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kottke.org posts about education

Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 03, 2016

Wonderland, Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson’s new book, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, will be out in November. In it, he describes how novelties and games have been responsible for scientific innovation and technological change for hundreds of years.

This lushly illustrated history of popular entertainment takes a long-zoom approach, contending that the pursuit of novelty and wonder is a powerful driver of world-shaping technological change. Steven Johnson argues that, throughout history, the cutting edge of innovation lies wherever people are working the hardest to keep themselves and others amused.

Johnson’s storytelling is just as delightful as the inventions he describes, full of surprising stops along the journey from simple concepts to complex modern systems. He introduces us to the colorful innovators of leisure: the explorers, proprietors, showmen, and artists who changed the trajectory of history with their luxurious wares, exotic meals, taverns, gambling tables, and magic shows.

Here’s Johnson’s introduction on How We Get To Next.

They all revolve around the creative power of play: ideas and innovations that initially came into the world because people were trying to come up with fresh ways to trigger the feeling of delight or surprise, by making new sounds with a musical instrument, or devising clever games of chance, or projecting fanciful images on a screen. And here’s the fascinating bit: Those amusements, as trivial as they seemed at the time, ended up setting in motion momentous changes in science, technology, politics, and society.

[Ok, riff mode engaged…I have no idea if Johnson talks about learning while playing in his book, but I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot lately so…ready or not, here I come.] Being the parent of young children, you hear a lot about the power of play. I’ve never been a fan of a lot of screen time for kids, but lately I’ve been letting them play more apps on the iPad and also Mario Kart 8 on the Wii U. I’ve even come to think of their Kart playing as educational as well as entertaining. Watching them level up in the game has been fascinating to watch — Minna (my almost 7-year-old) has gone from not even being able to steer the kart to winning Grand Prix gold cups at 50cc (and she’s a better shot with a green shell than I am) and Ollie (my 9-year-old) is improving so rapidly that with his superior neuroplasticity and desire, he’ll be beating me in just a few months.1

Ok, but what is Mario Kart really teaching them? This isn’t about preparing them for their driver’s license exam. As dumb as it sounds,2 Mario Kart is a good vehicle (har!) for learning some of life’s most essential skills. They’re learning how persistant practice leads to steady improvement (something which isn’t always readily visible with schoolwork). They’re learning how to ignore what they can’t control and focus on what they can (Minna still watches green shells after shooting them but Ollie no longer does…helloooooo Stoicism). They’re learning how to lose gracefully and try again with determination. Most of all, they’re learning how to navigate an unfamiliar system. Teaching someone how to learn — knowing how to learn things is one of life’s greatest superpowers — is about exposing them to many different kinds of systems and helping them figure them out.

Update: Johnson is hosting a podcast based on the ideas in the book.

Update: Wonderland is now on sale. Johnson adapted an essay from the book on Medium called Small World After All:

The first group to build a single integrated system for global trade were the Muslim spice merchants who came to prominence in the seventh century CE. Muslim traders worked the entire length of a network that stretched from the Indonesian archipelago to Turkey and the Balkans all the way across sub-Saharan Africa. Alongside the cloves and cinnamon, they brought the Koran. In almost all the places where Muslims attempted to convert local communities through military force — Spain or India, for instance — the Islamic faith failed to take root. But the traders turned out to be much more effective emissaries for their religion. The modern world continues to be shaped by those conversions more than a millennium later. The map of the Muslim spice trade circa 900 CE corresponds almost exactly to the map of Islamic populations around the world today.

He also wrote a piece adapted from the book for the NY Times Magazine:

By the dawn of the 20th century, almost every species in the 19th-century genus of illusion was wiped off the map by a new form of “natural magic”: the cinema. The stereoscope, too, withered in the public imagination. (It lingered on as a child’s toy in the 20th century through the cheap plastic View-Master devices many of us enjoyed in grade school.) But then something strange happened: After a century of irrelevance, Brewster’s idea — putting stereoscopic goggles over your eyes to fool your mind into thinking you are gazing out on a three-dimensional world — turned out to have a second life.

  1. Ok, maybe in a year or two. Old Man Kottke is pretty good at Kart and has a few tricks left up his sleeve. Wisdom and experience can often be more than a match for youthful brilliance.

  2. It’s a bummer to have to caveat this. Even in the age of Minecraft, video games aren’t often thought of as learning opportunities. Very few in the US would bat an eyelash if I were talking about basketball or Little League.

We Work Remotely

Werner Herzog is teaching an online filmmaking class

posted by Jason Kottke   May 18, 2016

Werner Herzog has made more than 70 films during his career of 50+ years. This summer, Herzog will be teaching an online filmmaking class at Masterclass. The fee for the course is $90 and includes 5 hours of video lessons about documentary and feature filmmaking, a class workbook, and the chance to get your student work critiqued by the man himself. The trailer above offers a little taste of what you’ll be getting.

