Given how much they can actually do, computers have a surprisingly simple basis. Indeed, the logic they use has worked so well that we have even started to think of them as analogous to the human brain. Current computers basically use two basic values 0 (false) and 1 (true) and apply simple operations like and, or and not to compute with them. These operations can be combined and scaled up to represent virtually any computation.
This binary “or “Boolean logic was introduced by George Boole in 1854 to describe what he called the laws of thought. But the brain is far from a binary logic device. And while programmes such as the Human Brain Project seek to model the brain using computers, the notion of what computers are is also constantly changing.
So will we ever be able to model something as complex as the human brain using computers? After all, biological systems use symmetry and interaction to do things that even the most powerful computers cannot do like surviving, adapting and reproducing. This is one reason why binary logic often falls short of describing how living things or human intelligence work. But our new research suggests there are alternatives: by using the mathematics that describe biological networks in the computers of the future, we may be able to make them more complex and similar to living systems like the brain.
Living organisms do not live in a world of zeroes and ones. And if binary logic doesnt naturally describe their activity, what kind of mathematics does? I was involved in an international project which studied whether mathematical structures called Simple Non-Abelian Groups (SNAGs) may describe complex processes in living cells. SNAGs are commonly in mathematics and physics, and are based on the principles of symmetry and interaction. SNAGs offer a potentially powerful alternative to binary logic for computation.
There are infinitely many kinds of SNAGs. They were conjured by the brilliant 19th-century French mathematician variste Galois, who tragically died aged 20 in a fatal duel over a romantic interest. Indeed, he wrote much of his ground-breaking theory during a feverish night before the duel.
The smallest SNAG A5 describes the symmetries of two beautiful 3D shapes known since the time of the ancient Greeks: the icosahedron (made of 20 triangles) and the dodecahedron (made of 12 pentagons). SNAGs can be thought of as the multiplication tables of how symmetries interact, rather than for how to multiply numbers.
Dodecahedron and Icosahedron (Platonic Solids):
3D shapes with SNAG symmetry
Unlike the ones and zeros used in binary logic with just two values, the SNAG for each of these shapes have 60 values or symmetries. These symmetries operate like rotations that can be combined. Performing a rotation and following it with a second can have the same effect as another kind of rotation, giving a kind of multiplication table for these 60 symmetries. For example, if you rotate the icosahedron (the figure below) five times by 72 degrees clockwise around the axis through its centre and any vertex (corner) it will get back to the starting configuration.
The structure of SNAGs is a natural kind of basis for computation that is just as powerful as binary logic, but presents a very different view about which computations are easy. To compute with SNAGs, nature (or humans or future computers) can use sequences of SNAG symmetries combined according to the rules. Patterns of events and interactions determine which symmetries occur in the sequences variable positions.
Symmetries In Nature
We have for the first time shown that there are SNAGs hidden in common biological networks. To do this, we analysed the internal workings of cells (their gene regulation and metabolism) using mathematics, computers and models from systems biology. We found that SNAG symmetries accurately describe potential activities in the genetic regulatory network that controls a cells response to certain kinds of stress such as radiation and DNA damage. This may be hugely important as it means SNAGs can describe cellular processes intimately involved in self-repair, cell suicide, and cancer.
Multiphoton fluorescence image of so-called HeLa cells using a laser scanning microscope. NIH
The specific SNAG involved in this gene network is A5. The 60 symmetries in this case are the result of particular sequences of manipulations by the cells genetic regulatory network to transform ensembles of proteins into other forms. For example, when a set of five concentration levels of proteins is manipulated, it can be transformed to another set. When this is done many times, it can break some of the proteins down, join some together or synthesise new types of proteins. But after a specific number of manipulations the original five concentration levels of proteins will eventually return.
It doesnt stop at cellular damage control processes. We have also shown mathematically that nearly all biological reaction networks must have numerous embedded SNAG components. However, lab work is still needed to explain how and to what extent cells exploit SNAGs in their activity.
Computation with SNAGs has never yet been exploited in conventional computers, but we are hoping to use it. In the future, new kinds of computers and software systems may deploy resources the way some living organisms do, in robust adaptive responses. Driven by interaction with their environment, including human users, they could grow new structures, divide up tasks among different types of computational cells such as hardware units or software processes, allow old structures to wither and be reabsorbed if unused.
Understanding how living things and brains use interaction-based computations, which are all around us, may radically reshape not only our computers and the internet, but the existing models of the brain and living organisms. SNAG-based computations may finally help us build better and more predictive working models of cells and of the brain. But we have only sighted the first examples, and so have a long way to go. After all, as Shakespeare and this discovery of SNAG-computation in cells remind us: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
It might have been the general consensus that the floppy disk, which was big in the 1980s, had had its day – but after the US government’s revelation that the technology remains in use at the Pentagon, enthusiasts wonder whether there is still a place for old tech in today’s hi-tech world?
Dan Hatfull, Kent
I am a pilot, and I understand the role of new equipment allied with old stuff that, in my life at least, still has a role to play in life.
I have a Sharp VHS recorder purchased in 1999 in my drawing room, and an Aiwa hi-fi stack system, all still going strong.
I have cassettes from when I was a child in the 80s.
I am proud to say I still use video cassettes and vinyl, and have a huge record collection, supplemented by CDs to play in the car.
I get disillusioned with this throwaway society where once something is not fashionable anymore it’s discarded.
I don’t see why serviceable films on VHS from the 80s have to be digitally re-mastered, so that people must replace their video collection with DVDs.
Then, we have to do the same thing again with Blu-ray, and replaced again with downloads.
I don’t like waste.
What I don’t see is why I need to keep changing my collections because of marketers and society – it’s nonsensical.
Mark Partridge, London
I bought my 1972 Akai 4000D player about a year ago from eBay and reconditioned it.
I’m an enthusiast and collect equipment like that.
You get 45 minutes on each reel, and it is very high-fidelity.
It still provides much (easy) listening pleasure.
Richard McKenzie, Australia
I use the Apple Extended Keyboard II on my home computer as my main keyboard.
I write quite a bit for my day job and for pleasure, and I feel much more productive typing on a keyboard like this.
The only thing is that they are loud compared to more recent types; everybody in the house knows when I’m typing.
But that’s a small price to pay for the pleasure of a mechanical keyboard.
Technological progress isn’t always for the better, and our desire to have computers (and smartphones) as compact as possible has meant that keyboard design has suffered.
James Clephane-Cameron, Surrey
I collect and restore old British computers.
In the 1980s and 1990s the UK was a world leader in computing, developing the ARM processor which now runs in almost all smartphones.
The systems still have their uses. Everything from music notation to complex mathematics.
I use mine to teach my children about computing and to help them understand how modern computers work.
