Onion: Teacher fired for learning more from students than vice versa

From the Onion: A teacher is fired for “gross incompetence” after declaring, “I just love being around the students—I honestly think I get more out of these classes than the kids do.” She adds, “I learn something new from them each and every day. They teach me so much—far more than I could ever teach them.”

This brings to mind a (real) quote from Michael John Demiashkevich’s Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (1935):

An old schoolmaster dedicated his book to all his old pupils, at whose expense, he said, he had learned everything he knew about education. This is either a case of exaggerated modesty or it is a belated confession of incompetence. It is necessary to distinguish strictly between broadmindedness and ignorance.

I suspect, though, that the Onion teacher was really fired for her use of fluffy phrases like “so much,” “honestly think,” and “each and every day.” If she had said, simply, “I enjoy learning from the students as well as teaching them,” she might still have her imaginary job, and she could still learn “something,” or even “a lot.”

Computer tutors ‘read’ learners’ emotions

Computer tutors are learning to read students’ emotions, so they can provide better feedback, reports Annie Murphy Paul on the Hechinger Report.

Analyzing students’ posture in a special chair,  how much pressure they exert when they click on a special mouse or the pitch of their voices can reveal “academic emotions” such as “curiosity, delight, flow, engagement, confusion, frustration and boredom.”

Some systems use wireless skin conductance sensors or cameras that analyze facial expressions and track students eyes.

“One computerized tutoring program uses ‘mind-reader software’ to identify 22 facial feature points, 12 facial expressions and six mental states,” writes Paul.

Detecting the learner’s feelings is just the first step.

A computerized tutoring program called Wayang Outpost, developed by researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, features an onscreen avatar that subtly mirrors the emotions the learner is feeling. When the learner smiles, the avatar smiles too, making the learner feel understood and supported. When the learners express negative feelings, the avatar mirrors their facial expression of, say, frustration, and offers verbal reassurance: “Sometimes I get frustrated when solving these math problems.”

Then — in a shift that researchers have found to be essential — the avatar pivots toward the positive. “On the other hand,” the avatar might add, “more important than getting the problem right is putting in the effort and keeping in mind that we can all do math if we try.”

Researchers try to encourage a “growth mindset,” the belief that ability improves with effort.

If the learner seems bored, for example, (Notre Dame’s Affective) AutoTutor might respond with the comment, “This stuff can be kind of dull sometimes, so I’m gonna try and help you get through it. Let’s go.” If the AutoTutor senses that the learner is confused, it might advise, “Some of this material can be confusing. Just keep going and I am sure you will get it.”

Deep learning requires struggle, say researchers in affective computing. “Students show the lowest levels of enjoyment during learning under the conditions in which they learn the most, and the feeling of confusion turns out to be the best predictor of learning.”

However, repeated failures turn confusion into “frustration, disengagement and boredom (and ultimately, minimal learning).”

‘To write is to learn’

Every Cleveland Browns player has a tablet computer — and a pad of paper. Coach Mike Pettine believes tells players writing by hand will improve their chances of learning complex plays, reports Kevin Clark in the Wall Street Journal.

As a high-school coach in Pennsylvania from 1995 to 2001, Pettine learned “how to get students to study — whether for a pivotal third down or a geology quiz,” Clark writes.

“I would talk to teachers all the time and they would say, ‘To write is to learn,'” Pettine said. “When you write stuff down, you have a much higher chance of it getting imprinted on your brain.”

A study titled The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard backs the idea that students learn more when they write in longhand rather than taking notes on a laptop.

The study found that, because the hand can’t possibly keep up with the speaker’s words, the writer must rephrase what was said in his or her own words, which in turn processes the information at a deeper level.

Browns defensive lineman Desmond Bryant, who went to Harvard, believes handwriting is better than typing. “You are actively using your brain more,” Bryant said.

Children aren’t sponges

Small children aren’t “sponges” soaking up information, writes Dan Willingham on Real Clear Education. “Kids don’t learn important information that’s right in front of them, unless an adult is actively teaching them,” a recent study (Butler & Markman, 2014) shows.

Children aged 4-5 were shown a novel object and were told that it was a “spoodle.” Would they figure out the spoodle is magnetic?

In the pedagogical condition, the experimenter said “Look, watch this” and used the spoodle to pick up paperclips. In the intentional condition, the experimenter used the spoodle to pick up paperclips, but did not request the child’s attention or make eye contact. In the accidental condition, the experimenter feigned accidentally dropping the spoodle on the clips. In all of the conditions, the experimenter held the spoodle with the paper clips clinging to it and said “wow!”

Next, the child was presented 16 objects and was asked to determine which were spoodles. Half were identical to the original spoodle, and half were another color. In addition, half of each color were magnetic and half were not.

Children knew the spoodle had to be magnetic only if the adult had drawn attention to the spoodle’s magnetism. Observing the magnetic properties in the “intentional” or “accidental” experiments wasn’t enough. Those kids picked the spoodle by color.

Even in an environment rich in experiences, “little sponges” need to be taught, Willingham concludes. “Small differences in parenting may have important consequences for children’s learning.”

Why ‘just Google it’ doesn’t work

“Knowing things is hopelessly twentieth century,” says Justin Webb, a British TV journalist. “Everything you need to know – things you may previously have memorised from books – is (or soon will be) instantly available on a handheld device in your pocket.”

Google is no substitute for learning things by heart, argues Toby Young, founder of the West London Free School, in a Telegraph blog.

The less we know, the more we have to use working memory to search for information and make sense of it, he writes. Our working memory can run out of space.

The “just Google it” approach also neglects the knowledge a child needs to search accurately, Young writes.

“Searchers need to have an idea what they are looking for,” writes Libby Purves in a Times column.

