Sunday 27 April 2014

A new dawn for education

A new dawn for education
I have a friend in his 70s. He's retired and spent a lifetime working with his hands. He can fix anything. But he can barely read. Today we would say he has dyslexia. We would assign a specialist teacher to help him, and he might have been more successful in school.

But not necessarily. I teach kids with dyslexia and other conditions that interfere with their learning. In many cases, they think of themselves as "dumb." They hate school, and they avoid academic work. Our system of education does not work very well for these students because we still have an emphasis on reading and writing.

But recent research shows that people with dyslexia do not really have a "learning disability"; they simply have a different way of perceiving things in their environment. As documented in this Time magazine article, people with dyslexia have better peripheral perception than us regular folk. There is plenty of evidence that dyslexia is not in itself a barrier to learning, even profound literacy.
One of my favorite authors, John Irving, has dyslexia. He is in fine company with W.B. Yeats, among others.

In evolutionary terms, it makes sense that humans should have lots of different skills for learning. In the kind of environment in which we evolved we needed people who noticed and reacted to every twig cracking in the forest (Attention Deficit Disorder) because it could mean being alert to danger. We needed people who focused obsessively on some minutia (autism) because they might develop a new skill, like making a new kind of stone tool. We needed people who were active and had good hand-eye coordination for hunting, and those with careful observational skills and memories to know what plants to use for what purpose.

I recently met a woman whose sister is a pediatric doctor. She runs from patient to patient in a busy hospital, diagnosing, prescribing, treating and saving lives. And she has ADHD. Distractibility is an asset for her because the tasks keep flying at her. I love to sit and concentrate, so I'm much better as an editor.

In today's world, these people may or may not become successful in life depending on what kind of help and support they get in school. Unfortunately, we still expect every student to perform the same tasks in the same way to get the same qualifications before they are allowed to go out into the world and start really using their skills and talents. It's a crying shame.

Some schools are starting to change, and with the Internet, more resources are becoming available. Teachers have access to video lessons and computer interfaces for student responses. Teachers must become highly skilled themselves with technology to create interactive classrooms in which students can work with their strengths.

As an editor, I help university students with their writing. I have some brilliant clients working at the Master's level who have difficulty writing basic sentences. But in their mangled prose, I can see that they have a deep understanding of the material they are discussing. It's a pleasure to help intelligent people express themselves, and I hope that in my own way I'm helping future pediatricians leap the hurdles of undergraduate writing so they can eventually find themselves in an environment where they can really shine.

Tuesday 8 April 2014

One Vital Skill Needed to Keep up with Technology Change

As I was perusing Google+ this morning, I came across a Wired post about three guys who created a "better" spreadsheet application.

What first caught my eye was that they were described as "three Stanford dropouts" and I was reminded of some of my less motivated high school students who, unable to do basic math or write a paragraph say "But look at Bill Gates...he dropped out" or Richard Branson who famously dropped out of high school himself. But the truth is that these people were already super achievers before they dropped out. Richard Branson dropped out because his record business was growing so fast he had to devote more time to it; Bill Gates must have been a brilliant hard worker just to get into Harvard. These Stanford "dropouts" could be no different. They have already proven themselves as among the brightest minds in the country.

As I read the article, I got new ideas about what is happening here. I'd like to call it "technological trickledown." These guys are producing a spreadsheet that doesn't require you to have detailed knowledge of mathematics to use it. My math skills are above average (managed to pass calculus in first year university with a B), but there are times when I can't input complex formulas into spreadsheets, such as to calculate future value of an investment. (Not that I have a lot of investments to worry about!)

One commentator stated that if people aren't smart enough to use spreadsheets as they are, then they have no business using spreadsheets. But what I realized is that the really smart people keep inventing tools that make it possible for the rest of us to do more. And anything that takes a specialized skill now will be possible using a cheap software tool in the future.

When computers first came out, you needed to program them using punch cards. With microcomputers, a keyboard interface was added and you had to know how to use DOS (thanks Bill). I spent hours in a Saturday afternoon class learning DOS commands because my boss said it was necessary. The next year Windows was introduced and no one has used DOS since.

A friend and I spent about six months developing an application to make flat shapes (including fonts) look like they were 3-D and cast shadows. A year later applications were doing this and now the function is incorporated into many drawing and graphic programs. I started using computers by learning desktop publishing, and was excited to be among the first graduates of a desktop publishing training program in my home of Vancouver. A graphic designer friend told me, "In a few years, you'll just be a page make up technician." The only sense in which he was wrong is that designing newsletters has been taken over by entry level secretarial staff. Of course real graphic designers with four-year college degrees, still produce all top-end material, but there isn't really a niche for people who are merely skilled with the design programs.

Even this blog is an example of technological trickledown. The blog environment is actually software that allows the fast and easy creation of a web page without any knowledge of HTML. I just click "New Post" and start writing. Before blogs, I created my first web page by learning HTML, writing code in MS word, and saving as a text file. I uploaded that file to the web. Today I could create a whole website without any coding whatsoever.

We can also see this in terms of how Google search works. Another article I read today, Top 10 SEO writing tips, talks about writing with users' search terms in mind. But as Google develops, it is working toward using more natural language. Before Google started blocking search terms from Analytics results, I would be astounded at what people type into the search engine. They would end up on my site through various random combinations of words that might have little or nothing to do with the content of my site. But Google is working on algorithms to determine what someone really is looking for when they search for "psychology experiment dog" and deliver them to a site with information on Pavlov's research. Everything is evolving to accommodate less savvy users.

So far, I have not seen software that can reproduce my key skill: editing. I've tried lots of software packages, both on-line and off line. In my experience they miss many errors and flag things inappropriately. When I edit, I try to understand what the writer is trying to say and help them say it better. Software is pretty good at flagging misspelled words; it can identify punctuation errors, but it can't identify wrongly used words very well. For example, the article on SEO used the phrase "long-trailed keywords" when the correct phrase is "long-tailed keywords." I edited an essay today where the writer used the word "world" instead of "word". They were both nouns, so the software had no problem with it. But software doesn't even know what to do when there are several wrongly used words with incorrect syntax and errors in verb tense and agreement. Only a human mind can sort that far.

I'm not saying technology won't replace editing some day. Just not yet. Meanwhile for the rest of us, we haven't even begun to glimpse the changes in store.

I keep telling my students that learning to learn is the most important skill that they can acquire in school. In this competitive world, being able to master the next task is going to mean the difference between continued skilled employment and being trapped in a low-wage, low skill ghetto, or even long-term unemployment. Everything you learn today will be obsolete, except your learning skill.
Updated April 13, 2014

Monday 7 April 2014

Poetry Month: Ode to the Adverb

In response to Grammar Girl's call for poems on the subject of grammar, I whipped up this little ditty on the adverb, and I won!

Ode to the Adverb

Some say that you are dying slowly
Your suffix spurned like something lowly;
My lover tells me to drive safe—
Her words, my grammar sense do chafe.
Whence went thee my lovely –ly?
I write so freely, but I feel free.
Slyly, wryly, skillfully Thou
Are used by knowledgeable writers now;
But woefully, awfully, even sadly
Your demise makes me feel bad (not badly).