Reading and writing is useless

And it really meant something to the child. The child read beautifully, it turned out, and was really very competent. So it actually meant something. And that story has many other anecdotes that are similar, but wow. The key to the future of computers in education is right there, and it is: when does it mean something to a child? There is a myth, and it truly is a myth: we believe — and I’m sure a lot of you believe in this room — that it is harder to read and write than it is to learn how to speak. And it’s not, but we think speech — “My God, little children pick it up somehow, and by the age of two they’re doing a mediocre job, and by three and four they’re speaking reasonably well. And yet you’ve got to go to school to learn how to read, and you have to sit in a classroom and somebody has to teach you. Hence, it must be harder.”Well, it’s not harder. What the truth is is that speaking has great value to a child; the child can get a great deal by talking to you.

Reading and writing is utterly useless. There is no reason for a child to read and write except blind faith, and that it’s going to help you. So what happens is you go to school and people say, “Just believe me, you’re going to like it. You’re going to like reading,” and just read and read. On the other hand, you give a kid — a three-year-old kid — a computer and they type a little command and — Poof! — something happens. And all of a sudden … You may not call that reading and writing, but a certain bit of typing and reading stuff on the screen has a huge payoff, and it’s a lot of fun. And in fact, it’s a powerful educational instrument.

Nicholas Negroponte’s discussing the myth that learning to read and write is difficult during his amazing 1984 TED talk.

This followed an fantastic anecdote of a child teachers believed couldn’t read. It turned out he believed reading was the boring stuff teachers gave him. When he could get something out of it, when it was useful for him, he was perfectly capable of leaving.

Negroponte eloquently makes the point that children learn best when they are allowed to follow their interests, take on challenging tasks and make something that is meaningful to them.

Reading isn’t hard, but it isn’t magical either. It’s a tool, and kids are more likely to use it when it suits their curiosity and interests.

Filter bubble

I think if you take all these filters, if you take all of these algorithms, you get what I call a filter bubble.

And your filter bubble is kind of your own personal unique universe of information that you live in online.

And what’s in your filter bubble depends on who you are and what you do. But the thing is that you don’t decide what gets in, and more importantly you don’t actually see what gets edited out.

Eli Pariser discussing the filter bubble created by online algorithms.

Pariser later described the filter bubble as containing two parts:

Well in the talk and even more in the book there’s two pieces One is the partisan echo chamber challenge and the other is do people get exposed to content about topics that are in the public sphere at all or is it Miley Cyrus and cats all the way down.

I’m concerned with both of these, but I’m more concerned that I’m being exposed to different ideas, to escaping the echo chamber. It’s worth noting that I find Twitter to be more of an echo chamber than Facebook. I use Facebook to communicate with my friends and family. Twitter I use largely to follow and communicate with colleagues and people in my industry. On Twitter, I’m exposed to less content that I disagree with (and to less content that is new and interesting). The fact that this is the case on Twitter is a bit scary since this is arguably a situation of my own making, and one that I’m trying to correct.

Fascinatingly, there is some research that there is a physical analogue to the filter bubble, that we’re living in mono-neighborhoods with people who share our outlook. This, along with Pariser’s filter bubble, seems to have an impact on our ability to listen to those with opinions different from ours. Ultimately, this means that lack practicing the habit of compromise means or politics is increasingly polarized.

First prototype

This was my first prototype. Yes, those are popsicle sticks, and those are rubber bands at the top. It took me 30 minutes to do this, but it worked. And it proved to me that it worked. And it justified the next couple of years on this project.

Nikolai Begg designed a device that fixes a one hundred year old problem with laparoscopic surgery.

The entire TED talk is fantastic, but my favorite moment of the talk is when he shows his jury-rigged prototype. It’s a great example of testing an idea by making it happen as soon as possible.

Perfect systems

If the Stasi was so well organised, why did Communism collapse?

