Thursday, May 21, 2009

Discipline, Education, and the Concept of Moral Hazard

The term "moral hazard" has been bandied about lately as a term of economics and the question of whether the government should be "bailing out" failing companies. As an economic term, "moral hazard" means the hazard that comes from insulating an entity form failure and the conseuqences of it. "Running the risk of moral hazard" is the idea that a risk we take in insulating others from failure is that they will never learn from their mistakes and may take as big or bigger risks in the future.

While the term has been used in economics, I think it is high time we apply it to the world of educational psychology. More directly, we educators should remain cognizant that every time we "keep students from failing" by artificially insulating them from the consequences of negative actions, we are ensuring that they do not learn from mistakes. In other words, if the best way to learn from mistakes is to realize that they are mistakes, then interfering with the experience of consequences of mistakes means interfering with the best feedback mechanism one has.

Many times in my career as a teacher have I argued this position and many times, unfortunately, I have lost the argument. In a previous post, I referred to one such incident: me and several other teachers brokered a deal with a senior in danger of failing that if he does x and y, we would see to it that he could pass. Repeatedly, he broke the deal. Repeatedly, the other teachers (without me) rebroekered the deal - all to ensure that he could pass despite having broken the agreement on which his success depended.

Many other times, I have seen the risk of moral hazard come into play when teachers explain rules and cosnequences to students only to, when push came to shove, chafe and allow students to break said rules without undergoing the consequences.

Why do we teachers allow and evene encourage such moral hazards to occur?

I believe that, just as in the current economic situation, it is hard to "hold the line" and enforce consequences when the consequences are severe. It is all well and good to say that companies that are irresponsible shall be allowed to go bankrupt, but it is painful to sit by and watch this happen. Thus, the government ends up caving in and taking the emotionally easy way out by not letting companies go under and people go unemployed.

In the same way, teachers allow such moral hazard becasue, as teachers, we generally do not like to hurt kids. We want to see kids happy, and we do not enjoy seeing kids fail. Unfortunately, we do not often realize that while this is a noble feeling, we often do more harm than good by protecting students form the consequences of their actions, and in the process, interfering with the feedback mechanism of natural consequences. She who places her hand on the stove and gets burned will not do it again. She who places her hand on the stove and is repeatedly saved from such an experience (by having their hand yanked away from the stove, etc) will never, or very slowly, learn that the stove burns. But as no one wishes to see a child get hurt, we protect them and unknowlingly slow down their learning process.

I have learned - and this will sound strange - to find a small (very small) bit of accomplishment in allowing students to fail of their own accord. I see it as a learning opportunity for the student. Of course, I don't actively want students to fail and do not try to make them fail; on the contrary, I want to do everything in my power to see them succeed SHORT OF PROTECTING THEM FROM DESERVED CONSEQUENCES. If this sounds strange, let me illustrate with an example.

One particular student of mine did just about everything wrong in the second and third marking period. He showed up late, talked back, did not do work, disrupted class, etc. I talked with him many times and warned him that he was heading for a failing grade. When his third quarter grade showed up as an "E," he did everyhing he could to try and convince me to change no avail. I explained to him that that was the consequence of his actions and that if he wanted to avoid failing the class, he must improve in quarter four. I would not change his grade or offer him any special benefit of the doubt.

From then on, he has improved greatly. He has been much better in class and is now earning a "B." I tell him as frequently as I can that I am proud of his change in behavior, and when asked what accounts for this new and improved showing, he simply tells me that he knows that acting up will result in a failing grade.

So, there you have it. Fairness means helping children succeed while holding to the rules when they don't. The minute one allows the rules to be overlooked and protecting kids from consequences of their actions, one is running the same "moral hazard" risk the economists talk about: we run the risk of interfering with people's ability to learn from, and correct, their mistakes.

What Does "In X's Interest" Mean?

Jonathan is overweight and considered morbidly obese. He frequents fast food resteraunts for most meals, and ignores doctors repeated warnings that, with every meal, he decreases his chance of living. He keeps eating fast food because it tastes much better than food he would make himself.

Tamara smokes marijuana every day. Despite the fact that it is illegal, she likes to smoke it because it helps her concentrate and relaxes her. She is not familiar with some of marijuana's health risks but obviously knows the legal risks. She continiues to buy and smoke marijuana despite this knowlege.


So are these activities in these two actors interests? Some say that eating fast food and smoking marijuana are in these two's interests because (obviously) these two engage in these activities. Others say that the activities are not in these two's best interests and that engaging in the activities is acting against their true interests.

To me, this difference of opinion resides in the conflict between what we mean by interests. Does 'interests' mean 'what one is interested in' or does it mean 'what is best for you'? If the former, then a case can be made that whatever we do because we like to do it is in our interest. We can make the argument that no one knows their interest better than others.

