Category Archives: Education

How to Make Good Teachers – Economist

Are good teachers made or born? Made, says The Economist and an increasing section of the literature, but the public still tends to look for super-teachers rather than train the ones we have in what works.

Early on in humanity’s lifespan, whether you lived or died of a disease was largely in the hands of the heavens. Some people were born with the ability to intercede with the heavens, and they were recognized and elevated early on for their innate talents. They might have extensive knowledge of the theory of how the gods thought and behaved, as well as how they could be convinced to change their minds.

Fast forward, and medicine is more skills-based than theory-based: theory clearly matters, of course, but doctors learn specific techniques that can help improve outcomes and allow patients to recover. Medical schools focus on teaching the concrete details of how the body works and how to treat disease, rather than abstract philosophies about medicine.

Unfortunately, says The Economist, teaching is still in the first state. The overwhelming narrative in education tends to be about accountability; testing and other methods find out how good teachers are, so we can separate the wheat from the chaff. That may have value, but far more useful is to ensure teachers are teaching well, using skills and practices that can be learned. Unfortunately, far too many education degrees focus on abstract theories of pedagogy rather than actually teaching how to teach.

The data highlights how important it is. The things we fight about in public policy – school uniforms, class size, streaming – make effectively no difference to student outcomes. Good teaching, on the other hand, makes all the difference, with good teachers getting students to learn about three times as much material as poor ones. That is the difference between getting 1.5 years of education or 0.5 years each year.

Good teachers ask probing questions of students; assign short writing tasks to check progress and get children thinking; they plan their classes and how to achieve their goals; have classes that are teacher-led but interactive; anticipate errors; and space out the content they cover. Regardless of your theory of teaching, these methods help students learn, in the same way that regardless of your theory of medicine, some practices will help patients recover.

North America has a lot learn from the places that prioritize education, such as Finland, Japan and Singapore. Their systems aren’t perfect either, but we certainly have room for progress.

You can read the full article here.

Most Likely to Succeed – Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith

“Our bottom line? Our nation continues to plod away with incremental fixes to an obsolete education system, as innovation races ahead.”

When I lived in Tanzania, I used to visit a primary school where the children were taught by having them all stand and recite things aloud. Learning by rote used to be common everywhere, and still is in much of the world. The idea that students should be engaged and think critically, and not just some students but all students, remains a new and powerful one.

Wagner and Dintersmith argue that even where kids no longer chant in unison, we haven’t cracked it; that students are spending too much time on rote learning, and not enough on really learning how to innovate. Children are taught to name the parts of the car, in other words, rather than how to actually drive. Likely to Succeed places the blame on standardized testing and the drive to prepare kids for college instead of teach them.

Standardized tests certainly have disadvantages as well as advantages, but it seems extreme to place the blame for the poor results of the American educational system entirely on them. The authors have a strong ideological position, and there is some support for it, but claiming as they do that standardized testing is the single largest threat to national security feels a bit much. They also occasionally misuse statistics, such as when they discuss the returns to getting a university education. There’s an important question over whether university teaches valuable information or just adds a signal without teaching much, but the statistics are fairly clear the returns to going are large.

Most Likely to Succeed has some solid ideas, and readers may find themselves nodding their heads as they go along – I liked their point that allowing students to use computers in exams might actually makes more sense if students are to learn to problem solve with technology – but for me the book struggles because it isn’t adding much to the debate. Everyone agrees we should teach students to think critically, and that we don’t just want to create low level thinkers. In some, egregious, cases, how to fix that is clear, but in most it is not: to learn how to do math, some evidence suggests rote learning is an important first step. The book doesn’t really provide answers on how to resolve the hard questions, or where to go next, other than that we should be teaching students high level skills somehow. I suspect education is also not as monolithic as the authors suggest: I didn’t go to an American school, but my impression is that the variance between them is extremely wide. For that reason, I found something like College Disrupted, which accounts for this variance and uses data to explain how education should change, more satisfying.

You can see more reviews (and get your own copy) here: Most Likely to Succeed.

