Thursday, April 4, 2019

4 Reasons the DOJ and FTC should launch an anti-trust investigation against America’s undergraduate institutions

The heat is rising on America’s undergraduate institutions, but for reasons peripheral to the real problem. Yes, they’re favoring elite kids. Yes, they’re taking bribes. Yes, they’re racially profiling applicants. Yes, they’re relentlessly marketing to kids too young to understand debt-traps. Yes, they’re inflating grades and watering-down content. Yes, they’re teaching irrelevant and soon-forgettable content that employers aren’t interested in. Yes, they’re bloated, over-employed, wastefully splashing money around on buildings, landscaping and sports complexes. 

Why do they get away with it?

Here’s the reason why every family should write to Lamar Alexander (R-TN) head of the Senate Committee on Education and demand the Department of Justice Anti-Trust Division and Federal Trade Commission Bureau of Competition launch an investigation.

The 4-year, 120-credit-hour, all-from-one-place undergraduate degree is an anti-competitive, bundled product that distorts the market for higher learning.

Here are four reasons:

Price Discrepancy: Why does the edX/Harvard specialization in US Government, entailing 4-months of coursework cost $196, while 3 credits on campus costs $4218? Why does the Coursera/UCSanDiego specialization in Data Structure Algorithms entailing 6 months of coursework cost $294, while 4 credits on campus costs $4900?

Barriers to a-la-carte consumption: Universities make only a few courses from the entire selection available to ‘visiting’ students, holding back the majority to full-time degree candidates. This is especially true of higher-level and laboratory courses. Tuition structures often prefer all-in-one-place study; that is, students pay more to take courses here and there than they would if they took 15-18 credits in a semester from one place.

Unwarranted switching costs: Students pay more to switch among universities; first, because they have to pay for standardized tests and pay for sharing the scores, pay for sharing transcripts, spend time preparing and then submitting applications and references, and pay for that, too—multiple times. Second, universities discount the value of “credits” already earned and curricular units covered from other places, requiring many students to re-take similar or identical courses to complete degrees.

Ex-post penalties for a-la-carte consumption: Here the term “credit” comes into play; it is the socially-accepted word for bundle-able product. And universities get to decide what is bundle-able and what is not, always in their own favor. Very few universities recognize comparable study completed whether for online certificate (e.g., Khan Academy, FutureLearn) or identity-verified certificate (e.g., edX) or even with in-person, proctored exams (e.g., ModernStates) as worth of “credit”, requiring a-la-carte consumers to repurchase learning services in bundle-able form. Students that already have advanced knowledge and skills developed through a-la-carte study (e.g., a mathematician having mastered stochastic calculus, linear algebra and coding in C++ on Khan Academy, Brilliant, through books and tutors) is NOT admissible to most Masters, PhD, or professional degree programs. Lesser candidates having undergraduate degrees—even in unrelated fields to the intended graduate study, and even degrees earned years ago and the contents of which could hardly be remembered—will get admitted to spots that the a-la-carte student can’t access.


It’s a worthwhile thought experiment, too, whether during the past few decades undergraduate institutions have really played the role of a public utility.

Why might we think of them as a utility? The 4-year, 120-credit-hour undergraduate degree has been:
  • A standardized metric of skills and knowledge embedded in HR systems of the majority of American medium and large-scale employers, including state and federal governments;
  • A metric (acceptance or enrollment to an undergraduate program) which the vast majority of American public and private high schools track as a performance metric;
  • An unavoidable pathway to access a very large portion of jobs in both the public and private sector (including many state and military jobs, where it’s a felony to represent other aggregated forms of study as a Bachelors Degree);
  • An unavoidable control-point for employees to increase compensation, even when doing the same work.
And its provision is, by definition, limited to a finite number of accredited institutions which:
  • Have privileged access to federally subsidized student loans and to the distributions of tax-preferred college savings plans;
  • Are financed therefore at rates far below what the cost of credit would be for consumption of similar learning services from providers outside this group.
What would be the implications of classifying undergraduate universities as a public utility?
  • Would it be fair that college tuitions have risen at more than double the rate of the CPI during 1980-2014, and have outstripped price increases in household utilities and healthcare?
  • Wouldn’t the FTC question the ballooning cost structures, bloated staff, and ancillary services that keep tuitions rising?
  • Wouldn’t the FTC use words like collusion, price-fixing, unfair barriers to access, unfair product bundling and switching costs to describe what is happening?
It seems for now that the public has been suckers to an industry that presents bundling as core-curriculum, switching costs as pride-in-alma-mater, and collusion as ivy-covered gateways worthy of respect. It’s time to stop the grand-standing around college education in Congress and at our kitchen tables. It’s an industry over-due for anti-trust investigation.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Raising my daughter by ten thousand suggestions

