Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for February, 2009

Our educational journeys, when and where (in its most general sense) did we start them and where through these have taken us, have a lot to do with “where we are coming from” (i.e., our current perspective and approach to things). Multiple personal and cultural anthropological factors influence our formation as individuals. To keep on my previous post’s train of thought, I will refer specifically to issue regarding the exam type choices.

My own early educational experiences (I was initially trained as a physicist) did not include multiple choice questions exams. Quite frankly, it was probably the main factor that allowed me to survive the rather arduous process to emerge with scientific credentials. I became familiar with the multiple choice exams afterward during my North American education in the life sciences and medicine. As I concentrated on unraveling the intricacies of the human body I thought  the years I had spent resolving differential equations modeling inanimate matter behavior might have been a huge waste. Yet, I finally realized the real value of a training gained through examinations of abilities based on a combination of writing essay, solving new problems, and oral (“free style”) exams, requiring us to understand fundamental principles and to use them to continuously deduct or construct solutions on the spot. These had armed us with a system for thinking through any kind of problem. We also had to develop the ability to clearly (and efficiently) explain in words our thinking process and interact live with our examiners, which further encourages (forces?) cultivation of our creative side. I now credit my initial training for the ease of doing well later on my multiple choice tests. On the other hand, I am pretty convinced that, personally, I would have had trouble passing as successfully through a reversed sequence of exam styles.

One instance when the realization of the likely impact of differences in educational and selection systems finally struck home not too long ago. While attending a professional session aimed at assessing personality profiles, I turned out to be the only “creative” out of a group of 20+ scientifically trained people. The most surprising to me was my colleagues’ reaction: “How can you possibly be creative? You are a scientist!” (?!?) Furthermore, corporate HR guidelines recommend that people with my profile work in the sales or marketing divisions rather than in R&D. One cannot but wonder: are the current education and selection systems working to most efficiently filter out all the creatives from the scientific and technical fields?!? Likely! Furthermore, is the common work environment placing people into boxes, force fitting or even rejecting the ones who are different or refuse to fill predefined boxes? Would this be expected to have an impact on our overall ability to innovate? I would love to hear other opinions…

My hypothesis, that not only the field of education but also the place of education plays an important role in our predisposition to innovation, has been confirmed by many conversations with other foreign-trained individuals. Besides the many obvious ethnical differences that influence our formation in general, many of the foreign-trained individuals are the product of different educational systems where the multiple choice selection does not reign supreme, thus were not filtered out tightly by its use. Other differences are likely to put their mark. For instance, individuals might have also been trained to think more broadly.

Times also put their mark on the issue. The younger generations, currently using mostly keyboards to communicate, are likely to erode the domination of either side, allowing an increased use of both sides of our brains: the end of the lopsided – or maybe lobe-sided – “left brain-right hand” era”? We all, regardless of age, are increasingly using new learning, communication, and cooperation channels, a phenomenon which I think is majorly responsible for the definite surge in the interest toward understanding global issues and wide open cooperation. Take for instance the “crowd-sourcing” phenomenon, which allows a wide variety of people to jump at the chance to solve problems, including some that normally would not be presented to them, because they do not have the credentials normally qualifying them as “specialists”. Due to the broad availability of knowledge on the Internet, what one needs to be able to do is not to remember information, but be able to use it in a constructive way. Technically speaking, the only relevant product of the educational system should be developing reasoning skills and knowledge management skills, finally releasing us from our current hang-up on possessing factual domain knowledge, and the definition of ability based on narrowly classified specialties or specific degrees. We could then step into the brave new era of creative problem solving.

 

Addendum. As I was writing this entry, the following joke was landing into my e-mail box… (seemed to hit too close to let it drop).

“During a physics lecture to the pre-med class, the professor was explaining a particularly complicated concept. A student interrupted him:

‘Why do we have to learn this physics stuff?’

The professor responded: ‘To save lives!’ and he continued his lecture.

After just a few moments the student interrupted again. ‘So how does physics save lives?’

The professor intently stared at the student. After a long silence, he said: ‘Physics saves lives because it prevents certain people from getting into the medical school.'”

