Monday, June 30, 2014

Teenager Anxiety and the Classroom

Who remembers the movie about the Vienna Boys Choir, Almost Angels?   The only bit that has stuck with me comes near the end of the film.  The lead's voice changes and he can no longer sing soprano.  I remember when this happened to me so I had to leave the glee club.  It happened around the same time to another kid too, Jay.  I was nine at the time, so it was fourth or fifth grade.  I really don't know the cause for my early puberty, but I'm guessing that being such a big kid was part of it.  I don't recall any other consequence at the time.  Whether it contributed to some of the issues I had later, in high school, who knows?

The piece linked above about teenager anxiety is worth the read.  I wish I had read it fifty years ago.  It may have allowed me to get some needed self-understanding at an earlier age.  My first reaction was to recall some of the anxiety I felt as a teen growing up in Bayside.  There were several causes.  One was simply that New York City is busy and boisterous and required negotiation on the spot about situations you would never find yourself in outside a busy city.  I was not confident that I was up to this sort of negotiation.  

One example I recall, soon after I started to drive I went shopping with my dad.  We double parked on Horace Harding Boulevard just east of Springfield Boulevard.  My dad went into the store while I sat in the car.  One of the regular parked cars wanted to get out and I was blocking him.  But I couldn't pull forward because there was a truck double parked just ahead of me.  So I needed to pull into traffic and I wasn't confident I could do it.  Instead of trying that and getting into an accident I left the car in a panic and went to find my dad. 

Another cause was the threat of violence at school.  Elementary school, at P.S. 203, was a safe and welcoming environment.  Sometimes walking to school a kid who went to St. Roberts would pick on me and steal my hat.  I hate hats till this day, particularly the type with the broad brim and ear flaps with imitation fur lining and the top that was faux leather.  Apart from the hat stealing, however, things were pretty safe and once we got to school there was no such threat.

Junior high school, which became Nathaniel Hawthorne Middle School in eighth grade, had some risk to it, though not because there was busing, which might otherwise be blames as the culprit.  After lunch there was recess in the school yard.  Some of the kids who weren't in SP were pretty rough.  (The school had a tracking system and SP kids were the honors students.)  I recall watching one 2-year SP kid getting beaten up and while he was already on the ground getting kicked repeatedly by another kid who was not in SP.  For the most part, this was a non-threat for me as I hung out with a cohort of others and wasn't alone during recess.  But I was aware of the threat.

The persistent threat of violence emerged in high school, at Benjamin Cardozo.  I got panhandled (see the definition from the Collins English Dictionary) repeatedly trying to get into the school when most kids were milling around at the front entrance.  I remember seeing one of the kids who did this when I was in the school Library.  He was talking to the Librarian.  She said he looked like Julian Bond.  He didn't act like Julian Bond, at least when he was panhandling me.  Gym was worse.  It was terrifying.  I think some of the kids who went to the school were emotionally disturbed and as a consequence they were perpetually angry, looking for the least provocation to start a fight.  I was frightened much of the time.  I did find some coping strategies.  One year I was in the Polar Bear Club.  We weren't so crowded together outside and the really scary kids stayed indoors.  A different time I was befriended by a guy who was himself a tough kid but who liked me.  We were in the band in junior high school together.  When I hung out with him in gym, I knew I'd be okay. 

One other source of anxiety was the boy-girl thing.  It was terribly awkward.  During my senior year I recall going on a double date to see The French Connection - filmed in New York where it happened. I had a thing for this girl, but I wasn't able to express it.  During the movie I really wanted to hold her hand, but was too scared to try and never did.  It seems so foolish now.  Yet at the time it was awfully demoralizing.  Each such incident only served to confirm that I'd never be good with girls.

* * * * *

The real purpose of this post is to discuss the anxiety college students have, on the academic side.  Most of the students I see in my class The Economics of Organization, a course aimed at juniors and seniors, are no longer teenagers.  But adult coping skills, particularly when to recognize that a perceived threat is not real, don't miraculously appear when the kid turns 20.  The linked article above uses a benchmark of age 25 for when reasoned judgment catches up with teenage anxiety.  Until then, the kid is still emotionally a teenager, even if chronologically he no longer is.

I am not sure whether this is true or not, but it may be that we are more empathetic to people who show anxiety that in form is similar to what we ourselves have experienced.  The classroom itself is largely a place where I was anxiety free.  Tenth grade is a bit of an exception here, but looking backward on it all, the issues I had could be tied to some larger emotional problems that weren't fundamentally academic. I did struggle in geometry with Miss Chin for a while.  This perplexed her, since I clearly knew what was going on.  After several mediocre performances on exams I finally got 100% on one and she wrote on my test paper - it's about time. Apart from tenth grade, I was very comfortable in the classroom and thrived in that environment. 

Most people who eventually become faculty members probably did quite well in the classroom when they were kids - better than their peers who were "good students."  Even more likely, they were excellent in the classroom as graduate students.  That accomplishment may inadvertently desensitize them to the plight of their own students, who may very well be quite anxious about their own academic performance, even if they are not visibly distressed.  How then might these faculty develop a sense of empathy for their students?  My suggestion is to go through an exercise similar to the one I did in the first part of this piece.  Surely they've had aspects of their lives as teenager where anxiety was the rule.  Having so confirmed that they didn't lead an anxious free existence, they need only ask the following question.  Do different people experience anxiety in different areas and in different ways?  An affirmative response to this question would then lead to an inescapable conclusion.  Many students are anxious in the classroom.  They fear not being smart enough and don't want to look stupid.  They are the ones who have a fixed mindset, in the language of Carol Dweck

Recognizing the issue is not the same as solving it, but surely it is a necessary first step.  What steps should follow that first one?  There are Shangri-La answers to this question, of course.   One example is - get rid of grades.  When I was an undergrad at MIT before I transferred to Cornell there were no grades the freshman year.  I really think that is a healthier approach and I'd vote for it now for all four years of college.  But I won't hold my breath waiting for it to happen.  The next steps I'm talking about are ones an individual instructor can take on his own without needing campus sanction.  For the steps that require the Faculty Senate's approval, let somebody else write an essay on the topic.

If possible, the instructor has to find a way for the student to relax and open up.   Class discussion may be one area that encourages this, though my recent experience suggests universal participation is too ambitious a goal. So it is my belief that one needs a multi-front approach to this and one of those fronts should be regular student writing.  Another bit may be mandatory or "strongly recommended" office hours.  Note that there are bits of coercion in these last two.  The coercion is there only to get initiation to happen.  It's what happens after that which will encourage to the student to relax, or not.  Feedback is the key.  The student must find the feedback a value add and thus want more of it.  This, then, has the making of a virtuous cycle.

Suppose that in thinking about "teaching effectiveness" we asked first not how to lower the cost of instruction but instead how to make the classroom seem less hostile to the typical student.  Are there other ways than the ones I've suggested in the previous paragraph that would make students less anxious, while still conveying high expectations for the students as learners?  This seems to me the key question to be asking.

We educators shouldn't be leaving the student anxiety issue to the psychologists and otherwise stand pat with our current mechanisms.  At present, Dean of Student types are forced to treat this as outlier behavior.  And, indeed, on occasion student anxiety leads to some pretty strange consequences.  But if we thought about student anxiety as the rule rather than as the exception, we'd address it in completely different ways than we do now.  How can we get there from here? 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Socratic Dialog - A Dinosaur Approach or Quintessential Teaching?

A call was sent out by the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning for volunteers to offer sessions for their TA training the week before the semester starts.  I ignored it.  I ignore the vast majority of solicitations I get, though most are asking for money and that wasn't the case here.  There was another reason, one more substantive.  I've never taught a course which utilized graduate teaching assistants.  I've had graduate students as graders before, typically nice students with poor English skills.  I've used undergraduate students who've already taken my class as online teaching assistants.  And I've served as ed tech consultant on projects in courses large enough that they did have graduate students as teaching assistants.  So there is some experience but not enough of the relevant sort for me to feel competent to offer a session for TAs.  And in the solicitation, which gave examples of the sort of sessions they wanted, much of that wasn't how I think about teaching at all. For example, there was mention of lesson plans.  That approach (coupled with PowerPoint presentation to deliver the lesson) is critiqued by Chip and Dan Heath in Made to Stick.  The problem is the entire focus becomes the subject matter. Typically, the audience will turn off to that.  The focus, instead, should be on the hooks the audience might create into the subject matter.  But if one does that, one either has to know the audience ahead of time or learn about them during the session in a way where those hooks become exposed.  If the instructor doesn't know the audience, how does the instructor learn about them?  Can that be planned ahead of time or must there be improvisation to get at this important information? 

