The Objective of Education

I just read ‘The Objective of Education is Learning, Not Teaching’.  The author starts with an interesting point that, “a child learns such fundamental things as how to walk, talk, eat, dress and so on with out being taught these things”.  That might true for quite a few things but there is one thing that stands out that children are very specifically taught and that’s potty training.

If we are relying on students to teach each other and staff then one of three things will happen:

  • The students will buy in and it will be a great experience.
  • The students will not buy in and the only teaching will get is how little they were interested about the subject and did not care that they couldn’t inform the crowd.
  • Misinformation will be thrown around the room.

If we look at the authors example of his son and the 13 year old that he idolized, the actual information was rejected based on the face that the 13 year old had to be right.  If we take this example and try to apply it more broadly this is the same thing as Sarah Palin saying that there were going to be death panels and her being believed, or that Barack Obama’s recent trip to India was costing 200 million dollars a day.  The people that read the blogs/saw the news stories saw them as fact because the news person that they trusted told them.  Just like Ernie there was misinformation being spread and then the person that heard that information would not be swayed even in the face of evidence to the contrary.  This plays into the entire story about old philosophy professors argument that is made in this article.  Except now instead of just trying instruct people some of the “professors” of our time make people scared and then tell people things that will make them feel safer.  Instead of dealing with issues they try to make people afraid and then make decisions based on making them money and making the people feel better about whats going on.  This became absolutely apparent when I read the Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein where people had discovered that the easiest way to get people from a Socialist government to a purely Capitalist one is to strike when there has been a disaster and people are willing to accept anything that is passed towards them since they are in shock and can’t process everything that is coming to them.

Sorry for jumping around here but if we look at the statement “Why doesn’t education focus on what humans can do better than the machines and instruments they create?”  This is a valid point only if we trust what the machines can do for us.  Putting on my Superman III/Office evil genius hat for a second, if I have a group of people that have been educated to only trust what the machines can do better than them then the time is ripe to write banking software that starts taking their money.  They won’t be worried that their bank balance is slightly lower than it should be because the machine did it for them.  Another perfect example is electronic voting machines in the US election system which people have shown can be hacked to allow only certain votes to come through so that each “ballot box” can favor one candidate over another.  Instead of having a human do the unnecessary task of counting paper ballots and have someone be accountable for it we have machines which can normally count well giving us invalid results.

Finally the author asserts that the thought of students having self discipline and getting their work done brought forward an image of “George Orwell winking in the back of the classroom”.  Truly I hope that they are kidding, having a student have the self determination to find things for themselves and do their own work is the antithesis of what Orwell is talking about.  What is completely Orwellian is “people of trust” making everyone scared and then telling them what to do.  To go back to my original example, yeah a child would probably figure out to go to the bathroom themselves but I tell you folks if that is what we are setting everyone up for things are going to get shitty before they get better.

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About mrthejud

I'm a teacher at Greenall High School in Saskatchewan.
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6 Responses to The Objective of Education

  1. Dan M says:

    It’s not clear why you conclude that computer security will be one of the things that machines will be better at and humans will no longer be taught. It is generally wasteful to publicly train students on mass for tasks that machines can do more efficiently. But, it doesn’t follow that we would be forced to uncritically accept the results that machines produce. For example, people can still balance their paper chequebooks and voting machines can produce paper confirmation slips which voters can double-check before turning them into elections staff.

    In many ways, it is easier to catch machine’s errors because they would tend to make them deterministically, whereas humans make errors more randomly. Machines don’t get offended when you carefully observe their every step and systematically benchmark them, but humans sure hate that. At least my ex girlfriend did.

    You seem to be saying that misinformation should be restricted in the classroom because people tend to accept it uncritically. But, outside the classroom there will always be plenty of misinformation. So, perhaps introducing it to the classroom in some thoughtful way will help create better critical thinkers. I think it’s certainly appropriate to be skeptical of the “information is dictated for recitation from the authority figure in the big desk at the front of the class” model of instruction in terms of teaching people to think critically.

    • mrthejud says:

      I apologize Dan, I forgot to include the article for context:
      http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=2032

      What they are suggesting is that since most knowledge is quickly learned and then forgotten we should just focus on the machines doing those things for us. One of the examples that I give is that square roots aren’t fully understood by the people in general so we should focus on things that people are good at inherently.

      “Why should children — or adults, for that matter — be asked to do something computers and related equipment can do much better than they can?”
      Is the sentence that really stuck out for me in the article as what it is saying as I read it is that we should be accepting what the computers spit out. Having students critically look at a number is great as long as the teachers they had didn’t subscribe to the though that we should just rely on the machines to do what they are good at, as all students will know is how to use that machine.

      Misinformation is rampant everywhere and I agree that we need to try to introduce it to a class. The issue is that students have a lot of trouble determining what resources are good versus bad. They have been taught that there are facts out there and often just accept the things that they are given at face value.

