Thursday, April 30, 2015

Courses and Inquiry, Grades and Inquiry, Semesters and Inquiry

This morning I want to pose the question whether the various administrative structures we place around formal learning actually impede inquiry.  Let me do this only in the context of supervising an undergraduate thesis meant to give honors credit to the student.  I am supervising one such student now and had a different student I supervised last year.  Each of them had taken my Econ of Organizations class and done well in it and presumably they liked the structure of that class.  After conversing with an Econ Department adviser and learning what was required to graduate with honors, they asked me if I would supervise their project.  I agreed to do so.  So I am posing this question with that experience in mind.

Let me also note that perhaps my situation is unique in that while I still engage in inquiry in some way, much of which is express on this blog where the big question is how can we do better with undergraduate education?, I don't see that investigation as being economics for the most part.  So I can't simply make these students research assistants in my ongoing project.  If I could, perhaps the answers to this question would be easier to come up with.  A big deal issue with students doing a research project is what question should they be trying to answer and who comes up with that?

The first time around I had a project in mind that was a bit off the beaten path. It was about (lack of) preservation of our cultural heritage via the folk music our parents listened to on vinyl.  There was an economic policy question here.  Most of this music was still under copyright.  A good chunk of it hadn't yet been digitized.  Should copyright be suspended in this case so people who had these records could make digital versions and place those in the public domain?  Music companies, which own the copyright in most of these cases, might balk at this even though they wouldn't lose a dime on sales of these albums because those albums are not sold anymore.  The issue for them is whether allowing public copying in this case would somehow impact making copies available of more recently released music.  So there was a real question here that the student could nibble on and see what headway might be made. 

The next time around in my preliminary conversation with the student he indicated interest in doing something with data.  I am not a data guy.  I am a theorist.  But I didn't try to steer him away from his interest.  Rather, I simply posed the question - what data could he get with which to do a project?  So I suggested he do something on graduation rates, because I thought that sort of data would be readily available.  He agreed, though the specific question he would address was left unspecified and was up to him to determine.  He took quite a while doing that - reading what he could about graduation rates and seeing what the education researchers said about the matter.  Ultimately he glommed onto a project on transfer students from community colleges, a specific look at what I would term the educational production function.

In both cases (the second one is still ongoing) I've had the feeling of being end gamed on the projects.  The students would be graduating at the end of the semester, so the project would finish then, regardless of whether it had really run its course or not.  The paper that got produced the first time (this time the paper has not yet been written, even as a first draft) was a rushed job.  So it very much feels like the process produces half a loaf only.

At the outset we had to determine how many credit hours this project should count for.  Neither of the students needed the credits to graduate.  In both cases I suggested 2 credit hours and told them individually that this translated into about 6 hours per week of time commitment on their part.  Perhaps that was an error.  Maybe it should have been 3 or even 4 credit hours to generate a greater time commitment from the students.  I really don't know whether my conclusion from the previous paragraph would have been altered had the projects been for greater credit.  On the flip side, if the student spends a lot of time spinning his or her wheels, not uncommon when doing research, and as a consequence the project produces meager results, it seems wrong to award a lot of credit for doing it. 

I never published anything out of my dissertation for the doctorate.  I did produce working papers from it, submitted those for review, got a revise and resubmit from R.E.Stud on one of them, but ultimately it didn't get accepted.  I had to change my research agenda to get stuff published.  I did have some non-thesis work published early, stuff I co-wrote with Leon Moses, so it wasn't a fatal blow that the thesis wasn't published, but it was quite distressing.  I put a huge amount of time into the thesis work.  I mention it here only to point out that the half a loaf outcome seems quite likely to me for undergraduate inquiry, especially if the undergraduate is the principal investigator rather than the research assistant. 

A few weeks ago I was contacted by the Director of Undergraduate Studies in Econ, as were the other instructors supervising undergraduate theses (there are 12 of these projects and I would guess somewhere between 200 and 300 students graduating with a degree in economics), about whether the student's project was deserving of a departmental award.  So doing such a project is already a plum, but we then seem to want to add another plum on top of that.

Anticipating that the project might not turn out to be a world beater, last year I told the student I'd prefer the grade be credit/no credit only.  She agreed, but this proved to be a huge hassle and ultimately I believe I had to assign a letter grade. This time around the student queried the department about this in advance and was told that to receive honors credit, he needed to get a letter grade for the course.  So I will enter one at the end of the semester, though I haven't graded any of the intermediate work.  It doesn't seem to me appropriate to do that.  We're less than three weeks from graduation.  Grades really don't matter now.  Graduating matters now.

If the student ends up doing other economics research in the future, the half a loaf aspect of the current project might actually provide durable benefit as it will help the student to not make the same mistakes again and provide fodder for asking what needs to be done to get a full loaf the next time around.  As the second student is going into a PhD program starting in the fall, I'm hopeful that the project will have this effect.  But let's face it, this is not the maintained reason for having students write an undergraduate thesis.  