If, by 'interest' we mean 'what is best for someone,' then it is quite obvious that others can know our interests better than we. After all, it makes perfect sense to see that a child may not know what is best for her while a mother might (especially when the child wants candy while the mother pushes vegetables).

This question undergirds much of political theory. The question generally is not, or should not be, framed in an all or nothing way. Those who take the extremely libertarian (and really, anarchistic) view that only the individual can judge what is best for her will be foreced into many untenable positions (like the idea that 5 year olds should be able to choose to marry, drive, or do heroin, or that manic depressives should never be protected from suicide against their will). Those who take the opposite position - that others can often know what is best for the individual) have no reason to deny that the government knows what is best for us to read, see, or do.

Rather than being a black or white issue, the question generally is this: how can we recognize that there are occasions where y can know what is in x's best interest while also recognizing y's right to make decisions about her own life without x coming to dominate y? In other words, how can we respect y's ability to lead her own life while recognizing that there may be occasions where x may be in a better position than y (a kid, a mentally deluded person, a drug addict) to judge x's interests.

One can say, and many have, that the difference is in deciphering whether x is "thinking straight." But this hopelessly begs the question because, in general, we judge "thinking straight" by the conclusion come to. If one is against pornography, then there is no way that the urge to consume pornography can be seen as "thinking straight." If one is against suicide, then there is no way that a person who wants to commit suicide (however rational they, or their reasons, might be) will be seen as "thinking straight." Thus, "thinking straight' as a criterion is too nebulous and up to personal opinion to be of value.

So is saying that something is in x's best interest if and only if it is justifiable. Justifiable to whom? And what is and is not justifiable depends on who the proposition is being argued to. If it is the anti-pornography judge, then arguments for pornography can never be justifiable (like they would be to one who sees nothing wrong with pornography). Different people see different things as justifiable, and there is no cosmic "justifiability" principle.

So how can we tell whether x is acting in her interest? I think the issue still comes back to what we mean by her interest. I generally take the side that in the absence of evidence that x has sometype of mental deficiency that grossly inhibits her ability to make an objective (or close to) decision, then we lack any ground to say that x is incapable of ascertaining her own interest. (In this case, children, drug addicts, and those suffering from mood or emotional disorders are all considered mentally deficient in this way. Everyone recognizes this of the latter two groups, but children can be seen as mentally deficient in the sense that they lack the intellectual capacity to make fully informed decisions.)

Further, I take the stance that, if a person is seen as mentally deficient based on psychologicl data, we must further ask about the gravity of the decision x is about to make. Unless her decision is one that will have drastic personal consequences of the type she cannot adequately assess, we should let her do as she pleases. Only when what she is about to do has drastic consequences (engage in consumption of a lethal drug, commit suicide, get into an otherwise dangerous and potentially life changing situaiton), should we interfere and prevent her.

Put differently, the two criteria I think should be used in deciding whether x can accurately appraise her interests and whether to intervene are (a) whether the person can justly be seen as mentally incapable of acting objectively or near-objectively; and (b) whether the "interest" in question has potentially disasterous and life-changing cosnequences.

Following this rule would make it so that we can recognize that the child is not capable of deciding to marrry but the adult can. We could see that an adult can decide for herself whether to smoke marijuana but may not be able to judge whether she should continue injecting heroin or cystal meth. We could achieve a libertarian end of "live and let live" without getting to the point of "live and let die."

Saturday, May 16, 2009

On Pathetic Republican Arguments

One of the key principles of rhetoric is to tailor your arguments to your audience. If you are arguing to Muslims, for instance, one should not use logic becuase they do not believe in logic. If one is arguing with democrats, one should do one's best to sound like Karl Marx (they love that stuff!). Etc.

According to this article, there are a handful of republicans with just enough intelligence to employ this strategy - at least they are trying! RNC chairman Michael Steele is trying a new rhetorical poisiton in the gay marriage debate, by arguing that it would hurt small businesses. Here is the quote:
"Now all of a sudden I've got someone who wasn't a spouse before, that I had no responsibility for, who is now getting claimed as a spouse that I now have financial responsibility for," Steele told Republicans at the state convention in traditionally conservative Georgia. "So how do I pay for that? Who pays for that? You just cost me money."

I am not sure that there is a technical name for this fallacy, but the problem with this argument is that it argues againt an effect that is not at all exclusive to the cause being argued against. It would be like arguing against riding on bicycles by suggesting that one could get injured (even though getting injured is not an effect at all exclusive to riding bicycles).

