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kottke.org posts about education

MIT’s New Online Science Course About the Pandemic & SARS-CoV-2 Is Free & Open to the Public

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 01, 2020

MIT’s biology department is offering a new online class this fall called COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2 and the Pandemic. The class will be led by Richard Young and Facundo Batista and will include guest lectures by several leading authorities on Covid-19, coronaviruses, epidemiology, and immune systems like Anthony Fauci, Michael Mina, and Akiko Iwasaki. Here’s the course description and syllabus.

Lectures by leading experts on the fundamentals of coronavirus and host cell biology, immunology, epidemiology, clinical disease, and vaccine and therapeutic development.

MIT Covid-19 course syllabus

The first class is today, Sept 1st, at 11:30am ET and meets on Tuesday through December 8. Lectures are via live video but will be archived if you miss a class. There’s no homework or outside reading (it’s just the lectures), no pre-requisites needed, and it’s a 1-credit pass/fail exploratory course, so despite the source and subject matter, it should be fairly accessible. I’m taking the course and will let you know how it goes! (thx, meg)

Update: Here’s an archive of the first lecture by Bruce Walker of the Ragon Institute.

Is Everyone Excited About Their Kids Going Back to School?

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 11, 2020

In the United States, amid high numbers of Covid-19 infections and thousands of weekly deaths, no national plan for testing & tracing, little support for working parents, and individual states and school districts left to their own devices to figure this all out for themselves, schools around the country are trying to “open” for the 2020-2021 school year. At McSweeney’s, Kara Baskin imagines Your School District’s Reopening Survey. Here’s what a hybrid learning model will look like:

This model will combine the key elements of in-person instruction (see above) with remote learning, which we hopefully perfected this spring. Your child will be divided into a cohort (A, B, AB, BC, CC, XVY, MCXLVII, and Depeche Mode) based on careful consideration of his or her learning style, social-emotional needs, friendships, and an algorithm our intern designed this summer. You will need a reliable Internet connection, a work schedule that follows no concrete pattern, a forgiving supervisor, independent wealth, or a Xanax prescription. Please contact our school nurse for the latter.

I sent this link to a friend who is currently evaluating several options for her child’s schooling that range from poor to dangerous, and she replied, “This may be too on the nose to be funny.”

Nurse to Teachers: Suck It Up!

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 04, 2020

Kristen McConnell writing for The Atlantic: I’m a Nurse in New York. Teachers Should Do Their Jobs, Just Like I Did.

So I can understand that teachers are nervous about returning to school. But they should take a cue from their fellow essential workers and do their job. Even people who think there’s a fundamental difference between a nurse and a teacher in a pandemic must realize that there isn’t one between a grocery-store worker and a teacher, in terms of obligation. People who work at grocery stores in no way signed up to expose themselves to disease, but we expected them to go to work, and they did. If they had not, society would have collapsed. What do teachers think will happen if working parents cannot send their children to school? Life as we know it simply will not go on.

Oh yes, that is a totally awesome thing our brave grocery store workers did for us out of a sense of obligation and not because their choice was between risking their health and losing their job in a country with a terrible social safety net. But let’s leave that to one side for a second.

I think many more people would support (and indeed rapturously welcome) kids going back to school if a) there were many fewer cases of Covid-19 in the US, b) if the federal and state governments were doing more testing, tracing, and isolation & support of those who test positive, c) if there was more support for parents, and especially low-income folks, with other options around education and childcare (more on that below), and d) if the mask issue wasn’t so contentious in some parts of the country. Oh and don’t forget that even before any of this happened, teachers regularly used their own money and held online fundraisers to buy necessary school supplies for their classrooms.

Blaming teachers for not wanting to go back to work because their country and communities can’t or won’t do the hard work of making it safe is ridiculous. It’s not fair to ask them to do their part when others with greater responsibility to act are not. Someone has been watching too many war movies where soldiers dying due to the negligence, incompetence, or bad intentions of their superiors is played off as patriotic service & bravery instead of murder.

