Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

What Should Teachers Do, Part 1?

March 25, 2013 1 comment

The past few years have seen exciting and inspirational ideas emerging from a variety of sources, all focused on how to make the next generation of Americans productive, happy, efficient, insightful, innovative.  In short, the next great generation of world leaders.  I’ve read a number of books that talk about education writ large, meaning K-12 and higher ed, and in fact life long learning.  The similarities of these books with each other are fairly striking, and they are largely getting at many of the same topics from different angles.  But there are differences too.  Let’s look at some of the recent books on my bookshelf and see what advice they give us.

The Global Achievement Gap, by Tony Wagner (2008).  Tony Wagner is co-Director of the Change Leadership Group in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard and has been a leading voice in education policy and practice for quite some time.  Despite the ominous subtitle (“Why even our best schools don’t teach the new survival skills our children needs–and what we can do about it”), the book presents a compelling prescription for what the problem is.  Wagner’s “7 Survival Skills for Teens Today” hit on the key habits of mind that emergent adults need to thrive in the modern economy.  The 7 survival skills are:

  1. critical thinking and problem solving
  2. collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  3. agility and adaptability
  4. initiative and entrepreneurialism
  5. effective oral and written communication
  6. accessing and analyzing information
  7. curiosity and imagination

I don’t think any of these is really a modern skill, one brought on the by the information age, with the possible exception of collaboration across networks (which is often mediated by technology).  I think of these as time-tested skills that had assumed new urgency and importance in today’s uber-competitive world.

A Whole New Mind, by Daniel Pink (2005).  This book’s subtitle also jabs at the notion of quantitative thinking as the key to mastering the modern world.  “Why right-brainers will rule the future” proclaims the small print on the cover, as it unveils a series of ideas about how the right side of the brain holds the key to unlock the future’s piggy bank of health and wealth.  Pink’s ideas about “high concept, high touch” enterprises (“1. can someone overseas do it cheaper? 2. can a computer do it faster? 3. Is what I’m offering in demand in the age of abundance?”) are certainly the right questions, and I actually like this book a lot.  Pink also present six “senses” for the modern age, which are:

  1. not just function, but also design
  2. not just argument but also story
  3. not just focus but also symphony
  4. not just logic but also empathy
  5. not just seriousness but also play
  6. not just accumulation but also meaning

What I like about this framing is that it starts with actions on the low end of the cognitive taxonomy (gathering, knowing, understanding;  more on this later…) and ends with the high-end cognitive skills (designing, creating, composing, etc.).

How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough (2012).  One of my favorite books in the category, this one provides perhaps the most progressive view of how we engage students in authentic learning while simultaneously building character.  This is also the most thoroughly modern book, in the sense that it provides a very accessible review of the currently-hot literature on “grit” and similar non-cognitive factors in success.  The idea is that the traditional cognitive skills (math, reading, and so on) we teach in schools are important, but a more critical task is to cultivate students who possess this non-cognitive strength, can overcome challenges, are resilient in the face of failure, and have that elusive “it” that makes them driven to succeed.  A vast simplification of a subtle and interesting book would focus on the three qualities mentioned in its subtitle:

  1. grit:  perseverance and passion toward long-term goals
  2. curiosity: the drive to learn more about the world
  3. the power of character: resilience in the face of setbacks

This book encapsulates what I believe to be the best thinking about success and failure, and the role that these non-cognitive skills play.  I’ve written about this recently, using data from my own institution to make the point that the input credentials of our students are fairly uniform and very strong.  But once they arrive in my school, their ability to succeed changes.

But what, you say, about the specifics of engineering education.  Glad you asked.

