The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'education'
Apparently Finland's school system is scrapping cursive writing lessons in favour of typing. In other news: apparently, in the 21st century, children are still taught cursive writing in schools:
"There's research shows us that a child will have a better concept and better memory for what a letter is and what it represents if they actually handwrite it ... [but] the argument is really against those pages of cursive, joined-up writing exercises which, in the end actually don't change many people's hand writing styles... Cursive writing is cute, and nice, and decorative if you've got a leaning towards wanting to do it ... just like you might like to learn to crochet or knit.
"The handwriting exercises that we do are really based on very old technology," she said."So when we teach kids particular downstrokes and where to start their letters, it's really based on how you had to use the technology of a fountain pen and ink."Cursive writing is a funny thing; it's not quite practical (who writes an essay under exam conditions cursively, and who finds that more legible than neatly separated printed script?), and it's not quite decorative (it stops well short of anything that could even generously be called “calligraphy”). Its sole raison d'etre is tradition (that teaching children fountain-pen-era techniques is in some ways useful), if not an authoritarian, vaguely punitive disciplinary mindset (idle hands are the devil's plaything, and those little hell-apes that we call children must have their rebellious spirits broken with laborious exercises lest they get up to mischief). Perhaps killing it off as a mandatory part of the curriculum could be the best thing for it: once it's no longer compulsory, and is as alien to the average person as film photography or slide rules, some subset of artisanal crafters and/or hipster contrarians will take it upon themselves to revive this vintage skill and take it further than it would have otherwise gone?
The article, on ABC News, speculates on the possibility of Australia following the Finnish lead and removing cursive writing from its schools. I expect that will happen somewhere around the time of them ditching King Charles III as their head of state and abolishing Imperial honours for the second time in history. I can imagine the ultra-conservative establishment running the country wouldn't have a bar of any such proposal, and indeed can almost read the column in The Australian denouncing the very idea as proof that the Marxists have taken over the teaching profession.
In the US, McDonalds is now requiring candidates for cashier jobs to have bachelor's degrees. So if you're wondering what sort of work a BA qualifies you to do, wonder no more.
I wonder whether this is because having studied something at university level provides essential skills for operating a till (which would suggest a collapse in secondary school standards in the US; i.e., the strong likelihood that a high-school graduate without a degree is functionally innumerate), or because employees with the level of debt accrued through taking a degree are more compliant?
A piece in the Guardian looking at what exactly is taught in the Christian Fundamentalist academies enthusiastically enabled by the Tories' education reforms:
In an English test, students face the following multiple-choice question:
(29) Responsible citizens will vote for political candidates who
a. promise to provide good paying jobs for all those who are out of work
b. promise to cut back on both government services and spending and cut taxes
c. promise to raise taxes on "big business" and use the money to help the poor
d. promise to provide child-care services for all mothers who need to work
(The "correct" answer is b.)
A church history assessment contains these questions: (1) The four foes of the faith considered in this Pace are____________.
(Answer: "rationalism, materialism, evolutionism, and communism".)
(2) The foe of the faith that takes in all the other three foes and is organised against the church is _________.
In economics, Keynesian ideas are wrong while Adam Smith's are right. In geography, the prosperity of nations is clearly linked to the amount of Christian influence ("God blessed the United States, and it became the strongest and most prosperous nation on Earth"). In US history, it is taught that Jesus commanded us to make a profit; giving "handouts to citizens" was contrary to the intentions of America's hallowed founding fathers; nontaxpayers should not vote; and it is wrong for governments to provide welfare for citizens. "Liberals" receive particular criticism.Which sounds like the plan is to build up a Religious Right bloc who can be counted on to vote Tory, contribute to election campaigns, go out letterboxing for campaigns rain or shine, and wage holy war against the Left in all its forms; i.e., the crystal meth of right-wing politics. It's a rush when you start, but before you know it, your party is beholden to religious fundamentalists and unable to shake them off even when facing electoral annihilation from those who don't count themselves among their ranks; this happened to the Republicans in the US, and for all the voices calling for modernisation, they're in no hurry to go cold turkey and go even further into the wilderness.
