Most of his readers will not object on scientific grounds

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2021

Scott Alexander reviews Fredrik deBoer’s The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice:

I’m Freddie’s ideological enemy, which means I have to respect him. And there’s a lot to like about this book. I think its two major theses — that intelligence is mostly innate, and that this is incompatible with equating it to human value — are true, important, and poorly appreciated by the general population. I tried to make a somewhat similar argument in my Parable Of The Talents, which DeBoer graciously quotes in his introduction. Some of the book’s peripheral theses — that a lot of education science is based on fraud, that US schools are not declining in quality, etc – are also true, fascinating, and worth spreading. Overall, I think this book does more good than harm.

It’s also rambling, self-contradictory in places, and contains a lot of arguments I think are misguided or bizarre.


Remember, one of the theses of this book is that individual differences in intelligence are mostly genetic. But DeBoer spends only a little time citing the studies that prove this is true. He (correctly) decides that most of his readers will object not on the scientific ground that they haven’t seen enough studies, but on the moral ground that this seems to challenge the basic equality of humankind. He (correctly) points out that this is balderdash, that innate differences in intelligence don’t imply differences in moral value, any more than innate differences in height or athletic ability or anything like that imply differences in moral value. His goal is not just to convince you about the science, but to convince you that you can believe the science and still be an okay person who respects everyone and wants them to be happy.

He could have written a chapter about race that reinforced this message. He could have reviewed studies about whether racial differences in intelligence are genetic or environmental, come to some conclusion or not, but emphasized that it doesn’t matter, and even if it’s 100% genetic it has no bearing at all on the need for racial equality and racial justice, that one race having a slightly higher IQ than another doesn’t make them “superior” any more than Pygmies’ genetic short stature makes them “inferior”.

Instead he — well, I’m not really sure what he’s doing. He starts by says racial differences must be environmental. Then he says that studies have shown that racial IQ gaps are not due to differences in income/poverty, because the gaps remain even after controlling for these. But, he says, there could be other environmental factors aside from poverty that cause racial IQ gaps. After tossing out some possibilities, he concludes that he doesn’t really need to be able to identify a plausible mechanism, because “white supremacy touches on so many aspects of American life that it’s irresponsible to believe we have adequately controlled for it”, no matter how many studies we do or how many confounders we eliminate. His argument, as far as I can tell, is that it’s always possible that racial IQ differences are environmental, therefore they must be environmental. Then he goes on to, at great length, denounce as loathsome and villainous anyone who might suspect these gaps of being genetic. Such people are “noxious”, “bigoted”, “ugly”, “pseudoscientific” “bad people” who peddle “propaganda” to “advance their racist and sexist agenda”. (But tell us what you really think!)


He acknowledges the existence of expert scientists who believe the differences are genetic (he names Linda Gottfredson in particular), but only to condemn them as morally flawed for asserting this.

But this is exactly the worldview he is, at this very moment, trying to write a book arguing against! His thesis is that mainstream voices say there can’t be genetic differences in intelligence among individuals, because that would make some people fundamentally inferior to others, which is morally repugnant — but those voices are wrong, because differences in intelligence don’t affect moral equality. Then he adds that mainstream voices say there can’t be genetic differences in intelligence among ethnic groups, because that would make some groups fundamentally inferior to others, which is morally repugnant — and those voices are right; we must deny the differences lest we accept the morally repugnant thing.

The instructor who tasked this assignment will look at you funny

Sunday, February 28th, 2021

In The Targeter, Nada Bakos explains that she had to take the CIA’s 16-week CAP (Career Analyst Program) course when she switched over to an Analyst role — but she and some of the others who weren’t new to the Agency had trouble taking it seriously:

We also made up our own fake assignment on official letterhead, then dropped it into the bowl from which class teams drew their morning exercises.

