The Great Connections Seminar

The Great Connections Seminar
Discussing ethics

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Educate for Problem-Solving, Not Factories

Good article in Forbes about what education should be like, with interesting statistics from 1948 about homework and lots of information about very successful contemporary programs.

Frankly, just about everything mentioned are things we do in Montessori schools.

“It’s the teacher’s job to point young minds towards the right kinds of questions,” suggests Sugata Mitra, professor of educational technology at Newcastle University.

“The teacher doesn’t need to give any answers, the answers are everywhere. And we know now from years of measurements, that learners who find the answers for themselves, retain it better than if they’re told the answer.”Been doing this 105 years now!

Monday, December 17, 2012

How to Rank Colleges and Universities

Here's the interesting methodology the Center for College Affordability and Productivity uses to rank institutions - and then is published in Forbes. I'm especially happy to see their measures of productivity, i.e. how well do the students do after graduation.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Remembering on Memorial Day

John A. "Black Jack" Logan, Civil War general and founder of Memorial Day.

From Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: "...from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." 

Picture taken by Joe Ravi in Chicago's Grant Park. License CC-BY-SA 3.0

Thursday, May 24, 2012

What's wrong with distance learning?

Thoughts from an expert teacher

Very, very often when I tell people about our project to open a new college program, their first question is: “Will it be online?”

And they have good reasons to expect that it would be: online is vastly cheaper than in-person teaching and it can reach people everywhere in the world. Companies like the Floating University are trying to utilize the best of online resources to game-change higher education. With top lecturers and teachers, they have online tools offering certifications rather than the whole enchilada of a college degree.

A few of the best things online education can do:

  • Provide the best lecturer on Shakespeare, or Feynman, or Von Mises, when and where you want to watch.
  • Provide the best demonstration of angular momentum at 3 AM when you can’t sleep.
  • Teach you how to make a bowtie or what the ancient Romans ate for lunch, just by Googling.
  •  Connect people who might never have a chance to meet, and help them collaborate.

In other words, give you access to an enormous amount of the world’s knowledge about facts, ideas, skills, procedures, and analysis.  And it allows you to connect with experts and others all over the world. This is a fabulous resource for learning! And, don’t get me wrong, the RIFI program incorporates all these uses, and others.

But our program requires a significant amount of in-person learning, and some people look askance at this.

Tales from the Front

About six months ago, I mentioned this issue to an applied scientist from a big lab who’s a friend and supporter. She immediately said “Oh, remote learning is never as good as in-person!”

I was a bit surprised because of the usual enthusiasm which technical people have for remote learning: they’re often the most adept at using these resources. So I recently interviewed her to get her story:

About once a month she is either teaching or learning something for her job. She often teaches other scientists, engineers, and technicians how to use the information on the website of their mutual organization—which has facilities all over—and she also teaches them how to explore new ideas for their projects.

Sometimes she teaches on-site but, often, she’s using teleconferencing or video-conferencing with a group of people at another site. During these sessions, they see her presentations, hear her voice, and see her image. If she sees them, it's not close up, but they can make comments and submit questions.

She finds that the distance teaching never works as well as in-person. And she’s thought a lot about why. “If you go into a restaurant decorated with real plants, there is a different feeling than if the plants are artificial. A different atmosphere. The same thing happens in class.”

So what are some of the differences?

It’s in the Atmosphere

Remotely, “I have no idea what the audience is understanding,” she says. She can’t see them in enough detail in order to notice whether they have questions, are confused—or bored out of their minds. Consequently, she can’t adjust her presentation to suit their needs.

If she could see their faces and their reactions, she might get a sense of how to interact with them. I suggested having shots of their individual faces onscreen while she teaches, but she thinks that would be too difficult to absorb, probably because they would be separate images and because they would lack the detail of the real.

What’s the data she’s likely missing? Information from 3-d body movements, facial expressions, subtle eye movements, tone of voice or even pheromones that would indicate mood and reaction.  I also wonder how comprehension is affected because  mirror neurons can’t operate.