And this…this is just flat out false:

(And parents who want their children to stay home have that option, whether through homeschooling or continued remote learning.)

Rich people with reliable internet access and extra computers lying around have that option, and it’s a terrible option if those parents work (especially if they’re single parents). A huge chunk of America does not.1 If, by some miracle, the federal government started paying people to stay home from work to help their kids with school, gave everyone a laptop stipend (as well as enough money so that kids have access to meals that they might usually get through school programs), and ensured internet access to those who don’t have it, that statement would be closer to the truth. As long as we’re waving magic wands, I would like a chocolate pony and a peanut butter unicorn.

I would have been far more sympathetic to McConnell’s case had she made a convincing argument that school is so essential to children that it’s worth the risk to them, their teachers, and their families, that schools and governments are doing the right things to ensure the safety of their students and staff, and that Covid-19 is coming under control in the United States. But she did not.

Update: Sarah Jones rebuts McConnell’s argument for New York magazine: Teachers Aren’t Sacrificial Lambs. No Essential Worker Is.

The idea that remote work and home education don’t qualify as doing one’s part for society is so pernicious that it nearly distracts from McConnell’s core argument, which is both simple and widespread: If work is essential, it must also be sacrificial. That argument is worth examining, not least because it’s likely to reappear as parents cope with another semester at home. McConnell has taken a view expressed most commonly in the pandemic policies of certain large corporations and extended it to teachers. The same thread is visible both in Amazon’s failure to get enough masks to workers and to ensure social-distancing in warehouses and in the insistence that teachers should head back into classrooms, whatever the risk.

I also had a bunch of mail in my inbox this morning, both from teachers and healthcare professionals, poking holes in this poorly argued piece. The Atlantic’s coverage of the pandemic has been outstanding, but this article was just not very good — a rare misfire. (via @zidaya)

  1. In the spring here in Vermont, where cell service and internet can be spotty, there was a steady stream of people asking on local message boards if anyone had extra computers to donate to their kids and where they could find free wifi that was accessible from the parking lot so their kids could sit in the car and do their schoolwork.

This Is What a Scientist Looks Like

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 28, 2020

I Am a Scientist is an effort to introduce children to scientists outside of the narrow stereotypes that our culture typically offers (old, male, white, nerdy). They’re doing this through “scientist-of-the-month toolkits” that tell stories about contemporary working scientists who embody an “incredible range of personalities, interests, backgrounds, and pursuits”. From a blog post about the program:

Science has been the driving force in the modernization of the world as we know it, yet science as an industry has failed to adequately diversify with the times. While the new digital age offers opportunities to expand interest in and appeal of STEM careers, many barriers still hinder equitable access for all students. Conversations of famous scientists often draw answers such as “Albert Einstein” and “Bill Nye the Science Guy”. While accurate references of scientific leaders, the lack of diversity in the public image of scientists can contribute to the lack of diversity in STEM fields.

Introducing the “I Am A Scientist” initiative, which provides opportunities for students, specifically those in Junior High School and High School, to interact with the science and stories of today’s scientists-breaking down barriers like race, gender, and personal interests.

The program’s collection of classroom toolkits provide real-life stories of modern scientists, classroom resources, posters, career resources, and more. The initiative aims to help students engage with scientists that may look, act, or think like them, and are making great strides in remarkable fields that are often left out of career planning discussions. With featured scientists that range from multidimensional graduate students to globally recognized innovators at the top of their field, “I Am A Scientist” tunes into the power that comes from discovering a wide range of role models.

How to Make Our Communities Safer by Reducing Our Reliance on Policing

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 27, 2020

From Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing, a list of 10 Ways To Reduce Our Reliance On Policing And Make Our Communities Safer For Everyone, which includes proposals like having mental health and social workers to respond to crises, have crime labs operate independently of law enforcement, and replacing cops in schools with counselors & safety coaches.

