Tag Archives: education

We Need More Practical Lessons

While reading Walter Isaacson’s new book, The Code Breaker, I was particularly struck by some seemingly minor details. The book is a fascinating look into the modern process of scientific discovery, and there was some discussion of how a discovery written in a lab book and then signed by witnesses in order to document the dates of the discovery. When do scientists learn to do this?

I took AP biology, and AP physics in high school, as well as physics, chemistry and organic chemistry in college and no one every taught me how to properly use a lab book. Indeed, what was implied, at least at that level, was that what the teaching assistants and grad students who led the labs really wanted was nice, neat copy in our lab books with clear results that were easy to grade. I remember many of my fellow students had two lab books: the one they worked stuff out in, and the one they turned in after everything was cleaned up. I couldn’t spend the money on two lab books, so mine were messy.

It seems to me that the mechanics of a lab book–its true purpose and how it is used the real world–is a practical lesson that any burgeoning scientist should learn. But who teaches this? Are there upper division chemistry classes that focus on this? Certainly o-chem didn’t.

This got me thinking about other practical lessons that I would have benefited from, but was never formally taught. How to read a newspaper is one example that I’ve written about before. What about keeping a diary or journal? I don’t ever remember this being taught in school. I don’t ever remember a class in which the pros and cons of journals were discussed. I would have found these things very useful. Instead, I learned how to keep a journal by following (initially) the example Isaac Asimov described for himself in his autobiography.

Lab books are useful tools outside of the laboratory. For the first half of my career, I didn’t keep any kind of notes about the code I was writing. If I had to recreate something, therefore, it was often hard work. At some point, it occurred to me to keep notes as I worked. When I do something particularly complicated, I often list it out in my notes in high level steps, and then fill in the details as I work. I keep one simple idea in mind: a person new to the organization should be able to take my notes and reproduce my work. Technical debt is a big problem in I.T. People come and go and leave behind lots of undocumented code in their wake. You’d think lessons in keeping good notes would be part of the training process, but I’ve never seen it.

For that matter, how about something as simple as keeping a to-do list? I was never taught this in any of my classes.

There was one class I had–a 7th grade science class–in which our teacher spent quite a bit of time teaching us how to organize our work. We learned how to keep our science folder, and how to keep our notes and assignments organized in the folder. It was practical information that served me well through the rest of my pre-college schooling. Beyond that, most of the practical things I learned from books.

I can’t remember a teacher teaching how to take notes: how to identify the important points, and highlight them; what to leave in and what to exclude from the notes; tricks of shorthand to capture information more succinctly. All of this I had to figure out on my own. I read a book between my sophomore and junior years in college, and one chapter was all about note-taking. It changed the way I take notes and I use that method to this day.

I try to pass on some of these practical lessons to my kids. The Little Miss keeps a journal and I encourage that, and allow her to look at my journals in order to take ideas, but mainly so that she understands she can make it whatever she wants it to be. The Little Man could benefit from a daily to-do list, and I’ve tried on a couple of occasions to suggest it, even offering to help him get started by reviewing it together. He resists it, but he is at the age where he doesn’t think he needs it. (He does.)

It seems to me that in addition to classes in science and math and reading and English and history and art and physical education, there should be some practical classes on topics like these. Better yet, practical lessons could be merged into the existing classes.

  • In science, you could learn how to keep a lab book while you do your experiments. The lessons would be about the purpose–not to show you got the right answer, but to be able to reproduce your results, whatever they were.
  • In English, there could be a section on the literature of diaries and journals. There are plenty to choose from: John Adams, Samuel Pepys, Henry David Thoreau, Anne Frank just to name a few. Discussions could ensue about why to keep a journal, the practical value, and the literature can provide examples of what other people have done.
  • In home room, you might learn how to better organize your day, keep track of your work, and manage stress.

We need more practical lessons. I certainly would have benefited from them earlier than I did.

Good luck, Norm!

Norm (of the infamous vickyandnorm clan), defends his Ph.D. thesis tomorrow, and then graduates from UConn on Saturday.

Not to belittle the professions (doctors, dentists, and lawyers), but a Ph.D. is the highest academic agree awarded for original research. (True, M.D.s spend years in school, but it is technical training, and usually does not involve original research.) We’ve already got one Ph.D in the group, Doctor rmstraus, and I am exceedingly eager to welcome our second, when this weekend, Norm will officially change his first name from “Norm” to “Doctor Norm”.

