Tag Archives: education

Getting Girls Into Science Early

During my recent trip to Colorado, I stayed with Tin Tin Su, a Woodstock School classmate who is now an associate professor in Molecular Cellular Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Tin Tin is good at explaining what she does, and delights in sharing her knowledge with people of all ages. I was thrilled Read More…

During my recent trip to Colorado, I stayed with Tin Tin Su, a Woodstock School classmate who is now an associate professor in Molecular Cellular Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Tin Tin is good at explaining what she does, and delights in sharing her knowledge with people of all ages. I was thrilled to be able to capture her giving a first lesson in fruit fly genetics to a highly intelligent – and highly interested – girl named Sasha. Tin Tin was thrilled, too: as a “sideline” she heads up a project at CU aimed at helping to equalize the number of men and women in sciences. Showing girls from a very early age that science is a cool and fun career – she considers that part of her mandate.

Our Lady of Drosophila

Jul 15, 2007

Tin Tin is also a painter. A few years ago she made a painting as a gift for her lab, which she explains in this video.

Education – What Skills Should We Build for a Lifetime?

I have written about my vast and varied experiences with education. I haven’t reached any firm conclusions about what education should be, I just know that a lot of what I endured didn’t work for me, and much of our daughter’s schooling to date has hasn’t worked for her. And it’s very hard to say Read More…

I have written about my vast and varied experiences with education. I haven’t reached any firm conclusions about what education should be, I just know that a lot of what I endured didn’t work for me, and much of our daughter’s schooling to date has hasn’t worked for her. And it’s very hard to say what will work for kids in the future, or to know what sort of citizens schools should be aiming to form, let alone advise them on how to do so.

I had the good fortune to go to a remarkable high school with high academic standards, small class sizes, and talented, dedicated teachers. Given all that, I could have achieved straight A’s and a scholarship to MIT, right? The fact is, I could never be bothered to put in the work that straight A’s would have required. I studied just hard enough to stay on the honor roll (so that I could study in my room instead of in the dining room during mandatory evening study halls). I worked hard on the subjects that interested me, and coasted through the rest – I was never motivated to get grades for their own sake.

I don’t remember most of the facts I learned in high school – who does? What I remember are skills: writing (and typing!), page layout (I worked on the yearbook), editing (school newspaper), leadership (student government) and community service (I did art for the school). Some important skills (research and writing) I developed in English and history classes, but most were acquired during extra-curricular activities.

Some of the skills I use today I couldn’t have learned in high school because they simply didn’t exist back then: desktop publishing, word processing, building websites, communicating by email, designing software. As the world changes ever more quickly, it is likely that our children will need skills that we cannot imagine today, let alone teach them in school.

My college studies were even less directly relevant to my working life today. I was one of only 15 undergraduates majoring in Asian Studies at the (enormous) University of Texas, but our department was swamped with business school undergrads taking courses in Japanese language and culture, as an “obvious” asset to their business careers.

“What are you majoring in?” these young preppies would ask me.

“Asian Studies and Hindi.”

“What are you going to do with that?” they would sneer.

Lo and behold, twenty years later, my life experience and academic knowledge of up-and-coming India may well be more valuable than their knowledge of Japan. (And how I wish I’d stuck with my Chinese language studies!)

So what use is education as we know it today? I wonder. It still fulfills its social function of keeping young people out of a crowed job market, but I’m not sure that that’s a service to the young people themselves. The best we can hope for is that they learn a few universal skills that are likely to serve them later (more on that below), and, most importantly, learn how to learn – as has been said by wiser folks than me, in today’s world we must all expect to go on learning throughout our lifetimes.

Life Skills

No one should leave high school without knowing how to:

  • Type at least 50 words per minute. Sure, someday voice input with computers will become truly viable. But most of us don’t speak the way we write, nor would we want to write the way we speak. Formal writing is and should be different from everday speech, so, unless you’ve had a lot of practice at formal speech, the fastest way to get formal writing into a computer is to type it.
  • Use the Internet for research, including critical evaluation of sources. Before the web, the fact that a text made it into print for mass circulation was more or less a guarantee of quality, and it was usually reasonable to believe what you read. The Internet has made it possible for anyone to be a publisher, so we now have billions of sources, but very little quality control. The ability to distinguish true from false is therefore critically important.
  • Create websites/blogs (that is to say, publish yourself online, with whatever technology is prevalent).
  • Use other forms of online communication, including video. Today, those of us who write well have an advantage on the Internet. Over the next decade, video may well supplant the written word as the primary means of communication. People who perform well in front of and behind the camera will then have the advantage. Start practicing now!
  • Get along with all kinds of people. In today’s small and globalized world, sooner or later we find ourselves living and working with people of different cultures, languages, religions, etc. Misunderstanding and incomprehension lead to strife. You don’t have to agree with everyone you meet, but, if you could at least see where they’re coming from and imagine why they think the way they do, perhaps it would be easier to live together.

