How To Think Real Good

Monday, October 20th, 2014

After compiling How to do research at the MIT AI Lab, David Chapman went on to write How To Think Real Good, a rather meandering piece that culminates in this list:

  • Figuring stuff out is way hard.
  • There is no general method.
  • Selecting and formulating problems is as important as solving them; these each require different cognitive skills.
  • Problem formulation (vocabulary selection) requires careful, non-formal observation of the real world.
  • A good problem formulation includes the relevant distinctions, and abstracts away irrelevant ones. This makes problem solution easy.
  • Little formal tricks (like Bayesian statistics) may be useful, but any one of them is only a tiny part of what you need.
  • Progress usually requires applying several methods. Learn as many different ones as possible.
  • Meta-level knowledge of how a field works — which methods to apply to which sorts of problems, and how and why — is critical (and harder to get).

I didn’t find that list as interesting as his pull-out points along the way:

  • Understanding informal reasoning is probably more important than understanding technical methods.
  • Finding a good formulation for a problem is often most of the work of solving it.
  • Before applying any technical method, you have to already have a pretty good idea of what the form of the answer will be.
  • Choosing a good vocabulary, at the right level of description, is usually key to understanding.
  • Truth does not apply to problem formulations; what matters is usefulness.
  • All problem formulations are “false,” because they abstract away details of reality.
  • Work through several specific examples before trying to solve the general case. Looking at specific real-world details often gives an intuitive sense for what the relevant distinctions are.
  • Problem formulation and problem solution are mutually-recursive processes.
  • Heuristics for evaluating progress are critical not only during problem solving, but also during problem formulation.
  • Solve a simplified version of the problem first. If you can’t do even that, you’re in trouble.
  • If you are having a hard time, make sure you aren’t trying to solve an NP-complete problem. If you are, go back and look for additional sources of constraint in the real-world domain.
  • You can never know enough mathematics.
  • An education in math is a better preparation for a career in intellectual field X than an education in X.
  • You should learn as many different kinds of math as possible. It’s difficult to predict what sort will be relevant to a problem.
  • If a problem seems too hard, the formulation is probably wrong. Drop your formal problem statement, go back to reality, and observe what is going on.
  • Learn from fields very different from your own. They each have ways of thinking that can be useful at surprising times. Just learning to think like an anthropologist, a psychologist, and a philosopher will beneficially stretch your mind.
  • If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like an anvil. If you only know one formal method of reasoning, you’ll try to apply it in places it doesn’t work.
  • Evaluate the prospects for your field frequently. Be prepared to switch if it looks like it is approaching its inherent end-point.
  • It’s more important to know what a branch of math is about than to know the details. You can look those up, if you realize that you need them.
  • Get a superficial understanding of as many kinds of math as possible. That can be enough that you will recognize when one applies, even if you don’t know how to use it.
  • Math only has to be “correct” enough to get the job done.
  • You should be able to prove theorems and you should harbor doubts about whether theorems prove anything.
  • Try to figure out how people smarter than you think.
  • Figure out what your own cognitive style is. Embrace and develop it as your secret weapon; but try to learn and appreciate other styles as well.
  • Collect your bag of tricks.
  • Find a teacher who is willing to go meta and explain how a field works, instead of lecturing you on its subject matter.

How do Unschoolers Turn Out?

Friday, October 17th, 2014

Peter Gray and Gina Riley surveyed 232 parents who unschool their children:

Getting into college was typically a fairly smooth process for this group; they adjusted to the academics fairly easily, quickly picking up skills such as class note-taking or essay composition; and most felt at a distinct advantage due to their high self-motivation and capacity for self-direction. “The most frequent complaints,” Gray notes on his blog, “were about the lack of motivation and intellectual curiosity among their college classmates, the constricted social life of college, and, in a few cases, constraints imposed by the curriculum or grading system.”

Most of those who went on to college did so without either a high school diploma or general education diploma (GED), and without taking the SAT or ACT. Several credited interviews and portfolios for their acceptance to college, but by far the most common route to a four-year college was to start at a community college (typically begun at age 16, but sometimes even younger).

None of the respondents found college academically difficult, but some found the rules and conventions strange and sometimes off-putting. Young people who were used to having to find things out on their own were taken aback, and even in some cases felt insulted, “when professors assumed they had to tell them what they were supposed to learn,” Gray says.


The range of jobs and careers was very broad—from film production assistant to tall-ship bosun, urban planner, aerial wildlife photographer, and founder of a construction company—but a few generalizations emerged. Compared to the general population, an unusually high percentage of the survey respondents went on to careers in the creative arts—about half overall, rising to nearly four out of five in the always-unschooled group. Similarly, a high number of respondents (half of the men and about 20 percent of the women) went on to science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) careers.

