Sunday, 9 February 2014

Toolkit

Every time you read about any of the famous scientists of old, you read about their studies with their mentor(s). I always have this image of someone immersing himself in the work he does with his mentor, who invests much of his time teaching his student all he knows. I rarely ever picture what we now know as formal education. Most times I wish I could have the sort of intellectual relationship they had back then rather than the kind of education we get today.

It just feels much more personal, tailored to your specific needs. It also sounds much more interesting than our current state of trying to survive going from assignment to assignment and test to test. For a person that spends much of her time thinking about education, I must say the current system we use isn't without its flaws. However, I am here to argue that we simply cannot do away with formal education. Indeed we should improve upon it, but we cannot abandon it completely; we should not. Today postgraduate study towards a PhD does follow the mentoring framework, but of course a person must get through over 15 years of formal education in order to get there.

So here is why I think formal education should never cease to exist and should remain (with certain flexibility) to be mandatory.

There are many careers out there, each requiring varying skill sets. Clearly, we cannot prepare all school students for all the jobs available in the market. On the other hand, it would not be fair to focus their education on a certain subject or another. We see that if our formal schooling system is to persist and be effective, a middle ground must be reached. But is this not what our schools attempt (badly) to do? Unless a child knows at age five what he truly likes doing (which he doesn't), we can say that at least for young children, formal education works quite well. If done properly that is.

Jumping ten years into the future. The child is now about to graduate from high school. He thinks he's fairly certain he knows what he wants to do (in some instances). Say, he wants to work in game design. He's into animation and would like to create amazing worlds for his characters to explore. He realizes he also needs to know a fair amount of computer programming (which in my ideal schooling system he would've learned), some math, and possibly some physics. His art and music courses would help him develop the mood he wants for his games. Some creative writing wouldn't hurt to ensure a decent plot line either. He realizes he already knows the basics of everything he needs to make it to his dream job.

Now that was just me trying to think of the ideal situation that would somehow prove my point. Maybe not all jobs like that. Probably not. You can be a musician and claim that chemistry isn't ever going to help you with your musical career. Oh, but it might? You can be a mathematician that simply abhors the language of shakespeare. Certainly this could happen. However today we live in a world where the distinction between fields isn't entirely defined. I've taken a course about music with a computer scientist (who is a drummer and does research in the field). Such interdisciplinary work is hard to do (or begin to think of) if you don't have the background in other fields. Today's world is all about connecting all the different disciplines. This is how you innovate. The courses that are directly related to your field the least may end up inspiring your own work.

Perhaps back in the day you would get a degree in, perhaps psychology, and you would go on to become a psychologist. You could work in the exact same field as your degree, and all would be safe and happy. The same thing wouldn't necessarily happen today. 

In any case, would you not agree that a little background in each subject would be beneficial? For indeed that is where innovation begins. You cannot think outside the box if all your knowledge is confined to your small box. Many a breakthrough has been made by collaboration across various fields. I will refrain from giving examples here, simply because the best one I know of will either turn out incomprehensible to most or horribly explained (which would also be incomprehensible). I can tell you however, than 90% of medical imaging technology comes from physics. And I'm not talking biophysics here. The medical applications would have been long delayed if people didn't have the background to consider medical uses for their discoveries. 

Many artists these days incorporate science and technology in their works, whether by directly employing scientific methods in the production of their artwork, or by using science as inspiration for their artwork. CERN (the largest physics laboratory in Europe and home of the LHC that discovered the Higgs boson two years ago) recently started an artist residency project. The artworks that result from this interesting intersection are, well, interesting and unconventional (as you would expect). The first of these artist residents was a choreographer, with some of his science-inspired work found here (starting at 41:00). I don't know about you, but I would surely welcome unconventional artwork. I'm pretty certain that is what contemporary art is all about. How unconventional can you possibly get if all you know is confined to your specific field?

You could say that, well I can learn something if I wanted to later on. I would tell you that you could. Except that it would be very much harder. And you will never be as good at it as you would've been if you'd learned it at a younger age. Why do world class musicians always start at a very young age? Would you have been able to speak your mother tongue as good as you do if you'd learned it half way through your life. We all know its best to start early. So what's wrong with learning a whole set of things at young age? 

You never really know what the world has in store for you, is it not best to be prepared? If you're at all familiar with the adventure genre, be it books or movies or video games, you know that no one ever sets out on an expedition ill prepared. Your life is an expedition into the unknown, so pick up as many skills as you can garner. Diversify your toolkit. You never know what may come in handy.

