Educating in a world of Robots

The problem with the way we educate and the things we value in education is that it isn’t preparing students to work in a world of robots. I don’t mean C3PO and R2D2. I’m talking specifically about a world in which most people have access to and actively utilize artificial intelligence.

What’s artificial intelligence?

This is important to understand before moving forward. When I talk about artificial intelligence (AI) I’m talking about machine learning. The idea is that a computer (or several computers) can take a large amount of data, run algorithms and software on that data, and use it to make decisions and predictions. AI already exists in many of our lives.

  • Have you ever asked SIRI, Google Now, Cortana, or Amazon Echo anything? – AI

  • You know how Google photos (and other software) looks for faces in photos and groups them together accordingly? – AI

  • Remember when that IBM computer, Watson, beat those guys in Jeopardy? You guessed it – AI

  • Cars that drive themselves? – AI

Here’s a few other ways AI probably also impacts our life right now.

Before I get into how this should change the way we educate, you need to listen to this four minute segment of The Tim Ferris Show podcast in which Tim interviews Kevin Kelly, the co-creator of Wired Magazine.

Go directly to the part of the interview where Kevin talks about how artificial intelligence will be as disruptive as the industrial revolution (by clicking the link), come back to this post, and read on.


If what Kevin says is right, and it probably is, then we need to drastically rethink how we educate and what we value in education. Here’s a few skills we need everyone in society to have in a world that’s drastically different from anything we’ve ever known.

Question

Answers are easy and will only get easier.

You may be thinking, “not all answers are easy.”

You’re right. But many of the answers that are difficult to answer are generated by quality questions first. These questions are often deeper than most realize. In fact, the question is often the most important part of the process. If you’re answering a worthwhile question then it’s likely that you’ve spent some time framing and developing it. Take this example Warren Berger cites in his book A More Beautiful Question.

The developing world has a shortage of incubators. For years, health organizations and philanthropic groups asked the logical question: How can we get more incubators to the places that need them? A relatively straight-forward answer to that question was – donate them. But that was the right answer to the wrong question. This led to thousands of incubators being donated to poor nations, “only to end up in ‘incubator graveyards,'” as the New York Times reported. … The better question, which was eventually asked by health officials working on the problem, was Why aren’t people in the developing world using the incubators they have?

As it turned out, the problem was that people in the developing world didn’t have parts to fix the incubators (and other donated medical equipment) when they broke. The solution became to build incubators out of mostly car parts, as these were much more abundant.

Had the question not been reframed people would’ve continued with the easy answer to the wrong question. The technologies that will develop over the next decade will require a society that can ask the right questions.

And if you still don’t believe me, here’s an Einstein quote, and here are a few more if you still don’t buy it.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution I would spend 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes?” – Albert Einstein

Create

Consider what computers can do now. They can drive cars, analyze photographs, win chess games, and predict the song you want to listen to next, among other things.

Consider what computers can’t do now. They can’t design a more fuel efficient car. They can’t take a photograph of your child that’s worth hanging in your living room. They can’t develop new games. They can’t write a song.

They can’t create. At least not yet.

This leaves the creation to people. Everybody says this and it’s because they’re right and it’s true.

Assembly line work is dead or dying.

We can’t educate for that world. We need to educate for a world that we don’t even understand and can’t predict. But given the information we have now it certainly seems that people that can create, or work on teams that create, will be the ones that are least likely to be replaced by robots.

Reason

Technology will bring with it many solutions but also many problems. More and more society will be at the mercy of algorithms.

Consider how Facebook tweaked news feeds to determine how it affected people’s moods. Are we, as a society, okay with that?

Kevin Kelly brought up an interesting point in regards to self-driving cars.

Should the car favor the driver or the passenger in an imminent accident?

How far do we take our knowledge of genetics and human genome modification?

To what extent do we sacrifice our privacy in the name of safety?

What are the ethics of making physical attacks through computers?

There are a plethora of other questions that will arise. With great change comes difficult questions that society will have to answer. Members of society will need the ability to reason logically. They need to be able to reason in contexts where there is no simple answer. Students that think most problems are simple and straightforward often become adults that think the same, failing to realize the complexities in problems. A healthy democracy thrives on a society’s ability to have healthy, rational discourse. Anybody that’s seen social media or cable news can see this slipping away quickly, and I fear a society that can’t think beyond the soundbites will fall to those that know how to control them.


We can teach these skills in classrooms. We can develop our classrooms in ways that foster questioning, creation, and reasoning. But this means that many of us need to shift how we teach what we teach. We can’t simply continue to value only answers, giving students the illusion that the world they’ll live in will be simple. A world in which the important questions don’t have four choices and a bubble to fill in.