Peter Thiel Converses with Bill Kristol

Saturday, October 11th, 2014

Bill Kristol has a conversation with Peter Thiel:

Grades in Context

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

Grade inflation has led universities to offer context to students’ grades:

Starting this fall, UNC-Chapel Hill transcripts will provide a little truth in grading.

From now on, transcripts for university graduates will contain a healthy dose of context.

Next to a student’s grade, the record will include the median grade of classmates, the percentile range and the number of students in the class section. Another new measure, alongside the grade point average, is the schedule point average. A snapshot average grade for a student’s mix of courses, the SPA is akin to a sports team’s strength of schedule.


Researchers collected grade data for 135 U.S. colleges and universities, representing 1.5 million students. They found that A’s are now the most commonly awarded grade – 43 percent of all grades. Failure is almost unheard of, with D’s and F’s making up less than 10 percent of all college grades.

The study found that grade inflation has been most pronounced at elite private universities, trailed by public flagship campuses and then less selective schools. Grading tends to be higher in humanities courses, followed by social sciences. The lowest grades tend to occur in the science, math and engineering disciplines.


Indiana University used to do it, but stopped because of a software change. Dartmouth College and Cornell University include median grades on transcripts. Cornell used to publish the information online, but quit in 2011 after a study revealed that enrollment spiked in classes with a median grade of A.

But there is a larger move to transcripts with broader information about students’ learning outcomes, said Brad Myers, Ohio State University registrar and president of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

“We’re really trying to say, ‘Here’s what the student has mastered, and isn’t that what you’re after, more than whether the student got a B or a C or a D in this class?’ ”

Princeton University made headlines for a 2004 policy that sought to limit A’s to 35 percent in undergraduate courses – seen as a radical approach to regulate grades. Earlier this month, a faculty committee there recommended dropping the policy, saying it was too stressful for students and was misinterpreted as a quota system.

The Testing Effect

Monday, October 6th, 2014

Sometimes, when we open a test, we see familiar questions on material we’ve studied — and yet we still do badly. Why does this happen?

Psychologists have studied learning long enough to have an answer, and typically it’s not a lack of effort (or of some elusive test-taking gene). The problem is that we have misjudged the depth of what we know. We are duped by a misperception of “fluency,” believing that because facts or formulas or arguments are easy to remember right now, they will remain that way tomorrow or the next day. This fluency illusion is so strong that, once we feel we have some topic or assignment down, we assume that further study won’t strengthen our memory of the material. We move on, forgetting that we forget.

Often our study “aids” simply create fluency illusions — including, yes, highlighting — as do chapter outlines provided by a teacher or a textbook. Such fluency misperceptions are automatic; they form subconsciously and render us extremely poor judges of what we need to restudy or practice again. “We know that if you study something twice, in spaced sessions, it’s harder to process the material the second time, and so people think it’s counterproductive,” Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College, said. “But the opposite is true: You learn more, even though it feels harder. Fluency is playing a trick on judgment.”

The best way to overcome this illusion is testing, which also happens to be an effective study technique in its own right. This is not exactly a recent discovery; people have understood it since the dawn of formal education, probably longer. In 1620, the philosopher Francis Bacon wrote, “If you read a piece of text through twenty times, you will not learn it by heart so easily as if you read it ten times while attempting to recite it from time to time and consulting the text when your memory fails.”

Scientific confirmation of this principle began in 1916, when Arthur Gates, a psychologist at Columbia University, created an ingenious study to further Bacon’s insight. If someone is trying to learn a piece of text from memory, Gates wondered, what would be the ideal ratio of study to recitation (without looking)? To interrogate this question, he had more than 100 schoolchildren try to memorize text from Who’s Who entries. He broke them into groups and gave each child nine minutes to prepare, along with specific instructions on how to use that time. One group spent 1 minute 48 seconds memorizing and the remaining time rehearsing (reciting); another split its time roughly in half, equal parts memorizing and rehearsing; a third studied for a third and recited for two-thirds; and so on.

After a sufficient break, Gates sat through sputtered details of the lives of great Americans and found his ratio. “In general,” he concluded, “best results are obtained by introducing recitation after devoting about 40 percent of the time to reading. Introducing recitation too early or too late leads to poorer results.” The quickest way to master that Shakespearean sonnet, in other words, is to spend the first third of your time memorizing it and the remaining two-thirds of the time trying to recite it from memory.

