Disrupting Class

The Book of the Week is “Disrupting Class, How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns” by Clayton Christensen, Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson, published in 2008.

All three of the authors– educrats– pushed education solutions that were mostly software-centric and charter-school based. The educrats made no distinctions between teaching and learning, but indicated that students would learn from software, if schools adopted their recommendations. It is difficult to see how students who are unwilling to learn, would learn from software, though, without supervision.

Nevertheless, one point the authors got right, was that a wrench in the works that is hindering their push to convert the American education system into a machine-dominated one– is teachers’ unions across the country. One other uncertain aspect of the whole kit and caboodle is the competition between the two current software operating systems– Windows and Apple. So, due to all this political patronage and profiteering, America’s education system will remain a patchwork, most likely.

Anyway, in 2004, one school district’s (demographically similar) students in Kentucky had 26% better state standardized test scores than another; the latter had three times the funding. There are usually three major reasons for such a discrepancy: the former district prepped the students for the test, and /or they cheated, and / or students possessed the basic skills and fundamental knowledge to do better than the competition.

The authors admitted more research was needed to determine the reasons for the discrepancy. They did however, declare that their recommendations for bettering the American education system through customization of teaching would help all students improve, regardless of funding.

The authors then presented a hypothetical scenario which would defy reality in most underfunded, understaffed and /or poorly staffed schools. In the scenario, a star athlete was attending that kind of a high school. He was having trouble understanding a concept in science class. The teacher wasn’t explaining it in a way the student could understand it. If the student didn’t keep his grades up, he wouldn’t be able to play in the big soccer game. The student’s father, an engineer, was more than happy to, was available to, and was able to, successfully tutor him so he could still play. The student lived happily ever after.

First of all, subpar schools tend to coddle their star athletes– allow them to pass their classes, or provide them with extra tutoring. Secondly, such schools have a significant number of students in overcrowded classrooms, who are discipline problems– disruptive to the class (sort of like the software-based learning that would be disruptive to the industry that the authors seemed to think the American education system is becoming).

The anecdote said nothing about: the classroom’s learning environment (which in subpar schools is frequently noisy and / or hostile) or what proportion of the other students were truly interested in learning, etc. Thirdly, it would be very unlikely that the student’s father would be an engineer, never mind available.

If there was only a handful of students who truly wanted to learn, then the authors should have suggested that those schools assign those students to do software-based learning. Those students deserve better! But the authors didn’t suggest that.

It stands to reason that live, experienced teachers should know their students and thus know how to customize teaching or customize extra help for each one. The inconvenient realities that prevent them from doing so, include but are certainly not limited to:

  • limited class time;
  • overcrowded classes;
  • classes with students who are disruptive the entire period; and
  • lack of resources for helping students learn the way they learn best.

The authors complained that American schools developed ways to lump kids together efficiently in classrooms, but in ways that have hindered their learning. But– there are reasons other than efficiency: individualized learning is expensive; face to-face social interaction is good for the kids; and they learn from each other. In isolation (with software-based learning), they don’t.

The authors then compared customized teaching to products in corporate America. This was not a very accurate analogy. For, students, teachers and resources aren’t product parts; corporate America runs on the profit motive. Education shouldn’t. Nevertheless, that is the direction it’s heading, with more and more commercialized visual education resources.

The authors explained that two recent American federal education laws would lead to growing pains and chaos in the short term, but [italics, theirs] “schools have actually been improving.” Yes, and so has the United States: a meaningless generalization. One of the laws, No Child Left Behind, a can-of-worms, was obsessed with raising standardized test scores across the board, for all students. It caused schools to (besides go crazy) lie with statistics.

The authors failed to elaborate on the aforementioned “improving” with specific examples. Instead, they went on to briefly describe the evolution of the American education system, mentioning a few influencers in early curricula, trends that prompted changes to those curricula, and changes to student populations due to other federal laws, through the years.

The next anecdote told of a student doing online research. The problem is that, sadly, the World Wide Web has been largely taken over by political propagandists and profiteers.