In the light of Wikipedia disappearing for a day in protest against the SOPA law, an article by an assistant professor comparing the philosophy of Wikipedia with that of traditional paper encyclopaedias:
Reading the high-quality, professionally edited entries in my library’s encyclopedias was an eye-opener and a guilty pleasure — you could learn so much with so little effort! And you don’t have to work as hard untangling the entries the way you do with Wikipedia! But this is exactly the problem with closed, for-profit encyclopedias: they require no work. In fact, they require just the opposite: submission to authority. The writing guidelines for my encyclopedia entry insist that there be no quotations or citations — just a short list of additional readings. Encyclopedias give us no reason to believe their claims are true except the arbitrary authority of those who write them. They are the ultimate triumph of the authoritarian impulse in academics.
It is this refusal of arbitrary authority that really scares encyclopedia types, not worries about accuracy. Wikipedia is a place where you must learn to think for yourself, encyclopedias are places where you are told what to believe.It's interesting that the authoritarian underpinnings of the encyclopaedia, necessary for the purposes of aggregating broadly accepted knowledge within convenient reach, went all but unnoticed (and, had anybody noticed and criticised them, they would have sounded like some kind of hopelessly idealistic hippy Arcadian) until the disintermediating power of the internet demonstrated that another world is possible.
A call for papers has been issued for an anthology of academic papers which addresses a hitherto underexamined niche: zombies and the undead and higher education institutions:
This book takes up the momentum provided by the recent resurgence of interest in zombie culture to explore the relevance of the zombie trope to discussions of scholarly practice itself. The zombie is an extraordinarily rich and evocative popular cultural form, and zombidity, zombification and necromancy can function as compelling elements in a conceptual repertoire for both explaining and critically ‘enlivening’ the debates around a broad variety of cultural and institutional phenomena evident in the contemporary university. We propose to canvas a range of critical accounts of the contemporary university as a living dead culture. We are therefore seeking interdisciplinary proposals for papers that investigate the political, cultural, organisational, and pedagogical state of the university, through applying the metaphor of zombiedom to both the form and content of professional academic work.Zombies in the Academy: Living Death in Higher Education is scheduled for publication in 2012, and will address three broad topics: "corporatisation, bureaucratisation, and zombification of higher education", "technology, digital media and moribund content distribution infecting the university", and the intriguingly phrased "zombie literacies and living dead pedagogies". The call for papers has a number of example paper topic suggestions, in which the metaphor of the undead is applied to everything from moribund institutions to Marxist critiques of "undead labour" (did Marx actually use the word "undead"?) to the question of whether zombiedom could be a positive adaptation to the academic environment.
If you're thinking of doing a PhD to advance your career, you may want to reconsider: there is a glut of PhDs in the market and not enough jobs for them, other than postdoctoral work at slave-labour wages:
One thing many PhD students have in common is dissatisfaction. Some describe their work as “slave labour”. Seven-day weeks, ten-hour days, low pay and uncertain prospects are widespread. You know you are a graduate student, goes one quip, when your office is better decorated than your home and you have a favourite flavour of instant noodle. “It isn’t graduate school itself that is discouraging,” says one student, who confesses to rather enjoying the hunt for free pizza. “What’s discouraging is realising the end point has been yanked out of reach.”
Whining PhD students are nothing new, but there seem to be genuine problems with the system that produces research doctorates (the practical “professional doctorates” in fields such as law, business and medicine have a more obvious value). There is an oversupply of PhDs. Although a doctorate is designed as training for a job in academia, the number of PhD positions is unrelated to the number of job openings. Meanwhile, business leaders complain about shortages of high-level skills, suggesting PhDs are not teaching the right things. The fiercest critics compare research doctorates to Ponzi or pyramid schemes.As a result, the traditional bargain (crummy pay now for an academic career later) no longer holds, and postdocs are starting to see themselves not as apprentices on the first step to something better but as disposable cheap labour. (In Canada, apparently 80% of postdocs earn no more than the salary of a construction worker.) This has led to a new development: the rise of trade unions of PhD-accredited teaching staff.
