Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Words from The New Kids by Brooke Hauser

The new kids: Big dreams and brave journeys at a high school for immigrant teens
Brooke Hauser

I read this book about the International School @ Prospect Heights (17K524) for my work reading group book club thing. It's a book of stories. I haven't read any fiction in a while. I guess I read some Douglas Adams over the summer. Maybe what I mean is, I haven't read any mundane fiction in a while. Not that the stories of the students and teachers are mundane - they follow the ordinary rules of physics is all. They're good stories. They give you a human view of a lot incredible lives. But it isn't a book of ideas, unless the idea is "let's have empathy" - and that isn't a bad idea.

It did have some interesting words!
sable ponytail: seems to be just an ordinary ponytail
vitiligo: I had wondered about this and am glad to have a word for it now.
brackish (okay I do know what this means...)
Tibetan Spicoli: this one is interesting... it seems like the only place this phrase has ever been used is in this book. Is it a typo? Is it just overwhelmed by other uses? Seriously the only other reference I can find is some joker garbage on urban dictionary...
kitten heels
Les Brown: comical motivational speaker?
liminal space between
ebullient: cheerful and happy; I knew that...
skein (noodle): like a ball (skein) of yarn...
arrondissement: district of Paris
stupefaction (I guess I know this one too)
chafing-dish: those things they use to keep food hot at buffets
compas (re: bachata)
tulle (re: taffeta)
T-zone (cosmetics): apparently your forehead down to your nose makes a "T"?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Thoughts on Now You See It by Cathy Davidson

Now you see it: How the brain science of attention will transform the way we live, work, and learn
Cathy Davidson

The main point of this book is that every individual has a limited perspective and so we need other people. Davidson calls this "collaboration by difference". Through reading her book I've certainly learned a lot of things I wouldn't otherwise have learned, including but not limited to things that are artifacts of her perspective.

Davidson explains that she was diagnosed as ADHD as an adult, and it's not hard to believe. Sometimes the arguments venture far from the path you might expect them to traverse, and bookends sometimes seem to have been strapped on in editing to give a sense of coherence. Hers is a perspective different from mine, and I agree it can be valuable. It may also be what leads to broad generalizations, quick flips, and hyperbolic language that doesn't always seem to feel a need to connect closely with the truth, as with this reference to a study that Davidson does not like:

The headline-grabbing "multitaskers aren't even good at multitasking" is a nonsensical statement, when you break it down and try to think about it seriously.

If you try to think about it seriously, the study defined multitasking as the ability to focus on one task, then quickly stop, shift, and focus on a new task. They compared how well people did when they were forced to shift, and the people who naturally switch tasks a lot did worse (were slower) than people who naturally don't switch tasks a lot. This makes sense. People who tend to focus less will switch tasks more often, left to their own devices. There's no reason to expect them to focus well when you tell them to. They are less focused. It doesn't necessarily mean that less focus is always bad, and it doesn't mean that the result of the study is a nonsensical statement.

The result of that study also doesn't undermine Davidson's related claim, that switching tasks a lot might lead to better results because you end up exposed to more different ideas that you can work with flexibly. I find a lot to like in this:

We know that in dreams, as in virtual worlds and digital spaces, physical and even traditional linear narrative rules do not apply. It is possible that, during boundless wandering thinking, we open ourselves to possibilities for innovative solutions that, in more focused thinking, we might prematurely preclude as unrealistic. The Latin word for "inspiration" is inspirare, to inflame or breathe into. What if we thought of new digital ways of thinking not as multi-tasking but multi-inspiring, as potentially creative disruption of usual thought patterns. Look at the account of just about any enormous intellectual break-through and you'll find that some seemingly random connection, some associational side thought, some distraction preceded the revelation. Distraction, we may discover, is as central to innovation as, say, an apple falling on Newton's head.

I can definitely identify with the experience of being too locked in to one way of looking at something, and so missing solutions I might have seen if I stepped back, took a break with something else, talked to somebody about it, browsed the 'net for a bit, etc.

The poetic appropriateness is almost enough to convince me that Davidson was right to include the apocryphal reference to Newton, but that kind of looseness with fact grinds on me and makes it hard for me to take her seriously as a scholar in places. I think it's important to use language precisely. (Oh, that I may I not be held to that standard on my blog.)

For example: Davidson seems several times to be ending her book. One ending tells the story of her trip to Korea, when she visits 동대문시장.

In a guidebook on the plane home, I read that the Dongdaemun was founded in 1905. Its name originally meant, Market for Learning.

It's not a big deal to the general reader, I guess, and maybe it's the fault of that guidebook, but this just isn't so. I could understand "Its original name meant", since it was originally called 배우개장, but "Dongdaemun" has never meant "Market for Learning". It feels like she's sweeping too much under the rug, neglecting details that I want to know about. I happen to have some knowledge about this (and could double check with wiki), but what about all the areas where I don't know enough to fact check Davidson? If you read this book and then go around saying, "Hey, did you know Dongdaemun used to mean 'market for learning'?" you will sound like a fool, if someone knows better, and what's worse you will be spreading misinformation if they don't know better.

So how am I supposed to interpret Davidson's other claims, about research?

These key factors for educational success - rigor, relevance, and relationships - have been dubbed the new three Rs, with student-teacher ratio being particularly important. Small class size has been proved to be one of the single most significant factors in kids' staying in and succeeding in school. Twenty seems to be the magic number.

The very last book I read, The good school, took a position almost exactly opposite on class size, saying that usually parents are too worried about it, and that the body of research indicates it has only minor effects, and then only for dramatic reductions of the type you are not likely to see in practice. The reader is lucky that Davidson provides a footnote here - but it's to a 1999 summary of prior research, and doesn't seem to fully support Davidson's dramatic claim.

There are other places where Davidson seems to be just talking nonsense:

If we establish a mean, deviation from the mean is almost inevitably a decline.

This is a one-line description of the strangest statistics I have ever heard proposed. I am glad I do not inhabit this particular world of voodoo statistics. It's pretty clear how Davidson feels about mathematicians:

Is the pure abstract thinking of the mathematician really superior, cognitively, to the associational searching and reading and analyzing and interpreting and synthesizing and then focusing and narrating that are the historian's gift and trade? One could also note that it is mathematicians and statisticians, not historians, who tend to make up the statistical measures by which we judge cognitive excellence, achievement, and decline. On the other hand, it was two historians who created H-Bot, that robot who can whup most of us on standardized tests.

Yes, one certainly could note that it tends to be statisticians who "make up" statistical measures. And there could even be something to the argument, if it were made with, say, evidence of how mathematicians make IQ tests that are biased in such and such a way. Such an argument would fit well in the section of the book about standardized tests, which is approximately where, I believe, we first heard about this interesting H-Bot:

In 2006, two distinguished historians, Daniel H. Cohen and the late Roy Rosenzweig, worked with a bright high school student to create H-Bot, an online robot installed with search algorithms capable of reading test questions and then browsing the Internet for answers. When H-Bot took a National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test designed for fourth graders, it scored 82 percent, well above the national average. Given advances in this technology, a 2010 equivalent of H-Bot would most likely receive a perfect score, and not just on the fourth-grade NAEP; it would also ace the SATs and maybe even the GREs, LSATs, and MCATs too.

First, it is interesting to note that the most interesting thing I have heard about being done by historians is in fact a work of computer science. Kudos to that high school student. (And now it's clear where I stand if fight breaks out between hard and soft sciences.) Second, Davidson never actually explains that H-Bot only answers history questions, and even then, only the multiple-choice ones from NAEP (about two-thirds of the history questions, according to the original paper, a very interesting one from 2006 that I would like to look at in more depth in a later post, called No Computer Left Behind). Now, that is not really so bad - mathematicians are not offended that computers can answer math questions. The original paper seems to argue that since knowledge can be recorded, it is not worth knowing. As a student I was similarly keen on history without dates, without memorization. But there is value in having humans know these things, without having to look them up.This recent article provides an illustration: "Only about a third of American adults can name all three branches of government, and a third can't name any. Fewer than a third of eighth graders could identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence." These are not things that you should have to look up - but they are things that you can test quickly and easily with multiple choice. I agree that history classes should not be limited to "memorize this list of the three branches of government", but that doesn't make it off limits on the test. Next, Davidson's claim that just half a decade after H-Bot, computers can easily ace advanced tests, tests that are computer-adaptive and, more to the point, do include essays, is pure claptrap. If she is thinking just of their multiple choice sections it may be possible, with Watson easily winning Jeopardy, showing us that the ability to answer questions is not uniquely human. (But even Watson isn't perfect.) What it doesn't mean is that now humans don't have to know anything.

