that drew a hailstorm of comments. I believe that it still does a good job of highlighting what is wrong with modern education.
Computer literacy has become almost an obsession in American K-12 education. Eager to please anxious parents, educators promise that no child will graduate without acquiring basic computer skills. But while our schools are churning out armies of PC operators, they run the risk of dulling the minds of potential information technology leaders.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not opposed to the use of PCs and the Internet in K-12 schools. What concerns me is our schools are treating computers and networks as ends rather than means. In an attempt to make learning more meaningful and fun, modern education emphasizes hands-on learning, group activities and alternative forms of assessment. However, many teachers and administrators carry the game too far, openly expressing disdain for standardized tests and "static facts." Not surprisingly, the academic performance of American pupils has declined sharply compared to students in other countries.
Most computer literacy programs were created to conform with prevailing education philosophy. One of the philosophy's tenets is "No child should be left behind." All across the U.S., computer literacy programs are teaching elementary school children how to type, use a mouse and save data to a disk. But the programs expect children who come from households that already own PCs to spend hours performing tedious exercises, while their less-fortunate classmates catch up. In practice, the guiding principle seems to be "No child should get too far ahead."
Computer literacy programs were created by adults who grew up prior to the PC revolution. Could they be unaware that today's children are surrounded byvideo games, microprocessor-controlled microwave ovens and PCs? There is no need to teach teenagers how to surf the Web; most can figure it out on their own in 15 minutes. And is the education establishment oblivious to the fact that computers are constantly evolving? The basic computer skills being taught to today's 10-year-olds will almost certainly be obsolete by the time these kids enter the work force.
The education establishment is emphasizing technology over books and blackboards. Politicians act as if access to computer networks is a birthright. Newt Gingrich has suggested we give laptop computers to the poor--as if the difference between hope and despair hangs on one's ability to crank out a spreadsheet. What worries me is the message this must be sending to young people. In essence, they are being told everyone--regardless of individual interests and aptitude--must prepare for a career as a PC-wielding clerk-typist.
Computer literacy programs teach children how to use computers when children should be using computers to accomplish more important tasks. Teachers are laboring under the misguided notion that they should be giving children the tools they require for life-long learning, rather than concrete knowledge.
To wit: Modern educators believe it is more important to teach children how to play "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" than fill their heads with lifeless geography facts. But I maintain it is more important to learn the facts. In real life, you may not always have a copy of your favorite geography game at your disposal.
Yes, virtually all good jobs require the ability to operate a PC. But the best jobs require the ability to analyze, communicate and make decisions. The first thing all children need is a liberal arts education. Those who master the three Rs--with the aid of computers where appropriate--will be ready for almost anything.
What the next generation of IT analysts, planners and managers needs is a well-rounded education.
If our children are going to make important contributions when they grow up, they will need to know more than just how to click on an icon.
Copyright Network World Inc. 1996
Monday, September 22. 2008
In response to my post about homeschooling and creativity, a reader pointed out that a common complaint against homeschooling is that science education requires a well-equipped laboratory. Very few families can afford such a lab.
This argument assumes that the quality of science education is proportional to the cost of the laboratory equipment; that as science progresses it moves further beyond the reach of individuals; that science is primarily about performing experiments; that ordinary families cannot afford science materials and equipment; and that homeschoolers never leave their houses.
All of these assumptions are demonstrably false.
K-12 students don’t need to conduct leading edge science research—they need to learn the basic facts and principles. Most of the great science experiments in history were performed using amazingly simple materials and equipment. Insisting that science requires highly sophisticated and expensive equipment sends exactly the wrong message to students.
Critics counter that, due to the remarkable progress of science, the current generation of students must be more prepared than past generations—particularly if they plan to pursue science careers. This is true. However, what they need most is not hands-on experience with sophisticated equipment, but more thorough knowledge of scientific facts and principles.
The notion that today’s K-12 students must have access to sophisticated and expensive laboratories reminds me of the belief in the 1960s that students planning careers in computing needed access to multi-million dollar mainframe computers. Look at what happened: as computer performance skyrocketed, computers became smaller, less expensive, and easier to use.
The argument that K-12 students require a well-equipped science laboratory also ignores the fact that experiments are only one side of science. We do students a disservice by neglecting or downplaying theory. I can’t help but wonder if empirical research is favored because it entails greater funding.
The argument against homeschooling falls apart even if we assume that today’s K-12 students do require access to well-equipped science laboratories. Thanks to the Internet, it’s easier to find materials and equipment (perhaps used) at affordable prices. There are websites that describe how to perform interesting experiments—often using common household materials.
Homeschool students are not home bound. Homeschoolers can visit science museums, participate in the Junior Academy of Science, and tour corporate and university research labs. Homeschool groups can pool resources. And it’s not unusual for homeschoolers to attend specific classes outside the home.
What’s really needed for a great science education is not a laboratory filled with tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, but an eager mind and interesting books.
Wednesday, September 17. 2008
There are compelling reasons to believe that homeschooling is more likely to produce original and innovative thinkers than conventional classroom-based education.
Some of the greatest scientists and inventors were either homeschooled or self-taught. Michael Faraday received a rudimentary education in Sunday school, but taught himself science by reading the books he encountered as an apprentice bookbinder. Inventors Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell were homeschooled. Others such as Joseph Henry, first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and I.I. Rabi, winner of a Nobel Prize in physics, acquired their love of science by exploring libraries on their own.