The first one read: “A leading radical Islamic cleric is being recruited by the CIA.” Then came the pièce de résistance: “Write a bottom-line assessment of his value to the Agency. Then fold the paper three times, walk to the room with the instructors, stop at their table, and pull on your ear. The instructor who tasked this assignment will look at you funny. Hand said instructor the paper; he will confirm receipt by saying, ‘What’s this?’ To complete the exercise, wink at him and respond, ‘My phone number.’” Soon enough, we watched another analyst fold his paper three times and march straight out of the classroom.

We laughed hysterically — which is how the poor analyst knew whom to yell at when he came back four minutes later looking ready to break things.

The only thing worse than hardly knowing anything was knowing a little bit more

Sunday, January 31st, 2021

Tom Vanderbilt decided to learn to play chess as an adult, when his daughter started learning:

Even as your skills and knowledge progress, there is a potential value to holding on to that beginner’s mind. In what’s come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, the psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger showed that on various cognitive tests the people who did the worst were also the ones who most “grossly overestimated” their actual performance. They were “unskilled and unaware of it”.

This can certainly be a stumbling block for beginners. But additional research later showed that the only thing worse than hardly knowing anything was knowing a little bit more. This pattern appears in the real world: doctors learning a spinal surgery technique committed the most errors not on the first or second try, but on the 15th; pilot errors, meanwhile, seem to peak not in the earliest stages but after about 800 hours of flight time.


In the face of my agonised dithering, they would launch fast, brute-force attacks — sometimes effective, sometimes foolhardy. “Children just kind of go for it,” Daniel King, the English grandmaster and chess commentator, told me. “That kind of confidence can be very disconcerting for the opponent.”

Young children, for example, have been shown to be faster and more accurate at tests involving “probabilistic sequence learning” — the sort in which people must guess which triggers will lead to what events (for example, if you press button A, event X will happen).

After the age of 12, this ability begins to decline. As researchers suggest, people start relying more on “internal models” of cognition and reasoning, instead of what they see right in front of them. In other words, they overthink things. In chess games, where my adult opponents often seemed to battle unseen internal demons, the kids just seemed to twitch out a series of moves.


When I asked our chess coach about what it was like to teach adult chess beginners as opposed to child chess beginners, he thought for a moment and said: “Adults need to explain to themselves why they play what they play.” Kids, he said, “don’t do that”. He compared it to languages: “Beginner adults learn the rules of grammar and pronunciation and use those to put sentences together. Little kids learn languages by talking.”


A study that had adults aged 58 to 86 simultaneously take multiple classes — ranging from Spanish to music composition to painting — found that after just a few months, the learners had improved not only at Spanish or painting, but on a battery of cognitive tests. They’d rolled back the odometers in their brains by some 30 years, doing better on the tests than a control group who took no classes.

Having older brothers or sisters isn’t just a great plot point in a life story

Thursday, January 7th, 2021

In The Best: How Elite Athletes Are Made, Mark Williams and Tim Wigmore point to two surprising factors that contribute to athletic success — older siblings, and growing up in a mid-sized town:

Rosalsky: One of the factors that Michael Jordan credited with driving him to win on the court was playing with his older brother, Larry.

Jordan: I don’t think from a competitive standpoint, I would be here without the confrontations with my brother. I always felt like I was fighting Larry for my father’s attention.

Rosalsky: According to a new book, The Best: How Elite Athletes Are Made, having older brothers or sisters isn’t just a great plot point in a life story. It shows up in a lot of research about who is more likely to become a champion. The book was co-written by sports scientist Mark Williams and sports writer Tim Wigmore.

Wigmore: Even when two siblings both become elite athletes, the younger one is better in about two out of three cases.

Rosalsky: Wigmore says another good example for the younger sibling effect is Serena Williams. She has an older sister, Venus, who is also a great tennis player. But Venus didn’t win as many Grand Slam titles as Serena. As kids, younger siblings are exposed to sports through their older siblings, and they’re usually smaller and weaker than them, which means they have to work harder to keep up. Wigmore says this helps them gain skills and grit.

Wigmore: And so with Serena Williams, actually, you look at pictures of her playing with Venus as a kid and there’s often two or three inches between them. And that means she has to try and make up for that that whole time.

