#110/111: Real Education

And an other book on education – mostly higher education but also K12. The book consists of two parts. In the first part he talks about the status of education in the US and in the second part he presents his recommendations.

A common dream of lots of American people is that everybody can be a superstar. They think that everybody should go to college and that schools are so bad that it’s not surprising that some people lag behind. Is that so?

Murray takes an interesting approach but not so surprising knowing his background. He takes the theory of intelligence, i.e. g in connection with multiple intelligences and talks about abilities. Most of you are somewhere below in an ability, maybe bodily-kinesthetic or musical. That’s pretty OK, but not everybody have to become a athlete or musician. However, if we talk about two other abilities: logical-mathematical and linguistic – lots of people think that everybody can become above average in them and there’s the first problem. (I will address possible solutions later)

The second problem, which is related to the first problem, is that too many people go to college. It is estimated that only 10-15% of the people have to ability to achieve B- or better in a classical liberal arts education, i.e. languages, maths, science, philosophy, history and psychology. Today, about 90% of all high school graduates want to go to college and 70% enroll.

The third problem has to do with the top 10%. These are often not challenged by school and college or miss important things besides their professional education. Murray says that these people learn to be nice but not to be good.

What could be done? The first and second problem are related and the answer is choice and individual learning. Murray gave an example of someone who had great dexterity (top 5%) but otherwise was in about the top 30% overall. He could either become a electrician with a median income of about $44k or a manager with a median income of about $88k. At first, the choice seem clear but he probably will be a superb electrician but a below average manager. And now a 25 percentile manager is making about $34k and a top electrician more than $90k. Furthermore, in economic stressful times a bad manager will rather lay off than a great electrician.

But how does this student find the alternative that he could be an electrician? Charles Murray got different parts of the solution.

The first is to discover and focus on abilities and strengths in school. If you realize that some people got strengths and not everyone is the same then you can start and cultivate them. Together with this discovery there’s a need for individual learning, that is students who are fast should go as fast as they want. There should be more flexibility in learning. I talked about all this stuff previously.

The last part is the stronger introduction of certifications instead of general college degrees. A favorite example of certifications proponents is the CPA which is acknowledge in the whole US and got a great deal of information about the ability of accountants. I personally think that certifications detached from college degrees are indeed some possibility for the future because knowledge will become more rapidly outdated and jobs will become more and more specialized.

The second part is about the liberal education in college. Some people think that liberal education have to wait till the college. This is pretty much arbitrary. Murray recommends that schools teach about history, science, literature, geography and economics in school, so that everybody will have a solid understanding of it.

The third problem goes in a different direction and Murray proposes that they learn especially about ethics. The main questions should be What is good?  and How to live a Good life? It’s important because a part of these people will later influence the public as writers, public figures or politicians and they should understand these questions and not just be nice. The second characteristics that should be learned is humility. Lots of clever humanities students that think that they are infallible because they never reached their limits. People studying maths or natural sciences nearly always reach their limits and quite fast but there are lots of people who just rush through the humanities without much trouble.

#107/111: Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar

By now, you probably have guessed that I think institutionalized education isn’t that great. Most of my marketable skills are self-learned, I pretty much started this at the age of 13 reading books about computer hardware. It’s just was and is natural curiosity.

I’m of course not alone. Lots of people, especially in the IT-sector, are self-learned and they are mostly better than their peers – why? Because they love what they do, they haven’t learned programming or security or testing just to get a job but rather because they love to learn about new stuff. One of them is James Bach.

In his book Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar he told his story about dropping out of high school, living on his own and learning programming. With 21 he was hired by Apple as a software testing manager and today he is an established expert in software testing and gets invited to (academic) conferences. He is happy and loves what he’s doing.

He wrote about his life outside of the mainstream and addressed some issues I had recently. The first one and probably one which affects more people is about learning. After the first years of university I thought that you have to learn everything like they do. That is, take a text book, work through most of the exercises and take the next one. In my school time, I just had three or five books laying around and used them more as references if I needed to solve some problem.

James Bach had a similar problem and recognized that you have to use your motivations. If you are interested into something, just learn about it – read books, talk to people about it, watch videos. Use the momentum and satisfy your learning needs.

On the other hand. If you’re not really interested in learning anything  – just leave it. There will be some time when you’re full of motivation again. This was utterly important for me. I was stuck in this situation where I had a book piling up and thought that I have to work through it before beginning the next one. Now, I just left it. When I’m again interested in it, I will work with it.

The next thing concerns the choice of topics and books. His basic structure are topics on which he wants to learn more – often questions, like “why are some countries poor and other are rich?”. But he don’t have to follow some path. Let your mind wander.
You will discover new areas that you even have thought about in the beginning.

Furthermore, I want to talk about building credibility which will be your disadvantage at first. If you don’t have a college or high school degree you’re in a bit of disadvantage but only if you haven’t done anything presentable.

