How to Write (and Teach): Tell a Story

A Lifehacker post by Leo Widrich said you should tell a story instead of giving a Powerpoint presentation with bullet points. Widrich did not make his point using stories. He made the written equivalent of a Powerpoint presentation. He wasn’t trying to be funny — at least, not that I could tell.

This semester I’m teaching a class on Academic Writing. Yesterday’s class marked the switch from personal statements to other sorts of writing. I decided to mark the transition with a lecture. I had just one piece of advice for my students: tell a story. For fun, and to avoid the oddity of Widrich’s presentation, I decided to make my point two ways: without and with stories. Continue reading “How to Write (and Teach): Tell a Story”

Assorted Links

  • Genetics less important than claimed…again and again. The article’s html name says “human genetics successes and failures” but the article is almost all about failure.
  • Why I left (tenured) academia. “We shouldn’t expect [a college president] whose experience is in leading gigantic, dominant corporations to create an environment that rewards original, interdisciplinary, potentially disruptive research. Their previous success (such as it is) is from operating in an inherently conservative environment, running an organization that thrives in the status quo.” It isn’t just the college president. That such people are chosen as college presidents shows how little people at the top understand or value innovation.
  • Monitor Me. BBC TV show about high-tech self-monitoring. My self-monitoring is mostly low-tech, except for brain tests done with a laptop. My experience is that I needed to do everything right — good understanding of previous research, good experimental design, good measurement, good data analysis — to make progress. A talk by Larry Smarr, one of the people in the BBC show, supports this. Smarr has colon inflammation. His design, measurement and data analysis are excellent. However, he chose to test treatments (antibiotics, steroids) known to be poor. They didn’t solve the problem. It would have been wiser to try to figure what in the environment might be causing the problem. It certainly wasn’t not eating enough antibiotics.
  • Fecal self-banking

Thanks to Linda Stein.

Assorted Links

Assorted Links

Thanks to Claire Hsu.

Walking Meetings Much Better than Seated Meetings

In an interview about his new book The JFK Assassination Diary, Edward Jay Epstein was asked how he, a Cornell undergraduate, managed to talk to the people who did the research behind the Warren Commission Report. “It was a different age,” he said. “People actually communicated by sitting across a desk from one another and talking.” When I heard this, I was amused. I had just discovered that it was much better to meet with students walking than seated. What Epstein considered the good old-fashioned way (seated meetings) was to me the crazy new-fangled way.

As I’ve blogged, this semester I am teaching a class about academic writing. I am trying to apply my no grading/no lecturing method that worked well last year in a much different class (Frontiers of Psychology). In the writing class, my plan was/is to meet with students one-on-one right after class, in the same  room. They choose the meeting length. During the meeting they show me what they’ve written and I make comments. During the next class they give a brief talk (e.g., 10 minutes) in which they tell the rest of the students what I told them. The course is much easier to teach than usual: no lecture, no grading, no written comments. Yet the students get as much one-on-one feedback as they want. I think spoken (face to face) comments are much better than written ones because they allow the recipient to ask questions. Continue reading “Walking Meetings Much Better than Seated Meetings”

Mo Ibrahim: How I Became a Teacher

I met Mo Ibrahim, a high school teacher in New York, because of his Behind the Approval Matrix  blog, which I admired. I interviewed him about his I Got Uggs! blog. Recently he has become interested in finding out if my ideas about teaching can help him teach better. This is the first in a series of posts by him about that.

I went to college at Chicago State University, a commuter school in Chicago. I started in the late 1980s. I considered a career as a teacher when I was there, but changed my mind after I visited the education department and learned about the student teaching requirement, which seemed like a drag. Later I visited the premed office. Mostly I studied biology and graduated with a degree in Independent Studies. By graduation, I had been accepted at University of Illinois School of Medicine, in Chicago.

I started there in 1995. The summer before I enrolled, I had been verbally promised a whopping three scholarships. One was from my State Representative, the other two from a non-profit organization that helps African-Americans get into medical school.  I did get the scholarship from the State of Illinois, which covered my tuition. However, I never got the other scholarships, which meant that my living expenses weren’t covered. Between the time of the verbal promise and my enrollment, the organization had started a policy of only giving scholarships to students in the second and later years of medical school. Too many African-American students dropped out in the first year; the foundation reasoned it was wasting its money.