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

For no apparent reason, I recently remembered an odd thing from my childhood. One of my earliest memories is looking down in disbelief at my left hand, and wondering why everybody seemed to think that it was not as good as my right hand… I could not write yet, but I already knew that I was going to have to use my right hand for that purpose as well. There was no negotiation about it, I had been disciplined that the right hand was the only hand to eat with, to write with, to shake other right hands with. Even so, I kept coming back to my original question: why did nobody want to give my left hand a chance, why was everybody discriminating against it? I can remember the moment when I decided I that I would become a secret supporter of my left hand: I would comfort it when all the important assignments went to my right hand and then I would give it a chance to try them when nobody else was around. As I grew older, I realized that in several languages the word “right” was used to not only designate one of the sides, but to specifically indicate the correct or positive side, while the word “left” in many languages suggests something inapt, unlucky, even designates a strongly negative trait. For instance the Italians use “sinistra” (for left) from the Latin sinistr-, or sinister, unlucky, inauspicious.  How did it get to this point, but more importantly how does this predetermined, negative view of one of the two sides consciously or subconsciously affect the way we place judgments when it comes to anything that can be specifically related to one of the sides: of our body (our hand, our brain) or our thinking and actions? Is there a wrong way to think or do things? Why “take sides” anyway?

My secret persistent support for my left hand proved to be extremely useful to me several years later. My right hand had to be immobilized for a few months in a cast from its finger tips to the shoulder, after a basketball accident during my high school freshman year. I had to take a bunch of exams during that time, none of them a multiple choice test… My somewhat prepared left hand, emerged from its previous anonymity to legitimately take over the task of writing my exam essays, allowing me to not miss a beat. Even later, I learned that the left side of our body is controlled by the right side of our brain, which also happens to the center of our creativity, the one with the capacity to discern patterns, and make new connections. This further made me wonder: is the widely supported predominance of the right hand leading to a supremacy of the left brain thinking patterns?

Why am I writing about this? The constructive interference of my old memory, which couples my willingness to make use of my left hand (widely considered substandard) to write exam essays (right brain?), is now finally starting to make sense to me… Moving later in my educational journey to North America, I had briefly considered now and again the potential implications of the over-reliance of this educational system on the multiple choice type tests. I am not referring to the problems created by poorly written questions (e.g., ambiguous, or too obvious). I am questioning the reign of the principle itself: the correct solution has to come from a pre-set collection of choices, all provided for the picking. Do the multiple choice tests adequately measure the right brain creative problem solving ability? Maybe if you had forgotten or maybe never learned the correct answer, and you had to figure it out? Could be, but as many readily available materials, some displayed by websites, will eagerly teach you, the intellectual effort of finding the correct answer should focus on finding a fault in the question or the potential answer formulation, rather than on trying to find the answer based on making logical connections with the learned material or attempting to build a solution from scratch. One is advised to analyze the mismatch of the “superficial” features, e.g., does the answer match the grammatical construction of the question, or to consider whether some answer is just a decoy based on being overly restrictive or too different (or maybe appears to use jargon!!!) Yet another suggested technique is to basically game the system, either by literally using game theory reasoning (Ian Ayres writes: “Game theory is so powerful it can help you figure out the correct answer without even knowing what the question is.”) or to mindlessly select random answers which might just turn out to be right one and will bring you points. On other tests there is also some gain for leaving all blank answers or sometimes no penalty for giving the wrong answer…

What are the advantages and disadvantages of the “Multiple choice” examination system? The related entry from Wikipedia indicates that the main advantage compared to soliciting written answers is “a more comprehensive evaluation of the candidate’s extent of knowledge” (in the same amount of time).  I.e., the multiple choice test is convenient to administer and grade, and say some students easy to take. On the flip side, the consensus seems to be that the main disadvantages are losing some credits for partial answers or gaining some credit for random guesses. Personally I think that operating based on these principles and selecting year after year students mostly based on this type of test creates an enormous loss of an entirely different order of magnitude: the test does not teach the students to consider the possibility that… there just might be another/new, potentially better solution! Creativity and the creative don’t stand a chance! I am referring to people who might be able to “build” the correct answer, whether it might be the one known to the examiners as being the correct one or maybe a completely new answer. These people are weeded out of the system early or retrained to think in terms of memorizing pre-set answers, to find fault in the superficial formulation of the question or the answer, or simply to become champions at gaming the system. Along the way we lose the ability to assess and stimulate a lot of qualities that include organizing, processing, and articulating information and thoughts, and the ability to think outside of the box (literally, outside of those A, B, C, D choices). This post is getting too long, so I plan to come back with some considerations of the interplay between education/selection systems, fields of training, geography and potential generational differences.

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: