When the communist Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in April 1975, they declared it “Year Zero.” The French Revolution had a similar turn of phrase: Year One, after the abolition of the monarchy and the execution of King Louis XVI.
These revolutions had something else in common: erasing history. The Khmer Rouge targeted, like many other communist regimes before them, intellectuals and artists. The French changed their “pagan” calendar and threw the Catholic Church out of the country.
Today, we see similar thought patterns in extremist Islam. The Taliban, upon taking control of Afghanistan, blew up fantastically preserved Buddhist statues (pictured). In Timbuktu, Islamic extremists burned 1200-year-old books contained in their ancient library. ISIS brags, in propaganda videos, about destroying “idols” in Palmyra.
These movements are from all over the political spectrum, but the pattern recurs: begin fresh, erase history, and idolize a mythological past. You could apply this same rubric to the fascist movements of the 1930s.
The lesson of history is clear (and ironic): there is no erasing history. The French Revolution descended into chaos, was coopted by Napoleon, and did not result in a functioning democracy for a long time. Cambodia is still recovering. Fascism is a horrifying relic. The communist revolutions have all been spectacular failures.
So why is this Year Zero thinking so common?
You hear it on both sides of the political spectrum today. “Erase the system and start over.” “Smash _______________.” “We need a complete shift in ___________________.” The slogans are stirring and sexy. Unfortunately, change is hard.
The most successful revolutions restore and consolidate the best ideas from the past: look at the American Revolution and the way it drew from the ideas of the enlightenment and Ancient Rome.
How can we make incremental change sexy? Perhaps, at the very least, we can expose Year Zero thinking for what it is: a childish fantasy.
In his skeptical tome “Antifragile,” Nassim Taleb discusses the term “iatrogenics.” It is a well-known term in the health care industry used to describe unintended effects that are caused by “the healer.” He wants policymakers, particularly economists, to adopt the wisdom of iatrogenic analysis.
Many of the statistical tools used in education policy evaluations seem lifted from medical research (“treatment effect”) so why not import iatrogenics?
While it is true that evaluations of education policies include cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness analyses, there are differences. Iatrogenics focuses on the output side of the equation, finding outcomes that would (or more importantly, could) blunt benefits. Also, much of it is focused on implementation.
To be clear: iatrogenics, in medicine, discusses drug interactions, misdiagnoses, medical error, adverse side effects, and nosocomial (hospital-induced) infections.
Policy literature includes countless discussions of the “law of unintended consequences.” Iatrogenics will improve that conversation. Here are two suggestions:
More and more policy descriptions include “theories of action” which are relentlessly upbeat, describing (in detail) how a series of outcomes cause each other. I would like evaluators to add potential “policy interactions” and “side effects.”
Warning: providing financial incentives to students increases the motivation to cheat and game the system. Do not combine this program with programs that have less vigilance on student assessments or with assessments that are overly subjective.
Reporting these on the front page of an evaluation will allow the people on the ground to better implement these policies, just as side effect warnings help people take drugs at the right time.
Imagine if drug makers lobbied to stop reporting side effects?
Also, reporting side effects and possible policy interactions will help us promote “non-cognitive” traits. Recent research on these "softer" qualities have focused on traits such as “conscientiousness,” which are easy to measure. However, there are many extremely important non-cognitive traits that are difficult to measure. Here is how iatrogenics could help:
Think about honesty. It would be impossible to test people for honesty, but identifying incentives for dishonest behavior would be simple.
Consider risk-taking. Would offering financial incentives encourage students to take very hard classes? Obviously not.
Or enthusiasm. Would offering money to students make them passionate about the subject itself? Perhaps, but it seems like it would change the style of motivation to something less internal.
Psychologist Martin Seligman, the founder of “positive psychology,” considers honesty, risk-taking, and enthusiasm to be the fundamental elements of courage. Courage is a worthy goal for education; indeed, in the words of the immortal stoic philosopher Seneca, “If you are not teaching courage, you are not teaching.”
