How Not to Teach Climate Change

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Last week I substitute-taught a Year 5 class that was learning about climate change. One of our pre-planned activities was to continue making posters about “good gases and bad gases”. I immediately noted that every student had slapped carbon dioxide (CO2) in the “bad gas” column.

I quizzed the class, and discovered that they had been taught the following line of thinking.

  1. Carbon dioxide is a harmful and poisonous gas.
  2. Nearly all daily human activity – turning on lights, jumping in a car, using an electrical device etc. – creates carbon dioxide.

They had no idea of the following:

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is a natural constituent of the atmosphere… 
Carbon dioxide is by far the most important (organic compound) for the sustainability of the biosphere (the whole of life on Earth).
 
Without CO2 the life of photosynthetic organisms and animals would be impossible, given that CO2 provides the basis for the synthesis of organic compounds that provide nutrients for plants and animals.

Just think about that for a second.

Imagine you’re a naive child, and your teacher tells you that your every daily action creates poisonous gases that destroy the planet.

I was shocked, and quickly set the record straight by informing them that CO2 is actually essential for life on earth; it feeds plants, and it is a crucial ingredient in their, and in every other living creature’s, bodies. I added that scientists think it may be warming up our planet, but they’re still not 100% sure.* These facts came much to their surprise and relief. Clearly, some of these kids were among the increasing amount who suffer from eco-anxiety – a debilitating and potentially life-destroying form of neurosis.

I’ve since been investigating this issue further, and recently discovered a sickening truth. Some of those trumpeting the dangers of climate change, from the UN down, have been intentionally terrifying children in order to consolidate their message. This is abusive and irresponsible on a monumental scale. Furthermore, many other well-meaning educators (including the teacher of the above-mentioned class, who’s a lovely person) and parents have unintentionally compounded the children’s mental distress, not realising the effect that fear-mongering can have on an immature mind.

Eco-anxiety (aka climate anxiety) is a major concern because it is not something that simply disappears when a child is “old enough to know better”. As is well-understood, childhood anxiety often persists throughout life, affecting achievement in the academic and social domains. Do we really want to “educate” our children into nervous wrecks?

It seems important that climate change is taught in schools, but surely it must be taught in context. To teach it to primary school children, who are still incapable of grasping the underlying science, is pedagogically ignorant and therefore negligent. At the very least, climate change should be taught as a secondary science unit, after students have learnt basic biology, chemistry and physics. Only then do they have a chance of accurately assessing the issue, and only then can they receive a safe, healthy psychological upbringing.

*Clarification: The full extent of my short introduction to climate temperature was to mention that CO2 keeps the earth warm and always has, that scientists think our extra CO2 is ever-so-slightly warming the earth, and that it is not understood what impact this could have on the planet or on mankind.

Gamify Your Classroom #1: calmCounter

I’m constantly looking for ways to turn learning and classroom behaviour into a game for students. This enhances their sense of autonomy by distracting them from the fact that they are doing what I want them to do. Plus they get a real kick out of it. Here’s part one of my series on classroom gamification.

Teacher Ears: An Endangered Species
For some reason, most classrooms in London have the acoustics of a reverberation chamber. On top of that, today’s younglings rarely acknowledge the need to pause between raising their hand and voicing their opinion. Many have done away with the hand raise altogether. Trapped between reverberant rooms and exuberant hoons, teacher ears everywhere are battling extinction. But I am not willing to forfeit mine just yet. Yesterday, after an exhaustive search for free online volume monitor programs that actually work, I hit the jackpot with calmCounter.

Setup
Setting up calmCounter is simple if you know your way around a computer. Before using it, you need to:

  • make sure your microphone is active and turned up to its maximum
  • turn off your webcam
  • turn off your speakers

These things are all easily done via Control Panel (PC) or System Preferences (Mac). If you get stuck at this stage hit me up in the comments and I’ll go into further detail.

Once up and running, the volume input can be adjusted via the “microphone sensitivity” bar. Since my students were doing an art lesson, I tweaked it to a level where a low level of general chat was tolerated, but a full-classroom chatfest launched the indicator into the red zone.

Implementation
At the commencement of the lesson, I displayed calmCounter on the interactive whiteboard for all to see. The kids were immediately drawn in by the playful-looking interface, and predictably set about the task of maxing out the meter using poorly-disguised coughs and yelps. I had anticipated this, and allowed them a couple of minutes to play around with it before calling an end to the tomfoolery and defining the purpose of the experiment: to keep our classroom noise down.

