Sunday, December 27, 2015

Interesting Geographic Patterns of Acces to My Blog

These are for the past week.  I normally don't look at this sort of geographic information, but I do track access and there is some geographic information in that.  What I was seeing was odd to me, so I looked a bit further.    This first table is from the Stats tab for my blog in Blogger.  I believe that tracks both Google+ access and Web access to the site.  While the overall volume is not that great, look at all the Pageviews from Russia.  There are quite a few from France as well. 

This next table is from StatCounter, which I use more than I use the Stats page in Blogger to look at access.  The Russian access is completely missing here, so I assume that is all via Google+.   I can't explain why the numbers for France are higher here, but one reason to use multiple counters is to address this sort of discrepancy.

The double-edged sword we refer to as 'high expectations'

This is from Chickering and Gamson's Seven Principles.

Good practice in undergraduate education:

.....6.  Communicates high expectations.  

This appears unambiguous as stated.  Complexity, hence ambiguity, comes from considering what the verb 'communicates' actually means.  The following passage is from Peter Drucker and illustrates the issue nicely. [Drucker, Peter F. (2009-10-13). The Essential Drucker (Collins Business Essentials) (p. 262). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.]  (My emphasis added.)

An old riddle posed by the mystics of many religions—the Zen Buddhists, the Sufis of Islam, and the Rabbis of the Talmud—asks, Is there a sound in the forest if a tree crashes down and no one is around to hear it?

We now know that the right answer to this is no. There are sound waves. But there is no sound unless someone perceives it. Sound is created by perception. Sound is communication. This may seem trite; after all, the mystics of old already knew this, for they too always answered that there is no sound unless someone can hear it. Yet the implications of this rather trite statement are great indeed. 
First, it means that it is the recipient who communicates. The so-called communicator, the person who emits the communication, does not communicate. He utters. Unless there is someone who hears, there is no communication. There is only noise.

We can push this metaphor a bit.  For taking Drucker's meaning literally in the last paragraph, it is hearing that is at issue.  But really, hearing is not the crux of the matter.  The issue is understanding.  What is it that the recipient understands?  How does that relate to what the communicator intends?   If there are discrepancies between the two, does it mean that the communicator did a poor job? Or might something else explain why the communicator and the recipient don't end up on the same page?

One possible explanation for persistent discord is that prior expectations are so divergent and those expectations sharply influence both the form of the message, on the one hand, and how the message is received, on the other. A different explanation is that our prior education impacts us in what counts for relevant evidence on which to base a decision.   This fascinating piece by Malcolm Gladwell, The Engineer's Lament, illustrates the issue in a profound way.  The topic of concern in the piece is traffic safety and with that to determine the proper social policy to promote traffic safety.  A horrific accident can trigger public alarm as to the accident cause, possibly ultimately generating a recall of the vehicle type that was involved in the accident.

A single sufficiently graphic episode focuses the attention for most of us.  Engineers, however, are different in this regard.  Their training has told them that instead to focus on the statistical data about accident history.  For the rest of the population these data are dry, possibly incomprehensible, and don't trigger an emotional response that creates a call to action.  In contrast, traffic safety engineers understand there are tradeoffs implicit in taking any costly action to promote public safety.  They want bang for the buck, which in this case means they want to move the statistical averages substantially with their recommendations for safety expenditure.  As it turns out, the recalls chronicled in Gladwell's piece fail in this regard.  They may satisfy the emotional need to "Do something!" after a terrible accident.  But the changes made to the vehicles that have been recalled typically don't end up doing very much, statistically speaking.

The traffic safety engineers' view is that a much bigger return on investment could be had by influencing driver behavior in the direction of safety.  Typically, this means getting people to drive slower.  Two sorts of investments are discussed in the piece.  One is cameras that measure driving speed and where those measurements are made known to drivers as they are driving.  The other is additional highway patrol officers and police cars.  Both serve as effective deterrents to speeding.  Both are simple and non-sexy solutions to the traffic safety problem.  This is where leverage is to be found.  (Leverage in this sense, equivalent to bang for the buck, is discussed in Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline.)  This sort of thinking brings to mind Atul Gawande's famous essay, On Washing Hands, which caused an observable and substantial change in how health care is provided.

With this as background I want to return to context of teaching and learning and ask: what sorts of behaviors and messages communicate high expectations?

* * * * *

I first wrote about the issue not quite ten years ago, where unlike now I taught only classes for the Campus Honors Program.  I framed the issue in a particularly graphic way in a post called Killing The Puppy.  (The link is to a capture of my blog at from near the time of the post, which produces the look of the site then.  Ironically, I found this by some typical meandering on the Web, this time on George Siemens' old blog.  Once upon a time I read the posts at that site quite regularly. Apparently, some of that reading was reciprocated.)

Puppies like getting petted.  The metaphor I had in mind was to students who care a lot about their grades.  They like being told how well they are doing and that their work merits an A (or even an A+).  The problem with praise of this sort is that real learning involves failure, lots of failure.  Or, if you prefer, real learning involves awkward early performance that typifies the novice learner.  Further, college students operate somewhere in that gray zone between being a child and being an adult.  What to say to a young child who is learning, whether to treat the kid like a puppy or not, I really don't know.  But for a near adult learning, a virtual patting the kid on the head early on is dishonest.  My title in that post from ten years ago was meant as a call to move away from the pat on the head sort of praise and replace it with something else, more frank and better situated in the actual experience.  With honors students, certainly, this is the way that the instructor communicates high expectations.  In this setting there is a decent chance that the communicator and recipient will converge and that an ongoing conversation will ensue that accompanies the student learning.

Since I've retired I've not taught honors students.  Part of that is lack of opportunity.  Another part is a judgment on my part that teaching regular students is the right thing to do.  The goal here is to learn how to produce real and substantial learning for ordinary students, something I would argue has been outside the mission of the university as it was traditionally conceived.  I made the argument a few years ago in a post entitled, The business and ethical dilemmas of undergraduate education at public R1s.  The traditional approach offered a lottery to students, the winners of which would get the real learning opportunities.  Given the resources available, this was probably for the best.  But the lottery favored the elite students and the real go-getters among the student population.  Opportunities for learning were far more limited for more ordinary and shyer students.

My argument is that this needed to change to where outcomes, not just initial opportunities, were more democratically distributed, as a consequence of the much greater reliance on tuition as a source of revenue for the university than has been the case historically.  So while teaching my classes since retirement, the background question that has been driving me is whether producing real and substantial learning for ordinary students is possible and, if so, how instructors should go about doing this.

The first time I taught after being retired I had two classes, neither of which I currently teach.  That was spring 2011.  Since then I only teach The Economics of Organizations.  Apart from the initial offering of the class, which was in the spring, each subsequent offering has been in the fall.  This is my preference under the assumption that the seniors in the class will be less distracted than they would be in the spring.  I thought I had been making progress on addressing the background question until the most recent offering of the course, which just concluded.  This time it was a real struggle for me and I probably took at least a couple of steps backward in feeling I had some answers.  It is trying to make sense of the recent experience which motivates this post.

First and foremost is the question whether ordinary students are willing to endure the frequent failure that is necessary for real learning.  Two reasons why they may not are: (1) potential damage to the GPA in so doing and (b) potential damage to the student's ego from feeling embarrassed by being awkward in front of others - classmates and especially the teacher.

As to (1), real learning takes as long as it takes.  On the other hand, exams happen at times scheduled well in advance.  One explanation for why students memorize in advance of exams is that it seems a more reliable approach for readying oneself against the vicissitudes of the exam, while containing the readying activity to a manageable time period. In turn, such students then grow to expect the instructor to teach to the test, so when such expectations are confirmed memorizing the lecture notes ends up indeed being good preparation.  There is also that this becomes a learned behavior (in the sense of habit formation) so even in those circumstances where the instructor offers up questions on the exam that follow only indirectly from the lectures, many students will still prepare as they have in their other courses, for lack of a viable alternative.

The above is an indirect argument that grades are pernicious in encouraging real learning with ordinary students, as too many of them will opt for the self-protection described in the previous paragraph, when the grade consequences are sufficiently severe.  Alternatively, it can be taken as an argument in support of grade inflation.  If students are convinced they will do reasonably well grade-wise as long as they attain a minimal performance standard - e.g., showing up and being counted - then they have less need to self-protect via memorization and might be more willing to go through the steps it takes to produce real learning.  This gets us to (2).

