China’s Wealthy Parents Are Fed Up With State-Run Education

Monday, February 16th, 2015

China’s wealthy parents are fed up with state-run education and are turning to “progressive” Western alternatives, like Montessori, Waldorf, and unschooling:

Parents hope to spare their children the dull, stressful grind of the state education system by finding them something more laid-back that affords greater freedom for intellectual exploration. Some, like Zhang, have established private academies featuring curricula inspired by ancient Chinese philosophies from Confucianism to Daoism; others have opted for home schooling. With some schools costing up to $8,000 a year, more than three times the average annual income of a Chinese household, alternative education is an option only for a wealthy minority. It has thrived on the growing desire to drop out among those Chinese best positioned to lean in.

[...]

Many of the well-connected and affluent parents who have opted to remove their children from the Chinese state education system have themselves often emerged as winners from that system. That means they understand its drawbacks and perils better than most. Nicholas Chang, a former IBM sales manager, attributes his decision to quit his job and home-school his 8-year-old son, Felix, to his personal experience with Chinese schools. Bespectacled and with a youthful smile, not to mention an engineering Ph.D. from prestigious Tsinghua University, Chang exudes the self-assurance of a scholar. But he remembers his time in the classroom as one of ennui and confusion. “I never understand what the purpose of school was,” said Chang, who easily mastered its required routines but felt little interest in learning. “I spent most of my time wondering what one gains from the practice, and what should be the meaning of a true education.”

Chang is seeking the answer by experimenting with his son’s schooling. Chang had enrolled his son in a top-ranked public elementary school, but it was rigid and monotonous; Chang then tried a swanky private academy, but found it too conscious of status and wealth. “The primary role of education is to produce workers and consumers,” Chang said of these schools. “It is a factory.”

Drawn to the philosophy behind the “unschooling movement,” which grants children full autonomy in deciding what to learn in an environment free from institutional constraints, usually at home or within their local community, Chang is testing the method by degrees. His son, Felix, spends his morning memorizing German vocabulary and practicing guitar chords. (“Rote learning is still a crucial skill,” Chang reiterated). In the afternoon, Felix roams the spacious apartment, thumbing through books such as the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and the popular Chinese classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Young foreign expats stop by now and then to provide private lessons in piano, drums, and playwriting.

Chang says he plans to expand the experiment. He named his project Armada Education, embodying his conviction that learning should resemble a joint voyage between the adults, who are the proverbial aircraft carriers, and the children, who are the boats. “They are free to explore,” he explained, “but we are there if they need to come back for fuel.” Asked if he believes his method could be widely adopted in China, Chang strikes a more ambivalent tone. “I believe the way to cultivate a general is not the same as that to train a soldier,” he said. “A true general definitely does not walk such a conventional path. It requires a different set of skills.”

Chang’s view echoes the traditional belief of elite Chinese scholar-officials that education is a vehicle for self-cultivation. In the past century, as China came into increasing contact with the West, this belief often found expression through an admiration for progressive Western ideologies. A few days before the 1919 protests that sparked the May Fourth Movement, the famous American educator and philosopher John Dewey had arrived in China to promote his theory. Among the intellectuals intrigued by Dewey was a young Mao Zedong, a fresh graduate from a local teachers college and Dewey’s stenographer in Changsha. Mao, later to become the figurehead of China’s communist revolution, called Dewey’s thoughts on education and democracy “worth studying.” He carried the philosopher’s books when he opened a revolutionary bookstore in Hunan in 1920.

That flirtation with liberalism ended in 1949, when China’s new communist leaders introduced an education infrastructure closely based on the Soviet model. Teaching instead focused on inculcating a communist worldview and developing skills that would help graduates fulfill assigned social roles. Though the ideological component faded after Mao’s death, today’s education system, with its emphasis on math and science and its tendency to funnel students into narrow academic paths early, still bears a Soviet imprint.

