My dear Watson

I was fascinated watching Jeopardy last night with Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter competing against Watson – a computer created by IBM specifically to play the game. One of the things that particularly struck me were the faces of the IBM people in the audience, who were clearly very proud of their prodigy as it quickly rang in and answered most of the questions.

I began thinking about the playing field – although Watson cannot access the internet in order to search for answers, it has been loaded with vast amounts of information. Watson has had to be programmed with algorithms that will enable it to figure out the unique jargon of Jeopardy and the oddities of colloquial language.

Watson missed some questions. When Ken Jennings answered a question incorrectly, Watson rang in and answered with the same wrong answer Jennings had. Another question had Watson confused about what the question was really asking, though I could see the logic behind its answer.

All this got me to thinking – as educators, we spend day after day loading our students with very valuable information. When they fail to recall pieces of it, or apply it incorrectly, we get frustrated, thinking “I know you know this!” Do you think that is how the IBM engineers felt when Watson missed a question? Somehow, I think they were more focused on the great achievement, rather than the few errors.

Point of this article? If Watson can mess up, why do we think our students shouldn’t? Sometimes it might mean our question was too vague, worded in a way they can’t decipher, or maybe there was an alternate logic that could be applied to it. Sometimes it might be that they aren’t sure enough of their answer (Watson has to be confident enough in its answer to achieve the “buzz threshhold” which causes it to ring in).

Give our students a chance to mess up. Try to follow their logic, then give them a new algorithm to follow next time. That’s what the folks at IBM are doing today!


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