A subplot of the above anecdote (which was ongoing) was that a dedicated high school student got permission to take an online course in Arabic through the local community college. This, because her school didn’t offer Arabic. In a later chapter, the authors claimed the course was free (!) but didn’t specify whether course materials were free, or what kind of financial arrangement, if any, was made between the high school and college. They also weren’t clear whether the course fulfilled a graduation requirement for the student.

The student was allegedly going to chat with a native Arabic speaker halfway around the world. However, there are all different dialects of Arabic spoken in different Middle Eastern countries. The authors explained nothing about this inconvenient fact in their fanciful anecdote.

Further, the authors wrongheadedly compared the disruptiveness of online classes to that of innovations in consumer goods. But those are apples and oranges. Consumer goods’ innovations are driven by the profit motive. Childrens’ educations are driven by their parents’ belief in education and legal requirements that children attend school. The parents see the connection between education and success in life.

There are millions of complications of all sorts in connection with preparing children to become mature, responsible adults. Consumer-goods innovations are applied to inanimate objects. The only similarity is that costs of software-based learning and innovations will both fall as time goes on. But for students: at what price?? Especially if their chemistry class, as has happened at Brigham Young University (according to the authors)– was turned into a video game??

The authors thought that the large amount of money spent for universal free pre-kindergarten could be more wisely spent on parenting classes. But, once again, they failed to elaborate, and instead, ended the chapter. (For more extensive info on the myriad of subjects covered above, see this blog’s entire category of posts, “Education”).

Read the book to learn: the four major aspects of the American education system that, according to the authors, constrained students from learning; why the authors thought extrinsic motivators would force schools to rethink their services; the four ways the authors contended that technology would assist with customized learning; other comparisons with corporate models; charter school methods; and other imaginary “learning” scenarios that are likely to remain imaginary.

Our Iceberg is Melting

The Book of the Week is “Our Iceberg is Melting, Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions” by John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber, published in 2005.

SIDENOTE: Candice Bergen was the daughter of the world-famous ventriloquist, Edgar Bergen, whose dummy was named Charlie McCarthy. Born in May 1946, Bergen was just as angry about what the older generation was doing with her world as Millennials are today, with what their elders are doing.

“In six months, mine [Bergen’s parents, by 1968] had seen me go from socialite to socialist; had listened to my sermonizing them on American militarism, the massacres of the American Indian, their destruction of the ecosystem, their invention of plastics and their introduction to pesticides and preservatives.” Even so, Bergen realized she still had so much to learn, even though she had all of the advantages a child of a celebrity receives from birth onward.

Anyway, despite the unrealistic title-subhead (“… Under Any Conditions”), this fable provided a simple framework of actions to take in order to effect change on a system, whether it be overturning an oppressive situation, reversing the destruction of the environment, improving a healthcare system, or protecting everyone from cyber-attackers or other social ills.

The story started when one alert penguin informed others in his colony that their lives were endangered by an environmental threat. Other penguins helped him by convincing the community that there was a clear and present danger that needed to be dealt with as soon as possible.

The colony’s leaders formed a committee (whose members had diverse talents and skills but were still able to maintain civil discourse when they disagreed) to decide what to do. They propagandized early and often, and made everyone feel empowered by getting everyone to take action. They achieved a small victory to show the colony that the problem could be solved. Then they went at the problem whole hog, and didn’t let up– kept propagandizing and empowering to ensure that the major change stuck.

Read the book to learn of specific examples of how a group of people can learn to do the same. Of course, their experience won’t be so cut and dried as this penguin fable, as human beings and their problems are more complex, and there are always going to be some who get greedy and /or power-hungry, or angry and vengeful at those who do.

Drive -BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Drive, The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by Dan Pink, published in 2009.

Studies in psychology have shown that when money is offered as an incentive to do a creative activity, people are less motivated to do that activity, than when they were previously doing it for fun, for free! The reason is that it would smack of being a job–so the creator would have less autonomy over their product.

In the 1960’s, a management professor at MIT theorized about two types of sets of behaviors.

