Teaching Children: Adjustment to Individual Differences

After I blogged about my belief that a good teacher tries to bring out what is inside their students (not just transfer brain contents), a reader named Terri Fites commented:

We homeschool, and I see lots of what you said in my kids.

I asked her to elaborate. She replied:

Here is where I learned the most starting on day one of kindergarten with my first child five years ago; it is my job to identify strengths, weaknesses, and to help the learner achieve the goal using what they can. For example, I was embarrassed and appalled that my first child didn’t read or show any interest in reading to herself until about second grade (7 years old). However, I continued to provide the necessary environment–reading wonderful books aloud, having her read a sentence from our selections, occasionally forcing her to read from her own readers. She had a great verbal understanding and would listen to anything I read aloud to her. Eventually, slowly, she transitioned and has NO issues with reading now. Her strength is verbal understanding and listening comprehension. Her weakness is focus on her own activities and sitting still.

My second child came along and was strong in different ways that I had to discover and appreciate. Her verbal skills, although perfectly normal, are not her strength, but music rises out of her at every moment. Clearly we have to do more than music. Using this strength, I make sure to provide plenty of musical CDs in Spanish for Spanish (which she struggles with–we have had tutors come for years with the intent the girls become fluent). We memorize and recite poetry routinely as part of our lessons, and she “sets” hers to song/music. When we do math facts (addition, subtraction, multiplication flash cards), she does best if she hears them in a sing-song voice. Her strengths are effort, music, rhythm, and art. Her weaknesses are verbal reasoning and remembering verbal types of things (not so prominent in math and geography skills so her spatial and math skills overcome this problem remembering things).

I would say, particularly in elementary school, that although the reading, writing, and arithmetic skills needed should not be optional–the timing of learning them and the method of learning them ought to be fluid to a degree. Everybody should learn to read but we’re losing kids because they’re not developmentally ready until second or third grade for some of these verbal/reading things. By then the bulk of the spelling and phonics rules have been expected to have been learned and the child is probably destined to be a poor speller, decoder, and poor at reading aloud. (This would be my husband. Obviously he was able to overcome this, but his spelling and read aloud are not pleasant. He says he remembers the year when words and reading just started coming together for him. Unfortunately, that was fifth grade. Did he need to learn to read and spell then in fifth grade!? I’d argue NO! But, in this case, recognition of a child/type of child is important. He is very, very logical, and the way that spelling/phonics is taught now/then is NOT so logical. A rule is given here. It is broken here. It is ignored here. No explanation is given. A kid learns long A as a_e here or -ay there, but not all the other combinations that make the long A sound– and certainly not all together in a lesson sequence!!!: ea, ae, ei, eigh, ai, etc. The logical child gives up. There are programs out there like Orton Gillingham, for example, designed to teach the “rules” of English in such a logical manner. Or I design my own curriculum. But this is not an option for most school teachers. Autonomy is being denied.) And now, multiplication is being moved forward in school grades, too. And analytical, thinking math is being moved forward. I think we’ll lose students! Good students! “I’m no good at math.” Geesh. Because you can’t do story problems in second grade? Because you’re still mastering the facts and you’re being pushed into application too early?

Universities: Expectation versus Reality

A recent Ph.D. from Berkeley named Dragan commented here:

Probably the biggest disappointment of my professional life was realizing that Universities are not very much like what I imagined them to be.

I asked him to elaborate. He replied:

My peers dreamed of being in the sports or movies, of being lawyers, of being rich. Those dreams didn’t seem so great to me. Instead I fantasized about being a scholar and later in life climbed up the educational ladder towards a PhD at a leading research university. The closer I came to becoming a professor — my professional goal in life — the more disappointed I became.

I am somewhat embarrassed to remember this, but I used to say things like: “Universities are places where people can devote themselves to a life of study, investigation, and imagination. In exchange for a home like this, we provide society with ideas. And, of course, we teach.” I guess I thought that there should be a home for people who are capable and devoted to intellectual pursuits, a rather naive notion it seems.

I wanted a place where I would be judged primarily by my intellectual and creative ability. Instead I have been made keenly aware of the importance of networking, of doing favors for the right people, of who to cite, whose criticism to acknowledge and whose to ignore. I used to despise such things, now they’re second nature. The irony, that I now know far more about popularity than I did back in high school. One of the first things I learned is that it is imperative to do research that brings money and/or prestige. In other words: popular research. I didn’t know such a thing existed.

