Friday, December 2, 2016

How Intelligent People Solve Unsolvable Problems

A friend shared a really interesting post with me few days ago. I'm not going to waste space here repeating everything that the post said, because it's much better if you go and read it for yourself.  It was especially interesting to me, not because it talks a lot about Richard Feynman, although that is reason enough in and of itself. The reason that this article piqued my interest so much is because it goes on to talk about mental models.  For those that don't know what mental models are, I'll clip a small excerpt for the article, although there are many others to be found on the Internet.
Put simply, mental models are the set of tools that you use to think. Each mental model offers a different framework that you can use to look at life (or at an individual problem).
This is the same method that folks like Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway, and Elon Musk use.  Although Elon Musk has sometimes been referred to as an "expert generalist", it essentially equates to the same thing.  Whereby if a person is taught how to think creatively and critically and is extremely well read across many different subjects and disciplines, they are able to creatively make mental links, and potentially solve problems in a novel way, that create breakthrough moments.  These people aren't necessarily savants or anything like that, they've simply laid the foundations, with the right raw materials and honed the ability to make abstract connections with what if questions.

There have been several articles that discuss how Elon Musk, learns and reads, like this one here;  and another one here.  There are also book lists for Charlie Munger on blogs like this link here.  There are many more, and people continue to list the books that shaped him and helped to create his world as it exists today. But to encourage people to read the books that honed his path completely misses the point of what happened with him.  The concept isn't to spoon-feed the reader with a list of books to be like Elon Musk; he whole purpose of this post is to encourage people to get children to read widely and read deeply.  Not to become an expert in any subject, but to become knowledgable,  in the basics of a wide range of topics, and then practice asking what-if questions (no matter how whacky) to encourage your brain to make connections that maybe weren't there before.

Both of the men I talk about here are experts and huge successes in their own right in completely different fields of expertise; however both used the same basic method to get there.  Surely we owe it our children as parents to encourage habits like this, and especially the schools.  For as long as every teacher is teaching the same curriculum, from the same books, at the same time, in school rooms that never deviate from the curriculum, surely each pupil will graduate with the same basic information and skills, to answer the same set of problems with the same answers.  The end result of a childhood of schooling is capable young adults, not nuts and bolts, not widgets.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The School of Adulting

When I first read about The School of Adulting, my initial assumption was that it was some kind of satirical website based on the current educational environment that turns out unprepared. I was wrong.  There really is a school of adulting, and it turns out that parents and schools are failing it's customers (the kids) so badly that we need a kind of finishing school to help the kids navigate the real world after education.

Clearly we've spent so long teaching the kids to memorise the answers to tests, that the kids no longer have the capacity for thought; so the schools and teachers can all look good in the "league tables" and gain accolades for successful regurgitation of irrelevant, commodity information.

It would be easy to say that demise of classes like "Home Economics" and other such practical classes are the reason for kids lacking basic adult skills.  I personally think it runs much deeper than that. You see, if you have never cooked before in your life, then certainly, you've watched your parents make dinner at some time?  Offered to help out with dinner?  Surely at least looked up from your iPhone while you were waiting for your burger at Five Guys and watched them take care of your meal?  So this is where the parents are failing, there really are kids that are growing up in middle class neighbourhoods and schools that have no idea what a tomato is (but that's another topic for another time), but I digress.  Where the schools are failing is with removing the need for thinking in their day to day school lives.  Because even if the parents have done a crappy job raising little Timmy, and let him sit on his playstation 12 hours of each day, the school should have been teaching them to think and act based on researched information that isn't spoon fed to them. If the school has done an awesome job, then by the age of 16 little Timmy should at least have the skills to find a basic cookbook, or find a website, or youtube video on basic cooking techniques with simple recipes.  Should be able to pick up a book like Personal Finance for Dummies, or one of the many blogs, on personal finance like those by Dave Ramsey, and be able to extrapolate, ingest and apply that information.

This is where the rubber truly meets the road.  No school or parent can possibly know every skill that  child will need will when they progress to adulthood, let alone teach them everything they'll need.  This is why teaching kids to understand information, assimilate it, and apply it in a real world context is absolutely vital. This is what schools and some parents do not do.  This is what needs to change most urgently.

