What we know gets in the way

Sometimes what we know gets in the way of what could be. Especially when it comes to the human-built world. We think we already know how something works, so we can’t imagine how it could work. We know how it’s supposed to work, but we can’t suppose all the things that could be possible. Kids don’t have as hard as a time with this.

Jay Silver, discussing what he noticed when watching people creating things from raw materials in a forest, which lead to the question:

What kind of tools can we give people so that they can see the world as malleable, so that they can see themselves as agents of change?

This in turn lead to the creation of MaKey MaKey. The TED talk is well worth a watch.

Five whys

In mass-production plants, problems tended to be treated as random events. The idea was simply to repair each error and hope that it didn’t recur. Ohno instead instituted a system of problem-solving called “the five why’s.” Production workers were taught to trace systematically each error back to its ultimate cause (by asking “why” as each layer of the problem is uncovered), then to devise a fix, so that it would never occur again.

Not surprisingly, as Ohno began to experiment with these ideas, his production line stopped all the time, and his workers easily became discouraged. However, as the work teams gained experience identifying and tracing problems back to their root cause, the number of errors began to drop dramatically.

from The Machine That Changed the World, p. 56.

The five whys is an essential tool that I use often, but not often enough. The mistake I often make is believing that asking the questions is my responsibility alone, rather than the responsibility of the whole team.

Authentic, challenging tasks

It turns out that there is research for and against having kids memorize random bits of information without some sort of context to house those bits in. I fall into the camp that believes kids should be engaged in authentic, challenging tasks that will, as age permits, require the use of numbers to, for example, build a fort (my son is an expert) and then determine which words best describe it. He’s been making up some funny ones lately, but alas, none of them are on the sight words list.

Philip Kovacs’ An Open Letter to My Son’s Kindergarten Teacher does an amazing job of summarizing my concerns as my own son enters school. His points about teaching kids how to learn (not how to ace a test) and not destroying their love of learning (by replacing it with performance anxiety) are spot on.

But I also worry about homework and other busywork. My son is very interested in learning to use tools properly. I initially set up some exercises for him. I have him a bunch of screws to screw into wood or nails to pound. He’ll try one or two, do them pretty well the lose interest. If he’s doing the same thing in the context of a project, however, he’ll screw every screw and hammer every nail. It’s even better if it’s a project he’s come up with: “Let’s use these bits of wood to build a house for Little Kitty!” He needs authentic, challenging tasks not just busy work.

I fully recognize that this is part of my responsibility as a parent; however, he’s going to spend much of his life in school. I’m going to do everything I can to ensure he has the same sense of curiosity and creative drive when he comes out the other side. My current feeling is that this will be a constant struggle against a government whose priorities are very different from mine as a parent.


Our teachers are leaving because high-stakes testing robs children of the joy of learning. My students take a STAAR-style test in every subject, tested or not, each six weeks. We write curriculum around the exam. Teachers, especially in low-income schools, are shackled to the demands of the test. Students view education as being about tests, not learning.

The heartbreak of being a teacher in Texas

With my son starting school soon, I’m increasingly worried about this. I have no doubt that there are good teachers out there. My concern is protecting him from the idiocy that will be forced on him by a bureaucracy that is only interested in measuring its own performance.

Basic and applied research

While the primary focus of attention in this panel is on basic research, I feel compelled to observe that basic and applied research go hand-in-hand, informing and stimulating each other in a never-ending Yin and Yang of partnership. In some ways, applied research is a form of validation because the success (or failure) of the application may reinforce or contradict the theoretically predicted results and the underlying theory. Basic research tries to understand and applied research tries to do and often one must pursue both in the effort to uncover new knowledge.

via Vinton G. Cerf: "The Value of Investment by the U.S. Government Cannot Be Overstated" – Scientific American.

This reminds me of the point that Tom D. Crouch makes in The Bishop’s Boys: that the Wright Brothers were engineers rather than scientists.