For example, I do not use a storyboard. I think it’s an instrument of the cowards.

See also 24 pieces of life advice from Werner Herzog, including “carry bolt cutters everywhere” and “take revenge if need be”.

A bunch of great educational-ish iPad apps for kids

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 15, 2016

Kids iPad apps

In this post about Minecraft yesterday, I wrote a footnote about educational-ish1 apps on my iPad:

On my iPad, I have a screen full of educational apps that the kids can work with pretty much anytime they want without asking.

I posted a screenshot of that page on Twitter, and I wanted to follow up with some App Store links as well as some links to other apps that people tweeted back at me. (Note: my kids are 6 and 8, so YMMV.)

Minecraft Pocket Edition - Duh. It doesn’t do quite as much as the full versions available on other platforms, but they’re improving and adding stuff all the time and the touchscreen experience is great.

The Tinybop Collection - Beautiful, fun apps. The kids most often work with The Everything Machine and Simple Machines.

Mate in 1 - A game that challenges you to find the checkmate using just one move. Ollie takes chess after school once a week, so I downloaded this for when he wants some extra practice during the week. See also Mate in 2.

Monument Valley - This is a straight-up game, but it’s so well-made (I love the soundtrack) and the logic puzzles are genuinely challenging that I’m happy to let them work with this one. Ollie has made it all the way through while Minna is still on level 9. Gonna get the Forgotten Shores IAP too.

The Numberlys - This one has ceased to be educational for my kids, but it’s great for the younger set.

Crazy Gears - 99 levels of mechanical puzzles involving gears.

Hopscotch - Use an intuitive drag-and-drop interface to build games. It includes many video tutorials for learning how everything works.

And here are a few recommendations from others that I am eager to try out:

Quick Math Pack - Four math apps, including multiplication, fractions, and telling time. See also Prodigy Math Game, The Counting Kingdom, the DragonBox apps.

Barefoot World Atlas - An annotated world atlas. This looks great…downloading now.

Epic! - A eBook library for kids 12 and under with 10,000 titles. A couple of very strong recommendations from people for this.

Brain It On - Draw shapes to solve challenging physics puzzles. See also LiquidSketch.

Endless Reader - For beginning readers. The same company, Originator Inc., has many other apps as well.

Professor Astro Cat’s Solar System - Learn about the solar system with a cat and mouse as tour guides.

Deep Green - Top-notch chess game.

Lots of good stuff there…I’ve downloaded a few already. I really really wish the App Store had a try-before-you buy policy. I have no idea which of these apps the kids will actually like/play and it would be nice not to have to spend $50 to find out. Anyway, thanks to everyone who shared their favorites. Let me know if I’ve missed anything great!

  1. As you might have guessed from reading this here web site, I tend to have an expansive definition of what is educational. Hence, “educational-ish” to adjust people’s expectations.

Minecraft: more than just a game

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 14, 2016

Minecraft Niemann

Clive Thompson’s article for the NY Times about Minecraft captures what many players, parents, and teachers find exciting about the game that seems like more than just a game.

Presto: Jordan had used the cow’s weird behavior to create, in effect, a random-number generator inside Minecraft. It was an ingenious bit of problem-solving, something most computer engineers I know would regard as a great hack — a way of coaxing a computer system to do something new and clever.

In addition to learning about logic and computer science, various educators have also touted Minecraft’s lessons in civics, design, planning, and even philosophy. If you’ve ever seen little kids playing with blocks, you’ve noticed that some of those potential lessons there too.

Block-play was, in the European tradition, regarded as a particularly “wholesome” activity; it’s not hard to draw a line from that to many parents’ belief that Minecraft is the “good” computer game in a world full of anxiety about too much “screen time.”

Among the parents I know, Minecraft is not classified as a game…it’s very much tied to education.1 And when listening to the kids and their friends talk about it, if you can get past the endless chatter about zombies and diamond armor, their understanding of the whole world of possibilities is quite sophisticated.

And I can’t resist commenting on this little aside about Lego:

Today many cultural observers argue that Lego has moved away from that open-ended engagement, because it’s so often sold in branded kits: the Hogwarts castle from “Harry Potter,” the TIE fighter from “Star Wars.”