Here's a link to the original article in The Guardian, where I originally saw the story.

The problem isn't that Johnny can't read. The problem isn't even that Johnny can't think. The problem is that Johnny doesn't know what thinking is; he confuses it with feeling. 
Thomas Sowell

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Rise of the Machines

Today whist discussing politics with someone (there's an election happening don't you know?), that conversation came up, the one that goes like this...
"You know, massive unemployment is heading our way, as machines and AI start to replace jobs, we will have people out of work and the economy will crash, the world will fall into ruin and the four horsemen of the apocalypse will reign supreme!"
Ok, so maybe I embellished a little, but I'm sure you know the conversation I mean. There's a few things wrong with this assertion, because it makes an assumption without examining some underlying variables. 

People have been predicting this tale of doom and gloom since the advent of the printing press if I'm not mistaken.

The first problem is the assumption that the workplace is static, this is simply not the case, we no longer have wheelwrights to fix our carriages or Coopers to build our barrels for us.  Automation happens, roles change and new jobs are created as requirements change.

The second is that people can't adapt when the need arises.  If a job becomes redundant, and people are faced with either adaptation or destitution, generally people adapt.  This is simply life, the only thing that is inevitable in life is death and change.  People adapt or people perish, the vast majority do the former, not the latter.  As the the adapters change according to requirements, the educational system should also change, otherwise excited graduates find themselves coming out of education and needing to adapt right away because the education system failed to prepare them adequately.

The third is that automation and Artificial Intelligence are bad. They're not, our brains are evolving all of the time; a recent talk with an esteemed neuro-psychologist I know recently led to him explaining that kids are getting smarter all the time, literally decade by decade.  The reason that educational testing is updated and revised constantly is because the intellectual norm is trending upwards with significant speed.  Personally as a someone who works works extensively in the field of the "Internet of Things", I look to the future with only excitement and optimism, to a time when our future leaders, and workers get to use their brains for creatively solving complex, and multi-faceted problems.

But the crux of this, as I just mentioned, is whether the new additions to the workforce (kids currently in high school and college) are prepared for the task ahead.  Indications are that the majority of them are not!  To be clear, the jobs that are in jeopardy (subjectively speaking) are those that are easily replicated and require repetitive tasks performed or where the job uses commodity knowledge.  As an example a lot of the legal research work for litigation previously done by lawyers, is often now performed by para-legal staff.  The knowledge is commoditised, and with more and more data being digitised, and search algorithms being tweaked and improved continually, I suspect it won't be long before accredited administrative staff will be able to do the same work, in the style of the Mechanical Turk, as we already see with transcription and other services as provided by Amazon's Mechanical Turk.

The value for employers provided by workers of the future is not in commodity knowledge, it's in the ability to solve complex problems in a contextually creative way.

As a side-note the ultimate end for this progression of automation in the workforce looks something like an asymptote style graph, which would eventually take us to a zero marginal cost society.  This essentially means as new technology is invented and adopted it becomes cheaper and more accessible, which means that eventually, a great deal of work will be done almost for free, and as a result, money becomes less important to society as a whole.  As an example, think of Star Trek, where almost everything is "replicated" (so no need to buy food and other items.). There's a great discussion about the Star Trek post-scarcity economy here and this post doesn't need to spend space repeating it, so you can read about it here.

In short, the future is exciting, the Internet of Things will fundamentally change the way that we interact and consume the world around us in a beneficial way. Self-driving cars are already upon us, in the next decade they will be commoditised.  As the parent of visually-impaired children who otherwise would have no chance at personal transportation, this alone brings me excitement.  The future is bright, are the leaders of the future up to the challenge?

Friday, September 18, 2015

Why Do Advanced Students Have Such a Hard Time Succeeding?

I rarely write about personal things on this blog, and instead try to stay somewhat objective.  But today I shall make a small exception due to having a discussion with a friend who made some valid points.  I'd be curious to get some feedback, because this is something that has run through my mind many times.