If we want such projects to have more direct benefit to the students, the issues sketched here need to be ironed out.  I am not going to try to suggest what improvements should be made, other than to observe that the institution appears rigid to me and there needs to be some flexibility to try alternatives that might have a chance of doing better. 

I've written this piece because it may have seemed from my prior two posts on The Boyer Commission Report that I was idealizing the benefits from moving to an inquiry based approach.  I'm not nearly so idealistic on the prospect of all students engaging in inquiry that produces new knowledge, even when this is done as a research assistant.  As an alternative, I do think there would be substantial learning for most students were they to engage in inquiry on subject matter that was already known, but not yet to the students.  This would still contrast sharply with a knowledge dissemination approach and help the students mature as thinkers.  Whether it would also work from the instructor's perspective remains an open question, one we should spend some time trying to answer.  The question of whether administrative structures impede inquiry goes for that as well. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015


I finished reading the Boyer Commission Report this morning.  In this post I want to address only the recommendations for student writing.  But before I do that, let me observe that I had read the report many years ago.  I did a search  on my computer to find out when it was that I first read it.  The earliest thing I found was a presentation from back in 2002 - my job talk as it turns out.  The operative slide is below.  (Too much text for my taste now.  But in defense of this there was no paper to give out ahead of time, only the talk.)

By the time I was past the halfway point in reading this time around, I had the feeling I had appropriated many of the ideas in the report for my own.  Indeed, there is quite a bit of similarity in intent between the recent series of posts I wrote, Everybody Teaches, and the teaching part of the report. However, it is hard for me now to identify the sources of my own thinking on these matters.  For example, another influence was knowing Chip Bruce and supporting his work on The Inquiry Page.  Another influence was the NY Times site, Writers on Writing.  And then there were books on learning by several authors, Donald Schon, Jerome Bruner, and John Dewey himself among others.  All of these blended into a whole for me.  Yet as I haven't read any of this stuff recently other than the report, I started to attribute more of my thinking to having read the report than to other sources. 

The teaching message in the report is straightforward.  Abandon knowledge transmission as the primary approach.  Some knowledge transmission might still occur en passant but should be nothing more than that.  Instead, embrace an inquiry approach from the get go. In so doing, undergraduates can be brought into the core function of the research university, which is inquiry and the production of new knowledge that follows successful investigations.  

In my short post on the report from Tuesday I raised the issue of whether students are ready for the type of education the Boyer Commission envisions for them.  Here I want to focus on what readiness means for this particular recommendation on writing.

3. Writing courses need to emphasize writing "down" to an
audience who needs information, to prepare students directly
for professional work.

I don't like the expression writing down, as I will indicate in what follows. What it refers to here is somebody with a specialist's knowledge writing for a non-specialist.  It sounds too much like dumbing down and that is not really the essence of this sort of writing.  The reader should not be treated as stupid, but rather as quite intelligent.  Smart people who are non-specialists in a field deserve to have their intelligence respected yet need to be educated on points where they are ignorant.

My main contribution in this piece is the following point.  The only way you can write this way with any proficiency whatsoever it to read a lot of this type of writing and come to view it as a way to become broadly educated, an activity that is ongoing and lifelong.  Absent this prior reading experience, there is no way to get a good mental picture of the audience.  Armed with this experience, the reader develops a sense of taste for what good writing of this sort looks like.  Then as a writer style-wise this can be done by imitation of the writing the reader likes with himself or herself as in "generalist mode" as the audience. Indeed, it is my view that all students need to learn to communicate as generalists as well as insider in their given field of study. 

When I was in high school I would read at least some of the New York Times, which my dad would bring home from work.  I confess that first I turned to Red Smith or Arthur Daley.  But I also soon developed a fondness for Russell Baker and then the full Op-Ed page.  I also had subscriptions to magazines - first Sports Illustrated, then The New Republic, and Scientific American as well.  With the latter two, sometimes the pieces were over my head.  But I immediately liked the TRB column and learned to like the film review of Stanley Kauffman.  I should add here that this sort of reading was not in lieu of reading books, but in addition to it.

Today I really couldn't say what would make for a good diet of generalist readings.  I know what I like, but I don't want to prescriptive that way, other than that there should be multiple genres and a variety of writers to sample their style.  My sense is that many kids whom we admit to our research universities don't do this sort of thing.  But, as old fashioned as it may sound, I believe it is still the ticket now.  This is preparation that is really needed for college, more than the AP courses, more than the zillions of extracurricular activities. 

And in the spirit of promoting this idea, I would change General Education to Generalist Education and indicate that we should all be generalists, so we can communicate with one another, and each of us should be a specialist too.  This sort of rebranding would help on two fronts.  It would give more purpose to Gen Ed and instead of viewing those courses as one from column A and two from column B, make them all part of a whole.  It would also help to communicate expectations to would be college students about how they should prepare for college.  And, in my heart of hearts, maybe it would help to get students to like school, instead of where we are now where so many kids seem alienated by it in one way or another.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Re-reading the Boyer Commission Report

The passage below is from page 17 of the pdf, found at the ERIC site.