For children growing up during the era of mass incarceration, seeing armed officers in their schools is commonplace. Federal grants have supported more and more cops in schools. Federal programs like the Community Oriented Policing Services (“COPS”) have provided millions of dollars to hire and train local police, including police in schools.

Police officers do not have specialized training in adolescent or childhood development. They are not mental health experts, social workers with licensed degrees, psychologists, or school counselors. They are not educators. To be clear, school resource officers are career law enforcement officers, with arresting authority, and a license to carry a weapon. Police officers patrol school hallways just like they do city streets. More than one and a half million students attend schools with an SRO, but no counselor.

There are better, safer, and cheaper alternatives. In 2016, Intermediate School District 287, a school west of the Twin Cities with a high concentration of students with special needs and mental health needs that can result in behavior issues, replaced their school resource officers with Student Safety Coaches. The Student Safety Coaches specialize in mental health, restorative justice, de-escalation, and building positive relationships with their students. Arrests decreased by 80 percent in the pilot school after implementation of the program.

The common, and commonsense, thread through all of these proposals is to replace armed, untrained responders who make difficult situations less safe with people & organizations that are specifically trained to help people in distress or crisis.

See also Police Abolition: The Growing Movement to Defund the Police.

A Short History of Housing Segregation in America

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 09, 2020

In this video for NPR, Gene Demby summarizes the history of housing segregation in America and how it’s a factor for current differences in health (poorer), wealth (much less), education (underfunded), and policing (much more aggressive) for Black communities in US cities.

If you look at the way housing segregation works in America, you can see how things ended up this way. Once you see it, you won’t be able to unsee it.

When you’re talking about housing policy in America, Kimberly Jones’ Monopoly analogy starts to sound a lot less metaphorical and more literal: if Black people cannot buy houses or can only buy houses on certain streets, they will not be able to build wealth like others can.

For more on housing segregation, check out historian Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. From a 2017 interview with Rothstein:

The federal government pursued two important policies in the mid-20th century that segregated metropolitan areas. One was the first civilian public housing program which frequently demolished integrated neighborhoods in order to create segregated public housing.

The second program that the federal government pursued was to subsidize the development of suburbs on a condition that they be only sold to white families and that the homes in those suburbs had deeds that prohibited resale to African-Americans. These two policies worked together to segregate metropolitan areas in ways that they otherwise would never have been segregated.

Rothstein talked about the book with Ta-Nehisi Coates during a conversation at Politics and Prose Bookstore.

Update: This is excellent: you can explore the maps created by the federal government’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation at Mapping Inequality by the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab.

These grades were a tool for redlining: making it difficult or impossible for people in certain areas to access mortgage financing and thus become homeowners. Redlining directed both public and private capital to native-born white families and away from African American and immigrant families. As homeownership was arguably the most significant means of intergenerational wealth building in the United States in the twentieth century, these redlining practices from eight decades ago had long-term effects in creating wealth inequalities that we still see today.

(via @masonadams)

A Powerful Lesson in Discrimination

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 05, 2020

Calling it one of their most requested videos, PBS’s Frontline has uploaded to YouTube their 1985 program on schoolteacher Jane Elliott’s powerful lesson in discrimination. The video shows how, in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Elliott divided her third-grade class into those with blue eyes and those with non-blue eyes and then instructed the non-blue-eyed group to treat the blue-eyed group as inferior. The resulting behavior is fascinating, upsetting, and illuminating.

Elliott went on to become a noted antiracism activist and has done blue eyes/brown eyes workshops with groups of adults and teens. And she goes hard at them — see this video and this video for instance.

I’m trying to get the people who participate in this exercise the opportunity to find out how it feels like to be something other than white in this society. ‘Alright people, I’m Jane Elliott and I’m your resident bitch for the day and make no mistake about that, that is exactly what this is about.’ I do this in a mean, nasty way because racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, ethnocentrism are mean and nasty.

