Naïve theories are suppressed by scientific theories but not supplanted by them

We read a fair bit of current science most days, then are a bit shaken by our lack of progress in educating the broad population. This New Yorker piece looks at some of the work attempting to account for our failure:

Last week, Gallup announced the results of their latest survey on Americans and evolution. The numbers were a stark blow to high-school science teachers everywhere: forty-six per cent of adults said they believed that “God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years.” Only fifteen per cent agreed with the statement that humans had evolved without the guidance of a divine power.

What’s most remarkable about these numbers is their stability: these percentages have remained virtually unchanged since Gallup began asking the question, thirty years ago. In 1982, forty-four per cent of Americans held strictly creationist views, a statistically insignificant difference from 2012. Furthermore, the percentage of Americans that believe in biological evolution has only increased by four percentage points over the last twenty years.

Such poll data raises questions: Why are some scientific ideas hard to believe in? What makes the human mind so resistant to certain kinds of facts, even when these facts are buttressed by vast amounts of evidence?

A new study in Cognition, led by Andrew Shtulman at Occidental College, helps explain the stubbornness of our ignorance. As Shtulman notes, people are not blank slates, eager to assimilate the latest experiments into their world view. Rather, we come equipped with all sorts of naïve intuitions about the world, many of which are untrue. For instance, people naturally believe that heat is a kind of substance, and that the sun revolves around the earth. And then there’s the irony of evolution: our views about our own development don’t seem to be evolving.

This means that science education is not simply a matter of learning new theories. Rather, it also requires that students unlearn their instincts, shedding false beliefs the way a snake sheds its old skin.

Read the whole thing.

Sam Romano tells Udacity about landing dream job at Google

Three minute peek into the future of education:

Following the first AI class, Udacity received hundreds of resumes from our students. We passed some of these resumes on to a number of companies. Recently, we heard from Sam Romano, who just landed a job at Google in Pittsburg, PA. During his job training in Palo Alto, CA, Sam took took the time to sit down with Udacity and tell us about how his experience in class helped him get the job he’s always wanted. Thanks Sam, and good luck at Google!

If you are interested in having your resume shared with Udacity’s growing list of employers, login to Udacity and fill out your profile page!

The peculiar case of higher education

The Steve Randy Waldman (Interfluidity) post that Tyler Cowen links in this piece deserves his accolade:

Via a request from Ezra for topic coverage, here are some very good remarks from Ryan Avent. Excerpt:

A sector dominated by the state—state-run in some cases, merely subsidised and regulated in others—is, I think most Americans would agree, both a major contributor to American prosperity and one of America’s most competitive industries on foreign markets, despite its glaring inefficiencies. What ought we to conclude based on this example?

Certainly, one could reasonably argue that the sector would be even better if state control were relaxed, monopolies broken up, subsidies curtailed, and market controls (like those on immigration) eliminated. But one also has to wrestle with how different the American economy would look if the state had never muscled public universities (including a broad network of technology-driven, extension-oriented schools) into existence.

This stuff is harder than we often pretend.

A few observations:

1. Postwar higher education has proven one of America’s most effective subsidies, and it has paid for itself many times over. It is also one of the more significant successes of federalism.

2. We are fortunate that U.S. state universities are more or less autonomous, compared to the Continental model where professors and administrators are treated as part of the state civil service bureaucracy. The latter system does not work well, and those countries have struggled to move closer to American models.

3. To refer back to a distinction from the David Brooks column, we should not be trying to squeeze the entire economy into the shoebox of the dynamic but risky “Economy I.” For public choice reasons, as well understood by Karl Polanyi (an underrated public choice theorist if there ever was one), the polity requires some respite from Economy I, whether we like that or not. Read also this analysis by Interfluidity, which is one of my favorite blog posts of all time.


Definitely, read the whole thing »

Gates Foundation: Building Research-Based Teacher Evaluations


Some of the very best work on reforming public education is by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Their most recent report, “Gathering Feedback for Teaching,” provides a wealth of practical implications for improving teacher evaluations. Here’s excerpts from the executive summary ‘MET’ Made Simple: Building Research-Based Teacher Evaluations:

The New MET Report: Four Key Lessons

Lesson #1: Teachers generally appear to be managing their classrooms well, but are struggling with fundamental instructional skills.

Lesson #2: Classroom observations can give teachers valuable feedback, but are of limited value for predicting future performance.

Lesson #3: “Value-added” analysis is more powerful than any other single measure in predicting a teacher’s long-term contributions to student success.

