Thursday, November 26, 2015

Decoding fact and fiction in coding

Trisha Jha is on the money below.  The idea of teaching programming to kids must have come from someone who knows nothing about it.  Only people in the top 2% of IQ will ever be able to program to any significant extent. I once tried to teach Uni NSW Sociology students programming in a language that seems easy to me  -- FORTRAN -- but none of them actually learnt it as far as I could tell.  My son has recently got a job as a computer  programmer but he has a first class honours degree in mathematics and spent a solid 18 months doing computer programming courses at university.  There are a few very bright kids who take to computer languages like a duck to water but that is the end of it.  Average kids will never acquire useful programming skills

We're seeing an increasingly apparent borderline obsession with getting primary school age kids to learn to 'code', i.e. computer programming. Bill Shorten promoted it in his Budget Reply speech this year and various commentators have formed a chorus.

The focus on coding does have sensible origins. The 2009 Melbourne Declaration made the fairly common-sense observation that school students should be prepared for "a world in which information technology will be ubiquitous."

It seems schools aren't doing a very good job. The National Assessment Program includes an ICT component, and the 2014 report for Years 6 and 10 released this week shows  test performance - in terms of mean scores and the percentage of students reaching basic standards - is poor and has declined since 2011. Only 55% of Year 6 students were deemed proficient, and just 52% of Year 10 students. Results were also differentiated by socio-economic status, with kids from professional urban households performing better than their rural and underprivileged peers.

It should not be surprising that 'digital natives' may not be so skilled after all. The technology people use on a daily basis is becoming less technical and more focused on 'idiot proof' apps.

Is it any wonder, then, that even children who are accustomed to using technology are often failing to grasp how to use it to complete concrete tasks? The idea that schools can 'teach' computing skills, the skills necessary for 'creative and productive' use of technology (as the Melbourne Declaration proposes) just by replacing the whiteboard with a smartboard, and exercise books with computers, is folly.

If the obsession with coding is shorthand for more explicit and purposeful teaching of ICT, as ACARA CEO Rob Randall has said there should be, then there's something to it. But trying to cram the teaching of a highly specific skill (likely by poorly-trained instructors, given there is already a shortage of maths and science teachers) into an already-crowded curriculum can only make things worse - especially when so many kids are still not functionally literate or numerate. Those are skills that even the most brilliant of software engineers cannot do without.


University's free yoga class is shut down over 'cultural appropriation' fears after complaints from 'social justice warriors'

Indians are going to be upset because a few Canadians practice yoga?

A free yoga class has been suspended after student leaders at a Canadian university are concerned the practice of it could be seen as 'cultural appropriation'.

Jennifer Scharf, who has been offering the weekly yoga class at the University of Ottawa campus for seven years, said she was notified in September that the program was being ended.

In an email from the Center for Students with Disabilities, staff wrote that while yoga is 'accessible and great for students', there are 'cultural issues of implication involved in the practice', the Ottawa Sun reported.

'I'm not pretending to be some enlightened yogi master, and the point [of the program] isn't to educate people on the finer points of the ancient yogi scripture,' she told the Ottawa Sun.

'The point is to get people to have higher physical awareness for their own physical health and enjoyment.'

The university's Student Federation, which operates the center, had initially approached Scharf in 2008 about providing yoga instruction to students, including those with disabilities, according to the Ottawa Sun.  Around 60 university students participated in the program.

The center's staff said that yoga has been under 'a lot of controversy lately' as a result of how it is being practiced and which cultures those practices are 'being taken from,' according to the Ottawa Sun.

Staff from the center also expressed that many of those cultures 'experienced oppression, cultural genocide and Diasporas due to colonialism and western supremacy'.  The center official went on to say that 'we need to be mindful of this and how we express ourselves while practicing yoga'.

Scharf, who works as a yoga teacher at the Ramas Lotus Center, said the concept of cultural appropriation does not apply in this case.

She told the Ottawa Sun that the complaint that caused the program to come to an end came from a 'social justice warrior' with 'fainting heart ideologies' in search of a controversial issue that would attract public attention.

Scharf claimed people are just searching for a reason to be offended by anything they can find, according to the website.

