Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Positive or negative? It depends

My eighth graders are fascinated -- and baffled -- by stories of American university life. They're a small group of Koreans, their English isn't perfect, but they have opinions that make me appreciate their cultural wisdom and question my philosophy of education.

A recent assignment had my ESL Writing class read a simple cause-and-effect essay titled "Why College Students Are Poor." In it, the author describes college students as shabbily dressed individuals who work part-time jobs or make sacrifices in order to get a degree, hoping that their efforts will pay off in the long run. One of the questions was: Does the author have a positive or negative view of college students?

"Negative," one of the students responded. "He says that college students wear old pants or jeans and T-shirts."

"Really, you think so?" I pointed at another student: "How about you?"

"I think negative, too. The introduction describes them as poor. They eat pizza and drive used cars."

Our discussion quickly got sidetracked as I told them a popular fashion choice in college: the baseball cap, put on when rolling out of bed ten minutes before class. The kids were amused and said that Korean college students dress fashionably and wear lots of makeup. 

We returned to the essay. "What about the conclusion?" I asked. "What does the author say is the students' motivation? Do you still think he has a negative view?"

"He says they hope the education will pay off, so that means he's not so sure," the class contrarian said. "That doesn't sound very positive."

Little by little, they started to convince me. Not that the author has a negative view of college students, but that a lot of things Americans do seems a little wrong.

"Why do they have part-time jobs anyway?" a student asked. "Why don't they spend their time studying?"

"Because they have to pay for school," I said. They were shocked to learn that more than half of American students take out loans to pay for school, which they then pay off in subsequent decades.

"It makes sense that, if you are independent and have a good job, you should pay for everything," the contrarian said. "But we believe that education is the responsibility of the parents."

We believe. He wasn't speaking for his classmates. He was speaking for his entire country. His culture.

It must be nice to have cultural norms. Expectations. Beliefs that even middle school students understand about life. In the U.S., there are some abstractions -- we believe that all men are created equal and something about pursuing happiness -- but what about the responsibilities of every mother and father? what about the responsibilities of the government to its people, or basic rights like education? What are the priorities of the country?

Koreans perhaps are unhealthily obsessed with education. After-school academies until late night. Standardized test preparation. Insistence on brand-name colleges. All of it is expensive, and all of it is shouldered by the families. Is it sustainable? Maybe not, but neither is the trillion-dollar debt in the U.S. 

Ultimately, I was unable to convince the students that the author has a positive view of college students. How could I? I certainly couldn't convince them that graduating with an average debt of $30,000 is somehow a good way to start adult life.

The problem for me now is that I had previously insisted to this same group of students that there are definitely right and wrong answers in English class. But how can I say that something is right when that answer is so wrong in so many ways?

Monday, February 24, 2014

How to get students to cheat less and hike more

Thinking Chapter 4: The Associative Machine

To begin the exploration of priming students to succeed, look at the following words:

homecoming         standardized exam

A lot happened to you during the last second or two. You experienced some unpleasant images and memories. Your face twisted in an expression of disgust, and you may have imperceptibly moved away from the computer. Your heart rate increased, the hair on your arms rose a little, and your sweat glands were activated. In short, you responded to something disgusting with an attenuated version of how you would react to the actual event. All of this was completely automatic, beyond your control.

OK, sorry, I basically copied the opening of Kahneman's chapter, except I changed his words (banana, vomit). This is a blog about teaching after all, and nothing is more disgusting and vomit-worthy than standardized exams.

This is one of the more exciting early chapters with potential implications for the classroom. First, Kahneman explains a little how the association of ideas works. If you come across an unpleasant idea, such as standardized exams, your mind and body react both consciously and in silent, hidden ways. He then explains the marvels of priming: if you were asked to complete the word fragment SO_P, your response would be different depending if you were first primed with WASH or EAT. From here it gets complicated, but also really intriguing.

