Some More Thoughts Concerning Education

Due to the fact that Extra Creditz has left the Escapist and is moving to PAtv the video will be down temporarily. I will repost the video when it comes online.

I must start with an honest declaration. Despite the fact that I love some of the ideas presented in the above video I do, however, loathe the application of the term ‘Gamify’ to education. I have encountered far to many exceedingly trivial Ph.D. holders that obviously gamed their way through the current education system.

Despite this semantic discomfort I still say that most of what is said is quite correct but it lacks ambition. The current system has axiomatic problems that seem to transcend each new system developed despite the fact with each coming decade the system is ‘fixed’ by disinterested committee.

So like any one worth their salt, not many in my experience, let me add to James Portnow, Daniel Floyd and Allison Theus of Extra Creditz by starting from renewed first principles.

Formal Education: Renting a Tuxedo

To put everyone on notice, by formal education I mean an educational system that is built on theories that are derived from the forms. The two principle forms that seem to govern all the others are that students are ‘blank slates’ when you get them and that students must be built to in to a particular form.

The ‘blank slate’ idea is from John Locke, some of you might know it as Tabula Rasa, and it is simply experientially incorrect. The idea that citizens are built through education is a notion expounded by Rosseau in the Émile, which I should note is vaguely racist and openly misogynistic – not that either of those facts would destroy the core idea but it does annoy me.

Even feral children do not meet either the uncivilized or ‘blank slate’ axioms that each of these forms rely on. In fact if you look into the lives of feral children they do in fact learn from the extreme cruelty of isolation and those that put them into such a situation. I would not wish these lessons even upon my worst enemies.

Teachers may think that they have met this ‘blank slate’ impossibility but this is just born out of frustration. Also some students, and people in general, think that they know nothing due to persistent negative reinforcement by authoritative figures but in reality they may know a little something due to the fact that they happen to live in the world. All of this frustration can be offset by altering the teaching methods so that the tension is more placed on the system rather then either the student of teacher. I will elaborate on this at a later juncture.

This damage, which all participants of education feel in the current system, is caused by the curricula writers when they imagine their ideal student. They may claim that there is some basis for this imagining but really it is complete and utter bullshit. The reality is they are attempting to shove a non-malleable substance in a mold and get shocked and offended that the creature that is removed from the mould is cranky, bruised, and not in the shape they intended.

One should always take a step back when someone make unverifiable claims. Even more if the person making the claim seems to have a barely tangental relationship with reality. These ideal students are to curricula as boogey men are to small children in the night. Really it’s just a shadow on the wall but sometimes, in the dark of night we can force ourselves to believe in these creations.

The shadow, for the curricula writers, is cast by the demands of the society at the time and illuminated with the traditions of schooling. Because of this we get a type of strange curve to knowledge acquisition in pre-university education.Graphs equal validity If you pay close attention to the graph you will notice the student never quite hits the desired goal. This tension , which cannot be relieved without a modification in teaching strategy, is what is the major demotivational force in education today.

Beyond that, measuring yourself against an imaginary off-the-rack nonsense will just obliterate self esteem or give a false impression of intelligence just because you breezed through the obstacle course for one year.

An additional problem, when working with such a model, is that the further away from the end goal that you are, as a student, the slower the material is doled out to you. This is seemly in spite of every developmental psychology study that suggests data acquisition and grammar structures are something that small children are good at. Meaning all the primary education system is largely wasted and as the world changes at the top end of the spectrum the low end of the graph gets increasing out of sync with desirable skills.

This has already happened with mathematics. When my parents were at school Calculus was a university subject that you had to deal with and now people don’t go to university because they are made to fell stupid for the inability to cope with some inane minutiae of set theory.

The primary grades have barely changed in the last century but the latter grades are being increasingly accelerated where the is a near universal problem of Secondary Education teachers keeping up with the demands of the curricula writers. The students are also having a problem given that in most of the western world standardized test scores are showing problems with coping.

There needs to be a dramatic restructuring of education from new first principles.

