The Great Connections Seminar

The Great Connections Seminar
Discussing ethics

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bill Ayers in his own words

Jordan Zimmerman nails it on the head in his post-with-video-interview about '60's-terrorist-now-feted-professor-of-education Bill Ayers - Ayers' self-importance shines. This is the guy teaching our teachers at the University of Illinois at Chicago!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Enlightenment in California

Thanks to everyone for making our inaugural event of The Enlightenment Society for the College of the United States a wonderful success!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Integration (and I don't mean the neighborhood type)

What college graduates do with the information they've learned is crucial for their competitive edge, because there is so much world-wide competition. Just one example: tax accountants in the U.S. are competing with highly trained accountants in India, who work for thousands and thousands less, and can now do U.S. tax returns on-line at secure websites.

Contrary to the current protectionist mood, this is a good development, in the long run. More work, done less expensively leaves the customer with money to invest or spend on something else. Ultimately, more jobs and wealth can be created, and everyone becomes richer, even the poorest person in the country. Even the poorest in the U.S. have running water, TV's and telephones.

But it means U.S. workers must become ever more creative and adaptable to keep high-paying jobs.

Broad knowledge and the capability to learn, combined with the ability to deftly integrate new material into one's repertoire, enables a person to be professionaly versatile. Recruiters now even use the word "Versatilist" to describe those who can easily move from one job and field to another, and master them. 

Consequently, it is imperative that education must be about how to think, create, and integrate knowledge in new ways. An excellent liberal arts program develops these qualities in students, even after a lifetime of lectures. This is the factor that many fail to grasp when they rush to specialize at college.

In the 19th and early 20th century, lower schools used classic texts as their standard works. Young students were reading Aristotle, Shakespeare, Voltaire, and Darwin. These profound works open the mind to the great questions of life, excellent reasoning, important ideas that influence contemporary culture, and superior thinking and writing. 

Further, they tend to span subject matter, often examining philosophical, ethical, scientific, and artistic issues in one work. They represent excellent examples of integrated thinking.

Developing broad knowledge aids integration. Before valuable information and ideas can be stored in the mind's subconscious, they have to pass through the conscious mind, which usually can handle only about seven discreet items at any one time (see George A. Miller's 1956 psychological classic "The Magic Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information"). If you've ever wondered why you need a list to remember what you have to do, here's the reason, and it's on of the reasons for our limited attentional resources.

Ideas--abstractions--are the primordial human inventions that circumvent this limitation, because ideas incorporate myriad data into a singel audio-visual concrete, a word or symbol. All instances of babies are integrated into the idea of "baby," and you can apply what you know about babies to any individual baby you encounter. Voila! You've saved a lot of time and energy.

Ultimately, the integration of simple ideas like those of colors or types of animals, into more abstract groupings like "mammal" makes the human mind extremely powerful. Imagination and integration work together to produce the torrent that is human creativity. Integration of information into ideas, and actions into skills, is the psychologically economical way to use our limited conscious resources when thinking and solving problems.

The person who is a master of the careful, fact-based integration of knowledge is a highly effective thinker. And integrating facts and ideas from one field of study to another, highly disparate field, is the essence of creativity. More on that in my next post.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Education and Liberty

Check out this new blog, Education and Liberty, written by some Socratic Practice and free market economic fans.

Acton MBA

I was recently reminded about this program, the motto of which is "Learn how to learn. Learn how to make money. Learn how to live a life of meaning." 

The more I read about this innovative MBA program in Entrepreneurship, the more impressed I am. It fuses philosophical reflection with real-world action to help individuals create their purpose in life. That's what I think education should be about. 

And, even better, they see business as a creative, productive activity that can have lofty ends.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Children Beaten in Chicago Public Schools

A CBS Chicago investigative report found these horrors. Not a surprise to me, given what I've heard from people who volunteered or worked at various Chicago public schools.

I'm sure it's one of the reasons why a large number of the students at my Council Oak Montessori School have parents who are Chicago Public School teachers - they don't want this happening to their children.

(Hat tip to John Enright.)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Lectures in Their Proper Place

In my previous post, I reported that MIT was getting rid of lectures in their physics classes.

In the New York Times article about this change, Carl Wieman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who directs a science education initiative at the University of British Columbia is quoted as saying that the human brain “can hold a maximum of about seven different items in its short-term working memory and can process no more than about four ideas at once.”

“But the number of new items that students are expected to remember and process in the typical hourlong science lecture is vastly greater,” he continued. “So we should not be surprised to find that students are able to take away only a small fraction of what is presented to them in that format.”

This relates to the problem of attentional resources I discussed on November 21st.

If organized well, lectures can distill a vast amount of information down to a few principles and key examples. A lecture can be an economical introduction to a subject. The best lectures essentialize the subject matter conveyed by the lecture.

However, as a method, lectures are designed to be easy for the teacher, not the student. They allow the teacher to recount his or her knowledge without feedback or interrupting questions and side issues from the listener. Although sometimes necessary, lectures are usually a difficult way to learn because they frequently run counter to human learning tendencies.

