Education Disconnect

October 24, 2008

I remember when I first read the book Summerhill, which is about a school in the North of England. It describes a school with many rules democratically generated by the students and teachers in a non-sham direct democracy system. And the students learn of their own accord, with untampered wills. When they seek knowledge teachers facilitate. They are never coerced by the teachers into learning a subject. If the child does not wish to attend classes, he or she doesn’t. The people who think it would be a never ending summer vacation of apathy underestimate the ability of a person to self direct and the desire to learn about the world when the passion of curiosity strikes.

Part of why it’s hard to fix the system is that the system breaks so many. If we get disheartened by the slowness of educational change, it’s because every repair of the education system must align with a personal repair to ourselves.

Here is an interesting video on the disconnect between the classroom and the student:

Cultural Neoteny

June 24, 2008

Neoteny is the biological retention of juvenile traits into the adult stage. Neoteny occurs in all sorts of animals. For example, some salamanders retain their juvenile gills into maturity. I think neoteny occurs in human culture as well. We have been unconsciously favoring immature behavior in adulthood.

Childhood is a recent invention. Before a certain point in history, children were depicted as miniature adults. Over the course of time, we’ve started to think of childhood as its own set of time, with its own set of needs. Childhood is manifold with activities that have become a larger percentage of the human lifespan.

The period of sexual reproduction is now in the latest period of a woman’s reproductive cycle. Accordingly, marriage has been pushed farther and farther. And it is now quite acceptable for people to forgo marriage. A person can go thirty or more years before having babies.

School has started to occupy more of a person’s life. Institutionalized education now takes sixteen years at least. And a few places of work require even more education.

The adult approval of gameplaying has extended even more with the advent of video games. Starting now, a whole generation will grow up that still expects to be playing games similar to the ones they played as children.

The period where work is expected of the young is also diminishing to foster the extension of school. It is such in Western Society, that children need special permission to work. This is something that only a century ago was totally unheard of.

Neoteny may also be an explanation for why we prevent children from swearing. The taboo on swearing operates as a differentiator between children and adults, and has little effective use beyond that.

So why keep ourselves child-like longer? There maybe something to the stories of geniuses who were brilliant in a field, but inept in their own daily personal maintenance. The absent minded professor is somewhat a child. The longer we keep people at child’s play, the greater the retention of childlike curiosity, fascination, desire to analyze and synthesize. We try to stay children to stay creative.

This allocation of resources to childishness makes sense, since adulthood is expensive. In adulthood we are dedicating the majority of time to raising children. Adults also deal with other things like finance and contracts, which children are prohibited.

So what are the consequences of an ever expanding neoteny? Neoteny will not be absolute because it prevents homeostatis. If neoteny became even more extreme than it is now, no babies would be born, and the management aspects of life would have to be handed over to machines or a managing class. That sort of system is unsustainable because even mild unchecked authority leads to tyranny that would destroy the benefit of the system. Even though that might sound sciencefictionally dystopian, I still worry that neoteny is a force in our complicity over the current resurgence of tyranny. A compromise might be to enter into fluctuating adulthood. Two years working (adulting), then four years playing (childing), and so on.

Neoteny is a difficult force to deal with. We seem to be embarking on this path quite unconsciously. I feel that it’s persistent presence in the mind is necessary to the proper crafting of human institution. Vigilance is paramount in walking the line between neoteny’s threat and benefit.

Educamp Fantastic

September 18, 2007

I went to Educamp this weekend and was hyper-stimulated by all of the great ideas and different people speaking on education.

Education is a sore spot for me because of how depressed I was while at school. School was mainly a place I was waiting to get out of. Though it was a rarity, I had the best time at school in sixth grade, when I was working so much on computers and AV stuff that I didn’t attend much class. Highschool was a long wait for college. And college was a real let down.

I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out a design for school that would iron out these problems. I presented this design at Educamp and you can see Chris Messina’s notes on my presentation here.

At Educamp, we all recognized the inherent oppression, coercion, and ironic mind-numbingness of school. Each of us brought a technique, a back-door, a loop-around, a design, an anecdote, a suggestion, or a word of encouragement. It was a fantastic event. I hope to attend more like it.

The four central human systems required for the maintenance of civilization are:

  • Change (Technology)
  • Irrationality (Religion)
  • Human Relationships (Law)
  • Resource Exchange (Markets)

These are societal systems, encompassing all of humanity. Various societies manage these systems with varying degrees of success and intensity.

The society that will manage the four systems most successfully will put its resources and scientific attention on the education of its people. Even if the four systems are currently balanced and vital in society, an inability to update education to respond to modern development will result in its decline.

Last nights Inspirathon was great. For those of you tuning in without pretext. Inspirathon is a “A Movie Night For Thinkers.” We show some thought provoking/alternative method/human achievement videos and discuss them. The following are my thoughts on the last one.

Good things:

  • We topped out at the right amount of people.
  • Everyone was very friendly and nice.
  • We watched some very interesting videos.

Things I would change:

  • We have to set up a buzzer system for people to hit. This way we have a symbolic mechanism for killing unstimulating videos.
  • We have put an upper limit on video duration. Thirty minutes max.
  • We have to introduce videos and ask why people have chosen them. Some videos needed lots of pretext.
  • We can’t show videos that are thematically similar in a row.
  • We have to discuss after each video. And a long discussion. Not necessarily to reach a conclusion, but to integrate the video into our minds, and to discover related avenues that come to mind while speaking.
  • We might want to pole people about what they want to see at Inspirathon.
  • There should be half as many videos as we watched this last time.
  • The event should start at 5.30 pm on a Saturday, with a BBQ and an earlier ending. I just don’t drink caffeine, sorry.

