I Want to Learn About Education

by fiddlemath1 min read20th Jan 201141 comments

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Education
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I want to learn what's well-understood about education. I expect to launch myself into some endeavors in teaching the first few levels of epistemic and instrumental rationality - ie., critical thinking and problem solving. I'm a little suspicious, though, of the scattered educational texts that I've so far read. In particular, education seems like a field where it's easy to have motivated thoughts, and hard to gather good data.

With my background (Math and CS) I'm a little at sea in educational literature. Does anyone know of good, reductionist-grade or evidential-grade, introductory texts in education?

 

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What I know about education is patched together from all kinds of written sources and real-life observations, so I don't have an on-topic and self-contained literature list to recommend. However, you should be warned that this topic is nowadays politically and ideologically charged to an extreme degree, and directly relevant for powerful special interests financed from the public purse. Also, among intellectuals, it is tremendously popular to signal one's sophistication and humanism via nice-sounding but unsubstantiated opinions about it.

Therefore, anything publicly written and spoken about education should be taken with a high level of skepticism and caution, even the most prestigious and seemingly most objective and scholarly academic work.

[-][anonymous]10y 7

I actually agree. The academic discipline of "education," as taught in ed schools, is somewhat mysterious to me and doesn't seem to have proven its value. It would be interesting to see if it could be improved on (with actual experimental studies, perhaps?)

Piaget on child development, as I understand, has held up pretty well, but that's not education per se.

SarahC:

The academic discipline of "education," as taught in ed schools, is somewhat mysterious to me and doesn't seem to have proven its value. It would be interesting to see if it could be improved on (with actual experimental studies, perhaps?)

The problem is not in the lack of relevant data, of which there are plenty. The problem is how to devise theories that are logically coherent, with some predictive power, and consistent with the data, but also not too far in the ideologically unpalatable territory for mainstream sensibilities (in other words, not sounding like Charles Murray).

[-][anonymous]10y 0

I won't jump down your throat here, I'm genuinely curious what these forbidden ideas are. I assume you mean by "sounding like Charles Murray" talking about IQ, and viewing it as (mostly) heritable. Does that tell us anything about how best to educate? Or only about the possible limits of education?

In other words, do you think there are effective education methods whose only drawback is ideological unpalatability?

To be frank, I think that the level of ideologically driven delusions in the modern American educational system -- fueled both by venal interests and honest true believers, two categories by no means disjoint -- has reached Soviet levels in recent times. (Of course, this doesn't mean that us non-Americans need not worry, since ideological influences are nowadays going exclusively in our direction.) Just like the U.S.S.R. was a horrid failure because its official, all-permeating ideology was insane and there was a limit to how much compromise with reality was possible, the U.S. educational system is a failure except to the extent that it compromises with reality against the ideological consensus under various euphemisms and rationalizations.

Regarding IQ, you don't even need to assume that intelligence is heritable -- merely that it varies and is somewhat non-malleable. Even if it varied in completely random ways, it would mean that the prevailing blank-slatism is out of touch with reality. (Again, we see one of those compromises with reality here: the universities use de facto IQ tests for admission, justified with the euphemistic rationalization of "scholastic aptitude," and stick to their guns when questioned about it.)

Now, you ask:

Does that tell us anything about how best to educate? Or only about the possible limits of education?

Clearly, an accurate view of reality does tell us how best to educate. The trouble is, many would presumably not like these answers.

In my view, the key insight is that the educational system together with the labor market and other social institutions, both formal and informal, must provide a gainful and dignified path for people in all percentiles of intellectual ability. For this, two things are necessary: an educational system (and other supporting institutions, primarily functional families) that effectively direct people of all ability levels towards occupations that are realistically within their reach, and of course an economy offering gainful and dignified employment to people at all ability levels. Without either of that, what results is a large underclass with the most awful social pathologies rampant.

It should be noted that it's not only leftists who are out of touch with reality in this regard, but also many libertarian/neoliberal free-trader types, who believe that the U.S. could outsource all its menial and physical work abroad and let the American work force specialize in highbrow intellectual pursuits in the global economy. Clearly their ideology is also threatened by a realistic appraisal of the situation.

[-][anonymous]10y 8

Ok, so in a word, you recommend tracking. In a few more words, de facto IQ tests, and education geared towards employment at each ability level.

Thanks for explaining. (I don't think the substance of your views is anywhere near as scary as your tone makes it out to be. It all sounds at least plausible.) It's more an educational policy/social engineering set of ideas, though, than what I think OP was looking for, namely hypotheses about which teaching methods are most effective at conveying skills and understanding. (Or do you think teaching methods matter at all?)