As far as non-academic careers go, the picture isn't much brighter. Having a PhD no longer gets one a salary premium over having a mere Master's. (In some areas, such as engineering and technology, a PhD actually gets you less than a Master's. Meanwhile, the functions of having a PhD (i.e., advanced knowledge potentially applicable to a field) have been taken over by more specialised, market-oriented courses:
Dr Schwartz, the New York physicist, says the skills learned in the course of a PhD can be readily acquired through much shorter courses. Thirty years ago, he says, Wall Street firms realised that some physicists could work out differential equations and recruited them to become “quants”, analysts and traders. Today several short courses offer the advanced maths useful for finance. “A PhD physicist with one course on differential equations is not competitive,” says Dr Schwartz.I imagine this is part of the ongoing theme of the entire education infrastructure of the current world, having developed largely from the Middle Ages onward, not keeping pace well with technologically-driven social and economic change. Chances are that, over the next few decades, the assumptions of how education works and what functions it fulfils will have to be looked at anew on all levels.
Want your kids to turn out smart? Don't worry about sending them to the most expensive intensive-cramming preschools, but do make sure they grow up in a house full of books. A study has found that the amount of books in a household is correlated with how many years of schooling the children in that household complete. Of course, correlation is not causation (it could be, for example, that people inclined to academic achievement for some other, immutable, reason are inclined to own books); however, another study found that giving low-income children 12 books of their own choice on the first day of summer vacation is successful in arresting the process by which they would otherwise fall behind their more privileged peers.
Of course, you don't have to buy a book to read it, but the act of giving someone a book of his or her own has an undeniable, totemic power. As much as we love libraries, there is something in possessing a book that's significantly different from borrowing it, especially for a child. You can write your name in it and keep it always. It transforms you into the kind of person who owns books, a member of the club, as well as part of a family that has them around the house. You're no longer just a visitor to the realm of the written word: You've got a passport.Meanwhile, another study has shown that the children of lesbian couples do better than average in schools.
A new study from Bristol University has looked into the differences between cat owners and dog owners. As well as the usual stereotypes (cat owners are more likely to be women who live alone), they discovered that cat owners are more likely to have degrees than dog owners (47.2% of households with cats have one person with a degree, compared to 38.4% with a dog):
"Our best guess is that it's to do with working hours and perhaps commuting to work, meaning people have a less suitable lifestyle for a dog. It's really just a hunch though."Or perhaps there are common psychological traits associated with a fondness for cats and a likelihood to apply oneself to study (or, indeed, a fondness for dogs and a likelihood to quit wastin' time and go out into the real world)?
One thing Britain won't be short of any time soon is qualified forensic scientists; the country's universities are competing for the pool of science students by laying on forensic science degrees to attract fans of police-procedural TV shows:
Let's call it the CSI Effect: thanks to the uncontrolled proliferation of cop shows focusing on forensic investigation, including Bones, Silent Witness, CSI and its Miami and New York spin-offs, the number of degree courses in forensic science being offered in the UK has rocketed, from just two in 1990 to 285 this year.
The biggest problem, however, is that crime has not kept pace with the explosion in TV detective shows. The government-owned Forensic Science Service currently finds 1,300 scientists sufficient for its crime-solving needs. The UK's largest private provider, LGC Forensics, employs 500 people. In 2008 alone, 1,667 students embarked on forensic science degree courses. In order to ensure there are enough jobs to go round, more than half of them will have to retrain as serial killers.
A high school in Texas has a novel way of dealing with troubled youths: putting them in a steel cage and letting them fight it out with their bare fists:
One employee overheard Mr. Moten tell a security guard to take two students who had been at each other for days and “put ’em in the cage and let them duke it out,” the report states, and the practice was so embedded in the school’s culture that one student remarked to a teacher that he was “gonna be in the cage.”Meanwhile in Sydney, rival motorcycle gangs went on a rampage at the airport, and one man was bludgeoned to death with a
The BBC has a piece on how university fees have changed academic culture in Britain, streamlining the fusty old halls of academe into a model of efficient free-market service delivery, with none of the fuss and waste that came before:
Frank Furedi, social commentator and academic at the University of Kent, says that the campus culture is "unrecognisable" from a generation ago. Students now ring lecturers at home at the weekend, he says, seeing this as being part of the service they are buying with their fees.