How to Be a Stoic

Friday, February 13th, 2015

Massimo Pigliucci explains how to be a Stoic:

I begin the day by retreating in a quiet corner of my apartment to meditate. Stoic meditation consists in rehearsing the challenges of the day ahead, thinking about which of the four cardinal virtues (courage, equanimity, self-control and wisdom) one may be called on to employ and how.

I also engage in an exercise called Hierocles’ circle, imagining myself as part of a growing circle of concern that includes my family and friends, my neighbors, my fellow citizens, humanity as a whole, all the way up to Nature itself.

I then pass to the “premeditatio malorum,” a type of visualization in which one imagines some sort of catastrophe happening to oneself (such as losing one’s job), and learns to see it as a “dispreferred indifferent,” meaning that it would be better if it didn’t happen, but that it would nonetheless not affect one’s worth and moral value. This one is not for everybody: novices may find this last exercise emotionally disturbing, especially if it involves visualizing one’s own death, as sometimes it does. Nonetheless, it is very similar to an analogous practice in C.B.T. meant to ally one’s fears of particular objects or events.

Finally, I pick a Stoic saying from my growing collection (saved on a spreadsheet on DropBox and available to share), read it to myself a few times and absorb it as best as I can. The whole routine takes about ten minutes or so.

Throughout the rest of the day, my Stoic practice is mostly about mindfulness, which means to remind myself that I not only I live “hic et nunc,” in the here and now, where I must pay attention to whatever it is I am doing, but, more importantly, that pretty much every decision I make has a moral dimension, and needs to be approached with proper care and thoughtfulness. For me this often includes how to properly and respectfully treat students and colleagues, or how to shop for food and other items in the most ethically minded way possible (there are apps for that, naturally).

Finally, my daily practice ends with an evening meditation, which consists in writing in a diary (definitely not meant for publication!) my thoughts about the day, the challenges I faced, and how I handled them. I ask myself, as Seneca put it in “On Anger”: “What bad habit have you put right today? Which fault did you take a stand against? In what respect are you better?”

Peer Pressure and SAT Prep

Monday, February 9th, 2015

Researchers offered 11th-graders a free SAT prep course, but they used two different sign-up sheets, to see how teens respond to peer pressure. The sign-up sheet said:

Your decision to sign up for the course will be kept completely private from everyone, except the other students in the room.

Or:

Your decision to sign up for the course will be kept completely private from everyone, including the other students in the room.

If they passed out the sign-up sheet in an honors class, then the “public decision” sign-up sheet got more students to sign up, in a non-honors class fewer:

Sign-Up Rates, Bursztyn and Jensen

Hacking Education

Saturday, February 7th, 2015

The “do it yourself” ethos of tech extends to how techie parents school, or unschool, their children:

According to the most recent statistics, the share of school-age kids who were homeschooled doubled between 1999 and 2012, from 1.7 to 3.4 percent.

And many of those new homeschoolers come from the tech community. When homeschooling expert Diane Flynn Keith held a sold-out workshop in Redwood City, California, last month, fully half of the parents worked in the tech industry. Jens Peter de Pedro, an app designer in Brooklyn, says that five of the 10 fathers in his homeschooling group work in tech, as do two of the eight mothers. And Samantha Cook says that her local hackerspace is often filled with tech-savvy homeschoolers.

“There is a way of thinking within the tech and startup community where you look at the world and go, ‘Is the way we do things now really the best way to do it?’” de Pedro says. “If you look at schools with this mentality, really the only possible conclusion is ‘Heck, I could do this better myself out of my garage!’”

The piece paints a rather unflattering picture of unschooling — but I don’t think it’s entirely the writer’s fault.

Measuring College Learning Outcomes

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

Pressure is growing for outcomes testing in higher education, Stephen Hsu notes, but the CLA+ (Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus) exam, which purports to measure critical-thinking and written-communication skills that other assessments cannot, seems to measure the same general cognitive ability as the SAT, ACT, and GRE.

