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Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

The basic idea of tacit knowledge is that we know more than we can say, and certainly more than we can specify in a formulaic way. Intuitive judgments of complex systems, especially those made by experts, such as an experienced firefighter, are sometimes richer than can be captured by any set of algorithms.

The psychologist Gary Klein has studied the decision making of firefighters and other experts who perform complex tasks in the real world. “In many dynamic, uncertain, and fast-paced environments, there is no single right way to make decisions,” Klein says. “Experts learn to perceive things that are invisible to novices, such as the characteristics of a typical situation.”

The experienced mind can get good at integrating an extraordinarily large number of variables and detecting a coherent pattern. It is the pattern that is attended to, not the individual variables. Our ability to make good judgments is holistic in character, and arises from repeated confrontations with real things: comprehensive entities that are grasped all at once, in a manner that may be incapable of explicit articulation. This tacit dimension of knowledge puts limits on the reduction of jobs to rule following. It is not just the firefighters intervention that is inherently in situ (as the economist Alan Blinder would point out). His knowledge, too, arises in particular places: places where there are fires.

Algorithms can be made to simulate the kind of tacit knowledge that experts possess, as when IBM’s Deep Blue succeeded in playing chess at the highest level in 1997. Through brute computation of every possible move that adheres to the rules of chess (200 million board positions per second), the program was able to pick winning moves. To constrain the problem, the programmers made it their goal to beat one man in particular, Gary Kasparov, the reigning champion. Knowing his preferred opening moves and strategies made the problem tractable. But in beating Kasparov at his own game, Deep Blue was doing something very different than what a human chess player does. This is illustrated by an experiment in which an international chess master played speed chess with a limit of five seconds per move while also doing mental arithmetic. The arithmetic tied up his working memory and capacity for explicit analysis, yet he was still able to “more than hold his own” against “a slightly weaker, but master-level player.” Clearly, human chess players are doing something other than applying the rules of chess and comparing downstream board configurations along different decision trees, like a computer.

There is further evidence to suggest that what an expert human chess player does do is recognize patterns, like a firefighter. In a famous experiment, chess players of varying levels of competence viewed chess boards projected on a screen for a few seconds each. They then had to reproduce the configuration of pieces they had seen. When the projected configurations were ones that actually occur in the game of chess, grandmasters were able to correctly reproduce the positions of twenty to twenty-five pieces, very good players about fifteen pieces, and beginners five or six. But when the pictures flashed before them showed random configurations of pieces, not corresponding to patterns they would have actually come across in playing chess, then there was no difference in the players’ ability to reproduce the positions from memory; players of all levels were able to reproduce the positions of only five or six pieces. The expert is expert not because he has a better memory in general, but because the patterns of chess are the patterns of his experience.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

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Florida’s contribution is to update our view of these mini-Einsteins by taking a pop-existentialist view of their “creativity.” It is a view that is familiar to most of us from kindergarten: creativity is a mysterious capacity that lies in each of us and merely needs to be “unleashed” (think finger painting). Creativity is what happens when people are liberated from the constraints of conventionality. According to this hippie theory, the personal grooming habits of Albert Einstein are highly significant–how else does one identify a “bizarre maverick operating at the bohemian fringe”? The truth, of course, is that creativity is a by-product of mastery of the sort that is cultivated through long practice. It seems to be built up through submission (think a musician practicing scales, or Einstein learning tensor algebra). Identifying creativity with freedom harmonizes quite well with the culture of the new capitalism, in which the imperative of flexibility precludes dwelling in any task long enough to develop real competence. Such competence is the condition not only for genuine creativity but for economic independence such as the tradesman enjoys. So the liberationist ethic of what is sometimes called “the 1968 generation” perhaps paved the way for our increasing dependence. We’re primed to respond to any invocation of the aesthetics of individuality. The rhetoric of freedom pleases our ears. The simulacrum of independent thought and action that goes by the name of “creativity” trips easily off the tongues of spokespeople for the corporate counterculture, and if we’re not paying attention such usage might influence our career plans. The Tterm invokes are powerful tendency to narcissism, and in doing so greases the skids into work that is not what we had hoped.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

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Of the Smith-Hughes Act’s two rationales for shop class, vocational and general ed, only the latter emphasized the learning of aesthetic, mathematical, and physical principles through the manipulation of material things. It is not surprising, then, that the act came four years after Henry Ford’s innovation of the assembly line. The nascent two-track educational scheme mirrored the assembly lines severing of the cognitive aspects of manual work from its physical execution. Such a partition of thinking from doing has bequeathed us the dichotomy of white collar versus blue collar, corresponding to mental versus manual.

These seem to be the categories that inform the educational landscape even now, and this entails two big errors. First, it assumes that all blue-collar work is as mindless as assembly line work, and second, that white-collar work is still recognizably mental in character. Yet there is evidence to suggest that the new frontier of capitalism lies in doing to office work what was previously done to factory work: draining it of its cognitive elements. Paradoxically, educators who would steer students toward cognitively rich work might do this best by rehabilitating the manual trades, based on a firmer grasp of what such work is really like.