For several reasons, students must exert an enormous amount of effort to stay focused on what the speaker says during lectures. A lecture requires the learner to mostly listen and look a little. Unlike learning methods that make learning easy, the lecture does not engage the whole mind, including vivid perceptions and imagination, or the body of the student. Listening and looking during a lecture involves little sensory-motor work, which normally helps cement learning in memory.

One of the reasons visual aids such as Microsoft® Office PowerPoint® are preferred for lectures is because they offer sensory stimulations, providing at least some perceptual imagery to associate with the ideas being conveyed. Although, like books, lectures can have illustrations, the student cannot study the illustrations in a lecture as long as he or she wants.

Human interaction usually helps to increase interest as well as physically engage the student, but during a lecture, there is very little interaction between student and teacher. Often the lecture is aimed at a large or general audience and thus cannot address individual student goals, interests and comprehension difficulties.

A student cannot stop the lecture to ask a question or request a further, clarifying explanation. Once confused, the student finds the rest of the lecture very difficult if not impossible to follow. Consequently, students often miss the important points and substantial content of the lecture.

In a lecture format, the best teachers attempt to address human learning needs by weaving their information into a story, incorporating drama, character, values, passion, meaning, purpose, a climax and resolution. Winston Churchill was a master at this. This method utilizes human tendencies to search for meaning and purpose, to connect knowledge acquired to personal circumstances, and to remember people, places and things more easily than abstract ideas.

Excellent lecturers use plenty of concretes to make the information vivid and connected to real experience and, at least in imagination, to stir perceptual memory and bodily feelings of the student. Imaginative work and bodily feelings help the student feel much more engaged in the material. Exceptional lecturer MIT physics professor Walter Lewin spends 30 hours and three practice trials developing each of the lectures for his remarkable class.

The best learners can gain from almost any lecture; they come to a lecture motivated to learn for their own reasons. They expend extra effort in imagining their own examples in order to concretize the ideas they’re hearing. As they listen, they maintain an internal dialogue of questions with the lecturer, noting what they don’t understand and with what they take issue. They also tend to seek answers to their questions after the lecture.

Many teachers recognize that this kind of student is rare and usually has high intelligence, strong intellectual ambition, and great self-motivation. For the most part, traditional education methods do not nurture internal motivation and inherent interest in acquiring knowledge—qualities essential in the new global economy.

A long school career of lectures, drills, memorization, and teaching methods out of tune with learning needs usually turns most students away from enthusiastic learning at school. They are only too often motivated mainly by external rewards of grades, adult approval, superior social position and the acquisition of credentials.

Unfortunately, lectures are so difficult to pay attention to, and psychologically painful for most students, that students work hard to avoid them. During lectures, any younger students merely goof around; consequently, they learn that they are “bad” and “undisciplined.” They are expected to know how to force their attention on boring material.

Students attempting to pass their courses seek low-energy ways to fulfill requirements while maximizing grades, such as the use of tape recordings, buying others’ lecture notes, or passing multiple choice tests without attending lectures.

These students aren’t inherently bad, they are responding to the high psychological costs of traditional education in a psychologically economical way. They more profitably spend their limited attentional resources elsewhere.

Sadly, they often feel guilt, frustration and anger for failing to live up to the traditional classroom’s expectations, with a nagging disappointment for what they’ve missed—or should have gotten—from education. Many students desperately need help to become active learners, interested in the material and in charge of their own education.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Liberating Lectures

"At MIT, Large Lectures Are Going the Way of the Blackboard" - and it's a good thing.

"The physics department has replaced the traditional large introductory lecture with smaller classes that emphasize hands-on, interactive, collaborative learning. Last fall, after years of experimentation and debate and resistance from students, who initially petitioned against it, the department made the change permanent. Already, attendance is up and the failure rate has dropped by more than 50 percent."

Physics professors from MIT and around the country initiated this change because students weren't learning.

(Hat tip to Don Hauptman.)

Sunday, February 1, 2009

What does education have to do with Bush hatred and Obama euphoria?

In Friday's Wall Street Journal, Peter Berkowitz argued that Bush hatred and Obama euphoria are two sides of the same coin - the triumph of passion over reason. He laments the current, deformed thinking of our intellectual classes.

"As Hamilton would have supposed, the susceptibility of political judgment to corruption by interest and ambition is as operative in our time as it was in his. What has changed is that those who, by virtue of their education and professional training, would have once been the first to grasp Hamilton's lesson of moderation are today the leading fomenters of immoderation.

"Bush hatred and Obama euphoria are particularly toxic because they thrive in and have been promoted by the news media, whose professional responsibility, it has long been thought, is to gather the facts and analyze their significance, and by the academy, whose scholarly training, it is commonly assumed, reflects an aptitude for and dedication to systematic study and impartial inquiry.

Unfortunately, Mr. Berkowitz comes close, but misses the mark, in identifying the defining factors which led to our current, sorry State.

Philosophers from Kant to Marcuse and later spent years gutting reason of its power to arrive at objective judgments, and promulgating this view through the Academy. Without this ability, what individual can stand, with certainty, against the crowd? What's left but emotionally based alliances?

Reason becomes rationalization, justifying intellectual passion-stoking - and making collectivist purposes so much easier to advance. This view of reason is what
what separates our current thinking from that of the Founders, and why so few intellectuals today reflect the “education and professional training” of Hamilton’s times.