The Great Connections Seminar

The Great Connections Seminar
Discussing ethics

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Students Don't Need College

Not really a surprise, if you pay attention to who's employed at Starbucks, Whole Foods, Barnes and Noble, Trader Joe's, and myriad small businesses. But the Center for College Affordability and Productivity is now putting a number to how many people don't need college for their jobs: 37%. See their study: Why are recent college graduates underemployed?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Words, words, words

E.D. Hirsch's article in the latest City Journal offers the evidence that vocabulary alone is a great predictor of upward mobility. Why? Because it's an indicator of the child's knowledge-resources.

"Vocabulary doesn’t just help children do well on verbal exams. Studies have solidly established the correlation between vocabulary and real-world ability."

Implication? An old principle: reading can unlock the world, enabling a child from an impoverished background to travel around the globe, and gain the knowledge to achieve great goals. Abraham Lincoln did it, and Ben Franklin, and today's children have so many more resources at their fingertips.

The statistics Hirsch cites regarding what's happened to vocabulary in the past decades are unfortunately disturbing, but in line with all the rest of the research on educational decline.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Graduation Rate Myth

Robert Weissburg, professor of Political Science at Cornell, gives a stunning indictment of student irresponsibility in this John W. Pope foundation article, and some of the reasons faculty put up with it.

What he doesn't analyze are the psychological effects of their previous twelve years of schooling. The flaws in lower education are rife; I can't go into them all. But I'd like to examine two which have devastating effects and are directly related to the kind of behavior Weissburg laments:
  • False self-esteem-building practices
  • Test-driven instruction
First, the mis-directed ideas of phony self-esteem dominant in the last 20-30 years has encouraged teachers and parents to praise children regardless of accomplishments or effort. This practice seems to be motivated by at least two beliefs:
  1. Children's egos are so delicate they cannot withstand any negative feedback from others.
  2. Children cannot develop self-esteem without continuous praise from others.
In fact, a large portion of solid self-esteem results from achieved competency as a result of hard work, and from the regular experience of failure.


Because failure will always be a normal part of life and if a child does not learn how to overcome failures and continue to strive for his or her goals, that child will have a very difficult time in adulthood.

A child who has a false sense of self-worth and efficacy, and little experience with overcoming failure, is extremely vulnerable to depression, drugs, and suicide when faced with the actual problems of life because he or she is, in fact, incompetent. No amount of praise will overshadow those facts.

Optimally, parents and teachers encourage students to work hard at their learning, while modeling and expecting serious achievement, and giving praise for actual accomplishments. Negative feedback should be factual and task-oriented - "Here's where the equation has an error" - not directed at the child - "You should know better than to write the equation like that; here, this is how it should be."

In a Montessori classroom, self-development and self-esteem are achieved by mastering the work. The materials through which learning is accomplished are designed to be just hard enough to be challenging, but not so hard as to be impossible to master. At the same time, they are just the kinds of things children find fascinating to do, given their level of development. All this results in flow experiences for children, making them highly motivated to work.

Here is a video that illustrates how young children (3-6 years old) develop their sense, motor, and observational skills through the materials:

 And here's a video illustrating the mathematics curriculum:

The older a child gets, the more advanced and complicated the materials, until he or she is competently working abstractly, but with a rock-solid foundation in reality through previous work with concrete materials. Here's a video about the elementary level: (embedding wasn't allowed).

and one about the arithmetic of fractions, usually the hardest and least-understood arithmetical operation:

This kind of work develops happy, competent, self-directed individuals who want to learn.

And one of the other elements that makes this possible is the competency-driven curriculum that does NOT center on standardized testing.

Which leads back to Weissburg's complaints: the second major element motivating poor student behavior has been the inordinate emphasis on standardized tests these past 20 years.

Schools, teachers, and students have been rewarded on test scores alone - not actual learning or competent teaching. Students are talked at, not engaged in the learning. Teachers feed information (not understanding) and students learn that all they need to know is what's necessary to score well on tests.

So are we surprised that's all they're interested in? That they just want to "get through" the class and will find any way to do that efficiently and economically? That they don't respect their teachers - that they're not oriented to understanding the material? They have not been encouraged to be invested in learning or in achieving the actual competency of understanding.

I lament the situation with Weissburg, because of the enormous wasted time and potential - and worry whether they will be able to learn enough as adults to overcome these handicaps.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Technology Comes to the Dismal Humanities Market

Technological innovation in the Academic Humanities? It's happening, if we can judge by "Rebooting Graduate Education in the Humanities" from The Chronicles of Higher Education. And just in time--because the job market is dismal yet the graduate students deluded:

"A 2011 Survey of Earned Doctorates shows that 43 percent of doctoral recipients have no employment at the time they receive their degree. But Rogers presented an SCI survey indicating that 74 percent of respondents entered graduate school with the expectation that they would become professors, and 80 percent reported “feeling fairly certain or completely certain” of achieving that outcome. At the same time, only 18 percent were satisfied with the preparation they received for careers besides being a professor."

I can only hope these students, who've invested considerable time and treasure, can find clever new avenues for their knowledge that will benefit us all. 

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The lecture you should have had

What Professor Devlin explains about the relationship of calculus to the real world is the kind of explaining that helps motivates students to learn math. The first 20-30 minutes is especially useful.

Motivation Trumps Intelligence in Learning Math

From the January 5-6, 2013 Wall Street Journal "Week in Ideas" by Dan Akst:

"When it comes to learning math, intelligence counts at the outset. But after that, it's a matter of motivation and study skills.

"That's the result of a German study of 3, 530 students in grades five through 10. Researchers examined six years of data with an eye toward establishing the effect of IQ, motivation and study skills on growth in math achievement.

"Intelligence, it turned out, wasn't a factor in this growth. And rote learning strategies actually did more harm than good. But feelings of control, high motivation and study skills that involved explaining a summarizing math and connecting it to other material did predict greater achievement. What it takes to learn math, the researchers said, isn't just innate; it can be fostered."

Summary of the research from: "Predicting Long-term Growth in Students' Mathematics Achievement: The Unique Contributions of Motivation and Cognitive Strategies," Kou Murayama, Reinhard Pekrun, Rudolf vom Hofe and Stephanie Lichtenfeld, Child Development (Dec. 20)

Notice that explaining and summarizing and connecting the math to other material was very important. To me, that means verbally conceptualizing the math and integrating it with other knowledge about the world - which tends to be motivational because it enables the learning to know how to use the math.