Second Prompt: Breaking out of the factory school

Ken Robinson’s video on the state of the US education system was inspiring and terrifying. He takes a cold, hard look at a system where children are diagnosed with mental diseases, when they are actually only suffering from “childhood”. The prognosis for these children is not good. They are the raw material being inserted into a factory system, meant to produce consistent, subdued workers. It is impossible to know the exact motives of the people who designed this system, since it has been a gradual progression over forty years. But if we try to glean the end product from what they’re doing to the raw material, it seems like they are looking for a group of young men and women who can sit at a desk for 8 hours a day, disconnected from their peers or the world around them and not go crazy.

Thinking back to my experience in grade school I realize how poorly I turned out relative to these standards. I certainly went crazy. I was labeled a class clown, a bad student and a troublemaker. The only label I wasn’t given, because it had not become so fashionable, was ADHD. I have no doubt that if I had been 5 or 10 years younger, I would have been heavily medicated because of my behavior.

The greatest irony of this horrible joke, is that I love to learn. I have been a reader and explorer my entire life. There are actually few subjects which don’t interest me, at least a little. I went to college, traveled the world with the Navy, and then came back because I missed the constant ability to learn new ideas that college provides. Luckily, the US grade school system didn’t totally ruin my relationship to education, but I think the students that are being churned out today will have a much tougher time protecting their academic curiosity. It is time for a massive break out of the factory school!

The Education Factory

I found this really interesting blog about the whole idea of the “factory model of education” and its origins from the economic circumstances surrounding the industrial revolution. Of particular interest is this little extract taken from Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock that was mentioned in the author’s post:

Mass education was the ingenious machine constructed by industrialism to produce the kind of adults it needed. The problem was inordinately complex. How to pre-adapt children for a new world – a world of repetitive indoor toil, smoke, noise, machines, crowded living conditions, collective discipline, a world in which time was to be regulated not by the cycle of sun and moon, but by the factory whistle and the clock.

The solution was an educational system that, in its very structure, simulated this new world. This system did not emerge instantly. Even today it retains throw-back elements from pre-industrial society. Yet the whole idea of assembling masses of students (raw material) to be processed by teachers (workers) in a centrally located school (factory) was a stroke of industrial genius. The whole administrative hierarchy of education, as it grew up, followed the model of industrial bureaucracy. The very organization of knowledge into permanent disciplines was grounded on industrial assumptions. Children marched from place to place and sat in assigned stations. Bells rang to announce changes of time.

The inner life of the school thus became an anticipatory mirror, a perfect introduction to industrial society. The most criticized features of education today – the regimentation, lack of individualization, the rigid systems of seating, grouping, grading and marking, the authoritarian role of the teacher – are precisely those that made mass public education so effective an instrument of adaptation for its place and time.

It is uncanny and quite frankly a little disturbing how accurate this description is. The good thing is that there is a wind of change. This video from RSA Animate (one of my favorite youtube channels) gives a really good overview of the history of the factory model of education and the changing paradigm shift. What I found particularly interesting (not surprising!) was the correlation between ADHD diagnosis (of almost epidemic proportions) and the rise of standardized testing. Watch the rest of the video (especially the bit on Divergent Thinking)! As a bonus here is another video I found particularly useful in helping me understand the history of education.

It’s time to leave behind the century-old education system andTurn the Page

Never give up.

Robinson, Wesch and the politics of ‘risk taking’ as a teacher.

The teachers that have made the greatest impression on me and my direction of study have been those who learn alongside us students. The power-directing, control orienting, “look at me up here” teachers are usually the type we fail to recall much, perhaps with some exception.

Ken Robinson and Michael Wesch echo this sentiment through their respective attitudes on the dearth of real learning. I took to heart Michael Wesch notion of the ‘significance problem’ and watched his disheartening video “A Vision of Students Today”, showing us the all-to-often harsh reality of the contemporary student’s attitude towards learning in universities. Both Robinson and Wesch are asking us to put purpose, teleologically driven mindsets back into classroom management and teaching.

