Busywork vs actual learning

As it turns out, education is not such a simple subject.

I was naive. Hell, I still am in many respects, but I’m here to address some of the gaping holes in this post.

My primary error while proposing a new grading system was that I didn’t know or was blissfully unaware of the fundamental difference between actually learning and just doing busywork. Because at the end of the day, the important thing is that the student has learned something. If the student spent 3/4 of the year studying or just a couple of weeks in total shouldn’t be of importance. We shouldn’t treat these students differently if both have retained the same amount of knowledge.

In the current education system, no matter where in the world you live in, trite busywork is what separates an excellent grade from an average one. And that’s because busywork is easily quantifiable. An “A” means the student did all of the busywork while a “B” means the student did only 85% of it.

Sometimes you can pass a class by just doing what the teacher says without ever absorbing any actual knowledge. Or in other words, you know that “2+2 = 4” and “2+3 = 5” but you don’t know what to do when confronted with a “2+3+2” operation.

Doing busywork doesn’t always translate into knowledge or a lesson learned or any understanding of any kind. Taking a test on the other hand … does evaluate actual knowledge to some extent. (That is, if its done well, but I’m not getting into that topic for now). So, actual knowledge is only quantifiable through tests.

The problem most of the time is, as I’ve said in the past, that tests don’t reward knowledge, they just punish mistakes. On top of that, tests only evaluate knowledge during the couple of hours that they last. After that, the student is free to forget all about the subject he just spent the last 2 or more days studying. Unless there’s another similar test in the future, of course.

But all of this is just a problem of written tests.

If the test is just a conversation between the teacher and the student, then these problems vanish. No longer are mistakes directly punished and there’s a more direct correlation between what the teacher sees the student knows and what the student actually knows.

There are still three problems to this approach though:

  1. The obvious one is that the teacher can’t evaluate 100 students in a day. Hell, I’d be surprised if he could do that in under a week. So: the efficiency of an oral test is deplorable, since it has been traded for effectiveness.
  2. How do you assign a grade in an oral exam? The teacher has to *gasp* actually judge how much the student knows.
  3. On the other hand, this approach means the teacher is depending on the ability of the student to communicate on the fly, to talk. Some people have an extreme difficulty to do this effectively, so they always prefer written tests because they can spend as much time as they want to try and build each sentence.

I used to be one of those people. In fact, I was like that through all of my schooling life. It wasn’t until I reached the university level of education that I started to improve. But that wouldn’t have been the case if at least someone had cared about my communication skills at an  earlier point in my life. And you know what? In retrospective, having regular oral exams would have helped me get over this problem.

Grading is also a problem for teachers that don’t want to engage students directly. These kinds of teachers could just grab a regular conversation and turn it into the equivalent of a written exam where a single mistake is enough to lower the grade. The solution: Get. Better. Teachers. Teachers that care about what they’re teaching and most of all, that care about the students themselves.

So now we’re only left with one major issue as to how to improve testing procedures: Efficiency.

Yeah, there’s no getting around that. There’s a trade-off that can’t be broken, at least not until we invent a chatbot intelligent enough to do the testing.

Well, since we are talking only in theory, we could say that the teacher’s job should be to test and teach at the same time. That the classrooms should have at most 20 students and perhaps more than one teacher. That the teaching process be 30% exposition and 70% conversation.

And maybe while we are at it, we should stop world hunger, give an interesting and fulfilling job to everyone and cure cancer. I’m very aware that what I’m proposing is far from possible in most parts of the world. However, I would settle for something like this:

The ladies and gentlemen that are responsible for how our education systems work, would you please give a f*ck?


Education, creativity and how the former is designed to kill the latter

Education is not a topic I think about very regularly, but when I do … I feel compelled to talk about it and the problems behind the current system. Luckily for me, Sir Ken Robinson does an excellent job at that in the following videos. Mainly, he  speaks about education and the various adverse effects it has on creativity, the sense of self-worth and the understanding of intelligence.

