Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

The importance of feeling stupid

September 26, 2009 Comments off

You wouldn’t know it from the neigh-unchanging layout of this blog, but I work with web pages a lot.  Yesterday I bought an iPod so I could see how those pages look on an iPhone (the salesperson assured me that both iThings render web pages the same).

Hooking the iPod up to a Windows machine set in motion an inexorable process of updating and registration.  First, it wanted to update iTunes.  “Sure”, I clicked, “why not?”  And then it went to a registration process.  I got halfway through filling out the form when the window suddenly disappeared and a message said; “iTunes needs to reboot your machine.  Reboot now?”  I clicked the response that means; “Sure, since you just dumped what I was working on and I have no choice anyway”.

I eventually got the software and the firmware updated and everything registered including a bunch of snoopy questions which I answered with lies in haiku form, and found myself with a working iPod.  Then I went to the Apps store and bought a slide rule application for $1, neatly closing the technological circle.

When giving technical support, I often hear intelligent people say; “using a computer makes me feel so stupid.”  And when I say “often” I mean that during nearly every support call, the user will offer some kind of apology for not being as savvy as I supposedly am with the infernal machine and its software.  This should be a clue, or more correctly a warning, to the companies that create the software in question.  Channeling Don Norman, if two percent of users make a given mistake, then maybe those users are stupid.  But if sixty percent of users make that mistake, it’s the interface designer who is an idiot, and perhaps the company for hiring them.  As Paul Graham says, you need good taste to hire a good designer, other than by accident.

This explains the success of two companies: Apple and Google.  I often hear users of both say they love their Mac, or they love Google, which is kind of a funny reaction to software.  But the reason isn’t difficult to figure out: using the software makes them feel clever, like the mystery show where you figure out who done it, before the putative genius main character does.  Hey!  I’m smarter than Gregory House!  Or Monk, or Gibbs, or the contestant on Jeopardy.  What’s not to love about that?

Every good technology makes us clever, leveraging the cleverness of others and their creations.  Using it is a steady empowerment, broadening what we can expect to enjoy, to create, to get done.  I have a hunch people started writing more when ball-point pens were introduced, while their elders huffed about the decline in penmanship standards.  Sure, the “e” and “l” weren’t swoopy anymore, but more people were writing and that’s a game changer.  Likewise when bicycles were introduced, preachers thundered against the immorality that would surely result from youngsters with greater mobility than their elders.  Somehow it didn’t occur to their elders to get their own bicycles.

In a hunter-gatherer society, generations might pass between significant cultural innovations.  The process sped up considerably with the enlightenment and industrial revolution: the metric system, calculus, slide rules, Vernier calipers, movable type, standardized parts, steam power, telegraphs, high-speed steel, “scientific management”, telephones, assembly lines.  Each innovation seemed natural to the young and one more damn thing to learn for the old.  Then along came computers and software, and change shifted into hyperdrive.  It became possible to say; “Remember when?” referring to just ten years ago, or five.  And I’m about to do just that.

Think about the disapproving authorities and the young whippersnappers gallivanting off on their bicycles for afternoons of sweet debauchery.  Multiply that by some large number and you have… today.  Remember when people didn’t carry around general purpose computers in their pockets?  When people on street corners couldn’t Tweet what was happening around them?  When the police didn’t have to worry about twenty bystanders with video devices capable of sending out the images before they could even confiscate the devices?  When you couldn’t call up maps and reviews and comparison prices when finding a restaurant or buying a car?  The authorities had it easy way back then, five years ago.

One effect of this change is that the average age of people in the authority structure will start to decline.  And given the fine mess made of things by the change resistors, that’s probably all to the good.  Because we can’t go back, can’t undo, can’t rewind.  Today we find ourselves with a president who hires a CIO, and whose CDC director puts up a website called as a central place for information about that annual scourge.  If we’re not careful we could end up in an actual participatory democracy, but again I digress.

If I weren’t bald my hair would be as gray as my beard, and like any other Good American I should long ago have settled into some unchanging, lifetime position to wait for retirement and death.  But there are fewer and fewer of those lifetime positions available now.  The work I currently do not only didn’t exist when I got out of college, it didn’t exist 15 years ago.  I won’t be surprised if it is later subsumed into some other description, which is why I keep trying to learn new technologies.  I’ve gotten used to buying groceries and besides, it’s fun.

Our education establishment K to 12, has not really acknowledged this rate of change, instead tasking kids with learning a testable set of facts and impressing them with the terror of making a mistake.  Not the best preparation for stepping off into the fast-lane of a technological society.  How can we make education policy-makers understand the difference between topics and skills, and that adaptability may be the most important skill a school could teach?

It’s not surprising schools do this badly.  Math is a skill, but especially in early grades (when kids are learning what math is) the schools are obsessed with teaching it as a topic.  Have you memorized your “math facts”, Jimmy?  Have you done all 25 identical problems in your homework assignment?  Sorry, kids, but with so many problems, there’s no time to think about the underlying idea behind them.  Now imagine an education policy-maker trying to go further: since there’s no testable set of “adaptability facts” they have no idea how to even design a curriculum for it. Or weave it into the existing curriculum.  Besides, it’s not as if they need to worry about adapting; barring the actual commission of a crime, their jobs are bulletproof.