My 14 year-old daughter recently dug up a stick-figure drawing she made in kindergarten of herself scaling a smoking volcano. “I want to be a volcanologist”, she wrote, above the brown marker-haired figure in triangle-shaped skirt. That drawing, she remembers, set me into weeks of investigation about how one becomes a volcanologist--studying admissions policies at Universitas Gadjah Mada in Yogyakarta, pulling up PBS films about Katia and Maurice Krafft, emailing Philip Kyle at the Mount Erebus Volcano Observatory in Antarctica, and Darcy Bevens at the Center for Study of Active Volcanoes at University of Hawaii at Hilo. We watched, played, read and talked to folks about volcanoes until, not long after, she announced that she no longer wants to be volcanologist.

That was 9 years and about ten thousand suggestions ago. As my daughter tells me, sometimes she wishes I was a more ‘normal’ mom. I learned along the way that I could create whole life-stories for my daughter, latch on to briefly-mentioned ideas and cook up must-see, must-try, must-read lists faster than she cared to notice. I learned that suggesting too hard sometimes turned her off completely. A once-fun experiment became a chore, or my insistence on background reading made conversation stilted. The most heartbreaking response she could give me was an indifferent shrug.

OK, so I also learned a few things about suggesting. Suggesting is better in sweetened spoonfuls than inundations. Suggesting doesn’t need to watch her reading over her shoulder. Or to follow-up every time. The silence between suggestions is probably more valuable than the suggestion itself.

Like watching a 2-year-old’s vocabulary tentatively emerge after months of listening, and then explode in complexity, I’m starting to see with my daughter how years of suggesting--people, ideas, careers, dilemmas--is beginning to articulate itself. Like the 6-month old listening to her mother sing, the 9-year old absorbs something from her mother’s suggestions that’s not apparent to either of them at the time. Like a thousand open-ended questions that are only partly answered in words, but move to the front of her mind and seem to build a lens through which she watches the world. Am I here by mistake or intentionally? Is there a metaphysical purpose to my life? When will I know? Are we all living under the same moral framework, or is each one of us building his own? Would that be fair? Is anything fair? How long will I live? What will be the thing that I do that makes a difference? I couldn’t tell that this was happening when she was 7, or 9 or 11. But now I walk up on her and she is curled up with her tablet watching a YouTube lecture about the sanctity of human life. Or making lip balm in a jar from ingredients we found in the market. Or researching municipal strategies to manage street dog populations.

I am on fire with motherly purposefulness, but I’m learning to hold it back to let my daughter emerge. Watching her find herself is a quieter triumph than those explosions of 2-year-old language. But being purposeful, I’m also curious. Are other families suggesting? Are mothers calling around to find experts to talk to their kids? Are fathers messaging article links? Are grandmas talking up internship possibilities with their friends at the gym?

For me, suggesting has become a crusade. But I wonder, is it scalable? Do families by and large entrust suggesting to school teachers and guidance counselors? Can they be coached as better suggesters? Could an algorithm help? Or would a flashy, edtech solution or auto-nudging mobile app do for adolescent self-discovery what 8 hours a day of PBSKids does for sedated 18-month olds in low-quality childcare settings--that is, pretend at doing the right thing, while getting it exactly wrong?

This is just as much a moral challenge as a business problem. Suggesting is not by definition helpful, just as televised speech does not necessarily promote language development, when not coming through an engaged human. Virtuous cycles of suggestion rely on life experience, insight, and connectedness. When done right, suggesting nudges the young person into a hundred not-so-comfortable situations. It prompts thousands of conversations, often with strangers. It drives toward countless unsolvable problems and apparent dead-ends. It’s as exhausting as it is stimulating. It’s time consuming, needs the time of close family and friends, and can’t be easily priced, because there’s no apparent payoff. When we try to tell ourselves that it could be massively scaled and replicated, we find out bad-suggesting looks like: mechanical, inert, rooted in default-settings and biases, one-size-fits-all, that just keeps hammering away.

How could I plant the seeds of healthy suggesting in families with pre-teens and teens? I’m excited to see what BreakAway Learning can do to help teens and their parents feel more comfortable about exploratory learning, to put it out there completely free, and see if it can drive a change in behavior. But I know the limits of what a website can do. Good suggesting comes from strong communities and strong families. And those aren’t scalable.

Monday, February 18, 2019

What if consumers demanded the unbundling of the 4yr undergraduate degree?

