Saturday, February 25, 2012

Difficult Questions

Here is a recording I made about a year ago, recently rediscovered and now decide to post:

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Study Drugs

According to Wikipedia:

College campuses known to be highly competitive or have a high rate of binge drinking had up to 25% of students use an ADHD medication within one year, a survey of students at 119 colleges across the country concluded.

(Some sources I found by Google search.)

It's never a good idea to take an addictive brain-chemistry-altering substance with potentially dangerous side effects without a prescription (also, possession of said substance is illegal). However, it's hard for me to be too critical of those who use Adderall as a study-aid since I rely on caffeine as my own study-drug and Adderall probably isn't as bad as some of the other things that college kids will experiment with.

I'm not interested in the policy questions:
  1. When is performance enhancement considered cheating?
  2. When is a drug safe enough to take for performance enhancement?
  3. When is a performance enhancing drug safe enough to be legal?
  4. How should this behavior be deterred?
  5. How should violators be punished?
I am interested in what the use of study-drugs can tell us about the state of education today.

“The Real Thing”:

I wrestle for my college. I'm not very good, but I love it. My coach, fellow teammates and I take wrestling very seriously. During the season we might have practice five days a week. Practices are two hours long and each wrestler is pushed to his body's physical limits. In any given practice I'll sweat out more than three pounds of water, run three miles, do more than one hundred push-ups and get repeatedly taken-down...hard. My teammates and I engage in this apparently masochistic ritual despite exams, exhaustion, sleep deprivation and hunger. Through wrestling I've come to know that my own natural motivation to succeed can be far more powerful than anything I might get from coffee, Adderall or the “Limitless” drug NZT.

I'm not unique. Millions of amateur athletes work as hard as I do to improve in their sport of choice without any financial incentive. Sports, when properly managed, offers athletes access to an awe-inspiring reservoir of focus and dedication. Imagine if students were able to tap into that same, drug-free, reservoir of motivation for doing school work. Self-motivated athletes like myself, have no use for an artificial focus because self-motivation is “the real thing.” A drug is just an unhealthy, dangerous and artificial imitation of that natural energy.

Why wrestlers work hard:
  • Working with ambitious and positive people can make even the most painful exercises and tedious drills bearable.
  • Each wrestler's work ethic is visible and contagious. Athletes practice hard because they are being inspired by others and others are being inspired by them.
  • Seasons aren't micromanaged by a rigid lockstep curriculum, instead practices are structured and directed by the un-intrusive oversight of a coach.
  • Collaboration between athletes is free, flexible and constantly changing.
  • Self-organization and minimal management allows wrestlers of different skill levels to work on different projects and progress at their own pace.
  • Each wrestler's win-loss record is public information.
  • Wrestlers understand that they are performing for themselves and for a small audience of family, friends and peers who care about their successes and failures.
  • Wrestling is a creative activity and great matches are beautiful to see.

Motivation without drugs:

Over the years, I've learned to apply some lessons from the wrestling room to my broader education. What follows are some powerful motivators for productivity and focus; they are sustainable and have no negative side-effects:
  • Work in places where other people are working (preferably out loud).
  • Get involved in study groups.
  • Immerse yourself in a community of curious people who care about education and not grades.
  • Share your questions and answers with friends, teachers and mentors.
  • Use social networking or a blog to share what you're learning and studying and writing with others.
  • Be a teacher. Publish your notes and review materials online and give them out to your friends.

Dear Teachers,
You are in a position to offer students an environment in which they want to work and be successful. Model your classroom after a wrestling-room, not a factory. Help make school a hands-on and creatively fulfilling experience.

Here are some ideas to think about:
  1. From as early on as possible the fundamental unit of education should be the creative project:
    • For a history class, have your students write an outline for a science-fiction alternative-history novel where the protagonist of that novel is writing a science-fiction alternative-history novel in which history plays out as it's taught in our history books.
    • For a history class, compare narratives from history to narratives in literature or styles in music or scientific discoveries.
    • For a science class, have your students describe and invent their own experiments to test out the concepts they're learning. If you can carry out the experiments in real life - great, if not, that's okay. Encourage your students to think of multi-million dollar deep-space, particle-collider-type experiments that have never been tried before.
    • For literature class, have your students compare themes in Shakespeare to themes in “The Simpsons,” and themes in the works of a fictional poet of their own invention, and themes in baroque music and Gothic architecture.
    • In every class students should write stories, songs, radio-shows, documentaries, plays and poems to help teach difficult concepts.
    • If you're a math or physics teacher you can read about some of my ideas for engaging students here.
  2. Make your students teachers. Students should be called upon to teach and present their own work to the class on a regular basis.
  3. Be bravely transparent. Transparency is a hugely motivating factor. Students and teachers should maintain a blog so that other people can observe and follow the learning that goes on.
  4. Put students in charge of their education; make them the guiding force behind their academic trajectory. Let them manage their time, pick their own projects and decide what areas to focus on. In general, give your students five times more freedom than you think they should have.
  5. All tests should be take home and open book and hard. Ask your students questions that you don't know the answer to. Ask your students questions that no one knows the answer to.
  6. Never require that students work together but never prohibit it either.
  7. Create spaces where a bunch of people can be creative, productive and noisy in a small area.
  8. Don't let good grades get in the way of learning. Minimize the importance of grades. Far more important is how a student self-assesses the work they've done.

