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: 

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?

Friday, November 30, 2018

College debt begins with a perilous teen fantasy. If your kid's in high school, the brain-washing is already done

As U.S. interest rates rise, outstanding college indebtedness rises, and both the number of defaulting borrowers and the proportion of default-category loans increases, it’s timely to ask What is college debt?

In concrete terms, college debt is the second-largest debt category in the U.S. (The first is home mortgages. It surpasses consumer and credit card debt). It is $1.5 trillion outstanding, representing 44 million borrowers. By 2023, it’s estimated that 40% of those borrowers will be in default. For the class of 2016, the average debt load is $37,172. By debt volume, 11% of that $1.5 trillion is already in default (over 90-days non-repayment), each quarter another 2% falls into default. Another 14% of that debt volume is in deferment or forbearance.

College debt is a different kind of debt from mortgages, auto-loans, corporate debt or working capital. College debt has no collateral. The student-borrower usually has no income history or assets. He has
No income, assets or business plan.
no business plan. There is no incremental demonstration of his strategic viability. Unlike credit card debt, there isn’t even an incremental demonstration of repayment culture, since repayment is typically deferred until after the completion of studies. College debt is nearly impossible to discharge through bankruptcy (The College Investor explains how here). There is no pledged asset that can be foreclosed or short-sold to facilitate the borrower’s climbing out. It is very difficult to run away from.

This handy tool provided by may be a helpful visualization of repayments by loan amount at current interest rates. Assuming an interest rate of 6.8% and a 10-year repayment plan, a graduate paying off the average debt load of $37,172 would expect to pay $428 per month. FinAid also advises what a borrower should aim to earn per annum in order to manage his loan-size; for this average loan volume, he needs to earn $51,000 to manage repayments if his household size is 1 person--and that's less likely over 10 years. 

College debt and default are growing differently for different groups, and that’s also revealing some deeper problems. A recent Brookings study found that black and African-American borrowers on average hold three-times greater outstanding college loan volume than white borrowers, and default five-times more frequently. Attendees at for-profit colleges and universities show default rates that are almost double that of graduates from 4-year undergraduate programs at public universities. The borrower profile is aging, too, and that tells us something not only about later-in-life education, but longevity of debt; 30-39 year-olds hold 30% of the $1.5 trillion college debt, and that has increased by nearly a third in the past 5 years. Borrowers over age 40 constitute 36% of the 44 million outstanding borrowers; they are paying off a long tail-end of educational leveraging.

Sixty-percent of that $1.5 trillion is undergraduate debt. And within that, the worst-performing segment is for-profit colleges and students who started but didn’t complete degrees.

Interestingly, borrower default does not correlate with overall initial loan size, suggesting that it’s not just a question of over-borrowing by volume that drives the college debt trap. According to the Brookings study, defaults are highest among those who started with initially relatively smaller loans (e.g., $10,000-20,000), but these borrowers are stretching out repayment periods, compounding overall debt well into their late-30s and 40s.

This is where it may help to read through the numbers a cultural narrative about young people. How does the fairy tale start?
Here we see an uncertain young person. It’s not clear that she is excited about classroom learning; the practice of lecture-listening, note-taking, essay-writing might not come easily. But nor has school introduced or allowed any time that she might learn a skill on Udemy, take up a 30-hour-week internship, work for her parents, or seek an online micro-credential. She found the secondary classroom monotonous and dull; her focus during those years was somewhere else, disengaged, waiting for the bell to ring. Doing as little as possible was a release from the annoying controls. Somewhere late in that process she sensed an external urgency that she needed to “make something of herself”, and college seemed to be the key.

Here we see secondary teachers and administrators. They see themselves as champions of knowledge, the stamping out of young people's days into uniform templates around uniform subjects as a social good driving equality and opportunity. Their credibility rides on the claim that such-and-such percentage of the graduating class is moving on to 4-year colleges. These claims are held up
Reach for the stars, right?
from state to state and town to town as if all students need and want the same thing. They are also judged on graduation rates, which had better improve year-on-year during anybody’s tenure. And one way to make sure that happens is to fudge it; let students take summary refreshers, inflate grades. They welcome the proliferation of colleges of all stripes, because it means there is a place for everybody; any kind of student, if goaded along to apply, can get in somewhere. And that’s the statistic that counts.

Here we see the parents and community. Who wouldn’t want to believe that anybody can become anything? That everything is possible when you put your mind to it? That the sky’s the limit? This is the American-dream narrative. And families buy into it bit by bit, so that they are not thinking about the $1.5 trillion, or 25-years of $250/month payments, disillusionment and entrapment at the beginning. Instead, they are thinking about high school recognitions and how good that feels. And sports and clubs, and putting their child in the right light. Then PSATs and how important it is to prepare for standardized tests. Then SATs and application packages and where so-and-so got in. As in an auto showroom, it’s about momentum, pride, and feeling like a winner. The financing package comes last.

Here we see the college industry. There are literally thousands of these guys, and they come in every possible form. All of them are claiming to make dreams come true. They keep up the appearance of selectivity, print viewbooks, solicit 15-year olds, and impress grandmothers with tours of ivy-covered buildings and quadrangles. They raise money, show off new athletic centers, choose and partially-fund incoming students through an opaque process that leaves everyone uncertain how much things really cost and what it really means to “get in”.

Here we see the first employer. She couldn’t care less what the 24-year old applicant read in freshman composition, and will never ask her to write an essay about anything. She doesn’t ask for political discourse. She is looking for an adaptable person who will learn fast, cooperate within her team, and master skills specific to this job. Her HR officer assumed that meant that a BA would be required, so she has a drop-down menu, and cut out all the candidates who don’t have one. Now the employer is surprised during interviews at how little experience, and how distant from reality her candidates seem to be.

