TED Talk: How To Ask Good Questions

Why ask questions? Sometimes being able to ask a good question is more important than finding a good answer.

If the video above does not work, then try How To Ask Good Questions: David Stork at TEDxStanleyPark

What makes a question the best?

  • Clearly stated and unambiguous
  • There must be a solution
  • Solution method exists
  • Improved solution methods will likely be useful
  • Extremal
  • Goes to hear of issue
  • The “right” level
  • Leads to new questions

General techniques

  • Isolate components
  • Consider all attributes and combinations of attributes
  • Explore missing aspects
  • Consider extereme cases
  • How does X depend on Y?
  • How to measure?
  • Transisitions from state 1 to state 2
  • Invert things
  • Who, what, where, why, when?
  • Analogies
  • Different “languages” (math, code)
  • Different disciplines

The Loss of Tech Support

I found a statement in Twitter is your IT support interesting:

For reasons I won’t go in to, I haven’t been able to get [a WordPress install with the FeedWordPress plugin] done at the Open University, despite trying since last July. I’ve spoken to people at others unis and it isn’t isolated to the OU, it seems to be this low-level, experimental type of IT support is increasingly difficult to find.

Do you know who I think the culprit is? The VLE. As universities installed VLEs they became experts at developing enterprise level solutions. This is serious business and I have a lot of respect for people who do it. The level of support, planning and maintenance required for such systems is considerable. So we developed a whole host of processes to make sure it worked well. But along the way we lost the ability to support small scale IT requests that don’t require an enterprise level solution. In short, we know how to spend £500,000 but not how to spend £500.

(For those of you non-British/European readers, VLE are Virtual Learning Environments which are often also called Learning Management Systems on this side of the Atlantic.)

It is true the higher education IT has change with online class systems, but I think that part of the symptom and not causal. Chief Information Officers, Chief Academic Officers, and presidents all get recognition for big things. Enterprise level solutions are sexy because it is something that makes them look decisive and effective. Employees who report to them know this, so enterprise level solutions have the priority. Everything else fits into the dwindling extra work time.

What extra time?

The good news though is the small things have gotten much easier for anyone to go off on their own. At my last job, I sat as an ex-officio member of the Faculty Senate technology committee. One of the hot topics one year was a couple faculty members taught students how to use the LMS adopted by another college system in the state. It was two courses. Should we spend $20,000/yr and take up a significant amount of my time running a second LMS? Or should they continue to pay $800/yr for Blackboard to do it? The answer ultimately was to continue with Blackboard. Now days, they probably would be directed at CourseSites. At the time my to-do list was several pages long and hundred plus hour weeks were not uncommon just to keep top and high priority items timely done. The ETA for anything not top or high priority was over a year.

I prefer working with innovative technologies. Custom solutions that require creative thinking and problem solving make me feel like I accomplished something special. They give the biggest rush. Enterprise level software is steak and potatoes, so it is the core. The enterprise is the minimum. I just wish I more time to devote to achieve going beyond the minimum than I did. Well, do. This is a top level decision. Improve staffing and flexible team management so that people can spend time working on the things that make them happier.

Conditional Thinking

XKCDTech Support Flowchart

My mind made a leap past something blocking it for a while now.

This post, If This, Then That (ifttt): Teaching Conditional Thinking laid the groundwork I needed. The post describes a new simpler version of Yahoo Pipes called ifttt. The idea of both is to take data generated at one or many places and output that data in new interesting ways. An example for how I have used it is creating a single Bbworld feed taking the hashtags in Twitter, a couple dozen blogs, and Flickr tagged photos to produce a single RSS feed to follow. Sooo easier to give out this one than list all the feeds to coworkers or peers at other work places. It then describes this as a useful way to teach conditional thinking.

We have been discussing learning, specifically teaching the skills involved in problem solving: understand the problem, make a guess how to solve, try it, check the efficacy, decide whether solved or keep trying or give up. One idea thrown out was that there was a culture us-vs-them and that our culture made problem solving possible where as another culture did not. Another idea was that in order to problem solve one has to be able to find causes. A third was that someone taught us how to problem solve so someone needs to teach them.

This made me realize problem solving is similar to process flows in that have conditional logic.

