For the past week I have been reliving elementary school.

My inspiration was this TED lecture from Salmon Khan of Khan Academy.

As a concept, Khan's idea is at once important, brilliant and frightening.

Important—because he is part of a growing movement to put education within reach of everyone. Well, everyone with access to an Internet connection, anyway.

Brilliant—because he turns school upside down.  The teacher does not introduce the material; that's done via an online lecture, assigned for homework.  Class time, then, becomes available for what is traditionally thought of as homework—working problems, writing essays—and discussion.  Thus anyone who is confused or needs help has immediately at hand both the teacher and his fellow students.  The teacher's time is allocated more efficiently, being spent on those who need help rather than those who don't.  The time of the struggling student is also used more efficiently, because he can get problems cleared up on Exercise 1 rather than struggling uselessly through 2 - 20 or just giving up.  Potentially, this system also helps other students, who find the work easy, to advance quickly to work that challenges them.  Although experience has taught me that the last is not high amongst most schools' priorities, this system might make them more amenable to the idea.

Brilliant, also, is his insistence that everyone should be expected to master the material.  I never did understand why any grade less than A is considered passing.  In almost no subject in which I received an A did I feel I had mastered the material—how much worse is it for someone who earns a C?  Perhaps in some subjects it doesn't matter much, but if you "pass" a child with a C in reading, or in math, you handicap him for life.

Frightening—because the system Khan has developed, at least when applied to the classroom, strips the student of privacy in yet one more area of his already over-exposed life.  The teacher knows what videos he watches, what online exercises he has worked on, how he is spending his time, and where he is apparently struggling.  All with good intent, of course, but the potential for abuse is there.

But back to my elementary school revisit.

Khan Academy has videos available on subjects wide and varied, but practice exercises are currently limited to mathematics.  So just for fun I decided to try them out.  (Yeah, I know.  I have a weird idea of fun.)  Here's what I discovered.  Remember, I have done the exercises but not watched the videos, so this is not a fair review of the whole process.

  1. The exercises are pretty good, but do not exhibit much variety, and favor people with good test-taking skills.  The program is cluttered with annoying "rewards" of the sticker-and-gold star type, which shouldn't be attractive to anyone over eight and which can have a negative long-term impact on learning.  Nonetheless, I found the exercises very helpful for reviewing old concepts and drilling in my areas of weakness.  Which brings me to
  2. Now I remember why I hated math until eighth grade, when I finally discovered algebra.  Elementary school math is replete with the kind of exercises I loathe, such as multiplying and dividing large numbers with lots of decimal places, in which my propensity for understanding the concept but making careless errors is my undoing.  Addition mistakes, transposed numbers, and sloppy handwriting are disastrous when you must get 10 correct answers in a row before moving on to the next lesson.  I can't tell you how many times I completed nine problems correctly only to be reset to zero through a careless error on the tenth.  However, I have more tenacity and patience than I did 50 years ago, or even at college, when I would trudge through the snow on a midwinter's night to have access to the Wang calculators available in the physics department, rather than do my lab calculations by hand.  I made it through, not only the exercises that were supposed to show I could do such calculations, but the ones that anyone in his right mind would have used a calculator for, such as, An alien spaceship travels at 490,000,000 inches per second.  How many miles does it travel in one hour?  I did it, and my brain is better for it—but I have new sympathy for my grandson, who is currently finding math tedious.

    Arithmetic : mathematics :: practicing scales : playing a Bach concerto.

I plow on.  The exercises continue through the very beginnings of calculus.  I find doing a few math exercises (even arithmetic exercises) to be a mind-refreshing break when other work gets frustrating.  (See weirdness, above.)

And I love the idea of a mild-mannered nerd who leverages tutoring his cousins into changing the world.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, September 29, 2011 at 10:58 am | Edit
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If you can read this, thank a teacher.

I've seen it on bumper stickers for years, and just today at the bottom of my Penzey's Spices receipt.  Only now did I finally wake up to the outrageous insult implied by that platitude.

With all due respect to teachers, of which there are some who are great and many, many more who do their jobs very well, how is it that we presume that a child, who requires only a reasonably supportive environment to learn to eat, to crawl, to walk, to understand, to talk, to love, to manipulate his environment—in short to acquire the essential skills of a lifetime in just a few years—how is it that we presume he cannot learn to read—a minor skill compared with all he has already learned—unless someone teaches him?