Something like this iterates during the young worker’s life, as ambitions for advancement and fears about raising a family on a limited income drive further loan-taking and degree-seeking.

If we can be honest with ourselves about what’s driving college debt, then policymakers would be honest, too, about what it’s going to take to fix this.

It’s not a question of making college more affordable through subsidy. The most frequent defaulters took relatively smaller initial loans. Further, there’s decades of evidence (see this Federal Reserve Bank of New York 2017 staff study) that universities hike tuitions year-on-year directly absorbing all increases in federal student loan support, so that it’s unlikely that additional subsidy would reduce average loan volumes.

And I would further counter Scott-Clayton’s two take-aways from the 2017 Brookings study cited above:

--That degree-attainment should be “improved” for enrolled students, a vague allusion to the kind of grade-inflation, course-repeating and watering-down of skills requirements that does nobody any real service neither in secondary nor university education; to the contrary, it keeps pumping hot air into a degree-inflated culture, such that the degree itself diminishes in value as more people of varied scholastic aptitude all have one;

--That income-contingent loan repayment options should be promoted, which implies substantially more expensive and risky loans at the outset (and perhaps the need for loan pricing that takes account of degree type, major, non-profit/profit-status of the school), or an uncertain Federal government posture toward future loan forgiveness (and uncertainty itself may undermine repayment culture), or introducing another ex-ante forgiveness scheme (which perversely incentivizes greater loan-taking, all else equal).

If we can be honest with ourselves, the college debt problem is about a well-intentioned but misdirected dream that moves further and further from reality. And one particular industry has hitched itself (and taxpayer liabilities) to that dream, politicized it, amplified it, so that the dream is about loving our children, valuing knowledge, self-improvement and the American way. Who could argue with that?

The alternative dream is modest, unsexy, and not-so-fairy-tale-like. The kids who have been vegetating in secondary school should be broken out, to spend more hours pursuing with energy
Time for a new fairy-tale narrative.
and enthusiasm things that they actually want to do. And communities need to re-calibrate expectations of teenagers not to measure-up on scores and standards, but to diversify, volunteer, get involved in the real economy, connect with mentors. Students with limited motivation and showing weak scholastic aptitude need to find their own paths, even when this means that teachers and parents won’t see the standard progress indicators. All of this will look a lot more sloppy, cut-and-paste, and individualized than it does now.

Kids won’t be pushed off a conveyor belt by self-interested secondary administrators, but would self-launch at different times into online studies, micro-credentials, vocational trainings, and a wider variety of much lower-cost learning. [Professional schools and certifications are still out there, but they shouldn’t need a BA to get in!] Parents and young people won’t take a gigantic loan for the “big event” of 4-year college, but rather will have to make with their children month-by-month cost-benefit decisions about online credentials, visiting enrollment, internship opportunities and housing costs that begin at a much earlier age and may continue well into the young person’s adult life (and policy regarding the use of 529 educational savings accounts should follow suit and become more flexible!). Thousands of charlatan and half-baked colleges need to go under. And the best of individual trainers and educators have been emerging (for a decade already!) in online and blended, pay-per-use formats that make interactive, quality learning far more accessible.

It’s the culture that has to catch up with already-existent potential.
It’s a brain-washed, false American dream that has to be stopped where it starts in the families of young teens.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Divulge, But Trust! Teens reveal in college admission essays what nobody should answer in an employment interview

University of Texas at Austin asks undergraduate applicants to write 500 words about this:
What was the environment in which you were raised? Describe your family, home, neighborhood, or community, and explain how it has shaped you as a person.

Princeton gets at the same question through this bloviating, self-congratulatory paragraph:
Using one of the themes below as a starting point, write about a person, event or experience that
Tell us all about yourself...
helped you define one of your values or in some way changed how you approached the world ...“Culture is what presents us with the kinds of valuable things that can fill a life. And insofar as we can recognize the value in those things and make them part of our lives, our lives are meaningful.” Gideon Rosen, Stuart Professor of Philosophy and chair, Department of Philosophy, Princeton University.

For those of us with teens in the thick of college applications, this kind of wind-bag-couched request for comprehensive self-description is commonplace. Teens are nervous and seeking to please and still have a naive relationship with privacy. And a whole consulting industry has sprung up around advising what personality traits and gender characteristics to flaunt, which ethnic and racial stereotypes to jettison, what kind of family-upbringing and income characteristics to be proud of, which dialects are endearing and which sound stupid. Armies of Chicos-clad admission officers are pouring over this minutia for our own good, we tell ourselves. And our teen, who has already felt a hundred eyes examining her, plays along.

It hardly crosses our minds how far this veers from the core of what our teen is trying to do: to get (publicly subsidized) access to (many state-funded) educational institutions.
Alia Wong wrote in October Atlantic Monthly
about a Korean-American girl whose college application
coach and tutors advised her not to sound
"too Asian" in her application, and to omit details
 about her love of mathematics or violin-playing. 
And because our teens live in a divulging culture, it doesn’t seem inappropriate to them to reveal so much personal information that is irrelevant, prone to subjective judgement-making, and unverifiable.

But try to think of the most awkward job interviews where you’ve either been the candidate or sat alongside someone who was totally out of line:
So I hear you have a really big family, huh? How many kids again? Wow!
I was so sorry to hear about your illness. You are such a trooper!
So you’ve just got married! Congratulations! I wonder if you’re thinking about children?
I didn’t realize Scott is your partner! He’s such a nice guy.
Was that YOU I saw at mass last Sunday? I didn’t realize we go to the same church!
What an interesting last name. Now is that Persian?