When I was 15 or so, I fixed lots of computers of friends and their parents and slowly more people heard about my ability which gave me credibility. They come to more to fix the computers I got even paid. This works really fine on a local level and often leads to local job offerings. But it doesn’t have to be limited on local opportunities. You can easily make the world your market.

For artists it’s pretty standard to have a portfolio with one’s works. It’s getting also more traction for programmers which is in my opinion great because it doesn’t matter how you learned you stuff, it matters how good you are. And the internet is a great accelerator. Present your knowledge on a blog, Q&A sites or start a youtube channel.

I really liked this book because I could relate to so many things and events in this book. I would probably recommend this book to someone who’s self-learning for some years. If you are new to self-learning just let your mind flow and learn about things that you’re interested in.

#106/111: Future of Education

An other book by Kieran Egan where he talks about his different methods of approaching a topic and its implementation.

I talked a bit about these different methods and will now deepen it them a bit. His main idea is that knowledge should be deep and linked.

The first one is Mythic Understanding. This includes stories, metaphors, binary structures, rhymes, play, jokes and pattern. Stories are a very important elements, so is story telling. Even for adults story telling is great method for delivering information. Egan talks a lot about story telling and even wrote a book about it. He points out that stories should be made up. For example, if you want kids to teach about the days of week, you could just teach them the names and the order and they should memorize them. Or you could talk about the origin of each week day, what’s special about it, etc. Just look up how much information there is on wikipedia on Friday.

The next step is Romantic Understanding. You probably remind the time you were in this phase. You are looking for extremes – the biggest machines or smallest animals, you start to get hobbies and start collecting things, heroes help kids overcome their fear. This can be easily integrated in teaching. This is probably the most commercialized phase with action heroes, card games, books and games.

After that Philosophic Understanding is starting. This phase is quite interested because some people would define it at the final phase. Abstractions and theories become more prevalent. People begin to form theories and try to explain with them specific situations. However, even Philosophic Understanding got some problems.

The final phase, so far, is Ironic Understanding. It’s more interesting then you may think. Now there’s a difference between what you say and what you mean. Besides that a problem of Philosophic Understanding is that you may try to squeeze everything into a model. Some scholars overreach themselves with generic models and just neglect outliners. Furthermore, it helps you to live a nice live. Sure lot is fucked up but you could either become depressive and/or manic about it or just laugh about some stupid things happening.

The second part talks about a scenario how this ideas could be implemented. I won’t go into detail – but it’s a nice read.

All in all, it’s an interesting book. I know that he explained his ideas more detailed in The Educated Mind – so maybe that’s the better choice if you want to learn more about his ideas.

#102/111: Dumbing Us Down

At first, I had not read the book because of its sensationalist title which would have been a pity. John Gatto, former school teacher and winner of lots of teacher of the year awards, talks about what he taught in his year as a teacher. He taught in several different schools, public, privates, some in wealthy school districts, other in Brooklyn but he always saw the same. He taught: confusion, indifference and dependency.

It is reasonable to ask how one can become teacher of the year with this curriculum. Let’s start at confusion. Pupils learn bits of knowledge: they learn that Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, they learn that force equals mass multiplied by acceleration, they may learn the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. But they don’t learn something in depth. They don’t understand different schools of thought, they don’t understand different approaches to learning in depth and they don’t intuitively can apply what they learned. Pupils learn bits but not the whole picture.  

What about indifference? You get into your class, learn for 45-90mins and then you get into the next class as if it isn’t worth learning for more than 90mins at a stretch. And if so, you should do it after school. You may be happy that some classes only last 50mins.

The last one I want to highlight is dependency. Kids learn that the have to please their teacher to be rewarded. “If I’m a good boy my teacher will be nice to me.” Furthermore, the teacher says what’s right. They studied their subject for years, they have to know it. They are the experts. That is, kids are emotional and intellectual depend on teachers.

You may agree but say: “Sure, that’s bad but it is necessary.” – Gatto’s recommendation is destroying the monopoly. He wants to create a diverse market place for education. He’s a proponent of unschooling (and home schooling). Kids shouldn’t be forced to learn because they don’t have to, they are natural curious and furthermore it’s damaging to their learning. Instead of learning thirty different subjects about 90mins per week for 12 years, kids should learn what their interested in. He cites studies that show that you can learn in about 200 hours the basics in how to read, write and calculate and afterwards kids should explore for themselves what they are interested in.

I will address some further implications of unschooling in later posts for other books. It’s actually pretty interesting that more recent studies show that this approach of learning is better for education that it’s alternatives.

In conclusion, I liked Dumbing Us Down. John Gatto collected several of his articles and speeches and presents his ideas in a clear manner. Some students will be relieved that a teacher understood how they felt in their schooldays.