Overcoming the legacy of prior education

Stanford's Keith Devlin is giving his second MOOC. Prof Devlin is a superb source of insights into everything related to the MOOC phenomenon. Here's a fragment from his latest post:

(…) Still, the very wide reach of MOOCs means we are likely to see new kinds of activities emerge, some of them purely commercial. The example I cite above, though right now a very isolated one, may be a sign of big things to come – which is why I mention it. There is, after all, a familiar pattern. The Internet, on which MOOCs live, began as a military and educational network, but now it is a major economic platform. And textbooks grew from being a valuable educational support to the present-day mega-profit industry that has effectively killed US K-12 education.

Talking of which (and this brings me to my main focus in this post), the death – or at least the dearth – of good K-12 mathematics education becomes clear when you look through the forum posts in a MOOC such as mine, which assumes only high school knowledge of mathematics.

Devlin offers important insights into the real world of learning as a process. Another example:

First, many forum posters seem to view education as something done to them, by other people who are in control. This is completely wrong, and is the opposite of what you will find in a good university (and a very small number of excellent K-12 schools). ”To learn” is an active verb. The focus should be creating an environment where the student can learn, wants to learn, and can obtain the support required to do so. There is no other way, and anyone who claims to do anything more than help you to learn is trying to extract money from you.

Second, there is a common view of education as being primarily about getting grades on tests – generally by the most efficient means (which usually means by-passing real learning). In education, tests are metrics to help the student and the instructor gauge progress. That does not prevent tests being used to assess achievement and provide credentials, but that is something you do after an educational experience is completed. Their use within the learning process is different, and everyone involved in education – students, instructors, parents, bureaucrats, and politicians – needs to be aware of the distinction.

Even worse, is the belief that a test grade of less than 90% is an indication of failure, often compounded by the hopeless misconception that activities like mathematics depend mostly on innate talent, rather than the hours of effort that those of us in the business know is the key. (Check out Carol Dweck’s Mindset research or read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. Better still, read both.)

This is compounded by the expectation that a grade of 90% is possible within just a few days of meeting something new. For example, here is one (slightly edited) forum post from a student in my class:

Right now I want to quit this class. I don’t understand ANY of it. Hell I don’t understand anything regarding to math except basic equations and those barely. When asked to give a theorem on why something (let’s say a right angle) is that way my answer always was “it is because it is”). So now I don’t know what to do. I got 14 out of 40 … 14, and the perfectionist in me is saying might as well give up … you gave it a shot … there is no way to catch up now. The person in me who wants to learn is saying to keep trying you never know what will happen. And the pessimist in me says it doesn’t matter – I dumb and will always be dumb and by continuing I am just showing how dumb I am.

In this case, I looked at other posts from this student and as far as I can tell (this is hard when done remotely over the Internet) she is smart and shows every indication she can do fine in mathematics. In which case, I take her comment as an indication of the total, dismal failure of the education system she has hitherto been subjected to. No first-line education system should ever produce a graduate who feels like that.

Certainly, in learning something new and challenging, getting over 30% in the first test, less than a week after meeting it for the first time, is good. In fact, if you are in a course where you get much more than that so quickly, you are clearly in the wrong course – unless you signed up in order to fine-tune something you had already learned. Learning is a long, hard process that involves repeated “failure”. And (to repeat a point I made earlier) anyone who says otherwise is trying to extract money from you.