Free to Learn – Peter Gray

“Free play is the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems, and generally take control of their own lives.”

Ask someone over 50 for their favourite moment in childhood, and most of them will raise a time when they were playing with other children, far from adults. Today, Gray argues, we deny children the same opportunity to be free to learn: we over-regulate and over-structure their lives, denying them the opportunity to develop essential skills through independent growth and learning.

Peter Gray, as he puts it, is an evolutionary development psychologist: he studies child development from a Darwinian perspective. That sounds a bit Hunger Games, but in truth what he means is he studies how child behaviours evolved. That leads him to a number of interesting insights, chief of which is the value of free play in childhood. Play, he argues, is how children evolved the ability to build skills, develop the ability to control their lives, and learn to be adults.

When children play, they don’t fear failure, they are forced to be creative, and they learn how to accommodate others and see things from the viewpoint of others: after all, if someone else doesn’t enjoy the game, they leave. Only in school and adult-run environments, where participation is mandatory, can you remain safely oblivious to the feelings of others, since they don’t have the option to leave. You also don’t need to come up with your own rules, settle conflicts on your own, or otherwise do much of value other than follow the orders of adults – hardly the first-best skill for our children.

The first half of the 20th century was a golden age for play – as children worked less and less, they had more time to devote to their own activities, closer to the pre-industrial era. In the last 50 years, however, school hours and structured time has steadily increased. Free play is increasingly a scarce resource.

The book is interesting, and it advances a compelling thesis, that children should be free to make mistakes and free to learn. Gray also studies several schools which have taken a low-regulation approach in depth, including Sudbury Valley School, which is entirely democratic: teachers and students all have one vote apiece. My sole criticism would be he discusses almost exclusively lab research: understandable for a biologist, but unfortunate. Economists and others have done some great working in actual schools looking at some of these questions, which could give his arguments more external validity. Still, a worthwhile and sometimes provocative read.

The Marshmallow Test – Walter Mischel

“To resist a temptation we have to cool it, distance it from the self, and make it abstract. To take the future into account, we have to heat it, make it imminent and vivid.”

In 2013 and 2014, Sesame Street devoted itself to self-regulation. In one episode, the Cookie Monster played the ‘Waiting Game’ – he could have one cookie now, or if he waited, he could have two. During the episode, he learns strategies to help him wait. Sounds a bit familiar? It should – Walter Mischel was a consultant on the show.

Resisting temptation is a pretty useful skill. The classic example is the marshmallow test – children were told they could have one marshmallow now, or if they waited, they could have two later. In the cutest videos ever made, these children wrestle with their willpower, trying to find ways to resist the marshmallow (or chocolate, or whatever, depending on what they found most tempting) and wait for the greater reward.

What helped? Covering the treats so children couldn’t see them made it easier. Children who distracted themselves, or were told to do so beforehand, either by thinking about other things, singing to themselves, or even sleeping, could wait much longer. Focusing on non-tempting aspects of the marshmallow – imagining it as a picture, thinking of it as puffy cloud, etc. — also helped. Thinking about sad things, in contrast, reduced how long the children could wait.

Mischel (who ran the original marshmallow test) argues this captures the difference between ‘hot’ immediate stimuli and ‘cold’ distant stimuli. Hot, tempting things are what we find appealing in the short term, but if asked in the abstract whether we’d prefer one or two marshmallows, we know we’d prefer two. The key to willpower is making hot things seem cold, and/or cold things seem hot. Make punishments and costs immediate, and the benefits seem distant.

I find willpower fascinating, and so am always pleased when the giants in the field write about it. The Marshmallow Test isn’t perfect: it can feel a bit disorganized at time as it tries to cover 50 years of experimental work, and a lot of its content is already in the public eye, the danger of having NYT columns written about you. That said, for an engaging and enlightening look at the willpower field, particularly if you’re new to it, it’s hard to do better than one of its greats!

Increase Your Financial IQ – Robert T. Kiyosaki

“Ultimately, it is not gold, stocks, real estate, hard work, or money that makes you rich – it is what you know about gold, stocks, real estate, hard work, and money that makes you rich.”

