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Does Education Make you Stupider? Pt. 2

Well, the first post didn’t quite have that name but that was kind of the message.  In a nutshell, that post discussed research showing that a better basic understanding of science made for more intense partisanship. Now a short article in The Atlantic describes a somewhat similar exercise generated by More in Common, but this time directly addressing partisanship itself. Basically, this summarizes a study asking people questions about the beliefs of their political opposites.  And once again, more education seems to make people misjudge reality.

Honestly, this is discouraging. But wait–it gets more bizarre.

Basically Democrats lacking a high school education had a pretty firm fix on the opinions of members of the Republican party, correctly estimating what fraction of Republicans agreed or disagreed with certain policy statements. But as you go up the education ladder, Democrats get worse and worse.  Republicans, on the other hand, are pretty much the same at all levels with no discernible correlation with education.  The study claims this is because graduate-educated Democrats have few or no Republican friends.

Now there are a number of other interesting correlations that are probably less surprising. The more you consume political news, the more you vilify your political opponents. And the more you share political news on social media, the more you vilify your opponents.  Basically, the farther in the echo chamber you go, the more you think your political opponents are utterly hopeless.

So there you go. Media consumption and education make you more ignorant. So if you ever wanted an excuse to become oblivious to the news, here’s your excuse.

Generalists and the PhD

A PhD is somebody who gets to know more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.

That bromide (a variant of others) gets passed along quite frequently about academics, and a new book by David Epstein seems to confirm the implication that super-specialization is not useful. As described in an excerpt in The Atlantic, when narrowly focused experts try to make predictions, they fail spectacularly in comparison to predictions made by generalists. One example is the conflicting forecasts of Paul Ehrlich’s “population bomb” versus the counter-prediction of continued economic improvement made by Julian Simon; both missed the mark in different ways, but both continued to double down on their forecasts. Following many others, Epstein compares the two groups to hedgehogs and foxes. So why on earth should we make hedgehog PhDs?

On its face, a PhD is generally trying to untie one small knot in our universe of knowledge. When did the Rio Grande Rift start extending? What is the power law exponent for sodic feldspar if deforming by dislocation creep? Just how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, anyways? If all we do is train somebody to continue, arrow-like, on that initial trajectory into some byzantine corner of human knowledge, then we have failed. So what then would be success?

Success should be learning how to identify problems worth solving that are solvable and then defining a course of action that will yield that solution. In short, a PhD should be an exercise in learning these skills and applying them in one place to demonstrate mastery. Why would this lead to deeply entrenched viewpoints seemingly unchangeable by evidence?

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Fear of Every Geology Prof…

…is death on a class trip.  Going to places with unstable footing and exposure is often part of seeing geology that clarifies understanding, but it carries real risks. For GG, the most terrifying site is Toroweap Point in Grand Canyon National Park where, every time he visits, he breathes a sign of relief when the same number of students pile back into vehicles that had piled out of them. That site has 3000′ of vertical cliff to punish the unwary, but it doesn’t take that much for a fatality, as an environmental studies class from Briar Cliff University found out when they lost a classmate to a 100′ fall.

While family and friends grieve, another discussion is probably going on, if not now then soon. Should the school curtail field expeditions? Given the growing number of deaths by selfie, what is the role (and responsibility) of the instructor who takes students to places with hazards? Should the school dictate what is and is not an acceptable risk? Should students sign waivers, and if so, are they really enforceable?

Geoscience education benefits immensely from seeing what you are studying in the field. And the greatest hazard in field trips is generally the drive to the field or working on roadcuts near highways. But the drama of a fatal fall is more damning in some ways.  GG hopes that future students will get to experience the field safely, hopefully mainly by recognizing and avoiding hazardous situations on their own and with the guidance of an instructor rather than by being blocked from accessing important or memorable sites by fearful administrators.

Make it harder…

Rather inadvertently GG has recognized a pattern in some recent grumpiness; oddly enough it took an article about self driving cars to really crystallize it. Now of course the specific article GG saw has vanished, but this article covers the same ground. Basically, when something becomes easy, we don’t pay as much attention. Which means the ability to do a task atrophies. For cars, we are looking less over shoulders if the car is looking in blind spots-which means a driver of a car equipped with such technology won’t look when renting a car lacking that tech.

Earlier GG complained about hikers who don’t take maps and scientists who can’t use library tools–and these seem examples of the same issue. Basically, humans are slackers. Find the easy path and take it. This has GG wondering about the way we teach.

First, students will always complain about doing things the hard way. Why did I have to work through that problem when I could just look up the answer? So courses that train students by making them work are always at risk of earning negative reviews, which can lead to administrators deciding that course should change somehow. Allowing current students to set a curriculum is a disaster in the making.

But what of new learning approaches? The “guide on the side” and the flipped classroom? A blanket condemnation would be unwise-student engagement in solving problems should indeed be helpful. GG has not flipped a classroom but has spoken to those that have and the word back is mixed. In some classes many students find that they can skip the preclass prep and walk in cold and get by, either by assistance from classmates or simply dragging the instructor to go over material the student should have already examined. Those students would get a punishing homework grade in a traditional classroom but don’t in this environment.

