Monday, April 11, 2016

On Nature, Sheep, Chemistry Sets, and Hide and Seek: A Movement in Home Education

I previously posted the blog issue below on another website last year, and decided to post it here with some revision:

Some of my earliest memories from when I was a young child are of lying on my back on the lawn watching clouds, birds, and insects. I played across the countryside, in the fields and around the buildings that housed the farm animals and machinery. My siblings and I, along with neighbor children, built forts of wood, rafted on logs and milk jugs, and played hide-and-seek in the corn fields. As I grew older, I enjoyed gardening, hiking, biking, and fishing, and I read popular books and science texts. As a teen, I fed sheep and helped irrigate crops to earn money to support my travels and to save for the future. My family lived in moderate poverty, but we never went hungry. Neither of my parents holds a Bachelors degree. My father is a farm worker. My mother worked in a hospital cafeteria. My home was rural, and with our limited resources, I had little access to movie theaters, malls, and the like. As I grew up, my parents sacrificed their own wants to buy me a chemistry set, microscopes, telescopes, and other equipment to satisfy my curiosity. They did not show me how to use any of it—they left that to me, and it probably advanced my education more than anything else they could have done. Compared with most children of today, my life had relatively little structure imposed by the adults around me. My parents occasionally instructed me on safety and provided some guidelines, but they left my mind unfettered.

The most structured part of my life was public school, held in the nearby small town of Oakley Idaho. Most of my class time consisted of highly structured curricula, but I was granted more self determination than most. My senior year, three other students and I requested that we be provided a calculus class. It had not been taught there for decades. Since the school did not have teachers to spare, we were granted space in a classroom where a math teacher also taught an algebra class. He provided us about 10 minutes of his time each day, and we figured out the math largely by ourselves at our own pace. We probably learned it better than most students with full-time instructors because we were granted responsibility for our own learning.

I earned a bachelors degree in physics, paid for by a combination of academic scholarships and government financial aid, and I went on to achieve a PhD in meteorology. Now, as a professor at the University at Albany, I teach students in atmospheric and environmental sciences applications of advanced statistics and mathematics. I have observed several things over the years about how today’s students learn. The vast majority of our students came through the public school system, where their time was almost constantly structured by the adults around them. These students were systematically trained following meticulously prepared curricula in basic math, English, science, and social sciences. Most of them were conditioned over many years to follow instructions from a teacher—to do what they were told, when they were told, and how they were told. The public education system perpetuates the belief that excellence in science and math education comes through carefully planned stepwise pathways to a single correct answer that students can repeat in homework exercises.

Although to a lesser extent than in the past, the system continues to depend too much on repetitive training in techniques or algorithms. These approaches can sometimes lead to well-trained technicians, but they cannot effectively help students learn to innovate in the modern world. Although most of my students are intelligent, my university classroom experience shows that they tend to have difficulty with formulating questions themselves when presented with a problem, and they have even more difficulty laying out plans for answering those questions. I mean no disrespect to them in pointing out these problems: The system was imposed on them. Most parents came through similar schools, so that they do not usually see the negative consequences of over-imposed curriculum structure. True critical thinking usually involves viewing information that raises questions, deciding how to pose those questions, and then devising approaches to attempt to answer them given too little or too much information. It then often requires testing the answers with other information. Some approaches lead to results that are clearly wrong, motivating students to reformulate the questions or to revise their assumptions. When given the chance, students would forge different pathways to different answers to different questions, thereby yielding better real understanding of the focus topic. I think that it is insulting to both students and teachers that those who design the curriculum in the public education system seem to think that children are not smart enough to work through problems from beginning to end with wise mentoring. Those who design the curriculum pre-construct too many of the steps in advance. I conclude that their lack of confidence in the children, parents, and teachers leads to the over imposition of structure in the learning process. I’m not suggesting that teachers and parents should not plan in order to achieve positive learning outcomes, but for real success in education, opportunity to truly think and to err must be extended to students, and student errors while they learn should create new learning opportunities rather than lead to negative judgments from teachers and peers. Teachers together with students and parents must also be allowed to vary the curriculum to fit individual needs, with activities planned consistent with the emotional, physical, and cognitive maturity of the child.

My experience with today’s students suggests that one of the most important ingredients to encourage development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills is more unstructured learning and playtime during childhood. Teachers and parents tend to fill children’s time with pre defined study materials and extracurricular activities, granting the children insufficient freedom in learning and playtime.

