Saturday, August 4, 2012

The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics & the Purpose of Education

Frosted Cheerios are so underrated.  This has nothing to do with my blog, but I am thoroughly enjoying a bowl right now.  They are good and good for you!

In our last 504 class we had the opportunity to hear from and question a panel of former U of M Secondary MAC graduates.  The hour-and-a-half session was extremely informative.

The highlight for me was when we lighted on the question (loosely restated), “Is school supposed to mimic life?  Or is it supposed to be separate?”

Bring in the wine and cheese! (A French Bordeaux and a sharp cheddar if you please.)

Admittedly, we probably need to define a few things if we really want to have an intelligent discussion (i.e. what does “mimic life” really mean), but I have some general theoretical questions/postulates that might add to the discussion.

This is an enormous question with lots of facets that I cannot cover in one blog…but let’s start…

First, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics states that everything tends towards entropy, that is, disorder.  This disorder is ultimately inevitable, but it can be mitigated by intervention.  (You put butter in the fridge so it doesn’t melt.) 

Does this law apply to our cognitive function?  That is, if left unchecked, will our ability to think and reason tend to disorder?  I am not sure if proof exists for this, but anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that it would.

If we agree that our natural human tendencies lead us to something we’ll call “disorder,” and if we agree that this “disorder” is something we do not desire (in general) then something must be done.

I would suggest that this “something that must be done” is the foundation for Education, going as far back as you want to in history, to the first group assemblages for the purpose of collective education.

Making a big jump (and feel free to question this jump) I would suggest that the purpose of education is to move kids (or adults) beyond something they already are.  That is, that their current state has the potential to be improved, for the betterment of themselves and society, and we seek to foster this “betterment.”

That is why I take issue with a recent New York Times article questioning the need for Algebra in high school. 

The question is not about Algebra itself, but what do we see as the purpose of education?  If we agree that the purpose of education is to move kids beyond what they naturally are capable of, then why wouldn’t we push them to learn new, and (gasp!) difficult things?

“Difficult” just means things that you can’t do it naturally.  It does not mean that it is something you are not capable of.  Push yourself!  And your students (appropriately).

I believe it is a mindset.  The SecMAC courses this summer has given a term to an idea I have had floating around in my head for many years.  The term, defined first for us by Ritchhart (still my favorite read of the year), is called “Intellectual Character.”

So while I agree we need to tap into student’s prior knowledge and schema, we do so only as it helps us to move them beyond this prior knowledge and schema to new, often difficult, places. 

Education is a lifelong process.  Grade school is a big part of this.  The purpose of grade school is to get kids out of their comfort zone in appropriate ways and move them to new places of cognitive and intellectual capacity, even if it is hard.

These are some of my initial thoughts.  A bit idealistic I will admit.  They might change in a year…who knows?

I welcome feedback and counter-arguments…please!!


  1. Hi, Ryan -- I'm delighted that you have raised this question on the blogs, because on some level, I think everyone is wrestling with this wine-and-cheese question. If we watch the political and media conversations, I think this is simmering beneath the surface there, too. What is school "meant to" do? And that's part of why I am so struck by the sense that "educated citizenry" or education-for-democracy has come out of the public conversation. Of all the levers one would think politicians would be employing, why not that one -- education as a way to shape the society you want to see?

    I wish I could say I have a definitive answer, but after being in education all these years, I'm still questioning.

    Here are a few quotes, though, that have resonated for me. What do you think?

    "Education is not preparation for life: Education is life itself."
    - John Dewey ("patron saint of SoE")

    "Each year at Maker Faire in the Bay Area, we have an Education Day, when kids get to meet makers and see their creative projects. The kids interact with robots, rockets, and all kinds of contraptions. They get to make things themselves. One comment I hear from kids was that the experience was “real.” It’s a telling comment, because so many kids have come to see school as isolated and artificial, disconnected from the community.

    "The maker movement has the opportunity to transform education by inviting students to be something other than consumers of education. They can become makers and creators of their own educational lives, moving from being directed to do something to becoming self-directed and independent learners. Increasingly, they can take advantage of new tools for creative expression and for exploring the real world around them. They can be active participants in constructing a new kind of education for the 21st-century, which will promote the creativity and critical thinking we say we value in people like Steve Jobs.

