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I get told every so often that I should have been a teacher.

The people telling me this are disregarding the massively antisocial aspects of my personality to reach this conclusion, but I do kinda see where they’re coming from. Aside from the whole human interaction element, I quite like teaching.

I guess the way I tend to think of it is that I enjoy explaining stuff I understand. In front of a chalkboard staring at a couple of dozen pre-adolescents is absolutely not somewhere I’m ever going to feel at home, but some one-on-one maths tutoring is something I’ve been meaning to do for a while. I’m good enough that it could provide a nice little side-income.

And, like, a good chunk of what I’m trying to do on my blog is explain stuff that interests me to other people. I think I can be a bit teacher-y, so long as it’s well outside the standard classroom environment.

And I sometimes remember that I have definite Opinions about teaching, and how it can be done well and badly. I’ve been convinced for a while that many people’s profound aversion to anything involving numbers can be largely explained by a crappy standard of teaching with regard to all the fundamentals. If you think you hate maths, there’s a good chance you could understand a lot of its bewildering ideas much better if they were introduced in a better-structured manner.

In fact, I started a series of posts back in my LiveJournal days called Happy Funtime Maths Hour, attempting to do exactly that. It was inspired by the polite curiosity of my humanities-oriented university housemates, starting a longer time ago than I’m comfortable thinking about. So when I said I get told I should’ve been a teacher “every so often”, I guess I meant “fairly regularly for over a decade now”.

And I might actually have to start listening, in some form or another. There’s a couple of things that have made me think about this again lately. The first was listening to the audiobook of Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Chef. There’s a lot going on in there: it’s partly a cookbook, with recipes and so on, but it’s also a treatise on the process of learning itself. It examines the path taken by the author to becoming a skilled cook, and picks out the crucial parts of how that learning actually happened. It builds a system of teaching skills based on the way they’re likely to be most efficiently acquired.

Not everything in the book entirely hit home with me, but it definitely had an effect how I think about the process of learning. I’m learning to cook myself, not in quite as organised a fashion as Tim, but in some way inspired by his methods.

One thing I was inspired to do was actually crack open one of the hardcopy cookbooks we have on our shelves. We recently picked up three volumes of Delia Smith’s How To Cook in a charity shop, thinking it might be a good starting point for me to pick up some more basic kitchen skills. These books are somewhat well known for starting from the absolute fundamentals, explaining in simple detail the basics of how to boil an egg, and I vaguely remember them attracting some negative commentary from people who found something risible about this perfectly fine idea.

After some introduction and opening preamble, page 16 of the first volume kicks things off with the header: “How do you boil eggs?”

Just overleaf, on page 19, is this picture:

Now, I’ve never actually taught anything, and I didn’t read the intervening pages in full, so technically I don’t even know how to boil an egg either. But if you’re talking to someone who you’re assuming knows nothing about cooking at all, and they turn a single page to find themselves expected to produce that, something really seems to have gone awry somewhere in the pedagogical process. Maybe other people really have learn loads about cooking from scratch by this exact process, but to me it feels badly disconnected from anything someone clueless and hoping to learn things could actually engage with.

Educating people in ways they won’t get distracted or put off by may be becoming one of my Things. Watch this space.

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People don’t understand science.

A bit sweeping, undoubtedly. A tad harsh, perhaps. But there’s a reason I keep reading so many people, in so many blog posts, explaining basic concepts like hypothesis-testing and falsifiability, over and over again. Most people don’t pay as much attention to my RSS feed as I do, and aren’t even peripherally aware of the world in which I keep myself immersed.

Most people aren’t the exact same type of nerd that I am, and don’t know much about science.

Which is obviously a problem that many of us nerd-types spend much time trying to address. And one interesting recent effort to bring an accessible understanding of scientific ideas, to people who might not otherwise do the heavy reading usually required to develop an expertise in these areas, is the Ten Hundred Words of Science tumblr.

It’s a project inspired by this XKCD cartoon, which diagrams the Saturn V rocket and explains what each part of it does – but only selecting from the thousand most common English words to do so. As a result, the “Up Goer Five” has a door, and chairs, and a people box, and an end marked: “Lots of fire comes out here. This end should point toward the ground if you want to go to space. If it starts pointing toward space you are having a bad problem and you will not go to space today.” (You’re allowed derivations as well; because “go” is on the list, you can have “goer”, “going”, “goes”, etc.)