I’m not arguing that knowing is dead. But “knowing stuff” will certainly become less and less valuable as knowing what to do with the stuff you know becomes more valuable. The skills that we need to know (questioning, creating, learning, reasoning, etc.) help us connect the knowledge “dots” in the world. It will be more important to know how to attain certain knowledge than to have/store it. A person needs to be able to find information, skeptically analyze it, then integrate it and apply it to the information they already have.

If we can’t help students develop these skills then we’ll fail as educators. Our job is to prepare our students for the world they’ll live most of their lives in. In many ways that world is shrouded in unknowns. But the skills I’ve outlined above will almost certainly always be needed to thrive.

I am not going to be the one that buries my head in the sand and in 20 years says, “I didn’t know it was coming.”

And I get that t’s scary. Assembly line education makes sense and is straightforward. It’s what most of grew up with. It makes sense.

Teach vocab word. Practice vocab word. Test vocab word. Know vocab word. Learn next vocab word. And so on.

See nail. Grab hammer. Strike nail.

The problem is that computers are good at that. Better than people and only going to get better.

The scary part is that teaching the skills outlined above is fuzzier. It’s difficult to isolate it down to a data point. It requires teachers with knowledge of how to teach the skills and trust in the teachers to teach them. This is scary for teachers and administrators and probably most people in education. But it’s the skill set that the average member of society will need in the near future and it’s our prerogative to teach it.

Advertisements

“Nah, you could do something great.”

Educators, teachers specifically, have a serious perception problem. No doubt many teachers recognize this but in the last month or two this has become painfully clear to me.

The other day I was asked, as I’m sure most teachers are, “why did you want to become a teacher?” I explained a few of the reasons and then they asked me if I had siblings and what they did. I told them that I had one brother and that he works at IBM. I jokingly said that he frequently reminds me that “he could get me a job working there” so if they bugged me enough I might not show up on Monday.

Student: “Wait, Mr. Cresswell, you could work for IBM??”

Me: “Well, yeah, probably. There’s a lot of other things I could be doing besides teaching.”

Shock came over the student. I would choose teaching over other careers that other math majors pursue.

One more anecdote. Today a student asked me if I was going to teach for thirty years to which I said I wasn’t sure but that I could see myself teaching that long. From there he said, “Nah Mr. Cresswell you could do something great.”

Hey, damn it, I thought I was doing something great.

The public’s perception (at least a fair amount of the public) of the teaching profession is kind of garbage. I understand that it’s not all of the public but I think a lot of people think to themselves, “yeah teaching is probably tough but I could probably do a decent job at it. I mean I did spend twelve years in school…” I would argue that this perception contributes to a lot of the top down decisions that frustrate us the most.

Teaching well is an incredibly difficult pursuit. It takes years to become a high-quality teacher and that’s only if the years are spent in deliberate, reflective practice. With this, students, parents, administrators, and laws are constantly changing, creating a state of near constant flux. We do enjoy some benefits, such as summers and holidays off. However, I’ve yet to take a summer off (conferences, grad school, odd jobs, etc.) and holiday breaks are nearly always partially occupied by hours of work (planning, grading, etc.). This is not to complain, but merely to point out a reality true for most educators. The expertise it takes to ensure knowledge is somehow attained by another individual is too frequently taken for granted.

Lest we forget that if we, as teachers, do our job well then we help mold generations of critical, creative thinkers.

And that, I believe, makes teaching a worthy and, dare I say, great profession.

Unfortunately the notion that teaching is easy or that “those who can’t do, teach” is a permeating misconception and it hurts our profession in multiple ways, with the lack of trust and respect being the worst symptom.

Three Arguments for a Mathematical “SSR”

I’m sure that at some point in your life you’ve either heard of or participated in sustained silent reading in school. The idea is that students simply spend a set amount of time reading anything they enjoy for an extended period of time. I remember doing it in middle and elementary school. Every English student in the high school in which I currently teach does it as well. In fact, since it’s implementation there has been a notable increase in our reading scores. This got me thinking….what would the mathematical equivalent of this look like and would it be valuable?

Choice

I think it might have a few components. One of the main premises of SSR is you get to choose what you read. In the realm of mathematics I don’t doubt that many students would need guidance in this area for a couple of reasons. First, many students see mathematics through the lens of their math books and previous math books that led to their current math book. This means that they are sheltered from a lot of math they might find interesting. Second many don’t know what doing math is like. For instance, have a look at this video by Vi Hart (who has one of my favorite Youtube Channels) in which by doodling she makes parabolas incredibly interesting. This is an exceptional example of where simply playing with mathematics can take you. Now, I understand that her mathematical background allowed her to draw and discuss parts of the video that would be over many student’s heads. The point is that there are many access points to mathematics that are both playful and creative. The teacher would have to front load some of the explanation for what constitutes mathematics, to broaden their horizons.