The 4-year, single-institution-loyal, core-curriculum driven undergraduate degree is a bundled product. If it were a cable/telephone/data package, or a new car/warranty/service package, or an all-inclusive cruise ship vacation,
we’d be quicker to call it what it is. We’d be poking around the edges, asking ‘Why would I want this?’ and ‘I could do without that,’ and ‘How much if drop all of these things?’ In short, we’d each pick it apart and demand product and pricing according to our own interests.

But for decades now — and particularly the past decade, when Udemy, Udacity, edX, Coursera, MasterClass, SkillShare, Praxis, KhanAcademy, Preply, and a wide range of other free and fee-based, online and blended offerings crowd into this space — we accept as a given that this bundle must exist.

Progressives that call for lower costs, debt forgiveness, or outright socialization of tertiary education unwittingly cement this bundled product in place. They aim for equity and access, but frame it according to a rigid product design — SATs, admissions committees and fees, large and growing administrations, time-consuming core curricula, institution-specific degrees — that benefits the incumbent college industry more than the rising student. Looking to northern Europe is a good indication of how the socialization of costs applies further standardization to tertiary learning, deterministic testing, inflexible prerequisites, and set-in-stone curricula.

I think it’s imperative — before the next U.S. presidential election cycle — that young people, industry leaders, public figures, economists, and learning experts come together to voice a demand for something else:

UnbundleUnbrand: The overdue demand to unpack the undergraduate degree.
  1. We are a group of economists, neuroscientists, high-tech employers, and public figures.
  2. We are watching with anxiety the volume of American student loans at $1.5 trillion, 11% of which in default, 14% in forbearance, with predictions of 40% in default by 2023.
  3. American young people are chasing the false promises of knowledge, skills, and career acceleration from institutions that foremost seek to bundle and brand, that hike tuitions absorbing nearly all federal debt subsidy, that entice young people into levels of debt that are costing households more, and lasting more years than any generation has witnessed before.
  4. American high schools are chasing graduation rates and rates of placement in 4-year universities, also false promises to communities that place statistical improvement-at-any-price ahead of the real interests and needs of young people.
  5. American employers are slow to refine talent identification systems to acknowledge smart, hard-working, skilled candidates on the basis of their demonstrated learning and results. Undergraduate degrees are too often used as a baseline metric for eligibility when there is almost no correlation of knowledge or skills attained to the obtaining of the degree, nor to the demands of many careers.
  6. Meantime, the proliferation of online courseware, gameware, tutorials, face-to-face and blended learning models, subscription-based, and pay-per-use content continues, but is underused by our teenagers. The promise of individualized learning is limited not by technology or logistics, but by the social imagination, that still sees teens moving through set schedules and an arbitrary, standard hierarchy of 5 or 6 subjects.
  7. We believe that if teens will be encouraged to pursue intensive, individualized learning by making use of already abundant tools, combined with mentoring, internships and real work experience in a more flexible learning environment, the arbitrary urgency to apply and commit to 4-year undergraduate degrees would decline.
  8. Unless and until the simplistic recognition of the so-called undergraduate degree as a measure of education is unbundled, our counterproductive culture of college-readiness is depriving youth of enormous opportunity, while our economy is imperiled by students’ misguided borrowing. The loan crisis may cost America hundreds of billions. The opportunity cost of a decade of young people’s lives spent mechanically going through motions, not exploring their interests, not intrinsically motivated, is unknown.
  9. Given these concerns, we appeal to America’s universities to: 
  • Offer unbundled, a-la-carte course enrollment to anyone, anywhere, anytime
  • Stop differentiating price or credential value for “full-time”, “for credit”, versus a-la-carte students
  • Accept in any course any interested student, irrespective of prior degree attainment, or based on performance in online prerequisite study that is open to anyone
  • Enable click-to-buy or free courses, such that enrollment is quick and simple, and prices are transparent
  • Dismiss the admissions committee and eliminate the cumbersome admissions process, including fee-based standardized test-taking, essay-submission, and racial and ethnic identification
  • Offer courses in a greater variety of durations, frequency and times of year, to break down the rigidity of continuing learning

10. We appeal to America’s leading employers to:
  • Eliminate the “highest level of education attained”, simplistic human resources drop-down menu;
  • Revise human resource systems to recognize the wide range of relevant, competitive learning and experience that prospective job candidates can attain alternative to an undergraduate degree;
  • Stop differentiating salaries for the same work based on a candidate’s having or not having an undergraduate degree.
11.  We trust in the intrinsic curiosity and rebellious spirit of our youth that when these artificial constraints are removed, our youth will naturally diversify their efforts across a much broader range of subjects, problems, work and study modalities fitting to their interests and needs. With responsible guidance and supervision of family, community and state, these diverse learning approaches will enable a more motivated and productive young population, fitting a modern economy and free society.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Woe is my department! Downsizing universities try to build a public sob-story, but students aren’t missing-out, they’re migrating!