Unless you fell off the potato-wagon yesterday, you know that whether you’re hiring, or promoting, or managing a team, or vetting a procurement, or screening rental applicants or health insurance claimants, or providing or receiving just about any kind of state service, that these kinds of questions or revelations are completely inappropriate.
Are applicants too young to understand the
inappropriateness of the kind of information
they are asked to divulge? Or too eager?
Or too trusting?
That also goes for ethnic background, spiritual beliefs, sexual habits and orientation, family background, relatives and their incomes, and any kind of subjective narrative about race.

And yet somehow nosy undergraduate admissions officers wormed their way out. They don’t just get away with such questions. They flaunt them. The celebration of culture, race, background, class-status, and identity oozes out of every line in the application form. It seems impossible to fill the demanded word-count without divulging a great deal of private and utterly irrelevant information.

And divulge we do. For the most competitive schools, we craft and second-guess and massage the message. Counselors help our teens put exactly the right face on themselves. (Georgetown University isn’t the only school to ask for a face-photo attached to the application itself.)

Why do we prompt our teens to divulge so much irrelevant personal information, when we ourselves would recoil and protest if any interviewer leaned across the table, and with a knowing wink asked, “Are you mixed race?” or “Do you come from a good home?” We sanction and assist the divulging, because we tell ourselves that these admissions processes are good, that their intentions are right, that their subjective reading of our personal situations is for society’s benefit.

Unfortunately, the divulge-but-trust-me culture is empowered by social progressivism, that stridently and self-righteously promises to engineer a better society by over-stepping personal privacy. I remember coming home from work incensed on the day that World Bank Human Resources promulgated a policy requesting all staff to annotate our HR profiles with sexual orientation and indicate if we are transgender. Why should I answer? How would you verify this? What is the purpose of this question?? I was enraged, but a cheerful HR officer with a helpful face and a hurt expression in her eyes said, “Colleen, this isn’t going to hurt you. This is so that we can maintain our diversity scorecard.” The explanation feels as meaningless and baffling now as is did then. I carried my anger alone, until my husband got a similar survey from the U.S. State Department.

We don’t need to look far back in history, or far from our doorsteps, to see the risks of divulge-but-trust-me. Excessive information creates a cover to disguise racial, religious, gender and other kinds of bias in selections. It sits on servers. It gets passed around. The profile data that seemed well-targeted to one audience turns out to be off-key to another. And so on. It’s why sensible adults don’t bring up these things at job interviews.

And that’s what we should be telling our teens, even if they will leave these questions blank.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Why does the state pay when a senior chooses his treatment, but not when a minor chooses his education? Who gets dignity and who gets a pat on the head?

A seventy-year old Medicare recipient chooses his doctor, books (or not) his own appointments, agrees (or not) to recommended procedures, and the state pays. 
With privacy, information and selection, the senior
chooses his care, and the state pays.
A WIC recipient shops like you and me at a grocery store. But a 16 year-old is taken to the school that serves his zone, is assigned (mostly) to classes, assigned books, assigned timing, assigned goals. If he chooses differently, he pays--twice (because his parents already paid taxes).

We shouldn’t be surprised that surveys of student perceptions about public secondary schools in aggregate are so bleak. Fewer than 15% enjoy going to secondary school. As Christensen finds in his 2008 study, Disrupting Class, most secondary students would prefer to do something else with their time. More than 80% indicate that what they’re seeking from school is time with friends and feeling good about themselves--not priorities that schools design for. Bryan Caplan describes a climate of cynicism and superficial engagement in The Case Against Education: minimal effort applied to achieve acceptable grades, decreasing hours invested in study, avoidance of difficult classes or assignments not required for graduation, celebration at class cancellations, and pervasive self-reported cheating. Hardly the behavior of a consumer paying for a service.

Healthcare makes a good comparison, because we similarly treat access as a social imperative, but the patient is the consumer, and we believe he should pay for a given service only once. A senior starts with a range of online tools, he considers how he’d like to address his needs. He can find and compare providers, consider distance, years of experience, other patients’ reviews. He can walk away from a recommendation. He can seek a second opinion. He can change course midstream. He can complain, post feedback, file a lawsuit. Medicare is a cash transfer (within constraints) that enables the senior’s decision-making about caring for his own health.

The secondary student, by contrast, is a non-entity. The group he’ll be assigned into, the books they’ll read, the content that’s prioritized,
You can choose where you'd like to sit.
have largely been determined before his arrival and irrespective of his interests. By contrast to the senior, his choices are so minuscule and choreographed as to be insulting-- he can choose his seat in the room; he can choose from three essay topics; he can choose his lab partner (maybe). That the service is good or bad, useful or irrelevant, is measured not by his own assessment, but by a concocted measure of utility devised without ever consulting him. There are no star-ratings for this chapter or that, for this classroom, for this assignment, for this teacher. Did this day exceed/meet/underwhelm your expectations? 

Any feedback mechanism to the many services inside a public school is necessarily indirect: through parents,
Never seen in a public school.
through volunteer organizations, through a long chain of command. Community fundraising likewise benefits students indirectly. Rarely do you see a direct cash transfer to students to select learning options. Instead, laptops, smartboards, voting devices, musical instruments-- are owned, managed, and allocated by the school district. Most critically, in very few places do students have the means to vote with their feet. And in most of those cases, if they choose, then they pay twice. Public secondary school is a state monopoly that allocates resources on behalf of teens according to its own determination of what is collectively good education.

Teenagers are even non-entities in the social iconography of their own lives. In the paeans to school and teachers, teenagers play the role of cherub props. The impassioned voices are not teenagers, but politicians and public figures. They massage our civic imagination of downtown-parades-Oprah’s-book-club-apple-pie-and-cute-puppy-uploads. An actual teenage personality had better be airbrushed in this sepia-tinted world.