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I’d soon discover that using calmCounter in this way is an effective gamification because it provides the students with a common goal. Their fusion was palpable. Initially my TA and I had to keep reminding the class when noise was rising, and reproaching the class when the volume entered the dreaded red zone. Gradually they became more aware of the device, and the fact that the best way to avoid the red zone was to focus on their work. A few hands were even raised! After about twenty minutes, I (cruelly) added a new rule to the game. Every time the volume hit red, I would deduct one minute from the next day’s break time.

You’ve got to love the risk-taking attitude of a few boys who then decided to try and get the sound meter as close to red as possible without crossing over into the red zone. Unfortunately for them, the calmCounter algorithm seems to operate on “vocal inertia”. Sharp, sporadic bursts of noise barely register, but consistent sound, even at a fairly low volume, will eventually cause the meter to steadily creep up and keep going until a few seconds after the sound has stopped. This dynamic works beautifully in the classroom, and my risk-takers soon found out that it’s not easy to rig.

In future I will reward them for each five-minute blocks where they don’t go above red, as it’s important to have positive incentives as well as negative consequences.

Verdict
Overall, the students enjoyed the experiment and both my ears and those of the TA relished the unusually quiet hour. CalmCounter is available at http://www.ictgames.com/calmCounter.html. Get in while it’s free!

A Genius’ Guide to Clear Thinking

Last week’s post featured a genius’ response to my three questions:

1. Which principles guide/have guided your approach to learning?
2. I noticed when you gave (an unstructured speech I witnessed) that you have a remarkable ability to compartmentalise knowledge. How do you approach the task of organising your knowledge?
3. You mentioned in (one of his other talks) that the Socratic method is vital in teaching students how to think. Can you please expand briefly on this point, and suggest any other practical activities/exercises to improve the lucidity of one’s thinking?

If you read the post, you’d have seen that his answer was hardly useful. I made the best attempt I could to draw something positive from it, but I know that he could have answered my questions more usefully had he had more time, or perhaps more desire. However, as fortune would have it, tonight found an excellent answer to Questions 1 and 3, courtesy of another genius, in a book review on the excellent Brain Pickings website.

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The advice comes from the late scientific luminary and philosopher Carl Sagan, in his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (public library). In this book Sagan describes the principles that guide his approach to science, which for all intents and purposes is synonymous with clear thinking.

The following nine practices are outlined under the heading The Baloney Detection Kit. They are intended as practical guidelines for razor-sharp thinking. In other words…

HOW TO THINK

  1. Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
  2. Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  3. Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.
  4. Spin more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained. Then think of tests by which you might systematically disprove each of the alternatives. What survives, the hypothesis that resists disproof in this Darwinian selection among “multiple working hypotheses,” has a much better chance of being the right answer than if you had simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
  5. Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours. It’s only a way station in the pursuit of knowledge. Ask yourself why you like the idea. Compare it fairly with the alternatives. See if you can find reasons for rejecting it. If you don’t, others will.
  6. Quantify. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses. What is vague and qualitative is open to many explanations. Of course there are truths to be sought in the many qualitative issues we are obliged to confront, but finding them is more challenging.
  7. If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must work (including the premise) — not just most of them.
  8. Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the dataequally well to choose the simpler.
  9. Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified. Propositions that are untestable, unfalsifiable are not worth much. Consider the grand idea that our Universe and everything in it is just an elementary particle — an electron, say — in a much bigger Cosmos. But if we can never acquire information from outside our Universe, is not the idea incapable of disproof? You must be able to check assertions out. Inveterate skeptics must be given the chance to follow your reasoning, to duplicate your experiments and see if they get the same result.

Later in the book, Sagan outlines the twenty most common fallacies of logic and rhetoric. Essentially, these are examples of…

