Tuesday, December 8, 2009

What they should teach you in school

I anticipated a post along these lines long ago, didn't I?

So let's say tomorrow, I get sworn in as NSW Minister for Education. Hey, given the theatrics of the State Cabinet lately, its not entirely beyond the realms of possibility. Enough of that though, as I promised they'd be no politics this time around.

Well, there are some basic steps I'd take. I'd decouple the core English curriculum of reading, writing, and speaking from the study of literature, for reasons Paul Graham has explained better than I ever could. I'd make mathematics compulsory through to year 12, although with a reworked syllabus; few people really need to know what the derivative of tan is, but I recently got into a Facebook argument with a well-educated, science-literate person who couldn't tell the difference between a positive feedback loop and negative feedback loop. Software design and development needs to be redone, from scratch - high school age kids are more than capable of doing real programming and real computer science.

All this is merely tinkering, though.

Civics really needs to be core to the curriculum. It used to be, I'm lead to believe, but now, its not, for some bizarre reason. See, in a democracy, school isn't just vocational training, much as everyone seems to want to pretend otherwise. School is where you learn what a citizen of a society needs to learn. This includes knowledge and skills that help you become an economically productive individual, sure. Citizens aren't merely consumers and employees, though. They are voters, and members of political parties. They are plaintiffs and defendants in law suits, not to mention jurors. They are, ultimately, sovereigns, and to leave school and attain majority with absolutely no real knowledge of the government they are both members of and subject to is absurd. I could crap on about this for ages, but really I think its a pretty straight forward point. Hell, if I recall correctly there currently isn't an HSC course in Politics or Government you could take, even if you wanted to! Ridiculous.

OK, some changes to existing subjects, and the introduction (or perhaps its reintroduction) of a subject. Nothing too revolutionary there.

Do I have any grander schemes? Any more radical proposals?

Well, education is hard to do well, and there are lot of interesting theories floating around with little hard evidence to support them, and a lot of criticisms of existing arrangements and dreams

I'd like to say I'd like to teach teenagers to be good critical thinkers, but probably most educators would say the same thing. I could say that it'd be nice if there was less focus on specific factual content like who won the Battle of Thermopylae or the name of the law which ended no-fault divorce, and more focus on applying reasoning skills to those facts. Except, besides from pragmatic issues like the greater ease of measuring factual knowledge, as a rule people aren't innately good at generalising, and so giving someone a lot of information and then asking them to analyse it is quite possibly a better way to teach them abstractions then actually starting with the abstractions themselves.

What is critical thinking? It's focused on the idea of criticism, in its substantial sense - to consider something carefully, and find any weaknesses or flaws. Specifically, a good critical thinker is a strong critic of ideas - they are able to spot errors in people's arguments and theories. Most importantly of all, a critical thinker learns to criticise their own ideas, to see the holes in their own arguments - either with a view to papering the holes over, if they are a professional advocate like a trial barrister, or, hopefully, with a view to aligning their beliefs more closely with reality.

Can you teach this? Well, some people can teach it, and some can learn it, without a doubt, since it is clearly an acquired ability in particular to be self-critical of one's beliefs - by default we are overwhelmingly not rational so much as rationalising, forever finding reasons to justify our intuitions and behaviours. How to reliably and practically teach such skills to every school child is another question entirely.

Again, I think there is an extent to which it is futile to start in the abstract. Everyone learns abstractions at first via examples, even the deepest thinkers - the axioms of group theory were discovered by mathematicians interested in the common properties of integer addition, permutation composition, geometric transformations, matrix multiplication and the like.

So schools should have lessons about the most well know and comprehensible cognitive biases. It is just as easy to explain the sunk cost fallacy to a bunch of year nine school students as a bunch of first year undergraduates in Economics. Framing isn't just something psychology majors should learn about, its something everyone should learn about.

This stuff doesn't require any prior knowledge, nor an indepth understanding of the causes of the biases or any of the rest of the surrounding science. It is not, conceptually, that difficult; certainly its comparable in intellectual rigour to asking teenagers to write about the causes of World War I or to prove something by mathematical induction.

The best part about it is, you can very easily do the relevantt experiments, in the classroom, and then explain them. Here's why you all answered this way, and here's why you're wrong. And here's a ton of examples from real life about how this kind of utterly commonplace mistake in your thinking can lead you into trouble.
Now, would there any point to all this? Well, I believe, the jury is still out on that question; studies indicate some cognitive biases can apparently be corrected for by telling people about them, while others can't; and I'm unaware of anyone trying to explain them to children and then checking five years down the track if it helped them as adults.

At the very least, though, it should give the kids a thorough sense that they can be mistaken. If school were to have only one lasting influence on their reasoning, that would be a good pick. Even for the smart kids; in fact, especially for the smart kids - most of histories worst ideas came from smart people.