The case for homeschooling is vigorously debated. Most parents homeschool their children for one of three reasons: they are dissatisfied with their local schools, they want to incorporate their religious beliefs, or they are convinced they can provide their children with a superior education. Roughly 1.3 million students (less than 3% of school-age children) are currently homeschooled in the U.S.
Opponents of homeschooling raise several objections. Some claim that most parents are not qualified to teach their children. However, studies show that homeschoolers perform well above average on standardized tests. Given that, many opponents focus on other concerns, the most common of which is that homeschooled children fail to acquire “socialization” skills.
Opponents tend to overlook important facts. Homeschool parents tend not to rely on classroom-style teaching; they prefer that their children learn through self study. Most children do not homeschool in isolation; there are homeschooling groups in many communities and homeschoolers often participate in classes and other educational activities outside the home.
The Education Establishment is quick to point out that its mission is not to stuff children’s heads full of “static facts” but to give them the skills they need to become “life-long learners.” Ironically, it’s homeschoolers who must learn to be self-motivated and to study independently, while children in classrooms are often fed the same material at the same pace.
If fostering creativity is a key goal of education, then we must reconsider some basic assumptions. We tend to believe that public schools are necessary to ensuring universal education—but is that true? The British philosopher John Stuart Mill argued in his essay On Liberty that government-run schools are neither necessary nor advisable. He predicted they would devolve into indoctrination centers, which by nature serve to stifle creativity.
Classroom-style learning may help some students and hinder others. In general, the pace of learning is adjusted to serve the majority of students. While well-intentioned, the slogan “Let no child be left behind” often means in practice “Let no child get too far ahead.”
Classrooms not only encourage group learning, they encourage group thinking. That is not always a bad thing; many employers are looking for people who work well with others. But group thinking tends to promote sameness and discourage contrarian ideas. The point is not that we should abolish classroom learning, but that we should remember its limitations and make selective use of it.
Homeschooling is not right for all parents and all children. People have different education goals and needs. But homeschooling is an important alternative, particularly for parents who want their children to learn how to study and think independently, and for children who would benefit more from opportunities to explore their own interests at their own pace.
There is certainly a time and place for sailing in formation. But to be creative, an individual must be free to chart his or her own course.
Saturday, September 6. 2008
I think I can justifiably claim I’ve lived an interesting life, but a recent experience was downright bizarre.
I confess I have become addicted to some of my teenage boys’ video games. Just after midnight a couple of weeks ago I was feeling too awake to go to bed, so I decided to quietly play TimeSplitters 2 in what we call our upstairs “media area.” (When we built an addition to our house a few years ago, we created access to three new rooms by converting one of the original bedrooms into an open space leading to the new hallway.)
As I was playing I noticed something near the periphery of my vision fluttering by. I assumed it was a large moth. A few seconds later, the creature returned, flying in the opposite direction. This time it passed directly between me and the TV screen. There was no mistaking that this was a warm-blooded, winged animal.
I ran into the bedroom, roused my wife, and informed her that a bird had somehow gotten into the house. Even I thought it sounded unbelievable, so I opened the door a crack to make sure. “Now there are two of them!” I told my wife.
We were baffled. All of the windows in our house have good screens, and we close and lock all of the downstairs windows every night. My wife suggested that we remove the screen to an upstairs bathroom window, drive the intruders into that room, and shut the door behind them. I grabbed a webbed laundry hamper hoping to either catch one or shoo it into the bathroom. I was struck by how the intruders cruised back and forth with nearly identical flight paths.
It wasn’t long before one of them flew into the bathroom to avoid me—and promptly out the window. But I knew there was another somewhere in the house. We told our children there was a bird in the house and to keep their bedroom doors closed. My wife suggested we ask our oldest son what to do next; he has bought books about dealing with emergencies, surviving in the wild, and so forth.
About a minute later I heard him exclaim “Cool, bats!” He was standing at the end of the hallway pointing at a vent near the ceiling. Hanging on the vent with its wings folded was indeed a bat. I put the laundry hamper over the creature; it helpfully climbed into the webbing. I dragged the hamper with its open end against the floor down the hall and into the bathroom with the open window. I lifted the hamper just outside the window and the animal flew away.
How did a pair of bats get into our house? There had been an opening into our attic, but we had that repaired. I remembered that I had heard what sounded like something hitting the recycling bag we keep downstairs by the back door. At the time, I assumed something shifted and the bag fell over. Now, I was pretty sure the bats had come from downstairs—when I first caught a glimpse of one it was flying away from the stairway—and that suggested they got in through the chimney.
Local regulations require homeowners install fireplace damper clamps to ensure adequate ventilation. Though our chimney has a cap, it was installed many years ago. It's even possible the bats are nesting in the chimney. We have a chimney sweep scheduled for this week.
When I first noticed a winged animal flying in the house, I felt like I was in an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Apparently, this is by no means an unheard of occurrence. There are web pages about how to deal with house bats here, here, and here. One thing I learned online was that if such intruders come into contact with people or pets in your house, it’s best to capture them and have them tested; bats are notorious carriers of infectious diseases. Fortunately, all of the bedroom doors were closed and the dog was in its crate when the bats appeared.
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