People who exhibit Type X behaviors:

  • are motivated externally– by money or other incentives outside themselves;
  • believe that everyone’s level of intelligence is fixed and cannot be augmented (“entity theory of intelligence”);
  • set goals that are externally determined, such as getting A on a test (“performance goals”); this way, they can blame someone else if they fail; and
  • look down upon those who exert effort to solve a problem or master a skill they’re not naturally good at.

People who exhibit Type Y behaviors are the opposite:

  • are motivated internally (“type I internal motivators”) — doing creative activities for fun, for free makes them happy;
  • believe that everyone’s level of intelligence can be augmented with effort (“incremental theory of intelligence”);
  • prefer to set goals within their control (“learning goals”) such as learning a foreign language fluently; incidentally, this way, they have no excuses if they fail; and
  • aren’t embarrassed to exert extra effort if necessary to solve a problem or improve a skill.

People who engage in Type Y behaviors, rather than type X behaviors, are growth-oriented, naturally happier, and their work-product is more creative. They are not constantly trying to live up to someone else’s standards. The Type X people (unsurprisingly!) are prone to unethical actions and addictive behaviors; they are dishonest, interested in reaping a short-term reward, and don’t care about long-term, adverse consequences.

Read the book to get more interesting theories on motivation, and insights into the behaviors of specific people who (immediately!) come to mind, and Pink’s tips for motivating people in business, education and other situations.

Women Who Work

The Book of the Week is “Women Who Work, Rewriting the Rules for Success” by Ivanka Trump, published in 2017. As is well known, Ivanka is Donald Trump’s daughter.

This volume described the business the author co-founded in an attempt to persuade females to vote for Trump for president in 2016. It was a redundant, wordy “do’s and dont’s” guide / bragfest (for the author, who used real-life examples from her own personal and professional life), interspersed with interesting research results, for women in the workplace. There were two words used grammatically incorrectly: “architect” was used as a verb, and “evolve” was used as a transitive verb.

Anyway, the Women Who Work website was started in November 2014. The tips provided were mostly common sense, like– listen to your coworkers at meetings, don’t gossip, lead by example, etc. One particularly curious line included: “… being authentic doesn’t mean candidly sharing every thought that comes to mind… using authenticity as an excuse to be unprofessional (“I am who I am!”).”

It was unclear at whom the author was targeting her vast generalizations and a few incorrect assumptions: experienced or inexperienced female workers. The author assumed that the reader had a female boss, worked with females, and worked with a team. She did provide some good tips for entry-level workers. However, she cited a 2014 study of Harvard Business School graduates in connection with gender roles in the home– but obviously, that group isn’t representative of the entire country.

Ivanka had to be vague, as every workplace is different. Her tips were unrealistic for women in male-dominated fields. Besides, the vast majority of employers in this country are still run by men. Ivanka also assumed the reader ran meetings, delivered presentations and managed a team. But if the reader had already reached a position with such responsibilities, she wouldn’t need this book.

The author wrongly assumed that the best way to get a job is through a recruiter. That might be true in some fields, such as information technology. But if the reader is a creative, independent thinker, she might get a job via thorough research on her situation, approaching employers directly, even if she has few or no contacts in the industry.

If the reader was laid off by her employer, Ivanka wrote, “Know that your manager probably doesn’t enjoy the conversation any more than you do and it may not have even been her decision to let you go.”

Letting employees go immediately is a far smarter policy than letting them know one, two or three months in advance of their firing but allows them to keep working. The latter scenario means the now-former employees will have zero productivity, will steal resources from their former employer, and will simply spend all their time looking for a new job.

Fired employees on the same level will be competing with each other for a new job so if they’re smart, they won’t tell the others they’ve been fired, but they’ll certainly be resentful, angry and possibly be sufficiently disgruntled to hurt their former employer.

The former employer thinks they’re saving money by not paying unemployment insurance– avoiding paperwork. They’re providing full pay for three months rather than half pay for six months. It’s actually more costly for them in the long run, in terms of personnel issues. And such former employers usually have unfriendly corporate cultures in the first place.

Ivanka said, “You’re never too old, experienced or far into your career to make a change.” That’s a lie, according to the AARP, which says that cases of age discrimination are on the rise. Nevertheless, young females just entering the workforce might want to read the book to get some tips.