The difficulty in measuring courage should not divert our attention from it. Iatrogenics could help remove that impediment.
A common narrative in diversity discussions, on both sides of the aisle, is “hate used to be overt, but now it is more subtle.” Left-leaning people then write about institutional racism; right-leaning people go on to discuss the effects of culture and family. The problem is that the premise is wrong: the internet has given birth to a renaissance in overt racism.
A quick search on the internet reveals several good sources on these hate sites: the Southern Poverty Law Center, in particular, has done a yeoman’s labor in documenting and mapping these various hate groups.
An issue is that labeling these groups “hate groups” makes them catnip to the rebellious teenage mind. These lists are a good resource to help adults avoid reading biased information; however, to adolescents, they are honeypots of tantalizing political incorrectness.
Spend an hour, if you can stomach it, reading a hate site. Probably the most influential “white nationalist” site is called “Stormfront,” which is about as old as the internet. Absorb some of the argot; note which news stories are discussed. Then, go to YouTube and read the comments under any political video. The notion that these sites exist in some “dark corner” of the internet will immediately be dispelled.
History teachers have cowered behind that “dark corner” argument for too long. A generation of students has gone into an online world unarmed against these hate groups, who actively recruit youth. Young people today can participate in these hate forums entirely anonymously, leading double lives.
A craven argument is that “hate speech,” and therefore these websites, should be censored. Aside from completely violating the First Amendment, the natural anonymity and fluidity of the internet would make enforcing this proposal impossible. And anyway, any attempt at censorship would make these groups even more attractive.
Hate sites should be covered in history classes. Students should read and analyze these websites with the guidance of a teacher. Our “pay no attention to the pink elephant” attitude is a complete dereliction of our duty to produce informed, engaged citizens.
Here are a few fantastic ideas for lessons:
These lessons will vividly reinforce philosophical habits that are often neglected in high school: rational thinking, skepticism, and engaging with a wide array of ideas and voices. They will channel your adolescents’ rebellious attitudes into productive thinking skills (rebel to ruler). Isn’t that preferable to constructing a totalitarian censorship system?
A student recently wrote an essay in class and left the computer lab. She returned the next day, logged in, and could not find her essay. She asked me to help. “Where did you save it?”
“What was the file name?”
She was only passingly familiar with the idea of “saving a document,” and the idea of being able to save it in different “locations” was completely alien to her. She was not underprivileged at all. In fact, she was fairly typical.
We assume that each generation will be more skilled with computers. People bandy about the term, “digital native.” I know a few teachers that are coming to the realization that I have: kids today, in high school and middle school, are actually quite clueless about computers.
They can use cellphones and social media adeptly, but these are limited. Using basic word processing programs is a dying art. They may be able to open a document, but creating tables and manipulating the text is beyond their abilities. Some students have submitted essays written in the notepad programs on their smartphones.
Their attempts at cheating are hilarious. Students have cut web content and pasted it, colors and sans-serif font and all, into a word document.
Even scarier is the acceptance, without reservation, of the first results of a Google search. “The internet said so.” Many students do not even read beyond the short summary under the search result. Hand them a textbook, and many students have no idea how to use the index. I’m not kidding.
People between the ages of 30 and 45 form, I assert, the “Digital Greatest Generation.” We are old enough to understand the analog world and young enough for computer use to feel natural.
All this talk of teaching coding in schools is great, but most students today need much more basic skills. Here are a few suggestions:
The title of this blog post is not meant to trivialize the accomplishments of the WWII generation, but there is a parallel: they lived through the transition to a globalized world. We have not made the personal sacrifices they did, but we lived through the transition to an online world. It is our responsibility to prevent the younger generations from getting lost in it.
It is with trepidation that I write this post.
Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman is an Israeli psychologist whose work became the foundation of behavioral economics, which is one of the hottest fields in all of academia. The British government formed a “nudge unit” to put his (and other’s) ideas into practice. Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns used behavioral economics. Kahneman has been compared to Copernicus and Darwin (by The Economist) and Adam Smith and Freud (by Nassim Taleb). And to top it off, the summary of his life’s work, Thinking, Fast and Slow, is written in an avuncular and humble tone.
His fundamental idea is that there are two main systems in the brain; System One is fast, consumes little energy, performs without conscious effort, and is pleasurable to use. When presented with an easy math problem, like 2+3, your brain screams “5!” System Two is slow, uses more energy, and is uncomfortable to use. The problem is that System One, while fast, is prone to grave errors.
As with other brilliant ideas, your view of everyday reality changes immediately. Ever turn down music in your car when you get lost or need to parallel park in a tight spot? That is because you are engaging your System Two. My iPhone has become slow and takes about a second to react when I push a button. Because System One “sees causality,” I get dizzy every time I press one of the buttons: my brain expects to see the screen shift.
A rich set of conclusions follows from this two-system view of the brain. My favorite was the idea of reframing a question in terms of losses rather than gains and how that alters the answers of even educated responders. (“Should the child tax exemption be larger for the rich than for the poor?” vs. “Should the childless poor pay as large a tax penalty as the childless rich?”) The point is to question the “rationality” assumption of economics: that humans are clear thinking, on average.
An idea relevant to education is the idea that we, or our Systems One, will substitute an easy question when confronted with a hard question. When asked to contribute money to save an endangered species, people will judge the cuteness of the animal and how its death would make them feel right now rather than more complex considerations of cost and benefit. How do students make choices about careers and majors? In my experience, it is an equally vapid process.
Also relevant to education is the idea that smart people are also prone to these cognitive biases, and the important distinction that he and another researcher draw between rationality (or being engaged, or using System Two) and intelligence.
Kahneman describes “two selves” towards the end of his work, the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self.” He describes an experiment in which people experienced two painful episodes: one had consistent discomfort for 60 seconds; the second reproduced the first 60 seconds and then gradually reduced the pain for the next 30 seconds. Most people (their “remembering selves”) preferred the second, 90-second, episode.
Kahneman says that this preference is irrational; the total quantity of pain is larger in the second episode than the first. He refers to graphs of painful situations and discusses the integral of, or the area under, the pain curve. A rational person should prefer a smaller total quantity of pain.
The idea of the “total quantity of pain” is intelligent-sounding nonsense. People care about the first derivative, or slope, of pain. More clearly, they care about how quickly pain is changing, because pain is information. If you fall and hurt your ankle, and the pain doubles every few seconds, it is alarming because you know real damage has been done. (The total quantity of pain over these few seconds would be small.)
Similarly, you would prefer the 90 seconds of pain in which the final 30 seconds have a gradual reduction in pain because it feels like the problem is disappearing. This reaction is entirely rational.
A concerning assumption about human nature is revealed by this analysis: only that which is pain minimizing and pleasure maximizing is rational. Kahneman discusses Jeremy Bentham and utilitarianism, but this assumption is more like pure hedonism. The reality of human nature is far different: we seek meaning and relationships. We freely and happily choose large quantities of suffering in order to achieve our goals and make many sacrifices for our loved ones.
This focus on pain minimizing and pleasure maximizing suffers two problems: one, it is amoral. Is murder wrong because it produces displeasure? Two, it atomizes humans. Are we in relationships solely because they produce pleasure? The reverse is true; we find those things that attach us to others pleasurable. We find things that isolate us from others painful.
Kahneman’s analysis of “loss aversion,” which is the core idea in his “prospect theory,” needs to consider the social consequences of losing resources. Most healthy relationships are “positive sum:” members of the relationship are getting more out of being in the relationship than they are putting in. It is not irrational, therefore, to be averse to a loss if that loss can sever a bond. Admittedly, it would be irrational to be averse to losses that have no social penalty, but these may exist only in a lab.
