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NancyLebovitz comments on Two More Things to Unlearn from School - Less Wrong

55 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 12 July 2007 05:45PM

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Comment author: NancyLebovitz 05 June 2010 12:02:16PM 3 points [-]

Considering the number of complaints I hear about recent graduates not being good at work, it's possible that schools aren't doing a good job of preparing people for typical office jobs--- after all there isn't reliable feedback from graduates or employers to the schools.

I suspect the short-run goals (baby-sitting, status enforcement vs. children and teenagers, acquisition of easily checked credentials) are the ones mostly being served.

Comment author: purpleposeidon 13 September 2010 06:27:48AM *  1 point [-]

it's possible that schools aren't doing a good job of preparing people for typical office jobs

The highschool I went to attempts to prepare students for modern jobs. I hear that the educational model (project-based learning) is spreading to other local schools.

Comment author: bigjeff5 27 January 2011 10:52:27PM 2 points [-]

I have read the opinion that the invention of public schooling in its current form was designed to create a more agreeable populace and workforce. People who will do what they are told, basically.

The exceptional would rise to the top naturally, and overcome the barriers set in place, but it would ensure the less than gifted stayed mediocre.

I haven't read any studies to this affect, but it seems plausible, if rather conspiracy theory-ish. I don't think it was quite so intentional, but it seems to be the result, and it has a great deal of momentum for those who run things to allow it to continue if they ever recognize the truth of it.

Could you imagine the nightmare it would be to be a politician in a country where everybody is skeptical of authority as a matter of course? It's a politician's worst nightmare to have someone question his reasoning if it is based on something flimsy or non-existent, what if that happened by default for everyone in the country?

Comment author: Desrtopa 27 January 2011 11:02:48PM 2 points [-]

Then those most able to deal with the skeptics would rise to the top. It wouldn't get rid of politicians, but it would change the sort of politicians who have a relative competitive advantage.

Comment author: bigjeff5 28 January 2011 01:39:31AM 0 points [-]

Certainly, and a significant portion of the current crop of politicians would not be among the new group of politicians.

Do you see the problem?

Comment author: Desrtopa 28 January 2011 01:55:44AM 0 points [-]

Of course. But at least there are prospective politicians who could benefit from it. It's not as if they would uniformly stand to lose.

Comment author: pnrjulius 09 April 2012 06:03:52AM 0 points [-]

Yes, but that means changing the status quo, which means redistributing power, and if there's one thing people in power do not like, it is redistributing power.

We might ultimately have to make this happen by force. (I hope not... but I can't rule it out.)

Comment author: Costanza 28 January 2011 12:17:14AM *  3 points [-]

I have read the opinion that the invention of public schooling in its current form was designed to create a more agreeable populace and workforce.

On the one hand, I wouldn't say the modern U.S. public school system was "designed" at all. Rather, it arose over the course of generations from disparate 19th-century origins. Even now, in spite of the federal government, it's hugely local.

On the other hand, a lot of parents would be thrilled if the schools they have to send their children to were actually good at keeping students "agreeable" (as opposed to violent) and equipped them to join the workforce in some way -- any way.

If you want an equally cynical, but much more sophisticated view of the American public school system, I'd suggest something from public choice theory

Comment author: bigjeff5 28 January 2011 01:35:49AM 2 points [-]

It was certainly modeled after the Prussian style schools, so it was designed in a certain sense. That a group of movers and shakers actually sat down and said "this is how we want our schools to be and why, what can we do about it?" seems far fetched to me, but not impossible. More likely the Prussian style was much more impressive, and politicians pushed for it without regarding whether or not it was actually a superior system.

The Prussian system was specifically designed to replace the local aristocracy by instilling obedience in the crown through indoctrination. It was one of the primary goals, the other being preparing the population with skills needed to operate in an industrialized society - namely reading, writing and arithmetic.

I don't believe the American version of the same was as focused in its goals. There was no single entity that could drive such goals (we had no King), so it seems unlikely that the Whigs (the major proponents of the system) were trying to indoctrinate students into supporting the Whig party. I think it was more generally thought of as a more efficient way to educate children.

The general effect is that students learn to do as they are told by whoever is in authority, so much so that this has become a virtue. In contrast, questioning authority was one of the founding principles of the country. Since the old system was community driven, often with one teacher teaching all subjects for all ages, the students were required to learn some things for themselves, and often also required to teach younger students what they knew.

