A Perfectly Curious Book

Professor Susan Engel remembers growing up. She recalls small details. Not only did she eat bugs, she remembers when and where, and which bugs she ate (potato bugs). As a pre-schooler, she remembers watching TV while sitting under the ironing board, comfortably asking all sorts of questions of Nonna, who was ironing the family’s clothes above her. In a one-room school house, Mrs. Grubb’s imbalanced approach to curiosity and education began a lifetime of inquiry. One of Professor Engel’s works-in-progress is a evaluative measure for curiosity, which seems consistent with the way most people think about school in the 21st century, and, to me, wildly  counterintuitive.

The right book tends to find me at precisely the right time. That’s what happened yesterday when I started The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood. It’s fair to say that I devoured it in a single weekend.

In my studies and writing about creativity, curiosity has always been an underground river. I can hear it and sense it,  but it’s difficult to see. Curiosity differs with each person and their current motivation, and with every situation. It also tends to vary in duration and intensity depending upon personal interest at the moment, and available information.

Curiosity behaviors are familiar, easy to recognize: “We pick up objects to look at them more closely, peel things open and take them apart, ask other people questions, read books, do experiments, and wander into unfamiliar situations.”

Some people are more likely to do this than others.

“The quality of a child’s attachment has a powerful influence on the vigor and depth of her exploration of the world around her.” When a child is insecure or uncertain about their bond with mom, he or she is less likely to “make physical and psychological expeditions to gather information.” As the book unfolds, this becomes one of its most important ideas. In lower-income, and/or lower-education households, parents tend to provide specific operating instructions for life (“put that down,” “come to the table,” “not now,” “leave the dog alone”), but parents in households less troubled with economic issues often encourage and entertain open questions, theoretical ideas, and forms of play. Reading and storytelling may have little to do with the practical. Open-minded freedom builds self-confidence, resilience, and curiosity. (Not so sure? This is a 200 page book extensive references to past work by serious scholars).

Unfortunately, curiosity is very difficult to define and even harder to measure. (Not that learning is easy to measure, unless it’s wrapped in the short-term evaluative tools that structure contemporary education.)

This 2015 book pays less attention to mobile devices and the internet and social media than I do. A Second Edition would be wonderful, especially if Professor Engel expands the book to connect these innovations to curiosity and personalized learning.

Returning to economic advantage and curiosity, “children growing up in poverty hear far fewer total number of words, have a harder time learning to read, and ultimately are less likely to do well in school by the time they are in third grade…” Professor Engel goes on, “if a child lives with parents who only use words to manage practical tasks, he may struggle to use language for less practical, more contemplative purposes.” In turn, this affects the ability of children to formulate and ask good questions, which is a very important way to express curiosity and learn about the world and one’s place in it.

Focus not on the school experience, because that’s only part of child’s experience. Instead, focus on what children hear adults say and see adults do. Early on, children overtly mimic. Grown adults mimic too… following a parent or aunt or uncle’s path as a result of a gift or what seemed to be an inconsequential conversation at the time. I just found a book about world cultures that my aunt and uncle gave me when I was nine years old. I remember reading the book dozens of times. Many decades later, it’s clear that the book shaped my current professional activities in global education. I did not learn much of this in school, or in any formal setting. It was my own curiosity that shaped these ideas, and continues to shape them today.

School simply isn’t the place to nurture curiosity. There’s just too much other stuff to do. There is constant pressure to prepare the students for the upcoming test, to complete the project on schedule, to score the grades necessary for advancement. Distractions–which are essential to curiosity and exploration–are deeply discouraged. Inquisitive students must be not derail the classroom conversation, however interesting and significant their questions may be.

Is curiosity the opposite of education?

The good Professor doesn’t take the argument this far, but she sometimes comes close. Borrowing some of her own thinking and adding it to my own… Curiosity is intuitive, fluid, wide, deep, driven by interest, exceedingly difficult to measure, and essentially unrestricted by time and space. Education is defined by curriculum experts and highly structured. It is highly structured to make efficient use of time and space, and adheres to a strict timetable measured by 45 minute intervals, weeks of achievement, school years and grade levels. Education cannot run too deep or too wide because there are so many items that must be taught to so many people. Education is driven by rules, not student interest (for some, this changes in higher education). Measurement of short-term impact can be done, but the longer the period of measurement, the more variables complicate the results.

Traditional coursework on The Civil War takes students through causes (difficult to understand without lots of broader context), Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, Emancipation Proclamation, John Wilkes Booth, funeral cortege, and the dull political history of Andrew Johnson and reconstruction. Lots of education happening here, but the sheer volume of information smothers any attempt at global context or personal investigation of related stories. The story is just too complicated for education. It’s better suited to the uneven and long-term learning that curiosity can provide.