"The relationship with the student is no longer academic, it's a service provider and customer. The academic relationship is an endangered species."
Students are more careers-focused than ever before, the accumulation of large debts putting pressure on them to get a degree that will help them in the jobs market.
At present, he says, the current level of student debt means that many more students have to take part-time jobs to pay their way.
Germany's Potsdam University is offering its computer science master's degree students a new subject: a practical course in flirting skills, ostensibly designed to improve students' social skills and ability to operate in the real world:
The 440 students enrolled in the master's degree course will learn how to write flirtatious text messages and emails, impress people at parties and cope with rejection.
Philip von Senftleben, an author and radio presenter who will teach the course, summed up his job as teaching how to "get someone else's heart beating fast while yours stays calm."(Ah, those Germans: they even make the sport of love sound like a duelling society...)
Of course, the idea of flirting courses for compulsively-systematising geeks is not a new one, though they have usually consisted of sneaky hacks for getting laid, typically boiling down to embedding subliminal messages in one's speech, surreptitiously pointing to one's crotch and going to bars wearing ridiculously flamboyant boots and a LED belt buckle to get attention. It's not clear whether the Potsdam course will follow in this vein.
This is not the Onion: The latest children's book to be making a ripple is "My Beautiful Mommy", written by Florida plastic surgeon Michael Salzhauer, and intended to help children come to terms with their mothers' plastic surgery:
"My Beautiful Mommy" is aimed at kids ages four to seven and features a plastic surgeon named Dr. Michael (a musclebound superhero type) and a girl whose mother gets a tummy tuck, a nose job and breast implants. Before her surgery the mom explains that she is getting a smaller tummy: "You see, as I got older, my body stretched and I couldn't fit into my clothes anymore. Dr. Michael is going to help fix that and make me feel better." Mom comes home looking like a slightly bruised Barbie doll with demure bandages on her nose and around her waist.
Then there are the body image issues raised by cosmetic surgery—especially for daughters. Berger worries that kids will think their own body parts must need "fixing" too. The surgery on a nose, for example, may "convey to the child that the child's nose, which always seemed OK, might be perceived by Mommy or by somebody as unacceptable," she says.
(via Boing Boing)
They're now selling toy airport screening machines for children. the Scan-It Operation Checkpoint Toy X-Ray Machine, a colourful box with a conveyor belt and a built-in metal detector, is designed to "help children understand and be comfortable and confident in the need and process of higher security protocols" in the post-9/11 age.
If there is a need for toys to instill into our children from an early age the awareness that we, as a society, are in a permanent low-level state of siege and need to accept increasing amounts of security control in our lives for our mutual safety, perhaps we can soon expect other similarly educational toys. How about a Biometric ID Card Play Set, with several Flash-based cards and a reader with working digital camera/fingerprint scanner, hich stores and checks the users' details? Or a Junior CCTV Surveillance kit, which lets youngsters play at silently keeping the city secure from ever-present threats? Or perhaps the Guantanamo Interrogation Play Set, with 9V battery-powered electric shock machine and waterboard? The possibilities are endless.
Adam "Ape Lad" Koford, author of The Laugh-Out-Loud Cats has posted a graphical argument against the teaching of cursive writing in schools:
Details have emerged of the One Laptop Per Child machine; that's the cute little
green orange laptop designed to be given to children in the developing world, costing US$100 per unit. It has some rather nifty technological and design innovations, specifically tailored for its purpose:
It's got bunny ears - antennae for the 802.11s wireless radios, which are designed to self-assemble meshes with other laptops. The ears fold down to cover the USB, power and mic ports, an excellent design for the sorts of dusty environments I can imagine the device used in. The screen in the current prototype is a conventional LCD screen - the screen in the production devices will be roughly the same size, probably slightly larger than the 7.5" screen in the prototype, but will be based around a technique that doesn't require white fluorescent backlight. (Many of the questions I need to answer for the IEEE article concern the screen, as it's one of the most expensive and power-hungry components of the machine.) The keyboard is about 60% of the size of a conventional keyboard and has calculator-style keys.