SarahC:

Ok, so in a word, you recommend tracking. In a few more words, de facto IQ tests, and education geared towards employment at each ability level.

Tracking and IQ tests will be done one way or another if the educational system is to perform any useful function at all. Nowadays these things are buried in pious rationalizations and baroque rituals, but they are still there, and they are essential for those parts of the system that actually work tolerably well. People in the academic establishment understand this perfectly well at the gut level, regardless of all the pious proclamations to the contrary (which I think are usually honest doublethink).

As for these ideas not being scary, I can only repeat what JoshuaZ already said. Try discussing these things publicly without the usual pious rationalizations and see what the reactions will be.

(Or do you think teaching methods matter at all?)

They do matter, but less than commonly assumed. A great teacher can certainly be a crucial positive influence on a kid's life (and a bad teacher a negative one, of course). What needs to be recognized, however, is that while a good teacher can make kids interested in smart and useful things that are within their level of ability by making these things appear cool and fascinating, it's impossible to raise this level much. Moreover, contrary to the assumptions of the present system, it's impossible to select good teachers by formalized bureaucratic and credentialist procedures. Their ability is simply not amenable to formal bureaucratic evaluation, certainly not in a way that would be immune to Goodhart's law.

Moreover, contrary to the assumptions of the present system, it's impossible to select good teachers by formalized bureaucratic and credentialist procedures.

Full agreement

Their ability is simply not amenable to formal bureaucratic evaluation, certainly not in a way that would be immune to Goodhart's law.

We could at least use a metric that's resistant to gaming, or that would provide useful data even when gamed, like using formal tests regularly, and comparing the progress of the classes a particular teacher tought against the average.

Thanks for explaining.

No, thank you for explaining. I was having trouble deciphering all the vitriol to work out just what I was supposed to get outraged at.

In my view, the key insight is that the educational system together with the labor market and other social institutions, both formal and informal, must provide a gainful and dignified path for people in all percentiles of intellectual ability. For this, two things are necessary: an educational system (and other supporting institutions, primarily functional families) that effectively direct people of all ability levels towards occupations that are realistically within their reach, and of course an economy offering gainful and dignified employment to people at all ability levels. Without either of that, what results is a large underclass with the most awful social pathologies rampant.

How is what is realistically within people's reach to be judged, and who does the judging? I've seen enough accounts by low SES people who were told they couldn't do things they actually ended up accomplishing.

On the one hand, people really do have intellectual limits, and on the other, status enforcement is a pervasive habit. It's very hard to tell whether you've got your tracking right, and keeping capable people away from what they could be good at is also a serious problem.

One related problem is that even when one doesn't sound like Charles Murray, opponents will try to spin things to sound like they are racist claims. For example, try arguing that cultural attitudes matter for how much kids are willing to learn, and then see how long it takes to get accused of racism.

Frankly, when I mentioned Murray, I didn't even have in mind these most controversial and incendiary topics he's ever written on. (This was in my opinion a mistake on his part, since his association with them now automatically detracts from other interesting stuff about which he's written much more.) As you note, you don't have to go anywhere as far to get to ideas that will be unacceptable to the modern mainstream ideological consensus about issues of education, which will provoke angry denunciations that deny any legitimacy to your position instead of rational debate.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

One related problem is that even when one doesn't sound like Charles Murray, opponents will try to spin things to sound like they are racist claims. For example, try arguing that cultural attitudes matter for how much kids are willing to learn, and then see how long it takes to get accused of racism.

It would be interesting to see if it could be improved on (with actual experimental studies, perhaps?)

As opposed to the non-actual experimental studies findable here?

[-][anonymous]10y 2

Ok, I take that part back: I actually haven't researched education experiments. I think there's something wrong with education schools, because they produce teachers who are very ignorant of the material they're supposed to teach (I've seen this firsthand) and because US K-12 students do poorly compared to other countries. So I think it makes sense to be skeptical of education schools' methodology.

US K-12 students do poorly compared to other countries.

Once you account for race, American K-12 students outperform other countries. All that extra money we spend on schooling does translate into modest educational gains.

Accounting for race is generally just a lazy way to account for economic status.

Unfortunately, the research I have seen disagrees. Race proxies for quite a bit more than economic status- for example, approaches to education vary significantly by culture, and race and culture track pretty well. Beyond that, if there are genetic effects we would expect to see them more strongly in race comparisons than economic status comparisons.

