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January 17, 2012

"Psssst.... It's Not Working"

Teachers experience their own teachable moment:

A growing body of research over three decades shows that easy, unearned praise does not help students but instead interferes with significant learning opportunities. As schools ratchet up academic standards for all students, new buzzwords are “persistence,” “risk-taking” and “resilience” — each implying more sweat and strain than fuzzy, warm feelings.

“We used to think we could hand children self-esteem on a platter,” Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck said. “That has backfired.”

Clearly not everyone reads the Washington Post:

As a dean at a rural community college in Illinois, I recently served as a judge for a history fair for seventh and eighth graders at a local school--an assignment that involved a real surprise. When the Social Studies teacher gave me the grading rubric, I saw only three categories: Superior, Excellent, and Good.

I asked the teacher what I was supposed to do if a presentation was bad or poor. She looked at me and said, with a straight face, "Good means poor." "How so?" I asked. "What kind of semantic gymnastics is that? Does that mean that superior is above average, and excellent is average?" She didn't answer the question, but said that the students worked really hard on their projects and the school didn't want any of them to feel discouraged.

.... This is why so many of our students come to us unprepared. They go through grade school and high school and are told that they are doing a superior, excellent, or very good job when in reality their academic performance is average, bad, or very bad indeed.

Another study suggests that underprepared students in technical fields rarely "catch up" with their peers:

Under one theory of affirmative action the goal is to give minority students an opportunity to catch-up to their peers once everyone is given access to the same quality of schooling. On a first-pass through the data, the authors find some support for catch-up at Duke. In year one, for example, the median GPA of a white student is 3.38, significantly higher than the black median GPA of 2.88. By year four, however, the differences have shrunk to 3.64 and 3.31 respectively.

Further analysis of the data, however, reveal some troubling issues. Most importantly, the authors find that all of the shrinking of the black-white gap can be explained by a shrinking variance of GPA over time (so GPA scores compress but class rankings remain as wide as ever) and by a very large movement of blacks from the natural sciences, engineering and economics to the humanities and the social sciences.

...An important finding is that the shift[s] in major appear to be driven almost entirely by incoming SAT scores and the strength of the student’s high school curriculum. In other words, blacks and whites with similar academic backgrounds shift away from science, engineering and economics and towards the easier courses at similar rates.

I can still remember going back to school at the age of 30. I hadn't cracked a math book in 12 years and I still remember - vividly - waking up in a cold sweat from nightmares about showing up for a math test utterly unprepared.

I spent a good 6 months reviewing basic algebra on my own before taking my first college math class and a good 2 hours a night working extra problems in order to get an A. What drove me was a feeling of inadequacy (not inability to learn, but the accurate perception that my math skills were poor and I was going to have to work very hard to overcome that).

It took 2 years and several A's in math before the nightmares stopped. I shudder to think how I would have done if I'd felt better about myself.

Posted by Cassandra at January 17, 2012 08:46 PM

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Some of the humanities are not easier. I took a course in symbolic deductive systems. Good Lord! I spent more time studying for each test in that course than I did for the GRE and the SAT put together. Nor was I being overcautious -- I'm quite sure I would have failed each one without putting in the work. It was like the movies, where you see guys standing in front of a white board drawing endless lines of symbolic squiggles that are supposed to prove something the audience isn't expected to understand. At the end of it, I think I do understand, so perhaps it was worth it.

Of course, Joseph W. would say that a course in symbolic logic is a math course; but philosophers invented it (and, for that matter, most of the rest of math).

Posted by: Grim at January 17, 2012 09:43 PM

One of the myriad of reasons why I am educating my children myself. My daughter is lazy and was doing half-assed work and getting stellar marks on her 'outstanding' work. The flip side of that is that my son was also doing half-assed work because he was more interested in playing than taking the time to form his letters properly (we won't even get into the discussion as to age and appropriate motor skills) and he would get failing marks on his work because the teacher couldn't comprehend the possibility of looking it over as he handed it in and *gasp* handing it BACK to him should she judge his effort to be sub-par and *gasp* making him redo it.

Neither scenario was doing either of my children a bit of good.

I didn't send my children to school to have sunshine blown up their arses for 7.5 hours per day. I sent them there to learn to read and write - neither of which the local schools were able to do any better than I can at home. And I do it more efficiently.

Posted by: HomefrontSix at January 17, 2012 10:18 PM

Back when I was tutoring math in college, I thought long and hard (heh, she said... oh nevermind) about why students were doing so poorly on their tests when they did fairly well on their daily homework assignments.

One of the conclusions I drew was that math tests (and I suspect your symbolic logic tests) are categorically different from most humanities tests. On a math test, it's not enough to recognize the right answer. You have to follow a structured process and reason your way to (vs. remember/recognize/regurgitate) the right answer.

If you don't memorize the principle in the first place, you don't have a prayer of being able to use it correctly. But simply recalling the principle correctly doesn't guarantee that you will *use* it correctly (or fast enough to pass the test).

Law case problems are like that too, though I didn't find it as hard as math. A good essay test is very similar, but few teachers give challenging essay tests.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 17, 2012 10:53 PM


Part of the problem is parents who think their children deserve to get good grades with little/no effort. My son had one teacher who challenged him. She was a great teacher but she didn't accept excuses.

Several of the other parents hated her because she was "mean" and "gave too much homework". My oldest did better in her class than he did in the ones he was interested in. He tried hard because trying hard was expected of him.

