Ignorance Is Not Bliss: How Ignorance Kills Conversations

Last week, rapper B.o.B. made an extraordinary claim that left most of the scientific com–let me rephrase that– most of the world dumbfounded. It turns out that after all his research and years of scientific experimentation, the entertainer finally answered one of humanity’s deepest and most unanswered questions: what is the shape of the Earth? Well, to your unending surprise and amazement it turns that out that our planet is actually flat! Like a pancake. But that’s not all. The entertainer readily took to Instagram to present his mounting evidence. Oh but it doesn’t end there. When confronted by–pretty much–one of science’s greatest minds alive, Neil deGrasse Tyson, the rapper not only defended his point but went on to record a diss track to put the astrophysicist in his place. The consensus is in, the Earth is flat.

Well, you can probably guess how that went. In about fifteen minutes the Internet hilariously did its duty and mopped the flat floor with this guy. Unfortunately, in the world we live in where mass communication makes it incredibly easier for news to spread like wildfire, the message was already traveling the airwaves. The damage had been done.

Although this guy managed to set us back about a thousand years and simultaneously put the American education system to shame (or in its place, depending on your point of view), nobody actually takes him serious enough to change the science books. But still there are many people out there who due to B.o.B’s high(ish) profile and influence, and their own limited knowledge, are willing to believe his incredible claim over someone who happens to be an authority on this particular area, and many others. And it makes you wonder a bit what would motivate someone like B.o.B in this day and age to go against a planet’s worth of evidence and scientific proof with such confidence and swagger. Especially when information is incredibly easy to access.

Well, as it turns out this happens a lot more often than you think. In fact, most of us do it daily, we access the knowledge that we have and apply it wherever it may be needed, sometimes without realizing that we know very little about what we’re talking about. Essentially most of us go through our days believing we know more than we do. But we also underestimate our abilities in certain areas of our lives, and all of that gets compiled into social errors that we make which ultimately affect how we present ourselves to the world, how others see us, and the toll that our credibility takes among our peers.

While it’s perfectly fine to be skeptical and question institutions and established ideals, we must be careful to make claims that we are not sure we can’t back up with hard evidence. In fact, Carl Sagan said it best: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Take note B.o.B.

THE LESS YOU KNOW…

…the more you think you know, the saying goes. Unfortunately, very few people know, or aware, of this fact.

As I understand it what happened with B.o.B. is what the psychologists call “illusory superiority” or the Dunning-Kruger effect where a person with little or no skill in a particular subject or domain believes their skill to be greater than it is, while a person with a high degree of skill usually undermines their own abilities or fails to recognize that others are not at their level. Note that what I’m referring to has nothing to do with intelligence but everything to do with information storage.

Why is this a problem?

If you’ve ever been in an argument that you can’t win, not because of your own incompetence but because of your opponent’s indifference to their very own incompetence and their insistence at their limited evidence, then you understand that frustration firsthand.

In fact we see this problem everyday and everywhere from street corners to scientific conferences. People who know very little are usually the ones making the most noise. There is a certain over-confidence that overrides any reservation of doubt, while those who know a bit more hold more reservations precisely because they know the margin of error they can find themselves in.

In a study conducted psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, they attribute the problem to a miscalibration of people’s abilities due to a “deficit in meta-cognitive skill”, in their own words. The study was done mostly with Cornell University undergraduates, which means that there’s already a certain handicap present. However, it should translate to the rest of the population in certain terms, although the study made no mention of there ever being a replication of it. But whereas Cornell university students are more apt to know their own academic misgivings in certain areas as opposed to the regular high-school graduate, the study does clearly show that–and forgive me for being so blunt about it–the cure for your stupidity is, perhaps paradoxically, for you to not be so stupid about it.

The study they performed revealed that when the bottom percentile of the students (meaning those who were more confident and less competent) out of four percentiles, were given short training sessions to better their logical reasoning skills, basically providing them more information on how to determine their actual level of expertise, almost magically they improved their assessment of their own scores just as well as the top percentile of students had, thus making them experts. Note that the training packet did not make them expert test-takers but simply gave them a guide about how to find their own competence level. How does this translate to the rest of us? The study proves something that should come to no surprise to us, that even if you overestimate your knowledge of something, or underestimate your own abilities, the only way to right the way is to acquire more information! Basically, the more informed you are the less you are willing to overstep your boundaries.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. After all, these students had a helping hand, meaning that they were provided the information necessary to be made aware of their error, whereas for the rest of us we are doomed to come to this realization all on our own.

