The Writing Assignment That Changes Lives

Tuesday, January 24th, 2017

NPR calls Jordan Peterson’s self-authoring the writing assignment that changes lives:

Experiments going back to the 1980s have shown that “therapeutic” or “expressive” writing can reduce depression, increase productivity and even cut down on visits to the doctor.

“The act of writing is more powerful than people think,” Peterson says.

[...]

Recently, researchers have been getting more and more interested in the role that mental motivation plays in academic achievement — sometimes conceptualized as “grit” or “growth mindset” or “executive functioning.”

Peterson wondered whether writing could be shown to affect student motivation. He created an undergraduate course called Maps of Meaning. In it, students complete a set of writing exercises that combine expressive writing with goal-setting.

Students reflect on important moments in their past, identify key personal motivations and create plans for the future, including specific goals and strategies to overcome obstacles. Peterson calls the two parts “past authoring” and “future authoring.”

“It completely turned my life around,” says Christine Brophy, who, as an undergraduate several years ago, was battling drug abuse and health problems and was on the verge of dropping out. After taking Peterson’s course at the University of Toronto, she changed her major. Today she is a doctoral student and one of Peterson’s main research assistants.

In an early study at McGill University in Montreal, the course showed a powerful positive effect with at-risk students, reducing the dropout rate and increasing academic achievement.

Peterson is seeking a larger audience for what he has dubbed “self-authoring.” He started a for-profit company and is selling a version of the curriculum online. Brophy and Peterson have found a receptive audience in the Netherlands.

At the Rotterdam School of Management, a shortened version of self-authoring has been mandatory for all first-year students since 2011. (These are undergraduates — they choose majors early in Europe).

The latest paper, published in June, compares the performance of the first complete class of freshmen to use self-authoring with that of the three previous classes.

Overall, the “self-authoring” students greatly improved the number of credits earned and their likelihood of staying in school. And after two years, ethnic and gender-group differences in performance among the students had all but disappeared.

The ethnic minorities in question made up about one-fifth of the students. They are first- and second-generation immigrants from non-Western backgrounds — Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Eugenics for music

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

Didi Kirsten Tatlow is living in China, where her daughter is in second grade. When the music teacher told them, “We’ve chosen your children according to their physical attributes,” she considered it eugenics for music:

Teacher Wang proceeded to describe a program by which a group of 8-year-olds, selected purely on the basis of physical characteristics rather than interest, would build the best band in the world that would travel overseas and wow audiences with the flower of Chinese youth.

“For the best band, we’ve chosen the best students and the best teachers,” Teacher Wang continued.

Mr. Wang, whom parents addressed only as “Teacher,” (a sign of respect common here) stood before a giant white screen on which he projected a power point full of instrument images. “I’ve chosen your kids, one by one, out of a thousand kids.” Mr. Wang was referring to band C, the third in the school which trained the youngest students, some of whom would eventually rise through the ranks to band B and on to A, at which point they would perform at overseas gigs.

“I’ve looked at their teeth, at their arms, their height, everything, very carefully,” Teacher Wang said. “We don’t want anyone with asthma, or heart problems, or eye problems. And we want the smart kids; the quick learners.”

“Your kids were chosen not because they want to play this or that instrument, but because they have long arms, or the right lips, or are the right height, say for the trumpet, or the drums,” he said.

[...]

Two other non-Chinese, 8-year-old friends of my daughter were among the chosen. The Italian mother of one said her daughter had been chosen for saxophone because the girl was strongly built.

“The other girl playing the sax is a Russian, and she’s also pretty built up and strong,” said my friend. (I have omitted their names out of respect for their privacy and that of their children.)

My friend recalled that some of the parents had asked Teacher Wang why he was choosing children in grade 2 now, rather than earlier when they were in grade 1. Teacher Wang’s reply: “Because in grade 1 their teeth are falling out,” she said. My friend said that Teacher Wang had personally inspected each child’s teeth, as if, she said, “they were horses in the market.”