I would also highly recommend watching this brief clip of a talk by Elliott. In less than a minute, she deftly skewers the idea that racial discrimination doesn’t exist in America and calls out White Americans’ complicity in allowing it to persist.

I want every white person in this room who would be happy to be treated as this society in general treats our black citizens — if you as a white person would be happy to receive the same treatment that our black citizens do in this society, please stand.

[Nobody stands.]

You didn’t understand the directions. If you white folks want to be treated the way blacks are in this society, stand. Nobody’s standing here. That says very plainly that you know what’s happening, you know you don’t want it for you. I want to know why you’re so willing to accept it or to allow it to happen for others.

Freedom for some is not freedom.

Update: Alisha Haridasani Gupta recently interviewed Elliott for the NY Times. In it, she reveals that she doesn’t do her workshops anymore because people are increasingly close-minded.

I’ve been doing the exercise with adults for about 35 years. But in the last few years, I’ve only been doing speeches about it because we now live in a situation where people turn off immediately if they think they’re going to learn something counter to their beliefs, and I don’t want to be threatened with death anymore. I’m tired of receiving death threats.

Netflix Posts Dozens of Their Educational Programs on YouTube for Free

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 19, 2020

In the Before Times, Netflix let teachers stream their programming in the classroom. With schools not in sessions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Netflix has decided to put some of their educational programming on YouTube for free (full playlist here). For instance, they’ve put all 8 episodes of David Attenborough’s nature series Our Planet online in their entirety. Here’s the first episode:

The Our Planet website also has tons of educational information for schools and kids.

13th is a feature-length documentary by Ava DuVernay about how racial inequality in America drives our high incarceration rates:

13th is currently rated 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and NY Times reviewer Manohla Dargis called it “powerful, infuriating and at times overwhelming”. Here’s a discussion guide.

Eight full episodes of the first season of Abstract: The Art of Design are also available on YouTube (discussion guide). Here’s the episode featuring illustrator Christoph Niemann:

Several episodes of Vox’s series Explained are included, like this one on the racial wealth gap:

Also included are The White Helmets & Period. End of Sentence. (which each won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject) as well as Knock Down The House, the documentary on the 2018 Congressional campaigns of four women (including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez). See the full list of included shows and the full playlist on YouTube.

Dozens of Science & Engineering Activities for Kids from The James Dyson Foundation

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 08, 2020

The James Dyson Foundation has designed a set of 44 challenges related to science & engineering specifically for kids (ages 7 & older), which are perfect for these at-home learning times. The challenges include making an air-powered car out of a balloon, strong bridges out of spaghetti, and a cardboard chair strong enough to hold a person:

Here’s the PDF with all 44 challenges. What I like about these projects is that they’re hands-on, you can do them with stuff you already have around the house, and they’re educational in the best way: there’s no “teaching” really…the challenges are designed to appeal to the natural curiosity of kids.

Reading through these, the one that blew my mind was that you can determine the speed of light by melting a chocolate bar in the microwave.

Microwave Chocolate

That’s so cool! (via open culture)

Story Time from Space

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 01, 2020

The Story Time from Space program aims to promote language and STEM literacy by having astronauts read educational bedtime books from low-Earth orbit on the International Space Station to kids on Earth. Here’s astronaut Kate Rubins reading Rosie Revere, Engineer:

And Ada Twist, Scientist read by Serena Auñón-Chancellor:

What a cool idea. Check out the rest of the available videos in their library.

A Collection of Children’s School Notebooks from Around the World

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 22, 2020

School notebooks

School notebooks

School notebooks

School notebooks

For the past 15 years, the folks at the Exercise Book Archive have been compiling a collection of children’s school notebooks from around the world. In the extensive digital archive, you can find writings, drawings, and aimless doodling in exercise books from as far back as 1773 from countries like the US, Ghana, Latvia, Brazil, and Finland.