The Unregulated Market of Information

As it turns out lying is not such a good social currency as some people might think. Others of course reap great benefits by doing it. But unless you are a politician, or have some Machiavellian goal in mind, lying or even spreading partial untruths can have a detrimental effect on your place in society. That is simply because people everywhere in the world recognize sincerity as an unspoken social rule to keep us “within the tribe”, and violating it puts out outside of this circle, even–and ironically– if we do it ourselves.

The problem is that information is an unregulated market, especially in our time, and especially in places where information is free and wide and available such as most of the world is today. Mass communication has made it easier for people to propagate ideas and messages while at the same time it has made it increasingly difficult to separate reality from myth. And honestly nobody could blame you when daily we are hit with more information than we can decipher.

The abundance of information has also had an adverse effect. It has allowed consumers of this information to pick and choose the information that best suits them, information that confirms their suspicions, biases, likes and dislikes, etc. No longer are we tied to the inconvenience of truth, now we are free to select only what we like. But it is actually worse than we imagine.

In a pre-Internet world, it was not only harder to propagate a message but also harder to access it. This kept everything tied to single strands of information that could be followed and scrutinized easier. Today anyone with a computer can create his/her own ideological bubble–and they do–and thus isolated bubbles of information form essentially keeping groups with the same frame of mind contained. And this is where the Kruger-Dunning effect comes into play as it easier to maintain the level of knowledge that you have among your group than to spend any significant amount of energy looking into different, and possibly contradicting, claims to your own.

When we look for information, some of us are looking for nothing other than what confirms what we already think or know and ignore the rest. That’s called confirmation bias. But when we are exposed to something beyond that, this puts us at risk of leaving the social bubble that we are part of, our tribe per se, which can result on acceptance of this new information or not, something called cognitive dissonance.

Two things can happen when these ideological bubbles crash into each other: they either burst violently or they merge. The best thing that can happen in any society is for these bubbles to merge because this means that ideas are exchanged and discourse is created.

The Burden of Authority

Too often people challenge the authority of experts as if they themselves were experts in those fields because they have read one or two magazines, paged through a few internet journals, skimmed an article, or watched Discovery Channel. I actually applaud these people because authorities of any kind should be scrutinized. There’s a twist though.

Unsurprisingly, experts of any field of study spend years, sometimes decades, perfecting their art or field. They challenge other thinkers and often challenge established ideas and present their own, sometimes being met with severe opposition from their own colleagues. This happens everywhere in life and it’s not a rare occurrence for innovators to be often shunned by those who maintain the sanctity of knowledge, and because knowledge itself is so fragile and malleable, unlike facts, experts are often scrutinized for what they claim to know. Although it’s not necessary to be formally trained in any area, self-training or self-teaching can only get a person so far before they are met with the unavoidable fact that to improve one’s knowledge one must be able to see an opposing position or at least recognize that one’s picture of the world is not complete without the input of others, especially those who can back up their claims with expertise and hard evidence. And even then it might not work, just as the [very knowledgeable] proponents of the theory of cold fusion.

My point here is that although sometimes authority is harsh to criticize new ideas, it’s not without precedent that those who make new, and at times improbable claims, can end up changing the world.

Our beef with B.o.B.–or anyone else who claims to know more than the experts–is not with the claim itself, but rather with the [weak] evidence presented.

Every field and discipline that exists will always have a pyramid of authority that at times is hard to climb. One must be bold to attempt to climb it, but one has to go about it carefully. The pyramid can be indeed humbling.

The Power of “I Don’t Know”

With the wide availability of mass communication sometimes it might seems that reliable information has to be mined, while disinformation or misinformation is always readily available. The hard part is knowing what you’re looking for and being smart enough to smell the bullshit wherever you may find it. Case in point, this blog.

If anything, embarrassment alone should be a powerful motivator to fact-check. Many people who have been publicly embarrassed by the Internet police can attest to that. As odd as it may sound, that unrelenting, unforgiving side of the Internet is the good side of shared mass communication. I’m speaking generally here and at each occurrence, not always and not by everyone. Rather than face public embarrassment or worse, there’s an easier solution.

