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Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

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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I found myself increasingly uncomfortable with the manner in which our students and house staff glossed over critical information in their daily morning case presentations. Patients were described, in a word, as “homeless,” “undomiciled,” “an IVDA,” or “a shooter.” The traditional presentation of the patient’s social history was frequently no more than a recitation of how much the patient smoked and whether the patient used drugs or alcohol and in which form. The most streamlined case presentations boiled this information down to a simple formula, “x pack-years, y bags, and z quarts daily.” I remember vividly the first morning when I interrupted an intern in the middle of his opening sentence, “This is the first hospital admission of this thirty-five-year-old IVDA . . .” I asked, “Would our thinking or care be different if you began your history by telling us that this is a thirty-five-year-old Marine veteran who has been addicted to drugs since he served, with valor, in Vietnam?” There was an embarrassed hush. As I left the ward later that morning, I reflected that the few minutes taken up by my question might have been my most important contribution of the day, possibly more instructive than my comments about pneumocystis pneumonia, arterial oxygen saturation, or respiratory alkalosis. I have continued to insist that patients be “personalized” in case presentations and find that I have been able to integrate details about patients’ perceptions, responses, and needs without sacrificing attention to other aspects of clinical medicine. I am no less rigorous in my analysis of clinical data, nor has my interest in pathophysiology waned. The response of students and house staff reassure me that I have not crossed over to “anecdotes and platitudes.” I have come to believe that the time and place to teach compassion are the time and place in which all of the rest of medicine is taught.

— Jerome Lowenstein, “Can You Teach Compassion?”

A Life in Medicine: A Literary Anthology (p. 26). The New Press. Kindle Edition.

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There is one common justification for the early introduction of technology into school classrooms— that children need to become “computer literate,” as if learning to use computers were somehow as difficult and rewarding as learning to read itself. But this is a massively confused idea. The “computers” used in far too many classrooms in the United States are incredibly easy to use— more and more so as they approach technology’s ultimate promise of easy everywhere. A three-year-old (or a ninety-three-year-old) can intuitively figure out how to use an iPad. There is almost nothing to teach, and certainly nothing that any typical person can’t learn with a few hours of practice.

Now, the actual work of programming computers is indeed a wonderful form of creative literacy, just as beautiful as mathematics or poetry— a worthy use of a lifetime of learning and creating. But that is not what is being taught when third graders are asked to make a PowerPoint presentation or play an “educational game.” Instead, their precious time and prodigious capacity for developing bodily skill is being diverted into thin, superficially rewarding activities far less demanding than creating a real poster with foam core and markers or playing a real game on the playground.

The truth is that our children, just like us, will spend far too much of their lives tethered to glowing rectangles. We owe them, at the very minimum, early years of real, embodied, difficult, rewarding learning, the kind that screens cannot provide. And that is why a family that cares about developing wisdom and courage will exert every effort to avoid the thin simplicity of screens in the first years of life. Our family adopted a simple if radical standard: no screens before double digits. Until our children were ten years old, screens just weren’t a regular part of their lives.

— Andy Crouch, The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place

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Teach them

So you’re a teacher, and your students don’t meet your expectations. They’re not well-informed. They know nothing of Shakespeare. None of them get your sly biblical allusions. They can’t write elegant sentences. When they speak they punctuate every third word with “like.” When they think of God at all, they think of Him as a celestial fairy godfather who’s supposed to ensure that they get what they want in life.

Here’s my advice to you:

Teach them. Nobody promised you that all your students would know everything they need to know — everything that you didn’t know when you were their age. And if at their age you knew things they don’t know, then give thanks to God for your blessings and have pity on those who were not so blessed. Teach them. Take them wherever they are and move them a step or two forward. Stop your ceaseless, pointless whining and do your job. For the love of God, do your freakin’ job and shut the hell up.

Alan Jacobs

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I recently read an article written by a physician encouraging other physicians to be use social media to provide health education for family and friends and to promote helpful, trustworthy sources of medical information.

Physicians often complain to each other about the astounding amount of medical misinformation that their patients are exposed to on the internet. Patients often bring this information to their physicians for their opinion or consideration (or sometimes to generate argument).

I have experienced and understand this frustration. It’s all too easy leave it at this–just another source for frustration. Or perhaps we take it a step further and choose engage the misinformation directly–responding to articles online with objections or counterpoints. Or perhaps we take the position of cultural analyst and wax philosophical on the nature of social media and its impact on patients.

In thinking over this, I was reminded of Andy Crouch’s admonition, “The only way to change culture is to create more of it.”

Yes, we can analyse the social media medial phenomenon. Yes, we can critique it.

But might it be a better to actually create an alternative? What would happen if I used social media proactively to promote medical literacy, to educate patients and friends, to actively provide an alternative to the some of the unhelpful substitutes vying for their attention.

So I recently decided to start a medical Facebook page as a means of posting some thoughts on health and well-being, sharing links to health-related articles and videos, and promoting some helpful medical resources.

If you’re interested, you can check it out here:

https://www.facebook.com/Dr-James-MacMillan-389149004788401/

If you count yourself among those who despise Facebook, or simply don’t use Facebook, I’ll be cross-posting some of my reflections here on Bologna.

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