Education should empower us from the inside just as good software should empower us from the outside.  It should enable us to handle not only new problems, but new kinds of problems.  I want to know, does our education establishment make us clever?  Or like badly-designed software does it pose constant pointless obstacles, making us feel stupid, so that we grow up with an ever-increasing resistance to learning?  Could we do better than the equivalent of Microsoft Windows for the learning child’s brain?

Our way of educating seems calculated to instill the avoidance of feeling stupid, but very little fear of being stupid. Ironically it’s the former that fosters the latter.  Because, if you can put up with feeling stupid for just a little while (and it doesn’t take very long at all) you can learn all sorts of stuff and not be stupid.  That may be the only important difference between the geek and the person picking up the phone to hit their number on speed-dial.

Is this something that schools can do?  How could we make it OK for kids to make mistakes? 


  • If you’re wondering “What the heck is he talking about?” scroll down to comment 4.

  • I may have posted this link before, but Cocktail Party Physics has a great post on math education with Game Changers
  • Using Windows is pretty much a hurry-up-and-wait experience.  I started working professionally with Windows in 1995, when systems had 386sx processors with 4mb of RAM, and the actual computing experience was about as fast as my dual-core with 3gb RAM.  You’d think with hundreds of times the processor speed, and hundreds of times the RAM and hard drive space, that the computer would run faster, but no, it doesn’t.  The software has successfully throttled this amazingly fast machine, but I digress.
Categories: Education

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, on Cosmic Quandries (and death row)

September 20, 2009 Comments off

Got 90 minutes to spend with Neil DeGrasse Tyson?  Or perhaps, do you have a better way to spend 90 minutes?

Tyson can be glib: “The rate of seeing UFO’s is lower among amateur astronomers because when we look up in the night sky, we study this stuff, we know what the hell we’re lookin’ at!”  But he is also packing a seemingly endless reserve of deep insight.  I’m currently reading his 2000 memoir, The sky is not the limit; adventures of an urban astrophysicist.  Here’s an excerpt:

“There was no point in formally tutoring prisoners who were on death row, or who were serving life sentences with no chances of parole.  They mostly just wanted a chess companion or someone to talk to – for many, their families had long abandoned them in prison.  The several lifers that I met all managed some kind of benign hobby.  One grew plants.  One cared for goldfish.  Another was writing his life story.  The surreal juxtaposition of a murder who cares for goldfish in his prison cell moved me.  It was indeed possible for a prisoner to sustain a modicum of civility and quality of life even though he had taken someone else’s life and even though he had no prospect of rejoining society.  I valued this fact and vowed to pay whatever extra taxes society levies to sustain those with life sentences rather than execute them…”

Tyson has some stunning reflections on education, on defense, on confrontation, and I’m only a third of the way through the book.  It’s interesting that used copies on Amazon are still 7 bucks.  One measure of a book’s value is the price of used copies.  For instance, Webmastering for dummies has 66 copies available “from $0.01”.

One thing that attracted Tyson to Cornell University was Carl Sagan, whom he met personally while considering what college to go to.  Sagan spent time with the promising student and was kind and helpful, but in the end Tyson wound up going to Harvard because the program was a better fit for his interests.

While in graduate school Tyson was so poor that at one point he seriously considered working as a male stripper to make ends meet.  Oh, Neil!  You should have done it, at least a couple times.  If nothing else, the pictures would have surfaced on the Internet and your current science popularization audience would be enhanced.  But even having considered it puts him in good company with Feynman, who hung out in strip clubs, making pencil drawings of the performers in their off hours.  And like Feynman, Tyson writes that his understanding of the world was enriched by learning to draw, and by learning to cope with the arts on at least some level.

It’s just as well he didn’t go to Cornell, because then people would be saying he was Sagan’s protoge’.  As it is, he stands fully qualified by his own experience and story as the world’s current top science popularizer -  a position of highest honor in my pantheon.


  • If you want to skip all the PBS introductions and happytalk, zoom in to 15:00 on the video, where begins Tyson’s portion.  Which really makes it a 75-minute video.
Categories: Education

Unapproved self-esteem

August 28, 2009 Comments off

I’m fresh out of Elite tonight; tired, busy, missing the point of half the conversations I find myself in.  And it’s nothing new; it happened all the time when I was a kid.  See, I really didn’t much like the company of other children.  They weren’t interesting and they weren’t safe to be around, but adults were both.

My dad, a professor at the University of Iowa, knew loads of interesting people.  I got to meet experts in technology, and information sciences, and he knew a geologist and a paleontologist and a chemist, and lots of people in education.  They even seemed interested in talking to me.  I’d go to the university and “help” grad students with learning studies; it was the early ‘60’s and education theory was bustin’ wide open.

Yeah, guinea pig, I know that now.  I must have been volunteered for a lot of experiments.  But I got to mess with fossils, telescopes, and timed puzzles, and interesting apparatus that tracked how fast I could dope out the sequence of a coin-dispensing machine (pretty damn fast, as it turned out).  I never met James Van Allen but knowing he was there at the university made me feel like I was in on something.

I didn’t really play with toys as a kid.  Dad brought home what he called “take-aparts”.  These were usually broken machines, even pieces of old audio-visual equipment.  I’d make stuff out of pieces, hook them together and power them up – sometimes burn them up.  Occasionally I could get them working as designed; I was the only kid I knew who owned a reel-to-reel tape recorder.  I figured out how to hook it up to the record player, and a big microphone that weighed about two pounds, and spliced and dubbed weird tapes.  By using a tube I could record tiny sounds and amplify them.