      I understand that humans aren’t as receptive to the scrutiny we can place machines under. Also I agree that we need a balance of the person behind the big desk and the questioning techniques but we need to be vigilant that it doesn’t swing too far one way or another.

      • Dan M says:

        I just watched this talk on using programming to teach math. He argues that teaching calculation by hand is no longer a relevant skill and that we might be doing harm by focusing on it. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on it:

        Students can be uncritically accepting of answers produced from following a trained by-hand procedure just as easily as they can be uncritically accepting of answers produced by a computer algorithm. So, I don’t think use or non-use of machines necessarily has any bearing on how much students will trust a result.

        “Having students critically look at a number is great as long as the teachers they had didn’t subscribe to the though that we should just rely on the machines to do what they are good at, as all students will know is how to use that machine.”

        We absolutely should rely on machines more than humans at doing things that machines are better than humans at. That doesn’t imply that we should trust them absolutely, though.

        In the movie I, Robot, Will Smith deactivates the driving robot in his car and takes the wheel at the protest of the robot and his passenger. Of course, in the movie this helped him save the day. But in reality, if you have a working robot car, you really should *never* be driving. It would be more dangerous and slower for a human to drive. So, once we have robot cars, publicly funding drivers ed would be a silly waste of resources. It’s a complicated skill that requires hundreds of hours of practice to achieve competence, and if a robot can do it better, we are better off training people in skills that are still relevant. Otherwise we are just enabling road cowboys to recklessly deactivate their driving robot for a thrill.

        Similarly, I don’t want an engineer recklessly trying to compute anything complicated by-hand. I want her to know what tools, computers, and machines are appropriate for the job at hand, and for her to make skillful, thoughtful use of them. You should never deactivate your calculation robot for some nostalgic thrill.

      • mrthejud says:

        I hope this ends up underneath your comment. The speaker brings up some interesting comments during his talk.

        I think that using computers to help students do math is a double edged sword. For the stronger students it will allow them to do hard problems that will hopefully be more engaging to the students. For the students at the lower end of things it feels like the technology would be more of a crutch than ever.

        I don’t think that having computers to do the work will get students who would not have been motivated to do Math before interested in doing Math now. It would just take part of the work out of it for the students. I had a student tell me that finding a percentage of a number wasn’t a life skill that he needed even with the use of a calculator. He couldn’t be bothered to figure it out saying, “That’s why you get married, so she can do the Math”. Needless to say I was glad I was only covering for that Grade 10 teacher.

        Using real world problems is great but you will still run into the question of “When am I going to use this in my real life”. Even though we are giving students problems based in real life the teacher would still get the few students who say that dreaded phrase. Mostly because they are right the problems that we would give students aren’t going to have much context in those children’s lives.

        My question for you is, how much of the problem do you let the computer do? Do you think that the students would be able to interpret the simulations that he was showing in the video and apply them to a greater context? Do you think that a system like the one Conrad is proposing would engage the students more? I’m not saying that the school system works well in this sense but I’m wondering if you think the students would be able to see the improvement.

  2. Dan M says:

    “My question for you is, how much of the problem do you let the computer do?”

    The computer should do all of the computation.

    Consider the “crutches” and technologies that are taught and encouraged in schools. For the student who wants to compute a percent, he has to take a ratio of two numbers. So, he writes one number beside the other, draws part of a box around the one on the right, then writes some numbers above the box, “carries the one”, puts a dot in the right spot, and when he’s done, he moves the dot two places to the right.

    This procedure is a technology, and it wasn’t invented by the student. It was presented to the student as a technology for computing ratios, and he had to practice and drill it until it was automatic and routine. The student may have understood the procedure once, or may never have understood reason behind each step. But while he’s using it, it is a black box technology in which the initial data is input and the result is output. We tend to call the use of this technology “doing it yourself”. But, the student isn’t pondering the concept of ratios while he is using it any more than a student who put the same input into a different technology made of silicon (i.e. “letting the computer do it”).

    So, is the computer the crutch for people who haven’t learned long division? Or is long division a crutch for someone who doesn’t like computers? The answer depends on whether your society has more sheets of paper with pencils nearby, or if they have more iPhones.

    “I don’t think that having computers to do the work will get students who would not have been motivated to do Math before interested in doing Math now.”

    It seems reasonable to me that it would be motivating to have a tool that removes tedious computations from in between you and your goals. The question of whether computers can help to motivate math students probably deserves a careful measurement.

    • mrthejud says:

      I hadn’t considered the procedure itself as the technology component of doing things by hand but you are right about that.

      As for the motivation part, I’m really not sure that the motivation would be any higher. If my car is not working and I have a machine that will fix it as soon as I diagnose what the problem is, I would not be any more motivated to diagnose the problem. If I had the option I would still be taking it to a mechanic. Just like in the example I gave above the students were told to use their calculators and they still were not motivated to do their work.

      Thank you for your comments by the way, it is greatly appreciated.

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