HOW NOT TO THINK

    1. ad hominem — Latin for “to the man,” attacking the arguer and not the argument (e.g., The Reverend Dr. Smith is a known Biblical fundamentalist, so her objections to evolution need not be taken seriously)
    2. argument from authority (e.g., President Richard Nixon should be re-elected because he has a secret plan to end the war in Southeast Asia — but because it was secret, there was no way for the electorate to evaluate it on its merits; the argument amounted to trusting him because he was President: a mistake, as it turned out)
    3. argument from adverse consequences (e.g., A God meting out punishment and reward must exist, because if He didn’t, society would be much more lawless and dangerous — perhaps even ungovernable. Or: The defendant in a widely publicized murder trial must be found guilty; otherwise, it will be an encouragement for other men to murder their wives)
    4. appeal to ignorance — the claim that whatever has not been proved false must be true, and vice versa (e.g.,There is no compelling evidence that UFOs are not visiting the Earth; therefore UFOs exist — and there is intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe. Or: There may be seventy kazillion other worlds, but not one is known to have the moral advancement of the Earth, so we’re still central to the Universe.) This impatience with ambiguity can be criticized in the phrase: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
    5. special pleading, often to rescue a proposition in deep rhetorical trouble (e.g., How can a merciful God condemn future generations to torment because, against orders, one woman induced one man to eat an apple? Special plead: you don’t understand the subtle Doctrine of Free Will. Or:How can there be an equally godlike Father, Son, and Holy Ghost in the same Person? Special plead: You don’t understand the Divine Mystery of the Trinity. Or: How could God permit the followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — each in their own way enjoined to heroic measures of loving kindness and compassion — to have perpetrated so much cruelty for so long? Special plead: You don’t understand Free Will again. And anyway, God moves in mysterious ways.)
    6. begging the question, also called assuming the answer(e.g., We must institute the death penalty to discourage violent crime. But does the violent crime rate in fact fall when the death penalty is imposed? Or: The stock market fell yesterday because of a technical adjustment and profit-taking by investors — but is there any independent evidence for the causal role of “adjustment” and profit-taking; have we learned anything at all from this purported explanation?)
    7. observational selection, also called the enumeration of favorable circumstances, or as the philosopher Francis Bacon described it, counting the hits and forgetting the misses (e.g., A state boasts of the Presidents it has produced, but is silent on its serial killers)
    8. statistics of small numbers — a close relative of observational selection (e.g., “They say 1 out of every 5 people is Chinese. How is this possible? I know hundreds of people, and none of them is Chinese. Yours truly.” Or:“I’ve thrown three sevens in a row. Tonight I can’t lose.”)
    9. misunderstanding of the nature of statistics (e.g.,President Dwight Eisenhower expressing astonishment and alarm on discovering that fully half of all Americans have below average intelligence);
    10. inconsistency (e.g., Prudently plan for the worst of which a potential military adversary is capable, but thriftily ignore scientific projections on environmental dangers because they’re not “proved.” Or: Attribute the declining life expectancy in the former Soviet Union to the failures of communism many years ago, but never attribute the high infant mortality rate in the United States (now highest of the major industrial nations) to the failures of capitalism.Or: Consider it reasonable for the Universe to continue to exist forever into the future, but judge absurd the possibility that it has infinite duration into the past);
    11. non sequitur — Latin for “It doesn’t follow” (e.g., Our nation will prevail because God is great. But nearly every nation pretends this to be true; the German formulation was “Gott mit uns”). Often those falling into the non sequitur fallacy have simply failed to recognize alternative possibilities;
    12. post hoc, ergo propter hoc — Latin for “It happened after, so it was caused by” (e.g., Jaime Cardinal Sin, Archbishop of Manila: “I know of … a 26-year-old who looks 60 because she takes [contraceptive] pills.” Or:Before women got the vote, there were no nuclear weapons)
    13. meaningless question (e.g., What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? But if there is such a thing as an irresistible force there can be no immovable objects, and vice versa)
    14. excluded middle, or false dichotomy — considering only the two extremes in a continuum of intermediate possibilities (e.g., “Sure, take his side; my husband’s perfect; I’m always wrong.” Or: “Either you love your country or you hate it.” Or: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem”)
    15. short-term vs. long-term — a subset of the excluded middle, but so important I’ve pulled it out for special attention (e.g., We can’t afford programs to feed malnourished children and educate pre-school kids. We need to urgently deal with crime on the streets. Or: Why explore space or pursue fundamental science when we have so huge a budget deficit?);
    16. slippery slope, related to excluded middle (e.g., If we allow abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy, it will be impossible to prevent the killing of a full-term infant. Or, conversely: If the state prohibits abortion even in the ninth month, it will soon be telling us what to do with our bodies around the time of conception);
    17. confusion of correlation and causation (e.g., A survey shows that more college graduates are homosexual than those with lesser education; therefore education makes people gay. Or: Andean earthquakes are correlated with closest approaches of the planet Uranus; therefore — despite the absence of any such correlation for the nearer, more massive planet Jupiter — the latter causes the former)
    18. straw man — caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack (e.g., Scientists suppose that living things simply fell together by chance — a formulation that willfully ignores the central Darwinian insight, that Nature ratchets up by saving what works and discarding what doesn’t. Or — this is also a short-term/long-term fallacy — environmentalists care more for snail darters and spotted owls than they do for people)
    19. suppressed evidence, or half-truths (e.g., An amazingly accurate and widely quoted “prophecy” of the assassination attempt on President Reagan is shown on television; but — an important detail — was it recorded before or after the event? Or: These government abuses demand revolution, even if you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs. Yes, but is this likely to be a revolution in which far more people are killed than under the previous regime? What does the experience of other revolutions suggest? Are all revolutions against oppressive regimes desirable and in the interests of the people?)
    20. weasel words (e.g., The separation of powers of the U.S. Constitution specifies that the United States may not conduct a war without a declaration by Congress. On the other hand, Presidents are given control of foreign policy and the conduct of wars, which are potentially powerful tools for getting themselves re-elected. Presidents of either political party may therefore be tempted to arrange wars while waving the flag and calling the wars something else — “police actions,” “armed incursions,” “protective reaction strikes,” “pacification,” “safeguarding American interests,” and a wide variety of “operations,” such as “Operation Just Cause.” Euphemisms for war are one of a broad class of reinventions of language for political purposes. Talleyrand said, “An important art of politicians is to find new names for institutions which under old names have become odious to the public”)