Bespoke Education

The first thing we need to be rid of is this out of 100% against the ideal marking system. You either know something or you do not. Knowing 90% of something is as useless as knowing 20% of something if you are asked for the missing portion of information. There obviously needs to be a more a finely tuned way of dealing with what a student actually knows what to do and what they do not.

This is where the video at the top of the page comes in. Extra Creditz correctly points out that the cumulative experience points system from role-playing games (rpgs) is psychologically helpful. I would like to take this a step further and use the skill tree concept from rpgs as well. For those that are unfamiliar with the system let me clear up my meaning.

In most role-playing games, in order to scale difficulty, there is a cumulative point system that corresponds with a number of conditions set by the game designers. The normal task is defeating some sort of beastie or something to that effect.

A skill tree is implemented in some games and just allows the player to invest the experience points gained into particular skills that they think will best do them through out the game. In this case the player gets to choose how their talents will progress through the game.

Furthermore, smarter games scale the number of point that you received based on the relative level of your character versus the beastie, puzzle, or whatnot.

Now that we understand the basic mechanics that would be at play let me explain how they can be best utilized towards an educational telos rather than a final cinematic.

Essentially all we have to do is dispose with exams and develop an assignment system. This system would just have a rating for each assignment as it is developed. Obviously the assignments themselves will have a specific number of points assigned to them based on the merits of each assignment. There can be assumption that completely a certain number of of the assignments mean that the student can be accredited with whatever the theme of the assignment is; let us say 10 for visualizations sake.

That would be for an average student. A student that completes the assignment without mistakes should gain more points from the assignment thus getting accreditation faster and going through the system faster. A student that is having trouble can just do more of the assignments until they get it right through reenforcement.

Furthermore, as the students rises up the skill tree lesser assignments in a larger topic will be worth less and less as they progress through the topic thus deinsensitivising doing work they already understand.

Another advantage is that if a student attempts to tackle an assignment that is beyond their abilities they can still be rewarded for the effort.

For instance if someone with the relative competency of a third grader in literature attempts to tackle Joyce’s Ulysses and completely and utterly fails to understand the book then they can be rewarded for attempting to deal with complexity. This does not stop the kid from reading Encyclopaedia Brown or something age appropriate but doing something that is more challenging should not only be rewarded but also is a good life lesson. As Bender put it “If you are not going to catch a fish you might as well not catch a big fish.”

Still I feel that such an assignment should be red penned into oblivion – so that the student can know what they did wrong – but it should be scaled against how much knowledge that they have actually attained.

All of this is a little different from the formal education model that I spoke of because of scale and time. The current formal system is based on age but if it on an assignment based with smaller ideas you can not only better teach singular topics but have an accurate assessment with redundancy of what the student is actually capable of.

Furthermore, such a system doesn’t punish failure as harshly. Failure is not only part of life but a necessary part of life. With the the last 20 to 30 years of mark inflation and the general pressure to be perfect our system of education does not promote the occasional falling down. How else can we learn to pick ourselves back up?

Nobody Expects The Spanish Examiners

As I scoffed earlier, exams should be abolished in favour of the system above. Despite that fact that system of earning points through work rather than been unfairly concretizing into idiotic academic mores. There is nothing but the work.

Exams are a particularly useless by-product of the Cambridge chemistry department and the only reason we still use them is because we are used to the concept. It’s original intent was to make it easier for the Chemistry professors to figure out which of their students could remember what lessons so they could ascertain which student would be more likely to blow up when mixing things. Well the motive is probably not right but it is far more an amusing story than just Cambridge Chemistry professors of the 18th being a boring and lazy sort that finds interaction with students an unhygienic affair.

How this became so wide spread was because humanity is lazy and boring sort that finds interacting with students an unhygienic affair.

The problem is that we, as a group, began experiencing this odd sort of Stockholm Syndrome with the concept of self worth being attached to testing to the point that we believe it now. But I ask you to think about an exam for a second. It is a list of questions that represent the ideas, or skills, that the test writer thinks are most important from the curriculum and then attempts to measure success with a time pressure element which never really exists in the real word; at least I have never been told to write a short essay on the fall of the Roman Empire in under 30 minutes but then again we all live different lives.