Community College: What is the Right Price?

Thursday, January 15th, 2015

Arnold Kling is skeptical about free community college:

Just based on my gut feeling, I think that the vast majority of students attending community college do not have favorable outcomes. [...] I am not even sure that students in the lower tier of four-year colleges have favorable outcomes. Instead, the true cost, including what the students pay out of pocket plus subsidies plus opportunity cost, exceeds the benefit for many who attend college. In contrast, President Obama seems to endorse the fairy-dust model of college, where you can sprinkle it on anyone to produce affluence.

Politicians and policy wonks face different incentives:

If I were President Obama, of course, I would champion universal “free” community college. Worst case, my proposal becomes law. A lot of money gets wasted, but it’s not my money. Best case, the Republicans vote it down and I call them anti-opportunity meanies.

Never Allowed out of the Hood

Friday, January 9th, 2015

A promising “Black Ivy” football star got shot in a home-invasion robbery — he and his friends were doing the invading — and the Z man blames racial solidarity:

The explanation for this that jumps out to me is the extreme racial solidarity in black America. In white America, keeping the good kids away from the bad kids is the focus of everyone. Even back in the paleolithic when I was coming along adults had no trouble culling the defects from the herd. Somewhere around puberty, the stupid and uncontrollable ended up in “special” classes, away from the rest of us. That is not permitted in black culture.

The result is Terrance gets to hang with Jakobi as an equal, but they are not equals. Jakobi, I’m guessing, is high status in the hood. His ghetto name is what I’m going on here. In the white world, Dakota is not allowed anywhere near Dwayne and that was the case from about the fifth grade. By the time Dakota is at college, Dwayne is long gone. In black America. Terrence is never allowed out of the hood. He has to “keeps it real.” Otherwise, he runs the risk of being a “Tom” or acting white.

Until blacks drop the racial solidarity, this story will be a common one.

(Hat tip to our Slovenian Guest.)

Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

Political diversity will improve social psychological science, some (daring) social psychologists suggest:

Psychologists have demonstrated the value of diversity — particularly diversity of viewpoints — for enhancing creativity, discovery, and problem solving. But one key type of viewpoint diversity is lacking in academic psychology in general and social psychology in particular: political diversity. This article reviews the available evidence and finds support for four claims: 1) Academic psychology once had considerable political diversity, but has lost nearly all of it in the last 50 years; 2) This lack of political diversity can undermine the validity of social psychological science via mechanisms such as the embedding of liberal values into research questions and methods, steering researchers away from important but politically unpalatable research topics, and producing conclusions that mischaracterize liberals and conservatives alike; 3) Increased political diversity would improve social psychological science by reducing the impact of bias mechanisms such as confirmation bias, and by empowering dissenting minorities to improve the quality of the majority’s thinking; and 4) The underrepresentation of nonliberals in social psychology is most likely due to a combination of self-selection, hostile climate, and discrimination. We close with recommendations for increasing political diversity in social psychology.

I enjoyed this passage:

Fourth, we note for the curious reader that the collaborators on this article include one liberal, one centrist, two libertarians, one whose politics defy a simple left-right categorization, and one neo-positivist contrarian who favors a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy in which scholarship should be judged on its merits. None identifies as conservative or Republican.

(Hat tip to Bryan Caplan.)

Weakness and Cowardice

Saturday, January 3rd, 2015

While getting his graduate degree in psychology, David Grossman (On Killing) fulfilled his practicum requirement by serving as a junior high school counselor:

I worked in group sessions with many troubled young men, and one thing they consistently wanted from me was help in getting their way with the adults — parents, teachers, and others — whom they saw as “the enemy” on their adolescent battlefields. I told them that I knew a way to increase their “charisma,” a “charm spell” that was guaranteed to increase the probability of having things go their way by 10 to 20 percent or more.