It is obvious that not every student should, or would wish to, attend a research university. Without attempting to characterize students at other kinds of institutions, it might be said that the undergraduate who flourishes at a research university is the individual who enjoys diverse experiences, is not dismayed by complexity or size, has a degree of independence and self-reliance, and seeks stimulation more than security. A research university is in many important ways a city; it offers almost unlimited opportunities and attractions in terms of associations, activities, and enterprises. But as in a city, the requirements of daily living may be taxing, and sorting out the opportunities and finding like- minded individuals may be difficult. The rewards of the ultimate experience, however, can be immeasurable.

I suspect that well less than half of the undergraduates at Illinois fit this set of desiderata.   My guess is that the population we're talking about is no more than 20% of the student body, quite possibly less.  In the preceding paragraph of the report, they write:

A New Model
WHAT IS NEEDED NOW IS A NEW MODEL OF UNDERGRADUATE education at research universities that makes the baccalaureate experience an inseparable part of an integrated whole. Universities need to take advantage of the immense resources of their graduate and research programs to strengthen the quality of undergraduate education, rather than striving to replicate the special environment of the liberal arts colleges. There needs to be a symbiotic relationship between all the participants in university learning that will provide a new kind of undergraduate experience available only at research institutions. Moreover, productive research faculties might find new stimulation and new creativity in contact with bright, imaginative, and eager baccalaureate students, and graduate students would benefit from integrating their research and teaching experiences. Research universities are distinctly different from small colleges, and they need to offer an experience that is a clear alternative to the college experience.

If I'm in the ballpark on how many students fit the desiderata and if the New Model mentioned above is predicated on the assumption that near 100% of the students fit the desiderata, then there seems an obvious big issue with the argument before it has really started.  So I've momentarily interrupted my reading of the rest of the report to pose the following questions.

Is there an alternative model that would be more functional for the majority of students and yet remains consistent with the research character of the place?  Or are we stuck with the characterization of the old model provided in the report, where the education of most undergraduates is given short shrift? 

Let me add here some factoids about the business side of undergraduate education, regarding what has changed since the report was published 17 years ago.  We, and really here I mean all public R1s, are much more dependent on tuition revenue now.   Thus a strategy that said reduce the size of the student body to get much closer to that 100% numbers is likely not feasible.  Then there is the much greater reliance on non-tenure-track instructors now, many of whom do no research.  And, finally, the small liberal arts college alternative, which might be more suitable for many students on purely learning grounds, has become so pricey tuition-wise that the in-state public R1 has become the first choice of many students for what economists would refer to as liquidity reasons. 

My inclination is that the necessary change that might enable some progress here has to be found at the promotion and tenure level, not on a campus by campus basis but systematically across all R1s.  These changes must lower the bar on the research side of things and raise the bar on undergraduate teaching, which all tenured and tenure track faculty must do in a significant way.  People need to recognize the Prisoner's Dilemma aspect of what is at play here.  That will block any possible alternative model in favor of preserving the status quo.  The only way to stop the Prisoner's Dilemma is by some systematic change that promotes teaching at the expense of research.  I fear that we will not get there and that the current model will break.

Now back to reading the report. 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Names for the study of numbers

Here's another plug for my blog, The Daily Rhyme, showing a kwout of a kwout.  I wonder if American kids would have scored higher had the length of the wood been 40 inches instead of 40 centimeters, since most don't know the metric system.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

If I were an undegraduate student now, would I try for a PhD?

Timing is everything. Forty years ago, when I first started to consider going to graduate school, in a field I didn't study much as an undergraduate, I didn't think the decision that odd.  I really didn't know what I wanted to do with my life.  So trying something that was a gamble, certainly, but seemed a possible good fit was about as much as I could hope for.  I was a math guy but didn't think I could hack graduate school in math.  I had a social science interest but never considered going to grad school in political science, which was my unofficial minor.  Economics seemed a reasonable mixture of those two interests.  I didn't think at all about what would happen end of pipe, what sort of job I'd get, whether I'd be happy in that, whether I could support myself let alone a family.  All I asked was whether I could get into being a graduate student.  And the story I told myself, once I got into Northwestern and accepted their offer, was not to make any decision on that until after the first quarter concluded.  Since I got a fellowship, if I dropped out after that to try something else, which many of my classmates ultimately did, I wouldn't have out of pocket expenses to recoup.  That was the full extent of the thinking --- then.

How would such decision making go today for me, if I were the same sort of student now.  I ask this, in part, to try to make sense of the article linked below.  By doing so I also hope to make overt other considerations that should matter in doing studies such as the one at Berkeley.  The other part that motivates the question is how the rise in reliance of adjuncts for instruction would impact this decision.  It is probably impossible to now be as naive about career prospects as I was back then.  Would having more information about career prospects block the PhD path, because it would seem too dismal up front?