Beyond that, if there are genetic effects we would expect to see them more strongly in race comparisons than economic status comparisons.

I strongly disagree. The relationship between economic status and intelligence is maintained by strong feedback effects. Intelligent people tend to move to higher economic status, and then mostly pass on those genes for intelligence to offspring. But then, if the offspring were unlucky enough to not get the genes, then they will tend to slide out of that economic status class.

The genetic aspect of the relationship between race and intelligence, if it exists at all, is something of a historical accident. There may be a degree of stability to the relationship, but there is no active feedback loop maintaining it. People do not slide from one racial grouping to another simply because they are born with more or less than the expected amount of intelligence.

Notice that I am not disputing your research claim regarding the degree to which race and economics serve as predictors of measured intelligence. I only dispute the validity of your intuitions regarding what "we would expect to see".

I strongly disagree.

You put together a strong argument. I think that this will depend on which genes we examine; if there is some intelligence-boosting gene that most Xs have and most Ys do not, then the effect of that gene will be more noticeable when we do race comparisons than economic status comparisons. However, intragroup variability is higher than intergroup variability, which suggests that for every intelligence-boosting gene like that there should be at least three which aren't strongly associated with race, and if we accounted for all the genes then the intelligence-economic status connection would likely be stronger than the intelligence-race connection (though I have insufficient data to conclude it would be stronger).

I was thinking about the first kind of genetic effects only, since they seem easier to find and study than the second, but you are right to question that choice.

I think we are in rough agreement, though I think you stated this backwards:

However, intergroup variability is higher than intragroup variability

Actually, and empirically, variability within a group is relatively high and variation between groups rather low. (More technically, group membership explains only a small fraction of the total variance.) And you seem to understand this below, with your estimate that three out of four genes bearing on intelligence will not be closely correlated with race.

I think you stated this backwards:

Thanks! I did, fixed. I should also mention that I'm being loose by assuming all genes that impact intelligence do so by roughly the same amount, which is obviously not true.

Beyond that, if there are genetic effects we would expect to see them more strongly in race comparisons than economic status comparisons.

I would expect the opposite to be true, based on results that genetic effects are most important at high economic status.

We may need to be more explicit about the claim under discussion. I intended to say that if you partitioned students by race and economic status, ran a regression, then also added in some gene markers and ran another regression, you would find the race coefficient decreased more than the economic status coefficient.

The data you are providing suggests that genes become a better way to differentiate students at higher economic status from each other, which does not appear to disagree with my claim.

I will also note that the mechanism behind your data- increased uniformity of parenting styles- might also be strongly noticeable when looking at race instead of economic status.

We may need to be more explicit about the claim under discussion. I intended to say that if you partitioned students by race and economic status, ran a regression, then also added in some gene markers and ran another regression, you would find the race coefficient decreased more than the economic status coefficient.

Oh. That makes sense then, though there's the question of whether you've picked the relevant genetic markers.

I have always seen socioeconomic status as the best predictor of a student's success in education. You do have a point about differing cultural approaches, but after a generation or two, it seems like culture and socioeconomic status would correlate. Success in education improves socioeconomic status, which further improves success in education for the next generation, even if cultural norms drove the parents' success.

I haven't seen any compelling evidence for genetic effects; "race" is much more of a social construction than a genetic one. There are some genetic markers and traits that vary more between races than individuals, but overall genetic variation within a specific population is much greater than the variation between races.

There are some genetic markers and traits that vary more between races than individuals, but overall genetic variation within a specific population is much greater than the variation between races.

But it doesn't follow that race couldn't possibly be a useful biological classification. Even if the distributions of two groups overlap strongly when any one trait or marker is considered, the groups might still be easily distinguished when you look at the whole configuration space---consider an illustrative diagram.

You do have a point about differing cultural approaches, but after a generation or two, it seems like culture and socioeconomic status would correlate.

Right, but they would need to be identical, not just correlate, for a model that only includes one to be as good as a model that includes both.

But schools are not about education. Seriously, if you're looking for examples of people actually teaching other people things that they need to know for an important reason, I don't think compulsory schooling is the place to look.

Having said that, I feel like I should be willing to offer some recommendations about what I think is the right place to look, but as I'm only just about to leave the education system, I don't really think I'm in any place to do so convincingly. Perhaps people who run some form of apprenticeship?

Fair enough. Although I personally had a great experience with public schools, I had (and have) friends who were failed pretty badly by the system. Still, the most important reforms I can think of have little to do with education schools or our knowledge about education.