At the medical school’s financial aid office, I was informed that my only option was to take out a loan. This was something I had sworn I would never do. I’m Muslim; interest-based loans are against Islamic law. Despite being told that it was virtually impossible to be a medical student and work, I got a job during the graveyard shift at a seedy hotel on the North Side. I avoided drinking coffee to stay awake because I didn’t want to go to the bathroom and compete with the rats for a stall. Without coffee, I fell asleep. I was only there a week. A tenant who owed the hotel over $1,000 moved out while I was asleep. I was immediately fired. Three months later, I withdrew from medical school. I couldn’t afford it.

My first real job after medical school was in the medical records office at St. Francis Hospital. A co-worker was taking a computer repair class at a community center and suggested that I join him. I didn’t take the class, but I purchased a used computer, some computer repair books, and studied for the A+ Certified Computer Repair Technician exam. I passed the exam on the first attempt and got a job making five times what I was making at the hospital. I did computer repair and network engineering for five years. Unfortunately, the work seemed to be drying up. I started at $100/hour but after five years was making $9/hour. Toward the end of the five years, my wife and I took a vacation in New York City. In the subway, I noticed an advertisement for the New York City Teaching Fellows (NYCTF) Program. I liked the idea of being a teacher because of the job stability and the idea of giving back to the minority community. NYCTF automatically puts you in an “underprivileged” school. The deadline for applying to the program was quickly approaching and I filled in the online application as soon as I returned to Chicago.

I was invited back to New York for an interview. After I taught a sample lesson and did group and one-on-one interviews, I was accepted into the 2004 NYCTF program. That summer I enrolled in a Master’s degree program in in Education at the City College of New York. I also got a job teaching at an underprivileged high school near Columbus Circle. Ten years later, I am still trying to determine the best way to teach my students.

A High School Teacher Learns About Teaching

While reading a blog post about teaching high school math, this caught my attention:

I tend to stay pretty focused on teaching; rarely do I give A Talk. Today . . . I made an exception.

[teacher] “What is it you think I want?”

[student] “You want me to shut up.” . . .

[teacher] “Why?”

[student] “Because it’s your job!”

[teacher] “Because I want everyone to pass this class.”

The class’s sudden silence [made me realize] that my remark had [had] an impact. . . .

I adopt my students’ values and goals, rather than insist they adopt mine. [emphasis added. To be sure, this is an overstatement — the truth is teacher/student compromise — but you get the point.] The kids were shocked into silence [because] they realized that my most heartfelt goal was to pass everyone in the class. I learned a key lesson I still use every time I meet a new class [–] make it clear I want to help them achieve their goals, which usually involve surviving the class.

I was unclear what the “key lesson” was so — I have edited the quote to make it clearer — so I asked the teacher blogger, who replied

The key lesson is explicitly state that I adopt my students’ values and goals, rather than insist they adopt mine. My students’s awareness that I want to give them value as they define it is essential to creating the classroom environment I want.

When I began working full time as a public school teacher [after years doing test prep], I had much tougher kids [than in test prep], and my classes were not as comfortable as I was used to. It was the emptiness or worse, hostility, I got from enough of the students that bothered me. I enjoyed teaching. But I felt something missing around the edges that I’d always felt–expected–from my classrooms, and I couldn’t even really spell out what was lacking—not gone, just not universal. I didn’t know why.

So in that moment [when I told my students that my goal was to help them reach their goals] I realized that one of my greatest teaching strengths was completely under the radar [= not noticed] not only to the toughest of my public school students, but to *me*. Many of my toughest public school students, the ones that had tracking bracelets or a long history of suspensions or just three years of repeated failures—hell, not only didn’t they realize that I wanted them to achieve their academic goals, they didn’t realize they HAD academic goals, since no one had ever told them that just “passing the class” was an allowable goal. I’d never realized how essential that understanding was to the rapport and engagement I had with kids until I experienced teaching without it.

I’ve only rarely experienced that alienation or hostility since [I learned to be explicit about my priorities]. I still have to be tough and snarl and yell. But now my public school classes give me the same sense of affinity, of understanding, that my test-prep classes did.

All or almost all teachers want their kids to do well. But teachers usually define “doing well” by their own ruler, and set their goals higher than is realistic–and so are often disappointed. I think most people [including high school teachers] don’t understand the degree to which high school students feel their choices in school are completely out of their control. They can’t choose most classes, they are “helped” by giving them more of the classes they hate (double math periods for strugglers).