I was only 21 when starting graduate school, single and with no dependents.  Many of my cohort were older.  Some were already married.  One already had a kid.  Several were international students, studying in the U.S. for the first time.   For this part, I'm going to assume age-wise that I'd be in the same situation.  Also, I want to note that the world looks quite different as a first-year grad student than it does in the third or fourth year.   Here's how this matters.

While I did look for apartments in Evanston where I'd have one or more roommates, I ultimately opted for a one bedroom in Rogers Park that I'd have to myself.  While this was a no frills place, it was a step up in the quality of housing that I had in undergrad school.  The best part of life at 509 Wykcoff in Ithaca as an undergrad were the people who lived there.  I had a great time with many of them.  What I had in common with them was where we lived, not what we studied.  I lost that when going to grad school, but I was going to lose that no matter what else I did as long as I left Ithaca.  In terms of the physical quality of the place, particularly the sharing of bathroom facilities, it really was no great shakes.  I didn't have more lofty expectations at the time.  I bought crappy furniture.  That was okay.  After a couple of years I started to wake up with my back hurting.  I regretted having such a poor mattress.  That got to me after a while.  By the time I was writing my dissertation, I was kind of fed up with living like a pauper.  A reasonable argument might have been made at the time that I spend an extra year at NU to write a bang up thesis and have an even better job market.  But I didn't consider that because of the low income path as a grad student.  By then I wanted a real job.

So where in the trajectory are these student surveys being delivered?   First year doctoral students are apt to answer quite differently from more advanced doctoral students.  Then, as I recast myself into the present, I wonder if my expectations for housing/quality of life outside of school would be different now and if being driven by more materialistic concerns if that would steer me to finding a job rather than go to grad school.

Next, let me talk about the intellectual quality of life, both the schoolwork itself and the social life.  Graduate school was much more intense than undergraduate and required a much greater personal commitment, or so was my experience back then.  It turns out that I was ready for that; it was something that fit me pretty well.  What I missed, however, was having friends who were not studying what I was studying.  I didn't really want to narrow in the non-school part of life, which there was little of during the first year, especially the first quarter, but which grew more important over time.  Living by myself may have been a mistake in this regard.  Who knows?  What I wonder now is whether one can get more diversity in social life if outside academia, or if somebody who is on the shy side as I was, would tend to find friends at work, but not elsewhere.  In any event, this narrowness can contribute to a depression.

The last bit I want to consider is whether the subject matter itself might seem a betrayal from one's expectations or if it fully captivates the mind.  At the time I went to graduate school, and perhaps for the next ten years thereafter, economic theory was in its heyday and as I was trained as a theorist I found it quite captivating.  Twenty years after I started graduate school I began to become disillusioned with the theory - it really didn't say much unless you made some arbitrary assumptions up front to get more specific conclusions.  That plus the rise of computing has made empirical economics much more valued.  But even there, economists are pretty much stuck with the data they can get.  The can't perform experiments in situ.  There is a branch of economics that does perform experiments, frequently with college students as subjects, but these are classroom as laboratory type of experiments only.  If I had more skepticism about the discipline itself in advance of attending grad school, would that have encouraged me to not go for a PhD?

These sort of hypothetical questions don't have right answers.  I should add here that I don't see some alternative path that is obviously better.  I can envision a public service project in lieu of a stint in the Peace Corps as a possible alternative, the one I have in mind now is to author online interactive content for K-12 to be made freely available to schools and students, and that might engage me and help me mature some so I could better answer the question of what to do next.  Maybe watching The Graduate a couple of times would help or just the bit that produced the answer, "plastics."  In retrospect, we didn't have such good answers back then.  Why is it that we assumed otherwise? 

Monday, April 20, 2015

An American Export - Pablum TV

In the early 1980s I made my first trip to Europe.  The main purpose was to attend a conference in UmeĆ„, Sweden.  There I learned that many of the locals had perfected their English speaking and listening by watching American TV.  Particularly popular at the time was the question, Who shot J.R.?   It was interesting to see Swedes infer that American culture was fully reflected in the TV show Dallas.  At that time I had not yet been to Texas and, having grown up in New York City, viewed it as much alien to me as Europe was.  I hoped that the people at the conference didn't see me as just another character from that that TV show, but really it was hard to know.

Now let's fast forward to the present.  In my discussion group where we are trying to find ways for the students to be more creative in their learning we've reached the point in the conversation to consider pathways into creativity.  Last week we talked about daydreaming.  This week and probably next week too we will talk about humor.  It's useful here to know what the students bring to the table before the discussion even starts.  From this I've learned that the TV shows, The Big Bang Theory and Friends are quite popular in China.  It made me ask, does watching sitcoms helps to develop our own sense of humor?