What if I don’t want to do popular research? The most common advice I received during my graduate studies: “Wait till you’re tenured to do that,” always said with good intentions.

Only one person told me: “Do what you believe in. Tenure and accolades will come in time.” I liked this advice more. But the professor who gave it was fully tenured before I was born. Perhaps things were different in his time? I suspect they were. Last year, two retired professors, each from a major research university, assured me that they would never get tenure in this day and age. They took years with their research and published few yet original papers. “You have to wait until tenure nowadays,” they said.

This is not what I thought I’d find. Nor did I expect to find that efficiency and money-making are priorities here. I love what I do, or at least what I want to do. If I could afford to, I’d do it for free. I mean that as an academic, money seems relatively unimportant. Yet universities seem to be run by people who aren’t academics and whose primary interest is making money, rather than fostering research. It occurs to me that these two aims may be in conflict.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that academia is altogether bad. I can honestly say it beats unemployment and the handful of low-wage jobs I had as a teenager. And there are days when all the things I just wrote about seem less important and I focus on my research or my teaching. But other times I think, silly me. If only I was smart enough to get rich in the first place, I could have done anything I wanted to — like pursue research that actually interests me.

As a professor (with tenure) at Berkeley, I was fascinated by how mediocre I was. By the usual metrics, I was in the bottom quarter of the distribution. Yet I had made discoveries that I knew were important — for example, a surprising way to lose weight, a really surprising way to improve mood. Although these discoveries impressed me, they did not impress my colleagues.

Mo Ibrahim: My Third Year of Teaching

By the start of my third year of teaching, in 2007, half of my New York City Teaching Fellows cohort had quit teaching. Some for health reasons, some due to differences with their school’s administration, and some due to the difficulty of teaching during the day and going to graduate school at night. Teaching poor students, writing fifteen-page papers on pedagogy and compiling lesson plans proved to be too much.

The day before classes began that year, the principal told me that our students needed to earn an economics credit to fulfill graduation requirements. He asked if I wanted to teach the class. I hadn’t taken economics since freshman year of college, but I reluctantly agreed. The principal said he had an economics curriculum in his office and he would return shortly with the material. He didn’t return and never gave me the material. . However, I was able to develop a curriculum on the fly. I had read Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and watched Gopnik’s Lighting Up New York documentary. I got the idea to make a curriculum based on Gopnik’s four theories of New York City crime reduction: Broken Window, Abortion, Child Boom and Korean Immigration. To supplement my curriculum I read Freakonomics and Park’s The Korean American Dream. I didn’t have to teach math anymore, because I was teaching economics, but I was still teaching English. My class focused on reading poetry and short stories and writing short essays.

By that time I had earned my Master’s degree from the City College of New York, and had learned two principles that proved helpful. During an evening class, an African-American female professor, who insisted we call her Doctor, advised us to use the don’t ask, apologize principle to get around policies with school administrators. For example, instead of asking if I could take my English class to read poetry in Central Park, I should take them knowing that I could simply apologize if I were reprimanded by an administrator. She also told us about a research study done by Lisa Delpit, an education researcher, who advised teachers not use please with inner-city male students. According to her study, when students in that demographic hear the word please they feel they have a choice. For example, a teacher should say, “Go back to your seat,” instead of “Go back to your seat, please.” In my experience, she was right. The command without please worked better.

I can’t recall using any other teaching techniques that I was exposed to during graduate school. There should have been more instruction on how to motivate students to study and how to get parents to make their children do their homework. Talking to my students, I learned that, when they get home, most of my female students took naps and most of my male students played video games. Very few of them did any homework, read or studied.

I didn’t give any homework or quizzes in my English class, which had about 20 students, because most of my students didn’t do any schoolwork at home. I had my English students do all of their writing assignments during class time. I didn’t give any homework in the economics classes as well, which had about 30 students, but I had felt compelled to give quizzes to assess how well the students understood my lessons. I knew that the majority of my students weren’t going to study at home, but I hoped that I had explained the material well enough that they would be able to do well on quizzes. I initially did a quiz review the day before the quiz, but that didn’t seem to help the dismal passing rates. I tried doing the quiz review immediately before the quiz, but that didn’t help. I eventually moved to telling my students exactly what was going to be on the quiz, but surprisingly even that didn’t help. When students don’t understand a lesson or do well academically, teachers are supposed to take responsibility, but that’s very difficult to do when most of the students are very apathetic.

What is Teaching?