A student guided by curiosity might begin with the failure of tobacco as the South’s cash crop, its replacement with cotton and big cotton’s reliance upon the slave trade. Follow that line and you’ll bump into the enormous economic leap made possible by the cotton gin. Then, it’s off to England where Manchester’s mills make a fortune with cheap cotton from American slaves. When that supply is threatened by events leading up to the Civil War, the British look to India for an alternative cotton source, amplifying the growth and power of the British Empire. India becomes a glorious distraction–stunning history, spectacular music, art, dance, religion, food. Later, a fight for independence with Gandhi and nonviolent protest as a new way of thinking that informs US student protests to help end the Vietnam War, and Martin Luther King, Jr. to challenge authority in very productive ways. Back to Manchester for its rivalry with nearby Liverpool; follow  that line to the economic and social conditions that breed The Beatles and change popular music and culture (including George Harrison’s encounters with Indian music, and so on).

I know we don’t teach that way, but I know I learn that way.

As I understand more about how we teach, and how we learn, there may be more to eating bugs than there is to textbooks.

A Credible Faker–and A Future of Journalism

I’ve never been a fan of the term “fake news” because it over-simplifies the problem of poor instruction in critical thinking and media literacy. News stories have always been fabricated, and always constructed to persuade, disrupt, or otherwise confuse the audience or the reader. And honest journalism has long existed on the far side of the spectrum. Most of what’s in between is the mediocrity that describes most of the contents of a 24-hour news cycle.

It’s always been easy to print and publish truth or nonsense under an assumed or otherwise made-up identity. The now-esteemed Alexander Hamilton did it, and so did founding fathers James Madison and John Jay. In my early days of magazine writing, I sometimes wrote under an assumed name.

And, of course, we’ve been enjoying doctored photographs for a long time. If a friend cannot attend a wedding, he or she can be Photoshopped (a new verb?) into the image. We add sunrises and sunsets, make photographic models that much prettier, and so on. Many of us are now learning to do this with video as well. “I can’t believe my eyes” seems like a good way of thinking about what we see, especially on screens.

And that brings us to the fake news anchor, with the adjective fake referring not to the news itself, but to the anchor who is confidently delivering information as a kind of digital puppet (lots of connotations for puppet in that scenario). He can be programmed to read just about anything, from any source, but he looks quite human and his delivery, which will only improve, is already pretty darned good.

Have a look. And consider the possibilities for teachers, professors, and politicians, all programmed to say what you, or somebody else, wants them to say.

The Right Dog for the Job

This article was published in Education Week in January, 2009. I think it’s terrific. The author is Marion Brady, “a retired high school teacher, college professor, and textbook author who writes frequently on education. He lives in Cocoa, Fla.”

220px-Bordercollie-ankc-agilityDriving the rural roads of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, I’ve occasionally been fortunate enough to be blocked by sheep being moved from one pasture to another.

I say “fortunate” because I’ve gotten to watch an impressive performance by a dog—a border collie.

And what a performance! A single, midsize dog herding two or three hundred sheep, keeping them moving in the right direction, rounding up strays, knowing how to intimidate but not cause panic, funneling them all through a gate, and obviously enjoying the challenge.

Why a border collie? Why not an Airedale or Zuchon, or another of about 400 breeds listed on the Internet?

Because, among those for whom herding sheep is serious business, there’s general agreement that border collies are better than any other dog at doing what needs to be done. They have “the knack.” That knack is so important, those who care most about border collies even oppose their being entered in dog shows. They’re certain that would lead to border collies being bred to look good, and looking good isn’t the point. What counts is talent, interest, innate ability, performance.

Other breeds are no less impressive in other ways. If you’re lost in a snowstorm in the Alps, you don’t need a border collie. You need a big, strong dog with a good nose, lots of fur, wide feet, and a great sense of direction for returning with help. You need a Saint Bernard.

If varmints are sneaking into your henhouse, killing your chickens, and escaping down a little hole in a nearby field, you don’t need a border collie or a Saint Bernard. You need a fox terrier.

Want to sniff luggage for bombs? Chase felons? Stand guard duty? Retrieve downed game birds? Guide the blind? Detect certain diseases? Locate earthquake survivors? Entertain audiences? Play nice with little kids? Go for help if Little Nell falls down a well? With training, dogs can do those jobs well.

So, let’s set performance standards and train all dogs to meet them. All 400 breeds. Leave no dog behind. Two-hundred-pound mastiffs may have a little trouble with the chase-the-fox-into-the-little-hole standard, and Chihuahuas will probably have difficulty with the tackle-the-felon-and-pin-him-to-the-ground standard. But, hey, standards are standards! No excuses! No giving in to the soft bigotry of low expectations. Hold dogs accountable.

