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.

Word cloud

Word cloud

Saturday, April 30, 2016

My apology to the k-12 system

On any given day, when students are staring at a diagram and not getting that when there's a right triangle you need to use trig functions, I might start cursing the k-12 system and proclaim my desire to reanimate Stalin so he can deport all of our mis-educators to Siberia.  When native English speakers from middle-class suburban backgrounds can't get their subjects and verbs to agree, there's a good chance that I'll call for high school English teachers to be sent to North Korea so that they can starve.  But those are emotional responses.  In my more rational moments, I know that teachers have far less influence on students than their families and the wider culture, and that teachers cannot simply fail vast numbers of students without incurring the wrath of school boards and legislators.

I rarely like the NYT Education Section, but this article and the associated charts are priceless.  The charts clearly show that factors contributing to socioeconomic status (including race) are major determinants of student success (or lack thereof).  Schools are limited more by their inputs than their practices.  (And, FYI, in a footnote the article says that socioeconomic status, hereafter abbreviated SES, was measured by "income, the percentage of parents with a college degree, the percentage of single parents, poverty, SNAP and unemployment rates".)

One particularly important thing about this analysis is that it doesn't just compare districts with each other, it also compares racial groups within districts.  In the second chart, black, white, and Hispanic students within the same districts are compared.  (Asians are left out because this is a nationwide analysis and in most districts there are too few of them to make for valid comparisons.)  Besides showing that blacks and Hispanics are disadvantaged, it also shows that they tend to perform at levels comparable to other members of the same SES groups in other districts.  Yes, there are racial gaps even after controlling for other aspects of SES, but the important thing about breaking it down by race is that within a district black, white, and Hispanic students will usually NOT be of the same SES.  If you didn't factor that in, you might wonder whether SES variables were actually telling you something about the schools themselves (via funding and local taxes) rather than the students that those schools receive. But students from different SES groups in the same district perform more similarly to kids in other districts with similar SES rather than kids in the same district but from different strata of society.

Now, the third chart does show that racial gaps persist even within the same SES, and that's an ugly aspect of US history and culture that we need to confront.  But just as measurable non-racial aspects of SES are beyond the ability of schools to single-handedly correct for, so are the sad fruits of America's continuing racial inequities.  I don't claim to know what the full solution is, and I freely recognize that schools can play their part, but it's only a part.

Anyway, this means three things, one of which I can use as an excuse and the others of which I will just have to accept:  On the one hand, my students are the way that they are for reasons that go well beyond any particular failings of their k-12 teachers.  On the other hand, at least it means that nobody can fault me.  But it also means that I am doomed to spend another 30 years shepherding people through the system without seeing them improve as much as I would hope, and without seeing most  of them perform at a particularly high intellectual level.  I am as limited by my inputs as the k-12 system is by its inputs.  On the other hand, it also means that maybe my colleagues are right to focus their attention on "special programs."  Most people will not beat the odds (that's the definition of the odds, after all) so maybe the only source of satisfaction is in focusing on anecdotes.

Finally, as informative as this NYT Education article was, it's still a NYT Education article.  They can't resist the temptation to find The Fix.  They note that This One School District in New Jersey seems to have beaten the odds.  The fact that they only found one, in an analysis of thousands of districts, really ought to tell you that maybe there are not magical solutions, but instead they spend the last few paragraphs going on about how great this school district is and wondering if there's a lesson that can be learned and scaled.  I doubt it, but I pity the k-12 teachers who will get to be subjected to workshops on the Best Practices from This One District.  Just as the NYT helps me finally get over my desire to see k-12 teachers suffer, it also proposes a new way to make them suffer.  Thanks, NYT.  Thanks a lot.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Ethical knowledge is not ethical action

Claude Steele has stepped down as provost at Berkeley, and will return to the faculty. The administration at Berkeley has been under intense scrutiny over their handling of high-profile sexual harassment cases in the past year, and while the announcement of his resignation does not explicitly mention those controversies it is quite reasonable to guess that they were a factor.

I'm blogging about this because Steele is a famous psychologist, best known outside the field for his work on stereotype threat. I do not know enough about the details of those cases and the chain of events inside the administration to say for certain whether Steele deserves criticism, but the issue here is less about specific individual culpability and burdens, and more about assumptions that are "in the air" among academics.  Regardless of whether Steele himself made mistakes of sufficient gravity to merit losing his job according to whatever standard you might wish to apply, it seems clear that things could have been handled better than they were.  What matters here is that the handling was, at the least, sub-optimal, sitting somewhere along a spectrum that goes from "grossly negligent" to "typical bureaucratic response" to "probably well-intentioned but still not what we need."