I did have some “toys”, though.  These were actually pretty serious pieces of equipment.  I always had a pocketknife, and a magnifying glass, a jeweller’s loupe, and a couple nice telescopes and two microscopes.  One, a binocular dissection scope, I still have and use, 45 years later.  I’d shave off layers of leaves and look at the cells.  I’d capture bugs and put them under the dissection scope, and just watch them walk around, guiding them back into the field with the end of a pencil.  I’d haul my high-powered microscope down to the quarry and look at the water at a thousand X, reflecting sunlight through the slide with the little mirror at the bottom.

Someone gave me a wood-burning kit for Christmas.  It was a craft tool that you could use to burn patterns and pictures into wooden surfaces.  But it closely resembled a soldering iron, and that is what I used it for.  I used batteries and low-voltage fans and little motors, and made a small generator with some magnets that I pulled out of a couple old speakers.

As I said, I did not enjoy the company of other kids.  Mostly I just found them dangerous to be around; I wore bifocals, and was uncoordinated and small, and completely uninterested in games.  President Kennedy had decreed that children should have Physical Education, but therein lay the danger.  I’d kick at a ball, miss it and fall on the ground, and that was sure to get me pushed into the mud after school.

Not that school itself was any refuge.  The biggest source of pain in my life was my performance there.  I tested poorly in everything, and whiled away my days in an agony of boredom.  Worst of all I was a big disappointment to my parents and teachers, who felt that because I was “intelligent” (whatever that meant) I should be getting A’s.  The school arranged for me to leave the regular classroom for an hour three times a week, to take part in a remedial reading class.

Thing is, I could read just fine, just not very fast and couldn’t make sense of numbers at all.  I’d struggle with arithmetic and get very inconsistent results.  Once in a while, I’d succeed, but success backfired in the worst way.  “I knew you could do it if you’d only try!”  Dyslexia, diagnosed almost thirty years later, doesn’t work like that.

My dad must have suspected something was up.  He’d slap a copy of Scientific American on the principal’s desk and say; “My kid reads this at home!” Legend has it my student file contained the comment; “Father difficult to deal with when angry.”

There’s no arguing with educational wisdom; I didn’t get out of remedial reading class until a teacher caught me with a Time magazine hidden inside the approved remedial book.  She reasoned, correctly, that maybe inability to read wasn’t my problem.

I didn’t feel very good about myself.  Educators went through a phase where it became important to nurture a child’s “self-esteem”, but luckily that didn’t get rolling until after I got out of grade school.  I say lucky because I found another way to shore up my state of mind: the concordance between the real world and what I could find in films and books.  Our home was practically a library, and there was lots of real world outside it.

I dissected an unfortunate frog (anesthetizing it with ether) and found that its innards coincided perfectly with an introductory anatomy book that I’d found somewhere.  I looked at the moon with my Edmond 3-inch reflector telescope and found that it really did have mountains just like the book said.  The microscopic critters I found in quarry water moved around just like the ones I’d seen in films.  The fossils I found in the quarry were, you guessed it, identifiable as the same ones in the book.

The inside of a tiny amphibian’s heart, mountains on another world, bizarre little creatures too small to see, fossil remains of the Devonian era; I didn’t have to take anyone’s word for it. I could see them for myself.

How did that make me feel better?  A short description might be “smug superiority”, a very unapproved kind of self-esteem.  I was in on a secret they knew nothing about.  Sure, my schoolmates were bullies.  But I had figured out that they were ignorant and worse; they couldn’t learn anything that someone else didn’t teach them.  When they got out of school, their education would come to a screeching halt.  I couldn’t seem to learn very well in the classroom, but I looked forward to the day when I could get out of school and learn to my heart’s content.

And you know what?  I’m still not contented; there’s too much interesting stuff out there (and in addition to books and magazines, the Interweb is there to feed my addiction).  Just one thing’s bugging me, though: I wish I knew how to inspire kids to want to take an interest in something.  It makes me sad to see kids and schools still trudging past each other in the same old way.  It still comes down to a system turning out a product, and a few lucky kids who step off the moving walkway and find their own interests. 

I’d be damned interested in what inspired you when you were a kid.  In the age of the Interwebs and the Googles, there must be some way to bottle it and give it away for free.  Any suggestions?

Categories: Education

The Friday History Spiderweb

May 29, 2009 Comments off

Mister History walked into the battered classroom in his suburban school and stopped.  Everything looked… different somehow.  All the same students were there, but they were dressed a little better.  They were carrying little shoulder bags with electronic readers in them, instead of piles of the approved textbooks that History hated so much. The readers were tough plastic panels about the size of a glossy magazine and almost as flexible. Three walls of the room were covered with visual aids; a layered historical time-line, major inventions, printouts of newspages.  A strange-looking projection device hung from the ceiling center.

The room was just as cluttered as usual but the atmosphere was different.  A few students were chewing gum, with no apparent concern that they might be caught.  One was sipping on a coffee! Small groups were clustered around the room.  Some were idly watching videos on their readers; one was taking notes on the tiny keyboard at the bottom of the screen.