When you get no claps on Medium, or your Udemy course gets 6 buyers and one star, there isn’t half the tantrumming you’re gonna hear from an associate professor who didn’t get tenure. From the headlines of higher-ed journals that mourn the downsizing and budget rationalization of colleges coping with declining enrollments, declining selection of humanities majors, and declining interest in foreign language study, it would seem we are a sad, regressing society. Doleful professors of obscure art genres and literature are looking for work, woeful foreign language departments are closing their doors. Alas, youth don’t appreciate humanities and the wide world of languages. 

Cut the crap, academia!

Has anybody checked out the meteoric rise of Duolingo, that built a US$700 million business providing the basics of foreign language learning without charging users? Or Preply, the Ukrainian start-up that links aspiring students--mainly foreign language learners--with low-cost conversational partners and tutors around the world?

If it’s art appreciation you’re after, there’s a wide range of course and short-tutorial options from Artsy to Sootheby’s Institute to MoMA Research and Learning, not to mention college-style courseware on edX and Coursera. If it’s making art or craft or music, there’s SkillShare, MyBluPrint, New York Institute of Photography, and so many resource and lesson sites like Mutopia Project, Art of Composing, and JustinGuitar.

And of course, you would have to be crawling out from under a rock right now not to have found better lectures on just about any author, artist, or ancient civilization on YouTube (e.g., the most popular sort to the top) than the particular adjunct lecturer who’s teaching the particular course on your campus during the times you’re available this semester, and which satisfies your pre-req. See what I’m getting at?

It’s not necessarily the collapse of civilization that is foretold by declining enrollments in undergraduate humanities classes. It’s the emergence of better alternatives. But universities and students aren’t looking at this the same way. A deeper client engagement might be a place to start…

Why does the undergrad humanities student believe that she is sitting in your class?
  • * Her parents and teachers said she should do this.
  • # She’s looking for a group to fit into.
  • # She’s postponing tough decisions about her life.
  • # She feels better when her work is organized into neat steps that lead to a concrete endpoint.
  • # She works harder when she has a definite schedule and deadlines.
  • She hopes she’ll see something inspirational that could become a business model for her work.
  • She wants to build a brand for herself, narrow-in on a market niche where she can add value 
  • She wants to find people who will believe in her, build a client network, create a blog, offer free webinars, get invited to fairs and exhibits, raise money on Patreon, and create some kind of FB marketing strategy. 
  • She wants to make money. 
Stop and ask yourself which of these objectives is really served by your university class. I have put a * next to the one I think is uniquely served by universities. I put a # next to ones that are served by BOTH universities and other learning resources.

OK, so why does the instructor think she is in his class?
  • He has unique knowledge and skills.
  • * These knowledge and skills will be important to completing a degree.
  • # These things should be valued by society in general. 
  • * These things satisfy a university pre-req.
  • The skills he imparts will be vital to her career pursuits. 
Now I don’t mean to hurt feelings, but only to point to market signals. Anyone who gives a lecture on Dostoevsky is competing with a whole YouTube genre, YaleOCW, and numerous threads on GoodReads, among other resources. Maybe he is really trying, but as the number and modalities of learning resources proliferate, if his presentation is not really AWESOME, then she is compromising by sitting in his class. And do I need to go into the disconnect between college classes and career pursuits? What are we left with, then? As any professor (including Bryan Caplan) will attest whose students gleefully fled the scene when he ran 11-minutes late, most college classes exist on the rationale of core curriculum requirements and the bundled 4-year, 120-credit-hour degree. Meantime, the rapidly expanding market of shared notes and hired essay-writers, creating quick-wins for firms like OneClass, StuDocu, and Stuvia, is emblematic of the cynicism inherent in this whole process.

That a society values liberal arts is as true as its concert ticket-sales, public library usage, museum foot traffic, and digital media subscriptions. And, by the way, all the above services do cope with market tastes, convenience, perceived utility, and price sensitivity. ...All except one. Alas, the university culture. Give us more subsidized debt! Protect the core curriculum!

Don’t worry, humanities bureaucrat! You have a few more months. Graduating high school cohorts have been drinking the college Kool-Aid, and a new cohort is prepping for its PSAT right now. Meantime, you are protesting and digging in your heels and calling your critics illiterate buffoons.

