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Sunday, August 15, 2004

On Schools

The nice thing about Google is that it will only answer questions you asked. In that regard it’s like a librarian, leaving you to research only what interests you, and leaving you alone unless you actively seek help. In that regard it’s the opposite of a school teacher.

I’m currently reading the truly revealing Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto (the complete text is available online and convinced me to buy the offline-version, just like We the Media – this might be a trend). The study paints a pessimistic image of modern “forced schooling” (and shows how successful former howmeschooling was in America). It strikes a chord with me because I always despised school. At least from fifth grade onwards. I liked much of what was happening from first to fourth grade in elementary school (for the ages 6 - 10 in Germany).

Even in elementary school, I was doubting what was taught. Not because I knew better, it seems, but because nobody explained why we had to do what we did. My mother (who is also a teacher, and a good one at that – as good as the system allows you to be) told me I would not paint the big circles and rectangles and vertical lines and other shapes preparing us to write letters (like an “o” or “i”). I told the teacher that I just want to learn writing.

Gatto argues that schools take this to the extreme – teaching only things which you see no immediate need for; never answering the pressing question real life puts upon you. Schools more often than not suppress our natural curiosity by endless monotony. Also, they suppress our instinct to concentrate for long periods of time because the bell rings every 45 minutes.

Gatto compares libraries to schools and comes to the conclusion that only libraries are truly made for reading and research – certainly not school rooms. He also finds that students are almost never behaving aggressively or out of line in libraries. They do in class rooms.

True, when I was a kid, I loved the library, and hated the school room. I didn’t always hate school, but even the lessons I liked were too short – a maximum of 3 hours per week, spread over 5 days (in 2 hour and 1 hour lessons). Which subject can be touched but superficially in such limited time? This is not the way to keep the fire of curiosity burning. It only leaves you cold.

Mostly, when I was good at something, I was bored by the lesson and didn’t learn much – and when I was bad at something, I closed my mind and neither learned much. Believe it or not my math skills dropped continuously to the point I forgot how to do calculations I was able to perform with 9 years of age.

The school systems in Germany are largely split into schools for good students, schools for mediocre students, schools for bad students, and those schools that mix all three of the groups (that’s the kind I was in). You may ask – how can a single student be grouped as “bad” or “mediocre” or “good” when usually people are good in one thing, and bad in another? And shouldn’t we rather try to make people become great in the things they are good in, as opposed to molding masses of mediocrity? And finally, shouldn’t we rely on people’s instincts to become great in what they are good at, without passing judgement? Well, I don’t have answers to these questions. Gatto argues that these masses are pretty much what the industrialized society needs – a mindless workforce. What looks like a flaw in the system is its original intention.

My mother, even though she’s a teacher, agreed to me that school was probably not the right thing for me. I would have preferred to have been involved in real projects. Real projects. Things that have the ability to improve society outside the school building. Things you can build up on later on in your life. Things, in short, that matter by the rules of life, not by the rules of school (which is an artificial set-up, and we might easily challenge the meaning of grades).

As soon as we did real projects with a longer scope I was loving school. Like when we were asked to discuss any book we like. Or write an essay on any subject we are interested in. But when the teacher asked me to read a book I didn’t even thought of as interesting, naturally I would object. This lack of believe in authority certainly made me somewhat of a problem child in school.

I wasn’t the only one feeling rebellious. I think it’s so natural – a caged lion would bite back too. Kids have a hard time learning to shut up. If you are in a class of 30 in a 45 minute lesson, you can free your mind around 1/30 of the time – all in all one-and-a-half minute. That wouldn’t even be enough for a baby to learn talking. We learn talking by babbling on all the time, don’t we? Imagine a mother having to raise 30 kids! And imagine her having to pass judgement on the babbling of her babies!

Yes, mothers are our first teachers. And they do a great job. My mother improved my reading. Partly due to reading books with me, partly due to just having enough books around us always.

Where is the large collection of books in class room? And when is the time to choose them, and actually read them? And where is the space to do so in concentration? There isn’t. We are not supposed to explorer or learn on ourselves. We are not supposed to do what was natural not too many centuries ago.

I believe one of the greatest education tool for kids is to not teach them in terms of what we think they already must understand. Imagine a mother who waits until her little baby speaks before she talks to him! And yet we have no reason to start talking to a baby before we aren’t sure it will understand us. But of course we do; we do it out of common sense and intuition, something schools always seem to lack. By the way, this may sound ridiculous, but my own mother in her experience as teacher had this anecdotal experience in real life. A kid in kindergarten who wouldn’t talk well and much (a problem child) was asked to arrive to a meeting with the mother. Now during this get-together whenever the kid was asked a question, the mother took over and answered for the kid. When she was asked why she did that, she would reply: “But my son has problems speaking.”