A second call for volunteers went out from CITL.  Apparently, the response from the first solicitation wasn't adequate.  It seemed they were desperate for volunteers.  It occurred to me that my lack of relevant experience might not matter much under the circumstances.  I do have teaching experience, quite a lot of it actually.  So I offered up a session based on that.  In the 2000s when I was a full time administrator and taught as an overload, that was in seminar classes, mainly to Campus Honors students.  The first of these was in 2004 in Econ 101, Principles of Economics.  The class went remarkably well and throughout I used inquiry methods.   I wrote about that a few years later in a post called What's Next, which was meant for all of learning technology.  The stuff about that honors class is in the last third of the piece.  This is the operative paragraph:

Intrinsic motivation also enters via “clever assignments,” experiential learning, and classroom experiments. The first assignment I gave to those honors kids was for each of them to identify Principles of Economics textbooks that are in the top 10 by market share, with each student receiving 10 points of credit per book if they were the sole provider of the title and no credit at all if the title was offered up by another classmate as well. The assignment worked like a charm the first time I did this, when I had 15 students. The outcome was that they identified all books in the top 10 and then some, one student earned 10 points but otherwise all the titles that were submitted came in duplicates, and then they had to puzzle over why they put in effort but (except for that one student) got no credit for their travails. This assignment was my introduction to the core idea that economics is about incentives. It was a great introduction. I had them hooked for the rest of course. Is there a way to do something similar in a high enrollment course? Again, I don't know, but it seems worth investigating.

I taught two more CHP classes after that.   One was in 2006, a repeat of Econ 101.  The other was in 2009 and was not an Economics class.  It was a course on Designing for Effective Change that I wrote about in this piece in Inside Higher Ed called Teaching with Blogs.  After about two weeks of proceeding as I had done in the Econ classes, the students complained that I was monopolizing the discussion and requested that they lead the discussion themselves.  I assented to this request, though its implementation required me to bite my lip repeatedly.  During the next class session I had the urge to intercede, but suppressed that.  The class was discussing Atul Gawande's The Bell Curve, one of my favorite essays.  They never got to the gist of the piece.  They spent the entire time on some of the early facts in the setup and iterated on those.  Afterward I criticized them.  Using the metaphor of swimming in a natural body of water, I told them there was this beautiful lake but they never made it to its center.  Instead, they spent the entire time swimming in the reeds.  This outcome was rather disturbing.  CHP students are the best we have on campus and they weren't making good meaning of an essay that was written for a general audience.  I didn't know if the cause was their individual lack of reading comprehension or if, instead, the group dynamic kept those who did understand the piece from driving the conversation to the meat of the essay.  I never learned the true cause, but thereafter we opted for a mixed mode where sometimes the students would drive the discussion and other times I would drive.

Less than a year later I retired.  My teaching since has been in regular classes, most recently in an upper level undergraduate course on the Economics of Organizations.  I use Socratic methods part of the time, when we are discussing conceptual matters or when we consider student experiences that speak to those conceptual issues.  Ironically, I don't do it when we cover the math models for the course.  The irony is that I was first exposed as a student to Socratic methods when I took the graduate Math Econ course from Stan Reiter on Debreu's Theory of Value.  Stan favored a Socratic approach and utilized it throughout the course, which covered two consecutive quarters.  We graduate students were in awe of Stan.  His way of doing things must have rubbed off on me.  Indeed, in my first year teaching at Illinois, after I completely bombed with the lecture approach in Intermediate Microeconomics in the fall I had more success in the spring teaching Math Econ, both at the graduate and undergraduate levels.  In the graduate course we did Theory of Value and I did my impersonation of Stan.  It was a very easy role to play.

The test regarding effectiveness of the approach, however, is not whether the instructor is comfortable as a teacher.  It is whether the students learn, in a deep way.  I want to get at that from a different angle.  But before I do let me explain why I don't use Socratic methods when doing the math with my undergrads.  Students need to make some penetration on their own before an ensemble discussion via Socratic dialog has value to them.  While a handful of my students can penetrate the math for my course, many seem unable to do this.  Moreover, they seem to expect that their initial foray into the subject will come via lecture, rather than them working through the textbook and/or the end of chapter problems.  So I lecture to them on the math, either online via screen capture movies or in class using chalk. Typically, I have them first confront the math via an online homework in Excel that is dialogic in its design.  Those are either too Spartan or the students are not aware that afterward they should be doing a lot of filling in the blanks on their own by making their own derivations of the general results.  My lectures end up doing that. 

* * * * *

While Socratic dialog is other than lecture, in a non-seminar class setting it is still very much in the "sage on the stage" mode.  The use of the expression "dinosaur approach" in my title is meant to refer to that.  For years and years we've heard that the sage on the stage should die off in favor the "guide on the side."  The critics, obviously, were focused on the lecture, which they pooh poohed, favoring active learning techniques instead.  If they had a long and hard look at Socratic dialog would they feel likewise?  I will return to that question in a bit.

Here's a different question.  How much of teaching should be personal modeling of learning behavior, with the students via their imitation following the instructor's lead?  In the broad discussion about teaching and learning so much has been said about critical thinking.  For whatever pitfalls it has, Socratic dialog does model critical thinking and may be the closest thing to what students will ever see of how professors go about their own inquiries, in their research and in their service work.  That's certainly a plus.  Whether the students pick up on that modeling then becomes the heart of the matter.

I mention this because I feel a need to bring my own biases out in the open.  I'm very skeptical of active learning techniques for other than very narrowly defined problems especially when students are not otherwise very far along in their own critical thinking.  Further, it often doesn't work well with adult learners.  When I've been at conferences where the table I'd be sitting at was supposed to have some group discussion that the presenters tasked us with - and these were all adult learners who presumably were quite interested in the subject of the session - the level of the conversation would typically be pretty low and I'd get little out of the discussion on the substance, though sometimes the table discussions served as a way to meet colleagues from other campuses.  And I recall one reading group I was part of on campus devoted to the book Group Genius (the author had been the featured speaker at the Campus Active Learning Retreat) where again I didn't get more from the group activity then I could have gotten individually and in some instances I was better able to solve group tasks on my own.

Part of this was that group member selection was haphazard - simply based on who showed up.  I believe groups can be very effective when each member has some comparative advantage on which to base her contribution.  I have been part of many such productive groups.  Absent this sort of comparative advantage, however, I'm afraid the group might produce mush - much like my Honors class had with that swimming in the reeds experience. Others may feel differently about small group work done during the live class session and believe that to be the source of real learning.  It is for these others that I felt it imperative to get my bias onto the table.  

One of these others is Norma Scagnoli.  She and I worked together in the College of Business when I was the Associate Dean for eLearning.  As part of trying to encourage a Luddite professor to embrace blended learning Norma and I attended his MBA class, taught in a classroom with tiered seating in an amphitheater style.  While the chairs in this classroom do rotate so students can face their neighbors when paired for discussion, the ensemble mode encourages a faculty centric approach, especially when the instructor abandons the podium and use of the resident computer by walking down to the floor in the center of the room.  Then all the student eyes abandon the screen and look straight at the instructor.  This instructor was engaged in Socratic dialog with his class.  He talked a lot of the time, because each of his questions required substantial setup ahead of time.  Then when he posed a question a few students raised their hand and it was mainly the same students from one question to the next.  What of the others?  Were they getting anything out of the session?  Norma thought they weren't getting much.

How would one know?  Since that 2009 class, which had only 17 students all of whom were very bright, I have been very conscious about teaching quiet students and whether students can learn as much simply by listening to the discussion as they would if they participated in it.  In that 2009 class I arrived at the conclusion that if the students have other means for expressing their ideas that may be sufficient.  It gives one rationale for having a writing component to the course.  I have a blog post on that theme composed after the course concluded. A moment's reflection, however, suggests that it is possible that students will express their thinking in venues that are unavailable to the instructor.  They will miss getting the instructor's feedback that way, but that does not preclude that they are learning.  Yet even recognizing this possibility, Norma's view might still be right for most students.  Observers of only the live class session don't have enough information to make a precise determination on this matter.