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In the 1930s, a doctoral student at the State University of Iowa, Herman F. Spitzer, recognized the broader implications of this insight. Gates’s emphasis on recitation was, Spitzer realized, not merely a study tip for memorization; it was nothing less than a form of self-examination. It was testing as study, and Spitzer wanted to extend the finding, asking a question that would apply more broadly in education: If testing is so helpful, when is the best time to do it?

He mounted an enormous experiment, enlisting more than 3,500 sixth graders at 91 elementary schools in nine Iowa cities. He had them study an age-appropriate article of roughly 600 words in length, similar to what they might analyze for homework. Spitzer divided the students into groups and had each take tests on the passages over the next two months, according to different schedules. For instance, Group 1 received one quiz immediately after studying, then another a day later and a third three weeks later. Group 6, by contrast, didn’t take one until three weeks after reading the passage. Again, the time the students had to study was identical. So were the quizzes. Yet the groups’ scores varied widely, and a clear pattern emerged.

The groups that took pop quizzes soon after reading the passage — once or twice within the first week — did the best on a final exam given at the end of two months, marking about 50 percent of the questions correct. (Remember, they had studied their peanut or bamboo article only once.) By contrast, the groups who took their first pop quiz two weeks or more after studying scored much lower, below 30 percent on the final. Spitzer’s study showed that not only is testing a powerful study technique, but it’s also one that should be deployed sooner rather than later. “Achievement tests or examinations are learning devices and should not be considered only as tools for measuring achievement of pupils,” he concluded.

The testing effect, as it’s known, is now well established, and it opens a window on the alchemy of memory itself. “Retrieving a fact is not like opening a computer file,” says Henry Roediger III, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis, who, with Jeffrey Karpicke, now at Purdue University, has established the effect’s lasting power. “It alters what we remember and changes how we subsequently organize that knowledge in our brain.”

Meritocracy That Pretends That Aptitude Does Not Exist

Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

What would it take to fix our wasteful and unjust system of university admissions?, Steven Pinker asks:

Let’s daydream for a moment. If only we had some way to divine the suitability of a student for an elite education, without ethnic bias, undeserved advantages to the wealthy, or pointless gaming of the system. If only we had some way to match jobs with candidates that was not distorted by the halo of prestige. A sample of behavior that could be gathered quickly and cheaply, assessed objectively, and double-checked for its ability to predict the qualities we value….

We do have this magic measuring stick, of course: it’s called standardized testing. I suspect that a major reason we slid into this madness and can’t seem to figure out how to get out of it is that the American intelligentsia has lost the ability to think straight about objective tests. After all, if the Ivies admitted the highest scoring kids at one end, and companies hired the highest scoring graduates across all universities at the other (with tests that tap knowledge and skill as well as aptitude), many of the perversities of the current system would vanish overnight. Other industrialized countries, lacking our squeamishness about testing, pick their elite students this way, as do our firms in high technology. And as Adrian Wooldridge pointed out in these pages two decades ago, test-based selection used to be the enlightened policy among liberals and progressives, since it can level a hereditary caste system by favoring the Jenny Cavilleris (poor and smart) over the Oliver Barretts (rich and stupid).

If, for various reasons, a university didn’t want a freshman class composed solely of scary-smart kids, there are simple ways to shake up the mixture. Unz suggests that Ivies fill a certain fraction of the incoming class with the highest-scoring applicants, and select the remainder from among the qualified applicant pool by lottery. One can imagine various numerical tweaks, including ones that pull up the number of minorities or legacies to the extent that those goals can be publicly justified. Grades or class rank could also be folded into the calculation. Details aside, it’s hard to see how a simple, transparent, and objective formula would be worse than the eye-of-newt-wing-of-bat mysticism that jerks teenagers and their moms around and conceals unknown mischief.

So why aren’t creative alternatives like this even on the table? A major reason is that popular writers like Stephen Jay Gould and Malcolm Gladwell, pushing a leftist or heart-above-head egalitarianism, have poisoned their readers against aptitude testing. They have insisted that the tests don’t predict anything, or that they do but only up to a limited point on the scale, or that they do but only because affluent parents can goose their children’s scores by buying them test-prep courses.