The one feature missing from the prototype I saw - the crank. It's been clear - even before Kofi Annan broke the crank off an early laptop prototype - that a power-generating crank attached to the machine, like cranks are incorporated into FreePlay radios, might not work. Jim, who has designed the motherboard of the machine and has been focused on power consumption, helped me understand why.
The machine still needs to be miserly with power to be usable as a human-charged device. And this is where the team have worked some serious magic. When the machine is not in active use, it can act as a mesh node, helping maintain a connectivity cloud over a village or school while drawing only 0.5 watts - the wireless subsystem (a Marvell chip with 100kb of RAM) operates independently of the main processor and can forward packets with the CPU shut down. The machine draws a similar amount of power in ebook mode, using a black and white display. The display IC has a substantial frame buffer - this means it can store a black and white image and display it without any assistance from the CPU, again allowing the CPU to shut down and save power.For those wanting one as a toy/a second laptop/a travelling computer, you can't buy one. Though that's probably just as well, as you'd probably find it somewhat disappointing to actually use, unless you're a child. For one, there's the tiny keyboard, the low memory capacity and CPU power, and the rather unbusinesslike orange colour that would get one laughed out of deathmatch parties.
The OLPC is designed to be subversively hackable. The hardware is designed for modifiability (whilst the circuit board will come lightly populated, there are spaces where memory, add-ons and extra ports can be added, and one of the design considerations is wide pitch, to make it easier to repair, modify or cannibalise dead machines to make working ones). Also, the built-in software, which runs on Linux, ships with full development tools and extensively uses the ideas of open-source and wiki content:
Logowiki, from what I've seen of it, is amazingly cool. It starts from a collection of wiki pages, like Wikipedia, and treats pages as computational objects. This means that the Wikipedia page on Logo would run Logo, letting you try out functions and move the turtle around. This opens up some amazing possibilities - wiki pages about physics that include programmable models that help you understand acceleration or momentum, for instance. And, indeed, you can come onto logowiki and play with little programs that build spirals or calculate Pi.The wiki concept isn't just a neat hack; it's also a meta-level end-run of sorts around any censorious or repressive tendencies the governments which buy and populate these machines may have:
Wikis are important to the architecture of the software for another reason - they're part of the subversive strategy behind the machine. The OLPC team won't have control over what content is loaded onto the laptop in different countries - that's the decision of individual education ministries. But by using wikis as a content management system - rather than, say, a PDF viewer - the team manages to sneak in the idea of user-generated content into schools. Perhaps most textbook pages will be protected in a wiki structure - wiki features like discussion pages will still exist, opening new possibilities for how kids interact with schoolbooks.So if the Taliban or Kim Jong Il want to buy a few containers of machines and cripple them to make them incapable of being used in blasphemous or ideologically impure ways, they're better off licensing Microsoft's alternative system, which takes a more managed approach to freedom and creative play. Perhaps the DRM systems in MS's solution (which, I'm sure, will be nicely prettified to teach children how to be well-behaved citizens of the global marketplace) can also be used to prevent play from veering off in blasphemous or seditious directions.
As well as seizing control of industrial relations from the states, the Australian federal government will also use its new powers to unify the school systems. All Australian schools will have an emphasis on "values"; not much is said about what sorts of values, but there are hints in the other changes: all students will take 2 hours of mandatory physical education training a week (all the better to make fit soldiers for our future engagements, and/or foster a naturally conformistic and conservative jock culture), and schools will also need to fly the Australian flag at assemblies (to instill a US-style culture of jingoistic patriotism; perhaps a pledge of allegiance will be next). And so, the Australian school system becomes a weapon in the culture war, striking a hammer-blow to the degenerate un-Australian values of Whitlam/Keating-era latte-leftists and producing a new crop of strong, patriotic, God-fearing future Herald-Sun readers; or so it is hoped.