That's crazy talk.

I'm grateful for all who are willing to share their knowledge with others, and especially for those who make the sharing enjoyable.  I suspect that those who do best, however, are the ones who realize they are not teaching so much as facilitating a child's natural learning.

But that turns out to be much too big an issue to write about just because I was annoyed by a bumper sticker, when I'm surrounded by vacation detritus, my husband is hungry, and I haven't yet managed that shower I promised myself after walking four miles in the 95 degree heat....

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, August 8, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Edit
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Don't ask me how I came upon Sporcle, but beware—it's addictive!  There are quick quizzes for a wide array of subjects, and I've found them useful for refreshing the ol' memory on things I should know, as well as learning new interesting facts and just plain trivia.  Not to mention spelling, as it doesn't matter if you do know the capital of Iceland if you can't spell Reykjavík, which I can't—yet.  But I'm learning.  Here are some of my favorites:

Countries of Europe  Also North America, South America, Africa (up-to-date with South Sudan!) Asia, Oceania, and—if you have more time than I do—the world) and other geography games.

Books of the Old Testament (oh, those minor prophets!)  Also New Testament, Apostles, Seven Deadly Sins, Roman and Greek gods.

U.S. Presidents:  easy version (in order), hard version (random, by term of office).

Elements of the Periodic Table (accepts either "aluminum" or "aluminium").

Here's one for parents:  can you name all the words in The Cat in the Hat?

Interesting trivia:  common U.S. street names.

There's lots more, some more interesting and useful than others.  I find the music category almost useless, although there are a few good ones if you dig, like Symphony Orchestra Instruments. Composers by Country was kind of fun.

Enjoy!  And please post a comment here if you find good quizzes I haven't mentioned.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, July 9, 2011 at 6:17 am | Edit
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altEats, Shoots & Leaves:  The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss (Gotham Books, New York, 2003)

A panda walks into a café.  He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.

“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit.  The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

I’m a panda,” he says, at the door.  “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

Panda.  Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China.  Eats, shoots and leaves.”

Many thanks to DSTB for giving me this book, and thereby redeeming a past mistake on my part, made in response to a mistake on the part of our library.

I’d heard that Eats, Shoots & Leaves was a good book—though I knew little about it, as you will see—and so one day when I found it on tape at our library, I checked it out.  I obviously was not paying attention when I put the cassette in our player, because apparently the wrong tape had been returned to the Eats, Shoots & Leaves packaging.  What I heard was so uninteresting to me that I didn’t even finish the book, and don’t remember it now; it certainly wasn’t about punctuation.

“What?”  you ask.  “There’s something more boring than punctuation?”

Read Eats, Shoots & Leaves.  You’ll never call punctuation boring again.  You’ll laugh, and you’ll also learn.

One thing I learned is something I’ve suspected for a while now:  the rules change when you cross the Atlantic.  It’s not just the spelling (and pronunciation) of that metal out of which we make soda cans and “tin” foil.  Truss encourages us to be sticklers for proper punctuation (hear, hear!)—a difficult enough task when bad examples surround us—but also cautions that sometimes what looks incorrect may be merely a cultural difference.

Be that as it may, the only thing that annoyed me about this short and pleasant book—and only as much as fingernails on a blackboard—was this British author’s persistent use of the British way of combining punctuation and quotation marks.

Many words require hyphens to avoid ambiguity:  words such as “co-respondent”, “re-formed”, “re-mark”.

I would have called that plain wrong, but it turns out that putting the punctuation inside the quotation marks (<ahem> where it belongs!) is an Americanism.

Many words require hyphens to avoid ambiguity:  words such as “co-respondent,” “re-formed,” “re-mark.”

I see the logic of the British system, but it still grates.

I also learned that there’s a reason for another annoyance ; this one is found in my beloved collection of George MacDonald books : What ?  Colons, semicolons, question marks, and exclamation points ! find themselves preceded as well as followed by spaces.  Truss provided the answer to my puzzlement:  these books are facsimile editions, and that now strange punctuation procedure was at one time the Way Things Are Done.