'There's a real divide between reasonable people and those people just looking to jump on a bandwagon,' she said. 'And unfortunately, it ends up with good people getting punished for doing good things.'

Romeo Ahimakin, acting student federation president, dismissed the claim that the decision to suspend the program came as a result of a complaint.

Ahimakin said the student federation had placed the yoga program on hiatus while they worked with students to improve it and make it 'more inclusive to certain groups of people that feel left out in yoga-like spaces', according to the Ottawa Sun.

'We are trying to have those sessions done in a way in which students aware of where the spiritual and cultural aspects come from, so that these sessions are done in a respectful manner,' Ahimakin said.

Scharf suggested that she would be willing to change the name of the program from yoga to 'mindful stretching' as a compromise.

The staff from the center debated re-branding the program before eventually making the decision to suspend the program, according to the Ottawa Sun.

One student federation official, Julie Seguin, said labeling the center's yoga program as cultural appropriation is 'questionable' and 'debatable'.


The University of Racial Indoctrination

What do the students want? That was the question many asked as they watched American college students across the country go on protests, sit-ins and hunger-strikes over claims that administrators were not doing enough to combat racism on campus.

The movement took off last week when protests at the University of Missouri (‘Mizzou’) led to the resignation of its president, Tim Wolfe. Copycat protests then spread to many others, including Yale, Ithaca College, Claremont McKenna College and Amherst College. Reading through the lists of demands from these student groups, it is clear that they have much in common.

For a start, the student activists demand apologies, usually for inherited sins of the past. At Mizzou, Concerned Student 1950 hoped to orchestrate a Maoist-style shaming session. The group demanded the president present a ‘handwritten’ apology to be read aloud at a press conference, and plead guilty to his ‘white male privilege’.

In a self-parody of political correctness, Amherst Uprising called on the president and board of trustees chairman to apologise for an ‘institutional legacy of white supremacy, colonialism, anti-black racism, anti-Latin racism, anti-Native American racism, anti-Native / indigenous racism, anti-Asian racism, anti-Middle Eastern racism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, mental-health stigma, and classism’.

The students are also quick to demand ‘Off with his head!’, and with about as much reason as the Queen of Hearts. Shortly after Mizzou’s Wolfe fell, the dean at Claremont, Mary Spellman, acceded to demands for her to resign. Her crime? A poorly worded email.

The student group Next Yale is now demanding that Nicholas and Erika Christakis — professors and student advisers at one of Yale’s colleges — lose their jobs. Erika had the temerity to send an email that effectively said that students don’t need administrators telling them which Halloween costume to wear, and Nicholas the gall to agree with his wife and defend free expression.

But beyond extracting a confession from a college official before their execution, what exactly do these students want the universities to do? In a word, all want to expand what might be called the race therapy complex in higher education. This complex encompasses a variety of administrative bodies, student clubs, training and course curricula, all with the aim of propagating a particular view about race – one that sees the problem of racism, and its management, in therapeutic terms.

The demands of today’s activists hit upon the key components of the race therapy complex, including:

* Appointing senior administrators in charge of diversity;
* Mandatory racial-awareness and sensitivity training for students and faculty;
* Required courses in ethnic studies;
* Increased funding for multicultural centres and ‘social justice’ clubs;
* Increased funding for mental-health counselling.

To a college president at risk from a mob-organised career guillotine, accepting these demands will be almost a no-brainer — especially since these measures would represent a continuation of the race policies that administrators themselves have promoted for the past two decades. As a tour of Mizzou’s website highlights, the university has operated a panoply of race-related programmes for over a decade: the ‘MU Equity Office’, the ‘Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative’, 11 diversity-related training and development programmes, the ‘Show Me Respect’ campaign, the ‘One Mizzou’ initiative, a guide to promoting an inclusive classroom, a ‘Difficult Dialogues’ theatre group, to name only some.

So when Mizzou’s board last week introduced measures demanded by the protesters – including hiring a new diversity officer; requiring all incoming freshman to complete racial training; adding a new component on racial studies within the academic curriculum; and reviewing mental-health services – it was following down their own well-established trail.