Until very recently, I was in that camp of cultural observers, frustrated by the brands and paint-by-number aspect of contemporary Lego kits. But my kids play with Lego a ton and I’ve observed plenty of open-ended engagement going on. Sure, they sit for 20-30 minutes putting the kits together using directions, but after they’re “done”, the real play begins. Ollie’s Star Wars ships dock at Minna’s birthday party. Soon, beach goers are wearing Stormtrooper helmets and Vader’s eating cupcakes. None of the “finished” products survive more than a few minutes without being augmented or taken apart to make something different. Ships take on wheels from previous kits and become delivery trucks (with cool laser cannons). Parts from every station, house, vehicle, and landscape get remixed into whatever’s necessary for their dramatic play. It’s like jazz with injection molded plastic.

  1. On my iPad, I have a screen full of educational apps that the kids can work with pretty much anytime they want without asking. (To play Alto’s Adventure or Subway Surfer, they have to ask.) Minecraft is not on this screen — and I had to explain my decision on this specifically to the kids — but this article may have persuaded me to add it.

The University of XKCD

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 22, 2016

Randall Munroe’s best-selling Thing Explainer, in which he explains scientific concepts using only the 1000 most common words, will be incorporated into the upcoming editions of some of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s high school science textbooks.

Mr. Munroe, 31, said the project appealed to him. He recalled as a child a foldout diagram showing different animals at the starting line of a race and then sprinting/flying/crawling to show the different speeds of different species. “For some reason, I fixated on that illustration,” he said. “It stuck with me my entire life.”

Mr. Munroe said he hoped his drawings would break up the monotony and pace of a typical textbook. “I’m hoping it will be, ‘Oh, here’s a kind of fun and unexpected component,’” he said.

I think Bill Gates would approve.

How to live the good life

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 20, 2015

Matt Might, who is a professor in computer science at the University of Utah and a professor at the Harvard Medical School, responded to a question on Quora about minimizing the chances of having a disabled child and ended up answering two seemingly unrelated questions as well: How do you get tenure? and How do you live the good life? Long story short: he got tenure and started living the good life because he had a disabled child. But you should read the long story; it’s worth it.

My son forced me to systematically examine what matters in life — what really matters — and in the end, I came to appreciate a quote from his namesake, Bertrand Russell, more than I could have ever imagined:

“The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.”

My first year as a tenure-track professor cannot be described as anything other than an abject failure. I was so desperate to publish and raise funds that I began thin-slicing my research and submitting lots of poor quality papers and grant proposals.

I must have had a dozen rejections in a row that year. It sucked.

I remember huddling on the porch at the end of that year with my wife, telling her, “Well, I’ll at least have a job for six more years.”

I looked at my young son, cuddled in her arms. I saw his very existence hung in the balance between knowledge and ignorance.

Then it hit me: Life is too precious and too fleeting to waste my time on bullshit like tenure. I didn’t become a professor to get tenure. I became a professor to make the world better through science. From this day forward, I will spend my time on problems and solutions that will matter. I will make a difference.

I stopped working on problems for the sole purpose of notching up a publication. I shifted gears to cybersecurity. I found a project on cancer in the med school. I joined a project in chemical engineering using super-computing to fight global warming.

Suddenly, my papers started getting accepted.

You may remember Might and his son from a recent New Yorker article on people with ultra-rare diseases.

The Problem We All Live With

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 17, 2015

Oh man, this episode of This American Life on desegregation and the Normandy School District (aka the Missouri district that Michael Brown attended) just totally wrecked me. Tears of sadness and rage.

Right now, all sorts of people are trying to rethink and reinvent education, to get poor minority kids performing as well as white kids. But there’s one thing nobody tries anymore, despite lots of evidence that it works: desegregation. Nikole Hannah-Jones looks at a district that, not long ago, accidentally launched a desegregation program.

America likes to pride itself on its focus on the importance of education and everyone getting a crack at living the American Dream, but as this story makes clear, neither of those things are actually true. See also part two of the series and Hannah-Jones’ series on segregation at ProPublica.

The kindergarten class in the forest

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 04, 2015

Eliza Minnucci teaches a kindergarten class in Quechee, Vermont and every Monday, her students spend the entire school day outside in the forest. The results have been more than encouraging. I love this anecdote about what the forest setting can provide for students of all temperaments and abilities.

When Minnucci started this forest school experiment two years ago, she knew it would be good for the rowdy boys who clearly need to run around more than the typical school day offers.

What she didn’t expect is how good it would be for the kids who can sit still and “do” school when they’re 5 years old. She gives the example of a boy last year.

Inside the classroom, he was one of her best students. But when he got outside and kids were climbing a tree, he couldn’t get very high. “I think he was a little surprised to not be meeting his peers’ ability,” says Minnucci.

Then, partway up the tree, he fell. And got a bit scraped up. “I felt terrible,” Minnucci says. “I thought, ‘Oh this poor guy. He failed.’”

But two weeks later, when the kids were climbing the tree again, he looked over at them. “I want to try the tree,” he said.