This past fall I was having issues with quiet students and it seemed to me many of them were Asian, so might be struggling with my approach for both cultural and language reasons.  Since I did require student blog posts and would make comments on those, and since one of my exceptionally quiet students proved to be an excellent writer, I asked him about it.  He informed me he was quiet in all his classes, not just mine.  He said he didn't think it was either cultural or a matter of language.  He just preferred it that way.  It's a sample of one only, so I don't want to over interpret it.  Nonetheless, it is interesting to hear a student articulate the point.

* * * * *

I've gotten some positive feedback to my use of Socratic dialog, from sources where I didn't expect it.  It is impossible for me to separate out the cause - the method, me, or the method and me in some combination.  After mentioning the sources of this feedback I want to conclude with other ideas about Socratic dialog that have not been addressed above.

One source happened during my first year as a faculty member at the Educause Learning Technology Leadership Program in summer 2007, when it was in Madison Wisconsin.  Kathy Christoph was the host and I believe she and Perry Hanson conducted the closing plenary session the last morning, when there was a debrief of the week.  Kathy and Perry asked the attendees to recount highlights, offer up other reactions, and give suggestions for how the week might be done better the next time around.  One woman, whom if I recall correctly worked in the area, was emphatic that my session on interacting with faculty was the high point.  I had also been assigned to her Making the Case group. She seemed particularly defensive at first and I believe I was somewhat critical of that.  So I was pleasantly surprised by her reaction.  After the Institute one of my co-presenters, who was rotating off after that summer, emailed me a thank you note.   Mainly she was grateful that I embraced LTL fully even though I was a pinch hitter for somebody else.  He had gotten seriously ill and couldn't continue with the institute.  Undoubtedly it is harder to be an Institute faculty member when not there at the beginning of the planning.  She and I ended up experimenting with an approach not used the year before.  The experiment was a success.  Mostly her note was about my willingness to try something different.  But in her note she also took mention about my Socratic inquiry approach.  What I garnered is that the Socratic approach was somewhat rare, for participants and colleagues alike, and at least for some they appreciated the way I applied it.

The other sort of feedback is even stranger.  My undergraduate class is available to graduate students, who can take the course as an elective.  The Economics department has a professional masters program for big bucks tuition aimed as an alternative to an MBA for an international audience of mid level administrators.  The last two times I've taught the course I've had a woman from China in my class who was in this program.  This was an act of bravery on their part because of the writing requirement.  They seemed to embrace the challenge.  In their final blog posts, which are meant as a self critique and a critique of the course, they each commented about the energy exuded in the class discussions and the sense of openness that these discussions created.  They said neither was present in their other courses.  The feedback is strange because in planning for the course I didn't consider graduate students at all.  This is an undergraduate course and undergraduates were the focus. I didn't cater to the graduate student needs at all, yet somehow that ended up happening anyway

The issue of energy in the classroom (I would call it intellectual intensity) matters.  If the students don't find it threatening it should serve as a source of motivation.  Having the classroom be open also matters.  If students feel comfortable that they can express their views and those views will be well considered, they are much more apt to participate.  This would seem desirable.

I should conclude.  First a remark that Socratic dialog is not Shangri-La.  Each student may perceive it differently and students may have different expectations about the response the instructor will give after they have responded to an instructor-posed query.  For the first time in my teaching, last fall I had a student tell me that I was rude in responding to her.  I really don't know if I was of if she overreacted to what I said.  What I do know is that such feelings persist long after the incident that generated them.  I had a different student who generally liked the course but said we went off on tangents too often, and sometimes never returned to the topic under consideration.  As with the previous student, I'm not sure if this is a fair criticism or not.  But it does point to that Socratic methods are more art than science, that if inquiry is to be followed seriously then one needs to understand it is not linear, and therefore that some straying off the main path is absolutely necessary.  How much straying, however, is anyone's guess.

Socratic methods work for me, if not always for my students.  They make a session unique, even if I've taught a similar session the year before, because the students responses can't be anticipated in advance and one does have to improvise a meaningful response to them.  That means I'm on my toes figuratively and learning from the students while I hope they are learning from me.  It means part of teaching is listening to the students with the hope of spotting stumbling blocks as well as getting students to provide the insight. 

It may not be a method that works for all teachers and it may be hard for a first time TA to employ it, for much the same reasons as a student driver has difficulty having a conversation while at the wheel.  There may be too much other stuff to concentrate on.  Yet for those TAs who'd like to try something different, I'd encourage them to do so.  I'm eager to see how this session in August works out.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Answer Is Blowing In The Wind

The piece by T.M. Luhrmann, Candy's Dandy, but Pot's Scary got me thinking, and not because of the Ogden Nash reference in the title.  I had a recollection of being warned in 10th grade biology class about the harm from drug use.  It might damage your chromosomes, or so we were told.  I can't remember whether the drug in question was marijuana or LSD.  There was a general distrust of messages from authority at that time and we ignored most of what we heard.  We added this one to the already rather large pile.

Lurhmann's main point is that whatever we imbibe in the consequence, in our behavior certainly, maybe in our minds as well, is not just the product of the chemical substance but is also determined by the prevailing culture we live in.  That made sense to me.  But I wondered whether there is a feedback loop that causes the flow to go the other way as well.  The culture I found at 509 Wyckoff Road in Ithaca embraced a camaraderie that I would have liked to bottle, if I could. 

That was between fall of 1974 and spring of 1976, my last couple of years at Cornell.  My cohort - we graduated from high school in 1972 - had less of a concern about getting drafted and less need for radical alternatives.  But what came before definitely mattered, so it was no easy thing to buy into the rhythms of middle class life. 

Now I sometimes listen to the music from then.  Beyond that, I wonder if any of that culture still persists in me or if its all been swept under the rug.  My generation tends not to talk about that time, lest our kids do a repeat or use it against us when talking about their own indiscretions. 

The only place where it seems to show is my visceral reaction to some of my economics students and even more so to the business students I see when I hang out in the Commons of the Business Instructional Facility, sipping my coffee and reading whatever I'm reading.  These kids seem so accepting of the bourgeois culture and its trappings, with no apparent misgivings.  There is something wrong about this or so my gut tells me.  It's certainly not how we were at their age.


Flower Power
Had its hour.

Ten Years After
Mirth and laughter.

Only to find
The daily grind

Ere grand insult
Reagan's revolt.

Friday, June 20, 2014

The Worm

The worm moves, very slowly.  Meandering through the cranium, the worm is looking, constantly looking.  Mostly the worm follows a familiar path.  Searching for the novel, the worm contents himself with rolling up the debris he finds into a ball.  Then he nudges the ball into his hole.  This remains his pattern, day after day, hour after hour.

The worm has greater ambition.  He wants to make something other than a ball of debris, something grander. But the worm fears doing so, scared to go off the well known path.  Not long ago the worm found a carved out area dedicated to normal function.  The worm started to pick up what he thought was debris, to begin making his ball.  What happened next shocked the worm to his core.  The host began to shake violently, so much so that the worm thought he might die.  The worm through his wandering had upset normal function.

The worm wonders whether there are other carved out areas that are more beautiful; places that the host wouldn't mind the worm visiting.  The worm would like to see such places and delight in them.  Then the worm could take an artifact or two from the carved out area back to his hole.  This provides the real reason for the worm's journey.  But the worm remains terrified of setting out to find this place.  Too much might go wrong along the way.

So the worm contents himself to follow the path he has already marked, many times over.  The worm maintains the faintest hope that the opening to the beautiful carved out area will simply appear on his well worn path, that he's gone by this entrance many times before but simply missed it.  The worm hopes to see more clearly the next time.

The worm does not delude himself.   As he continues to traverse the familiar path the worm knows that finding the magical opening is becoming less and less likely.  Yet the worm remains too frightened of the possibility of disrupting normal function again.

Has the worm found purgatory in a living host?  If not, how does it end?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Clay Squared

This post is written in the wake of Jill Lepore's The Disruption Machine and its critique of the concept disruptive innovation, attributable to Clayton Christensen.  He is one of the Clays in my title.  The other is Clay Shirky, who has also written about disruption and its impact, particularly about the decline of newspapers and the parallels with Higher Education.  My piece is mainly for those of us in Higher Ed.  How should we be thinking about innovation and disruption in light of Lepore's essay?  Lepore, more quietly than her critique of Christensen, makes an argument to affirm an incremental change approach.  Is she right about that?  Or are circumstances so dire that a more drastic approach is called for?

