The Future of Education: Part 2 – Nightmares

“A Teacher Gets Depressed” isn’t specifically about technology in the classroom, but does speak to the problems of exclusively using automatic evaluation to judge the quality of schools and teachers. Also it references a nightmare. Click the image to see the whole comic.

When I spoke with my old teacher in my post on positive outlooks for education, he expressed concern at being replaced by technology. I told him that no technology would be invented that could reproduce the growth he spurs in students until long after his retirement, if ever. Teaching is a social vocation, and technologies for performing even the most simple social jobs are still in their infancy. Teaching is not a simple job, and attempting to remove the human factor from education at this point is likely to do more harm than good.

But what is a mad scientist, if not one who releases upon the world a new technology that turns out to cause more harm than good? Our collective body of fiction is rife with people who think they know more than they do and cause immense suffering as a result. The most famous of these mad scientists, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, reversed the course of death itself, but without considering the ramifications of his actions. The fruit of his life’s labor turned out to be a wretched, ugly creature even its creator could not bring himself to love.

While raising the dead may be a bit of an overstatement in terms of the risks of advancements in education, the allegory of the genius who does not consider the consequences of his actions is an appropriate one. In the theoretical future, an aggressive reductionist approach to education based on the theory that a child’s growth can be fully represented by his or her score on then-available automatic testing technology could become an educational Frankenstein’s monster, causing more problems than it solves.

If we were to measure school performance according only to the results provided by these technologies, and allocate funds accordingly, inevitably the skills and qualities unmeasured by the tests, which even in the near future will not be perfect measures of everything, would lose attention in favor of the ones the tests do measure. Perhaps in the near future we will have the ability to measure skills and qualities like  creativity, ability to work well in a group, self-confidence, and civic responsibility, but if we don’t, schools will no longer have incentive to maintain, and will therefore lose, their ability to foster these skills and qualities in our nation’s youth.

I am a strong proponent of technologies in the classroom. I also believe that the more data we can collect on the process and results of education the more we can use to help advance our goal of a well-educated population. The ability to bestow life on a lifeless being is also a scientific advancement that could do wonders for the world, but before we rush ahead, we should consider whether our technologies are ready for the tasks we will be counting on them to perform.

The Future of Education: Part 1 – Dreams

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I mentioned to an old college teacher a while back that I was working to develop educational technology. “So this is how you thank me? By replacing me?” He said. There’s no point trying to deny that advances in technology render obsolete certain professions, but teaching need not be one of them, at least not until long after my professor’s retirement. Teaching is about the most necessarily social job out there, along with diplomat, counselor, psychologist and many more. Technology is not even close to where it can effectively perform these tasks. If society knows what’s good for it, none of these professions will be replaced for a long, long time. Whether society knows what’s good for it, however, has been an open question since people have had the time to ponder questions of the greater good.

Let me share with you a vision of a possible future where technology aids human teachers in providing an experience to students unparalleled by today’s standards, The Inverted Classroom. I have not invented this general concept, but I’ll describe how it might play out. Imagine you our your child taking lectures at home and doing “homework” at school. The lectures are delivered by subject matter experts who have devoted their life work to making amazing lectures, the “homework, ” which we shall from here on out refer to as “coursework,” is done under the supervision of a teacher, who instead of stressing over how to reinvent the same lectures that other teachers have perfected thousands of times before, can spend his time doing what a human still does better than any computer – giving individual attention to the particular needs of each of his students. We already have the technology to accomplish this, but let’s think further into the future.

The students don’t write their answers on paper with feedback only once every day at best. Instead, they work on tablet computing devices, answering short answer questions and completing virtual labs to learn the content interactively. The digital notebook can do simple analyses of their work and to a limited extent help them to stay engaged and scaffold them towards proper learning. It can even provide a simple digital tutor for each student to help them feel comfortable and encouraged to stay on task. Moreover, the teacher doesn’t have to just look over her students shoulders and check their work because she will have her own portable device with a list of the students in her class. Beside each student is a progress bar and a simple indicator, perhaps color-coded, that can tell the teacher when a student is falling behind or is not learning the material. Freed from the need to constantly be devising and presenting curriculum herself and with the ability to easily see the progress of her students, a teacher will be better prepared than ever before to lead the next generation’s students on the path to becoming the productive citizens of tomorrow.

