Archive for the 'education' Category

Assorted Links

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014

Thanks to Tyler Cowen.

Mo Ibrahim: My Third Year of Teaching

Tuesday, April 15th, 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.

What is Teaching?

Sunday, April 6th, 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.

Teaching Histology: Lessons for Other Teaching?

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

Edward Edmonds is an histologist at the Albany Stratton VA Medical Center, Albany, New York. He has been an histologist since 2002. Previously he worked at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Landstuhl, Germany, the Ehrling Bergquist Hospital Offutt AFB, Nebraska, and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (now Joint Pathology Center), Washington D.C.

Recently he left an interesting comment on this blog: (more…)

Treat Everyone As Smart, Capable and Motivated?

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

A Vancouver drug center has started an unusual program: alcoholics bottle homemade beer.

The Drug Users Resource Centre, the Downtown Eastside non-profit famous for housing Canada’s first crack pipe vending machine, is also behind what may well be North America’s first program teaching severe alcoholics how to brew their own beer and wine.

Now the alcoholics just do bottling but the people behind the program intend to expand it to include other parts of the beer-making process, such as fermentation.

What’s interesting is that they are not treating severe alcoholics as passive or disabled — as recipients of treatment. At least not entirely.

This program reminds me of several things. Geel, a town in Belgium, treats people with mental illness as valued caregivers. Zeynep Ton says low-level retail employees should be treated as people who can learn many jobs, give good advice to both customers and management, make good use of free time, and so on. I treat my students as people who want to learn — who do not need to be scared into learning by threat of a bad grade — and are capable of inventing their own assignments.

Is there a general lesson to be drawn from these examples? (All are complicated, in spite of brief descriptions.) Could it be a good idea — as a default — to treat those you deal with as smart, capable and motivated? It is no great leap to treat alcoholics as motivated to make beer but it is a slight leap to treat them as capable of making beer. Is the next step is to treat them as smart?

What if doctors, before they saw a patient, told them: Please search the Internet for possible remedies. Bring a list of the ones you want to consider to our meeting. Is that crazy? The slightly subtle point is this may make the doctor happier.







Defenders of the Indefensible: Jim Dean, University of North Carolina

Saturday, March 8th, 2014

Starting in 2011, Carolyn Willingham, a tutor at the University of North Carolina, complained to the press about fake classes for athletes. In place of an education, she said, athletes, some of whom could barely read, were encouraged to take fake classes, such as classes that never met.

Jim Dean, executive vice chancellor and provost, responded to her charges like this:

Dean asked Willingham to provide raw test data supporting her analysis. She declined, explaining that she’d obtained the confidential information by promising the university’s Institutional Review Board not to share it with anyone. She told Dean he could obtain the data directly from the athletic department, which gathered it in the first place. He declined to do as she suggested. “If she had the proof,” Dean says, “why wouldn’t she share the proof?”

Later Dean handled Willingham’s charges like this:

Dean said of Willingham: “She’s said our students can’t read, our athletes can’t read, and that’s a lie.”

In fact, Willingham had said

18 out of the 183 special admit athletes whose records she assessed read at roughly a third-grade level. An additional 110 of the athletes, she said, read at between fourth- and eighth-grade levels. She never said that most, let alone all, of the 800 athletes at UNC are illiterate, and she said nothing at all about the other 18,000 undergraduates.

When challenged, Dean conceded he’d misspoken.

Even the reporter, apparently, finds Dean’s defense repugnant. An important detail is that Willingham, who is wealthy, did not need the job. She was free to say whatever she wanted.

Assorted Links

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

Cheating at Caltech

Monday, February 17th, 2014

Caltech has a serious problem with undergraduates cheating on academic work, which Caltech administrators appear to be ignoring. A few years ago, one alumnus considered the problem so bad that he urged other alumni to stop donating. I attended Tech (that’s what we called it) for a year and a half in the 1970s. I didn’t think cheating was a problem then. Now it is. (more…)

“Night and Day”: Steve Hansen on Teaching

Saturday, February 8th, 2014

At a recent dinner, Steve Hansen, a friend of mine, said the difference between his current teaching and earlier teaching is “night and day,” partly due to this blog. I asked him to elaborate.

ROBERTS What is your teaching situation?

HANSEN I’ve been teaching at Peking University [in Beijing] in the Guanghua MBA program for the last two years. I teach courses in innovation (big company Clayton Christensen sort of stuff), entrepreneurship, and social responsibility/social enterprise. The classes usually consist of 30-50 students from all over the world. (more…)

Berkeley Undergraduates and Professors: Then and Now

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Stephen Hsu mentioned the documentary At Berkeley. In response, someone who had graduated from Berkeley long ago and recently returned commented:

One thing hasn’t changed much though, most professors still hate, and with studied contempt, having anything to do with undergraduates.