A post on teaching one's children to program in Python:
your_name = raw_input("What's your name? ")
if your_name.lower() == "freja":
print "You're very stinky,", your_name
print "You smell lovely, ", your_name
Which sounds like the next generation's equivalent of 10 PRINT "JASON IS ACE!" 20 GOTO 10
According to Neil Gaiman, prison companies in the US use juvenile illiteracy levels to predict how many prison cells to build:
At the Publishers' Lunch I attended last week, Joel Klein mentioned that the people who build private prisons in the US use third grade (that's about age eight for the non-Americans) illiteracy levels as their key to how many people are going to be in prison in ten, fifteen years, and how many prison cells they're going to need to build.
Thanks to Loki for digging that fact up.
A former teacher blows the lid off the real functions of schools; sounds somewhere between a Situationist pamphlet and a New Waver sound collage: (via NWD)
1) The adjustive or adaptive function. Schools are to establish fixed habits of reaction to authority. This, of course, precludes critical judgment completely. It also pretty much destroys the idea that useful or interesting material should be taught, because you can't test for reflexive obedience until you know whether you can make kids learn, and do, foolish and boring things.
2) The integrating function. This might well be called "the conformity function," because its intention is to make children as alike as possible. People who conform are predictable, and this is of great use to those who wish to harness and manipulate a large labor force.
3) The diagnostic and directive function. School is meant to determine each student's proper social role. This is done by logging evidence mathematically and anecdotally on cumulative records. As in "your permanent record." Yes, you do have one.
This part makes some sense (and reminds me of a claim I heard that the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was behind the modern education system's emphasis on unstructured rote memorisation of facts rather than critical analysis; the former makes useful worker drones, whereas the latter can breed revolutionaries and troublemakers. Mind you, it wouldn't surprise me if the source of the claim was some Marxist or anarchist pamphlet.)
Point 5, however, is a bit more paranoid.
5) The selective function. This refers not to human choice at all but to Darwin's theory of natural selection as applied to what he called "the favored races." In short, the idea is to help things along by consciously attempting to improve the breeding stock. Schools are meant to tag the unfit - with poor grades, remedial placement, and other punishments - clearly enough that their peers will accept them as inferior and effectively bar them from the reproductive sweepstakes. That's what all those little humiliations from first grade onward were intended to do: wash the dirt down the drain.
Granted, school is a brutal, high-intensity pressure-cooker environment that brings out the worst in its inmates, and I can buy the theory that it conveniently serves the purpose of instilling conformity and social cohesion (though, these days, TV, short attention spans and medication also help); however, the claim that it's designed to act as a system of psychological eugenics to keep the unfit from breeding is a bit harder to swallow.
The value of arts degrees has been unofficially questioned in humour and popular culture for decades (at many universities, toilet roll holders are adorned with the graffito "Arts Degrees -- Please Take One"). Now a study in Britain has found that having an arts degree reduces one's earnings; in other words, people with arts degrees (in subjects such as history and English) earn between 2% and 10% less than people with no university degrees.
Professor Ian Walker, leading the study, said: "Feeling warm about literature doesn't pay the rent.
So, if you're planning to do an arts degree for the career potential (as opposed to as a somewhat expensive intellectual hobby), you may be better off calling it off and getting a 3-year head start on your fast-food industry career. Or maybe not.
High-tech musical toys from the MIT Media Lab allow children to compose music without learning musical theory. The Toy Symphony site is here. How long, I wonder, until a future generation of ravers/indie kids pick up on these and start using them on records?
Ralph Osterhout worked designing weaponry for the US Navy Seals, now works as a toy designer. New Scientist has an interesting interview on the subject of high-tech toy design.
Some parents say: "When I was a kid we had plain wooden blocks and we were really encouraged to use our imagination." But I think we are much more creative today. Give a child complex three- dimensional puzzles that are very sophisticated and you stimulate a higher level of creativity. How do you expect a kid who plays with wooden blocks to come up with a new receptor blocker for HIV later in life?
"Nasal learners often have difficulty concentrating and dislike doing homework," Panos said. "They also frequently have low grades in math, reading, and science. If your child fits this description, I would strongly urge you to get him or her tested for a possible nasal orientation."
Panos said nasal learners do best when they are encouraged to use odor-based recall techniques in testing situations, and are allowed to organize and prioritize items by scent. The biggest challenge now, she said, is to "educate the educators."