Here's one more claim of Davidson's that I just don't think is based in reality:

Parents and students all know when a teacher isn't doing her job.

I think it's more complicated than that. Judging a teacher by the standardized test scores of the students is not perfect, it's an expedient, it is at least based on something objective but alone it is not perfect. Neither is relying on parents to somehow "just know". I think parents are pretty far removed, really. There is actually some evidence that student perception of teacher quality correlates with the standardized test measures. I think most folks agree that we need to use more than one measure to evaluate teachers, and there is progress in this direction.

Before leaving testing, Davidson and her sources seem to really like essay tests, suggesting that we just need to spend a little more time grading to solve all the problems of education. I have never seen a fair way of grading essays, and I have never seen a standardized grading scale or rubric that gave a score range of more than about five points. I think essays are great. Sometimes I write my own. But I don't think they are a way to fairly compare students from different classrooms or schools or states or countries. Some of the history was interesting:

That letter grade reduces the age-old practice of evaluating students' thoughts in essays - what was once a qualitative, evaluative, and narrative practice - to a grade.
The first school to adopt a system of assigning letter grades was Mount Holyoke in 1897, and from there the practice was adopted in other colleges and universities as well as in secondary schools. A few years later, the American Meat Packers Association thought it was so convenient that they adopted the system for the quality or grades, as they called it, of meats.

Davidson seems to takes such glee in trying to imply that giving students letter grades is treating them like meat. If anything, it's just the reverse! (I can't deny it's a little funny either way.)

Here's an argument against standardized testing that I think has a little bit more substance:

We don't subject a new employee to a standardized test at the end of her first year to see if she has the skills the job requires. Why in the world have we come to believe that is the right way to test our children?

Of course, some companies (EPIC, for example) actually do have new employees take standardized tests after completing training - and I think that could be a really good idea, when their job depends on skills and knowledge they may not have learned in school. But there is something to be said for people being judged in real life based on the work that they do, rather than on their test-taking skills. I think Davidson is right that project work, in which students actually do/make something meaningful, should play a bigger part in education.

But about projects: I love projects. But I don't think they can be everything, exactly because they allow and even encourage so much specialization:

That girl with the green hair would be enlisted to do the artwork. Rodney would be doing any math calculations. Someone might write and sing a theme song. Someone else would write a script. Budding performers would be tapped to narrate or even act out the parts. The computer kids would identify the software they needed and start putting this together.

There are skills that every student in a school should learn. I think it is wrong to endorse a system in which, for example, maybe two students learn to type and become the typists for the class. Everybody needs to know how to type. I think a wide range of skills are similar enough to typing in their fundamental nature that every student should be able to do them well and individually, not just in a team. I happen to think that basic programming should be one of these skills. I would have loved to see a reference to Rushkoff's Program or Be Programmed.

I do agree with Davidson that education should use technology much more effectively. But often she goes off in this direction:

If we want national standards, let's take the current funds we put into the end-of-grade testing and develop those badges and ePortfolios and adaptable challenge tests that will assist teachers in grading and assist students, too, in how they learn. Lots of online for-profit schools are developing these systems, and many of them work well. Surely they are more relevant to our children's future than the bubble tests.

Okay here's my venting about badges: Badges are dumb. They are not that motivating, and they're certainly not what an employer wants to see later. "Wow, you got the red badge? Get out of my office." I have a similar gripe about portfolios, e- or otherwise: If the point of doing something is to put it in a portfolio, it is a pointless thing. A portfolio is meant to collect work you've done. It is not an end in itself. If you are a photographer going out to do a shoot to build your portfolio, you are not a photographer. First do photography, then look at what you've done and put your best work in your portfolio. Etc. Don't write "for your portfolio" don't paint "for your portfolio" don't design "for your portfolio". A portfolio is a record of projects done, not a project itself.

In places Davidson and I completely agree on what's going on but really disagree about what it means or what to do about it:

Recently a group of educators trained in new computational methods have been confirming Gould's assertion by microprocessing data from scores earned on end-of-grade exams in tandem with GIS (geographic information systems) data. They are finding clear correlations between test scores and the income of school districts, schools, neighborhoods, and even individual households. As we are collecting increasing amounts of data on individuals, we are also accumulating empirical evidence that the most statistically meaningful "standard" measured by end-of-grade tests is standard of living, as enjoyed by the family of the child taking the exam.

To me, this is a problem because it reflects socio-economic injustice (often falling along race lines, by the way) that is alive and well in our country. It means we have to work to improve education and so-called wrap-around social services to improve educational outcomes for those that need them most. To Davidson, it seems to merely imply that standardized tests are bad. Look: kids in the south Bronx are not going to suddenly go to college and get good jobs if you just stop having them take standardized tests. I think it is not in those students' best interest to suggest that the problem is the tests.

So again, here's the part of Davidson's stuff that I agree with:

I'm not against testing. Not at all. If anything, research suggests there should be more challenges offered to students, with more variety, and they should be more casual, with less weight, and should offer more feedback to kids, helping them to see for themselves how well they are learning the material as they go along. This is called adaptive of progressive testing. Fortunately, we are close to having machine-generated, -readable, and -gradable forms of such tests, so if we want to do large-scale testing across school districts or states or even on a national level, we should soon have the means to do so, in human-assisted, machine-readable testing-learning programs with real-time assessment mechanisms that can adjust to the individual learning styles of the individual student.

Davidson is very into games, and apparently had something to do with 02M422 "Quest 2 Learn", a public school here in New York, which is built around games. They would do a lot better on the NYC progress report if they could get their ELA scores to go up. I think games can be fun, but I think relying on existing games that are made purely for entertainment to teach fundamental literacy skills is a bit of a stretch. Here in the quote he's not necessarily agreeing with me, but you could read it as indicating the thought that games can provide immersive enrichment, not necessarily replacing what you might call "the basics":

E. O. Wilson, the distinguished professor emeritus of biology at Harvard, thinks so too: "Games are the future of education. I envision visits to different ecosystems that the student could actually enter ... with an instructor. They could be a rain forest, a tundra, or a Jurassic forest."

While Nim may be a game that can be modeled mathematically, I don't think it's teaching anybody basic math. And so on. I don't think that the interactive computer systems to teach these educational building blocks yet exist. I would like to make them. I'm thinking about it.

Here are some more places where I really AGREE with Davidson:

Talking about a guy from Mozilla:

He's studying how we actually use our computers, because humans, as we know from the attention-blindness experiments, are notoriously poor at knowing how we actually do what we do.

It is darn hard to be really self-aware, really meta. Here's a quote from the head of Wikipedia:

There are so many problems to fix in the world. Why waste time having people all working on the same thing when they don't even know about it? I visit big corporations and I hear all the time about people spending a year or two on a project, and then they find out someone else is working on exactly the same thing. It makes no sense. It's a waste of valuable time. There are too many problems to solve.

I encounter this at work. I wish everybody would share more about what they're doing and collaborate when it makes sense. And it's not just me wishing that: several people have the same Dilbert cartoon up at their desks, about how Dilbert's company has two separate projects: both created to reduce redundancy.

And though categories are necessary and useful to sort through what would otherwise be chaos, we run into trouble when we start to forget that categories are arbitrary. They define what we want them to, not the other way round.

I think this reflects a really powerful understanding of the world, similar to the understanding that good scientists have that at best their "laws" are models that attempt to describe and predict the world we experience, but they are constructs of humanity.