In this piece I'm going to be content with presenting my views on these questions.  I'm not going to argue that these views give the right answers.  They are simply my views, to which each reader can contrast her own. 

I need to give a disclaimer first.  While I've downloaded The Innovator's Dilemma for the Kindle, I've not read it.  What I know about it has been garnered from what friends and colleagues have written.  I don't recall reading anything else by Christensen either.  So I'm on thin ice in writing about his ideas.  Likewise, I haven't read Here Comes Everybody.  But in the case of Shirky I have read several of the essays on his blog.  Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable was particularly influential on me. 

There is something that needs to compensate for this weakness in background reading, especially if anyone else is to take my views seriously.   So here it is.  I used to do research in industrial organization and was a reasonably proficient applied theorist, writing several papers on entry deterrence and being a regular at the IO workshop in the Economics Department during the late 1980s and early 1990s.  It is with this background that I come at Christensen's ideas.  Most of my friends and colleagues in Higher Ed lack this perspective.  Yet I've also been a faculty member for many years and I was an administrator in the learning technology arena for upward of 14 years.  From this, I know that Higher Ed is not just another vertical and that we should be wary of looking at Higher Ed purely through a business lens.  It is this dual perspective where I believe the value is in my views.  Further, I believe the combination of these perspectives is superadditive (the whole is greater than the sum of the parts).  My title makes it seem that the effects are multiplicative.  I'm not claiming that.  Given superadditivity, the title is poetic license, nothing more.

Let's begin with the story behind the Innovator's Dilemma.  There is an industry that produces a valued product for its customers and in so doing delivers high profits for the incumbent firms.  A marginal fringe market emerges where lower cost and inferior substitutes are offered, inferior in the sense that the quality is shabby.  Over time producers in the fringe market move down the learning curve and their product becomes even lower cost while the quality rises.  Some of the customers in the main market try what the fringe market has to offer and are pleasantly surprised.  Price is much lower than in the main market and quality is not bad.  So they switch their suppliers.  This is the beginning of a chain reaction.  Before long the fringe market has become the new main market.  The old main market has become a dinosaur.

To this story let's add three additional factors that buttress it.  The first is Moore's Law, which for the sake of this story I will treat as an exogenous truth.  Both markets will see either quality improvement or cost reduction as a consequence of Moore's Law, but the benefits might not be equal across the them.  To the extent that Moore's Law favors the fringe market, obviously that supports the Innovator's Dilemma story. 

The second is that people my age (late 50s) or older or even those who are ten to fifteen years younger will have living memory that in the late 1970s and early 1980s IBM was the leader in computing.  Likewise, at that time we'd use the word Xerox when referring to photocopying, even if the copying machine was from a different vendor.  We also remember the purchase of our first personal computer, a glorified word processor and otherwise toy for adults, perhaps with a dot matrix printer to accompany it.  We know the story of both the PC revolution and the Internet revolution that followed it.  We know that with any prescience at all IBM would not have outsourced the writing of the operating system for its version of personal computers and that had it done so Microsoft would never had gotten off the ground.  Likewise, with Xerox the developer of the original mouse, it should have been them to come out with the early versions of the Macintosh computers, not Apple.

Third, none of us like to seem stupid.  For those of us who consider ourselves pretty smart, the vast majority of those who are in Higher Ed are in this category, we really don't want to seem stupid.  This makes us exceedingly wary about potential threats and far less confident with current success.  So it makes us receptive to the message in The Innovator's Dilemma.  You should be in the process of cannibalizing your current business line even if it is highly profitable now, because it won't be in the not too distant future.  And if not cannibalizing then at a minimum you should hedge your bets by investing fairly heavily in the fringe business as you continue to run the current business.  Ignoring the fringe business entirely you do at your own peril.

To this sense of insecurity economists can add a note of mirth, to wit:

“The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable”
Found here.

In other words, we (economists, all human beings) are not very good at all in distinguishing a possible but highly unlikely threat from a probable one.  If there are many different potential threats as new fringe markets and we are unable to judge which are the most probable and which, if any, are actually likely, we may very well ignore them all as in most cases investing in them will prove unwise after the fact.  Christensen's approach suggests there is only one threat to focus on and the threat is real enough.  In his approach uncertainty is minimal.  Lepore criticizes him on this and rightly so.

But Christensen's story was never meant to tell all about the economics of innovation.  For example, it never explained the Microsoft approach, where they deliberately were not the first in firm as a new technology emerged, preferring to let others come in ahead of them, then enter after the new technology has proven its importance.  A combination of deep pockets, being able to reverse engineer the products of its rivals, and integrating the new offering with existing Microsoft favorites (taking advantage of network externalities) was an entirely winning strategy for Microsoft in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.  Examples include how Excel took over from Lotus 123, how Internet Explorer beat out Netscape, and how Outlook/Exchange beat out Notes/Domino, Groupwise, and other email/calendaring software.  Similarly, Apple was quite a late entrant into the smartphone market but totally overtook Palm and RIM (Blackberry) with the iPhone. Yet Microsoft's strategy, didn't work nearly as well after 2000 and Apple too may now be slowing down for similar reasons.

Christensen's approach also doesn't address fundamentally new markets where the big players are not present at all, so there is no business line that will go the way of the dinosaur as this new market emerges.  When email first came along, it was fundamentally new as a means of personal communication.  It co-existed with phone, snail mail, and FAX, but until eCommerce became a reality, itself enabled by broadband, none of these other modes of communication really competed with email.  Because most Internet access at the time was by dial up, it's hard to see any cannibalizaion due to the emergence of email.  Quite the contrary.  The various uses appeared complementary. 

Or to put it differently, the lag between when the fringe market product or service really competes with the main market offering is not determined in the Christensen story.  Absent a firmer prediction about such lags, there isn't much of a theory here.  Nobody uses an abacus now nor do they use a slide rule.  But we didn't need Christensen to tell us why not.

Let me turn to how Shirky's story of disruption differs from Christensen's.  First there can be multiple sources of disruption. For example consider the following set of factors that impacted how the Internet affected (paper based) newspapers:
  • It enabled entrance of a bunch of purely Internet based news periodicals - Slate, Huffington Post, Politico, etc.  These may have had lower overhead than traditional newspapers, could better tailor their stories to their audience, and in the process seem less stodgy than traditional newspapers.
  • Via the blogosphere and smart phones with cameras, essentially everyone could be a reporter, sans training as a professional journalist.  
  • People like me could become pundits.  Each of us might not have a big audience.  But collectively we might suit our readers needs better than those writing for a newspaper or for syndication via reproduction in other newspapers.
  • Reading patterns are/were different online than on paper.  Perhaps more importantly, people who had been willing to pay for home delivery of a paper newspaper nonetheless objected to paying for a subscription to the online alternative, perhaps citing the mantra, "information wants to be free."
  • Digital natives may have had still different reading patterns and didn't view reading the newspaper as an important part of their daily life.  Without intending this, the Daily Show and later Colbert became competitors to newspapers for this audience. 
  • To the extent that local or regional newspapers were reproducing news from a national or international source and didn't have sufficient content just about their own area served, they were getting beaten up by online alternatives that were more broadly available.
Second, because of the multiple factors that create disruption, there may be no coherence to what will come next and indeed the future may be worse than the past.  This is not your grandmother's view of innovation.

* * * * *

Let me now turn specifically to Higher Ed.  Eleven years ago I attended what was then called the Frye Leadership Institute - very intensive professional development for would be campus CIOs and Librarians.  We had a session that focused on the potential and threat posed by for-profit Higher Ed, with a particular interest in the University of Phoenix.  The arguments given at the time were implicitly in the spirit of The Innovator's Dilemma.  Similarly, the more recent fascination with MOOCs also seems very much in the spirit of the Innovator's Dilemma.  Nevertheless, below I want to take a Shirky-like approach in discussing multiple causes for disruption and only then consider possible ways to address the issues.

High Tuition and Excessive Student Debt

This seems to be the number one issue with regard to undergraduate education.  Here is something quite recent from Bernie Sanders' Web site on college costs.   And here is something from a few years ago about Rick Perry and the $10,000 college degree.  While you may not agree with the specific remedies in either case, when you see proposals like these from both the Left and the Right, we should be able to agree that high tuition and excessive student debt is the number one issue.

