Teaching Children: Adjustment to Individual Differences

April 20, 2014

After I blogged about my belief that a good teacher tries to bring out what is inside their students (not just transfer brain contents), a reader named Terri Fites commented:

We homeschool, and I see lots of what you said in my kids.

I asked her to elaborate. She replied:

Here is where I learned the most starting on day one of kindergarten with my first child five years ago; it is my job to identify strengths, weaknesses, and to help the learner achieve the goal using what they can. For example, I was embarrassed and appalled that my first child didn’t read or show any interest in reading to herself until about second grade (7 years old). However, I continued to provide the necessary environment–reading wonderful books aloud, having her read a sentence from our selections, occasionally forcing her to read from her own readers. She had a great verbal understanding and would listen to anything I read aloud to her. Eventually, slowly, she transitioned and has NO issues with reading now. Her strength is verbal understanding and listening comprehension. Her weakness is focus on her own activities and sitting still.

My second child came along and was strong in different ways that I had to discover and appreciate. Her verbal skills, although perfectly normal, are not her strength, but music rises out of her at every moment. Clearly we have to do more than music. Using this strength, I make sure to provide plenty of musical CDs in Spanish for Spanish (which she struggles with–we have had tutors come for years with the intent the girls become fluent). We memorize and recite poetry routinely as part of our lessons, and she “sets” hers to song/music. When we do math facts (addition, subtraction, multiplication flash cards), she does best if she hears them in a sing-song voice. Her strengths are effort, music, rhythm, and art. Her weaknesses are verbal reasoning and remembering verbal types of things (not so prominent in math and geography skills so her spatial and math skills overcome this problem remembering things).

I would say, particularly in elementary school, that although the reading, writing, and arithmetic skills needed should not be optional–the timing of learning them and the method of learning them ought to be fluid to a degree. Everybody should learn to read but we’re losing kids because they’re not developmentally ready until second or third grade for some of these verbal/reading things. By then the bulk of the spelling and phonics rules have been expected to have been learned and the child is probably destined to be a poor speller, decoder, and poor at reading aloud. (This would be my husband. Obviously he was able to overcome this, but his spelling and read aloud are not pleasant. He says he remembers the year when words and reading just started coming together for him. Unfortunately, that was fifth grade. Did he need to learn to read and spell then in fifth grade!? I’d argue NO! But, in this case, recognition of a child/type of child is important. He is very, very logical, and the way that spelling/phonics is taught now/then is NOT so logical. A rule is given here. It is broken here. It is ignored here. No explanation is given. A kid learns long A as a_e here or -ay there, but not all the other combinations that make the long A sound– and certainly not all together in a lesson sequence!!!: ea, ae, ei, eigh, ai, etc. The logical child gives up. There are programs out there like Orton Gillingham, for example, designed to teach the “rules” of English in such a logical manner. Or I design my own curriculum. But this is not an option for most school teachers. Autonomy is being denied.) And now, multiplication is being moved forward in school grades, too. And analytical, thinking math is being moved forward. I think we’ll lose students! Good students! “I’m no good at math.” Geesh. Because you can’t do story problems in second grade? Because you’re still mastering the facts and you’re being pushed into application too early?

Lyme Disease and Bad Medicine

April 19, 2014

I got Cure Unknown: Inside the Lyme Epidemic (2008) by Pamela Weintraub from the library and found something surprising: an angry foreword. Weintraub is a science journalist; the foreword is by Hillary Johnson, another science journalist and apparently a friend of Weintraub’s.

In her anger, Johnson says several things I say on this blog. Read the rest of this entry »

Universities: Expectation versus Reality

April 18, 2014

A recent Ph.D. from Berkeley named Dragan commented here:

Probably the biggest disappointment of my professional life was realizing that Universities are not very much like what I imagined them to be.

I asked him to elaborate. He replied:

My peers dreamed of being in the sports or movies, of being lawyers, of being rich. Those dreams didn’t seem so great to me. Instead I fantasized about being a scholar and later in life climbed up the educational ladder towards a PhD at a leading research university. The closer I came to becoming a professor — my professional goal in life — the more disappointed I became.