Rosalsky: Another factor helping younger siblings, he says, is parents are usually more hands off with them. Younger siblings are often given more time to mess around and play sports with their friends or older siblings. This informal play helps them not only play more but also develop their athletic skills through trial and error, as opposed to top-down rigorous instruction.

Wigmore: Kids who do more informal play, it’s better for their creativity. They’re also just exposed to more variables, more different situations. They get more chance to learn, more chance to fail. And that’s really good for you.

Rosalsky: Another ingredient that helps create elite athletes — growing up in a midsize town, a place small enough to have lots of space and opportunity to play sports but big enough to have good coaches, facilities and competitors.

Wigmore: Where you grow up is one of the biggest factors that influences whether you become an elite athlete. So in the U.S., amazingly, if you grow up in a town of between 50,000 and 100,000, you are 15 times more chance of becoming an elite athlete than if you grew up in areas smaller or bigger.

Rosalsky: Michael Jordan, for example, grew up in the midsize town of Wilmington, N.C., which was under 100,000 people when he grew up there. During the 20th century, Wilmington produced a whole host of elite athletes, including Sugar Ray Leonard, an Olympic gold medalist in boxing. Sugar Ray, by the way, also had an older brother, Roger, who started boxing first.

(hat tip to Annie Murphy Paul, author of Origins, The Cult of Personality, and soon The Extended Mind.)

Bill Gates recommends 5 good books for a lousy year

Monday, December 14th, 2020

Bill Gates recommends 5 good books for a lousy year. The one I have already read, David Epstein’s Range, is well worth reading:

I started following Epstein’s work after watching his fantastic 2014 TED talk on sports performance. In this fascinating book, he argues that although the world seems to demand more and more specialization — in your career, for example — what we actually need is more people “who start broad and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives while they progress.” His examples run from Roger Federer to Charles Darwin to Cold War-era experts on Soviet affairs. I think his ideas even help explain some of Microsoft’s success, because we hired people who had real breadth within their field and across domains. If you’re a generalist who has ever felt overshadowed by your specialist colleagues, this book is for you.

I have mentioned Range a few times:

Here are three ways that education funding might look different a decade from now

Sunday, December 6th, 2020

The predominant funding model for K-12 education is based on seat time, or how many students are physically present in a classroom in a traditional school year:

The pandemic has disrupted nearly everything about K-12, including who is in a school building. It has also shown that learning can take place virtually, or in small groups, not just in a classroom for nine months straight.


Overall, K-12 spending in the U.S. was $739 billion in 2016-17, or $14,439 per student, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Most K-12 schools in the U.S. rely on local property tax for roughly half of their revenue, a legacy of the days when public schools were community institutions funded by donations.

Over time, state funding has become a bigger piece of the pie, driven partly by judges who found that local funding unfairly benefits students in wealthy areas and penalizes students in poor ones. Per-pupil funding still varies widely depending on the wealth of the community where a school is located.


Here are three ways that education funding might look different a decade from now.

One model allots money based on a student’s individual needs, with schools getting paid more for kids from poor areas or those who are struggling to meet proficiency standards, as opposed to equal amounts for each child.


A “learner-validated” model distributes funding based on what the student learns, as they master different skills or meet completion requirements. It also means that schools have an incentive to improve their teaching, because schools get paid more as learners meet benchmarks.


There will likely be a mix of online and in-person learning models that continue after the crisis is over, funded by tax revenue, offset by tax breaks to parents or supported by public and private grants.

Michael Strong has explained how to give your child an expensive private education for less than $3,000 per year — which is quite a bit less than $14,439.

Almost every parent is horrified by the idea of unschooling

Monday, November 2nd, 2020

One popular variant on homeschooling, Bryan Caplan explains, is unschooling:

The practice varies, as practices always do. The essence, however, is that the student does what he wants. He studies what he wants. He studies for as long as he wants. If he asks you to teach him something, you teach him. Yet if he decides to play videogames all day, the principled unschooling response is: “Let him.”