A good question might be: why should we expect new diversity initiatives to bring about racial harmony on campus, if they haven’t already? But it would be more accurate to understand today’s battles over race as the product of the inherently divisive race therapy complex, and that doubling down on it, as the protesters now demand, will only exacerbate tensions.

The stated goals of the race therapy complex — which include raising ‘racial awareness’ and being more ‘sensitive’ about race — sound pretty innocuous, but they are actually problematic for overcoming racial divisions and realising civil rights for black Americans. As Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn diagnosed in her essential book, Race Experts, the demise of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s led to the rise of self-appointed social engineers wielding the new tools of racial etiquette, sensitivity training and new-age therapy. While influenced by the black-identity movement that had replaced Martin Luther King’s universalism, the primary factor behind the creation of the diversity profession was the boom in psychotherapy, which swallowed the civil-rights movement, and many other social movements.

Despite surveys documenting a sea change in attitudes regarding race, these race experts refused to believe that the US had become more egalitarian. Convinced of the entrenched bigotry of Middle America, they sought to tackle racism in a new frontier: the mind.  The race professionals shifted the focus of anti-racism to stereotypes, language and feelings, and constructed codes of conduct to police personal behaviour. In other words, they positioned race as an issue of therapy and etiquette, rather than justice or equality in employment, education and society-at-large.

In commenting on events at Mizzou, the writer Jason Whitlock (who is black) put it this way: ‘Liberal elites define racism as “code words” and “dog whistles” and the utterance of the n-word by white people. They reduce racism to a language. Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall and our Greatest Generation defined racism as laws and policy.’

As the complaints of the student activists show (about everything from the revving of a car engine near protesters to the phrasing of emails), this outlook continues to situate racism in relatively minor, interpersonal incidents. The race therapists encourage hyper-sensitivity, expand into new areas where offence can be taken, and urge apparent victims to not hold back their emotions – all of which have been witnessed in the current protests. In doing so, they create new sources of anxiety and coarsen social interactions. Diversity engineers stoke the fires of division. As Lasch-Quinn wrote, they promote ‘a world in perpetual recovery, a world of endless slights’, in which ‘racist crimes and social faux pas are one and the same’. That pretty much sums up students who have a meltdown over Halloween costumes.

The latest proposals to extend the reach of the race therapy complex on campus can only make relations among different groups worse. For a start, they will give more power to diversity officials, whose bureaucracy within the university is already something of a regime unto itself. Everyone at Yale knew that when its diversity office published its ‘guidance’ on Halloween costumes, it would have a chilling effect, given its capacity to ostracise and discipline students. And, as Erika and Nicholas Christakis learned, this office can count on a section of students to rise to its defence.

Diversity offices are essentially arms of the federal government on campus, backed by the authority of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act (which protects people from discrimination on the basis of race in programmes that receive federal funding, like most universities) and its enforcement agency, the Office of Civil Rights. Expect more appeals to the OCR, which has expanded its remit over time, to intervene. That’s what Missouri Student Association vice-president Brenda Smith-Lezama seemed to be doing when she said, ‘I am personally tired of hearing that the First Amendment rights protect students when they are creating a hostile and unsafe learning environment for myself and other students here’ — the term ‘hostile environment’ being something that the OCR is meant to protect students from.

The new proposals will also corrupt the curriculum and inhibit the exchange of ideas. When student activists at Claremont complain that the Crime and Public Policy course ‘does not offer readings with perspectives of people of colour,’ and that the Civil War history course is ‘extremely insensitive’ and ‘hurtful’, they are arguing that all course content must meet with a censor’s approval. It is a move that places limits on the exploration of knowledge.

Understanding the impact of race on society should be an area of academic inquiry and debate. But, as first-year students will learn from the ‘race sensitivity’ indoctrination, the race-therapy model will be one that students question at their own risk. This is how the race therapists supposedly ‘win’ the intellectual argument: by claiming that any other view is against the school’s code of conduct.

As it is discussed in terms of encouraging greater ‘awareness’ and ‘respect,’ a newly enhanced diversity agenda may appear soft, but it increasingly reveals a hard authoritarian dimension. Thanks to the race-therapy professors and bureaucrats, students are taught that words in themselves cause real harm, create an ‘unsafe space’ and violate a moral code. No wonder that, to many students of this generation, calls to defend free speech sound formal and beside the point.