Russ Roberts says:

Great teaching is more than passing on information. For that you can read a book or watch a video. A great teacher provokes and takes you on a journey of understanding. That requires grappling with the material and making it your own. Usually that means applying your knowledge to a problem you haven’t see before. At least that’s often the case in economics. I think Doug Lemov said it in his EconTalk episode — you haven’t taught it until they’ve learned it and learning is more than just hearing the facts or the answer to a problem.

This was the view I heard at UC Berkeley among faculty — when they weren’t complaining about teaching.

I disagree with this. The best teachers bring out what is inside their students. They provide the right environment so what is inside each student is expressed. How to do this will be different for each student, so you have to learn about them — not just generally, you have to learn about each one. (Or at least you have to grasp their diversity and allow for it.)

Learning is natural. Every student, in my experience, wants to learn something. What makes the situation much more difficult, is the false assumption that every student wants to learn the same thing or can be cajoled into learning the same thing. One of my Berkeley students said that in high school he had had a “great teacher” of philosophy, much like the teachers that Roberts praises. He had made philosophy so interesting that my student had originally majored in it. That had been a mistake, said my student.

I believe human nature has been shaped in many ways to make our economy work. Human economies center on trading. You make X, I make Y, we trade. If everyone made X, that would be bad economics. So we have been shaped to want to go in different occupational directions — you want to be an Xer, I want to be a Yer. This is deep inside us and impossible to change. When healthy students have trouble learning, I think the underlying problem is their teacher wants them to be an Xer (like the teacher) — but they want to be something else. A great teacher finds that something else.

Even the term great teacher is misleading, because it seems to imply that being a great teacher (= every student learns a lot) is difficult. I have found it’s easy, just as swimming with the current is easy. It requires a certain psychological ingenuity to fit this way of teaching into a system that doesn’t understand it. But after I figured out how to do it, it was so much easier than teaching the traditional way. I used to try to make all my students learn the same thing. That was really tiring — like swimming against the current. After class I’d be exhausted. Now I feel fine after class.

Teaching Histology: Lessons for Other Teaching?

Edward Edmonds is an histologist at the Albany Stratton VA Medical Center, Albany, New York. He has been an histologist since 2002. Previously he worked at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Landstuhl, Germany, the Ehrling Bergquist Hospital Offutt AFB, Nebraska, and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (now Joint Pathology Center), Washington D.C.

Recently he left an interesting comment on this blog: Continue reading “Teaching Histology: Lessons for Other Teaching?”

Treat Everyone As Smart, Capable and Motivated?

A Vancouver drug center has started an unusual program: alcoholics bottle homemade beer.

The Drug Users Resource Centre, the Downtown Eastside non-profit famous for housing Canada’s first crack pipe vending machine, is also behind what may well be North America’s first program teaching severe alcoholics how to brew their own beer and wine.

Now the alcoholics just do bottling but the people behind the program intend to expand it to include other parts of the beer-making process, such as fermentation.

What’s interesting is that they are not treating severe alcoholics as passive or disabled — as recipients of treatment. At least not entirely.

This program reminds me of several things. Geel, a town in Belgium, treats people with mental illness as valued caregivers. Zeynep Ton says low-level retail employees should be treated as people who can learn many jobs, give good advice to both customers and management, make good use of free time, and so on. I treat my students as people who want to learn — who do not need to be scared into learning by threat of a bad grade — and are capable of inventing their own assignments.

Is there a general lesson to be drawn from these examples? (All are complicated, in spite of brief descriptions.) Could it be a good idea — as a default — to treat those you deal with as smart, capable and motivated? It is no great leap to treat alcoholics as motivated to make beer but it is a slight leap to treat them as capable of making beer. Is the next step is to treat them as smart?

What if doctors, before they saw a patient, told them: Please search the Internet for possible remedies. Bring a list of the ones you want to consider to our meeting. Is that crazy? The slightly subtle point is this may make the doctor happier.







Defenders of the Indefensible: Jim Dean, University of North Carolina

Starting in 2011, Carolyn Willingham, a tutor at the University of North Carolina, complained to the press about fake classes for athletes. In place of an education, she said, athletes, some of whom could barely read, were encouraged to take fake classes, such as classes that never met.

Jim Dean, executive vice chancellor and provost, responded to her charges like this:

Dean asked Willingham to provide raw test data supporting her analysis. She declined, explaining that she’d obtained the confidential information by promising the university’s Institutional Review Board not to share it with anyone. She told Dean he could obtain the data directly from the athletic department, which gathered it in the first place. He declined to do as she suggested. “If she had the proof,” Dean says, “why wouldn’t she share the proof?”