I started this blog because school is often grueling and unpleasant and it shouldn't be that way. I hope that the current discourse about study-drugs will motivate change and inspire us to find wholesome modes of motivation. If we engage students through creative, collaborative and flexible mediums of learning, we'll be inspired and humbled by what they can accomplish.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Scientists and Literary Intellectuals and C. P. Snow

In his “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” British physicist and novelist C. P. Snow bemoans the strict cultural divide between academics who study science and those in the humanities:

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?

Two polar groups: at one pole we have the literary intellectuals, at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension.

Snow saw this bifurcation of the academic landscape as a hindrance to progress within the intellectual community and the world as a whole.

As a physics major, it's reassuring to know that my parents' money was invested in skills that can be readily demonstrated. Having read a book on phase transitions, I can estimate and calculate the melting point of gold! The same cannot be said for my friends who majored in English Literature, for their set of acquired skills is far less “testable” and demonstrable than mine. Having read a piece of Shakespeare and subsequently discussed it in a classroom setting, it's hard to say what specific pieces of knowledge I gained in the process. The following xkcd comic, a parody of academic literary criticism, implies that there is no real academic knowledge about literature:

Snow's dichotomy suggests that physicists value knowledge that can be rigorously tested and immediately applied, whereas literary intellectuals give value to a form of knowledge that is more subjective, personal, subtle and (hopefully) transformative.

It is essential that educators and students work to bridge the gap between these two methodologies. I have two suggestions about how to do this:
  1. Figure out what stands to be learned from the literature you read.
  2. Do a literary reading of scientific thought (and everything else in the world too).

The physicist’s insight: it's important to know what you know.
After every book, page or paragraph of literature you read, try figuring out what you've gained from that experience:
  1. Can this reading alter the way you perceive the world?
  2. What does the narrative teach about human psychology, vulnerability, fallibility, corruption and courage?
  3. How can the characters in this book inform an understanding about real human beings in the real world?
  4. What insight, perspective and ideas must an author possess to compose this piece of art?
  5. Can this work bring your thoughts to new places or your ideas to new formulations?
(One day I hope to write about the concrete things that I've learned from literature I've read.)

The insight of literature: the untestable is often more important than the testable.
Following the study of a chapter of physics, I recommend asking the following questions (these questions happen to be far more important and far more interesting than the melting point of gold):
  1. What assumptions and intuitions about the world are challenged by this knowledge?
  2. What models and simplifying assumptions do physicists make to aid their understanding of nature?
  3. What alternative simplifying assumptions were available to them?
  4. How does this topic speak to the themes of complexity and simplicity within the natural world?
  5. How much of physics is definitional (tautology) and how much is relational (formulas)?
  6. What physics was constructed to match observation and what was derived from fundamental assumptions?
  7. How can physical formulas and models affect the way we imagine the world and our position in it?
  8. Through what channels do human beings perceive and affect their physical surroundings?
  9. What ambiguities, questions and contradictions still remain?
  10. How would the world be different if physics or the constants of nature were altered?
  11. How are the different laws of nature interconnected?
  12. What is the relationship between advances in science and the historical climate in which those discoveries emerged?
  13. Explain everything you've learned in simple terms to be understood by a layman without using a single mathematical formula.