But it’s not just me calling you out, buffoon that I am. You have graduated thousands of today’s bloggers, editorialists, art curators, craft-online-market-makers, freelancers of every stripe. They emerged to a job market that took no notice of the bachelor’s degree, and where anyway they had to build business model, branding, reputation and client-base from scratch. Everywhere are signals that the staid, gerito-cratic corporate careers of our forefathers are vanishing into sepia-tinted memories, giving over to AI and rationalized staffing that prefer the outsourced solution. And what are those “solutions”? They are scrappy, small teams working out of apartments day and night, eating and drinking work, work that transforms as quickly as the clients’ needs change. Ask anyone on that team if he would fund a colleague to get a liberal arts degree. Hell, no!

OK, so I concede that a few fields are not going to change so fast. University professors, for example. They’re pretty rigid when it comes to demanding formal degrees. And then there’s the State. In my recent podcast, I questioned whether President Trump could get up to pee at night and tweet that the Executive Branch doesn’t recognize the undergraduate degree as a meaningful measure of knowledge and capability anymore, and thereby force HR officers in every department and agency under him to re-formulate job qualification matrices more specifically. Well… Not impossible given the precedents he’s already set. Yes, there will be laggards to recognize the irrelevance of the undergraduate degree, and both the slow, inflexible employers and the late-to-learn, Kool-Aid-drunk bachelor-holders will find themselves at a loss.

The disruption is only beginning with humanities departments. Watch what happens to mathematics when large sections of content could be mastered on Khan Academy for free, and then fewer paid courses are needed to reach one's goals. Watch what happens to laboratory science with students shop around for semesters here and there to access best labs and best professors. Watch what happens to finance and entrepreneurship and pre-med and a hundred other subjects where students pick and choose the courses and micro-credentials that work best for them, here and there, mixed with internships and work experience, online and face-to-face. Humanities departments are just the first dominoes to fall in a system that rapidly collapses when users will unbundle and unbrand the 4-year, undergraduate degree.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Social Studies is stuck at the beginning of time, while our tweens are blind to Khashoggi, Crimea, surveillance, and the faltering priority of free expression

If you’ve got a 5th or 6th grader, then you have also printed his Mesopotamia ppt at work, built a model Roman aqueduct in a shoebox, or made a poster about pharaohs, papyrus and the Nile River. My 6th grader is the fourth in line, so I’m getting pretty tired of it, although I can whip one up quickly. But since some of our kids at any given time are pursuing individualized study, I can’t help but notice how different social studies can be.  (These days we are in a small, icy, dark city in the north of Kazakhstan, so I’m sympathetic that time with friends is often more important than real learning. My kids are homeschooling in turns with brick-and-mortar school). 

This past fall my 13-year old daughter and I created social studies around a daily news feed, that sometimes captured her personal interests, and sometimes followed trending articles in politics, international security, and justice. Instead of books, she downloaded the Economist app, we
subscribed to that and Wall Street Journal, she followed Politico, Slate, Huffington Post and RealClear. When an issue seemed to be more than a daily headline but a signal of our changing times-- Russian incursions in the Black Sea, Trump dismissive of Khashoggi murder, tensions in South China Sea, under-reporting of National Climate Assessment-- then we dug up more, followed links and tracked it for several days.

A key to all of this was that we read the news-- or at least the first few paragraphs-- together. I pointed her, and she pointed me, to articles. Sometimes they hung together, of-a-piece, and we talked about that over lunch. Often she skipped around, from allegations against Facebook to U.S. university shout-downs and ‘microaggressions’, from California wildfires to trade wars. We didn’t need to talk about everything. We talked about what interested her.

Another help was that I hired a graduate student of international security studies in Nairobi to WhatsApp twice-weekly with my daughter. We kept a list of article links and passed them to her in advance of the chats. Those scheduled calls created a discipline, which meant my daughter had to get through her news, and had to remember enough to talk about it. It was interesting for me to over-hear her trail of thought as their conversation drifted from one headline to another.

No memorization, no tests, no chronology.

Instead, my daughter’s interaction with social studies was contemporaneous, exploratory, and above all, rooted in conversation. When she asked why the South China Sea is referred to as a “tinderbox,” we found an Infographic mini-lecture together. When she wondered why the U.S. administration has to seem friendly to Saudi Arabia, we found a bunch more articles in Atlantic Monthly. My background implementing development projects with adult education suggests that making learning timely, relevant, social and reinforced through active conversation will make my daughter’s interaction with this information more likely to assimilate into her active thinking about the world around her. But that wasn’t my only goal. More importantly, my daughter wants to consume news. And now she also knows how.

I’m saddened by contrast to watch my 6th grader cynically filling the blanks of his 27-page ditto-packet about ancient Mesopotamia. Fertile crescent. Tigris and Euphrates. Cradle of civilization... He watches “90-Day Fiance” in the background while he fills it out. Having seen this version of social studies so many times, I can’t help feeling that the irrelevant, boring design is intentional.

