Monday, August 30, 2010

Penn & Teller - Not "dicks"?

Earlier today, Phil posted a link to a clip from a new episode Penn & Teller's show Bullshit on vaccinations and praised it. He called it "really effective" and "a brilliant move".

I don't have cable, and I don't watch the show too often, but I've seen a few episodes and one of the things that I seemed to remember is that Penn isn't exactly nice. In fact, I remembered him being pretty direct in calling a spade a spade, hence the title of the show.

So I dug up a few episodes of their show to see just how direct Penn & Teller were in their name calling. In their episode on Creationism, they call Creationists (not their ideas, but Creationists as a group): "Pesky", "desperate, deluded", "assholes", "scary", "stinking", and "foolish".

In the episode on the Vatican, he describes the Vatican (the core of Catholic faith), a "festering swamp of intolerance, greed, paranoia, hypocrisy," full of "callous disregard for human suffering".

In the episode on the Bible, they're pretty tame, only referring to "evangelical assholes" and calling people that supported the 10 commandments in the Alabama courthouse "uneducated".

Is this wrong? I think the core of that question goes back to what I tried to discuss in my last post on this topic: What defines a "dick"?

My argument was that things like the above aren't being dickish. They're perfectly reasonable given that some people need that societal pressure of being made fun of to reevaluate their position. This is echoed by Les at SEB.

But even if it is what people need to hear, isn't it still being a dick? I think the key here is moderation. It's the difference between what makes an ad hominem fallacy, and what makes a strongly worded argument. In the former, there is no logical basis or evidence. It's simply character assassination. In the latter, it's spice to the mix. You want a little to get people to sit up and pay attention, but it shouldn't be overwhelming.

My biggest problem with Phil's speech and his subsequent follow up, is that he's repeatedly failed to draw this line. He's left it worthlessly vague, giving no concrete examples by which to distinguish leaving people to infer what he's meant. Does it include people like myself, Les Jenkins, Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, and Penn & Teller, who will all outright call Creationists and other woo-woo peddlers "fools", or is the line further out leaving only people whose "logic in those situations is left by the wayside"?

One of Phil's major points was that, before you say something, you should stop to consider if it's really helping. Well, how has chiding people for doing something that hasn't been defined helping?

Friday, August 27, 2010

How not to write a story - 2012 + Solar Cycles + Sensationalism = Stupid

I've written about bad science journalism before. In fact, every time I've used my Science Journalism tag, it's been a bad article. And guess what. Here's another one:

Yahoo News is reporting a solar storm in 2012 is about to hit the Earth with a force of "100 million hydrogen bombs".

Let's work this out a little. A hydrogen bomb releases about 240,000 x 1012 Joules of energy. Multiplying that by 100 million means we'd get 2.4 x 1025 Joules of energy. The specific heat of air is ~1 J/(gºK) and there's about 5 x 1021 g of air on the Earth.

Multiply all that together in the proper manner and you get that the energy dumped into the Earth would raise the atmospheric temperature by 4,800ºK or 8,200ºF. In essence, Yahoo is claiming that the world is about to end.

But what is the author worried about? Only that this approaching storm has "the potential to wipe out the entire planet's power grid." Well damn! I mean, being dead sucks but no power?! Really?

Obviously something's wrong here. The number quoted isn't the actual amount of energy that would hit the Earth. It's the energy released in a large solar eruption. But almost none of it will hit the Earth. We're just too small a target and that energy is spread out way too much.

So does that mean there's no danger?

No. There is some, and the article hits on it. Large solar storms have the potential to destroy satellite's delicate circuit systems, destroy ozone, and all sorts of other effects. But is it something to really be worried about?

The answer is, who knows? Solar levels are damned near impossible to predict because most of what drives them is taking place inside the sun, where we can't really see it. In fact, the most recent solar cycle was supposed to have gotten underway last year. But it's been slacking. There's been a curious lack of solar activity as generally indicated by sunspots. They're starting to appear now, but no one's really sure why the extra long lapse.

So making predictions is a really tricky business. Looking too far ahead has large uncertainties associated with it. But that doesn't stop people from trying. In fact, there's large groups of astronomers that work on it. Check out NASA's page on Solar Prediction. There's a nice little graph on that page showing the sunspot activity predicted for this year based on ratios "between the size of the next cycle maximum and the length of the previous cycle, the level of activity at sunspot minimum, and the size of the previous cycle."

Given that, there can be some decent predictions and what does next year's look like? It's about half as active as last year's. Yet Yahoo's source (an amateur astronomer from Australia), claims that "[t]he general consensus among general astronomers (and certainly solar astronomers) is that this coming Solar maximum (2012 but possibly later into 2013) will be the most violent in 100 years".