The Exercise Book Archive is an ever-growing, participatory archive of old exercise books that allows everyone to discover the history, education, and daily life of children and youth of the past through this unique material. The Archive includes hundreds of exercise books from more than 30 different countries and dated from the late 1700s to the early 2000s. It is preserved and managed by the Milan-based NPO Quaderni Aperti (literally, Open Exercise Books).

If you follow them on Instagram, they are pulling some interesting pieces out of the archive. And if you happen to have any old exercise books from your youth (or your parents’ or grandparents’ youth) lying around, you can donate them to the cause.

Rating vs Ranking and the Forced Scarcity of American Excellence

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 16, 2019

In an expanded version of his NY Times’ piece Why Can’t Everyone Get A’s?, Alfie Kohn asks Can Everyone Be Excellent? In the piece, he criticizes our educational system’s practice of ranking students against each other instead of evaluating whether or not they’ve meaningfully improved or successfully learned anything.

But our little thought experiment uncovers a truth that extends well beyond what has been done to our schools in the name of “raising the bar” (a phrase, incidentally, that seems to have originated in the world of show horses). We have been taught to respond with suspicion whenever all members of a defined group are successful. That’s true even when we have no reason to believe that corners have been cut, or that the bar was suspiciously low. In America excellence is treated as an inherently scarce commodity.

Thus, rather than cheering when many people manage to do something well, we’re likely to dismiss that result as meaningless and maybe even mutter darkly about “falling standards” or “being content with mediocrity.” Success seems to matter only if it is attained by a few, and one way to ensure that outcome is to evaluate people (or schools, or companies, or countries) relative to each other. That way, even if everyone has done quite well, or improved over time, half will always fall below the median — and look like failures.

Kohn also touches on the competition inherent in our schools and youth sports:

Reframing excellence in competitive terms can’t be defended on the grounds that setting people against one another leads to improvement in their performance. Indeed, a surprisingly consistent body of social science evidence shows that competition tends to hold us back from doing our best - particularly in comparison with cooperation, in which people work with, not against, each other. Rather, excellence has been defined — for ideological reasons — as something that can’t be reached by everyone.

For the past year or so, my kids and I have been playing Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle. It’s a cooperative game where the players build up individual decks of cards to collectively defeat increasingly difficult villains. I was a bit skeptical of it at first — it seemed a little tedious — but all of us grew to love the collaborative aspect of it. Instead of each of us competing to figure out the best tactics to defeat one another, we’ve had to work together on the best strategies, with long discussions in particularly tough circumstances yielding some of the best lessons. We learned that sometimes the best play for the individual is not the best play for the team. We celebrated our successes and licked our wounds together. As a result, I feel like we all know the game inside and out, better than if we’d been playing a competitive game.

Eight Ways to Teach Climate Change in School

posted by Jason Kottke   May 02, 2019

According to a poll conducted by NPR/Ipsos, over 80% of American parents want climate change to be taught in our schools, but only 42% of the teachers polled say that they teach it in their classrooms.

If they don’t hear about it at home, will kids learn about climate change in school? To answer this question, NPR/Ipsos also completed a nationally representative survey of around 500 teachers. These educators were even more likely than the general public to believe in climate change and to support teaching climate change.

In fact, 86% of teachers believe climate change should be taught in schools. In theory.

But in practice, it’s more complicated. More than half — 55% — of teachers we surveyed said they do not cover climate change in their own classrooms or even talk to their students about it.

The most common reason given? Nearly two-thirds (65%) said it’s outside their subject area.

NPR education correspondent Anya Kamenetz shared 8 Ways To Teach Climate Change In Almost Any Classroom, regardless of what subject you teach.

5. Assign a research project, multimedia presentation or speech.

Gay Collins teaches public speaking at Waterford High School in Waterford, Conn. She is interested in “civil discourse” as a tool for problem-solving, so she encourages her students “to shape their speeches around critical topics, like the use of plastics, minimalism, and other environmental issues.