Almost every parent is horrified by the idea of unschooling. Even most homeschoolers shake their heads. Advocates insist, however, that unschooling works. Psychologist Peter Gray defends the merits of unschooling with great vigor and eloquence. According to unschoolers, the human child is naturally curious. Given freedom, he won’t just learn basic skills; he’ll ultimately find a calling.

On the surface, unschooling sounds like Social Desirability Bias run amok: “Oh yes, every child loves to learn, it’s just society that fails them!” And as a mortal enemy of Social Desirability Bias, my instinct is to dismiss unschooling out of hand.

One thing I loathe more than Social Desirability Bias, however, is refusing to calm down and look at the facts. Fact: I’ve personally met and conversed with dozens of adults who were unschooled. Overall, they appear at least as well-educated as typical graduates from the public school system. Indeed, as Gray would predict, unschoolers are especially likely to turn their passions into careers. Admittedly, some come across as flaky, but then again so do a lot young people. When you look closely, unschoolers have only one obvious problem.

They’re weak in math! In my experience, even unschoolers with stellar IQs tend to be weak in algebra. Algebra, I say! And their knowledge of more advanced mathematics is sparser still.

Staunch unschoolers will reply: So what? Who needs algebra? The honest answer, though, is: Anyone who wants to pursue a vast range of high-status occupations. STEM requires math. CS requires math. Social science requires math. Even sophisticated lawyers — the kind that discuss investments’ Net Present Values — require math.

Won’t kids who would greatly benefit from math choose to learn math given the freedom to do so? The answer, I fear, is: Rarely.


Mainstream critics of unschooling will obviously use this criticism to dismiss the entire approach. And staunch unschoolers will no doubt stick to their guns. I, however, propose a keyhole solution. I call it: Unschooling + Math.

It’s a teacher’s dream

Tuesday, October 6th, 2020

The Wall Street Journal notes that teachers are finding higher pay and growing options in Covid pods:

Krissy Rand has more than a decade of experience teaching special education to elementary school students, most recently in the Salem, Mass., public school district. She calls last spring’s remote teaching a nightmare, and was disheartened to learn about her school’s Covid-19 fall guidelines. With no library or gym time, “you’re basically a prisoner in your classroom,” she says.

The 39-year-old Ms. Rand put out her résumé. Eight groups of families contacted her within three days. She now makes more money teaching six first-graders from six families in Wellesley, Mass. They are following their public school’s curriculum, and she’s added cooking, yoga and earth sciences, with lots of hands-on experiments. She loves that there are no rules and administrative red tape, and no sitting through long meetings.

“It’s a teacher’s dream,” she says. “The day flies by.”


Depending on qualifications and experience, pod size and region, teachers can earn hourly rates starting at $40 in learning pods, ranging from a few hours a day to a full-time, five-day a week position, says Waine Tam, CEO of Selected. That company helps families and schools source and hire teachers, and has placed teachers in pods in 42 states.

The national average public school teacher salary for 2018–19 was $62,304, according to the National Education Association.

I’m reminded of Michael Strong’s How to Give Your Child an Expensive Private Education — For Less Than $3,000 per Year.

He disappeared into a room, and you didn’t see him again until it was done

Friday, August 7th, 2020

Ryan Holiday illustrates the best career advice he ever received with a story from the NFL:

At the height of the financial crisis in 1975, Bill Belichick — the now six-time Super Bowl-winning head coach of the New England Patriots — was 23 years old and unemployed. Desperate for a job in football after an assistant position fell through, according to his biographer David Halberstam, he wrote some 250 letters to college and professional football coaches. Nothing came of it except a unpaid job for the Baltimore Colts.

The Colts’ head coach desperately needed someone for the one part of the job everyone else disliked: analyzing film.

Most people would have hated this job, especially back then, but it turned out to be the springboard through which the greatest coach in football was launched into his legendary career.

In this lowly position, Belichick thrived on what was considered grunt work, asked for it, and strove to become the best at precisely what others thought they were too good for. “He was like a sponge, taking it all in, listening to everything,” one coach said. “You gave him an assignment and he disappeared into a room and you didn’t see him again until it was done, and then he wanted to do more,” said another.