Compiled by Andree Massiah
Science often gets a bad rap for being inaccessible. But its actually never been easier to satisfy your curiosity on subjects ranging from computer technology, biology, astrophysics, climate science, and just about anything in between. In fact, its just a few clicks away.
These online courses from edX allow you to learn an array of topicsunder the instruction of experts from the field. Best of all, it can be done online and its free. Yep, free.Not bad, right?
If any of the courses below take your fancy, then click the link andenrolwithin a matter ofminutes. Alternatively, you can check out the hundreds of courses on offerfrom top universities like Harvard and MITon the edX website.
Physics is the key to unlocking the great questions of our universe, but grand theories of quantum mechanics and the colossal forces of spacetime can sometimes be a bit intimidating.
This course, however, can satisfy your curiosity on everything from atomic forces to vast galaxies, while only requiring a basic background knowledge of physics and mathematics.
Image credit: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock
The Information Age is a dangerous time, especially because the majority of people have no idea how any of it works. As issues of privacy and national security become more and more important, knowledge about cybersecurity is fast becoming a crucial part of everyday life, as well as a valuable career skill.
In this course, youll immerse yourself into the debateofhow the Internet has become a battlefield for competing ideas of privacy, security, sovereignty, human rights, and freedom.
Image credit: NASA
As fascinating as our own planet is, the worlds beyond our own are something truly amazing. If youve ever wanted to know whats really going on in our cosmic neighborhood, this course allows you to understand the origins, structure and evolution of our Solar System.
The course gives you the chance to virtually walk through the Lunar Exploration Museum and Arizona State Universitys Moeur Building, a leading facility for developing geological instruments on Mars.
Image credit:Nisa yeh/Flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0)
One of the main things that makes humans so incredible is our ability to be creative, whether thats applied to science, the arts, or even your career. Its often thought that only a lucky few are born with creativity running in their blood, but its actually something within us all, if we know the right way to guide and foster it. This course has arenowned innovation expertteach some proven methodson how you can ignite your creativity and use it to help your career progression.
Forget supersonics. Hypersonics refers to speeds of Mach 5 and above, so anything above 6,175km/h (3,800 mph). This course will tell you everything you need to know about the basic concepts associated with traveling five times the speed of sound, from aerospace rocket propulsion to how to model these insanely fast flows.
Angelina Jolie Pitt, who has nabbed a post as visiting professor at the London School of Economics, is the latest in a line of celebrities who have swapped the limelight for the lectern at English universities.
Jolie Pitt – a UN special envoy – will be teaching part of a new masters course run by the LSE’s Centre for Women, Peace and Security.
So what’s in these starry appointments for the universities and for the celebrities?
Emma Watson swapped Gryffindor for Lady Margaret Hall (LMH) at Oxford when she became a visiting professor – alongside Sherlock actor Benedict Cumberbatch and nine other non-academics.
LMH principal Alan Rusbridger said the fact they were not academics was part of the reason they were selected. The three-year part-time positions would “enrich the cultural life of the college” because they would be able to give students an insight into different experiences, he said.
He got the idea from his own experience as a visiting fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford.
“Some of those dinners were eclectic affairs. Alongside the students and tutors there would be bishops, bankers, spies, journalists and economists.”
Although the college obviously has a high number of academics in lecturing roles, Mr Rusbridger said the visiting professors “are people in public life we admire and bring varied and interesting insights and experience to the whole community – students, staff and tutors”.
So, other than being convivial dinner party guests, what are these “admirable public people” expected to do?
“At a minimum we’d like them to drop in occasionally at college, eat with us and meet informally with a variety of the LMH community.
“It could be a conversation or debate, a performance, a lecture or seminar, a form of outreachor something we haven’t thought of.”
Watson has a degree in English Literature from the Ivy League US university, Brown. Her first visit to LMH, a low-key unofficial affair to meet with the principal, was marred by a privacy row, after a student posted a sneakily-took photograph of the actress on Facebook.
Perhaps he’s lucky she did not transfigure him.
Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr is a Visiting Professor of Music at the University of Salford – and also the recipient of an honorary degree.
Marr has a long association with the city – he and the rest of the Smiths were pictured outside the Salford Lads Club for a photo that appeared on the inner sleeve of the band’s 1986 LP The Queen Is Dead.
The club, located in Ordsall, has since become a place of pilgrimage for Smiths fans.
Marr’s inaugural lecture in 2008 was about “outsiders” in the music business.
Entitled Mavericks, Innovators and Building Your Own Ark – which sounds like a mixture of sociology, experiments and carpentry – Marr argued: “In an age of stifling conservatism, outsiders need to be cherished.”
The talk praised Bob Marley, the Sex Pistols and Kurt Cobain who “built their own ark and sailed it ahead of the music industry”.
Later that year, he helmed a series of workshops and seminars for students taking the BA Popular Music and Recording degree.
Marr had previously been on stage at the university’s Maxwell Hall – at a gig with the Smiths in 1986.
His lecture was a little more sedate than the concert, when the speakers had to be tied down because of the excitement of the audience.
Fellow guitarist Dr Brian May is a visiting researcher in astrophysics at Imperial College London.
His specialism is the reflection of light from interplanetary dust and the velocity of dust in the plane of the Solar System.
Unlike many visiting post holders, May is a proper academic. He studied physics and mathematics at Imperial College in the 1960s, and from 1970 to 1974 studied for a PhD.
Although another type of stardom drew him away in 1974 – when Queen started to have international success – May returned to academia in 2006 and his thesis was approved in September 2007 – 37 years after it commenced.
May’s appointment as visiting researcher includes taking part in workshops, discussions and presentations.
In one case, his talk ended with an animation of the solar system accompanied by guitar music from his one of his own solo albums. Show off.
Spacey took a one-year role as the Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at St Catherine’s (known as St Catz) College, Oxford.
The one-year post in 2008 required him to give lectures, workshops and seminars at the university.
The double Oscar-winner has appeared to court gravitas throughout his professional life – he is a CBE and a KBE, has an honorary doctorate, and set up a foundation which pays students’ university fees and awards grants.
He was the artistic director of the Old Vic, one of England’s oldest theatres, for 11 years.
On his appointment at Oxford, he said: “It really is an honour for me to follow such illustrious names and take up this role.
“The university is steeped in tradition and has a great heritage in the arts and I look forward to working with the students and staff.”
Before his inaugural lecture, he was introduced by the Master of St. Catherine’s as a “towering figure, a Goliath in the world of drama”.
Spacey told the students: “I hope by the end of my tenure here, I will be worthy of the title of professor”.
Previous visiting professors have included composer Stephen Sondheim, playwright Alan Ayckbourn, lyricist Sir Tim Rice and Star Trek actor Patrick Stewart.
Stephen Fry, a graduate of Queens College Cambridge where he studied English Literature, crossed the Oxbridge divide to become another holder (he was the 23rd) of the Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at St Catherine’s, Oxford.