And finally, here's a little passage that I sort of liked because it relates to how I want to make my educational technology project work. It's knit in to much with the anecdote to pull it out cleanly, and I don't like how it almost compares a basketball player to a working dog, but I think there's something to the idea about adjusting goals to maximize effort and persistence. It's related to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's "Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention", which everybody in education loves to reference. This is how differentiation can work:

On some afternoons, a young star on our basketball team, a first-year student, would also be there working with Bob Bruzga and others to improve his jump by trying to snatch a small flag dangling above his head from a very long stick. As the student doggedly repeated the exercise over and over, a team of professionals analyzed his jump to make recommendations about his performance, but also recalibrated the height of the flag to his most recent successes or failures, putting it just out of reach one time, within the grasp of his fingertips the next, and then, as his back was turned, just a little too high to grasp. It is a method I've seen used to train competition-level working dogs, a marvelous psychological dance of reward and challenge, adjusted by the trainer to the trainee's desires, energy, success, or frustration, and all designed to enhance the trainee's ability to conceptualize achievement just beyond his grasp. It is also a time-honored method used by many great teachers. Set the bar too high and it is frustratingly counter-productive; set it too low and dulled expectations lead to underachievement. Dogged is the right word. That kid just would not give up. I would watch him and try again to inch my arm forward.

(Davidson was in rehab for an arm injury.)

This has gotten long, which is a testament to the richness and (possibly or) diversity of ideas in the book. I'll just add that of course Davidson is a big supporter of computer literacy, the internet, and so on, which makes it a little strange that it seems that her book is really not available online. And it's a book. I don't really see any place in Davidson's vision of the future where people read whole books. And it's not just Davidson caught in this apparent contradiction: the result of a Mozilla conference on using the web in education had as it's final product, that's right, you guessed it: a book. At least it's available as a PDF - but it blows my mind that it doesn't seem to also be available as linked HTML pages. Am I just missing it?

So there it is. Reflections on Now you see it. I will make no attempt to give the book a grade, number of stars, etc. :)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

(link) on the non-availability of excellent prepared curricula

This post from a Washington Post (why do they have everything that resonates with me?) blog is about one particular Teach for America teacher who experienced the curricula vacuum, but I felt very much the same way when I was teaching in New York. "Hi teacher, it's your first year, make complete curricula from scratch for five classes," the system seems to say. I would love to see some better options.

New teacher decries lesson plan gap

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Thoughts on The Good School

I just finished reading The Good School by Peg Tyre. From the introduction, here's what the book sets out to do:

If you are interested in "looking under the hood," this book is for you. It will help bring you up to speed on some of the most crucial issues and controversies that are likely to affect your child's education. It will provide you with a SparkNotes version of the history of education to explain to you why things are the way they are. It will introduce you to the freshest thinking - and some of the most innovative ideas - about how to help our kids do better. But more than that, it will help you judge the value of these ideas by providing you with the most solid research available. In areas where research is not yet clear, you will meet people and hear about research that will be creating headlines - and perhaps school policy - in the years to come.

And it does it with some success. The audience is very clearly parents, and there is a good deal of pandering. Parents are the greatest! etc. And the beginning of the book is overfull of this kind of thing, including a chapter specifically for busy parents who couldn't possibly read a whole book, who just want to find a good preschool and go to sleep. So this chapter is sort of a drag, giving the recommendations without the evidence, and so on.

Chapter two on testing picks up a little bit, and there's a cogent explanation of the limitations and possible unintended consequences of standardized tests. The book might be worthwhile just for this explanation. Two interesting quotes. First, the "law" named after Donald T. Campbell:

"The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitore."

And some words from John Tanner, who runs Test Sense:

He draws a parallel between encouraging or even allowing teachers to teach to the test, and encouraging people to study for the eye test before they go to the DMV. "What would happen," Tanner says, "is that we'd have a lot of people passing the test but not have a clue whether they can actually see well enough to drive."

Chapter three on class size is interesting, because while acknowledging that everybody wants small class size and also that all the research seems to show smaller classes are better, if by small margins, Tyre tries to conclude that class size is not such a big deal in the domains that are usually in the field - and maybe she's right that 22 kids is not worlds better than 24, 34 not so much better than 36, and that teacher quality is more important, but I can't accept her apparent conclusion that smaller classes are not something to pursue. Never mind that nowhere is the fundamental issue of the reality of differentiation addressed: one teacher cannot do different things with different students at the same time. (Tyre does relate what I think may be an awfully common example of bad differentiation, which is simply giving a struggling, slower student less of the same stuff to do. Lowering expectations is better teaching?)

The book really picks up at chapter four, where Tyre has a strong case that there is consensus in the literature about how best to teach reading, and that too often this conclusion is ignored, to the detriment of students. To my amusement, there is a section headed "Teaching reading is rocket science," which echoes a section from a speech (given after the publication of the book) by Los Angeles superintendent John Deasy, "Teaching is rocket science". Everybody wants to talk about rocket science now. And the research-backed right way to teach reading is phonics, or as they say in the UK "systematic synthetic phonics" (because you synthesize or blend sounds together) which I happen to know because I read this section from the 2010 England Department for Education white paper "The importance of teaching", where they describe as one of their goals in the executive summary that they must:

Ensure that there is support available to every school for the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics, as the best method for teaching reading.

So it seems that people are coming around to this, but I remember even in my MAT program what I learned about how people teach reading was that there were a number of competing philosophies, and none of them necessarily had the upper hand. Phonics has the upper hand. It has the only hand. You must teach children to sound out words.

There's a chapter on math too, which I generally agree with. Tyre emphasizes the importance of carefully planned curriculum that helps students progress through conceptual understandings of carefully arranged mathematics. There's praise for Singapore math and, more indirectly, Common Core.

Tyre has support for recess. Great. Also she spends time talking about how some teachers are better than others. It's amazing that this needs to be said, but apparently it really does. The last chapter is the tale (true, she says) of how some parents got involved and helped make their local school better. Tyre supports parent involvement and system transparency, and I can only hope that things work out in general as well as they do in her story.

There are plenty of things to disagree with or be frustrated by in this book, including some little ones that are just annoying or unfortunate. Using "an octagonal" instead of just saying an octagon. Leaving the "l" out of "public". These are the most superficial. I am more concerned when I can't find a relevant endnote for a numeric claim. But the book is at its best when it goes all the way to a conclusion on a topic, provides real evidence for that conclusion, and invites the reader to engage it. Together with the outlines of educational history, I think it is a worthwhile book that can definitely help parents get started with a more informed and powerful involvement in education.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Selections from and thoughts on Thinking, Fast and Slow

I recently read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. I haven't talked to people about a book I'm reading like this in quite some time, which is appropriate, in that Kahneman does a good job in applying his psychological findings in the way his book is written, and toward what audience:

Nisbett and Borgida summarize the results in a memorable sentence:

Subjects' unwillingness to deduce the particular from the general was matched only by their willingness to infer the general from the particular.

So while he does include the general, he also works well with the specific. One conclusion of research is that people learn better from the specific, and:

This is a profoundly important conclusion. People who are taught surprising statistical facts about human behavior may be impressed to the point of telling their friends about what they have heard, but this does not mean that their understanding of the world has really changed. The test of learning psychology is whether your understanding of situations you encounter has changed, not whether you have learned a new fact. There is a deep gap between our thinking about statistics and our thinking about individual cases. Statistical results with a causal interpretation have a stronger effect on our thinking than noncausal information. But even compelling causal statistics will not change long-held beliefs or beliefs rooted in personal experience. On the other hand, surprising individual cases have a powerful impact and are a more effective tool for teaching psychology because the incongruity must be resolved and embedded in a causal story. That is why this book contains questions that are addressed personally to the reader. You are more likely to learn something by finding surprises in your own behavior than be hearing surprising facts about people in general.

And on his audience, Kahneman says:

Observers are less cognitively busy and more open to information than actors. That was my reason for writing a book that is oriented to critics and gossipers rather than to decision makers.

And while I'm nearly always a critic, I even became a bit of a gossip on the subject of this book, because of the fascinating collection of important findings that are all made immediately person and applicable.