Although to most of us the phrase “I don’t know” signifies ignorance, we as a society need to recognize that sometimes ignorance is the best that can happen. Honest ignorance that is. Willful ignorance is another matter. I don’t know opens the door to new possibilities and discoveries and, in certain situations it brings a certain trustworthiness to a person. It lets the world know that while you don’t know the answer, you will not make up bullshit only to appear knowledgeable, that you are willing to find an answer. So never be afraid to utter it and don’t condemn those who do.

The concept that most of don’t seem to grasp is that people who speak like equals are not necessarily equally informed. And in some cases one is detrimentally less informed than the other. So the problem in normal conversation is not ignorance, it’s closed-mindedness, willful ignorance by claiming to know something you are not close to sure of. The reason why people are so confident in their answers of certain things is simply because that is all the information they have at their disposal. But the wrench that breaks the machine is the denial that there is any more information out there to which they just haven’t had access to yet.

To me there are few things more corrosive in topical conversation than preconceived knowledge. People must be made aware that knowledge is ever-evolving and migratory. Even when we believe we know everything about anything, something else can always be learned. In fact, that’s what formal education is based on: building upon previous knowledge.

So next time you argue a point with someone, ask yourself if you have all the facts, if you truly know what you’re talking about, and be humble with the information you possess because you never know when someone will know more than you and not be humble about– that includes the internet. If someone had only told that to B.o.B.

And not that I would, but as for what you’re reading now, read it with skepticism because you don’t know me, I could be bullshitting you for all you know.

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Interesting Reads:

“What’s Wrong With Lying” By Christine M. Korsgaard- Harvard University http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~korsgaar/CMK.WWLying.pdf

“Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incopetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” By Justin Kruger and David Dunning- Cornell University (Kruger-Dunning Effect Paper)  http://psych.colorado.edu/~vanboven/teaching/p7536_heurbias/p7536_readings/kruger_dunning.pdf

Perceptions in Politics  http://thehill.com/opinion/john-feehery/266941-john-feehery-the-rise-of-the-misinformed-voter-and-donald-trump

 

 

 

 

 

 

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School Me: America’s War On and For Education Pt. 1

The year is 2015 and America is fighting a war that has nothing to do with WMDs, drug-lords, or crazy religious fundamentalists in some remote country. Nope. The war is at home and we’re fighting it for and against ourselves to win and lose even though we’re doing everything we can to lose it (to win it) while fighting to win it (to lose it). Confusing isn’t it?

Just like any war, the battles we’re fighting each and every day leave collateral damage behind, only this time the victims are not enemy combatants, or traitors, but our children. Our what? Yup, kids. But even more importantly what our children represent- the future.

If this sounds drab, dark and slightly apocalyptic, is because it kind of is. I might be a bit melodramatic, that at least is true, but that’s only for effect. But we can at least agree on one thing, that the education system in America is failing from the bottom up and soon this war that our politicians, our corporations, our religious institutions, ourselves and each other are fighting will set us on a path that eventually will lead us to one of many eventual demises.

So, sit back and relax, and let’s explore how the war on education is rotting the core of what America is. A war that is unnecessary and easily winnable, but a war that we seem determined to keep fighting for better and for worse.

 

First Steps

 

Think for a moment about how you raise your children, or if you don’t have any children just daydream for a second about how you would raise kids if you had any. It’s a scary thought, I agree. After all, going to any Chuck-E-Cheese anywhere in America will make you think twice about having kids if you don’t have them, or make you re-think your choices if you do. And although making kids is probably the most fun you will ever have, raising them is no picnic- at least not a sunny one. Each stage of raising a child has a different level of difficulty that no one expects. Life is uncaring as to your early baby-planning or your college fund, and it’s something that not even the wealthiest parents in the world can prepare for. Remember that having money doesn’t exactly mean that they will turn out to be the best people in the world- in fact, sometimes it’s quite the opposite. It’s then that the old adage fits perfectly: No one is ever truly prepared for kids. That’s just one of those inescapable universal truths that every parent learns one way or another.

