Tag: Education

Children Should Be Allowed to Get Bored

We’re addicted to novelty.

Education researcher Dr Teresa Belton says:

“When children have nothing to do now, they immediately switch on the TV, the computer, the phone or some kind of screen. The time they spend on these things has increased.

“But children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them.”

It is this sort of thing that stimulates the imagination, she said, while the screen “tends to short circuit that process and the development of creative capacity“.

James T. Mangan: 14 Ways to Acquire Knowledge

Brainpickings put me onto this timeless wisdom from famous eccentric James T. Mangan’s 1936 book You Can Do Anything!

14 Ways to Acquire Knowledge

14 Ways to Acquire Knowledge:

PRACTICE
Consider the knowledge you already have — the things you really know you can do. They are the things you have done over and over; practiced them so often that they became second nature. Every normal person knows how to walk and talk. But he could never have acquired this knowledge without practice. For the young child can’t do the things that are easy to older people without first doing them over and over and over.

[…]

Most of us quit on the first or second attempt. But the man who is really going to be educated, who intends to know, is going to stay with it until it is done. Practice!

ASK
Any normal child, at about the age of three or four, reaches the asking period, the time when that quickly developing brain is most eager for knowledge. “When?” “Where?” “How?” “What?” and “Why?” begs the child — but all too often the reply is “Keep still!” “Leave me alone!” “Don’t be a pest!”

Those first bitter refusals to our honest questions of childhood all too often squelch our “Asking faculty.” We grow up to be men and women, still eager for knowledge, but afraid and ashamed to ask in order to get it.

[…]

Every person possessing knowledge is more than willing to communicate what he knows to any serious, sincere person who asks. The question never makes the asker seem foolish or childish — rather, to ask is to command the respect of the other person who in the act of helping you is drawn closer to you, likes you better and will go out of his way on any future occasion to share his knowledge with you.

Ask! When you ask, you have to be humble. You have to admit you don’t know! But what’s so terrible about that? Everybody knows that no man knows everything, and to ask is merely to let the other know that you are honest about things pertaining to knowledge.

REASON
Animals have knowledge. But only men can reason. The better you can reason the farther you separate yourself from animals.

The process by which you reason is known as logic. Logic teaches you how to derive a previously unknown truth from the facts already at hand. Logic teaches you how to be sure whether what you think is true is really true.

[…]

Logic is the supreme avenue to intellectual truth. Don’t ever despair of possessing a logical mind. You don’t have to study it for years, read books and digest a mountain of data. All you have to remember is one word — compare.

Compare all points in a proposition. Note the similarity — that tells you something new. Note the difference — that tells you something new. Then take the new things you’ve found and check them against established laws or principles.

This is logic. This is reason. This is knowledge in its highest form.

Read the rest.

Rethinking the Value of a Business Major

Melissa Korn reporting in the Wall Street Journal:

“The biggest complaint,” writes Korn is that “undergraduate degrees focus too much on the nuts and bolts of finance and accounting and don’t develop enough critical thinking and problem-solving skills through long essays, in-class debates and other hallmarks of liberal-arts courses. Companies say they need flexible thinkers with innovative ideas and a broad knowledge base derived from exposure to multiple disciplines.”

That gap in my own knowledge was one of the reasons I started Farnam Street.

Robert Hagstrom, author of Investing: The Last Liberal Art, adds: comments

At first, you might think the “art of achieving worldly wisdom” is an elective you can do without. After all, there is simply not enough time to read all that is required before the next day’s opening bell, and besides, what passes for reading today is more about adding information and less about gaining knowledge. But don’t despair. In the words of Charlie Munger, “we don’t have to raise everyone’s skill in celestial mechanics to that of Laplace and also ask everyone to achieve a similar level in all other knowledge.” Remember, as he explains, “it turns out that the truly big ideas in each discipline, learned only in essence, carry most of the freight.” Furthermore, attaining broad multidisciplinary skills does not require us to lengthen the already-expensive commitment to college education. We all know individuals who achieved a massive multidisciplinary synthesis of knowledge without having to sign up for another four-year college degree.