The tumblr project features scientists describing their jobs, using this thousand-word vocabulary, with the obvious intent of making scientific ideas and research easier for the non-scientifically literate to understand. Here’s a good example from an atmospheric chemistry modeller:

I tell people if the air will be good to breath tomorrow.

Where people live, smoke and other things which are bad for us, are put into the air by cars and other things in towns and cities.

Some days the air comes from parts of the world a long way away from cities which means it is clean. When it rains this cleans the air. On other days the winds are very slow and so all the bad things we put in the air stay where they are – the places where we live. This makes it hard for some people to breath and so we warn them when this will happen.

We use computers to tell us where the winds will come from, if it will rain and where the smoke and other bad things in the air will go to. Then we work out if the air in their city is good or bad and tell people about it.

Now, I’m pretty smart, but I reckon I understand the basics of what this guy does for a living at least as well now, having read the above paragraphs, than if he’d explained it in entirely his own terms. And so, I suspect, would many other people who’d be less inclined to listen to something that sounds more like science.

But I’m bothered by a problem which seems to stop this from being as useful a science communication tool as it could be. “Only the thousand most common words” is a neat idea to make people think about the accessibility, or the jargonistic nature, of their language – but it can obscure more than it helps, if you’re too busy following the letter of the law to abide by its spirit.

Randall Munroe’s own rocket diagram – and the follow-up of a cruise ship he did for JoCo Cruise Crazy 3 – provide a few examples of this. The ninth deck on the “Crazy Water House”, for instance, is labelled: “The floor between eight and ten”. Now, they’re his arbitrary rules and he’s sticking to them, because it’d make the whole linguistic exercise kinda pointless to ignore the fact that “nine” happens to be the only number from one to ten not in the commonest thousand words in the language. But when translating that idea over to science communication… you’re really not preventing any confusion by avoiding the word “nine”. It’s far simpler, in fact, to say “nine” than to employ any euphemistic or synonymous phrase.

The diagram also has an “area where you can run in place so you don’t die as fast”; it actually took me a little while to figure out this must be a gym. And sure, physical exercise and extending one’s life-span are relevant to the idea of a gym – but most people probably have a pretty good idea what a gym is already. The entertainment factor comes from the fact that, while constructed from simple language, this is not a very natural way to describe the thing he’s talking about.

The Up Goer Five, meanwhile, has an area described as: “The kind of air that once burned a big sky bag and people died and someone said ‘Oh, the [humans]!’ (used for burning)”. Which is a fantastic way of describing hydrogen, and totally fits in with Randall’s original intent with his cartoon – which was mainly to be cute. Again, it’s not his work I’m seeking to criticise, but the idea of using the thousand-word vocabulary stratagem as a one-stop solution to more accessible communication.

It’s the same problem as I had with Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity – In Words of Four Letters or Less. For the most part, that thing is so well written that you don’t even notice the incredible limitation being worked around. For a page or two it’s an absolute delight to read; it talks you through some basic science background and thought experiments in a way that’s wonderfully simple to follow. There’s almost no chance you’d come up with these kinds of easily readable sentences unless working against a ridiculous and arbitrary restriction.

But while this arbitrary restriction forces you to eschew a great deal of unnecessary jargon, it also stops you from using some really helpful jargon. The word “light”, for instance, comes up a lot in traditional discussions of relativity, and with good reason. It’s crucially important to the topic at hand. It’s also a whole five letters long. While it’s always good to consider how you’re defining your terms, it’s not so great when the same rule which prompts you to do that makes you always talk about a “wave”, instead of light, and a “pull”, instead of gravity. Sometimes a slightly longer or less common word is more helpful, and confuses things less.

Ben Goldacre’s submission to the tumblr is pretty great, but some of them could be improved on by putting some of the jargon back in. Here’s an example:

I work at a school in a very cold place, where I study groups of stars in the sky. Most stars live together in groups of hundred-hundred-hundred-hundred-hundred stars (imagine that)… All of us live near a star that is part of one of these big star-groups, called the White-Drink Way.