There was discussion of what kind of lips worked best for the trumpet.

And in a statement that shocked both of us profoundly, Teacher Wang said something about how Africans had long arms and so would be good at particular instruments, such as the cello.

The American father of the third girl said a dentist had visited the school to see which students’ teeth were best suited to play wind instruments. His daughter, braces-free, passed and is learning to play the clarinet.

My daughter, who has some wonky teeth and braces, is a drummer. Apart from the teeth, I can see why; she has the mad energy of Animal in The Muppets and loves what the Chinese call “renao,” or “hot noise,” excitement.

Next thing you know, they’ll start recruiting the tall kids for the basketball team and the tough kids for the wrestling team. Crazy!

Africa and the cold beauty of Maths

Saturday, January 14th, 2017

PISA has the capacity to spread embarrassment far and wide, in rich as well as poor countries, and Dr. James Thompson is “all in favour of that” — but that means that many countries opt out of it (and TIMMS), especially poorer countries in Africa, but a new working paper from the Center for Global Development gets around this:

Internationally comparable test scores play a central role in both research and policy debates on education. However, the main international testing regimes, such as PISA, TIMSS, or PIRLS, include very few low-income countries. For instance, most countries in Southern and Eastern Africa have opted instead for a regional assessment known as SACMEQ. This paper exploits an overlap between the SACMEQ and TIMSS tests—in both country coverage, and questions asked— to assesses the feasibility of constructing global learning metrics by equating regional and international scales. I compare three different equating methods and find that learning levels in this sample of African countries are consistently (a) low in absolute terms, with average pupils scoring below the fifth percentile for most developed economies; (b) significantly lower than predicted by African per capita GDP levels; and (c) converging slowly, if at all, to the rest of the world during the 2000s. While these broad patterns are robust, average performance in individual countries is quite sensitive to the method chosen to link scores. Creating test scores which are truly internationally comparable would be a global public good, requiring more concerted effort at the design stage.

The results are grim:

Substantively, the results here are daunting for African education systems. Most of the national test-score averages I estimate for the thirteen African countries in my sample fall more than two standard deviations below the TIMSS average, which places them below the 5th percentile in most European, North American, and East Asian countries. In contrast, scores from the SACMEQ test administered to math teachers are much higher, but fall only modestly above the TIMSS sample average for seventh- and eighth-grade pupils, in line with earlier analysis by Spaull and van der Berg (2013). African test scores appear low relative to national GDP levels; in a regression of average scores on per capita GDP in PPP terms, average scores in the SACMEQ sample are significantly below the predicted value using all three linking methodologies. Furthermore, there is little sign that African scores were improving rapidly or converging to OECD levels during the 2000s.

Really grim:

In some African countries teachers seem to have lower abilities than students in Europe or East-Asia!

Raising scholastic attainment is unlikely to be a simple question of investing money, Dr. Thompson notes:

A summary of investment in education suggests that the pay-off is front-end loaded: the first $5000 has a big effect, and then it tends to plateau thereafter. Another way of looking at it is to note that once countries get to $16,000 GDP per capita then schooling in those countries accounts for only 10% of the variance of student attainment. So, poor countries (most of Africa is well below this level) should have plenty of scope for educational gains.

Pac-Pro Football

Wednesday, January 11th, 2017

The NFL relies on college football for its minor league, but that may change:

Don Yee, better known as Tom Brady’s agent, is launching a professional football league that will target young players who don’t qualify for college or just want to make money sooner rather than later. In limiting the player pool to those between 18 and 22 years old, the venture will challenge a nearly century-old system in which the National Football League relies almost entirely on colleges to prepare its future workforce.

[...]

The National Collegiate Athletic Association has steadfastly refused to pay athletes but has begun supplementing their scholarships with a monthly living stipend. The amount depends in part on whether an athlete lives on campus but can range from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000. Also, Northwestern’s football players lost their bid to unionize and be treated as employees of the university.