According to Munger, the key to true learning and lasting success is learning to think based on a “latticework” of mental models. Building the latticework can be difficult, but once done, it can be applied to a wide range of problems. “Worldly wisdom is mostly very, very simple,” Munger told the Harvard audience. “There are a relatively small number of disciplines and a relatively small number of truly big ideas. And it’s a lot of fun to figure out. Even better, the fun never stops. Furthermore, there’s a lot of money in it, as I can testify from my own personal experience.”

Letting Children Fail Is Not A Dereliction Of Duty

Teacher Jessica Lahey reminds parents that the educational benefits of consequences are a gift, not a dereliction of duty.

The stories teachers exchange these days reveal a whole new level of overprotectiveness: parents who raise their children in a state of helplessness and powerlessness, children destined to an anxious adulthood, lacking the emotional resources they will need to cope with inevitable setback and failure.

Overparenting is the new parenting. And Lahey’s not talking about the subset of overparenting that, say, refuses to let kids have sleep-overs or drive cars. She’s talking about the type of overparenting that ruins confidence and undermines education or independence.

parents guilty of this kind of overparenting “take their child’s perception as truth, regardless of the facts,” and are “quick to believe their child over the adult and deny the possibility that their child was at fault or would even do something of that nature.”

This is what we teachers see most often: what the authors term “high responsiveness and low demandingness” parents.” These parents are highly responsive to the perceived needs and issues of their children, and don’t give their children the chance to solve their own problems. These parents “rush to school at the whim of a phone call from their child to deliver items such as forgotten lunches, forgotten assignments, forgotten uniforms” and “demand better grades on the final semester reports or threaten withdrawal from school.”

These are the parents who worry me the most — parents who won’t let their child learn.

You see, teachers don’t just teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. We teach responsibility, organization, manners, restraint, and foresight. These skills may not get assessed on standardized testing, but as children plot their journey into adulthood, they are, by far, the most important life skills I teach.

(h/t Tadas)

Arguments Are For Learning, Not Winning

Despite his best efforts and long hours, Nobel-Prize winning physicist and professor Carl Wieman grew frustrated by his inability to teach and his students’ failure to learn.

When I first taught physics as a young assistant professor, I used the approach that is all too common when someone is called upon to teach something. First I thought very hard about the topic and got it clear in my own mind. Then I explained it to my students so that they would understand it with the same clarity I had.

At least that was the theory. But I am a devout believer in the experimental method, so I always measure results. And whenever I made any serious attempt to determine what my students were learning, it was clear that this approach just didn’t work. An occasional student here and there might have understood my beautifully clear and clever explanations, but the vast majority of students weren’t getting them at all.

In a traditional classroom, the teacher stands at the front of the class explaining what is clear in their mind to a group of passive students.

Yet this pedagogical strategy doesn’t positively impact retention of information from lecture, improve understanding of basic concepts, or affect beliefs (that is, does new information change your belief about how something works).

Alison Gopnik, says “I don’t think there’s any scientist who thinks the way we typically do university courses has anything to do with the best methods for getting people to learn. ”

Given that lectures were devised as a means of transferring knowledge from one to many, it seems obvious that we would ensure that people retain the information they are consuming.

Wieman mentions three studies, the last of which perfectly emphasizes the disturbing point that passive lectures do not seem to work.

In a final example, a number of times Kathy Perkins and I have presented some non-obvious fact in a lecture along with an illustration, and then quizzed the students 15 minutes later on the fact. About 10 percent usually remember it by then. To see whether we simply had mentally deficient students, I once repeated this experiment when I was giving a departmental colloquium at one of the leading physics departments in the United States. The audience was made up of physics faculty members and graduate students, but the result was about the same—around 10 percent.

Wieman argues these results are likely generic and make a lot of sense if you consider the extremely limited capacity of short-term memory.

