Sheep?

In his article “Is Google Making us Stupid?”, Carr suggests that advancement in internet and technology has affected the way we think. His main concern seems to be that although information is available readily we spend a lot more time skimming and don’t often dig deeper – which is making us stupid!

My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

Carr suggests that this is necessarily a bad thing – I find power browsing especially empowering – news apps/websites have curated their format such that I can get snippets of news, just long enough to keep my attention. In the preceding decades before the internet – content was limited and available only in the form of print. If you got one newspaper, there were only so many stories you could read. Now the content is unlimited and can be curated based on your likes and dislikes. There is no need for me to dig into every story – just reading a brief abstract is enough. If I find something that interests me I always dig deeper – in fact, there have been times where I’ve gone down a pigeon hole – clicking link after link from news article to Wikipedia and back and forth. This is also particularly good practice for doing research – nobody has the time to read, understand and contemplate about every paper – knowing what to read and how to read smartly will definitely set you apart in a Ph.D. program.  In personal practice, I have also found that skimming makes it easier for me to retrieve information at a later time.

Carr also suggests that we are in some sense becoming mindless sheep or “mere decoders of information” as our ability to interpret text, to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction, remains largely disengaged. I disagree – the following comment from a reader sums up my thoughts succinctly:

It is ridiculous to bemoan a state which is self-created; that is a sign of weakness of will, of indiscipline, not of victimhood. Carr actually blames it on “computer engineers and software coders” who build things like Google—which is silly. Indeed, to that extent, Carr profoundly misunderstands the nature of the problem: to pretend that you can blame others (programmers, no less!) for your unwillingness to think long and hard is only a sign of how the problem itself resides within you. It is ultimately a problem of will, a failure to choose to think. If that is a problem of yours, you have no one to blame for it but yourself.

Given his stance on how our attention spans are reduced and we spend less and less time reading long prose, I find the length of his article amusing.

We don’t need no Education

“You! You! Yes, you! Stand still, laddie!”
When we grew up and went to school
There were certain teachers who would
Hurt the children anyway they could
By pouring their derision
Upon anything we did
And exposing every weakness
However carefully hidden by the kids

I think Pink Floyd summed up the entire education system (back in the 1970-80’s) fairly well in their song “We don’t need no Education”. The effects of such an oppressive educational model are still present, in fact, the educational model hasn’t changed much in the last few decades. The lyrics (accompanied by the video) articulate in a concise fashion the banking model of education (as described by Paulo Freire’s in his book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed“); it is particularly apparent in the last couple of lines in the song where the students recite along with the teacher:

“An acre is the area of a rectangle

whose length is….”

In the banking model of education, the student is viewed as an empty account to be filled by the teacher. Paul notes that “it transforms students into receiving objects. It attempts to control thinking and action, leads men and women to adjust to the world, and inhibits their creative power”. The following lyrics from the same song “We don’t need no Education” succinctly express that a banking/factory model of education is oppressive and abusive and change is needed:

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone

The lyrical brilliance of Pink Floyd shines here where they use double negatives; “don’t” and “no” in the same line negate each other expressing that although education is necessary, operating within the confines of the current system makes the children mindless souls that do not have free creativity or imagination (this argument is not only supported by the lyrics but also through the stunning visuals in their video). The combination of words “thought control” and “dark sarcasm” further argues that teachers can be perceived as authoritarian and controlling. In particular, if the child does not please the teacher then the child is automatically wrong and punished for their behaviour.

I think there are plenty of parallels between Paul’s work and Pink-Floyd’s lyrics. However, both bodies of work seem to paint an extremely pessimistic view of the education system. The lyrics and the book are fairly old (70-80’s) and may have been apt for the post-war era. In the current context, there are several common themes/core ideas that still ring true today.