If a student is not self-conscious, then it is possible the student will be oblivious to the risk of failure.  In turn, that lack of self-consciousness can lead to deep learning as the student gets fully absorbed in the subject matter.  It may be the honors students differ from regular students mostly in this lack of self-consciousness and hence in their ability to concentrate. For a student who is self-conscious and who does fear failure as a consequence, a different approach is needed if the student is to engage in real learning.  The student must be convinced that failure is no big deal.  Failure is just an ordinary part of learning, necessary early steps if you will. The way to convince students of this is to create a safe space in which students are encouraged to fail and fail often, all as part of the larger process.

In other words, this is the obverse of the argument made a couple of years ago in a piece called Inside the Box:  People don't actually like creativity.  I don't doubt the empiricism that is the basis of this piece, but I question whether what we observe is human nature in action or if, instead, it is some pathology because we have become prisoners to our own fears.  On this I keep going back to Eric Hoffer.  The following is from a passage I wrote several years ago: 

I didn't have my fill of Hoffer and looked for more of his writing. Ultimately I found Between the Devil and the Dragon. The Library has a copy, which I checked out. The Dragon, we learn immediately, is the symbol of our struggle with nature, a concept that is earlier than the Devil, which he attributes to the Hebrews. They were the first group to see man as living above nature. God made nature, but God made man in his own image. 

I regard this in a completely areligious way, simply as an affirmation that creativity is part of human nature.  Hoffer later argues that most people are not creative, which is consistent with the argument made in the Slate piece that I linked to.  It is only the weak who are creative in Hoffer's view.  They are driven to creativity to transcend their current lot in life, which is untenable.  But in Hoffer's description, whether one is weak or strong is a matter of circumstance.  The capacity for creativity is in all of us.  It is just that many of us choose not to use that capacity. My argument then is that students should get exposed to that capacity in themselves while in school. Whether that will cure the pathology of fear I don't know.  At a minimum, it should alert each student that there is a choice to be made.  To reach that level of awareness, students need a safe place to try things out and see for themselves how they perform in that safe setting.

None of the intellectual content of my course, such as 'transaction costs' or 'transfer prices', should make students uncomfortable by threatening personal identity.  Students may very well find the subtleties in these ideas difficult to master, so there are learning challenges for them, to be sure.  But economics courses are unlike courses where matters of race, religion, or sexual orientation come to bear.  The topics of my class are, in that sense, far less controversial.  Yet my call for a safe space where students can do their formative learning without concern of the consequences from failure, is eerily similar to the call some have made for safe spaces in these more emotionally challenging courses.  Consequently, I want to defend my ideas further.

The starting point is that ordinary student for the most part do not engage in real learning in most of their courses.  Among others who make this point is Ken Bain in his book What the Best College Students Do, where he argues that most students engage in surface learning only.  If we are to substantially change what is now a majority practice, we must change the environment in in a way that is conducive to the majority wanting to alter their behavior on their own.  In other words, I am making a fundamentally positive economics point.  I will readily admit that the jury is still out on whether in creating such safe spaces that is sufficient for encouraging the real learning we'd like to engender.  But there is no doubt about the agenda.  The program I'm operating under can be described as a search for such environments that will positively impact student learning, based on a model of the learner that jives with current experience.

In contrast, those who argue against such safe environments, and there are many such people so here I won't try to single out any one in particular, seem to me to take a fundamentally normative economics approach to the matter.  In other words, the ideal is for us to be producing highly resilient and adaptable students who can make the necessary adjustment to the environment, however harsh it may present itself.  While I concur with this normative goal, I think there is then a conceptual error made from a positive perspective.  The error is the belief that providing a safe environment lessens the chance that the normative goal will ever be attained.  (Implicit in this is perhaps a Darwinian argument about successful adaptation coupled with a view that for those less successful in adapting, they must suffer so the stronger members of the species thrive.)

There is quite a lot of evidence to suggest that in the absence of a really safe environment, students will self-protect and that self-protection will block the resilience in students that everyone wants to see.  As I said above, there is still an unknown of whether in a safe environment if students will grow sufficiently that eventually they no longer need the protections the environment provides.  And even if this is true, there is the further matter of how long this is likely to take.  Admittedly, I don't know the answers here.  It seems to me, however, that is what we should be trying to learn.  That is the crux of my argument.

* * * * *

Now I want to add a further complication to this story and in the process take myself on in the argument I made just above.  The issue I'd like to bring in is prejudice, in this case the teacher's prejudice against his students.  In this I'm aided by a recent Opinionator column by George Yancy, Dear White America.  Yancy argues that the system is inherently racist (for which the evidence seems abundant; Yancy trusts his readers to be aware of that evidence).  White America, at least those who in the main embrace the system, must therefore be racist as well, even if from time to time they try to confront that racism.  It is an argument that I'm still scratching my head about.

In the meantime, here I want to appropriate Yancy's argument and use it for my own purposes.  Where Yancy says White America, make the substitution 'professors' and where he says Black America make the substitution 'students'.  Even though I purport in wanting to see my students engage in real learning, am I prejudiced against my students?  If that is so, how does this prejudice manifest and ultimately limit the learning of the students?

It is hard not to vent here, but I will try to avoid that as best as possible.  Instead I will ask, what is that the instructor enjoys in teaching and what is it that the instructor detests?

On this score it is much more enjoyable to teach a course for the Campus Honors Program than to teach a course aimed for regular students, the majority of whom are Economics majors.  On core issues of how motivation manifests, like coming to class, CHP students are much more inclined to do so than ordinary students.  In my Economics of Organization class I tell students at the beginning of the semester, "I don't want to be your mother."  That typically brings out a chuckle from some of them.  But by mid semester, for many I'm playing the role of their mother and urging them to get their assignments in on time.  Why that is necessary is anybody's guess.   Here I simply want to assert that it is the norm to have some students who are serious about the course work, meaning they come to class and do their assignments diligently, and many other who are apparently merely going through the motions.

Some might argue that the solution is to have strict rules and then enforce those, letting students live with the consequences.  But one of the themes of my course is that organizations which operate under strict rules typically limit productivity by not creating a sense of ownership in their employees.  Employees who follow the rules do so out of fear of losing their jobs, but then they won't have the passion for the work necessary to do an outstanding job.  If we're going to talk that talk in class, we should also walk the walk, or so has been my thinking in how the class is structured.  Yet the lack of motivation evident in too many students defeats this message from really getting through. Or, put differently, if I got to recruit students for my class from among those who wanted to register for it, a novel thought that I'm sure would put a smile on the face of other instructors were it suggested at a faculty meeting, I would reject a good fraction of those who do sign up for the class because they don't bring enough to the table.

A second issue is whether students seem open to new ideas.  As a teacher, it is much more encouraging to see a student whose own world view is flexible enough that it can be modified when confronted with a new and interesting idea, one the student hadn't previously considered.  Students who are more of a closed book, and therefore who are harder to reach, are less fun to teach.  I don't mean here students who are skeptical.  Such skepticism would actually be a welcome thing, as the students who challenged what they are being taught would then have to find intelligent arguments to support their prior beliefs.  Bringing such arguments out in the open would be a very good thing.  When I talk about students being a closed book I mean they are instinctual and not reflective in generating their own views.  (Another instructor might say that for such students their critical thinking skills are weak.)  Getting such closed minded students to be more open in their thinking presents a challenge to the instructor.

A third issue is whether students have adequate prior preparation.  Here, I don't mean whether students have had the prerequisite courses.  The issue is how much of the prerequisites the student has internalized in a way where that knowledge can be repurposed in my class.  My class is an upper level course meant for juniors and seniors.  If I must continually go back to square one to produce understanding, we can't get very far in covering the subject matter of my class.  Alternatively, in my class we end up going through the surface learning charade that I am desperately trying to avoid.

When I was a teen, the Stephen Stills song Love the One You're With was quite popular.  It might serve well as the mantra for current day college instructors.  Yet instructors are human beings and sometimes they are unable to live up to the standards they set for themselves.  When the challenges mount and the successes are few and far between, it is all too easy to become first frustrated and then eventually to become exasperated.  When those emotions overtake the instructor the tone of the message being sent is apt to change.  Students will hear the irritation in the instructor's voice or see caustic criticism in the instructor's comments that are a response to some piece of student writing. What the instructor originally meant as a gentle nudge toward better student performance gets heard by the student as rebuke.  This might completely discourage the student's earnest participation.  When this happens the safety of the space has then been shattered.