Beyond that, exams have two additional and obvious problems with them. It does not allow to have a clear indication that you are better than the test, which despite many professors best efforts this does happen now and again.

Lastly exams have the exact same observed result as torture. Wait long enough and submit enough pressure the subject of either torture or examination will simply say what you want them whether they believe or not.

And sometimes it is so effective it can even have the desirable result of making the subject believe in it.

Curricula

Curricula is a major problem in today’s education system. They are treated like the last line of defence for the politically indefensible. There are book banning, which in my opinion is only one step removed from book burning, the concept of creationism inside a science classroom, and even text book kickbacks given to all the little school board people if I wish to extend the definition of the term people.

This quite simply must stop. Not just because it is repugnant to me personally but there really is no defence for this level of stupidity. There just isn’t. What good does it to ban a book? For the children. No, they will read or see it at some point. It’s for yourself because a book may challenge you moral order and parents seem to be too lazy to defend the religion for question or believe in it so little that even the slightest questions will bring the house of cards down.

Notice how none of that had anything to do with the concerns of the education of the child and should it not be the concern of educators to actually educate rather than defend the parents of jam covered children.

So let us be done with this. The curriculum shall be set by the professional organisation of each topic that the schools teaches. This is the only course of action that makes sense in the long run.

For example, the national association of biologists would be the ones to set curriculum on their own subject. They would do this with the idea that when a student comes out of the system they will have something to work with as a biologist-in-training. This way they student when working in a biology classroom is actually working as a very long term apprentice to a biologist.

Makes sense doesn’t it.

This would prevent any form of creationism from slipping into the biologists domain. Which is good because it has nothing to do with biology and a student should not be under any delusions that he could survive in the biologists world while rejecting evolution. They could, however, survive quite well in a variety of religious studies departments which curriculum can be set by the luminaries of the various religions from around the world. Furthermore, there would be nothing stopping a particular school board to teach a particular religion as a class.

Now, there should be some limits on the professional orginisations ability to change the curriculum. Maybe only once every decade, five years or some set term like that. A rule like this is merely there to keep fringe theories out of the earlier curricula so there will be less shocking changes to the system from one year to the next.

The Tutors

At this point it should be quite obvious that if such a system was to be taken on there would be need to be some adjustment to the way teachers are set up. Wait, there is no need to get huffy, if everything I say is taken on then there should actually be less work for teachers. Although as the title suggests the would have to give up the teacher moniker.

Students, at any age, do not need things pointed out to them, the etymology of teacher, in the 21 century. We live in a world were universal cellular internet service is edging along to an affordable level. What students need to do is learn how to find and express notions and ideas.

Tutor, to watch over, is a more desirable analogy.

There would be still need to be lectures on a particular topics obviously but if we followed a somewhat Oxbridge model loosely through out the education system this would free up time.

For those of you not familiar with Oxford and Cambridge’s antics, all this means it that the class would go somewhere else to attend lectures while being under guided by their tutor. Since, in Canada, French is taught in a separate classroom by another teacher with no detrimental effects.

Another problem is the unionization of teachers which I would like to change to guild of tutors. I grant this is the most obviously pie-in-the-sky thought but it is still a valid point.

Unions assume victimisation. It is their raison d’être and there can be no getting away from that. It is also true, given the nature of liberal governments, that they would be quite pleased to give teachers absolutely nothing, from benefits to pay, so that they can balance the deficit other such perennial excuses. My proposition is to start a tutor guild.

A guild would be there to assure standards and would not allow anyone to guide students without having some sort of placement within the Guild structure. As a guild members what is needed to keep these standards would be handled – e.g. health care.

Now some may think this is an anachronism but it’s not. This is how the (legal) bar is organized. They take care of their own without any need to play the victim despite being another arm of the government that could very easily be made cheaper.

If the teachers (read tutors if you are playing along with me) could copy such a schema then the public relations for one of the greater vocations can that much better. To alter this role, however, of the educator does require a few more adjustments to the system beyond a title change.