But think about how you were raised. You turned out fine, right? Kinda? Don’t feel too bad if you still live with your parents, or if you’ve been to juvie, or at 30 you don’t have a stable job, or haven’t gone to college yet or blah blah blah. All you have to do is turn on the news and you’ll immediately feel better and realize that “kinda” maybe isn’t all that bad. Agreed, it’s a half-assed way to live life, but in context, “kinda” is just the space between good and bad and nothing else. You are at the center of the balance and only you have the power to tip it one way or the other.

But what got you there? Sure, a lot of people talk about genes and outside influence. But if you pay close attention, you will notice that while DNA plays a huge role in who you are, for the most part, what you do is closely related to how you were raised. And this is where we start.

You’ve probably heard the saying “education begins at home.” People don’t just say it for nothing, the path to education begins from the moment you come out of the womb and continues throughout those first fragile formative years. By the time formal education begins (meaning school), kids are already walking and talking, and like it or not they have also adopted some of their parents’ ways of thinking including basic forms of thinking and prejudice. And you can’t really blame the way they are- at least not during the first few years of school- on their schoolmates, seeing as how they spend most of their time behind school walls, because the behavior had to have come from somewhere in the first place. So being totally frank, if your kid is an asshole in school it’s mostly not his/her fault. Then again, it’s not mostly your fault either- although you did raise them. No excuses to be had here Biebs.

But that really is an interesting question to ask, whose fault is it for children’s bad behavior? Is it the parents’ fault; is it the schools’ fault? Is it no one’s fault (genetics)? Environmental? Chemicals in the food? Media content? Someone has to bear that responsibility, but who? In my non-expert opinion I believe the problem to be an unequal combination of all of these factors with two being the main culprits- the parents and the education system. “Why me?!” I can hear parents and teachers yelling in unison. Well, again, child-rearing begins at home. It’s simple, if your kid watches Jersey Shore and acts like the douchebags in it, it’s only because you allowed them to. If your kid curses it’s not her fault, she probably doesn’t even know what it means. If your kid punches some other kid, it will inevitably be part of his genes to be prone to anger, but it’s learned behavior that dictates how he will behave in the future given the appropriate instruction and/or punishment. In other words, morality is instilled at home. Technical instruction is given at school.

Consider this, conventional wisdom- and science- tells us that the perfect age to have kids is in your 20s. Too young (20s-) might mean an unstable financial situation and too old (30s+) could mean more of a burden on your body.  Of course there are more things to consider than just a good job and a good uterus, but for the most part you’d want both to be in good condition. But the thing that no one really thinks about is that no matter at what age you get pregnant, the thought of becoming a first-time parent can be a daunting and scary thing to prepare for. It’s only logical that you would need help with that responsibility, not only from other parents but also from experts in child-rearing and education. After all, you want to give your child the best possible start.

This 2008 report by statesmanjournal.com, details how 95% of funds going towards education are allocated only for formal education, which means that what the state spends on education is only relevant until after children have already been acclimated to their parents’ way of thinking. Forget sponges,  during those formative years children’s brains are more like powerful (and fragile) machines that react to nurturing just as much as they do to nature-ing. In fact, there’s research to suggest that due to neural interactions, a child learns much faster than you do.

What this is all saying is that between the age of 0 and 5, a child’s brain develops faster and stronger than it will ever do in that child’s life; during those years the information it acquires is essential for his/her psychological development and it is crucial in establishing a well cemented base for future learning. And yet- at least in the U.S.- less than 5% of the educational resources are going towards this age-group. Why?

I’m not sure exactly (or maybe I’m too incompetent to find out why- thanks school!) but it seems that those in charge of the money do not consider this to be a priority even though amounting research suggests that more money should be put to good use in this area. It appears the government trusts YOU too much with your own child not to offer much help.

In my opinion, more resources should be allocated to implement government-subsidized child-rearing classes that continually evolve with new research, to help young parents and/or first-time parents raise their children better until they start school. I’m sure there is something like that already, but is it enough? It’ll take a whole generation to find out.

Of course, education has changed in the classroom. If we read into that history and compare educational methods, say, from 100 years ago, then even the poorest of nations has a lot more information to impart in the classroom than they did before- and hopefully better methods also. That they don’t want to or don’t care to is another matter. That also varies by country, by region and even by school.