Who knows what indirect influence watching TV has on our behavior?  That said, I don't think my sense of humor has TV as its origin.  Rather, it seems to me that some internal need for spontaneity was cultivated when I was growing up, quite possibly by non-humorous activities.  Being quick at the draw was its own reward.  Then that got channeled into humor, not telling jokes that are in the can, though we did that as kids too, but rather as a kind of mental counter punching, where you develop some intuition both about what little bit that has emerged should be emphasized and how to express that in a way that gets a laugh.  It must be a learned behavior, but it feels so intuitive to me now I don't really understand my own process.

What is not intuitive to me at all, indeed what I'm taken aback by, is that the students' first association with humor is American sitcoms.  As I've posted earlier, they do like to laugh, very much.  Does seeing something that makes you laugh help you to get others to laugh, by your own emoting?  If not, do we actively need to repress sitcom humor in order to make progress with the type of humor that emerges between students at school or between co-workers on the job?

I used to think too much TV rots your brain.  Now I think it simply gives the wrong impression.  In this case the wrong impression is that humor is easy to generate.  It isn't, especially at first.  Let me close with this quote, which seems apt:

Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterward.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Alliteration in a Limerick

Here's a little promo for my other blog, The Daily Rhyme.  It is going strong after one full week. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Freedom of Speech - When and Where?

The piece excerpted and linked below from today's Inside Higher Ed challenged me because I didn't agree with its premise.  In this post I will try to work through my thinking about it.   I am not a lawyer and not claiming to be one.  Neither is Jonathan Zimmerman, who teaches History and Education at NYU.

Let's begin with what the First Amendment actually says and how that is interpreted by the Supreme Court.  After doing a quick Google search on First Amendment, I found this site at Cornell which I found helpful, especially the discussion at the Learn more link. 

Where the Amendment itself begins with a restriction on Congress, the discussion says that has been extended to all of the Federal Government and to State Government as well.  Fine.  So issue one is whether a university such as the University of South Carolina is part of State Government.  If it is not, it would seem the First Amendment doesn't apply.

It seems clear that private universities are not part of State Government.  So if the incident that Zimmerman leads with had happened at NYU, where he works, then it seems clear there would be no First Amendment issue at all and the school could suspend the student as the University of South Carolina did.

If that is right, an interpretation that treated private universities differently from public universities for application of the First Amendment seems possible, but also would be awkward, at best.  Under an interpretation that treated both types of universities uniformly, the conclusion must be that the First Amendment prohibitions are simply not applicable.

The second issue seems to be whether the Carolinian Creed is a law, one that might abridge a student's freedom of speech.  As I am more familiar with the University of Illinois than the University of South Carolina, I will focus on the Student Code from my campus.  Below is the operative sentence from Part B of the Preamble.

These values include the freedom to learn, free and open expression within limits that do not interfere with the rights of others, free and disinterested inquiry, intellectual honesty, sustained and independent search for truth, the exercise of critical judgment, respect for the dignity of others, and personal and institutional openness to constructive change. 

At issue here are the highlighted phrases, which do constitute some limits on speech put into place for the good of the campus community.  If the University is part of State Government and the Student Code is law, then there is a First Amendment violation.  If the Student Code is not law, the First Amendment prohibitions don't apply.  Here, each interpretation seems possible to me.  The university cannot fine or imprison a student for violating the Student Code, but it can suspend the student or dismiss the student outright.  One thing that matters a lot, in my view, but is not in the language explicitly is on the issue of intent when the rights or dignity of others are violated.  Malicious intent requires a different treatment from a clueless trespass.  The latter demands education rather than punishment and that is the way it is typically handled on campus.  Most law doesn't accommodate the violator that way, which is perhaps one reason to think Student Codes are not law.

The last issue for me is place.  In reading the Inside Higher Ed piece I immediately thought of my own classroom.  Students do not have Freedom of Speech there.  The norm for behavior is that a student can talk up if she first raises her hand and then is called on by me.  If the student says something off point, I might very well interrupt.  I want to note this rarely happens.  Much more common is the issue that no student raises a hand when I would like some student response.  Nonetheless, the point is that the instructor is armed with the usual tools to thwart disrespectful speech in the classroom.

A student speaking out on the Quad is an entirely different matter.  That is a public place and the First Amendment is probably applicable there.  But once you differentiate space where the First Amendment does or does not apply, there is then the issue of which sort of space is a Campus study room. Would the answer depend on whether the room was only accessible to people with campus ID cards?   Our Library and our academic buildings have no such access restriction during normal hours, but our gym facilities do.