This supports my view that teaching is much easier when you try to help students reach their goals than when you try to get them to reach your goals. Few teachers I know have figured this out — at best, they get to different students learn differently and stop. I think it’s the beginning of wisdom about teaching. I eventually found, after years of experimentation, that (a) my students’s goals overlapped mine well enough to be acceptable to onlookers and (b) their innate desire to reach those goals was strong enough that there was no need to grade them.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Aaron Blaisdell and Peter Lewis.

Signaling and Higher Education: Email With Bryan Caplan

I recently emailed back and forth with Bryan Caplan about a signaling view of higher education, which Bryan elaborates in these slides. I wrote to him:

Having looked at your slides, I would say we pretty much agree. I think employers have little control over the content of college education and, as you say, use quality of college because it works better than IQ tests and the like — as you say.

Perhaps we also agree that just as British aristocrats have a lot less power now than they did 200 years ago — the message of Downton Abbey — so are American college professors slowly losing power. MOOCs are one example, blogs are another. Parents and professors are quite happy with the current system, students and employers are not, and they are gaining power. That is my theory, anyway.
I think a signaling explanation does a very good job of explaining why sense of humor matters so much, especially in mate choice. Sense of humor = Nature’s IQ test. Sense of humor signals problem solving ability, which really matters but is hard to measure directly. I used to think that we have two basic tasks in life, manipulating things and manipulating other people (long ago nobody was depressed, etc.) and they were really different.

How Things Begin: Duke Check

Ed Rickards, a retired lawyer and journalist, writes Duke Check, a blog about Duke University, which I enjoy reading even though I have no connection with Duke. It emphasizes scandals and bad governance but also praises. He started it in 2009. There have been plenty of scandals since then, including the Anil Potti cancer research fraud.

I recently asked him a few questions. Continue reading “How Things Begin: Duke Check”

“Trying to Confuse You”: Pluses and Minuses of the Professorial Value System

A Chinese friend of mine is a chemistry major. In one of her classes, the textbook was so hard to understand she said the authors are “trying to confuse you.” They use difficult words, for example. A Berkeley art history major told me much the same thing. In her reading assignments, she said, the writers couldn’t write a sentence without a few big words. They were trying to impress readers, she believed. Continue reading ““Trying to Confuse You”: Pluses and Minuses of the Professorial Value System”

Chinese versus American Math Education

When she was in eighth grade, a Chinese friend of mine moved from Shanghai to upstate New York. (Her dad worked for General Electric.) In New York, she discovered she’d already learned eighth-grade math — in fourth grade. Her new school moved her to tenth grade math. It was still material she’d already had, but less absurdly easy.

If 80% of American parents knew this, would they abide it? Or would they decide that something is terribly wrong? Now, of course, almost no American parent knows this.

Assorted Links

Thanks to Jeff Winkler and Tom George.

Teaching Academic Writing: My Plan (Part 2 of 2)

To review, I am teaching Academic Writing this semester. I want to motivate learning using forces other than grades. Here is my plan.

On the first day of class, I’ll say: Don’t take this class unless there is some piece of writing you want to do. This class will be all about me helping you write whatever you want. Most of the students will want help writing a personal statement for graduate school applications. I’ll tell them there needs to be something else they want to write. Without that the class will be a waste of time.

For the first class — the course meets for 1.5 hours once/week — I’ll talk about writing a personal statement.

After that, the general plan will be:

1. I meet with students after class (in the same place) for however long they want, maybe 5-20 minutes. They choose the duration. During these meetings, they show me what they’ve written. I read it and tell them how they can improve it.

2. During the next class, each student who met with me will give a talk lasting the same length of time as our meeting. For example, if we met for 5 minutes, the talk will last 5 minutes. The talk will  be about what I said. After each talk I’ll give feedback.

3. In addition, students who meet with me will add my advice to a shared document (e.g., Google Docs).

4. Each week, one student will be assigned to spend a certain length of time (30 minutes) improving the shared document. For example, making it clearer or better organized. The next class they will give a brief talk saying what they did. Again, I will give feedback.

This accomplishes several things: 1. Customization. Each student can write whatever they want. 2. Doing. They actually write “real” material (in contrast to writing assignments). What they choose to write will probably be stuff like a paper for another class but at least it isn’t a writing assignment. 3. Telling. They will tell other students what they have learned.