But all of these hypotheses have been empirically refuted. We have already seen that test scores, as far up the upper tail as you can go, predict a vast range of intellectual, practical, and artistic accomplishments. They’re not perfect, but intuitive judgments based on interviews and other subjective impressions have been shown to be far worse. Test preparation courses, notwithstanding their hard-sell ads, increase scores by a trifling seventh of a standard deviation (with most of the gains in the math component). As for Deresiewicz’s pronouncement that “SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely,” this is bad social science. SAT correlates with parental income (more relevantly, socioeconomic status or SES), but that doesn’t mean it measures it; the correlation could simply mean that smarter parents have smarter kids who get higher SAT scores, and that smarter parents have more intellectually demanding and thus higher-paying jobs. Fortunately, SAT doesn’t track SES all that closely (only about 0.25 on a scale from -1 to 1), and this opens the statistical door to see what it really does measure. The answer is: aptitude. Paul Sackett and his collaborators have shown that SAT scores predict future university grades, holding all else constant, whereas parental SES does not. Matt McGue has shown, moreover, that adolescents’ test scores track the SES only of their biological parents, not (for adopted kids) of their adoptive parents, suggesting that the tracking reflects shared genes, not economic privilege.

Regardless of the role that you think aptitude testing should play in the admissions process, any discussion of meritocracy that pretends that aptitude does not exist or cannot be measured is not playing with a full deck.

The Goals of a University Education

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

What are the goals of a university education?, Steven Pinker asks:

It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.

On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.

I believe (and believe I can persuade you) that the more deeply a society cultivates this knowledge and mindset, the more it will flourish. The conviction that they are teachable gets me out of bed in the morning. Laying the foundations in just four years is a formidable challenge.

The Missing Institution

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

There is no Jaime Escalante School of Mathematics Teaching, Michael Strong notes, but that’s the kind of missing institution we need to scale up quality instruction:

Teaching is fundamentally a performance art — real time interactions in chaotic and complex human situations. There are no institutions in our society that provide for an environment in which master practitioners of this performance art systematically transfer their expertise.


Imagine, instead, if Escalante had been a great martial arts teacher. He might have established his own school. Students from around the world would have flocked to learn directly from him. Gradually, some of his best students would open up their own schools. They would prominently display their lineage, the fact that they had studied directly with Escalante. People who were interested in becoming serious about a particular martial arts form would ask around to discover who were the best teachers. Those schools could charge a premium. Sometimes such schools would trace their lineage back through several generations of great teachers.

Becoming an Adult Prodigy

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

Child prodigies get a lot of attention, Daniel Coyle says, but adult prodigies are even more impressive:

I’m talking about people in their thirties, forties, and beyond — people who are miles past any of the “learning windows” for talent, and who yet succeed in building fantastically high-performing skill sets.

People like Dr. Mary Hobson, who took up Russian at 56, and became a prize-winning translator. Or Gary Marcus, a neuroscientist who took up guitar at the age of 38 and taught himself to rock, or pool player Michael Reddick, or Dan McLaughlin, a 31-year-old who took up golf for the first time four years ago and now plays to an outstanding 3.3 handicap (and who also keeps track of his practice hours — 4,530 and counting, if you wanted to know).

We tend to explain adult prodigies with the same magical thinking as we use to explain child prodigies: they’re special. They always possessed hidden talents.

However, some new science is shedding light on the real reasons adults are able to successfully learn new skills, and exploding some myths in the process. You should check out this article from New Scientist if you want to go deeper. Or read Marcus’s book Guitar Zero, or How We Learn, by Benedict Carey.

The takeaway to all this is that adult prodigies succeed because they’re able to work past two fundamental barriers: 1) the wall of belief that they can’t do it; and 2) the grid of adult routines that keep them from spending time working intensively to improve skills.

Ivy League Admissions

Monday, September 29th, 2014

The most-read article in the history of the New Republic is not about war, politics, or great works of art, Steven Pinker notes, but about the admissions policies of a handful of elite universities:

At the admissions end, it’s common knowledge that Harvard selects at most 10 percent (some say 5 percent) of its students on the basis of academic merit. At an orientation session for new faculty, we were told that Harvard “wants to train the future leaders of the world, not the future academics of the world,” and that “We want to read about our student in Newsweek 20 years hence” (prompting the woman next to me to mutter, “Like the Unabomer”). The rest are selected “holistically,” based also on participation in athletics, the arts, charity, activism, travel, and, we inferred (Not in front of the children!), race, donations, and legacy status (since anything can be hidden behind the holistic fig leaf).


t would be an occasion for hilarity if anyone suggested that Harvard pick its graduate students, faculty, or president for their prowess in athletics or music, yet these people are certainly no shallower than our undergraduates. In any case, the stereotype is provably false. Camilla Benbow and David Lubinski have tracked a large sample of precocious teenagers identified solely by high performance on the SAT, and found that when they grew up, they not only excelled in academia, technology, medicine, and business, but won outsize recognition for their novels, plays, poems, paintings, sculptures, and productions in dance, music, and theater. A comparison to a Harvard freshman class would be like a match between the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals.

