Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Uneducational Crisis Pt. 3: Approach

Most of the things I wrote in the previous two posts can be disputed with counter-examples: not every professor is a Prima Donna; not all things they teach you at the university are irrelevant; there are great places where smart and likable people teach you good stuff; everything else is just "bad luck" and you "have to take the good with the bad". Let me tell you what I think about that:

I don't buy it.

There's a big problem with education as a system in general, not just in the CS field. And that problem involves the relevance of what we learn, from kindergarten to university. How many things did you learn in the ground school that you have completely forgotten? Let's face it, as a society we are doing a shoddy work of teaching our kids.

Why is education so bad? There is probably a variety of factors that enter the whole equation, but I think there are only two of major importance. One of them is the fact that teaching is not the number one motivation behind the existence of schools. Paul Graham has put it succinctly in his essay "Why Nerds are Unpopular":
Teenagers now are useless, except as cheap labor in industries like fast food, which evolved to exploit precisely this fact. In almost any other kind of work, they'd be a net loss. But they're also too young to be left unsupervised. Someone has to watch over them, and the most efficient way to do this is to collect them together in one place. Then a few adults can watch all of them.
The other major factor is that the basic approach to teaching is wrong. And that's what I want to explain here, so let's delve into it.

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

Whenever someone asks me how I came to be so obsessed with computers and programming, I tell them to blame my dad. No, he didn't teach me how to code, nor did he teach me anything important about the computers beyond turning them on and off and washing my hands before touching the keyboard. In fact, he can't code to save his life, which is perfectly fine, because he's a writer. What he did do, though, is much more important: he introduced me to computers.

How did he know I would like computers? That's the whole point: he didn't. When I was 5 or 6 years old -- I don't remember clearly anymore -- he started showing me the basics of photography. I found it entertaining, but I didn't take it too seriously. Then he tried with cinematography and the results were more or less the same. But then he showed me a computer and since that first look I am completely and totally fascinated with computers and the programs they run.

Why am I telling you this? Because I think I was extremely lucky. From that moment on, I knew what I wanted to be when I grow up; I had an interest that didn't pass and fade and I always had a new goal to achieve and a new way to improve myself.

I do know a few other people who have a passion in their life. I also know many more who never discovered anything they really like and lead largely disoriented lives. It sounds harsh, but it's true: having a spouse and kids cannot replace the feeling of having your own dreams. You can share your dreams with your family and complement one with the other, but in the end they are not interchangeable.

Nosce Te Ipsum

Here's the interesting part: I think everyone can and should have the chance to discover what they like. That's one of the most important things in our personal development and we usually don't have much help with it.

That's why most of the stuff they teach us at school is useless and irrelevant. How do you know something is relevant? You don't. You have to discover it. It's not something you can be taught, it's something you have to find out yourself. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't have help.

Educational institutions are ostensibly there to impart knowledge we will need in order to be useful and productive members of the society. But we don't know where and how we fit into that society. And the society doesn't know it either, so they just try to pour all sorts of stuff on our developing minds, hoping that after a while we'll get an idea where to head and how to specialize.

Optimism is good, but that's not optimistic: it's plain ridiculous. Imagine you had to pick what kind of food you want for your wedding party and the way to choose is to first learn by heart the recipes for a whole lot of different dishes and then use that to decide.

Yes, you will have an idea what each dish tastes like and yes, you might even make a dish or two to check out the taste. You might even get lucky and choose well. But if you made a mistake, there's no turning back: your wedding party will have food you don't like and that's it. You might get married again later and have another wedding party, but this one is gone for good. And the food sucked.

Of course, in real life you can get help from dedicated experts who specialize in that sort of stuff.
Imagine if you could get help with discovering your own talents and interests. Imagine if you could get that kind of help from people who specialize in it. Wouldn't life be a whole lot nicer?

Rat Races

Instead of that, what do we have now? We have to assimilate a considerable quantity of knowledge in a fixed time period, at the end of which our performance is rated and, if it is found satisfactory we can proceed to the next period and the next batch of knowledge.

There's a name you can slap on that description: competition. Our educational paradigm is based on competition and that makes it not merely misguided, but downright harmful. Instead of helping to find what our kids can do well, we force them to become "good enough" at doing a bit of everything. Worse, after passing through our educational maze, the kids are still not really good at doing anything of real worth.

Consider the most notable effect of our educational model: cheating. I really like how Wikipedia hit the nail on the head in their article:
A common venue for cheating is in education settings, where it takes a number of forms.
Of course it does. If you're competing for something that could bring you a gain you can clearly perceive, you might be tempted to cheat. But if you're forced to compete at something that you don't even perceive as lucrative (and nobody else really believes it either), you won't be tempted to cheat, you will consider it a natural option.

I'm not against the competition in education. Competition can be good, because it fosters a drive towards self-improvement. But you have to want to compete. And that happens either when you're competing at something you like or for something you perceive as lucrative.

Silver Bullet?

Of course, the solution is certainly a lot harder to implement than to propose. And I didn't even propose a complete solution, I just gave an idea. And I'm probably not the first to have it or even to voice it. And it certainly wouldn't solve all the problems and cure all the diseases and stop all the wars.

But don't you think it would be nice to try it?