Two different stories can be told here, each describing the same outcome.  In the first, the students are not hearty enough.  They are unable to shrug off some negative feedback they receive.  They have made a mountain out of a molehill.  In this story the project to get ordinary students to learn in a deep way is doomed to failure because the students are too brittle.    In the second story, the instructor is not patient enough.  The instructor lets his demons get the better of him and dissipates his opportunities for providing useful feedback by instead venting during these times.  The instructor is Doctor Frankenstein who makes his own monster, because he is so hell bent on dramatic improvement from his students that he ignores the small real steps of progress that students make when they are learning.

Let me close with the following observation.  The results are not uniform in my class.  The shattering of the safe space (or not) happens not for the class as a whole but for each individual student, taken one at a time.   That is worth keeping in mind as we consider what progress looks like.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The system that is aimed at producing learning doesn't.





Can't we do better than this?

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Learning by thinking things through (reading) --- Non-learning by testing

One of those unfortunate necessities with school is that in the early grades spelling is learned by rote, at least a first, and likewise for arithmetic.  If a kid gets past rote pretty quickly, primarily through reading, later perhaps also by writing or through other means of expression, then those early lessons by rote have done their job well and the kid can move onto more mature approaches to learning, which entail understanding narrative produced by others and then by producing narrative himself or herself.  What happens when a kid doesn't get past rote, neither through the later grades in elementary school, nor in middle school, nor even in high school?

At this juncture in the writing, I stopped for quite a while.  There is, of course, much narrative provided by TV and the movies, also by video games.  Given that, one needs to ask: does reading nonetheless hold a privileged place in the kid's learning?   I wanted to claim that it does, but I also wanted some evidence to support that claim, so I proceeded to look for that evidence.  I first did a Google search on "the difference between reading and watching TV for learning" but without the quotes.  I looked at a few links from there, none of which I found satisfying.  So I did the search again, this time using Google Scholar.  (I love that when on the campus VPN, a Google Scholar search suggests where the piece can be accessed from a database the Library has provided.)  The very first hit is a remarkably interesting piece by Neil Postman called The Disappearance of Childhood.  (Readers who don't have access to ProQuest will find the link takes them to a login screen.  For that reason, I've reposted the article, so everyone can have access.  It is a definite copyright violation, but I doubt anyone will lose sleep over this.  Not too many people read my blog and Postman's piece is pre-Internet.  His devil is TV.  But that helps make his piece such an interesting read.)

Postman makes a very large argument.  He asserts that the concept of childhood itself was a consequence of Gutenberg's printing press, which democratized literacy.  In the Middle Ages, there wasn't  a period of life known as childhood.  Adulthood immediately followed infancy, around the age of 7.  By that age everyone had learned oral communication skills, which we humans are hard wired to acquire.  That was all the education necessary.  So a 7-year old could start working.  Once reading was deemed a necessary skill, one that requires education to acquire, there needed to be a period of time for that education to occur and a dedicated place (school) for the learning to happen.  In Postman's view, school and childhood are two sides of the same coin.   This is a period of slow and steady maturation, intellectually and about how the world works.  Students learn through their play as well as through their schooling.  

Postman then asserts that television undoes this separation between childhood and adulthood because TV programming is accessible to everyone (meaning the content is lowest common denominator sort of stuff, since only that will have a wide audience) and the skills required to view TV and make sense of shows and the commercials are already there in young children.  (Ten years ago there was a piece that made the opposite argument, arguing that audiences were growing more sophisticated by virtue of TV.  Mainly, however, it was making an argument that for DVDs watching the same show multiple times was necessary to rationalize the purchase.  Thus, that sort of programming had to provide stories where new things came across in a second viewing.  In turn, that meant the stories had to be intellectually challenging.)  What is most interesting in Postman's critique is the consequence he draws from this undoing on the larger society.  If you buy his argument, it is very easy to cast the current Republican race to be the Presidential nominee as a product of trends Postman identified more than 30 years ago.  It also suggests that mobile devices aren't the cause of the problem with lack of attention, as many now assert.  The problem was already there in TV's dominance over print.  My generation, which as kids or perhaps as teens witnessed the transition from black and white to color TV, lived at the cusp of this transition.  That is useful to bear in mind.

TV viewing and book reading can co-exist in a way where the latter provides intellectual nurture and the former provides entertainment.   (And some TV viewing might provide intellectual nurture as well.)  That's how it was for me and indeed how it must have been for Postman as an adult (he was 24 years my senior), who in the piece I've linked to comes across both as well educated and as someone who watched a lot of TV.  At issue is whether this sort of duality is the norm or if instead one mode comes to predominate.  And here it is worth distinguishing the mechanics of reading, on the one hand, from the habit of reading, on the other.  Every kid who goes to school gets taught on the mechanics of reading.  But reading requires effort, especially for the kid who has not yet acquired the habit. Watching TV is easier.  That much, Postman's piece and the next one at the Google Scholar site, Television is "Easy" and Print is "Tough"... make quite clear.   When the kid is out of school and chooses which to do, what drives the choice?  It is not hard to imagine that if the reading habit doesn't take hold at a fairly young age, then it doesn't take hold at all.  Postman writes:

Alongside all of this, the Europeans rediscovered what Plato had known all along about learning to read; namely, that it is best done at an early age.

Now I want to get back to the persistence of rote.  My conjecture is that it happens primarily in kids for whom the reading habit is weak or not present at all.  School has two different jobs.  The first job is to teach students.  The second job is to assess what students have learned.  In the ideal, these two jobs are complements.  Teaching obviously feeds the assessment of learning.  In a virtuous cycle, the assessment, in turn, feeds subsequent teaching.  But there are unintended consequences, particularly on the student's ego.  Nobody likes to perform poorly when tested.

For kids who are reading regularly, the entire process that begins with the list of new words to learn (when I was a kid that was on Monday) and culminates with the spelling test (likewise, when I was a kid that was on Friday) with practice in between indirectly is a prod not just for reading, but reading at a certain level, where at least some of the new words are likely to appear in the story.   In this way the reading embodies the lessons learned from spelling.  Likewise, if a kid can figure out a new word from the context of the reading passage, then reading is a way to practice spelling, by seeing it in print before confronting it on a list.  But for kids who don't yet have the reading habit, spelling tests themselves may be the culprit.  Each week there is more stuff to memorize, yet the stuff is not used in an interesting way.  School becomes synonymous with memorization.  Rote then has hardened into the way students prepare for tests.

If this story that I am telling makes sense, then the key question is what might be done to get the reading habit more widespread among kids.  Comparing now to when I was a kid, there are so many other temptations now.  And measured by "special effects" those other temptations are vastly superior now to the TV we had when I was a kid.  This is the issue in upper middle class households, where the kids may be doing well at school test-wise, but where they are not really learning because they prepare for their tests by rote.

When I was in 6th grade (still elementary school then) my teacher was also the school librarian.  He had me work in the library a good part of each school day.  Some of that was real work - putting the plastic covers onto the book jackets of newly acquired books to protect the books from wear and tear.  Much of that, however, was free time that allowed me to read some of those books.  If every kid had that opportunity that sustained for an extended period of time, would each develop the reading habit?

Here I took my second break in the writing, but this time for not so long.  I did a search on "getting young kids to read" and found several pieces that said more or less the same thing.  Having shared reading experiences counts for a lot.  I know there are volunteer programs for mentoring school kids, but are there volunteer programs that encourage shared reading?  One of the pieces emphasized this as a parental responsibility, and I suppose in an upper middle class family with both parents residing in the household, it is a parental responsibility.  I'm guessing however that even in that setting surrogates for the parents will be doing some of the shared reading.  And in single parent households, an increasing reality, surrogates may be the only answer, even if it isn't a perfect answer.  The additional factors are for kids to select readings according to their then articulated interests.  This, in turn, requires having realistic alternatives from which the kid can choose.

Since I'm trained as an economist I tend to think of things from an opportunity cost perspective.  And what I'm wondering now is whether quite a bit of the effort and resource going into faculty development at college to improve pedagogy and facility with learning technology wouldn't be better spent on early childhood education, having more libraries, more books, and surrogates with whom the kids can read together in a comfortable environment.

Let me close by noting that in today's Inside Higher Ed, there is a piece about the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and funding technology mediated Personalized Learning.  I've got to wonder, why fund a lot of remediation at the college level instead of funding getting the kids on a better learning track when they are younger?  We who are in Higher Ed like to see funds coming our way.  But doesn't it make more sense to encourage these kids to be readers before they become adults, just as Plato suggested?