A great paradox is that the pre-Internet generation may prove to be uniquely privileged, because having learnt facts once makes us diabolically efficient Internet searchers.

Even an accurate search is useless if the searcher doesn’t know enough to understand the information retrieved, Young writes.

For instance, if you Google “space station” the Wikipedia entry you pull up is only comprehensible if you already know a bit about “low Earth orbit”, “propulsion”, “research platforms”, etc. The child could perform further searches to plug these gaps, but the same problem will just recur, with him or her being condemned to carry on Googling for ever.

Knowledge is the power to learn  more.

“Research on the necessity of background knowledge for reading comprehension is decisive and uncontroversial” — and widely ignored, writes Mark Bauerlein.

 

Learn like a baby

Researchers are working on pills that enable learning by returning brain chemistry to “critical periods” of development, writes Olga Khazan in The Atlantic. Young children with rapidly growing brains can learn new skills more quickly than adults.

The goal is to help people with developmental disorders or brain injury in adulthood.

What do students learn in college?

Massachusetts is leading a nine-state effort to measure what students learn in college. The plan is to compare students’ work, including term papers and lab reports, rather than using a standardized test.

A three-year bachelor’s of applied science degree will cost $13,000 to $15,000 for Texas students. The competency-based degree, developed by South Texas College and Texas A&M University at Commerce, mixes online and face-to-face learning.

‘If I need geometry, I’ll learn it then’

Scott Hamilton is the Forrest Gump of education reform, although with a lot more IQ points and fewer chocolates, I write in an Education Next profile.

He worked for Bill Bennett in the U.S. Department of Education and for Benno Schmidt at the Edison Project. He authorized charter schools in Massachusetts, co-founded the KIPP network, quadrupled the size of Teach For America (TFA), and introduced blended learning at urban Catholic schools. He’s been around.

Now 47, he’s started a new initiative called Circumventure, based in San Francisco. Through surveys, focus groups, field tests, and interviews, Circumventure is asking fundamental questions: Do people want what schools are offering? If not, what do they want? Can technology make it happen?

Being a “good learner” is valued by the students and parents he’s interviewed. Being “well educated” is not. “Young Millennials and their Generation Z siblings” believe they don’t need school to learn new things. They’ll do it all themselves—if and when they feel like it. “Teens think, ‘I’ll never use geometry. If I need it, I’ll learn it then’.”

Colleges consider exit exams

Students are used to taking tests to get into college, writes Jon Marcus on the Hechinger Report. In the future, they may need to pass college exit exams to get out with a degree. Policymakers, parents and prospective employers want proof that graduates have learned something.

“There is a groundswell from the public about whether a college degree is worth what people are paying for it,” said Stephanie Davidson, vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University System of Ohio. “People are asking for tangible demonstrations of what students know.”

In Ohio, candidates for education degrees must write a lesson plan, submit a video of their teaching and pass other tests. Accumulating credits isn’t enough.

The Wisconsin Technical College System requires graduating students to submit portfolios, research papers, test scores or other proof of what they know.

The University of Central Missouri requires students to pass the College Basic Academic Subjects Examination before they are allowed to graduate. (But the cutoff score is below “proficiency,” Marcus notes.)

“Isn’t it amazing that the newest and most brilliant idea out there is that students should achieve particular skills and prove it?” Marsha Watson, president of the Association for the Assessment of Learning in Higher Education, asked wryly. “Wow.”

Grade inflation is rampant at colleges and universities, researchers say. Forty-three percent of grades given out by college faculty are As.

Yet one-half of students about to graduate from four-year colleges and 75 percent at two-year schools fall below the “proficient” level of literacy, according to a survey by the American Institutes for Research. That means they’re unable to complete such real-world tasks as comparing credit-card offers with different interest rates or summarizing the two sides of an argument.

In a survey, a third of employers said college aren’t qualified for entry-level work.

More and more states, including Missouri, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, have approved using student exit-test results to determine how institutions are doing —though in most cases not yet to judge individual students or decide whether or not they should be allowed to get degrees — as one of the measures on which they base continued public university funding.

Nearly 50 colleges and universities in nine more states — Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Utah — are trying to develop a way to test students, before they graduate, in written communication and quantitative literacy, though so far this is also solely for the purpose of evaluating their own programs.

Developing ways to measure student learning “is time-consuming, complicated and expensive,” writes Marcus. It’s also deeply threatening to colleges and universities.

A few colleges now report learning outcomes for their graduates.

‘Why I am not canceling class tomorrow’

A Berkeley math lecturer’s email to students — “Why I am not canceling class tomorrow” — has gone viral. Andrew Coward explained why a strike by University of California workers will not stop him from teaching his class — and covering two class sections normally taught by striking TAs. Here’s part of it:

In order for you to navigate the increasing complexity of the 21st century you need a world-class education, and thankfully you have an opportunity to get one. I don’t just mean the education you get in class, but I mean the education you get in everything you do, every book you read, every conversation you have, every thought you think.

You need to optimize your life for learning.

You need to live and breath your education.

You need to be *obsessed* with your education.

Do not fall into the trap of thinking that because you are surrounded by so many dazzlingly smart fellow students that means you’re no good. Nothing could be further from the truth.

And do not fall into the trap of thinking that you focusing on your education is a selfish thing. It’s not a selfish thing. It’s the most noble thing you could do.

Society is investing in you so that you can help solve the many challenges we are going to face in the coming decades, from profound technological challenges to helping people with the age old search for human happiness and meaning.

That is why I am not canceling class tomorrow. Your education is really really important, not just to you, but in a far broader and wider reaching way than I think any of you have yet to fully appreciate.

Coward is an Oxford graduate. Here’s his teaching statement.