Monday, August 31, 2015

Two unsung heroes of higher-level thinking

Every year when teaching my "autism and reasoning" class, I have another chance to delve into cognitive science. And each time, I'm reminded of how much is involved even in apparently "meaningless" tasks like memorizing and reproducing complex shapes like (excuse the low fidelity) this one:

Unless you have a photographic memory, incorporating this figure--or at least as much as possible of it--into long term memory involves a rather high-level skill: coming up with some sort of organizational structure. Perhaps it's a house with a weather vane on top lying on its side with its base to the left and a dormer window on the top, marked with an X, an incomplete copy of itself on the left, and a button-like porthole to the right, and flanked by crosses along its straightest edges. It's much less fruitful to simply memorize it as a bunch of specific lines at specific angles.

This is similar to another skill often dismissed as meaningless: speed. As I noted earlier in connection with math tests:
many people assume that speed tests (especially multiple choice speed tests) measure only rote knowledge. But they’re also a great way to measure conceptual understanding. Performance speed reflects, not just rote recall, but also efficiency, and efficiency, in turn, is a function of reasoning, strategizing, and number sense.
When it comes to our computers, we place high value on speed and memory capacity; perhaps for the same reason, we increasingly dismiss these same things in humans. But they correlate, not just with those skills that are being supplanted by computers, but with higher level skills still matter for the foreseeable future.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

More revolutionary ideas for classroom change

One of the book reviews I most looked forward to reading in last week's New York Times book review was Lisa Miller's review of “Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era,” by Harvard’s Innovation Lab's Expert-in-Residence Tony Wagner and venture capitalist Ted Dintersmith. In Miller's words, the book:

argues that the only way to ensure any kind of future security for our children is to totally upend the education system and rethink what school is for.
First come the shocking revelations about what K12 education is like in America:
Public education in America is based on antiquated late-19th-century priorities, on the need “to educate large numbers of immigrants and refugees from farms for basic citizenship and for jobs in a growing industrial economy.” Most of the stuff children are forced to know, and on which our culture’s sense of achievement is based, is unnecessary in the age of Google. But tests and test-makers still run the show, and kids are required to “jump through hoops” and drill and drill to assimilate reams of facts (“content”) instead of learning the skills that will keep them employed and employable for years to come…
Gosh, I can't imagine where I've ever heard that before. Thank goodness Wagner and Dintersmith are getting the word out.

Equally astounding are Wagner and Dintersmith's notions of the revolutionary ways that things might change:
After the revolution Wagner and Dintersmith imagine, college will no longer be a scandalously expensive universal requirement but an option for only the most academically minded. They propose an overhaul of the SAT scoring system in which adolescents would be sorted into categories of collegiate preparedness: “In Good Shape,” “It Won’t Be Easy” and “Think Different.” Those in the last two categories might be satisfied, and indeed better served, in free or low-cost apprenticeships or by taking vocational courses.
A time when college wasn't expensive; a time when only the most academically minded attended it; a three-level grading scale (good/fair/poor; A/B/C; "meets expectations"/"needs assistance"/"struggles")--when have we ever seen these things before?

The authors also suggest "an interdisciplinary approach; hands-on, project-based learning; student-directed curriculums." How disruptive! How revolutionary!

It's interesting that all these upending ideas have already been tried out--either in previous centuries, right now, or all along. The only thing that might possibly qualify as novel is Wagner and Dintersmith's idea that all students should be molded into entrepreneurs. But that just adds one more layer of implausibility and impracticality to an idea that's already long been popular: the idea that all students should be molded into leaders.

Far more revolutionary than all of this is a proposal by Alfred North Whitehead:
When you are criticizing the philosophy of an epoch, do not chiefly direct your attention to those intellectual positions which its exponents feel it necessary explicitly to defend. There will be some fundamental assumptions which adherents of all the variant systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose. Such assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them. 
(Science and the Modern World, 1926).
For an introduction to this epoch's underlying assumptions, Wagner & Dintersmith is a great place to start.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Math problems of the week: 5th grade Common Core-inspired test questions vs. Singapore Math

I. A sample end-of-5th grade test question from Pennsylvania's revised PSSA tests.

Note: The state doesn't publicize what percentage correct is necessary for a score of "proficient" or "advanced," but rumor has it that it's significantly below the 80% benchmark set by the Singapore Math placement tests.

