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Monday, November 28, 2011

Jeffrey Sachs, The Stanford on line AI course point to why it is so difficult to reform education

My attention was drawn to this blog post:

http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/sachs184/English

which was written by a very well respected professor at Columbia University, named Jeffrey Sachs. In it, he asserts that productivity is improving in our society and he cites the following as evidence of this in education:

1. At eight on Tuesday mornings, we turn on a computer at Columbia University and join in a “global classroom” with 20 other campuses around the world. A professor or a development expert somewhere gives a talk, and many hundreds of students listen in through videoconferencing.

2. At Stanford University this fall, two computer-science professors put their courses online for students anywhere in the world; now they have an enrollment of 58,000.

I found these pieces of evidence of hopefulness astonishing in their naïveté. Of course the man is an economist and not someone who thinks much about education one would assume. But still.

I have often said the that the main problem in fixing education is professors. “We have met the enemy and it is us” applies very well to why education is so hard to reform.

Really Professor Sachs? You are excited by that fact that more people can listen to your lectures? Ask any college students what he can recall from a lecture an hour after he has listened to it and see how much he remembers and how much he simply remembers wrong. Lecturing is a completely archaic way of teaching. It exists today at top universities only people because hot shot professors at top universities (of which I was one) think that their time is better spent doing almost anything else except teaching. Talking 3 hours a week seems like a pretty good deal enabling them to go back to doing what they really like. No one learns in a lecture. If you cared about education you would stop lecturing. But you care more about research which is fine, so did I when I was a professor. But recognize that you are the problem in education and video conferencing is the solution to nothing.

Sachs makes the same point twice when he cites the Stanford course. The Stanford on line AI course has gotten a lot of media attention. AI is my field (and one of the instructors was a PhD student of a PhD student of mine.) I don’t know what is in the course and I don’t care. The media doesn’t care either, nor does Sachs. They just like the 50,000 number. What if I said that a former student of mine was a great parent and so he was now raising 50,000 children on line? Would anyone think that was a good idea? This may seems like a silly analogy unless you really think about it.

Teaching, as I point out in my new book:

http://www.amazon.com/Teaching-Minds-Cognitive-Science-Schools/dp/0807752665/ref=sr_1_1_title_0_main?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1322491382&sr=1-1

is basically a one on one affair and is about opening new worlds to students and then helping them do things in that world. This will not happen in a 50,000 person course any more than it happens in a 100 person course. Lecture courses are just rites of passage that we force students to endure so they can eventually start working with a good professor in a closer relationship (at least this what happens at in a good university.) A book would do as well for this, better would be a well constructed learning by doing on line course.

But what is happening in today’s world is that the action in educational change is all about getting bigger numbers on line without trying to improve quality. Stanford is making a lot of noise with this course but nothing good can come form this.

Professors need to stop and really think about education. Of course, the problem is that they have no motivation to do so. They are well paid and having a good time. Only the students suffer.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The King of Spain, classrooms and subjects

Last week I was interviewed by phone from Spain. I was talking to authorities who were preparing a report for the King of Spain on how education might be improved in Spain. I am well known in Spain so it is not odd that they were calling me. They were certainly calling many others as well.


I started by saying that I am really radical and they said they already knew that. I then talked with them for about a half an hour about the kinds of improvements to education that I have been writing about for years in my columns and of course in my latest book:


http://www.amazon.com/Teaching-Minds-Cognitive-Science-Schools/dp/0807752665/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1320670980&sr=1-1


They seemed to be enjoying talking to me and hearing what I had to say. Then, they asked one final question: “if you could just say one thing that need to be changed, what would it be?”


It is easy to imagine that they wanted a one liner for an executive summary here. I don’t think I gave them what they wanted, judging from their reaction.


I said “just eliminate classrooms.”


They audibly gasped.


Why?


First why did I say it?


Because if you eliminate classrooms everything else follows. No teacher talking to kids who aren’t listening. No tests to see if they were listening. No kids distracting other kids who are bored by what is going one. No subjects that in no way relate to the interests of the child. Instead, without a classroom you can re-invent. We can think about how individuals can learn and while doing that we would need to confront the fact that not all individuals want to learn the same things. We would have to eliminate the the “one size fits all” curriculum. We would need to create curricula that met kids interests. We would be able to let kids learn by doing instead of vainly attempting to have them learn by listening. We could eliminate academic subjects. We could make learning fun. Classrooms are never fun.


Why did they gasp?


Because they can’t do it. They knew it and I knew it. They don’t really want to fix education. They want to make schools function better. And schools have classrooms. And that my friends is the beginning and end of the problem.