Monday, June 25, 2012

With Traditional Schooling Increasingly Obsolete, How To Learn Without Being Taught

I am rather sympathetic to  Jerry Bowyer on this.  I taught myself for the last two years of High School and did quite well in the final exams  -- enough to get me into university for free,  where I had a lot of fun

It’s odd how many people take my skepticism about college and try to twist it into an opposition to learning. But like the quote often attributed to Mark Twain, “I never let schooling interfere with my education.”

Here’s a radical idea worth contemplating: that school is not the best way to learn. Let me count the ways:

School fragments knowledge in the name of specialization. The problem that I run into most when advising businesses and investors is the problem of fragmentation. Economics is separate from finance; finance is separate from management; management is separate from sociology; sociology is separate from psychology. And the whole mess of the social sciences is separate from the whole mess of the humanities.

I’ve written till my face is blue and my fingertips are purple about the ways in which modern portfolio theory severs finance from economics, and the ways that Keynesian economics severs economics from productivity, but it never seems to stick. Why? Because we’re all overschooled and undereducated. Economists have to go through a long and arduous path to academic certification during which every last vestige of common sense is eradicated from their minds through a process of alternating cookies and electric shocks as they recapitulate and/or repudiate the Keynesian formulae.

Financial people go through this too, not mainly in a purely academic environment, but with the series of professional exams stuffed with material which originated in an academic environment. A friend of mine who has accumulated about as many letters after his name as any normal business card would fit, told me that when he studied for his CFA he felt like he was being forced to eat garbage.  What did he mean? He meant the academic secretion known as modern portfolio theory and its universe of non-causal randomness.

It doesn’t have to be like that. I know that it doesn’t have to be like that, because it didn’t use to be like that. Read the great classical and Austrian economists, and you’ll see that they slide easily over the artificial borders of what are usually segregated into economics, finance, sociology, religion, philosophy, political science and psychology. Doing that kind of stuff gets you killed when it comes to publishing in academic journals, but who cares about academic journals? Do you want pack membership with the prerequisite butt-sniffing? Or do you prefer to shape the world?

It’s the same among the financiers: Read Bagehot and you get finance and economics and political science and history and literature and theology. You get real life. John Burr Williams is like that too. He’s the last of the integrated financial theorists, I think. After him, it’s the rise and dominance of Keynes in the economics departments and the rise and dominance of Modern Portfolio Theory in the department of finance. The integrated thinkers were set on the ice float. The new order emerges, periodically festooned with fool’s gold from Oslo just to make sure that everyone knows that it is marching from triumph to triumph.

And out of this factory comes a lobotomized economic and financial ruling class.  Theanthropoi, godmen, who walk the earth having been apotheosized in the best schools, with power over trillions of dollars and hundreds of millions of people,  but who don’t have a clue about matters slightly outside their area of specialization.

During the financial crisis of 2008, in at least a dozen conference call consultations with Ed Lazear, Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, I repeatedly tried to help him and his staff understand the enormous negative effect of the mark-to-market accounting regulations. But Lazear was an economist: He didn’t understand accounting. He didn’t need to in order to get a PhD in economics from a prestigious school. He didn’t need to in order to become the Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors. But unfortunately, he needed to in order to deal with the problem before him.

The administration ignored the accounting issue: pushed a huge bailout plan. The plan failed economically and politically, and it wasn’t until the following spring on May 20th that Congress pressed to have the rule suspended. Interestingly enough, that was the turning point in the market. Does that mean mark-to-market accounting was the only issue? Of course not, but it was a major issue, and one to which academic specialists were blind. Steve Forbes, who is largely an economic autodidact saw it. Official Washington did not.

School is out of order. Here’s the way many people, especially natural leaders, learn best: they run into a problem. If they are motivated to solve the problem, they look for solutions. An unsolved problem is distressing to people, so they tend to remember the experience (amygdala and memory and all that). The process of searching for a solution is usually costly and painful so they remember that too. At the end of this experience, they have an emotionally bonded memory of the problem, a sense of elation at having found the solution, an answer to their question, and in addition to having learned the answer to their initial question, have also learned a little more about how to learn. What I’ve just described is real life. It’s how one  gets wisdom.

Yes, there are a few foundational skills which one must have before this starts, most notably strong reading skills, but there is a no reason to delay this struggle for real-world learning until age 23 at the youngest. The old model (or at least the ‘modern’  model of the 20th Century) which front-loads spoon-feeding into the first 16 years of ‘schooling’, lies by implying that what comes after that 16 years is even remotely like what comes after.

What we do around here (in Bowyerville) is to inject reality a lot sooner. We work on solving problems, real problems, together in the early teens. Need to learn something? Look it up. A data problem to solve? Learn some software. Where should you learn it? Look for a free on-line tutorial. If there’s nothing free, we’ll go sign up for one, or buy a book on Amazon, preferably something we can download cheap on Kindle. One of the biggest differences between school and real world is the importance of software. Want to be productive? Learn the tools. Practice them. Master them. Learn the tricks and tips. Spreadsheets, scheduling, word processing, presentation, data analysis, specialty programs: learn them all.

If you have a problem to solve which involves math which is beyond your current level of knowledge, let’s go over to Khan’s Academy and see if he has a video on that topic. If he doesn’t, somebody else will. Not sure you’ve got the concept mastered? Review it, and review it again, and work some of the exercises.