220px-Mastif_angielski_pregowany_768Here’s a question: Why are one-size-fits-all performance standards inappropriate to the point of silliness when applied to dogs, but accepted without question when applied to kids? If someone tried to set up a national program to teach every dog to do everything that various breeds are able to do, the Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals would have them in court in a New York minute. But when authorities mandate one-size-fits-all performance standards for kids, and the standards aren’t met, it’s the kids and teachers, not the standards, that get blamed.

Consider, for example, what’s happening in math “reform.” School systems across the country are upping both the number of required courses and their level of difficulty. Why? Is it because math teaches transferable thinking skills? There’s no research supporting that contention. Is it because advanced math is required for college work? Where’s the evidence that colleges have a clear grasp of America’s educational challenge and therefore should be leading the education parade? Is it because most adults make routine use of higher math? No. Is it because American industry is begging for more mathematicians? Not according to statistics on available job opportunities. Is it because math has played an important role in America’s technological achievements, and if we’re to continue to be pre-eminent, a full range of math courses needs to be taught?

Bingo! And true. But how much sense does it make to run every kid in America through the same math regimen, when only a small percentage has enough mathematical ability to make productive use of it? How much sense does it make to put a math whiz in an Algebra 2 classroom with 25 or 30 aspiring lawyers, dancers, automatic-transmission specialists, social workers, surgeons, artists, hairdressers, language teachers? How much sense does it make to put hundreds of thousands of kids on the street because they can’t jump through a particular math hoop?

Some suggestions:

One: Stop fixating on the American economy. Trying to shape kids to fit the needs of business and industry rather than the other way around is immoral.

Two: Stop massive, standardized testing. For a fraction of the cost of high-stakes subject-matter tests, every kid’s strengths and weaknesses can be identified using inexpensive inventories of interests, abilities, and learning styles.

Three: Eliminate grade levels. Start with where kids are, help them go as far as they can go as fast as they can go, then give them a paper describing what they can do, or a Web site where they can do it for themselves.

Four: When kids are ready for work, push responsibility for teaching specialized skills and knowledge onto users of those skills and knowledge—employers. Occupation-related instruction such as that now being offered in magnet schools will never keep up with the variety of skills needed or their rates of change. Apprenticeships and intern arrangements will go a long way toward smoothing the transition into responsible adulthood.

Five: Abandon the assumption that spending the day “covering the material” in a random mix of five or six subjects educates well. Only one course of study is absolutely essential. Societal cohesion and effective functioning require participation in a broad conversation about values, beliefs, and patterns of action, their origins, and their probable and possible future consequences. The young need to engage in that conversation, and a single, comprehensive, systemically integrated course of study could prepare them for it. It should be the only required course.

Six: Limiting required study to a single course would result in an explosion of educational options (and save a lot of money). We say we respect individual differences, say we value initiative, spontaneity, and creativity, say we admire the independent thinker, say every person should be helped to realize her or his full potential, say the young need to be introduced to the real world—then we spend a half-trillion dollars a year on a system of education at odds with our rhetoric. Aligning the institution with our core values would give it the legitimacy and generate the excitement it now lacks.

Alternatively, we can continue on our present course. For almost 20 years, “reform” has been driven by the assumption that “the system”—the math, science, language arts, and social studies curriculum in near-universal use in America’s schools and colleges since 1892—is sound, from which it follows that poor performance must be the fault of the teachers and kids. This, of course, calls for tough love—standards, accountability, raised bars, rigor, competitive challenges, public shaming, pay for performance, penalties for nonperformance.

Wrong diagnosis, so wrong cure. The problem isn’t the kids and the teachers; it’s the system. More than a century of failed attempts to drive square pegs into round holes suggests it’s past time to stop treating human variability as a problem rather than as an evolutionary triumph, and begin making the most of it.

Marion Brady is a retired high school teacher, college professor, and textbook author who writes frequently on education. He lives in Cocoa, Fla.

Education Week, 28 January 2009

Hard at Work in 2025

What does 2025 look like?

Lots of grey hairs, that seems likely. Americans are living longer, and working longer, too. If we plan to live to 90, then 30 years is a mighty long time to live without the intellectual stimulation, social interaction, sense of accomplishment and financial security that a good job provides. This is a very demanding population, many well aware of the importance of good food, fitness, mental health, recreation. By 2025 (about ten years from today), the 60-plus population in the US will increase by 70 percent.

That’s only part of the story. Forget about work as a series of repetitive tasks. These will be done by machines, or they will be outsourced. This type of work simply won’t be done by humans. And that raises the question, “what kinds of work are best done by humans, and not by smart machines?”And don’t think in terms of what machines, or computers, or devices can do today. Instead, think in terms of a decade ago (no YouTube, few phones with cameras, no tablets), and assume that the technology will advance at two or three times the current rate. Machines will be much, much smarter than they are today. And they will communicate with one another, often without human involvement. Much as I love reading, it’s clear that video and animation are going to occupy an ever-increasing share of everyone’s media diet. Cultural norms are changing. If you want to learn to fix a toilet, you no longer read about it—you watch a video. We are connecting data with an intensity and velocity never before imagined. This, plus a globally connected world, will make 2014 seem real old, real fast.