They were eager, they were excited. “Charm spells” and “charisma” were terms from Dungeons and Dragons-type role-playing and video games, and they wanted to learn this piece of psychological magic. The trick is, I told them, to appropriately use the magic words “please, sir, and ma’am.”

A few were excited and convinced by these mercenary and manipulative application of the old “magic word,” but most were disgusted. They would never do such a thing. They could never debase themselves in such a weak and cowardly manner. Their self-esteem, their image, was so weak that they could not permit themselves to say these hateful words of appeasement. They wanted the “enemy” to submit before the superior force of their will power, but they did not have sufficient will to use the means available to them. The only method they could conceive of using was some form of physical posturing or brute strength: to out-yell, out-pout, or out-hit their opponents. But in this as in all human interactions, the victory goes most often not to the strong, nor to the swift, but to the sly.

We must never underestimate the power of the desire to maintain one’s self-image. In the case of these children (and of many adults), it prevents them from using simple courtesy as a social stratagem. In combat, the desire not to be seen as a coward in the eyes of others is the single most powerful motivating force on the battlefield, a force sufficient to overcome the instinct for self-preservation and make men face certain death without wavering. But, in addition to sustaining men on the battlefield, the demands of the self-image also have a long history of constraining combatants.

A friend of mine was the sponsor for a visiting Central African officer who was attending the U.S. Army’s Infantry Officer Advance Course. This experienced, intelligent, and articulate African officer almost failed the tactics portion of the course because he could not and would not devise any plan nor select any answers that involved a flank or rear attack. To even imagine doing so would be profoundly dishonorable and was simply unthinkable.

It is easy to feel superior to such an officer today, but he is only an obvious aspect of a long heritage. From the ancient Greeks, who preferred “manly” face-to-face combat and refused to use projectile weapons, to the French, who were offended and shocked that the Germans refused to meet them in honorable World War I-style combat and came around their Maginot line, history is full of sacrifices made on the altar of the “warrior” self-image. Today that legacy of self-inflicted constraint can be seen in the resistance to the use of maneuver concepts.

Sports and Creativity

Monday, December 29th, 2014

Researchers explored the relationship between childhood leisure activities and creativity in young adults, and the results were stark:

Time spent playing informal sports was significantly and positively related to overall creativity, while time spent playing organized sports was significantly and negatively related to overall creativity.

Perhaps even more interestingly, the difference between those participants whose scores placed them into “above-average” creativity bracket was only about two hours per week of unstructured sport participation throughout their school-age years.

What could account for such distal results? On a theoretical (and, frankly, intuitive) level, informal sports played in unstructured, unsupervised environments capture many of the elements that are linked with the developmental benefits of play for children. These environments offer children the freedom to self-govern, create rules, problem-solve and resolve social conflicts on their own terms.

Organized sports, on the other hand, tend to replicate hierarchical and militaristic models aimed at obedience, replication, adherence to authority, and a number of other qualities that, on a theoretical level, would be unlikely to be conducive to creative development.

[...]

Perhaps the single-most intriguing finding from our analysis was the fact that those individuals whose scores on the creativity assessment identified them as “above-average” were not children who eschewed organized sports in favor of the activities we traditionally associate with creativity (art, music, theater, etc.). Instead, the respondents with “above-average” creativity simply appeared to strike more balance between their time spent in organized and unstructured sport settings.

In fact, those scoring in the “above-average” creativity bracket reported spending 15% of their total childhood leisure time playing informal sports versus 13% playing organized sports. The participants with “below-average” creativity, on the other hand, spent only 10% of their childhood leisure time playing informal sports versus 22% in organized sports.

Seasons Greetings!

Thursday, December 25th, 2014

Last year, around this time, friends and acquaintances offered Peter Frost all sorts of religiously neutral salutations:

Seasons Greetings! Happy Holidays! Joyeuses fêtes! Meilleurs vœux! Only two people wished me Merry Christmas.

One was Muslim, the other was Jewish.