MET researchers found that value-added analysis, which typically uses test results to gauge how much an individual teacher contributes to his or her students’ learning growth, is more accurate than any other single measure in predicting success over the course of a teacher’s career—more than classroom observations or student surveys.7

This finding is bound to be controversial in some corners. Value-added methodology generates great debate because it relies on standardized tests and because it yields only an estimate of teacher performance, not an exact measure.

However, the MET findings make a very strong case that although value-added scores are not perfect (no measure is), they tell us a great deal about how teachers will likely perform in the future. In addition, the findings debunk two common myths.

First, researchers found that high value-added scores are not associated with a “drill-and-kill” approach to instruction. Teachers with high value-added scores helped their students master higher-level thinking skills in addition to helping them score well on traditional standardized tests.8 And in surveys, students of high value-added teachers reported enjoying school more and trying harder on their classwork.9 In other words, good teaching is good teaching. Teachers are not generally earning high value-added scores by teaching to the test.


Lesson #4: Evaluations that combine several strong performance measures will produce the most accurate results.

Read the whole thing »

Apprenticeships v. College

Alex Tabarrock, the author of Launching the Innovation Renaissance, tackles the critical issue of preparing young people for the real world. For many that doesn’t mean four years of college:

In my post, College has been oversold, I discussed the 40% college dropout rate. In a piece in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, Tuning in to the Dropping Out, I reprise some of this material but also discuss high school dropouts and the importance of alternative education paths.

…. There are many roads to an education.

Consider those offered in Europe. In Germany, 97 percent of students graduate from high school, but only a third of these students go on to college. In the United States, we graduate fewer students from high school, but nearly two-thirds of those we graduate go to college. So are German students poorly educated? Not at all.

Instead of college, German students enter training and apprenticeship programs—many of which begin during high school. By the time they finish, they have had a far better practical education than most American students—equivalent to an American technical degree—and, as a result, they have an easier time entering the work force. Similarly, in Austria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland, between 40 to 70 percent of students opt for an educational program that combines classroom and workplace learning.

…In the United States, “vocational” programs are often thought of as programs for at-risk students(…) European programs are typically rigorous because the training is paid for by employers who consider apprentices an important part of their current and future work force. Apprentices are therefore given high-skill technical training that combines theory with practice—and the students are paid! Moreover, instead of isolating teenagers in their own counterculture, apprentice programs introduce teenagers to the adult world and the skills, attitudes, and practices that make for a successful career.

For more see Launching the Innovation Renaissance and–showing the opportunity for consensus on this topic–a recent post on apprenticeships from the Shanker blog.

Read the whole thing »

In case it isn’t obvious, this is one of the necessary policies required to stop the spiraling cost of tertiary education.

Showme: you too can be an education innovator

It is challenging just to keep up with the pace of education innovation. The number of players keeps increasing too: Kahn Academy, Udacity, now take a look at who have developed an easy-to-use iPad app so you can create your own “Sal Kahn like” video+audio+whiteboard segments.

Learning and teaching made simple

ShowMe is an open learning community where you can teach or learn anything. Watch great lessons for free, or create your own with the iPad app.

The free iPad app and free website are beta, but seem to work fine in my testing. The website is an essential part of the solution – that is where you host your library of Showmes!

Udacity: Reinventing Education (2)

Felix Salmon posted a followup that I just noticed. Felix closes with this:

(…) What Khan and Thrun and others are creating is a new educational paradigm, which promises not only much greater scalability than anything we’ve had until now, but also higher-quality education. That’s the real lesson of Thrun’s Stanford students taking his class online: it means that the online model really can have its cake (reach millions of people) while eating it too (be better for students than the courses offered at elite institutions).

The trick is intimacy, in a way which takes full advantage of the lean-forward nature of computer screens. I’m in England right now, where the Open University has been around for over 40 years. The OU has historically reached students through the lean-back mediums of TV and radio, which in turn encouraged its lecturers to behave as though they were trying to reach a large audience. When you see Salman Khan or Sebastian Thrun drawing pictures on the computer screen in front of you, while listening to them talk to you through headphones you’re wearing, the experience is very different — it’s a much more immersive and intimate experience. Blow that YouTube video up to full screen, and jump down the rabbit hole. You might just learn something.

Failure of American schools

Joel Klein, former chancellor NYC Schools:

Three years ago, in a New York Times article detailing her bid to become head of the American Federation of Teachers union, Randi Weingarten boasted that despite my calls for “radical reform” to New York City’s school system, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and I had achieved only “incremental” change. It seemed like a strange thing to crow about, but she did have something of a point.