“And he went to the tree and he got higher than he’d been before and he was beaming,” says Minnucci. “And I thought, ‘Oh, this good, this is good!’ This is a kid who may have gone so far before he met challenge that he wouldn’t have known what to do when he got there.”

Kids who are good at school need to understand there’s more to life than acing academics, says Minnucci. And students who aren’t excelling at the academic stuff need to know there’s value in the things they are good at. Doing school in the forest offers “something really important” to everyone, she says.

(via @riondotnu)

Ten things you’ll learn in your first year of business school

posted by Jason Kottke   May 22, 2015

I’ve never had the desire to go to business school or get an MBA, but I found this post by Ellen Chisa about what she learned during her first year at Harvard Business School fascinating. It almost nearly sort of makes me want to think about maybe applying to business school.

People often know what they’re good at (it got them where they are!) Unfortunately, things won’t always go well in your career. How you react and recover impacts everyone around you.

One of the best things I did this year was answering these two questions honestly, for myself:

What is my worst self?
When does my worst self come out?

My worst self: critical, impatient, stubborn, cynical, and sarcastic. It comes out when I feel like I’m not in a position to make an impact, and when I feel undervalued in a situation. It also happens if I think I’m fundamentally “right” and someone disagrees. If it goes on for too long I become incredibly apathetic and don’t do anything.

I have a hard time avoiding this, but I am better at catching it now. When I do catch it, I attempt to apologize to the group, move on, and catch it faster the next time.

Knowing yourself wasn’t really something I was taught in school, nor was it emphasized at home, so I was slow to learn my strengths and weaknesses and how to properly apply them to situations in my life. That struggle continues even today.

Finnish schools to teach topics, not subjects

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 23, 2015

Finland is planning on phasing out teaching by subject (math, geography, etc.) and replace it with a teaching-by-topic approach.

Subject-specific lessons — an hour of history in the morning, an hour of geography in the afternoon - are already being phased out for 16-year-olds in the city’s upper schools. They are being replaced by what the Finns call “phenomenon” teaching — or teaching by topic. For instance, a teenager studying a vocational course might take “cafeteria services” lessons, which would include elements of maths, languages (to help serve foreign customers), writing skills and communication skills.

More academic pupils would be taught cross-subject topics such as the European Union — which would merge elements of economics, history (of the countries involved), languages and geography.

As a generalist, wannabe polymath, and obvious fan of a scattershot approach to knowledge gathering & dissemination, I approve. (via qz)

Update: From the Finnish National Board of Education: Subject teaching in Finnish schools is not being abolished.

The news that Finland is abolishing teaching separate subjects has recently hit the headlines world-wide. Subject teaching is not being abolished although the new core curriculum for basic education will bring about some changes in 2016.

(via @adamcreen)

Kids, the Holocaust, and “inappropriate” play

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 08, 2015

On a strong recommendation from Meg, I have been reading Peter Gray’s Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. Gray is a developmental psychologist and in Free to Learn he argues that 1) children learn primarily through self-directed play (by themselves and with other children), and 2) our current teacher-driven educational system is stifling this instinct in our kids, big-time.

I have a lot to say about Free to Learn (it’s fascinating), but I wanted to share one of the most surprising and unsettling passages in the book. In a chapter on the role of play in social and emotional development, Gray discusses play that might be considered inappropriate, dangerous, or forbidden by adults: fighting, violent video games, climbing “too high”, etc. As part of the discussion, he shares some of what George Eisen uncovered while writing his book, Children and Play in the Holocaust.

In the ghettos, the first stage in concentration before prisoners were sent off to labor and extermination camps, parents tried desperately to divert their children’s attention from the horrors around them and to preserve some semblance of the innocent play the children had known before. They created makeshift playgrounds and tried to lead the children in traditional games. The adults themselves played in ways aimed at psychological escape from their grim situation, if they played at all. For example, one man traded a crust of bread for a chessboard, because by playing chess he could forget his hunger. But the children would have none of that. They played games designed to confront, not avoid, the horrors. They played games of war, of “blowing up bunkers,” of “slaughtering,” of “seizing the clothes of the dead,” and games of resistance. At Vilna, Jewish children played “Jews and Gestapomen,” in which the Jews would overpower their tormenters and beat them with their own rifles (sticks).

Even in the extermination camps, the children who were still healthy enough to move around played. In one camp they played a game called “tickling the corpse.” At Auschwitz-Birkenau they dared one another to touch the electric fence. They played “gas chamber,” a game in which they threw rocks into a pit and screamed the sounds of people dying. One game of their own devising was modeled after the camp’s daily roll call and was called klepsi-klepsi, a common term for stealing. One playmate was blindfolded; then one of the others would step forward and hit him hard on the face; and then, with blindfold removed, the one who had been hit had to guess, from facial expressions or other evidence, who had hit him. To survive at Auschwitz, one had to be an expert at bluffing — for example, about stealing bread or about knowing of someone’s escape or resistance plans. Klepsi-klepsi may have been practice for that skill.