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

A suggestion for the new Chan Zuckerberg Initiative

While I'm sure there is a lot of thinking behind the scenes not reflected in this NY Times piece, so perhaps what I have to say here is already being considered, one gets the impression that this initiative is looking to make rather large grants (in the tens of millions of dollars range) so the money can be put to strategic use.  Such an approach is perfectly understandable from the viewpoint of the donors, who'd like to understand the consequence that results from their gifts as well as to steer outcomes in a more positive direction, when that is possible.

However, just as many commercial startup ventures are starved for capital, so too are many startup not-for-profit charitable endeavors.  These organizations have very dedicated and diligent founding members and a cadre of others who volunteer their time in the hope the organization can make a go of it.  Fundraising from small donations is the standard way such organizations try to meet their financing needs, which are typically quite modest indeed, and yet often go unmet.  Many of these organizations fail.  Some might fail even if the funding were adequate - their message doesn't hit the right chord.  But many others have a good message for which there is a real audience, yet will fail nonetheless because they can't raise the needed funds.

So my thought is that some small fraction of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative be devoted to small grants (in the tens of thousands of dollars range) but unlike other Foundation giving of this sort, which targets the areas that are candidates for funding, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative be unrestricted as to mission of the recipient organizations.  Likewise, I would suggest a fairly minimal application process for grant candidates.  Allocating the grant funds would not be a search for the proverbial needle in a haystack.  It is hard to see how that could make sense, as the costs of sifting through all the applications could end up swamping the benefits from the small grants themselves.

Instead, imagine that the grants were determined purely as a random draw from the applicant pool.  Given the high visibility of the Chan Zuckberberg Initiative, one might imagine that pool would be quite large.  Even if the success rate on the small grants was quite low, which I assume it would be, the conditions have been set to look at why organizations who receive grants nonetheless fail.  (The reporting requirement for grant recipients would be much higher than for initial applicants.  One prime reason for the Initiative funding of the grants is to study these recipients.)  One might hypothesize that many of these organizations make some basic mistakes that hamper their ability to succeed.  If so, and if those mistakes could be identified, future organizations could learn from this and thereby avoid these errors.

The leverage then from such a small grant program, even if it continued with random selection of recipients for funding, is that it might very well influence the behavior of all applicants, not just those that receive the grants.  In this way it could raise the success rates of all such startups and in so doing also attract other funders to support these organizations.

Let me close with one other point, which relates this sort of charitable giving to income inequality.  It may just be how the piece in the Times was written, but the impression created about the large grants already made is that the recipients were themselves pretty well heeled.  In other words, these amount to the uber rich giving to the very well off.  Good works will no doubt be done this way.  But it blocks many other potential recipients where good works could also be done - these among the poor, working class, and their friends, because they simply aren't networked in a way where they can raise sufficient capital to make them targets for a big grant.  These other potential recipients should not be left out in the cold.  This suggestion is a way to include them in the process. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Is Tolerance Possible?

The Wind and the Sun

The WIND and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveler coming down the road, and the Sun said: “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveler to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger, You begin.” So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveler. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveler wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveler, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on.
          Kindness affects more than severity. 

This lesson, which we were all taught as children, doesn't appear to stay learned when we become adults.   The contest between the Wind and the Sun gets played over and over again, now largely via social media.  Particularly notable to me are the comments on opinion pieces I peruse in the New York Times, Inside Higher Ed, and elsewhere.  Those readers who disagree are quick to abandon reasoned argument and instead write with cynicism and hyperbole.  The authors of such comments appear to be very angry.  I don't keep a scorecard, but if I did I'd guess that the Wind is winning and the contest is not very close at present. 

In our national politics it now appears a given that the populace is angry, very much so.  It is near impossible to reason with an angry person.  The person must calm down first.  If the person is also intolerant it is far from clear whether even when calm the person would change his or her mind and embrace people who are unlike himself or herself.  What would it take to change somebody's point of view in this case?  We should be asking that question.  

There is also the logical conundrum of how people who consider themselves tolerant react to those who are apparently not.  Does outrageous behavior by the intolerant warrant a tit for tat response?  If it does, it explains why the Wind is winning.  

That a tit for tat response is the immediate visceral reaction to the outrageous behavior goes without saying.  The outrage is intended to provoke just such a response.  What would a more disciplined and reasoned response look like?  Would it be silence?  Or a thoughtful argument?  Does anyone have the patience to follow along with a well reasoned argument anymore?  Is there a way for silence to distinguish itself from capitulation?  I wish I had answers to these questions that I could rely on.

There is still a further complication to consider as the question offered up in the post title plays out on college campuses.  Freedom of speech is a value, one that can be at odds with tolerance.  Let us recognize that in this case people will disagree as to which is the higher value.  Yesterday I became aware of Inclusive Illinois and their Diversity Statement, an articulation of the goal that tolerance on campus be the primary value and that there are certain processes which need to be embraced to achieve that goal.  

For those who think that freedom of speech should be the primary value, will there nonetheless be respect for this Diversity Statement?  Or will they treat it as little more than rubbish, because it tramples on the First Amendment?  I don't want to presume the answer to that question, but if it does cause the latter reaction doesn't it then follow that the statement itself will do little to nothing to move us from the status quo?

On a personal level, I feel I can make some progress on these matters when in a one-on-one conversation and possibly in a small group setting (five or fewer).  In the discussion people have to support the positions they hold and as a result of that imperative we can negotiate our way to something sensible.  At least that has been my experience most of the time.   In other settings, it is far easier for people to maintain their previously held views, because they don't need to listen to views that disagree with their own.

It is not that hard to envision a world where tolerance is the norm and where free speech operates within the confines of tolerance.  However, I'm finding it increasingly difficult to understand how we might get from here to there.   At present, we seem to be standing still or maybe moving in the opposite direction.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

People who are interested in undergraduate education at Illinois should read this.

This is Hanna Rosin's latest, about the suicide problem at Palo Alto's public high schools.  It is not elevating at all.  Indeed, it is very frightening.  But is has the ring of truth and suggests we really need to hold up a mirror to ourselves. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

R̶i̶s̶k̶ Uncertainty Assessment

Today I should be grading, but human nature being what it is I'm procrastinating on that task, though I hope to get to it shortly. Here I want to put a few things together that have been on my radar that last few weeks.

The first is about something that Richard Levin said in his lecture on campus last week. This was one of those statements that can be taken as a stand alone point rather than as part of his larger argument.  (I wrote about Levin's lecture in my previous post.)  This point is about the quantitative reasoning piece of general education.  Levin said students should take probability and statistics instead of calculus, as all students need to understand and perform assessments of uncertainty based on available data, while most of them will rarely if ever use calculus once they've graduated from college.  I previously read about this point in a column by Nicholas Kristof, so I gather the view is making the rounds.

Before taking on the argument, let me observe that the economist Frank Knight is associated with this distinction between risk and uncertainty that has found its way into my title.  Economists embrace this distinction, but to my knowledge it has not yet found its way into common usage by the population as a whole.  To avoid philosophical issues, let me give a working definition of these ideas.

Risk is when there is a frequency notion at root, so one can look at historical data to assign probabilities.  Consider a flip of a fair coin, the first textbook example a student gets exposed to in a course on probability.  It has a probability of .5 that it will come up heads.  Underlying this is the Law of Large Numbers, which for the coin flipping example says the ratio of the the number of heads to the number of flips of the coin will tend to .5 as the sample size gets large.  That there is risk in the world provides a rationale for why there are actuaries, who examine the data and assess probabilities based on that.  Insurance premiums are driven by such risk assessment. 

Uncertainty is when the situation has novelty to it, so one needs to make an assessment based on the situation alone.  If you think of this from an evolutionary perspective, the canonical question is: fight or flight?  And one of the big points here is that you can't totally divorce the assessment of the uncertainty from the consequences.  In other words, fear can manifest when danger is perceived, even when the situation is benign in fact.  Further, past negative experiences (trauma) can alter the uncertainty assessment.  For a trauma victim it becomes plausible that lightning will strike in the same place again.

A different sort of assessment happens for upside consequences, where because after the fact we tend to impute causality even when randomness was fundamentally at play, we feel we are deserving of our own good fortune.  I wrote about this a while back in a post called Pluck or Luck.  There I made reference to something called The Just World Theory, a certain type of cognitive bias.

Behavioral economics takes as its basis that human beings are not rational and instead possess a variety of these cognitive biases.  For example, Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, talks about WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is).  This means that people make their assessment of uncertainty based on their own experience, but ignore the information that might be garnered from the experience of others when that information is not immediately at hand.