This is a case where the thousand-word rule provides a great starting point for explaining things in simple terms, but actively makes things worse if taken too seriously. Not being able to use the word “galaxy”, or correctly name our one as the Milky Way, is a hindrance to communication.

Great science communication is really hard to get right, and #upgoerfive seems like a great way to get people thinking and talking about how they might do it better. But no single, all-encompassing rule is going to be the answer to everything – especially not if we refuse to bend it a little when common sense tells us we should.


Mostly for the sake of completion (I’m not a scientist), here’s an #upgoerfive-valid description of my job (created with the help of the text editor):

People work at their jobs most of their lives, to get money to buy things, like a house and food, and also fun stuff like games and books. When you stop working because you get too old, you’ll still need food and fun things, but you won’t have this money from your job any more.

You might have a family who can help look after you, but your family might not have enough money themselves to make sure you have enough food and can stay safe and happy. Or you might not have a family who can help you anyway.

If things were good for you, then when you were working you got more money than you needed to spend, and kept some of it to spend later when you got old and didn’t have a job any more. But you might also have made a deal, with the people you worked for, to put some money in a sort of money-box.

The way this money-box works is, you agree to put some money in there each month, out of the money you would get for doing your job. But you can’t just take it out of the box when you like – you have to agree to leave it in the box until you get old and aren’t going to work at your job any more.

So far it sounds the same as any other money-box you might put money into, only not as good because you can’t take the money out when you like. But there are some more good things about it that make people want to use these money-boxes. One good thing is that the people who give you a job put some money into the money-box too, for you to have later. Another is that the people who control the bit of land you live on won’t take away a little piece of the money when you put it in the box, the way they do with the other money you get from your job.

This money-box is also different because of what happens when you open it when you get old. You don’t just get to take all the money out and spend it, but you can use it to get someone else to pay you a small bit of money, every so often, for the rest of your life. A big group of people will take the money-box and then pay you as if you still had a job (though it will probably be quite a bit less than you were paid when you did have a job.)

People often have lots of questions about how much money is in their money-box, and how much money that means they will get every month when they’re old. They also might have another money-box somewhere else, and maybe another and another, and they want to put all their money from all their boxes into one money-box, to make things easy. They ask me things like this and I write them letters with answers which will help them (if I am good at my job). They also might decide that they have got old enough to open their money-box sooner or later than other people usually do, and I can help them do that.

There are lots of other things about the money-boxes too, because there is a very big set of things you are and aren’t allowed to do, set down by the people who control the bit of land we live on, and this set of things keeps changing and making things hard to understand easily. These other things probably aren’t that interesting and I’ve done lots of talking already so I’ll stop now.

(Can you feel how badly I wanted to just call it a pension? It would’ve made things much easier.)

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2009-2010 (Before new approach)
* 798 suspensions (days students were out of school)
* 50 expulsions
* 600 written referrals

2010-2011 (After new approach)
* 135 suspensions (days students were out of school)
* 30 expulsions
* 320 written referrals

Wow, this school in Washington saw some real improvements with whatever this new policy is that they were trying. 30 expulsions in a year might still sound like a lot, but this is an “alternative” school that particularly seems to deal with troubled kids – some of the students themselves describe the place as a “dumping ground” for kids nobody really cares about.

But this new thing the principal’s doing seems to be doing a great job of keeping them in line. I guess really cracking down on these over-confident, disrespectful teens and their unacceptable behaviour started getting through to them. If you’re stern enough, and make it clear who’s in charge and what kind of behaviour won’t be tolerated, they’ll stop acting like they can get away with anything, and you’ll have far fewer disciplinary problems once the majority have been subdued into meek subservience.

Oh, wait, no. The complete opposite of that.

It turns out, bizarrely enough, that if someone’s angry and frustrated with their situation, and has been dealt a crappy hand by life in general, and they express their anger in a burst of shouting and swearing, and you try to make them stop acting that way by shouting even louder, hurling invective back at them, and punishing them at the first sign of insurrection… then you’re not so likely to win them over to your way of seeing things. Chances are you’ll just piss them off even more and make them keep shouting at you.

And this fairly basic fact of human psychology isn’t magically different just because that person isn’t 18 years old yet.