I never saw her as mean at all. If anything, I thought she treated my son with respect. She had enough respect for him not to settle for less than she knew he was capable of.

Your children are lucky.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 17, 2012 11:14 PM

"Teachers experience their own teachable moment."

One step forward, two steps back.
This is getting so ridiculously over-the-top that it reminds me of a low-budget EEO/Sexual Harrassment video.

Posted by: DL Sly at January 18, 2012 07:57 AM

Symbolic Logic and Set Theory was the class at my university that was required for all Math and Computer Science majors. The intent of it (other than to teach symbolic logic and set theory) was to weed out those unfit for the Math and Computer Science fields. I know you state that it's based in Philosophy, Grim, but I would counter with the following old chestnut:
Biology is nothing more than applied Chemistry
Chemistry is nothing more than applied Physics
Physics is nothing more than applied Mathematics
But that doesn't mean I want a Mathematician performing surgery on me.

Posted by: MikeD at January 18, 2012 08:43 AM

Well, and nor the biologist nor the chemist. Surgery is highly specialized.

But there's an error in the chestnut, which is this: physics isn't just applied mathematics. There is an empirical component too. This is also the distinction between logic and math. A mathematical truth doesn't have to be tested against the world, because the truth of a mathematical principle is contained within the system of math. If your answer to a mathematical problem is correct according to the math, then it is simply correct.

On the other hand, with logic (and physics) you have to verify the truth externally. For example, the following is logically correct and also true:

All cats are hairy animals.
All hairy animals are mammals.
Therefore, all cats are mammals.

But the form is identical to this, which is logically valid but not in fact true:

All chickens are cats.
All cats speak French.
Therefore, all chickens speak French.

(H/t to Lewis Carroll, who was also a philosopher).

So deductive systems (or symbolic logic, which is the prerequisite course for deductive systems) teaches you to understand which forms preserve truth. You have to go to the world to find out if there's any truth to preserve.

Posted by: Grim at January 18, 2012 08:55 AM

Modus Ponens. I learned that in SL&ST. It allows you to not just KNOW something is true, but to understand WHY it is true. And mathematicians would disagree that you can just be right if your math is right. Sure 2+2=4. But that's not a mathematical proof. That's just a tautology. A better example is:
For every case where an even number is added to another even number, the result will be even.
For every odd number added to any other odd number, the result will be even.

I had to go through the mathematical proofs to satisfy for every case that this was factual. Sure, I can give examples that 2+2=4 and 3+3=6, but those don't prove it for every case.

The most famous of mathematical proofs that seemed impossible to solve was Fermat's Last Theorem. Now, I understand it HAS been definitively proven by mathematicians, but the solution is so far over my head that I couldn't begin to follow it.

And that's the kind of things we dealt with in SL&ST. Now, was there a "philosophical element" to it? Sure. But that hardly seems to make it a "humanities" class.

Posted by: MikeD at January 18, 2012 11:06 AM

It's actually a Type A Categorical Syllogism, rather than Modus Ponens. The idea of a categorical syllogism goes back to ancient Greece. The types -- A, E, I, O -- are medieval.

Modus Ponens is an if-then syllogism:

If P, then Q.
Therefore, Q.

Mathematical proofs of the kind you are talking about are exactly similar to proofs of concepts in deductive systems. They're internal to the system: having proven it holds within the system of math (or your symbolic logical system), you'd still have to go out and see if it held in the world to know it was true.

However, the idea is that you'd only have to get to the truth of the antecedents: the idea of a truth-preserving formula is that you can then rely on the truth of the consequent. Thus, if I can prove that it really is true that all chickens are cats, and all cats speak French, I don't have to go out and see if any chickens speak French. The truth will be preserved by the form.

Posted by: Grim at January 18, 2012 11:31 AM

Please forgive. The last time I used this stuff was over a decade ago, and it's not gotten much of a workout since. :)

Posted by: MikeD at January 18, 2012 01:30 PM

... the idea is that you'd only have to get to the truth of the antecedents: the idea of a truth-preserving formula is that you can then rely on the truth of the consequent. Thus, if I can prove that it really is true that all chickens are cats, and all cats speak French, I don't have to go out and see if any chickens speak French. The truth will be preserved by the form.

Of course if you err in "relying on the truth of the antecedents" stage, even I can't help you.

Posted by: Sacre Bleu! the Phrench Speaking Pullet at January 18, 2012 02:39 PM

There's nothing to forgive. :) It just happens to be my favorite kind of syllogism, because it seems like it's doing one thing when it's really doing something much more interesting. The categorical seems as if it's letting us reason to a new truth about category A (that all As are Cs, because all As are Bs and all Bs are Cs).

What it is really doing is exposing an underlying unity between As, Bs, and Cs. It's showing us that our separate of the three into different categories is artificial: in fact, what seems to be three kinds of things is one kind of thing. It is our language and our way of thinking that require us to break apart what is really a unity.

Posted by: Grim at January 18, 2012 02:41 PM

[Metaphorically opens mouth]
{Quietly closes the door and goes out to shoot something.]

Posted by: John of Argghhh! at January 19, 2012 03:29 PM

A, B, and C walked into a bar....

Posted by: Cassandra at January 19, 2012 03:34 PM

“We used to think we could hand children self-esteem on a platter,”...

The fact that this was not recognized as a ridiculous notion as soon as the idea was floated is astounding.

Posted by: alanstorm at January 23, 2012 03:53 PM