I have the dubious pleasure of being the parent of a gifted child, one who is in fact considered to be twice-exceptional.  This means that whilst there is significant advanced capabilities in some areas, there are also delays in others.  So they have advanced needs and an IEP.

So onto the conversation; I was complaining that the school should be happy to have gifted students, and I didn't understand their reluctance to help an advanced student the opportunity to succeed as it reflects well on the school.  Here are the reasons that schools might not want to help your gifted (NOT high achiever, Type A; know the difference!) child.  This doesn't go into the whole problem about teachers not being sufficiently trained to recognise giftedness (although in the context of this post, thats very convenient too), but more goes to addressing the problems gifted kids have when they KNOW they have a gifted kid in their class.

  1. Budget. Schools are beaten into keeping budgets. Kids with differences cost time and money, unless they're (financially beneficial?) disabilities which do bring in extra funding.
  2. Testing. Once a child isn't failing, they don't matter. Kids that don't function well bring in more resources. Once they hit average, they do not bring anything more than base funding in. No state gives funding for helping gifted, only to bring the unsuccessful up kids up to the "accepted standard".  So why give extra help to the two kids that get 100% in all of the tests, since they help to raise the average score in your class, moving them on would simply impact the average score.  They don't need help they're doing just fine.  NCLB specifically discriminates against gifted kids.
  3. Teachers are humans. They don't, except in outside cases, want to do extra work for no extra money, sure there are the "Mother Theresa's" of teaching who would teach for free under any circumstances just to help the kids, but by and large, they want to go home and get their dinner, mark their papers and wash their kid's karate uniform for tomorrow.  For the most part human nature is such that people don't dedicate the majority their mental bandwidth figuring out how they can do a better job each day, these days a mental dialogue looks more like "oh geez!! I'm late paying the water bill, Johnny has a sleep over in two days and I need to get food in.  Lisa has a cold but still wants to go to soccer practice, do I keep her home? John is on a work trip next week and I have the kids on my own, that's going to be rough.  I really need to get my hair cut..... "  and so on.
  4. Teach to Test Recognition. Again a teacher is human, and humans in general crave praise and recognition. A teachers performance is assessed based on the grades of their students, the kids get great grades the teacher gets a pat on the back.  All of the kids in the class pass with top scores, the teacher gets recognised, perhaps awarded, and honoured. This looks great on a resume.  So as a teacher it's only natural that you want to do the "best job" you can do. That job no longer includes teaching kids, it's almost entirely based on tracking metrics via testing, so obviously the teacher wants the best little tester that he or she could have. 
  5. Administration.  A school has enough problems keeping on top of the mandatory paperwork as it is.  A child that doesn't fit the norm surely generates more admin, more paperwork, more effort on the part of the school administration.  Conforming to average is good for the administration.
I could have all, or part of this entirely wrong, and if that's the case, I look forward to people providing me reasons as to why kids like mine and my friends' are left to languish in classes that are at least one or two grades below where they need to be learning?  

Friday, September 11, 2015

Chronological Advancement is Illogical, Dogmatic and Archaic

I've not written a post in sometime, because I've been working hard dealing with the "realities" of the public school system as it exists today.  I see lots of people talking about how an overhaul of the public school systems is urgently required; I see yet others claiming that the system needs to be torn down and completely rebuilt from the ground up.  Yet I also thought about some possible ways to solve the problems in the current system; here's one that's been pushed around for a while, so I'm going to add my voice to this, apparently relatively easy fix.

Why do we insist on grouping children by age.  The chronological approach to teaching is inflexible, dogmatic, and archaic.  It serves no purpose other than to enforce bright kids to study with kids that aren't as bright or maybe have difficulties in certain areas.   If child gets held back a year because he hasn't learned the content sufficiently (and when I say content, of course I actually mean "to pass the test"), it's a source of humiliation to the child (you just made him look dumb in front of all the other kids that managed just fine)  and to his parents ("Hey how's Johnny doing? He's in 5th grade now right?".  If the kid was acting out because he realised he wasn't at the same level as the rest of the class, then by holding him back a year, we've just entrenched his resent for the school system even more deeply.  Do we expect him to come back from this and do great things with his life?  I think not, all the positive reinforcement and sticker charts in the world are unlikely to make these kids a cheerleader of the school system.  Also we only get to advance the bright kids once a year, doesn't matter how much smarter you are, you get advanced with the rest of your class, no matter how stellar your performance (with the exception of very very rare instances, where the parents and school both agree and push for this, I can count the number of times I've heard about this happening on the fingers of one hand)