So, let's think about what the REAL implications of Steele's argument against dependents is. If we follow it to its logical conclusions, Steele's argument against forcing employers to pay for dependents could be seen as an argument not only against gay, but straight, marriage, or at very least an argument against having employers pay for ANY dependents (including children).

What is even more horrendous than the fact that Steele thinks he is smart enough to devise an argument is the fact that he is utterly transparent that it is not a sincere argument, but a rhetorical ploy!
Steele said that was just an example of how the party can retool its message to appeal to young voters and minorities without sacrificing core conservative principles. Steele said he used the argument weeks ago while chatting on a flight with a college student who described herself as fiscally conservative but socially liberal on issues like gay marriage.

This brings us full circle, back to the rules of rhetoric. A hidden rule of rhetoric is that while one should always tailor one's arguments to one's audience, one should never disclose that this is what one is doing. Otherwise, one opens onesself up to charges of insincerity and 'ends justifying the means" style of argument.

Steele's suggesting that one can "retool its message to appael to young voters and minorities without sacrificing core conservative principles" will have the likely effect of achieving none of those goals. Arguments for gay marriage (especially those from the young) do not generally focus on economic arguments, but on civil rights arguments (showing that economic arguments will not likely triumph civil rights arguments in their minds). And as for sacrificing core conservative principles, if the principle is (as it always has been to the GOP) that homosexual marriage is immoral, then the principle is sacrificed as soon as one makes the gay marriage argument void of arguments from morality.

(And just for kicks, let me see if I can beat Steele at his own game. Wouldn't his argument against forcing employers to add dependents on to healthcare plans be a GREAT argument IN FAVOR of abortion? After all, the ability to abort potential children certainly would minimize the number of dependents one would claim for insurance purposes, wouldn't it?)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Does This Sound LIke Something From the USSR?

I just read a quite scary (to me) article today about the forced "govermentizing" of banks, in the form of the government buying bank equity shares. The article is called "Paulson gave banks no choice on government stakes: memos" According to the article, the press now has hold of documents outlining Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's talking points to banks telling them that the government will be buying bank shares and informing banks that they have no choice about this fate.

But there was one quote that caught my attention. Am I crazy, or does this sound like something out of the USSR. (Just add a Russian accent, if you'd like.)

"If a capital infusion is not appealing, you should be aware your regulator will require it in any circumstance," the document said, citing Paulson talking points.

It has been a while since I've read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, and I am not really a big fan of Rand, but I can't help but think back to her book and (if I recall it correctly) the government takeover of the railroads.

Scary, scary stuff.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Is "African-American" a Valid Educational Category?: A Pragmatic View

Recently, a sparring match has surfaced between William Seletan and John McWhorter over whether test performance statistics should subcategorize by racial makeup. The hubbub is over a recent NYT article noting that No Child Left Behind is failing to close the black/white achievement gap. The question: why even keep score of such an arbitrary categorization of race?

Seleatan's point is that in the age of genetics, race is hardly the most pertinent or salient category. He writes that McWhorter is relying on an arbitrary categorizing when he:

[is] for airing "findings that shed less than positive light on black people." Not bad parents. Not people with low-performing kids. Black people.

McWhorter suspects that Seletan's motive is simply to put a hush on any statistic that might make black's look bad.

Just as that is antithetical to what getting past race is supposed to mean, we will not pretend that it's okay that black students don't read and do math as well as white kids in order to provide a way for people like William Saletan to demonstrate that they aren't racists.

To be honest, this is a hard discussion to think about and there are good and bad points made on all sides. But my pragmatic inclination is to say that what counts as a valid category is any category that has something pertinent to say (as measured by whether most people believe it does). By this pragmatic light, race is still a valid category (even if it is not a valid genetic category). We still - and especially black intellectuals - talk of black culture as somehow being seperate from white culture.

While my personal sympathies lie with Saletan - I really cannot see how different skin colors are valid educational subgroups) - my social symphaties lie with McWhorter. The very fact that we as a society are so obsessed with the "black/white achievement gap" (that does bear out statistically) means that there is something to subcategorizing educational statistics by racial groupings.

And I further agree with McWhorter that as long as we are talking about the black/white achievement gap, we should be divulging and publicizing statistics reporting on it, even if it makes one group look bad. And as a teacher, I will go even further to suggest that current statistics suggest that blacks DESERVE to look bad right now! Whether race is a valid genetic category, the statistics tell a story of a whole group of people going awry in many areas, such as criminality, educational performance, and single parenthood. I agree with McWhorter that to put rosy dressings on such statistics would do a disservice to the black community, who obviously needs to hear (and get angry at) such statistics.