Part of the problem of teen students as non-entities is the extension of parents’ simplified management style going back to rearing smaller children. The breadwinners call the shots. They can’t handle another headache. While you live under my roof… and so on.

But it’s not only parents that ride along on teens’ non-entity status. It’s also an industry of child-management (only a fraction of this growth is actually teachers!) that validates and expands itself. It does this through an impassioned, heart-rending double-speak that makes an icon of teen-rearing while nullifying the teen and reappropriating his resources. University administrations latch-on and extend the same iconography: the sacred raising of young minds (nevermind our tuition hikes, monopolistic and untransparent practices, and the career-irrelevance problem).

In any other industry, it’s unheard to say that the industry itself is saintly, even if the overall purpose it’s serving is useful, live-or-die stuff. The heroic healthcare industry?
In his September 1990 address to the United Nations
on the occasion of the World Summit for Children
 and signing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,
Vaclav Havel lamented years of “bent backs” and “servitude
to hated regimes” supposedly in the name of children.
He recounted horrors of totalitarian regimes “all this
 for the fake happiness of generations yet unborn in some
 fake paradise”, and he wished “if it were possible, I would
add another paragraph to the agreement I signed this morning.
That paragraph would say that it is forbidden for parents and
adults in general to lie, serve dictatorships, inform on others,
bend one's back, be scared of dictators, and betray one's friends
and ideals in the name and for the alleged interest of children,
and that it is forbidden for all murderers and dictators to pat
children on the head". ...We would wave off such a comparison
to compulsory school as hyperbole. But we would also shepherd
children--with great fanfare-- to 1500 hours per year stripped
of civil rights, driven by compulsion, silenced as consumers,
straight-jacketed as decision-makers. 
The martyrs of American food production? How would you feel about a poster with a United Airlines spokesperson patting a radiant passenger on his head? Even childcare centers and assisted living facilities don’t get the mushiness that is heaped collectively on schools.

No consumer is a radiant cherub. No $12,000 sale* is made on mush-factor. Something is missing-- what??

It’s the teenager! The teenager is absolutely a consumer! He or she needs encouragement and guidance, yes. Needs reminders and nudging and discipline, sure. But the teenager should compare and choose, take or leave recommendations, personally assess progress on terms which are valuable to him/herself, change course, vote with his/her feet, and give feedback. When we recognize secondary education as an $206 billion business with 15.1 million consumers**, we will-- as Vaclav Havel exhorts-- stop patting children on their heads, and compete to offer relevant, convenient, timely services. It’s not the end of the world when teenagers call more of the shots for their learning. It’s the end of an abusive hypocrisy.

*The range of per student per annum expenditure by schools varies by state, with New York ($21,206) Alaska ($20,172), District of Columbia ($19,396) Connecticut ($18,377) and New Jersey ($18,235) at the high end, and low-end states as low as $7000.

**Total spending in 2018 for grade 9-12 education by public schools in U.S., and number of enrolled students in public schools grades 9-12 same year.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

What’s an hour worth? Political prisoners teach us about the time-value (and human value) of self-determination

What is an hour of your time? Is it your output? Some benchmark wage? Even if you put a price on it, you know it’s something more. It’s not only making, it’s also being. And being doesn’t want a value-number, because being is too proud for that. An hour of being doesn’t promise anything. It demands full freedom for itself. Being presumes its own value.

Nietzsche wrote in Will to Power:
There is a solitude within him [sic: the “higher man”] that is inaccessible to praise or blame, his own justice that is beyond appeal.

Isaiah Berlin expanded on this idea in The Crooked Timber of Humanity:
It makes no difference whether a man’s own inner light shines for others or not; nor whether he serves it successfully; serve it he must, even if he makes himself ridiculous in the process, even if all he does ends in failure. Indeed this sort of failure is considered as being morally infinitely superior to worldly success, even success as an artist-- provided only that it is the fruit of the blind and exclusive service of what a man knows to be his mission, of what the inner voices tell him that he must do.

As one who loves the literature of political dissidents,
Solzhenitsyn served 8 years in the gulags,
including hard labor at Ekibastuzin in
northern Kazakhstan.
I take a lesson from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Liu Xiaobo and Milan Kundera. There is something in human time that thrives on its own free expression and withers under external control. An hour intrinsically motivated is something very different from an hour (or decade) extrinsically compelled. On the Central Asian steppe, in a Chinese re-education camp, in a prison in Czechoslovakia, these three were subjected to the crushing monotony of arbitrary, externally-imposed ritual. And make no mistake, such ritual is purposefully designed.
Kundera's early novel The Joke is considered
 a partly autobiographical account of arrest,
humiliation and prison sentence which the
author himself endured, narrowly avoiding
death penalty, and serving 14 years in a
Czechoslovak prison. 
To the letter it elevates and painstakingly justifies itself (why else carefully recorded confessions?), creates and sustains a massive bureaucratic machinery around itself (surely so many blouse- and tie-wearing officers cannot be wrong!), metes out soul-crushing brutality alongside ludicrous rituals of hygiene, productivity and patriotism, and always, unfailingly, documents, documents, documents!!

I often wish that anybody fervent about teen well-being would take the time to get acquainted with Solzhenitsyn, Xiaobo and Kundera.