Sagan’s guidelines, whilst not exhaustive, enable us to shatter or sidestep the lies that lurk behind every corner, and gather the precious gems of knowledge that remain.

Never Ask A Genius How To Think

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Last week I decided to ask the smartest man I’ve met three questions. The man, who will remain unnamed, is someone I once organized a talk for. He is an elite academic achiever who’s risen to the pinnacle of his field in a very short time.

My three questions were these:

1. Which principles guide/have guided your approach to learning?
2. I noticed when you gave (an unstructured speech I witnessed) that you have a remarkable ability to compartmentalise knowledge. How do you approach the task of organising your knowledge?
3. You mentioned in (one of his other talks) that the Socratic method is vital in teaching students how to think. Can you please expand briefly on this point, and suggest any other practical activities/exercises to improve the lucidity of one’s thinking?

His response was as follows:

Dear Jack

The three questions that you ask have a vast amount of literature written on them. It really would take a book on each for me to set out a coherent answer. Also, although I have thought about these issues for many years I can’t pretend to be able to answer these questions precisely and clearly and in a way which will not raise dozens more questions. You are right that the papers of mine which you read really just scratch the surface. But I think that your further research would be must [sic] more profitably directed to the specialist literature. Any attempt by me at a comprehensive answer would just regurgitate large parts of the better literature on this. In law, for example, these type of issues have been debated for nearly 2 millennia.

Sorry not to be of assistance.

Reading between the lines, he gave me two valuable lessons.

The first lesson is to be precise. If you are going to explain something, explain it accurately. If you can’t, point your students in the right direction.

The second, more important lesson, is to do your own thinking. I asked this man how to think. His answer was “by thinking.”

In this digital age, there is so much information available that the temptation becomes to “outsource” our thinking. But real thinking – researching theories, putting them into practice, reflecting, comparing and making decisions about what to keep and what to abandon – is something that only I can do for myself.

What Sir Ken Got Wrong

A must-read for any educator who’s been touched by Sir Ken’s vision.

Pragmatic Education

“We are educating people out of their creativity”

Sir Ken Robinson

 SKR

Sir Ken Robinson’s ideas on education are not only impractical; they are undesirable.

 

If you’re interested in education, at some point someone will have sent you a link to a video by Sir Ken Robinson, knighted for services to education in England in 2003. He has over 250,000 followers on Twitter, his videos have had over 40,000,000 views online, and his 2006 lecture is the most viewed TED talk of all time. The RSA Opening Minds curriculum his ideas are associated with is taught in over 200 schools in the UK. He clearly has some influence.

What explains such iconic influence? Like a magician’s performance, explaining the magic helps to dispel it. Humour, anecdote and charm combined with online, animated media explain why it’s gone viral. Jokes get contagious laughter from his audience in the video, and…

View original post 2,305 more words

Indian Reminiscence

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, but I just rediscovered a small reflection I wrote a few years ago. I thought it was worth a share.

8th February 2009

It’s been 5 days since I returned to Australian shores from 18 incredible days in India. The experience of immersing oneself in that “the boiling pot of humanity” was fulfilling beyond words. Before I went to India I often found myself feeling confused, inhibited and largely apathetic about the world. When I returned, I was filled with a passion for life I had not felt in years.

Present-day India has many, many social problems. Extreme poverty, an unjust caste system, inadequate women’s rights, a deficient health system and ubiquitous pollution are all areas which need urgent addressing. However, whilst India certainly has many areas of concern, it has the right idea in some crucial areas.