I am, however, still hung up on the 12% of teachers polled who said that the world’s climate is not changing.

Climate Poll Teachers

Why Are Humans Suddenly Getting Better at Tetris?

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 08, 2018

Tetris was invented in 1984 by Alexey Pajitnov. It was a hit from the start but became a sensation after it was bundled with Nintendo’s Game Boy. It’s perhaps the most popular video game of all time and was played casually (and not so casually) by hundreds of millions of people around the world. You’d think with all those people playing, the limits of the game were fully probed and the highest scores reached, right? Not quite…

As John Green explains in this video, a few people are actually getting much better at the NES version of Tetris than anyone was back in the 90s. One of the reasons for this is that a smaller dedicated group working together can be more effective than a massive group of people working alone on a problem. Today’s top players can not only compare scores (as people did in the pages of Nintendo Power), but they get together for competitions, share techniques, and post videos of their gameplay to Twitch and YouTube for others to mine for tricks.

The two approaches boil down to ants solving problems vs. deliberate practice. The hundreds of millions of players were able to map out seemingly all corners of the game, but only up to a point. It took a smaller group engaging in a collective deliberate practice to push beyond the mass effort.

Green’s discussion also reminded me of something Malcolm Gladwell said in his conversation with Tyler Cowen:

The most interesting thing happening, to me, in distance running right now is the rise of Japan as a distance-running power. And what’s interesting about Japan is that Japan does not have any one runner, particularly in marathons, does not have any one marathoner who is in the top 10 in the world, or even the top 20 in the world, but they have an enormous number of people who are in the top 100. So, your notion of whether Japan is a distance-running power depends on how you choose to define distance-running power.

We have one definition that we use, where we say we recognize a country as being very good at distance running if they have lots and lots of people in the top 10, but that strikes me as being incredibly arbitrary and it goes to my point about we’re not encouraging mediocrity. Why? All that says is… OK, Kenya’s got 9 of the top 10 of the fastest marathoners right now — why is that better than having 300 of the top 1,000? It’s purely arbitrary that we choose to define greatest as just the country that most densely occupies the 99th percentile. Why can’t we define it as the country that most densely occupies the 75th through 100th percentiles?

Tetris today is like Kenya in distance running…all the best-ever players are active right now. With Tetris in the 90s, you had a much broader group of people who were really good at the game but none of whom would crack the all-time top 20 (or perhaps even top 100).

Maybe you don’t give a flying flip about excellence in Tetris or distance running, but how about education? Should we direct the resources of our educational system to ensure that most people get a pretty good education or that fewer get an excellent education? Having a few super-educated people might result in more significant discoveries in science and achievements in literature or music (that everyone can then take advantage of) but having a broader base of educated citizens would result in better decisions being made in untold numbers of everyday situations. Which of those two situations is better? Which is more just? I’d suggest the answer maybe isn’t that obvious…

Painting the skin you live in

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 29, 2018

School Colors

For the beginning of school, second-grade teacher Aeriale Johnson had each of her students mix up a container of paint that matched their skin color so they could use it in paintings of themselves during the rest of the school year.

We started with a base of brown or peach tempera for each child then, in small groups, added white, yellow, red, dark brown and/or green to get to just the right hue. They looked like they were at Ulta trying to find foundation. :) The conversations were great!

These Oklahoma teachers are now permanently on strike

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 19, 2018

Earlier this year, 30,000 teachers in Oklahoma walked out of their classrooms to protest teacher pay and education budget cuts. The walkout ended after nine days with the teachers’ goals partially met. Vice News talked to 18 Oklahoma teachers about why they’ve decided to quit teaching after this year, essentially making their walkouts permanent.

Eric Weingartner worked two side jobs in addition to his role as a full-time 4th grade teacher to make ends meet. Chemistry teacher Becky Smith’s monthly paycheck rose just $300 in sixteen years. Aimee Elmquist spent her own money to stock her biology classroom. Mary West did the same for high school art.