The Code

The Book of the Week is “The Code, The Evolution of Secrecy From Mary, Queen of Scots to Quantum Cryptography” by Simon Singh, published in 1999. This book described a few different contexts in which communications needed to be deciphered or kept secret– in war, in determining whether to execute a queen, in learning about life in ancient Egypt and Greece, and in electronic exchanges to prevent theft of identity or assets, or maintain privacy.

The author related not only the details of how the WWII Allies were able to outwit the Germans by learning what they were doing, but also every last technical detail of the code-breaking, which is brain-breaking for most laypeople. But not for cryptography hobbyists.

Anyway, beginning in the early 1930’s for about eight years, a German intelligence agent sold information on his country’s secret communications operations, to a French intelligence agent. The French couldn’t have been bothered with such time-consuming, labor-intensive work that would allow them to intercept encoded military messages to and from Germans.

However, Poland was interested. The French turned it over to the Poles because the latter felt vulnerable to invasion from both sides, from the Soviets and Germans. Fortunately, Poland had a long standing-agreement with France to share such information.

Also, fortunately, the Poles’ lead cryptographer was a genius. But it took even him a year to compile a catalogue of alphabet-letter chain lengths in order to be able to decipher the Germans’ daily messages, whose code was different every day.

In 1938, the Germans added two more scramblers to their existing three, which made code-breaking by foreign intelligence agents, very nearly impossible. So in the summer of 1939, the Poles sent their deciphering equipment to Great Britain, which took over the spying operation.

In early September 1939, the Government Code and Cypher School in Britain hired its own genius, Alan Turing. He invented a setup of structures in which the completing of an electrical circuit would be indicated by a lit bulb when a code was broken. Construction of the contraptions of the top secret operation was completed by summer 1940, but the code-breaking was still agonizingly slow.

Different German contingents, such as the North Africa campaign, the army in Europe, the Luftwaffe, and the navy each had different codes. The navy’s was the hardest to break. But the work was worth doing because it significantly shortened the war by informing the British what the Germans were going to do next.

The Allies’ knowledge of German messages was especially helpful in the Battle of the Atlantic, and was instrumental in the Pacific Theater at Midway– in killing a powerful Japanese admiral in the Solomon Islands.

Eventually, 420 Native Americans of the Navajo tribe conveyed messages on behalf of, and to and from the Americans, because their language was indecipherable to the Japanese.

At this book’s writing, “Diffie, Hellman and Merkle [Americans] have become world famous cryptographers who [allegedly] invented the concept of public-key cryptography while Rivest, Shamir and Adelman [also Americans] have been credited with developing RSA [in 1977], the most beautiful implementation of public-key cryptography.”

However, three different British men conceived of the concept first– by early 1974. They were sworn to secrecy, as it was part of a classified military operation, and computing at the time wasn’t powerful enough to implement their concept. Being Americans, the aforementioned latter trio patented their method, and in 1996, sold their company for $200 million.

Interesting factoids: Cryptanalysts are in greater demand than ever before. The U.S. National Security Agency is still the world’s largest employer of mathematicians.

At this book’s writing, quantum cryptography was the wave of the future in cybersecurity, because it would be absolutely unbreakable. It would use either photon transmission or fiber-optics. The message sender and receiver could see whether there was an interloper because the messages would be altered. A card game– Hanabi– has since been invented, that uses the logic that allows communicators to decipher one another’s messages, while preventing third parties from doing so.

Read the book to learn about Philip Zimmermann (someone whom the National Security Agency viewed as a troublemaker), and the whole kit and caboodle on how codes were historically made and broken, and how messages can be kept secure. Six ways to Sunday.

50 Secrets of the World’s Longest Living People

The Book of the Week is “50 Secrets of the World’s Longest Living People” by Sally Beare, originally published in  2003. The author visited five places in the world where people are unusually long-lived. She argued that their lifestyles account for that phenomenon.