And where is the peak on that graph? It's certainly NOT 2012. It's well into 2013. Radio flux predictions agree.

So why the 2012 bullshit? The article outright says it: "those who put the date of Solar Max in 2012 are getting the most press."

The media is playing on a feeding frenzy, reporting sensationalistic science without context, understanding what the quotes mean, or checking their facts.....

No way....

EDIT: One more irony - The amateur astronomer from which they're getting a lot of their clueless quote mining has this to say: "solar storms that will cause the Sun to reach temperatures of more than 10,000°F occur only a few times over a person’s life."

Hmmm.... last I checked the normal surface temperature of the Sun is 5,778ºK which is (drumroll please!) ~10,000ºF. So only a few times over a person's life are solar storms energetic enough to..... not change the temperature of the Sun.....

Right. I'm done with this one.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Don't be a Dick - My Take

I've been slow on responding to what's been a hot topic recently, but what else is new?

This topic, as the title of this post suggests, is Phil Plait's talk at TAM8 which has been retrospectively titled "Don't be a Dick".

Essentially, the point Phil makes is that being overly aggressive and confrontational doesn't do much to further the cause of rational thinking. In fact, it hinders is because when someone is challenged, their natural inclination is to entrench themselves. This isn't to say we shouldn't continue to challenge pseudo-science or other such topics in an impassioned manner, but Phil's claim is that we've lost passion and changed over to arrogant condemnation in which "hubris is running rampant, and that egos are just out of check and sometimes logic in those situations is left by the wayside."

I'd left off from commenting on this because I figured that someone else had probably already said what I was going to. But after following the response over the past week, the point I wanted to make has gone completely left out. So I guess I will comment.

First off, I'd like to agree with a lot of what Jerry Coyne said at WEIT. If you don't want to read his commentary, it boils down to this: Phil doesn't cite a single source of what he's describing because he assumes it's too "trivial". From that, Coyne concludes, not that it isn't happening, but it's not as widespread as Phil is claiming and Phil would likely have had to call out some popular skeptics like PZ.

I agree with this 100%. In his talk, Phil makes a point of how we need a united front from believers and non-believers alike to really combat pseudo-science because, without the extra help, we're just too few. Phil's a uniter so I can see why he wouldn't want to call someone out when a simple nudge would (hopefully) suffice. I'm not going to find much fault with that.

However, what I do have a problem with is being sloppy with definitions. Where's this magical line between strong worded, accurate rhetoric and being a "dick"?

To me, this is the key point that was somehow completely lost. When does the line get crossed and instead of reaching out to people, we're truly turning them away?

One of the most frustrating things, but also the most true things I've ever learned about learning was told to me by one of my astrophysics professors at KU; When we complained of how difficult his tests were, he'd always respond that "learning shouldn't be easy or comfortable."

And looking back, it's absolutely true. The greatest personal growth I've gone through, and I suspect most people go through, is that intellectual growth that had to be fought for. It was fraught with anxiety and self-doubt, being lost in the forest and stumbling around till I found the right path, but in doing so, learned the lay of the land well enough that I learned what wasn't the right path.

Unfortunately, too many people don't want to be told they're on the right path. They're comfortable where they are. Furthermore, we have a society in which relativism reigns. It's not kosher to question anyone else's beliefs, no matter how damaging they might be to themselves, or worse, to others.

In an ideal world, we could simply point this out and, hallelujah, they'd come around. But, as Phil admits in his speech, it's quite often hard to do this because you can't reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into in the first place. Sometimes more is needed.

As I just mentioned, such people don't have the good sense to look around, see the harm they're causing and feel bad enough to fix it. They're often blinded by their own ignorance in a stunning display of the Dunning-Kruger effect. More is needed.

If someone doesn't feel bad that not-vaccinating their children is taking a deadly gamble, not just with their children's lives, but the lives of numerous others, they should. If someone doesn't feel bad that they killed one child through "faith healing" such that they would continue to use the same practice on another of their children, they should.

Such people often don't realize just how stupid they're being and need it pointed out. They need to be made to feel bad about it. If the facts won't do it, language might.

This isn't new ground I'm breaking here. Religion has known this for a long time. In fact, much of the foundation of religion is all about making people feel bad so they can sell them some snake oil that will make it all better.

While in college, I can recall several instances in which groups would stand around the campus pretending to do research for psychology study via a survey. They'd ask questions that boiled down to whether or not you'd violated God's commandments, and when they were finished, point out your "moral failures" and how you needed God. This doesn't always work, but more importantly, it often does. Many people are swayed by this sort of thinking. They're pulled into a manufactured guilt trip and it is the source of deep and unyielding faith. The religious call this "convicting" people of their sins.

