Tag Archives: Education

In Defense of Spelling

Take a moment if you’re interested to read, “A Trewe Relacyon of the precedeings and ocurrentes of Momente which have hapned in Virginia from the Tyme of Sir Thomas Gates was Shippwrackte uppon the Bermudes Anno 1609 untill my departure owtt of the Cowntry which was in Anno Domini 1612” by George Percy. If you don’t have a moment, or you’re not interested, the title itself should be enough of an indication.

Is it a bit strange-looking and hard to read? Yeah, English has changed a lot since 1612. If we look at another document from the same time period, the third Virginia Charter, for the most part it’s similarly odd:

… we have by our lettres patent bearing date at Westminster the three and twentieth daie of May in the seaventh yeare of our raigne of England, Frannce and Ireland, and the twoe and fortieth of Scotland, given and grannted unto them, that they and all suche and soe manie of our loving subjects as shold from time to time for ever after be joyned with them as planters or adventurers in the said plantacion, and their successors for ever, shold be one body politique incorporated by the name of The Treasorer and Planters of the Cittie of London for the First Colonie in Virginia;

Notice one thing, though. They spell “time” like we spell it, not like George Percy’s “Tyme.” He even has strange capitalization, apparently capitalizing words at random. It leads me to suspect that spelling and grammar, even keeping in mind the odd rules of the time, were not George’s strong suits.

Our friend George probably didn’t have much education, or he would have been able to have a secure life in Europe instead of risking his life to wander around a remote land far away from anyone he ever knew and  populated by hostile native americans.

Then again, maybe his spelling wasn’t any more wrong than the Third Virginia Charter? Was there standardized spelling back then? Back in 1612, “dictionary” wasn’t even a household term (Neither was “dikshunaree,” in case you’re wondering). A Table Alphabeticall had been written eight years before, but no one considered it definitive. The first canonical dictionary would not be written until more than a hundred years later in 1755. Yes, a strong argument could be made that at this time, there was no such thing as generally “correct” or “incorrect” spelling. This means that an explorer and writer such as George had free creative reign to describe the response to Thomas’s demand that the chief Powhattan turn over his men as “noe other then prowde and Disdaynefull answers.”

It’s difficult to imagine language in this state, as having no existence outside what any given group of people think it is. I and many of my readers grew up in an education system that taught us “proper” and “correct” language. Really, though, somebody just decided that that was proper. I’m not any more intelligent for writing a blog entry and typing out “disdainful” rather than “Disdaynefull.”

But even if the specific spellings themselves are not important, it is of great value that we have standardized spelling that people are taught and expected to use. With entirely organic, free-form language in the past, peoples separated by some barrier would slowly speak and write more and more differently until they were legitimately different languages, leading to all sorts of challenges in these groups relating to one another, and, arguably, various wars.

So, if you feel prowde and Disdaynefull of the importance of spelling and other rules of language, remember that it is a bulwark against the natural entropy that characterizes fully organic language, and whether or not the spellings and grammars we’ve chosen as our standards are the best possible spellings, the fact that we have them helps us to maintain communication across borders and across time. If you’re ever Shippwrackte uppon the shores of, say, the cowntry of Australia, it will be nice to know that the entropy of language has been kept relatively in check. There’s still a lot they say differently, but it’s not a different language.

What’s Next?


Now that I’ve completed my written qualifier, also known as a written preliminary exam, there are two official hurdles left to earn my PhD. These are my oral preliminary exam and finally my dissertation. The oral preliminary exam, much like the written preliminary exam, is a bit of a misnomer. Each exam contains both oral and written components.

The written preliminary exam, the one I just passed, is referred to as such because it used to be more like a conventional test that confirmed that  a given student knew all there was to know in the fields immediately surrounding their own. So since I’m focusing on machine learning, I would have to know everything there is to know about all the various machine learning techniques as well as many other similar artificial intelligence techniques such as planning. Thank goodness, it is now assumed that one has a working knowledge of computer science from one’s undergraduate degree, so the written prelim is designed to gauge the extent to which a student will be able to write well enough to submit to a conference and present well enough not to make a fool of his or her advisor, department, and school at said conference. I meet these requirements.

