"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

What to Think and How to Think

In the stock market, there are "shell corporations". A shell corporation, according to Investopedia is a corporation without active business operations or significant assets. Shell corporations are not necessarily illegal or illegitimate, as they often serve an important role for potential startups. Additionally, shell corporations can act as a tax avoidance for legitimate businesses. When a corporation ceases its operations, shell corporations do leave a bad taste to any investor. Some of these entities made promises of a lucrative ventures, but without holding any real substance, investors end up holding the bag without anything in it. It is easy to fall for something that is attractive on the surface. In a way, investing looks into the future and oftentimes, this vision is not grounded on something reliable. Promises are frequently attractive even when these are truly empty. What attracts people to these unrealistic offers is a general lack of due diligence. Evaluation and investigation take too much time. Thus, laziness is sometimes the reason. Second, when things seem to sound and look good, there is a tendency to embrace them as truth. No one wants to be told to stop sipping the kool aid.

Unfortunately, even advocacy of rationality has fallen into unquestioned beliefs that no longer require careful and thoughtful examination. People are quick to embrace the notion that schools should teach students "how to think", without grasping what this notion actually means or entails. Critical thinking has taken center stage and knowledge seems to have been relegated to leprosy. Those who advocate that schools must focus on teaching students "how to think" are obviously neither familiar nor have any experience with what actually occurs inside classrooms. It is important to appreciate knowledge. And from time to time we need to be reminded how important content is. E.D. Hirsch, Jr. sums this up nicely on the web site of his Core Knowledge Foundation:

Why Knowledge Matters

Is it really important that kids know things?  Shouldn’t they just learn to think?
It's natural to assume that teaching lots of "stuff" isn't important anymore when students can simply Google anything they need to know. But you probably take for granted how much "walking-around knowledge" you carry inside your head—and how much it helps you. If you have a rich base of background knowledge, it's easier to learn more. And it's much harder to read with comprehension, solve problems and think critically if you don't.
The idea that we have to choose between knowledge and thinking skills is a false choice. Kids need both. “The richer the knowledge base, the more smoothly and effectively cognitive processes — the very ones that teachers target — operate,” notes University of Virginia cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham. "So, the more knowledge students accumulate the smarter they become."
An education grounded in shared knowledge of history, science, art and music is also the great equalizer. The Core Knowledge Foundation believes that for the sake of academic excellence, greater equity, and higher literacy, elementary and middle schools need to teach a coherent, cumulative, and content-specific core curriculum.
Our society cannot afford a two-tiered system in which the affluent have access to a superior education, while everyone else is subjected to a dull and incoherent classroom experience. Academic excellence, educational equity and fairness demand a strong foundation of knowledge for all learners.
— E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

E.D. Hirsch, Jr., a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, is professor emeritus of education and humanities at the University of Virginia. Wikipedia has the following description of Hirsch:
In 1996, Hirsch published The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them. In it, Hirsch proposed that Romanticized, anti-knowledge theories of education are prevalent in America, and are not only the cause of America's lackluster educational performance, but also a cause of widening inequalities in class and race. Hirsch portrays the focus of American educational theory as one which attempts to give students intellectual tools such as "critical thinking skills", but which denigrates teaching any actual content, labeling it "mere rote learning". Hirsch states that it is this attitude which has failed to develop knowledgeable, literate students.
Hirsch also produced a series of books, each one focusing on the content knowledge that a given grade level must cover. Below is an example:

Visit http://books.coreknowledge.org/home.php?cat=298 to see this book and others in this series.
E.D. Hirsch, Jr. recently wrote an article in the Atlantic as another attempt to help people understand his positions on education reform. The article, "How Two Poems Helped Launch a School Reform Movement", starts with:
"As I turn 85, I find myself looking back on my own intellectual history with Core Knowledge. I've written four books on the theory behind all this activity. But the thought occurs: Perhaps sharing my personal epiphanies might be a good way of helping others understand the program's character and scientific origins. More important, perhaps it would help mitigate two misconceptions: that reading is a technical skill and that Core Knowledge is impelled by reactionary nostalgia."
The first set of verses that Hirsch talked about in the article is part of the poem, "Valediction Forbidding Mourning" by John Donne. Hirsch recalls an argument he had with an undergraduate student at Yale sixty years ago. The student, not knowing that "mourning" did not use to have its limited connotation of being associated with death, thought the poem was about someone dying. When the student was told of the context and therefore the proper interpretation of the poem, that John Donne was really about to embark on a journey, the student simply argued that it was the reader's right to interpret a poem the way a reader sees it fits his or her world. The next poem Hirsch discussed is Wordsworth's poem:


A SLUMBER did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seem'd a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Roll'd round in earth's diurnal course
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

There are two interpretations of the above lines. One evokes a sense of futility while another extends death to becoming part of nature. And it is only with familiarity with other verses that Wordsworth had written that it becomes obvious that the latter interpretation agrees more with what Words worth originally intended:

To every natural form, rock, fruits, or flower,
Even the loose stones that cover the highway,
I gave a moral life: I saw them feel,
Or linked them to some feeling: the great mass 
Lay bedded in a quickening soul, and all
That I beheld respired with inward meaning.

The fact that prior knowledge guides someone who reads is important to emphasize. Hirsch then writes the following to make the case of why knowledge is necessary:
...At the same time as I was doing this research, other studies were beginning to show that relevant prior knowledge -- information already stored in one's long-term memory -- is the single most important factor in reading comprehension. It's more important than average vocabulary level, syntactic complexity, and all the other technical characteristics of texts used by schools to determine grade-appropriate texts. 
Schools continue to give the impression that there is such a thing as a general level of reading skill. One student is said to be reading on grade level, while another is said to be some precise number of grade levels ahead or behind. All of this makes sense when talking about decoding skills -- the ability to translate those marks on the page into words. But when it comes to reading comprehension, there is no such thing as a general level of reading skill. That single score that a student receives on a test masks the fact that the test itself had a variety of passages on a variety of topics. When the content in a passage is familiar, students read it well. When it is unfamiliar, they read it poorly. 
Decades of cognitive science research boil down to this: For understanding a text, strategies help a little, and knowledge helps a lot. I consider this the single most important scientific insight for improving American schooling that has been put forward in the past half century. But unless one is familiar with the research, it's hard to overcome the cast of mind that regards reading and writing as a set of technical skills -- just as devotees of the New Criticism had done....
Hirsch makes these arguments from the point of view of literature. As a natural scientist, I think this argument is even more powerful when it comes to science, technology, engineering and math. People are perhaps too quick to clamor for "critical thinking" without seeing that a simple lecture on entropy makes their nose bleed....







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