History himself was an imposing figure – six feet tall, handsome with black glasses and thick dark hair.  He raised his rich, slightly accented voice and said;  “Good morning class!  I trust you’ve all watched the assigned video on HippoCampus this morning?”

A few hands drifted up in the air; some students repositioned themselves.  A few seemed to ignore him altogether.

“Well OK then; if you didn’t, you missed out.  It was actually pretty funny right at the end there.  Today is Friday, so you know what that means?”

A few voices clamored: “A history spiderweb!”

“That’s right, but first let’s check the roll.”  He glanced at his desktop, and two names were highlighted.  “Jimmy and LeSuan?”  One hand went up. “Oh, hello LeSuan.  Where’s your reader?”

“I think it’s broken.”

He handed the teen a pass slip.  “All right, take it by the office for a replacement after class.  Grab one of the spares and sign in, OK?”

One name went off-highlight.  From a range of options he clicked to send an “explanation-please” form requiring input from Jimmy’s parents.  In extreme cases (such as a missing student and no one could be raised), and with sign-in from the principal and a law officer, it could even give a location for the student’s reader.

“OK, first the weird story.  Every History Spiderweb begins with a weird story.”  There was a small clamor from the students, and a couple flat ‘oh, goodies”. He touched an option on his teacher’s reader; the projector highlighted a spot on the time-line.  He tossed a ball of brightly colored yarn to a student, who got up and pinned the yarn to the highlighted spot and waited.

“On 30 December, 1912, the spoiled granddaughter of a rich Illinois politician was having a party at their home in Bloomington.  Many of the children of the rich and well-connected were there.  On the big estate there were games and groups and a good time was being had by all her friends.  And her even more spoiled brother was at the party, hanging out with his buddies.”

“The young man’s name was Adlai Stevenson.  Has anyone heard that name?”

“There’s Stevenson hall at ISU,” said one girl.  “My dad works there.”

“That’s right; same guy,” said Mister History.  Well on this morning young Adlai was 12 years old – three years younger than you are now.  And he was clowning around with some of his friends and in those days, you could legally keep unlocked guns in a house with children.”

The class grew quieter at the mention of guns.  Almost all of Mister History’s weird stories ended with somebody dying, sometimes a lot of sombodies.  But still – 12 year olds at a party!

“There was a .22 rifle around, and it was rusty and nobody thought it even worked.  Adlai’s dad was a funny guy – he always thought somebody was out to get him.  But even with guns all over the house, he never taught his kids a lick of gun safety.  And Adlai and his friends were clowning around with this .22, showing off rifle “drill and presentation” techniques, and taking aim at rabbits and other kids, like it was a video game or something.”

“And when it was Adlai’s turn – nobody knows why – he aimed the rifle at his cousin Buffie Merwin, and pulled the trigger.  He shot her in the face.  He killed her with one shot.  She fell to the ground right in front of her friends.”

A boy asked; “What happened to him?”

“Well what does everyone think happened to him?  Anyone?”

The ceiling projector could throw hundreds of laser-projected images and videos around the room at once. It hummed as its rotating mirror spun inside the glass dome.  As they typed, students’ guesses appeared on the white board at the front of the room.

“The girl’s brother came back and shot him”
“He went to juvie?”
“His sister hated him.”
“Nothing. Rich kid.”
“The whole thing was covered up”
“The girls’ parents sued?”
“He was sent away to private school”

“OK, here’s what did happen.  The girl’s brother didn’t come back and shoot him.  He really didn’t get into any trouble at all.  His dad was really angry but he got over it.  The girl’s parents understood that it was an accident and were determined not to ruin any more lives over it.  The newspaper – which the family owned by the way – covered the shooting in the back pages in the most delicate possible way.”

“Young Adlai was not permitted to testify at the inquest, which found it was an accidental shooting. His sister always adored him – maybe not that year, but every other year.  He was sent away to live with relatives in Chicago and then in South Carolina for a year, and never permitted to speak of the accident again.  His parents almost succeeded in erasing it from his memory, but not from his personality.  He felt forever unworthy after that.”

“What do you think should have happened?”

No guesses appeared on the board.

“OK, now let’s light up some more history.”  He touched more items on his reader, projecting images on the time-line of young Einstein publishing his theory of relativity, Pearl Harbor, The Manhattan Project, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Bravo Test, the arms’ race, and finally the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The room was glowing with moving videos and still pictures, suspended on their parts of the 20th century layer of the time-line.  Mister History tossed out balls of yarn and directed students to connect the images – including the 1912 Pantagraph clipping about the shooting – to the Missile Crisis. The room began to look like a color-obsessed mad spider had spun its web from wall to wall.

History played the video on the timeline from October, 1962.  It was Stevenson, then 62 years old and Kennedy’s ambassador to the United Nations, saying:

“Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the USSR has placed and is placing medium and intermediate-range missiles and sites in Cuba?  Yes or no?  Do not wait for the translation, yes or no?

It was an electric moment.  The students watched as he stopped the video, ducking under hanging yarn and moving to the middle of the room.

“This is the same spoiled rich kid who once shot a little girl in the face and never had any consequences at all,” he said. “You know, some historians believe it was Stevenson, not Kennedy, who was really responsible for saving the world from a nuclear holocaust that year.  Same guy.”