In light of those developments and an NFL rule that requires players to be three years removed from high school to be eligible, Yee and other advocates for athletes have argued for an alternative route for players who want to make it to the highest level of the sport.

[...]

Yee hopes to avoid joining a long list of failed professional football leagues, a group that includes the World Football League, the United States Football League, and the XFL. The NFL folded its own alternative league called NFL Europe in 2007 after 15 seasons. These leagues collapsed amid declining interest and mounting expenses. Beyond paying a minimum of 45 players, owners need training facilities, equipment, coaches and insurance policies — expenses that can reach $5 million to $10 million annually.

“Pac-Pro Football” as its executives refer to it, will have a single-entity structure rather than a franchise model, with the league controlling all team and personnel decisions.

[...]

The Pac-Pro league, McCaffrey said, will target players with NFL-level talent that require additional seasoning. Among those players who could fit the bill are those who struggle with academics or lost their scholarships for disciplinary reasons, or junior-college standouts not yet ready for the NFL.

Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton, for example, spent a year playing at tiny Blinn College after a series of problems forced him to leave the University of Florida. Though Newton later thrived at Auburn, he is the type of athlete the Pac-Pro founders hope will see the new league as a viable option.

Those athletes will be able to get jump on learning the professional style of play, which requires a different skill set than big-time college football.

Well, there is a decent pool of players, I suppose. Fans though?

A “beautiful vision” for the new and improved SAT

Monday, January 9th, 2017

After taking over the College Board in 2012, new CEO David Coleman circulated an internal memo laying out a “beautiful vision” for the new and improved SAT:

Literary passages for the new SAT should be “memorable and often beautiful,” he wrote, and students should be able to take the test by computer.

Finishing the redesign quickly was essential. If the overhaul were ready by March 2015, he wrote in a later email to senior employees, then the New York-based College Board could win new business and counter the most popular college entrance exam in America, the ACT.

Perhaps the biggest change was the new test’s focus on the Common Core, the controversial set of learning standards that Coleman himself helped create.

The roll-out hasn’t gone well. “It was a bad year, and I’m sorry,” Coleman said in September.

There might be something amiss with our institutions of higher education

Sunday, January 8th, 2017

There might be something amiss with our institutions of higher education, Paul A. Rahe suggests:

Forty years ago, when I was in my last year as a graduate student at Yale, I taught in a program called Directed Studies. It was a one-year boot camp for the very best entering freshmen. It consisted of three year-long courses: History and Politics One, Literature One, and Philosophy One. In each class, the students started at the beginning — with, say, Herodotus, the Jewish Bible, and the pre-Socratics — and ended in the 20th century — with, say, Heidegger, T. S. Eliot, and Wittgenstein. Twenty years ago, I returned as a visiting professor to teach History and Politics One in the same program. I was by no means the only visitor. The director could not find in the Yale faculty enough instructors ready and willing to do the job. Teaching the very best students in the college a survey of the tradition of political rumination was beyond the capacity of all but a handful of those on the Yale University teaching staff. The old liberal arts curriculum, which is still intact here at Hillsdale, produced citizens with a broad range of knowledge and a general familiarity with our cultural tradition. Today you cannot assume such knowledge on the part of a distinguished university’s faculty.

Teenagers and the Education Apocalypse

Friday, January 6th, 2017

While discussing The Education Apocalypse, Glenn Harlan Reynolds talks a bit about teenagers

It’s very interesting because if you look at history, we tended to treat adolescents as sort of junior adults and we didn’t — teenagerdom is a fairly recent invention and in fact we didn’t really start talking about teenagers until we had kids in school and we took kids who used to hang out with adults in adult settings, doing adult tasks where if you wanted to be respected, which everybody does, you are going to be respected by adults for being good at doing adult things.

Then we took all those kids and instead we segregated them into schools where they were around a bunch of other teenagers and you still want to be respected by the crowd you’re part of, but now your crowd is all people your own age. So you do the stuff that impresses people your own age and the problem with that is teenagers are idiots.