Mirror neurons identify and respond to others’ emotional expressions, helping us navigate social relationships. It’s the lack of these factors that can make email and online discussion a nightmare of misunderstandings.

Further, she thinks the remote participants feel, “’I can’t learn how interested the lecturer is in ME.’ A good teacher genuinely wants to help you learn something,” and, consequently, conveys excitement, interest and, concern about whether the participants are learning and enjoying what’s being taught.

And this “atmosphere,” these motivations, are essential to encouraging audience questions. Why does this matter?

Because questions, are crucial to good learning. They allow the teacher to find out how the students are understanding the material, and adjust what she conveys to suit them. And they ensure that the students are actively learning, i.e. thinking about the material in relation to their other knowledge. This is how new material is best absorbed and integrated.

Yet, most people are reluctant to ask questions, for a variety of reasons.  A common one: they don’t want to appear stupid or draw attention to themselves. Asking a question in front of the whole class is akin to public speaking—and most people fear that worse than death!

My friend’s experience with in-person classes demonstrates this problem and how it’s even worse with remote learning. In a one-hour in-person class, if the class is very active, she may get a dozen questions. Infrequently, the class engages in a deep conversation. But when she runs the class remotely, she rarely gets any questions whatsoever, and never a deep conversation.

Another example is what happens to her group’s “Zen presentations.” These involve perfectly crafted visuals with no words on them. The pictures have to convey everything the teacher is going to talk about, so the audience can grasp the ideas just by sight. In the presentation, the teacher gives them the words to go with the picture.

Further, the Zen presentations have to have exactly the right pace to be successful—with the teacher conveying casual thoughtfulness and considered responses to the audience. This simply cannot happen through mere audio or even video.

What's the Relationship?

She’s identified a few of the causes for these problems with remote education:

  • There’s a slight time shift, a gap between when she talks and when they hear, causing participants to be unsure of the right time to ask questions; this results in a feeling of formality, making them hesitate to speak up,
  • It allows no eye contact, so the participants can’t convey when they might have a question; consequently, the participants don’t know when it is polite to interrupt the speaker,
  • The teachers and participants cannot easily share knowledge and interest in the subject, even interest and motivation for the work they are doing together, yet motivation is so important to learning.

As a result, a weak relationship develops between teacher and participants, or participants with each other.

Instead of mutual engagement, learning some new, fascinating information and working well together towards their mutual goals, there is a void, the void of the learning relationship, of the learning and working community in which they should belong.

The importance of the personal relationship becomes very apparent when she compares two different kinds of classes they have at her organization. In one, they learn information and procedures, and rather introverted, scientific and technical types are the participants. They often do this remotely.

But the other kind of class is with extroverted, sociable types who need to work with the engineers, scientists, and technicians. The purpose of the class is to help the more sociable types, administrators and the like, learn how to interact with the technical people. These classes can never be done remotely.  There’s simply no way the people can learn what they need except in person.

Maybe When We Have Holodecks?

I think my scientist friend has trenchantly identified some of the basic problems with distance classes of any kind. That doesn’t even address the needs of young people, who are trying to learn not only information but also how to think well and what kind of person they want to become.

However, that’s a discussion for another day, soon.

As far as my friend’s classes, she thinks it would be just as productive to tape her presentations and let participants watch when they like, as to do them remotely.