In the modern zeitgeist there is a belief that raising awareness of research on bias--including but not limited to subconscious bias--will lead to better behavior, better decision-making, more sensitive people, etc.  Now, to my knowledge Steele himself does not explicitly study sexual harassment, but he does study stereotypes and their effects.  One can reasonably guess that he is thus more aware than the average academic about the wider literature on bias, sexism, etc.  If a raised consciousness were the key to getting people to respond promptly, appropriately, and effectively to acts of sexism, racism, etc. then putting a bias researcher into a position of power would be the surest path to reform.  Alas, it seems that bias researchers are as human as anyone else.  Having lots of "is" knowledge about how bias works does not lead them to act as they "ought" when faced with a professional challenge.

This should not be a surprise.  Jonathan Haidt noted in The Righteous Mind that academics who study ethics are no more ethical than anyone else.  I'm from a family full of health professionals, and some of them have all sorts of unhealthy habits.  I'm in a profession of educated people and some of them are anti-intellectual.

There's a separation between what we know intellectually and what we carry into practice.  That's certainly an indictment of my profession, including the traditionalists and the progressives alike, because studying something, even in-depth and for years, doesn't always transform people as you'd hope.  At the same time, I'd like to selfishly and shamelessly argue that it reflects even worse on the progressives than the traditionalists, because I think the traditionalists are more willing to treat problems as hard, whereas the progressives hold out hope for secret tricks and correct politics.  A traditionalist social scientist wants to understand people, while a reformer wants to fix them.  It's the difference between science and engineering. Most news articles about "According to a new study..." (including the one I linked to at the beginning of this post) are written to satisfy a curiosity about how to act, not merely to help the reader understand why people act as they do.

So, I don't claim to know anything about how things were handled (or mishandled) behind the scenes at Berkeley, but at the very least I am unsurprised that a bias researcher would not be any better than the rest of the world when it comes to responding to sexism.  All of the "is" statements in the world cannot change a person's "oughts."  Only "ought" statements can do that.  Social scientists cannot save us any more than priests can.  Only you can save your soul.  Priests and social scientists can advise you, but only you can decide your actions.

Take note of this

A recent psychological experiment looked at whether people learn more in a lecture by taking notes on a laptop or taking notes on paper. So far I have only read a summary of the study (so all of the necessary caveats apply), but the full research article is available open access.  Apparently people who take notes on laptops try to transcribe as many details as possible, whereas people who take notes by hand record less information but pick out key points and summarize.  Moreover, it is usually easier to lay out information in tables and diagrams and whatnot by hand, and to draw arrows and whatnot by hand than on a laptop.  Maybe with the right software and a lot of experience you can do those things on a laptop, but otherwise doing it by hand wins.

Now, there's a debate to be had about whether it's better to do this on paper or on a tablet, but two things to note:
1) It's obvious that if the key advantage is that doing it by hand is both flexible and forces you to think then the difference between old-fashioned paper and a digital tablet is probably smaller.
2) Paper offers fewer distractions than a tablet.  You can't switch your paper between the writing app and email or Facebook or games or whatever.

In the bigger picture though, I find it fascinating that something as old-fashioned as writing things down might be a good way to learn.  We're always hearing that there's no problem in education that can't be solved by throwing more technology at it, so it's kind of funny to hear that pencil and paper still have their uses.  Most of the points from my blogging about Geek Heresy apply.

Also, there's an important implication here for the perennial debate about lectures (a topic that I have published on):  A lecture class is only as passive as the listener.  The person who merely sits there will usually learn little.  The person who tries to write down everything without sorting the information will learn more, but the person who learns the most will be the one who is thinking about what they're hearing and identifying the most important points and writing them down in some sort of structured list or table or diagram.  Of course, this places the responsibility for learning on the student, whereas the modern zeitgeist places the responsibility on the instructor, who must adopt whatever techniques are politically favored if they wish to escape blame.  Fascinatingly, the politically favored techniques generally require one to purchase technology from vendors.  Fancy that.

Pushing kids toward white collar jobs is nothing new

I am in the library, browsing through The Literature of the Ancient Egyptian by Erman.  First I reread "The Complaint of Khekheperre-Sonbu" (pages 108-110), a lament by a scribe about how hard it is to come up with new ideas, especially in a time of crisis.  Nice to know that even the first scholars had trouble coming up with new ideas back when plenty of things were yet to be discovered.  Now I am reading a bunch of essays of advice to schoolboys (pages 189-198).  They all advise the kids to stay away from manual labor and become scribes or officials because office and administrative jobs are sweet.

All of this has happened before and will happen again.