In the Communist ideology, there’s no place for criticism. Instead, the leadership structures believed that socialism is a perfect system, and the Stasi had to conform them, of course. The consequence was that despite all the information, the regime couldn’t analyze their real problems, and therefore it couldn’t solve them. In the end, the Stasi died because of the structures it was charged with protecting.

Hubertus Knabe on the fall of East German Communism.

I’m not sure how accurate his description is, but it’s an interesting idea. A system that assumes it’s perfect has no way of questioning itself, no way of turning back or correcting their course. If this is true, then the only possible outcome for a perfect system is collapse.

Give information to people who can do something with it

Information is only of value if you give it to people with the ability to do something with it. The fact that I know something has zero value if I’m not the person who can make something better because of it.

I am more scared of the bureaucrat that holds information in a desk drawer or a safe than the one who leaks, because ultimately we’re better off if we share.

General Stanley McChrystal outlines why the military shares intelligence more than it used to, even when it risks that information being leaked.

There is, I hope, value in working in the open, in sharing what you’re learning, what you find interesting. Someone else may be able make use of what you’ve learned even if you don’t.

The power of the small story

I really strongly believe in the power of the small story, because it is so difficult to do humanitarian work at a global scale. When you zoom out that far, you lose the ability to view people as humans.

Emily Pilloton’s TED talk, Teaching design for change, is one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever seen. In it she tells the story of using integrating design thinking into a small town public school system. In doing so, they not only helped improve the school system, but used it as a way to help the entire community.

A culture of testing

The dominant culture of education has come to focus on—not teaching and learning but—testing. Testing is important. Standardized tests have a place, but they should not be the dominant culture of education. They should be diagnostic. They should help.

If I go for a medical for a medical examination, I want some standardized tests. I want to know what my cholesterol level is compared to everybody else’s on a standard scale. I don’t want to be told on some scale my doctor invented in the car…

But all that should support learning. It shouldn’t obstruct it, which of course it often does. In place of curiosity, what we have is compliance. Our children teachers are encouraged to follow routine algorithms, rather than excite that power of imagination and curiosity.

Sir Ken Robinson discussing how standardized testing can encourage teachers to ignore the diversity among their students and kill kids’ innate curiosity.

Standardized testing has been a bit of theme for me lately. I have more reading and listening I need to do on the subject, especially on the way standardized tests are used here in the UK. I’ve said before that I’ve thought about opting my son out of standardized tests, but it’s worth remembering that, used in the right way, they do serve a purpose.


There is no system in the world or any school in the country that’s better than its teachers. Teachers are the lifeblood of the success of the schools, but teaching is a creative profession. Teaching properly conceived is not a delivery system. You’re not there just to pass on received information. Great teachers do that, but what great teachers also do is mentor, stimulate, provoke, engage.

Sir Ken Robinson discussing how vital teachers are to an education system.

My own education was a fairly rocky ride, but what stands out—what made a difference and actually helped me learn—are specific teachers.

Mrs. Thompson spending time with me after class. She talked to me about Shakespeare and the Bronte sisters. But she also gently explained that although my idealism was admirable that I might find that pragmatism has its virtues, too.

Mr. Chapman letting the whole Physics class spend two days on an experiment of their choice. I got a C. The experiment I ran on supersaturated solutions went well, but I did the experiment on my own. No one else was interested in supersaturated solutions, but part of the experiment was to work in a team.

Patient problem solving

I hope you can see that what we’re doing here is taking a compelling question and a compelling answer, but we’re paving a smooth, straight path from one to the other, and congratulating our students on how well the can step over the cracks along the way.

Dan Meyer discussing the problems with a math word problem.

What he proposes instead is “patient problem solving.” He turns word problems into something that students can engage with, argue about and try to solve themselves. He strips the problem back to its most basic, places it firmly in the real world and leaves students to their own devices, so that they have to build the solution themselves.

It’s interesting that he also uses online video and pictures. This is very different from the educational software I referred to earlier. He’s using digital tools to help kids escape the easy answers of traditional words problems, and start thinking for themselves, rather than looking for a formula that they can plug numbers into.

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.