What about the rationalization that charitable extracurricular activities teach kids important lessons of moral engagement? There are reasons to be skeptical. A skilled professional I know had to turn down an important freelance assignment because of a recurring commitment to chauffeur her son to a resumé-building “social action” assignment required by his high school. This involved driving the boy for 45 minutes to a community center, cooling her heels while he sorted used clothing for charity, and driving him back — forgoing income which, judiciously donated, could have fed, clothed, and inoculated an African village. The dubious “lessons” of this forced labor as an overqualified ragpicker are that children are entitled to treat their mothers’ time as worth nothing, that you can make the world a better place by destroying economic value, and that the moral worth of an action should be measured by the conspicuousness of the sacrifice rather than the gain to the beneficiary.

Chinese Diving Training

Sunday, September 28th, 2014

Rett Larson is performance manager for EXOS-China in Shanghai, where he helps oversee and organize the Chinese Olympic team’s training. He shares 10 surprising truths from that talent hot-bed:

We mix ages like crazy: The juniors aren’t all lumped together like they are in most systems — instead, three-time Gold medalists train with top 10-year-olds. Each diving coach might be responsible for five athletes – three Olympic veterans and two juniors. The juniors get to mirror the elites all day, from training to eating to bedtimes. It also creates a sense of humility in the juniors, who have likely dominated in their provinces since they were six years old.

We spend most of our time working on super-basic dives: The Chinese have a higher training volume than the rest of the world – often more than 100 dives per day. But many of those dives are very basic. The first ten dives of the day might all be starting with your butt on the edge of the platform and falling into a simple dive. That’s it — and that’s the point.

We applaud spectacular failures: For the past decade China has won almost every competition by doing simple dives very, very well. Their technical proficiency is incredible because they practice longer and harder than any other country. But, they also know that they have to push themselves and innovate. You’ll see in the video a male diver attempting to be the first human to do four flips from the 10-meter board starting from a handstand. He doesn’t make it — spectacularly. What you don’t see is the ovation he gets from the rest of the team after his failed attempt.

We are obsessive about coaching every single rep: Each dive is given feedback, even the basic ones. A dozen coaches sit on the side of the pool and give immediate feedback on every dive that their athlete performs that day.

We avoid allowing our athletes to specialize in one discipline: The 10-meter platform divers won’t spend all day on the 10m board. They’ll have dives on the 3m, 5m, 6m, 7m, and even the springboards depending on what their coach wants them to work on. Each day the athletes receive a laminated sheet with their daily dives listed.

We accomplish our most important work outside of the pool: Chinese divers perform dry-land training better than anyone else in the world. If you ask the coaches — this is what has led to China’s dominance. As you’ll see in the video, their dryland training facilities are a Disneyland for divers. Like their dives in the pool, each athlete has a laminated sheet of dryland exercises that take them from the trampoline to the foam pit to the mats or to the runway to practice approaches. They move around the gym and are never on one piece of equipment for more than 20 minutes.

We seek lots of feedback from lots of coaches: As the athletes move around the dryland training area, they move into the zones of different coaches who offer a variety of corrections based on what their “coaching eye” sees. Chinese coaches all share a basic methodology so there’s no worry of conflicting messages being sent.

We use video as much as humanly (and technically) possible: In both the dryland facility and the pool there are closed circuit cameras that catch the dives being performed. After the athletes get out of the pool and receive feedback from the coach, they can look up on the huge monitors and see the dives for themselves.

We seek ways to establish team identity through sacrifice: No other Olympic team in the complex trains before 9 a.m. — but three days a week, our team rises early to train at six — because it’s a sacrifice. There’s no need to train at 6am instead of 9am. They do it because it’s inconvenient, and it creates an air of “we work harder than anyone else.”

We have way more fun than you might guess: Dryland training is a place where there is frequent playing around and laughing. The coaches let the athletes be kids. Now I’m not saying that it’s like a frat party (this is Communist China, after all), but compared to many teams I’ve worked with over the last 2.5 years in China, they have a good time.

Cultural Literacy and Common Core

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

At age 86, educational theorist E.D. Hirsch is finally being rehabilitated:

“It’s hard to feel like a guru,” he says, quietly. Then he offers a soft chuckle. “I’ve been a pariah for so long.”

It was back in 1987 that “Don” Hirsch, then English department head at the University of Virginia, published his first popular work, Cultural Literacy. The book proposed that all public schoolchildren should be provided with instruction aimed at familiarizing them with a wide variety of topics, including literature, geography, history, math, science, art and music, in order to have the background knowledge that would make them successful readers and learners. But the book, subtitled “What Every American Needs To Know,” quickly became famous not for its seven dense chapters of educational theory but for The List — a 63-page index of 5,000 essential subjects and concepts that Hirsch believed teachers should impart to their students, arrayed in alphabetical order: A.D., ad absurdum, adagio, Adam and Eve, Adams, John.