Much of the rest of Zimmerman's essay is a lament that infringement on the respect for others seems to matter on grounds of race but not on grounds of religion.  In other words, the codes are enforced selectively.  This is not a First Amendment matter, but it is a serious concern.  However, given that the Salaita case is still pending, it would seem that if we think of these codes as applying to the entire Campus community rather than just to students then grounds of religion do in fact matter.  If so, the real issue is what constitutes breach and what counts for acceptable criticism within civilized discourse.  Drawing that line is undoubtedly difficult, which is why everyone seems to be struggling here.  But that is not sufficient reason, in my view, for an argument that no line should exist whatsoever, which is what Zimmerman argues.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Teach-to-the-Test Society

Different philosophies of education prevail. They all might be reduced to this one core question.  What is the true nature of the learner?  One popular view is that first and foremost kids want to play; school often serves as an impediment to that end.  Anyone who watched The Little Rascals when they were kids couldn't escape this message.  The job of the teacher in this view is to discipline the students enough and not leave them to their own devices.  A different view is that the learner will drive real learning, provided the learner is not too stressed by the environment.  This alternative can be associated with many names; perhaps Montessori and Maslow are the most prominent.  The job of the teacher in this alternative view is to remove as many potential sources of bad stress as possible, model some for the student to help the student shape the direction of inquiry, and then let the student take it from there.

There may be still other views of the learner that can better account for when extrinsic reward (carrots instead of sticks) is most useful in promoting learning.  But for my purposes here it suffices to focus only on the above two approaches and treat them as polar opposites.  It would be interesting to poll the population of which view of education they subscribe to.  Without any data on this, I conjecture that the bulk of the population subscribes to the Little Rascals view of school, as many of them may have struggled in school, found it boring or alienating, or never had that one inspirational teacher who helped them get over the hump.  In contrast, the bulk of the the people who became university professors must have liked school, a lot.  They are apt then to hold the Montessori and Maslow view. I count myself in this camp.

This spring I've been involved with a discussion group comprised of a few students from my class last fall.  We meet on Friday afternoons with a session going somewhere between 90 minutes and 2 hours.  It's the first time I've done something like this.  Each of the students happens to be Asian, which has encouraged the discussion to take certain directions.  I believe the group has been quite successful insofar as we are capable of frank and open conversation.  However, it has been pretty much a failure when judged from my original purpose in forming the group.  This was to ask how students might become more creative in their own learning.  Mainly these students don't see themselves doing that though they are extremely diligent about doing their schoolwork.

One of the three, the only female and a double major in psychology and economics, also the youngest and still a sophomore, has talked about how she expands her horizons by doing research on the Internet, getting at topics that are new to her and somewhat beyond her grasp at first.  She enjoys the challenge of mastering these ideas.  This is the closest to a description of creativity, but even here the exploration proceeds according to a preconceived plan.  There is little or no room for serendipity and discovery that wasn't anticipated ahead of time.  There is diligence and competence, but nothing that I would call play.

This is surprising to me as in our conversations I joke a lot and gently tease them fairly often.  They are quick to laugh and seem to enjoy the banter.  Sometimes they even respond in kind.  Yet for whatever reason it doesn't occur to them to bring this sort of play into their learning outside our group discussions, which seems a much more solemn matter.  In large part this is because their primary goal is to get an A grade in each class.  It has been drilled into them over the years.  As I posed it quite a few years ago, Does Pavlov's Dog Evolve?  In other words, can students get past all this conditioning and come to drive their own learning?  Based on how my discussion group has gone, the answer is either no or that if yes it will be extremely difficult to cause such a change.

Last Friday we had a different sort of discussion, focusing mainly on their high school experiences.  This was trying to get at the source of the conditioning.  What I learned appalled me.  It started this way.  Our routine is for one of the students in the group to write a blog post in advance of the discussion.  The others, including me, then comment on the post.  This is meant to ready us for the discussion.  In the post this week a student from China who is graduating after this semester wrote that he used to like reading stuff outside of school and discussing those readings with his friends.  But then when he went to high school his teacher in high school said to stop doing that and only read the textbooks they were assigned.  This would be the best way to prepare for the national exams.  Eventually, he came to agree with his teacher about this.  School was hard work.  There should be no fun in it. 

A Korean student, who though only a junior is a bit older than the others since his college education was interrupted by serving in the army, echoed these sentiments though his story was a little bit different.  He said the students spend all day at high school, from early in the morning till late at night.  Much of this was like an extended study hall.  The students were monitored to keep at it.  If they started to goof off they'd be disciplined for it.  Corporal punishment was part of it.  Not knowing about that from my own experience at school, I thought of this quite vivid scene from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where young Stephen Dedalus away from home at the boarding school Clongowes gets rapped across his knuckles for some indiscretion in class and is writhing in pain thereafter.  In spite of this episode, which one surmises had its basis in an actual experience, Joyce remained defiant, one reason why he left Ireland.  Most people in these circumstances would capitulate.  That seems to be the hidden lesson of the academic high school in China and Korea.  Capitulation entails seeing success from the perspective of the school masters.  Doing well on the exams becomes the entire focus.  Personal self-expression gets drummed out of these kids. 