I am somewhat embarrassed to remember this, but I used to say things like: “Universities are places where people can devote themselves to a life of study, investigation, and imagination. In exchange for a home like this, we provide society with ideas. And, of course, we teach.” I guess I thought that there should be a home for people who are capable and devoted to intellectual pursuits, a rather naive notion it seems.

I wanted a place where I would be judged primarily by my intellectual and creative ability. Instead I have been made keenly aware of the importance of networking, of doing favors for the right people, of who to cite, whose criticism to acknowledge and whose to ignore. I used to despise such things, now they’re second nature. The irony, that I now know far more about popularity than I did back in high school. One of the first things I learned is that it is imperative to do research that brings money and/or prestige. In other words: popular research. I didn’t know such a thing existed.

What if I don’t want to do popular research? The most common advice I received during my graduate studies: “Wait till you’re tenured to do that,” always said with good intentions.

Only one person told me: “Do what you believe in. Tenure and accolades will come in time.” I liked this advice more. But the professor who gave it was fully tenured before I was born. Perhaps things were different in his time? I suspect they were. Last year, two retired professors, each from a major research university, assured me that they would never get tenure in this day and age. They took years with their research and published few yet original papers. “You have to wait until tenure nowadays,” they said.

This is not what I thought I’d find. Nor did I expect to find that efficiency and money-making are priorities here. I love what I do, or at least what I want to do. If I could afford to, I’d do it for free. I mean that as an academic, money seems relatively unimportant. Yet universities seem to be run by people who aren’t academics and whose primary interest is making money, rather than fostering research. It occurs to me that these two aims may be in conflict.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that academia is altogether bad. I can honestly say it beats unemployment and the handful of low-wage jobs I had as a teenager. And there are days when all the things I just wrote about seem less important and I focus on my research or my teaching. But other times I think, silly me. If only I was smart enough to get rich in the first place, I could have done anything I wanted to — like pursue research that actually interests me.

As a professor (with tenure) at Berkeley, I was fascinated by how mediocre I was. By the usual metrics, I was in the bottom quarter of the distribution. Yet I had made discoveries that I knew were important — for example, a surprising way to lose weight, a really surprising way to improve mood. Although these discoveries impressed me, they did not impress my colleagues.

High-Frequency Trading and Health Care

April 17, 2014

High-frequency trading is a misnomer. It’s actually short-latency trading, a name that makes clearer why it is so unsavory. As Michael Lewis explains in Flash Boys, short-latency traders use a buy order on one exchange to quickly buy that stock on other exchanges before the original buy order reaches the other exchanges. Lewis writes:

The deep problem with the system was a kind of moral inertia. So long as it served the narrow self-interests of everyone inside it, no one on the inside would ever seek to change it, no matter how sinister or corrupt it became — though even to use words like “corrupt” and “sinister” made serious people uncomfortable.

I thought of health care. Our health care system — centered on treating symptoms with drugs you take for the rest of your life — serves the narrow self-interests of those inside it, such as doctors and medical school professors. That is surely one reason its predatory aspect is rarely mentioned.

But I also noticed how poorly Lewis, an excellent writer, describes the problem. “Moral inertia”? No, the problem is not that Person X or Person Y is slow to get outraged. “Corrupt”? No, no one is being paid off to look the other way or vote a certain way or introduce a certain bill. “Sinister”? It’s unclear what that means. Is Lewis just using a fancy synonym for “bad”?

Elsewhere Lewis uses the word predatory, which seems accurate. Short-latency traders preyed on those who sold stock, taking advantage of their ignorance. Of course, no one is forced to buy or sell stock and the loss on one trade is small. But everyone gets sick.



Assorted Links

April 16, 2014

Thanks to Tyler Cowen.

Korean Bakery Opens in Berkeley

April 15, 2014

After I wrote my recent post about Korean innovation, I noticed an example in downtown Berkeley. A few months ago, the Korean bakery Paris Baguette opened a branch in a good location (next to a BART station) that has seen two businesses — two different cafe chains — fail in the last 5 or 6 years. It seemed to be doing well. There were more customers than I’d ever seen with the previous business (Tully’s Coffee). Paris Baguette has about 20 American branches.