Most importantly, he made the other coaches look good. His insights gave them things they could give their players. It gave them an edge they would take credit for exploiting in the game.

It’s a strategy that all of us ought to follow, whatever stage of our careers we happen to be in. Forget credit. Do the work.

Demonization becomes a winning Darwinian strategy

Wednesday, August 5th, 2020

We learn by paying attention to what others attend to, which is why, Arnold Kling speculates, in-class learning works better than watching a lecture on line:

When I am in a classroom, others are paying attention to the speaker. This makes my attention to the speaker instinctive. I don’t have to use so much willpower to pay attention. But when it’s just me sitting in front of a computer, I have to will myself to pay attention. It uses up more effort and takes more out of me.

That’s not his main point though:

In the twentieth century, watching television or listening to the radio were often social activities. TV and radio could command our attention the way the speaker in a classroom would, through people paying attention to what others were attending to.

But we use 21st-century media in isolation. That means that the media need other means to command our attention. They cannot rely on our use of social cues. Instead, they have to rely on dopamine hits. Porn. Games. And demonization.

We get a dopamine hit by seeing the demonization of people with whom we disagree. So demonization becomes a winning Darwinian strategy in the age of contemporary media.

The whole point of writing The Three Languages of Politics was to describe demonization rhetoric under the assumption that people would not want to demonize. I thought that if you recognize the rhetoric, you would back away from it.

Instead, the religion that persecutes heretics justifies demonization. To criticize demonization is to be a heretic. In a world where people consume media in isolation, an ideology that justifies demonization has an advantage.

At least Anne Frank got a book deal

Tuesday, June 30th, 2020

Pollyanna gets a bad rap, Lenore Skenazy argues:

Pollyanna movies have been made around the globe, despite the fact that her name long ago became shorthand for gratingly grateful. What I would call the “At least Anne Frank got a book deal!” outlook Pollyanna calls the “Glad Game,” a technique she was taught by her missionary dad when she was desperately hoping for a doll and received instead a pair of crutches. But at least she didn’t need the crutches, so — hooray!

I recently decided it was time to finally watch (and possibly learn from) Pollyanna. Steeling myself for a sap overload, I was shocked to discover the character was not a cloying goody-goody but actually sly, smart — and manipulative.

The basic plot: Parentless Pollyanna arrives in a small Vermont town to live with her rich and icy Aunt Polly. Pollyanna doesn’t mind the attic room — just look at that view! — and soon she’s out and about, meeting the locals. She chats with shut-in Mrs. Snow, who’s been poring over a casket catalog, and wealthy recluse Mr. Pendleton, who hates kids until Pollyanna pushes her way in and points out the rainbows his chandelier casts on the wall. Pretty soon they’re stringing a clothesline of crystals across the living room and rainbows dance everywhere — a hobby she brings to Mrs. Snow’s stuffy bedroom as well.

By doggedly refusing to treat these grumpy adults as anything other than fun-loving potential friends, they start to become exactly that. But how?

“Pollyanna is nice to the people you don’t want to be around and therefore makes them nice,” says Camilo Ortiz, associate professor of psychology at Long Island University. The sourpusses treated everyone as hateful. When along comes someone who doesn’t hate them and isn’t hateable, their circuits sputter. Either life is nasty, brutish, and short, or it isn’t. Unable to hold two opposing viewpoints at once, they dump their old one (life stinks) and embrace the new.


They may feel angry and aggrieved, but is life really that bad? Or is it just their ornery, self-pitying interpretation?

Pollyanna brings CBT to the town. And lately, some parents are bringing Pollyanna’s lesson into their homes. “I deliberately made my husband and daughter, who’s 13, watch it with me,” says author Alina Adams. “I was born in the Soviet Union and spent my first seven years there. Growing up, the attitude was ‘it could always be worse.’” Her Soviet upbringing made American life one big Glad Game for Adams.


Me? I’m a proud Pollyanna convert. You can play the sad game, the mad game, or the Glad Game. Only one is any fun.