Are you confused by the Way Things Are (or Should Be) Done Now?  Check out Eats, Shoots & Leaves for some seriously amusing enlightenment.

A headline recently provided by my Google News feed illustrates the importance of correct punctuation.

Ratko Mladic arrested, Hillary Clinton in Pakistan

Imagine it now, without the comma:

Ratko Mladic arrested Hillary Clinton in Pakistan

Punctuation matters.  So read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest—and enjoy!

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, June 4, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Edit
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altOutliers:  The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown & Co., New York, 2008)

Malcolm Gladwell’s books always turn my mind upside down.  He may not always be right, but he’s always exciting.

What makes a superstar?  What differentiates Bill Gates from the average computer geek, the Beatles from a garage band, the top athletes from the wannabes?  Talent, certainly, and hard work—but Outliers reveals that the most critical factors are often surprising, even random.

The 10,000 hour rule  Talent, we generally believe, is something we are born with.  Intelligence, musical ability, athletic skill:  you either have it, or you don’t.  There is more excuse than truth there, however.  There is a threshold of talent required in any field, but beyond that, experience is the all-important key.

Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good.  It’s the thing that makes you good.

Study after study has shown that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to achieve world-class expertise in any field.  That’s 2,000 hours per year—the equivalent of a full-time job—for five years.  The opportunity to get those 10,000 hours, at the right place and time, makes superstars.  For Bill Gates it was a series of unusual circumstances, beginning in middle school, that gave him access to computers that even most college students did not have.  Before he dropped out of Harvard to make history, Gates had been programming for well over 10,000 hours.

Thanks to a chance encounter—and some illicit incentive—the Beatles found themselves in a set of gigs that required an extraordinarily long performance commitment:  up to eight hours per night, seven days a week.  It was the making of the group.  By the time they came to America in 1964, they had some 1200 live performances under their guitar straps.

Or, as Shinichi Suzuki said, “Skill equals knowledge plus 10,000 times.”  Another gem from the Suzuki world (though I’ve seen it attributed in several ways, most commonly to Vince Lombardi):  Practice doesn’t make perfect.  Only perfect practice makes perfect.  Clearly one must put more into those 10,000 hours than just time(More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, May 5, 2011 at 5:32 pm | Edit
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alt alt

The Mother Tongue:  English and How It Got that Way (first published 1991, reissued by Perennial 2001) and Troublesome Words (first published 1984, revised 1997, reissued by Penguin Books 2009), both by Bill Bryson

My father and my sister-in-law became hooked on Bill Bryson as a writer; perhaps it is now my turn.

For the first twelve chapters, The Mother Tongue is an accessible, page-turning look at the English language:  where it came from, why it’s so popular, and how it came to be simultaneously one of the easiest and one of the hardest languages to learn. (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, April 25, 2011 at 11:43 am | Edit
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You may remember Michael Merzenich as one of the major researchers mentioned in The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge.  Merzenich is no doubt a better researcher than a speaker; this lecture is not nearly as good—and certainly not as comprehensive—as the book.  But it will take less than 25 minutes of your time, and is worthwhile if only for his explanation of the dangers of white noise—continuous, disorganized sound—to an infant's brain, and for the hope he holds out to those of us who grew up with the depressing idea that once you reach adulthood (or perhaps early teens, or even age six, depending on who you believe), you are basically stuck with the brain you've got.

Michael Merzenich on re-wiring the brain


(Granchild warning:  I don't know if you consider "crap" objectionable, but there are a few instances between 17:00 and 18:30.)

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, April 9, 2011 at 10:04 am | Edit
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Unlike many people, I never dreamed of visiting foreign countries.  I like being home.  If I have family around me and good work to do, why should I go elsewhere?

Well, God clearly intended to broaden me a bit.  Between having family now living overseas and the opportunities provided by Porter’s job, I’ve done a whole lot more travelling than I’d ever intended.

That’s a good thing—and not just because some of that travel has led me to valuable genealogical research opportunities.  Most recently I was struck by how personal it makes world events.

The tragedy in Japan has more impact on me because we were there.  Janet and Stephan each lived and worked in Japan for a year; we met Janet’s friends, went to her church, walked the streets of her town.  That may be why this video struck me harder than the more spectacular footage.  This is not where Janet lived, but it feels familiar, particularly the voice calling over the loudspeakers.  That makes the impact hit home.