Add these trends to the longevity trend and the contours of 2025 begin to take shape.

CirclesSo what are we supposed to do about this? How are we supposed to think about 2025? Some of the answers are in a report prepared by the Institute for the Future for the (yes, I was dubious, too) University of Phoenix Research Institute. It’s good work. And it goes on to look carefully at ten skills for the future workforce that are worth browsing here and worth reading about, in greater detail, here. More or less (with some of my own interpretation added), they are:

  1. Sense-making: the ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed. These are higher-level thinking skills related to creative and critical thinking, decision sciences, environmental scanning, extensive knowledge of environmental factors, and much more.
  2. Social Intelligence: the ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way, to sense reactions and quickly assess emotional impact, and then, rapidly adapt or lead to achieve the optimum result.
  3. Novel and Adaptive Thinking: This set of skills expands upon the two above, “the ability to respond to unique unexpected circumstances of the moment.” Routine solutions are useful, but those who can combine the routine with the new, those who are naturally resourceful, are most likely to succeed.
  4. Cross-cultural Competency: This goes far beyond tolerance and equality. It requires an ease in working across generations, across what was once called an organizational chart, gaining and contributing insights to an extraordinarily wide range of stakeholders, coworkers, clients, competitors, vendors, customers, participants and much more.
  5. Computational Thinking: What’s the point of all of that computing power if you don’t know what the machines can do, should do, and might someday do? This is akin to buying a fabulous car—you’re paying for the most extraordinary performance, but it’s yours only if you demand it. In other words, to succeed, you’ll need to understand how and why it all works (and not from a technical point of view, but from a high-level perspective instead).
  6. New Media Literacy: Critical assessment of videos, understanding of the techniques used to shape and deliver messages, how to write and speak and produce. Forget about PowerPoints—they were the 1990s. We’re entering the era of widespread transmedia, where text, graphics, photos, interactivity, connectivity, video and games are only the beginning.
  7. (I love this made-up word!) Transdisciplinarity: Not sure that this needs any commentary.
  8. Design Mindset: Or, more commonly, a skill in design thinking. What’s that? Planning based upon community, customer or participant needs—these come first, and old ways of thinking, such as profitability, flow from these decisions. There is a lot of information about design thinking on the web, including a good Wikipedia introduction, and a blog by Tim Brown, the CEO of Ideo, and the author of “Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation.”
  9. Cognitive Load Management: Yeah, I like this phrase, too. More or less, it’s thinking about ways to avoid a “overload” light from blinking inside your brain. Learn to say “no” to the junk that attempts to fill the media diet; learn to discriminate, to dig deep, to contextualize, to become a “sufficient expert” (I just made that up;  the phrase makes sense to me).
  10. Virtual Collaboration: To work productively on you own (never give your boss or client a reason to worry about time spent away from the office), and to do so with lots of other people to generate and maintain high levels of productivity. Use Skype, use other forms of technology to do great things (and some routine things) with people who you have never met, and never will meet in person.

I think that’s a great list. And with it, two (REALLY IMPORTANT) suggestions:

First, score yourself. On each of the ten items above, score yourself 1 (the worst) through 10 (the best). If your score is 85, 90 or better, you will be welcome in 2025. If your score is a lot lower, you’ve got some honest work to do.

Second, reconsider school. If school isn’t nourishing you on these ten points, you should begin to ask some very serious questions about your investment of time and money, and you should immediately focus your school’s administration, faculty and curriculum advisors that the world will change sooner than they believe possible. Work with them. Or, learn without them. But get moving!

Grandpa, what’s a camera?

Infographic-1920-1200-ver-2-0-1024x640This infographic comes from a website called Lensvid, which is filled with interesting photographic stories, inspiration, reviews and more.

The site attempts to explain what happened, but their editors as as mystified as I am. Clearly, smart phones are having an impact— why spend the money and tote around a separate smart box when the phone contains a perfectly fine snapshot camera.

But there are hobbyists, amateurs, professionals—and it seems unlikely that shipments dropped by as much as 40 percent in a single year. Unless it was a tipping point. The graph on the top left certainly illustrates a multi-year drop. But why haven’t lenses dropped by a similar percentage? Maybe because the sale of lenses wasn’t so hot in the first place—and once an amateur buys into, say, the Canon system with a digital SLR, they tend to keep their lenses when they buy the new camera body from the same manufacturer.