 

Resources: Substance and Style

 

But education is dependent on more than one factor, not only on what we know. For example, children who live in poor nations, in conflict-ridden areas, and girls more than boys are much more at risk of missing out on the kind of education that children are afforded elsewhere. This is something we know, but still not enough resources are available to help with children’s educations besides a few charitable organizations and UN programs. Food availability, distance,  parent’s marital and social status, social conflict, etc. These are all factors, among many more, that can greatly affect the chances of a child going to school.

But what about here in America? Surely we don’t run into issues like those. Do we?

If you’re naive enough to think so, you are dead wrong. Recent studies show that the link between poverty and children’s educational development is strong stateside. And with poverty come a whole slew of other problems: family instability, domestic violence in some cases, and behavioral problems.

For example the Bible Belt, which is the Southernmost area of the United States, is the poorest clump of states in the nation. Not coincidentally it is also where students K-12 are the least educated. This interesting report by the Huffington Post finds the connection between what each state spends on education and children’s education ranking by state, among other criteria.

But lack of money is not the whole problem. Ironically, having it and not using it properly can be just as detrimental.

Look around you. Most people now have more than three devices to use to watch their favorite shows, download music, read stuff on the internet, watch cat videos, blog, vlog, etc. Just now I’m sitting at my desk watching Netflix on an iPad. My laptop is sitting right in front of me, my phone is in my pocket, my TV five feet away from me, and my roommate’s TV ten feet away. Each and every one of these devices capable of doing all of those things I mentioned and more. So in a fifteen feet radius I have more computing power at my disposal than all of the computers in the world combined during the 60s. You see where I’m going with this?

Somehow we haven’t realized that the future so many sci-fi writers wrote about in past decades is now! We are not making use of the technology that we have at our fingertips precisely for the most noble purpose there is: the advancement of education. Or at least, we’re not doing it enough. Any parent should walk into a classroom and see their tax-dollars at work (or at least a bigger chunk of it) in the form of a personalized computer for their kids. We have enough resources to provide every child in America with an iPad to use and to learn from.

Schools should prioritize what they teach our kids. Cursive writing is not a priority, computer science is. For the sake of our future generations, it is imperative that we get rid or minimize non-essential subjects and replace them with advanced sciences and skills that they will need in the future.

This very day, most countries are sitting on endless mines of information and we simply do not use the tools at our disposal to get to the treasure. Like the likable character Roman on the film Ocean’s 13 once said, we are “…analogue players in a digital world.” The children in our classrooms are still using notepads and pencils when they should be using iPads and stylus pens. And even poor nations have these capabilities, if they spent more on education that is.

The internet came at a time of vast technological advancement and that advancement doesn’t seem to be slowing down but rather speeding up. Not only has technology caught up with the power of the internet itself, but it’s now helping it grow faster and stronger. That’s something to exploit to the maximum.

The perfect analogy to use here is a dam. We are like fish, living in a little puddle of information while water trickles down from a wall. On the other side of the wall is a vast lake that we just can’t get to. I suppose I don’t have to tell you that what any of this represents.

This knowledge that I talk about is universally beneficial. But is knowledge even enough? With the amount of information that we now have at our disposal, it is more than just an excuse not to impart it correctly. We have come far from when used the abacus to make simple calculations, now we use calculators. Perhaps it’s time we upgrade, and not just what new technology we have available, but also in our right to use it. Teachers should encourage children to use the technology at hand to acquire as much information as possible; but we as parents also need to learn Information in bulk is not necessarily education. Another problem I see today with the way schooling (institutionally and at home) is done is that we are too preoccupied teaching children what to think, and not necessarily how to think.

 

Making the Grades: The Evolution of Teaching Methods
Image source: www.topeducationdegrees.org

 

Scoresheet

 

Considering that the United States is still a technological, military, and economic superpower it’s only logical that we should also reign as an educational giant as well. And yet, in terms of primary and secondary education we’re not in even in the top 10 in two of the most important areas!- science and math. By now it’s probably been drilled into your head from several different sources how education in America is lagging behind other countries in K-12 education, especially in the mentioned disciplines.

This research by pewresearch.org, with data from PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), shows that improvement in areas like math and science for American students has been a slow one, and we still shadow many countries, including most industrialized nations.

