Book Club: The Code Economy, Chapter 11: Education and Death

Welcome back to EvX’s book club. Today we’re reading Chapter 11 of The Code Economy, Education.

…since the 1970s, the economically fortunate among us have been those who made the “go to college” choice. This group has seen its income row rapidly and its share of the aggregate wealth increase sharply. Those without a college education have watched their income stagnate and their share of the aggregate wealth decline. …

Middle-age white men without a college degree have been beset by sharply rising death rates–a phenomenon that contrasts starkly with middle-age Latino and African American men, and with trends in nearly every other country in the world.

It turns out that I have a lot of graphs on this subject. There’s a strong correlation between “white death” and “Trump support.”

White vs. non-white Americans

American whites vs. other first world nations

source

But “white men” doesn’t tell the complete story, as death rates for women have been increasing at about the same rate. The Great White Death seems to be as much a female phenomenon as a male one–men just started out with higher death rates in the first place.

Many of these are deaths of despair–suicide, directly or through simply giving up on living. Many involve drugs or alcohol. And many are due to diseases, like cancer and diabetes, that used to hit later in life.

We might at first think the change is just an artifact of more people going to college–perhaps there was always a sub-set of people who died young, but in the days before most people went to college, nothing distinguished them particularly from their peers. Today, with more people going to college, perhaps the destined-to-die are disproportionately concentrated among folks who didn’t make it to college. However, if this were true, we’d expect death rates to hold steady for whites overall–and they have not.

Whatever is affecting lower-class whites, it’s real.

Auerswald then discusses the “Permanent income hypothesis”, developed by Milton Friedman: Children and young adults devote their time to education, (even going into debt,) which allows us to get a better job in mid-life. When we get a job, we stop going to school and start saving for retirement. Then we retire.

The permanent income hypothesis is built into the very structure of our society, from Public Schools that serve students between the ages of 5 and 18, to Pell Grants for college students, to Social Security benefits that kick in at 65. The assumption, more or less, is that a one-time investment in education early in life will pay off for the rest of one’s life–a payout of such returns to scale that it is even sensible for students and parents to take out tremendous debt to pay for that education.

But this is dependent on that education actually paying off–and that is dependent on the skills people learn during their educations being in demand and sufficient for their jobs for the next 40 years.

The system falls apart if technology advances and thus job requirements change faster than once every 40 years. We are now looking at a world where people’s investments in education can be obsolete by the time they graduate, much less by the time they retire.

Right now, people are trying to make up for the decreasing returns to education (a highschool degree does not get you the same job today as it did in 1950) by investing more money and time into the single-use system–encouraging toddlers to go to school on the one end and poor students to take out more debt for college on the other.

This is probably a mistake, given the time-dependent nature of the problem.

The obvious solution is to change how we think of education and work. Instead of a single, one-time investment, education will have to continue after people begin working, probably in bursts. Companies will continually need to re-train workers in new technology and innovations. Education cannot be just a single investment, but a life-long process.

But that is hard to do if people are already in debt from all of the college they just paid for.

Auerswald then discusses some fascinating work by Bessen on how the industrial revolution affected incomes and production among textile workers:

… while a handloom weaver in 1800 required nearly forty minutes to weave a yard of coarse cloth using a single loom, a weaver in 1902 could do the same work operating eighteen Nothrop looms in less than a minute, on average. This striking point relates to the relative importance of the accumulation of capital to the advance of code: “Of the roughly thirty-nine-minute reduction in labor time per yard, capital accumulation due to the changing cost of capital relative to wages accounted for just 2 percent of the reduction; invention accounted for 73 percent of the reduction; and 25 percent of the time saving came from greater skill and effort of the weavers.” … “the role of capital accumulation was minimal, counter to the conventional wisdom.”

Then Auerswald proclaims:

What was the role of formal education in this process? Essentially nonexistent.

Boom.

New technologies are simply too new for anyone to learn about them in school. Flexible thinkers who learn fast (generalists) thus benefit from new technologies and are crucial for their early development. Once a technology matures, however, it becomes codified into platforms and standards that can be taught, at which point demand for generalists declines and demand for workers with educational training in the specific field rises.

For Bessen, formal education and basic research are not the keys to the development of economies that they are often represented a being. What drives the development of economies is learning by doing and the advance of code–processes that are driven at least as much by non-expert tinkering as by formal research and instruction.

Make sure to read the endnotes to this chapter; several of them are very interesting. For example, #3 begins:

“Typically, new technologies demand that a large number of variables be properly controlled. Henry Bessemer’s simple principle of refining molten iron with a blast of oxygen work properly only at the right temperatures, in the right size vessel, with the right sort of vessel refractory lining, the right volume and temperature of air, and the right ores…” Furthermore, the products of these factories were really one that, in the United States, previously had been created at home, not by craftsmen…

#8 states:

“Early-stage technologies–those with relatively little standardized knowledge–tend to be used at a smaller scale; activity is localized; personal training and direct knowledge sharing are important, and labor markets do not compensate workers for their new skills. Mature technologies–with greater standardized knowledge–operate at large scale and globally, market permitting; formalized training and knowledge are more common; and robust labor markets encourage workers to develop their own skills.” … The intensity of of interactions that occur in cities is also important in this phase: “During the early stages, when formalized instruction is limited, person-to-person exchange is especially important for spreading knowledge.”

This reminds me of a post on Bruce Charlton’s blog about “Head Girl Syndrome“:

The ideal Head Girl is an all-rounder: performs extremely well in all school subjects and has a very high Grade Point Average. She is excellent at sports, Captaining all the major teams. She is also pretty, popular, sociable and well-behaved.

