Education is best without any structure but yours

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Learning. My learning style is to open a book and learn stuff, but only when I want to and only about what I want to learn. That had guided my level of academic mediocrity throughout high school and university.

I guess if what you want to use university for is to answer your questions rather than being guided as to what questions they want you to be asking yourself, then that is the path to acedemic mediocrity. Einstein was seen as mediocre in university and had an office job issuing patents to make ends meet before he offered the world his special and general relativity theories. The same was true for Newton, seen as a mediocre math student in Oxford before the Bubonic plague kept him at home thinking obsessively about optics, gravity, and calculus.

The polite thing to say about me is that I am – ahem – not smart in the same way, but the sameness is just in how other assessors saw us. Frankly, when Covid hit, which is a firecracker next to the dynamite that was the Bubonic Plague, I was gaining weight and struggling to stay motivated and engaged with life. No scientific or math breakthroughs for me. Any assessor who thought me as mediocre back in uni would have had their every observation confirmed during Covid.

I did coach, administer and mark several math contests over the past two decades. That’s something, and it is something better than mediocre. I am now leading math clubs, along with Computer Science clubs as my school’s only full-time computer science teacher. Again, not many people would volunteer for any of that. So yes, I may appear mediocre in some circles, but when the rubber hits the road, I gravitate to what is challenging, and rise to the challenge, while urging my students to do the same.

But what about academic achievement? I had to make up for what I didn’t learn on my own, due to my following my own curiosity in any academic programme rather than follow the curriculum. I never surrendered my natural curiosity to forces from academe, regardless of the carrot of higher academic honors being dangled in front of me. In our culture, it seems that learning, even from grade school, boils down to that kind of a tradeoff. I never get a sense that there was ever room for compromise.

Most people give up their special set of questions to pursue what they are told, and it seems they end up comfortable, but losing their natural curiosity, believing that learning is hard, learning is not natural unless you have a pre-digested curriculum with pre-digested questions to answer. These are questions you are not necessarily asking; questions you are not necessarily curious about.

I was always confused as a child as to why I did so poorly in school. I would ask my counsellor why he thought it was. He said he didn’t know. So, it was unknown to science or something? These days, it seems quite simple. My will to learn was never really tamed or never really broken to conform to other’s expectations. Pursuing learning for its own pleasure was one of the few pleasures I seemed to be able to have in my teens, and the nice thing about this pleasure is that it is perennial. So, as a result, I always favoured the self-indulgence of asking my own questions, doing my own reading, and finding things out for myself.

The energy I devoted to that meant I had less energy for the course material at hand. But on some deep level I also didn’t find the idea of giving up my freedom to learn in exchange for a high mark to be that worthwhile a tradeoff. It seemed that the way the education system was set up was to make you feel less competent to do basic things in life, which ought not to be rocket science. Making easy things seem hard is not the mark of a good educational system.

Computers in education

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Children enjoying some time reading at their desktops.
The debate over computers in the schools has finally come  around to giving naysayers equal time. There was an article in the Sunday New York Times regarding a school in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley that teaches math, music, and other standard elementary school subjects in a computer-free environment.Computers are touted as an enhancer for learning in education. However, data is unclear as to whether they do anything at all. There appear to do some things better, such as helping us to visualise certain concepts such as transformations in graphs in math. But it doesn’t help matters if by grade 10 a student is still lunging for his or her calculator to figure out 7×6.

A famous american president, reading at his desktop.
The Waldorf school in the article appeared to have caught on to the idea that in order to learn something, your brain should be doing the work. A machine shouldn’t be doing the work for you. Otherwise, you are accepting your own obsolescence, and admitting to the world that you are replaceable by a machine.There is no substitute for a live, human teacher or the child’s own parent in helping a child learn. The Waldorf school bans computers up to at least grade 8, afterward allowing limited access to computer technology. Most user interfaces are braindead simple these days anyway. It takes you minutes to learn how to use your iTouch device. These days, if you have to read a manual to learn the operation of a new computer gizmo, the designers have failed. Windows and OSX are designed that way too. The learning of how to use a computer is easier than it has ever been, and students lose nothing by delaying their exposure to computers to a later age.

Version 2 of the TI Nspire operating system

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My main complaint about the Nspire and Nspire CAS, the need to have some kind of input statement in its programmnig language, looks like it is closer to reality. I just have to fiddle with it some more to see if it can really place data in tables (or now, spreadsheets), and see if I can really do I/O in a running program as was the case for the TI-84 family. To be clear, I am not using the new “touchpad” version of the CAS, I am using the slightly older version, which had the original keyboard.

When I did a test statement

Request "---> ", j
and ran it, the calculator came back with a screen using “–>” as a prompt, and a blank for me to input something. I entered “36”, then the input window disappeared, then the string

--> 36
was output. The input window seems cumbersome.  That could be because I like command line input, and think it has less memory overhead on a device where every byte of RAM is precious.

At any rate, the value is stored in j, and this was proven by doing the multiplication

4j
and I got 144. This was on a calculator whose memory was cleared due to the OS upgrade. The cursor is much more sensitive, and there is a noticeable speed impovement over prior OS versions.

I tried to make a simple program, and got nowhere with the Request statement, when I placed it inside a FOR/END FOR loop in a named program.

Rube-Goldberg Machines V

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Another one. A couple of years ago, this was a Honda Accord commercial, and it caused quite a sensation when it got released. It took over 606 takes and cost over 6 million dollars to make. Any minor misfirings resulted in having to set everything up from scratch, all over again. It was a 2-minute ad spot which was released in the UK in 2006.

Binary adding machine using marbles

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My marble adding machine in action. More at http://woodgears.ca/marbleadd

What impressed me is not just the fact that it looks like it could be used as 1) a great woodworking project, and 2) a great computer science tool in grade 10.

There is another video that explains the mechanics behind this adding machine a little better:

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