Yet even this issue I regard as derivative, a consequence of the soft labor market that has persisted since the housing bubble burst.  If the labor market was where it was in the late 1990s, with a good job essentially guaranteed by getting a degree, the issue of debt and tuition would not be nearly as important as it is now.  Both would seem to be parts of essential investments in human capital.

Whether the current labor market softness is the new normal or is simply the not yet tail end of an already long business cycle is anyone's guess.  Likewise, there seems no consensus on whether a smartly designed and implemented fiscal policy could lift the economy out of its doldrums and thereby make job prospects better for many.  There is only a general agreement that with the present gridlock in Washington no such fiscal policy will be forthcoming.  Yet the proper response from Higher Ed depends on which of these alternatives proves correct. 

Learning versus Credentialing

Recently the question has been raised whether young adults who know how to advance their own learning actually need college and what, if anything, college has to offer them.  Conversely, if young adults don't know to aggressively pursue their own learning before entering college, will college transform them in a profound way so that after graduation they do?

Two recent columns by Thomas Friedman, How to Get a Job at Google and How to Get a Job at Google Part 2 speak to these issues.  In a nutshell, the pieces indicated Google is more interested in learning to learn skills than already acquired specific knowledge, though the latter can matter too.  They also want their employees to be good citizens and care about fellow employees, with a genius at learning to learn but a ditz at being a good citizen not the type of person they want.

There is, of course, a question whether this characterization of a desirable hire typifies much of the rest of the labor market or not.  For the sake of argument let's say it is typical.  Then a different threat than that the labor market is soft is that employers have become more picky about the type of people whom they will hire and the degree itself, even a degree coupled with a high GPA, is no longer the credential it once was for this purpose. 

Increased Reliance on Adjunct Instructors

This issue has gotten a lot of press of late and there are many dimensions to it.  I want to frame the issue differently than it has been presented elsewhere.  The question I want to get at is whether instructors have ownership for the mission of the university and therefore give body and soul into the fulfillment of that mission or if, instead, instructors are merely employees who dispense their teaching but nothing more, and therefore are largely unconcerned with the two previous issues as their own instruction might speak to how they are addressed broadly.

One might argue there is no guarantee such ownership will be found in tenured faculty and indeed that at research universities in particular the tradition has been for many tenured faculty to ignore undergraduate education.  I don't want to disagree on that point.   But here we are talking about factors that will encourage innovation and ultimately change the way Higher Ed goes about its business.  If tuition from undergraduate education continues to be a much larger share of revenues than it has been historically, then it stands to reason that these changes will reorient institutions in favor of undergraduate education.  We'd like to know whether the instructors will buy into that and perhaps drive it or if they will be neutral about it or actively resist it.  

* * * * *

One might be able to expand this list of issues but it suffices for me now.  Let us turn to possible innovation on cost, on learning, and on staffing,  But first a note about measurement, particularly on the cost end.  Carol Twigg, the force behind the Pew Program on Course Redesign emphasized what I say next and I'm following her lead.  It would be good for others to embrace this idea as well.  There is a tendency to consider cost as expenditure per student and not control for how students perform.  One measure of performance, for example, is how many students get through the course.  If expenditure per student is $x, but only 50% get through the course, than the real cost per student is $2x, as the money spent on those students who don't get through is essentially wasted, but is spent nonetheless.  The same general notion applies beyond completion rates to learning, but there we don't have hard measures like we do for completion rates, so getting at the right cost adjustment is harder, both conceptually and empirically.

The current fascination with technology innovation and learning, particularly video lectures delivered online coupled with social network interaction among the students and perhaps automated interactions as well, is based on the idea that much of the instructional activity is fixed cost and that lower average cost can be attained with large online classes, ergo MOOCs.  Yet if one does the particular type of adjustment Carol Twigg says we should, and consider learning as much as course completion, then it simply isn't obvious that this is the innovation that should drive everything else.  You need a mindset a la The Innovator's Dilemma to come to the conclusion that MOOCs are the game to play.  With a Shirky-like mindset instead, you might conclude there is a need to try higher touch approaches, in addition or instead, in the hope of finding ways that both improve learning and don't break the bank.

In the rest of this piece I'm going to focus on public research universities with residential students, not all of Higher Ed.  Having spent my career at Illinois, I know more about such institutions than about other segments of Higher Ed.  I haven't seen anyone else make this next point, but it may very well be that appropriate innovation needs to be segment specific.  And, following Brown and Duguid, it may be that the innovation needs to be fundamentally social, rather than fundamentally technological, and yet consistent with current social structures.  Without that consistency institutional inertia would block the innovation entirely.

For the reader who is new to my posts, know the particular possible innovation I'm suggesting below has been a pet idea for quite some time.  Back in 2005 I wrote a series of posts on Inward Looking Service Learning that consider the innovation from the perspective of the student providing the peer-mentoring for the other students.  Below I'll consider the same idea from the perspective of students currently enrolled in the course.  Also, the reader should ask herself whether this represents a drastic innovation or is only the consequence of incremental change, as Lepore suggests.  In the late 1990s I used undergraduate TAs, who mainly interacted with students online, in a large section of intermediate microeconomics.  We don't seem any closer to Inward Looking Service Learning than we did back in 2005, so I'd vote that the suggested innovation is drastic.  Yet it might not seem nearly as threatening as MOOCs may seem to some, because it is a move to high touch and because it doesn't automate away the role of the instructor.

The key to the idea is to make the study group a formal organization that the campus recognizes and schedules.  In so doing, one might think of this idea as the flipped classroom on steroids.  Take what traditionally has been a 3 credit-hour course. Schedule it for 5 hours instead of 3.  Let one of those hours remain a place for ensemble teaching and learning in a regular classroom.  Let the remaining four hours be scheduled in two-hour blocks and be for the study group to meet.  Different study groups need not meet at the same time nor at the same location.

Let's say each study group has five members who are enrolled in the course and one peer-mentor who has taken the course previously and is concurrently mentored, along with the other peer-mentors, by the instructor for the course.

The primary goal for each study group is that members would give voice to their own formative thinking.  Having one student take notes for himself while the other students talked would be unacceptable.  Everyone needs to participate.  Above we discussed that instructors and administrators don't like to look stupid.  Students don't like to look stupid either.  The study group is aimed at creating a friendly enough environment that students become comfortable making mistakes in front of one another as part and parcel of their way toward understanding what is going on.  Having developed such comfort the hope is that students would care deeply for their fellow members of the study group, teach each other, and help one another when they struggle.  The mentor's job would then primarily be one of facilitation, also to monitor if their are group blockages and then try to work through those, and to have one-on-one sessions with any student who seems to be struggling much more than the others.  The particular activities of the group would otherwise depend on the subject matter of the course and how the instructor would like study groups to operate.  By scheduling the study group meetings for more than the time current courses are scheduled, the hope is that students would become used to putting in more time on task and to understand that real learning happens by working through blockages in understanding.

Where are we currently in regard to this specific innovation?  I'm aware of a few early adopter types among instructors who have tried something with peer mentoring, though obviously not yet with campus sanction.  The ones I know have reported very positively about their experiences.  Yet the idea hasn't been implemented outside the handful of early adopters and thus is not close to any tipping point.   The reader may think that is because the peer-mentoring is a cost add.  In my INSL essays, keenly aware of that concern, I worked through how it might be cost neutral or even cost reducing.  The key there is that mentoring is extremely valuable as an activity for the mentors, learning by teaching, so should be given credit accordingly.  That is the part which some might find more controversial, but in the current climate maybe not.

* * * * *

There is a different way to think about innovation, externally driven or internally generated.  Disruptive innovation implicitly conveys that it is externally driven.  Incremental change a la the continuous improvement model comes from within.  A moment's thought, however, suggests that these are not mutually exhaustive.  Why not drastic change that comes from within?

I'm afraid that most of us in Higher Ed are guilty of at least one of the following.
  • We tend to deny evidence that our students are not learning deeply.
  • We don't monitor instruction much at all and instead rely on course evaluations rather than direct observation.  So we don't have a good sense of issues like teaching to the test, whether courses offer appropriate challenge for students, and the relationship between these things and the type of evaluations that are generated.
  • We tend to want to jump on the train that appears to be leaving the station for fear of being left behind.

