Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Edward Teller's Memoirs.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

What I've been saying for a while

I've been saying for a while that current educational fashions are at least as much about cultural resonance as they are about studies showing learning gains of X percentage at whatever level of statistical significance.  Well, this op-ed by a history professor says the same thing.

When educational trends are being criticized in an op-ed in the New York Times of all places you know that something very strange is happening.  What's next?  Human sacrifice?  Dogs and cats living together?  Mass hysteria?

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The progressive teaching personality

I've said a lot about the cultural roots of progressive pedagogy, and the way it intertwines with views on expert voices.  However, this article makes the interesting point that there are also personality issues that go to extroversion vs. introversion.  There's a certain personality type that just plain likes the idea of group work.  I have seen people who are only truly happy when their students are sitting in lots of small circles talking.  They throw themselves into the midst of this chatter like a pop star crowd-surfing.  You can't tell me that this preference concerning teaching styles is solely about statistical studies showing a significant difference in conceptual learning gains.  Statistically significant learning gains get you more discussion of concepts, but culture and personality get you academics eating this shit up like it's humus and pita chips from Trader Joe's.  And it's definitely true that the warmer, fuzzier stuff has been ascendant in the academy for some time, so I suppose it was inevitable that eventually the science faculty would move towards sitting in groups and smiling and saying "Thank you for sharing that."

(Academic eating tip: Eat your humus with organic baby carrots, not pita chips.  Then you get more vitamins and fewer carbs.  This food tip is subject to change when the fads change.)

However, I will surprise my readers by saying that I don't think this is solely about personality types and massive placebo/Hawthorne effects from doing things that get certain personality types fired up. It is almost certainly true that some people do better than others sitting in groups and doing worksheets. (One needn't subscribe to discredited theories of learning styles to submit that some people might be a bit better at one thing than another.) If there was little/no group work and hippy-dippy conceptual stuff in traditional teaching then introducing some of that will OF COURSE improve results.  Those who were desperately craving some sitting in circles and sharing will finally get some of it, so of course their results will improve.  Meanwhile, those who really do prefer a bit of tradition (you know, heirs to Puritan views of experts and all that) will still get plenty of that from the abundant traditionalists.  In fact, the ones who generally fare better with tradition might benefit from stepping outside their comfort zone a bit.  (There's plenty of research to suggest that stepping outside the comfort zone is probably more beneficial than catering to "learning styles" based on dubious evidence.)  However, once you reach a roughly 50-50 mix, if you continue to move away from tradition (or, perhaps more accurately, get to the point where you are now defining tradition rather than defying tradition) you will reach a point of negative returns:  The ones who would honestly rather just pay attention to an expert will get fed up with this group work nonsense and experience negative marginal returns, while the ones who love to sit in a circle and share will have already gotten enough of it.

At this point it would be easy to say that I'm being silly.  OF COURSE group work is better!  The data shows it!  Well, up to a point.  The Hake study, for instance, covered early adopters and showed gains that have been harder to replicate once "active learning" went beyond early adopters in special, early-adopter-friendly environments and became de rigeur.  I think everyone at this point agrees that a certain amount of active learning is a good component of a class, but the jury is out on mass adoption of more and more and MORE AND MORE group work.

Besides, the article that prompted this post was shared with me by a friend who made an important observation:  In the real world there are indeed meetings, but most meetings are pointless, and most people yearn for nothing more than the meeting ending early so they can get back to the cubicle, put their head down, and actually get some damn work done.  Perhaps there's a lesson in there.  Yes, a bad lecture is bad, but a very carefully-led, well-focused Q&A can be more useful than going through a worksheet with the idiot next to you.