His inaugural lecture, now available as a podcast, was called Put on Your Red Shoes: Performance and Destiny.
“I hope to help students devise comic and dramatic pieces, talk through rehearsal, writer-performing techniques and procedures, and give what benefit I might have to offer from over a quarter of a century of larking about on stage and screen,” he said.
My poor mom had to deal with so much from me while I was attempting to earn my college degree. After years of raising me, she and my dad thought they had done their duty when they said goodbye to me at the university a few hours away from our home. But after one semester, they greeted me back at the front door for more than just a Christmas break. Let’s just say I took my time figuring out which school was right for me, but that didn’t stop them from supporting me every step of the way.
For Jelinda Sheppard, the situation was reversed. The young mom found herself raising her son, Karter, on her own when his father left them while she was still in school. TheNorth Carolina Agriculture and Technical State University student became pregnant with her little man her sophomore year and though that madeearning her degree a bit more difficult, she was determined to set the best example for her child.
Garden designers and their teams stood proudly – albeit a little nervously – as the judges began their rounds at the Chelsea Flower Show.
If they needed a little calm, the gardens they have created – many on themes of peace and tranquillity – could have provided it.
Jekka McVicar, who designed A Modern Apothecary for St John’s Hospice, says the garden is about health and wellbeing.
Everything in it – from rosemary and fennel to the sound of running water – can be good for body and mind, she says.
She spoke to doctors, carers and artists before creating the garden, which is about the “power of plants”.
Also focusing on health and healing is Paul Martin, creator of The Garden of Mindful Living for Vestra Wealth.
It is intended as a calm space for mindfulness and wellness in a busy city life, with soft colours that are “not jarring on the eyes”.
There is plenty of green – a colour Mr Martin says has proven calming effects on children with ADHD.
Matthew Wilson designed God’s Own Country – A Garden for Yorkshire based on inspiration from York Minster’s East Window, which is the largest single expanse of medieval stained glass in Britain.
“Trying to get something of that scale and presence and sheer power in a Chelsea garden is an interesting challenge,” he says.
He says he set about “deconstructing” all elements on the window’s design and “putting them back together in a different order” in the garden, which is sponsored by Welcome to Yorkshire.
As well as a “colourful tapestry” of planting based on the window’s colours, there is an arch laid on its side containing benches which point towards a “very calm, small cloister garden”.
Nick Bailey, designer of The Winton Capital Beauty of Mathematics Garden, says the concept is about “subtly highlighting the mathematics that underpins everything”.
“No matter how wild something looks it’s actually driven by algorithms and equations,” he says.
A copper band runs through the garden, and on it are equations for processes including photosynthesis and cellular expansion.
The band represents a stem, and as it winds through the garden – changing function from a bench to a banister to a planter – the planting thickens to reflect growth.
Diarmuid Gavin, who designed the Harrods British Eccentrics garden, says he mixed traditional themes with “a little bit of madness”.
As well as “fireworks” of brightly coloured plants among more traditional planting, every 15 minutes the trees and one of the borders rotate and some bob up and down.
“I like to have a bit of fun and try something new,” he explains.
Garden designers and their teams – many in smart suits not typically worn for gardening – were busy watering, sweeping and making other last-minute adjustments on Monday morning before the arrival of the judges.
Some teams were on their hands and knees for these final preparations in the London sunshine.
A field of 300,000 hand-crocheted poppies, which covers the space between the showground and the Royal Hospital Chelsea, was designed by Phillip Johnson, who won Best Show Garden in 2013.
They are a tribute to those who served in all wars, and were made by “people from a range of cultures, and communities and ages, from two to 102 years old”, the Royal Horticultural Society said.
Also at the show is a 10ft (3m) high floral installation created by Veevers Carter for New Covent Garden Flower Market in honour of the Queen’s 90th birthday.
Made up of 10,000 flowers, 112 buckets and 300m of ribbon, it forms a portrait of the monarch.
The Queen and other members of the Royal Family, including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, visited the show in the afternoon.
Many of the exhibits mark the Queen’s 90th birthday, including a 21ft floral arch of at least 10,000 blooms and an exhibition of royal photographs at Chelsea dating back to 1949.
Read more: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-36358464
José Urbina López Primary School sits next to a dump just across the US border in Mexico. The school serves residents of Matamoros, a dusty, sunbaked city of 489,000 that is a flash point in the war on drugs. There are regular shoot-outs, and it’s not uncommon for locals to find bodies scattered in the street in the morning. To get to the school, students walk along a white dirt road that parallels a fetid canal. On a recent morning there was a 1940s-era tractor, a decaying boat in a ditch, and a herd of goats nibbling gray strands of grass. A cinder-block barrier separates the school from a wasteland—the far end of which is a mound of trash that grew so big, it was finally closed down. On most days, a rotten smell drifts through the cement-walled classrooms. Some people here call the school un lugar de castigo—“a place of punishment.”
For 12-year-old Paloma Noyola Bueno, it was a bright spot. More than 25 years ago, her family moved to the border from central Mexico in search of a better life. Instead, they got stuck living beside the dump. Her father spent all day scavenging for scrap, digging for pieces of aluminum, glass, and plastic in the muck. Recently, he had developed nosebleeds, but he didn’t want Paloma to worry. She was his little angel—the youngest of eight children.
After school, Paloma would come home and sit with her father in the main room of their cement-and-wood home. Her father was a weather-beaten, gaunt man who always wore a cowboy hat. Paloma would recite the day’s lessons for him in her crisp uniform—gray polo, blue-and-white skirt—and try to cheer him up. She had long black hair, a high forehead, and a thoughtful, measured way of talking. School had never been challenging for her. She sat in rows with the other students while teachers told the kids what they needed to know. It wasn’t hard to repeat it back, and she got good grades without thinking too much. As she headed into fifth grade, she assumed she was in for more of the same—lectures, memorization, and busy work.
Sergio Juárez Correa was used to teaching that kind of class. For five years, he had stood in front of students and worked his way through the government-mandated curriculum. It was mind-numbingly boring for him and the students, and he’d come to the conclusion that it was a waste of time. Test scores were poor, and even the students who did well weren’t truly engaged. Something had to change.
He too had grown up beside a garbage dump in Matamoros, and he had become a teacher to help kids learn enough to make something more of their lives. So in 2011—when Paloma entered his class—Juárez Correa decided to start experimenting. He began reading books and searching for ideas online. Soon he stumbled on a video describing the work of Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in the UK. In the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s, Mitra conducted experiments in which he gave children in India access to computers. Without any instruction, they were able to teach themselves a surprising variety of things, from DNA replication to English.
Juárez Correa didn’t know it yet, but he had happened on an emerging educational philosophy, one that applies the logic of the digital age to the classroom. That logic is inexorable: Access to a world of infinite information has changed how we communicate, process information, and think. Decentralized systems have proven to be more productive and agile than rigid, top-down ones. Innovation, creativity, and independent thinking are increasingly crucial to the global economy.