Wesch, for example, takes Mashal McLuhan’s notion of the “medium is the message” as a means to reify learning instead of simply conveying information. One way to assess the success of this so called “Simulation Method” is to see the quality of students questions. Since Wesch is not “teaching” in the traditional sense mentioned above, he describes his style as akin to a type of “anti-teaching”. He states, “I am in the wonderful but awkward position of not knowing exactly what I am doing but blissfully learning along the way [with his students]. My job becomes less about teaching and more about encouraging students to join me on their quest” (last page, second to last paragraph). Thus, by making ourselves a student alongside our students, stating from the first class that “I too am learning alongside you!” will create an environment of humility towards knowledge and life that is necessary for learning. And everyone learns, even if they do not go to school.

Wesch is willing to take the risks that Robinson lays out in his speech to instill a sense of curiosity and learning about “how the world works”. Would we be willing to take such risks as teachers, fearing student responses, the position of our tenure-ship, inter-departmental politics, funding, and a university administration that seems to perpetuate the dullness of learning? There are simply too many political impediments that make such risks possible. Just as students want to get credit and get out, university administration seem to believe the same. Is a revolution in teaching, thus, necessary from the ground-up or top-down? Help me think this through!

Silly Mama, tables are for eating

As a young kid I was convinced dinner was “supposed” to come directly after lunch, it was just never fully practiced. I had asked my mom once why she seemed to care so much about clearing and washing the table after lunch.  She said, “so it can be ready for dinner.”  Seemed to me like a lot of wasted momentum.  She never did get around to making dinner after she finished clearing the table.  We weren’t really hunger anyways.  Mama’s can be so silly sometimes.

The readings this week talk about how the way we think effects the way we learn.  I want to  look at the way kids think differently than adults, and some of the learning benefits to thinking like a kid.  What we are looking for in the information we receive completely changes the way we learn, what we learn, and how useful the learning is.

Dr. Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, has a theory that kids are like “the research and development division of the human species.” She is featured on a recent Freakonomics radio podcast, as well as a professional magician. The magician demonstrated what he says is common knowledge in his profession: that kids are much more likely to figure out how a magic trick was done than adults are. They and others attempted to sort through the ways of thinking that make this the case.

Is there something that we should be learning from kids?  One explanation is that kids are constantly coming up with theories while adults are essentially waiting for the punch line.  I imagine that kids come up with running hypothesis as they go and are not as worried as adults about throwing in some silly ones.   The consequences for giving a “silly” hypothesis a vocal and working chance are greater for an adult than for a child (or at least the perceived consequences, but in certain social and profession settings I think negative feedback can be real). I think adults tend to look for the safest answers. The “grownups” feel duped if they are caught making a guess that turns out to be wrong, whereas kids feel duped if they never make the guess that turns out to be right.

The readings this week were about how to capture a mindset – almost how to capture a child-likeness – that enables learning. Referencing the examples in psychologist Dr. Ellen Langer’s book The Power of Mindful Learning I would summarize her argument as the idea that learning is undermined and debilitated operate on the mindset that there is such thing as a right or wrong heuristic.  She powerfully argues for the importance of recognizing heuristics for what they are early in the learning process and asking the why behind the habit before over practice and under thinking ingrains the habit itself as some sort of underlying truth.

I used a slightly different vocabulary than Langer does to reflect the point that I take away from her examples. Her original wording says that learning is debilitated by the mindset that “there are right and wrong answers.” I see the idea that “there are right and wrong heuristics” fitting more directly with the her examples. As a scientist I take issue with the idea that the mindset that the word is unknowable and intractable is likely to lead to a more active scientific process. Like kids figuring out a magic trick –  they assume it is knowable, and they look to solve the mystery. Whereas adults are essentially assuming that if it is a good magician the trick will be unknowable (to them). Trying to figure out the mystery could put us in a position of looking the fool. So we don’t. From my perspective we are already too often guilty in science of looking at the world the way with science like a bunch of “grownups” watching a magic show.  I’ll stick with my shifted vocabulary.