Kahneman describes one experiment that got college students to walk slower because they had first been primed with words associated with the elderly. Just being exposed to words like Florida, forgetful, and bald got young people to slow down. That got me thinking, can students be primed for some long-term actions? For example, could they become interested in hiking if classroom walls were covered in pictures of beautiful forest trails? Could they be convinced to volunteer with pictures of orphanages or soup kitchens? No words, no messages, just pictures. And then a random announcement: we're planning a hike; sign up in the office. Could it work?

Kahneman continues by explaining that reciprocal priming effects produce a coherent reaction. By thinking about old age, people act old, and acting old reinforces thoughts of old age. The same is true with being amused and smiling: one reciprocates the other. Even nodding your head makes you more likely to agree with a message. These ideas point to the use of humor in the classroom. By laughing, students are more likely to be amused by a lesson, which in turn makes them feel positive about it. This is all common sense, but I wonder if it would be possible to trick students into being more agreeable. What if, for example, throughout the lesson, I tell students to nod if they hear me? Just that. Every ten minutes or so, nod if you hear me. Of course they'll nod (because I speak loudly), but by getting them to do that, can I alter their perception of whatever the lesson is actually about? It's worth a shot; at the very least, all the nodding will keep them from nodding off.

Kahneman presents other examples of priming effects. For example, people who have money on their minds (perhaps they saw a dollar-bill screen saver or a stack of Monopoly money) become more selfish, help less, and want to sit further away from strangers than people who have not been primed with money. This makes me wonder how various primes in a classroom might affect students. If there are posters of various universities, will students connect every task to their goal of getting into a great university? If so, would they be more or less likely to cheat on assignments and tests? Would they be more or less willing to help other students? Obviously I don't know the answers, but I think it's important to be aware that even the most innocent messages might have a profound effect on students, whether or not they are aware of it.

One possible way to reduce cheating is posters of eyes. Kahneman explains an experiment that changed how much people were willing to pitch in for coffee in an office: on alternating weeks, large pictures were hung in the room, either of flowers or eyes. There was a big increase in the amount people left during the weeks with pictures of eyes. Subconsciously, people thought someone was watching. I wonder if this would work in the classroom. Students want to peek at a neighbor's paper, but they sense eyes watching ...

The fact that primes work is not up for debate, according to Kahneman, who says, "You have no choice but to accept that the major conclusions of these studies are true. More important, you must accept that they are true about you" (57). If so, then it seems important that schools are set up in ways that would prime students to succeed, whether that's studying harder or volunteering more or simply getting out into the wilderness for a hike.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Why schools shouldn't eliminate junk food

Thinking Chapter 3: The Lazy Controller, part 2

One of my former colleagues used to meet her advisory group students before they headed in for dreaded standardized exams. She'd hand each a packet of snacks -- candy bars, a juice drink, maybe a piece of fruit. Needless to say, her students loved her. She said she wanted to make sure each of them had some food, knowing full well that students freak out on exam days and forget things like breakfast. Turns out she was also probably helping them get higher scores.

According to Kahneman, research has shown "conclusively" that tasks like the SAT and ACT drain people. "[A]n effort of will or self-control is tiring; if you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes around. The phenomenon has been named ego depletion" (41-42). If you think about it, sitting in place for many hours bubbling in Scranton pages is an unbelievable effort of will and self-control for most teens. Furthermore, "[a]fter exerting self-control in one task, you do not feel like making an effort in another." This explains why many students start strong and noticeably slow down during an exam (proctor one of the exams and you'll see). It turns out that the nervous system, especially when involved in effortful mental activity, consumes glucose: "When you are actively involved in difficult cognitive reasoning or engaged in a task that requires self-control, your blood glucose level drops" (43). Researchers have also confirmed that "the effects of ego depletion could be undone by ingesting glucose."