Attractive elements of the plan for me include the fact that I never lecture and never grade. I never need to guess what the students need help with. I learn what they need help with by looking at what they’ve written. Even though there are no grades or teacher-imposed deadlines, I give lots of feedback — it really is challenging. Attractive elements of the plan for students are that there is flexibility, they can write whatever they want, they never have to take notes (yet there is a written record to refer to), and they are pushed to understand the material in a non-competitive way.

If a student doesn’t pay attention in class — the presentations when other students tell what I told them — he risks having me make the same comment on his writing I made earlier on someone else’s. Then he would have to tell other students that I made that same comment. The other students wouldn’t like that; it wastes their time. So there is pressure to pay attention. If you miss it during class, you can study the shared document.

More English is not my students’ native language, although they are quite good at it. I think that they are more likely to understand another student say X (in English) than when I say X (in English) because the student’s English will be closer to their English ability. I might use words they don’t know. This is a problem in America, too (professor knows a lot more than his or her students) but it is especially clear here. My point is that this is a good feature of having students give class presentations about what I told them, rather than me telling the class directly, which might seem better. If a presenter makes a mistake, I will fix it.


Teaching Academic Writing: My Plan (Part 1 of 2)

This semester at Tsinghua — which begins this week — I am going to teach Academic Writing in English. The class is in the Psychology Department. It hasn’t met yet; I suppose all of my students will be psychology majors. In this post I am describe my plan for teaching it; future posts will describe what actually happened.

Last year I taught a class called Frontiers of Psychology. I discovered that I could teach the class without grading. I never gave grades (nor tests), yet the students did lots of work (the assignment completion rate was about 99.9%) and apparently learned a lot. Behind my removal of grading was my belief that long ago people learned everything without grading. Maybe I can use those ancient sources of motivation, rather than fear of a bad grade or desire for a good grade. The details of the course centered on three principles: 1. Customization. As much as possible, I tried to allow each student to learn what they wanted to learn. For example, they had a very wide choice of final project. 2. Doing. “The best way to learn is to do” (Paul Halmos) — so students did as much as possible. For example, they did experiments. 3. Telling. Students told the rest of the class about what they had read or done. I gave plenty of feedback but it was always spoken. For example, after each class presentation I pointed out something I liked and something that could have been better.

It was like the discovery of anesthesia. All of sudden, no pain. No difficult grading decisions. No written comments (explaining the grades), which I wondered if the recipient would understand. The class was a pure pleasure to teach. For the students, no longer did they need to worry about getting a bad (or less than perfect) grade.

Can I repeat this with a much different class? At the same time I taught Frontiers of Psychology, I also taught Academic Writing in English for the first time. It was pass/fail, so I didn’t grade there, either, but I wasn’t happy with how it went. (I didn’t want to teach it again . . . but, a month ago, I learned I am teaching it again.) This time I am going to take what I learned from my Frontiers of Psychology experience and try to create a better class.

In the next post I will describe my overall plan. Throughout the semester I will post about how well my plan is working. Supposedly “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy” but my Frontiers of Psychology plan worked fine. I didn’t change it at all. Maybe my Academic Writing plan will work, maybe it won’t.

Movie directing and teaching.




What is College For?

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, tries to answer this question:

Are universities [he means undergraduate education] mostly sorting devices to separate smart and hard-working high school students from their less-able fellows so that employers can more easily identify them? Are universities factories for the dissemination of job skills? Are universities mostly boot camps for adulthood, where young people learn how to drink moderately, fornicate meaningfully and hand things in on time? My own stab at an answer would be that universities are places where young people acquire two sorts of knowledge, what the philosopher Michael Oakeshott called technical knowledge and practical knowledge.

My answer: Almost all college students want to figure out what job to choose. The answer will depend on what they do well, what they enjoy, and will have a big effect on the rest of their life. The better the answer, the more successful and happy they will be. For them, that is above all what college is for.

This doesn’t even occur to Brooks as a possibility. Continue reading “What is College For?”

Criticism of My View of Education: My Answer

My criticism of college education can be boiled down to this: It is too much one-size-fits-all. It takes too little account of differences between students. Those differences are no accident. They reflect the fact that a good economy needs to produce many different things. Human nature has been shaped to provide exactly that.