By bringing together insights from the sciences and the humanities, we might hope to enrich both intellectual pursuits, academic culture and the world.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Great Books Program

A very short story by Amichai Levy

The desert sun lay shattered on a shimmering pond and the dry air spoke of an oppressively hot day to come. Speckled fish darted to the sounds of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony which played at high volume directly into Buck's two ears. All around him, tens of college students diffused casually through the golden cobblestone courtyard between the tall dormitory building and the forty-eight stairs which led to Patton Hall. Some students walked alone absorbed by thoughts or squinting at the bright rock or rubbing sleep from tired eyes, others skipped in pairs and talked loudly about the day's news, parties, school work and other diversions. Each had a copy of Homer, Joyce and the Bible cradled with affection or tucked studiously under each arm. Buck shut his eyes behind his dark sunglasses to exorcize the pain from his forehead. When he opened them, a fish had paused for moment as though to look up at Buck through a critical eye. Buck's left hand pressed a smoking cigarette to his lips and Buck inhaled deeply. Moments before the cold ichthyic stare would have shattered the sense of serene isolation that the morning brings, the fish slipped away into a blur of colorful pulsating streaks as if disappointed in what he saw. Buck took a sip of the bitter coffee which he held in his right hand, stomped out what remained of his cigarette, picked up his books which lay at his feet and walked off slowly toward the fiery sun with the supernatural ecstasy of Beethoven's strings and horns playing loudly in both ears.

Monday, May 23, 2011

“Too Long Didn't Read It” and the College Writing Assignment

Academic style:
Even as a physics major, my college workload has been punctuated by the requirement to write many essays and research papers. Over the past three years I've written: “The Philosophy of Idealism in Borges and Berkeley,” “The Mystical Stories of Rav Nachman of Bratslav,” “The Scientific Methodology of Rene Descartes,” “John Stuart Mill's Inductive Methods,” “The Sociology of American Sports,” “Nomadism and Agricultural Economies in the Bible” and more. To succeed on these assignments I've learned:

  1. Use big words and complex sentence structure to sound as smart as possible
  2. The longer the paper the better
  3. Site many sources and append a bibliography

The aforementioned three guidelines are consistent with an academic writing style. You see, most college professors (those grading the papers) belong to a special class of the human population called academics. In my own experience, academic writing is dense, tedious and abstruse. Here's an example of some academic-style writing:

Many futurists would agree that, had it not been for fiber-optic cables, the development of information retrieval systems might never have occurred. We view partitioned software engineering as following a cycle of four phases: prevention, deployment, location, and emulation. For example, many frameworks observe modular technology. Obviously, the study of XML and the UNIVAC computer are based entirely on the assumption that reinforcement learning and Scheme are not in conflict with the emulation of consistent hashing.

On the other hand, this approach is fraught with difficulty, largely due to heterogeneous communication. Certainly, we emphasize that our methodology refines wireless algorithms, without controlling multi-processors. Though existing solutions to this grand challenge are encouraging, none have taken the ubiquitous approach we propose here. This combination of properties has not yet been investigated in previous work.

When turning in a paper to an academic, it's generally preferred to adopt this academic-style writing as much as possible.

Internet style:
Today, much communication happens in writing. We text, chat, send emails, tweet status updates and “comment” on everything we see or read. Never in human history has it been easier to self-publish a book or blog. The writing that happens on the Internet is different from academic-style writing and has its own set of rules. Over the years, here's what I've learned about Internet-style writing:

  1. Clearly state your point - the shorter the better
  2. The organization of your idea is as important as the idea itself
  3. Assume your reader has a bad case of ADHD

The problem with academic-style writing:
There is nothing inherently wrong with academic writing, and lots of academic writing is wonderful and important. However, academic-style writing isn't so useful in the real world because academic-style writing is mostly appreciated by academics and in the real world most people are not academics. Also, a dense academic style can be used to mask unoriginal ideas and simplistic thinking (this is called BS-ing). By way of illustration, the quotation found earlier in this post, the one that starts with “Many futurists...,” sounds like many academic articles that I've read in the past, but was actually copied from a website with an algorithm to automatically generate “random” computer science articles: Even though the content of these articles is completely meaningless gibberish, they sound so academic that the MIT students who wrote the software succeeded in getting some of these articles published in repudiated academic journals of computer science.

Writing clearly and for the common reader, forces us to think to clearly. Clearly expressing our ideas so that anyone can understand requires that we have ideas of substance. Along these lines, G. K. Chesterton writes:

Most of the machinery of modern language is labor-saving machinery; and it saves mental labor very much more than it ought. Scientific phrases are used like scientific wheels and piston-rods to make swifter and smoother yet the path of the comfortable. Long words go rattling by us like long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves. It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable. If you say "The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognized by all criminologists as a part of our sociological evolution towards a more humane and scientific view of punishment," you can go on talking like that for hours with hardly a movement of the gray matter inside your skull. But if you begin "I wish Jones to go to gaol and Brown to say when Jones shall come out," you will discover, with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged to think. The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word "damn" than in the word "degeneration" (Orthodoxy ch. 8).