No surprise that sales of compact cameras are dropping so quickly—a 60 percent drop since 2010—because those the cameras that are most effectively replaced by the cameras in smart phones.

Isn’t it odd: we are taking more pictures than ever before, and yet, the camera business is falling apart. Reminds me of a recent post on LinkedIn by my friend Paul. It appears below, and I can’t quite get it out of my mind.

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In a Word, “Curious”

CuriousWhat’s the secret of life? Of course, the answer is in a book with a single word title, Curious? The back cover has nine words, 58 characters: “Embrace uncertainty. Attract love and abundance. Master your life.”

All of this makes me want to write an answer book called “Seriously?” but the author, a clinical psychologist and professor at George Mason University deserves more than the Twtr-obessed publisher allows. His name is Todd Kashdan, and although I suspect curiosity may not be, as the subtitle promises, a way to “Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life” (shouldn’t that “to” be “in” or “for”?), there’s too much good stuff in this book for me to pass it by.

Mostly, like every creative person, I’m curious about curiosity. I seem to have it in larger doses than most people, and I think I like that about myself. My friends tend to be curious, too, and they tend to value this in themselves. In fact, I enjoyed a long telephone conversation with a friend not six months ago on this very subject—he was analyzing generational differences in the workplace, and thought our generation pursued curiosity with greater energy than the current one.

Of course, Dr. Kashdan touches  school as curiosity-killer (“Do it now, ask questions later. Stay away from strangers. Avoid controversial topics and hot-button issues”), but I think he’s better when he’s positive, and consistent with the thinking of the positive psychology movement in academia, where he plays a part. When describing how and why “Curiosity is about recognizing and reaping the rewards of the uncertain, the unknown and the new…,” he explains that there is a “simple story line for how curiosity is the engine of growth.”

By being curious, we explore.

By exploring, we discover.

When this is satisfying, we are more likely to repeat it.

By repeating it, we develop competence and mastery.

By developing competence and mastery, our knowledge and skills grow.

As our knowledge and skills grow, we stretch who we are and what our life is about.

So “curiosity begets more curiosity.” Fair enough. But that’s just the starting place. When he offers curiosity as the opposite of certainty, and broadens the argument to society’s need for closure, specific answers, one way of looking at the world, his arguments become insights:

Curiosity creates possibilities; the need for certainty narrows them.

Curiosity creates energy; the need for certainty depletes.

Curiosity results in exploration; the need for certainty creates closure.

Curiosity creates movement; the need for certainty is about replaying events.

Curiosity creates relationships; the need for certainty creates defensiveness.

Creativity is about discovery; the need for certainty is about being right.

At first, I didn’t think much of this list, but the more I worked on a new project about knowledge and understanding, the more I realized the value of Dr. Kashdan’s insights.

Photo of the author, Todd Kashdan, by Adam Auel

It’s easy to see how this material can be brought into a wider domain: curiosity results in personal fulfillment, happiness, a healthy mental outlook, a purpose to life, and so on. He encourages openness in the style of so many self-help books, and here’s where my fascination begins to wane, mostly because I’ve read it all before: “When walking outside the house, I will gently guide my attention so I can be intrigued by every bodily movement and whatever sights, sounds and smells are within my range.” I don’t understand why anybody who is taking a walk would fill their ears with music, but that’s because I enjoy listening to the natural world. Does experience open my mind to every possibility? Not sure. I think I’m listening to birdsong, looking at autumn leaves and winter branches, and taking whiffs of honeysuckle when it’s in season. That’s enough for me.

If you find self-help books useful, you might add this one to your library. There are chapters about “The Rewards of Relationships” and “The Anxious Mind and the Curious Spirit,” and, almost inevitably, “Discovering Meaning and Purpose in Life.”

I think curiosity is powerful on its own terms: as an antidote to the routine, a door that opens to creative and divergent thought, as a pathway to learning lots of things. Secret of life? Maybe. I’ll leave that one up to you.

What’s a MOOC Good For, Anyway?

This week, I’ve spent several hours with a friend whose intellect is recognized by a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university. We’re both deeply engaged at the intersection of media and learning, most often for some form of public good. Yesterday, we talked about why people go to school.  To be more specific, why people go to school beyond the point where law requires them (us) to do so.

Harvard-MOOCWhen I read this readwrite article, an interview with Harvard’s new vice provost of advances in learning (excellent job title!), I started thinking about why anybody bothers with, say, TED Talks, or for that matter, why we read non-fiction books.

Just as we’ve managed to bottle up massive quantities of spirituality into the structures we call religions, we’ve managed to do the same with massive quantities of learning into the notion of school and organized education. MOOCs shake up that formula. A MOOC–a massively open online course–carries no price tag, and, although it may be offered by the likes of Harvard or Stanford or UPenn, it carries no credit, either. You take the course because, well, because you want to learn.