Suddenly the school fire alarm buzzed repeatedly in the hallway, and the projector dropped all its images except for moving arrows pointing to the doors. The students made a disappointed sound and began to rise from their desks.  History said; “OK folks, that’s it, single file, take your readers with you to the assigned location shown on your screens.”  And he sighed and picked up his teacher’s model and headed for the door. 

The hallway became Albert Hestry’s apartment bedroom, and the fire alarm buzzer became his alarm clock.  As his mind cleared, he reached out and tapped the button to silence it.  He sighed, and sat up in the bed, swinging his feet over onto the cold floor.  After a moment’s thought, he concluded; it’s Friday.  He stood; his feet hurt, his knees hurt.  He needed to lose weight, he thought.  He ran his fingers through what little was left of his graying hair.

He buttered his toast and poured milk on his Cheerios.  Munching absent-mindedly, he browsed through his teacher’s edition of US History Alive, mentally mapping it to the day’s curriculum plan.  Standardized evaluation tests were only a month away, and he had to make sure the students were ready.


Categories: Education

The laughing dinosaur

January 10, 2009 2 comments

I work in a state university.  We’re very devoted to our students and to our purpose in advancing human knowledge.  We’ve got some brilliant instructors and students.  From our University president to the people who plant flowers in the quad every spring, we mean it; we take pride in what we do.  And we have great facilities too, with room for classes and events and… learning.

Wonder if dinosaurs laughed the first time they saw little furry mammals?

It doesn’t matter if the university featured in this ad is any good; there will be others.  Right now we’re watching newspapers die in the transparent flame of the WWW.  Are brick-and-morter universities really that different?

Our university was founded in 1857, and it’s tempting to think that we couldn’t possibly be displaced by a single office building with some professors and a web server farm.  But it has to be about more than survival in changing conditions.  We have an opportunity to do things that our founder couldn’t have imagined.

MIT has put all their courseware online, for free, extending their reach to motivated students all around the world, yet their campus is still packed.  Here in Illinois we are experimenting with podcasting, classroom wikis, blogs, and telepresence.  This is no time to slow down.

What’s the university of the future going to be like?  How will its core and its boundaries be defined?

Categories: Education

Poverty and brain development

December 10, 2008 5 comments

Results are preliminary but a study at UC Berkeley found significant differences in brain function between kids from lower and higher economic groups.  The study was corrected for prenatal and environmental health factors like lead poisoning:

“This is a wake-up call,” Knight said. “It’s not just that these kids are poor and more likely to have health problems, but they might actually not be getting full brain development from the stressful and relatively impoverished environment associated with low socioeconomic status: fewer books, less reading, fewer games, fewer visits to museums.”

Kishiyama, Knight and Boyce suspect that the brain differences can be eliminated by proper training. They are collaborating with UC Berkeley neuroscientists who use games to improve the prefrontal cortex function, and thus the reasoning ability, of school-age children.
Science Daily: Poor Children’s Brain Activity Resembles That Of Stroke Victims, EEG Shows

Wait, games?  We can improve kids’ neural function with games?  What about forcing them to cram for high-stakes NCLB tests?  Doing page after page of repetitious addition problems?  You mean a game of Yahtzee with your parents might be a better bet?  A basketball game with a neighborhood coach could teach them more than a multiple-choice test? 

My son Chris, reading over my shoulder as I type, quips; “Actually a game of anything with anyone would be a better bet.”

Human brains, especially developing ones, actually adapt themselves to the requirements of the challenges they face – it’s called neuroplasticity.  Give a kid a completely unchallenging environment and you get a simpler brain.  Make them think and you get a better brain.  Why should the brain be any different from the rest of the body?

The researchers posited that something as simple as parents talking to their kids over dinner could make a big difference.  And there is hope:

“It’s not a life sentence,” Knight emphasized. “We think that with proper intervention and training, you could get improvement in both behavioral and physiological indices.”

Poverty is a difficult lock to pick; not only of the bank account, it is also of the mind and spirit.  And the key lies in relationships as much as it does in programs.  Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, and Isaac Asimov all came from poor or lower-class families,  but had parents who engaged them.

Related links:

Categories: Education

Scientific daydream

July 23, 2008 8 comments

It’s a hot Saturday, and young Holly Hypothetical is playing inside while her father Harold is sitting on the back porch, sipping sweet tea.  Flies buzz outside the screen.  In the distance he can hear birds, traffic, a train, a jet.  The Adirondack chair, for being made of wood, is surprisingly comfortable.  He dozes off.

In his Department Of Education-approved daydream, he sees his child sitting at a neat little table with a chrome lamp, doing her “science homework”.  A textbook is open, and her face shows a look of concentration and purpose. She seems strangely unaware of him as he walks behind her to look over her shoulder at the pages of the book. 

Her lamp glares on the shiny pages.  What he can make out of the text seems dry, carefully vetted by bureaucrats who have made a personal mission of stripping every last bit of revolutionary, disruptive excitement from the greatest discoveries of humanity. The child’s attention begins to drift.  Her phone vibrates and she eagerly snatches it up, texting her friend about something that happened at school.

Are the contents of that inferior textbook the only science she will ever be expected to learn?  Will that equip her as a citizen of a technological society, or as a human being in an amazing universe? 