For these reasons, a high school teacher or professor should never require a minimum length to any essay or written assignment...ever. The student who can convey a rich and insightful idea in five sentences is a far better writer than the student who can fill ten pages with pseudo-contemplative bullshit. Two-page essays can be too long and twenty-page papers too short.

I believe high schools and colleges should be teaching Internet-style writing and not academic-style writing.

Writing in College:
Internet forums and online communities recognize a handy shorthand for responding to long blocks of texts: “tldr.” “Tldr” conveys that the average Internet reader is impatient and will not stand for rambling academic-style writing. The college professor is probably the singular worst person in the world to asses a student's essay, because the college professor is the only person in the world who isn't allowed to tell the student “too long didn't read it.” Also, the college professor is probably the singular worst person in the world to be reading student essays, because the college professor gets almost no value from reading these essays. Instead, I recommend that students write their essays for real people and not academics. Students should hand in their school work to siblings and friends or should publish their writing to a blog with titles like: “The Scientific Methodology of Rene Descartes – Why Should I Care?”

If this method is adopted, the clarity, organization and succinctness of our students' writing will be improved and the voluminous work produced by that community might actually bring some value to the world.

Appendix - More Academic Writing:

Language Crimes, Denis Dutton:

Pick up an academic book, and there’s no reason to expect the writing to be graceful or elegant. Many factors attract people to the scholarly life, but an appealing prose style was never a requirement for the job.

The following sentence by Professor Judith Butler from the University of California, Berkeley, won Denis Dutton's "Bad Writing Contest. From a publication in the academic journal Diacritics (1997):

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

You can read about Denis Dutton's contest and many other winning sentences here.

You can read Butler's response to Dutton here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Good Teacher Paradox

In his blog post “The Good Teacher Paradox,” The Bearded Teacher describes the following paradox:

This epiphany of the good "teacher" paradox came to me as I subbed for the math teacher all last week. As she was gone, I was expected to teach 8th grade math all week (a truly terrifying endeavor for a history teacher). But the teacher left a truly awesome project where they needed to design a carnival game based on probability....I had no way of anticipating what they would come up with. All week I had the attitude that I was going to learn with them and that we were going to challenge ourselves. With every problem they threw at me I had to go back and relearn probability. It was tough at first, but when I "got it", wow did we have fun. I may have not had the best content or pedagogical knowledge, but I was a darn good math teacher last week. Thus is the good "teacher" paradox: The less you know the better you are?

Recognizing and understanding this paradox is fundamental to education reform.

Having been exposed to a myriad of teachers and professors, I've come to the conclusion that being a good teacher has nothing to do with the amount of degrees accumulated, the number of academic articles published or the amount of years spent in the profession. The ability to stand up in front of a classroom and sound overwhelmingly knowledgeable might corroborate a sense of arrogance but is hardly relevant for learning.

I believe that our culture puts too much emphasis on a teacher's demonstrated knowledge. We care more about erudition and specialization than passion, curiosity, morality, creativity, sincerity and character. Our schools want teachers that can answer any question thrown at them without a sweat. We seem to fear that if a teacher wouldn't know the answer to some question, students might band together in rancorous protest having lost all respect for that teacher, or might become distrustful of the course material and arrogantly incredulous of that teacher's qualifications, or might become wholly disillusioned about the institution of education and aspirations for knowledge altogether.

Over-valuing a teacher's answers to the questions that students ask stands to devalue the questions themselves. I once had a teacher who would respond to difficult questions with a lengthy explanation of why that question wasn't directly related to his/her area of expertise and therefore essentially irrelevant.

A memorable scene from Joseph Heller's Catch-22 parodies the dismissal of difficult questions:

Group Headquarters was alarmed, for there was no telling what people might find out once they felt free to ask whatever questions they wanted to....Under Colonel Korn's rule, the only people permitted to ask questions were those who never did. Soon the only people attending were those who never asked questions, and the sessions were discontinued altogether, since Clevinger, the corporal and Colonel Korn agreed that it was neither possible nor necessary to educate people who never questioned anything.