I’m sure there are more essential life skills we could be teaching our teenagers – suggestions from the floor?

Suggestions from Jakob Nielsen

Italian School Culture: Encouraging Unity in the Classroom

One interesting and very successful aspect of Italian schools is how the entire system works to promote social cohesion among the students. The basic unit at all school levels is the class – not in the sense of year (grade), but subsection of a year. There are usually multiple sections per year, identified by a Read More…

One interesting and very successful aspect of Italian schools is how the entire system works to promote social cohesion among the students.

The basic unit at all school levels is the class – not in the sense of year (grade), but subsection of a year. There are usually multiple sections per year, identified by a number and a letter, e.g. Classe I C is section C of the first year. The following year this same group of kids will be section II C.

You are with the same people (including teachers) for all five years of elementary school, then change schools and find yourself in a new group for the three years of middle school. In five-year high schools, the classes stay together for the first two years (biennio), but may change composition for the last three years (triennio) if they subspecialize. For example, at the Liceo Artistico (art high school) that Ross attended, kids going into the third year had to choose between graphic arts, art history and conservation, and two other specializations that I don’t now remember.

There are minor changes to a class population each year because some kids repeat years (this happens frequently in high school) or change schools entirely (rarer) or move to a new town (extremely rare). But basically the same group of kids and teachers can expect to be together for years.

Each class does everything together, all day, staying more or less in the same room; it’s the teachers who go from classroom to classroom, except those whose subjects require labs or other special equipment.

Everyone in a section takes the same courses. There are almost no electives in Italian schools, since, by high school, you have chosen a specialized school and program which is hopefully what you’re interested in (if not, you have to change program or even school – difficult if you lack the prerequisites for the program you’d like to move into).

In public high schools, each class – by law – has two elected representatives, to protect the students’ interests within the institution. Each class may use two class periods per month for a class meeting in which to discuss class business, unencumbered by the presence of teachers. The representatives refer any complaints, troubles, or suggestions to their teacher committee or, if they think they won’t get a fair hearing from their teachers, to the principal. Class representatives meet regularly with their class’ teacher committee, and once each semester there’s an assembly of all class representatives in the school, headed by a pair of “institutional” representatives elected by the entire student body. Class representatives also attend the biannual parent-teacher meetings.

This gives students some direct and useful experience with leadership, representative government, and bureacracy. The elected leaders learn to deal with authority (we hope in a constructive manner). Class government helps to unite the class: they must act together to find solutions to problems, and elect leaders who can carry through those solutions effectively.

All these factors work to bind students into a cohesive social group; I assume that this is one of the basic, if undeclared, aims of the Italian education system.

And there is little going on in Italian schools that would tend to work against class cohesion: very few extra-curricular activities, no school sports except PE class, no band, cheerleaders, chess club, etc. All sports and hobbies are done as after-school lessons and activities (by those who are interested and can afford it). There are no school-sponsored dances or proms – anyone can go to a local disco, not even necessarily with a date.

Italian schools, quite reasonably, concentrate on academics, but not in the fiercely competitive way that seems to be the norm at some American schools. From what Ross tells me, there aren’t any publicly-recognized geniuses in Italian schools. Grading seems rather flat: on a scale of 1 to 10, 5 or lower is a failing grade, 6 is a bare pass, and most grades seem to fall in the 5 to 7 range – few 8s, fewer 9s, and I’ve rarely heard of any of Ross’ classmates (in any of her schools) getting a 10.

Italian schools don’t suffer anything like the clicquishness and bullying that characterize (some? many?) American schools. I won’t claim that no one ever gets teased nor feels excluded in any Italian school, but I have an attentive inside observer in Rossella, and she has never mentioned anything like the miseries that I went through in American elementary and middle schools. (Ross herself is keenly alert to that sort of thing, and works hard to integrate anyone she perceives as being excluded. That, and her let’s-fix-this-attitude, got her elected class rep last year.)

Physical violence and bullying in Italian schools are almost unknown. Rape or sexual harassment are unheard of. An Italian student is more likely to commit suicide (over bad grades) than to try to harm anyone else. They do get up to mischief, but it’s usually the school itself that suffers, in some form of vandalism. Sometimes students go on strike and take over the school completely, running classes themselves. (This seems to have gone out of fashion these days, but it’s an interesting illustration of student social cohesion.)

I’ve written a great deal about what I don’t like about the Italian education system, but when I see American kids passing through metal detectors to get into their schools, I heave a sign of relief and thanks that my daughter isn’t going through THAT.