They meant well. After all, isn’t that the culturally correct greeting? In theory, yes. In practice, most Christians feel uncomfortable affirming their identity. And this self-abnegation gets worse the closer you are to the cultural core of Anglo-America. Immigrants of Christian background enjoy being wished Merry Christmas. Black people likewise. Catholics seem to split half and half, depending on how traditional or nominal they are.

But the WASPs. Oh, the WASPs! With them, those two words are a faux pas.

[...]

What about other cultural groups? Why single out just one? But I’ve heard the answer already. WASPs and their culture dominate North America. The path to power, or simply a better life, runs through their institutions. Minorities can affirm their own identities without restricting the life choices of others, but the same does not hold true for WASPs. Their identity affects everyone and must belong to everyone.

I’m still not convinced. Yes, WASPs did create the institutions of Anglo-America, but their influence in them is now nominal at best. The U.S. Supreme Court used to be a very WASPy place. Now, there’s not a single White Protestant on it. That’s a huge underrepresentation for a group that is still close to 40% of the population. We see the same thing at the Ivy League universities, which originally trained Protestant clergy for the English colonists. Today, how many of their students have any kind of Christian European background? The proportions are estimated to be 20% at Harvard, 22% at Yale, and 15% at Columbia.

Sometimes reality is not what is commonly believed. WASPs are not at all privileged. In fact, they have been largely pushed aside in a country that was once theirs.

[...]

WASPs believe in getting ahead through rugged individualism. Most of the other groups believe in using family and ethnic connections. Guess who wins.

Smart People Read Biographies

Friday, December 19th, 2014

Smart people read biographies, Ryan Holiday says, because they’re some of most actionable and educational reading you can do, so he recommends his favorites:

  1. Plutarch’s Lives, Plutarch – Aside from being the basis of much of Shakespeare, he was one of Montaigne’s favorite writers.
  2. The Power Broker, Robert Caro – Like Huey Long and Willie Stark, Robert Moses was a man who got power, loved power and was transformed by power.
  3. Socrates: A Man for Our Times, Napoleon: A Life, Churchill, Paul Johnson – Paul Johnson is the kind of author whose sweeping judgements you can trust, so you leave this book with what feels like a very solid understanding of who his subjects are a people.

He recommends many more.

How You Know

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

Paul Graham (Hackers & Painters) remembers little of what he’s read:

I’ve read Villehardouin’s chronicle of the Fourth Crusade at least two times, maybe three. And yet if I had to write down everything I remember from it, I doubt it would amount to much more than a page. Multiply this times several hundred, and I get an uneasy feeling when I look at my bookshelves. What use is it to read all these books if I remember so little from them?

[...]

Reading and experience train your model of the world. And even if you forget the experience or what you read, its effect on your model of the world persists. Your mind is like a compiled program you’ve lost the source of. It works, but you don’t know why.

The place to look for what I learned from Villehardouin’s chronicle is not what I remember from it, but my mental models of the crusades, Venice, medieval culture, siege warfare, and so on. Which doesn’t mean I couldn’t have read more attentively, but at least the harvest of reading is not so miserably small as it might seem.

This is one of those things that seem obvious in retrospect. But it was a surprise to me and presumably would be to anyone else who felt uneasy about (apparently) forgetting so much they’d read.

Realizing it does more than make you feel a little better about forgetting, though. There are specific implications.

For example, reading and experience are usually “compiled” at the time they happen, using the state of your brain at that time. The same book would get compiled differently at different points in your life. Which means it is very much worth reading important books multiple times. I always used to feel some misgivings about rereading books. I unconsciously lumped reading together with work like carpentry, where having to do something again is a sign you did it wrong the first time. Whereas now the phrase “already read” seems almost ill-formed.

Intriguingly, this implication isn’t limited to books.