They lived in systems that treated/treat the human spirit as a mush to be smashed and remolded into a thing: thing-1, thing-2 and thing-3. They should plug into machines that whistle and click, and a uniform glob should plop out the other side. It should plop cheerfully and reliably. This to the smiling, nodding approbation of
Liu Xiaobo was one of few Nobel Laureates held in prison
and unable to receive the award personally. He died in July 2017 not
long after release from prison. 
doe-eyed co-conspirators--classmates, co-workers, neighbors--who unflinchingly turned them over for arrest. These authors were unstoppable voices. But behind them were/ARE snuffed out millions that these machines in their perfect rhythm successfully digest.

Living at various times in Moscow, Kyiv and Astana over the past twenty years, I have only brushed with the machinery that continues to grind human time in the state clinics, post offices, railway ticket-counters, internats and state department stores--remnants of a deeply-ingrained culture of soul-smashing. The quiet, patient plodding from queue to queue, the never-quite-complete bundle of documents, the pleading, smiling offerings to petty demons, the rank smell of bad plumbing, the shrieking calls to wear paper shoe-covers. As a foreigner, I could observe--with irritation--from the privileged vantage-point of one not depending on or bound-into these systems. At the oncology center in Astana, I brought my kids and made small-talk during chemo. Notwithstanding the barking of the shoe-cover lady, impatience of the blood-tester nurse (we had to do it in a line), and the occasional cursing tirade from another patient, I tried to make the best of the hours there. The head nurse was fascinated with me and called me into his office for tea. ‘You’re the only patient we have who wants to go on living,’ he told me.

So what is an hour? For one thing, it’s defiantly not being dead.

Maybe there should be two different words for an hour. Here is an hour that celebrates the machine. It goes click-rattle-plop-plop. It sucks in the mush on one side, and pushes out the plop plop on the other. It generates the false hum of false progress. Its laborers dig ditches in the morning that they will fill in the afternoon, its farmers lean on hoes over crops that will be reappropriated, its production quotas, harvest yields, birth rates(!!) boast an impossible unity of compliance and desire.

Here is an hour that celebrates the man. It races by while he stutters and gasps to express himself. He flails and fights against monotony, fights to be meaningful.

These hours are not defined by geography or politics, but by our own estimation of the human being. Make no mistake that so-called free countries also hold task-masters, pinheads and bean-counters. How easily would we trade hours and years of another person’s life for the reassuring whistle-click-plop-plop, the reliability, the ritual, the documents? Who are we crushing along the way?

Thursday, October 25, 2018

What’s the point of half-assed algebra? A case for some teens to stop

It’s a buzz word for foundation grants, optimistic local headlines, model schools, premature celebrations of against-the-odds engineers and mathematicians. It’s STEM.

Why do we love it so much? Why have so many first ladies, mayors and philanthropists thrown their dollars and heavily-made-up faces behind kids with beakers and protractors?
Better sit down and finish this...!
Part of us is going gah-gah for the narrative that a fun chemistry class or a zany math teacher will transform an unlikely young person into the next astronaut or Google executive. The other part is sighing (silently). Yeah, right. We feel it, but we know we’d better not say so.

Go ahead and measure the length of the hallway, freeze and melt some water, light that thing on fire and then weigh the ashes. We should smile and rally around the camera.
After this star-studded visit, Excel Academy was
 forced to close its doors in January 2018
for poor performance. It re-opened in August.
Too many over-promising STEM projects have made big deals about mediocre programs in math and science, only to disappoint with results later on.

That’s awkward to say, but it’s not the only problem. The other problem we are unwilling to say.

What if some teens are actually better off to stop studying a math or a science?

[In most schools, these are rigidly hierarchical subjects with pre-set texts like pre-algebra, algebra, trigonometry, pre-calculus, calculus; or earth science, biology, chemistry, physics. Even veering laterally into something like logical thinking, visual puzzles, game theory, behavioral design or psychology is rarely an option. So when I say STOP, I mean, get off that narrow conveyor-belt of classes that high schools call math and science.]

What are we expecting will come from the extra hours of painfully muddling-through by a teen who has already demonstrated no enthusiasm and very little aptitude for a subject? What will the memories of slope-intercept equations, rate-time word problems, momentum equations and atomic numbers cumulatively represent a year later? A decade later? We are (most of us) more willing to listen to reason when a child tells us she’s sick of violin or no longer interested in basketball than when she says she can’t stand another math class. Why is that?

I’m caught in the line of fire between two of my children who are non-reactive to math, their father and grandparents who won’t give up the cause. I would say it becomes evident around age 11. [With 5 kids, my sample size is small.] Before then, I agree with math-lovers that we all need a basic measure of numeracy, anyway. Counting, adding, comparing, visualizing, demonstrating equivalence, considering rates and proportions. At around 11 years, I started to see that some kids were comfortable in math textbooks and Khan Academy and ArtofProblemSolving: seeing it once, turning a concept upside down, extending a model to another application. But for these two, it has been just painful. Yes, we could play games, make models-- we have already veered into logical puzzles, game theory and perception. But mathematics the way Sal Khan, McGrawHill, McDougall Littel and the rest do it-- that became a daily misery. So when our second son was about 14, I quietly let math slide; with no major announcement to the family; we just stopped doing it. His energies veered into story-writing, film-making and guitar-playing. Our oldest daughter is now 13, and we’re getting to that point. Every hour that she doesn’t beat herself up with Khan Academy, she is sculpting, reading contemporary fiction, dancing or reading about neurobiology and visual perceptions. If I could measure their “success” in motivation and happiness, then they are really improving by setting math aside.

The math-faithful aren’t entirely wrong. Measures of scholastic aptitude from standardized tests to state-core curricula to the SAT include mathematics sections, which look to things like sine and cosine functions, polynomial factoring, quadratic formula, rate-time problems and complementary angles.
What if he's just not that into this?
Teens who have veered away from this stuff at a younger age will stand out as under-performers by these standards. It makes any reintegration into traditional classroom learning painful in this respect, and the college application process unnecessarily dramatic.