The Engineer of 2020, the National Academy of Engineering (2004).  This book in some ways generated the long line of urgent calls for reform in engineering education, including publications like the Gathering Storm report or the Duderstadt report.  The question it works to address is:  what are the competencies engineers will need in the world of 2020 and beyond?  The answer will not surprise you.  In addition to the basic literacies in mathematics and science, plus discipline-specific expertise, the engineer of 2020 needs:

  1. strong analytical skills
  2. practical ingenuity
  3. creativity
  4. communication skills
  5. business fundamentals
  6. leadership skills
  7. high ethical standards and professionalism
  8. dynamism, agility, resilience, and flexibility
  9. the passion to be a lifelong learner

It is rather striking the entirety of the “traditional” engineering curriculum (math, science, and discipline-specific knowledge) is lumped into a single entry on this list!  Okay, so it’s number 1 on the list.  But still, it’s only one of many important entries.

In part 2 of this, I’m going to engage in some analysis of this information and frame it in the context of learning taxonomies.  Yes, sounds geeky.  But it’s a useful way to synthesize all this into a more concrete understanding.  Stay tuned.

How Children Succeed, or, Grit is the New IQ

February 21, 2013 Leave a comment

This post takes its title from Paul Tough’s excellent new book “How Children Succeed“, which draws its inspiration from the growing scholarship and research in non-cognitive attributes and their role in success and failure. Tough’s goal is to collect research that covers this from a wide range of angles, and substantiate his thesis that “grit, perseverance, and the hidden power of character” are crucial to childhood (and beyond) success in school and other endeavors.

My institution is what they call “highly selective”, meaning that the admission screening for applicants is quite serious, and every student entering the University has been academically and personally successful in the past.  We use what admissions people call a “holistic” process to review applicants, and I really do believe that the admissions folks read every word of every essay.  There can be no doubt that we get a tremendously strong set of students to join our community.  The question is what happens to them once they get here, and why?

I’ve done a little analysis of a recent first-year class;  this is data from one of the last few years.  Turns out that there is quite a lot of scatter in the data and that SAT is not an especially good predictor of first year GPA.  This is perhaps not surprising, since the complaints about the predictive power of the SAT seem pretty well established.


Does SAT Predict First Year Grades? The figure at left shows both a scatter plot of the data (n = 588) and a red line indicating the best fit linear model.  A change in SAT score of 10 points corresponds to a change in first year cumulative GPA of 0.02 point (95% CI: 0.016-0.023).  These results are statistically significant (p < .001). This means that the difference between a 1400 and a 1600 on the SAT corresponds to a GPA difference of about 0.4.  Non-trivial.  This data has a correlation coefficient of 0.42, however.   There is a lot of scatter in the data, the residuals are all over the place, and in general the data doesn’t seem to be very tidy.  Nonetheless, these observations are not out of line with this, or this, or the summary here.  There is a huge amount of “validity” literature about the SAT, so go have a look for yourself.  But the bottom line from this data is that SAT is a weak predictor of first year GPA.

fall_springDoes First Semester GPA Tell Us Anything About GPA in Later Semesters?  Things tighten up quite a bit when we look at how first semester GPA predicts second semester GPA.  The figure at right shows a scatter plot of the data (again, n = 588) and a best fit linear model illustrated as a red line.  A change in fall GPA of 0.1 points corresponds to a change in spring GPA of 0.086 points (95% CI: 0.079-0.093).  This result is statistically significant (p < 0.001).  The correlation coefficient is 0.70.  The fall-spring GPA relationship of nearly 1-to-1 is important and useful.  This fit is more robust, the data hug the linear model much more tightly, and in general the predictive power of the model is higher.

So, now back to the original question about why some kids succeed and why some do not.  By any measure, the students entering Uva are academically talented.  In fact, these data show:

  • our applicant pool is tremendously strong
  • GPA is not a great predictor of first year academic performance
  • our second semester is harder than our first (since the slope of the fall-spring GPA correlation line is less than 1)
  • most of our students do well the first year (mean GPA = 3.18, median GPA = 3.20)
  • only about 56 students ended the first year with a GPA below 2.5

My theory, based upon a huge volume of conversations with student about why they struggle, is based upon grit.  My sense is that students in the low-GPA crowd are intellectually talented and capable, but are not prepared for the adversity and challenges that they face in college.  Many of these students are unable to adjust their approach to learning to suit their new environment–whatever they have been doing to achieve academic success in high school and even before…well, they just keep doing it (even though it’s not working).  They don’t have the tools to adapt and adjust, to make the hard decisions about how to succeed, and most importantly to rebound from failure.