What do actual teachers think of this? I know I have more than a couple teachers and former teachers who read this blog. Is there anything you’d like to see technology help you with? Does this dream seem like more of a nightmare to you? Next week I’ll discuss some of my nightmares in part 2 of this two-part blog post.

To Overeat or to Waste?

My eyes were bigger than my stomach this evening. I made some taco salad ( a la ChefScript) and filled a small baking dish with it. It turned out that I didn’t actually need a small baking dish’s worth of food, but I ate most of it anyway and felt uncomfortably full for a few hours. The food I didn’t eat I put in a tupperware to eat later. Now let’s imagine I did it right. Let’s imagine I ate exactly as much as I needed and then put all of the rest in the tupperware. Sounds easy, right? No? Join the club.

Let me bring up my sister now. If we think of  my sister, me, and food, usually one of the first points to come up is that she eats much less than I do. However, we are in fact much more similar than an outsider might expect. Recently my family received a collection of many different kinds of cookies from a friend of ours. It took only moments for us to figure out which were the best ones and which were less exciting.

One of the less exciting items was a small collection of homemade fig newtons.  People ate it and enjoyed it, but one was still left laying on the table still waiting to be eaten a week after it had arrived. One day, my sister came to me holding this last fig newton, and asked if I wanted it. I said she was welcome to it, and she said, “no, I asked if you wanted it. I was only going to eat it if nobody else wanted it.”

I responded, “if you will not get pleasure from that newton you should not – are you already eating it?”

My sister had started picking apart and eating the fig newton that she didn’t like before I could even finish talking.  This eating of food just to be rid of it appears to be endemic to all of my immediate family besides my mother. My father is the worst of all, making it into a dubious talent, dubbing himself the “human garbage can” and eating everything that is left over after dinner so he won’t have to put it away. He has a habit for throwing excess fruit and desserts into a blender and making a mystery smoothie. These smoothies are actually pretty delicious. He and I are the only people who will drink them, though.

My point, though, is that it is unwise to eat unhealthful food that one does not like just to be rid of it. If it’s good food like kale, it makes sense to eat that. We can store food when there’s a lot of it left, but things that won’t keep or are bad enough they might never be eaten must be handled in some other way, or we doom ourselves to being, well, human garbage cans. If we simply allow food to go to waste, though, maybe that’s even worse than eating a little bit more than perhaps we need.

What can we do with the food that we have now decided not to force ourselves to eat? Here’s what I suggest:

  1. Repackage it into something else. Kale ribs, chicken bones, onion skins, garlic peels, all of these things make great soup. You still discard them eventually after making the soup, but at least you’ve gotten closer to using it all effectively. Dad’s leftover shakes are a pretty good example of this as long as they’re actually good, which they almost always are.
  2. Compost it. Nature’s recycling always has been and still is the best around. If you don’t have space for an official composter, just find an area without a lot of traffic near where you live and make a compost heap there. If people start complaining, yeah, you’ll probably have to stop doing it, but hey, nobody’s said anything about my compost heap yet.
  3. Give it away. Obviously the efficacy of this is limited when we’re talking about leftovers, but excess cookies? My sister almost had the right idea when she tried to foist the last fig newton on me, although she would have been better served by just leaving it on the table where it would have probably found someone to enjoy it on its own.
  4. Feed it to your pet. Be careful with this one. An excess bit of meat could be good for a dog or cat, and a rabbit might enjoy some carrot greens, but for the most part you should probably steer clear of #4. Actually, for liability purposes, let’s say that Sam’s Blog’s official stance is Don’t ever do #4.
  5. Throw it out. Maybe, just maybe, certain foods are better off wasted. Take a twinkie for example. What is a twinkie? Maybe tossing junk food out with actual junk isn’t such a moral travesty as one might think. Obviously lovely cookies from a neighbor do not fall under this category.