Harold wakes with a start, knocking his tea off the armrest, drenching the cat, who bolts through the cat door to the yard.  He sits perspiring, eyes wide; Is that really how it is? How can Holly become an adult who goes further in scientific understanding?  Will she ever get beyond that horrid textbook?…

Recently I’ve had a few adults tell me they didn’t learn much about science in school.  I’m tempted to get lost in observations about school district leadership, but that isn’t going to change.  And federal education policy… well let’s just not hold our breath waiting on that one, OK? 

I’m not exactly sure what started it for me. I spent my childhood digging fossils out of a rock quarry in Iowa City, peering into an old microscope at pond water, and building galvanometers and induction coils.  My teen years were happily spent on the geology of central Washington and East Tennessee. Even today I always have a magnifying glass with me. So this post is for parents, kids, teachers, and anyone else who wants to fill in the gaps.  It’s not a universal prescription, just a few bright pebbles I’ve found along the way.  Pebbles I can’t stop looking at, turning over in my hands, hefting, studying, pelting the other kids in the class…

Most of what I’ve read about scientific literacy education goes something like this:

  • Here’s why science is important and you should study it

  • Here’s some fundamental concepts in science
  • Here’s some supporting information to those concepts

An interested person will learn a lot from that approach. But the important point is “interested person”.  The resistance that lack of interest places in the path of learning is almost impossible to overcome.  The propulsion that fascination and wonder give to learning is almost impossible to restrain.  As Dorothy Parker said; “There is no cure for curiosity”.  But how to start the fire?

Somehow it got through to me that science can be personal.  It’s the study of this table, that bird, the air I breathe, my body, this frog, that fly, those stars.  Because, while it is true that not everyone can (or would want to) work on protein folding projects or find the Higgs boson, in some respects everyone can do science.  Everyone can look at the world around them – not something from a textbook, but the actual world they can see and touch – in the context of complex spatial and temporal enormity. It’s so stunningly different from the traditional way, or the advertising way, that it’s as if the sun just came up for the first time.

Scientific literacy includes factual knowledge, yes, but it also requires understanding of how that knowledge is established. The attempt to carve out permanent boundaries around a set of ‘science facts’ is a misrepresentation. Science is a working model, not a finished sculpture to the ages.  This bothers some people who want a final answer.  They want to put it on the shelf and turn their back on it and have it be the same in their grandchildren’s time.  They want science to act like traditional knowledge, which stays put – and is reliable only in the same sense that a stopped clock is right twice a day.

One really important science idea is that if you look at any phenomenon closely enough, you can figure it out or somebody eventually will.  It may seem mysterious but it’s a lock to be picked, not a trick of the gods. “Looking closely” is not easy; it involves logically careful methods, accurate instrumentation, data collection, analysis and documentation.  When you’re done, and others have checked your work through a brutal process called “peer review”, you’ve got a bit of reality in your pocket, on which you and others can build.

Those bits of reality are hard-won, but they get no protection.  And that’s another important idea in science: that if somebody comes up with a better explanation, and they can demonstrate it in a way that holds up under attack, their explanation becomes the accepted one.  The old explanation, the one you worked so hard for, is tossed aside. While that may sound like a harsh rule, it means that our explanations and predictions steadily improve. 

Scientific Literacy is not the same thing as scientific expertise, however.  And this is where even scientists go wrong sometimes. That ever-growing and ever-solidifying understanding of the real world means most scientists are specialists in some particular field.  When you see a mathematician going on about how evolution isn’t logical, or a chemist dabbling in climatology, they’re out of their field and mistaking literacy for expertise.  And as soon as they do that, a religious organization or an oil company or a tobacco company will step right up to make sure they have a forum – usually not peer-reviewed, so no one’s checking their work – to broadcast their mistake directly to the public.

Which leads to another important point: the popular media is full of reporters who are working on deadline.  There’s nothing they love better than a pre-packaged story from a think tank, and if it gets them home earlier, they might not look very closely at how the story was funded.  And this should be motivationally important to young Holly Hypothetical at the study table.

Some children need nothing more than to hold a fossil in their hands, or to see Saturn through a telescope, to ignite a lifelong fascination in science.  But not every child will be motivated by geeky fun.  Luckily even nonscientists can find lots of practical uses for science, and here’s one.  There are a lot of people who have reasons to lie to us: corporations, used car salesmen, politicians, preachers and hucksters of every kind, and their lies can hurt us badly.  Kids need to know that science gives them a powerful baloney detector they can use in self-defense against liars of all kinds. 

So… wow!  Awesome mysteries of the universe explained, technological empowerment, and a super-powered lie detector!  Bring on the scientific literacy! 

If you can get someone interested in something, they will learn about it. But school systems are under tremendous pressure to cram facts into our children’s heads, like so many Styrofoam peanuts into a box. For an uninterested child, that’s like trying to push a rope uphill.  There is little time for the motivational magic of fascination and wonder, even though teachers do try to wedge it in where they can.  So it’s up to us:

Adults should model the behavior they want in their kids. Start reading the science section of your newspaper.  Subscribe to National Geographic, and maybe a science magazine like New Scientist or Scientific American.  Pin this month’s Geographic map on the kitchen wall.  Make more science-oriented TV viewing choices.

Wrap your observations in a larger context:  Notice the birds in your yard and mark up a map with their migratory routes. If you see unusual wildlife (like a fox in the city) or for that matter any wildlife, mark it on your calendar. Find out what they eat, and what eats them.