A somewhat dated article on the topic: Why Johnny’s Teacher Can’t Teach

I approached that article somewhat adversarially and saw massive amounts of manipulation. I don't know if I could find a paragraph without unsupported emotional language. Ah, wait, second section (starting in the fourth paragraph) is mostly acceptable, if we let the small quotes count as evidence. But that's all I could find.

You know, you're right. This article is too polemical and anecdotal for this forum. In retrospect, I would not have linked to this particular essay.

I am impressed by your ability to say that, and wish I was as good.

What wedrifid said; motivation and deliberate practice are the most important things. I personally would be surprised if there exists a widely used introductory textbook that is more knowledge than motivated cognition. My casual reading suggests that the state of widely taught educational psychology has receded from reality since the 50's or 60's, with the demonisattion of IQ and g.

For a criticism of Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences see Multiple Intelligences, the Mozart Effect, and Emotional Intelligence: A Critical Review

I know less than nothing about creativity in education but An analysis of research and literature on CREATIVITY IN EDUCATION should at least provide a starting point.

Evidence for Maslow's Hierarchy of needs is at best weak. For a detailed critique you'll need to get access to Wahba, A; Bridgewell, L (1976). "Maslow reconsidered: A review of research on the need hierarchy theory". Organizational Behavior.

Cambridge Handbook

I would recommend starting with Linda Gottfredson's publications or the journals she is on the board for. She's an educational psychologist with an intelligence focus.

As a CS/Math person you might be as well off to read in education after a basic text in psychometrics. For criticism of the way education is normally structured, look to John Taylor Gatto.

If you want to talk to someone who's done a lot of reading, thinking, writing and a little research on this field you could do worse than emailing this guy

It is not an introductory text per se but every teacher should read The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance or the somewhat more targeted precursor Road to Excellence.

Not all of the content is related to the kind of knowledge transfer and skill development you are after so some parts are more worthwhile than others.

During my teaching degree we were exposed to all sorts of material on how best to teach but as you alluded to it is a field where it is perhaps a little difficult to filter out what really works from convenient ideas. Abraham Maslow, Edward de Bono and Howard Gardener were some of the more popular education related authors. Maslow I appreciated particularly since he speaks of how people are motivated. And really, once you have your material designed such that people actually get engaged with learning it most of the problem is solved!

And therein lies the problem, education should burst forth like fireworks, instead we suffocate it under the tower of babble.

I can recommend A Guide to Introductory Physics Teaching by Arnold B. Arons (or maybe Teaching Introductory Physics which seems to be in practice a second edition of the former although I have not read it). I read it more than ten years ago and don't remember much more than that I found it a good book. It is centred on high-school level physics but has some contents also to related subjects, e.g. on how to show the students how to think on why they/we believe what they/we believe we do understand.

[-][anonymous]10y 0

I can recommend A Guide to Introductory Physics Teaching by Arnold B. Arons (or maybe Teaching Introductory Physics which seems to be in practice a second edition of the former although I have not read it). I read it more than ten years ago and don't remember much more than that I found it a good book.

What age group are you teaching to? This will change what you have to learn.

Since I assume you'll have only classroom-level control at best, a literature search will have to be a bit selective.

A textbook might be useful... but resources for further teacher training might also work. Here and here look useful and well-sourced.

I don't have my hand in an actual classroom, unless you count the college courses I've written supporting software for. And I don't expect to: from the reports I've gotten from those teachers I admire, the sheer bureaucracy would drive me mad. Political change is slow and frustrating, and I wouldn't even know where to try to drive it.

Instead, I aim to make compelling games that effectively teach these high-level skills, whether those games are straight-up video games, or carefully-constructed ARGs, or board games, or whatever odd mashup of these is required. If you look at what's written by anyone who takes game design seriously, you read about trees of player mastery, management of motivation, and interaction that varies based on player interest. In particular, game designers talk about the careful design of incentive systems.

I suspect this is exactly what needs attention in education.

So, I want to make these games for a few reasons:

  • If these games work at all and get any audience, then they help to raise the sanity waterline.
  • If these games get a sizeable audience, I could conceivably make a living working towards a goal that I'm deeply enthusiastic about.
  • If these games work and garner critical or political attention, then they might help to shift how regular education works - or at least change its priorities.

These are lofty and difficult goals. If I'm to work towards these in any serious way, I should first attain some scholarship. (Yes, much can be learned by jumping in feet first and trying things. But when other people are part of your feedback loop, it's nice to know, say, what the embarrassing mistakes are.) I have some sense of what to read regarding game design; I had no real sense of what to read regarding education. Thus, this thread.