It's a sneaky tactic, but one that we as skeptics can use in a much more intellectually honest way. After all, what we're selling is real. Critical thinking improves the quality of life and allows numerous more who wouldn't live otherwise, to enjoy that life. That's a demonstrable fact.

So how can we use this to our advantage?

By using strong, accurate, unequivocal language people are often taken aback. And although they can entrench themselves, I maintain there's a key time in here that's the most critical point for learning to take place.

When someone is told they're ignorant on a given position, the most natural response is to deny it outwardly. However, they really have to scramble at this point. No matter what, they're going to have to review their position, either internally to make damn sure they're not as ignorant as claimed. Or externally as they throw up their arguments to argue the claim. The problem is, that both of these ways allow them to repeat their "logic" process of how they arrived at this position and this is the risk. If the same process is repeated, it only becomes ingrained which is the exact opposite of what we're trying to achieve. How could anything positive come of that!?

But what's important here is that in that review process, there is the chance to change the flow. If new information is given that must be factored into that review, it can change the conclusion. And I think that's the key.

If the discussion is kept too light, it doesn't engage people sufficiently that they're really forced to internalize new information and see how it fits with their previous views. Skeptics are people who do this without needing motivation, but many people just don't (although the like to think they do). They're overwhelmed by confirmation bias and but don't even know what that means. They need that swift kick in the ass to get the ball rolling and as my astrophysics professor told me, "it shouldn't be comfortable."

So that's my general thought. You don't need to use this method straight off. See what sort of person you're dealing with. Test the waters. Toss out the facts and see what they do with them. If they internalize it, great. If they just leave them sitting there without addressing them, then perhaps it's time to make them start having to work through their ideas by putting them on a stronger defensive. But this is main point I want to make: Those facts must be there. And I'd like to think (hope) that this is what Phil was wanting to get at when he noted that "sometimes logic ... is left by the wayside."

When people review their position, they need to have the facts. And not just that, often people that don't reason themselves into a position won't know what to do with the facts they're given. So after giving the facts, we need to help people sort them out instead of just tossing them at people and walking away. Education is an investment, both for the person receiving and the person giving.

And that's the key to me. The line between being a "dick" and simply being strident is making sure that there's more than just name calling. There needs to be facts, and evidence, and the willingness to help someone sort through them once they realize they might just need to. And that investment is about as far from "dickish" as you can get even if there is a little bit of prick in the mix somewhere.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Anime Mythbusters @ Tokyo in Tulsa

Apparently my Anime Mythbusters panel at Tokyo in Tulsa was recorded a few months ago. It's the same presentation I posted earlier that I gave at Naka Kon (as well as at Natsu Con more recently) so it's nothing new, but I always enjoy seeing how different audiences react as well as what crazy things I toss in off the top of my head. So if you want to see how it went, here's the videos:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Sorry I'm dressed up funny. I'd been in costume that morning for pre-judging for the contest, but it was too warm to keep waring the full costume so I stripped most of it off.

Blag War! Education Reform - Round 2

Steve's reply is up. Have a read and my response is below.

As usual, I'll break it up into direct portions I'm responding to.
starting from 0% and adding points for things (in the context of the material being graded) would force the students to actually know what they were testing about and have a grasp of it. In other words there is no BS'ing ones way through it.
This is an excellent point. However, I don't think it can cure BS'ing nearly as much as one would expect. As educators, we often try to give our students the benefit of the doubt. Therefore, even if working from the bottom up, grades can just as easily be artificially inflated going that way as from going down. It's still mathematically equivalent unless the teacher is doing something horribly wrong.

Furthermore, I don't think there's really that big of a distinction between the actual methodologies as is being implied. Even when grading tests in American systems, the general practice is to decide how much each question is worth, award points, and then add up all the points given. So in that respect, we do have a bottom up system. In other respects, especially written papers, we tend to look for things to take off, so that would be a top down.

I don't see either as being better than the other in any real respect. If there's statistical data out there that is well constrained to this topic, I'd like to see it, but I don't see any real advantage either way.
As for your citing that Japanese schools have highest rates for suicide (which Southern India now holds apparently) you know as well as I do there is a Cultural basis here for it.
Indeed I am aware. In general, suicide rates are higher in cultures in which the practice is more acceptable. However (and I'm not certain on this), I seem to still remember suicide rates for schools being well above even the cultural norm. Thus (if this is true and my memory is serving me), this isn't a cultural effect and is endemic to the school system (although it would then be arguable whether or not the scoring system played any large role). This isn't really that important to the main topic so I won't pursue it.
Success on the standardized tests has been at the expense of Native American language and culture in the classroom.
I think this is a key issue here and where one of the biggest problems I had with your original posting lay, although I couldn't completely identify it at the time. I think you're fighting two battles and losing sight of the differences between them. Let me break it down into the two arguments I think you're making:

1) America's School System Sucks for Everyone - This was the main focus of the video cited and what you seemed to be getting at with your later arguments regarding the bare minimum of standards.