Also, just because an agreeable workforce was a goal does not mean it actually succeeded. In general, however, I think it has done a reasonable job - much better than allowing students to think for themselves would have.

Comment author: Costanza 28 January 2011 02:01:09AM 2 points [-]

I'm somewhat familiar with education in the U.S., and I perceive a lot of heterogeneity. Public schools vary widely, to say the least. Aside from that, there are alternatives such as parochial schools and home schooling.

I'm not so familiar with schools outside the U.S. Which modern systems would you say are less authoritarian than the prevailing U.S. system?

Comment author: gwern 28 January 2011 02:20:56AM 1 point [-]

Which modern systems would you say are less authoritarian than the prevailing U.S. system?

Finland comes to mind. Interesting system from what I've read about it.

Comment author: Costanza 28 January 2011 03:34:00AM *  1 point [-]

How does Finland do things? Are there links?


I have been informed that the PISA scoring system is a good metric for international comparisons. Finland seems to do really well! I truly know nothing about their educational system, however, or how authoritarian it may be.

Comment author: gwern 28 January 2011 04:25:42AM 0 points [-]

I can only find http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8601207.stm in my Evernote, but it's the BBC so it should be reliable enough.

Comment author: Estarlio 29 March 2013 10:46:09PM *  -1 points [-]

Then, I suspect, whoever was familiar with a particular subject would still be massively outnumbered by everyone who wasn't. So you'd get a lot of junk data/bad reasoning thrown out, that on even light investigation turned out to be nonsense but that would determine the way the majority voted.

Comment author: MarkusRamikin 21 November 2011 10:05:47PM 0 points [-]

status enforcement vs. children and teenagers

This is going to sound very naive, I suspect, but I'm trying and failing to imagine how this came about. What the decision process that gave this result looked like, and what the people who shaped schools' goals, acting out of this motivation (among others of course), were actually thinking about their own motivations. I mean, I can't see myself designing an education reform and thinking that "teenagers need to be shown their place".

Comment author: thomblake 21 November 2011 10:10:12PM 3 points [-]

It's easy. You just assign different rights and responsibilities to teachers and students. Which rights and responsibilities get assigned are going to come partly from 'common sense' and implicitly encode things about their relative age and status; you don't need to think about that part explicitly at all.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 21 November 2011 10:17:40PM 7 points [-]

And sometimes it's semi-explicit. For example, there's a lot of evidence that many teenagers have sleep schedules that run late. They may not be able to get to sleep before midnight or 1 AM, but it's very difficult to get schools to give them later schedules.

Waking up early is thought of as virtuous, and letting teenagers get enough sleep is thought of as coddling them.

Comment author: pnrjulius 09 April 2012 06:05:20AM 2 points [-]

And study after study shows that students do better when school starts later... yet they hardly ever actually implement a later start time. Apparently something else is more important to the powers-that-be than actually making students do better.

Comment author: pjeby 22 November 2011 02:06:31AM 10 points [-]

I mean, I can't see myself designing an education reform and thinking that "teenagers need to be shown their place".

If you haven't met any adults who think precisely that way, you've led a very lucky life. ;-)

Comment author: TimS 22 November 2011 02:45:29AM 0 points [-]

Even a well-run school that's actually directed at useful teaching requires some structure. And that structure must be enforced on the children because only the most incredible children naturally follow the rules all the time.

Some of the rules that could be imposed don't really have correct answers. (I'd offered something like dress code as an example, but I predict that there has been some research on what dress codes are "best" for education outcomes). But having no rule is strictly worse than any plausible rule. So the principal picks a rule. The teacher doesn't agree with the chosen rule, but enforces it anyway for one reason or another (he doesn't object that strongly, he is concerned about punishments for his deviance, he is logrolling to get support for some other issue, etc).

And that's one way status enforcement rules get into the education system. Since the usefulness of education is not easily measured, there's a significant risk (as others have noted) that this and similar issues become more important than useful education.

Comment author: pjeby 22 November 2011 05:30:16AM 1 point [-]

Even a well-run school that's actually directed at useful teaching requires some structure. And that structure must be enforced on the children because only the most incredible children naturally follow the rules all the time.

This presumes that the structure needs rules. Some "free" schools get by with very few, and little or no status impositions. Also, homeschooling is another case where "structure" can be arbitrarily simple and tailored to the needs of a single child.