At school, social studies never gets within 50 years of the present, often not even 500 years. It’s chronological. It has big, bolded words with 3-word definitions next to them. It drills conceptual frameworks (What are the 5 traits of civilization?) to lobotomized kids, who copy phrases from page 34 into the "Critical Thinking" space on page 36. It’s non-controversial. It’s quickly forgotten. It’s so remote that even the teachers struggle to find some way to make it look exciting. (For more depressing views, try joining the FB group, Middle School Social Studies Teachers.)

Chronological learning about society ignores the obvious truth that most of us don’t seek or need a huge background to interact with real-time problems. As Elon Musk said, when building an engine, we don’t stop and study the derivation of the monkey-wrench. We just figure out how to use it. And I can see through my daughter’s experience that she becomes curious around issues like Russian shopping mall fires, American mass-shootings, Hungarian bigotry and Chinese facial-recognition surveillance, and her curiosity drives a backward examination of how these things came about. Her thinking is not in timelines. She is discovering the monkey-wrenches in her own messy way.

The “mastery” (if you speak IB) or content-memorization approach to history short-circuits the tween mind, and prevents this messy discovery process.

Mind-numbingly dull social studies lessons fit into a Hobbesian view about kids and, paradoxically, perpetuate the Hobbesian kid. Kids couldn’t care less. They hate it. They want to eat chips and watch BuzzFeed. So we hold them to their chairs, cram it down their throats (and occasionally dress it up with costumes, food-tasting and dioramas made at 11pm by exhausted working mothers). We threaten and hold the grading system over their heads. Kids comply and memorize, hate every moment, forget, and return to chips and BuzzFeed. This closes the Hobbesian loop. As soon as social studies will end, these persecuted teens will settle into making money, watching cable news-tainment, and continuing not to give a shit about the world.

I’ve written before about the wisdom of political dissidents in their fights--against whatever odds--for self-determination. About the different human value of an hour spent according to one’s own will versus complying to the will of a system. I’ve questioned why education is more Hobbesian than Lockean. Are we afraid of what our kids are made of? Is it unsettling to think of teens skipping over papyrus or the Spanish Inquisition?

For sure, the Hobbesian-programmed kid takes time to discover his productive internal motivations when you take away compulsion and timelines. You have programmed him that way. Learning-to-learn is a process. Tweens need nudges to Politico, to Slate, to the Economist. They need mentors and reminders and some urgency to read.

It takes time, patience, and daily interactions with news to cultivate the civic mind. That’s what social studies should be.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

If learning is an evolved adaptation, then why aren't teens curious?

The Duke Institute of Brain Studies has taken an interest in BreakAway Learning, and we're delighted to have this blog contribution from Duke graduate student, Leon Li. Leon focuses his research on psychology, language, and shared intentionality. His work highlights the human social cognitive capacity for reasoning about others' mental states. Learn more about his work at: https://psychandneuro.duke.edu/people/leon-li 

Greetings, BreakAway family! When Colleen kindly asked me to write a blog post relating psychology to the BreakAway project, my thoughts turned to some ideas from developmental psychology that I hope to share here. To begin, I am grateful to Colleen for the wonderful opportunity to write a blog post relating psychology to the vision of the BreakAway Learning Project. 

BreakAway raises two concerns about the education system: 1) the education is not motivating, and 2) the education is not useful. Ideally, we want the system to embody both motivation and usefulness: we want students to be highly motivated to learn things that are highly useful. 

Where did boredom come from?

It seems that society is reluctant to allow students to pursue their intrinsic motivations, for fear that the topics that would be most motivating to students would not be very useful (e.g., the worry that students would just devote their time to learning how to mix beats on Garageband). The position that society seems to have settled on is to compromise motivation for usefulness, that is, to compel students to study topics that are not motivating but are, at least, useful. 



BreakAway’s critique, however, is that the current system may not be motivating or useful! 

I am sympathetic to this critique. Since I don’t know much about economics, I can’t comment on how to improve usefulness. Here, though, are some thoughts about motivation.

My impression about the motivation to learn is that learning is optimal (i.e., most motivated and most effective) when it occurs in a goal-directed, socially situated setting. This is because learning is a cognitive skill that has evolved over millions of years to be adaptive for a particular kind of setting. It stands to reason that learning, as an evolved adaptation, would function best in the naturalistic setting for which it evolved.

What was the naturalistic setting for which learning evolved? Certainly, it was not the setting that we use today, namely, age-segregated classrooms that teach abstract, specialized, and inapplicable knowledge (and then burden the rest of the students’ time with tedious homework).