Being able to choose the mathematics students work on gives them some ownership of the content, even if it’s only for a small part of the week. Math catches a bad rep. Even certain students in my AP calculus would hesitate to brag about their love of math and a number of them don’t like math. I’m not contending that after implementing some sort of mathematical SSR that everyone will be running around jumping up and down about how great math is. I’m simply contending that if students view of mathematics broadens into something they think is enjoyable, the subject in general might be viewed in a better light. I would also hope that there would be a “spillover” effect in math class. This would stem from the notion that, although “what you’re telling me now isn’t particularly interesting, I can see that there are parts of this subject that are.” The goal would be that students would be (even slightly) more motivated to learn other mathematics.

Thinking

I constantly preach to my students that if you want to get better at something you have to work at it. No one wakes up one morning with the ability to shoot three pointers at 60%. Likewise, no one wakes up one morning with the ability to do and fully comprehend integral calculus. To this end, if we can get students thinking mathematically for a short period each week I believe that ultimately students would become better mathematical thinkers and problem solvers. Two of the critical components to the success of this is that a) students have enough time each week to make it worthwhile and b) students engage in activities that make them reason and use their logical thinking skills.

Focus

I don’t think I’m alone when I observe that many students in my class are trying to do math with a computer sitting next to them, lighting up every 15 seconds. This makes any kind of extended focus and concentration difficult. How are students supposed to “make sense of problems and persevere in solving them” if their phone is constantly distracting them from what their work? To this end a mathematical SSR would be phone/distraction free. I’m not sure if English classrooms implement it this way, but I imagine they do. One of the goals of this would be that students get better at concentrating on problems for longer than a minute or two. My hope is that students would begin to see value in distraction free work. They might even increase their ability to focus.

Nuts and Bolts

A few things remain to be worked out. For instance, what are the guidelines for something mathematical. Vi Hart spent a bunch of time drawing parabolas but the result was much more mathematical than if most of my students did the same. Here’s a list of activities that, I think, would be fit this time nicely.

  • Logic Puzzles
  • Creating Desmos Art
  • Sudoku, Kakuro, etc.
  • Reading and playing games on Math Munch
  • Something they find interesting from (gasp) the textbook
  • Watching Youtube videos from approved Youtube channels (I’m not sold on this one…)
  • Maker Stuff (Little Bits, Arduino, etc.)
  • Logic Games
  • Games (Chess, Guillotine, etc.)
  • Coding
  • Others (If you shoot me ideas then I’d love to add them to the list…)

This time would be explicitly not for remediation. I can think of no worse way for a student to spend this time than being forced to do math they don’t find interesting and are already struggling with. I can see the temptation for a teacher to fill this chunk of time with remediation but that completely misses the point.

Results

I have to believe that the end result would be better mathematical understanding in general. I also think that (another gasp) test scores would go up as a result. Many standardized test questions test reasoning more than given math skills anyway. I have no research to prove this, I just think that if students do more mathematical thinking, their math skills will improve. And to be quite honest, if the results are simply more students improving their reasoning ability and gaining a new appreciation for mathematics then I’d deem it a success.

On a final note, I think it’s important that the teacher does this with the students. This models what is expected and gives the teacher some time to explore the subject that they love. It would contribute to a culture of mathematics in the classroom and sends a message to the students that this time is valuable to the teacher as well.

This is just an idea that’s been pinging around my head for several months and I’m finally getting it out. I’d really love to hear feedback on this, including but not limited to “this idea sucks because…”.

%22The essence of mathematics resides in its freedom.%22

Is learning easy?

Something I’ve been thinking about for the last year is whether or not learning should be easy. I can think of times when I learned a great deal and it didn’t feel difficult at all. I can think of other times that learning was difficult and I didn’t feel like I learned very much. These are a few of the questions that bounce through my mind.

  • Is there some kind of payoff for learning something that is difficult to learn, beyond simply the thing you learned?
  • Is everything we learn ultimately worth learning, regardless of how difficult it was to learn?
  • If we teach things that are consistently difficult to learn then how do make sure those learning experiences end up being valuable?

I try to think about these questions from my students’ perspective. For instance, I dragged my extended (slow pace) algebra II students through a unit on quadratics. Realistically speaking my students were never going to use most of the mathematical concepts that we covered, at least not directly. So why do we teach them these things that are so difficult for many of them to learn (especially at a conceptual level)? Or maybe a better question is what do we tell them about learning when we teach them concepts they’ll never use and find difficult? What message are we sending about learning? A lot of algebra II (a requirement for every student in the state of Michigan) is an absolute struggle for many students, so how do we make this struggle meaningful?