(…) To comprehend the depth of the problem, consider one episode that still shocks me. Starting in 2006, under federal law, the State of New York was required to test students in grades three through eight annually in math and English. The results of those tests would enable us, for the first time, to analyze year-to-year student progress and tie it to individual teacher performance—a metric known in the field as “teacher value-added.” In essence, you hold constant other factors—where the students start from the prior year, demographics, class size, teacher length of service, and so on—and, based on test results, seek to isolate the individual teacher’s contribution to a student’s progress. Some teachers, for example, move their class forward on average a quarter-year more than expected; others, a quarter-year less. Value-added isn’t a perfect metric, but it’s surely worth considering as part of an overall teacher evaluation.

After we developed data from this metric, we decided to factor them into the granting of tenure, an award that is made after three years and that provides virtual lifetime job security. Under state law at the time, we were free to use these data. But after the New York City teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, objected, I proposed that the City use value-added numbers only for the top and bottom 20 percent of teachers: the top 20 percent would get positive credit; the bottom would lose credit. And even then, principals would take value-added data into account only as part of a much larger, comprehensive tenure review. Even with these limitations, the UFT said “No way,” and headed to Albany to set up a legislative roadblock.

Seemingly overnight, a budget amendment barring the use of test data in tenure decisions materialized in the heavily Democratic State Assembly. Joe Bruno, then the Republican majority leader in the State Senate, assured me that this amendment would not pass: he controlled the majority and would make sure that it remained united in opposition. Fast-forward a few weeks: the next call I got from Senator Bruno was to say, apologetically, that several of his Republican colleagues had caved to the teachers union, which had threatened reprisals in the next election if they didn’t get on board.

As a result, even when making a lifetime tenure commitment, under New York law you could not consider a teacher’s impact on student learning. That Kafkaesque outcome demonstrates precisely the way the system is run: for the adults. The school system doesn’t want to change, because it serves the needs of the adult stakeholders quite well, both politically and financially.

Let’s start with the politicians. From their point of view, the school system can be enormously helpful, providing patronage hires, school-placement opportunities for connected constituents, the means to get favored community and business programs adopted and funded, and politically advantageous ties to schools and parents in their communities.

During my maiden testimony before the State Assembly, I said that we would end patronage hires, which were notorious under the old system of 32 school districts, run by 32 school boards and 32 superintendents (a 2002 state bill granting Bloomberg mayoral control of the city’s schools abolished the 32 boards). At my mention of patronage, the legislators, like Captain Renault in Casablanca, purported to be “shocked.” Nevertheless, after the hearing, when I went to thank committee members, one took me aside and said: “Listen, they’re trying to get rid of a principal in my district who runs a Democratic club for us. If you protect him, you’ll never have a problem with me.” This kind of encounter was not rare.

Read the whole thing »

Rethinking the Way College Students Are Taught

Harvard students Ryan Duncan (right) and Kevin Mazige in their lab for Eric Mazur’s physics class. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Harvard physics prof. Eric Mazur has been rethinking his own teaching process since the early 1990s. “Peer-instruction” is one of his innovations:

“And something happened in my classroom which I had never seen before,” he says. “The entire classroom erupted in chaos. They were dying to explain it to one another and to talk about it.”

Mazur says after just a few minutes of talking to each other, most of the students seemed to have a much better understanding of the concept he’d been trying to teach.

“The 50 percent who had the right answer effectively convinced the other 50 percent,” he says.

Here’s what Mazur has figured out about what goes on when the students talk with each other during peer instruction:

“Imagine two students sitting next to one another, Mary and John. Mary has the right answer because she understands it. John does not. Mary’s more likely, on average, to convince John than the other way around because she has the right reasoning.”

But here’s the irony. “Mary is more likely to convince John than professor Mazur in front of the class,” Mazur says.

“She’s only recently learned it and still has some feeling for the conceptual difficulties that she has whereas professor Mazur learned [the idea] such a long time ago that he can no longer understand why somebody has difficulty grasping it.”

(…) Mazur now teaches all of his classes using a “peer-instruction” approach. Rather than teaching by telling, he teaches by questioning. Mazur says it’s a particularly effective way to teach large classes.

Read the whole thing »

Udacity: Reinventing Education

Thrun says he can no longer teach at Stanford University. He says he was presented with the red pill and the blue pill. “You can take the blue pill and go back to your lecture of 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill and seen wonderland.”