The distinction is a simple one, or so one might argue. There is learning, and there is education, and if they sometimes overlap (as they are intended to do), they might serve different purposes. Learning is all about personal development, and refinement of understanding. Education’s purpose is a degree, a formal recognition, typically for a price, that serves as an admission ticket into parts of the job marketplace that are otherwise inaccessible.

So what’s a MOOC good for? Same thing as a book, I think. It’s for learning. Turns out, millions of people simply want to learn, on line, for their own development and understanding.

Of course, that’s not the whole story. Do read the readwrite article (interesting phrase, that), and you’ll find that a bit more of the picture comes into focus.

College Through the Looking Glass

About a hundred years ago, Oxford professor John Alexander Smith addressed the first session of his moral philosophy class as follows: “Gentlemen, nothing that you will learn in the course of yours studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life [that is, after college, not after death–HB], save only this: that is you work hard and intelligently, you should be able to deter when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.”

j9651Inevitably, author Andrew Delbanco continues: “Americans tend to prefer a two-syllable synonym…for the Angicism, rot–and so we might say that the most important thing one can acquire in college is a well-functioning…” Okay, you get the idea. (Odd that I am  reluctant to spell out B.S. given that the quote comes from a book published by Princeton University. Anyway…)

The book is called College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, and it’s actually fun to read, not stuffy at all, rather like a good lecture about the dubious history, dubious purpose, and dubious results of a college education, or, if you prefer, as I do and the author does, to consider the dubious and to celebrate the remarkable. Both are present, and have been since the very start. Early in the book, Abigail Adams can be found complaining about the current state of students, professors and education in general–that’s in 1776, but the complaints and criticisms date back to Greek and Roman times, long before our current institutions were a thought in anybody’s mind.


Today, there are about four thousand colleges in the United States. The author has visited about 100 of them, so I respect what he has to say, particularly as he discusses the liberal arts education that would provide, at least in part, the mechanism for the bullshit detector (there, I wrote it!) that is, in part, the reason for going to college in the first place. For a very long while, well, this is best said by Ohio State economics professor Richard Vedder:

with the possible exception of prostitution, teaching is the only profession that has had absolutely no productivity advance in the 2400 years since Socrates.”

A quote from former Johns Hopkins president William Brody is a nice addition:

if you went to a [college] class circa 1900 and you went today, it would look exactly the same, while you went to an automobile plant in 1900 and today, you wouldn’t recognize the place.”

The author is a college professor, and although he’s critical of the industry he clearly adores, he is quite clear on the statistics, and the reasons why college makes sense, worts and all.

Although not completely consistent with importance of a liberal arts education, or a college education generally, a college degree, even a Bachelor’s Degree, is a very good investment: those with a B.A. earn about 60 percent more than those whose resume lacks the degree. This fact leads to another one, and here, we begin to get at the real story of college in America:

if you are a child of a family making more than $90,000 per year, your odds of getting a B.A. by age twenty-four are roughly one in two; if your family’s income is between $60,000 and $90,000, your odds are roughly one in four; if your parents make less than $35,000, your odds are one in seventeen.”

It’s wrong to think about these patterns in isolation. Upscale students attend more selective colleges whose prestigious graduates are funneled into leadership roles in business, law and government. It’s a self-perpetuating system, the engine of social mobility in the United States even in the 21st century.

So that’s one argument in favor of college: economic success. The other argument demands a well-educated citizenry, what Professor Delbanco calls “the incubation of citizenship” as he defends the small group discussion in the above video. Strangely, this is not the argument that legislators focus upon–instead, they tend toward the more practical, and, in the long run, perhaps less significant, concern about the need for a population that understands ideas and makes wise decisions. College has always struggled with that role; those in law school and the like receive these messages and tend to think about these issues, but as for the rest of college students (and the rest of us, including those who have been through a more generalized college experience), not so much.

So here we are with a realist, a professor who seems to understand the arguments from multiple perspectives, stressing “a community of learning” on the one hand and recognizing, when considering a New York Times article, “for every one of those college-bound cars, there are scores of families whose children will be staying home to attend a commuter school without anything resembling traditional college life. Moreover, millions of college-age Americans never get to college in the first place.”

By the time they reach age twenty-six, “fewer than two-thirds of white high school graduates have enrolled in college.” The number is half for blacks, and slightly less for Hispanics. Among students who do enroll, more than a third never finish their degree.

There are so many issues, and often, it’s difficult for the average person to gain traction with many of them. This is precisely the place where a good college professor can make all the difference. And if you can’t afford or can’t quite make it to Princeton this month or this year, well, you (and I) now more fully understand the reason why many universities publish their professors’ best work in book form. Turns out, the book, which is also undergoing attack from every possible direction, remains a darned good idea for a hot sunny afternoon. I now know some things I didn’t know this morning, and I’m thinking about them hours later. Not quite the same as being in the presence of the man, but spending three hours reading about 200 pages of his well-written, well-edited ideas for just $17.95 (less if you buy online) is, simply, a good old-fashioned idea.