Bryan Caplan posted about this, and one reader (Tim of Angle) replied:

Roberts is criticizing colleges for not doing something that they aren’t really trying to do. . . . Our educational model is built around hiring teachers who are (supposedly) good at thing X and paying them to train other people to do thing X. Nobody claims that the way the teacher does thing X is the only way to do thing X, nor even the best way to do thing X; what colleges do claim is that the way the teacher does thing X is a successful way to do thing X, and it hopes that the teacher can train students to do thing X competently at least the way the teacher does thing X.

I was discussing undergraduate education at Berkeley. Berkeley professors are hired mainly based on their ability to do research. Undergraduate classes are not about training researchers (= the next generation of professors at research universities, such as Berkeley); that’s what graduate school is for.

In most Berkeley undergraduate classes, professors aren’t teaching students to “do” anything, at least anything that most of us would recognize as “doing”. (Engineering, art, architecture, foreign language and perhaps statistics classes are exceptions.) In most classes, students are introduced to an important fraction of an academic field. In a social psychology class, for example, they learn about social psychology research. The class is not about how to do social psychology. It is about what has been done and what has been learned. If the class consisted entirely of students who wanted to become psychology professors, that would be fine. In fact, only a small fraction of Berkeley psychology majors (5%?) go to graduate school in psychology. The students in most Berkeley classes (outside of the more vocational areas, such as engineering) will go on to do many different jobs. Few in any class will become professors.

I think one theory of higher education is close to what Tim of Angle says. The practice, at least at elite universities such as Berkeley, is quite different.

A different theory of higher education revolves around signalling. College performance provides a useful signal to future employers, that’s why it exists in present form. At Berkeley, I never heard this motivation (will this provide a good signal to employers?) brought up in discussions about grading or anything else. It’s utterly clear, on the other hand, that where you go to college (Harvard versus College of Marin) is indeed a powerful signal to employers and, yes, if you can go to Prestigious College X, you really should. How many “axes of excellence” there should be — how many separate categories or dimensions we should use to rank colleges — is a different discussion.

Economic Stagnation and Recent College Graduates

In an excellent article about the college-loan “bubble” — the government has made it easy for students to get loans that a large fraction of them will repay only with great difficulty — Matt Taibbi writes:

We’re doing the worst thing people can do: lying to our young. Nobody, not even this president, who was swept to victory in large part by the raw enthusiasm of college kids, has the stones to tell the truth: that a lot of them will end up being pawns in a predatory con game designed to extract the equivalent of home-mortgage commitment from 17-year-olds dreaming of impossible careers as nautical archaeologists or orchestra conductors.

I agree with Taibbi’s big point — college students are being very badly treated — but I would summarize it differently. The worst thing older people can do to young people is construct an economy that has no place for them. Humans are the only animal that specializes. We learn a specialized skill and use it throughout our life to make a living. Not allowing someone to do this is not allowing them to be human.

Due to lack of innovation, too few jobs are being created. New jobs in new industries doing new things are jobs for which young people are especially well-suited. The problem with stagnation — stagnation in new goods and services — is (a) problems stack up unsolved and (b) jobs especially suitable for recent entrants to the job market aren’t created.

Failing to provide college students decent jobs is Horrible Thing #1. Burdening them with a great deal of debt before they enter a stagnant economy is Horrible Thing #2. I have blogged many times about Horrible Thing #3: Not helping students learn and develop their individual skills.

More Evidence Linking Fermentation and Complexity: Wild-Fermented Wine

I came to believe that we need to eat fermented foods to be healthy partly because this idea solved an evolutionary question: why do we like food that is sour, umami-flavored, and complex? I realized that all three preferences could be explained the same way: All three push us to eat more fermented food. For example, fermented milk (yogurt) is sourer than fresh milk.

Fermentation also increases complexity. An example is miso. I noticed that miso by itself was sufficient flavoring for soup. I had to add quite a few spices to produce the same amount of complexity that miso alone produced — miso was a super-spice.

Wine is a fermented food, of course, but long ago all fermentation was “wild” — it proceeded from whatever fermenting agents were in the air, on people’s hands, and so on. Fermentation increased complexity not just because the microbes metabolized the food but because there were many kinds of microbes. Australian winemakers were recently given a lesson in the connection between wild fermentation and complexity:

We were tasting two glasses of pinot noir, blind, and the questions were: is there any difference between them? If so, how are they different?

Continue reading “More Evidence Linking Fermentation and Complexity: Wild-Fermented Wine”