October 29, 2013

The Educational Imbroglio

1. an extremely confused, complicated, or embarrassing situation.

Across the country, there is a heated debate over our educational system. Unfortunately, it's a lot like watching members of the flat earth society argue about whose theory is right - there is no right answer, because everyone is wrong.

The most recent and perhaps egregious example of this is a breathtakingly misguided article by Kevin G. Welner, who is the director of the National Education Policy center, which is absolutely terrifying. He is attempting to discredit the idea of "tracking", wherein low-performing students are separated from higher achieving students, because obviously you can't teach kids who "get it" the same way as kids who are struggling. Unfortunately, the entire conclusion rests on a logical fallacy. He says, and I quote:
"When children fall behind academically, we have a choice. We can choose to sort them into less demanding classes where they will fall further behind, or we can choose to include them in classes that maintain high expectations."
This is a false dichotomy, since there are many other choices. We can sort them into a class with the same expectations, but an alternative teaching method. Sort them into a class that actually pays attention to the concepts that are giving them trouble. The idea is to help children who have fallen behind catch up with their peers, not throw them in a room and forget about them. Schools that simply lower their expectations of poorly performing students are doing it wrong. Furthermore, trying to argue that something can't work because no one's doing it properly is another logical fallacy.

There's also a persistent argument against charter schools, which claims that the money spent on charter schools should instead be used to improve public schools instead. This is laughable, because public schools receive funding based on test scores. So, all the money would be spent improving test scores instead of actually teaching children anything. Charter schools are important because they aren't bounded by these nonsensical restrictions and thus are free to experiment with alternative teaching styles. Throwing money at our public schools will only shore up a method of teaching that's fundamentally broken. It's like trying to fix the plumbing after the roof caved in - it's completely missing the point.

To make matters worse, there's also a war on free time. Recess is being cut in favor of increased instruction time, while educators cite minuscule increases in test scores as proof that this "works". If by "works", you mean it succeeds in cramming more useless junk into kids heads, then sure, it's "working". However, if you want kids to actually learn instead of memorize pointless facts that they will immediately forget, you have to give them time to process concepts. Their brains need rest, not more work. Bodybuilders don't lift weights as long as they can every single day; they lift weights every other day and only for a few hours or so, because the muscle needs time to recover.

This, however, is an issue with a society that thinks hard work means working yourself to exhaustion. This is incredibly short-sighted and in direct opposition to plenty of evidence that points to rest being a necessary part of a healthy lifestyle. It can be your job, or school, or a hobby, it doesn't matter. Humans do not function effectively when forced to focus on one thing for hours at a time. The only reason we attempt to do this is because we used to work in factories, but nowadays we have robots. Modern jobs are all about thinking creatively, which cannot be forced. You can't force yourself to understand a concept. It's like trying to force a broken leg to heal faster by going for a jog. You must give kids time absorb concepts instead of trying to cram it down their throats. They need to understand what they are learning, not memorize formulas.

Mainstream education doesn't take this seriously. There are plenty of experiments that have effectively taught children advanced concepts with radically different teaching methods. One guy taught 3rd graders binary. These kids learned english and how to operate a computer without a teacher at all. There are plenty of cases that show just how woefully inadequate our teaching system is, but it seems that we care more about a one-size-fits-all method that can be mass-produced than a method that's actually effective.

Our educational system is failing our students, and we refuse to even entertain notions that could make a difference. Instead, we just legislate more tests and take away their recess.

Because really, memorizing the date of the Battle of Gettysburg is more important than playing outside and having a childhood.

October 3, 2013

The Ladder-Climbing Generation

Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it's to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential - as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth. You'll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you're doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you'll hear about them.

To invent your own life's meaning is not easy, but it's still allowed, and I think you'll be happier for the trouble.

  — Bill Watterson, 1990 speech at Kenyon College

Someone, once again, is complaining about those misbehaving youngsters who don't understand the value of hard work. He lampoons the advice to follow your passion, saying that young people are just scared of hard work. He makes the dangerously misinformed claim that burn-out is just a myth: "Burn out is just a rationalization for giving up early."

For someone who seems so sure of what they're talking about, it would be difficult for him to be more wrong. Following your passion doesn't mean you do less work. It doesn't even mean you'll avoid doing boring things. A standard 9-5 job doesn't require you to think. You drive to work, get told what to do by some guy in a suit for 8 hours, then go home. It's about following instructions, not actually doing anything difficult. Most programmers are lucky, and have plenty of employers who give them interesting problems to work on. In fact, for calling his post "The Hacker News Generation", he doesn't seem to understand his audience very well. One of the current talking points is startups overworking their employees by expecting 80 hour work weeks, and how employees are trained to think this is ok.

That kind of seems like the exact opposite of an aversion to hard work.

Following your passion is immeasurably more difficult than climbing a corporate ladder. You usually work more hours for less pay, and often have to struggle to make ends meet. You have to do every part of your job, including all the mind-numbingly boring stuff, because there isn't anyone else to do it. People who are following their passion enjoy it more because they're doing something that's important to them, not because they're doing less work. An artist is the one drawing constantly, every day, barely making enough money to feed themselves. The guy at Microsoft writes a bunch of test code, checks it in, then gets lunch at the cafeteria. Where does this glorification of doing boring, repetitive tasks come from?

These people are busy climbing a ladder that society has put in front of them. They look out and see someone running around on the ground, away from the ladder, and become convinced they are hopelessly lost. Clearly, they don't understand the value of ladder climbing. When they realize that other people don't care about the ladder, they immediately conclude that these people don't understand what's important, because the only success they know of is the success they were promised by society at the top of the ladder.

A human being's worth cannot be measured in dollars or promotions. To follow one's dreams is not an act of cowardice, but rather one of incredible courage. To resist taking the easy way out, to avoid the routine of a 9-5 job, is to accept a life that is often filled with failure and hardship. The difference is that it will be a life worth living.