by James Bailey |

Self Schooling is a big fan of Anne-Marie Slaughter's new book The Chessboard and the Web. In it, she correctly notes that:

  • We are taught to see the world as a chessboard
  • We need to see it as an interconnected network

Okay, but when she herself recently faced a kerfuffle about research in her new think tank offending one of its funders, she reverted instantly to chessboard habits and took the offending piece off the board. The serious study of networks she has done, and the book evinces some serious study, was no match for the chessboard habits of thought installed since her childhood. A she herself notes:


All of us, perhaps especially foreign policy makers in moments of crisis, are prisoners of our mental models.


In a previous post we noted some explicit examples of scientists recommending the chessboard as a metaphor. Perhaps the most egregious is Huxley’s:


The chessboard is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of nature… Well, what I mean by education is learning the rules of this mighty game.


Habits of thought are the hidden payloads of the curriculum Trojan Horse virus. It's easy to put a chess board in there. What we need, however, is a graphical network, which brings us to hotshot number two.

Daphne Koller is a rightfully-acclaimed Stanford professor, recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, cofounder of Coursera, and teacher of one of its early courses: Probabilistic Graphical Methods. That's a mouthful, but the course covers a way of thinking about networks that might—repeat might— be understandable by middle schoolers. But not if Prof. Koller has anything to do about it.

The Probabilistic Graphical Methods course is openly positioned as a torture test for advanced computer science graduate students. Those who have not endured the years of mathematical minutia (mostly in probability theory) that Prof. Koller herself has mastered, can go elsewhere. Those who have mastered it get to join the club, but having done so, are unlikely to lower the barriers to entry for others. So this potential door to a way of experiencing networks early in the K-12 curriculum remains slammed shut.

The contrast to Prof. Koller’s Coursera cofounder, Prof. Andrew Ng, is instructive. Prof. Ng's early online course in Machine Learning was also a handful, but now he is back with the replacement course in Deep Learning that we have been following in earlier posts. Instead of maximizing obscurity, Prof. Ng has worked hard, and effectively, to make the material accessible. He wants to let more students in, not shut them out. Stephen Wolfram is hard at work along similar lines.

Algorithms like Deep Learning and Probabilistic Graphs are the "A" in the BEADS curriculum, and they need to be brought down into the middle school years at the latest. There is work to be done here.


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