And there are some – what to call them? – scientific stories that can really throw open the gates.  Here’s an example of one that deeply affected me:

I was stunned by a Scientific American Libraries’ book, Powers Of Ten .  It was based on this video;

(I would love to see this 1968 film updated with better narration and music. There’s even an excellent Simpson’s parody, but it seems to have been pulled from YouTube.)

After reading the book I started thinking how narrow the traditional view of our existence really is.  Despite all the talk of God and eternity and infinity, somehow it was even more mind-blowing to ponder the fact that we can actually measure the dimensions of atoms and of galaxies.  All it took was to start looking at the universe with the confidence that eventually, we could figure it out piece by piece.

OK, “we” in the same sense that “we” win the Bulls’ basketball games.  But still; the universe is present in a cell in your hand, not in some vague philosophical way but in the continuity of scale.  The same chemistry applies in your hand as in the Pleiades.  The atoms in the cell are star stuff, forged from smaller particles in a dying sun billions of years before you drew your first breath.  That’s what I mean by temporal and spatial enormity, and our place in it.

Go outside and try some of the science activities listed below the fold.  Read a particularly exciting National Geographic article to your children.  Watch Scientific American Frontiers.  Read the biography of Marie Curie.  Watch the NOVA video Einstein’s Big Idea together as a family.  (It’s an exciting story spanning several centuries, full of discovery, intrigue, death, and even sex)

Teachers today have their jobs defined for them in terms of standardized tests but if a teacher accomplished nothing more than instilling an insatiable love of learning, it would be a job well done.  There’s no way to pursue wonder, awe, and excitement directly; this is only a little of the disorganized approach by which it came to me.  Below the fold are some suggested books, videos, resources and activities to get the ball rolling.  There’s definitely enough here to get started…


  • Go to a science museum in your area.
  • Mark up a map with migratory routes of birds you see in your yard
  • Perform science experiments with your kids (no, not on your kids)
  • Put a big office calendar on the fridge and ask everyone to write the most interesting thing they saw that day on it.  Record weather and animal life, too.
  • Give each of your children a magnifying glass. Ask them to see how many different kinds of ants they can spot climbing a single tree. Check out fossils, bugs, small rocks.
  • Give your kids 10X jeweller’s magnifiers.  Kids love to look at things really, really closely.  Have them look at a computer screen, a leaf, at woven fabric.
  • Go to public astronomical club events in your community
  • Learn about the geology of your area and take your kids to areas where it can be observed and collected. (Bring magnifying glasses!)

Video (most are available at your public library):

Carl Sagan
Cosmos DVD set – watch with your family, 1 episode/week
David Attenborough
almost any of his extraordinary video documentaries. Start with the “Life” series.

Books – some in print, some not.  (Most available at the public library, and Amazon often has used copies)

Carl Sagan
Varieties Of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God
Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space
Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science
Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.
Richard Feynman
Why Do You Care what other people think? Further adventures of a curious character
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman – adventures of a curious character
Phil Plait
Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing “Hoax”
Asimov, Isaac
Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology
Asimov’s guide to Earth and Space – still in print
Occasionally you can find Asimov’s nonfiction works on Amazon.  He wrote hundreds of books in his lifetime, and while he is best known for science fiction, many are engagingly clear introductions to physics, organic chemistry, algebra, and other scientific topics.  Most are out of print today, but available used.  I would love to see them all for sale as ‘publish-on-demand’ – with today’s technology, there’s really no excuse for them being hard to find.
Philip Morrison, Phylis Morrison, and Office of Charles and Ray Eames
Powers Of Ten: A Book About the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero
Reference books
700 Science Experiments for Everyone – An outstanding classic full of practical experiments, still in print after 50 years
Robert M. Hazen and James Trefil: Science Matters: achieving scientific literacy.  (Disclaimer: I have not read it, but it has good reviews on Amazon).

Also consider reading the fiction of authors like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Jules Verne, and HG Wells.  Even in made-up stories, the love of scientific discovery and achievement is infectious!

Free Web resources:

Feeling political? Here are some institutional efforts to promote science literacy

  • There’s a new foundation with some impressive names on their board of directors, but they’re at the ‘bootstrap’ phase.

  • The Federation of American Scientists has an excellent Public Interest Report.
  • The National Academies’ Press has a book of National Science Education Standards
    The Standards offers a coherent vision of what it means to be scientifically literate, describing what all students should understand and be able to do in science. The volume reflects the principles that learning science is an inquiry-based process, that science in schools should reflect the intellectual traditions of contemporary science, and that all Americans have a role in science education reform.

Man, I’m tuckered out… I’ll add more links to this post as they occur to me.  In a future post I’ll talk about more books and experiences that were personally meaningful to me.  Hope you found something good in all this.

Categories: Education

Essence of elitism

June 1, 2008 12 comments

I just finished reading all the entries in the very first Carnival Of The Elitist Bastards and it was an entertaining yet uplifting and humbling experience.  Not just because of my dissatisfaction with my own writing but because its so much fun to see the ways different people explore the same theme.  Some of them were just hilarious, some touching or inspirational.

