Friday, March 4, 2011

Best of TED: Education

Over the past year or so, I've watched a huge chunk of the online talks at Not all of them, but many, and some more than once.

All are worth your time. Many were interesting to watch, but didn't affect me much in the long run. But some lodged themselves in my mind, tenacious, not letting go.

Here are some of the ones that never let go. In this post, I'll look at a few about education.

Sir Ken Robinson gave the above two talks several years apart, but there is one running theme throughout. Think of them as two halves of one talk.

The case he makes that school reform is necessary is, to me, so intuitive, so obvious, that I wish every country's school system could be disassembled, reduced to its component parts, and then rebuilt according to the dictates of Sir Ken and some like-minded friends.

The idea that there are many children who are very bright, very creative, very capable, but don't do well on standardized tests, is an easy one for me to grasp. Because that's basically me, just in reverse. Okay, am I saying I'm not bright? I'm not creative and capable? Not exactly.

But I do seem to have one special talent. One thing that I excel at. One thing that I do really, really, really well. And that is taking standardized tests. Especially the kind where you have to fill in the correct bubble with your #2 pencil. I do great on those.

I don't deserve to.

I wasn't a great student. By that, I don't mean I was a naturally bright kid who found the material really easy to grasp and as a result didn't pay attention to teachers and didn't bother with homework. I know there are lots of kids like that being served badly by their schools, but that wasn't me.

No, I found many classes difficult, including classes I should have found easy. I seem to have a natural aptitude for mathematics, but I crashed and burned in physics and calculus courses. (I blame myself, but that's a whole different story.) I find it absolutely believable that there are many, many kids out there now who are bright and creative and yet struggle horribly on standardized tests.

Also, let's face it: a university education is right for many people, but it's not necessary for everybody, and people who don't have a bachelor's degree are of no less worth than those who do. I'm all for vocational education gaining more respect in society. I'm not good with my hands. I can't build or repair things. I have awe and respect for those who can. Let's get rid of this phony-baloney animosity in our society between university-educated people and so-called blue-collar workers. That time when a whole class of human beings spent their days mindlessly filling slots on an assembly line is over. Okay, in many parts of the world it's not over yet, but it ought to be made over as soon as possible. All human workers ought to have jobs that call for creativity and skill.

Speaking of education, let's talk about math education.

Arthur Benjamin here points out that math education in our schools is organized in a procession that looks something like this: Arithmetic, algebra, geometry, advanced algebra, CALCULUS! All hail calculus! Calculus, the crowning glory of all mathematics!

Yeah, right.

I haven't used what I learned in calculus class since my last day of calculus class. Which is not to knock calculus -- it's incredibly important in many fields -- but it shouldn't be considered basic cultural literacy. Calculus isn't something every adult with a functioning cortex ought to know.

Statistics is.

Don't believe me? We all use statistics in our everyday lives, generally without even realizing it. Our news media constantly bombard us with information presented in the form of statistics, and we're just expected to understand it. Arthur Benjamin has just enough time in his talk to sing the glory of statistics, but he doesn't have time for specifics.

Which brings us to Peter Donnelly's talk.

Statistics. Is. Important. After initially demonstrating that most people don't know much about the subject, he delivers some absolutely devastating evidence for its importance.

And yet I've never taken a statistics course in my life. Oh, I know the difference between 5 percent and 5 percentage points. I understand that if you raise a number by 20%, and then lower it by 20%, you don't have the same number that you started with. And I can read (most) graphs. But I'm still pitifully ignorant. There are plenty of grown-ups out there who know as little as me AND seem to have no intellectual curiosity, who still go out and vote and serve on juries.

If we're going to have a society that presents information statistically, then let's try to get people to understand that information, 'kay?

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