The Malady of Marking

The number one complaint that I hear from any form of educator is the sheer volume of marking that is required in order for them to seem like they are doing their job. Despite the fact that they are not called markers. Since this is not a pleasant job and any mistake is actually more hazardous to the student rather than the marker perhaps some minor adjustments should be made.

On second thought only one adjustment is needed. Let us separate the act of teaching from marking completely. Just give a dollar value for each assignment marked and allow teachers from around the country pick a chose how much marking they want to do based on their schedules through some sort of server.

There are several advantages to this system. On the educator side of things it will allow you to avoid marking assignments that you don’t want to mark or don’t have time for at that particular moment. It will also allow for time to be more focused on the students problems rather than the work produced. At least on a day to day basis.

There is one more but significant advantage which is, based on the education of each educator, they may be able to mark certain assignments faster due to familiarity with certain elements of particular course. For instance, a person that wrote their undergrad honours thesis on King Lear might be able to mark King Lear assignments a lot faster than Hamlet assignments. This will allow each member of the guild to maximize the amount of money they can derive from their vocation through expertise rather then sycophancy.

The student would no longer be able to rely on the relationship with their supervisor for their success in the education and would be used to the fact that implied meaning outside of the work does not help the work itself.

Grades Be Gone

As I said before, there is no reason to measure people against imaginary standards. So there is no particular reason to keep students in grades. In a system like, I described above, the students themselves would be the engine of their education. There are two exceptions though.

The first is that emotional development, from what others tell me at least, is vaguely, dependent on being among people of a simular age group. I am not entirely sold on this idea but I am willing to entertain it to such a point that it would probably best to keep children in an age strata.

The other problem is more of a logical problem. There are three generally accepted stages of education and it is nearly impossible to have any one tutor to be able to do all three equally well. So given this limit of educators then we should make limits on when a student can be considered advanced enough to go on to the next stage in their education.

These three stages will be more or less akin to the current three partite system but with some specific adjustments so that the each system has a specific focus so there is less cross purposes that happen over the system.

Communicative

This would be the first stage of education; the equivalent of primary or grammar school. Except for the fact that we need to stop schooling children for the early twentieth century and come to accept some features of the century to come.

This is not to say that everything should be removed from the current system, or even some of the older atrophying systems, but rather to change the system in such a way that better fit the current needs rather than trying to shove all the current needs into the high school stage. Which seems to be the current stratagem – if there is one.

With all of this in mind I think that the core subjects of this phase of education should be: standard arithmetic – personally I think some of the basic ideas of algebra should be brought in here but I am in a very tiny minority on that point; basic language skills in at least two languages; computer programming; system of units and measure; and logic.

The three obvious addenda to the current primary goals of early seem to throw people for a loop so I will expand.

I Am Sorry Dave but I Can’t Do That.

Computers have reached the point where the devices are so fully integrated into society that rudimentary computer skills are necessary for everyone. It is now one of the basic components to communication and articulation.

Teaching a child to use a computer from its basic principles is no different than teaching a child how to use a pencil and pen. Every class room I grew up in had the smell of pencil shaving a sharpener in the room. I learned how to fully use a pencil and even today, where I use a computer or a fountain pen for most things, I still know how to sharpen and use a pencil when the skill is needed. Otherwise I would be taking my pencil to the charming sharpener down the street. To assume a computer is somehow different is to enslave our children to the hideous care of IT departments.

By basic principles I do not mean the scientific aspects, or base principles, of how the computer functions. This may be interesting for a latter pursuit into the inner depths of computers but for such an early stage of education it would be better to focus on the technological requirements for computing abilities. These skills would be, basic programming – hence why I suggest algebra in early education since variable would have to introduced – and typesetting.

Both of these talents should be taught with open source tools for three very good reasons.

The first is that it would simply keep the cost of software down so that money could be spent on useful things like staff for the schools.

The second reason is so that the skills that are being taught can not become outdated whereas proprietary software becomes outdated as business model. Printing, as in manually writing block letters, does not outdate after learning cursive. Both forms of writing remain useful for as long as users are willing to use them. If an entire generation of school children are used to a specific tool they will probably continue to use for much of their lives. You know like buying pencils despite the fact erasable pens exist.