  • Case: make a guess how to solve.
  • Exec: try it.
  • Test: check the efficacy.
  • Loop: decide whether solved or keep trying or give up.

The key piece really is someone who writes code reaches a point where letters, numbers, and symbols mean anticipated behavior. They know what it should do to solve the problem. Then when the code does not do it, they use problem-solving to fix it so it will.

So… To solve a problem, I may write code with conditional logic similar to problem-solving with problem solving to make it work. Even when I am writing this blog post, I am thinking about problems with it, how I can improve it, trying different ways to express it, and deciding whether it is okay. Think that seals it: Problem solving is a culture in which we are completely mired. Those trying to participate without thinking this way will have a hard time being relevant. Er… Useful. Er… Helpful.

Changing Education Paradigms

Sir Ken Robinson, who has the great TED talk on how education kills creativity, Schools Kill Creativity, has a new one. A key concept is divergent thinking, an essential capacity of creativity, is the ability to see multiple answers or approaches. Education appears to kill off divergent thinking. Creativity is important to problem solving.

I had not considered the big risk for public education is the degree is not a guarantee of a good job. Certainly, people warned me my degree was useless for getting a job in the bachelor’s level, so I’d planned on getting a Master’s or even Ph.D. However, even those were no guarantee. This probably ties in with Anya Kamenetz’s idea maybe the better approach is to provide the content openly and turn education into services to help students master the content. I would agree education has aligned itself into an industrial production of graduates with increasing standardization.

How the current model is bad for kids and various things would solve it has been the discussion a parent and educator friends of the parent have discussed since I was at least in high school and all through college. Montessori and charter schools were all predicted to break public education yet it still stands. DIY Y is the latest. Why do they still stand? Because while experts know public education is not sustainable and the general public would agree, they rely heavily on politicians to make their decisions. It is easier to campaign about fixing education than it is to correct any of the systemic issues. My prediction is until public higher education tuition rises so high about 50% of potential college students cannot afford to attend even with available scholarships, things will not change much.

Ken’s stance on ADHD is eerily similar to the ideas presented in The Edison Gene.

TED Talk: Is Play More Than Fun?

In the Q&A, Stuart Brown, co-author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, rejects the idea play is a rehersal for adulthood. Stopping an animal from playing doesn’t prevent the animal from being a successful predator. REM sleep provides the rehearsal needed for learning. Play is the next evolutionary step. The video is a little too heavy on repeating the same generic idea over an over with different examples. However, they are amusing examples.

The types of play Brown references usually involves multiple individuals in a social interaction. This play teaches survival skills like socialization, adaptation, flexibility (our selfish genes at work).

The origin of this play research was in identifying the next Charles Whitmore, the University of Texas Tower sniper. In studying mass murderers, he found Charles and others like him consistently grew up in environments where play was not allowed. By not playing these children developed into dysfunctional adults.

I found a particular claim quite interesting. “The opposite of play is not work… It is depression.” That is almost word for word out of his book on page 126, which Google Books has a copy. Later he better explains the part about play and work are not in opposition:

The quality that work and play have in common is creativity. In both we are building our world, creating new relationships, neural connections, objects…. At their best, play and work, when integrated, make sense of our workd and ourselves. (Play, p.127)

This agrees with Adam and Jamie from the Mythbusters to Moira Gunn for the Commonwealth Cluf of California about their work. Just look at Adam’s face before triggering a test on any episode. The complete and total joy is a testament to the power of dopamine.

I think the opposition to depression involves movement which is exercise. Exercise produces serotonin which is crucial to fighting off depression. So my work, sitting in a cube all day long problem solving is good for dopamine but not a producer of serotonin. However, a good game of tag would produce both dopamine in anticipating tagging a playmate and serotonin from the movement. (Why can’t work be more like tag?)

If Dr. Brown is right, then suppressing the rough and tumble playing children enjoy is the best way to place in society malfunctioning adults who are more likely to be violent. Things like recess (just half an hour) during the day will keep our prisons less full 20 years later. <sarcasm>Maybe the No Child Left Behind meant all the children will end up in prison?</sarcasm> More likely children will fit their play in less supervised situations and get their fill.