Passive repetitive reading produces little or no benefit for learning

Sunday, May 24th, 2020

Research dating back a century has shown that retrieval contributes to learning, but the past decade has seen a renewed, intense focus on exploring the benefits of retrieval for learning:

This recent research has established that repeated retrieval enhances learning with a wide range of materials, in a variety of settings and contexts, and with learners ranging from preschool ages into later adulthood (Balota, Duchek, Sergent-Marshall & Roediger, 2006; Fritz, Morris, Nolan & Singleton, 2007).

A word-learning experiment illustrates some key points about retrieval-based learning. In the experiment (Karpicke & Bauernschmidt, 2011), students learned a list of foreign language words (e.g., Swahili vocabulary words like “mashua — boat”) across cycles of study and recall trials. In study trials, the students saw a vocabulary word and its translation on the computer screen, and in recall trials, they saw a vocabulary word and had to recall and type its translation. The students studied a list of vocabulary words, then attempted to retrieve the whole list, studied it again, retrieved it again, and so on across alternating study and retrieval practice blocks.

There were several different conditions in the experiment. In one condition, students simply studied the words once, without trying to recall them at all. In a second condition, students continued studying and recalling the words until they had recalled all of them once. After a word was successfully retrieved once, it was “dropped” from further practice — the students did not see it again in the learning session.

Other conditions in the experiment examined the effects of repeated retrieval practice. Once a word was recalled, the computer program required the students to practice retrieving the items three more times. One repeated retrieval condition had the three recall trials happen immediately, three times in a row. This condition, referred to as massed retrieval practice, is akin to repeating a new piece of information over and over in your head right after you experience it. Finally, in the last condition highlighted here, the students also practiced retrieving the words three times, but the repeated retrievals were spaced throughout the learning session. For instance, once a student correctly recalled the translation for mashua, the program moved on to other vocabulary words, but prompts to practice retrieval of the translation for mashua would pop up later on in the program. In this way, the retrieval opportunities were spaced throughout the learning session.

The key question in this research was, how well would students remember the vocabulary word translations in the long term? Figure 1 shows the proportion of translations that students remembered one week after the initial learning session.


Merely studying the words once without ever recalling them produced extremely poor performance (average recall was 1 percent, barely visible on the figure). Practicing until each translation was recalled once was much better. But what about the effects of repeated retrieval practice? Massed retrieval — repeating the translations three times immediately — produced no additional gain in learning. Repeated retrieval enhanced learning only when the repetitions were spaced, and indeed, the effects of repeated spaced retrieval were very large. In a single experiment, simple changes that incorporated spaced retrieval practice took performance from nearly total forgetting to extremely good retention (about 80 percent correct) one week after an initial learning experience (see also Karpicke & Roediger, 2008; Pyc & Rawson, 2010).


In one survey (Karpicke, Butler & Roediger, 2009), college students were asked to list the strategies they use while studying and to rank-order the strategies. The results, shown in Figure 2, indicate that students’ most frequent study strategy, by far, is repetitive reading of notes or textbooks. Active retrieval practice lagged far behind repetitive reading and other strategies (for a review of several learning strategies, see Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan & Willingham, 2013). A wealth of research has shown that passive repetitive reading produces little or no benefit for learning (Callender & McDaniel, 2009). Yet not only was repetitive reading the most frequently listed strategy, it was also the strategy most often listed as students’ number one choice, by a large margin.

Teachers don’t learn about learning

Friday, May 22nd, 2020

Many things that go on at schools are at odds with the conclusions of rigorous education research:

Teaching kids abstract critical thinking skills is unlikely to help them think critically. The length of lectures often exceeds children’s attention spans. Most anti-bullying programs don’t work.


The results were “sobering,” according to a March 2020 report, “Learning by Scientific Design; Early insights from a network informing teacher preparation.” By my math, teacher candidates scored an average of 57 percent or 31 questions correct on a 54-question test — an F.