I don’t really know if entrepreneurship can be taught. Critics of traditional education argue that if anything, schools teach the opposite: stay safe, give the accepted answer, and you get an A. Do something different, try something new, and you risk failure – even if you succeed, you may still be marked wrong, and at best you do no better than your peers who took the safe path. It’s not clear that’s what life is like.

Of course, I’m also not sure the point of school is to teach entrepreneurship: there are many things I’d like children to learn, and though risk-taking is one of them, citizenship, confidence, and a solid knowledge base on a range of topics that allows them to participate and contribute to modern society – not to mention reading and math – also score highly. Perhaps schools are better trying to teach knowledge, and leave spiritual growth and personal development to other fora, or perhaps there’s a way to fold in learning such things without formally trying to teach them, by including useful experiences and activities.

Either way, I wish people were more financially literate: as regular blog readers will know, for me it’s one of those things that if you don’t grow up with it, it can be hard to catch up later in life, and yet it seems to play a key role in determining financial security and stability.

The Rich Dad Poor Dad series is a titan among financial literacy books, selling millions upon millions of copies. Given my own interest in financial literacy, regular readers will know I often find reading such books interesting. For me though, Financial IQ is not a success, neither entertaining nor particularly informative. It is mostly fairly tired advice that is unlikely to surprise anyone, as well as some odd tangents on the value of the gold standard, which isn’t well linked to the content of the book. Not recommended.

The Wealth Chef – Ann Wilson

“Each and every day wasted on not investing will cost you dearly. Not only will it cost you in terms of the lost impact of compounding, but you’ll also lose the most important thing of all: the opportunity to learn from experience…The sooner you start gaining your 10,000 hours of investor experience, the sooner you’ll have this investing business figured out.”

Financial literacy is hugely important in the modern world, but unless you grew up in a family that talked about money, it can feel overwhelming. I frequently speak to friends who are interested in money and want to get out of debt/invest/save, but simply have no idea where to start. It’s an interesting challenge.

Ann Wilson introduces money through an extended conceit: cooking. There are four wealth flavours (assets, liabilities, income, expenditures) which you need to develop your palate to distinguish, two spices (time and interest rates), and a number of useful kitchen implements (your motivation as a a wealth obsession magnet, income statement as scales). Yeast, of course, is compound interest. The goal is to be a Wealth Chef, not just a cook!

Some first steps: use your last 3 months of bank statements to estimate your expenses, then write up a balance sheet listing all your income generating assets (sadly, your home would not count, and if you’re hoping to retire your job might not either). You are financially free when your generated income is enough to cover all your expenses.

It’s a fun way of introducing financial concepts, and judging by her own successful wealth-counselling business, an effective one. Her markets particularly to housewives and other women, which is reasonable – as she points out, at least historically men were frequently the one who managed the money, but in a world of increased equality and divorce, this is nonsense.

I have a few complaints at the margin: Wealth Chef uses 8-10% as a conservative interest rate on savings, for example, which is reflective of the historical return on the stock market but not of most people’s portfolios, which are a balance between equity and bonds. Italso emphasizes the credit score more than I would, though I agree that for people working their way out of debt, it is a useful way of tracking progress. For my tastes, the book also has a few too many exclamation marks, but it adds to the non-confrontational style.

Overall, definitely recommended if you’re intimidated by money and like cooking. If you’re an investment banker, probably not: consider reading guides on how baking cupcakes is like investing instead.

Disclosure: I read it as an advance reader copy. You can read more reviews of The Wealth Chef on Amazon.

College Disrupted – Ryan Craig

“We can no longer afford for higher education to be a slot machine with a few hitting the jackpot and most going home with less money in their pocket and no better off.”

Are you myopic about American higher education? To find out, see if you can name 50 universities in the U.S. that i) don’t have the name of a state in their name and ii) don’t have a division I football or basketball team. Remember that there are 6000 Title IV eligible colleges and universities in the US, so I’m asking you to name less than 1 in 100 of American schools.