Alas, until we develop holodecks, those simulated reality rooms in which people could meet and interact on “Star Trek,” online education cannot replace the kinds of learning only possible with in-person interaction; the full learning relationship. We'll talk about that more in the future.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Why Colleges Don't Teach the Federalist Papers

Peter Berkowitz of Hoover examines the import - and ignorance - of The Federalist Papers
"In the misguided quest to mold political science to the shape of the natural sciences, many scholars disdainfully dismiss The Federalist—indeed, all works of ideas—as mere journalism or literary studies which, lacking scientific rigor, can't yield genuine knowledge....By robbing students of the chance to acquire a truly liberal education, our universities also deprive the nation of a citizenry well-acquainted with our Constitution's enduring principles."
This "scientistic" attitude is the long-range result of philosophy's abdication from epistemology, which has left us bereft of tools to clearly determine when we know something from observation, inference, and deduction.
The fact that many law schools, including Harvard, Stanford, Yale, and Berkeley, do not include these works in their course of study is appalling, but explains the way far too many lawyers are willing to run roughshod over the Constitution. 
The Federalist should be taught in high school as well as college, along with so many other original documents of American history and politics that have been replaced by leftist revisionism, such as Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

How's this for a big idea?

Good article from the John W. Pope Center's Duke Cheston about a new online course, Great Big Ideas, from a for-profit online institution, The Floating University. Looks like another 'disruptor' for the higher education market.

The course assembled all-star lecturers to examine some of the deep, timeless questions. Apparently, F.U.'s founder, Adam Glick, came up with the idea when he saw how narrowly trained and unflexible his employees were, unable to think well.

Cheston makes some cogent points about the varied quality and objectivity of the content.

As I may have been harping on in this blog, assembling the best lectures for online use is valuable; helping students learn how to think about the content is another matter.

Some students may be able to hear or read content from the best thinkers and figure out how to hone their thinking abilities for themselves, just like some students can listen to a lecture and mentally engage in a question and answer session with the lecturer.

But most students won't be able to do these things themselves. The entire progress of civilization depends on those who figure out how to do things, and then help those who can't figure these things out for themselves to learn the new ideas, methods, practices. And learning thinking skills are at the root of it all.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Crumbling Higher Education Structure

And here's another article that speaks to the creative destruction going on in higher ed from The New Republic, "The Higher Education Monopoly is Crumbling as We Speak."

As my colleague Shawn Klein said, " I think this article makes the same mistake that so many takes on the higher Ed bubble make. Education is not merely about job training or even academic achievement. It is about learning how to be an independent, critical learner. Information can, does, and will come from many different sources, but it will only really be fruitful for those who have learned how to rationally integrate and digest the information and thereby make it knowledge."

The $64,000 question is: what are the best ways for students to learn how to think and learn well?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Strategic Pricing in College - What an idea!

It seems as if capitalist ideas are slowly seeping into the thinking about college prices as the economy squeezes the colleges. Here's a new paper about dynamic pricing of different aspects of a college education and how it could increase tuition revenue.

All I can say is: it's about time!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Self Foundation Funds Study of Montessori Education

While there've been a few scientific studies done of Montessori education (see Angeline Lillard and Kevin Rathunde's work, among others), they're not enough. Now the Self Foundation has funded Furman University for a new study.

I look forward to the results.

Hattip Mark Berger.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Peter Thiel Continues to Rattle Academia's Cage

Stanford and Arizona State have started entrepreneur programs to compete with Thiel's "20 Under 20" Fellowships - and keep their students on campus. Read here about these and other developments.

Hattip Pat Peterson.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Lecture Fail

A debate is raging in The Chronicles of Higher Education regarding lectures. There are many laudable points on both sides.

However, I'm chagrined at the faculty members who aren't asking: do we know the optimal way for students to learn? What are the principles? What do we know about human development, and how is that relevant to our problem? What skills do these students need to benefit from the way we're teaching?

What's most unrealistic to me is the faculty member's belief that what students need to do is concentrate for 90 minutes on her lecture, i.e. apply their will. That's the solution?

It seems as if faculty favor lectures for a variety of reasons. I won't visit the non-productive ones, such as the fact that it may be a lot less work for a professor. Let's just look at positive reasons. A lecture can skillfully condense the essentials the student needs to learn about a subject, and faculty are often concerned that students learn what's fundamental and essential.