Traditional school is obsolete. It is a dead man walking. The knowledge which is available for free, or nearly free on the web is so large and abundant that for all practical purposes it might as well be infinite. For thousands of years knowledge was scarce, expensive and hoarded in a few geographically specified locations.  In our lifetime, knowledge has gone from overly scarce to overly abundant. It has gone from expensive to nearly free. My friend Rich Karlgaard‘s cheap revolution is about to destroy the reigning higher education model. The new skill set is finding needles in haystacks using Boolean algebra; the old skill set was eating haystacks. The old emotional state was compliant credulity with students in the role of baby birds gulping predigested chunks of knowledge. The new emotional state must be critical thinking, filtering, and discernment. No longer “What do I have to learn to get a diploma?”, but now “How do I know what you are saying is true?” And “Can I get this same thing someplace else for free?”


What kind of teacher did this? Two schoolgirls badly sunburned at field day because they were BANNED from putting on sunscreen

Teachers allowed two young sisters to get so badly sunburned that they needed hospital treatment because of a little-known law that bans students from applying sunscreen at school.

Fair-skinned Violet Michener, 11, and her nine-year-old sister Zoe were left seared from head to toe after spending an afternoon in the sun during an outdoor field day in Tacoma Washington.

Their mother, Jesse Michener, who didn't put cream on the girls in the morning because of a rain forecast, was horrified to learn that teachers refused to allow the children to apply any cream.

Public schools in all states except California are not allowed to apply or carry the product to school because - despite being freely available in supermarkets - it is deemed a prescription medication.  Yet the girls say they were forced to watch one teacher put on her own sunscreen and then explain to the burning students that it was 'just for her' when they begged her for some.

'While I can sort of wrap my brain around this in theory, the practice of a blanket policy which clearly allows for students to be put in harm’s way is deeply flawed,' Mrs Michener wrote in a blog post.

Making matters worse, the mother claims that one of her daughters has a form of Albinism - a skin condition that leads to easy burning - that her school was aware of.  'Violet is starting to blister on her face. Both children have headaches, chills and pain,' Mrs Michener wrote last Wednesday after taking the children to Tacoma General hospital.  'Two are home today as a direct result of how terrible they feel. My children indicated that several adults commented on their burns at school, including staff and other parents.'

For liability reasons, most states consider sunscreen as an over-the-counter medication requiring a prescription.

'Because so many additives in lotions and sunscreens cause an allergic reaction in some children, we have to really monitor that,' said Dan Voelpel, a Tacoma school district spokesman speaking to ABC.

Since raising awareness in her area of the SPF policy, Mrs Michener began to see some success late last week.  Receiving a call from the director of Elementary Education in Tacoma Public Schools last Thursday according to her blog, the director informed her of a new law passed allowing districts to decide for themselves what's allowed and what's not.

'He stated that how the law will actually shake-out for districts is still to be seen (the devil is always in the details), but that he hoped a policy revision could be achieved by October,' the mother wrote.

Asked by the Huffington Post on Friday the condition of the two girls, the mother replied:  "They will heal this week, but long term effects are yet to be seen.’


The Battle of Britain? Wasn't that at sea? Half of secondary school pupils do not know battle took place in the air

It was a turning point in the war, when only the bravery of The Few who took to the skies to defend their country stood between Britain and the might of Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe.

But less than half of today’s secondary school pupils know the Battle of Britain was fought in the air, a poll has revealed.

Only 62 per cent could correctly identify a photograph of Sir Winston Churchill, it found – but 92 per cent recognised a picture of Churchill the insurance dog.

'Oh yes'? More like 'Oh no': Over 90 per cent recognised the dog from the Churchill Insurance advertisements yet only a measly 62 per cent of the students polled could identify Sir Winston Churchill

More could identify Jedward, Wayne Rooney and Katie Price than their country’s wartime leader.

Only a third of 11 to 18-year-olds know the Second World War began in 1939, according to a poll by former Conservative Party deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft, while only one in five knows what happened on D-Day.

The survey of 1,000 children at secondary schools across Britain was commissioned to mark the unveiling of the Bomber Command Memorial in London later this week.

Its results will heighten concern about the quality of history teaching in our schools.

It found that only 34 per cent of pupils – including 45 per cent of those aged 17 and 18 – knew the Second World War began in 1939. Only 39 per cent knew it ended in 1945, again including only 45 per cent of 17 and 18-year-olds.

Forty-three per cent knew the Battle of Britain was fought in the air, 29 per cent believed it was fought on land, and 8 per cent at sea. Twenty per cent admitted they did not know.

Just 34 per cent correctly said the Battle of Britain took place in the 1940s, and only 11 per cent of these – about one in 27 of the whole sample – knew it happened in 1940.

Only a fifth of children had any idea of what happened on D-Day, with the most frequent answer being the day the war ended.

More people could identify Jedward [singers] and Katie Price [silicone enhanced woman] than Sir Winston Churchill

Eighty-six per cent correctly said there had been two world wars – but one in 20 thought there had been three.

Nearly a third were unable to give any unprompted explanation of why Britain fought in the Second World War.  And while 89 per cent identified Germany as an adversary during the conflict, only 15 per cent could name Japan unprompted.

When the children were offered four different explanations for what Bomber Command is or was, only 36 per cent correctly said it had been part of the RAF.

Lord Ashcroft, who donated £1million towards the Bomber Command Memorial, said: ‘I don’t mean to criticise the children.   'We must all take responsibility for ensuring  that what we know is passed to the next generation.  ‘These findings show we can never be complacent about our duty to remember.’


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