Rather, learning evolved to take place in the spontaneous movements of everyday life. Learning evolved to enable children to participate, from an early age, in all the various normative, cultural, economic, and instrumental practices that constituted their in-group’s way of living. The fact that children are intrinsically motivated to learn and to participate in culture is apparent to anthropologists and parents everywhere.

Thus, the real question is not: how do we inspire curiosity? A bright curiosity already exists from the start. The real question is: why does curiosity go away? Or, to put it another way: how do we keep curiosity from going away?

Here is a preliminary answer. If learning is best adapted for a certain kind of setting, it stands to reason that the motivation to learn will be best preserved if the natural setting for learning is likewise preserved. Here is where BreakAway’s proposal seems intuitive and fitting: provide students with settings where they can pursue their intrinsic motivations, and then facilitate the pursuit of those interests with the guidance of adult experts.

I think that these settings would really strengthen the motivation to learn. The real joy of learning, I think, is the joy of discovering things together. We may say that shared intentionality (i.e., the
Shared experiences and knowledge are inherent to
learning.  That is, our brains work better with peers.
alignment of mental states onto shared referents, such as shared experiences or shared knowledge) is inherent to learning. Two important settings of shared intentionality are peer interaction and expert guidance. Of course, both are vital contributors to the learning process.

In peer interaction, learning really takes on a spirit of discovery. When experts are not around to present students with “the truth” in a readily packaged form, then students must turn to their own reasoning, deliberation, and exchange of ideas to construct a vision of what makes sense. What makes peer interaction so special is that it actually reflects how science works at the boundaries of knowledge. Scientists who work on unanswered questions cannot turn to experts, since the knowledge has not yet been found. Instead, scientists turn to each other.

On the basis of their existing knowledge, scientists formulate questions and hypotheses, propose and administer methods to pursue those questions, interpret their data, and present all the steps of their questioning, hypothesizing, data collection, and data interpretation to their peers in the scientific community. The scientific process is dynamic, and the boundaries of knowledge are always changing. To give students a portrayal of science as a “list of right answers” is really to deprive them of the experience and the joy of thinking – real thinking – about how to make sense of the unknown.

In addition to peer interaction, expert guidance is also crucial. After all, expertise does exist; it is not like we have no previously established knowledge deserving of our confidence.

Students could really benefit from the company of experts. Experts not only know the material of their expertise, but they also know what they don’t know – and what others are likely to not know. In psychology, there is a bias known as the Dunning-Kruger effect: the tendency for novices to overestimate their knowledge because they don’t know what they don’t know. In addition to helping students counteract the Dunning-Kruger effect, experts can help students in all sorts of ways: helping them ask the right questions, helping them look in the right places for answers, and providing encouragement. Overall, we may say that experts may provide “scaffolding” for students who are, so to speak, building their knowledge from the ground up.

It makes sense to situate learning within its natural evolutionary setting: in collaborative groups where students pursue their intrinsic interests, while being guided by the wisdom and expertise of their elders. The idea that learning should be situated within its natural setting is a simple one, but an elegant one and perhaps a much-needed one in this time.

Monday, December 10, 2018

College-aged kids before 40? The lonely feeling of 'Stop! This whole thing is a hoax!'

So I started having kids at twenty, and now we have five. No need to go over the odd demographic niche I’ve been living in from attic-of-pizza-restaurant to condemned-tear-down in northern Virginia. I love my kids, I go to church, I homeschool. I also have a graduate degree, speak three languages and worked as a development economist for twenty years. It’s the running theme in my life that I kind of don’t fit in anywhere.

But in particular, it hurts to watch my older teens struggle with the overwhelming cultural demand for college-going, when I know the hype-in-slick-packaging, the readily available unbundled alternatives, and the real pain of debt repayment. It hurts, because their friends’ parents are all 50+ and happy as pigs in shit to send Zoe and Chloe to Barnard and Smith ($72,000/year be damned! She’s my pride and joy!), and because my age-mates are all at Gymboree.

I post rants against high school (it subdivides and micro-manages teens’ days to the point that nothing excites them. They become cynical, disengaged, mechanical models of what they think admissions committees expect), and my family and peers quietly click elsewhere. They are all happily snapping photos of 3- and 5- and 8-year-olds at school and pumpkin patches. Most of them see school as the heart of their lives, the wellspring of activities, friendships and community.
"War is peace. Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength."

I post to homeschooling groups, but I feel like only a handful of us are homeschooling teenagers. Other posts are about physically juggling children, cooking and crafts, and the kind of hesitant creativity that seeks continual validation from a thousand other moms. Which books are you using? Which curriculum for such-and-such? Approaching the teen years is a fall-off in conversation. Seems like the kids quietly returned to school, or moms felt over their heads with pipe-cleaner and construction-paper projects. A few tentative mentions of things like edX and MasterClass, but so little reaction that it seems most haven’t heard of it yet. I’m not even sure if I belong in homeschool groups, because in fairness, I’m not really the one doing the schooling. I co-write curricula with my teens every about every two months, then find online resources and hire grad students to co-implement with them.