There is a similar bar-lowering going on with content. Courses using group work, in class exercises and flipped classrooms simply cannot cover as much material. For advocates of these systems, this is good news as in traditional classes content retention can be awful. But what consistently gets downplayed is that less stuff is covered. Now for a survey course for non-majors, this is hardly a calamity, but for major courses this can be serious trouble. As universities demand more core activities, time in major courses only stays level at best. Material gets dropped from the major. Employers will start to notice (that new guy didn’t know about XYZ! Can you believe it?). Universities are not votech, but certain core capability is necessary for employers to build on.

Another article GG can’t find at the moment noted that research into popular learning styles shows such styles of learning are fantasy. This business of catering to visual learning or aural learning or what not is, in the absence of real disability, total BS. Catering to such perceived variability only kills time and keeps a student from developing a more robust ability to absorb information.

Here’s the deal. Learning is hard, failing can be good. You do a total face plant in class, you will work hard to avoid it in the future. Struggle is part of learning. The trick will be to get students to buy into that without hitting stratospheric levels of stress. It could be the dreaded firehose beats a tepid trickle.

The Mirage Of Knowledge

Are college administrators making graduates dumber?

GG is late to this party but got pointed this way by an Ars Technica review of Tom Nichols’s book on the death of expertise. But this dimension of his argument is pretty well articulated in an article he wrote last year for The Chronicle of Higher Education. It is an interesting and well-written article; the point GG Is moving from is Nichols’s indictment of colleges and universities treating students as customers instead of as students, which leads to intellectual laziness. There is much to ponder there, but let’s look at why GG is indicting administrators.

Here is what matters to administrators: butts in seats, dollars in endowments (and dollars in research accounts). Period. Why be this crude and casual? Because we see on a near-daily basis the advice we are given from on high and the actions accompanying it. One of the reasons college has gotten expensive are the accommodations; here at CU, there seems to be a constant renovation of dorms to make them more attractive. Nice dining facilities, all kinds of recreational activities, big new rec center–and CU is probably trailing the pack at that. Update the chemistry building? Don’t have the bond space right now because we’re building a better football stadium for, you know, the alums who we hope will donate money.

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Too Prepared?

One of the things that strikes GG as odd is the semester-long reading plan. Basically a week-by-week or even day-by-day list of pages to read, this has become so ingrained in academia that course management tools now actually can automatically build it into the syllabus. And with this is the temptation for the more driven student to try and read well ahead of the class.

Now to be clear in many cases there is little harm in this.  Maybe in a math class you might find a student wanting to short-circuit the more awkward and basic set of derivations or calculations in favor of the better stuff later in the class, but for the most part seeing the more complex stuff to come will have little impact on how the current material is being taught and learned.

But in other cases it seems like it can be a distraction. If the instructor is trying to lead the class through material through discussion, building on material just covered to lead the class to see the utility of the next section, knowing the inevitable outcome kind of forces conversation or exposition towards that next reading. Any sense of exploration of the material is damped if not extinguished by knowing precisely where you are going.  And the driven student? He or she might be lacking the context necessary to really know what the reading is about when reading it weeks before classroom discussion.  Too often students seem to approach a reading as a series of facts to digest instead of a logical argument to parse and evaluate and getting far in front of the class risks encouraging that sort of shallow comprehension.

And for the instructor? She or he is handcuffed–syllabi are gospel to students and you risk changing anything in them at your own risk.  So if you find that the class is lagging from your expectations or is progressing more rapidly, it is hard to adjust. Worse yet is if you realize there is a different facet of the material that you should explore.  You’ve put your class in a straitjacket.

So maybe reading lists should stay hidden through the term, or at least be clearly provisional.

Teaching Time

With Labor Day at hand here in the U.S., between assembling materials for his first-year seminar, GG was thinking a little about teaching labor. This is also prompted by a local initiative to increase wages for public school teachers that was attacked by a letter to the editor of the local paper. That letter basically argued that school teachers work all of 180 days out of the year in a low-hazard job and so why should they get more pay? This is an echo of a comment years ago from a legislator who was on a committee overseeing Colorado’s public higher education. I mean, we’ve all been taught by teachers, so we know what teachers do, right?

It seems safe to say that those saying teachers have it easy have no experience teaching. It seems there is a perception that if you know the material, all you need to do is parade to the front of the classroom and tell the students what they need to know. Easy! But then there is the first reminder that you usually ask students to do work that you, the teacher, need to grade. Well, OK, so there is grading time–surely that can’t be much. And maybe you have described some teachers–undoubtably the worst teachers.

There is a challenge that teachers face that most of the rest of us really don’t. If you tell somebody something–don’t touch that lever, write up that memo, go to this address–you aren’t usually too concerned about how successfully the listener really got the message.  There is a pretty clear outcome (things happened or didn’t) and presumably you respond accordingly (keeping somebody employed or firing them). Basically the burden for success sits on the person lower in the pecking order–either they figure this out or they are out the door.

But teaching isn’t like that. Read More…