2) America's School System Sucks for Autonomous Cultures- This is the back argument that seemed to be what most of your actual citations (from your partner came from).

As I see it, I think you're trying to use arguments for (2) to argue (1) when in fact, they don't transfer since you're talking about radically different populations. Citing studies on distinct sub-populations doesn't have bearing on the larger population unless it's a statistically significant and well selected demographic which, by intent, they aren't.

Thus, I think I completely agree with you on (2). But I still have to take large exception to (1) despite your claims that, "many of the details in her research can and have been applicable across the board and within all demographic categories."

I need to see further backing on this because the major points of your argument thus far (like the one in my last blockquote) fail to be true when the tests are targeted for the appropriate culture.
In her current research she found that standardizations in education follow political patterns. Standardizations have been customarily linked with the ebb and flow of national politics and their main concerns in education for that era.
This is obviously true and can easily be further demonstrated by the constant flip-flop of science standards in places such as Kansas. But I don't think this (either your point about Native Americans or mine on science standards) demonstrates a large net problem with standardization in general. While I'd agree that getting bad standards in place is very harmful (such as the recent debacle on the Texas state standards removing prominent founding fathers), overall I maintain it's largely necessary for cultural (American, that is) cohesion. While bad standards are bad, good standards are good. Thus, standards are whatever they're made (again, to the proper populations).
Part of this was already answered earlier. But teaching kids how to pass a test based on the principals of the test is not conducive to learning. If you learn to pass a test, just how much of that material is actually being learned?
This is another major point that needs to be addressed in some depth and I'll preface it with some of the philosophical underpinnings to education to make it more clear.

As I stated in my last response, one must learn to walk before they can run. This is a philosophy that is critical in education and is the idea behind what's known as Bloom's Taxonomy. The short version of it is that, you start with basic memorization, build up proficiency through application, and finally master material through analysis, critical thinking, extending, and creating. The latter are higher levels of thinking that must be worked up to.

Sadly, many students find themselves stuck near the bottom, at application. Thus, schools are forced to spend a lot of time at these levels. And any time a new skill is introduced, that's where it will start, and likely get stuck.... again.

So how does this relate to tests? A well designed test will cover the topics for which its designed by asking questions on each topic on each of these levels. Poorly designed ones will use will only check for understanding at low levels. Thus, if it's a good test, it will test in manners that go beyond simply asking questions that are strictly memorized. The test becomes an opportunity to practice and demonstrate the higher orders of learning.

We can of course argue about whether or not tests (especially standardized ones) achieve this goal. But we'd also have to consider how far long the progression of learning we expect students to be at a given point. We'd also have to ask how reasonable it is to test all skills at the highest levels of reasoning, which cannot generally be done with questions that are multiple choice since they are more subjective and take far longer to grade. Thus, what expectations are reasonable for the test?

I think that having national standardized testing should meet somewhere in the middle. We can't expect every student to retain knowledge well enough to be able to critically analyze every topic off the top of their head. We should select a few to test at that level and only require moderate proficiency for less fundamental topics. Thus, the tests cover what expectations we can reasonably have. I don't find fault with them. As such, it follows that I can't find too much wrong with teaching ways to do well on the test (assuming again, it's a well written test). I think there should certainly be more room for some extra material, but that's not going to happen until the high stakes placed on such tests are diminished, which is the main issue I have with the standardized testing.
“The GRE definitely does NOT measure your intelligence, nor does it measure how well you will do in graduate school. The sooner you accept this the better off you will be. Despite what ETS says or admissions officers think, the GRE is less a measure of your intelligence than it is a measure of your ability to take the GRE.” (pg. 16 Cracking the GRE 2010 Edition, The Princeton Review). So, the question is, does this same philosophy apply to school aged children?
Absolutely it applies. But again, if the test is well written, it aligns with the goals and objectives set forth for what we want students to learn.
Say a student makes a statement in class that, according to the teacher, is a bit off color. The teacher can encourage the student to find credible source material to back their claims and come back to explain the statement for everyone to understand better.
As nice as this sounds, it doesn't tend to work well in practice all the time. Students being given extra assignments not shared by their peers will often take it as a punishment and refrain from speaking out in the future, discouraging participation and group learning.