So the stuff that impresses teenagers is usually idiotic. So instead of being really good at bailing hay or fixing a plough or something like that that you might have done a hundred years before, you want to be good at drinking or dating or playing football or other things that are fundamentally more trivial but that appeal to your peer group.

I recommend reading the whole conversation transcript, but I’ll excerpt one more point that I’ve noticed, too:

If you have the experience as I’ve had of just driving through town driving past schools and then driving past prisons, they really often look a lot alike.

Talk to a physicist

Thursday, January 5th, 2017

Sabine Hossenfelder is currently a research fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, but between gigs she has run a talk-to-a-physicist service:

‘Talk to a physicist. Call me on Skype. $50 per 20 minutes.’

A week passed with nothing but jokes from colleagues, most of whom thought my post was a satire. No, no, I assured them, I’m totally serious; send me your crackpots, they’re welcome. In the second week I got two enquiries and, a little nervous, I took on my first customer. Then came a second. A third. And they kept coming.

My callers fall into two very different categories. Some of them cherish the opportunity to talk to a physicist because one-to-one conversation is simply more efficient than Google. They can shoot up to 20 questions a minute, everything from: ‘How do we know quarks exist?’ to ‘Can atoms contain tiny universes?’ They’re normally young or middle-aged men who want to understand all the nerdy stuff but have no time to lose. That’s the minority.

The majority of my callers are the ones who seek advice for an idea they’ve tried to formalise, unsuccessfully, often for a long time. Many of them are retired or near retirement, typically with a background in engineering or a related industry. All of them are men. Many base their theories on images, downloaded or drawn by hand, embedded in long pamphlets. A few use basic equations. Some add videos or applets. Some work with 3D models of Styrofoam, cardboard or wires. The variety of their ideas is bewildering, but these callers have two things in common: they spend an extraordinary amount of time on their theories, and they are frustrated that nobody is interested.

Sociologists have long tried and failed to draw a line between science and pseudoscience. In physics, though, that ‘demarcation problem’ is a non-problem, solved by the pragmatic observation that we can reliably tell an outsider when we see one. During a decade of education, we physicists learn more than the tools of the trade; we also learn the walk and talk of the community, shared through countless seminars and conferences, meetings, lectures and papers. After exchanging a few sentences, we can tell if you’re one of us. You can’t fake our community slang any more than you can fake a local accent in a foreign country.

My clients know so little about current research in physics, they aren’t even aware they’re in a foreign country. They have no clue how far they are from making themselves understood. Their ideas aren’t bad; they are raw versions of ideas that underlie established research programmes. But those who seek my advice lack the mathematical background to build anything interesting on their intuitions. I try to help them by making connections to existing research. During our conversations, I point them towards relevant literature and name the important keywords. I give recommendations on what to do next, what they need to learn, or what problem lies in the way. And I make clear that if they want to be taken seriously by physicists, there’s no way around mathematics, lots of mathematics. Images and videos will not do.

One or two seemed miffed that I didn’t immediately exclaim: ‘Genius!’, but most of my callers realised that they can’t contribute to a field without meeting today’s quality standard. Then again, I hear only from those willing to invest in advancing their education to begin with. After our first conversation, they often book another appointment. One of them might even publish a paper soon. Not a proposal for a theory of everything, mind you, but a new way to look at a known effect. A first step on a long journey.

I haven’t learned any new physics in these conversations, but I have learned a great deal about science communication. My clients almost exclusively get their information from the popular science media. Often, they get something utterly wrong in the process. Once I hear their reading of an article about, say, space-time foam or black hole firewalls, I can see where their misunderstanding stems from. But they come up with interpretations that never would have crossed my mind when writing an article.