I think kids are naturally good at wanting to understand not only how to do something, or what to do, but why to do it.  I like the way the readings illustrate the value of allowing people to rethink patterns we might otherwise have long forgotten need rethinking.

In the meantime it’s getting late. I had better go clear the table for breakfast.

Why Can’t My Students See the Forest for the Trees?

A dichotomous key is a useful tool that practically anyone can use for identifying plants. “Is the bark smooth? If so, go to step 5. Are the leaves serrated? If so, go to step 8. Your tree must be is a beech tree.” Of course, in a plant identification class, using this step by step plant identification key would be considered cheating. A good horticulturalist should have these steps memorized then, right? Actually, no.

The woody landscape plants identification lab is a class I’ve taught for six semesters now. As the course name infers, students learn identification features (e.g., leaf shape, bark color, fruit size, etc.) of plants typically used in landscape design. As part of their evaluation, students are required to correctly identify these plants by their common and botanical names, on the spot, as we walk through campus. Without a doubt, students’ greatest struggle at the start of this class is that they try to get by with memorizing a few ID features for each plant and forget to look at the big picture—to literally step back and consider context. This is what I call the mindless, “dichotomous key approach,” and it doesn’t work; nature doesn’t have a mold. For example, after having incorrectly identified a plant, a student will comment, “but that tree isn’t supposed to be crooked like that.” My reply is something along the lines of “…and that tree didn’t expect to get hit by lightning.”

Ellen J. Langer (2000) defines mindfulness as “a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context.” She asserts that how we teach may be more valuable than the material we are actually teaching. After having read Langer’s article, I had a teaching epiphany. My students don’t need a longer list of differentiating anatomical features to improve their ability to identify plants. They really just need to remember to think. From here on, my teaching strategy for this course will be geared more toward how to think about plant identification, rather than what to remember.

Have any of you had a similar experience in your field?

Literature Cited:

Langer, E.J. 2000. Mindful Learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science 9(6):220-223.

Better Strategies Needed for Evaluation of Teaching to Foster Critical Thingking

According to National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, critical thinking is “the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”

Everyone endorses the teaching of critical thinking and every teacher try to build their teaching philosophy. But critical thinking taught in what fashion? And how to evaluate teaching effectiveness for critical thinking?

In the field of Geography, there is a growing need for software training, especially for GIS and remote sensing. I think the best way to learn software is a question-driven approach or a project-oriented approach. Most of GIS and remote sensing courses use computer labs and customized class projects to help students to get familiar with software packages, and more importantly, to improve their skills in computer-aided problem-solving. Based on my experience as a teaching assistant and an instructor, two types of strategies are used mostly for computer labs. The first one is providing students with detailed step-by-step lab instructions. Students only need to follow the instructions and click the button even without thinking. There are less simple questions from students because they have all the information. But at the end of the courses, many students still know little about the software techniques. The second one is providing students with problems, goals and plenty of data. Students need to select their methods and data to support their analysis. It encourages students to think critically to solve the problems. Some students will find multiple ways to reach the goals and bring good ideas for their class projects, but many others, especially undergrads, still rely on instructors and teaching assistants to tell them step by step. They complain the second method is too hard and time consuming. They suggest instructors should provide step-by-step instructions from their evaluation. In such cases, evaluation is not effective. How to solve this mismatch problem?


Iran Education system needs a revolutionary change-1

As an Iranian who was born during a huge baby boom after the revolution, I have experienced how wasteful and useless is the standardized test.  The university entrance exam in Iran was held since 1969 and it continues till today. Iran education system suffers from lots of deficiencies. The education system in Iran mostly copied from France and it faces few reforms since early of twentieth century. In my opinion, Iran education system needs a revolutionary change. It wastes time and energy of students in a most ineffective way!  Here in this post I try to describe some of the problems of this system and how the university entrance exam kills creativity and innovation in my country.