I say this to the many people that think they have a passion for one thing and one thing only. And want to do that thing exclusively. You might think you do, but you really don't. And there are upsides to formal education.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Child's Play

I have a statement to make. I'm generally a very laid back person, but sometimes things bother me. I'm going to tell you about what is bothering me right now. I'm not just bothered but I'm also concerned.
I know the very least I could possibly know about children, and most of me doesn't want to know any more than I already do know. I don't have any younger siblings and I don't really spend that much time around kids. But what I do know is a little bit of psychology, and from what I know things don't look particularly well for this current generation of young children.

We are all quite familiar with the notion that children are born quite creative but lose most of their creativity growing older (possibly due to school). There are countless experiments that have confirmed this. Kids are generally quite good at divergent thinking, which is generally the "process of generating multiple related ideas for a given topic or solutions to a problem." As a person gets older this ability decreases, which might have a little to do with standardized testing and there being only one correct answer in most questions you're asked to solve in school. Now schooling probably does stifle a child's ability to think in this way, but that is not the subject of my matter right now, so you'd probably have to do your own googling if you want to know more about that.

Little children are very curious about their surroundings and are very exploratory. A baby has no idea what your phone is, and thus puts it in his mouth to try to figure out whether it is edible (I'm can't get into a child's head to confirm this statement but I'm sure the child is curious about your phone). This sort of behavior encourages divergent thinking. However, soon enough the child starts understanding language and can speak a handful of words. Then the child is burdened with orders of what to do and what not to do, kind of hindering the exploration the child wants to do on his own (I think this is the perfect explanation for why kids are constantly throwing tantrums). Even better, the child start going to school and is then spoon fed the things he'd much rather be finding out on his own. The child is left little room to think of things on his own, he's left no room to be creative with his thought.

It seems clear to me that if you want to nurture a child's creative right brain, then it's best to start at the earliest stage of life as possible. In any case, a person's most important years of life are the first six. The first six years are the ones where a child's personality forms and when neuron connections are formed in the brain. It is much harder to teach a child something afterwards because it will not be permanently wired into the child's brain, as it would be if taught early in life. But what does the current generation of young children spend their time doing?

They spend it playing with their iPads.

Go back to your own early childhood. You probably played with dolls (or cut up their hair and clothes like I did), played with little toy cars, built sand castles and houses made of lego bricks, among other things. Most importantly, you probably played pretend quite a lot. I honestly miss playing with my toy cashier and all those plastic fruits and vegetables I kept forcing my parents to buy. All these things encourage divergent thinking. The following video is an excellent example of what divergent thinking can do (if you haven't seen it already). 


But this generation of kids? All I see them carrying are iPads. I personally have not spotted a doll in quite a while, I'm not sure all my little cousins own half the number of toy cars I once did, and I surely haven't accidentally stepped on a piece of lego in a very long time. I don't think I'd have forgotten it if I had. Do kids even own crayons these days?

As an ex-gamer, you can take my word for it when I say that computer games are the worst thing you can let a child play with. They are made by programmers, and they've probably programmed it so that there's one way to progress to the next level. There are a set of rules and a specific way to control the game, the rest is pretty much mindless (they don't really make strategy games for babies). I don't know about you, but I always got frustrated when I'm supposed to be climbing a mountain and the game wouldn't let me cross the bridge nearby it. Game developers don't really have time to design infinite worlds for you to explore, so there's only one path to follow. You can see this probably works in the opposite direction of what divergent thinking is all about.

As toddlers, we couldn't play with computer games because things were too complicated for us to comprehend, but with Apple's iPad that became a thing of the past and brought forth this new dilemma. I'm sure that in a divergent thinking test such as "How many uses can you think of for a spoon?" these kids would score lower than past generations of kids, or those who don't spend their time playing computer games, would score (an average adult would think of 10 but a child good at divergent thinking should be able to find around 100). Plenty of data is probably available for use in previous research papers so maybe someone should go ahead and test my hypothesis. 

In any case, please keep your children or your young siblings or any other children you know from their iPads. Buy them some blocks of lego instead. It's for the best.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Webs of Information

I have recently come to the conclusion that I can only think when I write, and quite frankly (as you can see from the blog archive to your right) I haven't been writing much. However, as I was working on an essay several days ago I stumbled upon something that didn't seem quite right. Not to me at least.

