Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Can we learn from the Master, Leonardo da Vinci, when it comes to Education?

Can we still learn from one of the great minds in the history of the western world?  I am referring to Leonardo da Vinci.   While not a great deal is known about da Vinci’s early life, he likely did not have much of a formal education.  He was not university-bound, was not well-versed in the classics, Latin, and other subjects, and throughout his life he was largely self-taught.  Along with this, he also made sure to put himself in situations where he would meet other intellects of the fifteenth century so he could learn and collaborate with them.  One of the most important lessons to learn from da Vinci’s approach to and thoughts on education is his mantra, Learn by Experience.  To get a feel for how da Vinci approached life and learning, I recommend Da Vinci’sGhost by Toby Lester.

Da Vinci fumed at inaccuracies and blatant mistakes that existed in some of the textbooks of the day, where scholars simply believed what was written down.  Why would these ‘scholars’ never question accepted ideas and principles?  A good example of this might be how the Aristotelian, intuitive conclusion that heavy objects should fall faster than lighter objects was truth, simply because it made sense to the mind.  For many centuries people simply accepted this, and not long after da Vinci, Galileo finally actually did the experiment to disprove this long-held conclusion.  I often wonder if da Vinci ever did this on his own, but never published it.

Leonardo took a different path, one that in modern edu-speak could be called ‘active learning’ or ‘engagement in the learning process.’  He observed Nature, did experiments, built models, sketched scenes, did dissections of animals and humans (to learn about anatomy), studied architectural designs both for artistic features as well as from an engineering perspective, collaborated with other experts in the fields he was studying, kept prolific journals with all his thoughts and ideas and re-read them to keep the ideas fresh, and never stopped asking endless questions about seemingly everything around him.  Granted, some might say that the pace he thought about everything, and the fact that he could think about any subject at any time, was superhuman, and obviously this is one of the near unique minds in human history and we can never expect us or our students to have this level of non-stop curiosity and drive to learn, we can and must learn from da Vinci’s approach and attitude to learning.   Learn by experience.

This approach was certainly picked up half a millennium later, in the 1930s, by John Dewey.  Dewey was perhaps the most influential educator/philosopher of education in the United States during the twentieth century.  In his published essay, “Experience andEducation,” Dewey argues that traditional classes and traditional teaching (i.e. lecturing with the intent that students are sponges for information and will simply learn from a babbling teacher) must be replaced by an evolving active learning process.  This is the progressive education approach in Dewey’s language of 1938.  As we presently debate what is best for the 21st century student, teacher and classroom, could it be that we finally listen to and accept what da Vinci practiced five hundred years ago?   I hope so.

Dewey writes that ‘traditional’ education, where all students move together through classes at the same pace and the teacher and textbooks provide the information students must study, produces an attitude in students of “docility, receptivity and obedience.”  The subject matter and rules and standards of conduct are simply passed down from generation to generation, as education prepares students for success in life.  The curriculum is not challenged from year to year.  There is not necessarily any logic behind the order things are studied, and subjects are disconnected from each other, meaning kids are going from math class to science class to English to social studies, and they learn about topics with no relationship between the topics.  Math topics are done in their order, with no consideration of how those topics may be related and applied in science, and reading strategies and vocabulary in a reading class are not at all related to vocabulary and the readings being used in social studies, etc.

Does this sound familiar to you as you think back to your own education experience?  It certainly does for me!

Dewey’s vision of what he called progressive education paints a different picture.  Education should provide a means to cultivate individuality. It should allow for some free activity, which will get students involved with their learning, rather than just sit and absorb information from teachers and textbooks.  Students must be able to learn through experience (ah, da Vinci!).  Present issues and topics in life should be included in curriculum, and not just the ‘classics’ that have always been studied and may have no relevance any more for students – so the curriculum must be changing as the times change.  Education must teach children how to think and solve problems of any kind.  To be good at this, part of the process must show how different subjects are related, to provide students with a broad arsenal to attack problems. 

This is a very different way of teaching and learning than the traditional way of education.

Activity over boredom.  Relevance over tradition.  Problem solving and direct experience over memorization.  Experimentation over drill and kill.  Synthesis and analysis over prescribed solutions.  Differentiation over one size fits all.  Trial and error over cookbook, fill-in-the-blank activities (such as labs).  Current events and issues over same old problems in old textbooks.  Application to the real world over classical, ideal problems if there is no relevance for the modern student.  Multi- and interdisciplinary lessons over isolated topics.  Variety over singularity.

Education is the means to individual growth in Dewey’s progressive model, so students have developed the habits of mind, knowledge base, and skills necessary to handle a dynamic world, rather than study the same old things that assume the world is static

It is my experience that there is still a good majority of teachers who are teaching the way they were taught, which is much more the traditional way.  This is in part a product of the No Child Left Behind law, whose very foundation is the factory line version of cookie-cutter education.  All students must learn at the same pace, learn the same material, and pass the same tests.  It emphasizes the very one size fits all model that da Vinci would scream at and Dewey is dismissing.  And any hope of expanding a progressive model in education has been thoroughly thwarted by national policy.  It is the epitome of teach to the test that we presently have, and is completely counterproductive to 21st century skills, with creativity at the top of the list, our young people need to be productive and successful in the fastest changing world we have had in human history. 

We simply MUST learn from the master, one Leonardo da Vinci, and allow kids to have guided exploration of the world on their own, and give them a chance to experience topics relevant to their world, and not the past, rather than rely on the spoon-feeding of information, as if our children are intellectual infants for the first 18 years of life.  

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Why are we expecting miracles for getting out of this economic 'downturn?'

We have been in a serious economic recession/depression since about 2007, when rising unemployment, home foreclosures, and a near banking collapse began to show their teeth.  And the U.S. obviously was not alone, as this has been a global disaster.  There is no way around the fact that, with globalization of markets and deep interdependencies between various national economies, when one country suffers, it is conceivable that the ripple effect through this complex system results in global consequences - when one of those countries is the U.S., or if it is the European Union, then it will more quickly result in a global disaster.

And now we are in the midst of a U.S. election campaign season.  Our leaders and wanna-be leaders are out there telling us that they have 'The Plan' to quickly get us out of this financial mess.  Oh, it is so tempting to believe them.  For those who have been out of work or taken pay cuts over the past four or five years, this is music to the ear.  But the trouble is, history certainly does not support these claims.  I think the American public is rightly wary of anyone stepping up to the microphone saying it will be essentially 'easy' to get out of this mess.

The Great Depression began more or less in 1929.  This is the only period in modern history with a worse economic meltdown than what we have seen presently.  That lasted at least a full decade, and the main engine for getting us out of that period was a world war, that forced millions of people back into work either in the military or in factories to get our war machine in place.  We will never know how long, absent WWII, the depression would have lasted otherwise, if all we had in place were political 'economic recovery' plans or policies.  I suspect it could have lasted another decade.  Another financial collapse of significant magnitude happened in the 1980s, when Japan was on the rise and many thought it could surpass the U.S. as the major economic power.  They still have not fully recovered, and this is well into its second decade for Japan.  Obviously there are large differences between Japan and the U.S., and different economies and interests, but the point is major collapses tend to not be solved or see good recoveries in just a couple years.

I am no historian, I am no economist, so I will not be able to cite theories or provide many other examples supporting this thought without doing some research.  But I am fairly confident in stating that the politicians are blowing smoke.  I think they understand this.  Rather than stepping up and being honest with us (to his credit, President Obama has repeatedly told us this is not going to be fixed overnight, which is not a politically smart thing to say), they continue to try and win votes with the development of fantasy sales pitches about how they are the economic savior.