A better way to handle this is for the teacher to be knowledgeable enough about the subject to see where the student was coming from and help him expand on it if time allows. But time is often a key issue in classrooms. As you pointed out, imagine how overwhelmed students feel with the material they have to cover and imaging what spending much time on things that aren't very closely aligned to the curriculum will do!
“..there are CBE methods taught in native schools that teach science in story form.” This is difficult for many in our American society to grasp, as story telling is not a big part of our lives anymore, with the domination of visual media these days.
I think this is a fantastic point. Science is a narrative. It's a story of discovery with great characters. This makes for a great way to teach science because it goes through the whole chain of logic to build up our scientific understanding.

However, as I just mentioned, time is always a crucial issue in the classroom. How much can we cut from the story and still have the important curriculum topics intact in a learnable manner? That's ultimately the key issue.

I'll agree the balance is awful. Science books are filled with a collection of facts that need to be memorized and applied (andlet's face it, real synthesis and evaluation can't really take place in science before the college level) and then random inserts of character profiles. How silly. Either keep a narrative or don't. Half-assing it with random snippets is just a distraction.
I surmise that First there are those students that are wired differently. Be it from chemical (possibly genetic) issues like ADD and ADHA, or Cultural insights, MOST students will fall into a norm (statistical).
This is exactly what I was getting at. A population of student will fall into a statistical distribution and as such, the "best practice" (this is a term used frequently in education) is to teach to that norm as best as possible. Unfortunately, the inherent truth recognized by seeing a Gaussian distribution is that there will always be outliers that you can't reach without shifting the distribution of your teaching and then missing more of the other side! This is is the fundamental problem. How do we cater to as many students as possible without wasting precious time and without letting student interest for those not being catered to wane?
when I was in grade school I was at various levels of education (grade) for math reading and writing, and half way through the year I would be tested for ability, and either stay at the same level or be moved up, even before the year was over. So how hard would it be to do this for upper level classes?
A very fair question, but also a very simple answer: It's damn near impossible.

The reason is that when you start putting every student on their own pace, it requires the teacher to spend a great deal of extra time individualizing instruction. This requires a large amount of extra planning work for the teacher (which they already receive little time to do so it's largely done on their own time without direct compensation) as well as the logistical nightmare of having to keep track of where every student is.

I had experience doing this with my math class this past year. Essentially, I gave a test 1/2 the way through the year. Half the class was allowed to move on. Half didn't. Thus, what was one class, became two. I had to plan and organize accordingly. Additionally, it required me to budget classroom time differently. I had to spend the first half of the class instructing and guiding the "advanced" students, and then the second half with the "slow" ones (for lack of a better term). This created behavior problems as students that aren't being actively engaged in some way or another are impossible to manage.

Thus, it doesn't work well on many levels. While it's possible to do some bifurcation, too great of an extent of this will cause chaos in the classroom without a much better teacher/student ratio.
He coached me through some Pre-algebra (after school)
This is an excellent teacher. Keep in mind that teachers time after school is often their own. While some are required to have office hours for some time, spending such a large portion of them tutoring and not working on their lesson plans and grading, is done of his own free will and extremely charitable. To be fair, I believe most teachers would do this as the reason we go into teaching is to help others succeed and are willing to invest much of ourselves in it, even if it means working large amounts of time other than what we're strictly paid for and even receiving rather substandard pay.
OK, so if this problem inundates the higher educational arena, exactly what criteria are public schools attempting to pattern?
Good question.

As your quoted source stated,
college rankings system is merely a list of criteria that mirrors the superficial characteristics ... Instead of focusing on the fundamental issues of how well colleges and universities educate their students and how well they prepare them to be successful after college, the magazine's rankings are almost entirely a function of three factors: fame, wealth, and exclusivity.
Those last three things are the judge of the college apparently. So what things are high schools compared by? Generally, I see things like attendance rate, drop out rate, scores on national testing, and diversity being reported as well as the rate of students that goes on to higher education.

I think the standards are pretty different.
But national standards still allow for ranking systems to be rather top heavy when it comes to the elite --- and standardizations have yet to equal the playing field in this arena.
This I agree with and is one of the things I find the most fault with NCLB for. It punishes schools that don't perform by cutting their funding. Yeah.... that's going to help. It only serves to enlarge the divide between the successful and those that aren't.
The United States would like to see the academic standards increase for all students, and rightfully so, but attempts to provide equal opportunity can actually be detrimental when standardizations usurp culturally based education, which is instrumental in successfully educating the nations indigenous population.
This is a pretty self obvious statement. By allowing any population to do more of the things they're good and familiar at, their skill will improve. So.... why not include it?

It's much the same question as asking, "If we were to allow Creation myths in schools in the proper context (meaning in Social Studies or Comparative Religion classes), which ones would we teach? Which would we leave out?"