Learning to Fly

I’ve never really given this much thought, but video games do foster learning. In this video, James Paul Gee talks about one of my favorite games ever (Portal!). I can rave about this great puzzler/problem-solving game all day, but I’ll contain my excitement for now. While I’m on the topic here were some other fantastic games from my school days: Battle Chess, Midnight Rescue. The Battle Chess gameplay (anytime you took pieces there was a brief animation/fight sequence showing the capture) was so brilliant to 7-year-old me, that I got hooked onto playing chess. Although, I had always wanted to learn more about the game (strategies, opening/ending games etc.), those kind of resources were just not available to me back then. Midnight Rescue was another brilliant game that was able to integrate learning fabulously into a PC game.

The key message James Paul Gee tries to convey in his brief lecture is that games today are only half the picture; when people get passionate about a game, they read up more about it and dig deeper. For the case of Portal, there are numerous active gaming forums and wiki pages that discuss the game, suggest and implement modifications and research the physics behind the gaming. While these are great learning resources for a gaming enthusiast, how many of us have read the gaming manual/forums or wiki pages before playing the game? I would probably guess none. All that wall of text makes much more sense once we’ve immersed ourselves into the make belief world of the gaming environment. We have thousands of textbooks in school, what we need are video games for those textbooks.

Comfortably Numb

Alphie Kohn’s post “Why the Best Teachers Don’t Give Tests” struck a chord with me. In his post he particularly talks about how some educators are so vehemently opposed to standardized testing yet adopt other practices (such as grading rubrics) that share common features with such testing. The author argues against not just standardized testing, but against testing in general (one key point he failed to mention is take-home exams and/or in-class open-book tests, which I will talk about later). This interesting post counters the authors claims and argues for more testing instead of less testing! So which way should we go as educators? Is testing making students Comfortably Numb?

As a student that has experienced varied kind of testing environments, here is my take on what worked for me:

  1. Take Home Exams – these were typically fairly hard and required me to go beyond what I had learnt in the class and/or from the books. The really good take-home exams, gave me ample time to finish the task and challenged me to apply my knowledge. Many take-home type final exams have been project based which has helped in the learning process.
  2. In-class Exams w/ Open Books and Notes – These are probably just as good as take home exams, but I was still expected to solve the problems in a limited amount of time. However, some students just aren’t good test takers in such a high pressure environment.
  3. Repeated Testing – Some may disagree with me here, but my personal experience has been particularly good. An engineering course I took in my final year of undergraduate studies was designed to repeatedly test students on the material i.e. there were a total of 8-10 tests in the semester (No Homeworks!). However this meant that we were tested every other week on the new material we had learnt. This sort of an arrangement really kept me on my toes and made me pay attention in class (it helped that the teacher was outstanding). I can say that I got a lot more out of this course that other courses where there were only mid-terms and/or finals.

I want to shift gears a little here and talk about my experience from the flip side i.e. my experience as a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA). As a GTA I have not only taught courses, but have also evaluated student work (based on grading rubrics). Rubrics seem to serve a good purpose, but also have severe limitations. Some advantages are fairly obvious, for instance they:

  1. Provide clear expectations of what is expected of the students.
  2. Standardize grading practices across different teachers/teaching assistants that maybe evaluating different sections of the same course
  3. Make it easy to communicate student performance.
  4. Decrease ambiguity in grading practices.

I feel like these advantages are mostly from an educators perspective. Rubrics allow for standardized grading procedures, which are simple to follow both for the student and the teacher, but give minimal feedback in the amount of time available. Rubrics cheat the student of the detailed feedback that they deserve. Here are some limitations of using grading rubrics:

  1. Rubrics are typically designed to measure things that are easy to quantify and thereby maybe inherently biased.
  2. Makes students turn in work by following rules. I have often found several inferior assignments that touched everything on the rubric and received a decent grade and several other good assignments that were thought provoking and showed me the ability of the student to think outside the box, but received a poorer grade because the work did not adhere to the rubric or presented guidelines.
  3. It often leaves less room for the teacher to be an authentic evaluator of the student’s work.
  4. While it decreases the time needed to assess the student’s work, it doesn’t allow much room for authentic communication – such as providing extensive feedback consisting of questions and follow up comments.
  5. Overall rubrics/points do not seem to represent student learning/progress or competence of the student in the subject matter.