Among the overseas parent groups that we’re part of, as with most homeschooling groups, it seems the brave, pioneering approach to younger kids (He’s learning so much in Phnom Penh! Life is his classroom in Bishkek!) gives way to timid, conformist pragmatism with teens (He’ll need his APs, and we’ve got to work on that resume!), and so the return to U.S. and formal high school enrollment.

And then there are my tech-industry friends. I guess these guys also belong in the Gymboree category, because the smarter you get, the longer it takes to make a baby in America. I get so confused talking to them. Nobody wants to sound stupid. Of course we are all using Scratch. Of course we follow Sebastian Thrun’s tweets. Everybody is advancing in his free time in coding and art-photography and home micro-brewing. The revolution in education, skills and networking has already happened, Colleen, didn’t you know? They are a curious bunch, because as social progressives, by-and-large they are instinctively defensive about public schools. Teachers are heroes. Schools are the root of the community (cause none of them goes to church). And it helps that they’ve all got great zip-codes. But I suspect theirs is the kind of backyard, wine-and-cheese progressivism that will ease toward closed-circle Math Olympiads, ArtofProblemSolving teams, engineering tutorials, and timely, well-documented volunteer initiatives around the Bay area, all in time for an MIT application. In short, there hasn’t really been a revolution in education, skills and networking, but new formats to an age-old, elite choreography whose subtle cues--wink, nod--their offspring will certainly follow.

And so, my parental peers turn out to be thickly padded, brand-sensitive, or else dimly aware of lower-cost alternatives. My age-peers are still lactating, or else caught up in the warm-and-fuzzy-feeling of zip-code-lucky primary schools.
Believe, believe, believe!
School-bashing to them is like Santa-denial. I can’t bear the reactions in their faces.

But somebody’s got to listen, and I’m finding kinship in my expanding network of Facebook friends, about 18-25 years old in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Sierra Leone, and Ukraine. Our connections are the result of years of university-project work and I think a message that’s resonating. School sucks! It’s not only boring, but where they live, it’s devoid of relevant content, corrupt, and required by law. Worst of all, kids are swept into it at a trusting age, conditioned to comply and that compliance--that is, obedience, obsequiousness, neatness, memorization, regurgitation--promises success in the real economy. As teens, they feel, but can’t say, that a decade of their lives is being stolen and wasted. Public universities in these countries often looks much the same.

And so it’s these young adults, 19, 23, 25 who link up with me and seem to share an excitement in finally speaking out. They are emerging from a brain-washed process. They’re disillusioned. They’re pissed. It’s a generation that asks, “What the hell have I been doing?”
Girls gathering in Kart-e-char Kabul for BreakAway
Learning mentored co-study session. They are
pursuing individualized study plans in health,
 journalism and coding.
Because only now they are seeing that the real stuff is on Udemy, YouTube, 24Symbols, Udacity, Codecademy… They have nothing that a modern corporation or international employer wants. They are starting from scratch.

It’s for them that I’m speaking out, even as my age-mates respond with blank, hurt smiles, my sons’ friends scream and flap their hands when their mail arrives, my techie friends have written me off as a Christian conservative. It’s hard to jump in front of anybody else’s teens, wave your arms and say “You’ve got it all wrong! Get off the train now!” And among the upper-middle income, social-signal-sensitive families, the track that Zoe and Chloe will follow in these years is sacred. What I’m shouting--“Get off! Spend a day clicking around YouTube! Volunteer full-time for two-months! Go study at Kenyatta University or NIT-Delhi for a semester! Check out Bartleby! Try Udemy! Take a homestay in western China! Skype daily in another language! Try a local internship! Link-up with experts around the world!”--offers none of the trusted branding and packaging. It sounds suspicious and perverse.

Too bad for brainwashed-by-high-school American teens with plenty of household credit, low ambition and no sense of ownership of their learning. Have fun at Wet-Paper-Bag-College-of-Undergraduate-Degrees. While you are plagiarizing essays and parroting each other’s politics, an unseen cohort is passing you by. They are the emerging millions of intermediate- and advanced-English speakers in low-income countries. They have mobile 3G and cracked-screen Samsungs, but they are sensing sooner than you will that the system is a waste of time. They are cobbling together at $20 and $30/month skills in coding, machine learning, project management, graphic design, translation, and social media-marketing. They would be thrilled to earn $10,000/year. And that’s about a quarter of the student debt that the average American 24-year-old has.

Am I crazy?