Don’t Stay in School

The sentence “Don’t Stay in School” is jarring to those of us who grew up with the words “stay in school” being thrown at us from every direction. The campaign isn’t about people leaving school, but questioning school subjects. When was the last time you sat down and thought, why do we learn what we learn in school? I recently watched the video below and asked myself that very question.

Public school, in it’s k-12 format is supposed to teach people how to be citizens in the society they live in. The skills they need to survive as adults should be learned before they become adults. Is that the case in Alberta? From what I remember of my public education, I don’t think it is.

As the video mentions, I don’t remember being taught how to do my taxes. Money and trade is the foundation of our modern economy, and it’s not in the core classes. Lots of people have their lives ruined by predatory lending every year because these people don’t understand compound interest. Essential financial skills for an adult in Canada are:

  • Paying taxes
  • Understanding lending rates
  • How to manage a budget

So lets teach these skills. Lets make sure kids have mastered these skills, not spend an afternoon looking at some slides.

We should be teaching kids skills that they will used everyday, along side the skills that they can use to better their lives.

People are becoming adults today and they believe that vaccines are bad. This shows a tremendous lack of understanding when it comes to scientific literacy and statistics. These people may have memorized facts, but they have no idea what the data behind those facts mean. It an increasingly data driven world, we need people to understand what the data means. For examples of misunderstanding data, google climate change.

What about something as simple as driving? Why isn’t defensive driving taught in school? Even if you are never going to get behind the wheel of a car in your life, you will walk on a sidewalk. Knowing how to drive would keep you safe while interacting with vehicles. There were over 120,000 injuries from motor vehicle accidents in Canada in 2012. There are cars everywhere in our cities, why aren’t we teaching kids how to change a tire and check the oil? Shouldn’t all of our citizens know if the vehicle they drive everyday is safe to do so?

We need to get everyone to a base line where they can interact with the world we live in. We are not doing that. We owe it to our future to teach our children skills they can use to navigate their lives. You can always take advanced courses later in life, but it becomes very difficult to do so with massive debt due to the misunderstanding of how credit cards work.


The kids are alright

Last week I spoke at the Tanbridge Academy about going to Mars and my personal reasons for doing so. I’ve done this talk close to 20 times and I still love doing it every time. I love doing it because I get to see the faces of kids who are hearing it for the first time. There are always a few whose faces light up with excitement, or frown with questions. It’s very rare that they will run out of questions before I run out of time. When I’m coordinating the talks with teachers and other adults, I tell them that I usually talk for 10-15 mins and then answer questions for another 20. It’s the adults that can’t fill 20 minutes of questions, kids want to know it all. The youth of today gives me hope for tomorrow.

At the beginning of the month I was asked to be the closing speaker for a space camp being put on by Connect Charter School and Millarville Community School. The topic I chose was life in the solar system. It was the first time I had talked about this topic, and I was excited to do so. When people ask me if there is life outside of earth, I tell them yes. I spent time explaining myself to these kids, and the reaction was similar; they wanted to know more. It’s the best feeling in the world being able to talk to someone about what you are passionate about, and they always want to hear more. Not only that, but their questions and conversations are usually much better than with adults.

Kids have an amazing ability to learn that we lose as we grow older. We believe there is a “real world” out there and we have to fall in line. Kids live in the same universe that we do, but they see it so much differently. They see possibility and they want to do amazing things. The grown up world should spend more time with kids. Not to teach them how to be grown up, but for the kids to teach us adults how to imagine. If we want a better world, we should encourage our youth to follow their own path instead of telling them what to do. We need creativity, passion and drive more than ever and you find this in elementary school, not graduate school.  We should help them, not tell them. They already have the skills they need, it’s our job to make sure they don’t lose them when the join the “real world”.

Grade 6 Science fail

I’ve been going into classrooms talking to elementary students about Mars One, space and engineering. Grade 6 classes in Alberta study Sky Science, so my talk fits well with their curriculum. I thought it would be a good idea to read up on the curriculum so I could better tailor my talk. When I printed off a study guide, I found it was riddled with errors.

