Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

July 4, 2005

I just finished listening to an audio version of Richard Feynman’s The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. Overall it was pretty mixed in its content, but what was good was really, really good.

One story he repeatedly shared—the book is a collection of individual essays and documents from Feynman’s life so it’s replete with repetition—is about the walks through the woods that he used to take as a child with his father, a uniform salesman. Other boys in his peer group would ask him if he knew what some bird or tree was called and mock him when he didn’t know because their fathers taught them such things. The difference was that his father taught him that knowing what something is named tells you absolutely nothing about the thing itself, only what words humans use to refer to it.

His father would ask him how a squirrel moves and Feynman (the child) would reply that it was by using his muscles. His father would say, “Nope, it’s because the sun shines.” Feynman would look at him quizzically and his father would then ask a series of questions that delved deeper into each succeeding premise until the ultimate cause was clearly that the sun was shining. His father had no scientific training, but he wanted his son to become a scientist. (I must confess now that I may have gotten the specifics of this story—and any others I relate—incorrect since I can’t readily go back and verify my memory. I do, however, know the gist of them.)

On another walk, they were really studying trees and Feynman’s father told him that on all these walks they had really only gotten to know half of the forest’s workings. Feynman was again curious and his father pointed out that they had been focusing solely on living things. Death was an important process in the forest and so he proceeded to search for evidence of chains starting with things dying. They found rotting trees, animal carcasses, and so on.

The last story about the interaction between the Feynmans that struck me was how Feynman’s father used to tell him bedtime stories from different perspectives and Feynman the child had to guess who his father was using. Sometimes it might be a Martian, other times it was a bug in the carpet. Feynman related that these stories exerted a powerful influence on him at the time because they seemed so vivid as his father described the world as viewed from an ant’s perspective.

These stories (and there were many more that I enjoyed) illustrated the power of showing rather than telling. Feynman’s father could have delivered extensive tales of biological processes or everyday bedtime stories. Instead, he took the opportunity to present lessons—in stepping out of your own way of looking at things, in looking beyond the obvious workings of our world, in getting to the root causes of the way things are. He did it through means a child could understand, which made it accessible.

The main thing that Feynman says his father instilled in him was that the world was full of wonder. This curiosity manifested itself in his interest in physics, but it could also show up in his forays into psychology and his generally skeptical manner. He emphasized that curiosity was its own reward.

These are the things I want for my children, things that I have enjoyed throughout my life. I hope that I can do it in a similarly inspiring fashion, rather than a clumsy, lecturing style that turns them off. Feynman’s The Pleasure of Finding Things Out is an excellent source for the former and well worth it for any parent who desires the same.

Stop on Red

August 29, 2004

Someone at work mentioned that schools were discouraging the use of red pens to indicate errors, but I didn’t believe it. I guess I was wrong. Two anecdotes stood out:

“I know a teacher who will ask questions in class, and if the student answers wrongly, she’ll say, ‘Hold that answer, I’ll be back with the right question soon,’ ” said Warner Robins High school counselor Beth McConnell.

Last year, at Fort Valley Middle School, students who made A’s were called out of class for a party in the school gym. This year, that celebration was opened up to all students with passing grades, said principal Quintin Green.

This is so wrong. I’m lucky to be married to an educator who believes that article is bunk. She taught third grade last year and gave “D” students Ds. Parents freaked because their children had always been “A” students before—except they hadn’t. There is a certain strain of teacher that is all too happy to engage in grade inflation because it makes her job easier by removing any chance of confrontation.

It sickens me and it sickened my wife. She tells me that the kids are generally okay with red marks, poor grades, and criticism. They know when they aren’t performing well and getting such grades affirms this. She said that parents are the ones who can’t handle it; they’ve actually gone to her principal to contest the grades. Sandi, of course, had all the documentation to support her assessment so the parents would generally get their children transferred to an easier class, where they would get nice and inflated marks.

There is an interesting contrast to be made between her public school experience and her private school experience. She taught kindergarten for two years at Rancho Solano. In those classes, the kids learned to read, count, and generally everything that she later taught in first grade at a public school. Oh, and these kids were four years old. Her expectations (and the school’s) were high and the kids rose to meet them. When a parent did disagree with her teaching style (which was very rare), the school stood firmly behind her so long as she was right.

She would go back to a private school in a heartbeat, but she’s not sure if she would ever go back to a public one after her tenure there.

No Child Left Ahead

March 8, 2004

If ever there was an indictment of George W. Bush, this article is a resounding one. His “No Child Left Behind” initiative is one of those things that he hails as indicative of his compassion and would probably consider his legacy.

Unfortunately, in today’s publicly-funded educational system, money allocated for a new project must carve out funds from existing projects. The message sent by this new program is clear: the dumb must be raised up. The zero-sum budget game of public education adds in an implicit corollary: the bright must be brought down.

This, I must say, is a travesty. Speaking as a recipient of gifted education throughout my public school career, I think that I would have tuned out if I hadn’t had a daily respite from the doldrums. Being able to associate with other smart people who had all sorts of quirks that were as egghead-y as your own—think Head of the Class but younger—was literally a life-saver (or, perhaps, a mind-saver).

If you believe that children are our future, the gifted are the particular subset of children that are most likely to represent our future. The mass of public school children will, by and large, become the future construction laborers, service workers, and auto mechanics of our country. All of which, mind you, are perfectly respectable jobs and will enable them to live their lives and raise their families.

But to condemn the gifted to wallow in the banality of their regular classrooms is indefensible. In a more perfect world, the fact that such a law was passed with such inevitable and foreseeable consequences would be damnatory and result in Bush II’s inability to achieve the Republican Party nomination. That it isn’t points to the sorry state of affairs the GOP finds itself in.

Liberal Arts Majors

December 9, 2003

As a liberal-arts major working in a field unrelated to said major, I second Alex Tabarrok’s advice. Well said! Many of my colleagues constantly lamented the poor pay of an academic and considered it an indictment of our society—but one of many so considered I assure you—that historians’ works didn’t sell better and that their influence was so marginal. I was always glad for it, knowing their views and opinions, but it always struck me how envy-ridden they were.

I’d wager that it’s precisely because they didn’t have real jobs outside of their teaching assistantships and probably never had. Insulated in the ivory tower, it’s easy to construct castles in the air and weave unreal theories. You get paid whether your ideas are ludicrous or sound. In fact, you just may get paid more for more controversial and “avant-garde” espousals. The real world (by which I mean the business world) just isn’t like that.

Many of my fellow academics were positively riddled with disdain for their students. They saw the lack of acceptance of their ideas among their pupils as a sign of the students’ mental deficiencies, hidden racism, or conservatism. Never once did it occur to them that their views were preposterous or that their premises inconsistent with reality. I’m not suggesting that they were crazy because they disagreed with me, but they were just so unfounded and derivative—unfounded in reality and derivative of the scholars they read.

I, for one, would love to start a business around history. The melding of my interests and the entrepreneurial spirit of the venture would suit me well. But the difficulty is that I can’t come up with any good businesses. I’ve got some great ideas, but I can’t figure out how to make money at them. And I’m not going to do the one without getting the other straight.

Just think about who would pay for historical work to be done and you’ll see my trouble. Corporations have a lot of money but producing historical accounts of them would probably take more time and money than they’d be willing to spend. Plus, the research might unearth unpleasant facts or be heavily restricted due to the necessity of protecting trade secrets. Individuals pay for history quite frequently, but that’s in purchasing books. How to get them to pay more generally is a tough nut. I’ll crack it in due time, but it’s going to take thought.