What do teachers know when they’re not doers?

Bret Victor questions the effectiveness of educators that do not actively participate in the subjects they teach in his essay Some Thoughts on Teaching.

Can you trust a teacher who doesn’t use what he teaches? Who has never used what he teaches?

Can you trust a teacher whose only connection to a subject is teaching it?

How can such a teacher know if what he’s teaching is valuable, or how well he’s teaching it? (“Curricula” and “exams”, respectively, are horrendous answers to those questions.)

Real teaching is not about transferring “the material”, as if knowledge were some sort of mass-produced commodity that ships from Amazon. Real teaching is about conveying a way of thinking. How can a teacher convey a way of thinking when he doesn’t genuinely think that way?

I’m sure many teachers spend their evenings thinking about teaching the subject. I have no doubt that these teachers love teaching, and love their students. But to me, that seems like a chef who loves cooking, but doesn’t love food. Who has never tasted his own food. This chef might have the best of intentions, but someone in need of a satisfying meal is probably better off elsewhere.

This idea is great for specialized subjects and higher education in general, but how can it apply to the teaching of children? There are not many practicing mathematicians who would be satisfied teaching basic arithmetic or artists teaching finger painting.

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Why I Prefer Pro

I’m not a big sports enthusiast, but I’ve always been more interested in professional sports. I was never sure why I had that preference, but Taylor Branch’s article, The Shame of College Sports expresses why I prefer pro.

For all the outrage, the real scandal is not that students are getting illegally paid or recruited, it’s that two of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence—“amateurism” and the “student-athlete”—are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes. The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not.

Slavery analogies should be used carefully. College athletes are not slaves. Yet to survey the scene—corporations and universities enriching themselves on the backs of uncompensated young men, whose status as “student-athletes” deprives them of the right to due process guaranteed by the Constitution—is to catch an unmistakable whiff of the plantation. Perhaps a more apt metaphor is colonialism: college sports, as overseen by the NCAA, is a system imposed by well-meaning paternalists and rationalized with hoary sentiments about caring for the well-being of the colonized. But it is, nonetheless, unjust. The NCAA, in its zealous defense of bogus principles, sometimes destroys the dreams of innocent young athletes.

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City Math

Author Jonah Lehrer reports on Geoffrey West’s attempt to understand how cities work.

[C]ities are valuale because they facilitate human interactions, as people crammed into a few square miles exchange ideas and start collaborations. “If you ask people why they move to the city, they always give the same reasons,” West says. “They’ve come to get a job or follow their friends or to be at the center of a scene. That’s why we pay the high rent. Cities are all about the people, not the infrastructure.”

West also examines the differences between the groupings of people who make up cities and the groupings of people who make up companies.

For West, the impermanence of the corporation illuminates the real strength of the metropolis. Unlike companies, which are managed in a top-down fashion by a team of highly paid executives, cities are unruly places, largely immune to the desires of politicians and planners. “Think about how powerless a mayor is,” West says. “They can’t tell people where to live or what to do or who to talk to. Cities can’t be managed, and that’s what keeps them so vibrant. They’re just these insane masses of people, bumping into each other and maybe sharing an idea or two. It’s the freedom of the city that keeps it […]

This story was published in the New York Times Magazine a while ago now, but it still answers some interesting questions about the draw and efficiencies of cities.

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