Sometimes it seems as though the education system and many parents are in a race to see who can get their kids to do the most piano, soccer, or homework, as early in childhood as possible. Totally free time for teens is often associated with negative social and learning outcomes, but that finding is in no way motivation to micromanage student learning time. My experience suggests that too much structure in teaching and extracurricular activities can yield lack of independence and poor critical thinking skills. Even in math and science classes, teens benefit when we strip out detailed structure and instructions and let them help pose questions and solutions. 

Children who are too often told exactly what to do and when to do it tend not to develop confidence in their abilities to solve real problems themselves. Compounding the problem, most parents and teachers think that it is easier, less stressful, and more rigorous to impose high levels of structure on the learning process. Although I agree that most youth need some externally imposed curriculum structure and motivation from adults, they also need mentored but otherwise unstructured learning in order to mature. I believe that by consistently managing the minute details of the learning processes of our children that we sacrifice too much of their childhoods and then ironically they remain overly dependent on others into their adult years.

My experience suggests that providing children with substantial learning time with less structure imposed by adults could help alleviate many of these problems. I do not advocate simply letting them wander all day entirely unsupervised, but to gain the greatest benefit in education, they must have a sufficient level of freedom in the learning process. They must learn to not let others do all of the thinking for them. Parents who act as mentors by learning to ask children leading questions and expose them to new ideas, but who then give them flexibility to think about those ideas and make mistakes, are most likely to achieve the greatest academic success.

The quest to improve academic outcomes in our children and teens has led the public education system to rely too heavily on standardized testing and over-structured worksheets and rote exercises. Sure, some testing of older children is a necessary part of molding teaching to their needs (as long as it is used for that purpose), but the system seems to assume that the answer to improvement of education is more testing, less recess and unstructured time, and shorter summer vacations. It is no surprise that many children become bored, apathetic, and lose the will to learn!

More parental involvement in the education of our youth is necessary to overcome these problems. Although not for everyone, my wife and I have found effective opportunities for our children in home schooling. Home education provides far more flexibility in designing educational projects in which the children themselves can be granted leading roles. The idea of home education seems daunting to many parents, and many don’t feel qualified to teach. I believe that most children do not need trained instructors in math and reading to learn these subjects effectively. Our 8-year old son, for example, learned to read fluently when he was 4 and 5 years old without any structured curriculum. As we read to him his choice of stories every night, we would occasionally point out words and sound them out. Along with the reading, we also helped him learn the alphabet and basic phonics. He apparently gained many of his more advanced reading skills from playing computer games that he selected himself. We did not force his progress.

Beyond reading, we teach our children math concepts by integrating them into our daily lives, such as when shopping, or at play in designing buildings in Minecraft games. Motivated by construction of his Minecraft server, our 13-year old son learned to code in Java through experimentation and online courses. With today’s online resources, almost any parent could effectively motivate this kind of learning, and sometimes the children might actually gain advantage if their parents are not experts.

We have not always worked with our children this way. We imposed reading curriculum on our oldest two children when they were 3-5 years old, but in retrospect, we think it negatively impacted our relationships with them. Luckily, our curriculum did not lead them to rebel and to dislike reading as happens with some children. Some parents are afraid that home education might lead to socially backward children. I myself have met a few socially backward homeschooled children. Such children often have backward parents. I have also met many socially sophisticated home-educated children. Most homeschooled children are more self-confident than their public-schooled peers and less driven by peer pressure. No education approach is perfect. The public school system also produces some backward children and suppresses several modes of healthy social development.

Some keys to social and academic success in home education are to find a support community and to participate in service, play, and educational activities outside of the home. Through such activities, many families who choose home education ultimately develop better-adjusted children than those who come through the public schools, in part because they interact with people across the full age spectrum instead of mainly children their own ages, and their activities are not overly controlled by fiat of seemingly infallible adults as in public school. Universities frequently accept home educated students, and they tend to have better academic outcomes than traditionally educated students. As part of her effort to facilitate such activities, my wife has recently started the Yacon Village homeschool community in the Albany New York area. At least for now, Yacon Village only serves those in the local community, but similar communities are popping up around the United States and other countries.