My mom was an undergraduate at Berkeley. I asked her what she thought of this comment. She didn’t agree, but she didn’t exactly disagree: (more…)

Assorted Links

Monday, January 13th, 2014

Thanks to Edward Edmonds and Bert Sutherland.

Assorted Links

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014
  • Girl brain-dead after tonsillectomy. No doubt her parents were not told (a) your tonsils are part of your immune system, an essential part of your body, and (b) tonsil removal is associated with a 50% higher death rate. As I said here, an “evidence-based” evaluation of whether tonsillectomies are good or bad failed to mention both of these things, along with a ton of other negative evidence.
  • Reverse graffiti. I think of this blog as reverse graffiti.
  • Interview with Peter Higgs. “Believes no university would employ him in today’s academic system because he would not be considered “productive” enough.”
  • UC Berkeley Psychology Department fires staff employee (in his 24th year), apparently for union activities. “Francis Katsuura created a Cal Agenda account to track all time that Paul Haller attended bargaining [sessions]. No other department has created such an account.”

Thanks to Matt Cassell.

Lessons of This Blog (1st of 2)

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

Kirsten Marcum told me she had “put a number of [my] findings to use in [her] own life.” I asked how. She replied:

I’ve put a few of your specific recommendations to work (SLD, standing on one leg each day, omega-3s, more animal fat/pork fat, butter tea, fermented foods)…but in thinking about this, I realized I’ve gotten even more use out of general principles I’ve drawn from your blog over the years: (more…)

Assorted Links

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

Mo Ibrahim: My First Semester

Saturday, November 30th, 2013

Mo Ibrahim, a friend of mine, teaches high school in New York with hard-to-teach students. He and I want to find out if my ideas about teaching can help him. His blog posts here are the story of that.

I moved to New York in the summer of 2004 to start the Teaching Fellows summer training program at City College of New York. My wife and kids stayed in Chicago until I could find an apartment.

I found an apartment through a Teaching Fellows message board. It was in a nice section of The Bronx, but I only had three months before I had to find another apartment. I spent the first two months taking Master’s degree classes at City College and studying for two teacher certification exams — a general exam that all aspiring teachers took and a specialized one for students who majored in special education. There was a lot of pressure to pass the exams, because if you failed you would be expelled from the program.

By the end of the summer, I had passed both exams, gotten a provisional certification to teach, and gotten a job teaching at a high school near Columbus Circle that served underprivileged students. Most of the students were poor and performed far below grade level in reading and math. But I didn’t have a place to live anymore, because my lease was up and the landlord refused to renew it. I applied for a number of apartments all over New York City, but all of my applications were denied. Once I called to make an appointment to visit an apartment and the owner asked me to come over immediately, but when he saw me he said the apartment was no longer available. On another occasion, I was told that the apartment was no longer available after I faxed over a copy of my driver’s license. I assumed all this was because I was black but an elderly Jewish lady said it was due to my Islamic name. So I moved into a hostel in the East Village. By September, I was teaching full time during the day and taking classes at City College at night. Due to the hostel’s two-week limit, I moved to a different hostel in Manhattan every two weeks.

A couple of things struck me when I starting teaching. One was the New York slang. I found myself frequently asking students to translate words and phrases they used. For example, “Yo, it’s mad brick in this class!” meant “It’s very cold in this class!” I was also struck by their apathy. Most of the students appeared to care little about completing class assignments, turning in homework, and studying for quizzes and exams. I would say, “Why didn’t you do your homework?” They would respond, “What’s the big deal? It’s just homework.” Their measure of success was “Did I pass?” Not all of them were like this, but most of them were.

The first subject I was assigned to teach was 11th and 12th grade math — the two grades were mixed in one class. I had diligently reviewed my high school and college math over the summer, so I was confident I knew the subject. I was assigned to co-teach this class with a veteran teacher. By then he’d been teaching at least fourteen years.

I had gone to a professional development workshop for co-teachers. It had taught seven different co-teaching methods. For example, one was “you teach one day, I teach the next day” or “you teach the first half, I teach the second half”. Different ways of sharing the teaching. In fact, not only did I not teach a single lesson, but I was relegated to the back of the classroom. My co-teacher was really nice otherwise, but he would not let me teach the class. I don’t really know why. When the students were allotted time to work on math problems I would rush to the special education students (students with a learning disability or who were emotionally disturbed, e.g., anger management problems) to give them one-on-one help, but they were usually resistant. They stared at me blankly, or asked off-topic questions like, “Did you see the Yankees game last night?”