But here’s the absurdity. Teens who hate math know that they are tolerating it in order to reach the SAT. If they complete that and decide to go to 4-year college, then maybe another “core” requirement will need to be filled with some kind of math-for-poets class. But that will be all. And that will be the end. (If they shift away from 4-year university, then that abrupt ending will come even sooner). They step out into a workforce and community where almost nobody ever uses any of that McGrawHill content--EVER.

I know we’re trained to resist that observation with every muscle in our bodies, but please try this experiment with me. Next time you’re at block party (except in Cambridge, Los Alamos or Mountainview), ask your neighbors. Who has factored a quadratic equation today? Who can tell me when two drivers from Toledo and Duluth will meet?

The reality that we live with but resist admitting to ourselves and our teens, is that a few of us with exceptional talents in math or sciences design and create systems that calculate, plan, predict, and optimize for the rest of us. There is hardly an economic role for sloppy and error-prone half-competencies (Kissenger makes an ominous prediction about the capacity of artificial intelligence to re-write the roles of humans in this June Atlantic Monthly article) . From downloadable tax preparation software to Google flights to GPS navigation to online mortgage calculators to credit repayment calculators to office procurement systems, for most of us the real challenge is using the right tool at the right time as an aid to another kind of thinking.

For those other kinds of thinking, we would be wise to encourage teens to explore outside traditional curricula, while keeping eyes open to apps and tools as they emerge. How could music intervene to accelerate healing and reduce anxiety, and what tools would deliver it to the market at the right time? How could underemployed rural moms pool time to provide comfort-care to elderly and homebound people, and how could their driving and time be optimized? How could dogs trigger early warning systems in crowded places to mitigate the threat of mass violence, and how would their signals be translated across wide areas?

Opportunities are visualized by teams that bring together feeling, expressive, intuitive and calculating, ordering, implementing minds. Or creative people who find the right app to get a job done. So why do we try to stamp out teens with the same mold? We know that inspired, creative thinking is fragile among teens. It doesn’t turn on with a switch, and can be crushed by repeated failure-indications in subjects on which authority-figures place high priority. A warning against barging in on our young storyteller and insisting he should graph a few parabolas.

There is a weird and counterproductive optimism behind all this. It’s the mantra of core curriculum defenders that anybody can be anything. By investing hours and years in standardized curricula, every teen should have the same building blocks to decide to be an astrophysicist or an impressionist painter. Too bad we are all very different in our aptitudes and interests. Too bad there are only 24 hours in a day and millions of things to which you could have applied yourself. Too bad if somewhere along this boring route you tuned out and turned off.

In this family, a few of us are just pretending to be math-faithful. These years are short, and there’s so much more to do. Wait a few more years and nobody would notice anyway.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Take this screaming kid! How survival expediency drives school-going--years too far

Anyone who has tried calling me at 7:30am knows this is the impossible hour. I’m a completely different person: 
Me, 8:30am
frazzled, pleading, exhausted, confused. By the time I’ve got our screaming, publicly-undressing 5-year-old to the door of her kindergarten, it’s with a certain relief that I make that last push into the arms of her teacher and let the door slam. Bang! And then I breathe. Cause I’ve got eight hours.

If you don’t have children, you can keep sipping your caramel macchiato and judging. If you have any, you know what I’m talking about. By kid #5, my brain is so fried that I can’t remember when this started or if it’s getting any easier.

As when she’s asleep, when Bina is at school, she is angelic. The teacher sends WhatsApp pictures of her and the other children peeling cucumbers, gluing dried leaves, or celebrating a birthday. I feel a rush of warmth as I forward to husband and in-laws. By some miracle she changes her own clothes, washes her own hands, and takes naps on cue with other kids. And when I show up again at pick-up time, she is a completely transformed little person, regaling me with lessons
Tender angelic moments.
about covering my cough, where our food goes and how eyeballs work as we walk home together. School--and that brief intermission of sleep she allows me each night--is the reason why our few hours together are so precious.

When it comes to packing-up small children and restoring sanity, I hear you! I read with awe the posts on groups like Christian Mothers of Large Families that Homeschool and Thrifty Homeschoolers about moms who juggle 8+ small children for entire days of meals, bathing, lessons, activities, and pediatric appointments. I wonder if the children are actors, or if the mothers live on Red Bull. My husband used to wear ear protection in alternating ears at home when the kids were smaller, I guess protecting equally crappy hearing on both sides.

With the exception of those maternal endurance-athletes, most of us live in a state of near-collapse and mental decay that requires small children to be somewhere else for some hours of the day. We love them more that way. We also shower, earn money, respond to messages, and (we think) restore that spark that created those kids in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, homeschoolers-extraordinaire, my hats are off to you. I read about you with my twitching eye and scrambled brain, in the eight hours of solace while Bina is at school.

School is the warmed foil tray coming down the aisle. The four subsections of mild, brown-and-beige gruel for which we expectantly lower our tray-tables and stare impatiently at the cart.
Just enjoy. 
It’s not any one thing we’re hungry for, but it’s the reassurance that it’s all there, the warm, total package. And in rich countries, school takes care of it all. Transport, supervision, meals, toilets, behavior-management. That’s an irresistible package.

But what if we’re getting hooked on the airplane meal-tray? What if as parents, we’re so lulled and satisfied by the all-in-one package that we’re missing cues from our children that things really could be a lot better? Or what if we are programming our children through our own choices to expect that education is an inevitable daily routine as dull as re-warmed potatoes and gravy?