The first problem in this system came back to tracking. As of lots of other countries such as Germany, France, China, Hong Kong and so on, Iranian students also tracked in different branches when they finish 9th grade. Students should choose between academic track and vocational track. In academic track there are four theoretical branches: Mathematics and physics, Biology, Humanities, and Art. In vocational track there are lots of applied branches which have a goal to provide technicians for country. The government tried to encourage more students to choose vocational track back to early 90s but the reform program in high school at that time was totally failed. Students who choose to go to vocational track could get vocational diploma and they only can take associate exam and earn associate degree. Although after they earn associate degree, they can attend in another exam and if they earn good points at that exam they can enter to college to earn bachelor degree, the total process is both time consuming and risky. In addition, traditionally, more talented students choose the academic track since they will have chance to go to the best colleges of the country. Families don’t like their children choose vocational track because they think it is risky, time consuming, with less social prestigious as well as lower peer effect during high school. As a result all reforms have been made to improve the situation of vocational track has been failed.


At the beginning of grade 10, student should have chosen their field. Again, another sorting happened among students and it causes lots of troubles for them in future. Most families in Iran have a desire for kids to be either engineer or medical doctors. The situation is much better now due to high unemployment rate among engineers and doctors in Iran but in my time, lots of families forced their kids to choose either mathematics or biology branch in high school to have a chance to be either engineer or medical doctor. I have seen this phenomenon among lots of my friends and later on in university they faced with depression, having a reluctant feeling to continue their education, wasting their times and energy and so on. Other than families’ forces, there is not enough clear information regarding to different path of that important decisions. Teachers in high schools encourage talented students, especially those with higher grades in mathematics, to choose mathematics and physics branch. Those who are good in math and biology encourage choosing biology, the rest of students choose either humanities or Art. Because of this sorting, the resources (students) may allocate inefficiently during high school. Even if a student is free to choose the branch based on his/her own interests, since s/he faces with weaker peer groups in humanities or Art, s/he may prefer to choose mathematics in high school and then take art or humanities entrance exam for college. These cultures along with the system itself cause wasting time, energy, incentives, and resources.

The second problem of the system came back to national university entrance exam. Best universities in Iran are public universities and the private universities (where Azad University is the largest of them) are not as good as public universities. The problem I try to explain here is not as severe as my time because the student population declines drastically due to family planning run since end of 1980s. In my time, more than 500,000 students participated in mathematics exam and less than 50% of them would be eligible to choose major/college and among those 50% qualified students, less than 50% of them went to college. For instance in 2003, the year I took that exam, about 1,400,000 students participate in entrance exam in all branches and less than 250,000 were admitted for college (about 17% of them). As a result, lots of students would take the entrance exam again or go to job market. Those who went behind the exam would not have good situation. For boys it is not good because they should go to military service and put two years of their lives for that task. For girls, it is not good because few job opportunities are available for them as high school diploma. It is essential to note that in general women face with lower job opportunities in Iran than men and in addition, whiles lots of unemployed women with bachelor degree are in job market, the situation for those with high school diploma is even worse. High competition in this exam causes lots of social problem. One problem came back to rising inequality of opportunity. The second problem is related to killing of creativity and innovation among high school graduates and high school students. The third problem is students again sorted based on one number and if you were a good test taker specially performed well in multiple choice exams, you would be the winner: you can choose the best university and the best majors. If not, you will end up with the worst results. Since this post is already too long, I would like to explain in details in next post.

Remember, There Isn’t a Right Answer

I said last week that metal casting students (engineers in general, but especially metal casters) are some of the most static and resistant to change of any at Tech. Well, they’re a faithful reflection of the field as a whole.

In an industry whose main job is to make the same parts in the same ways, for the sake of reliability, predictability, accountability, day in and day out, that repetition bleeds into many aspects beyond the physical process itself. It creates that mentality that change is scary and bad: “we know method A works because we’ve used it for twenty years. We don’t want to risk trying method B.”

There aren’t many fields where a textbook on modern practices and techniques can be thirteen years old and still completely up to date, but I have one, and it is.

