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Who am I?

You can look at my home page for more information, but the short answer is that I'm a dilettante who likes thinking about a variety of subjects. I like to think of myself as a systems-level thinker, more concerned with the big picture than with the details. Current interests include politics, community formation, and social interface design. Plus books, of course.

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Mon, 10 Jan 2005

More thoughts on gifted education
I've rambled about education before, particularly with regards to gifted education. But I've never been bashful about repeating myself. So here we go again.

Here's a thought experiment that a friend posited a couple weeks ago. From a purely academic point of view, how long would it take a smart kid, working at their own pace with appropriate guidance, to learn the material up through 8th grade or so? Let's say through basic algebra in math, reading and writing in complex sentences, some basic understanding of science, a first pass at American and world history, that sort of level (although, given the horrendous state of public education, that might qualify as a high school education at this point. Yikes!). My guess is four years. Or less. I did K-8 in 7 years, skipping two grades, and I could probably have skipped at least two or three more if it weren't for socialization issues (sixth grade, for instance, was a total waste as the teacher refused to let me work ahead because she felt there were certain things sixth graders did and that was that).

Those pesky socialization issues. What, really, are we teaching our children for those other four years? I can tell you what I learned. I learned that I don't have to work hard to succeed (at least in that environment). I learned that being out of the box often means being crammed back into the box. I learned that I can get away with mediocre work because nobody cares. And I went to an extremely good public school. I can't even imagine what it's like for students in a bad one.

It's really frustrating. I can see some of these acceptance-of-mediocrity tendencies in myself even now, which is how the topic came up when I was talking with my friend. It makes me wonder why we accept such an awful system if people really believed that children are our future. Or are we aspiring to the dystopia alluded to in The Incredibles, where because everybody is special, nobody is?

If I were a cynical Rand-ian, I'd claim that the school system, as presently constructed, is designed to habituate us from birth to not make waves, especially those of us that are smart, because ambitious smart people are disruptive innovators that change power structures. School teaches us to sit still, keep our mouths shut, and conform to the majority. We're taught to obey authority blindly (because teachers hate being challenged), which I think contributes to our acceptance of pseudo-science. If you squint the way I currently am, you can see many of the problems of our society reflected in our education system.

So what would I do differently? I have nothing that could be construed as realistic. To really teach kids right, you need to spend a lot of quality personal time with them, allowing them to pursue their interests in a guided fashion. There are some things that everybody should know, like the basics I outlined above, but beyond that, leveraging the natural enthusiasm of children would seem to be a natural thing to do. And given that children are natural scientists, it seems like we could take much better advantage of that than we currently do with our memorization of orthodox science dogma. Not that I'm saying we should doubt the current scientific paradigm, but that we should give students the opportunity to ask why and, when possible, figure out where the paradigm came from, as Postman suggested.

I don't know what I'd do if I had kids. My friend pointed me at the Montessori method, which looks promising. I'd almost be tempted to home school them. But there is a genuine need for socialization. The smartest person in the world is completely ineffectual if they can't persuade other people to their way of thinking, a skill I continue to hope to learn. I don't know how one teaches that to kids though. Cooperative learning environments? Play groups? I don't really know.

Lots of hard questions, as there always are when I address education. And it's getting late, and it's time for this to be out of my hands, so out it goes.

posted at: 23:49 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /rants/people | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Sync, by Steven Strogatz
I've been wanting to read this since first hearing about it. I took a class from Strogatz when I was at MIT, and he was a great lecturer that was way too smart so I figured his book would be interesting and well written.

I was reminded of Strogatz's book recently when I read Six Degrees, by Duncan Watts. It turns out that Watts was a student of Strogatz. Small world. Since I really enjoyed reading Six Degrees, and am fascinated by the science of networks, I picked up Sync from the library. Subtitled "The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order", Strogatz is more interested in the science of synchronization than the science of networks. From fireflies blinking in concert, to the electrical pulses of the heart to superconductivity, Strogatz finds examples of synchronization everywhere in nature, and takes a crack at explaining how the same fundamental mathematical equations govern them all.

Unfortunately, I didn't find the book very interesting. His explanations seemed fairly shallow to me. I know that he was writing for the general audience, but I feel like he could have delved into more detail on how the math generalized. He also suffered from trying to cover too large a breadth of material: a chapter on each subject gave only enough time for a brief overview, and since I studied science, I already knew most of what he was summarizing. Although I should note that the chapter on sleep cycles and circadian rhythms was pretty fascinating, mostly because any MIT alumnus has experimented all too much with different sleep patterns. And because I knew somebody who I think worked at the sleep lab that he mentions.

One of the other interesting speculations was that our brain waves synchronize to form consciousness. There is constant electrical activity in our head as neurons fire, but apparently (Strogatz only wrote a couple paragraphs about this) when a conscious thought forms, the signals all synchronize momentarily and then return to random firing. It's a very neat idea. It reminds me of that flash of intuition when I make a connection between two previously unconnected areas of thought in my head. All of a sudden, it feels like my brain lights up as my thought structure puts a new connection in place. So that image of waves synchronizing makes a lot of intuitive sense to me. Unfortunately, it was covered almost in a throwaway fashion, so I'll have to go hunting down the references (such as this one or this one or this one) (I haven't read the links, but figured I might as well copy from Sync's references before I returned it).

The place where Strogatz is most successful is where he personalizes the stories. Since he knows many of the people that he's writing about, he's able to share stories about how he met them, or anecdotes about how they did their work, which helps turn these scientists into real people. This shouldn't have been surprising to me; the fondest memory I had of his class at MIT was his "Gauss was a prick" story.

I'm glad I got it from the library and didn't pay for it. If one were looking for a book in this area, I'd recommend Six Degrees or The Tipping Point. as being more interesting. But I had to read it. I'll get back to my other Amazon books now. Oh, and apologies for the delay in finishing books - I fell about a month behind in the Economist in December, and only now caught up. Too much reading material, too little time.

"way too smart": Strogatz's tests were the kind of tests where if you saw the trick on how to do them, they took 5 minutes, but if you weren't a genius like him, they took two hours, which really sucked when you only had an hour. The three question second test had a nice tripartite distribution of scores at 100, 66 and 33. I got a 70 or something. Not that I'm bitter or anything.

"Gauss was a prick": The class I took from Strogatz was complex analysis, which was a field basically invented by Karl Friedrich Gauss. In mathematics, it is standard to name equations after the first person to discover them. However, if they had done that in complex analysis, every equation would have been Gauss's Law. So they settled on naming things for the first person to discover it after Gauss. The best part was that after Gauss would derive a new proof, he'd say, "Oh, that's interesting", call in his assistant, notarize it, date it, and stick it in a desk drawer without telling anybody. Twenty five years later, a young mathematician would figure out a new proof and send it off to Gauss to share it with the great man, hoping to gain his approval. Gauss would write back that he'd discovered it twenty five years ago, and crush the poor bastard. Hence, Strogatz said, "Gauss was a prick."

posted at: 23:38 by
Eric Nehrlich | path: /books/nonfiction/general | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal

Performing Janacek's Glagolitic Mass
Oh, I forgot to mention it, but the chorus performed Janacek's Glagolitic Mass last week, and now I've updated my chorus page to reflect that.

posted at: 06:19 by Eric Nehrlich | path: /journal | permanent link to this entry | Comment on livejournal