Welcome to the Connectome

Diffusion spectrum image shows brain wiring in a healthy human adult. The thread-like structures are nerve bundles, each containing hundreds of thousands of nerve fibers. Source: Source: Van J. Wedeen, M.D., MGH/Harvard U. To learn more about the government's new connectome project, click on the brain.

Diffusion spectrum image shows brain wiring in a healthy human adult. The thread-like structures are nerve bundles, each containing hundreds of thousands of nerve fibers.
Source: Source: Van J. Wedeen, M.D., MGH/Harvard U. To learn more about the government’s new connectome project, click on the brain.

You may recall recent coverage of a major White House initiative: mapping the brain. In that statement, there is ambiguity. Do we mean the brain as a body part, or do we mean the brain as the place where the mind resides? Mapping the genome–the sequence of the four types of molecules (nucleotides) that compose your DNA–is so far along that it will soon be possible, for a very reasonable price, to purchase your personal genome pattern.

A connectome is, in the words of the brilliantly clear writer and MIT scientist, Sebastian Seung, is: “the totality of connections between the neurons in [your] nervous system.” Of course, “unlike your genome, which is fixed from the moment of conception, your connectome changes throughout your life. Neurons adjust…their connections (to one another) by strengthening or weakening them. Neurons reconnect by creating and eliminating synapses, and they rewire by growing and retracting branches. Finally, entirely new neurons are created and existing ones are eliminated, through regeneration.”

In other words, the key to who we are is not located in the genome, but instead, in the connections between our brain cells–and those connections are changing all the time.The brain, and, by extension, the mind, is dynamic, constantly evolving based upon both personal need and stimuli.

Connectome BookWith his new book, the author proposes a new field of science for the study of the connectome, the ways in which the brain behaves, and the ways in which we might change the way it behaves in new ways. It isn’t every day that I read a book in which the author proposes a new field of scientific endeavor, and, to be honest, it isn’t every day that I read a book about anything that draws me back into reading even when my eyes (and mind) are too tired to continue. “Connectome” is one of those books that is so provocative, so inherently interesting, so well-written, that I’ve now recommended it to a great many people (and now, to you as well).

Seung is at his best when exploring the space between brain and mind, the overlap between how the brain works and how thinking is made possible. For example, he describes how the idea of Jennifer Aniston, a job that is done not by one neuron, but by a group of them, each recognizing a specific aspect of what makes Jennifer Jennifer. Blue eyes. Blonde hair. Angular chin. Add enough details and the descriptors point to one specific person. The neurons put the puzzle together and trigger a response in the brain (and the mind). What’s more, you need not see Jennifer Aniston. You need only think about her and the neurons respond. And the connection between these various neurons is strengthened, ready for the next Jennifer thought. The more you think about Jennifer Aniston, the more you think about Jennifer Aniston.

From here, it’s a reasonable jump to the question of memory. As Seung describes the process, it’s a matter of strong neural connections becoming even stronger through additional associations (Jennifer and Brad Pitt, for example), repetition (in all of those tabloids?), and ordering (memory is aided by placing, for example, the letters of the alphabet in order). No big revelations here–that’s how we all thought it worked–but Seung describes the ways in which scientists can now measure the relative power (the “spike”) of the strongest impulses. Much of this comes down to the image resolution finally available to long-suffering scientists who had the theories but not the tools necessary for confirmation or further exploration.

Next stop: learning. Here, Seung focuses on the random impulses first experienced by the neurons, and then, through a combination of repetition of patterns (for example), a bird song emerges. Not quickly, nor easily, but as a result of (in the case of the male zebra finches he describes in an elaborate example) of tens of thousands of attempts, the song emerges and can then be repeated because the neurons are, in essence, properly aligned. Human learning has its rote components, too, but our need for complexity is greater, and so, the connectome and its network of connections is far more sophisticated, and measured in far greater quantities, than those of a zebra finch. In both cases, the concept of a chain of neural responses is the key.

Watch the author deliver his 2010 TED Talk.

Watch the author deliver his 2010 TED Talk.

From here, the book becomes more appealing, perhaps, to fans of certain science fiction genres. Seung becomes fascinated with the implications of cryonics, or the freezing of a brain for later use. Here, he covers some of the territory familiar from Ray Kurzweil’s “How to Create a Mind” (recently, a topic of an article here). The topic of fascination: 0nce we understand the brain and its electrical patterns, is it possible to save those patterns of impulses in some digital device for subsequent sharing and/or retrieval? I found myself less taken with this theoretical exploration than the heart and soul of, well, the brain and mind that Seung explains so well. Still, this is what we’re all wondering: at what point does human brain power and computing brain power converge? And when they do, how much control will we (as opposed to, say Amazon or Google) exert over the future of what we think, what’s important enough to save, and what we hope to accomplish.