So, I think it would be unfair for Seletan to win this argument if only for the fact that, in a pragmatic sense, we are a society that DOES see "racial makeup" as a valid social category. As long as we are talking about the "black/white achievement gap," and as long as such a gap is borne out statistically, refusing to break future stats down by race would be the equivalent to posing a question only to censor the answer. And as long as we are concerned with how blacks are performing as an academic group (no matter how loose that grouping is), I think it would be nothing short of pussyfooting not to let them (and others) see their dismal report card.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Guys Behind the Music

Recently, I saw a commercial for without the "band" that has become the company's trademark. This got me to thinking: who are the people that came up with the music for in the first place (a question we very seldom ask ourselves considering how often their products infest our heads)?

Well, here is some info. The songwriter for these jingles is a 36 year old jingle writer named David Muhlenfield - a senior copywriter at the Martin Agency.

But unlike what many would assume, Muhlenfield is NOT the frontman in the commercials. That honor - and if you think of the royalties, it is an honor - belongs to Eric Violette, a classically trained actor/musician from just outside of Montreal, Canada. it is interesting to note that in 2004 (a few years before the commercials began appearing, if memory serves) Violette starred in a French rendition of Hamlet at the Société Supérieure de Théâtre du Dehors. According to his resume, he lists his role in the commercials as the "main character" under his acting credentials, but research indicates that he also sang in the commercials.

Forgive my frivolity!

Maine: Legalizing Gay Marriage the Smart (and Correct) Way

I am overjoyed to find this article detailing that the state of Maine just passed a law legalizing same-sex marriage. And they did it the smart and correct way - which is great for a person like me, who supports gay mariage rights but disagrees strongly with the "legislation by judicial fiat" approach.

Several times I have been asked to participate in signing petitions voicing support for x state's attempt at "legalizing" gay marriage. Each time, I have been caught in a quandary. I strongly feel that states should make marriage laws as diverse as possible, stopping short of sanctioning coercion. (In fact, I question what qualifies the state to decide who we can and can't marry altogether.) At the same time, the libertarian principal I base that on also leads me to a principal in tension with the previous one: that legislation should be legislative and not judicial. Thus, I supported the idea that New York should legalize gay marriage, but was angry as hell at the idea that the judiciary could have the power to override a legislative matter that had NO CONSTITUTIONAL BEARING.

So, I am pleased to see that Maine, following the leads of Vermont and Connecticut, in signing a bill into law legalizing the ability of gays and lesbians to marry. One of the reasons I am pleased about this, in fact, is because when the decision is legislative, critics cannot say - as they often do! - that the bill is unrepresentative of the will of the people. per our democratic republican process, the very fact that these laws were enacted by the congress means that they were conducted properly and, should the people disagree, the people may vote the candidates out of office or petition to those candidates.

And the fact that these laws are enacted properly - by elected representatives - is also to be noted because this trend means that those who live in highly conservative states should not have to worry about the state judges usurping the authority of theiir representatives. In other words, as much as I like the idea of gay marriage being legal, I do not believe that it should be legal in states that do not wish it to be legal. Per the constitution's 10th amendment, the issue of marriage laws is deferred to the states. Until the 10th amendment is undone (or a gay marriage amendment pro- or con-) is added to the constitution, I think it would simply be unconstitutional to force states to legalize (or illegalize) something supported by the representatives.

So, Maine has done the smart thing here. I, for one, am overjoyed. HOpefully other states follow suit. And maybe someday, we will allow gay people to give blood.

On How to Eliminate the Department of Motor Vehicles

My wife and I were recently at the local DMV to get our names changed on our licenses (both of us are hyphenating our names). It never ceases to amaze either of us how inefficient these people are, which got us - libertarians, both - pondering ways to eliminate, or at least minimize, the role of the Department of Motor Vehicles in everyday life.

Here is an idea we had. The Department of Motor Vehicles is responsible for issuing drivers licenses and ensuring that those who get licenses are good enough drivers to be on the road. Of course, we also require every driver to have valid insurance. So, why not consolidate these two facts and let insurance companies be responsible for ensuring that qualifying for their insurance is accompanied by a driving test? I have little doubt in my mind that having insurance companies issue licenses as a condition of gaining access to their insurance would be more efficient and cost-effective than having the state do it.

The issue is really one of who has the more compelling interest in screening drivers - the state or the insurance companies. Yes, the state has an interest in screening drivers because they pay (or force us to pay, rather) for the roads, the EMT services and the emergency rooms that could be aversely affected in the case of accidents. But, insurance companies have an immediate interest in screening drivers, as they stand to lose money should they insure less than careful, or able, drivers.