One of the biggest realizations I’ve had in the past few years is that while Americans talk a lot about the importance of children and education, those things actually are not that important to us. You can see it in how we approach our educational system and you can see it in how we our government uses the abuse of children to attempt to curb immigration with relatively little outcry. You can see it in our governance…the people we elect do what’s best for voters, not for future voters. The enthusiasm of hobbyists and desire of gun companies keep our children attending school in fear. Healthcare costs are soaring and coverage for children isn’t guaranteed. Our parental leave policies, maternity care, and all-around treatment of mothers & women in the workplace lags behind other so-called “developed” countries. Children are a priority for the US? Yeah, no.

The illiterate teacher

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 17, 2018

John Corcoran was slow to talk as a child and then when he got to school, he didn’t learn to read right away. Or in the years following. He graduated from high school and college not being able to read or write…and then got a job teaching high school.

So I graduated from college, and when I graduated there was a teacher shortage and I was offered a job. It was the most illogical thing you can imagine — I got out of the lion’s cage and then I got back in to taunt the lion again.

Why did I go into teaching? Looking back it was crazy that I would do that. But I’d been through high school and college without getting caught — so being a teacher seemed a good place to hide. Nobody suspects a teacher of not knowing how to read.

I taught a lot of different things. I was an athletics coach. I taught social studies. I taught typing — I could copy-type at 65 words a minute but I didn’t know what I was typing. I never wrote on a blackboard and there was no printed word in my classroom. We watched a lot of films and had a lot of discussions.

I remember how fearful I was. I couldn’t even take the roll — I had to ask the students to pronounce their names so I could hear their names. And I always had two or three students who I identified early — the ones who could read and write best in the classroom — to help me. They were my teaching aides. They didn’t suspect at all — you don’t suspect the teacher.

This story is not very complimentary about the US educational system (or society for that matter). BTW, I’m not sure it mattered very much that Corcoran taught while illiterate. For all we know, he was a good teacher whose discussion-based methods and empowerment of student-teachers were more effective than multiple choice tests in fostering learning. I’m much more bothered that he didn’t get the help he needed as a child…and about all the assumptions about reading and learning that are built into our educational system.

Teachers have personalized handshakes for every single one of their students

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 13, 2018

These two teachers, Jerusha Willenborg of Mueller Elementary in Wichita, KS and Barry White Jr. of Ashley Park Elementary School in Charlotte, NC, both greet each of their students with a personalized handshake every day.

I love watching these. I can barely remember to shake with my right hand…no idea how the teachers memorize all that.

Andre Agassi and what the scoreboard doesn’t say

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 23, 2017

Let’s get this out of the way first…this is a photo of Andre Agassi playing tennis at age 7:

Agassi at 7yo

OMG, that face! That photo is from a recent profile/interview of Agassi, who, after some struggles on and off the court early in his career, seems to have figured out how to live his life with purpose. Through his foundation and other efforts, Agassi has helped build almost 80 schools around the country for underprivileged children.

Did Agassi also wish he could be on court playing Federer or Nadal? “No. You can’t believe you once were at that level — and, even if I could do it, I think of my life now and ask: ‘Why do they do it?’ Steffi said: ‘Can you believe what these guys are still willing to put themselves through?’ It’s remarkable but if I went back in time I would probably retire sooner.”

Surely he misses the intensity? “I miss that the least. That was always the tough part for me. I enjoyed the work that went into making yourself the best you can be but I hated what the scoreboard doesn’t say. It just tells you if you won or lost. But the biggest issue for most athletes is you spend a third of your life not preparing for the next two-thirds. One day your entire way of life comes to an end. It’s a kind of death. You just have to go through it and figure it out. In her own quiet way Steffi feels stronger than me. She’s pretty linear in how she lives. I probably do a little more reminiscing than she does — which says a lot.”