Encouraging Schools to Join the 21st Century

Darryl WestConventional public schools are “arranged to make things easy for the teacher who wishes quick and tangible results.” Furthermore, “the ordinary school impress[es] the little one into a narrow area, into a melancholy silence, into a forced attitude of mind and body.” No doubt, you’ve had a thought similar to this one: “if we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.”

There’s a reason for the old school language. The words were published in 1915 by educator John Dewey. A century later, the situation has begun to change, mostly, according to Brookings Institute vice president Darryl M. West, as a result of the digital revolution. Mr. West advances this theory by offering an ample range of examples in his new book, Digital Schools.

Quite reasonably, he begins by considering various attempts at school reform, education reform, open learning, shared learning, and so on. Forward-thinking educators fill their office shelves with books praising the merits of each new wave of reform, and praise the likes of Institute for Play, but few initiatives taken hold with the broad and deep impact that is beginning to define a digital education.

digital schoolsBlogs, wikis, social media, and other popular formats are obvious, if difficult to manage, innovations more familiar in student homes than in most classrooms, but the ways in which they democratize information–removing control from the curriculum-bound classroom and teacher and allowing students to freely explore–presents a gigantic shift in control.

Similarly, videogames and augmented reality, whether in an intentionally educational context or simply as a different experience requiring critical thinking skills in imaginary domains, are commonplace at home, less so in class, and, increasingly, the stuff of military education, MIT and other advanced academic explorations, and, here and there, the charge of a grant-funded program at a special high school. More is on the way.

Evaluation, assessment, measurement–all baked into the traditional way we think about school–are far more efficient and offer so many additional capabilities. No doubt, traditional thinkers will advance incremental innovation by mapping these new tools onto existing curriculum, perhaps a step in the right direction, however limited and short-sighted those steps may be. The big step–too large for most contemporary U.S. classrooms–is toward personalized learning and personalized assessment, but that would shift the role of the teacher in ways that some union leaders find uncomfortable.

The power behind West’s view is, of course, the velocity of change in the long-promising arena of distance learning. During the past ten years , the percentage of college students who have taken at least one distance learning course has tripled, and  passed 30 percent in 2011. Numbers are not available, but I suspect we’ve now passed the 50 percent mark. The book does not address the stunning growth of, for example, Coursera. Kevin Werbach, a Wharton faculty member, taught over 85,000 students in his first Coursera course (on gamification)–students from all of the world. Indeed, the current run rate is 1.4 million new Coursera sign-ups per month.

Mimi Ito is one of the more influential thinkers about modern education and its future. Click to read her bio.

Mimi Ito is one of the more influential thinkers about modern education and its future. Click to read her bio.

The author quotes education researcher Mimi Ito:

There is increasingly a culture gap between the modes of delivery… between how people learn and what is taught. [In addition to] the perception that classrooms are boring… students [now] ask, ‘Why should I memorize everything if I can just go online? … Students aren’t preparing kids for life.”

Is this a ground-breaking book. No, but it is useful compendium of the digital changes that are beginning to take root in classrooms across America. Yes, we’re behind the times. In many ways, students are far ahead of the institutions funded to teach them. The book serves notice: no longer are digital means experimental. Computer labs are being replaced by mobile devices. Students are taking courses from the best available teachers online, and not only in college. Many students are enrolled nowhere; they are simply taking courses because they want to learn or need to learn for professional reasons. Without formal enrollment, institutions begin to lose their way. The structure is beginning to erode. Just beginning. And it can be fixed, changed, transformed, amended, and otherwise modernized. And so, the helpful author provides an extensive list of printed links for interesting parties to follow.

Just out of curiosity, I called up Darrell M. West’s web page–it’s part of the Brookings Institution’s site–and, as I expected, he is a man of consider intellect and accomplishment.  And so, I hoped I would find the above-cited links as a web resource. I looked for Education under his extensive list of topics of interest but it wasn’t there. (Uh-oh?) I did find a section on his page called “Resources,” but the only available resource on that page was a 10MB photograph of Mr. West. I couldn’t find the links anywhere. Perhaps this can be changed so that all readers, educators and interested parties can make good use of his forward-thinking work.

Sorry–one more item–I just found a recent paper by Dr. West, and I thought you might find both the accompanying article and the link useful.

Here's a look at 42-year-old John Dewey in 1902. To learn more about him, click on the picture and read the Wikipedia article.

Here’s a look at 42-year-old John Dewey in 1902. To learn more about him, click on the picture and read the Wikipedia article.

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