In today's NY Times there is a piece by Frank Bruni about the high suicide rate among teens who live in academic pressure cookers; Palo Alto is one such place, though they exist within certain major cities in gentrified zones and in the suburbs that house the well to do.  Wanting their kids to be so smart, the adults are so stupid in how they go about things.  A few years ago I wrote a post called Retards, which though it had different bits to it had main focus on the movie Charly.  The scientists performing the experiment were so intent on raising the intelligence of their subject that they ignored the ego beating he was taking from having to compete with the mouse, Algernon.  That bothered me a great deal at the time.

The issues surrounding accountability in education have been with us upwards of 40 years.  The damage done since to the so-called high academic achievers seems enormous to me.  Isn't it time to go back to square one and come up with some alternative, one that both engages the students so they don't want to play hooky from school and one that promotes their good mental health?  Human beings intrinsically are curious.  They want to satisfy that curiosity, which is the prime impetus for learning.  Why have we allowed school to so stray from helping the kids learn on their own?

The Daily Rhyme

I've started a new blog, with link below. This to sustain my latest indulgence without torturing readers of my main blog who don't want the nonsense stuff. I will not repost the rhymes in Lanny on Learning or in Facebook. Instead, there is an email subscription option. Note that if you choose that you will get a confirmation email message where you must click on the link to activate the subscription.

There is a semi-serious reason for my doing this. Even before the Internet, papers had abstracts that would often suffice for readers. Now so much information is delivered in digest form. An issue is whether digests can be made more entertaining and thereby make it easier for people to keep up. Rhymes might prove one way of doing this. If so, this effort might help to identify a few kindred souls who also author rhymes of this sort and collectively amass a readership that wants the stuff.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

One and done,
Spoils the fun.

The Final Four is a very small sample on which to rank the teams who play in it.  Just to make that point, below are the Sagarin rankings for the top twenty teams based on the entire season.  Sticking with just the top three, the Final Four ranking would be 1. Duke, 2. Wisconsin, and 3. Kentucky.

The Final Four had added interest because two of the teams, Kentucky most famously but Duke as well, featured the new one-and-done model, with the teams featuring freshman stars who are likely to declare for the NBA draft, while the other two teams, both from the Big Ten, employed the more traditional model where seniors and juniors form the bulwark for the clubs.  Each game played in the Final Four was new model versus old.  The results gave the new model 2 victories and 1 defeat.

Invariably, given this conclusion, the new model is taken to be triumphant and Coach K is looked at as a genius for having embraced it.

Duke won its fifth national championship with four freshmen combining for 60 of the Blue Devils' 68 points and a rookie accounting for every single Duke point in the second half. Tyus Jones finished with 23 points, and Grayson Allen, who had 18 in five combined NCAA tournament games prior, finished with 16.

It is anathema to what Duke had long been, a team built on wily seniors who stuck around and eventually won a championship. The last time the Blue Devils won a title, in 2010, Krzyzewski had mostly avoided one-and-done players. By the end of June he might be saying goodbye to three who remained in Durham, North Carolina, for only one season.

Yet what's maybe even more astounding is that Krzyzewski has not only made the change.

He has loved it.

There isn't enough data to support these conclusions, though that won't stop the sports pundits from making them.  But here I'm more interested in what the coaches actually think rather than what the pundits tell us about them.  Are the coaches of one mind on this?  Or are there some in both camps?

It seems pretty clear that the new model can work only at a few elite programs at most - there isn't enough talent to go around for it to become the norm for most programs.  What is less clear is whether among other programs that go the traditional route if at least a few will emerge that give these elite teams a run for their money.  To me, the most interesting game in the tournament was Wichita State beating Kansas.  Yet Wichita State seemed outgunned when playing Notre Dame.  A few years ago Butler was a compelling story.  NCAA basketball needs that type of story to keep up fan interest.  Wisconsin provided that type of story this year, even though they play in a so-called bit-time conference.

If those stories begin to dry up, college basketball will start to seem like it is replicating the income inequality in society as a whole.   Coaches are under a lot of pressure from their fan base, who want to win now.  I wonder whether some coaches at elite programs who actually prefer the traditional model will nonetheless make the switch to the new model because the fans demand it.

One potentially offsetting factor is the Moneyball effect.  By this I mean that for players in high school who are better than their competition it is unclear how they will perform once they face a higher caliber competition. So the becoming a McDonald's All American and the various rankings of players at the time they are being recruited out of high school should be thought of as noisy (in a statistical sense).  The more the noise, the less good should the new model perform over time.   But the talent pool should be thought of as a pyramid.  Is there as much noise near the top as there is at the base?  Even if there is not, is it still noisy at the top?

Lebron is Lebron and Kobe is Kobe.  There wasn't much noise in their case.  (Lebron was drafted number 1 so you might say there was no noise in his case.  Kobe was drafted 13th.  Given that Michael Jordon wasn't drafted number 1, I prefer to think there always is some noise.)   But players like that aren't in every draft.  Last year Michael Carter-Williams was the NBA Rookie of the Year.  He was drafted 11th.