The residents of Okinawa, Symi, Campodimele, Huza and Bama all have insular cultures and an absence of pollution. Three of the above-named places are in Asia and two are in Europe.  The societies’ economies are self-sustaining agricultural and/or fishing and/or herding villages. They engage in rigorous manual labor– lots of exercise– and have the healthiest diets on the planet. Also, they don’t smoke.

Their diets consist mostly of raw or lightly cooked leafy greens, whole grains, seafood, soy products and other legumes, and fresh fruit; plus, hundreds of different herbs, locally grown. They might flavor their food with extra virgin olive oil, capers, garlic and onions. If they have alcohol, it is rice wine, in moderation. Daily beverages include green tea and calcium-rich water.

The author claimed that the farming societies used no pesticides, artificial fertilizers or genetic modification that generate higher crop yields. Yet the societies had adequate food, insects and birds in the food chain that eliminated pests that would harm the crops.

“Most genetically modified crops grown in the United States are corn, canola, and soybeans, as well as cotton, papaya and squash… Genetically modified crops have nothing to do with feeding the world and everything to do with the billions of dollars they are worth annually.”

The author mentioned Monsanto as just one monster-sized corporation that creates substances that contaminate America’s food supply. Disclosure of the data collected by various entities on carcinogens and other harmful food additives created by Monsanto, has been suppressed with cooperation by the U.S. government, just like with the tobacco companies in previous decades.

Read the book to learn which specific foods cut the risk of cancer, and why they do so; and the specific foods, exercises and activities that can help retard aging.

Total Recall

The Book of the Week is “Total Recall, How to Maximize Your Memory Power” by Joan Minninger, Ph.D., published in 1984.  This book gives real-life examples of how people can prevent memory failure with regard to names, phone numbers and other pieces of information.

People often forget specific incidents or data for subconscious emotional reasons. Sometimes it is better to forget past incidents than to trigger painful memories again. But improving one’s memory can play a role in improving or maintaining relationships at work, school or in one’s social life.

Multitasking hinders the absorption of new information. Remembering what was learned will be a fraction of the total number of activities the learner is doing simultaneously. For example, if the learner is doing five things at once, retention will be one fifth as much as if the learner is doing one thing. So it makes sense that research has also shown that retention is better when a student is studying in silence rather than when studying while listening to music.

Read the book to find out the methods for remembering almost anything.

Inviting Disaster

The Book of the Week is “Inviting Disaster” by James R. Chiles, published in 2002. This is an ebook that describes the causes of fatal mechanical failures in aviation and industry.

Human error is always a factor. There is never just one cause. “A disaster occurs through a combination of poor maintenance, bad communication, and shortcuts.” Taking shortcuts such as omitting the testing of newly manufactured machine parts leads to improper, unsafe modification by end users.

In the stages leading up to a catastrophe, when workers realize they are in trouble, most react with intense concentration, anger at the malfunctioning equipment, fear and even panic.

Hypervigilance is a form of extreme panic with trembling hands, hyperventilation and heart palpitations; the mind blanks on what one was taught in training, and perception narrows. Often this causes people to take a course of action with the best of intentions– that makes conditions worse.

Architectural engineers must make sure buildings are designed to withstand the natural disasters that typically hit the areas where they are located. About every sixteen years, Manhattan gets hit by a hurricane that might cause, say, a particular building to collapse. That was why, shortly after it was built in 1978, the Citicorp Building had to be structurally modified at great expense. However, many deaths were likely prevented.

A common chain of events precipitates disasters in third world countries. A light manufacturing plant might be erected in a lower-class residential area. As time passes, however, the owner might want to begin making hazardous products.

Certain conditions prevail:  There is a dearth of laws governing environmental impact; the local economy would suffer if the plant couldn’t expand; the local residents enjoy living there. Over time, people become sloppy about safety.

Before lots of accidents, internal memos warning of an unsafe situation go unheeded. “The bureaucratic solution is to let the memo sit in the inbox for a while– then send it back for more explanation.” It is easier than making trouble, and in the short term, economically advantageous.

One way companies such as Boeing are checking themselves from making the same mistake twice is by continually adding to a knowledge base– confidential archives of troubleshooting reports that are actually read by designers.

Read the book to learn about other ways deadly mishaps could have been, and can be avoided.