Kahneman married two disciplines, psychology and economics, both of which focus on the individual. The result, albeit a richer view of the individual, neglects the social significance of all human behavior. People have accused economists of having physics envy because the desire to have clean math and the aura of science results in these simplistic assumptions about human nature. Perhaps they can move on to chemistry envy?
World Star Hip Hop just released a video (above) of a man being confronted by a judge he knew from middle school. The judge asks him what school he went to, and the range of emotions he shows when he recognizes her - defiant politeness, pleasant surprise, then deep regret - is pure sadness and is very instructive.
A very popular activity in "Rebel to Ruler" is a simple writing exercise: "What advice would you give your ten-year-old self?" Similar exercises are direct routes to a kind of self-awareness that is valuable and rare. Often, what passes for self examination today are quasi-scientific attempts at describing personality traits. The results are unfulfilling, because these traits are about tendencies and potentials. These other exercises focus on a different kind of self-knowledge: one that is based on personal history.
Nostalgia is thought of as bittersweet around the world for a reason. Try answering the following questions: "Describe your career to your 14-year-old self." "Tell your 12-year-old self a true adventure story from your life." "What was your favorite hobby when you were 10 years old? When was the last time you did that hobby?" "Who were your friends in high school (or college)? When was the last time you spent time with them?"
If these questions evoke more bitter than sweet, remember that regret is wisdom that comes too late. Follow the advice of the stoics and conduct regular life reviews, and you won't be like the criminal in the video: breaking down the instant you see an acquaintance from your past. Imagine if he had seen her before he committed the crime.
Second language acquisition (SLA) is a hot field of study that has attracted interest from a wide range of groups: the military, international businesses, and education technology startups.
Dr. Barbara Oakley (pictured), a professor of engineering at UCSD, has described how she used her skills in learning a language (Russian) to excel at math. Her course on "learning how to learn," in which she expands on this idea, is one of the most popular on Coursera. Some of the core ideas of SLA look poised to become buzzwords in all of education, and with good reason.
It used to be thought that learning a second language as a child would hurt a child’s performance in their native language. The idea was that there would be too much information for the child to digest. Two silly ideas supported this notion: one, that learning a language is about memorizing a certain quantity of information and two, that people are like computers.
Here are some interesting ideas from SLA research that could help any teacher:
A potential blind spot in this research is the focus on a “second” language. Third language acquisition researchers (a very new field) have found some interesting results: bilinguals are better at picking up a third language than monolinguals, which should be expected if we are treating language as a skill rather than a set of things to memorize. SLA researchers take it as fact that the more similar the second language, the easier it is to pick up. But it seems (with some complications, of course) that a wide difference between the first and second language arms the learner with skills that make it easier to learn a third language.
An elegant argument for a broad education.
There are a litany of applause-winning complaints about education that are either outdated or foolish. History teachers often hear, “What is the point of memorizing all these dates?” The reality is that few history curricula used in the United States in the past thirty years have included memorizing dates. No standardized history exam, from the SAT to the AP to the NY State Regents, has tested dates at all in more than a generation.
Math teachers are often annoyed with, “Why are we learning trigonometry? Why can’t you teach me something useful, like balancing a checkbook?” First of all, many textbooks do teach simple money management. It’s boring and easy, which is why you forgot it. Second, you don’t really need to know how to balance a checkbook anymore, so shut up.
A suggestion: the time value of money, or the (net) present value, would be an excellent addition to any algebra class. Most math teachers teach a closely related subject: compound interest. But present value is surprisingly rare.
To be clear, present value is the idea that money earned in the future is worth less than the same amount earned today. The formula for present value is almost identical to the formula for compound interest (making it an excellent review topic, a great way to discuss manipulating algebra, and an easy way to show how to derive formulas):
The concept appeals to the “teach me something useful” crowd and lends itself to fun, engaging word problems that mimic real world business decisions. The difficulty can be scaled all the way up to the university level and down to bright middle-schoolers. It also has a moral dimension, quantifying Ben Franklin’s adage, “time is money.”