Yacon Village is named after a plant that I grow in my home garden for its sweet syrup. Yacon Village provides support for home education along with a welcoming secular atmosphere conducive to less-structured, mentored learning experiences and social activities for older children and young teens loosely supervised by their parents. The Yacon Village community organizes classes based on student-centered project-based learning and it offers unstructured space for play and learning. Students and their parents organize field trips and clubs and invite instructors from the community for training in computer programming, writing, science, entrepreneurial activities, and other programs of the community’s choice. Many of these programs are just beginning, and the students and their families will influence the direction of its ultimate success. Yacon Village is not a school and is not a complete substitute for school. It has no full time professional faculty. It is intended to help fulfill unmet educational needs of home educated children in ways that will allow more of them to gain the advantages of homeschooling without losing too many of the advantages of the public schools. The community is seeking new member families, and it also seeks sponsors for field trips, project fairs, kids’ markets, and student membership. Your sponsorship of students would lower costs for participating families and would help broaden the diversity of participants, and sponsors will be recognized in the facility and on its website. Beginning this organization has come at substantial expense, and its ultimate success depends on participation and funding. Help us transform education as part of a broader movement toward student-driven excellence!

For more information, visit Contact Jeanette Roundy, the director, at

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Dogmatism in Science and Public Perception of Science

Over the last few weeks I have not had much personal time, but I have managed to take a few minutes here and there to peruse Internet sites from antivaxers, climate change deniers, anthropogenic climate change extremists, people against conventional agriculture, people opposed to genetically-modified crops, and activists opposed to nuclear energy. Given the polarized political environment, I have sought to understand how good people come to conclusions that could be so apparently inconsistent with evidence. All of us have drawn conclusions based on false pre conceptions, and the confirmation bias leads us to accept flawed or inconclusive evidence for our beliefs and to reject good evidence against those beliefs. Each of us cannot possibly understand the details of every important issue. In that light, it is easy to understand why political views have become so correlated with some vexing beliefs, such as why many political conservatives reject the role of human activities in climate change or why many on the left tend to question profound evidence with respect to the safety of genetically modified crops. Quite simply, we are dogmatic creatures.

Science has transformed the world, but it does not completely obliterate dogmatism from the layman or the scientist, nor does it efficiently convince the masses to discard cherished and harmful beliefs. Eric Hoffer put it well: “An empty head is not really empty; it is stuffed with rubbish. Hence the difficulty of stuffing anything into an empty head.” We reject correct principles not because we are stupid, but because our preconceptions are wrong. None of us is immune. Science and logic are partial treatments, much like taking over-the-counter cold medicine can alleviate some symptoms without curing the cold. When scientists reach conclusions, they might not have considered all aspects of the problems, and biases might mislead them. Scientists are not completely immune to these biases, and false conclusions similar to those perpetuated over decades or centuries in the past can still occur today (though it is apparent that the extent to which we are wrong tends to decline with time). Peer review, which is simply the act of requiring other sets of eyes beyond the original authors to view and consider conclusions, helps treat the problem but can also perpetuate it when reviewers can be equally dogmatic. Yet, I see science as the best way we have to reach correct conclusions.

My opening comments included both climate change deniers and anthropogenic climate change extremists as dogmatic. Both sides see the other as dogmatic, but not themselves. Both sides perpetuate some false claims in support of their views. I use the term "denier" here carefully. Scientists should be skeptical (that's core to being a scientist), but a denier is different: Deniers reject evidence contrary to their beliefs. Any such contrary evidence is often treated as part of a conspiracy. I see laypersons who are climate change deniers as more egregiously dogmatic, but that in no way lets pundits on the other side off the hook, some individuals among whom can be just as bad or worse. Yet, as I see it, most climate change deniers are not simply evil people lying for money (although a few of them might be). I think that most of them actually believe their claims. Perhaps it is easier for them to swallow when they combine rubbish with a few correct claims. For example, their argument that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has some benefits to some people and to some biological systems. Similarly, not all scary claims raised by proponents of the concept of anthropogenic climate change will ultimately prove to be true, and recent science has suggested that some of them are false. For example, some types of violent storms, such as the strongest tornadoes, might be becoming less common with time. Moderate intensity hurricanes may be becoming less frequent as well (though many studies suggest that the frequency of the strongest hurricanes may increase). The narrative that all things will get worse for all people and for all ecosystems is a fetish of the media and left leaning politics. 

We are all prone to dogmatic views. It is wise to take a step back and to ask ourselves why we believe some of the things we do, and to not simply demonize those who believe differently. That the crowd seems to agree with us is an insufficient argument in support of a belief. Oftentimes, those who are most sure of themselves are most wrong.  A nice quote, perhaps poorly attributed to Mark Twain says it well: “Education: The path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.”  I have personally undergone a profound transformation in the ways I view the world, based on relaxing my level of surety in my beliefs. It has led me to a better sense of self, and a more positive view of others. Science education, similarly, should include at its core the notion that science is not simply a set of conclusions or concepts with which most scientists agree, but a turbulent quest for understanding in light of evidence, seeking for wherever that evidence might lead.