The research tells us that the human brain can hold a maximum of about seven different items in its short-term working memory and can process no more than about four ideas at once. Exactly what an “item” means when translated from the cognitive science lab into the classroom is a bit fuzzy. But the number of new items that students are expected to remember and process in the typical hour-long science lecture is vastly greater.

The results were similarly disturbing when students were tested to determine understanding of basic concepts. More instruction wasn’t helping students advance from novice to expert. In fact, the data indicated the opposite: students had more novice-like beliefs after they completed a course than they had when they started.

We’re left with a puzzle about teaching. The teachers, unquestionably experts in their subjects, are not improving the learning outcomes: students are not learning the concepts. How can this be?

Research on learning provides some answers.

Cognitive scientists have spent a lot of time studying what constitutes expert competence in any discipline, and they have found a few basic components. The first is that experts have lots of factual knowledge about their subject, which is hardly a surprise. But in addition, experts have a mental organizational structure that facilitates the retrieval and effective application of their knowledge. Third, experts have an ability to monitor their own thinking (“metacognition”), at least in their discipline of expertise. They are able to ask themselves, “Do I understand this? How can I check my understanding?”

A traditional science instructor concentrates on teaching factual knowledge, with the implicit assumption that expert-like ways of thinking about the subject come along for free or are already present. But that is not what cognitive science tells us. It tells us instead that students need to develop these different ways of thinking by means of extended, focused mental effort. Also, new ways of thinking are always built on the prior thinking of the individual, so if the educational process is to be successful, it is essential to take that prior thinking into account.

This is basic biology. Everything that constitutes “understanding” science and “thinking scientifically” resides in the long-term memory, which is developed via the construction and assembly of component proteins. So a person who does not go through this extended mental construction process simply cannot achieve mastery of a subject.

This reminds me a lot of what Charlie Munger said on mental models:

What is elementary, worldly wisdom? Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ‘em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form.

You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience both vicarious and direct on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.

What are the models? Well, the first rule is that you’ve got to have multiple models because if you just have one or two that you’re using, the nature of human psychology is such that you’ll torture reality so that it fits your models, or at least you’ll think it does…

It’s like the old saying, ”To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

Students are not learning the basic concepts that experts rely on to organize and apply information. And they are not being aided in developing the mental framework – the latticework – they need to improve retrieval and application of knowledge. “So it makes perfect sense,” Wieman writes “that they are not learning to think like experts, even though they are passing science courses by memorizing facts and problem-solving recipes.”

Improved teaching and learning

A lot of educational and cognitive research can be reduced to this basic principle: People learn by creating their own understanding. But that does not mean they must or even can do it without assistance. Effective teaching facilitates that creation by getting students engaged in thinking deeply about the subject at an appropriate level and then monitoring that thinking and guiding it to be more expert-like.

So what are a few examples of these strategies, and how do they reflect our increasing understanding of cognition?

Reducing Cognitive Load

The first way in which one can use research on learning to create better classroom practices addresses the limited capacity of the short-term working memory. Anything one can do to reduce cognitive load improves learning. The effective teacher recognizes that giving the students material to master is the mental equivalent of giving them packages to carry. With only one package, they can make a lot of progress in a hurry. If they are loaded down with many, they stagger around, have a lot more trouble, and can’t get as far. And when they experience the mental equivalent of many packages dumped on them at once, they are squashed flat and can’t learn anything.

So anything the teacher can do to reduce that cognitive load while presenting the material will help. Some ways to do so are obvious, such as slowing down. Others include having a clear, logical, explicit organization to the class (including making connections between different ideas presented and connections to things the students already know), using figures where appropriate rather than relying only on verbal descriptions and minimizing the use of technical jargon. All these things reduce unnecessary cognitive demands and result in more learning.

Addressing Beliefs

A second way teachers can improve instruction is by recognizing the importance of student beliefs about science. This is an area my own group studies. We see that the novice/expert-like beliefs are important in a variety of ways—for example they correlate with content learning and choice of major. However, our particular interest is how teaching practices affect student beliefs. Although this is a new area of research, we find that with rather minimal interventions, a teacher can avoid the regression mentioned above.