I used to wonder why churches sent youth groups on week-long missions trips.  Sure, the kids do some good:  painting, some minor construction work, brightening some children’s lives for a few days.  It’s not that they don’t do work that needs to be done—but wouldn’t it be more cost-effective, and better for the community, to take the money spent sending American kids to places in need and instead hire local people to do the work?

I still think that would be a better use of the money, short-term.  But who can analyze the future value of creating a personal connection between young people and another place, another culture, another way of life?

Study can help build that connection; I still feel tied to Ethiopia because of a mammoth project I did in elementary school on that country.  But study and travel—if we can make it happen for our children, they and the world will be better for it.  I know of nothing more likely to erase false images (both negative and positive) than actual interaction with real people in real places.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, March 16, 2011 at 8:12 am | Edit
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How to Be a High School Superstar:  A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out), by Cal Newport (Broadway Books, New York, 2010)

If I could recommend two books to help a 12-15 year old student prepare for college, it would be Alex and Brett Harris's Do Hard Things and this one.  Some of the political and religious views expressed in the former set my teeth on edge, but it's well worth the effort to get past that reaction, because Brett and Alex write well, and what they are saying is incredibly important, not just for teens who share their beliefs, but for everyone, of any age.

How to Be a High School Superstar is altogether different in focus, but I can boil the best of both books down to this:  Life doesn’t begin when you graduate from high school. or college, or grad school.  You can do hard things, good things, amazing things, now.  Or, rather, in a little while from now, if you are willing to put forth some effort in the right direction. (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, March 12, 2011 at 7:02 am | Edit
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Don't you just love it when an otherwise obscure reference clicks in your mind?

First, one of my favorite non-family blogs, The Occasional CEO, has a post entitled Steampunk in Pictures.  Steampunk, Wikipedia tells me, is a subgenre of science fiction.  Wait—I cut my teeth on science fiction, and I'd never heard of it?  Turns out steampunk came of age during the 1980's and 90's, when our kids were cutting their teeth and I was too busy to keep up with that part of my former life. (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, December 5, 2010 at 3:12 pm | Edit
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I can’t quite bring myself to say directly that I’m thankful for television, because I believe it has done great harm in our society, but it would be wrong to ignore the enormous educational and cultural benefits this technology has conferred.  As strong a proponent as I am of the written word, some second-hand experiences are much better approached in a video format.  From African safaris to Wagnerian opera, video provides formerly elite experiences to the hoi polloi.  It’s not the real thing—but even the very rich cannot experience everything directly.

Thus I am also thankful for the technology that has enabled us to be masters of this medium.  In my early days we had no television at all, but it didn’t take long to become enslaved.  Life was planned around when favorite shows were on, because if you weren’t watching at that very hour, you missed it.  I remember (to my shame) being reduced to tearful anger because our babysitter wouldn’t change the channel from her favorite show to mine.

It's true that we are, as a society, still enthralled.  But we don’t need to be.  We have the tools to use the medium for good purposes and ignore all the rest.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, November 24, 2010 at 6:12 am | Edit
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You’re surprised I waited so long for this one, right?  I value home education so highly that my gratitude for that privilege almost goes without saying.  (But gratitude should never go without saying.)   Because my joyous thanksgiving for the legal protection that homeschoolers now enjoy cannot be overstated, I will understate it here.

Educational opportunities have expanded for everyone, not just homeschoolers, over the last 50 years. (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, November 21, 2010 at 6:07 am | Edit
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MMG is one of my Facebook friends. I've known her since before she was born, so technically she's more the daughter of our friends than my own friend.  Yet thanks to Facebook, in recent years I've had more contact with her, and know more about what's going on in her life, than with her parents.

This is a particular blessing, not only because it keeps up a connection that would otherwise have been lost, but because I enjoy her perspective on life.  She and I differ and disagree in multitudinous ways, from thoughts about God to the importance of televised hockey games.  As Hercule Poirot is fond of saying, she "gives one furiously to think."  But best of all, she is adept at finding (and posting) links from all over the Web, some of which lead me down very interesting paths.  Here's a recent one:

A cool presentation of part of a talk by Sir Ken Robinson.