    "At an educational workshop where I made my case for making, there were a number of rather skeptical educational bureaucrats who kept asking how we assess or measure something that’s experiential. How do we measure engagement? I was rather frustrated, to be honest. How do we know children are learning if we can’t test it? I put it back to them: “How do we know what we’re testing is real learning?”

    "I continued to think about the questions for several months. Then one day I had it in a sentence. “Making creates evidence of learning.” The thing you make—whether it be a robot, rocket, or blinking LED—is evidence that you did something, and there is also an entire process behind making that can be talked about and shared with others. How did you make it? Why? Where did you get the parts? Making is not just about explaining the technical process; it’s also about the communication about what you’ve done."

    - Dale Dougherty, MAKE Magazine

    Dunno if these help, but they have -- along with the Stager reading -- been stuck steadfast in my brain for the past few months.

    1. Regarding Mr. Dewey....totally agree. We see Education (and worse we train our kids) that Education is something separate from "normal" life. How can we instill the idea of life-long learning in our kids when they get to pre-school?

      Regarding "Making"...agree with the ideas behind this too. I think the challenge is how do we better communicate the value of math, English, history in practical terms to our students? I believe they have as much practical value for bettering society as "making".....but so far we have not communicated that very well. We need a more concrete way to do this.

  2. I think it is very important we make learning fun. I think so many of the students today look at learning as boring and something they have to do, thus they do not want to. Intrinsically they just cannot get excited or motivated about school. As teachers we need to find a way to motivate them extrinsically so they eventually can self motivate. Unfortunately, I agree with Kristin, not because I disagree with her point, but because I agree with her point on bureaucrats...there is a whole lot of money tied up in this thing we call education and well, the way things work is if we pay for it we want to get our monies worth.

    Now, this is neither good nor bad, but the way things are. In addition, mix in the apathy of the students, overall, and what do you get? Well, I would say where we are right now. So how do we fix this mess? I mean we are a wealthy country that prides itself on our achievement and successes, so what do we do? The answer, which seems to be the most popular is identify a problem, fight about it and then throw money at it! How has that been working so far? We have split so many hairs when it comes to education that no one really knows what we are talking about.

    I have a friend who is way up the food chain at Ford. He got there not through education but because he understood computers and got his foot in the door. Then he earned his degrees, now a PhD in something or was it the education that got him there or the smarts? He and I have talked a lot about this and we kind of laugh at the fact he would have never gotten the job now because he did not have the degree, but yet he is in the top part of the pyramid at Ford.

    Why is it the higher in grade level students get, up through 12th grade, the less they like, and or enjoy, school? What is the problem? What can we do to fix it? I believe it does get harder, and not impossible, so loved the comment you made about that, and the students are being challenged, but what and why is it so difficult. We are naturally inquisitive beings, so learning should be something we gravitate to, yet for a lot of kids it is seen as a punishment…how can that be?

    Well, in my opinion until kids see education as a privilege and not something they are being made to do, there will always be a problem. If you are forced to do something, chances are you are going to hate it and not care. But if you see the real benefit to something and love doing it, you will do whatever it takes to be good at it and achieve. Don’t like school, go work in the real world, pick up garbage or work in a field, or mow grass…There are many instances of people who have “made” something out of themselves and schooling was not what caused that too happen.

    We need to redefine what education means. Does it just mean going to school and having someone tell you what they think you need to know or does it mean working on cars, or building houses, or learning about computers on your own and creating software or apps o whatever…

    Now do not get me wrong, I am a huge proponent of schooling, if you do not believe that, ask my children, but maybe, just maybe we are talking about the wrong thing here. I was amazed when I was helping build the addition on my house. I had a group of builders, none of which had gone to college and most of which did not finish high school doing complex equations in their head for angles and amounts of needed materials and being right! So who is to say they were not actually “educated”, because they were definitely thinking!

    I am still trying to figure out what my mother’s Master of Poetry is doing for her since she is a real estate investor…