The Head Girl will probably be a big success in life…

But the Head Girl is not, cannot be, a creative genius.

*

Modern society is run by Head Girls, of both sexes, hence there is no place for the creative genius.

Modern Colleges aim at recruiting Head Girls, so do universities, so does science, so do the arts, so does the mass media, so does the legal profession, so does medicine, so does the military…

And in doing so, they filter-out and exclude creative genius.

Creative geniuses invent new technologies; head girls oversee the implementation and running of code. Systems that run on code can run very smoothly and do many things well, but they are bad at handling creative geniuses, as many a genius will inform you of their public school experience.

How different stages in the adoption of new technology and its codification into platforms translates into wages over time is a subject I’d like to see more of.

Auerswald then turns to the perennial problem of what happens when not only do the jobs change, they entirely disappear due to increasing robotification:

Indeed, many of the frontier business models shaping the economy today are based on enabling a sharp reduction in the number of people required to perform existing tasks.

One possibility Auerswald envisions is a kind of return to the personalized markets of yesteryear, when before massive industrial giants like Walmart sprang up. Via internet-based platforms like Uber or AirBNB, individuals can connect directly with people who’d like to buy their goods or services.

Since services make up more than 84% of the US economy and an increasingly comparable percentage in coutnries elsewhere, this is a big deal.

It’s easy to imagine this future in which we are all like some sort of digital Amish, continually networked via our phones to engage in small transactions like sewing a pair of trousers for a neighbor, mowing a lawn, selling a few dozen tacos, or driving people to the airport during a few spare hours on a Friday afternoon. It’s also easy to imagine how Walmart might still have massive economies of scale over individuals and the whole system might fail miserably.

However, if we take the entrepreneurial perspective, such enterprises are intriguing. Uber and Airbnb work by essentially “unlocking” latent assets–time when people’s cars or homes were sitting around unused. Anyone who can find other, similar latent assets and figure out how to unlock them could become similarly successful.

I’ve got an underutilized asset: rural poor. People in cities are easy to hire and easy to direct toward educational opportunities. Kids growing up in rural areas are often out of the communications loop (the internet doesn’t work terribly well in many rural areas) and have to drive a long way to job interviews.

In general, it’s tough to network large rural areas in the same ways that cities get networked.

On the matter of why peer-to-peer networks have emerged in certain industries, Auerswald makes a claim that I feel compelled to contradict:

The peer-to-peer business models in local transportation, hospitality, food service, and the rental of consumer goods were the first to emerge, not because they are the most important for the economy but because these are industries with relatively low regulatory complexity.

No no no!

Food trucks emerged because heavy regulations on restaurants (eg, fire code, disability access, landscaping,) have cut significantly into profits for restaurants housed in actual buildings.

Uber emerged because the cost of a cab medallion–that is, a license to drive a cab–hit 1.3 MILLION DOLLARS in NYC. It’s a lucrative industry that people were being kept out of.

In contrast, there has been little peer-to-peer business innovation in healthcare, energy, and education–three industries that comprise more than a quarter of the US GDP–where regulatory complexity is relatively high.

Again, no.

There is a ton of competition in healthcare; just look up naturopaths and chiropractors. Sure, most of them are quacks, but they’re definitely out there, competing with regular doctors for patients. (Midwives appear to be actually pretty effective at what they do and significantly cheaper than standard ob-gyns.)

The difficulty with peer-to-peer healthcare isn’t regulation but knowledge and equipment. Most Americans own a car and know how to drive, and therefore can join Uber. Most Americans do not know how to do heart surgery and do not have the proper equipment to do it with. With training I might be able to set a bone, but I don’t own an x-ray machine. And you definitely don’t want me manufacturing my own medications. I’m not even good at making soup.

Education has tons of peer-to-peer innovation. I homeschool my children. Sometimes grandma and grandpa teach the children. Many homeschoolers join consortia that offer group classes, often taught by a knowledgeable parent or hired tutor. Even people who aren’t homeschooling their kids often hire tutors, through organizations like Wyzant or afterschool test-prep centers like Kumon. One of my acquaintances makes her living primarily by skype-tutoring Koreans in English.

And that’s not even counting private schools.

Yes, if you want to set up a formal “school,” you will encounter a lot of regulation. But if you just want to teach stuff, there’s nothing stopping you except your ability to find students who’ll pay you to learn it.

Now, energy is interesting. Here Auerswsald might be correct. I have trouble imagining people setting up their own hydroelectric dams without getting into trouble with the EPA (not to mention everyone downstream.)

But what if I set up my own windmill in my backyard? Can I connect it to the electric grid and sell energy to my neighbors on a windy day? A quick search brings up WindExchange, which says, very directly:

Owners of wind turbines interconnected directly to the transmission or distribution grid, or that produce more power than the host consumes, can sell wind power as well as other generation attributes.

So, maybe you can’t set up your own nuclear reactor, and maybe the EPA has a thing about not disturbing fish, but it looks like you can sell wind and solar energy back to the grid.

I find this a rather exciting thought.

Ultimately, while Auerswald does return to and address the need to radically change how we think about education and the education-job-retirement lifepath, he doesn’t return to the increasing white death rate. Why are white death rates increasing faster than other death rates, and will transition to the “gig economy” further accelerate this trend? Or was the past simply anomalous for having low white death rates, or could these death rates be driven by something independent of the economy itself?

