Friday, March 25, 2011

How to make it big...

A friend pointed me to a nice quote in an article by Steven Levy in Wired magazine: 
“You can’t understand Google,” vice president Marissa Mayer says, “unless you know that both Larry and Sergey were Montessori kids.” She’s referring to schools based on the educational philosophy of Maria Montessori, an Italian physician born in 1870 who believed that children should be allowed the freedom to pursue their interests. “In a Montessori school, you go paint because you have something to express or you just want to do it that afternoon, not because the teacher said so,” she says. “This is baked into how Larry and Sergey approach problems. They’re always asking, why should it be like that? It’s the way their brains were programmed early on.”

It reminded me a little of this essay by John Taylor Gatto, where he provides an impressive list of people who also didn't like to do things because the teacher said so, and exercised the freedom to pursue their interests: Bill Gates, William Faulkner, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Ted Turner, Ray Kroc, Richard Branson. Every one of these was a school/college dropout.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Searching for a school

This article on the school admissions season in New York is simply hilarious.

Katie Roiphe writes with biting humor about something that many urban parents can relate to. I particularly like this passage:

The interesting element of this obsession is that each of these unique and excellent schools seems to be conferring some ineffable quality, not just on its students, but on the parents of these students. In the 10 minutes they spend dropping their children off in its hallowed hallways, they are seeing some flattering image of themselves reflected back: progressive, enlightened, intellectually engaged. 
The most sought-after school in my neighbourhood, a famously open-minded and progressive and arty yet very exclusive private school, is conferring a kind of creativity on the parents, so that even if they are bankers or hedge-fund guys, as many of them frankly are, they can tell themselves in the dark of night that they are creative people, because their children attend this impeccably creative school. And if they are creative people – that is, people who have somehow made enough money to send their children to this school, but work in film or music or advertising – they can congratulate themselves on their creativity, even if they are not, although in a creative profession, exactly creating anything themselves. The secret suspicion that you might be a hack, a glorified hack, making a rather nice living doing something fun (but not truly living out your fantasy of creating art the way you honestly thought you would be in college), well, the cheque you make out to that fancy, creative, open place you are sending your child to is proving otherwise. They are putting on operas when they are three years old, after all. They are illustrating Wallace Stevens poems by the time they are six. How could anyone accuse you of just being a banker, or a music executive, or an internet guy with good glasses? I have a friend whose five-year-old attends this school. She and her husband were pleased that when their daughter had an assignment to write down what she wanted to be when she grew up she wrote "artist". But when they arrived at the class presentation the next day they saw that all 22 children had put down "artist": there were no "veterinarians", no "circus acrobats", no "doctors", no "hair cutters". Twenty two artists, and one kindergarten class: the school, you see, does not play around.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Teaching limits exploration

Alison Gopnik, a professor of Psychology at UC Berkeley, has written an article on Slate, titled "Why Preschool shouldn't be like School", about two recent research studies that show how teaching inhibits creativity in children.

The research studies she points to are to be published soon in the journal Cognition. One, co-authored by Gopnik, is titled "Children's imitation of causal action sequences is influenced by statistical and pedagogical evidence," which shows that children are particularly inclined to repeat what they see a teacher do.  The other is titled "The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery", and shows that when instructed by a teacher, children are likely to learn more efficiently, but are also less likely to discover new facts.

She writes:
As so often happens in science, two studies from different labs, using different techniques, have simultaneously produced strikingly similar results. They provide scientific support for the intuitions many teachers have had all along: Direct instruction really can limit young children's learning. Teaching is a very effective way to get children to learn something specific—this tube squeaks, say, or a squish then a press then a pull causes the music to play. But it also makes children less likely to discover unexpected information and to draw unexpected conclusions.
Knowing what to expect from a teacher is a really good thing, of course: It lets you get the right answers more quickly than you would otherwise. Indeed, these studies show that 4-year-olds understand how teaching works and can learn from teachers. But there is an intrinsic trade-off between that kind of learning and the more wide-ranging learning that is so natural for young children. Knowing this, it's more important than ever to give children's remarkable, spontaneous learning abilities free rein. That means a rich, stable, and safe world, with affectionate and supportive grown-ups, and lots of opportunities for exploration and play. Not school for babies.
This is very much along the lines of what I've been thinking and writing about. I would argue that we need to apply these ideas well beyond preschool. The title of Gopnik's article could be generalized. School (and college!) should be less like school as well...

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

8-10-year-olds write a real science article

I wrote a little while ago about the importance of giving school and college students "real" work to do.

What better a way to have kids learn about science than letting them be real scientists?

A delightful paper: "Blackawton Bees", published in the journal Biology Letters in December 2010,  is authored by an unusual string of scientists. They are 8-10-year-olds at Blackawton primary school in UK.

This group of kids not only conducted the experiments described in the paper, they also wrote the article in their own words (apparently all of it except the abstract).

The study shows the ability of bees to "solve" a puzzle in the process of searching for food (sugar water). The kids describe the experiment in their own endearing words:

This experiment is important, because, as far as we know, no one in history (including adults) has done this experiment before. It tells us that bees can learn to solve puzzles (and if we are lucky we will be able to get them to do Sudoku in a couple of years’ time). In this experiment, we trained bees to solve a particular puzzle. The puzzle was go to blue if surrounded by yellow, but yellow if surrounded by blue.

Here's part of their description of the methodology, discussing how the bees were marked:

We let the foragers into the arena and turned the lights off, which made the bees stop flying (because they do not want to fly into anything). We picked the bees up with bee tweezers and put them into a pot with a lid. We then put the tube with the bees in it into the school’s fridge (and made bee pie :-)). The bees fell asleep. Once they fell asleep, we took the bees out, one at a time, and painted little dots on them (yellow, blue, orange, blue-orange, blue-yellow,
etc.). We put them into the tube and warmed them up and then let them into the arena. No bees were harmed during this procedure.
The grown-ups involved in formulating this study and planning it were David Strudwick, a teacher, and Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist, whose son was in the class.

For more on the story of this amazing study, see:

Friday, March 04, 2011

Math for kids

Prof. Elwyn Berlekamp is a famous coding theorist from UC Berkeley. He gave the annual Viterbi lecture at USC yesterday. While much of his talk focused on some puzzles/games and their fascinating relationship to coding theory, he also made a point about  mathematics education for kids that I think is worth repeating.

Echoing Lockhart's Mathematician's Lament, he made the point that it is valuable to give kids problems that cannot be solved in a single sitting. That these are, in some sense, the problems that are most valuable, yet never encountered in typical schooling.

He gave the example of the following classic problem he encountered as a ten year old, to which he credits his lifelong love of mathematics.

You are given twelve coins, at most of one of which is defective (either heavier or lighter than others). You are given a weighing balance. Can you determine with exactly three weighings, which, if any, of the coins is defective?

Prof. Berlekamp also talked about his involvement with the Berkeley Math Circle for kids. There are apparently similar math circles for kids in many cities/places across the country. (Here, for instance, is one in Los Angeles: ).