If you look at two of the more hot button issues in the news now, that plight of the Syrian refugees and the matter of racism on campuses around the country, and you look at how different are the proposed ways of addressing these issues, depending on whether the proponent is Liberal or Conservative, underlying this has to be significant differences in assessing the probabilities.  One might therefore be hopeful that if the population as a whole had a better sense of probability and statistics, that some of these differences in how to address social issues would erode.  Alas, I think we should be skeptical of this hopeful view.

There are two big issues to confront here that don't have easy answers.  First, many students get through math courses without ever really internalizing what is supposed to be learned there so it becomes part of their own thinking.  This starts quite early in school, when students are first exposed to algebra and geometry.  These kids know that they don't know the math, so they look for alternative ways to get through these classes (memorizing homework problems and lectures) that are entirely dysfunctional for producing understanding.  How much college math, whether calculus or probability and statistics, really gets learned by students who have such a shaky foundation in their prior math understanding?  Indeed, early probability courses are based on counting and approximation, to a large extent.  Many students are not good at these matters.

The other big issue is that probability and statistics are typically taught in a way that is pretty technical but also divorced from decision making.  So while a student can become familiar with the mechanics of a probability calculation, they may never learn when to use such a calculation in practice or to trust that calculation for making a decision.  More importantly, the students are not made to confront their own cognitive biases.  If they were, they might actively resist these courses rather than embrace them.  (There is resistance to these courses now because they are hard.  But there is not resistance because the subject matter would make students uncomfortable.)  Most of us don't like to be told that we're prejudiced and in need of awareness training to alleviate that.

Let me close with a mention of this piece about how ISIS became a force.   It is an interesting read.  There were many unanticipated consequences from past action. 
One wonders whether it would have been possible to be more prescient than we actually were, but we opted out of doing that because such actions, "didn't fit the current narrative."  You are supposed to learn from your mistakes, but on this matter one senses there is a lot of willful blocking of learning, precisely because the narrative prevents empiricism from occurring.

It would be delightful to discover that I'm wrong here and that teaching probability and statistics broadly would improve matters significantly.  In the absence of evidence to contrary, however, I'll stick with my skepticism.  More than the appropriate subject, the key issue is whether the student is open to what is being taught. If the student is not open to really engaging with new ideas, the subject matter counts for naught.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

When Time Passes You By

I walk slowly these days. Things appear different that way.  On Friday morning I went to a talk at the Library School given by Richard Levin, President Emeritus of Yale.  It was the second of the Prioritizing Undergraduate Education Talks.  Here's the blurb for it.  Later in this piece I'll say a few things about that talk and the Q&A that followed, because that got me thinking.  But let me continue my story about walking first.  I didn't stick around for the reception that followed since I had a meeting scheduled with my mentee and we had to push that forward since something else came up for her at noon.

When that meeting concluded I walked back from the Espresso Royale on Daniel to BIF.  It was near the lunch hour so a lot of other people were out then as well.  Very soon I became aware that people were passing me by.  I was going at roughly half their pace.  So before long I would fall way behind them.  I was still moving forward, but relatively speaking I was moving backward.   This happened repeatedly and became an image I couldn't get out of my mind.  I am going to use that image now in articulating my head scratching about undergraduate education.

Let me return to Levin's talk.  He championed general education, two full years of it, but now with an additional wrinkle beyond the usual critical thinking goal attained by reading and debating great works in a common curriculum.  This other goal was to produce cross cultural competency, mainly via developing a sense of empathy rather than by learning specific facts about peoples elsewhere.  Much of the tone and substance of this talk appealed to me.

Yet it was extraordinarily normative, with the focus on the Yale model as it manifests at a version of Yale in Singapore.  As I've been struggling with the class I've been teaching this semester, I asked myself whether my students were ready for or inclined to participate in the kind of general education that Levin depicted.  My answer was a resounding no.  Here is my forward movement with this head scratching.  It is to ask, what might be done to get these students ready and so inclined?  It seems a necessary question to pose.

But before taking it on, let me pose another first.  Is what I'm seeing in my current students typical of the general student population or not?  During the Q&A the discussion followed along the lines of whether some variant of the Yale model might be possible at Illinois.  One requirement of the Yale model is small classes to facilitate a seminar approach instead of a lecture. An English professor offered up that she is increasingly teaching small classes, so if the students are looking for that experience it is not hard to find on our campus.  Apparently, not too many are looking or, if they are, they want it only in their majors and not in English.  This is certainly not a full sampling of the student body, but it does provide at least a bit of corroborating evidence that what I'm seeing is not so aberrant.

During Levin's presentation he talked about Lincoln extensively, noting that even during the Civil War, with its massive claim on the nation's GDP, Lincoln still had his eye on the nation's future and the need to to make the proper investments to keep the country growing strongly.  Specifically mentioned in this context were the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, which brought us the transcontinental railroad, and the first Morrill Act, which established the land-grant colleges, Illinois included, also enacted in that year.  Part of Levin's argument is that we need to be making 21st century investments of the same type, college education being one of the primary areas where such investment is needed.

Lincoln himself serves as an interesting example of the learner, as he ended up such a visionary thinker and leader, yet he did so with very little formal education.  Instead, he was largely self-taught.  Lincoln's example should get us to consider self-teaching and it's role today, though Lincoln was clearly an outlier among the citizenry in this regard.   Below is the first paragraph from an essay by Saul Bellow from the NY Times series, Writers on Writing, to demonstrate the point.

When I was a boy "discovering literature," I used to think how wonderful it would be if every other person on the street were familiar with Proust and Joyce or T. E. Lawrence or Pasternak and Kafka. Later I learned how refractory to high culture the democratic masses were. Lincoln as a young frontiersman read Plutarch, Shakespeare and the Bible. But then he was Lincoln. 

I marvel at the phrase "refractory to high culture" in the sentence highlighted above.  There is such economy in word usage while at the same time the phrase perfectly illuminates the issue.  And now, given that issue, let me begin on the walking backward part of my head scratching.  Usually that involves me reflecting on my own college experience.  Because I did my first year and a half in college at MIT, I got essentially none of the humanistic part of general education, the part I believe Levin feels is the core of the experience.  Further, I was and still am largely refractory to high culture, if choices in pleasure reading are any indication.  I've never read Shakespeare just for the fun of it, nor Plutarch at all.  Proust is still on my imagined to do reading list, but there is no urgency whatsoever in my getting to that.  Partly that's because there are some great works that I've tried but couldn't get through; Gravity's Rainbow was my first such experience.  And the only thing I know about T.E. Lawrence is from the movies, ditto for Pasternak.

Yet I do believe I did quite a lot of self-teaching in college, before college too, and have done so throughout my life.  I discussed this at length in a post many years ago called PLAs Please, where I posed the following question. What is it that school did for me that I couldn’t have done on my own?  Note the bias in this question.  My assumption is that the burden for learning is not on school.  The burden for learning is on oneself.  School should only fill in those parts where you can't learn on your own, though perhaps there should be some overlap between the two.  (At the time of writing that post, there was a lot of attention within the learning technology community about something called Personal Learning Environments, PLEs, so with my title I was making a play on words, coming up with the acronym PLAs, Personal Learning Agendas, to represent the self-teaching part of learning, though I was careful enough to say there really is very little planning with that.  The key is simply to engage with the self-teaching on an ongoing basis.)

At the heart of self-teaching is reading, the type of reading that challenges the reader to think about matters in a different way, or to inform the reader about issues that engage the reader but where ahead of time the reader was largely ignorant.  In other words, there is something transformative that happens to the reader simply as a consequence of reading and reflecting on what has been read.  And it is the individual learner who directs this activity, in large part by making the choice of what to read.

After I transferred to Cornell, particularly starting in my junior year, two other outside-of-courses experiences supplemented the reading.  One was seeing foreign films with subtitles.  I did that quite quite a lot and continued to do so in graduate school (though not the first year at Northwestern where there wasn't time for this leisure activity.)  At Cornell there was a lot of Truffaut and Fellini, and I have a distinct memory of seeing Closely Watched Trains.  Mostly I did this on my own, so only rarely talked about these films with friends.  The real virtue of this film viewing was the variety of stories and different points of view one could get exposed to in a comparatively short period of time. 

I did have rather intense conversations with housemates on issues in the news.  (Nixon resigned during the summer before my junior year in college.  Ford's pardon of Nixon was something we talked about an awful lot.)  Those conversations really helped me to make sense of things.  And they satisfied a hunger for good discussion that ably served me 20 years later when I started as a learning technology administrator by talking with faculty around campus about their teaching and about how they might utilize the Internet to improve learning in their classes.