A few days ago, in case you did not know, was the World Wide Web's 20th "birthday." In case you didn't know, the World Wide Web is not the same as the internet (click link for further detail). It was on a certain last day of April before I came into existence that the inventors of the World Wide Web decided that it was probably for the best to put their lovely creation out in the public domain. Let me say simply that it was on the 30th of April of the year 1993. The other option these men had in mind was to start a company with their creation. Another was to leave it as the intellectual property of CERN, the birthplace of this wonderful World Wide Web. Before their fateful decision, the World Wide Web was mainly only accessible through universities. Now, imagine for a moment how your life would be if they'd gone for either of those two options. For one, you wouldn't be reading this right now.

Twenty years to me, feels like an incredibly short amount of time. Infinitesimally short really, considering the amount of data that is readily (or not so readily) available on this network of webpages that supposedly span the world (I'm not quite sure antarctica and the pacific ocean have internet). In any case, you'd expect the world to have drastically changed since. And it has, of course. You'd also expect people to change in reaction to it. At least the youth of today would have, you'd expect. The youth of today grew up with the world wide web. This is what confuses me.

I shall not look up statistics or find scholarly articles on this topic today. Or any day. If you feel compelled to do so if my argument is seemingly weak to you, do share your findings though. For now, I think it is sufficient to build an argument on what I've observed (disclaimer: I am not suggesting you write academic papers this way). Here goes.

Because we've grown up with the internet around us, we were exposed to much more information than all previous generations were. The first thing to not do here is compare ourselves with generations before us that did not have such a resource to rely on. Even then when we do, we seem to be failing in comparison. This is my first question. Why is this? Those before us had books. We do too. We also have the world wide web. Instant access, instant communication, from anywhere to anywhere. Instead of excelling at whatever we do, we are just not utilizing this resource the way we should. We all wonder how the older generations managed to graduate *any level of education* without the web. With the aid of the web, why aren't we able to do things at a much higher level? Why is it that people complain that education standards are decreasing? Should it not be the opposite? 

Now, onto my next point...

Cultural awareness. You'd think that, having readily accessible information about virtually everyone and everywhere, people would be a little more culturally aware than people were before. Long ago, people had no other choice but to make assumptions about the world because 1) That's unfortunately how people function. 2) The world wasn't so very accessible. This is not saying that every person today has the ability to jump on a plane at any given moment and travel wherever he may wish, but that he does have the ability to search the World Wide Web for all he wishes to know (assuming said person has access to the internet). Unfortunately, I don't think people are doing better at making assumptions today than people did 20 years ago. 

The stereotypes people have of different groups are largely the result of misinformation. The human brain likes to categorize things by nature, and so it is forced to create some stereotype for each group. This matter is out of one's control. The degree of inaccuracy in these stereotypes are the subject of scrutiny here. With the surplus of information one finds on the World Wide Web, it should be unthinkable to be still living among people who think Arabs ride camels as their main mode of transport, for just one example. You would assume that people who have the ability to google something, actually do go ahead and google instead of assuming. And yes, I used assume here twice on purpose. So why is this? Why do such stereotypes persist? Stereotyping is a requirement of the human brain. But I believe stereotypes that are a little more politically correct are in order.

Also, how much good has the World Wide Web really done us? There are wonderful things, such as the marvelous wikipedia which surprisingly still runs on donations and is still prohibited from appearing on our bibliography pages. The amazing search engine that made people stick their noses to their screens on a fateful April Fool's day only weeks ago. And well, there are many other lovely websites we all benefit from. How much more time do we spend "not benefiting" on the web though? Too much time is being spent on websites like youtube (I'm not saying youtube is not useful but most of what's on it is not), 9gag, tumblr, facebook, etc. Again, I don't know where I'm trying to go with this but I hope you get my point because I'm not sure I get my own point. I think I should refrain from saying more.

What I'm basically trying to say, is that even though the World Wide Web has really given us so many resources we find indispensable today, we're just not using it correctly. Or so I believe. Something is just not working out correctly. You might say that things take more than a generation to change, but I don't think that's the answer. I'm trying to call for discussion. Someone at least tell me why there appears to be no increase in cultural awareness among the general public. Tell me why education standards are in downfall when we live the era of the free encyclopedia that has pages on almost everything (no really, everything). At least, think with me.