Moreover, today’s student protesters seem quite happy to seek to clamp down on expressions of speech, and egg on the campus authorities to take action. Activists welcomed the Mizzou campus police department’s email asking students to report ‘cases of hateful and hurtful speech’, so that they could direct them for criminal or disciplinary action. This gives the offence-taker the ability to get the police involved, and thus potentially criminalise speech.

At Amherst, protesters demanded that the president not tolerate the students who put up posters that read ‘All Lives Matter’ and ‘Free Speech’. The president must ‘alert them that Student Affairs may require them to go through the Disciplinary Process if a formal complaint is filed, and that they will be required to attend extensive training for racial and cultural competency’. Here, racial training is revealed for what it truly is: a form of re-education and punishment.

Giving new powers to the race therapy complex on campus must be opposed. Despite what they claim, these ideologues are encouraging, not overcoming, racial divisions. Their narrow, victim-based and therapeutic agenda is directly opposed to the optimistic humanism of the civil-rights movement. Accepting their terms would mean not being able to speak of the universalistic ideas of Martin Luther King, which would be a travesty.

Thankfully, some students are seeing through the protesters’ attempts to seize moral authority via claims of victimhood. The editorial team at the Claremont Independent published a strong dissent: ‘We are not racist for having different opinions. We are not immoral because we don’t buy the flawed rhetoric of a spiteful movement. We are not evil because we don’t want this movement to tear across our campuses completely unchecked.’ Yes, now is the time to speak out against those who would divide us by race.


On not going to university

With an increasing number of students heading to university each year, the value of a university degree is not the same as it once was. Even the word ‘value’ indicates that universities have become more like businesses rather than places of education. As the graduate market becomes more saturated, it is becoming more interesting to tell an interviewer why you chose not to go to university. In an interview with The Sunday Times earlier this year, Clarissa Farr, high mistress of St Paul’s Girls’ School in London (apparently the best-performing school in Britain), stated how it will soon be seen as ‘acceptable for bright students not to go to university’, indicating this ‘could be a more exciting and faster route to the top’.

Universities seem increasingly to focus on the so-called student experience over the students’ education, with universities putting huge resources into public relations, league tables and student surveys. University has become the place for teenagers to go when they wish to delay being an adult, rather than being the bridge to independence it was once considered to be. As someone who chose to leave university, it felt like I was simply putting my life on hold for three years, when I really wanted to jump into the world of work. This feeling was further enhanced by spending time on campus, where it felt like all students were being kept together and shielded from the outside world.

Now, I’m not anti-university. Achieving a university degree is hard work, and many jobs require degree-level knowledge. In fact, any form of education is valuable. But, the problem is, students are funnelled into a university education without the chance to consider if it’s what’s best for them. Other opportunities, like apprenticeships, internships or going straight into work, are not suggested to many students as schools wish to boost their proportion of ‘high achievers’. But this means many students only arrive at university to discover it is not the right path for them. Many students have simply felt pressured to go. But if university is meant to be about creating independent thinkers, shouldn’t students be given the independence to decide whether they want to go in the first place?

A further reason many young people are now reconsidering whether university is the best option for them is the fees. Some subjects, like science, include the cost of the lab equipment and the conducting of experiments. But, for a history degree, paying £9,000 a year seems like a lot of money for some essay feedback, a few reading lists and the odd lecture or seminar.

The reason I initially decided to go to university was because I enjoyed learning and I felt university was the only place I’d be able to continue my education. But learning isn’t just confined to studying, essays and tests. In fact, since leaving university it’s been nice to rediscover learning simply for the joy of it – reading around the subjects I love, watching TEDTalks and taking part in public debates.

University is a form of education, yes, but it’s not the only form. Many people do thrive at university, but I don’t think it should be seen as the only route, and something everyone must do if they wish to succeed. There are so many opportunities out there that young people should be allowed to explore before deciding for themselves whether university is the best option for them. And if it’s not? That’s okay, too.


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