And here's one more by Robinson, a second TED lecture that also overlaps a bit with the above .  With all Robinson has been saying about education, this is the first time I've heard him mention homeschooling (very near the end of the lecture).  He's neither positive nor negative, but acknowledges it as a legitimate form, which is progress, anyway.  (This one is only about 18 minutes long.)

I've written about Robinson before, notably in:  Sir Ken Robinson, Creativity, and Education, and also a review of his book, The Element.  And of course I can't miss the opportunity once again to plug John Taylor Gatto's The Underground History of American Education, which confirms and elaborates on what Robinson says about the industrial model of education.

Here are a few side notes I've taken from the above talks.

  • There are no school systems anywhere that Robinson knows of that teaches dance every day, giving it as much importance as mathematics—which he believes to be a mistake.  Long ago I concluded that music should be given that same importance; that learning music should be no more optional than learning to read or to brush one's teeth.  But I apologize to our dancing daughter for not recognizing the similar importance of dance.  Sigh—if only the value of dance had been separated from silly little girls in frilly tutus, I might have been more understanding.
  • "We still educate children by batches.  We put them through the system by age group.  Why do we do that?  Why is there this assumption that the most important thing kids have in common is how old they are?  It's like the most important thing about them is their date of manufacture."  Amen and amen.
  • Since 1970 in America, spending on education has more than doubled in terms of real money, class size has steadily declined, but literacy has remained the same.  Robinson believes this supports his thesis that the education system cannot be reformed but requires revolutionary change.  John Taylor Gatto and John Holt gave much of their lives to reforming the schools, and in the end concluded it couldn't be done, instead throwing their support and work into alternatives.  Robinson still has hope that the revolution can occur within the public educational system.
  • The paradigm shift Robinson recommends is that we discard the industrial model on which our current view of education is based, and instead adopt an agricultural model.  I believe he's right, but with all the diversions he took in his longer talk, I wish he had pointed out that many would claim our schools are indeed based on an agricultural model:  that of agri-business and the CAFO.  The agricultural model we need for education is that of Polyface Farms, in which the "pigness of the pig"—the individuality of the student—is respected.
  • Robinson has many important things to say about schools.  But for all that I agree with him, he is working from a view of humans—of life, the universe, and everything—so fundamentally different from my own that it's a wonder we have so much in common when it comes to education.  He comes to his conclusions based on his belief that human beings are insignificant in relation to the cosmos, that people are basically good but wrong circumstances cause us to go bad, and that we have risen from a lower state and continue to improve.  My own conclusions come from the Christian belief that human beings are of infinite value (importance being unrelated to size), that we have within us the potential to be far better than we can imagine, but that the evil streak within us is innate and cannot be eliminated by improving our circumstances.  And yet those fundamental differences lead us to many of the same conclusions!  Maybe we're right.  Wink
Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, October 21, 2010 at 7:32 am | Edit
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I am republishing my initial comments, made in December 2008, when I checked The History of the Ancient World out of the library then discovered I didn't have time to read it.  Now, nearly two years later, I have finally read the book, and my additional comments are added below.

The History of the Ancient World:  From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome, by Susan Wise Bauer (W. W. Norton, New York, 2007)

Despite having some initial negative reactions to Susan Wise Bauer, I've continued to find her work delightful and invaluable.  (See my reviews of The Well-Trained Mind, The Story of the World, and The Well-Educated Mind.)  I haven't read more than a small part of The History of the Ancient World, but borrowed it from the library in order to determine whether or not to buy it for myself.  I've so enjoyed—and learned from—listening to Jim Weiss read The Story of the World, which was written for elementary-age children, that I wondered if Bauer could bring as much delight into a history book for adults.  (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, September 3, 2010 at 6:43 am | Edit
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How to Listen to and Understand Great Music, by Robert Greenberg; a Teaching Company lecture

I've said it before:  For accessible, serious, high-quality, adult-level educational materials (DVD, CD, mp3 download) it's hard to beat The Teaching Company.  Robert Greenberg is one of my favorite lecturers, and this—so far—my favorite of his courses. (More)

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, September 2, 2010 at 6:12 am | Edit
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