-----------------------------------------

With special thanks to Nonchalant Adventurer, or whatever his blogging pseudonym is these days, for the long hours of philosophical exchange about critical thinking that helped shaped my current views, and of which this post is but the smallest of appetisers.





6 comments:

spenceria said...

I read that apparently public schools are going to start offering ethics classes for those who don't want to take scripture, dealing with issues like animal rights.
Although the cynic in me fears that the syllabus will end up being entirely too prescriptive to grant the students any real opportunity for critical thinking, the optimist in me hopes that maybe, just maybe, a little may sneak through...

With Respect to X said...

Yeah, somehow I don't hold a lot of faith in St James ethics centre doing much to improve kids reasoning skills in 40 minutes a week.

Also, I feel ethics is a bad place to start teaching people to question their own views, because we have a lot of emotional armour in that area. Better to begin with something non-controversial like logic or economic rationality and then once the principle is established move on to more cherished beliefs.

zharmad said...

Should we just condense the curriculum then? Redesign, e.g. history, such that it is more analytical rather than a collection of facts?

A) What about combining subject lines, since there's so much philosophy and politics in history as it is? Education systems like our suffer from this over-zealous tendency to pidgeon every sub-ject into neat, categorical sessions.

B) We need to first train the teachers to have critical thinking. Many have this wonderful desire to teach children about the world, but have not the tools with which to teach an appreciation beyond the pedagogical equivalent of "ooh, nice painting/shirt/ship".

Especially some science and english ones.
- - -
However, what about the theory that people have unequal skill limitations? That is, some people are unable to perform critical thinking, just as some "academics" are unable to learn any relevant life skills? :P

C) Yes, we need some good 'civics' courses - that's what you guys call it?

With Respect to X said...

"Should we just condense the curriculum then? Redesign, e.g. history, such that it is more analytical rather than a collection of facts?"

I think people do learn valuable skills from studying history, and I also think its worth learning in its own right - knowledge as a means not an end. But yes a redesign may be in order, at least to the extent of putting more of the factual pursuit into elective and not compulsory subjects.

"A) What about combining subject lines, since there's so much philosophy and politics in history as it is? Education systems like our suffer from this over-zealous tendency to pidgeon every sub-ject into neat, categorical sessions."

Yes, subject categorisations, like any taxonomy of complex reality, tend to break down. I don't know if there's an easy to implement way to fix this, though. Let people learn a little history of politics in their politics course and a little philosophy of science in their science course - in fact let them learn a lot, since understanding what sets scientific knowledge apart is more important for most people than learning specialist information about biology, or meteorology or what have you.

There will be some overlap, but so be it. I can't see a way to productively merge any parts of the existing core curriculum.

"B) We need to first train the teachers to have critical thinking. Many have this wonderful desire to teach children about the world, but have not the tools with which to teach an appreciation beyond the pedagogical equivalent of "ooh, nice painting/shirt/ship".

Especially some science and english ones.
- - -
However, what about the theory that people have unequal skill limitations? That is, some people are unable to perform critical thinking, just as some "academics" are unable to learn any relevant life skills? :P"

Yes, we do need more teachers who are good critical thinkers, but this is a classic chicken and egg problem. The best way to start in my mind is to have specialists give specific classes on critical thinking, and let other teachers keep on doing what they're doing for the time being. Its easier to start good happens in school kids than at university.

As for the idea that some people can't learn critical thinking, well that might be true; in fact statistically true it's definitely speaking, just as unfortunately there exists some portion of the population can't be taught basic language skills, or numeracy, or pretty much any skill X. But historically before mass universal education, the elites of society vastly overestimated how big this portion was. Until we put a more serious effort into teaching critical thinking, we won't know. And the potential benefits outweigh the costs enormously to my mind.

"C) Yes, we need some good 'civics' courses - that's what you guys call it?"

I don't know who "us guys" are :P The word is the only one I've ever really heard used in reference to the subject I'm thinking of - the basic history, philosophy and mechanics of government, the law, society and the economy. Social science 101, focused mainly on the system we live under.

Maybe its an American term, since Americans still have such classes in many schools I believe and I possibly absorbed the usage from the internet. I'm not aware of any equivalent Australian name.

Angela said...

I agree that History is worthwhile in and of itself. Also, Vote 1 having following or teamwork lectures in a 2:1 ratio with leadership lectures, at least!

Alexey said...

I created Nonchalant Adventurer quite a while ago with the intention of writing a completely anonymous blog about very controversial issues. Later, deciding against it, I created the not-so-anonymous Capers of the Mind blog under that identity, and then because it was not anonymous I set the screen name to Alexey to make myself easier to recognise.

I like the way this post is structured. It starts off with some pleasant meanderings and then becomes more and more direct. The final paragraph is a fitting culmination (not the one where I get given special thanks, although that's good too, the one before it). I should try to write like this.

I suspect that this post is more meaningful to me than to people who have not had hours of philosophical discussion with you. Every paragraph, every casual phrase is like the tip of an iceberg. That's why I like it so much.