If anyone has comments to improve Inspirathon, or tips from running their own movie/clip nights, please comment!

Knowlege of Knowledge

June 4, 2007

The countries which were able to take advantage of optimizing methodology, first applying it to machines (Industrial Revolution) and then to human work itself (Productivity Revolution), were the countries who succeeded in creating wealth and its accompanying leisure. The adoption of this method is a cultural and therefore educational change.

Now we are entering into a period where disciplines are being created faster than we can learn them. In my case, the example is computer language, with new and effective languages popping up over night. The languages which are being taught in college will be outdated by the time you leave. It’s like having to learn Greek and Latin before you can learn the anything else, a tradition in need of decline.

The first people to apply optimizing methodologies to knowledge and learning itself, will be the masters of knowledge, the capital of our time, and will be the next to create a dearth of wealth. However, this will not a be a national change. The Internet allows a community dedicated to this task to cross national barriers for near-zero cost. So the next educational revolution will be created by an Internet community intent on optimizing the path to knowledge.

Not coincidentally, this is what I am working toward at my company Foobity. I’d turn this into a plug, but we don’t have anything we can show anyone yet.

So hopefully I will soon be hosting an Inspirathon event. An Inspirathon is an inspirational movie night, where we all get together and watch concept-challenging videos and then discuss in a salon/casual atmosphere. Jeff Lindsay invented and hosted the first Inspirathon.

It will probably be at my house (Bay Area, SJ, CA, USA), and we’ll have a host of videos, like this video and this video. Though we don’t intend on making this a giant event (it has to fit in my house), you are welcome to inquire and see about capacity. Probably best to join the mailing list and see how things are going.

The point is to meet great people, talk about great things, and have fun.

I had a massive conversation with Jeff Lindsey yesterday. Eight hours of non-stop education talk. Our conversation ranged from computer games, learning, history, to religion. However, we always focused on one major theme, Design. Jeff is the first Design Scientist I have met.

Most people think of design in a purely aesthetic framework. Computer graphics, art, and the shapes of consumer items, are classic examples of the popular conception of design. But design, at its most fundamental, is analysing and synthesizing systems. Design is about the understanding of interaction. This is Jeff’s and my domain.

As Design Scientist, both Jeff and I are enamored by Systems. We learned Systems Theory through different iconoclasts. Jeff learned it from Russell Ackoff, who approaches systems from an organizational management point of view, though Ackoff does discuss systems in the abstract. I found systems through Buckminster Fuller, who approaches systems from a geometric/structural approach, but again talks about systems explicitly.

This article really has no purpose other than to celebrate having met a fellow Design Scientist. And I suppose it is kind of an introduction to some useful iconoclasts. Thinking of it that way, here are a few links that discuss Systems Theory at the essence level.



  • Synergetics, a online book illustrating a system of geometry that is triangular/tetrahedrally based (stable structure), not square/cube based (unstable structure). Describes the basic interaction of systems.
  • Image Index for Synergetics, check out some of the different indices, some amazing shapes and interactions all based on the closest packing of spheres.

I drew this learning ecosystem yesterday. I’ve defined learning in this particular example as a device of information transfer.

learning ecosystem

I would have written a list, but a list has a way of undermining a grouping’s connectedness. Feel free to use this graphic at your own discretion.

Debate 2.0

April 23, 2007

I recently had an idea for an informed-debate website. Plenty of debate goes on in the world, but many of the arguments proposed are based on faith or are engineered to create an emotional effect. This would be fine as long as a place (better: many places) existed for informed discussion where people sited their sources and the validity of those sources were questioned. The academic scientific community is one such avenue, but it has insulated itself from the general public in the form of journals whose advantage is peer-review and disadvantage is a fee for casual observation. So assuming that a public forum does not currently exist that incites both fervor and reason, here is my blueprint for a debate site.

My image of the user experience begins with arriving at the site and seeing multiple discussion headings displayed on the front-page. Perhaps there is a featured discussion, highlighted as symbolic of the ideal. I click on the most interesting subject, Global Warming. I see a list of several points. Besides each point are a minimum of three sources. The first point is that global warming is man-made phenomenon. The counterpoint is that it is a natural phenomena. In counterpoint to both is the idea that it is a combination of the two. Next to the claim that global warming is a natural phenomena are three sources. Two of the studies are sponsored by the petroleum industry and have been tagged under “conflict of interest.” A new point has been raised in defense of one of the studies, and more sources have been cited in the new points defense. Admins do not move points into the central discussion unless the person gives three unique sources in their point’s defense.

This could give rise to admin abuse. To combat this, a reputation model allows a person to place a critique against the admin, but this also opens the judge to attack over the fairness of their statements. For example, in my hypothetical user experience I see the admin has a fairly good overall appraisal. There is one rather biting commentary, but the person who said it is rated as being very unfair.

Undoubtedly there are many holes in this system. How do you define a unique source? What if the community is temporarily or permanently homogeneous, skewing debate? What if people or organizations started paying admins for favors?

No matter what form it eventually evolves into it would have to keep these basic necessities in mind.

  • Multiple points of view
  • A tendency to resist (better: transform) spamesque flame wars
  • Sited Sources
  • Discussions of validity
  • Conducive to progression

Hopefully I’ll be able to get to this project one day. It would be easy to create in Ruby on Rails.