The basic thesis of the book is this: people have fundamentally two kinds of thinking going on in their heads. System one is fast, intuitive, and easy. It often makes the right decision for you, but it is vulnerable to a collection of systematic deficiencies. System two is slow, deliberate, and difficult. It can make good decisions if you give it time and effort, but it is limited.

One systematic problem with system one is that when you hear that seven people were killed by sharks last year, you are more scared than you should be (or not scared at all). Two reasons:

The focusing illusion:
Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it.

And one of many biases of system one resulting in a failure to get statistical thinking right:

The bias has been given several names; following Paul Slovic I will call it denominator neglect. If your attention is drawn to the winning marbles, you do not assess the number of nonwinning marbles with the same care. Vivid imagery contributes to denominator neglect, at least as I experience it.

Here winning marbles are people getting munched by sharks, and nonwinning marbles are people not so munched. Shark munching is more vivid than marbles.

Kahneman talks a lot about problems people, even statisticians, have with statistics. Like this question:

For a period of 1 year a large hospital and a small hospital each recorded the days on which more than 60% of the babies born were boys. Which hospital do you think recorded more such days?

  • The larger hospital
  • The smaller hospital
  • About the same (that is, within 5% of each other)

The answer is that the smaller hospital will vary more and so have more such days. But people don't get this question right. That's often Kahneman's conclusion. People don't get this stuff right. Here he takes this kind of thinking and goes on to us it to support this claim:

The truth is that small schools are not better on average; they are simply more variable.

Well this is a big area of debate, especially in NYC, but it is the case that people usually just ignore the issue of student variability mattering more in a smaller group of students. I didn't really see enough evidence in the text to conclude that Kahneman conclusively settled this issue, but it did give me another thing to think about when I see claims like "a larger proportion of charter schools are in the bottom 10% of all schools". We should expect effects like that, if charter schools are usually smaller than other schools, due to chance.

In many instances I immediately thought to myself, "if people just knew the math, they could work this out, and they wouldn't make these mistakes!" Part of Kahneman's point is that mistakes happen even when people do know the math, if they don't actually do it, instead relying on their "gut" (system one). But there was also one place where I wasn't sure I did know the relevant math:

Imagine an urn filled with balls, of which 2/3 are of one color and 1/3 of another. One individual has drawn 5 balls from the urn and fournd that 4 were red and 1 was white. Another individual has drawn 20 balls and found that 12 were red and 8 were white. Which of the two individuals should feel more confident that the urn contains 2/3 red balls and 1/3 white balls, rather than the opposite. What odds should each individual give?

In this problem, the correct posterior odds are 8 to 1 for the 4:1 sample and 16 to 1 for the 12:8 sample, assuming equal prior probabilities. However, most people feel that the first sample provides much stronger evidence for the hypothesis that the urn is predominantly red, because the proportion of red balls is larger in the first than in the second sample. Here again, intuitive judgements are dominated by the sample proportion and are essentially unaffected by the size of the sample, which plays a crucial role in the determination of the actual posterior odds. In addition, intuitive estimates of posterior odds are far less extreme than the correct values. The underestimation of the impact of evidence has been observed repeatedly in problems of this type. It has been labeled "conservatism."

I kind of guess this is some Bayesian thing, and maybe after a few minutes with Google I could work it out, but off the top of my head I don't know how to solve for those results. And it may be that some people without math backgrounds would have this experience for more examples in the text, and in life. I should probably try and work this out. But the other fun thing about the passage is how the last sentence could be read as a dry joke at conservatives' expense.

There is another interesting argument based on regression to the mean, relevant to teachers and anyone who considers punishment and reward. People are statistically likely to do better after a very bad performance, and to do worse after a very good one - whether you punish or reward at all:

I had stumbled onto a significant fact of the human condition: the feedback to which life exposes us is perverse. Because we tend to be nice to other people when they please us and nasty when they do not, we are statistically punished for being nice and rewarded for being nasty.

Another really interesting topic is that of experts. People tend to be too confident. Experts tend to be WAY too confident, even when results are essentially random. Kahneman offers convincing evidence that the financial markets, at least investment, are essentially random. And yet everybody in the business thinks they're so damn GOOD at it.

...the illusions of validity and skill are supported by a powerful professional culture. We know that people can maintain an unshakable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they are sustained by a community of like-minded believers.

And the expert delusion is valid in social science fields too.

Each of these domains entails a significant degree of uncertainty and unpredictability. We describe them as "low-validity environments." In every case, the accuracy of experts was matched or exceeded by a simple algorithm.

That's right, a simply algorithm is better than an expert, mostly because experts tend to make over-confident, over-extreme predictions, that are easily way off if you wait and check. And it doesn't even have to be a particularly GOOD algorithm. Kahneman mentions Robyn Dawes's 1979 article "The Robust Beauty of Improper Linear Models in Decision Making", which you can find online:

ABSTRACT: Proper linear models are those in which predictor variables are given weights in such a way that the resulting linear composite optimally predicts some criterion of interest; examples of proper linear models are standard regression analysis, discriminant function analysis, and ridge regression analysis. Research summarized in Paul Meehl's book on clinical versus statistical prediction and a plethora of research stimulated in part by that book all indicates that when a numerical criterion variable (e.g., graduate grade point average) is to be predicted from numerical predictor variables, proper linear models outperform clinical intuition. Improper linear models are those in which the weights of the predictor variables are obtained by some nonoptimal method; for example, they may be obtained on the basis of intuition, derived from simulating a clinical judge's predictions, or set to be equal. This article presents evidence that even such improper linear models are superior to clinical intuition when predicting a numerical criterion from numerical predictors. In fact, unit (i.e., equal) weighting is quite robust for making such predictions. The article discusses, in some detail, the application of unit weights to decide what bullet the Denver Police Department should use. Finally, the article considers commonly raised technical, psychological, and ethical resistances to using linear models to make important social decisions and presents arguments that could weaken these resistances.

A further problem related to experts, is that if you do happen to be an intelligent expert, aware of your fallibility, people won't trust you:

Experts who acknowledge the full extent of their ignorance may expect to be replaced by more confident competitors, who are better able to gain the trust of clients. An unbiased appreciation of uncertainty is a cornerstone of rationality - but it is not what people and organizations want. Extreme uncertainty is paralyzing under dangerous circumstances, and the admission that one is merely guessing is especially unacceptable when the stakes are high.

This is very interesting to me, because an expert who knows she is fallible and also knows people won't trust her if she says so can take the justifiable approach of feigning confidence in an effort to favorably influence a situation. The effect is that people who are trustworthy sound exactly like people who aren't. Fascinating.

It reminds me of the concerns around reporting confidence intervals or margins of error. If you are intelligent, you know what they are. But if you report them, people who don't understand will think you are less trustworthy. I would argue that if possible you should only tell intelligent, informed people about your margins of error, and leave them off when talking to other people. Of course this is kind of condescending, but could be better than having the majority of people think they can discredit you because "he even admits he could be wrong!" Of course it's difficult to report differently to different people, up to considering the readership of a periodical, etc.

And the last interesting thing in the book is about happiness. Kahneman looked into how good people's lives are. You can do this two ways: asking people how they feel about their lives overall, or looking at how they feel moment by moment through the day. Kahneman puts more weight on the latter, which I think is a pretty fair choice. He measures it by "U-index" which is sort of the measure of how much you're unhappy per day.

The use of time is one of the areas of life over which people have some control. Few individuals can will themselves to have a sunnier disposition, but some may be able to arrange their lives to spend less of their day commuting, and more time doing things they enjoy with people they like. The feelings associated with different activities suggest that another way to improve experience is to switch from passive leisure, such as TV watching, to more active forms of leisure, including socializing and exercise. From the social perspective, improved transportation for the labor force, availability of child care for working women, and improved socializing opportunities for the elderly may be relatively efficient ways to reduce the U-index of society - even a reduction by 1% would be a significant achievement, amounting to millions of hours of avoided suffering.