The other factor that could eventually offset the new model is evidence that players' growth in basketball skills and general maturity happens more in college (at least at some programs) than it happens in the NBA.  This would give talented players at such programs some incentive to not declare for the NBA draft that is other than that they simply are having a great time in college.  I have a sample of one in mind in thinking about this.  Deron Williams left Illinois after his junior year and a season where the team made it to the NCAA Championship game.   He might have gone out after his sophomore year, but I believe he timed it right doing things as he did.  There would need to be many other such examples to convince kids it is good for them to stay.  Some of the Kentucky players are sophomores, but it is unclear whether for them that was the reason or if  they felt their talent wasn't up to par.

Division 1 men's college basketball serves multiple functions.  One, clearly, is as a minor league for the NBA.  Another is as entertainment unto itself, with a fan base some of whom care more about the college than the pro game.  The old model respects the multiple functions.  The new model, not so much.  That's the issue.  

Friday, April 03, 2015

If it says so on the Internet it must be true

At one point in my life I may have understood phonetic spellings of words.  But no longer.  So I may get this bit wrong, but I hope it is not too far off.

Perhaps my favorite Limerick, it was not written by Edward Lear, has the first line starting as follows:

There was a young lady from Niger.  

The last line is:

And a smile on the face of the tiger.  

How many sins have been committed in the name of rhyme?  In this case the problem is that the country's name is of French origin and therefore should be pronounced, knee-jair.  A little knowledge is a troublesome thing.  Undoubtedly, kids learn the wrong pronunciation first, as Limericks precede geography in the education sequence.  If only I could figure out why I mispronounce Qatar.  I don't recall any rhyme with Qatar in it.

As of late I have not trusted my own glib response to a friend's birthday announcement in Facebook.  So I've taken to do a Google search or two in the hope of finding something off the beaten path that I might post.  Today one of my classmates from junior high and high school turned sixty.  What search would I do?  Since I've been on a rhyming kick as of late I did a search on rhymes with sixty.  The first hit brings up a page at RhymeZone.  From the list there one should conclude that a word which ends in itty rhymes with sixty.  Yet I'm saying to myself, no it doesn't.

A few moments latter, I do a different sort of search.  Last week I wasn't sleeping well at all and felt exhausted.  I'd get up around 2 AM but then have a lot of trouble getting back to sleep, often not succeeding at all.  I attributed it to drinking too much, so this week I decided to be a teetotaler.  It is harder to first go to sleep that way and there is still some getting up in the night, but I feel the sleep has been more restorative and I'm almost caught up with it.  So I searched for drinking alcohol and sleeping.  The third hit is to a page at WebMD.  It tells you that alcohol interferes with REM sleep and the more you drink the more pronounced the effect.

Some years ago I recall having a discussion with my brother, he is an MD and a PhD,  where paraphrasing what he said - in the even numbered years eating eggs for breakfast turns out to be bad for you but in the odd numbered years it is good for you.  This was a commentary on clinical trials and that individual trials are not conclusive.  Further, in human subject research, identifying causal link while controlling for other factors is no mean feat.  So I'm at least a little clued in to be skeptical when reading about medical research.

Nevertheless, I completely trust what is on the WebMD page.  It jives entirely with my experience.  That is proof enough for me.  On the rhyming, however, while I concede that both witty and sixty end in ty, I don't think that is enough to make the two words rhyme, so I don't trust the RhymeZone page.  I've been scratching my head about why the one but not the other.  This is what I've come up with.

I have some sense of what it means to be an expert.  Though I'm not now current in either area, I believe it fair that I can still claim expertise in economics and in learning technology.  I write rhymes as a hobby.  My proficiency there is not as great and my formal training in doing do is none whatsoever.  But even a hobbyist develops some sense of taste about what makes for a good product.  When I get information from the Internet that comes into conflict with that sense of taste, I will first rely on the sense of taste and reject the information from the Internet.  I will need a lot more convincing to change my mind on that.

In contrast, while I think I'm reasonably well informed about my health as a patient, I recognize that I'm coming at it from a patient's perspective only.  I willingly concede that I don't have a doctor's perspective.  The lack of expertise there makes me more willing to trust what is on the WebMD site, especially when what it says coincides with my experience as a patient. 

There is a perhaps surprising derivative way to consider this, from the perspective of our students.  The more of what they do as students that has an authoring function, the more they will develop their own sense of taste and come at information they find online armed with that.  The more that they merely take as given what is presented in class, the more they are like a patient who knows he is not a doctor.  Acceptance of the information will then be the norm, and the norm will be adhered to unless it contradicts experience in a strong way. 

So, if we want our students to be skeptics, let's encourage them to write.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Capitalists Kill Capitalism

In the search for loot and looking to plunder
Powerful firms rip the economy asunder.

The use of the lobby by these would be harriers
Produce government made entry barriers.

This is the real reason lobbyists do petition
For it has the effect to reduce competition.

Thus while the economy is on the brink
These so-called capitalists cause GDP to shrink.