Gray goes on to explain why this sort of play is so important:

In play, whether it is the idyllic play we most like to envision or the play described by Eisen, children bring the realities of their world into a fictional context, where it is safe to confront them, to experience them, and to practice ways of dealing with them. Some people fear that violent play creates violent adults, but in reality the opposite is true. Violence in the adult world leads children, quite properly, to play at violence. How else can they prepare themselves emotionally, intellectually, and physically for reality? It is wrong to think that somehow we can reform the world for the future by controlling children’s play and controlling what they learn. If we want to reform the world, we have to reform the world; children will follow suit. The children must, and will, prepare themselves for the real world to which they must adapt to survive.

Like I said, fascinating.

Ghana’s Kindle library

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 19, 2014

Craig Mod Ghana Kindle

Craig Mod visited Ghana recently to check on the progress of Worldreader, an organization dedicated to distributing digital books to children and families in places like Rwanda, Ghana, and South Africa.

Those of us who work in technology tend to take religious-like stances over its ability to change the world, always for the better. My paranoia of trickery comes from an inherent suspicion towards technology, and an even deeper suspicion of presuming to know better. It’s too easy to fall into the first-world trope of “all the poor need is a little sprinkling of silicon and then everything will be fine.” It’s never that simple. Technology is, at best, the tip of the iceberg. A very tiny component of the work that needs to be done in the greater whole of reforming or impacting or increasing accessibility to education, first-world and third-world alike. Technology deployed without infrastructure, without understanding, without administrative or community support, without proper curriculum is nearly worthless. Worse than worthless, even — for it can be destructive, the time and budget spent on the technology eating into more fundamental, more meaningful points of badly needed reform.

Louis C.K. seeks cure for the Common Core

posted by Jason Kottke   May 01, 2014

“My kids used to love math! Now it makes them cry.” So tweeted Louis C.K. earlier this week. His opinion of the new math and standardized tests is echoed by a lot of parents who “have found themselves puzzled by the manner in which math concepts are being presented to this generation of learners as well as perplexed as to how to offer the most basic assistance when their children are struggling with homework.” Rebecca Mead in the The New Yorker: Louis C.K. Against the Common Core.

Don’t help your kids with their homework

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 21, 2014

Don’t do your kid’s homework. Try not to even help them that much. It’s better for their development. And it’s better for you not to have to relive your school years. That seems like sensible advice. Until all the other parents in the school start helping their kids on their homework. That’s when you’ll be tempted. But still, really, don’t.

What they found surprised them. Most measurable forms of parental involvement seem to yield few academic dividends for kids, or even to backfire-regardless of a parent’s race, class, or level of education.

Do you review your daughter’s homework every night? Robinson and Harris’s data, published in The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement With Children’s Education, show that this won’t help her score higher on standardized tests. Once kids enter middle school, parental help with homework can actually bring test scores down, an effect Robinson says could be caused by the fact that many parents may have forgotten, or never truly understood, the material their children learn in school.

The changes to the SAT

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 11, 2014

They’re changing the SAT and the New Yorker’s Cora Frazier has a rundown of some of the modifications made to better reflect “skills they need to succeed in college and afterward”.

11. Improving sentences. You receive the following text message: “You’re an animal.” This is an autocorrection of:

(a) “You’re almost at Ludlow.”

(b) “Young Leo DiCaprio.”

(c) “Do we need eggs?”

(d) No autocorrection.

A young Neil deGrasse Tyson’s letter to Carl Sagan

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 30, 2014

In 1976, legendary cosmologist and astronomer Carl Sagan tried to recruit a 17-year-old Neil deGrasse Tyson to Cornell University. In April of that year, Tyson wrote Sagan a letter informing him of his intention to enroll at Harvard instead:

Letter Sagan Tyson

The Viking Missions referred to in the letter were the two probes sent to Mars in the mid-1970s.

Tyson occupies a role in today’s society similar to Sagan’s in the 1980s as an unofficial public spokesman of the wonderous world of science. Tyson is even hosting an updated version of Sagan’s seminal Cosmos series for Fox, which debuts on March 9th. Here’s a trailer:

Letter courtesy of The Seth Macfarlane Collection of the Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan Archive at the Library of Congress, which is chock full of great Sagan stuff. And yeah, that’s Seth Macfarlane, creator of Family Guy and much-maligned host of the Oscars. Macfarlane was a big fan of the original Cosmos series and was instrumental in getting the new series made. (via @john_overholt)

Yeah, I’m free-thinking

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 11, 2013

In 1999, Sugata Mitra left a computer in a New Delhi slum and watched what the neighborhood kids would do with it. With no prior computer experience, they quickly figured out how to work it. In subsequent experiments, Mitra used computers and very little adult oversight (what we refer to as “education”) to teach children all sorts of different things.