Most people can’t. And most people, when they picture a college, think of an 18-22 year old at Harvard. Yet only 29% of America’s students are 18-22 year-olds attending a four year college full time. By comparison, 43% are over 25.

This, says Craig, is symptomatic of a problem in American higher education: that people think that the Ivy Leagues have discovered the only way to teach, and that everywhere else is just an inferior version trying to be like them. Leaving aside whether a school with no endowment can emulate one with $30 billion in the bank, it is this illusion that means many students drop out, take out loans they regret, and are otherwise disappointed by the system. In the top 50 schools, graduation rates are near 90%: for four year colleges overall, they’re 55%, and for 2 year colleges they are 29%.

College Disrupted looks at a range of modern trends in higher education, from technology to unbundling to internationalization, and looks at what education can and should look like in response. The book is choc-full of fascinating ideas and insights, and if some of his predictions are almost certainly wrong, they are all worth thinking about.

His final suggestion is that, appalling as the idea may initially sound, the American education system learn to value diversity, and establish a two-tier system: Harvard and its ilk for the elite students, and cheaper, online and technology-rich credentials for the rest. Not an ideal system, but a more honest one, in which students can get what they pay for, instead of paying enormous tuitions to support faculty who do not benefit them and buildings that do not enhance their learning.

I can’t possibly cover all the interesting ideas College Disrupted does, and I’m not going to try. There are a lot. My only criticism would be the book can sometimes feel disorganized, and a bit hard to take concise lessons away from. Since that’s also true of higher education sometimes, perhaps that’s unsurprising. Regardless, a fascinating and educational book, and well worth the read.

Disclosure: I read College Disrupted as an advance reader copy. You can see Amazon’s reviews of College Disrupted here.

Nurtureshock – Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

“The central premise of this book is that many of modern society’s strategies for nurturing children are in fact backfiring — because key twists in the science have been overlooked.”

Can you tell if children are lying? Most adults believe they can: they also frequently believe that boys are more prone to lying than girls, and that younger children lie more than older ones. Sadly, none of that is true. Parents do no better than chance at telling whether random kids are lying, and only slightly better than chance with their own children. Gender does not correlate with lying, and younger children actually lie less than older ones. Less is a relative term, though: in household studies, 96% of kids lie, an average of once an hour for six year olds. Threatening punishment doesn’t appear to make a difference: what helps is emphasizing that telling the truth makes parents happy (since that is often the goal of the child anyway), and the value of honesty more generally.

For all that we were all kids once, it turns out our intuitions about what they are like are depressingly poor. Nurtureshock aims to capture some of the counter-intuitive or novel ideas researchers have found from actually working with large numbers of children, rather than just guessing (Ahem, Freud). Seeing their parents fight isn’t bad for children, it turns out, if they also witness a successful resolution. If the parents end the fight without resolving it, or move it upstairs or otherwise out of the child’s presence, on the other hand, children tend to be more aggressive and act out more afterwards.

Nurtureshock tries to cover a wide range of issues, sometimes at the price of oversimplifying. Some of the chapters are also fairly well known, at least to me, such as Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets. Others, though, raise some great points, ones parents may not even have considered, and even if the treatment is probably too brief to satisfy, it can serve as a useful starting point to tracking down more research. After all, research about kids is usually pretty cute, whether of children singing to themselves to resist eating a marshmallow, or managing to stand still for 2 minutes when asked to stay still, or 11 minutes if asked to mimic a soldier. A challenge for both parenting and teaching is that you often don’t see others parent or teach, and so rarely have your intuitions challenged: a little bit of critical reflection can go a long way.

The Smartest Kids in the World – Amanda Ripley

“PISA revealed what should have been obvious but was not: that spending on education did not make kids smarter. Everything — everything — depended on what teachers, parents, and students did with those investments.”

In Korea, one big test at the end of school decides everything: an extreme meritocracy in school creates what is almost a caste system for adults with your entire future decided by how you did on the exam. In Finland, the stress is lower for students but higher for teachers, with only 8 universities giving degrees in teaching, and all of them as competitive as MIT to get into. Both countries, however, are top performers on the international PISA tests, a method of comparing educational achievement across countries, dramatically outscoring the US and others.