Levin noted in his talk that the subject matter of courses changes from time to time to reflect new developments and to abandon more traditional approaches that no longer seem as relevant as they once were.  That makes sense.  It probably makes sense for something similar to happen with individual self-teaching activities.  Does this include diminishing the role that reading plays in self-teaching?  Or does it only mean that the sort of non-course reading college students do today should be different from the type of reading I did back in the middle 1970s, which centered on a daily go through the NY Times?

These questions did not come up during the Q&A after Levin's talk, where the focus was on how we faculty should conduct general education, not on how students should ready themselves for that.  I confess that I did not have these questions framed in my head then.  All I had was my sense of struggle teaching this semester and I didn't know how to ask a question about that without seeming to whine, so I didn't raise my hand at all.

For the last 20 years or so, not just this semester, I've had the feeling that our students don't read nearly enough.  I used to joke with Dick Brazee about this, since he and I agreed that many of our students couldn't make good meaning out of a piece on economics found in the NY Times.  Yet most faculty discussions about undergraduate education that I've been part of don't include this issue of limited reading comprehension in many of our students.  And among both instructional support and learning technology staff, it is taken on faith that an appropriate intervention can promote deep learning, though there does seem some disagreement as to whether it's entirely a matter of the right pedagogy or if effective use of learning technology also matters.

That student reading outside of school doesn't often get discussed may be because there is not much we can do about it.  This morning a friend alerted me to a piece in the Chronicle entitled Higher Ed Has Always Been A Mess.  (You need to subscribe to the Chronicle to have access.  People at Illinois have access if they are on the campus network.)  Apparently my predecessors among the faculty from 150 years ago were complaining about similar matters.  Perhaps that is illuminating, though I don't find it comforting at all.

Here is one more look at the matter and then I'll close.  I recall that Frank Mayadas, who then worked for the Sloan Foundation administering their ALN (online learning) grants, referred to Lincoln as a 6-sigma person, though precisely what the random variable he had in mind was never specified. (Perhaps it was intelligence or the ability to self-actualize. )  In any event, on academic performance in school most faculty at Illinois and comparable institutions are probably 2-sigma or 3-sigma people, which puts them in the 98th or 99th percentiles in these measures.  One might guess that if academic performance is not explained by raw intelligence, then it is explained by expertise at being a student, which itself develops from certain types of habitual behavior, the acquisition of which begins well before college.  (Reading may be one of those habits, learning to make quick penetration into an idea others find difficult another.)  The college students we teach, in contrast, are mainly one-sigma people.  Their habits are different.  The program to remake our students in our own image is likely doomed for failure, for this very reason.

Yet I, for one, keep on trying.  It seems to me what we should be doing, even if the likelihood of success is extremely low.  If that doesn't make me a dinosaur, what else will?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The quiet story

I now have two student mentees as part of the program that supports Illinois Promise students.  The older one is currently a junior and in the process of transferring into Economics.  He became my mentee in an unusual way.

Most of the pairings between mentor and mentee happen in the fall semester of the first year. The thought being that getting through the first semester and then the first year at the university is where the big risk is as to whether the student will make it all the way through college.  Help the student get over those early bumps and get acclimated to the place.  Then the rest of the time on campus is not such a struggle and may even become a source of enjoyment.  And while the official relationship between mentor and mentee need only go for that first year, after that they may continue in their conversations and related activities, all the way till the student graduates if that is mutually agreeable.  When the official mentoring goes well the relationship then continuing becomes a real possibility.

Many of the Illinois Promise students do not opt for a mentor.  I can readily imagine why.  If you already feel uncomfortable, why go through the awkwardness of talking with a stranger who expects you to open up and discuss your travails?  Most of us keep our inner doubts bottled up unless we already have a trusted friend to share them with.  The premise of the mentoring program is that this sort of trust can be built along the way.  But surely it is a risk whether it will really happen.  It is a brave thing to take on such a risk ahead of time.  I count myself as someone who is not so brave.

With A., I first met him in the late spring of his sophomore year.  The issue of the moment was to find a suitable internship.  He had an expressed interest in doing import-export work and possibly being located abroad after graduation.  He had done an internship in Shanghai the previous summer via the Illinois Bureau of Commerce.  He wanted to do something similar in that vein this time around, but not a repeat of the same thing.

Then practical reality intervened.  A. had been a Music major.  He didn't yet have the requisite math course to transfer into Economics.  So he ended up taking Calculus at the local community college in the summer instead of doing another internship.  I had informed A. that I was a Math major in college and knew Calculus quite well.  I told him that if he wanted help with it I was happy to provide that.  Tutoring is not mentoring and indeed, much of what I did wasn't even tutoring, since that part happened via email.  He had homework or practice problems given to him by the instructor, some he could do on his own but others he didn't know how to solve.  In some cases I offered up full solutions.  In other cases I talked him through getting at the solution himself.

Implicit in the willingness to tutor is the hope that trust is built by having regular ordinary transactions that go reasonably well.  So there was a need to somehow find a way to have those sort of interactions.  Tutoring was something possible under the circumstance.  I'm doing something similar now with my other mentee, S, who is a first year student, this time focusing on microeconomics rather than math.  But with S. she was wanting the mentoring at the outset and has been more open to it.  We've already had several different sorts of conversations. She clearly welcomes these talks and the variety of our subjects.  And I think that with S. we may do more of the tutoring part online, now via texting rather than email (I use Messages on my iMac), so that the face to face time can be for other things.  We'll see how that plays out.

A. and I met earlier this week, at his request.  He told me he had been accepted by the department, his pride evident by the smile on his face during the telling.  It had been a struggle, one that he had finally overcome.  Ahead of time such a struggle can seem daunting.  Our meeting was largely a celebration of his accomplishment.  After that announcement he told me he was looking forward to taking my class next fall.

When that summer Calculus class had concluded he asked me about taking my course this fall.  If memory serves, at the time my enrollment had maxed out, so he wasn't able to register for it immediately.  Rather than make an exception for him so he could add the class, I told him I thought he wasn't yet ready.  He had not yet taken intermediate microeconomics.  (He is taking that now, this fall semester.)  And he had struggled with the math during the summer, while my class is somewhat demanding math-wise.  So I believe I gave an accurate assessment in suggesting that he wait till next year.  Nonetheless, afterward I regretted offering up what might seem a discouraging message.

I may have disappointed A. for real when I told him I was considering not teaching my class next fall.  I told him it has been a struggle for me this time around.  Attendance has been very low, much lower than in recent past offerings.  A. offered up that in his international trade class, a 400-level class like mine, attendance was around 50%, except during exams.  I told A. that I stopped teaching in the spring semester, because I found the senioritis too great then.  Now it looks like that problem is creeping into the fall.  I hypothesized that before too long second semester juniors will also be plagued by the problem.  This got a chuckle out of A. since he could see the point.

What I did not tell A. is that the attendance issue is only one component of what is now bothering me in my teaching.  Perhaps my greatest lament is that I don't seem to be connecting with the students during class.  Most of the time I can't get a conversation going.  A few students do come to office hours once in a while.  I can connect there.  But in class, I don't seem able to do that.  And there is evidence that the students are not getting it, much at all, where here it means the subject matter of my course. They do a homework in Excel I assign, indeed one that I made from scratch.  When a week later I ask the class about conclusions that were to be derived from that homework, nobody seems able to offer them up.

I want to offer up a tentative explanation for why this is happening.  I call this explanation the Disconnection Conundrum.  (A couple of Google searches revealed that the terms Disconnection Hypothesis and Disconnection Syndrome have already been taken by the neuroscientists.)  The rest of the piece will describe what the Disconnection Conundrum means, why it is plausible to believe it is happening at scale, and then to consider what might be done about it. 

* * * * *

Let me begin with some other evidence to consider.  My students write blog posts on a weekly basis and over the course of the semester two of them have written about having difficulty in their apartments.  Part of the explanation for their problems is that they didn't know their roommates ahead of time and put their trust in the market, to provide a decent match for them.  Here we are not talking about first-year students.  We're talking about sophomores, or juniors, or seniors.