What if we could overcome our own limitations and then designed the change we thought best based on an empirical study of the actual conditions on the ground coupled with the big picture issues I've sketched above.  Having done this, what design would you come up with?  That's what each reader should be asking.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A suggestion for

This morning I was thinking about The Social Life of Information as prelude to writing a post (one that I've not yet written) about disruption a la Clay Shirky versus disruption a la Clayton Christensen.  I had the post title - Clay Squared - but little else.  I thought that real disruption changes our social patterns but Brown and Duguid's book argued those were pretty entrenched, so I wanted to write something about the sort of social patterns that might change.  I knew I had purchased The Social Life and started to look for it on my bookshelf.  I couldn't find it.  No big surprise there.  I purchased it quite a while ago, when we lived in our old house.  It could be anywhere in our house now. Doing a quick cost-benefit calculation in my head, I opted for plan B.

That was to see if there was  Kindle version available.  I would then buy it in that format, if the price were right.  So I went to the site to see whether that's possible.  Alas, there is no Kindle version of The Social Life...  But, to my surprise, the site says I purchased the book on June 20, 2001.  So I put two and two together and came up with this.

If Amazon is so good at tracking paper books we've purchased, then they should make Kindle versions of those books, if they exist, available to us for free given that we've already paid for the paper version.  Perhaps this should be a perq for Amazon Prime members only.  But they should offer this function is some, way, shape or form.  I note that they are now giving Prime readers one free download of a new book in pre-release.  Nice as this service is, I'm so behind in reading I've already planned that I didn't find this offer a real benefit.  I understand that they'd like to generate some early reviews for these books to get other readers to buy them.  So there is a business reason for this free download offering.  There is not an obvious business reason to let paper purchasers get the Kindle version for free.  But sometimes it is good business just to reward customer loyalty.  The reread of an old book doesn't generate a sale.  But it might increase customer satisfaction quite a bit.  That should count.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Say it ain't so, Charles Blow.

Charles Blow is a stats guy.  Usually, stats guys run rings around theory guys, like me, because we have our heads in the clouds.  Stats guys are grounded in reality.  But once in a while theory guys need to take the lead because stats guys provide an inadequate framing of what's at stake.  This is one of those times.

In his most recent column, Dangerous Divisiveness, much of what Blow writes I agree with.  But then he writes:

This is a mistake.  What we must do instead is to produce a coherent narrative.  In this narrative each of the issues listed above, and many other issues too such as how to get the workforce to share in the gains from economic growth and finding ways to accommodate the aging of society, are seen as parts of the whole.  My single biggest objection to President Obama, particularly when he discusses economic issues, is that he invariably presents a laundry list and does not produce this coherent narrative.  In the first paragraph of Blow's that is quoted above, who can doubt that respecting the rights of individuals and having the economy on terra firma are intimately tied?  One does not have to be much of a student of history to observe that the 1930s were a time of economic stagnation which bred extremist and intolerant views that resulted in horrible consequences.

In other words, we must wrestle with the foundations of Liberalism/Progressivism.  This need for foundations should be acknowledged by Blow.  Indeed, he should desperately want their articulation.  The question then is whether these foundations can be found in our history or if they must be invented more or less from scratch, because the ideals expressed during our history such as this essay by Albion Small from a century ago, The Bonds of Nationality, are inadequate for our present time. 

Let us debate the foundations.  From this the articulation of the issues and their resolution will follow.  Absent this, we're nowhere.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Read The Book and Find Out

I always react in a puzzled way after reading an Op-Ed that I like, only to find some of the comments disagreeing angrily with the piece. On Friday there was a piece Taking on Teacher Tenure Backfires.  I liked it because the analysis considered the employment life-cycle in the style of Ed Lazear, rather than just considering the immediate consequence of severing a teacher whose students appear to be under performing.  The comments were impassioned but didn't directly address the analysis, which requires some sophistication on the economics.  Instead the comments were about the conditions on the ground as the person understood them, whether an overworked teacher or an angry tax payer, with a tendency toward a single point of emphasis that didn't speak to the big picture.  I thought for a moment to give my analysis, as I frequently do, but the truth is that I'm so removed from this context that my analysis wouldn't be worth a hill of beans.

So instead I thought back to my own time in elementary school and my development there.  P.S. 203 was very good for me.  I had several reasons to recall my experiences there.  One was to find causes for students learning other than teacher quality.  Might it be that the culture and philosophy behind the approach to education matters as much or more than the talent of the individual teacher?  The teacher operates within this culture and philosophy.  I believe certain environments are more helpful for learning than others, and that the current emphasis on accountability is pernicious for learning.  So I wanted to describe the environment I found as a child.  Another reason was simply to express gratitude for the education I got.  I was lucky to grow up in an environment that was so nurturing of me.

A third reason comes from having finished reading Carol Dweck's book, Mindset.  Dweck argues that people have either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset toward their own learning.  The growth mindset is better.  The fixed mindset is ultimately inhibiting, though early on it can be a source of confidence. In the last chapter she argues that the mindset of the child is largely determined by the influence of parents and teachers and possibly others who are important in the child's life. Much of this influence comes in the form of unintended consequence and under the surface theories in action rather than from overtly espoused theories.  The kid picks up on the behavior of the adults and gets a certain message that the adults may not be aware they are sending.  I believe my time at P.S. 203 coupled with my Dad taking me to the Windsor Park Public Library on Saturdays (and a bunch of other things we did that I'm not going to remember here) gave me what I needed to have a growth mindset.

The key was reading.  But not all reading is equal in this respect.  Some of what we did at P.S. 203 was SRA.  That may have helped in the reading comprehension part of the standardized tests, but it didn't promote the growth mindset.  Individualized reading did, as I've written about several times, such as here.  Below, is the salient paragraph from the linked piece that gives some insight into when reading can encourage the growth mindset. 

But Hirsch didn't write at all about individual approaches and letting each student proceed according to their own current capacities and inclinations.  So after reading his piece I did a search on Individualized Reading and read a few pieces (a how to, it's effectiveness, and something of a hybrid, for which you need access to JSTOR to read the full piece).  The conclusion I draw from these pieces is that "part" of what a student learns has to come from the student inserting himself into the activity, individualized reading being such a form of insertion.  This was my conclusion, as well, from reading On Not Being Able to Paint, by Marion Milner, and thus the insertion of self into the subject a way becomes a way to bring in art to what otherwise might seem an arms length discipline.

There is also the matter of giving the kid control as to what to read next, which Individualized Reading does.  Sometimes this choice was driven by finding a genre that was both fun and encouraged learning.  For quite a while I had an interest in American History, which I satisfied by reading biographies and histories about people and things like: Fulton's Folly, Kit Carson, the Monitor and the Merrimack, the Transcontinental Railroads, and a lot more.  But I didn't just stay with a history genre. I read fiction too.  Indeed, there was a breadth of interest that I believe healthy for a young kid.  Too much concentration on a single genre creates a desire for specialization before the kid is really ready for that. So the Harry Potter craze, while useful in getting kids interested in reading, may have also had a downside in getting the kids too narrow too early. 

Coupled with the individualized reading we did book reports that were presented orally to the entire class.  I can't recall whether those were done by a single student or by a small group who had each read the book.  What I do recall is that the first part of the report gave a summary of the book but near the end of the report some mystery would be discussed with its resolution not explained.  Instead, at the conclusion it was said, "read the book and find out."  It became the tag line that all book reports relied on.  It is a testament to the power of peer influences in determining what kids read as well as to the school relying on the kid himself to decide to follow that influence or not.  

The last part I want to mention is the enormous amount of time during the school day that I was given to read things on my own.  This was especially true in 6th grade, when Mr. Sachar was my teacher.  He was also the school Librarian and I got to work in the Library as a consequence.  A Librarian's approach to teaching may be different from other teachers. The Librarian may be more inclined to let the kid explore, with the teaching job simply to show the kid some things to read that might be interesting.  But I also believe I had this freedom in Mrs. Stone's class, whom I had for 5th grade, even if at other times we did ensemble activity with drill (a 5-minute quiz on multiplication every day.)  One of my unknowns about those years at P.S. 203 is whether all kids had this sort of freedom or if only a handful did.  

Somewhere, perhaps even earlier in fourth grade or maybe still earlier, we started to read from magazines as well from books.  I specifically remember both Weekly Reader and Junior Scholastic, though I don't recall whether reading from them was ensemble or individualized.  Later I had subscriptions to several magazines at home.  Sports Illustrated was more like candy but The New Republic and Scientific American did challenge me, as did the New York Times, at least at first.  I can't remember whether I was subscribed to all three simultaneously.  But I recall that between 6th grade and 9th grade I first got these subscriptions and, looking back, doing so appears a consequence of the magazine reading at P.S. 203.