I was interested in his comments on religion:

Religious participation also has relatively greater favorable impact on both positive affect and stress reduction than on life evaluation. Surprisingly, however, religion provides no reduction of feelings of depression or worry.

He also had a chart that seemed to suggest getting married made you less happy in the long run, but then he argued that we really shouldn't interpret it that way. Good? Well, I'll finish with what I thought was probably the most feel-good moment of the whole darn book:

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that happiness is the experience of spending time with people you love and who love you.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

I'm thinking a lot about educational technology and continuing the experiments I began with a rather dry implementation at This article (from The Washington Post's Answer Sheet blog, one of the most consistently good sources of interesting educational perspectives I know of) really puts in words a lot of my thoughts - especially this:

What is happening in the classroom that could not be duplicated by a computer? 
If the answer is “nothing,” then there is a problem.  In fact, I believe that if teachers can be replaced by computers, they should be.  By that I mean if a teacher offers nothing that your child can’t get from a computer screen, then your child might as well be learning online.  On the other hand, no screen will ever replace a creative, engaged, interactive, relevant, and inspiring teacher, especially one who takes advantage of the precious face-to-face experience of people learning together. Collective, communal, collaborative learning is key to many of the ways we all work now, often in collaborative and distributed ways.   How is the school working to teach real, human, management, leadership, and collaborative skills in the unique environment of the classroom?

The article is by Cathy Davidson, and it makes me interested in possibly reading her book, Now you see it.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The future of the economy and how it relates to education

(this is a facebook comment I wrote and then decided to save here because I've been thinking about this stuff a bit)

My prognosis: Unemployment will continue to increase, as it has in Europe. Such employment as does exist will continue to change, becoming more about ideas, entertainment, design, and (probably the largest sector) service. This is the natural continuation of the long-term trend of technology reducing the need for large numbers of people in the means of production. Eventually this trend will also reach the economies where the factories are today - think China, Brazil, etc.

The upshot of all this is that we will have to let go of the expectation that everyone gets a job in the traditional sense. I think our goals in education should shift from a focus on "education is good because it will get you a job" toward "education is good because it makes you a better, happier, healthier, more complete person, one who can live a fulfilling life and be a citizen of the world."

In particular, I would like to see a balancing in mathematics instruction between "here is math that lets you engineer a sprocket" and "here is math that improves your overall habits of mind and helps you to reason logically in all areas."

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Ghostspotting: Belated Halloween musings on epistemology

René Descartes, who famously created a whole year of high school math just trying to get his servant to kill a fly on the ceiling, thought that the human soul was hanging out in the pineal gland, up in the middle of your brain.

The pineal gland is smaller than a chickpea, which is what Paul Giamatti’s soul looked like in the movie Cold Souls. Descartes would approve.

But if you can’t make hummus out of souls, then ghosts are the next best thing. The words are even used interchangeably, sometimes. And I believe in lots of things that I’ve seen as many times as I’ve seen ghosts. Blue whales. Atoms. India.

Really, we’d better hope we’ve got souls somewhere, because otherwise what is there that makes humans so special compared to Watson and his digital kin? After you’ve lost Jeopardy, how long is it before you lose your job, your girlfriend, and your seat at church?

And ghosts are nothing! I believe in neutrinos, which are so nearly invisible that the great state university of Wisconsin uses a whole cubic kilometer of Antarctic ice just trying to figure out if there are any coming our way. It’s called the IceCube Neutrino Telescope.

I also believe in Einstein’s theories of relativity, which suggest, among other things, that if you stay home while I go for a jog, I’ll be younger relative to you afterward - and that nothing can go faster than light, ever.

This is so deeply believed, that when some European scientists said that they detected neutrinos going faster than light, a New York scientist said, on the record, that he would bet his house that they were wrong.*

And some people say they’ve really seen ghosts! I know the senses are fallible, but I’m pretty much married to mine, for better or worse. Would you bet your house that all those people who saw ghosts are wrong?

It comes down to how we decide what to believe. Are you less likely to kick your grandma if you believe she might haunt you? Are you more likely to support human rights for Ethiopians if you believe they have immortal souls? Maybe it’s worth believing.

But nobody thinks souls are physically hiding out in the base of your brain these days. What do modern people think of the pineal gland? People say it keeps you from getting horny as a kid, and it helps you get to sleep when the sun goes down, but the details are still as fuzzy as a graveyard Polaroid.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

slides in time (a poem)

some faces slide in time
overloading ages in the same
moment of observation
collapsing to foundations
shifting to their children
to their parents on and on
the labels that are relative
to birth or death or both
listed simultaneously
indiscreet and broadcasting
yesterday's formation
and tomorrow's formation

Self-Portrait (a poem)

The Hatfield Clan 1897
family photo
men hold firearms

a feeling of revulsion
an animal past so human
a king smiling with a sword

shall I then be pictured naked
without muscle, sinew, bone

hang a landscape
with a mountain
with a forest
grain, waves, amber

can we find a phenotype
distinct from DNA
when we ask the questions backwards
for answers inside us

with the pots and all the kettles
cupboards, mantles both are bare

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Future of Education

This is a picture of Spock at school on Vulcan, from the re-boot Star Trek movie. He's in a pod with video walls, answering questions from the computer. It may have been meant to be a test scenario, but I think it could bear similarity to future education in general, for certain content domains.

Educators talk a lot about "differentiation" or "differentiated instruction," which means adjusting instruction to match the needs of individual students. Often it means having students work in groups, presenting extra explanation or materials to some students, or using different homework assignments or even tests. (Just as a note, this is very similar to "tracking," which does this for class-size groups of students by putting them in different classes, but lots of people think tracking is evil, while everybody likes differentiation, as far as I can tell.)

The problem with differentiated instruction is that it's hard for teachers. The reason it's hard for teachers is that it isn't possible, even in theory. You can't do two different things with two different people at the same time - let alone a class that might have thirty or more students.

So, like at Spock's school, some places are starting to differentiate using computers. Two examples:

School of One, a New York City Department of Education program, has a big database of math skills and lessons. The skills are keyed to state standards, and the lessons are pulled from a variety of sources - some are delivered by computer, some are delivered by teachers. All the skills have multiple lessons that can be used to teach them, and there are assessments that help determine when students are ready to move on to the next skills. The lessons that each student does each day are determined based on all data available up to that day - and this scheduling process is, from what I hear, one of the most time-consuming parts of running the program.

Wireless Generation is a private company in DUMBO (Brooklyn) that develops technology/curricula for reading, writing, and math. I don't know as much about them, but they seem to have some interesting stuff. One thing seems similar to what School of One does, but for reading. It updates the plan for each student only once every ten days of instruction.

Both rely on a lot of formative assessments (aka tests) delivered via computer. Both involve students spending some time with computers one-on-one, but also have students working in groups and interacting with teachers (Wireless Generation more than School of One, it seems.)

I think there's a lot of power in really differentiating instruction to the student level in this way. I think School of One has had some success, and they continue their work. There are some issues for consideration:

* There is a lot of content available already from places like Khan Academy, both lessons and exercises (which could also be used as assessments). Heck, there's a lot of content all over the place, both publicly available and owned by companies.

* The principal difficulty, it seems to me, is creating the system that orchestrates the presentation and interaction of materials with the student. It is fiendishly difficult to work out the right progression, and then to decide what to do if a student gets something wrong, for example. This is the kind of thing that a tutor would do, one on one with a student, and even a good human tutor is not so easy to find. So far most computer systems have relied on human expertise, drawing out a curriculum map, that sort of thing. I think eventually the best solution will incorporate human expertise, but also utilise machine learning to determine lesson/problem sequences that adapt to students not every day or every ten days, but moment by moment.

* It's a bit of an aside, but I think this technology should probably incorporate what is known about spaced repetition and memory, to help maximize the amount that students retain from what they learn. The current system of learn-test-forget is rather awful, and really kind of seems to suggest that it doesn't really matter if adults know anything.

* One consequence of this kind of differentiated instruction is that it is no longer nearly as normative. Some kids go a lot faster than others. For School of One, I understand that this has meant that some students finish all the material "too early." I think their response so far has been the correct one: introducing more material. There is no reason that a curriculum of this type shouldn't extend all the way to open questions in the field.