And yet the dominant model of public education is still fundamentally rooted in the industrial revolution that spawned it, when workplaces valued punctuality, regularity, attention, and silence above all else. (In 1899, William T. Harris, the US commissioner of education, celebrated the fact that US schools had developed the “appearance of a machine,” one that teaches the student “to behave in an orderly manner, to stay in his own place, and not get in the way of others.”) We don’t openly profess those values nowadays, but our educational system—which routinely tests kids on their ability to recall information and demonstrate mastery of a narrow set of skills—doubles down on the view that students are material to be processed, programmed, and quality-tested. School administrators prepare curriculum standards and “pacing guides” that tell teachers what to teach each day. Legions of managers supervise everything that happens in the classroom; in 2010 only 50 percent of public school staff members in the US were teachers.
The results speak for themselves: Hundreds of thousands of kids drop out of public high school every year. Of those who do graduate from high school, almost a third are “not prepared academically for first-year college courses,” according to a 2013 report from the testing service ACT. The World Economic Forum ranks the US just 49th out of 148 developed and developing nations in quality of math and science instruction. “The fundamental basis of the system is fatally flawed,” says Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford and founding director of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. “In 1970 the top three skills required by the Fortune 500 were the three Rs: reading, writing, and arithmetic. In 1999 the top three skills in demand were teamwork, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills. We need schools that are developing these skills.”
That’s why a new breed of educators, inspired by everything from the Internet to evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and AI, are inventing radical new ways for children to learn, grow, and thrive. To them, knowledge isn’t a commodity that’s delivered from teacher to student but something that emerges from the students’ own curiosity-fueled exploration. Teachers provide prompts, not answers, and then they step aside so students can teach themselves and one another. They are creating ways for children to discover their passion—and uncovering a generation of geniuses in the process.
At home in Matamoros, Juárez Correa found himself utterly absorbed by these ideas. And the more he learned, the more excited he became. On August 21, 2011—the start of the school year — he walked into his classroom and pulled the battered wooden desks into small groups. When Paloma and the other students filed in, they looked confused. Juárez Correa invited them to take a seat and then sat down with them.
He started by telling them that there were kids in other parts of the world who could memorize pi to hundreds of decimal points. They could write symphonies and build robots and airplanes. Most people wouldn’t think that the students at José Urbina López could do those kinds of things. Kids just across the border in Brownsville, Texas, had laptops, high-speed Internet, and tutoring, while in Matamoros the students had intermittent electricity, few computers, limited Internet, and sometimes not enough to eat.
“But you do have one thing that makes you the equal of any kid in the world,” Juárez Correa said. “Potential.”
He looked around the room. “And from now on,” he told them, “we’re going to use that potential to make you the best students in the world.”
Paloma was silent, waiting to be told what to do. She didn’t realize that over the next nine months, her experience of school would be rewritten, tapping into an array of educational innovations from around the world and vaulting her and some of her classmates to the top of the math and language rankings in Mexico.
“So,” Juárez Correa said, “what do you want to learn?”
In 1999, Sugata Mitra was chief scientist at a company in New Delhi that trains software developers. His office was on the edge of a slum, and on a hunch one day, he decided to put a computer into a nook in a wall separating his building from the slum. He was curious to see what the kids would do, particularly if he said nothing. He simply powered the computer on and watched from a distance. To his surprise, the children quickly figured out how to use the machine.
Over the years, Mitra got more ambitious. For a study published in 2010, he loaded a computer with molecular biology materials and set it up in Kalikuppam, a village in southern India. He selected a small group of 10- to 14-year-olds and told them there was some interesting stuff on the computer, and might they take a look? Then he applied his new pedagogical method: He said no more and left.
Over the next 75 days, the children worked out how to use the computer and began to learn. When Mitra returned, he administered a written test on molecular biology. The kids answered about one in four questions correctly. After another 75 days, with the encouragement of a friendly local, they were getting every other question right. “If you put a computer in front of children and remove all other adult restrictions, they will self-organize around it,” Mitra says, “like bees around a flower.”
A charismatic and convincing proselytizer, Mitra has become a darling in the tech world. In early 2013 he won a $1 million grant from TED, the global ideas conference, to pursue his work. He’s now in the process of establishing seven “schools in the cloud,” five in India and two in the UK. In India, most of his schools are single-room buildings. There will be no teachers, curriculum, or separation into age groups—just six or so computers and a woman to look after the kids’ safety. His defining principle: “The children are completely in charge.”
The bottom line is, if you’re not the one controlling your learning, you’re not going to learn as well.
Mitra argues that the information revolution has enabled a style of learning that wasn’t possible before. The exterior of his schools will be mostly glass, so outsiders can peer in. Inside, students will gather in groups around computers and research topics that interest them. He has also recruited a group of retired British teachers who will appear occasionally on large wall screens via Skype, encouraging students to investigate their ideas—a process Mitra believes best fosters learning. He calls them the Granny Cloud. “They’ll be life-size, on two walls” Mitra says. “And the children can always turn them off.”
Mitra’s work has roots in educational practices dating back to Socrates. Theorists from Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi to Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori have argued that students should learn by playing and following their curiosity. Einstein spent a year at a Pestalozzi-inspired school in the mid-1890s, and he later credited it with giving him the freedom to begin his first thought experiments on the theory of relativity. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin similarly claim that their Montessori schooling imbued them with a spirit of independence and creativity.
In recent years, researchers have begun backing up those theories with evidence. In a 2011 study, scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Iowa scanned the brain activity of 16 people sitting in front of a computer screen. The screen was blurred out except for a small, movable square through which subjects could glimpse objects laid out on a grid. Half the time, the subjects controlled the square window, allowing them to determine the pace at which they examined the objects; the rest of the time, they watched a replay of someone else moving the window. The study found that when the subjects controlled their own observations, they exhibited more coordination between the hippocampus and other parts of the brain involved in learning and posted a 23 percent improvement in their ability to remember objects. “The bottom line is, if you’re not the one who’s controlling your learning, you’re not going to learn as well,” says lead researcher Joel Voss, now a neuroscientist at Northwestern University.
In 2009, scientists from the University of Louisville and MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences conducted a study of 48 children between the ages of 3 and 6. The kids were presented with a toy that could squeak, play notes, and reflect images, among other things. For one set of children, a researcher demonstrated a single attribute and then let them play with the toy. Another set of students was given no information about the toy. This group played longer and discovered an average of six attributes of the toy; the group that was told what to do discovered only about four. A similar study at UC Berkeley demonstrated that kids given no instruction were much more likely to come up with novel solutions to a problem. “The science is brand-new, but it’s not as if people didn’t have this intuition before,” says coauthor Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley.
