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Factfulness: a must read

I have a love-hate relationship with math. Throughout my elementary and secondary schooling, I felt math was my worst subject. While I liked geometry, I only made it through half my second year of algebra as a high school junior. I simply never saw the point of solving quadratic equations or converting perfectly good base 10 numbers to base 8. I assiduously avoided math there after.

I was successful in doing so until enrolling in a post-graduate program that called for a statistics class. I dreaded the thought of spending a semester of Saturday mornings doing abstract theoretical math problems that had no application to normal people's lives. (And yes, I vainly considered myself to be a normal person.) And I did not have the funds to pay some nerd take the class for me.

But it just so happened that I lucked out with my instructor at the University of Iowa. An adjunct taught the class who, as I remember, was a local 8th grade math teacher himself. To every concept in statistics (standard deviation from the norm, valid sample size, etc.), he used examples from everyday education. I ate it up. And to this day, I still apply some of the things I learned from that class, often questioning conclusions drawn by educators on "data" when good principles of statistics seem to be missing. 

So it always with great pleasure that I read a book in which numbers have a real application in helping me understand the world, especially the world of policy, politics, and social undertakings. I found Hans Rosling's book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World - and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. Sceptre, 2018 to be such a book. 

A fellow hiker highly recommended the book on one of our evening jaunts, but I was initially skeptical to read anything that says the world is becoming a better place. Might it just be big business propaganda to lessen concerns over global issues? (It was endorsed by Bill Gates.)

This book was just the opposite: a careful, readable, thoughtful, statistically-driven analysis of major changes in the world today - most very positive. Rosling, an international health care worker, gives 10 practical strategies for helping analyze the news one hears and putting it in a realistic context. I found this strategy important enough to buy a copy to send to my grandsons. It also put me in mind of Paulos's old book Innumeracy (which I am re-reading to my great delight.) 

If you want a means of determining what world events you should or should not be concerned about, you should read Factfulness.
 I feel a little less like I am drowning in seas of bias, propaganda, careless communications, and bullshit. 

See also:


Bullshit Literacy: 2019 update

(The bullshitter) does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

However studiously and conscientiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something.

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic. This discrepancy is common in public life, where people are frequently impelled—whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others—to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant.

Harry G. Frankfurt, 
On Bullshit*

I first outlined my Bullshit** Literacy Competencies back in 2005. Little did I know that they would be even more relevant nearly 15 years later. I've revisited them a couple other times (2009, 2013), hoping that McGraw-Hill or Betsy DeVos might pick up on them and make me a purchase offer. No such luck.

Bullshit by politicians of all stripes, businesses, and even charitable organizations is rampant. It is only by knowing the techniques of the successful bullshitter that one can detect it in others. Bullshit literacy is more important now in 2019 than ever before, especially given the communication venues now available to the ordinary bullshitter on the street. 

The Bullshit Literate Student will (2019):

  1. Show no social conscience or balance when deliberately distorting factoids, data, or expert opinion in presenting a conclusion.
  2. Skillfully use any medium and all persuasive techniques in order to convince others. This includes the ability to use technology to doctor images and edit published text. (See deepfake)
  3. Consistently, vociferously, and blindly hold to a single point of view, and know that volume, repetition, and rhetoric trump reason.
  4. Use purposely emotion-laded words so as not to let reason possibly interfere with judgement.
  5. Convincingly fake sincerity and deliver any message with a straight face.
  6. Ably disguise personal gain as public good.
  7. Take a single incident or news story and follow it to an illogical conclusion.
  8. Claim any idea as original.
  9. Deny prior knowledge.
  10. Create a website, wiki, blog, Tweet, Facebook post, or podcast. (beginning level). Find a publisher, broadcaster or corporate sponsor for whom the bottom line is the bottom line. (advanced).
  11. Never, never, never show doubt.
  12. Take no responsibility for consequences that may occur down the road.
  13. Use any extreme of any financial projection or estimate.
  14. Let the retention of power or position be the deciding factor in all decisions. Doing what's right is for wimps and suckers.
  15. Offer apologies in such a way that the wrong-doer looks morally superior.
  16. Use name-calling and initiate or spread rumors about those with whom you may disagree.

Other skills the Bullshit Literate need to master?

I would advocate for competency-based evaluation of these important skills, perferably a real-life project in which one could bullshit others to make the home, the school, or the community a better place - for oneself. (See Art Wolinsky's assessment rubric here.)