It's also personally satisfying to many faculty members to demonstrate their superior knowledge. And faculty are often the kind of people who really enjoy sharing knowledge with others. But most students aren't necessarily motivated to do so, or to be the recipient of knowledge summarized and shared, rather than acquired by first-hand experience. In the latter types of experience the student can enjoy the feeling of gaining competence - "look what I did myself!"

What the Flow research highlights is the limits of attention. It takes huge amounts of mental energy to concentrate, i.e. to pay attention, to information that arrives in a form which is difficult to mentally ingest. Here are some of the reasons:

  1. Abstract ideas generally take more energy to attend to because they don't engage the senses or body or, often, the listener's deepest motivation. Instead, on their own the listener has to come up with imaginary objects or instances to embody what the lecturer is saying. That's why aids such as visuals or demonstrations are good to use. And, unless the listener is naturally interested in the subject, he has to cheerlead himself into continuing to pay attention. In the case of most students and most lectures, I'm betting they must cheerlead with a stick ("I'll fail!") rather than a carrot ("This stuff is cool to know!").
  2. Listening while sitting still in a seat is extremely difficult because it doesn't engage the senses or the body.
  3. If the listener gets confused, or stops paying attention for a bit of time, he or she has no opportunity to ask questions or re-start the lecture; the rest of the presentation may be worthless or, at the least, less than optimal as a learning experience because it can't be followed well.
  4. Optimal human attention span is about 20 minutes (in other words, the length of TED talks) - 90 is almost impossible unless it's a full-body-and-mind engaging activity, like a sport or watching a movie, in which the emotions are engaged. OR unless it's a Flow activity for that person. Lecturing can easily be a Flow activity, especially if the lecturer finds the material interesting.
  5. A good listener has an internal dialogue with the lecturer, pondering the truth of comments, asking questions about what is said, and trying to find the data in memory to answer them. Some people do this naturally, but the vast majority have no natural skill: they need to be taught how to "actively listen." And they're not getting that in the lower grades - so no wonder they're abyssmal at it in college.
  6. Neither are most students in lower education given the activities, materials, or opportunities to learn how to concentrate. And then they're expected to figure out how to do it on their own when they arrive at college? (Developing the ability to concentrate is something Montessori classroom do well, because the materials are designed to trigger Flow for students. )
See the summary, student comments, and faculty responses and videos here.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Flying Robots Playing James Bond Theme

An amazing robotic control display, illustrating the ingenuity of students. Hattip Steve Lloyd and Violeta Carrion:

Monday, February 27, 2012

Shortage of Skilled Workers and the Education Bubble

Illinois manufacturers are interviewing 60 to 100 applicants to find one skilled worker, details this Chicago Tribune article. The article argues that years of outsourcing and layoffs have led younger workers to think of manufacturing as dead - and too dirty. Of course, with the second worst budget deficit and a tax and regulation-ridden business environment in Illinois, manufacturing jobs are way down.

Surprisingly, "too dirty" hints at another force behind the shortage:  problems in education. This article showcases manufacturers' efforts to train employees in skills they should have learned in high school like math, or even machining.  Trades high schools, such as Chicago's productive Washburn Trade School, are no longer to be found even if a student wanted to learn machining.

And the government-manufactured push to put everyone in college has seriously depressed student interest trades, crafts, and anything manufactured using one's hands.  Another reason for the shortage? The denigration and condescension towards manual labor. Many individuals feel inferior without a college degree today - thanks to the education bubble.

Last summer, our students from The Great Connections Seminar visited the Ultimate Machining & Engineering Company in Plainfield, Illinois. Students were fascinated with the high-tech, computer-driven process through which Ultimate manufactures precision gears and other equipment for Caterpillar and other companies. The owner, John Kulczuga and the V. P., Lynn Minarich, were delighted to have college-age students interested in their work - because so few are.  I'm sure this company, like so many others, would welcome the ambitious unemployed to learn their business.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Business Learns From Montessori

At the Innovation Leadership Blog, read about how business is learning about the valuable Montessori concept of the "prepared environment" and how it can drive innovation.