A lot of this comes back to the fundamental attribution error, and a tragically widespread neglect of compassion as a virtue even in circumstances where it might be a bit difficult. It might be less challenging to respond to some uppity kid swearing and raging by taking a dislike to him, putting him down as a bad sort. But very few among us has never had an experience of losing their temper, and we all know that when it happened to us, there was some understandable reason for it. It might not have been a good reason, and we might not be proud now of the way we acted, but it doesn’t mean we’re bad people just because we got a bit angry that one time. Maybe we were just frustrated by things going on in our lives, and we didn’t deal with it very well.

Well, the principal and teachers at this school have been running with the radical idea that young people, too, are human beings with complex feelings and reasons for their behaviours, who may also have frustrating shit to deal with and be ill equipped to handle it appropriately all the time. And it’s working. The kids are learning perhaps the most important thing school can teach them. They’re being given a chance to experience other ways of interacting with people, and finding out that, if you can control your anger, think things through that are bothering you, and trust people who have the chance to help you, it can work.

Complex trauma ain’t pretty.

It’s when your dad’s in prison AND your mom’s a meth addict AND she’s too drugged out to move in the mornings, so you’ve got to take care of your little brother, get him fed and off to school, AND you’re despairing about being evicted for the third time because she hasn’t paid the rent and the landlord’s screaming at you to do something.

Or your dad’s a raging alcoholic AND he beat the crap out of your mom again last night AND the cops came and took him away at 2 a.m. AND the EMTs took your mom to the hospital and you hardly slept a wink and you’re frantic with worry because you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you’ve got to stay cool or otherwise you’ll have a complete meltdown.

Or your fat step-dad’s sneaking into your bed in the middle of the night AND you’re too terrified to move because he says if you say anything he’ll kill you and your sister and your mom, who’s depressed AND doesn’t talk much anyway.

Teens who live with complex trauma are walking post-traumatic stress time bombs, says Turner. They teeter through their days. The smallest incident can push them into a full-blown meltdown. Some kids run away. Some explode in rage. Some just mentally check out.

So, yeah. You could treat people who’ve been through stuff like that with zero tolerance and shout back at them to do what they’re told right now or you’ll throw them out and it’ll be their own fault.

Or you could try and help.

(And don’t even get me fucking started on prisons.)

(h/t BoingBoing)

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There was an edition of the BBC’s discussion programme The Big Questions recently which covered the topic: “Is religion good/bad for children?” (I can’t remember exactly how it was phrased, but it was about children and religion, broadly speaking, and a good part of the conversation focused on faith schools.)

Most of the guests invited to talk were religious figures, but they all fell on different points of the sliding scales of fundamentalism, reasonableness, and over-enjoyment of shouting, so there was generally at least some modicum of sanity being expressed, even before Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association put in an excellent defense of a non-religious approach to life.

One thing that struck me about the show was how much the religious guests enjoyed explaining what secular humanists believe and how they think, and how little they were diverted from this course by the one secular humanist among them repeatedly explaining where they were going wrong. No, he said, humanists don’t just think that morality is arbitrary and we should teach kids to behave however they like. We actually have a reality-based system of ethics founded on caring for other people, on good for goodness’s sake. No humanist I’ve ever met actually holds the views you’re describing.

Another recurring point was the confusion over what humanists want when it comes to religious teaching in schools. The idea keeps coming up that secularists don’t want God or gods ever to be mentioned in an educational environment, or that we want some kind of ban on prayer or religious activity. Which, again, is a misunderstanding that can only plausibly be a result of either never talking to any humanists, or not listening when they talk to you.

Of course we want kids to learn about religions in schools. The more they know about the variety of religious belief in the world today, and the origins and histories of religions that have come and gone, as well as those still prevalent, the better. I was reminded of a poster that recently appeared on an American university campus, put up by a freethinkers’ group, and featured on The Friendly Atheist, which neatly explains why humanists feel this way:

 

 

For the graphically impaired, it reads:

Study one religion,
and you’ll be hooked for life.

Study two religions,
AND YOU’RE DONE IN AN HOUR

Slightly over-simplified, perhaps, but it makes a good point.

The original “Big Question” was about whether religion was good for children – whether it was healthy or unhealthy to bring them up teaching them to adhere to a faith, the proven benefits that come from being a member of a church, and so on. What didn’t seem to come up was the value of teaching kids things that are true.