Gopnik’s research is informed in part by advances in artificial intelligence. If you program a robot’s every movement, she says, it can’t adapt to anything unexpected. But when scientists build machines that are programmed to try a variety of motions and learn from mistakes, the robots become far more adaptable and skilled. The same principle applies to children, she says.
A Brief History of Alternative Schools
CREDITS: Waldorf School: courtesy of Waldorf School; Robinson: Robert Leslie; Malaguzzi: courtesy of Reggio Children; remaining: Getty Images
Evolutionary psychologists have also begun exploring this way of thinking. Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College who studies children’s natural ways of learning, argues that human cognitive machinery is fundamentally incompatible with conventional schooling. Gray points out that young children, motivated by curiosity and playfulness, teach themselves a tremendous amount about the world. And yet when they reach school age, we supplant that innate drive to learn with an imposed curriculum. “We’re teaching the child that his questions don’t matter, that what matters are the questions of the curriculum. That’s just not the way natural selection designed us to learn. It designed us to solve problems and figure things out that are part of our real lives.”
Some school systems have begun to adapt to this new philosophy—with outsize results. In the 1990s, Finland pared the country’s elementary math curriculum from about 25 pages to four, reduced the school day by an hour, and focused on independence and active learning. By 2003, Finnish students had climbed from the lower rungs of international performance rankings to first place among developed nations.
Nicholas Negroponte, cofounder of the MIT Media Lab, is taking this approach even further with his One Laptop per Child initiative. Last year the organization delivered 40 tablets to children in two remote villages in Ethiopia. Negroponte’s team didn’t explain how the devices work or even open the boxes. Nonetheless, the children soon learned to play back the alphabet song and taught themselves to write letters. They also figured out how to use the tablet’s camera. This was impressive because the organization had disabled camera usage. “They hacked Android,” Negroponte says.
One day Juárez Correa went to his whiteboard and wrote “1 = 1.00.” Normally, at this point, he would start explaining the concept of fractions and decimals. Instead he just wrote “½ = ?” and “¼ = ?”
“Think about that for a second,” he said, and walked out of the room.
While the kids murmured, Juárez Correa went to the school cafeteria, where children could buy breakfast and lunch for small change. He borrowed about 10 pesos in coins, worth about 75 cents, and walked back to his classroom, where he distributed a peso’s worth of coins to each table. He noticed that Paloma had already written .50 and .25 on a piece of paper.
“One peso is one peso,” he said. “What’s one-half?”
At first a number of kids divided the coins into clearly unequal piles. It sparked a debate among the students about what one-half meant. Juárez Correa’s training told him to intervene. But now he remembered Mitra’s research and resisted the urge. Instead, he watched as Alma Delia Juárez Flores explained to her tablemates that half means equal portions. She counted out 50 centavos. “So the answer is .50,” she said. The other kids nodded. It made sense.
For Juárez Correa it was simultaneously thrilling and a bit scary. In Finland, teachers underwent years of training to learn how to orchestrate this new style of learning; he was winging it. He began experimenting with different ways of posing open-ended questions on subjects ranging from the volume of cubes to multiplying fractions. “The volume of a square-based prism is the area of the base times the height. The volume of a square-based pyramid is that formula divided by three,” he said one morning. “Why do you think that is?”
He walked around the room, saying little. It was fascinating to watch the kids approach the answer. They were working in teams and had models of various shapes to look at and play with. The team led by Usiel Lemus Aquino, a short boy with an ever-present hopeful expression, hit on the idea of drawing the different shapes—prisms and pyramids. By layering the drawings on top of each other, they began to divine the answer. Juárez Correa let the kids talk freely. It was a noisy, slightly chaotic environment—exactly the opposite of the sort of factory-friendly discipline that teachers were expected to impose. But within 20 minutes, they had come up with the answer.
“Three pyramids fit in one prism,” Usiel observed, speaking for the group. “So the volume of a pyramid must be the volume of a prism divided by three.”
Juárez Correa was impressed. But he was even more intrigued by Paloma. During these experiments, he noticed that she almost always came up with the answer immediately. Sometimes she explained things to her tablemates, other times she kept the answer to herself. Nobody had told him that she had an unusual gift. Yet even when he gave the class difficult questions, she quickly jotted down the answers. To test her limits, he challenged the class with a problem he was sure would stump her. He told the story of Carl Friedrich Gauss, the famous German mathematician, who was born in 1777.
When Gauss was a schoolboy, one of his teachers asked the class to add up every number between 1 and 100. It was supposed to take an hour, but Gauss had the answer almost instantly.
“Does anyone know how he did this?” Juárez Correa asked.
A few students started trying to add up the numbers and soon realized it would take a long time. Paloma, working with her group, carefully wrote out a few sequences and looked at them for a moment. Then she raised her hand.
“The answer is 5,050,” she said. “There are 50 pairs of 101.”
Juárez Correa felt a chill. He’d never encountered a student with so much innate ability. He squatted next to her and asked why she hadn’t expressed much interest in math in the past, since she was clearly good at it.
“Because no one made it this interesting,” she said.
Paloma’s father got sicker. He continued working, but he was running a fever and suffering headaches. Finally he was admitted to the hospital, where his condition deteriorated; on February 27, 2012, he died of lung cancer. On Paloma’s last visit before he passed away, she sat beside him and held his hand. “You are a smart girl,” he said. “Study and make me proud.”
Paloma missed four days of school for the funeral before returning to class. Her friends could tell she was distraught, but she buried her grief. She wanted to live up to her father’s last wish. And Juárez Correa’s new style of curating challenges for the kids was the perfect refuge for her. As he continued to relinquish control, Paloma took on more responsibility for her own education. He taught the kids about democracy by letting them elect leaders who would decide how to run the class and address discipline. The children elected five representatives, including Paloma and Usiel. When two boys got into a shoving match, the representatives admonished the boys, and the problem didn’t happen again.
Juárez Correa spent his nights watching education videos. He read polemics by the Mexican cartoonist Eduardo del Río (known as Rius), who argued that kids should be free to explore whatever they want. He was also still impressed by Mitra, who talks about letting children “wander aimlessly around ideas.” Juárez Correa began hosting regular debates in class, and he didn’t shy away from controversial topics. He asked the kids if they thought homosexuality and abortion should be permitted. He asked them to figure out what the Mexican government should do, if anything, about immigration to the US. Once he asked a question, he would stand back and let them engage one another.
A key component in Mitra’s theory was that children could learn by having access to the web, but that wasn’t easy for Juárez Correa’s students. The state paid for a technology instructor who visited each class once a week, but he didn’t have much technology to demonstrate. Instead, he had a batch of posters depicting keyboards, joysticks, and 3.5-inch floppy disks. He would hold the posters up and say things like, “This is a keyboard. You use it to type.”