Later Dean handled Willingham’s charges like this:

Dean said of Willingham: “She’s said our students can’t read, our athletes can’t read, and that’s a lie.”

In fact, Willingham had said

18 out of the 183 special admit athletes whose records she assessed read at roughly a third-grade level. An additional 110 of the athletes, she said, read at between fourth- and eighth-grade levels. She never said that most, let alone all, of the 800 athletes at UNC are illiterate, and she said nothing at all about the other 18,000 undergraduates.

When challenged, Dean conceded he’d misspoken.

Even the reporter, apparently, finds Dean’s defense repugnant. An important detail is that Willingham, who is wealthy, did not need the job. She was free to say whatever she wanted.

Cheating at Caltech

Caltech has a serious problem with undergraduates cheating on academic work, which Caltech administrators appear to be ignoring. A few years ago, one alumnus considered the problem so bad that he urged other alumni to stop donating. I attended Tech (that’s what we called it) for a year and a half in the 1970s. I didn’t think cheating was a problem then. Now it is. Continue reading “Cheating at Caltech”

“Night and Day”: Steve Hansen on Teaching

At a recent dinner, Steve Hansen, a friend of mine, said the difference between his current teaching and earlier teaching is “night and day,” partly due to this blog. I asked him to elaborate.

ROBERTS What is your teaching situation?

HANSEN I’ve been teaching at Peking University [in Beijing] in the Guanghua MBA program for the last two years. I teach courses in innovation (big company Clayton Christensen sort of stuff), entrepreneurship, and social responsibility/social enterprise. The classes usually consist of 30-50 students from all over the world. Continue reading ““Night and Day”: Steve Hansen on Teaching”

Berkeley Undergraduates and Professors: Then and Now

Stephen Hsu mentioned the documentary At Berkeley. In response, someone who had graduated from Berkeley long ago and recently returned commented:

One thing hasn’t changed much though, most professors still hate, and with studied contempt, having anything to do with undergraduates.

My mom was an undergraduate at Berkeley. I asked her what she thought of this comment. She didn’t agree, but she didn’t exactly disagree: Continue reading “Berkeley Undergraduates and Professors: Then and Now”

Assorted Links

Thanks to Edward Edmonds and Bert Sutherland.

Assorted Links

  • Girl brain-dead after tonsillectomy. No doubt her parents were not told (a) your tonsils are part of your immune system, an essential part of your body, and (b) tonsil removal is associated with a 50% higher death rate. As I said here, an “evidence-based” evaluation of whether tonsillectomies are good or bad failed to mention both of these things, along with a ton of other negative evidence.
  • Reverse graffiti. I think of this blog as reverse graffiti.
  • Interview with Peter Higgs. “Believes no university would employ him in today’s academic system because he would not be considered “productive” enough.”
  • UC Berkeley Psychology Department fires staff employee (in his 24th year), apparently for union activities. “Francis Katsuura created a Cal Agenda account to track all time that Paul Haller attended bargaining [sessions]. No other department has created such an account.”

Thanks to Matt Cassell.

Lessons of This Blog (1st of 2)

Kirsten Marcum told me she had “put a number of [my] findings to use in [her] own life.” I asked how. She replied:

I’ve put a few of your specific recommendations to work (SLD, standing on one leg each day, omega-3s, more animal fat/pork fat, butter tea, fermented foods)…but in thinking about this, I realized I’ve gotten even more use out of general principles I’ve drawn from your blog over the years: Continue reading “Lessons of This Blog (1st of 2)”

Assorted Links

Mo Ibrahim: My First Semester

Mo Ibrahim, a friend of mine, teaches high school in New York with hard-to-teach students. He and I want to find out if my ideas about teaching can help him. His blog posts here are the story of that.

I moved to New York in the summer of 2004 to start the Teaching Fellows summer training program at City College of New York. My wife and kids stayed in Chicago until I could find an apartment.

I found an apartment through a Teaching Fellows message board. It was in a nice section of The Bronx, but I only had three months before I had to find another apartment. I spent the first two months taking Master’s degree classes at City College and studying for two teacher certification exams — a general exam that all aspiring teachers took and a specialized one for students who majored in special education. There was a lot of pressure to pass the exams, because if you failed you would be expelled from the program.