I can't imagine being a student on campus for at least a year and still not knowing somebody else to have as a roommate.  This is a sort of disconnection we don't talk about much at all in considering teaching and learning issues.  If a student is socially disconnected from potential peers, what impact does that have on learning?  In this case one of the students was an international student.  The other student was from in state.  The international student comes to class most of the time.  The in state student always comes.  Indeed he is often in the classroom before I show up.  These students are not blowing off my course.  Yet in spite of their personal commitment, they seem socially disconnected on campus, now or in the recent past.

Six years ago I wrote a post called Teaching Quiet Students, which reflected on experiences I had while teaching a seminar for the Campus Honors Program.  At the time it was a surprise to me that I had so many gifted students who were reticent to speak up in class.  That surprise helped me to reconsider the student perspective.  That the quiet student is now the new normal among an increasingly large subset of the student population is part of the precondition behind the Disconnection Conundrum.

Not all quiet students are socially disconnected.  They may arrive on campus already having good friends from high school who are also attending the university.  Alternatively, via a wide variety of serendipitous interactions, they may make new friends once at college, their quiet nature notwithstanding.  If that is right, the socially disconnected among the quiet students constitute the residual who are not in either of these other two categories.

Mentoring is a potential solution for socially disconnected students, but (a) mentoring doesn't scale particularly well, (b) it is not so clear how one can identify socially disconnected students from the overall population, and (c) that socially disconnected students would not willingly embrace mentoring is something to be anticipated.   What alternative is there then to address the issues?  Let's hold that question for a bit and then return to it. 

The other part of the Disconnection Conundrum is intellectual/academic.  The academic part is simple enough to describe.  Students don't make connections to what they are supposedly learning in their classes with what they already know.  This is the old critique that there is much surface learning but not much deep learning in college, such as offered up by Ken Bain.  Intellectual disconnection extends this idea to include experiences outside the classroom.

My contention is that while social disconnection may not be one and the same thing with intellectual/academic disconnection, they do share certain common elements.  Among the most important of those is that the student becomes accustomed to being disconnected, so auto-correction isn't built into the process.  A further common element is that the student is likely to become disenchanted and frustrated by his or her own situation.  Pessimism then becomes the persistent frame of mind.  This blocks risk taking by the student, so it is not hard to envision disconnection as the consequence of a vicious cycle.  If that is right, the issue then is how to break the cycle rather than merely treat the symptoms.

* * * * *

In considering how to measure the pervasiveness of the Disconnection Conundrum, it occurred to me that the first step might be to inquire about it among caring instructors, rather than by directly trying to observe it among the students.  I say this based on a meeting of CHP instructors I attended in spring 2010, after I had written that post about Teaching Quiet Students.  At that session I heard my observations echoed by several other instructors; one teaching history I seem to recall saying that this was his toughest time teaching a CHP class because so many of the students were quiet. I do not know what other sort of congregations of the faculty would produce such a discussion, but it seems to me that is the sort of place to look for some corroborating evidence.

Let us assume that this sort of looking produced evidence that did support the ideas behind the Disconnection Conundrum.  What would next steps be after that?  It seems evident to me that whatever is done needs to happen in the first year of college.  In other words, it is preferable to break the cycle before it has a chance to harden, a variant of the ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure idiom.

One way to do this would be to make first year seminars taught by faculty a commonplace.  Others have argued for this but for different purposes.  (For example, consider my post Re-reading the Boyer Commission Report.)  If the seminar were offered in the fall, then the instructor might invite some candidate students into a non-credit discussion group in the spring.  If the students bonded some with the instructor during that seminar they might then be receptive to participating in the discussion group.  There the students would be directly encouraged to make intellectual connections and might be indirectly encouraged to make social connections with one another.  At a minimum, the experience should show the participating students that the institution cares about them.  Now I fear that many disconnected students come to the opposite conclusion.

An intriguing additional possibility suggests itself should the above produce promising results.  Students who have benefited from the first year seminars and subsequent discussion groups and who have transformed from disconnected to connected, may be in a position to help other students do likewise.  Even if they remain as quiet students, they will have the perspective of understanding the value of connection and may be able to communicate that in a more credible way to other students than the faculty can.  I know it isn't right to count your chickens before they hatch, but this possibility seems evident to me.

Let me close with one other point.  The mentoring program for Illinois Promise students is premised on the idea that low income students have certain disadvantages in attending college so need something to offset that.  That premise makes sense to me.  Yet it might inadvertently lead to the conclusion that all other students are well situated for success in college.  That would be wrong.  Disconnection can block success and perhaps leave a permanent scar on the student.  We should find ways to remedy the problem, if we can.

Thursday, November 05, 2015


At issue in this post is what should be done when a student has had the appropriate prerequisite courses but remains incompetent in the subject matter that those courses teach.

Let me begin with some recollection of my own incompetence as an undergraduate in select areas of study.  Cornell had a foreign language requirement, which could be satisfied either with proficiency in one language or qualification in two languages, proficiency being a sterner requirement than qualification.  I had 3 years of high school French, which gave me qualification in one foreign language coming in.  My options were either to take another year of French, to achieve proficiency, or take some other language for a year, to achieve qualification in that.  I had pretty low regard for how much French I had retained from high school.  If asked, parlez-vous fran├žais? I could respond, un petit peu. (Or is it une petite peu?  I really don't know.)  This to show I thought I'd get clobbered with another year of French, so I opted for German instead and took what they referred to as a reading course.

I should add here that my mom was a foreign language teacher in high school and ran a tutoring business on the side that was quite lucrative.  She mainly taught French and was a native German speaker.  She and I didn't get along so well during my high school years.  My aversion to foreign languages was a reflection of that.

I did okay in German in the fall semester but the following spring the class met at 8 AM and I blew off many of the class sessions.  At the end of the term when it was time to take the exam to prove sufficient mastery, I ended up coming up short on that.  So I took German again in a 4-week summer session.  I was no genius in the subject after that, but I easily crossed over the bar for earning qualification in the subject.

The thing is, my limitations in foreign language did not impede the rest of my studies one iota.  I did take a course on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, which had single sentences over a page long.  But it was translated into English and if I recall even native German speakers often read the English translation instead because it was just too hard to make meaning of Kant's original writing.  Other than that, foreign languages were something that every educated person should know, but ignorance would not really be tested in school outside the foreign language class.

What happens when students have gotten through a prerequisite course in the same manner that I got through German, but where the downstream course does expect real knowledge of the prerequisite?

* * * * *

The population of my current class is bifurcated in its math competency.  Here I'm referring to knowledge of high school analytic geometry and algebra as well as a little bit of calculus.  One bit to illustrate this can be seen in the comments to this post, which is where my students pose questions about the Excel homework, this one regarding the simplest possible version of the principal-agent model. The students posting these comments are for the most part perplexed about what they should be doing.  I met with one of them on Tuesday.  He's a good kid, always comes to class, and gets his written work done early.  But he is math phobic.  He told me he memorized his way through calculus.  It is not the first time I've heard students say this.

In contrast, there are other students in the class who said the video they were to watch before doing that Excel homework was very helpful to them in understanding how to do the homework.  These students have the requisite math skills.  I find it comforting that there are at least some students in this category.

I wish that were true for the whole class, because the issue is more than just math.  Microeconomics utilizes math modeling throughout.  If students have at best a shaky understanding of the math, then their understanding of the underlying microeconomics will also be shaky.  Building a structure on a shaky foundation, is a risky proposition.  When a storm comes along the entire edifice may tumble.

* * * * *

I really don't know how particular this issue is to the study of economics.  Might it generalize to a good chunk of undergraduate education, particularly for students who study in the social sciences?

Let me assume for the moment that it does generalize.  What is to be done about it?  In looking for answers, let me suggest two places that campuses offer as solutions but really aren't.  One is pedagogy.  The other is online technology.  Each of these might be useful if there are very specific gaps of knowledge that need to be filled.  But we're talking about here is what is now being called numeracy - quantitative reasoning skills.  It takes enormous amounts of practice to develop these skills.  The kids who got through their math classes by memorization bypassed all that practice.  To expect that these skills can be acquired on the cheap and in short order is an act of denying reality.

The realistic possibilities are (1) take the math parts out of the course as much as possible or (2) force the students do redo the prerequisites but in such a way where memorization won't work for them so that this time around they really learn the stuff.  But (2) will take quite a long time - years probably.  This is what makes (1) so tempting.

I stopped writing for a while after finishing the above paragraph. Then I went into school to help another student out with the homework.  After some coaching, the assignment becomes understandable to her.  I doubt this helps much with teaching the student to make good meaning of such assignments in general, but it does suggest a third possibility, which is to keep doing things as I'm doing them now and simply vigorously market in class and online coming to office hours for those students who are challenged by the Excel homework.