The average scores indicate that for all 15-year-olds from various nationalities who participated since the triennial survey was last taken in 2012, the United States scored in 27th place in mathematics, just above Sweden and Hungary but lower than any of the major industrialized nations in the world with Singapore taking the top spot. As far as science goes Americans fared a little better in 20th place, scoring well ahead of Italy, Norway, and Russia.

It’s encouraging to know that we are doing better than we did a couple of decades ago, but let’s not pat each other’s backs just yet, we’re not that well off. If we take into account our massive budget, we should be spending much more on education that we give ourselves credit for. There is no excuse why these scores shouldn’t be much higher.

The 2014 federal budget  provided $71 billion in funds to the Department of Education, or 4.6% of national spending. Yeah this is a huge number, but it’s nothing compared to the gigantic $526 billion allocated to the Department of Defense.  That’s seven times more than what the DoE gets! You would think that those 71 billion dollars would put us ahead of little Singapore in something as small as math and science education, a country with a relatively small GDP of $298 billion compared to America’s $16 trillion, but somehow something just doesn’t fit. Of course, Singapore doesn’t have nearly as many enemies as the U.S. and their budget doesn’t allow for much international expenditures as our does, but… come on! 71 billion dollars! If Singapore can subsidize its entire education system and pay its teachers better than we do ours, then surely we can move some money around and give the DoE a couple more billion dollars and do the same or something similar here. It would not only make sense, it’s the right thing to do.

This is a noble competition in which every country should strive to take the top spot. Education is nothing to compete over, except when we’re doing it against ignorance and the countries that can afford to do so are helping themselves by coming to the aid of those at the bottom and helping them rise.

 

Put To the Test

 

We talked about outdated technology. Now let’s talk about outdated methods. In the post-internet era, we are still teaching children with the same methodology that schools used from before even the fall of the Soviet Union, despite psychiatry, psychology and neuroimaging making new important discoveries every year, including child rearing and child behavior. And unfortunately one of those areas in which we don’t seem to be advancing but rather regressing, is standardized testing.

Children today in the United States get tested on as if they were all about to colonize Mars! You might be thinking “what’s the big deal? So they get a few tests here and there.” But they don’t just get a few tests here and there. While testing is an important part of learning, just like everything else, in excess is counterproductive. Kids today get tested on English, Math, Science, Physical Education, History (one of the few subjects that actually evolves merely for its content, or rather by its content). They get tested two, three, five, sometimes even ten times per trimester. They get federal testing, state testing, school testing and on top of that, they get regular periodic tests. Dozens of hours are spent on just testing these kids; and you as a parent are left thinking, “What the hell are they teaching them that they have to test them so much?” Mars huh?

Many parents- perhaps even you yourself- are now wondering if we are overtesting kids. A lot of them are wondering if all this testing is actually leading us somewhere or if we’re just walking to the edge of a cliff. And many are starting to push back.

Well, it didn’t take long for the issue to become political. Now Congress is also starting to ask the same questions parents around the nation are asking- “Is there a benefit?

To get to the root of the problem we have to observe our own kids. When they get ready to take a test, are they doing everything they can to learn the information and use it on the test, or are they doing everything they can to pass the test no matter how they do it? And if it’s the former, is the information even being retained?

Where I’m going with this is that if school is supposed to be beneficial in the sense that it’s meant to be a knowledge machine, why are we throwing nuts and bolts into it thinking it’s helping when it’s just breaking everything inside?

But don’t be too quick to blame teachers. Many of them also think that testing- or rather administering tests the wrong way- is bad for our students; psychologists have taken careful notice of what goes on when we overtest and have arrived at the same conclusion- when it comes to testing, or more importantly, to learning, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.

 

Homework? So 1900s

 

“Oh no, don’t mess with the homework dude! That’s my off time.” Some parents are undoubtedly thinking this. Kudos to you if you actually help out your kid with her homework, or with that science project that we all know will turn out to be a papier-mâché volcano.

Well while it will help you bond better with your kids, making them bury their noses in a notebook for three or four hours a day will not necessarily do anything.

Just like exercising the muscles, working out the mind also has a resistance limit after which there is no beneficial gain to keep pushing. Well, it turns out that contrary to what you may believe (possibly arrogantly about yourself), humans have a rather short attention span of just minutes. For adults it happens to be between 15 and 20 minutes while children have much shorter attention spans.

