Archive for August, 2007

Textbooks addendum

August 8, 2007

Read the articles on this page http://www.textbookleague.org/index.html for more examples of the flawed textbooks. From intellegent design to ridiculous PC censorship, from pseudoscience to distortions about the Crusades, this page does a good job of skewering both left-wing and right-wing nonsense and errors in our textbooks.

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Problems with public education

August 8, 2007

  My experiences with the public school system were an almost endless series of struggles, conflicts, and absurdities. I also have two younger brothers, both with learning disabilities (LD), who had various problems with school as well. In particular, there are two major issues that stand out to me: “mainstreaming” and information retention.

First is the philosophy of “mainstreaming” or “inclusion,” which strictly means the placement of special education students in regular classrooms as opposed to separate special-needs classrooms. A noble idea, perhaps, but problematic in practice.
Take the example of one of my brothers. He's a very artistic, creative type: he plays the violin, the guitar, and has been teaching himself the shakuhachi. He draws and paints. He writes stories and plays. He tells jokes with great timing and skill, and can devise puns and quick come-backs at great speed. He also is LD in both written language and mathematics. In junior high and high school, the sole help he got for these was a class period in the “resourse” room, where they taught…organizational skills; as if being able to keep track of what the homework assignments are and when they're do will compensate for not having the needed skill to do the assignments. I've heard arguements that mainstreaming helps special ed. students as the regular students will help “bring up” the special ed. students. What I've seen is the reverse: classes get dumbed down to the least common denominator, and everybody suffers.
The philosophy also spills over into gifted education. We put the gifted students into the regular classes as well, where they are left bored and restless. At best, we give them additional “enrichment” worksheets full of busy-work that contains no new information.
Further, we refuse to hold back failing students or skip ahead advanced ones, arguing that they need to be with their peers, “peers” being defined entirely by chronological age, ignoring completely the fact that individuals mature, both biologically and intellectually, at different rates. Take my case: I was years ahead of my fellow gifted students in math and science. In fifth grade, I spent the first hour of the day in the sixth grade classroom learning eigth grade prealgebra; in sixth, my mother had to drive me over to the junior high every afternoon (at our own expense, against state law) to take Algebra I. All this, and they would not skip me a grade, despite the fact that I missed the birth deadline for being a grade higher by only 16 hours!!
And we cannot hold back students who need more time to learn the material. Instead, we keep promoting them into higher and higher grades, while the material becomes increasingly hard, and they become increasingly lost, until we get high school graduates who read at elementary school levels. We seem to think that taking a year or two longer to get the material down is somehow far worse than being totally lost and without the needed knowledge and skills at all.
Exit exams and the like haven't helped. Instead of ensuring students are learning needed skills, we have teachers instead instructing students how to pass the tests. Students aren't expected to retain anything once they've passed. And when large numbers of students fail the tests, we don't try to improve the classroom teaching, we lower the standards on the test. In severe cases, as in the rural villages here in Alaska, we even have teachers helping students cheat on the tests to ensure sufficient levels of students pass.

Next, we have information retention. Take, as comparison, European textbooks versus American equivalents. The former are much smaller than the latter. Why? Well, first we have in this country math textbooks asking about the role of zoos in modern society and other examples of discursions into feel-good PC nonsense. Second, and much larger, is repitition. Open just about any public school level math book in this country and at least the first few chapters are dedicated to review of previous years' material. The same is true in science. In Europe, however, textbooks have only the new material.
Why the difference? It is because here, we don't expect people to actually learn and retain the material. Instead, we only expect people to remember it long enough to pass the tests and complete the class. I remember pointing out to the teacher in fourth grade during a science lesson (botany; the sole content of our science courses until fifth grade was plants and human anatomy. Fifth grade added “aerodynamics,” which reduced to making paper airplanes.) that we'd already introduced chlorophyll the year before; the rest of the class hadn't retained it at all, and these were the highly gifted students. In high school Advanced Chemistry class, I once got into an arguement with some of my fellow classmates after we wasted an hour having to re-teach them the definition of pH from the prerequisite chemistry class. Their defense was basically “you can't actually expect us te remember this stuff after we've finished the class?!” In most of the rest of the world, they can and do. Why can't we?

What ever happened to golden rice?

August 5, 2007

Another thing I don't understand is the massive opposition to genetically modified (GM) foods, such as golden rice, that could greatly help nourish the world's underfed people, and do so more efficiently, with less use of land and less chemical pesticides. In fact, to some, the very words “genetically modified” elicit a fear response. Despite the scare-mongering and catastrophizing that these critics do, there is no credible scientific evidence of anything they claim might happen (see this article about the butterfly/BT pollen issue). Further, their position, I hold, is inconsistent and incoherent: much of our food organisms have already had their genes deliberately modified by human activity, namely through selective breeding.

Let's take corn, for example. The difference between modern maize and it's wild ancestor teosinte is striking. Further, modern maize is entirely dependant on human cultivation for survival: it cannot disperse its own seeds.
In the animal kingdom, we can look at chickens, comparing domestic egg-laying breeds with meat chickens. The former lay over 300 eggs/year on average (compared to 20-30 for wild fowl), and commonly suffer from brittle bones as their skeletons are depleted of calcium by the creation of the shells of all those eggs. Meat chickens grow to full size in about 42 days, and are so massive that they often are lame or suffer leg fractures, as their legs cannot support their weight; about a couple of percent die of heart problems due to weight, and most who are spared slaughter die young.
Wild turkeys can fly for short bursts; domestic ones cannot, and further, can suffer from a genetic neurologic disorder called tetanic torticollar spasms. We can give many examples of how human beings have altered the genomes of other species via selective breeding, particularly those used for food, for pretty much all of recorded history.
Recombinant DNA and other modern genetic engineering techniques are faster and more powerful than selective breeding. They are also more accurate, and avoid some of the major problems of selective breeding. Selective breeding generally requires inbreeding, which can magnify recessive traits, including harmful ones. Various dog breeds, as an example, suffer a number of genetic defects arising from the inbreeding that created them. Further, selective breeding tends to reduce the genetic diversity of the population being engineered, a phenomenon called inbreeding depression. With modern techniques, one can get the desirable trait introduced without magnifying harmful recessives or reducing genetic diversity in other areas of the genome.
So if modern techniques are more powerful and more controlled than those used for millenia, why do so many people categorically oppose them, while accepting the less accurate, less controlled, more error-prone techniques of the past? Is there anything to it besides a fear of science and technology (Faustian view of science)? And why does some of the strongest opposition come not from the comparitively scientifically-illiterate, evolution-rejecting, highly-religious America, but scientifically-literate, secular Europe?