Do you use rubrics for your grading? What has been your experience with them?

The Education Factory

I found this really interesting blog about the whole idea of the “factory model of education” and its origins from the economic circumstances surrounding the industrial revolution. Of particular interest is this little extract taken from Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock that was mentioned in the author’s post:

Mass education was the ingenious machine constructed by industrialism to produce the kind of adults it needed. The problem was inordinately complex. How to pre-adapt children for a new world – a world of repetitive indoor toil, smoke, noise, machines, crowded living conditions, collective discipline, a world in which time was to be regulated not by the cycle of sun and moon, but by the factory whistle and the clock.

The solution was an educational system that, in its very structure, simulated this new world. This system did not emerge instantly. Even today it retains throw-back elements from pre-industrial society. Yet the whole idea of assembling masses of students (raw material) to be processed by teachers (workers) in a centrally located school (factory) was a stroke of industrial genius. The whole administrative hierarchy of education, as it grew up, followed the model of industrial bureaucracy. The very organization of knowledge into permanent disciplines was grounded on industrial assumptions. Children marched from place to place and sat in assigned stations. Bells rang to announce changes of time.

The inner life of the school thus became an anticipatory mirror, a perfect introduction to industrial society. The most criticized features of education today – the regimentation, lack of individualization, the rigid systems of seating, grouping, grading and marking, the authoritarian role of the teacher – are precisely those that made mass public education so effective an instrument of adaptation for its place and time.

It is uncanny and quite frankly a little disturbing how accurate this description is. The good thing is that there is a wind of change. This video from RSA Animate (one of my favorite youtube channels) gives a really good overview of the history of the factory model of education and the changing paradigm shift. What I found particularly interesting (not surprising!) was the correlation between ADHD diagnosis (of almost epidemic proportions) and the rise of standardized testing. Watch the rest of the video (especially the bit on Divergent Thinking)! As a bonus here is another video I found particularly useful in helping me understand the history of education.

It’s time to leave behind the century-old education system andTurn the Page

Connected Learning with limited resources?

Although, I like the concept of connected learning I find it hard to wrap my head around how it is possible to accomplish this goal with the limited resources we have? Teachers are not paid nearly enough and the amount of time and effort it would take to individually curate and work with a student’s interest would be monumental. The current system (although severely flawed), seems to work – teachers can disseminate knowledge to all students through a structured curriculum and course outcomes can be used to evaluate whether students fully understood the concepts. Exams also reinforce learning and critical thinking skills. This sort of a system obviously tends to ignore student interests and possibly students that are outliers i.e. those who are having a hard time coping up with the material and/or those that have exceptional talent. In an ideal world a connected learning environment (in school) would be best for every student.

I’ve gone through several different types of learning environments which have all been in stark contrast to each other. Through all of my schooling years we were tested purely on our abilities to memorize (understanding of concepts was of far lower value and marks on the exams were of paramount importance); in contrast the undergraduate years were a little more relaxed – there were some courses (not nearly enough) with project based learning (PBL) that were extremely fun. I can look back and say that I definitely got a lot more out of such PBL courses.

Graduate school on the other hand has been far more liberal (both in terms of course selection and in terms of the curriculum) – I enjoy the format of most graduate level courses which to me is connected learning, based around a structured curriculum. Typical format of such courses have interesting and challenging homework’s based around key concepts discussed in class, followed typically by a mid-semester and/or final project that is fairly open ended. I have come to really like this style of teaching and learning – such a format ensures that I not only learn the key concepts, but also apply them to a project, which reinforces the learning. Graduate school to me is a good model of connected learning – however such an environment is hard to implement in schools and undergraduate institutions, partly due to the large class sizes and partly due to the nature of the curriculum in the courses. Several undergraduate classes (such as Calculus I, II) build on your base knowledge – project based learning would be hard to implement in such courses.