Hopefully this list has given you some ideas how you can handle your excess food without forcing it into your own stomach. Actually following that advice is harder than it might initially seem for some people, though, so just keep working at it and maybe you’ll find that you like not being a garbage can. Maybe you never had this problem in the first place and it really is only my sister, my father and me. If you’re among us, do post a comment and let us know how you resolve your need to do away with excess food in your own stomach.

Writing Non-Sexist Fiction

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“The Hawkeye Initiative” replaces female characters in comic book art with male superhero “Hawkeye” in order to expose the unequal portrayal of the sexes in comics.

A friend of mine recently reviewed one of my stories from a feminist and minority perspective. I won’t go into the details as they’re frankly rather embarrassing save to say that my story did not hold up.  It was difficult to hear some of the feedback, but I was pleased overall because much of it aligned with some of my own concerns. My third person limited perspective from two white male main characters as well as my own identity and personal experience being male make it a little more difficult for me to be appropriately feminist, but that’s no excuse. My reader and I discussed at length what a white heterosexual male fiction writer can do to make his work fairer to other life experiences, particularly those of women.

One suggestion my reader brought up was a gender swapping thought experiment. The theory is that characters not built around gender roles can have their sex reversed with relatively little change to the story. (Gender swapping in fiction is not a new concept: see “The Hawkeye Initiative” above). For instance, if my story starts out with a woman in high heels falling and being abducted by an enormous beast, I should consider making the woman a man and the effect that would have on the story (The first effect would likely involve the removing of the high heels). My reader had a particularly radical view on this that I could invert the sex of any character, including both my male main characters, with little change to the story at all. He said this would always be the case unless something in the story specifically hinged on the physical nature of their biological sex.

At this point we decided that perhaps my friend’s identity as a homosexual man whose life experience includes relatively little of the adult american gender dynamic is what leads him to underestimate the real significance of gender in who a person is in a story or in real life. Women have proven time and time again they can do almost anything a man can do and more and men likewise, with the differences between the groups outweighed dramatically by the variety present within each, but the difference between men and women still exists, especially where societal roles are concerned. However, the perspective of someone with much less of this experience permits me to check my assumptions as to the significance of the differences genetics and society impose on men and women and become aware of whether my work challenges or is complicit in the exaggeration of such differences that have the potential to alienate people with different life experiences.

Plus, I happen to have learned through this experiment that a number of my characters may actually be much better as the other sex. A gossipy southern mother who knows the proper way to entertain could now become a indiscreet southern father who is particularly concerned with appearances. In a later story I’m thinking a garrulous ten-year-old and natural leader might be better cast as a loquacious tomboy with a knack for collecting small gangs of elementary school boys to do her bidding.

My Cousins Once Removed

Ok, I’ve separated the ChefScript out into its own blog. Now I can take some of the pressure off of this blog to be consistently interesting to strangers. I’m going back to writing about whatever I happen to think of, and some things may interest the wider world while others won’t.

As many of you probably know, Christmas happened not five days ago. I probably don’t need to inform you that the day before Christmas is Christmas Eve. The day before that my mother asked me to take some time to look after three of my first cousins once removed. One is technically closer to a step first cousin once removed, but on my father’s side family is more defined by who shows up at the gatherings than any kind of blood relation. I feel no less close to her than to any of my other cousins. Just as a reminder for those of you less familiar with advanced familial relationships, a “first cousin once removed” is the child of a first cousin or the first cousin of a parent. So, if I have a first cousin Frances, her son Martin is my first cousin. If I have a father Elizabeth with a first cousin Xander, Xander is my first cousin once removed. These first cousins once removed are all the children of my cousins, and they are three beautiful girls, ranging in age from eight to fourteen.

I was mostly thinking of my work when my mother asked me to take care of these three and I only knew one of them very well, so I was at first reticent to dedicate my time to them. Eventually out of a sense of obligation I conceded, and once they arrived it took very little time for me to realize what a terrific decision I’d made. Here are some of the highlights.