Jane Jacobs once called Berkeley a “pretentious suburb” but it is where Peet’s — the original of Starbucks — began and where Chez Panisse is. It had a farmer’s market and an emphasis on organic food long before the rest of America. (A new survey suggests the health benefit of organic food is small or zero.) If you could call a location an “early adopter” Berkeley would qualify, but that would be understating it. Via the Free Speech Movement and the whole notion of student protest, little Berkeley shaped an entire decade (the Sixties). But it seems to have been a long time, like half a century, since anything important started here. The Bay Area, however, remains enormously innovative (Google, Twitter, Intel, and so on).


Mo Ibrahim: My Third Year of Teaching

April 15, 2014

By the start of my third year of teaching, in 2007, half of my New York City Teaching Fellows cohort had quit teaching. Some for health reasons, some due to differences with their school’s administration, and some due to the difficulty of teaching during the day and going to graduate school at night. Teaching poor students, writing fifteen-page papers on pedagogy and compiling lesson plans proved to be too much.

The day before classes began that year, the principal told me that our students needed to earn an economics credit to fulfill graduation requirements. He asked if I wanted to teach the class. I hadn’t taken economics since freshman year of college, but I reluctantly agreed. The principal said he had an economics curriculum in his office and he would return shortly with the material. He didn’t return and never gave me the material. . However, I was able to develop a curriculum on the fly. I had read Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and watched Gopnik’s Lighting Up New York documentary. I got the idea to make a curriculum based on Gopnik’s four theories of New York City crime reduction: Broken Window, Abortion, Child Boom and Korean Immigration. To supplement my curriculum I read Freakonomics and Park’s The Korean American Dream. I didn’t have to teach math anymore, because I was teaching economics, but I was still teaching English. My class focused on reading poetry and short stories and writing short essays.

By that time I had earned my Master’s degree from the City College of New York, and had learned two principles that proved helpful. During an evening class, an African-American female professor, who insisted we call her Doctor, advised us to use the don’t ask, apologize principle to get around policies with school administrators. For example, instead of asking if I could take my English class to read poetry in Central Park, I should take them knowing that I could simply apologize if I were reprimanded by an administrator. She also told us about a research study done by Lisa Delpit, an education researcher, who advised teachers not use please with inner-city male students. According to her study, when students in that demographic hear the word please they feel they have a choice. For example, a teacher should say, “Go back to your seat,” instead of “Go back to your seat, please.” In my experience, she was right. The command without please worked better.

I can’t recall using any other teaching techniques that I was exposed to during graduate school. There should have been more instruction on how to motivate students to study and how to get parents to make their children do their homework. Talking to my students, I learned that, when they get home, most of my female students took naps and most of my male students played video games. Very few of them did any homework, read or studied.

I didn’t give any homework or quizzes in my English class, which had about 20 students, because most of my students didn’t do any schoolwork at home. I had my English students do all of their writing assignments during class time. I didn’t give any homework in the economics classes as well, which had about 30 students, but I had felt compelled to give quizzes to assess how well the students understood my lessons. I knew that the majority of my students weren’t going to study at home, but I hoped that I had explained the material well enough that they would be able to do well on quizzes. I initially did a quiz review the day before the quiz, but that didn’t seem to help the dismal passing rates. I tried doing the quiz review immediately before the quiz, but that didn’t help. I eventually moved to telling my students exactly what was going to be on the quiz, but surprisingly even that didn’t help. When students don’t understand a lesson or do well academically, teachers are supposed to take responsibility, but that’s very difficult to do when most of the students are very apathetic.

Pregnancy Gingivitis: Failure to Look for the Cause

April 14, 2014

A few days ago, I learned from a Crest ad that a large fraction of pregnant women, such as half, suffer from gingivitis (inflamed gums). It’s called pregnancy gingivitis. The ad recommended better dental hygiene, such as brushing your teeth more.

Thirty years from now will people think how could they [meaning us] have been that stupid? Faced with pregnancy gingivitis, they brushed their teeth more? Pregnancy gingivitis is supposedly due to “hormones” that increase during pregnancy. In other words, a health expert actually thinks — or claims to think — that pregnancy gingivitis has a different explanation than other gingivitis. Yet he doesn’t know what causes other gingivitis. For example, here is what Mayo Clinic experts say causes gingivitis. This makes no sense. But it is worse than most nonsense, since fetal health is at stake.