I think that privatizing licensure in this way would not only make the screening process for drivers more rigorous (and thereby, have a likely effect of cutting down the number of accidents), but be less costly to the general public. If this large role (which the DMV doesn't do all that well to begin with) were handed over to the private companies, the DMV's traffic and, let's hope, necessry expenditures would be cut in about one half.

It could be argued that such measures would result in stricter driving tests which would ultimately mean that fewer people drive. So be it. Insurance companies would not make tests too strict (as they want customers), but would likely not make tests too lax (as they don't want to increase risk of paying out). My guess is that - think colleges here - the best insurance companies will be the most selective because they can afford to be, and the lesser companies may be less selective. Those who decide to make their tests minimal so as to accept as many clients as possible will then have to deal with the larger payouts that will likely result. Companies with tests that are too lax will likely either go out of business or acquire a horrible reputation.

Drivers who can only afford to be with the worst companies can "work their way" to better companies by taking the stricter insurance companies' tests. As stricter insurance companies will likely have lower rates (as they will pay out less and be more selective), once drivers feel like they are good enough to take the tests of "elite" insurance companies, they can try them.

All of this rests ony my general belief that businesses, while not always trustworthy, are often more trustworthy than government. They must work to stay in business (whereas government can always steal more money no matter how inefficient). Voting with dollars is more efficient than voting every 2, 4, or 6 years (and the number of non-elected government positions dwarfs the number of elected ones).

So, tell me. What do you think?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Reverse-Reasoning in the IQ Debate

The debate over the existence, and mutability, of IQ is a tricky debate. I am a follower of the debate and try to keep a very open mind. But as I am not a statistician or a psychometrician, I feel that the best I can do is to read and decide on conclusions made by others. And as I try to keep an open mind, I often feel like my opinion and inclination changes with each new book or article that I read. (I try to remind myself that this open-mindedness may be a good thing in a debate so doctrinaire.)

One thing I can't help but think about, though, is that like so many other debates, this one often seems vulnerable to what I call reverse reasoning: figuring out the conclusion you want to come to and finding a way to get there. In particular, any debate with social ramifications for action are particularly vulnerable to this type of reverse reasoning.

In the case of the IQ debate, concluding that IQ is relatively fixed can be used to justify some sort of passivity on the part of educators and policy makers. Libertarians are likely to like this option because it makes arguments for increased education spending (like Head Start) a bit harder to make. This argument is also likely to appeal to those teachers who are frustrated and exasperated by working with students and being met with little to no demonstrable improvement. (I've been here and I can attest that the frustration felt when working with underachieving kids meet with few real results certainly make this view look a bit more appealing. That way, teachers can take the blame off of themselves and place it onto the students' fixed limitations.) I don't think teachers consciously do this, but often this view of a fixed intelligence will seem more appealing to those frustrated by hitting a ceiling with students.

On the other hand, the view that intelligence is a fluid, rather than fixed, entity is equally vulnerable to reverse reasoning based on where one wants to end up. I find that this view is almost always that chosen by those with strong egalitarian political beliefs, and strong aversions to suggestions that some are better than others "by nature." This is also the view that predominates the education field. My guess is because seeing intelligence as malleable provides a good rationale for the field of education. It is much easier to be an educator when one chooses a view of intelligence that sees education as integral to its development. (This is like the idea that it is much easier to play the lotto if one has a belief that one can win.)

The IQ debate is so frought with emotion that I worry about the prevelance of reverse reasoning in the debate. I worry that many of the people I've talked to have made up their minds more based on what they want to see happen than on what facts suggest. I try my best not to take sides on anything other than the facts of the matter (and the reason i've not really taken sides is because the facts of the matter seem quite open at this point).

Why Don't Students Like School (A review of Willinham's fantastic new book)

A new book by cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham has come out entitled Why Don't Students LIke School? I am generally skeptical of books claiming to take the latest brain/mind research and apply it to education primarily because of the "brain based ways of learning" fad promulgated by motivational speaker Eric Jensen (and preached unquestionably in professional developments). I picked this kone up, though, primarily due to a blurb on the back of the book by education theorist ED Hirsch, who I very strongly admire. Surely, any book Hirsch reccomends is at least worth a shot.

I was right. This book is fabulous in its 'back to basics' approach. Willingham's main point seems to be that the best way to increase a child's ability is repitition, repitition, repitition. By increasing the number of facts a child can recall automatically, one increases the amount of 'free space' a child has available to think. [ex.: (3+4) - (2-1) is a lot easier when one can recall the math facts automatically.]

Anyway, I strongly, strongly reccomend this book to all concerned with education theory. I hope this book gets used within the schools, but suspect that Jensen will be the continued drug of choice, as his theory manages, unlike Willinham's, to confirm all the constructivist impulses that educators have been in love with for the last 20 years.