Now, it’s getting late, so that’s enough for tonight, but what are your thoughts? How do you think this new economy–and educational landscape–will play out?

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A Modest Educational Proposal

Source

Fellow humans, we have a problem. (And another problem.)

At least, this looks like a problem to me., especially when I’m trying to make conversation at the local moms group.

There are many potential reasons the data looks like this (including inaccuracy, though my lived experience says it is accurate.) Our culture encourages people to limit their fertility, and smart women are especially so encouraged. Smart people are also better at long-term planning and doing things like “reading the instructions on the birth control.”

But it seems likely that there is another factor, an arrow of causation pointing in the other direction: smart people tend to stay in school for longer, and people dislike having children while they are still in school. While you are in school, you are in some sense still a child, and we have a notion that children shouldn’t beget children.

Isaac Newton. Never married. Probably a virgin.

People who drop out of school and start having children at 16 tend not to be very smart and also tend to have plenty of children during their child-creating years. People who pursue post-docs into their thirties tend to be very smart–and many of them are virgins.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I kind of like having smart people around, especially the kinds of people who invent refrigerators and make supply chains work so I can enjoy eating food, even though I live in a city, far from any farms. I don’t want to live in a world where IQ is crashing and we can no longer maintain complex technological systems.

We need to completely re-think this system where the smarter you are, the longer you are expected to stay in school, accruing debt and not having children.

Proposal one: Accelerated college for bright students. Let any student who can do college-level work begin college level work for college credits, even if they are still in high (or middle) school. There are plenty of bright students out there who could be completing their degrees by 18.

The entirely framework of schooling probably ought to be sped up in a variety of ways, especially for bright students. The current framework often reflects the order in which various discoveries were made, rather than the age at which students are capable of learning the material. For example, negative numbers are apparently not introduced in the math curriculum until 6th grade, even though, in my experience, even kindergarteners are perfectly capable of understanding the concept of “debt.” If I promise to give you one apple tomorrow, then I have “negative one apple.” There is no need to hide the concept of negatives for 6 years.

Proposal two: More apprenticeship.

In addition to being costly and time-consuming, a college degree doesn’t even guarantee that your chosen field will still be hiring when you graduate. (I know people with STEM degrees who graduated right as the dot.com bubble burst. Ouch.) We essentially want our educational system to turn out people who are highly skilled at highly specialized trades, and capable of turning around and becoming highly skilled at another highly specialized trade on a dime if that doesn’t work out. This leads to chemists returning to university to get law degrees; physicists to go back for medical degrees. We want students to have both “broad educations” so they can get hired anywhere, and “deep educations” so they’ll actually be good at their jobs.

Imagine, instead, a system where highschool students are allowed to take a two-year course in preparation for a particular field, at the end of which high performers are accepted into an apprenticeship program where the continue learning on the job. At worst, these students would have a degree, income, and job experience by the age of 20, even if they decided they now wanted to switch professions or pursue an independent education.

Proposal three: Make childbearing normal for adult students.

There’s no reason college students can’t get married and have children (aside from, obviously, their lack of jobs and income.) College is not more time consuming or physically taxing than regular jobs, and college campuses tend to be pretty pleasant places. Studying while pregnant isn’t any more difficult than working while pregnant.

Grad students, in particular, are old and mature enough to get married and start families, and society should encourage them to do so.

Proposal four: stop denigrating child-rearing, especially for intelligent women.

Children are a lot of work, but they’re also fun. I love being with my kids. They are my family and an endless source of happiness.

What people want and value, they will generally strive to obtain.

 

These are just some ideas. What are yours?

Homeschooling Corner: Science (geology and geography)

 

I have yet to find any “science kits” that actually teach science–most are just science-themed toys. There’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t expect your kid to re-derive the principles of chemistry via a baking soda volcano.

Smaller kids aren’t ready for the kind of thinking required for actual scientific research, but they can still learn plenty of science the mundane way: by reading. So here are some of our favorite science books/activities:

We did geology over the winter, centered around Rocks, Rivers, and the Changing Earth. It’s a lovely book (reading level about second grade?) with instructions for many simple experiments (eg, put rocks, sand, water in a glass jar and carefully shake/swirl to observe the effects of different water speeds on riverbanks) and handily complements any nature walks, rock collecting trip, or expeditions to the seashore.

WARNING: This book was published before plate tectonics became widely accepted and so has a confused chapter or two on how mountains form. SKIP THIS CHAPTER.

We also tried making polished stones in a rock tumbler (verdict: not worth the cost.)

After geology, we transitioned to geography with A Child’s Introduction to the World: Geography, Cultures and People–from the Grand Canyon to the Great Wall of China. I admit that geography sounds more like social studies than science, but it flows so perfectly from our understanding of geology that I have to mention it here.

I like to read this with a globe and children’s atlas at hand, so I can easily demonstrate things like latitude and longitude, distances, and different map projections.

With spring’s arrival we also began a study of plants and insects.

If you’ve never started your own plants from seed, any common crop seeds sold at the store–beans, peas, corn, squash, and most flowers–will sprout quickly and easily. If you want to keep your plants indoors, I recommend you get a bag of dirt at the garden center. This dirt is supposed to be “clean”; the dirt found outside in your yard is full of bugs that you probably weren’t intending on studying in your living room.

Speaking of bugs, we bought the “raise your own ladybugs” and butterflies kits, but I don’t recommend these as real caterpillars are nowhere near as cute and interesting as the very hungry one in the story. I think you’re better off just collecting ladybugs in the wild and reading about them at home.