What does this tell you about homework? Yes, you might be walking by their rooms and they’ll be pretending to read the book. Hell, they might even actually be trying. But I- and more importantly, psychologists- assure you that while their eyes are scanning the words, their brains are flying far far away.

Like over-testing, spending too much time doing homework seems to have a negligible result in standardized testing, and in more cases than not, it directly hurts the chances of a better score. This study from researcher Jose Muñiz from the university of Oviedo in Spain says as much- while effort, parent aid, and [daily] frequency of homework helps a lot, spending more than two hours a day on homework doesn’t.

The alternative is much simpler- school should make learning much more accessible by allowing students free expression and help mold the young mind into something desirable to pursue. While parents need to devote the time to fine-tune that learning at home, and not necessarily doing homework.

Let’s not kid ourselves (pun not intended), homework will not go away anytime soon- although it should. However, the way in which homework is done can have a great impact in how well your kid advances not in class, but in understanding. Psychologists and sociologists have concluded that the manner in which you as a parent help your kid with homework makes more of a difference than you taking direct control. This just plays into the whole idea that kids need to be allowed free rein and explore imaginatively, rather than being dictated to and limited.

 

Invisible Roadblocks

 

If you thought I wasn’t going to mention religion in this one, you are dead wrong.

Already too many states in the United States (guess which ones) teach creationism along with evolutionary biology by local political mandate, despite the 2005 landmark Supreme Court case Kitzmiller v. Dover, where the court ruled against the teaching of creationism, or the word-savvy intelligent design, in public schools.

In the first link provided (in the hook “too many states”) you will find an interactive map of all the states that have, in some form, a creationist curriculum that openly challenge evolution science as something more of a fable and not completely testable. The fucking irony.

As if it wasn’t enough to have kids recite a Pledge of Allegiance (something bordering on creepy and Big Brother-y), and one created in part to sell flags, Eisenhower added the word “god” to counter the godless Communist threat back in 1954. As if being godless was actually what inspired Stalin to kill 100 million of his countrymen… or as if adding the word “god” to the pledge actually helped.

The point is that since the pledge and even before it, schools still have the nerve to question hundreds of years of data without base. These people are more than eager to teach their absolutely unverified and untestable version of the “truth” to all children alike, without regard or consideration for children’s backgrounds, something which puts everyone behind. And on top of that, the children of secular parents are being punished for something which they have little control over.

If you know this blog then you must know that my feelings towards religion are ones of suspicion and contempt. I, along with millions of others, feel that religion is in its most intrusive,  most harmful, and most illogical form when it is taught in the classroom.

Personally, I see no useful purpose for religion in today’s world, not even- and especially- as a moral yardstick. Contrary to popular belief, science can now explain morality thoroughly without the need of superstitious rituals. Yet, a lot of people don’t see it that way. They hold on to the old beliefs and what’s worse, the religious are playing the last card they have to play, children. Because they are innocent and thus impressionable, it is easier to manipulate a child to believe in abnormal things.

I would be understating the issue if I said that religion has absolutely no place in public schools, not just legally but also in terms of relevant information. And before we get into a theological debate, you should note that I said religion, meaning all religions. What is especially troublesome about an imposition of religious rituals or religious teaching in school is that you can’t possibly accommodate the thousands of religions that exist in the world in a place that intends to make use of the most down-to-Earth (pun intended), verifiable, and impartial information there is. Which is why science is there to save the day.

While religious fundamentalists argue about whether the Earth is 6,000 years old or 10,000 years old based on nothing else than Bible interpretation, the core of science has gone out and researched endlessly and compiled all known data into verifiable textbooks that kids now use in the classroom. It is unfair, not to mention arrogant, for religious parents and teachers to force distorted views of the world as they see it to kids who will very much grow up believing this stuff. What they fail to realize is that everything has a connection to something else. For example, teaching a kid that the Earth is younger than some known tree species we know might not make much of a difference if the child grows up to be a musician or an actor. But if that kid wants to become a biologist, or anything science-related actually, he or she will be the laughing-stock of academia a la Waterboy. 