The thing to think about is how did this happen.  There are so many contributions, but the well-known major contributors include government fiscal mismanagement (two unpaid wars, historic tax cuts and loss of revenue, increased spending, health care costs rising well above inflation and higher entitlement costs, etc.), pure greed in a highly unregulated banking system (through increased DEregulation during the 1990s and through the Bush administration), which allowed millions of careless loans and financing of businesses and mortgages to be made, where the lendees could not possibly afford the loans over the long term.  We were in a period where we, the American citizen, was spending more on credit than we were ever attempting to save.  Personal bankruptcies were beginning to explode, and record per capita debt developed.  As bad as credit card debt is, our college graduates are coming out with even higher college debt.  This by itself, along with a very difficult job market for graduates, is a long-term issue some are finally talking about - we have set up the next generation for long-term financial problems.  And this in a group that historically spends a lot of money that the U.S. economy depends on. This is why Obama has made such a big deal about keeping college loan rates low, which nearly doubled due to some in Congress that were threatening to double the rate.  And another stress on the economy for the past two or three decades: the average American worker's wages have been flat when adjusted for inflation.  By the way, the upper couple percent of American's wages have went up a few hundred percent...and they get the largest financial support through tax policy and loopholes.

Our economy depends on consumer spending.  About 2/3 of the economy is through consumers buying stuff.    It is a fair statement to say that we cannot see much improvement unless there is more spending, which requires people to have jobs that do not just have flat wages over time.  The middle class drives the economy.  When the middle class cannot spend, we have trouble.  The wealthy are not making up the difference, even though many have been taken care of quite nicely throughout this crisis.  Spending must come from somewhere - the government is the only entity capable of such spending.  This was the logic behind the 'Obama stimulus.'  It probably prevented an official depression, as it helped keep another million or more people from losing their jobs.  I don't agree that it was a complete waste of money as the right suggests.  It leads to higher deficits, absolutely.  But in the short term the government spending is one of the few things preventing things from getting even worse.

The rest of the world is not doing well, either, which means any U.S. recovery is affected and slowed down. Even China and India have seen substantial slowing of their economic growth the past two decades.  China cannot maintain double-digit growth forever.  And of course Europe is an absolute mess right now.  None of these circumstances suggest it is possible for the U.S, to have a speedy recovery as the politicians suggest and want us to believe.

Do we try a balanced approach to get our economy moving?  Some spending cuts and some revenue?  Don't go too far in either direction, but have a balanced attack and diverse recovery portfolio?  Or do we cut taxes more for the wealthy, and go solely with spending cuts?  With the middle class suffering, and likely will suffer a bit more since spending cuts will affect everything from being able to buy food (some want cuts to food stamps) or afford college loans or lose unemployment support or lose health insurance (some want to simply repeal the ACA)...average Americans will not be able to spend more if all we have are reductions in government spending, in fact many will need to spend even less!  This is not an economic recovery since it depends most on consumer spending!

This is going to last quite a bit longer.  Regardless of who is President.  But I personally believe the approach Obama wants to take makes more sense than what Romney is suggesting (I would like him to state three things about his plan that are not part of the Bush plan that was largely responsible for the collapse).  We will see what happens with the election, but for the sake of the country the refusal of the parties to work with each other has been disgusting and detrimental to the prospects of reducing the time it will take to get some relief for Americans and the world.  It has only been five years, and history tells us to expect a number of years to come....we cannot afford to wait for political games to play themselves out.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Have the Higgs!

Fermilab announced yesterday that they have evidence for the Higgs boson, and CERN is now announcing more convincing evidence for this particle.  The Standard Model, the theory explaining our understanding of the fundamental particles and three of the forces of Nature (with the exception of gravity), predicts a field that is responsible for the mass of other particles.  This is the Higgs field, which is 'carried' by a Higgs particle, which is the essence of modern quantum mechanics.  This is a major confirmation of our understanding of Nature, which has been ongoing for decades since the prediction of the particle.  Check out the video below.