The Way Things Work (also by this author: How Machines Work: Zoo Break) This is a big, beautiful book aimed at older kids, maybe about 10+. Younger kids can enjoy it if you read it with them.

Super Science: Matter Matters is a fabulous pop-up/lift-the-flap book about chemistry. We were very lucky to receive this as a birthday gift. (Birthday hint: the homeschooling families in your life would always like more books.) The book is a little fragile, so not appropriate for younger children who might pull too hard on the tabs, but great for everyone else.

Magic Schoolbus anything. There are probably several hundred books in this series by now. Who Was Albert Einstein? We finished our math biographies, so on to science bios. Basher Science: Astronomy  This is cute, and there are a bunch in the series. I’m looking forward to the rest. Professor Astro Cat‘s Atomic Adventure (also, Space!)

Homeschooling Corner: The Well-Trained Mind, by Susan Bauer and Jessie Wise

Today we’re reviewing Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise’s The Well-Trained Mind: A guide to Classical Education at Home. (H/T to commentator Jefferson for the recommendation.)

The Well Trained Mind is not the sort of book that lends itself to quoting, so I won’t. It is, however, an extremely practical guide to homeschooling, with specific advice for each year, from pre-K through highschool, including information on how to write highschool transcripts, grades, and prepare your kids for the academic paperwork portion of applying to college. It is a kind of homeschooling reference book. (There are multiple editions online; I purchased the one in the photo because it was cheaper than the newer ones, but you might want the most recently updated one.)

By now I’ve probably read about a dozen books on homeschooling/education, everything from Montessori to Waldorf, Summerhill to Unschooling, math and science curriculum guides for preschoolers, and now The Well-Trained Mind.

The data on homeschooling is pretty good: homeschoolers turn out, on average, about as smart as their conventionally schooled peers. (I forget the exact numbers.) They tend to be better than average at reading and writing, and a bit worse than average at math and science. Unschooled kids (who receive very little formal instruction in anything,) tend to turn out about a year behind their peers, which isn’t too bad considering all of the effort that goes into conventional schooling, but I still can’t recommend it.

The Well-Trained Mind is an excellent staring point for any parent trying to get their feet under themselves and figure out the daunting task of “OMG How do I do this?” It lays out a subject-by-subject plan for every year of schooling, down to how many minutes per day to spend on each part of the curriculum.

If that sounds too detailed, remember that this is just a guide and you can use it as an inspirational jumping-off-point for your own ideas. It’s like arranging all of the colors of paint in a nice neat circle before you paint your own masterpiece.

If you need a curriculum–either because your state requires it, or it requires you to cover certain topics, or you would just feel better with a curriculum to guide you before you leap in unsupervised, this is a very good guide. If you already have your curriculum and you feel secure and confident in what you’re doing, you might find the information in this book superfluous.

Bauer and Wise lay out what’s known as the Trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

Elementary school is the “grammar” stage. At this age, students are learning (mostly memorizing) the mechanical rules they need for education, like letter sounds and times tables. At the logic stage, children begin applying what they know and trying to figure out why things happen. Rhetoric is for the highschoolers, and since I don’t have any highschoolers I didn’t read that part of the book.

The curriculum for the younger grades is straightforward and easy to use: 10 minutes a day of alphabet/phonics for the preschoolers, increasing over the years to include spelling, grammar, reading, and math. The authors particularly encourage reading history (they have a specific order) and children’s versions of classic novels/myths.

Their approach to writing is interesting: in the lower grades, at least, children do very little generative writing (that is, coming up with and writing down their own ideas,) and focus more on copy work–trying to accurately and neatly write down a few sentences their parents give them, and otherwise expressing themselves out loud.

This stands in stark contrast to how writing is taught in the local schools, where even kindergarteners are expected to start writing little stories or at least sentences of their own devising.

This works great for some kids. My kids hate it. I think the combination of tasks–hold the pencil properly, now form the letters, arrange them into a word, spell the word properly, oh, and come up with an original idea and a specific sentence to write about the idea was just overwhelming.

So Bauer’s approach, which breaks the mechanics and creative work into two different parts, is a welcome alternative that may work better for my family.

Bauer and Wise are strong advocates of phonics instruction (which I agree with) and make an interesting point about emphasizing what they call parts-to-whole instruction and avoiding whole-to-parts. In the example they give, imagine giving a child a tray of insects (presumably fake or preserved,) and showing them five different kind of insect legs. The child learns the five kinds, and can then sort the insects by variety.

Now imagine handing the child the same tray of insects and simply asking them to take a good look at the bugs, figure out what’s the same or different between them, and then sort them. Well, children certainly can sort objects into piles, but will they learn much in the process? Let the children know what you want from them, teach them what you want them to learn, and then let them use their knowledge. Don’t expect them to work it all out on their own from scratch with a big pile of bugs.

I’ve noticed that a lot of children’s “educational” TV shows try to demonstrate the second approach. The characters have some sort of problem and the try to think about different ways to solve it. This is fine for TV, but in real life, kids are pretty bad at this. They struggle to generate solutions that they haven’t heard of before–after all, they’re only kids, and they only know so much. This doesn’t mean kids can’t have great ideas or figure stuff out, it just means they have sensible limits.

This is the same idea that underlies their approach to phonics–not that it’s wrong to memorize a few words (sew does not rhyme with chew, after all,) but that kids benefit from explicit instruction in how letters work so they can use that knowledge to sound out new words they’ve never seen before.