The implications of this go beyond having students eat a candy bar during a break in the exam. Teachers marking papers also suffer ego depletion. A study found that judges were most likely to grant parole immediately after a food break and least likely immediately before a break. Were the judges simply being nice because they felt content after a meal, or were they harsh because they were hungry? In either case, these findings point to the importance of taking many breaks while marking papers.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Maybe being glued to a computer screen late into the night isn't a bad thing

Thinking* Chapter 3: The Lazy Controller, part 1

There are many reasons why electives such as Journalism and Yearbook are so important ... and fun to teach, which is why I think all classes should be more like them. For one, these are two classes that create products that are distributed to the school and wider community, that become records of the school year. How many classes require students to do real work that is then seen and critiqued by an actual audience? Not enough. Speaking of being seen, publications get everyone in the school actually reading, hopefully getting the young and old into the habit of picking up professional newspapers and magazines. Another reason is that everyone loves to talk about the importance of critical thinking skills (without ever really defining them), and producing a school newspaper or yearbook requires those skills -- students don't discuss critical thinking in some abstract way; instead, they discuss, debate, investigate, and make decisions about big ideas. Student leaders get a chance to practice real leadership, staff members get a chance to collaborate and stretch their creativity, and administrators get taken to task for decisions and policies. What I love best about teaching these courses is what is known as flow.

Several years ago, on the day before deadline, students decided they would stay in the computer lab after school until they were done. They were working on issue 1 of the new year, and the new editors vowed to improve on last year's group who had missed the monthly deadline a couple of times. The design editor hooked up his computer to the projector so that others could see what he was doing. The editor in chief alternated between her screen and the classroom's big screen, snapping instructions for headline sizes and photo placement. The copy editor, curled up in a corner of the room, shouting occasional frustrations at articles submitted earlier that day: "What's the matter with these people? Don't they know how to use quotation marks?" The photo editor, oblivious to the hustle and bustle around her, sat with headphones on, patiently cropping and improving images. Hours passed, and work continued. When it all appeared complete, everyone gathered around the big screen, carefully examining each page and rushing to their own computers when someone spotted a mistake. No one was tired. No one needed to go home. Good thing it was Friday, because they finished well after midnight.

I've observed similar scenarios at different schools -- at an inner city Chicago school, a boarding school in India, an elite international school in England. Each time, when a group of committed students with a shared goal get together, they work. In the moment, they're not worried about grades or college applications or future contests. They're worried about putting together the best possible publication they can. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman introduces psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's concept of flow, which is when people "expend considerable effort for long periods of time without having to exert willpower" (40). While experiencing flow, people "lose their sense of time, of themselves, of their problems." I've seen it many times, and it's interesting how the same teenagers who can be described as lazy or apathetic by some teachers all of a sudden gain focus and willpower when working on a real task.

Surely a very small percentage of any group of students would experience flow in Journalism class, but there are many activities across the disciplines that can grab students similarly. This is why I believe students should do real work in their classes. They should do the work of scientists, historians, mathematicians -- whatever that work is, as long as it's real. Not all students will become passionate about all (or even most) of their subjects, but wouldn't it be something if many students could regularly experience flow in the classroom? In order to help students become passionate about something, it is important to find passionate teachers. The most impressive question I've ever been asked at an interview -- the question that made me think that I want to work for this principal -- was this: What excites you about your subject? If teachers are excited, students will be swept up, and the only problem we'll have to worry about is making evening phone calls home to explain that we're almost finished with this month's work.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

A few more reasons why homework just doesn't work

Thinking Chapter 1: The Characters of the Story

Teaching is about characters -- there are so many in every classroom: the clown, the goody-goody, the bad boy and his girl. But for some future posts, this blog will be about different characters, the ones that starred in a 2012 book by a Nobel Prize winner.

As I was reading Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, I realized that it's not just a book about how the brain works and makes decisions. It's about teaching. In every chapter, there is at least one revelation about what goes on in the brains of all those classroom characters. And so, I'll try to make some connections, to ponder recent psychological and neuroscientific findings in order to become a better teacher. Sometimes I'll be wrong. Sometimes I'll miss something important. But hopefully I'll hit on something important or interesting from time to time.