Science!Why are we lacking STEM talent in Canada? Could be that the facts we teach our children aren’t correct. The document was written in 1996, but even then we knew about more than 1011 stars, and where we parked the Hubble. Click the picture for full resolution and read it for yourself. It’s embarrassing at best.

There is one very troubling sentence that appears in the official curriculum. I don’t know what to make of it.

Describe the location and movement of individual stars and groups of stars(constellations) as they move through the night sky

This seems to say that individual stars and the constellations move at different rates. Technically, that’s true, but for a 11 year old observer, all the stars in the sky keep the same orientation. The constellations are not grouped by nature, they are grouped by our imagination. That’s how we discovered the planets, they moved and the stars didn’t. It’s this sort of ambiguous teaching that will confuse students and turn them away from STEM.

Remember the taste map we learned in school? There are places on the tongue for sweet, sour, bitter and salt? That’s not true either. Turns out that hypothesis from 1901 was disproved in 1974 when someone checked the data. No one updated the teaching material; thanks for nothing.

How can we avoid teaching myths as facts?

We have a whole body of academics and professionals in this country. They oversee all sorts of regulatory issues across Canada. Why don’t we get the experts in their respected fields to proof read the material we are teaching children? It’s just so simple, it might work.

Ban Dodgeball?

I just read an article from Slate called “Dodgeball Should Not Be Part of Any Curriculum, Ever” Go and read it. It’s awful. I mean, the writing is well done, sentence structure is proper and all that.. but it’s sound like a fat kid complaining to me. All I could think about while reading is was “I’m bad at sports; they should be banned.” As an adult who loved dodgeball as a kid and plays it as an adult, I take offence.

Calling the class “physical education” was some sort of sick joke. The lesson I was learning about my physical body was that it was useless, inferior, and quite possibly infected with a cootie-like virus. We should have been learning about how complicated and capable our bodies were and how to make them healthier. Instead we were playing dodgeball.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m all for a well rounded education. Teach healthy eating habits, stretching and meditation. Biology knowledge is important for putting your body in the best shape it can be, much like you will be a better driver if you understand how an internal combustion engine works. Sports in school teaches kids they need to bring it to win.

You practiced during the summer and couldn’t compete with the other kids? Well, you should have tried harder. You should have trained better. If you gave it your all and it didn’t workout, move on. We can’t all be super stars in everything we do, but we need bring honest efforts and then choose what we love. K-12 is about trying different things and gaining viewpoints and understanding. The author got hung up on how poorly she was at sports instead of learning how good others could become. She focused on the negative instead of accepting her shortcomings and finding something she was good at and could be proud of. We should add to the education, not remove parts because some kids won’t be good at them. Learning you can’t do something is an important lesson.

I spent a year of high school in Japan, where a component of PE class is Judo. If you think being picked last for a team was hard, try being literally thrown to the ground by the biggest kid in class as part of the curriculum. I didn’t complain, I got better. That’s the key to success in life; some kids learn in in math class, some kids learn it in the gym.

Maybe she has a valid point, but I can’t see it; because all I can hear is elitist complaining that sports should be removed because the other kids were better at them than her. Life isn’t fair, there are winners and losers. It’s a hard lesson to learn.


Life after the Singularity

There are many a nights where I fall asleep thinking of the singularity. It’s been my experience that most people don’t know what it is, so I’ll do my best to explain. Most people have heard of Moore’s Law, the theory that says computers will keep becoming more powerful as time goes on. The idea was introduced in 1965 and has remained true since then. Below is the graph version.

Moore's law

Here’s where the Singularity comes in; the human brain fits somewhere on this graph. At some point in the future, computers will be just as powerful as the human brain. This future point is somewhere around the year 2030. It’s a little later that the Skynet date of August 4, 1997, but this time it’s not a movie. This will happen and it caries real consequences. Take a few minutes and watch this video: Ray Kurzweil Explains the Coming Singularity.

It’s not the even that worries me, it’s how unprepared we are. Joe Public has such a low scientific literacy rate that a two tier class system is fast approaching; a technological sink or swim. Our education system is in no way prepared for this. By the time kids in kindergarten today graduate from college they will be competing directly with computer systems for jobs. This isn’t an exaggeration, it’s already happening. Currently, manufacturing jobs that were typically done by manual labour are being replaced with robots. The singularity makes it possible for computers to have the same effect on the arts, creative writing, inventing, engineering and investment banking. I’m not making this up.

In the next 20 years, computers will be able to mimic what we understand as a fundamental part of being human just as well as they can add numbers now. We can outsource culture to a mainframe in a basement. Again, I’m not making this up; just ask Tupac.

We need to start teaching our children TODAY the skills they will need to survive in this world.

Sugata Mitra has a good idea how to accomplish this. I’ll let him to the talking.

If children have interest, then education happens.

We need to take it a step further. As he demonstrated, teachers do not need to be experts in a certain field to teach that field. The internet is a great resource, but lets have the real experts teach and the teachers moderate. Bring in an artist to talk about perspective. Let a  civil engineer show them why they are learning how to calculate areas and volumes. I know there are bird watching groups, garden enthusiasts and hobby naturalists that would love a chance to share what they do to groups of kids.

Bringing in guest speakers once a month and letting the kids be involved in their learning will change the world. This will teach them how to be independent and critical thinkers. They will learn what is possible today and start reaching for tomorrow. Without these skills they won’t stand a chance.

The Student Economy

There has been a lot of noise in the media recently about the student protest in Quebec. Rightly so; it’s an important issue that should get media coverage. However is seems the coverage is mostly biased against the students. Some people believe that the students should get in line and join the real world. I don’t know how marching in the streets, exercising your right to protest and upholding your values is not part of the real world. This sort of action can mean death in parts of the world; that seem quite real to me. The point about the “real world” is an economic one.

According to a devastating story by The Associated Press last week, more than 50 per cent of recent university graduates in the United States are either unemployed or working in jobs that don’t require bachelor’s degrees. They’re more likely to work as “waiters, waitresses, bartenders and food-service helpers than as engineers, physicists, chemists and mathematicians combined.”

Because these students won’t contribute as many points to the GDP as an engineer would they are some how less? Maybe they are doing what we’ve always been told to do, follow our dreams and do what makes us happy. These students could be making lattes by day and applying their degrees by night doing what ever it is they enjoy doing. By measuring their success by their ability to buy and consume; you are turning these students into commodities.  People are not commodities to be counted, rank and file, and judged.

Currently the only way we have to measure value is in dollars. Using this rational these students should pay their fair share in return for the dollars spent. There should be a measurable return on the investment, correct? This doesn’t take into account the person. If they grow up to be baristas, so what? Who are we to tell them how to live? What if they become excellent friends, fathers, aunts, coworkers, role models and citizens? If we are measuring a persons worth on their income tax, we’ve literally lost our humanity.

Yes, the students pay less for education than the rest of the country. So what? They want to keep it that way. They want to maintain their quality of life. Why would the other provinces be upset by that? The only reason I can think of it jealousy. They have it good, we wish we had it good, we want them to have it not so good so we can feel better about ourselves. This abysmal stance on leveling the playing field damages us all. This pandering to the lowest common denominator is not the way I want my country run. I want to live in a place where I’m more than just a potential economic device to be used. I don’t want other people to have to pay more if I pay more. It’s the rest of the country that should be upset that we pay so much more then Quebec.

We had to work a part time job and the next 10 years paying down our student debt, so they should too. That’s the argument? They have something good and we don’t, so they shouldn’t have something good either? I hope you can see the childish undertone to this argument. Yes, there are real financial issues surrounding the feasibility of keeping the cost of education low. Lets talk about that instead of slandering the students.