Next I will move onto the oral preliminary exam, for which a more descriptive title would be the “dissertation proposal.” In this exam, I write a paper where I explain what I intend to do for my dissertation and write up a defense of why this is appropriately ambitious but also within my reach. I choose a small committee of professors who judge me in another defense much like my qualifying exam, except more demanding. This exam is not a simple pass/fail, though. Instead professors critique the proposal and say what they will want to be different in order for them to be satisfied when this work is presented to them again as a dissertation.

Finally, some say the dissertation is actually the easiest part because the requirements are clearly defined in the oral preliminary exam. Just do what you said you would and how can your committee (the same committee as before) do anything but pass you? So long as you were not overly ambitious in your proposal, it’s basically just writing a very, very long paper and then defending it in another defense.

So, that’s the overall arc of the rest of my PhD career, but it’s important to note that I won’t be doing it right away. In the meantime I build systems, do research, and publish papers. Papers are a big part of how folks will measure my success, so that’s priority one right now.


Last week I was in Indianapolis at a conference:  Learning Analytics and Knowledge. This was the first conference at which I gave a presentation, and it went pretty well. It was difficult to tell how I was doing as I was giving the presentation – there’s not much audience reaction to a research presentation for the most part, it turns out. However, I put my twitter handle at the top of the first slide of my presentation, and I got some nice comments.  I also had a number of people talk to me afterwards about various issues surrounding the topic of elementary school short answer assessment, which was a good sign.

Besides presenting, I had a number of interesting experiences in Indianapolis. While I was at the conference, a keynote speaker showed off the “Fish-ix” tutor, finally linking the two very different disciplines of science education and talking fish.  Outside the conference, I got to enjoy the attractions of Indianapolis. I got locked out of the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument and was warned not to enter the Indiana State Museum with the explanation that in the 45 minutes before closing I would not be able to get my money’s worth.

Outside the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument I went to a soda shop that collects sodas from around the world. This excited me because I had heard of a drink called “Leninade.”

When I asked the cashier, she said “sure, we have Lennonade,” and showed me this bottle.

John Lemonade

“No, no no,” I said, “I’m looking for Vladimir Leninade.”

“Oh, we don’t have that, the cashier said,” but we do have a long line of other dictatorades.  She pointed me to the cooler where they kept a variety of interesting sodas.

This was no substitute for Leninade, so I decided not to get a soda at all. I kept looking around at the different kinds, though, and my eyes landed on the unusual flavors section.IMG_20140325_195144945[1]

This was where my troubles began. You see that “Sweet Corn” soda there? The cashier insisted that everyone who tried it loved it so much they came back again and again for it. I enjoyed the story, but was not yet moved to try the soda myself.

As we were returning to the register, I asked the cashier to recommend Leninade to whoever stocked the shelves. She told me, “you can ask him yourself if you want,” and gestured behind me to a man in a gray-and-black beard. “Hi, I’m the manager,” he said. I  asked him about Leninade and he brought me to his “long line of dictatorades.” At this point I figured he wasn’t going to get the message, so I asked him about the strange flavors.

Without missing a beat, the manager  began singing the praises of the sweet corn soda. “This soda is extremely popular because it tastes exactly like sweet corn.” That swayed me.  I purchased the soda, popped off the cap on a wall-mounted bottle-opener, and took a swig. Fortunately, I managed not to spit it up immediately. To this day I cannot describe what it was I was drinking or the exact nature of my revulsion towards it, but I do know that the look on my face was enough to horrify the manager.

The manager apologized profusely and insisted that I take another soda of my choice free of charge. At first I refused his offer, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer, so rather than try another strange flavor I got a sarsparilla, which was nice. It tasted like an alternative cola recipe.


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


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.