*  *  *

Chapter 1 introduces the two characters that Kahneman calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 is made up of automatic thoughts; System 2 consists of the conscious, rational self. Kahneman spends much of the first chapter -- and the whole book, really -- proving that these two systems make us a lot less in control over our thoughts and actions than we might think. Adding single digits (2 + 2) is automatic, while multiplying double digits (17 X 24) takes concentration. You cannot do both of them simultaneously.

The first insight is what most teachers know but most students dispute: you cannot multitask while doing homework. Most students insist that they can listen to music (or watch TV or lurk online) while doing math or writing an essay. For years, I've insisted that it's impossible, but I've been shouted down or ignored. A couple of sentences, I think, help prove my point:
You could not compute the product of 17 X 24 while making a left turn into dense traffic, and you certainly should not try. You can do several things at once, but only if they are easy and undemanding. ... When the driver of a car is overtaking a truck on a narrow road, for example, adult passengers quite sensibly stop talking. They know that distracting the driver is not a good idea (Kahneman 23).
I love this driving analogy, and I bet even my non-driving students could relate to it. Of course driving is not the same as listening to music, but I bet I can prove that students do better work when they are not distracted.

For years, I've been mystified by a pattern in student work. Take-home essays (ones where students had time to plan, draft, conference with me) are usually no better than in-class essays (ones where students had only 30 or 40 minutes to write). In fact, formal take-home essays are sometimes worse than those done under a strict time constraint. You would think that even the laziest student, the one waiting until the last minute to write that formal paper, would have benefited from all that extra time to think about the topic. But it simply is not true: many, many formal essays come back completely incomprehensible, while in-class essays by the same students are at least on-topic.

I've always considered limited explanations for this difference:
  1. Procrastination makes the task ultimately impossible; many students simply run out of time and throw together random ideas.
  2. The extra time creates extra pressure. When forced to write in class, students grab an idea and go with it.
  3. Or perhaps I grade harder on the take-home work, expecting better results because of all that extra time.
Now, I wonder if the difference comes down to distractions: At home, students usually have something else going on, while in the classroom, there is silence. Simple.

An adult passenger would not distract a driver making a difficult maneuver, but many teens distract themselves and each other while performing an equally challenging task -- thinking. And System 2 simply cannot focus properly while System 1 is dealing with song lyrics or text messages or any one of a hundred different attention-seekers. 

My goal is to convince my students to maintain silence while doing homework. But maybe it would be easier to convince me not to assign homework in the first place. But that's something Kahneman hasn't addressed yet.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Celebrating the same old, same old

Students -- like humans -- prefer routine over randomness. This is obvious in elementary school but equally true in the upper grades. For years, I've started each high school lesson with a consistent assignment: students write down a sentence and correct the errors they find. This takes a couple of minutes out of each lesson, but the payoff is clear. Students slowly build the ability to identify errors in their own writing. They feel more confident on standardized exams. They settle down when they enter my classroom and are immediately on task. And I never have to worry about tardy students. As the bell rings, I quickly move around the room and stamp the paper of each student working; the stamp is worth a point on a future quiz. Anyone not working or late to class does not get a stamp, no exceptions. And so it takes about a week for everyone to get the message: when the class starts, we work.

As I read over my previous paragraph, I can see just how boring my lessons must seem. How regimented. But here's what I know: Students love this little routine. Over time, they see how useful it is. They also recognize how I've manipulated them into being "better" students, actually coming to class on time and working right away, but they appreciate it. They laugh about the one or two times they missed a stamp and admit that they appreciate how fair my system ultimately is.