II. From the Singapore Math 5A placement test, for which 80% correct says you're ready for the second half of the fifth grade curriculum:

III. Extra Credit

Compare the problems in terms of (1) how well defined the questions are and (2) how obvious the first steps are.

First hint: How well defined is "1/3 of a bowl of rice"?

Second hint: In which problem is the first arithmetic operation immediately obvious, and in which one do you need first to devise an overall strategy?

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

21st century humanities majors

In my post below, I discussed what I think are the most job-relevant communication and collaborative skills. Boiled down a bit differently, they are:

(1) attending to and understanding directions
(2) being competent enough to fulfill them
(3) getting your own points across clearly.

It is these skills--rather than the more social aspects of communication and working together--that are in increasingly short supply.

And all three of them relate, in part, to something over which there's been a lot of handwringing recently: the value of a liberal arts education. What with the decline in the numbers of humanities majors, and, in particular, of English and literature majors, along with all the forces out there "disrupting" traditional education, more and more people are wondering what, if anything is being lost.

Here's my answer. Fewer humanities majors, and fewer traditional (reading and analytical writing-based) humanities classes, means fewer students reading significant quantities of challenging prose, writing significant numbers of analytical essays, and getting significant amounts of feedback on their reading and writing skills. What's being lost, in other words, are

(1) careful reading skills, including the ability to sustain attention while reading
(2) writing skills, including the ability to make clear points and coherent arguments

There relate directly to the workplace skills deficiencies I note above.

In addition, as far as literature majors in particular are concerned, there is some reason to think that reading, discussing, and analyzing literature fine-tunes empathy and ethical reasoning. Reading--especially in nonfiction-intensive courses like history--also substantially enhances general knowledge. Empathy, ethical reasoning, and general knowledge, in turn, probably enhance performance in a whole variety of vocations, including 21st century jobs.

Ironically, some people think that college needs to be rethought in light of how much today's jobs are changing. We never know which specific skills are going to be important in the future, so we should focus on more general ones like flexibility, creativity, grit, and team work. But I'm guessing that most jobs still require the ability to follow complex directions and get your points across clearly: indeed, these are some of the most general, generalizable skills there are.

If these skills are so important, why are so many students defecting from the departments that, traditionally, have fostered them the most? Perhaps students are ill-informed about what the humanities can offer them, assuming that the more "pre-professional" majors--business, communications, interactive media?--provide more relevant vocational training. Or perhaps the humanities departments themselves are at fault: perhaps, as I've suggested earlier, they are no longer focused on informational content, complex characters, ethical subtleties, or, most importantly, on developing students' reading, writing, and analytical skills.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The importance of communicating well and working well with others

In an earlier post on HR departments and hiring, I considered whether it's ever appropriate to discriminate against people on the basis of personality:

Should corporations never discriminate against people on the basis of personality? Ironically, the personality type that thrives best in interviews--particularly the informal ones that are so popular today--is the type that is potentially the most toxic of all: the narcissistic, manipulating backstabber who charms his superiors, undermines his equals, and takes credit for the work of his underlings, advancing through the corporation and undermining morale and productivity. 
Given just how toxic the psychopathic employee can be for the workplace, one can appreciate how important it is to consider personality and social behavior. The problem, though, is that people often conflate two different types of socially problematic personalities:

(1) jerks
(2) people who mean well--or at least don't mean ill--but are socially awkward.

Personality does matter, but the aspect that matters most is decency, not charm.

In reading the comments on my earlier post, I've realized that two other general factors that seem important in making hiring decisions can be bifurcated in similar ways.

Anonymous/bj writes:
the ability to communicate and work with others is being shown to be an important part of successful performance of many jobs, including the ones that include significant technical skills.
As with personality, so, too, with the ability to communicate and the ability to work with others. Each has a more social aspect, and a more job-relevant aspect. For the former:

(1) conversational skills; being fun to talk to
(2) content-based communication skills: understanding directions, getting your points across clearly.

For the latter:

(1) getting along with people socially; behaving such that they enjoy your company
(2) understanding what your role is in a collaboration and being competent and conscientious enough to fulfill it.