As a result, Juárez Correa became a slow-motion conduit to the Internet. When the kids wanted to know why we see only one side of the moon, for example, he went home, Googled it, and brought back an explanation the next day. When they asked specific questions about eclipses and the equinox, he told them he’d figure it out and report back.
Juárez Correa also brought something else back from the Internet. It was the fable of a forlorn burro trapped at the bottom of a well. Since thieves had broken into the school and sliced the electrical cord off of the classroom projector (presumably to sell the copper inside), he couldn’t actually show them the clip that recounted the tale. Instead, he simply described it.
One day, a burro fell into a well, Juárez Correa began. It wasn’t hurt, but it couldn’t get out. The burro’s owner decided that the aged beast wasn’t worth saving, and since the well was dry, he would just bury both. He began to shovel clods of earth into the well. The burro cried out, but the man kept shoveling. Eventually, the burro fell silent. The man assumed the animal was dead, so he was amazed when, after a lot of shoveling, the burro leaped out of the well. It had shaken off each clump of dirt and stepped up the steadily rising mound until it was able to jump out.
Juárez Correa looked at his class. “We are like that burro,” he said. “Everything that is thrown at us is an opportunity to rise out of the well we are in.”
When the two-day national standardized exam took place in June 2012, Juárez Correa viewed it as just another pile of dirt thrown on the kids’ heads. It was a step back to the way school used to be for them: mechanical and boring. To prevent cheating, a coordinator from the Ministry of Education oversaw the proceedings and took custody of the answer sheets at the end of testing. It felt like a military exercise, but as the kids blasted through the questions, they couldn’t help noticing that it felt easy, as if they were being asked to do something very basic.
Ricardo Zavala Hernandez, assistant principal at José Urbina López, drinks a cup of coffee most mornings as he browses the web in the admin building, a cement structure that houses the school’s two functioning computers. One day in September 2012, he clicked on the site for ENLACE, Mexico’s national achievement exam, and discovered that the results of the June test had been posted.
Zavala Hernandez put down his coffee. Most of the classes had done marginally better this year—but Paloma’s grade was another story. The previous year, 45 percent had essentially failed the math section, and 31 percent had failed Spanish. This time only 7 percent failed math and 3.5 percent failed Spanish. And while none had posted an Excellent score before, 63 percent were now in that category in math.
The language scores were very high. Even the lowest was well above the national average. Then he noticed the math scores. The top score in Juárez Correa’s class was 921. Zavala Hernandez looked over at the top score in the state: It was 921. When he saw the next box over, the hairs on his arms stood up. The top score in the entire country was also 921.
He printed the page and speed-walked to Juárez Correa’s classroom. The students stood up when he entered.
“Take a look at this,” Zavala Hernandez said, handing him the printout.
Juárez Correa scanned the results and looked up. “Is this for real?” he asked.
“I just printed it off the ENLACE site,” the assistant principal responded. “It’s real.”
Juárez Correa noticed the kids staring at him, but he wanted to make sure he understood the report. He took a moment to read it again, nodded, and turned to the kids.
“We have the results back from the ENLACE exam,” he said. “It’s just a test, and not a great one.”
A number of students had a sinking feeling. They must have blown it.
“But we have a student in this classroom who placed first in Mexico,” he said, breaking into a smile.
Paloma received the highest math score in the country, but the other students weren’t far behind. Ten got math scores that placed them in the 99.99th percentile. Three of them placed at the same high level in Spanish. The results attracted a quick burst of official and media attention in Mexico, most of which focused on Paloma. She was flown to Mexico City to appear on a popular TV show and received a variety of gifts, from a laptop to a bicycle.
Juárez Correa himself got almost no recognition, despite the fact that nearly half of his class had performed at a world- class level and that even the lowest performers had markedly improved.
His other students were congratulated by friends and family. The parents of Carlos Rodríguez Lamas, who placed in the 99.99th percentile in math, treated him to three steak tacos. It was his first time in a restaurant. Keila Francisco Rodríguez got 10 pesos from her parents. She bought a bag of Cheetos. The kids were excited. They talked about being doctors, teachers, and politicians.
Juárez Correa had mixed feelings about the test. His students had succeeded because he had employed a new teaching method, one better suited to the way children learn. It was a model that emphasized group work, competition, creativity, and a student-led environment. So it was ironic that the kids had distinguished themselves because of a conventional multiple-choice test. “These exams are like limits for the teachers,” he says. “They test what you know, not what you can do, and I am more interested in what my students can do.”
Like Juárez Correa, many education innovators are succeeding outside the mainstream. For example, the 11 Internationals Network high schools in New York City report a higher graduation rate than the city’s average for the same populations. They do it by emphasizing student-led learning and collaboration. At the coalition of Big Picture Learning schools—56 schools across the US and another 64 around the world—teachers serve as advisers, suggesting topics of interest; students also work with mentors from business and the community, who help guide them into internships. As the US on-time high school graduation rate stalls at about 75 percent, Big Picture is graduating more than 90 percent of its students.
But these examples—involving only thousands of students—are the exceptions to the rule. The system as a whole educates millions and is slow to recognize or adopt successful innovation. It’s a system that was constructed almost two centuries ago to meet the needs of the industrial age. Now that our society and economy have evolved beyond that era, our schools must also be reinvented.
For the time being, we can see what the future looks like in places like Juárez Correa’s classroom. We can also see that change will not come easily. Though Juárez Correa’s class posted impressive results, they inspired little change. Francisco Sánchez Salazar, chief of the Regional Center of Educational Development in Matamoros, was even dismissive. “The teaching method makes little difference,” he says. Nor does he believe that the students’ success warrants any additional help. “Intelligence comes from necessity,” he says. “They succeed without having resources.”
More than ever, Juárez Correa felt like the burro in the story. But then he remembered Paloma. She had lost her father and was growing up on the edge of a garbage dump. Under normal circumstances, her prospects would be limited. But like the burro, she was shaking off the clods of dirt; she had begun climbing the rising mound out of the well.
Want to help teachers like Sergio Jurez Correa make a difference? Here’s how you can get involved in the student-centered movement.
Read more: http://www.wired.com/2013/10/free-thinkers/
David Foster Wallace wanted to know who had thought bringing him to Kenyon College to deliver its commencement address was a good idea.
Meredith Farmer, an English and philosophy double major in the class of 2005, nervously claimed responsibility.
“Go fuck yourself,” Wallace told her. “Fuck you.”
Wallace asked Farmer how old she thought he was. At 43, he felt too young to speak at a graduation. His father would give a better address, he said.
Farmer had only slept a few hours the night before her graduation. It took her a moment to realize the novelist — whom she had admired since high school — was kidding.