What they don't like is when I break the routine. If they show up to class and there is no sentence to correct, they don't know what to do. The same can be said for every other aspect of class. If an essay is assigned, they know it will be collected on the due date. They know what the penalty will be if it's late. They expect to get feedback in a certain amount of time. Any break in any routine -- even if it benefits them in some way -- is seen as unfair. And for adolescents, the world is judged by how fair it is.

I used to try mixing things up. I thought I'd keep my students on their toes if they didn't know what to expect. If I assigned reading, sometimes there would be a quiz of some sort, sometimes there wouldn't be. When they showed up to class, sometimes there was a sentence to correct, sometimes there wasn't. But with experience, I realized students actually did more work -- and better work -- if they knew exactly what to expect. How will the paper be marked? They want to know, because they want to do a good job. What will be on the test? Tell them, and they'll actually study. It's when they are uncertain that they struggle.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

It has taken me years to figure out the point of this post

For years, I have been telling students about something a girl wrote in my yearbook at the end of junior year. I've used the story primarily to entertain, but also to make a point about the kinds of things they can expect to remember 25 years after graduating from high school. Now that I'm teaching in Asia (again), I've just realized that my anecdote might help explain to my students one rhetorical difference between the East and the West.

In the West, we prefer the five-paragraph model of argumentation: introduce your thesis in the introduction and then spend the body of the essay proving why your thesis is correct. In East Asia, the writer prefers to spend the bulk of the essay circling around the topic, perhaps like a vulture assessing the situation below, before landing somewhere in the vicinity of the message. The East Asian way can be quite beautiful, but it requires something from readers: they must understand the point of the message. The thesis is not necessarily present -- in the introduction or the conclusion -- so the readers or listeners must pay attention to the argument as it swoops around and come to the one and correct conclusion on their own. My yearbook example will illustrate the point.

Once, there was a girl I liked back in high school. I thought she had a boyfriend, and I was quite shy, so I never pursued her. Still, we had a lot of fun throughout junior year, laughing and listening to music during our print shop class. (I went to an amazing high school, where our electives included things like drafting and shop classes. We were in the class that actually printed the school publications.) At the end of the year, she wrote a substantial message in the back of my yearbook. Among other things, she wrote that I'm a nice guy, that she enjoying working with me because I was so funny and always made her laugh, that I'm smarter than I pretend to be, and that I should listen to better music. She made fun of my taste -- classic rock and heavy metal -- and suggested I listen to "Don't You Forget About Me" by the Simple Minds and "If You Leave" by OMD. She also wrote that she hoped we'd keep in touch during senior year, despite the fact that we wouldn't be in the same classes. (I went to a big school; graduating class of almost a thousand.)

I tell my students this story to get a laugh, to tell them how naive I was, to teach them a lesson: If you like someone, tell them. I usually say something like: "I was so dumb back then that I thought she was making fun of me because of the music thing. I didn't realize that she was saying, 'I like you.'"

I just finished reading the first essay from one of my students in English class, and I thought, "Oh my god, this reminds me of that yearbook message!" She writes well, and the point is there, but it's not clearly articulated. In other words, she is not following the thesis-first approach that is favored in the U.S.

I'm going to tell that yearbook story again today, and this will be my message: The girl who wrote that message, she was Asian. And I didn't get her point. In the West, maybe because we're dumb or unsophisticated or something, we often misunderstand this kind of argument. I would have understood if she had started with her thesis: I like you. And then if she had presented the rest of her points as proof: I like you because you make me laugh; I like you because you're actually quite intelligent; I like you because you listen to music, and I want to introduce you to some of the songs I like. Then, I would have got it.

To be perfectly honest, I prefer the East Asian way. (But at the same time, they need to learn the thesis-first approach because their SAT and AP exams will be assessed by an American.) The Asian way is subtle. It gives the receiver of the message some responsibility, making the argument a conversation that will lead to a common destination. And it gives the writer an out: If I had responded poorly to that yearbook message, the girl could have easily responded, "Well, I never said I liked you!"