When we were in the car, one girl wanted to listen to the radio. My sister turned on the radio and asked what station. She couldn’t think of it, so the eight-year-old on my lap said she knew a station she wanted to listen to. My sister asked what the number was, and she said “Q-U-E-I-T dot seven.” Most of the occupants of the car agreed that, although she misspelled it, it was a clever way to say she wanted not to have the radio on.

When I told everyone that everyone would be going to the Christmas Eve service, and the question was whether they wanted to go to the music beforehand, the eight-year-old raised her hand to her face and looked at it quizzically. I didn’t understand what she was doing until she said “before… hand?” Then she told me “You talk all ‘Sciencey.’ Nobody talks like that but tall, beanish people.” I still haven’t figured out what she meant by “beanish.”

My family is taking care of some large, white rats that we like to let climb around on us. The youngest child let us put a rat on her, but neither of the elder two would. The middle child was willing to touch it just to say she did, but the eldest refused outright even the slightest contact.

After some time in my company, it got to the point that I could say almost anything and all three children would erupt in laughter. My sister was also not immune to this treatment. She had a little giggle that everyone wanted to repeat to much merriment. Once I stood and hit my head on a low-hanging lamp. That nearly did them in. I look forward to seeing more of these cousins of mine in the future.

Treadmill Desk

As I write this post to you, dear readers, I am standing and walking forward at 0.6 miles per hour. Well, I would be if I were writing from Raleigh rather than Chapel Hill visiting my family where I have no such treadmill desk. For the moment, let’s imagine that I am doing now what I have been doing for the past week and there are no unusual circumstances screwing things up.

I have wanted a treadmill desk ever since I learned of their existence years and years ago. The problem? They’re expensive. They generally run around $1000 on average. At a minimum (from a cursory glance at Amazon) they’re about $800. Even for a purchase for my health that felt steep.  Then my roommate Joe announced that he had acquired a treadmill desk for $200.  How did he do it? He took advantage of the fact that, in the end, a treadmill desk is just a treadmill under a standing desk. The cheapest treadmill on Amazon goes for $200 and with a little work can have its arms removed so that it slides neatly under most tables. Then stack up some (relatively stable) boxes and crates to make a standing desk and voila! For more details you can consult this guide.

Let me tell you about owning and regularly using a treadmill desk: It’s tiring. The first few days I would walk for a few hours working and feel like my feet were going to fall apart. I got used to it eventually, but I still take my computer down to the side of my table for a simple sitting desk now and then.

One issue with this treadmill desk that has actually turned out to be an advantage of sorts is that the treadmill itself is so cheap that it only has one timer setting – thirty minutes – that cannot be turned off. I will be working for a while getting into what I’m doing when suddenly GLOMP I stumble forward on my abruptly motionless treadmill. Sounds pretty annoying, right?

Well, it turns out that I tend to get absorbed in activities, so having a literal jerk back into reality every thirty minutes can be terrifically helpful. In particular playing Civilization 5 recently I would say I’d play for an hour (two GLOMPs) so I would play until the second GLOMP at which point I would be reluctant to pull away just yet from my attempts to convince Luxembourg to join my empire, so I would start the treadmill again and say I’d stop playing when I’d annexed Luxembourg. Of course by the time I’ve achieved that goal, a few more are just within my reach, so it is very difficult for me to stop playing until GLOMP I stumble forward again and say “all right, that’s enough.”

Stay tuned for another entry today on my recent foray into ChefScript.

ChefScript: Miso Kale Salad

Now that we’ve covered the basic concept of programming, particularly that programs are built from the bottom up by combining simple concepts into more complex ones, let me introduce my second lesson. In this lesson I will begin to demonstrate programming concepts through cooking by showing how recipes, sets of instructions for people, can be written more like computer programs, which are sets of instructions for computers. To this end I present “ChefScript,” a loosely formalized language used to represent the logic of a recipe. ChefScript is a pseudocode language, that is, a hybrid of human and computer language used to model a program’s structure prior to implementation. ChefScript will read roughly like a cross between a typical recipe and a programming language.

