Tag Archive for education

The Abridged Versions of Everything

It occurs to me that the problem is probably not the use of “abridged” versions of any topic in education.

When you’re in fourth grade and you learn about any given subject, be it mathematics, history, grammar… You receive a shorthand version. What are considered to be key elements have been selected. They have been presented in a format that is something that the fourth grade mind can get its head around.

As you get older and you revisit these topics, you are exposed to how little you actually know. You find out that everything goes much deeper than the initial casual brush against it you had when you were a fourth grader.

But, for some strange reason, fourth or fifth grade (in US education terms) seems to be where many people’s knowledge sticks. Those are the facts, as abbreviated as they might be, that stay with people until long into adulthood. And I would argue that these early simplified forms are important. In fact, they are very important. They provide a beginning and an ending to a complex topic, they package it into something that most kids can learn in the space a school year. 

Every teacher has had a student who once they figure out 1+1 = 2 they want to know what happens when you try to -2 from one.  And, while that may be beyond the boundaries of the current lesson, because the lesson is directed at conveying the basic fact that 1+1 = 2,  negative numbers at this point become a distraction. But just because they are not part of the *current* lesson doesn’t mean they have ceased to exist. They don’t go away because you’re not exposed to them in the early stages of your education.

The same can be argued of history, of politics. The versions of history that you’ve learned in fourth grade are sanitized. They are merely a high concept that is designed to be as accessible to as many fourth grade minds as possible. The current versions may leave a lot to be desired, but it’s not the abridgement itself that’s the problem. It’s the lens through which those edits were made.

That deeper breadth of content is out there. The facts don’t cease to exist because your fourth grade textbook skipped them. That means a new lens can be applied in light of everything we know now, and a new abridgement can be designed, one that’s in better keeping with the realities of the diverse and flourishing future that everyone says they’re reaching for.

In fourth grade we were taught that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.  When you take a high school class you learn that Columbus was an asshole and that history is kind only to the ones who write it.  When you get to college you learn just how deep the damage went.  You learn, if you choose to continue pursuing the topic, that fourth grade is merely a nursery rhyme compared to the historical fact that underpins it.

I do not advocate for teaching calculus in fourth grade (without some consideration for special case students). I do not advocate for teaching the full depth and breath of history in that same year. The shorthand is important, the digestibility and easy remembrance of events on the timeline is key. But as those lessons were first originally designed to be celebrate-able in the service of a very one-sided historical identity. We now have the opportunity to create new ones, more inclusive ones. We have an opportunity to upscale the selection of facts to raise a generation with a better historical identity. A generation that can build on the mistakes and successes of the past, rather than remaining trapped in repetition.

If fourth and fifth grade are where knowledge sticks, lets make a change to better select that knowledge. We get to decide who we are. No other species on this planet has that privilege. Let’s leverage it for the next generation.

Calling it now!

Image via: http://vidartop.blogspot.com/


I don’t actually have a dog in this fight.  I make it a policy to be platform agnostic.  When I first started working in entertainment and games you had Unix boxes, PC’s and Macs.  Depending on who I was working for, or what project I had in hand at the time, I had to be able to use all three fluently, a fluency I’ve managed to maintain.

But, for the next iteration of computer users, the ones who, in 10-15 years are going to be running the new tech startups, the future is going to be Google.

Once upon a time, Apple did something really clever.  They introduced computers into the elementary schools and by doing so they laid the groundwork for their branding and their technology, they had some hiccups along the way, but for a long time anyone who didn’t need higher-order access (like programmers) preferred Apple.

Now it’s Google that’s in the classrooms.  The Chromebook is rapidly becoming the standard for hands-on computer learning in classes.  Now, granted, these are cloud-based “dumb-terminals”, you “can’t” (notwithstanding the cleverness of students) load anything new onto them, you can only run the apps made available by the school.

So you have a large, upcoming population intimately familiar with Google and Chrome.  They are going to be familiar with how those systems work, how to work with objects in the cloud.  They will be comfortably ensconced within Google’s own walled garden (granted, the wall is only knee-high compared to Apple’s battlements) and they are going to be comfortable with the Google ecosystem.  They will be used to having a single account to access everything from any device, and the price points will make sure that Google derived-technology remains accessible to everyone.

They aren’t going to take out Apple’s market by going head-to head in smartphones, or even in laptops.  Instead they have targeted the future, and unless Apple starts to move back towards accessibility via education, one day they are going to wake up and find that they are trapped back in the boutique market they worked so hard to escape from.



A Sherlockian Future

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like an empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has difficulty in laying his hands upon it.” -Sherlock Holmes

It’s an interesting idea, keeping only the information you *need* in your head at any given point in time. How efficient would we be, how situation smart, if we only had to remember the useful things, and we could dump the rest. Like everyone knows, as much as you might like to dump that entire year of Freshman Algebra, sooner or later you’re going to need it (IMHO “solve for X” may have been one of the top ten most useful bits of information I retain from my ill-spent youth).

And now, with a mobile device on every hip and search algorithms that can unbend even the strangest of search parameters, we are at a moment when this is entirely possible. We can stuff our brains with the information we need to have on hand every moment of every day and we can find an expert answer to any new question as long as we have an active internet connection. Yes, at the moment it seems that most people are taking advantage of this to keep the names of the newest pop sensation’s six toy poodles at top of mind, or are using the power of search to look for shirtless pics of the newest teenage boy-band, but keep in mind that we are truly in a transitional phase, as a society. Like microwave ovens and horseless carriages, the rational use scenarios for always on wireless access are still evolving.

With all this specialized information at the tips of our fingers (quite literally, in some cases) are we looking at a next step in the way society views the utilization of information? Will ones measure of education no longer be a reflection of what they can hold in their head, but how quickly they can find, and apply, the correct solution? Within recent memory we have gone from pages of long-form division and multiplication to being able to properly execute these forms on a calculator. Websites and Wikipedia are acceptable sources of reference in many classrooms (I remember the first time I tried to quote an online source **yikes**)

Finding the good information (the “good” sources) is an art unto itself. Being able to act upon that, to actually internalize and put the information to practical use is another skill set entirely. But right now, they are add-ons. They are “stealth” skills that are nice to have, but are not exactly the kind of thing you can put on a resume. It’s like being MacGuyver, you might be able to save the world, but trying to put that skill set on a resume just gets your paper run through the shredder a little bit more quickly than the next guy.

I have the good fortune to know a couple of these people. Their skills are knows, mostly, via anecdotal evidence and word of mouth. It’s their reputation that precedes them, rather than their education that defines them. So think, for the moment, we are looking at something that is hugely valuable in an employee, in a work partner, but it’s still something that is hard to codify. Once we do figure out how to select for it though, then we may be looking at a shift.