Nowadays we talk about kids reading in terms of test scores, but not about how much they read of their own choosing nor whether they stretch themselves when they do read.  We are so into snapshot measures.  We don't think about growth much at all.  It is a terrible mistake.  When I was a kid at P.S. 203, they knew better.  All these years later I feel so fortunate that I was allowed to develop this way, with me as the driver of much of my own learning. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Electoral Reform: Toward Universal Voting, Internet Voting, and Other Sensible Changes

Although Eric Cantor's defeat is news, we seem to be reading the same story over and over again.  A sliver of the electorate, the most passionate and extreme of the eligible voters, are the ones who turn out in the primaries. The impassioned have disproportionate clout because those who are not inflamed opt out.  This now appears to be equilibrium behavior, particularly on the Conservative-Republican side.  It rewards those who play to this extreme audience to fan the flames.  The question I want to get at here is whether a different system of voting might work better.  The aim of the alternative would be to produce outcomes where the median eligible voter matters.   Below are some not fully fleshed out ideas of what such an alternative might look like.

Mandatory Voting

Australia has it.  We should embrace some variant of it.  People who do not exercise the franchise in both the primaries and the general election should be subject to fine, like a parking ticket.  There would need to be exemption for those mentally unable to vote (dementia cases) and possibly other infirmities.  But the system should have in it that voting is the norm and the vast majority of eligible voters should vote.

Internet Voting

I realize that not all states have an income tax, but Illinois does and offers an eFile alternative. I'm going to use that mechanism as a model in discussing this below.   It seems reasonable that if you can file your taxes online, you should be able to vote online. 

First is the ID issue.  eFiling requires a two-piece identification system.  If you've never filed before that is the Driver's License number in addition to SSN  (and, of course, name and address).  If you have filed before then you've been issued an eFile ID number, which should be used instead of the Driver's License info.

The next thing is a separation between the ID and the vote on the ballot.   Voters need to be assured that their vote has been recorded but that those tallying the votes only can see aggregates, not individual ballots.  Every Learning Management System that I know has this sort of capability in the survey tool.  So this should not be an onerous requirement.

Since not everyone has Internet access, the third issue is providing such access for voting.  Public schools after normal school hours and public libraries should be enlisted for this purpose.

Then there is when voting can occur.  The concept of an election day is archaic.  The only ones who really benefit from it are the news media, as it allows them to report on the horse race, do exit polling, and in general turn elections into TV entertainment.  Voting should happen the same way taxes are done.  There is a first day when filing is possible and a last day.  Of course, we have absentee ballots now as part of the process and those can be obtained before election day, but the voter must provide some evidence on why voting on election day is not possible.  In effect, what is argued here is to make absentee ballots the norm and then do it online.

A Must System Coupled with a None of the Above Alternative

The expression Must System comes from boxing.  In a 10-point must system each judge is required to award at least one boxer 10 points for the round.  Here what is meant is that if there are several different races on the same ballot then the voter is required to vote in each race.  The voter doesn't have the option of voting for some races but not others.  Those familiar with Google Forms from the designer of a survey perspective will be aware there is a checkbox for each question to make it required.  The Must System then is like making all questions of the survey required.  Normal eCommerce tools would then be be put in place to alert the voter whether the ballot is complete or not.  Such tools would also preclude the voter selecting more than one option for any given race.

The none of the above alternative may seem odd, initially.  It is there first, for voters to express their lack of satisfaction in the candidates.  In an election that produces a majority none-of-the-above result, the winner would be the candidate who did receive the most votes, but such a candidate clearly couldn't claim a mandate from the voters.  The other reason it is there is to create incentives for the candidates to appeal to middle voters, who'd be apt to vote none of the above if the candidates seemed too extreme.

Voter Education About Candidate Positions and Candidate Character

The current system favors attack ads.  I don't know any voter who likes them.  They are a turnoff.  And they breed anger.  Further, they communicate via sound bites rather than via substance.  The process above is aimed, in large part, at trying for a different sort of communication between campaigns and the electorate, one that is genuinely about the candidate explaining what positions are held and why the candidates holds those positions.

Of course, at present third parties can also communicate messages to the electorate and those might very well be of the attack ad variety.  But with this new system the candidate might very well have to distance himself from the groups running the attack ads, for fear that his opponent won't run attack ads at all and thus capture many voters who'd otherwise vote none of the above.  In other words, the harsh rhetoric wouldn't go away entirely, but its ability to influence elections would be diminished.

Campaign Financing

The hope here is that less negative and more issues oriented campaigns would be less expensive to run, though let me also discuss how it might go the other way.  Right now there is the potential to use social networking tools that are free to reach the electorate.  And if you as candidate only have to reach a sliver of the population, all of whom are like minded, then social networking might actually be more effective than traditional TV ads as a way to reach the voters.

But those who would vote none of the above if both candidates ran negative campaigns might not otherwise be sufficiently similar in their views to be part of one social network.  So reaching those people in an effective way might be harder and that could drive up campaign cost.


The goal of this piece was to get readers to consider an alternative to the current voting system.  Those readers might have issue with one or more of the suggestions for the alternative.  Good.  Those issues should be aired.  I'm not wedded to the particular system I've sketched here.  But I do want to point out that the pieces here are meant to fit together.  For example, from the voter perspective, not going to the polls is similar to voting none of the above.  But from the candidate perspective the two are profoundly different if the latter is coupled with mandatory voting.  For then the candidate has reason to appeal to such eligible voters, while at present they are ignored.  Any alternative system that might be proposed should create incentives for candidates to appeal to moderate voters.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

The old man and the big fish

The TMC channel aired The Old Man and the Sea yesterday.  I recorded it on the DVR for later viewing.  I wasted a good chunk of the late afternoon on the "pre-game" fanfare for the Belmont Stakes.  The race itself was kind of disappointing.  Afterward I needed a pick-me-up and then a bit of dinner.  I watched the movie in the early evening.  It was captivating.

Spencer Tracy was born in 1900 and the movie was released in 1958.  In other words, he was middle aged by current standards.  Yet he was very credible as the old man.  (Art Carney in Harry and Tonto is another performance where a middle aged guy convincingly plays a much older person.)    Part of that was how Tracy appears.  His tuft of white hair was a signature part of his performances in his later years.  He supplemented this by having a stubble of beard throughout the film.  His skin looked weathered, perhaps from being outside in the wind and the sun, but maybe also a byproduct of his alcoholism.

The other part was his manner  and on this I'd like to elaborate a bit because I share some of these mannerisms.  The essence of the movie is that after 80+ days of not catching a fish, he hooks this huge marlin and then, painstakingly, lures the marlin in so that he can ultimately kill the fish with a harpoon.  This takes the better part of three days and is an enormous struggle. He has no fishing rod.  He just uses lures at the end of long ropes.  He reels in the rope with his hands.  He wears no gloves.  In struggling with the fish, his hands become raw and start to bleed.  He wraps the rope around his back for leverage, but there is still enormous stress on his hands.  After a while, his left hand starts to cramp up and it becomes useless.

I experienced such hand cramps, which came particularly pronounced when I was doing physical therapy for rotator cuff repair.  My brother, an MD, suggested taking a multivitamin.  I've done that since and it has helped.  My guess is that Hemingway, who wrote the book, must have also experienced such hand cramps.  I've not yet read a biography of Hemingway, but might do so in the not too distant future.  In the meantime, my conjecture is that great novelists have this ability to take bits and pieces from their personal lives and integrate those elements into the stories they tell, finding the universal in the particular.

The old man spends much of the movie in dialog with himself.  He refers to himself in the third person.  At other times he talks to the fish.  There actually is only a little of this sort of thing in the movie.  Most of the time Tracy is reading straight from what the viewer must think is Hemingway's prose, with that sound track combined with the video of him fishing.  Then there are snips of him actually talking in the boat.  I found this extremely effective as a method.  It showed that this old man valued his own counsel and had to talk everything out to get it straight in his head.  This, too, seemed a universal to me.