It was less than two hours before commencement, and Wallace was ensconced in a room in the cottage that housed Kenyon’s English department. Pages of his speech were spread across the floor and table, beside cups into which he had spat chewing tobacco. His speech was too long, and he was trying to cut it down quickly.
Despite the time crunch, Wallace entertained the student responsible for bringing him to campus and her friend, Chris Bench. He sang a song about Galveston, Texas, Farmer’s hometown. He beatboxed the opening to Billy Joel’s “Allentown,” which is about the city Bench was from. The students were still a little hungover from the night before, but Wallace was inquisitive — he wanted to know how they liked Kenyon, and whether they planned to go to graduate school. He signed a copy of his book Everything and More for Farmer, scrawling “Congratulations on the Big BA” on the title page.
They bantered a while longer before Wallace apologized and said he needed to get back to work — he still had to trim five minutes from his speech.
Commencement speeches are usually forgotten as soon as they’re delivered. But Wallace’s 2005 speech, “This Is Water” — delivered 11 years ago on May 21 — has endured. After his untimely death by suicide three years later, the speech was printed in the Wall Street Journal and republished as a book. It is taught in high schools and colleges, and regularly included in lists of the best commencement speeches ever given.
Wallace published widely, authoring short stories, reported pieces and novels, including the 1,076-page tome Infinite Jest in 1996. He won multiple literary honors and a MacArthur “genius” grant, making him one of the most acclaimed writers of his generation despite his relatively brief life. And yet this commencement speech is the way many people have discovered his work.
“It’s been stunningly powerful,” said his biographer, D.T. Max. “His reputation has spread beyond the sort of intense readers who were his public before. Now many, many people know him entirely through this speech.”
What most people don’t know is that Wallace’s Kenyon speech almost didn’t happen.
The school’s junior class committee, a group of 10 to 12 students, picked the commencement speaker — a process that started more than a year before graduation. A few years earlier, the committee had established priorities for selecting a good speaker — someone who would deliver a memorable speech, and one that was particular to Kenyon.
Farmer nominated Wallace, known for his energetic prose, long sentences, penetrating cultural analysis and numerous, detailed footnotes. But the majority of the committee hadn’t heard of the writer.
When the committee started to narrow down the list of nominees, though, Wallace’s relative obscurity worked in his favor. Farmer remembers she and her friend Jackie Giordano pushed for other candidates as “decoys” in hopes of giving Wallace a better chance. The process was contentious, and the committee divided into factions. Republicans voted off Democrats; Democrats voted off Republicans. Hillary Clinton, then a senator, and former astronaut-turned-senator John Glenn were finalists who didn’t make the cut.
The list dwindled. Soon, just a few names — including Wallace — remained. A political science major on the committee asked who he was. Farmer and Giordano had prepared handouts in Farmer’s dorm room for this occasion, with selections of Wallace’s musings on the value of education and the liberal arts. They lobbied committee members outside the formal meetings. Wallace fit Kenyon’s literary tradition, they argued, and he’d taught at Pomona — another small liberal arts school.
The president of the committee called for a vote. And even though most of the committee had never heard of him before, Wallace won a majority, becoming the official nominee to be the college’s 2005 commencement speaker.
The committee forwarded its recommendation to Georgia Nugent, then the school’s president, who was responsible for issuing the formal invitation to Wallace. Nugent was used to rejection when it came to commencement speakers — often the committee would submit people who weren’t likely to accept the invitation, forcing the school to pick a second or third choice, or someone else entirely, at the last minute.
Nugent made a personal appeal in her letter to Wallace, hoping to increase the chances he would accept. She mentioned that her husband had recently seen him speak in New York City and was impressed by the way the novelist engaged young people in the audience.
Nugent sent the formal request, but Susan Manecke, the commencement coordinator in the president’s office, was responsible for actually getting Wallace to accept. She sent Nugent’s letter. Then, in the fall of 2004, she started calling. Wallace wouldn’t commit to speaking, and told Manecke he was anxious about speaking in front of a large crowd.
Manecke worked to persuade Wallace. She told him the graduating class would only be about 400 students. She assured Wallace, who grew up in the Midwest, that he would be comfortable in small-town Ohio.
Wallace wasn’t convinced, but he didn’t entirely dismiss the idea. He asked Manecke to call him back in a few weeks. She did, but Wallace still waffled. He told her to call back around Christmas.
At that point, Manecke was getting worried Wallace would ultimately decline. She called him a third time, after students had left for winter break. Wallace finally agreed to speak, but made two requests: He wanted to play tennis with a professor he knew at Kenyon, and he wanted to make sure that Manecke would be there when he arrived.
Over the next few months, Manecke and Wallace got to know each other as they coordinated the logistics of commencement. Manecke learned Wallace had gotten married recently and had once lived in Arizona, but was now in California teaching at Pomona. She told him about her children, who were in college at the time. When they finally met at commencement that May, Manecke felt like she was seeing an old friend.
Nugent hadn’t met Wallace before either, but was a bit concerned about having him on campus.
“You’re familiar with the kind of stock photo of him — the bandanna, the straggly hair and, of course, his reputation,” she recalled. “And I said, ‘Oh this guy is going to be a real prima donna.’ I expected him to be kind of arrogant.”
But that was not the man who arrived on campus.
“He was so gentle and thoughtful and kind to everybody who encountered him,” she said.
The night before the commencement, Nugent and her husband hosted Wallace for a dinner in a formal room in Kenyon’s dining hall. Nugent can’t remember what was served — maybe chicken — but it was bad. After the dinner, she and her husband accompanied Wallace to the campus bookstore, which doubled as a convenience store. Nugent noticed how easily and graciously Wallace spoke with each person who approached him. And she and her husband were amused to catch Wallace discreetly “scavenging” the store shelves for food to make up for the terrible dinner.
On the day of commencement, Wallace was still nervous.
Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky, an English professor, invited Wallace to join him for breakfast at the Kenyon Inn, along with Carol and Ben Schumacher, two other Kenyon professors. The breakfast was meant, in part, to distract Wallace from his anxiety.
As they stood in line for the breakfast buffet, Carol Schumacher, a math professor, mentioned that she had recently finished his book Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, which is largely about the 19th-century German mathematician Georg Cantor. Wallace immediately apologized for the book, explaining that mathematicians often pointed out his errors and never seemed to like it very much. Schumacher told him that while there were in fact some errors, it approached the concept of infinity in an interesting and accessible way.
Over breakfast, the four professors discussed infinity and the way it came up in all of their respective fields — mathematics, English, physics. One thing they didn’t talk about was the content of the speech Wallace was going to give in a few hours.
Wallace refused to refer to the event as “commencement,” but rather called it “the big scary ceremony.” It was meant to be sardonic, but Lobanov-Rostovsky thought it concealed some truth about Wallace’s nervousness.
In his biography, Max wrote that Wallace saw the address as “a chance to set out the things he cared about without the frustrating contrivance of the novel.”
Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s longtime editor, said that the theme of the speech — the idea that we can find rich meaning in the ordinary moments of our lives — was one that Wallace was wrote about in his final novel The Pale King, which he was working on at the time. Wallace’s Kenyon speech, Pietsch said, is a “novel compressed into a poem.”
“He’s foregrounding that idea and playing with it, the idea of being aware of what you’re doing at the moments where you wouldn’t ordinarily be aware is where you’re going to find peace and some wisdom,” Pietsch said. “That’s what he was exploring — what people think of boring and ordinary is really the stuff of life.”
Even back at Pomona, Wallace had been guarded about what he was going to say in the address. Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Rena Fraden, two of Wallace’s colleagues, said he was always discreet about what he was writing. They don’t remember Wallace mentioning the address at all. Pietsch said he remembers hearing the address was happening, but didn’t speak with Wallace about it. Wallace’s sister, Amy, said she doesn’t remember her brother mentioning he would be giving Kenyon’s commencement address until a week before he did it.
It was extremely hot when Wallace stepped up to the lectern to deliver the speech, the late-morning sun hanging high over the quad. He was sweating through his black academic robes. His long hair fell in front of his face and his regalia hung off his shoulder.
“If anybody feels like perspiring, I’d advise you to go ahead, because I’m sure going to,” he said, reaching under his gown for a handkerchief to wipe his face.
Then he began his speech:
When he was done, Wallace stood in the heat as Fred Baumann, a political science professor and faculty secretary, called the name of each member of the class of 2005. He clapped as they walked across the stage. He stuck around after the ceremony to talk to graduates and their families.
A student at a nearby college had recorded the address, and sent out a transcript to a list-serv for Wallace fans. By June, a transcript of the speech was circulating in email chain letters and on Facebook. Wallace himself was confused as to how far it had spread, his biographer wrote, because he hadn’t even given Kenyon a copy of the speech. Someone had transcribed all 23 minutes of it. It took on a life beyond Kenyon — a YouTube video of the audio over a photo of Wallace has over 1 million views.
Wallace killed himself in 2008.
Farmer, now 33, will get her Ph.D. in English in August and now teaches at Wake Forest University. But her life has taken a strange turn. “I already had the biggest impact I will ever have on the literary world, and the rest is falling action, and that’s weird,” she said. “If I was to write an academic book and then another academic book — that obviously will never have this kind of impact.”
Yet there are many parents who feel that from early on, children need to do homework if they are to succeed in an increasingly competitive academic culture. School administrators and policy makers have also weighed in, proposing various policies on homework.
So, does homework help or hinder kids?
For the last 10 years, my colleagues and I have been investigating international patterns in homework using databases like the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). If we step back from the heated debates about homework and look at how homework is used around the world, we find the highest homework loads are associated with countries that have lower incomes and higher social inequality.
Does Homework Result In Academic Success?
Lets first look at the global trends on homework.
Undoubtedly, homework is a global phenomenon; students from all 59 countries that participated in the 2007 Trends in Math and Science Study (TIMSS) reported getting homework. Worldwide, only less than 7% of fourth graders said they did no homework.
TIMSS is one of the few data sets that allow us to compare many nations on how much homework is given (and done). And the data show extreme variation.
For example, in some nations, like Algeria, Kuwait and Morocco, more than one in five fourth graders reported high levels of homework. In Japan, less than 3% of students indicated they did more than four hours of homework on a normal school night.
TIMSS data can also help to dispel some common stereotypes. For instance, in East Asia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan countries that had the top rankings on TIMSS average math achievement reported rates of heavy homework that were below the international mean.
In the Netherlands, nearly one out of five fourth graders reported doing no homework on an average school night, even though Dutch fourth graders put their country in the top 10 in terms of average math scores in 2007.
Going by TIMSS data, the US is neither A Nation at Rest as some have claimed, nor a nation straining under excessive homework load. Fourth and eighth grade US students fall in the middle of the 59 countries in the TIMSS data set, although only 12% of US fourth graders reported high math homework loads compared to an international average of 21%.
So, is homework related to high academic success?
At a national level, the answer is clearly no. Worldwide, homework is not associated with high national levels of academic achievement.
But, the TIMSS cant be used to determine if homework is actually helping or hurting academic performance overall, it can help us see how much homework students are doing, and what conditions are associated with higher national levels of homework.
We have typically found that the highest homework loads are associated with countries that have lower incomes and higher levels of social inequality not hallmarks that most countries would want to emulate.
Impact Of Homework On Kids
TIMSS data also show us how even elementary school kids are being burdened with large amounts of homework.
Almost 10% of fourth graders worldwide (one in 10 children) reported spending multiple hours on homework each night. Globally, one in five fourth graders report 30 minutes or more of homework in math three to four times a week.
These reports of large homework loads should worry parents, teachers and policymakers alike.
What constitutes excessive amounts of homework varies by age, and may also be affected by cultural or family expectations. Young adolescents in middle school, or teenagers in high school, can study for longer duration than elementary school children.
But for elementary school students, even 30 minutes of homework a night, if combined with other sources of academic stress, can have a negative impact. Researchers in China have linked homework of two or more hours per night with sleep disruption.
Even though some cultures may normalize long periods of studying for elementary age children, there is no evidence to support that this level of homework has clear academic benefits. Also, when parents and children conflict over homework, and strong negative emotions are created, homework can actually have a negative association with academic achievement.
Should There Be No Homework Policies?
Administrators and policymakers have not been reluctant to wade into the debates on homework and to formulate policies. Frances president, Francois Hollande, even proposed that homework be banned because it may have inegaliatarian effects.
However, zero-tolerance homework policies for schools, or nations, are likely to create as many problems as they solve because of the wide variation of homework effects. Contrary to what Hollande said, research suggests that homework is not a likely source of social class differences in academic achievement.
Homework, in fact, is an important component of education for students in the middle and upper grades of schooling.
Policymakers and researchers should look more closely at the connection between poverty, inequality and higher levels of homework. Rather than seeing homework as a solution, policymakers should question what facets of their educational system might impel students, teachers and parents to increase homework loads.
At the classroom level, in setting homework, teachers need to communicate with their peers and with parents to assure that the homework assigned overall for a grade is not burdensome, and that it is indeed having a positive effect.
Perhaps, teachers can opt for a more individualized approach to homework. If teachers are careful in selecting their assignments weighing the students age, family situation and need for skill development then homework can be tailored in ways that improve the chance of maximum positive impact for any given student.
I strongly suspect that when teachers face conditions such as pressure to meet arbitrary achievement goals, lack of planning time or little autonomy over curriculum, homework becomes an easy option to make up what could not be covered in class.
Whatever the reason, the fact is a significant percentage of elementary school children around the world are struggling with large homework loads. That alone could have long-term negative consequences for their academic success.