Deans for Impact instead reported the results in three separate categories: 49 percent on 14 basic cognitive science principles; 58 percent correct on 32 questions about applying these concepts in the classroom, and 67 percent on eight questions about beliefs about how kids learn.


One common misunderstanding, according to the report, is mistaking student engagement for learning. In one question, student teachers were asked to pick between two classroom activities to teach students the difference between types of newspaper articles. One activity asked students to read the same three articles and answer three questions in small discussion groups. One example: “Make a list of differences between the news article and the opinion pieces. Which of these can be attributed to the authors’ differing purposes?” The second activity had students go on a newspaper scavenger hunt and sort articles into three categories: persuade, inform and entertain.

The question specifically asked teachers to pick the activity that would help students learn the ways that an author’s purpose influences their writing. And for the education researchers who helped create the assessment, it wasn’t a close call. “None of these are gotcha questions,” said Heal, a consultant with Deans for Impact.

But only 22 percent of future teachers picked the first activity, which was the correct answer, because it requires students to make their thinking visible and identify key features of each text. That helps students build a mental model that they can apply again in the future. The second activity doesn’t require much analysis but teacher candidates gravitated toward it. Why? “The first activity is very boring, I didn’t even want to read the questions,” wrote one test taker. “The second activity is more inviting, seems more hands on and is more inquiry learning.”

The test also revealed that many teacher candidates embrace the myth of learning styles, believing that individual students are either visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners. The research consensus is that differentiating instruction this way doesn’t boost learning.


Twenty-two teaching instructors at the six schools volunteered to take the test themselves. They also failed the section on basic cognitive science principles but they passed the section on practical applications in the classroom with an average score of 77 percent correct. Maybe you don’t need to know the details of the science as long as you know how to apply them.

Bryan Caplan’s emergency homeschooling how-to guide

Sunday, May 10th, 2020

Bryan Caplan offers his emergency homeschooling how-to guide:

The foremost question for any homeschooler is: What are you trying to accomplish? My answer is twofold:

1. Teach kids what they need to know to become self-supporting adults, even if it isn’t fun.

2. Give kids a happy childhood.

In pursuit of goal #1, I focus heavily on mathematics. Why? Because most good jobs in the modern world require strong math skills, and very few kids like math enough to learn it on their own. I also mandate reading and writing — but I don’t especially care what they read or what they write about. Indeed, the best route is if they read and write whatever excites them most.

In pursuit of goal #2, I give kids ample breaks, a long lunch (at cheap restaurants in healthy conditions), and plenty of outdoor time. If there’s any academic subject outside math, reading, and writing that they enjoy, I energetically support them. But I don’t burden them with any additional mandatory work — not even economics. I naturally encourage kids to consider the possibility that they might change their minds, but I don’t push.

My other goal, frankly, is to do my own job while my kids learn. Most emergency homeschoolers are probably in the same position. How are you supposed juggle your kids’ education and your job simultaneously? The answer: With calm but strict discipline. Specifically:

1. Create a tentative schedule and share it with your kids — then enforce it like clockwork. This means more initial effort for you, but will quickly pay for itself in both time and frustration.

2. On day one, run diagnostic tests to find out what your students already know. Assign tasks with a wide range of difficulties. Once you find the easiest thing they don’t know well, have them practice until they can do it well. Especially for young kids, don’t worry about completing a curriculum by a specific date. Just know your final destination and start marching. Tell your kids they’ll learn new tasks as soon as they master the material they’re doing. Drill, drill, drill.

3. If your kids have short attention spans, build more breaks into the schedule — but then enforce that schedule. If your kids need to run around, build that into the schedule too.

4. Build parental feedback time into your schedule, then require kids to hold their questions until the scheduled time. This is crucial if you want to get your own work done.

5. Start the day with the most boring material. For 95% of kids, that means math.

6. Reliably respond to misbehavior with calm but firm enforcement. Don’t express anger — but don’t feel sorry for them. There is great wisdom in the tautology that, “The rules are the rules.”