If you are a teacher, like myself, you have doubtless been inundated by advice about teaching to multiple intelligences, active (rather than passive) learning, teaching students to think rather than memorize facts, etc. If so, then you can't afford to pass up this book, which will provide a very helpful guide as to why some of these well-intentioned ideas are wrong, and what it means for you as a teacher.

Dan Willingham's Why Don't Students Like School? is a book applying findings of cognitive psychology to the world of education. Sound a lot like Eric Jensen and his wildly popular book Teaching With the Brain in Mind? Well, unlike Jensen - who educators hear a lot about - Willingham is a PhD in cognitive psychology (while Jensen, who has a bachelors in English, is "working towards" a PhD from an online university, while making his real living as a motivational speaker). Long and short: Willingham is the real deal and I move to suggest that this book infinitely deserves more popularity amongst educators than anything Jensen has written.

Willingham's basic theme is that, despite everything you've heard, nothing works to increase student ability like factual learning and practice. In fact, one of his first ideas is to point out that what seperates the excellent student (or adult) from those performing less well is their ability to recall facts. The more facts you know about your subject, the more you can understand your subject because of significantly less energy spent on fact recall or retention. With facts learned to automaticity, more time can be spent on higher-order concept learning, and once that becomes automatic....etc.

While that may sound mundane, think of how many times you as a teacher have heard the idea of "rote memorization" and "regurgitation of fact" denegrated. Of course, Willingham is not advocating the strawman position that teachers do nothing but drill, drill, drill and enforce memorization of text passages. (No one actually holds that position!) What he reminds us, though, is that the critical thinking we hear so much about teaching our kids simply CANNOT happen without giving kids the requisite background info that must be employed to think critically. (One cannot critically reflect on whether the revolutionary war was justified without some big factual understanding of Colonial American and Empirial Britian, for example.)

Another big idea in educaiton that Willingham works to dispel is the idea that we all have different learning styles - auditory, visual, kinesthetic, etc. Cognitive science, in fact, has shown the opposite: with minor variation, we all learn very similarly. While I may have a better memory for visual phemonena than you (who may be better at remembering sounds), we remember IDEAS not through the media in which they were delivered, but by...thinking about them. When memorizing words and definitions, we are not being asked to memorize sounds or visuals, but ideas, and the fact that I am an auditory or visual learner does nothing to predict what presentation method will help me memorize the best. (The amount I studied, of course, will.)

I don't want to give the impression that Willingham's book is about bashing education icons and maxims. It is not It is a book for teachers designed to bring up ideas we may not have thought about, and to suggest how to apply these ideas to our classrooms. Each chapter is focused around a question ("Is Drilling Worth It?" "Why is it So Hard for Students to Understand Abstract Ideas?") and gives a detailed, but engaging, answer. At the end of each chapter, the author makes several concrete suggestions for how the answer can shape how we teach as well as reccomendations for further readings.

All in all, this is one of the single best education books I have read, and cannot wait to share it with fellow educators. As mentioned, I sincerely hope that this book becomes as widely devoured as those by Eric Jensen and Howard Gardner. Willingham offers a valuable and very constructive counterpoint, especially to Jensen's "brain based ways of learning."


Anyone looking for more can visit Willingham's website, where there are plenty of good articles and videos.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Show Up, and Get a B - Another way k-12 does not prepare for the real world

I have recently come across an interesting article documenting a sad trend in college students increasing sense of entitlement. According to the article, professors and administrators are noticing an increasing sense amongst students that they are entitled to certain grades, and an increasing aversion to earning, rather than getting, grades.

The article makes some interesting points but I think it misdiagnoses the problem at lesat a little bit. As a k-12 educator, I think that this sense of entitlement in college students comes from the disjunct between the k-12 schools indirect teaching of entitlement and the college's continued emphasis on earning, rather than being entitled to, academic success. Like it or not, k-12 schools ARE leaving kids unprepared for college by getting them used to the idea that all children will be successful and that effort, rather than product, will be rewarded. Unfortunately, the real world doesn't work that way, leaving those students unprepared for the large paradigm shif that will doubtless come their way.

“I tell my classes that if they just do what they are supposed to do and meet the standard requirements, that they will earn a C,” he said. “That is the default grade. They see the default grade as an A.”

Why do the students think this way? As a teacher, I have seen many teachers TELL students that the default grade IS an A, and that one works to maintain, rather than earn, the high marks. I just dealt with a student yesterday who relayed that her teacher told her exactly this (and I have seen countless other teachers do this).