The third reason is a bit more esoteric. This is because it is one of the few arguments Richard Stallman has managed to sail past me defences despite his particular brand of crazy. It is simply for the fact that if the child asks ‘how does this work?’ you can now present them with the code. Given the self direction I am relying on for a such a system it would be criminal not to be able to show the child the nuts-and-bolts of their tools.

For a programming language I would recommend something like Python, Ruby, or Perl just because they are open source and fairly easy to learn but all of that is interchangeable for such simple lessons that would be required at this early stage of education. I would just recommend a scripting language so the additional abstraction, in thought rather than computing, needed for compiling the code does not interfere with the workflow of learning.

Formatting text though has a few problems with what particular format to chose for long term benefits.

The problem arises that the formats chosen as the default for educational use must have the staying power for a presumed 20 years of usefulness. There are only two formats with such a track record currently and both have their particular uses. Those two formats are LaTeX and HTML.

LaTeX, for the uninitiated, is the de facto standard for publishing text on paper. It has been kicking around for about 30 years and has one of the slowest release cycles in the history of software – version 3 should be coming any decade now.

The problem is that LaTeX is not well suited for displaying text on a screen.

This is where HTML excels and the genearl standards for the markup for simple text have not changed all that much in 20 years. The problem with HTML though is that it does not excel in the typography department as shown through the world of e-readers.

So for the interest of not having to deal with the minutiae of typography and browser standards my recommendation would be to absorb version of Markdown. Not the original, which is the one linked, mind you but one of the supersets that can export to either LaTeX or HTML.

The obvious advantage is to this it that since Markdown is open source the education system would have some measure of control as to how it exports to every version number of either browser or LaTeX, mind you some programmers would have to hired to maintain the system, whilst keeping the syntax of the system that people actually write in the same more or less. Obviously if there is some major revolution in either HTML or LaTeX some additional syntax would be needed. As a note there has not been a major revolution in the type is handled in either system since their incarnations.

And since I am bothering with minutiae rather than my more abstract self let me get this off my chest: Footnotes and Hyperlinks are conceptually the same. Stop using both unless the material can not be hyperlinked for whatever silly reason and even then have the hyperlink lead to an endnote page.

Logic

Logic as a course is just there to add some value to the rest of the curriculum. I actually don’t really understand why simple Aristotelian Logic is not taught to children since it would obviously help with simple mathematics and even Euclidean Geometry. Beyond that it would help with computer programming and even would be more beneficial towards learning rhetoric.

We live in a world with logical machines, if not people, it may be wise to at least make some type of introduction to the subject.

The Knowledge Phase

This would be a more formal, as in learning the forms, step in the path of most students. This should be treated more or less as an equivalent of High School despite the fact there would be some bleeding into the strange zone of Middle School.

The primary goal of this period is to fill the students head with a great many facts. Nothing really more that. They do not need to understand the underlying form of inquiry as to how history functions but rather just some dates of and some statistically interesting events. At least as far as most countries nation building projects allow – I am being pragmatic here because in reality I care very little for what the nation building project yearns for.

This is pretty much the stage which the tutors will yet again become teachers. The main function would be to lecture with the exception of one particular educator that would remain in the role of custodian of a certain class.

To be clear though there is no need to have 1 or 2 hours lectures for younger children. A lecture could be scaled down to a 15 minute small lesson for early ideas in the subject but as the ideas get more advanced so do the lectures. This type of scaling can not only benefit younger students assumed ADD but it can also train the student to only say what is necessary rather than the standard verbal diarrhoea that occurs when trying to fulfil a word count.

There would also be a need to schedule lectures so that any student in the school could attend the lecture that is of particular interest to their studies at any given moment; within certain limits of course. Essentially, you would have a lecture on, let’s say, mitosis once or twice a month from the various different people you have on staff that have the ability give such a lecture.

Such a system would prevent boredom of the staff and also if a student simply can not get the idea from one teacher, due to some deficiency in the relationship, the student can pick up the idea from another teacher if not from the text books. Furthermore it teaches the ability to plan out ones time.