And, well, maybe I’m just being pedagogically old-fashioned, but that’s basically the trump card for me. We should be teaching kids things that are true. We should be teaching them how we come to know what’s true, how we can measure our levels of certainty about what we believe to be true, and how to think so that we’re likely to believe more true things than false ones in the future, rejecting old ideas in favour of new ones as necessary.

So, sure, let’s not hide from them the fact that around two billion people on the planet adhere to some form of Christianity. It’s not like we’re hoping they don’t notice. But let’s not leave out any other part of the factual context surrounding religious claims for the sake of maintaining our own biases, either.

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– “Different ideas are CONFUSING! I’m going to go have Satan’s abortion!

Lying about the political process is a fundamental right that some brave lobbyists are fighting to protect. (h/t Broadsnark)

– More dehumanising Republican logic in action. If a woman was willing to let someone’s penis inside them, it’s hypocritical for her to object when the government wants to shove some medical devices in there as well. Yes, people in positions of elected authority are actually arguing this. (Edit: Forgot the link for this one the first time.)

– Jesus and Mo try swapping religions. How do they believe all that shit?

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From the “I forgot to find time to write about this when it was topical” file:

There was an article on Forbes recently, which missed the point in some interesting and angry-making ways.

Billionaires

Pictured: the article's actual target audience.

In it, the author – a successful, prosperous white guy, despite having less of a grasp on subjunctives than his subeditor – notes the increasingly problematic class divide in the US. He then offers some advice to those from a less privileged background – in particular, “poor black kids” – about working hard and making the most of the opportunities available to them, just like he did.

A lot of the things he suggests are things which would genuinely help the people he’s talking about improve their lives. He has some good ideas on the kinds of things that can affect your success in life, and the skills that can make a huge difference to your life if you learn them early on.

Where he goes wrong is in the implicit fundamental attribution of the problem. Here’s perhaps the most striking example (emphasis mine):

If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently. I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city… If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have.

Now, I went to some great schools. Most of what I know about the kind of schools he’s talking about here I learned from season 4 of The Wire. But based on that, I feel entirely justified in calling total bullshit on his “I wouldn’t care”. You don’t get to pretend you know that for a fact, when you’ve never been to a school where being seen as a smart-ass by your peers can get you stabbed.

There’s a constant theme through the article that these poor black kids would be okay if they just applied themselves. If they committed themselves to self-improvement, the way some white folks he knows have done. The way he would do, if he were a poor black kid.

But of course there’s no way he can know what he’d be doing if he were a poor black kid, because he wouldn’t be him. A lifetime of entirely different peer pressures and privations and societal norms would have turned him into an entirely different person. Life might have taught him that striving for better only leads to you getting knocked down and feeling foolish. Maybe, while he imagines he’d have been on the internet researching local scholarship programmes and studying hard, he’d actually have been looking after his baby sister while his sole parent worked their second job – a situation he acknowledges as a problem for some, but doesn’t seem to put much stock in.

It’s not that all poor people from deprived communities are helpless, or that their behaviours don’t have any effect on their situation. Getting good grades at school is something that will generally have a positive effect on someone’s career prospects. The problem is when you decide that their failure to behave in ways that seem obvious to you is the main thing wrong with their situation. If the only reason poor black kids were faring poorly was that it hadn’t occurred to them to try working hard, then you might have a point. But it’s simply thoughtless to stress most heavily the ways they could be improving themselves to help them succeed, without considering the extent to which they’ve already been failed.

See also:

Greg Laden
Greta Christina
Sadly, No!
Womanist Musings
The Crommunist Manifesto

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I wrote a whole post for tonight on some head-scratching moral analysing of questionable situations, then realised I’d been really boring.

So here’s another thing. I liked this quote from Dr Marty Klein in a recent post on abstinence-only education:

We know how we would describe a parent who’s uncomfortable about his own teeth, and therefore refuses to teach his kids about brushing, flossing, and soda. Imagine that this parent also prevents his kids from learning anything about oral hygiene, and forbids them from going to the dentist.

We’d call this parent neglectful. I’d add irresponsible and unforgiveable. And if this parent got in the way of my kid learning about toothpaste, I’d say he’s dangerous. That perfectly describes adults who desperately need to live in a world without teen sexuality – and selfishly fantasize that they can.

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