Sebastian Thrun

High on our list of role models for our grandchildren are Paul Romer and Sebastian Thrun. One of the most-coveted prizes for a professor is tenure at Stanford University. Because they are so committed to their respective social ventures, both Romer and Thrun resigned their Stanford tenure. [see end-note correction]

We have been writing about Paul Romer’s Charter Cities and his New Growth Theory for some time. Meanwhile we have been following Sebastian Thrun mainly in the context of the Google and Stanford self-driving-car programs.

This post is about innovation in education. Background: last August we posted a brief note on Stanford’s free Introduction to Artificial Intelligence Course offering. That announcement was very exciting – but it wasn’t practical to for us to “attend” the course while touring Europe. Well, it turned out that Dr. Thrun and co-professor Peter Norvig got a lot more out of that online course than they anticipated. With the staggering online signup of 160,000 students around the world, the famous professors had to work nearly to exhaustion to develop new approaches that would be effective at such a scale.

At the 2012 Digital Life Design Conference, Sebastian describes his learning experience teaching the course, Closing his presentation Dr. Thrun announces that he is resigning his Stanford tenure so that he can devote his full energies to the new education startup Udacity cofounded by Sebastian and Prof. David Evans.

We believe university-level education can be both high quality and low cost. Using the economics of the Internet, we’ve connected some of the greatest teachers to hundreds of thousands of students all over the world.

We’re hiring: We are a rapidly growing company located in Palo Alto, California looking for great people to join our team. We’re looking for a wide variety of backgrounds – the only thing in common is a passion for improving education.

The Udacity online course offerings are free to world. To my delight, one of the first courses is CS 373: Programming a Robotic Car, which will be taught by Dr. Thrun himself, starting February 20, 2012. And you can audit their courses, so sign up now!

If you would like to share our excitement about these education innovations, I suggest the following sequence of references:

University 2.0 Sebastian Thrun: this is prof. Thrun’s 2012 Digital Life Design presentation (you may wish to skip the first 5 minutes of introduction). In his concluding remarks Sebastian says “I can’t teach at Stanford again” as he explains that he is abandoning his tenure to devote full attention to

Reinventing Education with Khan Academy and Artificial Intelligence Class: this is a 45 minute recording of the December Google+ Hangout led by Khan Academy founder Sal Khan and Stanford professors Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun. The Google+ Hangout was one of what Norvig/Thrun called their “office hours” supporting the Stanford AI Course. This segment of “office hours” is initially attended by invited groups of students from other prestigious computer science schools.

Sal Kahn at TED 2011: Salman Kahn was perhaps the prime mover in online education at scale. See our earlier post Khan Academy is getting recognition…. Certainly Thrun and Norvig benefited from Kahn’s ground-breaking experience (and I’ll freely speculate that they consulted heavily with Sal as they developed the AI Course).

Kahn Academy: 2,800 free video learning tools — enjoy! Now that Bill Gates and the Google Foundation are providing additional financial backing, Sal Kahn and his development team are innovating at a blistering pace.

The Stanford AI Course website: while the 2011 course is closed, you are invited to audit the course at their YouTube channel.

An excellent briefing on the course by Stanford AI Lab professor Daphne Koller (originally titled at NYTimes Death Knell for the Lecture: Technology as a Passport to Personalized Education).

The Udacity (formerly Know Labs) website.

For more please explore the Seekerblog/Education category.

Update 2/4/12: very interesting. Researching Sebastian Thrun and Udacity I noted that Sebastian has posted on his personal homepage a correction on his Stanford tenure resignation. My introduction at the beginning of this post isn’t accurate. Here are his words:

There is a misrepresentation about my tenure situation that I’d like to correct. I did on my own volition resign from my full tenured position, effective April 1, 2011. However, this was primarily to continue my employment with Google, and it predates my online classes. Stanford has generously appointed me as a research professor without tenure, which means I remain a voting member of the Academic Council. I continue to advise students and help the department with administrative issues. And in all clarity: Stanford is an amazing place!!! I love Stanford.

That said, here is the exciting part of Sebastian’s Welcome! page:

One of the most amazing things I’ve ever done in my life is to teach a class to 160,000 students. In the Fall of 2011, Peter Norvig and I decided to offer our class “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” to the world online, free of charge. We spent endless nights recording ourselves on video, and interacting with tens of thousands of students. Volunteer students translated some of our classes into over 40 languages; and in the end we graduated over 23,000 students from 190 countries. In fact, Peter and I taught more students AI, than all AI professors in the world combined. This one class had more educational impact than my entire career. Just watch this video.