Whole language vs. phonics instruction isn’t quite the controversy it used to be, but there’s something similar unfolding in math, as far as I can see. Back in public school, they didn’t teach the kid the “algorithm” for addition and subtraction until third grade. My eldest was expected to add and subtract multiple two-digit numbers in their HEAD based on an “understanding of numbers” instead of being taught to write down the numbers and add them.

Understanding numbers is great, but I recommend also teaching your kids to write them down and add/subtract them.
AND FOR GOODNESS’S SAKES, WRITE EQUATIONS VERTICALLY. Always try to model best practice.

Many kids acquire number sense through practice. Seeing that 9+5=14 whether they are in the equations 9+5 or 5+9, 45+49 or 91+52, helps children develop number sense. Give children the tools and then let them use them. Don’t make the children try to re-invent addition or force them to use something less efficient (and don’t teach them something you’ll just have to un-teach them later.)

The authors recommend teaching kids Latin. I don’t recommend Latin unless you are really passionate about Latin.  IMO, you’re better off teaching your kids something you already speak or something they can use to get a job someday, but that’s a pretty personal decision.

 

Here’s how our own schedule currently looks:

After all of the holiday excitement and disruption, I feel like we’re finally settling back into a good routine. What exactly we do varies by day, but here’s a general outline:

2 Logic puzzles (I’m not totally satisfied with our puzzle book, so I can’t recommend a specific one, but logic puzzles come in a variety of difficulty levels)

2 Tangram puzzles (I like to play some music while the kids are working)

1 or 2 stories from Mathematicians are People, Too: Stories from the Lives of Great Mathematicians (Warning: Pythagoras was killed by an angry mob, Archimedes was killed by an invading soldier, and Hypatia was also killed by an angry mob. But Thales and Napier’s chapters do not have descriptions of their horrible deaths.) This is our current “history” book, because I try to structure our history around specific themes, like technology or math.

Math: multiplication tables and/or fractions

A game of some sort, like Mastermind, Fraction Formula, or Chess. (No-Stress Chess is  good teaching set.)

Science and/or social studies reading (the subjects often overlap.) I happened across a lovely stack of science, math, and social studies texts at the local used book shop the other day. When I got home, I realized they’re from India. Well, math is math, no matter where you’re from, and the social studies books are making for an interesting unit on India. In science we’ve just started a unit on Earth science (wind, water, stones, and dirt) for which I am well-prepared with a supply of rocks. (Come spring we’ll be growing plants, butterflies, and ladybugs.)

Free reading: my kids like books about Minecraft or sharks. Your kids like what they like.

Grammar/spelling/copywork: not our favorite subjects, but I’m trying to gradually increase the amount we do. Mad Libs with spelling words are at least fun.

I never manage to do as much as I want to do.

Elementary Communism

When I was a kid and one of my friends would ask for a bit of food–a spare french fry or nugget, say–I would always say “no” and then give them the food.

In retrospect, I was annoying.

My logic was that I would of course give my friend a french fry–I always gave my friends french fries if they wanted them–and thus the asking was superfluous. If anything, I thought we should pile all of the food up in the middle of the table and then everyone could just take what they wanted.

I don’t think I realized that some people have bigger appetites than others. Or germs.

A couple of years later I had a little job that mostly paid in candy. Since I don’t really eat candy, I became known in school as “the kid with the Skittles” because I tended to give it all away.

Around this time I began writing the first mini-essays (really only a few sentences long) that eventually morphed into this blog on the psychological/spiritual/anthropological meaning of food-sharing. (Food is necessary for life; to give it away to someone else signals that you care enough about their well-being to take a potential hit to your own survival chances, hence the significance of food sharing rituals among people.)

It’s not too surprising that by highschool I ascribed to some vague sort of communism.

Note: highschool me didn’t know anything about the history of actual communism. I just liked the idea of a political ideology based on sharing.

So I think I get where a lot of young “communists” are probably coming from. I loved my friends and enjoyed sharing with them so wouldn’t everyone be better off if everyone acted like friends and everyone shared?

There were two problems with my logic. The first, of course, is that not everyone is friends. The second is that in the real world, food costs money.

As a kid, food was, functionally, free: my parents paid for it. I got the exact same amount of french fries and pizza on my lunch tray as everyone else whether I was hungry or not, because our parents paid for it. In the real world, I don’t buy more french fries than I want to eat–I save that extra money for things I do want, like books.

So what happens if I want books and you want food? Or you want books and I want food? And you and I aren’t even friends? Or worse, when there isn’t enough food for both of us?

Sharing is great when everything is free and there’s plenty of it, or there’s a resource that you can only afford if you pitch in with several friends to purchase. (For example, everyone in the house shares the TV.) In other words, when you’re a kid.

But it scales up really badly.

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley.

Every single country that has ever tried communism ended up a disaster. Tens of millions starved to death in the USSR and China. Millions were murdered in Cambodia. North Korea is still an inescapable hellhole. Communism’s total death toll is estimated around 100 million people.

We didn’t exactly learn much about the USSR in highschool (or before.) It was one of the players in WWII, vaguely present in the few readings we had time for after the war, but certainly of much less prominence than things like the Vietnam War. It was only in college that I took actual courses that covered the PRC and USSR, (and then only because they were relevant to my career aspirations.) How much does the average person know about the history of other countries, especially outside of western Europe?

One of my kids accidentally did a report on North Korea (they were trying to do a report on South Korea, but accidentally clicked the wrong country.) The material they were given for the report covered North Korean mountains, rivers, cities, language, flag… And mentioned nothing about the country being just about one of the worst places on earth, where people are routinely starved and tortured to death.