Parenting and Verbal Intelligence

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

Family and parenting characteristics are not significant contributors to variation in IQ scores, Beaver et al. find, suggesting that IQ is in the genes:

To find out, the team pored over information from a study of more than 15,000 U.S. middle- and high-school students. It’s called the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

Starting in the 1994-to-1995 school year, researchers had asked students a series of questions. For instance: How warm and loving are your parents? How much do you talk with them? How close do you feel to your parents? How much do you think they care about you?

Students also were given a list of 10 activities. Then the questionnaire asked how many of those activities students had done with their parents in the previous week. Did they play sports together? Go shopping? Talk with each other over dinner? Watch a movie together?

Students also answered questions about how permissive their parents were. For example, did their parents let them choose their own friends, choose what to watch on TV or choose for themselves when to go to bed?

The researchers then gave the students a test to gauge their IQ. Called a Picture Vocabulary Test, it asked the students to link words and images. Scores on this test have been linked repeatedly to IQ. Later in life, between the ages of 18 and 26, these people were tested again.

Beaver’s group was especially interested in results from a group of about 220 students who had been adopted. The parents who raised them had not passed on any genes to them. So if there was a link between the students’ IQs and the way their parents raised them, the researchers should see it most clearly in the adopted students’ scores.

But no such link emerged. Whether students reported their parents cared about them and did things with them — or reported that they did not — it had no impact on the their IQ.

Kettlebell Lessons with a Firearms Instructor

Friday, December 5th, 2014

While perusing Pavel’s fitness site, I was surprised to come across this story from a firearms instructor:

To illustrate the importance of dry fire, consider the story of Dave Westerhout.  Mr. Westerhout is known as one of the founders of the International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC) and a trainer for the Rhodesia Defense Force.  In the late 70’s, ammunition was particularly scarce in the African nation of Rhodesia.  This ammunition shortage was due in large part to how unpopular Rhodesia was politically. The native African population was disenfranchised and Rhodesia was breaking away from the British Empire.  Other nations weren’t recognizing them as a nation and multiple trade sanctions were imposed.  One side effect of these sanctions was an extreme ammunition shortage.

Westerhout adapted to the severe ammunition shortage the only way he knew how: dry fire practice.  He conducted experiments with two groups of soldiers.  One would use live fire, the other dry fire.  The results were impressive.  The dry fire group was outscoring the live fire group!  This convinced the leadership to adopt the dry fire practice for the entire force.

Then, in 1977 at the first World Practical Pistol Championship, the Rhodesian team produced some astounding results.  Dave Westerhout took the first place and another Rhodesian took the second, the Rhodesian team won the overall team event!

An American took the third place. All of this happened when the US was considered the dominant force in competitive shooting. All of this happened while Rhodesia faced an ammo shortage. How is this possible? Lots of dry fire!

The advantages of dry fire are obvious. You can do it in your home very quickly and easily. You are not driving somewhere and spending money on range time or ammo. You are getting a LOT of repetition and working on the most difficult of all fundamentals — the trigger control. Anyone can squeeze a trigger. Anyone can align the sights. Can you maintain sight alignment through a smooth yet quick trigger squeeze? If not, DRY FIRE! Start with what takes the least time and costs the least money. Add complexity later!

Now, it should be noted: Dry fire practice does NOT fully replace live fire training. It is just a great supplemental training tool. There are certain fundamentals you just can’t practice without sending rounds down range. For starters, you can’t practice Recoil Management. This stands to reason, as it’s hard to practice managing a gun’s recoil w/out feeling it recoil in your hands. Secondly, you can’t practice the Follow Through. In this instance, that simply means you can’t get a feel for how quickly you can get the gun back on target and send additional rounds down range (should it be necessary). All of that aside, you can practice the most difficult fundamental with dry fire training: the Trigger Control.

Another similarity I noticed is that Frequency Trumps Duration.

Are you training only once in awhile for a long dragged out session that leaves you wiped out? Or are you training more frequently for shorter periods leaving you “stronger or better” than when you started?