I don't pretend that this kind of thing would work terribly well for creative writing or art or human-to-human communication skills, but I do think this kind of computer-differentiated learning will be very powerful for large pieces of what students need to learn. I hope that people will start working together to develop good and open technologies to implement this kind of thing.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

lazy poetry (or) stone becomes sand (a poem)

we pass so many u-haul trucks
on our darkened streets
that I am filled with an overwhelming sense
of the constant ending and starting of the universe

it is the feeling of having such a strong emotion with no name
that the stale sunset's wake overcomes us and everything is poetry

u-haul trucks line the dark streets of my alma mater
separating students from the roads that brought them there

cycles cycles
and poetry no more has to rhyme
than rocks thrown through windows
are required to have notes
to explain themselves
star trek

"oowoop" are you okay?
I just made a strange sound
and I am concerned that everything is poetry
or something might not be

seen through windows
hands take bowls from cabinets
hands put bowls into cabinets
and the cabinets are not the same
but love for them remains


Daniel Quinn

Really? This won awards and stuff? Maybe it was new to people when it came out. To me it seemed like a semi-interesting fleshing out of Jared M. Diamond's The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race. Ishmael even came out five years after that paper. Huh.

First, it's a bit of a stretch to call Ishmael a novel, or even fiction. It's a dialogue giving some philosophical ideas. I think we can call them philosophical ideas. It presents a philosophy anyway, or an interpretation of the world.

Of course dialogues like this have a long tradition. Plato and all that, you know. It was interesting to me, while reading, to think about my ideas on writing and reading and fiction and so on. It seems to me that there may be two more-or-less linked parallel axes, something like this:

fun to read --------------------------------------------- not fun to read
not explicit in message ------------------------------ explicit in message

So, for example, a textbook is explicit in its content and not fun to read (speaking broadly, or in possibilities). A romance novel is not explicit in message, or may not even have a conscious message, but may be fun to read. Fiction generally has only a masked message, may even be explicitly meant to have no message (as in The Lord of the Rings) but I believe it is impossible to have no message. The reader's brain is not the same after reading. Kurt Vonnegut, I think, has typically wonderful messages in his writing, explicit or not, and yet his stuff is a lot of fun to read. Same with Douglas Adams. This I call being a skilled writer. Dialogues are not so boring to read as plain exposition, but neither are they terribly demanding of writing skills. So there are my ideas on that, quickly.

The content of the book: this gorilla is telling a guy about how, in a nutshell, the human race went wrong at agriculture, as in the Diamond piece (link above). Some pains are taken to point out that the problem is not exactly agriculture per sé - there were some farming Native Americans, etc. - but the world-view that we need to expand production and control the earth, rather than living in harmony with it, letting natural conditions govern things like human population.

This is all done with mythological/religious language, so that the "takers" (aka "civilization") are said to believe that the gods gave them the earth, but there were problems, so they took knowledge of good and evil (an interpretation of the Bible's Genesis is one of the most interesting parts of the book, and maybe the only addition to Diamond's much shorter essay - the interpretation seems at least reasonable, if not iron-clad) and took control of the earth to keep all their people alive and the population increasing. The "leavers" (aka "primitive people" and/or "hunter-gatherers") believe that they are of the earth, in the sense that all plants and animals are. They are said to be happier and continuously evolving, whereas takers subvert natural processes, have stopped evolving, and will necessarily destroy the earth completely if they don't go back to "leaver" ways immediately.

It is an interesting thing to think about, especially if you haven't yet. I don't see how I'm going to give up my iPhone though. Maybe I've missed the point.

Meta Math! The Quest for Omega

Meta Math! : the quest for omega
Gregory Chaitin

So, I've been carrying around this book for maybe three or four years now. Carried it to Korea. Carried it back to the US. Finally read it this summer! Whoo!

It's pretty okay. I think the author and I would get along philosophically, in terms of liking ideas more than writing proofs. Because proofs are boring. And hard. But he would probably still write more proofs than me. Memorable moment from the book: when he just mentions "casually" that he wrote a Diophantine equation that evaluates LISP expressions - to the tune of 200 pages and 20,000 variables. HOLY CRAP, MAN!

In the introduction, he dismisses people who get all worked up about Gödel. In the sense that Gödel didn't destroy math - he actually made it cooler. So I liked Gregory Chaitin from the introduction. The heck with you, people who think Gödel wrote a proof of god or something weird like that.

Oh - I also liked him on page nine, where he says "math is a free creation of the human mind" - which is a fully reasonable thing to say. I wish people would just agree with me and Chaitin.

Another interesting thing: Chaitin is very much concerned with whether the universe is continuous or discrete. ME TOO. At least, when I sat down to try to make a simulation of the universe, it quickly occurred to me that you kind of have to make that choice in your design: is the universe going to be continuous or discrete? And it sort of seems that either way, it's going to be ridiculous. If it's continuous, you have issues with floating-point implementation in your simulation and also the possibility of way too much stuff in way too little space (well, if you have point particles; and if you don't have point particles, I think you have some issues there too). And a discrete universe just seems weird. Oh BTW! Chaitin seems to be friends with Wolfram! They don't perfectly agree about things, but Meta Math does reference Wolfram and A New Kind of Science multiple times.

Chaitin is even anti-Real number! I guess I'm also anti-Real number, in the same sense that I'm anti-unicorn; I can appreciate Real number math, and I can appreciate unicorn stories, but that doesn't mean that they suddenly become existent/real in the usual sense. Also I can't think of a unicorn story that I appreciate all that much, just at the moment, but I maintain that it is theoretically possible.

What else? He goes into some proofs of the infinitude of primes that I hadn't seen before but that are really cool and have cool connections to other math. So that was fun.

Problem with the writing: I think Chaitin is trying to be a little too Gödel, Escher, Bach - and can't pull it off. In a chapter called "Intermezzo" he includes "The Parable of the Rose" - but the parable doesn't connect as perfectly with the real material of the book as would really be nice. It's just not the perfect metaphor he wishes he had. Cool story, but it seems like he's misreading it.

So what's omega? He barely deals with this himself, because he's just so weird, and omega is so weird. Omega is the probability that a random computer program will halt. Meaning a random collection of ones and zeroes (or whatever) of random length. So omega depends on the computer language or computer (or whatever) and is devilishly difficult to work out. This is kind of neat, and shows Chaitin's sort of incompleteness / minimum complexity ideas, but it isn't a number you're likely to need on your calculator or anything.

Fun book! Felt like I was continuing my reading from when I was just finishing my MAT!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

I discovered a poem (a poem)

I discovered a poem
of such great beauty
I was moved to tears
and overwrought for days

I am convinced that this poem
comes directly from God's anthology
so perfect is its every line
it could be no other way

Having found such a poem
is a kind of heavy burden
having carved it from the rock
perhaps they'll name it after me

Language Separates Us, or "♡" (a poem)

They say scent is tightly linked to memory
and they say it with words
is it any wonder

On a road home the manure smell is heavy
with that of freshly cut grass
from cows so wealthy

The process of language in and language out
does not digest reality
while the nose is subconscious

I looked her in the eye, her right to my left
and felt certain she knew
what I saw

Those eyes were etched and buried deep
with inexpressible conviction
solidarity and solitude

As every song I hear I sing
begets a meaning just for me
contradictory and comforting

Language separates us from other animals, they say
like skyscrapers and spiders and Twitter and orangutans
language holds us apart

Artist's Statement (a poem)

Words emerge
because they have nowhere else to go
because something must be said
because nothing can be
Words emerge

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Litany of Errors (4)

I have a couple pages of corrected Korean work still, and I meant to go through it like I had been doing. I leave tasks for my future self like that sometimes. Some of these tasks need to be done, but sometimes these tasks just waste time and keep me from doing the things I really need to be doing. In these cases it can be best to delete the task. In this particular case, I think it would be a mistake to keep revisiting old mistakes. I could be wrong, but I have other things to do.