Schools make sure to teach about the horrors of the Holocaust and slavery, but they don’t (as far as I know) teach about the horrors of communism.

So I think we could be in for a mess of trouble–because I understand just how appealing the political ideology of “sharing” sounds when you don’t know what it actually means.

Homeschooling Corner: Erdos, Fibonacci, and some Really Big Numbers

One of the nice things about homeschooling is that it is very forgiving of scheduling difficulties and emergencies. Everyone exhausted after a move or sickness? It’s fine to sleep in for a couple of days. Exercises can be moved around, schedules sped up or slowed down as needed.

This week we finished some great books (note: I always try to borrow books from the library before considering buying them. Most of these are fun, but not books you’d want to read over and over):

The Boy who Loved Math: The Improbable Life of Paul Erdos, by Deborah Heligman, was a surprise hit. I’ve read a bunch of children’s biographies and been consistently disappointed; the kids loved this one. Improbable, I know.

I suppose the moral of the story is that kids are likely to enjoy a biography if they identify with the subject. The story starts with Erdos as a rambunctious little boy who likes math but ends up homeschooled because he can’t stand regular school. My kids identified with this pretty strongly.

The illustrations are nice and each page contains some kind of hidden math, like a list of primes.

Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space, by Dominic Walliman. This is a lovely book appropriate for kids about 6-11, depending on attention span and reading level. We’ve been reading a few pages a week and recently reached the end.

Minecraft Math with Steve, by Steve Math. This book contains 30 Minecraft-themed math problems (with three sub-problems each, for 90 total.) They’re fairly simple multiplication, subtraction, division, and multiplication problems, probably appropriate for kids about second grade or third grade. A couple of sample problems:

Steve wants to collect 20+20 blocks of sand. how much is that total?

Steve ends up with 42 blocks of sand in his inventory. He decides that is too much so drops out 12 blocks. How many blocks remain?

A bed requires 3 wood plank and 3 wools. If Steve has 12 wood planks and 12 wools, how many beds can he build?

This is not a serious math book and I doubt it’s “Common Core Compliant” or whatever, but it’s cute and if your kids like Minecraft, they might enjoy it.

We are partway into Why Pi? by Johnny Ball. It’s an illustrated look at the history of mathematics with a ton of interesting material. Did you know the ancient Greeks used math to calculate the size of the Earth and distance between the Earth and the moon? And why are there 360 degrees in a circle? This one I’m probably going to buy.

Really Big Numbers, by Richard Evan Schwartz. Previous books on “big numbers” contained, unfortunately, not enough big numbers, maxing out around a million. A million might have seemed really good to kids of my generation, but to today’s children, reared on Numberphile videos about Googols and Graham’s number, a million is positively paltry. Really Big Numbers delivers with some really big numbers.

Let’s Estimate: A book about Estimating and Rounding Numbers, by David A. Adler. A cute, brightly illustrated introduction. I grabbed notebooks and pens and made up sample problems to help the kids explore and reinforce the concepts as we went.

How Big is Big? How Far is Far? by Jen Metcalf. This is like a coffee table book for 6 yr olds. The illustrations are very striking and it is full of fascinating information. The book focuses both on relative and absolute measurement. For example,  5’9″ person is tall compared to a cat, but short compared to a giraffe. The cat is large compared to a fly, and the giraffe is small compared to a T-rex. My kids were especially fascinated by the idea that clouds are actually extremely heavy.

Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci, by Joseph D’Agnes. If your kids like Fibonacci numbers (or they enjoyed the biography of Erdos,) they might enjoy this book. It also takes a look at the culture of Medieval Pisa and the adoption of Arabic numerals (clunkily referred to in the text as “Hindu-Arabic numerals,” a phrase I am certain Fibonacci never used.) Fibonacci numbers are indeed found all over in nature, so if you have any sunflowers or pine cones on hand that you can use to demonstrate Fibonacci spirals, they’d be a great addition to the lesson. Otherwise, you can practice drawing boxes with spirals in them or Pascal’s triangles. (This book has more kid-friendly math in it than Erdos’s)

Pythagoras and the Ratios, by Julie Ellis. Pythagoras and his cousins need to cut their panpipes and weight the strings on their lyres in certain ratios to make them produce pleasant sounds. It’s a fun little lesson about ratios, and if you can combine it with actual pipes the kids can cut or recorders they could measure, glasses with different amounts of water in them or even strings with rock hanging from them, that would probably be even better.

Older than Dirt: A Wild but True History of Earth, by Don Brown. I was disappointed with this book. It is primarily an overview of Earth’s history before the dinosaurs, which was interesting, but the emphasis on mass extinctions and volcanoes (eg, Pompeii) dampened the mood. I ended up leaving out the last few pages (“Book’s over. Bedtime!”) to avoid the part about the sun swallowing up the earth and all life dying at the end of our planet’s existence, which is fine for older readers but not for my kids.

Hope you received some great games and books last month!

Homeschooling Corner: Math Philosophy

Music is a hidden arithmetic exercise of the soul, which does not know that it is counting.–Gottfried Leibniz

Fibonacci Spiral

You may have noticed that I talk a lot more about math than reading or writing. This is not because I dislike the language arts, but because they are, once learned, not very complicated. A child must learn to decode symbols, associate them with sounds, and then write them–tricky in the beginning, but most children should have the basics down by the age of 6 or 7. For the next several years, the child’s most important task is simply practice. If a child has a book they love to read, then they are already most of the way there and will probably only need some regular instruction on spelling and punctuation.