The liberals of America’s educational establishment, meanwhile, responded to Cultural Literacy as if it were a manifesto for what one called “a new cultural offensive” aimed at writing the common man out of history. The book, they insisted, was a traditionalist polemic that would replace higher-order thinking in the classroom with a dry-as-dust set of increasingly irrelevant names, dates and places. As for Hirsch, they saw him as little better than a lone reactionary trying to prevent the tide of multiculturalism from eroding the hegemony of the vanishing WASP.

Even now Hirsch can’t hide his irritation. The lifelong Democrat — “I’m practically a socialist,” he insists — was particularly rankled to find himself described by a Harvard education professor as “a neoconservative caricature of contemporary American education.” “I was,” he says, “inundated by irrationality.”

But the progressives, while dominant, have been unable to improve educational outcomes for low-income students, particularly African-Americans and Latinos, and today, liberal educators and politicians are giving Hirsch’s ideas a second, much more admiring look. Many now support a set of grade-specific guidelines developed by the National Governors Association in 2009 known as the Common Core State Standards. Hirsch didn’t write the Common Core, but the guidelines match the expectations set forth in the rigorous public school curricula Hirsch developed with his Core Knowledge Foundation, and he is credited with laying the intellectual groundwork.

“He showed the fundamental importance that knowledge plays to develop the foundations of literacy,” says David Coleman, one of the chief architects of the Common Core, who calls Hirsch’s research “absolutely foundational.”

Hirsch himself started in public schools until a prolonged illness led him to a progressive private school with project-based learning.

His big idea came to him while his was conducting research at a community college near UVA, where he was head of the English department:

There, he observed that the largely African-American low-income students could read short works of narrative fiction but could barely wring meaning from a piece about Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox because they lacked basic knowledge about the Civil War. “What I saw is that background knowledge really mattered,” Hirsch says.

Over time, he expanded on this idea until his central observation ran like this: Children can be taught to read — to decode words — but teaching them to comprehend all but the simplest text requires a shared body of knowledge between writer and reader. For example, when a biographer describes her subject’s central flaw as his “Achilles’ heel” or a disastrous turn of events as a “Waterloo,” people who have acquired a passing knowledge of mythology and European history can easily understand that the first means a potentially devastating personal vulnerability and the second, a staggering defeat. But others just don’t get anything from the words themselves.

Knowing the national language of culture, even haphazardly, has a vast, far-reaching and brutally cumulative impact on learning. For those who begin their education with sufficient stores of background knowledge, it forms a virtuous circle: They have higher levels of reading comprehension, which helps them understand the daily social, intellectual and political discourse, which in turn helps them obtain more background knowledge. Those who do not have it languish. To level the playing field between rich and poor, schools should intentionally build background knowledge in all children in a wide range of subjects, or, says Hirsch, “It will be impossible to break the cycle of illiteracy that persists from parent to child.”

The Fruits of Democracy

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

If you establish a democracy, Jerry Pournelle reminds us, you will in due time reap the fruits of a democracy:

Almost all the political philosophers of prior eras concluded that democracy was actually suited only to rather small states. When Jefferson said that the basis of the American experiment was that governments are instituted to secure the rights of the people, and derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, was being profound: but he was also indicating that there have to be limits to government.

Consent of the governed is impossible in societies that value ‘diversity’ more than assimilation, and which seek to incorporate more and more people into the decision making entity. The California education system, once the envy of the world, was seen as inefficient: it left control of the schools to locally elected officials in rather small — and thus inefficient — districts. The key would be to consolidate those districts, and take the personal interests of the taxpayers and parents out of the picture: have huge districts governed by boards elected by people who had no relationship with each other beyond living within an arbitrarily drawn boundary, and who often had no actual common interests. The result was predictable and predicted, but that didn’t slow the disaster.

Where it was once thought shameful that only 90% of those enrolled in high schools actually graduated, that is now seen as an impossible dream. The LA Unified School District is a wreck, with widespread illiteracy, little discipline, and — except for some outstanding schools of which our local school is one — are worse than useless. Moreover the district cannot fire incompetent teachers, despite growing evidence that the simplest and fastest way to improve a rotten school is to fire the worst 10% of teachers and not replace them; disperse their students into other classes. Astounding improvement — 100% and more — often follows. But it will never happen.

George Bernard Shaw, who valued Socialism far more than democracy, once said

Democracy means the organization of society for the benefit and at the expense of everybody indiscriminately and not for the benefit of a privileged class.