Something is going wrong, and it might very well be that as the means of "time-wasting" and having fun increase, everything else that entices the mind to think takes the back seat. And so as entertainment industries continue to evolve.. humanity is very much headed towards self-destruction. (I have a feeling this short paragraph is very out of place. My apologies)

This is what I think. It is not about the resources one has, but how one utilizes them. It's not about what you can do, but what you actually venture out to do. It's about how you think, and what you choose to think about. Ultimately, it is how curious you are about the truth of all that surrounds you.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

We Are Young

I haven't posted in such a long while, I kind of feel like I have to. It's not that I don't have the time; I do. Rather it's that I haven't felt like I had any thoughts to share. Nothing popped out at me as something to write about, so I just refrained from writing anything. Now I realize that sometimes you have to actually think about something to write about, and an idea will appear. So here I am.

I kind of realize that my blog didn't turn out to be what I intended it to be, it wasn't supposed to be a blog geared out to a mainly Emirati audience. But that's what it turned out to be. That's nothing bad - I suppose - although I initially envisioned a blog with a more global outlook. Yet here goes another Emirati-specific post.

Every once in a while we see these hashtags on twitter that people try so hard to get trending, for reasons beyond my capability to understand. Whether or not I understand why getting something to trend on twitter is important, I do notice that some of these trends get rather controversial at times. I've spent over 2 years on the twitter platform, yet I still don't understand what role the hashtag is supposed to serve. When used for events and such things, it makes sense. In other instances, they're just another way for a bunch of bored people to find something to tweet about. I guess that's fine too. But that's not what I want to talk about. I'm not trying to analyze the hashtag here.

The controversial sort of hashtags shouldn't really be called controversial, but rather that they somehow receive opposition from some people. And why is that, you may say? Certain hashtags aim to be funny and witty, using the peculiarities of our society as a subject. Others may downright criticize. Whether or not the things being criticized deserve the criticism, using criticism for entertainment is rather pathetic. Also, why should our culture be criticized in an attempt to induce some laughter? People consistently point out things they see as "backwards", or things that "don't make sense" in a way to say that our society (or a portion of it) is stupid, shallow, ignorant, or whichever it may be. We may commonly use phrases that make no logical sense, for example, but if these phrases have become staples of our Emirati dialect, why should we ever have to attack it? Should we not take pride in it instead?

With the national day coming up, the usual sense of patriotism is again building up in (I hope) every Emirati. In light of this, and the fact that I've heard way too many complaints on tiny things that don't really matter, it should be said that, similar to how it is agreed upon that nobody is perfect, the same would go for nations and societies. Of course we aren't perfect. Who is? We constantly look towards the west as a role model to look up to. We shouldn't be looking towards celebrities - or anyone else for that matter, before looking at our own rich culture and taking from that. Keep in mind that Obama, whose election many of you were keeping up with, is the same Obama that stood there idly while Israel went about another one of their ruthless massacres in what is left of Palestine. You've probably also seen tweets from various celebrities "praying" for Israel, kind of ironic considering that it's the Palestinians being murdered. Go along in blind support for these celebs if you will.

I am not saying that I don't look to the West. I do, and quite a lot I may add. I always find myself praising their universities, wishing I was there instead of here. Dreaming of the research and job opportunities that are impossible to find here. I do that. However sometimes I oblige myself to stop; to pause and think. Harvard University was established in 1636. Yale in 1701. What about the oldest university in Emirates? Only in 1976 was UAE University established. I doubt it is at all fair to compare. It surely is true that Harvard is a great university, yet would not a big part of that be attributed to the fact that it has had over three centuries to become what it is today? It would be correct to say that Harvard is "better" than any university in this country, yet you cannot criticize any of our universities for not being at the level of an Ivy League college. Perhaps they will be, if given the centuries the Ivys have had to grow. In case you aren't aware, UAEU ranks in one of the top 50 universities established within the last 50 years. Certainly a good thing. AUS, a much newer university, ranks among the world's top 500. No less an achievement for so young a university.

I used universities as an example perhaps because this is what I am most familiar with currently. Yet this would apply to everything else as well. Our just-starting film industry, the various small start ups, the lack of scientific thinkers, as well as anything else you may think of, would very plausibly be the direct result of a very young country. What are we, today? The second generation of  Emiratis? I think so. Even though our infrastructure may indeed be world class, our society has only just started shaping itself.

One day we will get there. Pretty soon I think too. The speed at which numerous different initiatives that have spurred these last few years is great, we can already see that a society with a new mindset is forming. To criticize however, will only hinder this process. We must all look forward optimistically. How exciting is it to be part of a country when it is so young? In a way, we are all shaping the nation. We are building something, while others may appear more sophisticated only because their society was already established a long time ago. How messy is a construction site while a house is being built?