Over the years, Mitra got more ambitious. For a study published in 2010, he loaded a computer with molecular biology materials and set it up in Kalikuppam, a village in southern India. He selected a small group of 10- to 14-year-olds and told them there was some interesting stuff on the computer, and might they take a look? Then he applied his new pedagogical method: He said no more and left.

Over the next 75 days, the children worked out how to use the computer and began to learn. When Mitra returned, he administered a written test on molecular biology. The kids answered about one in four questions correctly. After another 75 days, with the encouragement of a friendly local, they were getting every other question right. “If you put a computer in front of children and remove all other adult restrictions, they will self-organize around it,” Mitra says, “like bees around a flower.”

It’s tempting to conclude that the computer is the magical ingredient here: just add computers and children can learn anything. But if the story of Sergio Juárez Correa’s fifth-grade class is any indication, the secret is the kids organizing themselves to learn.

For Juárez Correa it was simultaneously thrilling and a bit scary. In Finland, teachers underwent years of training to learn how to orchestrate this new style of learning; he was winging it. He began experimenting with different ways of posing open-ended questions on subjects ranging from the volume of cubes to multiplying fractions. “The volume of a square-based prism is the area of the base times the height. The volume of a square-based pyramid is that formula divided by three,” he said one morning. “Why do you think that is?”

He walked around the room, saying little. It was fascinating to watch the kids approach the answer. They were working in teams and had models of various shapes to look at and play with. The team led by Usiel Lemus Aquino, a short boy with an ever-present hopeful expression, hit on the idea of drawing the different shapes-prisms and pyramids. By layering the drawings on top of each other, they began to divine the answer. Juárez Correa let the kids talk freely. It was a noisy, slightly chaotic environment-exactly the opposite of the sort of factory-friendly discipline that teachers were expected to impose. But within 20 minutes, they had come up with the answer.

“Three pyramids fit in one prism,” Usiel observed, speaking for the group. “So the volume of a pyramid must be the volume of a prism divided by three.”

Hogwarts’ Board of Education report largely unsatisfactory

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 06, 2013

Earlier this year, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was subjected to a review by the Board of Education and was found wanting in several areas.

Pupils at Hogwarts have access to a reasonably wide range of esoteric qualifications, suited to its key demographic. As an independent school, it does not have to follow the National Curriculum closely; however, it is disappointing to note that basic requirements such as English, Mathematics and Religious Education are all lacking or entirely missing from the school’s syllabus. This has had adverse effects on all students, many of whom have never even been taught basic KS1 or 2 literacy. A few students have attended state or independent primary schools, and these students typically perform very well in contrast to their peers.

The majority of students appear to be under-performing, with most pupils struggling in all their lessons, most of which appear to be set at too challenging a level. One particular class, which seemed to be based on A-Level chemistry, proved too difficult for even the most proficient students. Only one pupil managed to complete the lesson objectives, mainly thanks to his use of an annotated text book.

(via slate)

Redshirting bad for academics

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 23, 2013

Older kids generally succeed better in sports, but holding kids back in school seems to have the opposite effect when it comes to academic achievement.

The researchers discovered that relatively more mature students didn’t have an academic edge; instead, when they looked at their progress at the end of kindergarten, and, later, when they reached middle school, they were worse off in multiple respects. Not only did they score significantly lower on achievement tests — both in kindergarten and middle school — they were also more likely to have been kept back a year by the time they reached middle school, and were less likely to take college-entrance exams. The less mature students, on the other hand, experienced positive effects from being in a relatively more mature environment: in striving to catch up with their peers, they ended up surpassing them.

I was the second youngest kid in my class growing up; only our valedictorian was younger. Meg was young too. And both our kids are among the youngest in the class…we didn’t redshirt them because they seemed ready for the grades they’re in. As the article states, the differences are starker now than they were…some kids in their groups are more than a year older than they are and most are several months older. NYC preschools have trouble finding a wide range of ages for each class because so many people are holding their kids back to gain a supposed competitive edge against their peers…fall kindergarten classes are full of 6-year-olds but few just-turned-fives. It’s crazy…but so much of New York is competitive like this, why wouldn’t kids’ preschool education be the same?

Children should be allowed to get bored

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 25, 2013

So says education researcher Teresa Belton:

The academic, who has previously studied the impact of television and videos on children’s writing, said: “When children have nothing to do now, they immediately switch on the TV, the computer, the phone or some kind of screen. The time they spend on these things has increased.

“But children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them.”

It is this sort of thing that stimulates the imagination, she said, while the screen “tends to short circuit that process and the development of creative capacity”.

Hitting the wow

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 25, 2013

A long piece in this week’s New Yorker by Marc Fisher about more alleged sexual abuse at The Horace Mann School, a prep school in the Bronx. Fisher’s piece focuses on Robert Berman, an English teacher at the school for many years.

One group of boys stood apart; they insisted on wearing jackets and ties and shades, and they stuck to themselves, reciting poetry and often sneering at the rest of us. A few of them shaved their heads. We called them Bermanites, after their intellectual and sartorial model, an English teacher named Robert Berman: a small, thin, unsmiling man who papered over the windows of his classroom door so that no one could peek through.

Assigned to Berman for tenth-grade English, I took a seat one September morning alongside sixteen or seventeen other boys. We waited in silence as he sat at his desk, chain-smoking Benson & Hedges cigarettes and watching us from behind dark glasses. Finally, Mr. Berman stood up, took a fresh stick of chalk, climbed onto his chair, and reached above the blackboard to draw a horizontal line on the paint. “This,” he said, after a theatrical pause, “is Milton.” He let his hand fall a few inches, drew another line, and said, “This is Shakespeare.” Another line, lower, on the blackboard: “This is Mahler.” And, just below, “Here is Browning.” Then he took a long drag on his cigarette, dropped the chalk onto the floor, and, using the heel of his black leather loafer, ground it into the wooden floorboards. “And this, gentlemen,” he said, “is you.”

The next day, I asked to be transferred. I was not alone. By the end of the week, Berman’s class had shrunk by about half. The same thing happened every year; his classes often ended up as intimate gatherings of six to eight. Many students found Berman forbidding, but some of the teachers referred to him as a genius. Boys competed to learn tidbits about him. It was said, with little or no evidence, that he was an artist and a sculptor, that he knew Sanskrit, Russian, and Urdu, and that his wife and child had been killed in a horrific car crash. Though he was only in his mid-thirties, a graduate of the University of Michigan, it was rumored that he had been a paleontologist and had taught at Yale. Administrators told students and their parents that Horace Mann was incredibly lucky to have him, however odd he might be. The boys who remained in his classes were often caught up in his love of art, music, and literature, and in his belief that every moment of life should be spent reaching for the transcendence of the Elgin Marbles, of a fresco by Fra Angelico, even of an ordinary sunset. The boys absorbed the lists he made. “Take this down,” he’d say. “The ten greatest racehorses of all time.” Or, “This is the list of the ten greatest movies ever made-but you won’t find ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ on it, because it’s off the charts!” One day, he mounted a rearview mirror on the far wall of the classroom so that he could stare at the portrait of Milton behind his back.

Chris Ware on his Newtown-themed New Yorker cover

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 07, 2013

Chris Ware designed the Newtown-themed cover for the New Yorker last week and describes the process that went into it.

On December 14th, I helped chaperone my daughter’s second-grade-class field trip to a local production of “The Nutcracker,” where I spent most of my time not watching the ballet but marvelling at the calm efforts of the teacher to keep the yelling, excited class quieted down. Teaching was not, I concluded at one point, a profession in which I could survive for even one day. Our buses came back to the school at midafternoon, and I and the other volunteer parents left our children for another hour of wind-down time (for us, not them) before returning for the regular 3-P.M. pickup. I came home, however, not to any wind-down but to the unfolding coverage of the Newtown shooting. Shaken to the core, I returned to the school, where a grim quiet bound myself and the other parents together, the literally unspeakable news sealing our smiles while, at a lower strata, our happy, screaming children ran out of the building into our arms still frothed up by sparkling visions of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

?uestlove to teach class about classic albums

posted by Aaron Cohen   Oct 18, 2012

The Roots drummer, ?uestlove, will be schooling kids left and right this spring as he teaches a class on classic albums at NYU. It’s too bad this isn’t a high school class so my Young MC ‘Principal’s Office’ reference would fit better.

The course will include lectures on albums such as Sly & The Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Aretha Franklin’s Lady Soul, Led Zeppelin’s IV, Prince’s Dirty Mind, Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, and the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique.

They’ll also cover what constitutes a “classic” or “seminal” album, looking at the music, lyrics, production, and business behind great albums.

Billboard reports that the course was inspired by an NPR blog post over the summer where an intern reviewed Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back, an album he’d never heard before. ?uestlove responded to the dismissive review in the comments, prompting NYU’s Jason King to invite ?uestlove and Weinger to teach the course.