These are two of his TED talks, the first one is from 2007:

And the second is from 2010:

After watching both videos I realize I’m quite lucky. I liked mathematics since I was very little and so the heavy focus on mathematical thinking didn’t hurt me in any way. I didn’t feel suffocated. What I did find boring, unsatisfying and a complete waste of time was the history classes. Mostly because the teaching methods and the subjects involved were so boring, uninvolving and downright depressing that I just couldn’t bear the thought of studying this garbage at home. Or paying attention in class for that matter. Decorating the chair with a faulty liquid paper was a more involving and interesting experience.

In retrospect, my main problem was that I really suck at memorizing things literally. I have to decompose them, I have to understand what they mean and link everything within the  web of knowledge that’s inside my brain. I have no use for dates if I don’t have a context for them. I can remember them for an exam but they won’t stay with me after a few days.

1945, the end WWII? Yeah, I didn’t memorize that number until I learned all the context surrounding it. And you know what’s the worst part? I actually learned more about WWII from Wikipedia, National Geographic and the History Channel than from school.

Let me repeat that: I learned more in a few hours of television than years of history classes.

Oh, and that whole thing about making children afraid of being wrong? And that every question has only one answer? That’s absolutely true. I was terrified every single time the English teacher assigned us students with creating a short story. A STORY? About what? How should I start? What if it’s wrong? I can’t come up with anything… Why do I have only have an hour to pour my creative juices onto the page? but what if I’m not finished by then? Should I just end it and be done with it?

They spent years and years kicking the creativity out of our skulls and NOW they want us to engage in something creative?

Frankly, I didn’t find my creative side until I left school.

I didn’t even know I had a creative side before then.

Interaction in the classroom

I’m in the middle of watching this TED video and I can already recommend it to anyone with an interest in education:

What made me stop the video and then proceed to write this post was how he described some teachers using the Khan Academy lectures. Basically, the students watched the lectures at home and what used to be homework was done in class. That way, the teacher is freed from having to give the same lectures over and over again, the students are free to pause, rewind and fast-forward the lectures as they see fit, and in class the students get to talk to the teacher and other students about the subject.

This reminded me of the Dragon Speech given by Chris Crawford in 1992. In that speech (in the third part, if you’re curious) he described how normal lectures are designed to be efficient but at the cost of low effectiveness, that the human mind is an active agent, not a passive receptacle. What he proposed for giving more effectiveness to lectures was to make them interactive by translating them into games.

It’s an approach that doesn’t seem practical since it requires a huge amount of legwork to get it started and then there’s no guarantee that it’ll catch on.

See where I’m getting at?

Yes, the Khan Academy videos seem to be the solution to the problem Crawford exposed. Granted, there’s not a huge amount of interactivity on the videos themselves, but that’s not a problem here. By watching the videos at home, the students are free to interact, to talk about the subject freely between themselves and with the teacher. It takes an expository environment such as the classroom and makes it a hell of a lot more interactive.

And it’s efficient too because the video lectures can be watched by anybody at anytime anywhere as long as they have an internet connection and a browser.

Frankly, the only problem that I see with using the Khan Academy lectures is that they’re all in the same language: English. The chances of these lectures catching on in countries other than the english speaking ones are … well, minimal. Non-existent, in fact.

When I was little, to get information I and many other students resorted to the spanish version of Encarta. It was nice and all, but it doesn’t even compare to Wikipedia nowadays, which not only has supplanted Encarta, it has helped spread a new paradigm in and off itself.

Would the Khan Academy do the same thing for the classroom environment? At least I’m sure of one thing, it’s going to need a huge translation effort in order to get closer to that goal.


Side-notes of stuff further in the video:

  • Students with swiss cheese holes in their knowledge. That’s unbelievably and painfully true.
  • The data structures and how they are graphed is very intelligent and intuitive. Seems as it would be a huge help for the teachers.
  • Everyone gets stuck on a topic eventually and due to that some kids are labeled as “slower” than their peers. I’m not sure that happens everywhere in the world, but at least it rings somewhat true to me.
  • Haha, he talks about a global classroom. Yeah, as long as it’s only in English that ain’t going to happen.

