[Squeakland] the non universals

mmille10@comcast.net mmille10 at comcast.net
Mon Aug 20 12:13:57 PDT 2007

Bill Kerr wrote a blog post about this discussion. I posted some comments about it there, and he asked me to share my thoughts here, to help broaden the discussion. For what it's worth, I'll put forth a version of what I said on his blog. I hope you will find it relevant. I don't mean to "pollute" the discussion.

This discussion is interesting to me, particularly as it pertains to "school culture". I can speak to direct experience from the POV of someone who was a student in U.S. public schools in the 1980s, and got a BSCS degree in the 1990s.

We had Logo instruction as part of a programming class when I was in junior high school (now called middle school). One of the shapes we were taught to draw was a circle. We were not taught the math involved. We were just given the algorithm. Looking back on it I think our teacher just used Logo to teach us about procedural programming, and perhaps some geometry concepts. We built what I'd call "procedures" (I don't remember what they were called in Logo) and then called them from our code to repeat patterns. We were then asked to create our own drawings in Logo. That was pretty much it. I didn't learn until I got to college, and only by listening to a casual conversation between a student and a computer science professor who taught graphics, that this method for drawing a circle in Logo was implementing a form of Calculus. I remember listening to that conversation and feeling kind of "dumb" and perhaps a bit cheated. I wondered how this student came to know this.

Even though the full power of Logo was not taught to us, I think programming classes then were more interesting and fun than what I hear is being taught now. I talked with another blogger about this recently (in the U.S.). He said his son was taking a computer course where all they're teaching is how to use Office, and how to write "practical" programs in Java.

Re: why are computer teachers just teaching word processing/Office?

Around my 6th grade year, around 1982, "computer literacy" was starting to become the "thing to do" to "prepare for the future". Back then computer literacy was defined as computer programming. So even though computers hadn't made a widespread appearance in schools every effort was made to encourage kids to learn to program them. When I got to junior high we had only 3 computers in the school. We had a math teacher who held a small computer club after school, showing us how to work with it, and letting us try our hand at it. The teaching style was to show parts of programming in a language, show an example using those parts, and then let us experiment, or try to solve a programming problem: "Write a program that does X". It was typically math-oriented. We were more free to try to bring forth what was in our imagination. Eventually the school got a whole lab so more kids could get exposed to them. By my 9th grade year the emphasis had started to change. I remember reading about it. 
The powers that be in the education systems had changed their minds about "computer literacy". Now instead of teaching kids to program, more emphasis would be put on teaching kids to use what you would now call an "office suite": word processing, working with spreadsheets, and databases.

The focus was largely vocational the whole time, even when they taught programming. In the early years of this things had not yet come into focus about where this "computer thing" was going to go. Computers in those days were largely custom programmed to do certain things. So I'm sure people looked at that and felt it was necessary to teach kids for that purpose. Once the software market started to mature, people said, "Okay. So they don't need to learn to program to be literate."

I took one of the first courses my junior high school offered for these office computing skills. I figured I should learn them. I don't regret it, but I do regret that over the years there has been a watering down of that passion for getting kids literate in programming. Maybe that's changed of late, but whatever is being done now it doesn't sound as interesting.

Re: how Calculus is taught

I don't know if things have changed, but I wasn't taught Calculus until I entered college in 1988, and there weren't that many proofs. High schools did have AP Calculus courses then. You could get college credit for passing the AP test.

As Alan Kay said earlier, it was largely memorization of formulas, pattern matching, and doing symbol manipulation according to rules. Not that these are useless skills. I use them in programming, but I had a different conception of what we would be learning when I came into it. At the time I didn't see much of the point in it. I had a tendency to not learn well when memorization was all that was required. I did much better if I understood the concept. Most of the math we learned was about the concepts of infinity and limits.

The most exciting math class I had was geometry in high school, and it was probably because we literally built knowledge as we went through the course. We were doing proofs all the time, starting with simple concepts, at the beginning, building to complex concepts at the end.

The most exciting part of Calculus for me was learning about Taylor and MacLaurin Series. I had been curious for a long time how calculators were able to compute logarithms and roots. I got part of my answer in pre-Calc, when we studied how to compute power functions using logs and anti-logs. I remember asking my pre-Calc teacher in high school about how calculators computed logs and anti-logs. He assumed that there were tables built into the memory of the calculators, which it used to give the result, but I pressed further. I said that you could put in any number, even a fraction, and still get an accurate result. Further, you could use the opposite function to get the original number back. How would you use tables to do that? I had stumped him. He had no idea. Perhaps my "computer literacy", if you will, had provided me with an insight he didn't have.