Of course, mathematically, this is quite untrue. The default grade at the beginning of each quarter is a 0%. If the first assignment is worth 100 points, and the student does half of the assignment, the grade becomes a 50% F. If they do the entire assignment, of course, their grade is a 100% A. From there, the grade can change based on the number of points per assignment and the relative weighting of the assignments, but in no way is the default grade ACTUALLY an A (despite what we tell students).

And there is another way in which the "default A" is unworkable. As Charles Murray points out in his book Real Education, "C" measn "average" in education parlance, or at least, it used to! It is a statistical truism that half of kids will be at or below average and half of kids will be at or above average. If our grade books were redesigned to allign with how they should look, student grades would create a bell curve where "C" would be the tip. "A" means "excellent" in education parlance, and as such, we are giving out too many "A's" if we are giving them to stduents who are not excellent in their subject. (My estimate would be about 10-15% should be getting "A's").

I think that it stems from their K-12 experiences,” Professor Brower said. “They have become ultra-efficient in test preparation. And this hyper-efficiency has led them to look for a magic formula to get high scores.”

The first half is right; the second is not. In the county in which I teach, for instance, 60% of the overall grade for a class is made up of classwork, and 25% is made up of tests and quizzes. On top of this, classwork is most often graded for completion, rather than accuracy. (Tests are generally the only thing grade for accuracy.) This literally means that a student can do all classwork without understanding the content, bomb every test and quiz, and still walk away with a "D." If she does all homework in addition to classwork, she would recieve a "C," and if she does all classwork and homework while scoring 50% "F's" on all tests and quizzes (still not understanding much of the material), she would recieve a 85% "B". I see it happen all the time where a student has a "C" in a class but does not know anything but the rudimentary skills for the class. This trend is at its worst when that student gets passed to Spanish II (or Algebra II) without mastering the requisite amount of info from the previous class.

My point: this teaches students that effort is to be rewarded above product. While this sounds like a good idea, the article points out that it is not. In essence, we are sending kids from an institution which, for 12 years, has taught them that effort rather than product is what counts and throwing them into a 4 year institution that operates in precisely the opposite way! In a college spanish class, it is rare that homeworks are graded for anything but accuracy (if they are graded at all), and tests constitute the majoity of the grade. Contrast that with the high school spanish class where student classwork and homework is graded on completion and together constitutes 75% of a stduent's grade.

There is another huge problem with what k-12 institutions' inadvertent inflating of grades and putting primacy on effort rather than product: it leads to students who become easily discouraged when they get bad grades.

“I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade,” Mr. Greenwood said. “What else is there really than the effort that you put in?”

“If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?” he added. “If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.”

What's the point? First, the point is to learn, rather than to earn a grade. (We are not good at teaching this in k-12 either.) Second, it is unrealistic (unless surrounded by k-12 walls) to expect that hard work garauntees a product worthy of a high grade. The real world does not work that way. If two people work just as hard at work and one turns in a better finished product than the other, then the better product will yield higher rewards. In college, one can put in all the work one wants, but if one doesn't understand the subject well enough to pass the test, then one does not deserve to pass the course as if one did understand the subject.

But k-12 works differently. In our zeal towards egalitarianism and a very chimeric belief that all children should have success, we have created a aystem so singley focused on this goal that it is artificially padded. In our desire to see all students experience success, we have made a system that places little emphasis on mastery (an elitist concept, that!) and put it on hard work (which all students are at least capable of). And even then, we treat students who do not work hard as "students with special needs" and offer even more "supports" that do little more than ensure that less effort is required of them (lest they earn an F at something!).

For those who think I am exaggerating this last piece, a previous post the story of a student I work with who simply does not show up to class and does little work. The school, however, has made deal after deal with him that he can pass the year if he does x and y. When he doesn't follow through, they re-instate the deal. When I asked why - why not let him experience the consequences of his actions - the most common response is, "Well, if we do that, he might not graduate, and that would be a shame." In other situations, I have been explicitly told to grade students for effort rather than product, or to use a more relaxed standard when grading certain students.

In the bizarre world of k-12 ed, this makes a certain bit of sense to most teachers. Fairness, we are repeatedly told, means giving everyone a tase of success. But as I hope to have pointed out, this egalitarian model does not fit with what kids will experience after high school either in college or the world of work. I shudder to think at how poorly we are preparing students for the merit-based world they will face after high school, where one is not entitled to grades, praise, or raises, no matter how hard one works, and where what matters is product rather than effort.

The Narcissism Epidemic (book review)

There is a fabulous new book by Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell entitled The Narcissism Epidemic. Twenge's previous book studied the rise in narcissistic values in today's teenagers and twenty-somethings, where this book studies this distrubring trend as applied to all age groups.

