Posts Tagged ‘School’
I have always been of the opinion that everybody needs to slog their way through Algebra, Trigonometry, Geometry, Chemistry and Physics on their way to a high school degree. Recently, Andrew Hacker, a professor of political science at Queens College, City University of New York, wrote in the NY Times that this is not the case, at least for math. His article is well reasoned, but some of his opinions are 180° opposed to the reasons I believe these subjects are so important today.
Nor is it clear that the math we learn in the classroom has any relation to the quantitative reasoning we need on the job. John P. Smith III, an educational psychologist at Michigan State University who has studied math education, has found that “mathematical reasoning in workplaces differs markedly from the algorithms taught in school.”
This statement gets a big “so what?” from me. Should we only be learning the things we can memorize? The point is that math and science are cumulative; studying these subjects help us learn how to learn and how to apply what we have already learned to new situations. That is critical because the workplace is constantly changing. These subjects are sometimes difficult, but there is some benefit to successfully completing a difficult task.
One of the professor’s other points is the one that really bothers me:
What of the claim that mathematics sharpens our minds and makes us more intellectually adept as individuals and a citizen body? It’s true that mathematics requires mental exertion. But there’s no evidence that being able to prove (x² + y²)² = (x² – y²)² + (2xy)² leads to more credible political opinions or social analysis.
Maybe there is no benefit in being able to make that proof, but there is an incredible benefit in knowing that some things can be proven. Despite the fact that we routinely treat laws (yielding, hands free cell phone use, giving cyclists 3 feet when passing) as if they are mere guidelines, some things are subject to scientific laws. During the recent heat wave that gripped the Mid-Atlantic States, a plane sunk into the tarmac at a Washington D.C. airport. People were inconvenienced, and people complained about the inadequate planning. Somebody, well a group of somebodies, made the decision at some point to save money by using asphalt instead of concrete pads at the gate positions. That wasn’t a place for opinion to rule the day. That was a case were a careful examination of the facts would have been a better choice, because at a certain temperature, a heavy plane is going to sink into asphalt. Still, it was public opinion that set the financial limits on airport construction.
I once attended a public meeting held by our local school board where we ended up debating whether or not to cut the annual maintenance program for the gymnasium partition doors. These doors are largest, heaviest moving objects owned by our town, and we were thinking of saving money by not oiling the hinges or repairing the worn fasteners. People actually said things like: “I think it’s just a scam for the door manufactures to make money” and “they [doors] shouldn’t need to be oiled every year”. Gravity and friction were never mentioned, the number of openings and closings were not discussed; we were acting out of impulse and emotion. A similar discussion ensued around the $1,000 maintenance contract on the panic bars throughout our four school buildings. Statements like “it seems like a lot of money for something unrelated to the core mission of the school system” were winning over the fact that there are laws that say that if these mechanisms break, the school has to close or post someone at the door at all times. People were unswayed by the sheer number of panic bars in the system, the historic frequency of repairs, and the fact that the replacement cost of a panic bar was over $1,100 at the time. I would guess that similar discussions have resulted in the gradual but continuing decline of our roads and bridges, as if corrosion, wear and tear, stress cracks and freeze-thaw cycles will be influenced by our opinions, or yield to the pressure of a bad economy.
Our planet is a life-sustaining system that is subject to known, proven and unwavering scientific laws. We can’t change them; we can only ignore them at our peril. The greater the degree to which people understand these laws, and are able to make decisions based on the gathering of facts and application of principle, the better off we will be as a society.
MS-DOS turned 30 today. I am old enough to remember when the popular saying was “Don’t trust anyone over 30” and although people are still fighting over who actually said that (Jerry Rubin or Jack Weinberg) it hardly matters. 30 is only a milestone until you’re 40. On the other hand, 1981 was a milestone year for me. I arrived in Hartford, CT from Seattle, WA a few days before DOS was born and I started working for Peat Marwick Mitchell & Co a few days after. I met my best friend, my barber and the woman who would eventually become my wife in the first hour of that first day of work. Perhaps leaving Seattle, just as Microsoft was learning to stand upright wasn’t the best career move I ever made, but I like the way my life has gone on the east coast. Suffice it to say, DOS, Microsoft and I have managed to share some time together.
What I stop and think about as DOS turns 30, is how less than five years out of college, a career path opened up for me that didn’t exist when I was a student. I was given the opportunity to learn something new that would form the basis for the remainder of my career (and I hadn’t yet reached the untrustworthy age of 30). All I had to do to get on that bandwagon was to learn something new. The scary thing about DOS’ 30th, isn’t that I remember DOS during its infancy, it’s that so many people my age ignored DOS and the PC it supported. I met a man two days ago, only slightly older than me who says he has never had a computer. I know many people who have computers but who understand them less well than they understand their DVR. I recently sat in a meeting at our local high school, where the administration was defending their decision to drop a basic computer skills class they had offered. It seems the State of CT dropped its meager 0.5 credit in technology graduation requirement, and the school can no longer justify retaining the only teacher they had who was certified to teach that class.
There are so many things wrong with that last run-on sentence that I get spun-up reading it as I try to make it shorter. How can anyone in state government think that exposure to technology shouldn’t be required? How could they ever have thought that 0.5 credit hours was enough exposure? How could there only be one teacher in 2011 who is certified to teach an Introduction to Technology class? Worse yet – at least for someone like myself who works in this industry – is that the course that they canceled was a review of Microsoft Office!
I took my first computer science course in summer school between 8th and 9th grade. We wrote exactly 2 programs: an algorithm to calculate the Square Root of a number and a program that called that algorithm as a function. The rest of the six weeks was spent learning about input, output, storage, communication, bits, bytes, and binary and hexadecimal math. Consider for yourself, how many of those concepts from more than 30 years ago, remain relevant in computer science today. That we would substitute a primer on a Word Processor and Baby’s First Spreadsheet as being equivalent to that summer school course is laughable.
Even worse than all of that, why is there no outrage over this decision? Are the parents in this town so unaware of technology to not see its impact on EVERY career? Are the students so impressed with their own ability to navigate Facebook and their Xbox that they feel they don’t need formal instruction? Is everybody happy being the user of technology, confident that in the future every technical thing will be as easy to use as their iPhone? Doesn’t anyone want to learn how to program their iPhone? Sigh… I am learning how to program my iPhone. When I think back on my summer school class, I was one of three students out of an eventual graduating class of 750+ that took that course. We were nerds, we remained nerds in high school and I would guess we all have nerdy careers. Maybe it’s only us nerds who are wishing DOS a happy 30th today and lamenting the fact that very few of our neighbors can even make a connection between the IBM PC and the technology they rely upon today. It is today, as it always has been, their loss. Happy Birthday DOS!