The Smartest Kids in the World takes the PISA test as a way of finding out which countries are doing well, and then tries to understand what has led to their success. It’s a whirlwind tour of the high school experience in Korea, Finland, and Poland, three top achievers, and the reforms that got them that way.

Ripley’s bottom line, though she doesn’t say it quite this way, is that reforming education isn’t magic or even surprising. It means agreeing on common goals for the system, training teachers well, making the subject matter rigorous and not being afraid to fail students if they don’t learn it, and above all keeping expectations for students and teachers high. Not rocket science, but it’s amazing how hard the special interest groups in the US can make it.

Lots of things go into a great educational system, but Ripley makes some profound criticisms of the American model. It’s harder to retain varsity athlete status in the US, for example, than to get into teacher’s college, and the average SAT score of teachers is lower than the national average. Somehow, she argues, America has convinced itself that teachers don’t need to be smart, comfortable with their subject, or even have studied their subject. Based on international comparisons, that isn’t true.

It’s a great book. It’s well written, it’s engaging, it strikes a nice balance between storytelling and analysis that makes it an easy read, and it says something important. It’s a little short on data or real evidence, but because tests making international comparisons possible are relatively new, and so that’s not really a surprise. For anyone wanting to think about education and how the system should work, it’s a quick and interesting read.

Excellent Sheep – William Deresiewicz

“The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but are also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose…great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”

“Yale students think for themselves, but only because they know we want them to.”

“People go to monasteries to find out why they have come, and college ought to be the same.”

Elite colleges tell their students how special they are, how they were picked from an enormous pool of possible applicants and showed themselves better than all the rest. In 1957, the Dean of Yale took a rather different view: welcoming the new students, he told them how large a pool of applicants they’d had that year, and pointed out that had they rejected every student in the room, they could still have had a great incoming class. Each student, he argued, was responsible for showing why they deserved to be accepted. The modern version has rather a different emphasis.

In recent years, between a third and a half of graduates of elite US colleges with a job head to finance or consulting. In contrast to the popularity of those fields, whole areas have disappeared: clergy, military, teaching, electoral politics, even academia to a lesser extent. Excellent Sheep worries that this stems from the warped perspective promoted by these colleges, that in telling the students endlessly that they are the elite and the special, they rule out whole worlds of possibility by implying they are a waste of a fancy education. Schools, Deresiewicz argues, are complicit in this because they like the fat donations they receive from graduates in consulting or finance, far more than they receive from a happier but poorer graduate who ends up as a minister or teacher.

Where the book suffers is when it turns to broader societal implications. The author’s background is in English, and though that should never be a bar to writing anything, in this case it betrays him a little when he attempts to look at issues of policy, society, and statistics. He also doesn’t really have any insight into structural solutions: his advice to students to go to a second tier school is all very well, but hardly scalable.

The value of such books though is what they make the reader think, rather than just what the author says. Reflecting on my own experience, I’ve largely been spared the lost or aimless feeling Excellent Sheep describes, despite being lucky enough to attend an elite college. My advantage, I think, is no surprise to readers of the blog: that I read widely. Any student seeking to find a sense of self and wisdom through their education needs to get beyond the bubble of their friends and professors, and reading is a great way to do that, to engage in debate with some of the foremost minds of our species, living and dead. Exposure to such great ideas and new perspectives can ground you, and provide a frame of reference very different from your own.

Deresiewicz also suffers from some of the same blind spots he criticizes elite schools for: he makes no effort to find out what students from top state schools do, for example, appearing to forget that schools other than the Ivy Leagues even exist as anything other than an abstraction. Nevertheless, Excellent Sheep’s opening sections are interesting, persuasive, and well-written. For those alone, the book is worth reading, and I recommend it. If the second half falls a bit short, that’s not the end of the world. As a book that makes you consider your own education – or lack thereof – it’s well worth it.