While reading this, I could not help thinking about many of my students, from the girl who will not hesitate to talk about how hot she is while insulting other students like its nothing, to the student I work with who has behavioral problems (that many teacehrs erroneously beleive stem from poor self-esteem rather than an inflated ego). I would not only reccomend this book to all concerned citizens, but particularly to educators.


"Narcissism is the fast food of the soul. It tastes great in the short term, has negative, even dire, consequences in the long term, and yet continues to have widespread appeal." (p. 259)

For all intents and purposes, The Narcissism Epidemic is something of a sequel to Jean Twenge's previous book, Generation Me. Wheras that book focused on the younger generation's (and gen y's) increase in narcissistic behavior, this book focuses on the same trend as a nation- and worldwide phenomenon. From our ever-increasing obsession with fawning over the lives of the rich and glamorous (Real Housewives of Orange County, anyone?) to our rampant consumerism, this book tells the tale of a nation in a very strange state of decline. In a sense, we are loving ourselves to death.

The first few chapters start off with the hard numbers. Twenge and Campbell have administered, and chased down, several experimental studies which demonstrate a very clear trend towards a more narcissistic attitude in the population. Young people list "being famous" as an important life goal far more frequently than their predecessors, the rise of platic surgery has increased FIVEFOLD in the past ten years (which COULD be explained by the fact that it has become more affordable, but the increase is so large that this explanation is unlikely to be the MAIN one). More and more newspaper articles and tv shows focus on narcissistic themes than in years past. Infintitely more people, when given the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, yield results consistent with narcissism than in years past. In other words, the rise in narcissism is thoroughly documented here.

From here, our authors talk about everything from whether narcissists tend to suffer from low self-esteem (quite the opposite, as many self-help gurus and educators have yet to figure out), whether narcissism helps one get ahead in life (only if you are a entertainer, it seems), and whether narcissism has its root cause in the well-intentioned self-esteem mmovement of the seventies and eightgies (you betcha!).

As an educator myself, this last point was one of the most fascinating for me. While students today often do not think twice about cheating, disrespecting teacher and peers, or expecting grades without doing the work, we continue to mistakenly believe the problem to be low, rather than way too high, self-esteem. All the while, Twenge and Campell are careful to distance themselves from the view that we should NOT praise our kids or ignore their self-esteem, which is far from what they are saying. They are simply pleading for moderation. Praising a child's virtues is different from overpraising their every move. The authors use the obsesity analogy: just as recognizers of the obesity epidemic do not want us to stop eating, but only eat in moderation, recognizers of the narcissism epidemic are only suggesting that we praise in moderation (while also encouraging hard work) rather than going overboard like we have been.

There are also some timely chapters on how narcissim played a key role in the 2008/2009 recession. While everyone is quick to blame the banks, consumers, and the government, we seem squeamish about criticizing what the three groups had in common: unbounded and irrational greed! Consumers were buying houses and things they did not need so as to satisfy increasing desires to live high on the hog (without having to earn it). Banks focused on quick profits rather than prudent investments in their willingness to dupe consumers into predatory loans. The government just wanted to see everyone own a house (which somehow became a right rather than a privilege to be earned). Twenge and Campbell do a great job in showing that for each group, the culprit was greed, narcissism, and a belief that everyone could have everything without having to (as in years past) exercise hard work and prudence.

But how to stop these trends? Unlike the previous book, Generation Me, the Narcissism Epidemic focuses many of its pages to offering suggestions on how we get out of this dizzying mire of narcissism. Most chapters conclude with a section called "Treatment for the Epidemic" and the last sixth of the book is made up of chapters offering "Prognosis and Treatment." Some suggestions are - or should be! - quite commonsensical: teach your children prudence, work-ethic, and that it is not always about them, regulate the credit industry, teach prudence and humility in school, participate, and encourage others to participate, in social clubs that nurture a sense of community. Some are interesting but quite fantastic: tone down the fevered pitch of product advertising, make "less is more" a new societal catchprase, tax luxury items more heavily (as a libertarian, I am not a great fan of government regulation.)

[One suggestion that Twenge and Campbell infuriatingly left off the list is to let irresponsible spenders feel the full consequences of their action. As it stands now, the government is doing the opposite by penalizing those not in debt by forcing them to "bail out" those who are. Message: narcissists are more important and deserving than the average Joe.]

Whereas I gave Twenge's earlier book a three star review, I am giving this book five stars. Unlike the previous book, this book was more cohesive, well-documented, and contained focus not only on the problem but on possible ways out. As an educator, I urge every parent and educator to read this book so that we can see exactly what the misguided self-esteem movement has led to. As a citizen I urge everyone to read this book to get a sense for the import of narcissistic values and how they threaten to make a great country significantly worse.