Here are two problems for your enjoyment:
1. A friend of ours is going away for a little while. He promises to pay you back $300,000 in 2020 if you lend him $200,000 today. You have access to a CD that offers 10% interest. What is the net present value of the investment? Is it worth it?
2. Another friend of yours wants to start a food truck selling curried tacos (Mexicali Masala!) in NYC. He asks you for $50,000, and promises to pay back a bit every year according to the following schedule: $2000 after one year, $4000 after two years, $8000 after three years, $16,000 after four years, and $32,000 after five years. If you have access to a bank account that pays 5% interest, should you make this investment? What is the net present value of the investment?
P.S.: The man pictured at the top is Bobby "Bacala," the loan shark from the Sopranos, who has excellent methods for teaching the time value of money.
One of the most popular buzzwords in education today is “grit.” It is on the lips of teachers and administrators nationwide. Angela Duckworth (pictured), the professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose research has fueled this buzz, is the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant and operates a lab at the university dedicated to the study of grit. There are even subcategories of grit, like “math grit,” being seriously discussed by serious educators.
The first criticism of the term is that it is obvious and unoriginal. Hard work leads to success? Persistence has been studied by psychologists since modern psychology was founded. Similar concepts, like the reaction to suffering, have been studied by philosophers for thousands of years. Why rebrand all of this thought, much of which is rich and helpful, with a slangy, informal word?
A second concern is that it is racist. Many children do not succeed because of the conditions of their neighborhoods and families and the attitudes of their society. While it is of course necessary to talk about personal responsibility, the idea that there is a measurable trait (rather than an ideal to live up to) reeks of Jim Crow-era racism.
A third problem is that the concept itself is circular. Who is successful (defined as achieving goals)? People who have grit. Ok, what is “grit?” The ability to achieve goals. This research is considered genius?
A fourth difficulty is that it is sometimes better to quit than to stick it out. Much of the grit research was done in environments, like West Point, that require obedience above all else. But what about the rest of the world? Should you advise “grit” to someone in an abusive relationship? No, you should tell them to leave. What about someone who feels worthless in a job? Again, they should leave and find a better fit. The mark of adulthood is the ability to make wise decisions, many of which will involve choosing when to work hard and when to leave. Can we teach students how to make this choice, rather than push a slangy version of obedience?
“It's not all that important that you be able to originate brilliant ideas... The more important talent is to be able to recognize good ideas from other people.”
― Eric S. Raymond
In the late 1990’s, software engineer Eric S. Raymond wrote an essay, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” which struck a nerve and formalized the open-source movement. He argued that software that was developed by the “Cathedral,” or a select and exclusive group of people, was inferior to those developed by the “Bazaar,” or the large marketplace of willing participants.
Jimmy Wales was inspired by this essay when he founded Wikipedia. The Mozilla project was inspired by this essay. If you spend any time working in technology, you will see aspects of this ethic everywhere. I recently learned the statistical language R (which is open source) and was amazed at how many thorough explanations to any possible problem were a short Google search away.
Related is the hacker movement, which has been misinterpreted and coopted to mean, essentially, “stupid shortcut.” But both the hackers and the open source movement have a set of philosophical principles that could be applied to education: openness, decentralization, meritocracy and a devious sense of humor.
Education reform up until this point has been from the “Cathedral” – from prominent universities, Bill Gates-funded charities, or the Federal Government – and the results have been lackluster. At the NCTM last week, I saw a “bazaar” vision of the future: the MTBoS, or “Math Twitter Blogosphere.”
It is a group enthusiastic math teachers who blog about their lesson plans and get feedback, support, and ideas from each other. Yes, teachers have been blogging for a while, but these guys are getting organized: Check them out on Twitter @exploreMTBoS or use the hashtag #MTBoS, or look at the new website: https://exploremtbos.wordpress.com/
I'm an entrepreneur and I teach math, history, economics, and fitness. I'm looking for arguments.