As my first example of ChefScript, let me write out the recipe for Miso Kale Salad.


Miso Kale Salad

Ingredients:
Kale
Carrots
Miso = Red Miso
Vinegar = Apple Cider Vinegar
Oil  = Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Onion = One half of a small onion
Tofu = Dry-packaged or pressed tofu
Parsley = Dried Parsley

Tools:
Large Salad Bowl
Food Processor

Main:
Remove Ribs (Kale)
Slice (Carrots)
Large Salad Bowl.Add(Kale,Carrots)
Dressing = Make Dressing()
Large Salad Bowl.Add(Dressing)
Large Salad Bowl.Contents.Massage()
Serve(Large Salad Bowl.Contents)
end

Make Dressing:
Slice(Tofu)
Slice(Onion)
Food Processor.Add(Tofu,Onion,Parsley,Oil,Vinegar)
Food Processor.Run()
return Food Processor.Contents
end

Now let me explain what that all means in English. Hopefully most of it should be pretty clear. Let’s start with Ingredients and Tools.

Ingredients:
Kale
Carrots
Miso = Red Miso
Vinegar = Apple Cider Vinegar
Oil  = Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Onion = One half of a small onion
Tofu = Dry-packaged or pressed tofu
Parsley = Dried Parsley

Tools:
Large Salad Bowl
Food Processor

This says we need Kale, Carrots, Red Miso, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, One half of a small onion, Dry-packaged or pressed tofu, and dried parsley as well as a large salad bowl and a food processor. For clarity, we separate ingredients and tools into two different sections. In a normal recipe, the shorthand for each ingredient would be assumed, but a computer program can’t handle that kind of ambiguity, so complicated ingredients are assigned to variables that represent them later on so that we don’t have to describe them over and over again. For this purpose we use the universal programming symbol =, which means “defined as”. For example, “Onion = one half of a small onion” means, “We will refer to one half of a small onion as ‘Onion’ for the rest of this recipe.”

Next is the main procedure, marked Main. We’ll skip that for now, though. First let’s look at the procedure we’ve defined beneath main. Remember last week when I explained how programs are built upon successive combinations of increasingly complex actions? This is an example. We have defined here a procedure called Make Dressing, which we will refer to in  the main procedure. We call this separate definition of an action a function.

Make Dressing:
Slice(Tofu)
Slice(Onion)
Food Processor.Add(Tofu,Onion,Parsley,Oil,Vinegar)
Food Processor.Run()
return Food Processor.Contents
end

In English, this  function tells us to slice the tofu, slice the onion, and add all the ingredients other than the kale and the carrots to the food processor. Inside the parentheses of a function are parameters that change what the function does. Slice, for example can take either Tofu or Onion as an argument. It could also take Chicken or Cake. Arguments dramatically increase the versatility of a function. The function “slice” and some others I do not define because I assume you know it or will be able to find out what it means on your own. In a programming language, these would be built-in functions for basic behavior.

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Then we run the food processor.
IMG_0928The last line, “return Food Processor.Contents” means that this function will output the contents of the food processor, that is, the dressing, as a result. You’ll see in the main function that the output of this function will be referred to as “dressing”. This is important because in some cases we may want to give the output a different name in the main function, particularly if we happen to make two dressings for two different salads, we could run Make Dressing twice and refer to each output with a different name.

Now for the main procedure.

Main:
Remove Ribs (Kale)
Slice (Carrots)
Large Salad Bowl.Add(Kale,Carrots)
Dressing = Make Dressing()
Large Salad Bowl.Add(Dressing)
Large Salad Bowl.Contents.Massage()
Serve(Large Salad Bowl.Contents)
end

We begin by removing the kale ribs. Next we slice the carrots and add both kale and carrots to a large salad bowl.
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We make the dressing, and add it to the salad bowl with the kale and carrots.
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Then we massage the contents of the salad bowl.
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Serve immediately.
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Enjoy! In this lesson you’ve learned how to make miso kale salad and also some of the basics of variables and functions in computer programming.

It's about whatever I say it's about