The particular intervention we have tried addresses student beliefs by explicitly discussing, for each topic covered, why this topic is worth learning, how it operates in the real world, why it makes sense, and how it connects to things the student already knows. Doing little more than this eliminates the usual significant decline and sometimes results in small improvements, as measured by our surveys. This intervention also improves student interest, because the beliefs measured are closely linked to that interest.

Stimulating and Guiding Thinking

My third example of how teaching and learning can be improved is by implementing the principle that effective teaching consists of engaging students, monitoring their thinking, and providing feedback. Given the reality that student-faculty interaction at most colleges and universities is going to be dominated by time together in the classroom, this means the teacher must make this happen first and foremost in the classroom.

To do this effectively, teachers must first know where the students are starting from in their thinking, so they can build on that foundation. Then they must find activities that ensure that the students actively think about and process the important ideas of the discipline. Finally, instructors must have mechanisms by which they can probe and then guide that thinking on an ongoing basis. This takes much more than just mastery of the topic—it requires, in the memorable words of Lee Shulman, “pedagogical content knowledge.”

Arguments Are For Learning, Not Winning

Is arguing the path towards learning?

I assign students to groups the first day of class (typically three to four students in adjacent seats) and design each lecture around a series of seven to 10 clicker questions that cover the key learning goals for that day. The groups are told they must come to a consensus answer (entered with their clickers) and be prepared to offer reasons for their choice. It is in these peer discussions that most students do the primary processing of the new ideas and problem-solving approaches. The process of critiquing each other’s ideas in order to arrive at a consensus also enormously improves both their ability to carry on scientific discourse and to test their own understanding.

Charlie Munger: How to Teach Business School

From Charlie Munger at the 2011 Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders Meeting:

Costco of course is a business that became the best in the world in its category. And it did it with an extreme meritocracy, and an extreme ethical duty—self-imposed to take all its cost advantages as fast as it could accumulate them and pass them on to the customers. And of course they’ve created ferocious customer loyalty. It’s been a wonderful business to watch—and of course strange things happen when you do that and when you do that long enough. Costco has one store in Korea that will do over $400 million in sales this year. These are figures that can’t exist in retail, but of course they do. So that’s an example of somebody having the right managerial system, the right personnel solution, the right ethics, the right diligence, etcetera, etcetera. And that is quite rare. If once or twice in your lifetime you’re associated with such a business you’re a very lucky person.

The more normal business is a business like, say, General Motors, which became the most successful business of its kind in the world and wiped out its common shareholders… what, last year? That is a very interesting story—and if I were teaching business school I would have Value-Line-type figures that took me through the entire history of General Motors and I would try to relate the changes in the graph and data to what happened in the business. To some extent, they faced a really difficult problem—heavily unionized business, combined with great success, and very tough competitors that came up from Asia and elsewhere in Europe. That is a real problem which of course… to prevent wealth from killing people—your success turning into a disadvantage—is a big problem in business.

And so there are all these wonderful lessons in those graphs. I don’t know why people don’t do it. The graphs don’t even exist that I would use to teach. I can’t imagine anybody being dumb enough not to have the kind of graphs I yearn for. [Laughter] But so far as I know there’s no business school in the country that’s yearning for these graphs. Partly the reason they don’t want it is if you taught a history of business this way, you’d be trampling on the territories of all the professors and sub-disciplines—you’d be stealing some of their best cases. And in bureaucracies, even academic bureaucracies, people protect their own turf. And of course a lot of that happened at General Motors. [Applause]

I really think the world … that’s the way it should be taught. Harvard Business School once taught it much that way—and they stopped. And I’d like to make a case study as to why they stopped. [Laughter] I think I can successfully guess. It’s that the course of history of business trampled on the territory of barons of other disciplines like the baron of marketing, the baron of finance, the baron of whatever.

IBM is an interesting case. There’s just one after another that are just utterly fascinating. I don’t think they’re properly taught at all because nobody wants to do the full sweep.

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