Math, by contrast, is always advancing. For every new operation or technique a child masters, there is another waiting to be learned.

I don’t hold with the idea that mathematical concepts must be taught in a particular order or at particular ages–I introduced negative numbers back in preschool, they’ve learned about simple logarithms in elementary, and they seem none the worse for the unusual order.

Count on Math gives the logic behind Particular Order:

Developmental sequence is fundamental to children’s ability to build conceptual understanding. … The chapters in this book present math in a developmental sequence that provides children a natural transition from one concept to the next, preventing gaps in their understanding. …

When children are allowed to explore many objects, they begin to recognize similarities and differences of objects. When children can determine similarities and differences, they can classify objects. When children can classify objects, they can see similarities and difference well enough to recognize patterns. When children can recognize, copy, extend and create patterns, they can arrange sets in a one-to-one relationship. …

This developmental sequence provides a conceptual framework that serves as a springboard to developing higher level math skills.

This logic is complete bollocks. (Count on Math is otherwise a fine book if you’re looking for activities to do with small children.)

Humans are good at learning. It’s what we do. Any child raised in a normal environment (and if you’re reading this, I assume you care about your children and aren’t neglecting them) has plenty of objects around every day that they can interact with, observe, sort, classify, etc. You don’t have to dedicate a week to teaching your kid how to tell “similar” and “different” in objects before you dedicate a week to “classifying.” Hand them some toys or acorns or rocks or random stuff lying around the house and they can do that themselves.

Can you imagine an adult who, because their parent or preschool skipped straight from”determining similarities and differences” to “making patterns,” was left bereft and innumerate, unable to understand fractions? If the human mind were really so fragile, the vast majority of people would know nothing and our entire civilization would not exist.

More important than any particular order is introducing mathematical concepts in a friendly, enjoyable way, when the child is ready to understand them.

For example, I tried to teach binary notation this week, but that went completely over the kids’ heads. They just thought I was making a pattern with numbers. So I stopped and switched to a lesson about Fibonacci numbers and Pascal’s triangle.

Then we went back to practicing addition and subtraction with regrouping, because that’s tricky. It’s boring, it’s not fun, and it’s not intuitive until you’ve really got base-ten down solid (base 10, despite what you may think, is not “obvious” or intuitive. Not all languages even use base 10. The Maya used base 20; the Babylonians used base 60. There are Aborigines who used base 5 or even 3; in Nigeria you’ll find base 12.) Learning is always a balance between the fun stuff (look what you can do with exponents!) and the boring stuff (let’s practice our times tables.) The boring stuff lets you do the fun stuff, but they’re both ultimately necessary.

 

What else we’ve been up to:

Fractions, Decimals, and Percents, by David A. Adler. A brightly-colored, well-written introduction to parts of numbers and how fractions, decimals and percents are really just different ways of saying the same thing.

It’s a short book–28 pages with not much text per page–and intended for young children, probably in the 8 to 10 yrs old range.

I picked up Code Your Own Games: 20 Games to Create with Scratch just because I wanted to see what there was outside the DK Workbooks (which have been good so far, no complaints there.) So far it seems pretty similar, but the layout is more compact. Beginners might feel less intimidated by DK’s larger layouts with more white space, but this seems good for a kid who is past that stage. It has more projects than the shorter DK Workbooks but they’re still pretty simple.

I also happened across a Singapore Math Workbook, which seems fine. Sample problem:

Emily and Jasmine had the same number of stamps. After Emily gave Jasmine 42 stamps, Jasmine had twice as many stamps as Emily. How many did Jasmine have at the end?

At a movie, 1/4 of the people in the theater were men, 5/8 were women, and the rest were children. If there were 100 more women than children, what was the total number of people in the theater?

Our recorders arrived, so now we can play music.

Finished reading The Secret Garden, planted seeds, collected and identified rocks. Nature walk: collected fall leaves and pressed flowers. Caught bugs and observed squirrels for Ranger Rick nature workbook. Read about space and worked with cuisenaire rods. Etc.

 

Homeschooling Corner: Flying Kites

We had a lovely, windy day, so we grabbed the kites, invited the neighbors, and headed out to the park.

Homeschooling does put additional responsibility on the parents to help their kids socialize. That doesn’t mean homeschooled kids are necessarily at a disadvantage viz their typically-schooled peers when it comes to comes to socializing (I went to regular school and still managed to be terribly socialized;) it’s just one more thing homeschooling parents have to keep in mind. So I am glad that we’ve had the good luck recently to make several friends in the neighborhood.

I’ve been looking for good, educational YouTube channels. Now I haven’t watched every video on these channels and I make no guarantees, but they seem good so far:

Welch Labs:

Welch Labs also has a website with a free downloadable workbook that accompanies their videos about imaginary numbers. It’s a good workbook and I’m working through it now.

TedEd, eg:

VSauce, eg:

Numberphile, eg:

The King of Random, eg:

We finished DK’s Coding in Scratch Projects Workbook and started Coding in Scratch: Games Workbook, which is slightly more advanced (longer projects.)

The Usborne Times Tables Activity Book is a rare find: a book that actually makes multiplication vaguely fun. Luckily there’s no one, set age when kids need to learn their multiplication tables–so multiple kids can practice their tables together.

In math we’ve also been working with number lines, concept like infinity (countable and uncountable,) infinitesimals, division, square roots, imaginary numbers, multi-digit addition and subtraction, graphing points and lines on the coordinate plane, and simple functions like Y=X^2. (Any kid who has learned addition, subtraction, multiplication and division can plot simple functions.)