This would take courage. Any high school principal who doesn’t claim as his goal “one hundred percent college attendance” is likely to be accused of harboring “low expectations” and run out of town by indignant parents. This indignation is hard to stand against, since it carries all the moral weight of egalitarianism. Yet it is also snobbish, since it evidently regards the trades as something “low.” The best sort of democratic education is neither snobbish nor egalitarian. Rather, it accords a place of honor in our common life to whatever is best. At this weird moment of growing passivity and dependence, let us publicly recognize a yeoman aristocracy: those who gain real knowledge of real things, the sort we all depend on every day.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

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Today, in our schools, the manual trades are given little honor. The egalitarian worry that has always attended tracking students into “college prep” and “vocational ed” is overlaid with another: the fear that acquiring a specific skill set means that one’s life is determined. In college, by contrast, many students don’t learn anything of particular application; college is the ticket to an open future. Craftsmanship entails learning to do one thing really well, while the ideal of the new economy is to be able to learn new things, celebrating potential rather than achievement. Somehow, every worker in the cutting-edge work-place is now supposed to act like an “intrapreneur,” that is, to be actively involved in the continuous redefinition of his own job. Shop class presents an image of stasis that runs directly counter to what Sennett identifies as “a key element in the new economy’s idealized self: the capacity to surrender, to give up possession of an established reality.” This stance toward “established reality”, which can only be called psychedelic, is best not indulged around a table saw. It is dissatisfied with what Arendt calls the “reality and reliability” of the world. It is a strange sort of ideal, attractive only to a peculiar sort of self—insecurity about the basic character of the world is no fun for most people.

As Sennett argues, most people take pride in being good at something specific, which happens through the accumulation of experience. Yet the flitting disposition is pressed upon workers from above by the current generation of management revolutionaries, for whom the ethic of craftsmanship is actually something to be rooted out from the workforce. Craftsmanship means dwelling on a task for a long time and going deeply into it, because you want to get it right. In managementspeak, this is called being “ingrown.” The preferred role model is the management consultant, who swoops in and out and whose very pride lies in his lack of particular expertise. Like the ideal consumer, the management consultant presents an image of soaring freedom, in light of which the manual trades appear cramped and paltry: the plumber with his butt crack, peering under the sink.

— Matthew Crawford, Shopclass as Soulcraft

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A meta-subject

I regard history as the single most important idea for our youth to take with them into the future. I call it an idea rather than a subject because every subject has a history, and its history is an integral part of the subject. History, we might say, is a meta-subject. No one can claim adequate knowledge of a subject unless one knows how such knowledge came to be. I would, of course, favor “history” courses (let us say, in American history), although I have always thought such courses ought to be called “histories” so that our youth would understand that what once happened has been seen from different points of view, by different people, each with a different story to tell.

— Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

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Some argue that the schools have neither the time nor the obligation to take notice of every discarded or disreputable scientific theory. “If we carried your logic through,” a science professor once said to me, “we would be teaching post-Copernican astronomy alongside Ptolemaic astronomy.” Exactly. And for two good reasons. The first was succinctly expressed in an essay George Orwell wrote about George Bernard Shaw’s remark that we are more gullible and superstitious today than people were in the Middle Ages. Shaw offered as an example of modern credulity the widespread belief that the Earth is round. The average man, Shaw said, cannot advance a single reason for believing this. (This, of course, was before we were able to take pictures of the Earth from space.) Orwell took Shaw’s remark to heart and examined carefully his own reasons for believing the world to be round. He concluded that Shaw was right: that most of his scientific beliefs rested solely on the authority of scientists. In other words, most students have no idea why Copernicus is to be preferred over Ptolemy. If they know of Ptolemy at all, they know that he was “wrong” and Copernicus was “right,” but only because their teacher or textbook says so. This way of believing is what scientists regard as dogmatic and authoritarian. It is the exact opposite of scientific belief. Real science education would ask students to consider with an open mind the Ptolemaic and Copernican world-views, array the arguments for and against each, and then explain why they think one is to be preferred over the other.

A second reason to support this approach is that science, like any other subject, is distorted if it is not taught from a historical perspective. Ptolemaic astronomy may be a refuted scientific theory but, for that very reason, it is useful in helping students to see that knowledge is a quest, not a commodity; that what we think we know comes out of what we once thought we knew; and that what we will know in the future may make hash of what we now believe.

Of course, this is not to say that every new or resurrected explanation for the ways of the world should be given serious attention in our schools. Teachers, as always, need to choose—in this case by asking which theories are most valuable in helping students to clarify the bases of their beliefs. Ptolemaic theory, it seems to me, is excellent for this purpose. And so is creation science. It makes claims on the minds and emotions of many people; its dominion has lasted for centuries and is thus of great historical interest; and in its modern incarnation, it makes an explicit claim to the status of science.

— Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

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For thirty-five years, I have tried to discover why question-asking is not considered a core subject in school. None of the answers I have considered seem adequate, among them, intellectual innocence among teachers, the failure of anyone to devise a test to measure competence in this skill, the fact that teachers themselves did not study the subject in school, and the fact that school is traditionally considered a place for students to learn answers, not the questions which evoke the answers. It is possible that teachers and school administrators know intuitively that serious work in the art and science of question-asking is politically explosive, and therefore give it a wide berth. What will happen if a student, studying history, asks, “Whose history is this?” What will happen if a student, having been given a definition (of anything) asks, “Who made up this definition? Are there other ways to define this thing?” What will happen if a student, being given a set of facts, asks, “What is a fact? How is it different from an opinion? And who is the judge?” What happens, of course, is that students not only learn “history,” “definitions,” and “facts” (which Bloom and Hirsch want them to learn) but also learn where these things come from and why (which Bloom and Hirsch don’t care about). Such learning is at the heart of reasoning and its product, skepticism. Do we dare do such a thing? Have you heard anyone talk about this? The president, the secretary of education, a school superintendent? They want our students to be answer-givers, not question-askers. They want students to be believers, not skeptics. They want to measure the quantity of answers, not the quality of questions (which, in any case, is probably not measurable). Those who think otherwise, who think an active, courageous, and skillful question-asker is precisely what a “proper education” should produce, can take comfort and inspiration from Voltaire, Hume, Franklin, Priestley, and Jefferson. Surely they would applaud the effort.

— Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

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