Sunday, December 23, 2018

Education... what will it even look like in the future?

Where I live the large state university has been striving, for at least 2+ decades, to formulate a 50-year plan to add on 100’s of acres of property/buildings, at millions of dollars of expense, not to mention the town infrastructure cost for roads, utilities, parking etc. to support such expansion. But 50+ years from now will that expansion even be needed, or might the University be able to fulfill its needs on half the property it currently sits on!? I wonder. Education is changing. Perhaps few enrolled students will even be on a physical campus 50+ years from now. Who can accurately foresee the societal changes of the next century? Perhaps a time is even approaching when we will simply pop a pill or implant a brain electrode or do some sort of genetic manipulation, in order to impart knowledge in certain fields. Humans tend to under-estimate the rate of change. In short, are brick-and-mortar universities as doomed as brick-and-mortar businesses appear to be?….

Recently, I was stuck indoors for a week due to a freakish snowfall in our state (…just perhaps something to do with 'global climate change'… a term our Republican state legislators/censors barely permit us to use). Anyway, that means I was surfing the internet even more than usual, and was wondrously entertained by the incredible creativity of my fellow surfers! Am always impressed by the fun, witty, entertaining memes, comments, gifs, etc. that saturate the Web. Sure, there’s LOTS of trolling and junk and idiocy, but still an amazing amount of keen wit, one-upsmanship, and cleverness.

My point is that, on the bright side, and despite its many ills, the internet has unleashed a free-for-all torrent of human cerebral creativity as never before witnessed in human history… on an hourly, indeed minute-by-minute, basis. People who in earlier days had to work through an agent or employer or other “gatekeeper” to attain the slimmest hope of any fame, can now post something on YouTube (or elsewhere) and gain overnight notoriety, completely skipping the middleman and a whole bunch of time. Even average-Joes, with one good idea and computer access, have a real shot at sudden stardom, or at least '15 minutes of fame.'
People surfing the internet are immersed in this ocean of creativity, whether they themselves contribute to it or not. I can’t help but believe that younger generations growing up so-immersed will, without much effort, become the most creative, quick-thinking adults the planet has ever seen. Capitalism has long been touted for unleashing human creativity, but that is in pursuit of money. The internet is simply a wild-west of inventiveness, largely in pursuit of fun and immediate feedback. 

What’s a little harder to explain is why education doesn’t work in a similar fashion. For years now the promise of digital education has struggled. The numbers of individuals who sign up for internet classes, MOOCs, online colleges, etc. far outweighs those who successfully complete such programs. The dropout rate is high. The internet spreads the possibility of (and access to) education far-and-wide, but hasn’t yet produced the widespread results hoped for. Will there ever be a future where math PhD.s (or high school diplomas for that matter) result from watching courses in 3blue1brown/Mathologer/Numberphile style videos? — will classroom teachers as such even be needed in the future, or just tutors, TAs and the like to assist students in their online efforts?  On the one hand, certain “social” elements of learning seem necessary (not just sitting alone at one’s desk watching videos), and many online learning resources are incorporating more (but limited) social aspects to their offerings. On-the-other-hand, perhaps younger generations, increasingly accustomed to living in the virtual reality of online life, will one day be easily educated with little social context required (maybe even bored by social interactions humans traditionally relished). So again I ponder, is brick-and-mortar education doomed?….

As I was writing the above Jim Propp put up a short essay touching on education as well, including one of his pet peeves (often expressed by others too) that somehow it’s OK, even a badge of honor, to say one is no good at math or hates math, but not typical to hold such an attitude toward other subjects. First, I don’t think that’s entirely true: all my life I’ve told people 'I’m no good at art, can’t even draw a straight line, and if you ask me to draw a human being, it will be a stick figure' (it’s all hyperbole for the fact that I am lousy at art while my best friend growing up showed an innate talent for it). Still, I get Jim’s concern. BUT I worry over the opposite approach, saying ANYone can learn math, or be good at it, if only it is presented the right way -- I no more believe that than I believe I could’ve played center for the LA Lakers or been a concert pianist, if only I’d practiced enough or had the right teacher. Peoples’ difficulties with abstraction are deep-seated and vary widely across individuals. Even for something complex that we all learn, like language, the end-level ability/proficiency spreads over a wide spectrum. If someone says, "I hated reading Shakespeare, it was soooo boring," I suspect we let it slide, realizing that Shakespeare may not be relevant to their current world, but someone struggling with math or language is struggling with something seen as more foundational.

I’ve always been fond of Paul Lockhart’s uncommon honesty in his book “Measurement.” He openly admits that math IS hard:
But I won't lie to you: this is going to be very hard work. Mathematical reality is an infinite jungle full of enchanting mysteries, but the jungle does not give up its secrets easily. Be prepared to struggle, both intellectually and creatively. The truth is, I don't know of any human activity as demanding of one's imagination, intuition, and ingenuity. But I do it anyway. I do it because I love it and I can't help it. Once you've been to the jungle, you can never really leave. It haunts your waking dreams. …expect it to be slow going. I have no desire to baby you or to protect you from the truth, and I'm not going to apologize for how hard it is. Let it take hours or even days for a new idea to sink in -- it may have originally taken centuries!.”
There ought be no shame in fearing or being poor at math (though it ought not be a point of pride either).

On the flip side from Dr. Propp, I’m deeply annoyed by books with titles like “You Too Can Be a Whiz at Math,” or “Learn Calculus the Easy Way,” that serve only to further demean or stigmatize students who peruse them but remain flummoxed and thus made to feel like failures (’they say this is easy, but I just don’t get it’). I've mentioned before knowing people who can readily answer "5 apples" if you ask them 'what are 2 apples plus 3 apples?' but who are momentarily stymied or confused if asked 'what is 2x plus 3x?' -- even that level of abstraction is difficult to register.

The resources for math education today are better than ever in history, but they won’t be suitable or effective for all students. In the end we should all be proud of whatever talents we DO bring to the table, not proud of those talents we are lacking.

I’m just painting with a broad brush here and musing about the future, but if you’re interested in more nitty-gritty current discussion of learning/education check out these two thoughtful posts from the month:

A physicist’s lament:

Tim Gowers reviewing a book from teacher Craig Barton:

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