Tag Archives: public education

Khan Academy: The (Near) Future Of Education?

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In talking about education, I’ve highlighted issues that give me fever dreams about my experience in high school and those that give me hope for future students. While I know it’s not a very sexy topic, it does matter a great deal.  A society full of idiots is only good for creating embarrassing YouTube videos and Chuck Lorre sitcoms, but not much else.

Our current method for education people in the western world has a lot of room for improvement. Some, like South Korea and Japan, do it better than others. Others, like the state of Texas, are easy punchlines in jokes about stupidity and I’m not just talking about their laughable record on sexual education.

Let’s not lie to ourselves. Education is hard. Every human being is wired different. Kids are especially tricky. Between puberty and sugar, it’s hard to help them learn, especially if they don’t want to learn. Our brains weren’t wired for assembly line style education that requires memorization, lectures, and standardized tests. They were wired for survival, reproduction, and avoiding hungry bears.

At some point in the future, we may be able to tweak that old wiring to make education easier. Companies like Neuralink are already working on that. However, that kind of brain building is years off. While it is promising, there are many who may lament that they or their children won’t get to benefit from this kind of innovation. They’re stuck using textbooks and number two pencils.

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Well, for once, I’m not going to fantasize about an advancement that’s way off in the future, like smart blood or sex robots. There are some amazing advancements in this field and they don’t require a brain implant. They don’t even require a private tutor from South Korea. Big changes to education aren’t just some far-off future fantasy. They’re actually happening.

That brings me to Khan Academy. I’ve mentioned them before, albeit not in great detail. I kind of feel bad about that because it’s doing some amazing work in the field of education. It is, very much, a game-changer to the way we think about education. It has the potential to educate people all over the world at a cost that’s almost negligible.

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What is Khan Academy, though? Well, that’s not an unreasonable question because it’s one of those things that is known in some crowds, but not others. It’s also fairly new. Khan Academy started only ten years ago and it started by accident, which happens a lot more than you think.

The story of how it came to be is actually pretty remarkable. The man who created, Salman Khan, didn’t intend to make it into one of the biggest innovations to hit education since the invention of pocket calculators. It just played out that way. Several years ago, 60 Minutes did a story about it and it reveals some pretty amazing insights.

However it came to be, Khan Academy’s mission is as bold as it is important. It seeks, in their own words, “to provide a free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere.” At a time when the cost of education is rising frustratingly fast, Khan Academy dares to be bolder.

It doesn’t require big, fancy schools. It doesn’t require an army of trained teachers, some of which may or may not be qualified for their job. It doesn’t even require students to leave the house. It only requires someone with a computer, an internet connection, and an ability to access a website. These days, those are skills that most kids learn to do right out of the womb.

That’s not to say it’s better in every way. There are some things that you can’t just learn by doing exercises online. You wouldn’t want a mechanic, plumber, or gynecologist only learning their trade through online videos. You’d want them to have some kind of training.

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Even so, the value of having a cheap, effective way of educating young children cannot be understated. Beyond simply knowing how much to tip at a restaurant, education helps children think and reason for themselves. It helps them make sense of a world where the Kardashians are celebrities and Johnny Depp still makes movies.

We, as a species, need societies of kids and adults who can think. Until we perfect neural implants, education is still going to be a challenge. That’s why innovations like Khan Academy are so valuable.

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Why Standardized Tests Make You (Feel) Dumber In The Long Run

A new study finds that higher test scores don't translate into better cognitive ability.

As I write these words, there are millions of young people out there who are either dreading an upcoming exam or recovering from one too many all-night cram sessions. This is that time of year, after all. The sweet freedom of summer vacation is almost within our grasp. We just have to survive a few more soul-crushing, brain-draining final exams.

Like the final boss in a video game, exams and standardized tests are the migraine headaches of modern education. They are that stabbing pain at the base of every teenager’s spine. They know it’s coming. They know it’s going to be stressful. The most they can do is brace themselves, study, and hope they don’t throw up at some point along the way.

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I get the logic behind these tests. I think even the students do, minus the ones whose only goal in life is to become an Instagram model. I don’t doubt that the intentions behind standardized tests are good. They’re supposed to help gauge the effectiveness of our education, revealing just how well we’ve retained the material.

I don’t doubt the merit behind that. A team of underpaid, under-appreciated teachers just spent nine months of their lives trying to cram a bunch of information into our developing brains. At the very least, they want to make sure that time wasn’t wasted. How devastating would it be if the found out all that time, effort, and chalk board lectures had been for nothing?

Well, with the utmost respect to the teachers and students who have to deal with this crap, there might be a repugnant stench in the air. As good as the intentions may be with standardized testing, they have a long list of issues. Just last month, the Washington Post listed at least 34 problems with these tests. With the memory of these tests still painfully fresh in my mind, I have a hard time believing there are only 34 problems.

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That’s because, and I’ve said this before whenever I’ve talked about the horror show that was high school for me, these tests don’t really measure how well you know the material. They only really measure how well you can take a test. That may help you get a driver’s license, but it won’t help with much else.