Monday, April 4, 2016

My Response to Another Climate Change Comment on Youtube

Last night I received another interesting comment from another climate change discussion board on Youtube. This one was long and detailed, including many different arguments. I will not produce the person's comments here without his or her permission, but I will introduce the person's first claim, then reproduce my responses. I am sorry that it is a little bit rambling, but I expect that on the whole, those seeking information might find it useful. I include some commentary in square braces [ ].

Perhaps I wasted my time, but I think the discussion might be useful to other people on either side who might be open minded about the issue. I should say up front that I am not a climate alarmist. I am also not a climate change denier. I am a climate scientist with interest in this problem. I am not an expert in all aspects of the problem (as no single person can be).

The person's first complaint was that climate change science originated as guesswork:

Of course it was figured out by guess work. That's how science works. Scientists see an issue, make a guess--Then test it with evidence. That a theory starts as a guess is irrelevant in the end, because of all of the accumulated evidence and logical argument.

[My earlier comment, to which this person had responded, pointed out that a scientist who could overturn the whole concept of CO2-induced climate change would get a Nobel Prize--The person's comment suggested that this possibility was ridiculous to them. My response follows.]

Why would you suggest that my suggestion is ridiculous that someone would win a Nobel prize for overturning it? Because the amount of effort required to overturn the whole theory, including the bold and clear evidence required would be so profound that the person would clearly deserve the prize. [I should add, that I think a person making such a discovery along with the profound evidence required would almost certainly win a Nobel prize--my point is that a person could not get that far just by asserting that they think that most climate scientists are wrong--they would need to prove it beyond reasonable doubt.]

[The person then asked "how are they (the scientists) so sure..."]

No good scientist is completely sure about human-induced climate change. The reason they are "so sure" is that they see evidence for it.

[The person then asserts that scientists have changed the language, from "global warming" to "climate change".]

Your supposed conflict between "climate change" and "global warming" is a straw man. Climate change refers to the whole set of changes, whereas "global warming" is one particular aspect. People still call it global warming, but when their interest is, for example, a reduced total number of hurricanes, increased drought in some parts of the world, increased floods in other parts, reduced tornado activity (perhaps), or ocean acidification, they refer to climate change.

[The person then asserts that science has often been wrong, and changes over time.]

Of course science has often been wrong. That's how science works. People's understanding of almost all natural systems has been improving over time, with new ideas supplanting the old ones. Yet, although there were a few papers in the 1970's discussing potential for global cooling, even then, more papers were published on longterm warming. The first paper on climate change by CO2 was before 1900, by Arrhenius.

Of course the climate has always been changing. That fact in no way refutes that humans can contribute to it today.

I do agree that some people in the environmental movement have developed almost religious behavior with respect to climate change. Also, some people trumpet the very worst possible outcomes as the most likely ones (although some such outcomes may be less likely, there is still the possibility of their development).

I wrote a blog yesterday responding to an assertion similar to yours that scientists make these claims to get grant money: 

[The person then discussed how he or she thinks that climate scientists are high priests in some kind of religion.]
Your comparison to religion may explain the behaviors of some environmentalists, but it cannot explain how ideas get through peer review. Peer review is a brutal process. An assertion of faith is insufficient, even if they refer to some aspect of anthropogenic climate change. [I should have noted here that many papers arguing for some particular responses in the climate system to climate change do in fact get rejected for too little evidence or poor arguments. Papers don't get accepted simply because they trumpet arguments consistent with the prevailing view.]

[The person then commented again that views of scientists have along history of changing.]

Aspects of scientists views about climate change will certainly change. For example, as evidence has accumulated, many climate scientists have concluded that the number of weak to moderate intensity tropical cyclones will actually decline with time in response to increasing CO2, and that accumulated snowfall in the Antarctic will actually increase for a while (because it is more often warm enough to snow than in the past). But your notion that the whole thing will get thrown out is quite unlikely. Increasing CO2 concentrations do, and will warm the earth. That's a fact measured in the lab:

What will almost certainly change is our understanding of how much warming will actually occur [a point that we will not be fully certain about until we measure it]. I personally don't anticipate the strongest warming amounts proposed, except perhaps in the Arctic. Negative feedbacks in the tropical regions seem too profound to me. Yet that in no way implies that no negative consequences are likely. Negative consequences are already occurring--especially in the Arctic.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Do Most Climate Scientists Argue that Climate Change is Mostly Caused by Human Activities in Order to Get Grant Money?