When would we be ready to live with our kids’ own choices about how and what they learn? At 8? 10? 12? I’m not offering any guidance here, just uneasiness that it seems we’ve pushed it back to after 20. Our kids can already vote, marry and enlist before most of us have given any leeway for choice about how they spend their time.

Why is that? As our kids become pre-teens and teens, I think our early parenting excuses become a cover. What if he wants to work part-time and study online? What if she wants to only read and paint? What if he spends three months coding competitively? What if she wants to only volunteer and take dance classes this spring? I don’t want to think about it, and This is one more headache, are how we appropriate our teen’s own risk-taking, dreams and plans to ourselves, revert to our 5-year-old-management model, and slam it behind a door. Bang! Cause it’s a lot easier that way.

There’s a more troubling explanation, too. Maybe we’re afraid of what our kids are made of. If we took away structure, routines, and minute-by-minute ordering of things, maybe they are horrible people. Maybe they would hurt others, or themselves. Or maybe they are apathetic lumps whom we would find in the same place on the couch at 6pm, where we left them at 8am. No principal would start a commencement address this way, but really, isn’t the whole industry of kid-management built on this Hobbesian premise? If not, then why bells? Why seating charts, three strikes, and cumulative grading? Our certainty about this comes from something deeper: We were broken, so they should be broken, too.

I know that I am broken. I’m scrambled and confused, and I stutter when I’m nervous. My kids had something to do with that. I love them and don’t mind the judgmental glances at 8am. I am still taking my youngest to kindergarten and look forward to our walks home. At some point, this arrangement, too, will give way to something messier, louder and less certain. I've got to let her do it, and won't have any door to hide behind. 

Thursday, September 27, 2018

If the Goal Is Broadening My Horizons, Then Why Am I on This Campus?

We’re hearing the defense of liberal arts education more and more, from the critics of Betsy DeVos and defenders of loan forgiveness to the embittered humanities professors squeezed out by universities’ shifting priorities. They portray a battle between vocationalists and poets, business and ivory towers.
Was it serendipity that brought
these two together?
I’m a lover of books, of exploration, of living in new places and trying new things. I’m a defender of the liberal arts; but that’s why I can’t understand going to college.

Broaden your horizons! Learn to learn! Take time to explore! So goes the parent and guidance-counsellor wisdom about 4-year liberal arts degrees.

Getting in to the more elite schools requires looking like an explorer and free-thinker. A volunteer trip to Guatemala. A teen summer leadership conference. A provocative essay. (Never mind that many schools have used these subjective indicators as cover for years to disguise racial profiling in admission decisions, and one is now dragged before a Federal Court.) But better not explore too much. Not actually work two years in Guatemala. Not actually enroll for a semester in Delhi. Certainly nothing that would disrupt the pathway from high school to competitive (Oh please! Oh please! Pick meeee!!) enrollment at a single, in-residence, 4-year college.
Embarking on the journey
Teen exploration is a Panda Express version of a real thing that’s abundantly available all around us, made of real stuff, and infinitely cheaper, too.

If I should get comfortable working, living and cooperating with people very different from me, why don’t I get a job at McDonalds? Or cleaning restrooms in my nearest airport? Why not extend that volunteer work in a faraway country long enough to really make a difference? Why do we instead count on the army of admissions officers and their opaque selection model to place me with people who will supposedly broaden my worldview?

If I should learn to learn, then why is the process administration-led and not student-led? Why should I only take classes during defined intervals and only from this one school? Why shouldn’t I pursue the topics that interest me most from the sources (whether it’s Udemy or Masterclass or another university or person) that deliver the most value to me?

If I should explore, then why is there a required curriculum? And even as critics point to the erosion of supposedly “essential” education toward trendy, preachy progressivism, administrators still dish it out like a pre-set menu: so many credits of race and ethnicity, so many credits of foreign language, so many credits of social science… Why is my path so mechanical and contrived? Wasn’t Picasso exploring when he dedicated years of his life to the color blue? How have we become such bean-counters about exploration?

What you won’t hear ivory tower-defenders admit is that the ivory tower itself is a business model. And a very illiberal one. Excessively complex and untransparent selection. Bloated administrative function that poses to ensure diversity and uphold fragile identities while driving up per-student costs. Bundled product that raises switching costs and leverages simplistic HR systems (highest level of education= drop-down menu) to over-price a product that costs far less in unit-form. Inflexible product terms and conditions (e.g., timing of course availability, core requirements) that always advantage the seller. Indirect subsidy distribution and third-party payment schemes (think Sallie Mae and American taxpayer) that limit buyer incentives and information for true price comparison. Final price tag double the median household income.*

So if the goal is broadening my horizons, then why should I go to college? If I am the most liberal, liberal arts student, then I should grab my backpack and head for an internship far away. Tuck Jack Kerouac under my arm and hop the next Greyhound. Hook up to Udemy and Coursera from the sofa where I end up sleeping tonight. Show up on some college campus not starry-eyed and contractually bound,
not primed by some elite, inaccessible process, not riding on mom and dad’s home equity line of credit; but with twenty bucks, a backpack, and a one-click sign-up for the course that interests me. And a few years from now, my mix-and-match courses, my pasted-together knowledge and experiences shouldn’t wear like a stigma on my first big job interview, but should be a legitimate and understandable credential to the HR blockhead. That would be a real liberation.

Be wary of those who defend liberal arts from inside university campuses. There’s a business process at work that’s sifting, sorting and stamping the foreheads of over-eager teens (Louis Vuitton! Prada! Gucci!) while pretending to celebrate learning.

*U.S. median household income, 2016, acc. U.S. Census Bureau was $57,617.
In 2017-2018, the average cost of 4-year undergraduate tuition and fees was 2018 school year was $138,960 at private colleges, $39,880 for state residents at public colleges, and $102,480 for out-of-state residents at public colleges.

