Last week, lots of people were outraged that a 14yo kid was handcuffed and arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school. Some folks tried to point out that such extracurricular projects should never be brought to school... because we live in a "day and age" of terror or something. That suggestion -- that kids need to somehow restrict their enthusiasm for trying to impress their teachers with something they've made outside of school -- is awful. The education system is often faulted for failing to improve test scores and leaving more than "no children" behind. However, Ahmed Mohamed's experience highlights that schools might want to start thinking more about how to identify talent and nurture skills that are valuable beyond taking tests.
Like many people, video games have been an integral part of my life for about as long as I can remember. From my days visiting Wildcat! BBS systems where I'd play Trade Wars 2000 -- to obsessing over the Apple IIe, IIc and IIgs -- video games were not only an integral part of my childhood, they actually helped forge an adult career path. Swapping out graphics cards and building new PCs to play Quake 2 led to a job in Manhattan legal IT, which in turn resulted in a life focused on writing about technology. Aside from a few tics, I like to believe I wound up relatively normal, and video games have made my life immeasurably more rewarding.
That background usually forces me into the role of video game evangelist when surrounded by folks that, all too frequently, are engaged in hand wringing over the diabolical moral dangers games purportedly present. At a party recently, some friends expressed muted shock because a colleague's kid was, instead of being social, playing a game in which he was "herding human beings and keeping them in a barn to eat." I had to explain (skipping the part about how you'd need a mod to actually eat them) how this behavior wasn't indicative of a Jeffrey Dahmer in training, he was simply engaged in normal problem solving behavior on the new frontier:
Despite the fact that Minecraft is simply an amazing evolution of the Lego concept for the modern age, the moral panic surrounding the game never quite seems to abate. The latest case in point is over at the BBC, where the outlet implies it has heard all of the pro-Minecraft arguments before, it's just choosing to ignore them in order to portray the game as an unpoliced virtual-reality hellscape that's rotting the brains of children everywhere. While there are some good points embedded within, there are notably more bad ones, like the argument that kids should instead be reading, because reading engages imagination and builds character:
"I concede the point but say that it's two-dimensional, and that children should be exercising more than their mouse fingers. The other side asks why it's any worse than reading for hours at a time. Because, I say, reading allows you to imaginatively inhabit other minds. The opposition implies that this is just the latest moral panic, and that Stone Age elders probably thought the world was going to the dogs when people stopped just staring at the fire and started telling each other stories."
The author pretty clearly sees the lips of "the opposition" moving, he just can't apparently be bothered to actually hear what they're saying. Of course it makes sense to encourage kids to read as well as play games but to dismiss Minecraft as unimaginative shows a total misunderstanding of the massive, cooperative world-building that occurs in the game. Instead of actually playing the game and trying to understand it, the entire article is doused in fear over whether Minecraft is negatively influencing kids. The only concessions toward admitting the game's benefits come via gems like this:
"For some autistic children who have trouble with complex social interactions, Minecraft is clearly a good fit with its lack of intricate social cues and simple environment. But for many parents, the absence of that complexity, in a world where their children spend so much time, might be a reason to be wary."
Whether it's Minecraft, apps or the internet at large, there is such a thing as parenting -- or paying attention to and understanding what your children are up to. Even then, in 1987 my parents certainly had absolutely no understanding of the world I was experiencing via the local Wildcat! BBS, yet those experiences opened an entire world of social interaction with like-minded individuals I never would have experienced otherwise as an awkward, socially anxious tot with painful new braces. That world taught me many things my parents never could have, but parenting in the brick and mortar world still helped me understand where social lines in this new frontier were drawn (with the exception of that time a 35-year-old BBS member called my folks to complain about their son's occasionally-barbed tongue).
"...here’s a simpler way for parents who don’t feel they understand Minecraft to build their knowledge: sit down next to your child and watch them. Ask questions. See if they’ll teach you how to play it with them. This doesn’t mean you’ll avoid having to make decisions about the amount of time your child spends in Minecraft’s beguiling “hyper-reality” rather than the unblocky real world, but it does mean you’ll have a better idea – with less worries – about what they’re up to, and how it can fit into their life.
Like so many things, actually bothering to understand something before you waste energy fearing it makes all the difference in the world. There are millions of kids for whom Minecraft is opening an entire world of enjoyable problem solving and social interaction, the benefits of which may extend into and across their entire lives. Stagnating this potential with fear because you couldn't be bothered to try and understand what your children are experiencing wastes more than just your time.
As the school year in the US begins, students are getting their class schedules and teacher assignments -- and some teachers are going to be better than others. One school can be ranked higher than another, but if your kid has a great teacher, school rankings may not be a meaningful measurement. But how do we find or nurture a growing pool of good teachers? That's a tough task that some folks are looking into, and there may be better ways to teach teachers. Here are just a few links on improving teaching skills.
I've never really understood the debate about how trustworthy Wikipedia is compared with once-printed, more "official" encyclopedia volumes, like the old Encyclopedia Britannica. What rarely made sense to me was the constant assertions that an information system to which anyone could contribute was inherently unreliable because anyone could contribute to it. Sure, you get the occasional vandals making joke edits, but by and large the contributions by the community are from informed, interested parties. The results tend to be close to, if not on par, with traditional encyclopedias.