* I lost my original copy of this book (published in 2005) and in searching for a replacement was astounded by the number of books that now include the word "bullshit" in their titles. While I would like to assert it was my blog post that gave rise to the popularity of the term, I suspect others might call that BS.

** For those of you with scatological avoidance issues, BS Lit. I like Bullshit Lit because it rhymes. I have purposely retained the term bullshit in this set of competencies, acknowledging that it will offend some readers and limit the distribution of this important skill set. However, I cannot think of another, less objectionable term that describes the act of bullshitting, a person who is a bullshitter, or a communication that is bullshit. (No, baloney and crap do not have the gravitas. Writing "BS," "bullsh*t," or just "bull" is disingenuous since the full term pops into the reader's head anyway and simply makes them feel guilty about knowing such words.

I try to use expletives or scatological references only sparingly and purposefully. But in adult conversation they are sometimes necessary, even vital. And during times of stress or excitement, unavoidable.





BFTP: 18 ways to promote creativity in your classroom

Everyone is born creative; everyone is given a box of crayons in kindergarten. Then when you hit puberty they take the crayons away and replace them with dry, uninspiring books on algebra, history, etc. Being suddenly hit years later with the ‘creative bug” is just a wee voice telling you, “I’d like my crayons back, please.” Hugh MacLeod

It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken the joy in creative expression and knowledge. Albert Einstein.

I hope you are not looking for formulas. Or handouts. Or a single technique. Or even a “method.” The creativity-inspiring classroom is a culture not a set of rules or specific activities. It is a mindset that teachers demonstrate to their students everyday.

Creativity doesn’t just happen. It needs to be cultivated. Quite honestly, I don’t know if creativity can be taught. It can be:

  • Allowed
  • Encouraged
  • Displayed
  • Recognized and rewarded
  • Developed
  • Discussed

But directly taught as a separate skill? So far nothing I’ve read or seen allows me to believe it can or should be.

But to keep this from being a terribly short postr, I'll try to identify some things teachers can purposely do in their classrooms that increase the odds of both their students and themselves being more creative.

  1. Ban clip art.
  2. Ask for information to be shared in at least two media formats or writing types. 
  3. Encourage the narrative voice in writing and oral presentations. 
  4. Ask for multiple possible answers to questions or multiple possible solutions to problems. 
  5. Give points for “design” on all assignments. 
  6. Instead of simply telling a student his or her  response is “wrong,” ask for a reason why the answer was given.
  7. Use technologies that encourage creativity. 
  8. Ask students to help formulate classroom rules, modify procedures, and solve issues.
  9. Honor students’ personal interests and unique talents when teaching skills. 
  10. Honor student creativity by giving it a CC License. 
  11. Respect re-mixing. 
  12. Teach the proper use of quoted materials. 
  13. Add creativity spaces for display of student work in your classroom.
  14. Add “maker-spaces” to your classroom and library.
  15. Modify your discussions to allow for divergent ideas and interests. 
  16. Discuss the creative work of experts. 
  17. Seek out the creative ideas of other educators. 
  18. Make creativity a criteria on all assessments. 

I am not going number this final one just because it deserves special attention. I started this post by listing what we as educators can do about creativity. We can:

  • Allow it
  • Encourage it
  • Display it
  • Recognize and reward it
  • Develop it
  • Discuss it

I will add one more. We also need to respect it and the students who demonstrate it. Remember that courage is a critical attribute of the creative individual. Fear of ridicule clamps a lot of mouths from offering a divergent opinion and keeps a lot of hands from designing something original. (I bet this happens in your staff meetings as well.) Research shows that “communities of creativity” are very effective in bringing out the creativity in everyone in them.

Do an honest assessment of how you personally respond to “wrong” answers, assumptions, or points of view. Are they immediately corrected or they investigated? Do you yourself acknowledge that every individual has a unique set of experiences, point of view, and problems that may be reflected in her work? Do you honestly believe the old adage “there’s no such thing as stupid question?” Do you always dig a little deeper before judging? I have to admit, these are all tough mindsets for me to practice!

A teacher’s respect and the respect she builds in her students is the most important element of a classroom that builds rather than destroys creativity.

What else can and should teachers do on an everyday basis in the classroom encourage creativity?

This list is fleshed out in my book:

Original post 3/10/14