Grit is defined as perseverance toward a long-term goal.  It characterizes how we respond to failure, how we rise to meet a challenge, how we engage with our work.  Go ahead, get your grit score.  In Paul Tough’s work, grit is just one of a set of non-cognitive skills that plays a fundamental role in childhood and lifelong success.  And I am pretty well convinced that these sorts of traits are the ones that see a student with 1500 SAT score end his or her first year of college with a 2.2 GPA.  It’s not about intellect.  It’s not about IQ or SAT or AP exams or anything else.  It’s about preparation to meet a challenge, and preparation to grow as a person through experiences and–gulp, dare we say it?–failure.  It’s about openness to experiences and having a malleable mindset.

The challenge:  what is the right intervention in higher education to cultivate grit and other key non-cognitive skills in students who clearly have the intellectual capacity to succeed?

Skeuomorphs and Teaching

December 20, 2012 Leave a comment

Back in early 2010 (wow, three years ago already), I was giving a plenary talk at a conference for Virginia K-12 teachers at a teaching and technology conference.  There were about 400 people in the audience, and the basic gist of my talk was that technology continues to change every facet of life, and of course education should be no different.  And in particular, technology allows/encourages us to use specific conceptual metaphors to understand information.  Obviously, technology is not pedagogy, but at the same time technology-mediated pedagogies can be very powerful.  At one point, I showed a clip from a much longer interview with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.  Gates says something about how finally–finally!–we are at the point where technology can really do something for education.  After much optimism and many false starts, technology is now really a central part of new, emerging, powerful and effective pedagogies, and we have an “ecosystem” that supports this kind of work.

In the talk, I set up a great analogy between educational innovation, and the innovations of Apple’s iBooks platform (which had just been released when I gave this talk).  The idea was that Apple was about to do for books what it did for music:  radically change the way we conceive of the book, engage with the book, and think about the printed page.  So I went through a very over-hyped introduction (see Slide 14 of the talk), and the showed a picture of the Apple iBooks icon…which looks exactly like a bookshelf. In the talk, I made a sort of exasperated and exaggerated gasp of chagrin that Apple, for all its amazing innovation and sleek design thinking, couldn’t come up with something better than a bookshelf.  You can even see the grain of the wood.  Incidentally, if you are curious about the future of the book, my colleague Michael Suarez is as smart as anybody in thinking about this.

Alas, this bookshelf serves a purpose: it is a (digital) skeuomorph.  I was way ahead of the curve by talking about this in 2010.  Since then, and in particular the latter part of 2012, skeuomorphic design has been much talked about in design circles.  Why use skeuomorphs?  The main reason is familiarity.  When introducing new ideas or new technologies, we often need to anchor our understanding in comfortable conceptual metaphors;  this is why we use terms like computer “desktop”, or Microsoft Word “document”, or web “page”.  These things are not literally desktops or documents or pages, but that terminology immediately lets us know what functions those things serve.

Skeuomorphs serve a particular purpose that can be fruitfully considered in the diffusion of innovations framework championed by Rogers.  In brief, the diffusion of innovations notion of technology or idea adoption within a community depends upon five basic issues:

  • relative advantage:  compared to existing solutions, what relative advantage does this innovation provide?
  • compatibility:  how consistent is this innovation with the cultural norms and values existing in the community?
  • complexity:  what is the perceived difficulty in adopting and using the innovation?
  • trialability:  how easy is it for people to try out and experiment with this innovation?
  • observability:  how readily visible is the impact of this innovation?