Friday, September 7, 2018

What if We Graded Students on Motivation Instead of Content-Mastery?

It’s back-to-school time for many of us, and as we buy planners and sign parental consent forms, it’s a good time to consider why we’re doing this, anyway.

Our local school refers to its curriculum as “units of mastery”, IB schools talk about “mastery-learning”, and standardized tests refer to “content-mastery” and “scholastic achievement”.

But what if all of these terms are putting an important-sounding name on a phenomenon that is really superficial and temporary?
How much can he absorb?
We’d like to think that by October, our seventh-grader has “mastered” four qualities of igneous and sedimentary rocks, our ninth grader has “mastered” the factoring of quadratic equations, our eleventh-grader has “mastered” six economic and political dynamics preceding the American Civil War. But where has this content gone, and how will it interact with other bits of knowledge, ways of thinking and solving problems in their future minds?

Admittedly, our children and their school experiences vary, and some of them will hold on to facts and rules for a surprisingly long time. (I can still sing the 50-states song, and chant the most common English prepositions in alphabetical order). But with the exception of songs, chants and Please-Excuse-My-Dear-Aunt-Sallies, many of which hang from a disjointed scholastic neuron in our aging minds, where does the rest of this content go?

If we can be honest with ourselves, it goes to the same cognitive rubbish heap as administrative process-rules from the job you held 12 years ago, phone numbers of earlier contacts, turn-by-turn directions to the grocery store in the town you lived in three towns before this one… And what would an adult say about any of those forms of knowledge? Well, actually, that you don’t need to know them, because an app knows them for you. You need to know how to get at them, how to find them when you need them, how to update or revise them when necessary.

But it’s uncomfortable to say that about teenagers. We feel viscerally that they should know how to find the roots of a parabola, say something about the Monroe Doctrine, name various kinds of wetlands, even as we ourselves could not, and most of us have never been asked to do so since high school. If you asked me right now, I would ask Siri.
Where does all the information go?
For our teens, who would love to hear me say that, we fear it’s letting them off the generational hook; it’s excusing them to return to Instagram and Buzzfeed. But the “content-mastery” approach is misguided for two reasons.

First, we are over-optimistic about our human capacity to meaningfully assimilate arbitrarily-assembled content and hold on to it over time. Admittedly, for every subject in our teens’ classes, from the water cycle to post-Civil War reconstruction to Hamlet to sexually-transmitted diseases, we find important lessons that ought to guide their future interaction with society, decision-making and perspective. In the same way, policymakers wish that adults would learn to wear seat-belts, get health insurance, eat vegetables and file a 1040 correctly. But we’ve learned a lot about the failures of massive-education in these contexts (for example, about improving adults’ financial literacy, energy efficiency, and health). In particular, the failures of classroom-style learning, excessive content, boredom, poor timing, disjointedness, and disconnection from practice, have been explored for years, but seemingly in a separate space from our attitudes about teen education. We wish for activated knowledge and informed decision-making, but our approach is like the Microsoft User Guide (notice how the iPad comes with no guide and just one button).

Second, the champions of content-mastery (many of whom hold tenured positions) poorly prepare students for the cognitive iron-man that is lifelong skills adaptation. Yuval Noah Harari’s October Atlantic article warns about the demands of an accelerating knowledge-assimilation cycle brought about by artificial intelligence and other disruptive technologies: “Old jobs will disappear and new jobs will emerge, but the new jobs will also rapidly change and vanish. People will need to retrain and reinvent themselves not just once, but many times.” She predicts the emergence of a cognitive under-class: “By 2050, a useless class might emerge, the result not only of a shortage of jobs or a lack of relevant education but also of insufficient mental stamina to continue learning new skills.”

So what are we missing? What’s the ingredient that makes things knowable? That bridges the gap between knowledge and action? That makes the best entry-level job candidate and the strongest mid-career transfer?


Would it matter if I had forgotten the particulars of the Dred Scott Case, if I was generally motivated to read news, listen to analysis, and talk about the world? Would I be so badly off if I had forgotten the formula for compound interest if I was generally motivated to search around and try to use an online calculator before signing a mortgage? There is an obvious advantage to knowing things, and don’t think I’m making a defense of ignorance and forgetfulness.
What if how she approaches learning is more
important than what she's learning?
Only a reality-check about the limits of our confused and tired minds. As when the office changes the e-procurement system for the the seventh time in two years, I humbly suggest that we are not designed for this kind of learning-by-firehose.

But we are designed to get motivated, and I really believe that it’s how we want to be most of the time. I am motivated to look good, to make people like me, to do things that I can be proud of. We are motivated when we feel that we are in control, when we create things ourselves, and when we’re recognized for the things that we create (Ariely explores this wonderfully in The Upside of Irrationality. Also, there’s a great literature about all the things a bad boss can do to de-motivate her staff, and it’s funny how much of it is built into the structure of classroom learning).

It doesn’t make sense to measure content-mastery across students, because the structure which it applies uniformly to everyone de-motivates the individual learner. It doesn’t matter what you want. You are not in control. Learn these things here. It’s also not terribly useful, because content-mastery, we have seen, is a dressed-up fallacy. Today’s “master” of polynomial long-division is tomorrow’s blank slate. Don’t get me wrong-- there is content, and it can be studied and learned. (Let’s measure that at the individual level.) With motivation and context, it can be remembered and applied.

But that’s the kicker. Motivation is what matters. We would do our teens a huge service to cultivate it and reward it. And if there’s something that will more reliably track to success, not just on next week’s test, but in the eleventh job in the fifth city with the nineteenth information system, it is our relentlessly human motivation.