I think this sentiment could be expressed eloquently, but that too is not what I really need to spend time on right now.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Learning Revolution

The Learning Revolution
Jonathan Solity

This book is even branded with the same "Michel Thomas method" banner that adorns the language learning products, and there is more than a bit of Michel Thomas hero worship throughout. The tone throughout is basically, "Michel Thomas could save the children, the education baddies just don't understand."

I'm afraid the book fails to deliver on the cover's promise of revealing the secrets of the Michel Thomas Method. I think it may just be that there aren't really secrets. It's execution. It's always execution.

There are some principles that I agree with, although after over three years of classroom teaching I can't really say that I agree with them 100%, necessarily. For example, the book emphasizes avoiding measures like intelligence or otherwise trying to predict student achievement. I absolutely agree that we should have high expectations for all students and work to get every student to achieve, but the fact is, at least in some extreme cases, there are student differences.

Another overarching thing that I agree with is that educators should focus on what is taught and how it is taught. I've heard a lot of people say that research shows (I haven't ever actually seen the research, mind...) that the teacher is the biggest variable in students' success or failure in school. I wish I could see the research. Do they control for curriculum? Even if they do, most "curricula" don't really specify how teachers teach. I think it may be that the what and how of teaching are more important than who the teacher is. Of course, the teacher's execution will matter, and in a sense the teacher ~IS~ the what and, or at least, the how of teaching, but I think really strong curricula could help eliminate at least some teacher-to-teacher differences.

Going through the book to recall key points, maybe I was too harsh in my statement above that the book doesn't reveal "the secrets of" the method. I'll try to pull out those key points:

* No aversion to direct instruction. Cites the Project Follow-Through study results in support of direct instruction, and an old book by Ziggy Engelmann and Doug Carnine, called Theory of Instruction.

* Reference to Pareto's Law (the 80/20 principle) in relation to choosing what to teach and what to teach first.

* Focus on the teaching environment. (Make it nice, make it comfortable.)

* People remember well what they remember often. ("Rational analysis" focus on environment.)

* "Theory of optimal instruction": identify an optimal amount of information to teach pupils. (In Michel's case, then: high-frequency vocabulary and grammatical structures.)

* Responsibility for learning placed on teacher, not student.

* Learning without memorizing or forgetting: mix old and new -> "interleaved learning" (fewer items reviewed more often) + distributed practice and contextual diversity for generalisation

* Self correction

* Deciding what to teach (Ch. 9)
- Teach what is most useful
- Teach only one new skill at a time
- Teach easier skills before more difficult skills
- Separate similar skills (don't show them right next to each other at
first) and then teach concepts through minimal differences (positive
and negative examples)

* Norris Haring and Marie Eaton's "instructional hierarchy"
1. Acquisition
2. Fluency
3. Maintenance
4. Generalization
5. Application

Direct instruction AND constructivist approaches, but at different stages of learning

Michel's strategy for "teaching skills to accuracy":
1. Teach students to use a skill without any explanation
2. Provide an explanation, rationale, or rule for the use of the skill
3. Teach the skill further with more examples
4. Introduce exceptions to the rule
5. Teach exceptions through the principle of minimal differences
6. Show more negative examples

* Practice makes perfect / repetition rather than variety: ample opportunities IN CLASS for students to actively recall what they're learning

* Teach the principles that allow generalization

* Questions: don't try to teach new material just by asking questions (but Michel does ask questions, pretty much constantly, to which he has already taught the pieces needed for answering)

* Mnemonics: are good.

* Assessment: (normative), criterion-referenced, ipsative
- assessment-for-learning

* Praise and success: are good.

* Student errors: reflect on the teaching, not the learning.
- Strategies for correction:
1. Give the correction
2. Lead to correction by suggestive analogy / things known
3. "shaping" (accept imperfect but progressively better answers)

* Teach one thing at a time
* Make teaching explicit and open to only one interpretation
* Interleave learning and memorizing new vocabulary
* "Assess" throughout

* Questioning a class: ask, allow time for all to think, call on a student at random

* No homework

* Learning is fun!

Words I didn't recognize:

aetiology (p. 65) is etiology is the study of causation (sometimes esp. of disease)

dyspraxia (p. 105) is the inability to perform coordinated movements

dyscalculalia (p. 105) is dyscalculia is just what you'd expect (inability or loss of the ability to perform arithmetic operations)

plenary (p. 210) is originally an adjective to describe meetings/sessions attended by all; now also a meeting of this type

militate (against) (p. 222) (of a fact or circumstance) is to be a powerful or conclusive factor in preventing (not really a military meaning)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Starbucks Double Tall Latte Pricing in Four Markets

I collected this data while traveling around the end of May and beginning of June, 2011. I was curious about how Starbucks prices vary across different regions. I always drink a double tall latte, so that's what I focused on.

As shown in the table, Starbucks is most expensive in Korea and New York, although a savvy Korean customer can do fairly well by taking advantage of available discounts. LA is the cheapest location. I'm really not sure why. And Madison comes in between LA and NYC. In America, Starbucks seems to get more expensive as you go from West to East.

Seoul, Korea Los Angeles, CA Madison, WI New York, NY
Tall Latte ₩4100 / $3.78* $2.65 $2.75 $3.15
Add shot 500** / 0.46 0.75 0.75 0.75
Cup discount 300 / 0.28 0.10 0.10 0.10
Sales tax na na*** 5.5% 8.875%
Full price 4600 / $4.24 $3.40 $3.69 $4.25
With cup 4300 / 3.96 $3.30 $3.59 $4.14
Free shot 4100 / 3.79 (2.65) (2.90) (3.43)
Both discounts ₩3800 / $3.50 (2.55) (2.80) (3.32)

Assuming discounts are taken before tax.
* Calculated based on an exchange rate of $1 to 1085 won, accurate as of 2011 June 13 according to Google. Converted and rounded as a final step.
** Free when paying with Korean Starbucks card.
*** I understand Los Angeles has a sales tax of 9.75%, but it doesn't seem to apply to drinks at Starbucks.
() In Korea you can always get a free shot if you pay with your Korean Starbucks card. The American Starbucks card won't get you a free shot ever (there are some free drinks occasionally, but it's annoying and more complicated). However, sometimes friendly American baristas will just give you the extra shot for free. This has been the case several times in the US, but I don't think I was ever given a free shot this way in Korea.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Bad Influence Books

I think it would be really really funny to write some children's books that espouse horrible values. Stories where the hard-working one gets destroyed by chance while the lazy one prospers - that sort of thing. That would be pretty funny. But not funny enough that I really feel like writing such books. I'm not sure that kind of humor is good for kids anyway.

Equivalents to language

I suspect that, in a way similar to that in which a bunch of things are equivalent to Turing machines, a lot of things will turn out to be equivalent to having human language. Probably consciousness is in there. I'm not formulating this super well, and I think there was another thing that I wanted to include in my speculative set of things, but I think there may be something to this, eventually.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Is Starbucks more expensive in Seoul or LA?

This post is replaced by this one:
Starbucks Double Tall Latte Pricing in Four Markets

Inquiring minds want to know: where is Starbucks more expensive, in Los Angeles, California, or Seoul, South Korea?

My double tall latte rang up at 4,600 won in Korea, I believe. I could get 300 won off when I brought my own mug/tumbler/whatever, and I could get the extra shot free with my Starbucks card (500 won).

In LA, I just paid $3.40 for my double tall latte. That includes the extra shot, which rings up at $0.75 somehow. It's possible to get $0.10 off when you bring your own mug here.

At an exchange rate (current today, 2011.5.31) of 1078 won to the dollar, that means that with no discounts we have:

LA: $3.40
Seoul: $4.27

for a double tall latte, making Seoul's Starbucks considerably more expensive, with no discounts applied. Even with all the discounts, the Seoul price is still $3.52; and the LA price could be as low as $3.30, and just $2.65 with the normal amount of shots.