Punishment in education

Warning: Some hard expletives are peppered throughout this post. Reader discretion is advised.

Education is backwards.

… well, that’s true, but let me reduce the scope of this post: The “final exam” system is backwards.

Instead of measuring the knowledge of the student, it’s counting the mistakes he/she makes.

Instead of going upwards, it’s a system that begins at perfection and anything less counts negatively.

It incentivizes short-term memory over any kind of long-lasting effects.

It stigmatizes any kind of mistakes. According to the education system, mistakes are perfectly avoidable and if you ever commit one (that is, if you’re human) you should and shall be punished accordingly.

You cannot and should not learn from said mistakes, because once you’ve done something wrong, it can’t be erased, it’s permanent.


I’m not exaggerating here. That’s what it feels like every time I have to study for a final exam, and if you are a student or remember what it was like, then I imagine you’d agree with me when I question:

Who the fuck designed this system?

But I guess the more important question is: Why the flying fuck haven’t we changed such a monstrosity? It’s a horrible, horrible system that needs to be killed with fire.

Right now.

You fail as a student and as a human being, see me after class.

I get the feeling that this system worked in a time when things like these were acceptable. Have we gone soft? That’s a horrible way to put it. I’d say we’ve grown more sophisticated as a society. We’ve gained access to greater and greater forms of entertainment, of immediacy and rewards. We’ve learned how to milk the human psyche both for good and for bad. We’ve done so much in the past 50 years that it’s no wonder the education system feels antiquated, moldy and badly designed.

I don’t know if we should attribute it to a change between generations, all I know is that when I was at school, with each year I grew more and more dissatisfied and I didn’t know why. The kids that are at school today are even more disinterested. Some just don’t give a fuck and just sleep through every single class. Others just play with their cellphones, smartphones and/or netbooks because they are both more interesting and more informative than the classes themselves.

Well then, if the kids of today find these tech thingies so interesting, let’s spice our classes up with some education software!

That’s not how it works. That’s like trying to fix the leaky pipe of the kitchen sink with the molten metal of the currently on fire oven. Sure, it sounds like a nice solution but you might wanna go take a look at that other slightly bigger problem.

Look, the reason why all of these kids are getting more and more bored with classes isn’t because they aren’t flashy enough. It’s because teachers don’t give them compelling tasks. “But Diego” you say, “isn’t that a lot more work for teachers?”, well my friend, that could be true if we approached the problem with brute force. Something like bringing kids to the Grand Canyon to study its geography. That’s nice, but instead I propose something way more simple and general than that: JUST CHANGE THE FUCKING HORRIBLE GRADING SYSTEM.

This is what I designed in 5 minutes:

  • Have everyone at the start of each year with 0 points for every subject.
  • With each homework, with each successful test, grant the student points.
  • With 500 points, the student passes.
  • The maximum a student can get for each subject is 1000 points.

It’s not perfect by any means but it immediately feels “right”. This way, more points mean more work done. Any “grade” that is greater than 500 means that the student either liked the subject or was willing to work harder for a greater grade. On top of that, it’s a grading system that goes upwards instead of downwards: It doesn’t punish students for making mistakes, it only rewards successes.

So, yeah, I had to get this out of my chest.

Also, for more interesting thoughts take a look at this Extra Credits video. It’s one of the more insightful and spot-on videos I’ve seen in years.

Now I’m gonna go to sleep, then get up 2 hours later, go to class, be astoundingly bored for 2 and a half hours and then go home so I can do something way more productive: get some proper sleep.

Update from the university: Yeah, astoundingly bored already. The professor is currently explaining that a six sided die doesn’t have a face with 7 dots. He’s been explaining this for the last 5 minutes…. this is pathetic.

Why am I paying for this? Why am I here? … Oh right, I “need” to know this stuff in order to get the diploma next year.