Just like a cauldron full of all kinds of delicious ingredients and exotic spices, India is packed full of Hindis, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and a wealth of other denominations. The ingredients won’t mix unless heat is applied to break them down, and this is an area in which India has succeeded where so many other regions have failed. The source of this ‘heat’ is not dictatorial rule, nor is it rigid police service. It’s much more affordable and far less difficult to organise. The pot of India sits atop the glorious blaze of ‘love for one’s fellow man’. 

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Speak to any foreigner who has spent time immersed in real India – that is, one who has become part of an Indian community rather than trying to achieve the agenda of their company or business in India – and they will speak of the warmth of the people. During my stay I witnessed countless instances of this warmth.

One evening my sister and I were buying a snack from a roadside stall when we saw an over-ambitious taxi driver try to squeeze between a pedal-rickshaw and a train barrier. The gap was not large enough and the taxi forced the flimsy rickshaw up against another taxi, bending the rickshaw’s frame out of shape and sending its driver leaping for safety. As the taxi driver tried to reverse out of this sticky predicament, a group of roadside onlookers swarmed upon his vehicle, herded him off to the side of the road, pulled him from his car and smacked him around for a good five minutes. Fortunately for the taxi driver, some armed guards intervened and he was able to escape, but had the guards not been there he may have been seriously hurt, maybe even killed. The protectiveness of the Indian people for one another is so strong that, ironically, they will seriously harm anyone who neglects to consider the safety of others.

The very next morning, as a few other volunteers and I took our daily auto-rickshaw ride, we saw a large sack of rice (probably over 50kg worth) fall from a pedal rickshaw, burst open and spill onto the street. Instantly the hectic traffic stopped and drivers leapt out from all directions to help the poor rice courier recover his livelihood. One man promptly set about binding the split bag back up, whilst another two or three produced sheets of material and began scooping the spilt rice onto them. They then bound up the sheets, handed them to the driver, and were on their way. The whole rescue operation had taken less than two minutes and a potential disaster for this driver had been averted. All thanks to the altruistic actions of a few strangers.

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I think that this sense of community, this genuine valuing of all humans, regardless of colour or creed, is the missing ingredient in our otherwise nutritious western cultures. The power of a love such as that I experienced in India is simply incredible – after only a few days in it, I felt fears and inhibitions that I didn’t even know I had melt away to reveal a powerful underlying joyfulness. Imagine what could be if we all had a good thaw.

Australia: A Selfish Giant? I don’t think so.

Above is a film/documentary that I made in Tanzania a fortnight ago. It follows our group, eleven teachers and architects operating under the banner of CEFPI (Council of Educational Facility Planners International), as we entered a small village, conversed with the village council, and through these discussions designed an educational facility that will be built by volunteers and funded by donations. Our process was based on the excellent (and free) human-centered design process outlined by Stanford D-School. You will notice that the very first stage of the process is empathy.

I have been following the interminable “Boat People” debate back home, and frankly it seems to me that the difference between the two sides of the debate is that one is coming from a place of empathy, and the other is not.

The “Anti-Boat People” side, of which our politicians are unfortunately the chief spokespeople, starts from the egotistical belief that Australia is the greatest country in the world. According to this argument, all refugees want to come here to ‘bludge’ on our enviable riches. Proponents warn us to jealously protect ourselves from the hoards of untrustworthy foreigners who are hell-bent on plundering our world-famous social conditions.

The “Pro-Boat People” side, led by Human Rights lawyers such as Julian Burnside, starts from the empathetic view that examines the realities of these refugees’ lives. Such examination reveals a range of facts that contradict the other side’s view. For example, in many cases, refugees simply aren’t equipped to endure formal processes given that they cannot obtain the necessary legal papers from their own governments. Furthermore, many refugees have not even heard of Australia, let alone dreamt of reaching its golden shores their whole lives. In fact, many come here because it is the cheapest option.

Under the light of these facts, the narcissistic self-image of the other side is revealed, and it ain’t pretty. It raises real concerns for the spiritual health of our nation. If we as a country go down the “anti” path, we are no better than Oscar Wilde’s Selfish Giant; enforcing our borders with tall walls, declaring to the world that “trespassers will be prosecuted”, warding off the sunshine of empathy and inviting a cold spiritual winter. Indeed, we are betraying our own national anthem – “For those who come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share”. Shouldn’t it be “We’ve boundless cells to spare?” That is not the Australia I grew up loving.

As the above video shows, empathy can achieve an incredible amount in a short period of time. Empathy is the foundation of a human-centered design process. What kind of nation are our politicians designing? From here it certainly seems they only have designs on themselves. But thankfully empathy is universally accessible, which means that we grass roots Aussies can harness its power to make a massive difference. Thus we must ask ourselves, what will we, the real Australia, choose to design?