So the answer is, at least for tall lattes:

Starbucks is cheaper in LA than in Seoul!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Psychopath Test

The Psychopath Test
Jon Ronson (2011)

I found out about this book when I saw the author on The Daily Show. (May 16 2011 show)

The idea of psychopathology is interesting, and I have been particularly interested because it was an idea that the late great Kurt Vonnegut Jr. took pains to inform people on. He recommended his audience at UW-Madison read a book about it. I tried to read that book, but I quit reading it because it was not much fun.

This book is a lot of fun to read. Ronson weaves a personal narrative filled with interesting episodes and characters, and although they are not always absolutely necessary, it does make for a good story.

In the end I suppose the thesis is something like yes, psychopaths are a problem, a nasty nasty problem, but it isn't really a binary, psychopath-or-not-psychopath thing, but a kind of spectrum, although Ronson doesn't quite say this explicitly. Or is it really a binary thing after all, but determining who's who is hard? What if we could test people with fMRI's? Would that make a yes-no determination possible? Hmm. In the end maybe Ronson's tale is too anecdotal to make a full analysis possible.

Could probably say more about this "psychopaths are another species" angle, but it's all tied up with the spectrum/binary thing, and even then hard to get away from the people are people thing. People have a hard time getting away from the people are people thing, which is a good thing about people.

Anyway, interesting. Don't get killed by a psychopath! Or cancer!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Congratulations, nothing has changed.

Congratulations, nothing has changed.
A commencement speech to the Bernard Dailey University Class of 2011.

Congratulations on this day of your graduation. I would be smiling if I were you. Please check, and ensure that you are smiling.

I hope that you have enjoyed your college years. If you have not enjoyed your college years, you are in a kind of trouble. You may end up never enjoy anything, if you keep on going like that. Be careful. Enjoy things.

Some of you are going on to more college years. Graduate school, they call it. I anticipate those years will be good too. I really can't emphasize enough just how much fun school is, for students.

The astute listener, perhaps not going on to graduate school, and likewise the graduate of graduate school a few years hence, will note that all this enthusiasm about your past does not bode particularly well for your future. Well, well...

Do you have to go to college? Is it really necessary, in this modern world of blah blah blah? Well, I know my audience here today, so let's just say yes. Unequivocally yes, yes, yes. Good job.

I've already mentioned the prime reason that you have to go to college, which is that it is just so much darn fun. All the rich people go to college, don't they, and I am convinced a person with that kind of money is unlikely to do anything they really don't want to.

So good work! For the very reasonable price of eighteen thousand, four hundred and seventy-two dollars per term, you have spent four years in an absolutely fantastic amusement park, filled with chemistry labs and libraries and lecture halls and bars.

Some of you have managed to stay even more than four years, getting the same sort of degree that your over-eager peers clawed to in four. Five years! Six years! You are the really smart ones. Kudos.

There is another reason you have to go to college, which is this: Now, whenever anybody asks you where you went to college, you can honestly use the fine name of Bernard Dailey University, instead of mumbling something about independent study and life experiences and other such nonsense. And that answer, which you now have access to, makes you quite a lot more likely to receive the job being offered by that person asking the question, or to later sleep with that person, or both. And that is something. Welcome to the club!

So far I have built you up, telling you how smart you are, getting you smiling. Now here is the lesson for the day.

Did I learn it in college? No. I learned it after I graduated.

I learned it after I graduated, when I went out into the world and I expected to find adults out there.

Here is what I learned: there are no adults out there.


Maybe because I grew up around mostly intelligent, responsible people, I developed a typically childish idea of the world as divided into children and adults.

Some of you, because of the characteristics of your environment, have always known that everybody is a child.


My childish idea went like this: Some children are nasty and stupid and mean. Sure they are, but then they grow up and become adults, who can be relied upon to do the right thing - or at least to be reasonable.

But it doesn't happen. Nothing changes. If you go to work at a company, however big and respectable, do not expect that you will be working with adults. You will be working with children. And some of them will be good, which is nice for you, but some of them will be nasty and stupid and mean.

There is no metamorphosis of the human animal after which adulthood begins. We are surrounded by people that just kept getting older. Look at the person to your left. That person is twenty-two, probably. Can you believe, can you even fathom, that you are standing next to a person who was a twelve-year-old just ten years ago? Now that person can drive a truck!

Or could have, had they not gone and graduated college.

So what is the point? I don't know how I'm supposed to know. I'm just a kid!

As far as I can tell, we'd all be just as well off committing suicide. I've been told that Kool-Aid will do the trick, although I'm not sure how much of it you need to drink.

But also, I have a hard time convincing people of this suicide plan. As you can see, I haven't been able to convince myself.

And this experimental evidence gives me something which we may as well call hope. Nobody gives their child an ugly name on purpose, after all. So I hope you'll keep smiling. Why not? Today you get your official job and sex paper!

Now the sex I'll leave up to you, but as for the job... There are a lot of jobs out there that somebody is going to have to do. You can get money for these jobs. Money!

It's almost immoral not to do one of these essential, money-earning jobs. Irresponsible! There are companies doing important work, and that work has got to be done!

Listen kid. The whole economy will definitely collapse if everybody just follows their dreams. We need bodies at desks, and so on!

Listen kid. Screw everybody. You are not an adult, and you don't have to worry about waking up as one any given morning. There are no adults. I checked. If you follow politics at all then you already know what I'm talking about.

You've heard people tell you to do what you love. This is not new advice. If you try it, the worst that will happen is death, probably. Is that a risk you're willing to take?

Now is as good a time as any.

Congratulations. Nothing has changed.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

IQ vs. motivation vs. activity level

I enjoyed and generally agree with the thesis of this article from big think. It says, basically, that IQ is not as important as people think, because both a) measures of intelligence are biased by participant motivation (even a genius will have a low score if they just don't feel like doing the test, a dumb kid who tries hard will do relatively better than one who doesn't try) and b) with or without high IQ, success depends on motivation.

This seems pretty self-evident to me, but now there's a study and everything. I really wish they wouldn't be jerks and just put the whole report online for free so I could read the whole thing, but they don't. I wonder chiefly how they really went about measuring motivation. Is it something like, "is the kid still trying to work on the test at the end of the time, or does he just finish quickly and put his head down?" I just don't know. They say in the abstract that they had people watching the kids or something.

Next, motivation itself is a pretty abstract thing. I've thought for some time that the more important thing is probably just the overall level of activity that a person maintains naturally. Some people spend weeks on the couch, other people go do things. Some people say they want to write a book but never put pen to paper, others write novels upon novels. (Stephen King? Ridiculous.) And that kind of prolificacy is not necessarily sufficient for genius, but you'll never hear about a lazy genius either. You only hear about them if they DO something.

This is what I think about for myself, a lot. Am I doing something? I should be. I slip into non-productivity too easily. Gotta keep doing. Not ADHD randomness, but purpose-driven effort. Maybe that's my motivation.

Update: Steven Johnson, author of "Where good ideas come from" notes that people famous for their good ideas generally had a lot of hobbies. He recommends having a lot of hobbies because it encourages idea cross-polination, basically. But it's the kind of thing you only do if you're very active.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Computerized Adaptive Teaching?

As I continue to think about how to make the best new teaching thing on the internet, I finally got around to reading up about Computerized Adaptive Testing, famous as used for the GRE. The math used for rating questions and so on is pretty neat. There's a whole thing called Item Response Theory, which is fancier than the chess ranking thing that I was thinking of, after seeing it used in The Social Network. The two are similar, and similar to what I was thinking of, in that they consider questions as ranked in the same way as people, but almost always along just one dimension: goodness-at-chess, or goodness-at-math, or even just "intelligence" or whatever. That seems like the main drawback for adapting such ideas for a more useful automatic evaluation and/or instruction system. A good teacher knows what you're good at and what you need to work at, not just "how smart you are" or some similar unidimensional measure.

And because I was on wiki, I also went and read some about the Likert scale (fancy name for "do you agree? choose 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5). I was scarred for life when somebody mentioned this Likert thing like I should know what it was, and I only knew it as that thing, where you choose 1-5. There's also a whole wiki page just for "rating scale" - for when you need to be particularly scientific about whether she's an 8 or a 9, I guess.