In my mind we have a couple of options. The first option is to try to reduce the curriculum to it’s simplest form. We give the students the tricks, shortcuts, calculator programs, and everything we can to get them to put the correct answer in the blank on the assessments. This way we can get as many kids through the curriculum as painlessly as possible. This method is fairly attractive and I know I’ve been guilty of it on several occasions. The glaring problem with it is that we are essentially wasting the students’ time. We are not creating opportunities for them to think critically or grow as learners (not to mention how this destroys the beauty of mathematics). Also, it’s been my experience that students don’t retain the concepts over the long term.

With this, I often consider another path. Maybe instead we take an approach that encourages critical and independent thinking. A model that allows students to construct the concepts within learning experiences that, although seemingly more difficult, allows them to grow as learners and mathematical thinkers. This route is more difficult for a number of reasons. First, developing these kinds of tasks is difficult. (Although, to be fair, it is getting easier. Consider the MTBOS search engine this list of Common Core aligned problem based curriculum maps or the power of online professional learning networks.) Second, students hate it. (Okay, maybe hate’s a strong word, maybe it’s not every student, and I think the culture of the classroom can make them hate it less, but I’ll have more on that in another post.) In addition, there is a concern that we won’t get through all the content. If you teach in trimesters, where a student might have a different teacher from trimester to trimester, this becomes especially important. From a teacher’s perspective this option can seem daunting. We are going to take kids that already (probably) don’t like a subject partially because they find it difficult and then we make it more difficult for them. For many educators this choice is simple. Go for option number one.

I would add one note about the second option. We wouldn’t be making the content more difficult because we are evil. We’d be trying to create valuable struggle. The idea would be that we help them build the concepts so students would be doing more thinking during class and the teacher would stop giving away the interesting stuff so frequently.

I think most educators, given infinite time and patience, would pick the second option to implement. So the big question becomes:

If the second option is more difficult for both the student and the teacher, does the payoff (if there is any) outweigh the difficulties in implementing it?

To be honest with you I don’t know the answer. My idealism pulls me hard towards the second option but my practicality pulls me in the other direction. Also, not having infinite time and patience is a big factor. I apologize if this post doesn’t feel like it has a resolution. It doesn’t, because I don’t. However I’d love if it started a conversation. I think this is something that all math teachers and departments should be having an open discussion about.

It’s the Soft Skills!

This trimester I don’t teach in a flipped classroom. Precalc is done for the year, AP calculus is not flipped, and Algebra II is taught by myself and another teacher and is typically done very traditionally. This being the case, my goal this trimester is to “inject” solid higher level thinking activities into my lessons. Last year when I taught it (the first time) was very traditional (Lecture, assignment, repeat). The catch 22 of this that I haven’t had these students all year. They are coming to me from traditional classrooms and are not familiar with the different format of my classes (mega whiteboards, relaxed deadlines, higher level thinking, collaboration, etc.). I wanted to reflect on a few things that I noticed in the last couple days that I may have taken for granted.

Collaboration

For some reason, in the back of my mind, I just assumed that juniors in high school knew how to collaborate. This is not true. At least it isn’t true for my students. As you can see in the image my class is set up in pods and each day they come to class with a mega whiteboard and a few markers at their pod. (This is to encourage collaboration on “normal” days, not just days in which we have special activities.) Today I gave them an activity to help them discover the connection between combinations, binomial expansion, and Pascal’s triangle. I prefaced the activity with an emphasis on the need to collaborate and to share ideas with each other. I noticed that even the “best” groups struggled with this.

There were several specific problems I noticed. First, students didn’t use the mega whiteboards very often. Even when I explicitly said, “hey, this would be a good problem to do on the board.” Second, there was minimal communication between group members that “got it” and those that were still struggling. Third, there was minimal critique of each others work. for instance if one person had the correct answer, in many case everyone else just copied down the answer.

Tomorrow I will be making a point to talk about the best ways to collaborate. I failed to recognize their lack of skills in this area and I need to do a better job of setting them up for success in the area of collaboration. I also need to continue to try to build a community in which wrong answers are not shunned but are view as just a step in the learning process.

How do you help your students to collaborate more effectively? What do you do to help your students feel like they can share without the fear associated with being wrong?

Communication

This is intimately connected to collaboration, but my students ability to communicate mathematics needs improvement. I think the more I help my students with this the better collaboration will be. How can I expect students to collaborate if they can’t communicate the math to each other?


 

I hope that I’ll continue to see improvement in these areas as the trimester continues. Please give me any ideas that you have to increase students’ ability to communicate and collaborate. I’d love to hear them! Image