Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Week 15: The Third Rail

Today, in the middle of a multiplication lesson, some words printed on the cover of Billy’s notebook catch his eye. They are taken from a passage in the bible, Philippians 4:8: "Think about all you can praise God for."

The words seem to call out to him. He stops paying attention to me, deciding that now is as good a time as any to practice his reading comprehension. Proceeding staccato like, he reads each word aloud, leading with his fingers.
“Think...uh-bowt….all…you…can…praise…gaw—” He pulls his finger back, recoiling in disgust. The rhythm is broken. 

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

“That’s Christian. That’s for Christians. I’m not Christian.”
A sharp hiss cuts the air. (Did it come from me, or his mom?) I feel my heart palpitating. The Accenture instincts are kicking in: we call this the red zone—the forbiddingly red third rail of client relationships.

His mother is in the kitchen, within earshot, preparing a refreshing couscous salad that has always been the highlight of my afternoon tutoring sessions. I consider what might happen if this dialog were to continue: she might stop feeding me; she might feed me poison; she might bury me up to my neck in the hot desert sand and throw jagged rocks at my face. Instinct can sometime breed irrational fear.

But I want this so bad. I bite my lip; heart racing, I reach for the rail. Instinct can sometimes breed irrational courage.
“Billy, what does ‘x-squared plus y-squared equals one’ mean?”

He furrows his brow in thought. “It’s math language for circle.”

“Right. How else can we say circle? What other languages do we know?” I draw a picture of a circle on a blank sheet of scratch paper and then, next to it, ask him to spell out “circle” in English and "yuvaruj" in Turkish. As a final touch, I add the Chinese character and the mathematical equation for circle. 

“These are all different ways of saying the same thing, just in different languages.” I explain. “It’s the same with the word ‘God’. It doesn’t (or at least it shouldn’t) matter whether you say ‘God’, like in the Christian Bible, or ‘Allah’, like in the Muslim Qu’ran. They are just two different ways of saying the exact same thing.”

“How do you say it in math?” Billy asks.

"That's a good question." I giggle.  

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Week 14: Carrying on a Conversation

An educated populace finds common ground and moves forward; an uneducated populace, paralyzed by divisions, stagnates and dies. Our nation’s founders knew this.
Citizen: What kind of a government have you given us?
Benjamin Franklin: A Republic, madam, if you can hold on to it!
James Howard Kunstler, in his book “The Geography of Nowhere” noted:
"For [Thomas Jefferson], the temple represented the culture that had first conceived of democracy (Greece), and that which had first devised a republican form of government (Rome), and it carried for Jefferson deep associations with his own classical education and his feeling that a democratic republic could only flourish if its citizens were educated.”
My heat transfer professor, Ralph Greif, once said to me:
Don’t worry that you’re not learning how to do or build anything. You’ll have plenty of time for that later. That’s what graduate school is for. That’s the easy stuff. Right now, focus on your literature classes, your social sciences. Relish your humanities—that’s what an education is about. 
Which reminded me of a soul-tingling dialogue between Captain Jean-Luc Picard and Ensign Wesley Crusher in the Star Trek episode Samaritan Snare (TNG 2x17):
Picard: Did you read that book I gave you?
Crusher: Some of it

Picard: That's reassuring.

Crusher: I just don’t have much time.

Picard: There's no greater challenge than the study of philosophy.

Crusher: Well, William James won't be on my Starfleet exam.

Picard: Important things never will be. Anyone can be trained in the mechanics and the piloting of a starship—

Crusher: but Starfleet Academy—

Picard: —takes more. Open your mind to the past—art, history, philosophy—and all this may mean something. 

In the midst of lectures, midterms, finals and projects—it is easy for the goal of education to get lost in the process of education: it is easy to mistake going to school with getting an education.

When we condition ourselves to think that learning only happens in school, we close our minds to so much more.

For me, once I realized that it was education for the sake of education, and not education for the sake of a job; once I realized to look beyond the specialized knowledge of an engineering education to see the universal truths driving all interaction—I was able to recognize my true, limitless potential.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Week 13: Your World. Delivered.

In the process of education, we immerse ourselves in different fields of study, laying down a sample size of data in our brain large enough to illuminate a coherent pattern. The more we learn, the more this pattern is refined, reinforced, and strengthened. This pattern then lifts us up, allowing us to see the world not as a forebodingly complex jumble of dissonance, but as infinite variations on a singular theme: the world becomes one. 