In my mind, the ideal method to get through this is stage is somewhat like the Oxbridge system of Colleges with the exception that most schools would be local for such student of young and tender ages. I do not personally agree with this because I happen to be a boarding school brat and find that system far more useful if you actually want a child educated but people tell me that living with your parents during your teen years is beneficial. Just imagining such a situation makes me shudder.

A ‘home room’ tutor would be assigned to monitor the students slightly and offer help with assignments when it is asked for. While educators with some sort of speciality knowledge could focus more on communicating the general knowledge that would be required for the assignments that are floating about.

The main advantages of such a system are really quite simple.

The first is that the deauthorizing of knowledge from a singular source. This is an important lesson to learn which seems absent from the current system based on my observations of the behaviour of freshman students qua their professors.

The behaviour I am alluding two comes in two contrary forms. There is the student that gets near to humping their professors leg in order to get the information they need to do well in the course and then the other form is just the student that ignores, this is the more popular type of freshmen, the professors office hours completely and but all trust into the chosen text book.

I am willing to bet that each form of student is developed based of the perceived quality of their teachers during secondary education.

Essentially it is better to authorize the multitude of voices so that research comes second nature latter is far more useful to the universities than either of what the schools seem to be producing today.

The other benefit is that, like before, if a student excels at one of their assignments then they can be rewarded.

An example of this would be an assignment that asks, this would be physics, “An 1 gram fly is going toward a 5000 kilogram truck travelling at 100 kilometers per hour. How fast does the fly need to travel to stop the truck, assuming the fly does not simply go through the truck?”

On the surface this question tests two minor abilities in the field of physics. How to deal with SI units and simple inelastic collisions. A correct answer would yield full points.

However, there is a bit of a trick here. If you were to bother to work out the speed the fly would have to be travelling the fly is going fast enough to be easier represented in a fraction of light speed. With that in mind, relativistic effects start to rear its ugly head and it turns out the speed of the fly needs to be a little lower because it has gained mass along the way.

Now a student is not expected to know this when doing such a simple question in physics but if for some strange reason they do why not award the student with a completed assignment in their relativistic physics rotation.

In the current system, at the fiat of the teacher, we may award a few bonus points but this is incorrect. Demonstrating such knowledge just shows the knowledge in relativistic physics not all physics so awarding implied points to optics would be at least fraudulent. Even then there is the possibility that relativistic physics is not part of the curriculum so awarding points at all is not just at least fraudulent but criminally unprincipled.

Also, I guess the jackass that figures out how many calories the fly would have to consume and burn should get some points for their biology rotation although they should be reminded that it was not part of the question unless it has some impact, pardon the pun, on how much the fly weighs or is travelling; I was never very good at biology.

Beyond the fact of rewarding the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake and the ability to know when to use it, this system would also allow for students to actually think in interdisciplinary ways, which is quite the buzz word fluttering about grant committees. Also there is a way to get over the axiomatic problems that are presented in by taking on a discipline as your life work but I have found that most academics are more interested in grant proposals rather than furthering their field in any significant way.

The Thinking Phase

Consider this what university should be like, with the exception of professional schools, like medicine for obvious reasons. This phase should be simply what grad school looks like. Small seminar type classes and attempting to apprentice future academics properly.

I don’t really have much to say about this phase because part of thinking is allowing others to think and in this case the apprenticeship it would be best be left to the professors to figure out how to train their students at this point.

It will actually bring meaning back to the saying I studied under so-and-so for undergrads instead of the now familiar ‘I was supervised by what’s-his-face’.

The Revolution Is Here

I would like to reiterate that these are merely suggestions on how to design a system based on my observations. I could have missed something or I could simply be wrong. I don’t believe that I am wrong but if an argument is made to the contrary point of something I wrote then I will think on it.

The point of this article is that the education system is quite simply failing to address the age in which we live and what is really going on. Students are miserable and I have met people that claim to speak fluent English and can’t make heads or tails of Canterbury Tales.

I will finish this as I started it, with a video. This time it will be Sir Ken Robinson pleading for people to listen to the need for change. If I have left you unconvinced of my system please heed his call and let us start changing the way we become.

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