I must be perfectly honest and admit that I am fearfully envious of both Norm and Ryane. I have often dreamed about going back to school and getting a Ph.D. in some subject that fascinates me. Alas, there are too many subjects to choose from (astronomy, computer science, history, and physics to name just a few), and too little time. And besides, I have grown use to my lifestyle and it would be incredibly difficult to change things now. I’ve had some achievements of which I have been proud (graduating from college, getting my pilot’s license, selling a science fiction story) but getting a Ph.D. makes these achievements pale in comparison in my mind. I am exceedingly lucky to have such hyper-talented friends and I am thrilled for Norm and I wish him the best of luck on his defense tomorrow, although I’m certain he doesn’t need it.

Is the world flat or round?

I don’t follow the gossips shows much, but I came across this item this morning, regarding Sherri Shepherd of the TV gossip program, The View. Apparently, earlier in the year, Ms. Shepherd created quiet a stir when she said she didn’t know if the earth was round or flat. Earlier this week, she created another stir when she argued that nothing predated Christians, insisting there were Christians around in ancient Athens.

Anyone who has ever watched a sailboat sink over the horizon has a pretty good idea that the earth is not flat–to say nothing of the millions of people who have satellite TV.

Is our education system really failing us so much that someone can be uncertain of the shape of the earth and not realize that the ancient Greeks were around before the Romans and they in turn were around long before Jesus was born?

UPDATE: I was curious as to what people were saying about Sherri’s comments so I checked out her website. If your bored, take a look at this discussion.

A nation of cowards?

Yes, I am referring to our nation. Anyone who says that our freedoms are not shrinking daily is either deranged or so completely out of touch with reality that they might as well be deranged. It’s always the little things that bug me the most because they are insipid. When seemingly harmless activities are banned, you know big trouble is just around the corner.

Take for example, the ban on hugging at an Illinois middle school.

Yes, you read that right. A ban on hugging.

Why? Two reasons are given: (1) hug lines were forming outside hallways and students were late to class; (2) hugging students are sometimes too close to one another and it can be deemed inappropriate.

So it seems that we really are a nation of cowards, when something as innocuous as 6th graders hugging scares us so badly that we ban it. Consider what’s been banned from schools since I was in middle school: many schools have uniforms because teachers and parents are afraid of students whose clothing stands outs. Schools have banned baseball caps because they are afraid of gang affiliations. Schools have banned cell phone use because, like China and Myanmar, they are afraid of what might happen to students if they are influenced by the outside world. Some schools still ban books because they are afraid of what students might read. I say this without any hyperbole: schools will soon be banning thought.

There is a solution to all of this and that is to teach. Teach students about appropriate behavior and where to draw the line. Teach students about respect for others. Teach students why some books are deemed more risque than others. Teach students about sex and take the mystery away. Teach students about drugs and why they are bad. Teach, teach, teach. There is a reason why teaching is one of the noblest professions. Teachers who teach are brave.

But we live in a nation of cowards. Cowardly principals, cowardly school boards, cowardly parents, and yes, cowardly students.

And it damn near breaks my heart.

Space, education, and the second half

For those who follow these things, there has been much chatter about s.f. writer Charles Stross‘s blog essay in which argues why he thinks we will never colonize space. He has some good arguments, but I’ve been somewhat disappointed that no one has taken up the other side of the debate. And then I saw today’s Washington Post Parade magazine which contained an essay by Neil deGrasse Tyson called “Why America Needs to Explore Space“. It’s not exactly a rebuttal of Stross’s essay, but it is a good, well-thought argument for why we need to continue exploring space. The most frequently made argument against this is that we have too many problems to solve down here; here is where we should be spending our money. As Tyson points out, we do. 99 cents out of every tax dollar goes to programs other than the space program. Less than a penny goes to space. Even at the height of the Apollo missions, American’s were paying 4 cents of every tax dollar to the space program.

Education columnist Jay Mathews has a novel idea to eliminate homework in grade school in place of an hour of reading each day. Apparently, studies show that prior to junior high school, homework assignments in grade school do little to improve learning or test scores. Attempting to make reading a habit–rather than a chore–during these early years might just lead to other improvements in education down the road. I like the idea, but apparently, there are some parents that would be unhappy with this. I would mean that they would actually have to read to their children.


So much for what I said I was going to do today. I didn’t go downtown, didn’t even do much reading. I sat at home, ordered a pizza (bad idea!), watched a movie, did some quick grocery shopping, and then eventually, watched more TV. Ugh! I feel lazy!

A good excuse to be disillusioned

As my Grandpa would say, Oh boy!