Several years ago, I greatly increased my flaxseed intake because I discovered it improved my balance. My gums suddenly went from red (inflamed) to pink (not inflamed), no doubt because flaxseed has lots of omega-3, which is anti-inflammatory. Gingivitis is — usually? always? — caused by too little omega-3.

My theory: pregnancy gingivitis happens because pregnant women need more omega-3 than usual. A growing brain needs lots of omega-3.  If this theory turns out to be true, the gums of pregnant women should be monitored to make sure they are getting enough omega-3. Nowadays pregnant women are given omega-3 to take but there is no test to make sure it is enough. That pregnancy gingivitis is common suggests it often isn’t enough. Actually, everyone’s gums should be checked to make sure they are getting enough omega-3.

Burnt Sugar Grapefruit: Give Thanks for South Korea

April 13, 2014

A Marginal Revolution commenter wrote:

South Korea being prosperous has had no benefit to me, yet I have borne the cost.

I say: Wait ten years. No country combines innovation and quality like South Korea. Samsung illustrates quality but the innovation is less clear. Here are examples. Read the rest of this entry »

Hobby versus Job: Casa Pepe Guest House, Seoul

April 10, 2014

Yesterday I was in Seoul, at Casa Pepe Guest House. Sensationally good at a very low price. It really is a guest house — attached to a house — with a separate entrance. There are four rooms, with shared kitchen and bathroom. The owner is an renowned chef. The first evening he brought salad and wine from his (Japanese) restaurant. The first morning, he invited me to come with him to buy fish at the Seoul fish market. Every morning, he made breakfast — something different each time.

I found it through hotels.com. On their map, it was off by itself. I thought that meant bad location, but the opposite was true. It is the sort of good location you cannot normally get. It is near the Blue House (Korea’s White House) and many foreign embassies and is very safe. Dozens of interesting restaurants and cafes are nearby. (Even more than the rest of Seoul.) The neighborhood is the Beverly Hills of Korea, with better (and cheaper) restaurants and less pretentious architecture. Casa Pepe started about a year ago, with a remodelling. Everything is new and clean. The floor is heated. The building is up a steep path and has a nice view of streets, hills and houses. Free laundry. All for less than $50/day.

During my stay I briefly overlapped with a Tsinghua student (how could that possibly happen?) but otherwise I was the only person.

Why is it so nice? The owner said, “It’s my hobby.” I think that explains it.

I’ve said that doing a job and doing science are fundamentally incompatible. Any job requires steady and repeated output. You do the same thing over and over. The goal of science is discovery — and a discovery is inherently unpredictable and unrepeatable. (Art is a job with science-like elements — and artists were the first scientists.) Casa Pepe Guest House illustrates another side of the job/science conflict: A job is inherently conformist. You give people, especially customers and your boss, what they expect. Science is inherently nonconformist. The more a discovery challenges “what everyone knows”, the better. Hobbies make this point because they can vary more than jobs. If you make tables as a hobby, for example, your tables can vary more than if you make tables for a living. Casa Pepe is way outside (better) what one expects from a rented room.

Another way Casa Pepe is unusual is that it is very hard to find, even if you study the directions. I found it by knocking on a neighbor’s door. The neighbor called Casa Pepe. Someone from Casa Pepe came to meet the neighbor and me on the street — it was too hard to tell the neighbor where it was. Here are better directions. From Incheon Airport, take airport bus 6112 to the Hangsun University stop. Go to Exit 6 of the nearby subway station (Hangsun University Station on Line 4). Walk up the street (Seongbuk-ro) indicated by Exit 6 — toward the hills. After walking about 13 minutes, where the road veers right, you will see a sign that says Seongbuk-ro 19-gil (gil = side street), which points almost exactly to a steep concrete path on the left perpendicular to the street. It is the width of a driveway. Go up about 40 meters. Casa Pepe is on the right — a white house with a red door, with a sign that says “casa pepe”. Don’t be misled by the fact that the listed address is not on Seongbuk-ro 19-gil.