A typical problem is that, in the absence of equations, they project literal meanings onto words such as ‘grains’ of space-time or particles ‘popping’ in and out of existence. Science writers should be more careful to point out when we are using metaphors. My clients read way too much into pictures, measuring every angle, scrutinising every colour, counting every dash. Illustrators should be more careful to point out what is relevant information and what is artistic freedom. But the most important lesson I’ve learned is that journalists are so successful at making physics seem not so complicated that many readers come away with the impression that they can easily do it themselves. How can we blame them for not knowing what it takes if we never tell them?

The rest of us are end users

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

More people believe in magic than we would care to admit, Richard Fernandez says:

ISIS is currently carrying out a campaign against wizards in their midst and is executing those they suspect of dabbling in it. But that is understandable given their world view.

[...]

When the last cellphone in the Caliphate is destroyed or worn out no one will know how to make another. Their 8th century is capable of producing fanaticism but probably couldn’t make a ball point pen. Objects in the ISIS universe are “magical” — put there by Allah in the possession of the infidel for holy warriors to plunder and enjoy until the power which inheres in them gradually fades away.

Surprisingly much of the modern world is not very different. Many people treat technology like magic even in the West. How does a cell phone work? Dunno. Where does it come from? The store. Civilization depends on the knowledge of a small fraction of the world’s 7.5 billion population. The know-how to make pharmaceuticals, complex devices, aircraft, computers, industrial chemicals from scratch is probably confined to a few million people concentrated in North America, Europe, Russia and North Asia. The rest of us are end users.

If a global catastrophe destroyed all of civilization’s works yet spared these few million they could re-create every object in the world again. By contrast if only these few millions perished the remaining billions though untouched could continue only until things broke down. It is knowledge which sustains civilization.

Jordan Peterson

Saturday, December 3rd, 2016

Joe Rogan interviews Jordan Peterson, tenured professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, and what starts out as a light discussion of the craziness of political correctness turns deep a couple hours in, as he moves on to self authoring and the metaphysics of religion:

The Push to Diversify Gifted-and-Talented Programs

Saturday, December 3rd, 2016

The push to diversify gifted-and-talented programs is on:

The Department of Education has allowed the highly sought-after school [the Brooklyn School of Inquiry] to set aside 40 percent of its kindergarten seats specifically for low-income children.

[...]

Citywide, about 77 percent of students are poor and almost 70 percent are black or Hispanic. Last year, BSI’s poverty rate was 23 percent, and less than 10 percent of students were black or Hispanic.

The disparity is not unique to BSI, or to gifted education. Citywide, about 73 percent of gifted students are white or Asian, and the poverty rate averages around 43 percent.

There are almost no students in the city’s gifted programs who are learning English, have special needs, or are in temporary housing. Put together, they make up less than 10 percent.

“What we have right now is something we should be ashamed of,” said James Borland, who directs gifted-education programs at Teachers College at Columbia University.

We should be ashamed of the fact that almost no students in the city’s gifted programs are learning English, have special needs, or are in temporary housing. Clearly.

There’s no getting off this policy treadmill:

Districts used to be able to set their own admissions criteria for gifted programs. That changed in 2007, when the city standardized entry based on test scores, in part to increase diversity. A non-verbal test, also intended to address inequities, was added in 2012. Yet today’s gifted programs remain segregated.

Gifted programs are often seen as a way to help integrate schools:

“It is a way to attract white, higher-income families to a school. But once you do that, it’s like gentrifying a school,” she said. “You walk down the hallway, and you can tell which classroom is gifted and talented and which classroom is general education.”

Uganda to shut down Zuckerberg-funded schools

Tuesday, November 29th, 2016

No good deed goes unpunished in Uganda:

Uganda’s High Court has described the Bridge International Academies (BIA) — which is funded by the likes of Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg — as unsanitary and unqualified, and has ordered it to close its doors in December because it ignored Uganda’s national standards and put the “life and safety” of its 12,000 young students on the line.

The Director of Education Standards for the Ministry, Huzaifa Mutazindwa, told CNN that the nursery and primary schools were not licensed, the teachers weren’t qualified and that there was no record of its curriculum being approved.