The problem is there's so many sub-populations that all need recognition that addressing them all would jumble the curriculum. Thus, something's got to give. I obviously speak from the privileged white, male, majority so I may come off as cavalier by saying this, but I can't see a workable solution that would allow us to include everyone as you'd like. And even if we tried to, I think this next statement highlights another problem:
Study after study shows that if students from other cultures are allowed to express that culture in their own work ... they do much better as students.
I'd agree allowing and helping a student to express their own identity assists in learning. But at the same time, how well would a teacher that's not familiar with that culture be able to grade it? If they got the general gist of it and found it to be wanting, how much pressure would the teacher be under to pass the student anyway for fear of offending the culture, much in the same way teachers must tread carefully when giving bad marks to positions that are overtly religious in the classroom. I fear this may cause grade inflation and may contribute to the apparent success of the students.

A sticky situation to be sure.

Closing remarks: As stated before, I think you're arguing two points. I disagree that the system is deeply flawed at its core as the argument the video stated and you implied with several other remarks. There's problems, but as I've tried to highlight, they're very difficult to fix.

One of the largest problems is what to do with minorities seeking identity. This is an even thornier topic and one I can't comment much on except to highlight (as I've tried) the difficulties of integrating.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Blag War! Education Reform

My friend Steve, from back when I was at MSU in Springfield, posted a video at his blog that's made the rounds of many education forums lately of a valedictorian criticizing the American school system. It's much along the lines of The Seven Lesson Schoolteacher (hell, she even quotes it) which I think has been discussed to death, so I didn't pay all that much attention to it. The video also rambles on with conspiracy theories and idiotic rhetorical questions ("Is there really such thing as uncritical thinking?") so it's not worth much.

But Steve had some additional commentary that I'd initially overlooked. He'd reposted it today on facebook and I finally took note of it and had some substantial criticisms of it that I'd left in a reply there. But because Facebook isn't conducive to extended conversations, we decided to discuss it more fully in blog posts.

So below is my response to Steve's commentary. Keep in mind this was originally written to him specifically, so there's a few references to some things that are inside references. I've edited it slightly in that light, but am still keeping much of it intact since this is primarily a discussion between us, although anyone else is welcome to chime in.
Reading through this as someone going into education there's some pretty substantial flaws with the reasoning here that jump out at me.

- Students often aren't taught material in earlier levels because it's not pedagogically sound. You have to learn to walk before you can run. Often times, subjects that students learn about later and wonder why it wasn't taught earlier, is because it required higher order thinking skills to discuss properly. This isn't ALWAYS the case and I think the book "Lies My Teacher Told Me" is a great example of several things that COULD be included at lower levels. But it begs the question of how necessary they are. To get the general picture, getting into the details isn't necessary, regardless of how cool the topics are.

- You bemoan sticking students all in the same box. But keep in mind that they already are in many respects: They share (largely) the same American culture and they're already in the same school under the same teacher(s). These are boxes that we can't really break without destroying the entire premise of public education to groups of students. Thus, SOME degree of boxing has to be done. There's no way around it.

- While I'm greatly interested in the Native American methods to geometry, from what has been stated here, I question the ultimate usefulness (as well as the usefulness of the other discussed methodologies) in the broader context. The reason is that often such things, while useful at that particular level, are simply "tricks" that don't give any deeper understanding from which higher levels of understanding can be obtained. An example of this is the chart that Dr. Reed used to have students learn to create to do... well, something with the sun... around solstices.... something..... As you can tell, I can't really remember because it was ultimately useless. It would help you get a right answer in ONE instance, but if you were to go beyond that (which is the hope of all education; to provide a solid basis for FURTHER study), it is useless because it doesn't teach you WHY it worked that way. With the information you've provided here, I wonder at the utility of these practices in a broader context.

- You cite your partner as saying that Japan, China, and others start from 0% and work their way up for grading, but fail to make ANY argument of how or why this is better. Mathematically, they're equivalent. Epistemologically, giving students a positive starting point eases stress. Keep in mind Japanese schools have the highest suicide rates of any system in the world!

- She asks "why" standardization fails students, but doesn't actually answer the question. Instead, she answers the question "does?" but, at least from what you've cited, very ineptly. Looking at ONE case study is poor statistics and whether or not there are other variables that should be considered isn't even addressed. For example, one can question the effectiveness of IQ tests. Analysis has shown that they are extremely reliable in the culture in which they're written, but other cultures do extremely well. However, if the other culture uses the same base methodology to create a test, the effects are reversed. Thus, it's not a failure of the inherent nature of the test, but of the differences in cultures into which it is placed rendering it less effective. The same could be asked for test standardization. While I agree that standardization is extremely harmful, it is not inherently bad. It has its applications when not used over zealously. But what you've presented here begs the question, "How would indigenous populations fare if they standardized their OWN tests?" In other words, it should be self obvious that suddenly switching another culture onto OUR standards isn't going to allow them to do well. Additionally, how well equipped were the schools and students to do standardized testing? As we all know, schools that "teach the test" do much better. Did the Native American schools switch to this method or were they still teaching by methods not suited to the test administered? Such questions needs to be addressed before any honest analysis can be made.