Through education, we are empowered to infer beyond the world of our five senses, beyond our perception of reality. Through education—we find faith.

In Week 11, when Billy tried to sound out the word “mathematics”, he was transforming a single, ominous and impossibly complex “sound” into a logical sequence of more familiar, easy-to-spell syllables. He took a complex word, framed it as a collection of syllables, and used this new perspective to decompose the word into smaller, more manageable pieces.

This is the exact same approach we take to add any multi-digit sum, such as 88 + 66. The down and dirty approach would be to start at 88 and then count a collection of 66 sticks, rocks, fingers, toes or some witches brew of all the above in order to arrive at the sum. But nobody does this—not anymore; modern mathematics allows us to sense and manipulate numbers more efficiently than that. In school, we all learned how to take a multi-digit addition problem, frame it as a collection of place values, and then use this new perspective to decompose it into a series of easy-to-calculate single-digit sums. The algorithm is simple: start at the ones place, carry over if necessary, move on to the next place value, and repeat.

Taking a complex problem, orienting it around a familiar frame of reference, and then decomposing it into more manageable components: this is problem solving! Through education, we expose ourselves to so many different frames of reference and familiarize ourselves with such a diversity of viewpoints that no problem is too complex.

Education: the entire world—decomposed at your fingertips.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Week 12: No Training Wheels

In Week 11, I taught Billy how to “see”. I gave him a new tool called “sounding it out” that would help him break down big scary words into simple sequences of easy-to-spell syllables. But what if Billy never learned to “see”?

Billy could hypothetically grow up never learning how to “see” syllables. To learn how to spell a new word, he would copy it onto a piece of paper, paying close attention to the sequence of each letter, and then repeat this process over and over again until the word finally commits itself to his aural, visual, and muscle memory—it becomes instinct.

If that hypothetical sounds way too hypothetical—you must not be Chinese.

Consider that there is no phonetic alphabet in the Chinese language. When students of Chinese learn to write, they are committing thousands of individual characters to memory, associating words with patterns that often contain no phonetic cues whatsoever. They have no tool other than brute force memorization to help them through this process.

Memorizing three to four thousand different characters in order to write: sounds like hell, doesn't it? I thought so too until I recalled that one, really cool Princeton study that people plastered all over their AIM profiles and mass-forwarded in e-mails several years ago. Remember? It went something like this:
A Priecnton stduy reaelved that flnuet Eglnsih reaedrs don't denped on phonetic cues but rahter learn to reogncize shpaes and pattrens in context wehn reidang. 
If you showed that to a first year "English as a foreign language" student, his head would probably explode! But assuming you have native English fluency, that previous passage should have been pretty damn cool! It means that after a while, we don't really "read" anymore; that is,(take a deep breath) we're not really grouping individual letters into syllables and then connecting them to form a complete sound that our brain then recognizes as a word with meaning (exhale). Like the Chinese, we just look at pictures.

Now the benefit of having a written language based on phonetic characters is that if you can’t remember how to draw the picture, you can always “sound it out”. For new initiates to the language, this tool functions like a pair of training wheels, easing them into fluency. After repeated exposure over many many years through books, newspapers, magazines, and TV, they learn to draw most pictures by heart, and “sounding it out” is no longer necessary.

(How many pictures, you ask? Estimates put the figure for basic English literacy at about 3 to 4 thousand words. Interestingly enough, this is pretty much the same number of characters a literate Chinese speaker must commit to memory.)

My friend Steven, who taught English in Shenzhen, China, mentioned something interesting once about how his less advanced English students deal with new vocabulary words. Apparently, the idea of a standardized system of phonetic cues is so foreign to Chinese students that they won't even try to pronounce new words.

Take the word CAT. Show it to any American preschool student and they will go: "Cat. Kuh- Ah - Tuh. Cat."

Flash to China: when Steven shows the word CAT to his students, they will stare at him blankly or fidget in their seats until he gives up in frustration and screams "MIAO! MIAO! MIAO! IT'S A $%&^*# CAT!" His students then go home and patiently write the word CAT fifty times, repeating it out loud each time, until it is finally committed to memory.

Chinese students never learn how to "see" syllables; "sounding it out" is not a tool in their toolbox. When it comes to writing, the Chinese don't believe in training wheels—it's do or die.