“The Ministry does not know what is being taught in these schools which is a point of concern to (the) government,” Mutazindwa said.

The Downfall of Untempered Education

Monday, November 21st, 2016

Giovanni Dannato notes that the educated often believe sentimental ideology like it’s holy gospel:

People who get an education are generally smarter but their advantage in processing information only leads them further astray if they are given bad information. Even a great Empire like China becomes easy prey for a handful of toughened no-nonsense Mongols when the state is run by over-educated children and populated by downtrodden peasants who have no reason to care about who’s in charge.

History shows us those Mongols didn’t need college degrees or Confucian exams with 1% pass rates to run an empire. The downfall of untempered education is you can get caught up in credentials and then reel in shock when someone without a certificate in face punching walks up and simply punches you out.

Elephant and Man at Harvard

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016

The Harvard Crimson acknowledges a lack of diversity on campus — ideological diversity, not the kind that matters:

The most glaring ideological diversity deficit among undergraduates is the relatively small number of students who identify as conservative. In the election survey, fewer than 13 percent of respondents described themselves as “somewhat” or “very” conservative, compared to over 70 percent describing themselves as “somewhat” or “very” liberal.

In contrast, when a Gallup poll early this year asked Americans to describe themselves as “very liberal,” “liberal,” “conservative,” “very conservative,” or “moderate,” a plurality — 37 percent — picked one of the two conservative options, while 35 percent chose “moderate.” In The Crimson’s survey, only 16 percent of respondents picked “moderate.” Most striking, in the Gallup survey, only 24 percent picked one of the liberal choices.

Similarly, while nearly 48 percent of Americans voted for Donald J. Trump in his victory on Tuesday, just 6 percent of undergraduate respondents to The Crimson’s survey preferred him. This number stands in stark contrast to the 35 percent of millennials nationwide who cast their ballots for the President-elect — a testament to his divisiveness, but also a reflection of the insularity of the Harvard bubble.

How the University of Alabama Became a National Player

Tuesday, November 8th, 2016

How did the University of Alabama became a national player?

The university is spending $100.6 million in merit aid, up from $8.3 million a decade ago and more than twice what it allocates to students with financial need. It also has hired an army of recruiters to put Bama on college lists of full-paying students who, a few years ago, might not have looked its way.

The University of Alabama is the fastest-growing flagship in the country. Enrollment hit 37,665 this fall, nearly a 58 percent increase over 2006. As critical as the student body jump: the kind of student the university is attracting. The average G.P.A. of entering freshmen is 3.66, up from 3.4 a decade ago, and the top quarter scored at least a 31 on the ACT, up from 27.

Each year, about 18 percent of freshmen leave their home state for college in another. They tend to be the best prepared academically and most able to pay, said Thomas G. Mortenson, senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, who tracks this data. Achieving students are likely to be bound for successful lives, enhancing their alma mater’s status and, the hope is, filling its coffers with donations. Schools want them.

Merit aid given to achievers has a magnetic effect. “If we recruit five students from a high school, we will get 10 students the next year and they may not all be scholarship students,” said Stuart R. Bell, president of the University of Alabama.

Instead of layoffs and cuts, some public universities facing budget challenges are following this blueprint for survival: higher charges to students, and more of them. Nowadays, the real money comes from tuition and fees. The average for four-year public colleges rose 81 percent in constant dollars between 2000 and 2014. At Alabama, tuition and fees have about doubled in the last decade, to $10,470 for residents and to $26,950 for nonresidents.

Even when it awards full-tuition scholarships, the university makes money — on dorm rooms and meal plans, books, football tickets, hoodies and school spirit items like the giant Bama banner Ms. Zavilowitz and her roommates bought for the blank wall in the suite’s common area. All told, these extras and essentials brought in $173 million last year — on top of $633 million in tuition and fees, up from $135 million in 2005.

“I hate very much to use this analogy, but it’s like running a business,” Dr. Whitaker said.