- Your cited source compares "traditional" methods of teaching to "mainstream" stating that the latter relies on lecturing in group settings, whereas traditional focuses on individualized instruction and implies (without evidence) that traditional is better because it allows students to learn through "self discovery". While it is absolutely and undoubtedly true that we remember more of what we have learned through our blood, sweat, and tears, what it fails to take into account is the relative RATES of knowledge acquisition between these two methods. When this is taken into account, direct instruction is a far superior method. Allowing students to do things at their own pace with only guiding instruction is dismally slow. For example: Stating a principle and covering it in some depth would take ~1 class. Doing a lab to explore the same principle and cover it from as many angles would take a week. There's great amounts of extra baggage that come with exploration. Thus, we need to see a comparison between the amounts of material being covered in each culture. I have a strong suspicion that American schools have a lot more to cover, especially with ~3/7 of the curriculum being subjects aside from just the traditional Math, Science, Language, and History.

- You also imply the superiority of "observation, self-testing in private". While this too has a decided advantage, it again is missing an obvious point: In a class of 25 students with one teacher, if instruction is private, what are the other 24 students doing at that time? Who watches them? While in an ideal world students would be mature enough to practice their skills diligently, real world experience makes the idea laughable. While other cultures may "respect the ability of a person to learn experimentally" it just doesn't work in OUR culture.

- You note that in the transition from private to public schools, your reading and writing level did not subsequently increase. Have you taken into account other causes for this? I know you're dyslexic which generally manifests at a very early age (generally pre-school), but this isn't always the case. With me, it didn't become apparent until college level. Is it possible that this transition is when it manifested in you and it's just a chance correlation?

- You state the standards of what is to be learned is "bare minimum". How much have you really looked at them? As a teacher who has looked at them directly, I was initially overwhelmed by the amount of material I was expected to cover and make students responsible for.

- You state we need to "adjust [the education system] for various learning types" but do not make any argument of how this is actually feasible. Teachers are trained to cater to numerous learning styles, but at the same time, to what extent? When you get right down to it, EVERY student learns differently. Thus, there are as many learning types as there are students in the class. Is the same material retaught that number of times? No class would get anywhere at that rate! Instead, we tend to recognize about 5 broad learning styles and hit then as best we can. But still, does that mean we teach the same material five times every time? Or perhaps just rotating through styles? If so, then what happens to the students on an individual lesson when their style isn't being catered to? Rather, the "colonial" paradigm is, instead of flexing to people's learning types, we need to train students to be flexible learners. This IS actually part of "colonial" education. We attempt to make students well rounded by having such a diverse background. Whether flexing to students or making students flexible is really working either way is a subject of debate I can't address well.

- Let me again address standardization a bit more: Part of the reason for it is to have a national metric by which to judge success. How can we compare schools when their curriculums may be entirely different? And comparison is necessary. Otherwise, one cannot assess and fix failing schools. This was the point of NCLB. Standardize the curriculum and standardize the method by which schools are judged. Overall, I don't see this as a bad thing. (Rather, the problem most educators have is that NCLB sets expectations for improvement which are impossible without cheating (suspending or expelling students that have issues so they won't be included in the test, overdiagnosing special needs problems to get them out of the appropriate tests, asking that schools improve past a theoretical perfect....). Additionally, they have ridiculous penalties for schools that don't perform and demand that teachers be overqualified in many of the wrong ways, but not qualified in some of the most important ones.) So while standardization isn't great, it's necessary to some extent. I don't support allowing schools too much leeway and allowing much local control because that's when you get local school boards, generally controlled by parents, inserting their religious ideologies into the curriculum. Thus we need strong NATIONAL standards.
I'll edit this post to include Steve's response when he gets it up so the discussion train can be linked.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Star Wars on BluRay? I (probably) don't care.

Big news for geeks out there. Lucasfilm has officially announced that Star Wars is coming to BluRay. I think we all knew it was coming.

Horay for high def, but at the same time, this is (probably) not the product I, and I'm sure many other fans, want.