I’m not saying that you don’t have the right to believe in whatever you want to believe, just not in a public taxpayer-funded school. The Constitution of the United States expressly prohibits the teaching of religion in places funded on the taxpayer’s dime, so in the interest of fairness, or at the very least for the sake of your child’s future, keep the Bible at home or at church where they belong, not in the classroom.

 

Okay, Einstein, what’s the best thing to do?

 

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” – Albert Einstein

The concept of school is an ancient one. For thousands of years people have been teaching each other what they know about the world. It hasn’t always worked the way it should, but it has worked- case in point, we know a lot about a lot today. So it would only make sense that school should be an institution where knowledge is born and not merely cascaded down. However, it seems that’s actually the way it is. The institution has come to a point where individuality is repressed in favor of mass instruction. Something especially apparent in testing- which we mentioned before.

Do you remember that part on Forest Gump where Sally Fields’s character tells young Forest that he’s the same as everyone else, but then when the principal tells her that her son is different she comes back with, “Well, everyone’s different…” Of course it sounds way funnier in the movie, but it’s true, we’re all different and we’re all the same in different contexts obviously. Yet, school seems to want to make us all the same. At least in the way that we learn.

Like I mentioned before, now we know with proof what we’ve always known subconsciously, that kids learn at different rates and with different techniques. Some kids learn best by reading, others by looking at pictures, others are better at math than they are at history. The point is to instill in students a sense of comfort. To play their strengths and work their weaknesses, but what tests do is assume that every student is the same. Again, benchmarking is important because there definitely needs to be a basic average level that every student needs to be in every subject, but it seems that we’re only stopping there. Where’s the individuality? Where’s the push for greater knowledge?

You might infer from what’s being said that exclusion will lead to kids becoming territorial- even more so- but what we’re trying to achieve is just the opposite- inclusion. And inclusion is key. Due to many factors, some kids will learn faster than others. That’s just one of those things not even a teacher can control. However, taking into account those earlier things I mentioned about psychology, psychiatry, and technology, surely we can devise ways to measure kids’ performances without having to burden them with endless homework assignments, stressful rounds of testing, and outdated teaching techniques that don’t do much more than make kids loathe school, and as a consequence possibly even learning. They have enough to worry about in the recess yard to make them worry about what goes on inside the classroom.

 

Graduation

 

Let me conclude by saying that I am no education professional, medical professional, or an expert in any of the fields mentioned here, so do read this with a grain of salt. I merely offer my personal opinion on an issue that I consider to be one of the most important ones in our time, but more importantly for the future.

Of course there are many more things that can affect child behavior and learning capabilities: nutrition, bullying, outside influence, etc. I will probably touch on these subjects later on in other blogposts. But for now I just wanted to go a bit more in-depth about how education is not being given absolute priority in our country and elsewhere in the world.

The question to you is, do we really want to stress our kids out? School is undoubtedly necessary for our children, it’s not only a right of passage, it will prepare them at least in an academic level for the things they will need to know in the future. In the courtyard they will get a taste of what’s to come in life in terms of social connections; while the classroom is supposed to make them wonder about the bigger things. Children are supposed to go in to school with a hunger for learning, not to be afraid to do so. We need to demand, as well as help forge the better way to make the former happen and avoid the latter. Is stressing them out more important, or teaching them? Is showing them more important, or letting them discover? Is it more important to tell them which problem to solve or teaching them how to solve it? Are we hoping to build robots, or thinkers? Do we want them to come out of high school reading about the future or writing it? It all starts with learning. But learning is also a process. I guess the most important question of all is: are we doing it right?

 

fascinating book

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In part two I’ll be talking about college and the roadblocks students encounter while trying to continue their education at the next level in America and abroad, the consequences of these limitations, and what we can all do to help each other and ourselves.

And please leave a comment, a question, or curse me out if you want to if I missed something you believe is important or if any of my information is wrong. I welcome all feedback! And if you’re a teacher or a parent, I don’t mean to step on any toes, I welcome your thoughts as well.

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Interesting Reads:

http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/07/09/36jouriles.h33.html

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/spending-too-much-time-homework-linked-lower-test-scores-180954814/?no-ist

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/01/15/cutting-through-the-stupid-on-annual-standardized-testing/

http://www.thedailyriff.com/articles/21-things-that-will-become-obsolete-in-education-by-2020-474.php