A nearly desperate difficulty is the way of its realization is the delusion that the method of securing it is to give votes to everybody, which is the one certain method of defeating it. Adult suffrage kills it dead. Highminded and well-informed people desire it: but they are not in the majority at the polling stations. Mr. Everybody, as Voltaire called him — and we must now include Mrs. Everybody and Miss Everybody — far from desiring the great development of public organization and governmental activity which democracy involves, has a dread of being governed at all…

… I do not see any way out of this difficulty as long as our democrats insist in assuming that Mr. Everyman is omniscient as well as ubiquitous, and refuse to consider the suffrage in the light of facts and common sense.

Perhaps a better way would be to limit the scope of government, and not attempt the great development of public organization and governmental activity. Or perhaps, as we should have learned form ruining the best public school system the world has ever seen, allow local control of local matters, even though it is certain that some of those districts will misuse their freedom to do things we don’t want them doing, or which we see as not as good as what we do, and so we should help them — by force if needed — to see reason. And since we can’t watch them all the time, we appoint an organization of experts, who after all must know better, to manage the whole thing while we get back to watching TV or video games or another beer. And “DCPS is unable to excuse Avery’s absences due to her piano travels, performances, rehearsals, etc.,” Jemea Goso, attendance specialist with the school system’s Office of Youth Engagement tells us. Imagine! An entire Office of Youth Engagement, with an attendance specialist! I wonder how many other school districts have such marvels.

Somehow I think the nation would be better served with opulence and excellence. But that will never happen.

Reap, reap, reap.

Division Restructuring Study

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

Gen. DePuy describes the Division Restructuring Study, which became Division 86:

Division 86, which is what they now call it — we called it the Division Restructuring Study — is an effort to adapt our organization to new weapons which are more lethal and more complex. For example, the XM-1 tank, the Infantry Fighting Vehicle (IFV), the Improved Tow Vehicle (ITV), the new air defense weapons, the attack helicopter, advanced tactical fighters, new artillery ammunition, TACFIRE, and other automated control systems, are, in most cases, as complicated or more complicated than World War II aircraft, which were all flown by officers. I say it is not too great a stretch of the imagination to have only lieutenants in XM-1 tanks. I could justify that. I am not suggesting that we do it right now. Frankly, I would suggest that we put warrant officers in as an immediate solution just to raise the quality of the tank commanders. If we already are having trouble in achieving full performance with the weapons we have today, and I maintain that we are having great difficulty in extracting the full potential from our weapons and from our organization, then we have to look for solutions.

There are two areas of solution and Division 86 is simply a reflection of that search. The first question we must answer is whether or not we intend to raise the quality of the operators to match the quality of the weapons. We just don’t have the last surviving corporal in charge of a XM-1 if you want to exploit the capabilities of the XM-1 any more than the Air Force would put the oldest surviving mechanic in the cockpit of an F-15. The Air Force would never consider it, yet we consider it every day. We even take people out of the orderly room and the mess hall and put them in tanks. The Air Force doesn’t do that. In the Army you buy quality by rank. If you can only get so much quality for $400 a month and you need to pay $1500 a month for the kind of quality you need, then what you are talking about is a lieutenant. If you are willing to pay $800 a month then you are talking about a sergeant. So, in the Army you get quality by raising the rank or increasing the rank mixture.

Now, because of the complexity of these weapons, both tactically and mechanically, the second thing you want to do is simplify the tactical training and maintenance responsibilities of the platoon leaders, company commanders and battalion commanders, to a level where they can cope with it. Right now they can’t cope with it. They have too many men to be trained on too many weapons, in too short a time, with too many diversions. We know from testing that the difference between a well-trained crew and an average crew is very great. It can range from 20 to 50 percent of effectiveness, sometimes even more. So, that means you can get more combat effectiveness by increasing the performance of the unit than you ever could by putting new weapons in it. Well, that’s what Division 86 is all about — an effort to improve performance by improving quality, by increasing the leadership mix, and through simplification by reducing the size of units so that the tactical and technical training comes back down to manageable levels.

Training at TRADOC

Sunday, September 21st, 2014

Gen. DePuy describes the lack of actual training he found at TRADOC when he arrived:

Well, I would have to say that when I first visited the schools and the training centers I was unimpressed. I was horrified by some of the things that I found. For example, at the Engineer School I discovered that the engineer lieutenants were never given an opportunity to learn how to drive a bulldozer, or run a road grader or a front-end loader. Yet, they would eventually go to an engineer platoon having that type of equipment, and I couldn’t understand how they would be able to supervise, or to criticize, or to train. Down at Fort Benning most of the training of the lieutenants was accomplished in a classroom instead of out with troops. The orientation was very academic, very intellectual. I don’t know whose fault it was. Some people didn’t think it was a fault. There’s been a big argument for years about education and training. I’m not sure what all the differences are, but I do know that the Army had moved pretty much towards education and away from training. TRADOC is now criticized for going too far towards training. My conviction is that we were totally unbalanced towards education, and that as hard as TRADOC works, it will only bring the thing back into balance. As between the two, education and training, you need both.