When the Original Trilogy was first released on DVD, most everyone I knew that was a real fan didn't bother purchasing it. The reason is that there are numerous versions of Star Wars. The DVD releases, that came out after the Prequel Trilogy, all have been revised in some significant ways that don't sit well with purist fans who found the PT underwhelming since many of the most offensive changes were made to bring the OT more in line with the PT. For example, Hayden Christensen was inserted as Anakin's ghost at the end of Return of the Jedi and the exchange between Vader and the Emperor where they discuss Luke was rewritten since anyone seeing the PT first would already know that Luke is Vader's son. The stormtrooper voices were all redubbed by Temura Morrison, who played Jango Fett in the PT and from which all clone/stormtroopers were apparently created.

Eventually, another release of the DVDs came out that, while containing the heavily abused versions, also included the original theatrical releases. The original Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope) lacks the episode title and number since when it was originally released, there was no anticipation that sequels would ever be made. The snowspeeders on Hoth were still semi transparent to hide the matte lines and the Ewoks still did their song and dance in Jedi. It was this version that fans of my generation grew up on and love.

But that's not likely to be what gets released on BluRay. I'll be curious to see if these classic versions will ever be released, but until they are, I don't care.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Manga High

At the school I taught at last year, one of the biggest problems we faced is students becoming addicted to computer games. Although they didn't have much freedom allowed, with the internet, one website (miniclips) was allowed. If students even had 1 minute free, they would log on and it was nearly impossible to get them off once they started.

I was always on the lookout to find some sort of game that could be educational but was still fun. I'd seen ones where you answered questions and got parts to build a robot. I'd seen ones where you get a certain number right and you can color a picture. But everything I'd seen seemed pretty lame.

But I've finally found one I really liked.

Manga High.

I've tried several of the games there and even with a large amount of math knowledge, some of them are still difficult just due to how quickly you have to think.

My favorite is the "Save our Dumb Planet" game in which you have to match equations that link your planet to the asteroid that's going to come destroy it, and also find two points on the line. I love this because it links the skill with things it would actually be used for and does it in a sequential manner. It starts off with simple straight lines where the planet is at the origin. The it moves the planet off the origin, move the asteroid into the negative domain, gets to parabolas and even makes you distinguish which of numerous asteroidal equations is aimed at your planet!

I've made it to level 13 so far, but it's required me to bust out my calculator to check the equations.

For teachers, it looks to have statistics tools to be able to track students development so I can see this being a very fun diagnostic tool as well.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Right wing nut-jobs will complain about anything

What if someone came up with a plan that would encourage people to get exercise and cut down on emissions. Sounds good to me. Enter the Bcycle

Fun idea. And a Denver, CO mayor has implemented it with grants and donations. But is it such a harmless idea....

According to Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes, it's not. It's a super sinister plot by the UN to take us over!


The concept was originated by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI) which is tied to the UN.

How that dominoes into the UN establishing control of America, I have no idea. If someone comes up with an idea, it can be worth it to examine it and consider implementing it regardless of the originator.

Although Maes doesn't ever support the claim, he constantly says "ICLEI is part of a greater strategy to rein in American cities under a United Nations treaty" and that somehow, the program "puts the environment above citizens' rights."

Sure thing Chicken Little.

Thanks for demonstrating that the right wing party will agree with their political enemies and invent ridiculous conspiracies just to create drama.

Heck, take a look at the recent discovery of a group of conservative Digg users making a concentrated effort to bury anything by liberal Digg users, regardless of content:
If any of the usual suspects subbed a story claiming “sky blue/water wet,” I’d BURY IT without question.
Shame for them that intelligent Digg users still outnumber them 1000:1. After all the internet is where bad ideas come to die.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Universe Verse Book 2: It's Alive!

This past December I wrote about an awesome book that was a narrative of the Big Bang, written in fun rhyme and beautifully illustrated as a comic book.

But that was just the beginning.

The author, Jamie Dunbar, has two more books written out. And he's wanting to make them better than the first one by making them in color. Unfortunately, his poor computer can't handle the processing power necessary to manage such large images with all the color, so he's asking for people to help support the project by pledging money to help him get a new computer. If you'd like to contribute, visit the link above.

He's got some deals to sweeten the pot for pledging, so get over there and make this book happen! Sure, it's not as much astronomy as the first book. This one will be covering the formation of the solar system and the origins of life. But given how much engaging material is needed on this topic, it's still an important goal.

And Jamie realizes this too. After finishing the series, he's planning on developing this collection into more than just something cool to find on the bookshelf at planetariums (which is already is at places like Chabot Space Center). He's intending on working to create accompanying lesson plans and make this a true educational resource. As I pointed out in my review, Jamies manages to fit facts left out, even by many intro astronomy textbooks into a well constructed rhyming narrative. I can't wait to see what's going to happen when he applies the same passion to topics like abiogenesis.