One that I found particularly moving was Lirone’s entry at Words That Sing; Playing small doesn’t serve the world.  Here’s a sample:

“…That light seems to shine brightest in young children, with their endless curiosity. I think it’s sad that, for some people, that light gets turned off as they grow up. They learn to feel stupid, or are told that certain interests are not for them. They are told not to ask certain questions, or give up asking questions because they never get answers.

Some types of elitism do have the effect of stifling that interest. But actually I think anti-elitism has a far more serious effect. In a society where knowledge and learning is valued but kept for the few, it is still there to be aspired to, and the excluded can fight for their just deserts. In a society where knowledge and learning is not valued, people learn to hide their intelligence in order to fit in…”

There’s more, a full-strength dose of sadly needed inspiration for children of all ages. 

Carl Sagan said he would rather meet a class of grade-school kids than a class of high-school kids.  He said that kids in grade school usually tumbled all over themselves with enthusiastic questions – they wanted to know everything.  By the time they got to high school, the light had pretty much been extinguished, and they were reading questions in wooden fashion off 3×5 cards without much interest in the answers.

Check out John Pieret’s Thoughts In A Haystack for another one I wish I’d written, Be all the bastard you can be.  Here’s a small sample:

And here is where the “elitist” comes in.

We’re not talking about a sense of privilege based on birth or bank account. Far from it. In fact, it is hard to think of anyone in the United States who is derided for possessing those sorts of assets. The term, as it is used today, is a slur aimed at anyone who is not satisfied to live down to America’s plastic culture; anyone who values art, literature, science and the other grand legacies of civilization over “reality” television shows, video games and “sporting” contests featuring drug-inflated multimillionaires…

Our elitism, on the other hand, is not exclusionary. We welcome everyone to join. It is neither an aristocracy nor oligarchy. It is not even a meritocracy. All that is needed to be our brand of elitist is a willingness to learn and the determination to go on trying, regardless of how far you get.

The social attitude that thinking and learning are somehow suspect allows “elitism” to be used as a weapon—by creationists against educators; by corporate flacks against scientists who deliver inconvenient truth; and by politicians, often themselves in thrall to the wealthiest sliver of society, against any opponent who lets it slip that they have any erudition.

It’s just exciting to me when I see writing that good.  Go check it out!

Categories: Education

A couple shots of Tequila

May 24, 2008 2 comments

First is Dana’s co-blogger, 18-year-old and damned smart Kaden, who is writing about the NCLB which has suffused the last eight years of his educational life. School systems often forget to poll their customers.  After all, what could an 18-year-old have to say about the exalted wisdom of our programs?  Well this, for example:

“In school, homework is pretty typical in most science, literature, or social studies classes. You are given some sort of comprehension assignment, usually reading, and are given a worksheet, which is usually just fill-in-the-blanks copies of said assignment. It’s a basic process of taking in the information, storing it long enough to fill in on the dotted line, and forget it. While obviously certain aspects of class are slightly more useful or engaging, this works not only for the microscope assignments but the macro-scope goal of education: score well.”

Kaden: Candidates and classrooms, an educational viewpoint

Tests attempt to measure the outcome of education.  Standardized tests are to educational outcomes what en vitro tests are to new drugs; suggestive but not definitive by a long shot.  We could start by actually sitting down and listening to students.  And here’s an opportunity to do that, because Kaden is planning a whole series of these posts, which I will try to keep track of in a list below the fold.

Then Dana got wrapped up in a thread at Pharyngula where a Christian stopped by and had her ass handed to her by other commenters, and then quite by accident some actual communication took place.  Well not exactly by accident because Dana stepped in and offered an olive branch along with some kindly advice, and then the flaying-fest morphed into an actual discussion and we were all better people.  Well done!  Then she went back to her own blog, poured a shot, and pounded out Talking Past Each Other: A Few Simple Rules For Christians Among Atheists.  Which I recommend to any Christian planning to visit an atheist blog.

I’m thoroughly enjoying a day of solitude, just drinking coffee and dinking around on the Interwebs.  Now I’m gonna eat some lunch and take my bike to the shop, and invite them to convince me that I could ever trust those hydraulic brakes again.


  • I did wind up forgiving the hydraulic brakes.  At the bike shop, the owner, owner’s wife, and the mechanic were both horrified that a small manufacturing plug had popped out of the handle.  I noticed that they all had hydraulic brakes on their bikes and reckoned that in all likelihood it meant they were telling the truth this was the only time they’d seen this type of failure.  So despite their offer to replace the entire brake system with cable-operated disc, I said OK, just replace the faulty handle.  But I did mark the faulty handle with my knife – to the discomfort of the mechanic.  “You don’t trust us?” he asked?  I answered that it might be easy to mix up two identical handles – one defective and one a warranty replacement.  But also psychologically I just need to know that the handle had in fact been truly changed.

  • Kaden has another education piece up, entitled Academic Showdown, AP vs IB.  And since I’ll be tracking his articles on this list, I’m changing the category of this post from ‘Blogging’ to ‘Education’.
  • And here’s Grade Inflation
Categories: Education

Educational Contraband

April 26, 2008 4 comments

Dana over at En Tequila Es Verdad picked up on something I said in the post about ‘A little thrill in learning’ and took off in a whole different, wonderful direction with it: Educational Contraband.  Go check it out, then think back to your favorite teachers: were they smugglers, most of them?  When you were with them, did you have the feeling you were being let in on a secret?

Categories: Education