Earlier today I was reading a Youtube discussion board below an anti-anthropogenic climate change video. I read an interesting comment, which stated that many climate scientists support the view that human activities contribute substantially to climate change in order to get grants from the National Science Foundation. 

I think that this suggestion is completely ignorant of the process of peer review at NSF, and my own experience suggests it is ridiculous. No one gets a grant today based just on maintaining the status quo of the science, or to simply show that human activities have caused most modern climate change. Grants are awarded to address more specific questions. Even in climate science, peer review is brutal, and NSF declines a broad majority of proposals submitted. These proposals don't get declined simply because they disagree the the status quo either. The reality is that NSF proposals don't get funded without disagreeing with some aspect of the status quo, or without presenting a potential solution to some well defined problem that has not been previously addressed to the satisfaction of the scientists. Funded proposals are nearly always written to address questions for which the answers are unknown. Otherwise, they are outside of the mission of the NSF. Although it is apparently true that most climate scientists funded by NSF agree that human activities have influenced the climate, proposals don't get funded simply because they agree with that point of view.

For those who believe that NSF only grants money to work on climate science to those who accept the status quo and only if they address questions consistent with the status quo, I offer the following challenge. Submit a standard 15-page proposal on the climate change problem to the NSF directorate on climate and large-scale dynamics. Choose some aspect that agrees with the status quo, without contributing anything new, and good luck!

The Need for Complete Commitment to Freedom of Speech

Politics can learn much from freedom of speech in science. In recent years, segments of the American left have strived to silence the speech of those who question aspects of their agendas. I am a political centrist. I like to have my own ideas questioned, and I don’t think that any idea from anyone should be immune to criticism. I think that dealing with criticism is the best way to refine our ideas. Every claim important enough to consider as part of public policy should be justified or discarded. Recent years have taken political correctness to extreme. Under the guise of protection for the downtrodden, both written and unwritten laws have grown out of social norms, and activists have worked to silence expression of opposition to these norms. Although many such norms may be well founded, no idea can be justified simply by silencing opposing views. Activists raise cries of racism, misogyny, or homophobia to silence people, even when such claims might be completely irrelevant. I’m not denying that such claims can reflect reality, just that they become inappropriate when intended only to silence criticism. 

True justification of ideas is made by logical arguments, evidence, and reasoned debate. As I see it, the best way to protect the rights of those who might be oppressed is not to suppress the speech of others, but instead to counter such speech with supportive speech. In recent years, even university culture has tried to silence expression of unpopular or apparently offensive opinions. Student groups and even faculty occasionally work to silence people who might express perspectives with which they are uncomfortable. Sometimes the conflict is trivial. Back while I was a graduate student at Penn State, I recall broad campus discussion on the invitation of Fred Rogers, of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, to speak at graduation. Mr. Rogers was an accomplished educator of children, with what I saw as remarkable talent. At the time, his was the longest running show in the history of public television. Yet, hundreds of students took offense to his invitation and protested to university administration. They were offended because they thought that the university was treating them like children by inviting Mr. Rogers. They were so shortsighted that they could not see Mr. Rogers’ life’s work as relevant to them. I defend the students’ rights to express their own points of view, but I condemn their attempts to silence people by taking offense where none was merited. 

Universities must be inclusive and welcoming to all types of people. Yet, a healthy university-learning environment must include the possibility that any idea be considered critically, including those on questions on religion, race, and politics. Full and unadulterated freedom of speech is not a threat to a healthy society: It is indispensable! 

Expression of Doubt Is Central to Science and Scientific Teaching

As a professor, I want my students to think for themselves and to not completely trust what I tell them. I am not an authority over their opinions—I can only present evidence and arguments. There are no scientific authorities. Every scientist making a claim is expected to support it with evidence in peer review. Although well-established science is extremely difficult to refute because it entails large amounts of evidence collected over time, no scientific claim is immune to the potential to be rejected, disproved, or replaced with ideas that are better supported by evidence. No scientist is entitled to safe space for poorly supported claims, including in the classroom.

I try to follow the scientific process in my classroom. Although students in the classroom are unlikely to overturn prevailing scientific views, encouraging them to express their doubts and raise questions can make the process of learning mimic the process of scientific inquiry. I want students to express reasonable doubt and to criticize my claims. Furthermore, I think that students learn science better when they confront ideas they do not yet understand, with open minds. When students express doubt in a scientific finding because they do not understand it, that expression can help the teacher understand the nature of their misunderstandings. When I discover inadequate understanding I can take steps to clarify the concept.