We started work with the cuisenaire rods, which I hope to continue–I can’t find our set on Amazon, but these are similar. We’re also using Alexander Warren’s book You can Count on it: A Mentor’s Arithmetic Patterns for Elementary Students for cusienaire activites.

If you’re looking for board game to play with elementary-aged kids, Bejeweled Blitz is actually pretty good. Two players compete to place tiles on the board to match 3 (or more) gems, in a row or up and down. (A clever play can thus complete two rows at once.) We play with slightly modified rules. (Note: this game is actually pretty hard for people who struggle with rotating objects in their heads.)

Picture Sudoku is fun for little kids (and probably comes in whatever cartoon characters you like,) while KenKen and magic squares and the like are good for older kids (I always loved logic puzzles when I was a kid, so I’d like to get a book of those.)

I’ve found a website called Memrise which seems good for learning foreign languages if you don’t have access to a tutor or know somene who speaks the language you want to learn. They probably have an app for phones or tablets, so kids could practice their foreign langauge on-the-go. (Likewise, I should stow our spelling book in the car and use car rides as a chance to quiz them.)

And of course we’re still reading Professor Astro Cat/working in the workbook, which involves plenty of writing.

For Social Studies we’ve been reading about fall holidays.

Hope you all have a lovely October! What are some of your favorite educational videos?

 

Homeschooling Corner: Introducing Mr. Poop & Custom Dice

I happened to have a poop-shaped pinata sitting around (Why? Look, sometimes these things just happen) of the pull-the-flap-on-the-bottom variety rather than the smash-it-with-a-bat kind, so I decided to add a little fun to our day by filling Mr. Poop with school-related ideas written on strips of paper. Give Mr. Poop a shake and a scrap of paper flutters out–today’s idea was to design your own game, which the kids are working on now.

I’ve decided to incorporate the Cub Scout handbooks–which have lots of useful information about subjects like first aid, water safety, civics, history, etc.–into our rotation. (The Cub Scouts have a different handbook for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th graders.) Today we learned about knots–mostly square knots–complemented with The Camper’s Knot Tying Game. Knots are practical for anyone, but also good practice for kids with fine motor difficulties.

Over in Professor Astro Cat, we’re collecting space dust, keeping a moon journal (the eclipse was well-timed for this) and made impact craters in the sandbox. The book recommends spreading out newspaper indoors and using flour or cocoa powder, but sand, outside, is much easier to clean up. (Walmart sells beautiful colored sand for like $4 a bag. I sprinkled some green on top of the regular brown sandbox sand to simulate Earth’s surface.)

Custom Dice

There are lots of interesting dice–math dice, fraction dice, letter dice, place value dice, etc. Customized dice are easy to make: just take a cube (you probably have a building block or letter cube or some Legos lying around,) cover it with paper, and write whatever you want on the faces. (Note it is probably best to write on the paper before applying tape, as many pens won’t write properly on tape.) I have a custom die with +,-, <, and division signs on it that I use along with custom “numbers larger than six” dice for math games. (“Looks like you rolled 5,000,000,000 divided by 7,000!”) (For smaller kids, you may want to stick to + and -.)

I’m still trying to work out good ways to teach history. I’ve got some rudimentary ideas, but I’ll save them for later.

Homeschooling Corner: What is Educational?

Many years ago, I worked at a toy store. (It was a lot of fun–I like feeling helpful.) One day I was helping a grandmother pick out a gift for her young granddaughter, a  6-month old whom she proudly informed me was really at the developmental level of a 9-month old. She asked me to recommend something “educational” for the child.

Being, (I confess) not very good at this, I responded in confusion that pretty much everything is educational for a baby. Babies are learning all the time.

One of my co-workers helpfully jumped in and found her a stuffed dog that’s supposed to help babies learn to read.

Many years and a great deal of IQ and education research later, I stand by my original position: “educational” toys for babies probably aren’t. It would be great if we could find some magical technique–say, playing Classical music to your fetus–that could reliably make people into geniuses, but so far we haven’t actually found any.

Does that mean you shouldn’t play Classical music to your fetus? Of course not. There’s no evidence that Classical music hurts babies. It’s just highly likely that being the kind of person who would play Classical music to your fetus is a bigger factor in how your kids turn out than the actual music. But if you hate Classical, don’t sweat it.

If you’ve been hanging around the HBD-osphere for a while, you probably already know that adult IQ appears to be about 50% genetic and 50% random chance. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to teach your kids things (you should definitely teach your kids things.) It just means that it’s more important to be good and kind to your kids than to buy them any particular toy or splurge on baby genius classes.

Anyway…

The youngest child has been really into rocks and crystals lately; at this age, they’re still fascinated by freezing cups of water to make ice. A little food coloring (rainbow ice!) fresh mint leaves, flowers, whatever you want to add makes the ice extra interesting; add salt for a lesson about icebergs and the ocean. I don’t know if this is really educational, but it’s fun.

The rest of our time has been focused primarily on regular old rote material–times tables, multi-digit addition and subtraction, handwriting, typing, spelling, etc. Luckily these skills are pretty flexible and so can be taught to multiple kids at different levels. Competitive multiplication games (try to call out the answer first!) work well in our household.

We also learned about If-Then statements in code and the Apollo 11 moon landing, which resulted in them coding a short animation about the moon launch.

I do hope that once I feel a little more secure about their basic skills, we can move outside for some active learning/PE/map-making type activities.