Occasionally, students, including non-special education students, would ask me for help. But often in the middle of my explanation the whole-class discussion would resume, and I would have to stop teaching, because my co-teacher asked me not to talk to students while he was teaching. That was my role during my first semester of teaching. I wasn’t despondent, though, because I considered it a blessing in disguise. Since my co-teacher kept me from teaching, I didn’t have to prepare any lessons. He didn’t even allow me to grade any papers, which was a good thing since I was in night school and still living in hostels.

Things changed drastically after the first semester. A veteran English teacher took an emergency leave of absence and I was given her English classes. My math co-teacher asked that all the poor performing special education students be given their own class to be taught by me. A young and friendly English teacher lent me her English curriculum and I developed a modified math curriculum based on the class where I sat in the back. And I was finally able to leave the hostels. I moved into a shared apartment in Brownsville, Brooklyn, the neighborhood where Mike Tyson grew up. It took an hour and twenty minutes on the subway to get to work. During my first commute to work, I overheard someone say: “Did you know Brownsville’s the worst neighborhood in New York?” I hadn’t known that.

Assorted Links

Thursday, November 28th, 2013

Thanks to Casey Manion and Richard Sprague.

Assorted Links

Monday, November 18th, 2013
  • The promise of Bitcoin (the platform). “Bitcoin encapsulates four fundamental technologies . . . “
  • Bacteria and our behavior
  • Alternate-day fasting by normal-weight subjects.  ”These findings suggest that ADF is effective for weight loss and cardio-protection in normal weight and overweight adults.” The experiment lasted 12 weeks.
  • Small interesting psychology experiments. “Whenever I go to a conference, I hate to wear those silly stickers that say “HELLO!  MY NAME IS.” I just write “SATAN” in the blank space.”
  • Pomona College dean of students sneers at a more reality-based college. She said: “Discovery, empathy, adaptability is goal of broad-based education, prepares students for life, learning & jobs known & unknown.” As the author, John Tierney, says, “What makes some people at liberal-arts colleges so dismissive of, and condescending toward, institutions that actually train people for careers?” I encountered a similar attitude at Berkeley. At a faculty meeting, I praised someone’s research. Another professor complained that the research was “applied”.

Thanks to Donna Warnock.

How to Write a Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

At Tsinghua this semester I am teaching academic writing. Almost all the students are seniors and almost all of them are applying to graduate school, so I spent several weeks on how to write a personal statement. Each student wrote a draft. I read each draft and made suggestions in one-on-one meetings. The students wrote down my suggestion, and these summaries were compiled into the following guide. (more…)

How to Write (and Teach): Tell a Story

Monday, November 11th, 2013

A Lifehacker post by Leo Widrich said you should tell a story instead of giving a Powerpoint presentation with bullet points. Widrich did not make his point using stories. He made the written equivalent of a Powerpoint presentation. He wasn’t trying to be funny — at least, not that I could tell.

This semester I’m teaching a class on Academic Writing. Yesterday’s class marked the switch from personal statements to other sorts of writing. I decided to mark the transition with a lecture. I had just one piece of advice for my students: tell a story. For fun, and to avoid the oddity of Widrich’s presentation, I decided to make my point two ways: without and with stories. (more…)

Assorted Links

Thursday, November 7th, 2013
  • Genetics less important than claimed…again and again. The article’s html name says “human genetics successes and failures” but the article is almost all about failure.
  • Why I left (tenured) academia. “We shouldn’t expect [a college president] whose experience is in leading gigantic, dominant corporations to create an environment that rewards original, interdisciplinary, potentially disruptive research. Their previous success (such as it is) is from operating in an inherently conservative environment, running an organization that thrives in the status quo.” It isn’t just the college president. That such people are chosen as college presidents shows how little people at the top understand or value innovation.
  • Monitor Me. BBC TV show about high-tech self-monitoring. My self-monitoring is mostly low-tech, except for brain tests done with a laptop. My experience is that I needed to do everything right — good understanding of previous research, good experimental design, good measurement, good data analysis — to make progress. A talk by Larry Smarr, one of the people in the BBC show, supports this. Smarr has colon inflammation. His design, measurement and data analysis are excellent. However, he chose to test treatments (antibiotics, steroids) known to be poor. They didn’t solve the problem. It would have been wiser to try to figure what in the environment might be causing the problem. It certainly wasn’t not eating enough antibiotics.
  • Fecal self-banking

Thanks to Linda Stein.