The story is tragic.  He puts enormous exertion into what amounts to be a fool's errand.  The old man refers to his boat as a skiff.  It is not very big and he can't possibly bring the fish onto the boat after it has been caught, so instead he ties it to the side of the boat so it can float along as he brings the boat in.  Once the marlin has been harpooned, however, the wound sends out a stream of blood that is a signal to all predators in the area, sharks in particular, that there is good feeding nearby.  The sharks come and attack the big fish.  He tries to fight them off and succeeds in part the first time.  But he has gone so far out in the ocean to catch the fish that a second wave of sharks comes and this time they demolish the rest of the fish, so that when he returns to shore all that is left is the head and a long bony spine.

All of us have idealism and from time to time let that get the better of our good judgment.  But as we mature we develop a better balance between the pragmatic and the idealistic.  Old men, particularly those who have had a run of bad luck, may lose this balance.  They need one more big score to validate themselves and show they've still got it.  By aiming too high, they can end up with nothing.

This is a remarkably simple story, yet it is rich with feeling, and for me also something of a mirror.  I'm one year older than Tracy was when that movie came out. 

Friday, June 06, 2014

Clio on the Cross

Here's another example of searching for one thing and finding another.  I will tell the story in reverse chronological order, starting with what I found, this book review The True & Tragical History of 'Time on the Cross', which was published in October 1975 in the New York Review of Books.  (A pdf of the full article is available.)

I found it (the review) a fascinating read.  Fogel and Engerman's Time on the Cross had appeared the year before and caused quite a stir.  There was a conference organized at Rochester featuring many well known economic historians and other historians whose research focused on slavery in the southern states.  The conference was entirely devoted to an analysis and critique of Fogel and Engerman's research and critique they did.  The books under review were a consequence of that conference.  They end up ripping the research to shreds.

There are many things that were criticized as simply errors in reading the historical record.  There were other errors in choice of units of measurement to report results, leading to misinterpretation. (Is it a big effect or not?)  But, apparently, many historians make these sorts of errors on occasion.  The big deal critique was more systematic, a direct attack at cliometrics as exemplified in Time on the Cross.  Cliometrics is the use of quantitative historical data in econometric models to explain what happened.  The term cliometrics was coined by Stan Reiter, a professor I had for Math Econ (Debreu's Theory of Value) at Northwestern and a member of my dissertation committee.  (We used to call him Stan the n-dimensional Man.)  I believe that in coming up with cliometrics he meant the term in a comic and perhaps mocking way, but somehow it stuck. Witness that there is the Cliometric Society

Now to the methodological criticism.  A theoretical model is specified to explain the historically important variables.  In the ideal, data would be amassed to estimate parameters of the model and test its validity.  The problem is that the needed data often didn't exist.  So instead Fogel and Engerman would construct proxies.  To do this they'd make various ancillary assumptions.  To their credit they were up front about those.  But they'd pile one assumption on top of another in what Haskell, the author of the review, calls pyramiding.  The end result is a flight of fancy that is a major departure from the true history.  Couple this with the brashness in how Time on the Cross challenged the historical orthodoxy and you get plenty of scholars who are willing to have at the failings of Fogel and Engerman's work.

I took Economic History in the first quarter of my second year in graduate school, fall 1977 (not quite two years after this review appeared).  We may have read other things as well, but the featured reading was Time on the Cross.  With hindsight the question is why.  In Haskell's review he says, convincingly, that since Fogel and Engerman's work involved a team of other researchers, mainly doctoral students, who were loyal to the work, the book would persist in importance in spite of its shortcomings.  Our teacher for that Economic History course was Joel Mokyr, who was then an Assistant Professor.  I checked Mokyr's CV.  His doctorate is from Yale. (Engerman was and still is at Rochester.  Fogel was at Harvard.)   And Mokyr's dissertation is on a topic entirely unrelated to Time on the Cross.  I don't know if he attended that Rochester conference or not, but he doesn't otherwise appear to be intellectually tied to Fogel and Engerman's research.  So the best explanation I can come up with for why we read Time on the Cross is that Mokyr was going up for promotion and to find alternative readings (in effect, to rewrite the syllabus) would have been a lot of work at a time when his attention was elsewhere.  The alternative, that Mokyr was unaware of the weaknesses of the work, is far less attractive to contemplate.

I should add some sidebar here.  I was the representative for the second year students on the graduate studies committee.  Many in my cohort (including me) didn't understand why there was a requirement for Economic History and one agenda item I was tasked to bring forward was to request elimination of the requirement.  (I did but the request didn't work.)   Many years later I would teach Paul David's Qwerty paper to my students in Intermediate Microeconomics.  I am quite sympathetic to using the historical record as a way of illustrating and understanding economic fundamentals.   If that were the main reason for the Economic History requirement, I'd embrace it now, even if I wouldn't have as a graduate student, when all I cared about was the math modeling.  But if the the main reason was to expose students to cliometric methods, then I have my doubts as to the benefits of such study to this day.

* * * * *

Now I will backtrack and discuss how I came to think of that Economic History course.  I have been reading Carol Dweck's book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and pretty much been fighting it right along.  She divides people into those with a fixed mindset (meaning they regard their own abilities as fixed) and those with a growth mindset (meaning that their abilities grow as they learn by stretching themselves in ways they haven't done previously).  While this dichotomy seems useful to me, particularly in discussing why undergraduates don't seem to push themselves more in their studies, I nonetheless find it too simple.  So I started to look for exceptions to what she said.  Are there cases where someone with a growth mindset nonetheless doesn't learn and, if so, why?

Using myself as an example I first thought about undergraduate study.  It turns out there were many cases where I learned little to nothing in a course and for varying reasons.  While I was still at MIT I took Math Analysis and Abstract Algebra and hit a wall in each class.  At the same time I was having emotional issues which led me to transfer to Cornell for the next semester.  Dweck says that when somebody with the growth mindset encounters an obstacle that person will double their efforts to overcome this, but she gives the impression that the response will be immediate.  In my case, I took a topology course in the fall of my junior year (my second semester at Cornell) where I did this amping up both on my effort and in the sophistication of my thinking and learned much of the content that was in the Analysis class that way.

Then I took a bunch of philosophy courses starting with one on Plato and Aristotle at MIT, then another one on Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, this time at Cornell, followed by a course on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.  I could make some headway with Plato but the rest was pretty much over my head.  At some point in my retirement I might try again with the British empiricists to see if I could get more out of it.  I'm willing to say Kant is beyond my capabilities, permanently.

I also blew off my German reading course in the second semester, when it met at 8AM (one reason).  I was antipathetic to learning a foreign language in large part because my mother was a language teacher and German was her native tongue (another reason).  But there was a language requirement at Cornell with a proficiency test that had to be passed.  When I didn't pass that test after the second semester I took German in summer school and then did pass the proficiency test.

These examples together illustrate perhaps a lack of maturity or maybe a lack of commitment on my part.  So I wanted to find a case where neither of these were the explanation for the non-learning.  It made sense then to consider my experience in graduate school.  I have written elsewhere that it was transformative for me, particularly the first year and especially the first quarter of that first year.  I clearly was growing then.  It's with that as backdrop in which to consider the Economic History course.

One further factor is that at the time the Econ department at Northwestern administered the prelim (then a 3-hour test on micro and another 3-hour test on macro) at the beginning of the second year.  Getting past the prelim there may have been a natural tendency to relax a bit.  The immediate pressure was off.  I'm sure that was a factor but I don't think it gives the real explanation for what happened with Economic History.

The real reason is that I didn't care about the specific issues we studied.  My recollection is that we were preoccupied with the issue whether slavery would have died out on its own, had there not been a Civil War.   Fogel and Engerman argue that slavery was a highly productive and efficient form of agricultural production, so would not have died out.  Why should I care about how this argument gets resolved, one way or another?  I do recall us talking about the counter factual that if the railroads never came along and we relied instead on canals and rivers, then New Orleans might have become the biggest city in the U.S.  I found that discussion intriguing and would have gotten more out of the course had it been the focus.

In Dweck's examples either the courses are electives or, if they are required, (Chemistry for pre-med students, for example) then the students accept that necessity of the requirement.  She doesn't consider the case of students taking courses where they challenge the validity of the requirement.  For example, many Business students, particularly those in Accounting, feel it unnecessary to learn what is taught in Intermediate Microeconomics.  Their primary goal is to get through this required course unscathed grade-wise.  I don't believe this preference indicates anything at all as to whether they have a fixed mindset when taking their business courses. 

In the past I've always been somewhat antagonistic to these students, feeling they should be more curious about the economics.  Now, humming Sam Cooke's Wonderful World - don't know much about history, of the economic kind - at least I realize I was once in their shoes.