The Kalamazoo Promise

posted by Aaron Cohen   Sep 14, 2012

Excellent NYT Magazine piece on the impact of The Kalamazoo Promise, an initiative by anonymous donors to pay the college tuition of every graduating senior in Kalamazoo. The Promise, which is intended by the donors to be an experiment in urban investment has had several amazing results in only a few years. High school test scores have improved continuously, and the promise of help with tuition has lead to families moving to and staying in Kalamazoo. The 2,450 new students has allowed the school district to hire 92 additional teachers. It’s not all rosy, and the Promise hasn’t solved every problem yet, but Kalamazoo seems to be headed in the right direction.

Under the terms of the program, students who start in the Kalamazoo school district as kindergartners receive enough money to cover their entire tuition to public in-state schools. Students who enter the district in later grades get less, based on a sliding scale; entering high-school freshmen, for example, get 65 percent of their tuition covered. (Those who move to Kalamazoo after that or who enroll in colleges that are private or located outside the state are not covered by the Promise.) To date, the Kalamazoo Promise has paid out $35 million for postsecondary study for 2,500 students. On average, about $4,200 is spent on each student per semester. Students are responsible for their own room and board.

(via @graysky)

Introducing Marginal Revolution University

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 06, 2012

Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution are starting an online education platform.

We think education should be better, cheaper, and easier to access. So we decided to take matters into our own hands and create a new online education platform toward those ends. We have decided to do more to communicate our personal vision of economics to you and to the broader world.

The first course is Development Economics.

Development Economics will cover the sources of economic growth including geography, education, finance, and institutions. We will cover theories like the Solow and O-ring models and we will cover the empirical data on development and trade, foreign aid, industrial policy, and corruption. Development Economics will include not just theory but a wealth of historical and factual information on specific countries and topics, everything from watermelon scale economies and the clove monopoly to water privatization in Buenos Aires and cholera in Haiti.

A piece of unsolicited advice: change the name to Revolution University.

A most unusual test

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 21, 2012

Tyler Cowen once gave the following final test to one of his classes:

Tyler [Cowen] once walked into class the day of the final exam and he said. “Here is the exam. Write your own questions. Write your own answers. Harder questions and better answers get more points.” Then he walked out.

Love it.

Lessons from the dead

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 06, 2012

A wonderful comment over at Ask Metafilter by rumposinc about how valuable her nursing school cadaver was.

You have to take really exceptional care of your cadaver, so that it stays workable, free of pathogens, and easy to learn from. Towards the end, this care became very ritualistic for my lab team, and nearly reverent. She had been a very small lady, and so we had to be so careful. In the end, there is a very simple ceremony students can attend honoring the life, contribution, and cremation of our subjects. It was overwhelmingly emotional and I remember my lab partner reached over and held my hand, and though I almost hesitate to say so, there is a way that we felt like her family. She had shared so much of herself. It wasn’t something we talked about, but it was a palpable feeling.

(via ★choire)

Short term mobile phone storage for NYC students

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 16, 2012

Cell phone check truck

Mobile phones are banned in NYC public schools so a company called Pure Loyalty parks trucks outside of several schools so that students can check their phones, iPods, and other devices for the duration of the school day.

Pure Loyalty LLC is the originator in electronic device storage. We put student safety first and work together with school safety to make sure that phones are checked in and out in a timely fashion for students to go straight to class and then home after school.

Each student is given a security card to ensure that their device is only returned to them!!!! If a student with a security card loses their ticket, not to worry. We have a system in place that secures their phone. Each student is given a FREE security card. Replacement cards are $1.

(photo by Jesse Chan-Norris)

Penn State is the #1 party school

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 11, 2011

In late 2009, after Penn State was named the #1 party school in America by The Princeton Review, This American Life devoted an entire show to the school and its festive status.

Most of the This American Life production staff spent the weekend at Penn State, and found that drinking is the great unifier at the school. Ira Glass, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak and Jane Feltes report on tailgating parties, frat parties, an article of clothing known as a “fracket,” and a surprising and common drunken crime.

(via ricky van veen)

Report card stories

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 21, 2011

Paul Lukas came into possession of hundreds of report cards from the Manhattan Trade School for Girls from the 1920s but never knew what to do with them.

1920 Report Card

Recently, he started trying to track down the families of the women they belonged to in a series for Slate.

I discovered the cards in 1996 (more on that in a minute). I found them fascinating, but I didn’t have a good sense of what to do with them, so for a long time I just kept them as curios and occasionally showed them to friends. Eventually, though, I decided to track down some of the students’ families (including Marie’s). Even after doing it numerous times, I still find it a bit surreal to call a stranger on the phone and hear myself saying, “Hi, you don’t know me, but I have your mother’s report card from 1929. Would you like to see it?”