Yes, when we try to make things easier for one another in the short term, we might make it harder in the long term. Schools do make it harder in the long term, because they never teach us to crack our brains on real life problems, to come up with real life solutions. They present artificial problems and are very much satisfied if we solve them by the (again, artificial) book.

But problems change depending on when and where people live and what they want to do with life. So do the solutions that are appropriate. In fact, someone may want to invent a whole new problem in life and tackle it with a whole new solution, one which can never be found in a schoolbook because it has yet to be invented.

Us school kids, around the age of 12-15, were certainly a mess. We were being made into mental wrecks by the teachers, and certainly many teachers were being made into mental wrecks by us. Teachers who fail to inspire you (I’m sure it must be inspiring now to say have a teacher who writes a weblog) quickly start to depress you. We were always relieved to find out in the first hour with a new teacher that rebellion was futile. You can spot authority like an airplane in clear sky. Authority would help us concentrate on the tasks ahead, not on being noisy. Teachers with no authority on the other hand would create stressful situations for years to come (note there was never a change – you could spot the difference in the first hour, and this would point the way for the rest of the teacher career).

So do schools stretch our minds by treating us with much more than we know? No. They give us a spoon of wisdom here and there. A mild diet indeed; one that will starve us. This can be painful, and it’s human nature to give back this pain. In our school, we projected aggressions on objects largely.
We would throw chairs out of the window in the summer; throw snowballs inside the window during winter; break glass all year long; bully other students and be bullied in return; rip pages out of school books; we destroyed the cushions of the couch in our class; we hit and scratched on our desks.

In frustration, you do a lot of silly things. Whatever one may think about school it certainly doesn’t know how to handle kids so they keep quiet; and wether or not that is a good objective to have, school fails miserably. Even judged upon their own goal, they aren’t succeeding. Yet they think they can make us become a success? What a shining example.

Well, one thing you do learn in school. And that is getting around with tricks and cheating and begging for attention. You learn to quietly cope with stress. You learn to give sane reactions to insane circumstances. Maybe it’s a good preparation for an insane society. Or maybe it’s just what makes our society insane in the first place.

I can only speak for myself when I say that maybe it was all for good. School managed to teach me one thing only; you have to completely rely on yourself when it comes to education. At the age of about 17 (I was just repeating one year) I forgot about school and started to teach myself programming*. I would go, where else, to the local library, and get all the books on the subject I could. I would program, where else, at home. If any, my inspiration was life itself; my grandfather (who send to me a program in BASIC, and I just feld uncomfortable writing back “I can’t understand it”); maybe a movie, like David Lightman in War Games; certainly, no teacher or class inspired me**. I would wait for the weekends and for my father to bring back home his laptop from work, and I would fire it up and started where I ended last week (later on, when I had my own PC, I programmed at night-time, making me a very sleepy teen at school). I was more ambitious with this task then any task a teacher could have laid upon me... for the sole reason that it was what really interested me. Never-mind how challenging; you learn a thousand times faster when you learn what is close to your heart.

*Starting to learn programming, incidentally, was improving my results in all classes; including writing free-style English. It’s such a great tool every kid should be exposed to it. It structures your brain, helps organizing your though, reflecting on your own errors (and finding them in the first place). Before I was programming heavily my English teacher held up a test paper of mine in front of the class and compared it to a work of modern art. Indeed, it was the total mess; though individual thoughts must have been embedded somewhere within, the whole surrounding was so cluttered you could hardly spot them. There were strike-throughs, connection arrows, whole paragraphs with a big “x” drawn through them, endless footnotes, additions, changes, and so on. After I started programming I could write an English test without a single correction, nicely laid out from start to end. (I later on met a colleague at work who felt programming would destroy creativity in kids – I think the opposite holds true, because even artists need themselves to organize their life to find enough free time to be creative.)

**We had a programming course when I was 15 (later on it was cancelled because I was about the only one applying for it) but I largely forgot about it – these were pseudo-languages written to handle artificial problems, like helping an arrow find the way through a maze. Still, this was interesting at the time. Even then we would rebel against the rule to never turn on the computer before the teacher specifically stated the problem and analyzed possible ways to solve it. Though the teacher would control the central switch to our monitors we could still turn on the PC itself and type along, soon finding ways to navigate the Operating System into its BASIC interpreter after start-up, producing endless beeps. Don’t you just hate kids? By the way, tests for computer course were computer programs written on paper (in Pascal) – this is the most unnatural way to program and the last time I ever dit it.