Really, the only reason rules are required to be "enforced on the children" is when you have the same rules for every child, regardless of fit. This is not a problem if your school has a 1:1 teacher:student ratio. ;-)

Comment author: Bugmaster 22 November 2011 02:46:31AM 3 points [-]

Considering the number of complaints I hear about recent graduates not being good at work, it's possible that schools aren't doing a good job of preparing people for typical office jobs...

In my experience, schools aren't doing a good job of preparing them for software engineering jobs, either. Most of the candidates I've seen (and I've seen quite a few) run the gamut:

  • Has heard the word "linked list" before (just for example). Doesn't know what it means.
  • Has heard the word "linked list" before. Knows what it means. Doesn't know what it's for.
  • Can answer basic questions about data structures and algorithms. Knows what they're for, in theory. Doesn't know how he'd actually use them.
  • Knows how to use basic data structures and algorithms. Can apply them, but only if he is given a source code file with clearly labeled "YOUR CODE HERE" sections. Doesn't know how to get help, or how to ask for help. If he gets stuck, just sits there, staring forlornly at the screen.
  • Knows how to write programs. Knows how to ask for help directly. Doesn't know how to find help on his own.
  • Knows how to write programs and how to look up answers to questions. Forgets the answers as soon as he looks them up; doesn't know how to correlate them into a general picture. Does not believe that a general picture exists.
  • Knows how to write programs, how to look up answers, how to ask for help, and is able to actually learn on his own.

The last category is actually employable, and makes up maybe 5% of college graduates. The other 95% either lack the basic CS vocabulary needed for learning, or are unable to learn at all, which renders them quite ineffective as far as real-world software engineering is concerned.

Comment author: pnrjulius 09 April 2012 06:06:43AM 0 points [-]

Does this mean that those of us who are close to the bottom category actually have a really good chance of getting software engineering jobs? Or is the job selection process equally defective?

Comment author: Bugmaster 09 April 2012 08:13:00PM 1 point [-]

My own job-seeking data is stale, since I do have a job currently. From what I've seen, though, there's always a need for the following two categories of software engineer:

1). Someone with a lot of experience, who can easily pick up (and extend) whatever eclectic patchwork of frameworks and home-grown code exists at the current company, and
2). A smart programmer with little to no experience who could work for (relatively) little pay, while learning how to solve real-world problems.

The big problem with category (2) is that these programmers are most often employed as interns, either in a temp position, or with an option to get hired full-time. Unfortunately, interns get paid very poorly.

The job selection process itself can indeed be very defective, but the advantage here lies with the job-seeker. People who have actual skills, or the ability to acquire such, are relatively rare, and thus there's always some degree of demand for them -- which means that they can pick and choose among multiple employers. Chances are that at least one of these companies would have a decent job application process, where they let you talk to actual developers, solve small programming problems, etc. -- as opposed to answering inane questions about the shape of manhole covers, or what your biggest weakness is, etc.

Comment author: Jiro 18 August 2014 08:00:55PM 1 point [-]

(Replying again to old post)

How do you get past the resume keyword-scanning process where you worked with language X for the past 10 years and even if you are in category 1, nobody will hire you unless the job is for language X? Even if there is not literally a computer scanning resumes, a prospective employer should do a Bayseian update that compares the chance that someone without Y on their resume can pick up Y and the chance that someone with Y on their resume is skilled at Y. You would never get to the interview stage unless the total number of resumes is small enough that the employer is willing to interview even applicants with low probabilities of being suitable candidates.

Comment author: Bugmaster 18 August 2014 11:57:10PM 1 point [-]

Yeah, that's tough. The only way out of this that I can think of is to keep practicing other languages and frameworks in your free time, by building your own projects. This way, you could put these languages on your resume and be fully honest about it.

Alternatively, you can do what apparently 99% of job applicants at our company are doing, and lie through your teeth. Normally I'd argue against this approach, but the fact that the vast majority of applicants are doing it is evidence for the viability of the strategy; the fact that people like me actually say stuff like, "It says here you know C#, so let me ask you a basic C# question" is probably just bad luck for them.

Comment author: Nornagest 19 August 2014 12:08:28AM *  2 points [-]

One popular method, if you've got a programming job, is to write some automation tools or other minor, relatively language-agnostic projects in whatever language is buzzword-compliant at the moment. Wrote a few build scripts in Ruby? Congratulations, you've deployed Ruby infrastructure in a mission-critical environment.

This will usually come out once you're talking to a human, but at that point you can talk about your personal projects and show off your actual knowledge of the language.