The more job-relevant aspects of communication and working with others aren't trivial. A programmer on a software development team I was part of--someone who appeared to have gotten hired in part because he was a drinking buddy of one of the team leaders--set us back about a year (and many paychecks worth of funds) because it turned out he wasn't able to follow our directions or communicate what was confusing to him. I'm sure he was fun to hang out with after hours at bars. A lawyer friend of my regularly laments how her firm hires "team players" who don't pull their weight because, for all their Ivy League training, they're lacking in reading and writing skills.

Maybe I'm insufficiently "21st Century" in my thinking, but I'd take a decent, competent coworker who understands directions and can get his or her point across clearly, however socially awkwardly, over someone who's engaging to talk to and fun to be around but, like so many people these days, is a sloppy, inaccurate reader; an inarticulate writer; an inattentive listener; a poor follower of complex directions; and a lazy, responsibility-deflecting coworker--even if s/he isn't also a manipulative, backstabbing psychopath.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Math problem of the week: a 5th grade Common Core-inspired test question

A sample 5th grade test question from Pennsylvania's revised PSSA tests, which resulted in a huge drop in test scores test-wide.

[The correct answer is starred, and the incorrect answers have italicized annotations]

Extra Credit:

Compare this question's mathematical demands with its linguistic demands. Identity the dangling modifier, the ambiguity of "at the end," and the ambiguity of what "from the end of" and "combined" apply to.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Evaluators, cognitive flexibility, and insight

I noted in my last post that one group of professionals that really stands out as insulated from feedback are psychiatric evaluators--especially those who contract primarily, not with private customers, but with public agencies. Having this realization, I noted, helped take the sting out of J's most recent psych eval.

The most comprehensive one he's received so far, it was contracted by a state governmental agency that provides vocational guidance and placement services for adults with special needs. The evaluation finally landed in my inbox a few days ago.

Here are some of its highlights--with annotations:

In meeting with J, is was noted that he does have a bone conduction hearing device on the right side.
[He has a cochlear implant, which conducts sound to his auditory nerve and without which he would be completely deaf; bone conduction devices are for people with conductive hearing loss rather than complete deafness.]
..his overall affective level of response was somewhat odd, with his manner of interaction noted to be somewhat peculiar.
..he was somewhat gangly in his presentation.
[Right. He's skinny and 6'5''.] 
...he was found to have signifiant difficulties at times in readily understanding questions and/or statements that had been presented.
[Perhaps sometimes as a result of his deafness--especially if the evaluator was sitting closer to his left ear.] 
J overall was a rather limited to poor historian, unable to provide much in the way of significant background information.
[Or perhaps unwilling to. J generally prefers deceiving to informing.] 
J demonstrated a mild to moderate sense of impairment within the RBANS List Learning measure. Within they particular measure, a list of ten words had been read to J over 4 learning trials. After each trial was completed, J was asked to repeat back as many of the words he was able to recall.
[Perhaps confounded by hearing loss.] 
…a comparative level of weakness in his ability to effectively reason, plan, organize and engage in a degree of cognitive flexibility when working thought language based problem situations that are presented.
[The below-average receptive language skills common in autism are widely recognized among autism experts to confound any language-based assessment of non-language-specific skills--e.g.,  reasoning, planning, organizing, and cognitive flexibility.] 
There is no sense of insight or introspection that J displays, thus restricting his ability to effectively understand situations that he may encounter within his social/emotional environment and also with regard to his ability to then respond in a meaningful manner.
[It depends on his motivation. When it comes to ceiling fans, earning money, or avoiding detentions, J is a master manipulator--and a master impersonator of non-autistic individuals.] 
In looking at J, it is readily noted that he is presenting with personality factors that will likely impede his ability to effectively apply those strengths that he does possess.
This concluding remark is the real downer--contrasting starkly with J's last school-based evaluation, which concluded with remarks about how essential it is that J's talents not go untapped.

But I remind myself of the confounding factors of deafness, receptive language deficits, and motivation--and of the fact that the school-based evaluation, while far less comprehensive, was conducted by an in-house professional who has built-in opportunities to get feedback outside the office setting and see how his predictions pan out over time.