Though we didn't explore this in Calculus, I felt as though I had found my answer.

Re: Teachers vying for equal time for their subjects

I've seen this dynamic show up in other contexts (outside of schools). This is just an intuitive reaction to this topic, but it seems to me it's a case of "too many cooks in the kitchen". Each has their own ego to please. Over the decades there's been a tearing down of authority. Now it's expected it will be distributed rather than narrowly focused, at least in more "liberal" environments (forgive my use of a political term). It seems like these are exercises in egalitarianism, where that's the primary value, rather than merit of the subject matter, because after all, who's to say one subject is more important than the other? By what authority do you claim one subject is worth less than another? In an environment where the "gods" have been torn down, seen as flawed and not worth listening to because their motives are suspect, everybody is a "god".

Perhaps the indirect consumers of the knowledge schools are supposed to be imparting to students, industry, can speak up and provide some motivation to prioritize the skills that students should learn. I don't consider this the ideal, because when this happened in the past, schools created students who fit well into assembly lines. Maybe they still do. It's hard for me to judge that. Personally I like Alan Kay's approach of "teaching to maintain civilization". I think that unfortunately there are quite a few in educational establishments who don't see Western civilization as something that's worth maintaining. They take it for granted. What I would ask is, "What's the alternative you'd prefer?" Give me a Dr. Wafa Sultan anytime over these folks.

One of the things I lament about the U.S. public school system is it's becoming increasingly politicized in the sense that teachers are literally bringing political topics into classrooms where they don't fit well. For example, a year ago I heard about a case of a geography teacher in the course of giving a lecture questioning the validity of capitalism (of which he had no expertise), and suggested that a certain president could be compared to a certain dictator (maybe he had expertise here, but how does this fit into geography?). And this was in a high income area where relative educational excellence is typically expected. In any case this sort of approach sounds anti-intellectual to me. Maybe I don't understand. There is such a thing as post-modernist philosophy, though I don't have much respect for it.

Whenever somebody complains about this sort of thing in the classrooms, the retort that always comes back is "We're teaching students critical thinking." To which I say, "Is that what you call critical thinking? Bringing the 'village idiot' into a class and letting them blab on about their POV on the world whether they have expertise or not?" IMO the kids deserve better than this.

Not to say these expressed opinions are invalid, but I think there's a time and place for them in the context of school, and if someone's going to make the argument, they should have the educational background and context to justify making them in front of students. In other words, they should know what they're talking about. I don't recall experiencing this sort of thing when I was in public schools. Teachers tended to stick to their subjects.

What I suspect might be going on is the result of people bringing in a concept I used to hear about from time to time: teaching for "emotional intelligence", or so-called "EQ". I don't see how schools as they are currently structured being able to do this very well. Unfortunately I think it's been brought in under a political context as well.

Some time ago I watched an interview with George Lucas on the Charlie Rose show, and he said he believed that schools should inculcate emotional intelligence, saying it was at least as important as technical intelligence. He said that in terms of hiring people, he found that emotional intelligence was more important than technical. He said that he didn't need people for the long term in his own business who were just technically intelligent, but rather people who could inspire, motivate, and lead. I imagine his ideal would be people who had both in equal measure, but he indicated he prefered leadership qualities, which he put in the "EQ" category. I suppose it's a matter of his perspective, working in large part with artists. A different industry titan might have a very different perspective.

Re: "93% of teachers like their jobs"

This reminded me of a quote I used in a blog post I just put up myself. This is from Stephen Friedman, Chairman of Stone Point Capital at a panel discussion held by the Aspen Institute in July:

"I think the real question is why are the average parents in America willing to live with a school--You know, when they do the studies they find that people tend to be satisfied with their own school system. They're underdemanding consumers. Why are they satisfied with a system that has their kids' comparative standings on the standardized tests so poor against the rest of the world? I don't understand it. I don't understand. There's a market failure."

I am going away on a trip soon so I probably won't be able to respond immediately to follow-ups to this. Just wanted to get this off while this discussion was still fresh in people's minds.

--Mark Miller
mmille10 at comcast.net

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