As a kid, I always loved watching Agassi play, especially during the second half of his career. He’d been through some shit, dealt with it, and was playing with a different kind of verve. His game was more knowing, purposeful. I still remember Pete Sampras, overflowing with talent, pounding that amazing serve of his at Agassi, a serve that no one else on the tour could return properly. Some of these wicked serves would confound him, but every few points, Agassi would take a Sampras serve, this perfect booming thing, and absolutely paste it right down the line or cross-court for an easy winner. He took everything that was good about that serve and molded it into his return — the better Sampras hit the serve, the better Agassi’s return would be. (via mr)

Abacus use can boost math skills (and other lessons on learning)

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 07, 2017

Abacus

The abacus counting device dates back thousands of years but has, in the past century, been replaced by calculators and computers. But studies show that abacus use can have an effect on how well people learn math. In this excerpt adapted from his new book Learn Better, education researcher Ulrich Boser writes about the abacus and how people learn.

Researchers from Harvard to China have studied the device, showing that abacus students often learn more than students who use more modern approaches.

UC San Diego psychologist David Barner led one of the studies, and he argues that abacus training can significantly boost math skills with effects potentially lasting for decades.

“Based on everything we know about early math education and its long-term effects, I’ll make the prediction that children who thrive with abacus will have higher math scores later in life, perhaps even on the SAT,” Barner told me.

Ignore the hyperbolic “and it changed my life” in the title…this piece is interesting throughout. For example, this passage on the strength of the mind-body connection and the benefits of learning by doing:

When first I watched high school abacus whiz Serena Stevenson, her hand gestures seemed like a pretentious affect, like people who wear polka-dot bow ties. But it turned out that her finger movements weren’t really all that dramatic, and on YouTube, I watched students with even more theatrical gesticulations. What’s more, the hand movements turned out to be at the heart of the practice, and without any arm or finger motions, accuracy can drop by more than half.

Part of the explanation for the power of the gestures goes to the mind-body connection. But just as important is the fact that abacus makes learning a matter of doing. It’s an active, engaging process. As one student told me, abacus is like “intellectual powerlifting.”

Psychologist Rich Mayer has written a lot about this idea, and in study after study he has shown that people gain expertise by actively producing what they know. As he told me: “Learning is a generative activity.”

I’d never heard of the concept of overlearning before:

Everybody from actors learning lines, to musicians learning new songs, to teachers trying to impart key facts to students has observed that learning has to “sink in” in the brain. Prior studies and also the new one, for example, show that when people learn a new task and then learn a similar one soon afterward, the second instance of learning often interferes with and undermines the mastery achieved on the first one.

The new study shows that overlearning prevents against such interference, cementing learning so well and quickly, in fact, that the opposite kind of interference happens instead. For a time, overlearning the first task prevents effective learning of the second task — as if learning becomes locked down for the sake of preserving master of the first task. The underlying mechanism, the researchers discovered, appears to be a temporary shift in the balance of two neurotransmitters that control neural flexibility, or “plasticity,” in the part of the brain where the learning occurred.

“These results suggest that just a short period of overlearning drastically changes a post-training plastic and unstable [learning state] to a hyperstabilized state that is resilient against, and even disrupts, new learning,” wrote the team led by corresponding author Takeo Watanabe, the Fred M. Seed Professor of Cognitive Linguistic and Psychological Sciences at Brown.

Free online lessons in storytelling & moviemaking from Pixar

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 17, 2017

In partnership with Khan Academy, Pixar is offering a number of free online lessons in making 3D animated movies and storytelling called Pixar in a Box. Here’s a video introduction of what courses are available:

There are lessons on rendering, shading, crowds, virtual cameras, and many other topics, but the most accessible for people of all ages/interests is probably the lessons on The Art of Storytelling, which were just posted earlier this week. Here’s the introductory video for that, featuring Pete Docter, director of Up and Inside Out.

This is pretty cool. I’m hoping to spend some more time with this over the weekend.

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.

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.