Skeuomorphs, then, speak to compatibility, complexity, and trialability.  The iBooks icon clearly signals to prospective users that: (i) the “books” contained within are exactly consistent with your understanding of what books are (high compatibility), (ii) if you know how to use a bookshelf, then you know how to use iBooks (low complexity), and (iii) using these books is as easy as walking over to a bookshelf, selecting a book, and starting to read (high trialability).

How does all this relate to education?  We have learned through our HigherEd 2.0 project (the hard way, sometimes), that early adopters (say, the faculty deploying the innovations) have a larger appetite for technology innovations that non-early-adopters (say, students in the class).  We simply cannot make too large a leap at a time with educational innovations, especially when technology is involved.  With students, I believe the key is relative advantage and observability–students need to see clear and immediate evidence that the innovation supports their learning better than their previous approaches and strategies (relative advantage) and translates into higher achievement (i.e., higher grades) in the class (observability).  Instructors simply cannot go too far of the regular track here.  Instructors must build skeuomorphs into their teaching.  How do you do that?

  • use thoughtful pedagogy: integrate the educational innovation into the class in a direct and well-explained way
  • make it easy for students to do:  this relates to compatibility, complexity, and trialability and respects how students live and learn
  • model innovation usage: show students how to integrate innovative practices into their workflow by doing the same in class (and telling students what you are doing while you are doing it)
  • explain the scholarly basis behind the innovation:  this is in my mind the most important;  explaining to students what you are doing and why you are doing it (i.e., explaining your ideas about the relative advantage for them) goes a long way toward easing students’ concerns about adopting new approaches

Perhaps this is an emerging skeuomorphic pedagogy, necessitated by the rapid evolution of technology, but inhibited by the general, rather inertia-laden approaches to teaching in higher education.  Early adopters and educational innovators will do well to consider skeuomorphic cues in their teaching so that their innovations can be greeted acceptingly by students and colleagues alike.

On my bookshelf

September 18, 2012 Leave a comment

What I’m either reading now, or have recently read:

  • How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough.  A thought-provoking look at the critical factors that promote “success”.  Turns out it’s not as important to have a child who excels in math, or is doing algebra in first grade, or who is trilingual.  What matters most is what Tough and others call “grit”–that character trait that makes us resilient, committed, determined, and resolved.  Perhaps the anti-Tiger Mother?
  • The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman.  For a first novel, this is a great one.  It really spoke to me on a number of levels, but Rachman’s ability to sketch out the idiosyncrasies (and downright lunacy) of human relationships is spot-on.  These are all just people trying to make their way in the world, with ambition but no plan, the best way they know how.
  • The End of Men, by Hanna Rosin.  I have not yet started this one, but I am fully prepared to either love it or hate it–no middle ground.  The reviews have been mixed, some saying its thesis is unproven and stretched well beyond what the thin facts and anecdotes should allow (NYT).  Others see it as giving voice to the new reality of female power and influence (WSJ).  I’ll decide, but Rosin is whip-smart and certainly passionate about the subject.
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.  I’ve been working on this for what seems like forever, and I’m still only scratching the surface.  But it’s a terribly compelling story of science, race, dignity, and fairness.  Need to find time to really dig in to this one.
  • Crazy U, by Andrew Ferguson.  On the recommendation of a friend, I read this book about the college admission circus currently gripping the United States and much of the rest of the world.  Completely insane.  This book turns from belly-laughter about the more absurd elements of the process, to the uncomfortable chuckle that accompanies acknowledgement that this game–the one that everyone plays–must be played.  It is, seemingly, not optional.

If you glued Paul Tough and Andrew Ferguson together, what would you get?  The author of a book about how our educational system measures and rewards the wrong things, creates false and potentially harmful incentives for specific behaviors, and generally stresses out students and parents alike. Oh yeah, and it costs too much, and we spend our education money on the wrong things.  Deep and provocative.

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