Hattip to Mark Berger.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Passionate, innovative educator you should know

Thoughtful, passionate, innovative educator Armin Vohra explains his approach. Guess what? He was a Montessori student early in his life and incorporates many Montessori philosophy principles in his work.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

No Debate: Kids can learn by arguing

Read about Diana Kuhn, Columbia University psychology professor's experiment teaching minority sixth graders how to discuss and debate in a philosophy class. They outperformed a traditionally-taught philosophy class hands-down in writing essays, while having far less experience.

More proof of the power of Socratic Seminars.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Teenage Problems

In "What's wrong with the teenage mind?" researcher Alison Gopnik points out the essential "problem" of adolescence: teenagers are developmentally and motivationally ready and able to work, to engage with the real world, but we no longer make that possible for the most part.

Instead we warehouse them in endless classes where they must sit still and listen to adults tell them what to do and think. And our civilization is so rich that many don't have a real need to work, undermining their self-motivation to do so.  Also, parents feel they must buy their children what they want, disincentivizing them to work as well.

Having recognized these deep needs of the adolescent almost a century ago, Montessori argued that adolescents should learn their academic subjects while being in charge of the crops, animals, buildings, and living needs of a farm. She knew that responsibility for the lives of plants and animals would motivate them to get out of bed in the morning. That helping things grow would make adolescents feel competent and valuable. That these experiences would prepare them for full, self-responsible adulthood, while teaching valuable practical skills such as carpentry, cooking, marketing of goods produced on the farm, self-organization and time-management.

And we can see all these benefits in the Montessori farm programs around the country, such as the Hershey Montessori Farm School in Huntsburg, OH.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Best Business Education

"The best way that business faculty (i.e,. academics who often have minimal business experience themselves) can utilize their intellectual capital is to have students read classic business writings (e.g., Smith, Keynes, and Friedman) and wrestle with difficult questions that cannot be answered with multiple-choice bubbles. For example, addressing the classic question, “Is the social responsibility of a business to earn a profit?” would give young adults practice in tackling future abstract challenges in the workplace. The real world has more than four answer choices, and there is no answer key. "

This is from John W. Pope Center's Jason Fertig lucid article about business education - and he harkens back to a 1959 book, Higher Education for Business by Robert Gordon and James Howell, a lengthy study sponsored by the Ford Foundation, in which they say:

"When ranking academic performance across disciplines, business students are near the bottom…Too many students seek a business degree for economic vis-à-vis educational gain…Classes in business schools are too vocational…Business students need a sound grounding in liberal arts, not training for their first job."

I couldn't agree more with both Fertig and Gordon and Howell. How ironic, that this was their concern in 1959 - and it's still a problem today.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

New Evidence on Math Gap Between Genders

Read the new study available at the Notices of the American Mathematical Society on the mathematical ability gap between boys and girls. Researchers Kane and Mertz find it's much smaller than imagined, and examine various theories about it.

In Montessori we've found that girls can do just as well as boys at mathematics, using our hundreds of mathematics materials, but most girls seem to need to use the materials longer than the boys. We start all children out using materials as three year olds and introduce them to more and more advanced mathematics materials up through middle school.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

No Child Left Behind Leaves the Talented Behind

City Journal writer Sol Stern explains how No Child Left Behind has caused talented students to do worse, and contributed to the decline of high-achieving math, science, and engineering American students.

scientific innovation has generated as much as half of all U.S. economic growth over the past half-century, on some accounts....[but] bachelor’s degrees in engineering granted to Americans peaked in 1985 and are now 23 percent below that level.” 

One of my favorite quotes, because these regulations make me furious: "Among the worst regulations is the prohibition against hiring instructors who, though they may have advanced science or math degrees, lack the useless graduate-level education courses needed to qualify for a state teaching license. "