The British public trusts Wikipedia more than they do the country's newsrooms, according to a new poll by research firm Yougov. Sixty-four percent of respondents said they trusted Wikipedia pages to tell the truth “a great deal,” or “a fair amount”—more than can be said for journalists at the Times or the Guardian, and also slightly above BBC News.
Well, no shit. That's because, as I've been trying to scream at you people for the past three years, the corporate mass-media news industry sucks. More specifically, the once proud fourth branch of our government has been reduced to screaming-head opinionators formulating commentary on the basis of politicized ratings. In other words, Wikipedia and the news are in two different businesses: one is about facts and the other is about shock and spin. Argue with me all you like, you know it's true.
But perhaps even more importantly, the general public trusts crowd-sourced Wikipedia articles more than the news because an argument is always more trust-worthy than a lecture. That's the real difference. If you want to know how good a teacher in a school is, you gather up the best student, the worst student, the principal and the teacher and then analyze what they all say together. You don't ask the school's PR director. Wikipedia, even when it comes to contested or hotly-debated articles, does this extremely well, even concerning itself. The linked article above discussed a number of articles about how reliable Wikipedia is, some of which disagreed with others, and all were found on the Wikipedia page for itself.
Regardless the disputes over individual studies and their methodologies, how I found them is almost as telling as their results. I came across them because Wikipedia provided external references, allowing me to corroborate the information. This is one of the site's great merits: the aggregation of multiple sources, correctly linked, to build a more complete picture. As the results of the Yougov poll perhaps suggest, this surely seems more reliable than getting the coverage of an event from one newspaper.
The truest answer to a question can rarely be told by a single source, which is what makes the sources section of a Wikipedia page so valuable. What is the corollary in a news broadcast? Perhaps a single expert? Maybe once in a while they'll have two sides of a debate spend five minutes with one another? They're not even close. The argument itself can be instructive, but that argument never happens on most news shows.
This doesn't mean you blindly read Wiki articles without questioning them. But a properly sourced article is simply more trustworthy than a talking head telling you how to think.
Kids today are bombarded with technology -- touchscreens, keyboards, Xbox controllers, and various gesture-based user interfaces are all competing against the lowly pencil and paper. Sure, finger painting and crayons are still all the rage with toddlers, but once kids get a little older, those activities might not be as attractive as a game of Angry Birds or Mario Kart. Is there any evidence that typing and touchscreens will hinder kids from learning? Here are a few links that seem to point to an association between handwriting and better learning.
Some people claim that they are not "math people" -- that their brains just don't understand mathematics that way "normal" people are supposed to learn it. Perhaps that's true for some, but the subject of math seems to be taught in a way that tends to weed people out as concepts get more abstract. Educators are trying to figure out how to avoid making math lessons as painful as they might have been in the past (and hopefully not create any further torture with "new math" or even "newer new math"). Here are just a few links on changing the way these skills are taught.
More education can be the uncontroversial answer to a lot of problems. But better education tends to bring up questions about what makes one educational approach better than another, and how "better" is measured or defined -- and if the methods of measuring education can be trusted at all. The solutions for creating better teaching/learning techniques aren't always effective, but as we learn more about our brains, maybe we'll figure out how to manipulate our grey matter with more precision. Here are just a few links on how we might improve the way we inject knowledge into our heads.
We spend almost a third of our lives sleeping, so some people would like to make (better?) use of the time we supposedly waste lying in bed each night. People have tried learning foreign languages on tape while asleep. People want to train themselves to quit smoking while they snore away. The list of things people might want to try to learn unconsciously is endless -- because it seems like an effortless way to try to train our brains. Here are just a few links on the topic of sleep learning and some successful examples of it.
The Academic Senate of the University of California has passed an Open Access Policy, ensuring that future research articles authored by faculty at all 10 campuses of UC will be made available to the public at no charge. "The Academic Council's adoption of this policy on July 24, 2013, came after a six-year process culminating in two years of formal review and revision," said Robert Powell, chair of the Academic Council. "Council's intent is to make these articles widely -- and freely -- available in order to advance research everywhere." Articles will be available to the public without charge via eScholarship (UC's open access repository) in tandem with their publication in scholarly journals.
So just how big? This big:
The policy covers more than 8,000 UC faculty at all 10 campuses of the University of California, and as many as 40,000 publications a year. It follows more than 175 other universities who have adopted similar so-called "green" open access policies
Or put another way:
UC is the largest public research university in the world and its faculty members receive roughly 8% of all research funding in the U.S.
As the associated FAQ spells out, this new policy mandates "green" open access -- that is, depositing articles in a university repository, where they can be published under a range of CC licenses, chosen by the authors. This move represents a big boost to the store of information freely available to anyone with an Internet connection. It's hugely welcome both for itself, and for the likely knock-on effects it will have on other institutions around the world.
However, there's something a little odd here. On the one hand, we have the University of California generously making available at no cost the fruits of its academic work "in order to advance research everywhere." On the other, we have the University of California aggressively using patents to enclose knowledge, and to extract rents from it, which is likely to discourage research because of the risk that UC might see it as infringing on its patents. Confused much?
It's that time of year again: kids are about to go back to school in the US. (And for some of them, it's a time to try to skim quickly through their assigned summer reading lists.) While some families still have time to squeeze in a real vacation, the debate over whether summer vacation should exist in the US educational system continues -- are summer vacations a horrible anachronism that should be abolished? Here are just a few links on the topic of learning (or the lack thereof) over the summer months.