There’s a growing body of evidence that standardized testing does not translate into better cognitive skills. It doesn’t lead to better memory, better attention, or better reasoning skills. It doesn’t even reveal how well you know the material. Even if you do remember enough to ace the test, it’s rare for students to actually retain that knowledge.

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That shouldn’t surprise anyone, especially those whose memories of high school is still somewhat fresh. Depending on how traumatic your teenager years were, you probably remember not caring much about actually knowing the material at hand. You only cared about passing the test and not triggering an awkward parent/teacher conference.

In essence, that’s the biggest issue with these tests. That’s why, in the long run, they make us feel dumber. Just passing a test doesn’t make you smart. It just makes you good at passing a test. A lot of people can throw a football well. However, just being able to throw a football doesn’t make you as skilled as Peyton Manning. Just ask Ryan Leaf.

It’s just as bad for the teachers. They dedicate their time, energy, and patience to teach a bunch of immature kids and hormonal teenagers what they think is important. However, their effectiveness, as a professional, is entirely contingent on their ability to get these thick-headed kids to pass a goddamn test every year. Even doctors and lawyers don’t have subject themselves to that kind of frustration.

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I can certainly attest to the inefficiencies of these tests. It’s pretty much the only skill that was regularly emphasized throughout high school. Every subject in every class felt like a prelude to one goal, which was to pass the test. That was always at the forefront of my mind. Actually knowing and caring about the subject was always secondary.

The only subjects I did know anything about happened to be subjects I had a genuine interest in. I liked writing, history, science, and even math to some extent. However, a lot of what I learned on those subjects wasn’t necessarily taught. I sought that knowledge out on my own.

Contrary to popular belief, not every teenager is a total slacker whose sole goal in life is to live out the rest of their days on the couch watching Netflix. Many are genuinely curious about certain topics and not all of those topics are related to food, sex, and punk rock music. If they want to learn more about something and you give them the opportunity, they’ll take it.

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For me, personally, it was writing. No teacher or guidance counselor needed to guide me to do that. It’s just something I started doing. My parents already had a computer so I had all the resources I needed. Thanks to a vivid imagination inspired by comic books and cartoons, I had plenty to write about. I haven’t really stopped since.

There were other topics that intrigued me too. Growing up, I was also interested in history, especially 20th century history. There was a period where I watched every World War II documentary on the History Channel I could. It got to the point where I knew the names of generals, battles, and dates better than my teacher.

It culminated one fateful day during my sophomore year of high school. I was in my history class and, much to my relief, we were focusing on early 20th century history. My teacher was lecturing, going over the textbook as they so often do, and at one point she got a date wrong. I, having the piss-poor social skills I had, just corrected her on the spot.

For some teachers, that would be a one-way business class ticket to getting detention. For this particular teacher, though, she smiled at me and thanked me. That was a proud moment for me. Later on, when we did take a test, I got a perfect score. I didn’t really need to study for it either. I knew the material because I wanted to know it.

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That’s both the key and the paradox that dooms standardized testing. It tries to create a one-size-fits-all standard with which to gauge every student. It ignores the fact that not every student is going to want to know the names of every Russian Tsar or how to use quadratic equations. Some students really are smart, just not on certain subjects.

On top of that, some students just aren’t good test takers either. I know this because I’m one of them. I often had to give disclaimers, of sorts, to my teachers about my test-taking skills. Some of it was due to nervousness. Some of it was just due to the mental fog that comes with the stress of taking a test. Some people can manage it well. I can’t.

The only exception, in my case, were the essay questions. I loved the essay questions because I knew I’d ace those. Writing is, I like to think, one of my greatest strengths. If I could’ve exchanged every standardized test I ever took for an essay, I’d have done it in a heartbeat. I’d have been the valedictorian of my high school.

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I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Standardized tests made me feel dumb, but I know I’m not dumb. I couldn’t manage this blog, keep track of major events in comics, or stay up-to-date on the status of sex robots if I were. I genuinely worry that a lot of impressionable, vulnerable kids will feel that same sentiment by taking these tests. They may never realize that these tests are not a reflection of how smart they are.

The issue of standardized testing is still ongoing and still controversial. There are a lot of moving parts to education, especially in large countries with diverse populations. There’s a lot of room for improvement, but an important first step is acknowledging the problem.

As usual, John Oliver has already done a far more astute job of exposing the problem than I ever will. He dedicated an entire segment of his show, “Last Week Tonight,” to it. I’ll let him fill in the blanks that I wasn’t able to cover in this post.

So to all the students out there still dreading their final tests of the school year, I can only urge you to hang in there. These tests will not determine the course of your life. These tests will not determine how smart you are. You will come out of this. Life will get better as an adult.

Sure, you have jobs, families, and taxes to worry about. Take it from me, though. If you can endure the stresses of exams and standardized tests, you can endure almost anything an adult life can throw at you.

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