By the end of the summer, I had passed both exams, gotten a provisional certification to teach, and gotten a job teaching at a high school near Columbus Circle that served underprivileged students. Most of the students were poor and performed far below grade level in reading and math. But I didn’t have a place to live anymore, because my lease was up and the landlord refused to renew it. I applied for a number of apartments all over New York City, but all of my applications were denied. Once I called to make an appointment to visit an apartment and the owner asked me to come over immediately, but when he saw me he said the apartment was no longer available. On another occasion, I was told that the apartment was no longer available after I faxed over a copy of my driver’s license. I assumed all this was because I was black but an elderly Jewish lady said it was due to my Islamic name. So I moved into a hostel in the East Village. By September, I was teaching full time during the day and taking classes at City College at night. Due to the hostel’s two-week limit, I moved to a different hostel in Manhattan every two weeks.

A couple of things struck me when I starting teaching. One was the New York slang. I found myself frequently asking students to translate words and phrases they used. For example, “Yo, it’s mad brick in this class!” meant “It’s very cold in this class!” I was also struck by their apathy. Most of the students appeared to care little about completing class assignments, turning in homework, and studying for quizzes and exams. I would say, “Why didn’t you do your homework?” They would respond, “What’s the big deal? It’s just homework.” Their measure of success was “Did I pass?” Not all of them were like this, but most of them were.

The first subject I was assigned to teach was 11th and 12th grade math — the two grades were mixed in one class. I had diligently reviewed my high school and college math over the summer, so I was confident I knew the subject. I was assigned to co-teach this class with a veteran teacher. By then he’d been teaching at least fourteen years.

I had gone to a professional development workshop for co-teachers. It had taught seven different co-teaching methods. For example, one was “you teach one day, I teach the next day” or “you teach the first half, I teach the second half”. Different ways of sharing the teaching. In fact, not only did I not teach a single lesson, but I was relegated to the back of the classroom. My co-teacher was really nice otherwise, but he would not let me teach the class. I don’t really know why. When the students were allotted time to work on math problems I would rush to the special education students (students with a learning disability or who were emotionally disturbed, e.g., anger management problems) to give them one-on-one help, but they were usually resistant. They stared at me blankly, or asked off-topic questions like, “Did you see the Yankees game last night?”

Occasionally, students, including non-special education students, would ask me for help. But often in the middle of my explanation the whole-class discussion would resume, and I would have to stop teaching, because my co-teacher asked me not to talk to students while he was teaching. That was my role during my first semester of teaching. I wasn’t despondent, though, because I considered it a blessing in disguise. Since my co-teacher kept me from teaching, I didn’t have to prepare any lessons. He didn’t even allow me to grade any papers, which was a good thing since I was in night school and still living in hostels.

Things changed drastically after the first semester. A veteran English teacher took an emergency leave of absence and I was given her English classes. My math co-teacher asked that all the poor performing special education students be given their own class to be taught by me. A young and friendly English teacher lent me her English curriculum and I developed a modified math curriculum based on the class where I sat in the back. And I was finally able to leave the hostels. I moved into a shared apartment in Brownsville, Brooklyn, the neighborhood where Mike Tyson grew up. It took an hour and twenty minutes on the subway to get to work. During my first commute to work, I overheard someone say: “Did you know Brownsville’s the worst neighborhood in New York?” I hadn’t known that.

Assorted Links

  • The promise of Bitcoin (the platform). “Bitcoin encapsulates four fundamental technologies . . . “
  • Bacteria and our behavior
  • Alternate-day fasting by normal-weight subjects.  “These findings suggest that ADF is effective for weight loss and cardio-protection in normal weight and overweight adults.” The experiment lasted 12 weeks.
  • Small interesting psychology experiments. “Whenever I go to a conference, I hate to wear those silly stickers that say “HELLO!  MY NAME IS.” I just write “SATAN” in the blank space.”
  • Pomona College dean of students sneers at a more reality-based college. She said: “Discovery, empathy, adaptability is goal of broad-based education, prepares students for life, learning & jobs known & unknown.” As the author, John Tierney, says, “What makes some people at liberal-arts colleges so dismissive of, and condescending toward, institutions that actually train people for careers?” I encountered a similar attitude at Berkeley. At a faculty meeting, I praised someone’s research. Another professor complained that the research was “applied”.

Thanks to Donna Warnock.

How to Write a Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose

At Tsinghua this semester I am teaching academic writing. Almost all the students are seniors and almost all of them are applying to graduate school, so I spent several weeks on how to write a personal statement. Each student wrote a draft. I read each draft and made suggestions in one-on-one meetings. The students wrote down my suggestion, and these summaries were compiled into the following guide. Continue reading “How to Write a Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose”