Sorting algorithms (like Quicksort) are frequently represented visually, but they can also be represented musically. Through guitars and drums, a UCLA grad student has created auditory demonstrations of sorting algorithms. Showing what sorting algorithms sound like would be an excellent opener for a lesson. These demonstrations connect an abstract concept to something we can hear, making it far easier to grasp.

Apple iLife

In any reasonable system, computer applications would not be a class. When schools think about digital literacy, far too many focus on the simple: teaching tools. Teaching tools is easy: it’s easy to add “digital literacy” to graduation requirements and plop kids down in mandatory technology classes. Unfortunately, this is exactly the wrong approach. In doing so, you teach students to use the tools, but not how to use the tools. A tool, and knowledge of it, is only as useful as how its applied. Truly teaching digital literacy requires integrating the tools directly into the curriculum of other disciplines, which is definitely difficult.

The problem is that schools are trapped in the mindset which is used to teach other tools. Other tools are virtually indistinguishable from their content. When you learn to read (particularly at advanced levels), you also learn to read. In the process of learning the tool, you learn the content, and vice versa. Schools have attempted to do this with technology, to poor results. When you teach technology as its taught in most schools, you only teach the tool, without the application.

Even worse is when IT administrators try to add rigor to the technology education in exactly the wrong way. Apparently, one technology director feels that students should use the most difficult software, just because it is difficult.

However, even iLife has its drawbacks in an educational setting. It simply hands so much to the students that they struggle with software (whether Windows, Linux, or even pro-level software on the Mac) that isn’t so brilliantly plug and play. Yes, iLife rocks in many ways, but the level of spoonfeeding it encourages actually makes me think twice about using it widely, especially at the high school level.

This argument essentially comes down to iLife being too good. Yes, you read that correctly: the software is bad because it’s too good. Apparently, we should make students’ lives miserable, because they’re going to be miserable when they grow up.

The fact is that 99% of students are never going to need to go beyond basic multimedia productions. The highly usable tools of iLife are more than satisfactory for everything but professional tasks. Beyond that, the future programmers and film editors probably have the initiative to seek out and learn the advanced software themselves.

This argument reminds me of the teachers who used to (and still do) require students to never use calculators. There argument for this usually amounts to the idea that students won’t have calculators in the “real world.” Of course, in the real world calculators are readily available: every computer and cell phone has one. When students go out into the world, they will be able to make decisions with their sotware. In fact, that’s probably a far better thing to teach: how to chose good software. Clearly this IT admin could use a lesson or two himself.

The bottom line is that schools should never teach students to accept the subpar. This is the kind of thinking which puts IT administrators and educators at odds and puts technology above actual learning. Technology, especially bad technology, should never be taught for technology’s sake.

(Via Daring Fireball)

When I was younger, I thought history didn’t matter. To me, history was a dusty land filled with dates, maps, and death rates. I thought the inhabitants of this land — historians — were old, dusty people who had nothing interesting to say.

In short, I confused history with historical societies.

Right: An Aerial View of the Smithsonian

I was, and am, a person driven by change (action) and, to an unhealthy extent, power. Technology and politics, my passions, both move at a breakneck pace and are always focusing on the future. To my naive self, history was entirely antithetical to my entire philosophy.1

As one might expect, school was at fault. School taught me to memorize dates and people.2 We almost never explored the context of these events; we never delved into the legacies of the leaders beyond the most basic level. Timelines made regular appearances, as did color-coded maps. All this memorization took up time, time which would have been better spent thinking.

Naturally, given this context, I felt that history was something to be avoided like the plague.3

Now, of course, I know better.

Once I got teachers who actually understood and enjoyed history, I was able to see beyond the numbers. I discovered that history wasn't a textbook or timeline, but a story, and a damn good story at that. With this discovery, I was able to find the joy of the past.

Not to go all philosophical on you, but the past really is the present.

Society evolves, but evolution involves a lot of repetition. Each iteration is almost exactly the same as the last, with only minor differences. A knowledge of that past iteration helps you to understand the current iteration — and the differences between the two.

Understanding — truly understanding — the world (politics, society, technology, etc.) is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. Thankfully, we have the past to help us. With the wisdom of the past, we can more easily understand the present. Instead of having to draw an entirely new map of the world, we only need to draw a map of the new parts.

Almost every situation we encounter, somebody else has encountered before. Even when we can’t see them, we’re walking in someone’s footsteps. Thankfully, that someone has probably already come up with a solution for or analysis of the situation. I am continuously reminded of this, whether in my daily Googling of technical problems or my comparisons between Palin and McCarthy. When it comes down to it, history is probably the most useful subject there is.