Worrying too much about what a teacher knows completely ignores the characteristics that matter in a teacher and that for the first time in history we have textbooks, online open-course-ware, wikipedia, curriculum materials, study guides, and expert Q&A sites which make the world's repository of information and expertise freely available to students and teachers alike.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Questions Part II – The Problem with Answers

About five years ago, my wife (at the time my girlfriend) and I were living in Israel and went to see a parade march through a crowded street fair in Jerusalem. For one segment, the marchers wore tall stilts on their legs and on their arms and plodded forward on all elongated fours. Their awkward appendages and mechanical gate gave the surreal impression of oversized puppets being tugged by invisible strings. These nine individuals were completely covered by a cloth costume of black and white stripes that was draped over their heads and bodies down to the base of their stilts.

Watching this scene, I heard the voice of a young woman standing near me in the crowd.
“Honey...what are those?” She asked. Her voice was filled with sincere childlike wonder as she addressed a man who was probably her husband. The man paused for a moment and answered with confidence and conviction: “monkeys.”
At the time, my wife and I thought this exchange was hysterical. For weeks later, if one of us were to merely attempt an imitation of the anonymous man's emphatic “monkeys,” we would break out in uncontrollable laughter.

I love the question that the young woman asked. The question was rich with passion and excitement, and it captured the power and effectiveness of beautiful art. The man's absurdly succinct and simple response dismissed the question and effectively invalidated what the young woman was experiencing.

We must be so careful to never give simple answers to good questions. To give a simple answer to a good question is to dismiss wonder and reject curiosity.

When I was in high school, a friend asked the question, “Why do we study history?"
“So we don't repeat the mistakes of the past,” my teacher replied.
I do not doubt that a knowledge of history can affect opinions on social and political policy, but to think that the whole significance of the field lies in a utilitarian strategical agenda is profoundly problematic. History is our narrative. An appreciation of history is valuable for many of the same reasons an appreciation of art is valuable or a sunset is valuable. Within history is contained the actualization of our species' potential for courage, evil, conflict and organization. History inspires us to act, tells us about who we are and what we're doing here. History is our sole connection to the past. History is a precious and meager informational fossil of the events that transpired on this planet. Through the study of history we can construct shared memory, a collective mythology which affects our social and political consciousness. It is useful to know history, but history isn't important because it is useful. Like “monkeys,” to teach that history is studied so we don't repeat the mistakes of the past is a simple answer to a good question.

We teach literature because it is important. Literature sharpens our use of language, sharpens our thinking, exposes us to a spectrum of experiences and ideas and celebrates the human condition in all its wonder and frailty. Literature offers us models of fear, resolve, courage and self-transformation and literature stands to reminds us of the infinite importance which can animate singular moments in our life. Literature has so much to teach and does so “as nature teaches, as forests teach, as the sea teaches, as infancy teaches, viz. by deep impulse, by hieroglyphic suggestion. Their teaching is not direct or explicit, but lurking, implicit, masked in deep incarnations” (Thomas De Quincey). Literature isn't something that we try to “understand,” literature is something we confront, discuss, marvel at, encounter and grapple with. Whenever literature or any art gets “explained,” it is undermined.

In high school, a literature teacher taught me that The Grapes of Wrath was a critique of a capitalist economic system and that through his work, Steinbeck was portraying a cultural consciousness of an oppressed proletariat ripe for a socialist unification and a Marxist revolution*. This “bottom line” explanation was offered to me while I was learning to appreciate great literature for the first time in my life. During those formative years in my development I was made to believe that books were things that are either understood or misunderstood; a proper reading of literature extracts the author's specific philosophical agenda, whereas an improper reading leaves a reader ignorant of the ideas that the author was trying to convey. It wasn't until after high school that I realized how impoverished and simplistic my understanding of The Grapes of Wrath truly was. Similarly, Camus' The Plague, is not just a metaphor for the German occupation of France during the Second World War, and Julio Cortazar's House Taken Over may have been inspired by Argentine politics but is an amazing and wonderful story in and of itself.

Questions of philosophy, art, value systems and morality must be celebrated as ends in themselves, as a source of curiosity and wonder. A good answer to a good question, like T. S. Elliot's “raid on the inarticulate,” is a rough and flawed and necessary attempt at capturing in words some profound and elusive nuance that we might only hope to sense in the abstract. We must never be satisfied with simple answers, we must never be satisfied with the young man's “monkeys.” I hope that the teachers of today can show the next generation that questions have inherent value; that they are there to be shared, pursued, enjoyed and encountered over the course of a lifetime.

Here are some quotes from the book:
“To California or any place—every one a drum major leading a parade of hurts, marching with our bitterness. And some day—the armies of bitterness will all be going the same way. And they'll all walk together, and there'll be a dead terror from it” (ch. 9).

"This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning—from "I" to "we". If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into "I", and cuts you off forever from the "we" (ch. 14).