Assorted Links

April 9, 2014
  • how to self-experiment with resistant starch. See comments.
  • A list of health benefits of honey says nothing about sleep
  • Someone says “I told you so” about the demise of Better Place, the Israeli car-battery-swap company. Better Place raised an insane amount of money, something like $1 billion.
  • Behind the New York Times series on health care costs. “The social media team analyzed the remarks and discovered that there were deep frustrations about the cost of inhalers and medications for asthma, the most common chronic condition affecting people of all ages.” There should be deep frustration that anyone still has asthma. The notion that figuring out what causes asthma is possible — and will cost about a million times less than continuing to buy inhalers and medicine — has not occurred to enough people.

Thanks to Tuck.

Assorted Links

April 8, 2014

Thanks to Casey Manion, Phil Alexander, Viorel Tulica, Melody McLaren, Christian Pekeler, Donna Warnock and Tom Passin.

What is Teaching?

April 6, 2014

Russ Roberts says:

Great teaching is more than passing on information. For that you can read a book or watch a video. A great teacher provokes and takes you on a journey of understanding. That requires grappling with the material and making it your own. Usually that means applying your knowledge to a problem you haven’t see before. At least that’s often the case in economics. I think Doug Lemov said it in his EconTalk episode — you haven’t taught it until they’ve learned it and learning is more than just hearing the facts or the answer to a problem.

This was the view I heard at UC Berkeley among faculty — when they weren’t complaining about teaching.

I disagree with this. The best teachers bring out what is inside their students. They provide the right environment so what is inside each student is expressed. How to do this will be different for each student, so you have to learn about them — not just generally, you have to learn about each one. (Or at least you have to grasp their diversity and allow for it.)

Learning is natural. Every student, in my experience, wants to learn something. What makes the situation much more difficult, is the false assumption that every student wants to learn the same thing or can be cajoled into learning the same thing. One of my Berkeley students said that in high school he had had a “great teacher” of philosophy, much like the teachers that Roberts praises. He had made philosophy so interesting that my student had originally majored in it. That had been a mistake, said my student.

I believe human nature has been shaped in many ways to make our economy work. Human economies center on trading. You make X, I make Y, we trade. If everyone made X, that would be bad economics. So we have been shaped to want to go in different occupational directions — you want to be an Xer, I want to be a Yer. This is deep inside us and impossible to change. When healthy students have trouble learning, I think the underlying problem is their teacher wants them to be an Xer (like the teacher) — but they want to be something else. A great teacher finds that something else.

Even the term great teacher is misleading, because it seems to imply that being a great teacher (= every student learns a lot) is difficult. I have found it’s easy, just as swimming with the current is easy. It requires a certain psychological ingenuity to fit this way of teaching into a system that doesn’t understand it. But after I figured out how to do it, it was so much easier than teaching the traditional way. I used to try to make all my students learn the same thing. That was really tiring — like swimming against the current. After class I’d be exhausted. Now I feel fine after class.

Bedtime Honey and Motivation

April 5, 2014

A friend writes:

The honey has been the biggest improvement in my life in several years. It’s not just the energy, I think I’m more motivated to do things.

I started the honey with 1 tablespoon, but like others who commented, I had some trouble getting to sleep, so I reduced the dose to about 2 teaspoons. I take the honey about 15 minutes before bedtime, and I have not missed a dose since starting.

The first morning after the honey I felt much more alert and rested. I had no trouble getting out of bed even on 5 hours sleep at around 6:30 – 7:00 AM PDT.

The motivation that has come since starting the honey doesn’t feel primarily psychological. It doesn’t wax and wane or change in response to events. It feels raw (no pun intended), more like a drive.

The motivation improvement (that might be due to honey) seemed to begin a few weeks after I started it. The main aspect of the motivation is that I feel impelled to do things. This feeling lasts all day. It’s not a manic feeling, because I still have priorities, and I can bail out of a task if I’m not making progress.

I noticed a similar change. After I started the bedtime honey, it became easier to do everything. Not a big change, but noticeable. When it started is hard to say.

Assorted Links

April 4, 2014

Thanks to Tucker Max and Barnaby Kerbel.

Journal of Personal Science: Molybdenum and Avoiding Sulfur Helped My IBS

April 3, 2014

by August Hurtel

I live in Shreveport, Louisiana and work in the interlibrary loans department at Shreve Memorial library. I am 39 years old.

