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 re-reading Systems of Survival by Jane Jacobs.

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Friday, July 21, 2017

Speed matters

An idea that's gotten a lot of attention lately is "competency-based education", essentially the idea that instead of having courses of fixed time (e.g. a 15 week semester or 10 week quarter) you have shorter modules that students take and retake as needed, and they move on when they've achieved competence in whatever topic/skill/idea/etc. they are pursuing as part of their educational program.  For a professional program like business or engineering it is probably pretty clear what it means to achieve competence at some particular skill.  For many of the more skill-based aspects of science I think it also  makes sense.  For humanities, I assume that once somebody has, say, successfully read some list of writers and produced critiques that analyze specified aspects of the work in light of specified concepts, one would also achieve competence, and then move on to some other list of works and ideas.

It's not a bad concept.  It's not entirely objectionable.  But to the extent that the idea is based on a critique of a traditional course, I want to defend traditional courses from the critique.

The critique seems to be that in a traditional course a grade of (say) B means that you got most of it and did pretty well but didn't get all the way, which is fine, but you never know what the student was strong on and what the student was weak on.  To the extent that the critique is rooted in "you never know..." my question is "Who?"  Presumably the answer is "The person reading the transcript."  Fine.  In response, my next questions are "Who reads the transcript and what do they want to know?"

I've spent a lot of time interacting with people who hire physics graduates.  To a large extent they don't read transcripts at all, and maybe that should give us some humility about our enterprise.  But before we conclude that our transcripts thus need to be more information-dense in order to be more useful, let me observe something else:

The employers that I've interacted with seem to care (at most) about whether students took a lot of lab classes and used a few specific tools in those classes.  Beyond that, they just assume that students will need to be trained.

And that should not be surprising in science and technology.  Everything is highly specialized and rapidly changing. And every employer is working in a different niche, and hence needs people for a different niche.  Knowing that a person is smart and capable of learning seems to matter more than the specifics because of how steep the on-the-job learning curve is, even under ideal circumstances.

Given that, knowing very specific things is less important than knowing that the student has done lab work and can learn quickly.  In that case, the person who learned a whole lot in 15 weeks really is more valuable than the person who would need substantially more time to learn the same amount (which competency-based education would allow for).

So what a grade in a traditional class really tells is what  happens when you throw a lot of challenges at a person in 15 weeks.  The real question is whether the ability to surmount those challenges is predictive of ability to learn on the job.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

On political correctness

No time for detailed comment, but I like this article from the National Post about political correctness and Twitter mobs.  The opening is priceless:
A journalist friend of mine recently attended his four-year-old daughter’s year-end dance recital here in Toronto. “Every dance was in some way about Canada,” he told me. “My daughter’s dance was Canada Geese. Another was Aurora Borealis. One dance was Our Aboriginal Peoples. And I’m like, ‘Oh, God, no.’” 
“It’s one of the youngest classes — very basic. No real theme, just introductory dance moves. The costumes are evocative of animal skins. The hair buns have little feathers. The theme was ‘Honouring the first people of North America.’ And I was freaked out. It was objectively innocent, benign, cute and even touching — and it was absolutely well-intended. But I’ve spent so much time in Stupid Twitter-Land that I expected the parents to stand up and start booing and hissing and calling for the studio owner’s head.” 
“No one did that, of course,” my friend added. “Normal people don’t do those things.”
My only criticism is that as the essay goes on he spends too much time talking about the precarious positions of the obscure Twitter users who police the norms of political correctness and not enough time dissecting why the respectable managerial classes care about those scoldings in the first place.  I get the interest in why someone administers those scoldings, but surely one reason why they keep doing it is that it works.  And the question is why does it work?  Why do editors of major publications and managers at high levels care so much about being scolded over such trivial things?

There's at least some acknowledgment that political correctness is a thing because people in the right positions care about these scoldings over things that ordinary people neither know about nor care about.  That's progress.  But I'd like to really unpack why the Right-Thinking educated and managerial classes care so much about avoiding these scoldings.