Sadly, far too many teachers get it wrong. Though I'm sure you're not one of them, you probably know some of them. History, more than any other subject, is really easy to get wrong.4 It is far too easy to get caught in the micro-history (who fought in what battle on what date?) and forget about the macro-history (why was he fighting?), especially because the micro-history is very easy to teach and test. Given this, it is no surprise that many history teachers don't teach history.

And every time it is a tragedy. When taught as a collection of dates, history loses its spark. A bad history teacher will — guaranteed — make history dull and lifeless. In other subjects, one can get by with a poor teacher and still enjoy it. History, more than any other subject, depends strongly on the quality of the teacher. A good history teacher5 will make even the most reluctant of students sit up in their chairs, but a bad history teacher will make even (or, especially) the future-historians start texting under the table. In no other class is this true: math people will always find numbers mathematical language interesting, and some never will.6 The cost of a poor history teacher is great, but the benefits are superb: history gives students a framework to understand their world.

So please, remember to take the hi- off history.

Of course, at some point the “facts” do become important. The dates and names aren’t entirely irrelevant, especially as one wishes to progress. To talk effectively and intelligently about the ideas, one must know the facts — especially if one aims to convince others. However, the ideas are indisputably more important — without them, history is pointless. Unfortunately, the ideas are generally only seriously discussed in the upper grades of high school and college. Up until then, the bare facts hold almost exclusive domain. By the time students reach the exciting parts of history, we have built a (false) image of history as boring and pointless — in fact, many never reach those discussions simply because they assume all history is as boring as 5th grade history. Even at the unit level, history is taught in the wrong order. Most teachers start with the bare facts and only touch on the bigger ideas near the end of a lesson. This should be reversed on both the micro and macro levels, with grand ideas being taught first to build interest and discussion. Only with the themes in place should the facts be taught, to supplement and reinforce those themes, leading to continued investigation. The primary focus of history should always be the story.

think new

Right: My countdown wallpaper from Mediumjones at Smashing Magazine

What do you think the proper order of history education is? Do you think schools need to focus more on the context of history?

What is creativity? I doubt many people, including teachers, could give you a good definition. In simplest terms, it is the ability to create. However, I like to use a more specific definition:

Creativity is the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.
Leonardo da Vinci

Above: Leonardo da Vinci was a master of mixing creativity and art.

The key to creativity is the ability and act of transcending tradition. Using this definition, I think creativity is exceptionally rare in schools. Students are almost never asked to transcend tradition and think outside the box. In fact, doing so is punished. This rarity arises from a confusion about what creativity really is.

If you were to ask most teachers or administrators, you would hear a distinctly different story. Most will says their schools/classrooms stimulate and “unlock” creativity1. Doing a word search on school mission statements will turn up an inordinate number of references to creativity. Someone should replace 99% of those occurrences with the word “art.”

What many school officials and teachers mean by creativity is really art. Art is all about practice and method. Art is about the perfection of technique. Art is about applying techniques rigorously in pursuit of a goal. In short, art is studied action; artificiality in behavior.

Painting yet another landscape is art, and neither is solving a mathematical equation. Both of them involve substantial practice and application of traditional rules.2 Make no mistake: both can be very difficult. The level of effort it takes to perfect any art is astounding. However, this is distinct from creativity. Remember, creativity is all about transcending tradition. In many ways, creativity and art are polar opposites.

Actually, creativity and art are not so much polar opposites as two sides of the same coin.3 Creativity is used to think of new ideas and sources of ideas. Art is used to translate those ideas into presentable forms. To create a brilliant work, both creativity and art must be used.

In many ways, schools fail to recognize this. Art is constantly drilled in schools: when not directly transferring content, teachers often focus on teaching new skills4. However, very little attention is paid to the application of those skills in novel ways. Writing thousands of 5-paragraph essays will give you perfect form and will make you a very precise writer, but it will not make you a great and innovative one. Translating notes into a science fair board will, optimally, teach art to a degree. However, none of these things will teach creativity. When schools talk about their wealth of creativity, they usually mean art.

To a certain degree, I do not think creativity can be taught. The very nature of it makes creativity unteachable — you cannot teach someone to positively ignore convention, since in doing so they would simply be internalizing another rule. However, creativity can be practiced. Constantly making new ideas teaches you to see which work and which will not. Searching for pattens helps you to see patterns faster in the future. Luckily, art can be taught — and it should be taught. Without art, nobody will respect your creativity. The point is, creativity can be practiced but not taught.


Right: A great example of tilt-shift photography from Vincent Laforet.

The next time you brag about how much creativity you foster, ask yourself if you really mean art.