At Fort Knox I thought that the training of the tank lieutenants, the armor lieutenants, was awful. They really weren’t being trained to be tank commanders first and tank platoon leaders second. They were really being trained to be tank company commanders. The basic courses in all of the service schools taught them not to be what they were about to be, but what they eventually might be. And, when they went to the advanced course, they were taught about brigades and battalions instead of about being a company commander. I found that to be very interesting. It was part of the philosophy of the Mobilization Army in which everybody got a job one or two grades above where he then stood. But, we don’t have a Mobilization Army; we have an 800,000 man Army! That’s what we are going to go to war with. Why should we go to war with untrained platoon leaders, untrained company commanders, and untrained battalion commanders, when they have to win the first battle? So, the first thing I tried to do was to bring the school system back closer to where the Israeli school system is, which is a training system that trains tank commanders, tank platoon leaders, and tank company commanders at about the time that they are going to discharge those duties. As I said, this is controversial, and right now there is a bit of a reaction setting in to all of that. I just hope things do not go back to where they were, which was really bad.

Now, the training centers really upset me. CONARC had run the training centers with an iron hand. Everything that was done in the training centers was prescribed by CONARC. There was no latitude or flexibility, and the first consequence of that was that there was also no feeling of responsibility. No matter how dumb it might be, the answer always was, “It’s in the directive. It’s in the Program of Instruction (POI). We’re doing just what we were told to do.” This meant that the major general commanding the training center went around and inspected only to see how well his Center was doing what CONARC had told them to do. The colonels, the lieutenant colonels, and the captains all went around with their eyes glazed over, bored to death. The drill sergeants had taken over. Over time, the drill sergeants will distort even a very clear directive, and find some little aspect of it that was never intended to be important and make that the centerpiece of some training exercise or bit of instruction. Well, it was really bad. The execution was bad, the concept was bad, the training was bad, the supervision was bad, morale was bad, and motivation was bad.

One term they used in the training centers that conveys part of the problem was what the drill sergeants would refer to as being “on the trail.” I don’t know whether or not you know where the term “on the trail” comes from, but it refers to driving cattle herds from Texas to Colorado, or from Oregon to Colorado. That was the mentality that pervaded the training centers. The cadre were just getting one bunch of cattle through, and then another bunch of cattle would come along to be herded through, with a lot of screaming, shouting, yelling, and cursing, but with little effort to teach. It was just an effort to get through the day, to get another 100 trainees, or another 1,000 trainees through without an accident and without some sort of disciplinary problem. Well, what I did was say, “Each of you major generals running a training center is now totally responsible. If there’s anything that goes on that’s wrong or dumb, stop it, and change it. Do what’s smart, and tell me later.” I told them, “I don’t ever want to be told by you or any of your colonels, captains, lieutenant colonels, or sergeants, that you’re doing something that’s dumb, or that I find out is dumb, because you were told to do it. From now on you are going to do only what you think is right.” Well, that had quite an impact. Now, one of the impacts that it had was that they all started doing things much better, and they thought up all sorts of marvelous new things to do, and marvelous new ways of doing it. Suddenly, they were enthusiastic. They now had a man-sized job to do, and they couldn’t cover up anymore. In my opinion, it turned the whole situation around.

Recently, the Army got all excited when folks discovered that there were differences between the training programs at the various training centers. You may be sure that they are minor. You may also be sure that the price the Army pays for absolute conformity is too high. It results in lousy, irresponsible, lackluster training by officers and NCOs who are bored to death with “on the trail” type training.

Now, the last and biggest part of all of this is the whole philosophy of training. There I have to talk about General Gorman, because General Gorman and the others who were with him on the Combat Arms Training Board (CATB) at Fort Benning, brought to TRADOC a new concept of performance-oriented training, which is a systematic way to go about the setting of training objectives through the careful determination of tasks, conditions, and standards. They also brought to training some exciting new technology and procedures. It took me some time, frankly, to digest it all myself after I came to TRADOC. But, finally, I saw the great benefit and logic of what they were doing and fully supported it. The credit for the concept really has to go to General Gorman and to a number of other people who worked with him, both earlier and later. They are the ones who articulated this concept, and who were the leading proponents of it in the Army.