I believe, due to experiences I will expand upon below, that excess sulfur compounds, especially sulfites, may contribute to and even cause irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). If you have IBS, you can try to verify this in a few ways.

1) Try molybdenum. I take Carlson Lab’s Moly-B 500 mcg tablets (one tablet/day).

2) Avoid foods and supplements high in sulfur.

3) If you have already purchased the services of 23&me or want to, you can look at this thread in the forums — “Reactions to food containing sulfites, sulfur dioxide, bisulfite, metabisulfite. SUOX gene” — and see if you have the same polymorphisms, though if you just do the first two, you’ll be able to guess. Read the rest of this entry »

Assorted Links

April 2, 2014

The Trouble with Critics of Science, Such as John Ioannidis

April 1, 2014

I haven’t been interested in the work of John Ioannidis because it seems unrelated to discovery. Ioannidis says too many papers are “wrong”. I don’t know how the fraction of “wrong” papers is related to the rate of discovery. For example, what percentage of “wrong” papers produces the most discovery? Ioannidis doesn’t seem to think about this. Yet that is the goal of science — better understanding. Not “right” papers. Read the rest of this entry »

Questions for Jeffrey Sachs

March 31, 2014

On Econtalk, Russ Roberts recently interviewed Jeffrey Sachs, author of The End of Poverty and head of the Millennium Village Project (MVP). I enjoyed it but thought Roberts was too easy on Sachs. Here’s what I wished he had asked:

Your book, The End of Poverty — did you get anything wrong?

What mistakes have you made with MVP?

You say Nina Munk [author of The Idealist] chose a non-representative village. [Sachs said that Munk spent her time in the only village in "a war zone."] Did you tell her that? If not, why not?

Munk was on your side when she began reporting, but changed her mind. Why is that?

Why was the project set up in such a way that evaluation is difficult? Why not pick ten villages and randomly select five for treatment?

You say the MVP project is successful because people are copying it — but those people are government officials. Is it plausible they are copying it because they see it as a good way to make money for themselves or improve their career? You must know many worthless medical treatments have been widely copied. Is this your best evidence of success?

No doubt your employees have often told you what you wanted to hear rather than the truth. What’s an example? What have you done to get honest assessments of how things are going?

What did you learn from Nina Munk’s book?

Roberts says he didn’t ask Sachs certain questions because there wasn’t enough time.

More Cereal Fiber, Much Less Heart Disease

March 30, 2014

In Vitamin D and Cholesterol: The Importance of the Sun (2009) by David Grimes, an excellent book, I came across a 1977 study of healthy middle-aged men. The researchers measured their diet and watched them from 1966 to 1976. The question: What diets were associated with better health? There turned out to be associations with cholesterol (lower better) and systolic blood pressure (lower better), but these were less interesting than two strong dietary associations. One was between energy intake and heart disease. Men in the lowest third of energy intake had 23 cases of heart disease; men in the highest third had 7 cases. That’s probably due to exercise: the more you exercise the more you eat. We already know exercise is good.

The other association was with cereal fiber. Men in the lowest third of consumption (2-7 g/day) had 25 cases of heart disease; men in the highest third (8-34 g/day) had 5 cases. (A Wasa cracker has about 2 g cereal fiber.) You might dismiss this as healthy-person bias: healthy people do many healthy things, such as eat fiber. However, there was no association of heart disease and fiber from fruit and nuts. They’re healthy too. “The advantage of a diet high in cereal fibre cannot be explained [by us],” said the authors.

Later studies have found the same thing. For example, a 2006 review reached a similar conclusion: “There is an increasing body of evidence, including that from prospective population studies and epidemiological observational studies, suggesting a strong inverse relationship between increased consumption of wholegrain foods and reduced risk of CVD.” A study of health-conscious people — to reduce healthy-person bias — found a similar association: “Persons who habitually ate wholemeal bread had a lower mortality from cerebrovascular disease.” A 2002 review and a 2013 review provide even more evidence for the association.

Shant Mesrobian has emphasized the importance of fiber for health. Whereas paleo gurus usually say grains are bad. Here, for example, are “10 reasons to avoid grains”.