7. Don’t judge case-by-case; except in extreme circumstances (e.g. vomiting), remind off-task kids of the schedule and tell them to keep working. Don’t be afraid to use mild punishments to address misbehavior — but scrupulously enforce all the punishments you announce. It is better to turn a blind eye than to make idle threats.

8. Remember: The main cause of unhappiness is the disparity between what you expect and what happens. Similarly, the main cause of parent-child conflict is the disparity between what you expect and what your kids expect. Once your kids take their schedule for granted, they will feel better about the situation. Once everyone knows what to expect, conflict fades away… usually. Remember: If your own parental weakness makes you miserable, you will be unpleasant company for your kids. So think of the children — ultimately they too will suffer if you let them push your around!

9. Be open to constructive student feedback outside of learning time. During learning time, though, stick to the schedule.

10. Don’t tell kids that something is “fun” if they resent it. Just be honest and remind them that some boring work has a big long-run payoff. Before you tell them so, though, critically assess whether the boring task does in fact have a big long-run payoff. Sorry, mandatory musical instruction is absurd. If kids have to suffer, they should suffer for their own benefit — not your pride.


I bought almost all of the Humble Math workbooks, found out my kids’ current level, and set them to work. I can’t say they’re delighted, but at least they’re making good progress and look forward to the breaks. The reading and writing are easier sells. And at the end of the day during Activity period, we exercise outside, then learn about whatever’s on their minds. So far, contagious disease is a hot topic – we’ve studied smallpox, Spanish flu, and more – complete with graphic medical photos from the internet. Personally, I’d like to teach more economics, but I’ll wait until they’re more curious.

I haven’t looked at Humble Math, but I’ve been impressed by Beast Academy.

If you can’t fight a fire, you’re not going to be a sailor

Saturday, April 18th, 2020

Discussions about reforming Navy boot camp began in 2016, but they picked up urgency following a pair of deadly collisions at sea in 2017:

Officers and administrators have rewritten 60% of boot camp’s two-month curriculum, tightening standards and emphasizing fundamentals like firefighting, damage control such as plugging leaks and day-to-day equipment repairs, and standing watch.

“If you can’t fight a fire, you’re not going to be a sailor,” says Rear Adm. Jamie Sands, the Navy SEAL who was tapped in spring 2019 to command several training programs, including boot camp. “We’ll remediate you, we’ll try to get you there, but if you can’t get there, you can’t be a sailor.” Adm. Sands keeps a copy of the Navy’s report on his desk at all times to remind him that when the service sends poorly trained sailors out to sea, lives are lost.


Recruits now receive 177 hours of hands-on learning during their eight weeks, up from 160 hours in 2017. Classroom instruction fell, as elements were removed, condensed or pushed to subsequent training periods.

In each of the 13 barracks that house recruits at Great Lakes, “we literally tore out computer labs, removed all the desks and turned them into ship decks to practice basic war-fighting competencies,” says Adm. Sands.

Commanders, who lead boot-camp divisions of around 88 recruits and are responsible for their performance, now assess their divisions’ weaknesses and use blocks of time once devoted to online learning to have their recruits drill skills like patching pipes or tying knots to anchor and moor a ship.


Recruits spend two days inside the U.S.S. Marlinspike, a facility at Great Lakes containing a life-size replica of the deck of a surface ship and a classroom outfitted with ropes and bollards, the posts to which ships are tied. There, recruits practice tying lines, relaying orders, getting a ship under way and bringing it back to port. The only thing missing is water.

U.S.S. Marlinspike

To graduate, recruits must pass an all-night test called “battle stations,” proving their skills in an environment designed to look and feel like the deck and hull of a warship. As water floods through a burst pipe, they must identify and repair the leak and move boxes of ammunition to dry storage. In another area, an explosion is followed by smoke and alarms; dummies stand in for sailors with injuries, some fatal. The recruits put out fires and extract the wounded.

Battle stations used to be more of an exercise with coaching from instructors; it is now an evaluation of skills, and failure just before the finish line isn’t uncommon, officers say. On rare occasions, commanders fail entire divisions if recruits don’t display teamwork. Some who fail get one chance to retake the test with another division; others are discharged.