Isn't it much smarter to advance these according to ability, as needed?  Let's look at this for one moment.  There would be no need for a "No Child Left Behind" program since each child would be taught according to ability rather than age.  The kids that are naturally smart would get advanced once they outgrow the capabilities of the class they are currently in.  There would be less stress on the teachers to feel like they were neglecting the kids that need extra help because everyone would be at a similar level in the classroom.  The stress on the students that were unable to advance as fast as the other kids would be reduced, since they would always be surrounded by intellectually similar peers.

And if you take a look at vocational education and qualifications this is exactly how it works, and works very successfully I might add.  Can you imagine the absurdity of wanting to train a project manager as a natural progression of your career and being told I'm sorry, you can't take that course/learn that material until you're <N> years old. No, it simply doesn't happen except in our broken education system.  If I'm capable of taking a course and can meet the prerequisites of attending that course and/or exam, then I do so.  I might have 18 year olds on the course, I might have 58 year old students on the course with me, and no one cares, no one cares in the slightest about any age difference since we're all there to learn the same information.

I'll admit I'm biased, because it's an idea I think would work.  I'd love to hear the reasons why this wouldn't work.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Church of Education

The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession

I'm sure this book has been around for sometime now.  I've not managed to get around to it yet, but it is on my list of books to read; however it does raise some interesting points.

If you're not familiar with it (and again I have not yet read it) it deals with the attitude towards the teachers of the education system, how and why they're maligned, or revered.

To me, and as is probably quite evident from this blog, I don't really blame (or praise) the teachers one way or another.  It's not that the teachers are good or bad, caring or uncaring, the problem is with the education religion; that is to say that the teachers themselves are probably a great bunch of guys, but I beleive that they buy into the education dogma, and the education religion.  Putting blind faith in a system that rarely gets objectively evaluated.

Now I know there are a ton of people out there saying to themselves "I know a teacher..." or "I'm a teacher...", "who reads about new educational methods from cutting edge educational leaders all the time; I'm always trying to further my understanding and abilities".   Anyone should be admired for trying to better their knowledge, and expand on their abilities, self-improvement is at the root of personal progress.  The difference is whether your self-improvement reinforces what you already beleive with a fresh angle, or whether you are pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone into areas that really make you think differently.  For example, if I want a fresh perspective on the church, should I go and speak to a pastor? Or would that give me a slightly different perspective on what I already think I know?

I beleive many teachers are the same way and for the most part and I think a public that maligns teachers for doing the best job they can in a system that is so deeply flawed is a little naive and short-sighted.  The teachers at a grass roots level buy into this stuff, they go to University, and learn education from professional educators that assisted in building the system as it exists today; or to put it another way, they're going to the Church of Education, to learn from the Pastors, and Priests, and in some cases Prophets (or should that read profits?).  They are taught how to contribute to the post-war revolution of building lots of new little cogs for the post-industrial machine; this is where the system is flawed.  You can't blame the congregation for the flaw of the church (cult?), all you can do is wonder why no one else is seeing past the dogma and making their own minds up about things, how many truly think critically about it?

I'm not going to make my mind up about the book until I've read it, I beleive that there are good able members of the congregation and less able ones.  I think the answer to why Johnny can't read, may be easy to attribute to potential teacher failings (as the public so often does), but I think the problem runs far deeper in a system that values test results over ability and strength.

I look forward to reading this book with interest.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

What are your fees actually paying for?

Interesting article picked up by
Whether you like football or not - whether you've ever bought a ticket to a high school, college, or NFL game - you're paying for it.
That's one of the takeaways from The King of Sports: Football's Impact on America, Gregg Easterbrook's fascinating new book on the cultural, economic, and political impact of America's most popular and lucrative sport.
 You can read the full article and it's sources here:

Price of a College Degree too High? Blame Football!