An education system for the facebook generation

One of the biggest complaints I hear from my many friends who are K-12 teachers is that they have to spend a huge amount of time preparing lessons. Sure, lesson preparation is extremely important, but the curriculum is standard across the school board and hundreds of teachers teach similar concepts year after year. Why don’t teachers share the lesson planning load? It turns out that most teachers do not share this carefully and expensively prepared material and I was shocked to hear that many teachers guard their lesson plans like they were state secrets.  This must lead to extraordinary duplicated effort and wasted cost and is no way to run an education system! Two fantastic ideas in human communication that promise to significantly speed human progress are open access and social networking. Open access has revolutionized publishing (think wikipedia) and software development (think Linux), and social networking has revolutionized how internet users communicate (think facebook).

My proposal is that these ideas should be applied to improving the education system, which still runs much like it did hundreds of years ago in the proverbial schoolhouse – one teacher lecturing to many students. Basically, a social networking site would be created linking all teachers who share a given curriculum. Teachers would be required (or encouraged) to upload their prepared course materials for each teaching module and these would be tagged using relevant terms from a controlled vocabulary, such as concept taught, grade level, teaching style and class size).  Other teachers would be able to surf the network (called ‘teachbook’, ‘teachnet’ or ‘teachspace’?) for interesting lesson plan ideas. As usual for open access communities, author attribution would be carefully tracked and used to reward contributors. Popular ideas would be downloaded more often which would lead to their higher ranking and kudos for the author, just like on youtube (which has already resulted in many new jobs for aspiring actors). The network would be a forum for communication, with the ability to comment on what works and what doesn’t work with a given lesson plan. This would enable a wider flow of ideas between teachers and would lead to better lesson plans. A teacher would know who downloaded his or her lesson plans, which is important for community building.

This system will not be easy to build technically and will need to be supported over many years before it is effective. New lesson plan ontologies will have to be developed (take a cue from the semantic web) to structure this knowledge and make it computable. There will also be major social challenges to overcome. For instance, it is likely that younger, more computer savvy teachers, will see the value in the system more than established ones. Thus the system will likely only work well once the internet generation is more established.  This may take another decade.

Learning is clearly an incredibly complex process and we know very little about how it works and so many factors will influence whether a given lesson idea will work for a particular constellation of students in a class. Building a lesson sharing system for teachers will provide an incredible opportunity to learn more about how we learn. You could imagine the equivalent of clinical trials (evidence-based research) being run to test new education concepts with tens of thousands of students. Make student information available to the system, such as grades or personalities (learning phenotypes), and researchers will be able to run association studies to find what teaching styles work well with what types of students. The ethical, social and legal implications of the research aspects of the system will clearly need much study, but this research could lead to significant advances in education and directly lead to society improving breakthroughs in a number of fields, including education, sociology, human-computer interaction and psychology.


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Social diversity attenuates racism

An interesting article published in 2005 showed that people develop a fear response to people they perceive as different (us versus them). This is the same fear response in the amygdala of the brain that most of us experience when we see scary movies or strange insects. This response may have evolutionary or social learning origins. An attractive evolutionary origin hypothesis would be that this helped protect us from neighboring competing tribes. Interestingly, this response is learned, so can be conditioned. That is, we can change the definition of ‘us versus them’ to control the response. This is supported by the authors’ findings that interracial dating significantly reduced this fear response in their test subjects. This suggests to me that diversity of people in our social surrounding should significantly reduce the fear response and this should correspond to reduced racism. So, increased social diversity and corresponding reduction in racist attitudes may be one very positive effect of globalization.

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Social decision-making: The reality of game theory

There is an interesting article in the October 26th issue of Science titled “Social decision-making: insights from game theory and neuroscience.” The author describes three well-known games designed to test decision making. The Ultimatum Game is used to examine responses to fairness. Two players split a pot of money. One player proposes the split and the other chooses to accept it or not. If the offer is accepted, the split occurs. If not, no one gets a penny. If the players are motivated purely by self-interest, then the responder should always accept, even if the split isn’t fair, since she gets some money. However, in games with real people, the offer is usually a 50/50 split and any low offers are punished. For example, low offers of less than 20% are rejected half the time. This shows how our brains are wired to make decisions in a social context and you can speculate that our brains have evolved to maximize outcomes for our species as a whole. Two other games are also interesting: the Trust Game and the Prisoner’s Dilemma. In the trust game, a player (the investor) chooses to invest some of their money in the other player (trustee). Once invested, the money increases in value by some factor and the trustee can choose to return the money or not. If the trustee returns the money, both players benefit, however if the trustee doesn’t repay the investor, the investor loses their investment completely. The players interact only once during a game. The selfish idealized game theory player would never trust the trustee, therefore would never invest any money. However, again, with real players, the investor generally trusts the trustee and the trustee generally gives money back to the investor. The Prisoner’s Dilemma is similar, but both players simultaneously choose whether or not to trust each other. Again, game theory predicts mutual mistrust, but real players generally choose to trust each other. You could imagine using these types of games to evaluate how people will make decisions and then using the results to predict future decision-making by those people, or better yet, judging people’s decision making styles during a normal game. Maybe this is why James Bond always takes an opportunity to play cards with an opponent before doing battle with them!

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What sparks interest?

Interest is perhaps the most important determinant of human behavior and achievement. If Newton wasn’t interested in gravity, where would we be? Interest in various topics are sparked from a young age, interests change, wane and intensify over time and are sometimes inexplicably lost. But how? Understanding how people become interested in something would have major implications for society.

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