I think a large part of the problem is with how casting students are taught. In the introduction and first chapter of Ellen Langer’s book The Power of Mindful Learning, she discusses the dangers of overlearning basic skills, to the point where they become rote and mindless. The danger, she says, is that when a skill can be performed without thinking about it, it cannot be modified or adapted to new contexts. She cites a number of examples where students were given lessons in either authoritative, this-is-the-single-correct-way styles or more open-ended, conditional, there-are-more-options-than-these styles.

This really struck a chord with me because I see the former style so often in our curriculum. The thirteen-year-old text, for example, presents its information as absolute fact, this-is-how-it’s-done. This is one of the two texts that I have available with which to teach my design class. The other text, while it takes an approach that’s very contradictory to the older book, still presents the information as this-is-the-only-true-answer. Neither of them allow for a great degree of latitude or creativity.

I’ve seen it in myself, where skills I’ve either acquired or have been taught have stayed fixed and static because I never thought to vary them or never thought I could. I did my best to fight back against it starting last semester, when I was helping to teach hands-on skills to new students at the foundry. I made sure to minimize how often I said “this is the way to do it” and instead phrase it as “one way that works for me is X”, and I encouraged them to find their own styles.

I want to continue this in my class this semester, especially since it’s a design class. Nothing will create worse designs than a mental framework that can’t change and is locked in a singular method of doing things. I want to encourage my students to get creative, to challenge and doubt what the texts, and I, tell them is “right” or “wrong”. And that’s the beauty of the computer simulations that we can do in my class: they can make as many different designs as they want, get things “wrong” a hundred times, and just keep playing around with it, keep tweaking their designs, until they find their unique vision and strategy for how to approach these issues.

At the beginning of the semester, I asked my students to tell me what they wanted to learn from the class and to describe their learning styles. One student’s response stands out to me in particular after having read Langer’s piece: they said that they would love to get a flowchart for the design process. This is a terribly stifling idea, that there’s a simple procedure to follow to make a good design. If making a flowchart works well for you, then by all means, make one. But I wouldn’t dare create one for the class and have them all follow it. Everyone needs to be creative and flexible, willing to fail, to try new things, because that is how you truly Create.

Because remember, there’s no right answer.

“Oh, that’s so significant!”

Sir Ken Robinson, in this video, mentions that in some parts of United States 60% of children drop out of high school. He was ridiculing the No Child Left Behind Act whose problem stems from its highly decontextualized, one-standardized-test-fits-all approach to education. Like he talks in the video, millions are left behind and those that stay are not learning effectively. This video by Father Guido Sarducci (Don Novello) could well be used to summarize the effect of such a learning environment: One way to curb such a problem would be to encourage a personalized, autonomous, contextualized, practice-based learning environment somewhat similar to the tenants that I discussed in my previous post. Recently in a Hacker News discussion, I had posted an idea for a similar learning environment:
We should look at how we can improve the ROI for education. Millions across the world, especially in developing countries, drop out of school because they (and/or their guardians) see no benefit from long-term investment in education. Others who somehow manage to stay in formal institutions are exposed to decontextualized education that they cannot realize their full potential. There will be many different solutions to it. One of them could be a large-scale, technology-immersed learning system that teaches a broad range of topics to students through a vocation. The vocation could be decided based on the learner’s interest and the local resources. For example, in northern Nepal, children walk through perilous snow-covered hills and mountains to recover Yarsagumba (“Himalayan viagra”), a fungus with aphrodisiac and medicinal value. Instead, the kids can be educated progressively in details about different aspects surrounding Yarsagumba – mountain climbing, biological systems, business, marketing (where they could sell the collected Yarsagumba), greenhouse and high-tech farming systems, technology, etc. – without disturbing their Yarsamgumba collecting activity. This is a simple example. Since a diverse topics are being taught and practiced, learners would not be restricted in the same vocation.
As conveyed in the above message, for me, an effective learning environment would encompass a highly contextualized learning with active learners actively participating in the learning process and ultimately creating artifacts. Michael Wesch, in his article, mentions that a significant problem in education arises because students struggle to find meaning and significance in their education. The hope is that through a contextualized learning experience, such as the example I mentioned above, we would make learners exclaim, with the joy of new-found knowledge, “Oh, that’s so significant!”
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