I want to note, however, that as a retiree I'm somewhat time abundant and can schedule these outside of class sessions to meet when the student can make it.  So while this third option is a possibility in my class, it doesn't really cut it as a solution in a generic upper level course.

* * * * *

I want to close here by noting that some of the prerequisites for taking a course like mine are not to be found in prior courses taken, but in what the student learns about markets and particular companies, from their reading and from their hands on experiences as interns.  The students do reasonably well on the intern sort of of experience, but I doubt they do much reading on their own in what I'd term Economics In The News.

Again harking back to my own college experience, I bought the NY Times most days and would read all the articles on the Front Page plus related pieces found inside the paper, the Editorials and Op-Ed pages, and the Sports Section, though not necessarily in that order.  I think that would take the better part of an hour.  At that time, I typically would not read the Business Section of the paper.  So if Economics In The News was part of the general news, then I'd be aware of it, otherwise not.

I really don't know the newspaper reading habits of current students.  The campus distributes paper versions of various newspapers around campus so they are freely available to students.  But I have no sense of the utilization rates.  It's also true that nowadays you can read from a variety of sources online and thereby get writing on current events more in tune with your own interests.  It is impossible to know how much of this sort of thing students do.

I do on occasion reference such pieces on the class site.  Those posts get rather few hits as compared to the posts about the homework, which in turn don't get as many hits as the post giving last year's midterm as practice for this year's exam.  I'd like to appeal to student intrinsic motivation for the subject, if I can.  Yet most of the students don't seem prepared for such an appeal.

When I was an undergrad I took quite a few courses without having the official prerequisites.  This was true both for political science classes, where for the most part that was probably the right decision and philosophy classes where I was in over my head much of the time.  Ultimately, I suppose, it is the student's choice to determine the level of prior preparation for taking a given class.  I just wish that the student makes that choice wisely.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Two for the price of one

Eschew Obfuscation

How many of you can make good meaning of the above without looking up either word?  This expression I learned in high school, a mantra of sorts, though I confess I can't remember whether it was in math or English or someplace else.  Perhaps one of my high school friends in Facebook will have better recall than I and let us know on this score.  But maybe they don't even recall the expression and can't make good meaning of it now.  In this case, is it my job as a writer to translate it for them, so they can understand it?  Or should I leave it to them to look it up if they care to do so?

What basis is there for answering those questions?  Over time I've come to learn that the writer needs to have some sense of the audience.  The voice in the writer's head speaks to them.  The writer does want to know whether he is getting through with his message.  So hearing something from a reader whether good, bad, or indifferent is quite a useful thing. And nowadays, via social media, a writer who says something that resonates with a reader might very well find his audience expand for that message.  Does the message also resonate with those secondary readers who learn of the message by referral?  If the reader has to bring something to the party to make it gay and merry, might these secondary readers not share in the fun because they come us moochers without bearing gifts?

Alas, this question doesn't emerge in this otherwise interesting piece from the Atlantic, The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing.  The implicit argument offered up there is that if the reader can make good meaning of this article by Victoria Clayton, then the reader should be able to make good meaning of a lot of academic writing as well.  Authors construct unnecessary barriers for such readers because the authors don't have them in mind when writing their articles.  The authors write for the referees and the journal editors only.  Publish or perish does have a rather powerful influence on the preferred audience of an academic author.

So let's take assistant professors out of the equation and focus only on those academics with tenure.  Might they expand their audience by moving to a writing style that features plain English rather than disciplinary specific jargon?  And if they might, whose decision is it to make that they should do this, the authors themselves or somebody like Clayton?  Might it be that different conclusions would be reached on the matter stemming from the perception of whether this potential audience has the appropriate gifts to bring to the party?

I will not try to answer those questions here but instead change gears and look at some life events for me that had a big impact on how I write and who I care to include in my audience.  Getting married mattered.  Until then, I hung around other economists much of the time, though I had some interaction with other academics on campus.  That stemmed from their interest in economics and their need to find an economist who would explain things for them.  Once we were married, I began to have some interactions with people my wife worked with in the Personnel Services Office.

That was a change but still small potato stuff.  The biggie was having kids, sending them to daycare, and then becoming friends with other parents who also sent their kids to daycare.  The experience normalized me a great deal.  (If there were a word "denerdify" it would offer a perfect description.)  The importance of ordinary people elevated in my perception and I wanted to be able to communicate with comfort with such folks.

A further life change happened at work, where I became involved with learning technology and with that having discussions with people around campus about using online technology to enhance teaching and learning.  The skill set for me in those discussions was acquired prior to graduate school, via friendly arguing with my housemates at 509 Wykcoff Road in Ithaca.  None of us were studying the same subjects and some of us were grads while others were undergrads.  These discussions were by amateurs (in the sense of Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind) and quite enjoyable for me.  It was they skill I needed as a learning technology administrator and seemed to mirror my needs as a parent with young children.

I stopped writing papers for economic journals around then and what I did write, academic or otherwise, was far more conversation-like in style.  That sort of writing suited my intellectual disposition.

Knowing my own trajectory here, I wonder if it was fairly typical of academics or not.  I can't imagine that Clayton's argument would have much traction if my experience were atypical.  So, assuming I was fairly ordinary in my experience and motivation, the issue to me is whether the academic can live in both worlds at the same time, authoring disciplinary specific pieces and generalist pieces on a steady basis.  If the academic does that, does the criticism about impenetrable discipline specific jargon still carry much weight?  Flipping the question on its head, would academics feel impelled to live in both worlds so as to keep their work from being ignored by only living in the inside world of the discipline?

I don't know.  Even with tenure, those who are playing the game of grant renewal are living in a world quite similar to the one where assistant professors reside.  Competition here is quite ruthless.  So one should be skeptical on that score.  And for the tenured faculty who don't get grants regularly, clearly more so in the humanities and the soft social sciences, they are getting pretty beat up now on other issues - placement of their doctoral students and whether their undergraduates can find gainful employment.  At a minimum, one should ask whether those forces matter in encouraging some degree of generalist writing.  It is the sort of question Clayton might get at in a follow up piece.

* * * * *


This is another word I learned in high school, definitely in a science class but whether in chemistry or physics or perhaps biology, who knows.  I do recall us looking down at a ruler where we were to indicate the position of some marker and then being made to notice that the position we recorded depended on where we were standing when we took the measurement.

In an Op-Ed in today's NY Times, Arthur C. Brooks has a column that is fundamentally about parallax in social science research, that he attributes to that old canard - liberal bias in academia.  Why this piece and why now?  After Gail Collins' take down piece on the recent Republican debate, is Brooks trying to pull a bait and switch?

There is, of course, conservative bias within certain academic units, business schools certainly and certain economics departments come to mind.  Should that be a concern for the rest of us as well?  A far greater concern, it seems to me, is that higher education is becoming increasingly reliant on large gifts from donors and it seems to me naive to assume all such donors give their money freely without any implied agenda attached to the gift.  The Chicago School developed the "Capture Theory" as a conservative critique of regulation, a criticism I respect even though my own orientation is far more liberal.  Might much academic research end up being captured by the donors?

The peer review process isn't perfect.  Papers with erroneous results do get published on occasion, not because of duplicity but rather because arguments seem plausible and reviewers don't do all the verification with the data that would be necessary to show the results aren't correct.  Consider the story of Reinhart and Rogoff's This Time Is Different.  Does Brooks worry about research done by conservative authors also having problems with parallax?  Why is this framed fundamentally as a problem of liberal bias rather than as an issue that any researcher comes at his subject with strong prior beliefs on the matter and those beliefs will influence the outcome of the research?

* * * * *

Perhaps Clayton and Brooks can sit in the same room and unpack each other's essay.  Simplicity in the writing often masks implicit maintained assumptions that go unchallenged.  If those assumptions were all brought out in the open would readers have the patience to slug through the longer piece?  And is the tonic for errors in research to avoid them being committed in the first place, by identifying all issues of parallax stemming from researcher prior bias?  Or is the method where subsequent researchers challenge the conclusions found in prior work the better way of eventually getting at the truth?

Authors do have agendas.  I have mine.  Part of it is to get people who write opinion pieces like these to try to take the other side of their own arguments.  A different reason why people don't read even generalist writing is that they don't like being sold a bill of goods and they can't differentiate sufficiently well propaganda from reasoned argument.  Authors who want a broad audience for their ideas need to recognize the problem and modify their own writing accordingly.