Today I am working full time as web developer. I can’t even remember this was a prospect they offered when some adults came to school to hand us a book of possible careers; I made the test on their computer system, checking my favorite hobbies, listing my best skills – and the program suggested to me to operate a church organ. (You know, this was at a time when teachers were preparing us for working life by telling us how to apply for a job by sending around papers. They couldn’t know then, but for all my past jobs applications I send out emails. It’s nature school teaches the past only, never the future.)

And how should they know back then before the web entered the cultural consciousness that I would be good for web development? The web was a problem yet to be discovered, with solutions yet to be invented. You can’t prepare kids for the future unless you are a good guide in letting themselves develop problem-solving tool-sets of their own.

This might sound like a rant, and I’m sure some have happy memories of school. There are always teachers who try to be good. Some even succeed. Some just try to be mean. Gatto, author of the book I mentioned above, was New York State & New York City Teacher of the year. He was one of the best I’m sure. If you have high expectations, naturally the disillusion will be more painful, and you develop even more radical viewpoints.

This might be a rant and I’m sure for some people, school was a great thing. (Was I just surrounded by the wrong teachers?) But we are talking about forced schooling (at least in Germany, you can’t just say you will start to learn only what your soul desires, and go home, or to the library, or out to nature to study; my father once told me forced schooling was invented to suppress child labor). Now if it’s the only choice we have it better be the one that makes best sense. I don’t believe so.

Today I’m working as web developer; I largely taught myself programming; I largely educate myself. And I don’t stop, realizing that I need to be better because I don’t have any formal education which matters. (I escaped University after only two weeks, seeing how it was just like school; an art teacher who couldn’t paint, and an art class that wouldn’t teach painting, but talk about paintings – I still believe you get good at understanding paintings by trying to paint yourself; and that only can you be a master of understanding a painting if you are a master at creating one. The University I first applied for which might have been better was the school for Media Communication in Cologne, which rejected me. But with a tip of the hat to Groucho Marx: I don’t care to belong to a club which doesn’t accept members like me.)

Maybe (the final irony) it was all for the better, because for me there was no shinier example than school itself that the autodidactic approach this is the only solution. Someone’s got to do the job of running my own life – why not let it be me then?

Now wouldn’t that be a valuable lesson to teach kids? Or do we wait until they’ve grown up (and grown bitter) and hope they realize themselves? Why do we risk waiting until it might be too late? Why do we waste a kids energy in a time when the kid is known to learn fastest? I find it endlessly sad we teach kids to basically become good prisoners. Life is not a prison; life is nothing to be scared of; life is not build to sit around. So why are schools?

Maybe, just maybe, it was all for the better... but I’m sure I wouldn’t want to live through it again.

Now, I will continue with my book. It’s the kind they wouldn’t hand out in the school I was in. The kind I like.


On Friday the 13th, John Battelle tempts fate and explores searchstreams. A searchstream, in short, is the path a researcher takes to find an answer. A searchstream which allows to be openly inspected, on the other hand, can be the basis for yet another conclusion by another researcher.


PS: At Google Answers you will often find Researchers listing their search strategy at the end of their answer. Also, they often explain how they were looking for something. The following Google search narrows it down to 223 results: "i searched for"

PPS: Why did Google Inc choose the number 13? The answer can be found in numerology. We take a=1, b=2, c=3, ... and get the following simple calculation (adding the numbers of the first 3 letters, substracting the last 3):

  G   O    O    G   L    E
+ 7 + 15 + 15 - 7 - 12 - 5  =  13

But seeing seemingly magical connections within fate is a bit like numerology seeing connections between numbers – the above example underlines how trivial it is.

Talking about numerology and creative paranoia, the biggest searchstream of all is outlined in Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum (1988). Three researchers manage to connect everything with everything, much like Google manages to do today by allowing us to crossbreed any two concepts and spawn a new result.

Map Your Blog

While the formerly great service is slowly fading from our memories (it died a while ago), Multimap is starting to become a well replacement. It supports links using latitude, longitude and a special title, like this. It also supports user-created categories; and one of them is “weblog” (see upper right box). Clagnut explains how you can put your own blog on the map. The only problem at the moment is that you can’t seem to see the weblogs when you are on a country-level zoom. [Via Dave’s Rants.]


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