Traits and management

K-12 education has been convulsed for years by the idea that good teaching is a trait, a tacit justification for all the versions of the loony idea that we can increase learning by just finding the ‘bad teachers’  and firing them. The latter scheme looks even better if “finding” employs a bureaucratic, mechanistic process of testing students (on things that can be measured “objectively”–bye-bye art, music, creativity, and courage). The alternative idea is that people with widely varying intrinsic qualities, or starting points, can all learn to be better teachers.  Both are obviously correct to some degree; at the time they get control of the chalk, some people have better “teacher traits” than others, and it must also be the case that practice, training,  and coaching can improve anyone’s performance at this job, like all others.  But the relative weight placed on trait and learning theories of effectiveness matters a lot.

Administrators and politicians love what I call immaculate corrections, schemes like student testing for teacher promotion, that excuse managers from all the heavy lifting of retail attention to what subordinates and customers are actually doing and why they do it.  If you can couple  impersonal performance assessment with a theory of motivation that puts greed (for a money raise) and fear (of dismissal) in play, and delegate the implementation labor to people who aren’t on your payroll and can’t defend themselves against having their time wasted (the students), it’s a hat trick.  The only defect of a scheme like this is that it doesn’t deliver much value in the classroom (or wherever), but that’s a feeble weapon with which to confront an internally consistent and theoretically beautiful construct that lets managers out of doing a lot of real work.

Alison Gopnik’s WSJ column has more on the costs of using the trait model, retailing this recent paper [paywall]: people in academics who believe traits count for a lot seem to (i) gather in particular disciplines (ii) have a lot of trouble engaging women and African-Americans as peers, presumably because they also wrap up familiar stereotypes about what kind of people are (intrinsically) smart. Gopnik:

Professors of philosophy, music, economics and math thought that “innate talent” was more important than did their peers in molecular biology, neuroscience and psychology. And they found this relationship: The more that people in a field believed success was due to intrinsic ability, the fewer women and African-Americans made it in that field.

This should be sort of a bombshell, but it’s been  a busy few weeks. We’ve known for a while that the student evaluations of teaching we use at Cal–to the near-exclusion of anything else–for promotion and tenure decisions don’t have much to do with student learning. Indeed, our administrative higher-ups are reflecting deeply on the fell implication that maybe we should (i) do more observation and coaching with an eye to actually improving teaching before review time, when it could actually be useful, and (ii) evaluate teaching for promotion in some way that actually indicates whether students are learning.  Of course, both of these involve actual work, while SETs produce numbers (which must be Data, right?) and don’t cost us (faculty) anything to obtain, so it’s a tough call.

This call has got a lot tougher with the appearance of the first study known to me [HT: Philip Stark] in which students could register their evaluations without knowing the actual sex of the instructor, using an on-line course in which the same teacher presented as a male and as a female, and hooboy:

Students in the two groups that perceived their assistant instructor to be male rated their instructor significantly higher than did the students in the two groups that perceived their assistant instructor to be female, regardless of the actual gender of the assistant instructor….For example, when the actual male and female instructors posted grades after two days as a male, this was considered by students to be a 4.35 out of 5 level of promptness, but when the same two instructors posted grades at the same time as a female, it was considered to be a 3.55 out of 5 level of promptness.

Hard to imagine anything more traity than sex, mmm. There’s more (a colleague reminded me of this about a minute after this post went up; click on the link at the top of the story) and stuff like this anyway needs to be considered against the background of the crap women put up with every day, at work, at school, and on the street.

So the same teaching practices will get a woman significantly lower student evaluation scores than a man.  Could this be true for minorities…how could it not?  I think this study–assuming of course that contrary findings don’t emerge from similar experiments–is a beacon to personal injury lawyers and every woman prof (at least; stay tuned for the experiment in which Phyleesha and Felice are the same person) henceforth denied a raise or tenure through a process in which student evaluations counted. Not to mention an ambitious federal prosecutor with a copy of Title IX in his pocket. Now we’re not just talking about leaving student learning on the table, but consent agreements and actual money: I wonder if this will be enough to make us stop delegating teaching assessment to unpaid, inexpert conscripts.  There’s lots of useful stuff to learn from student evaluations, but not for pay and hiring.

Quote of the day

The flame of conception seems to flare and go out, leaving man shaken, and at once happy and afraid. There’s plenty of precedent of course. Everyone knows about Newton’s apple. Charles Darwin said his Origin of Species flashed complete in one second, and he spent the rest of his life backing it up; and the theory of relativity occurred to Einstein in the time it takes to clap your hands. This is the greatest mystery of the human mind — the inductive leap. Everything falls into place, irrelevancies relate, dissonance becomes harmony, and nonsense wears a crown of meaning. But the clarifying leap springs from the rich soil of confusion, and the leaper is not unfamiliar with pain.

— John Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday

My dinner with Julian

A few weeks ago, I got to have dinner with Julian Bond.  We have a friend in common, who asked me to recommend a play for when “my friend Julian Bond” came to town. “Did you say ‘your friend Julian Bond?’” I squeaked into the phone; whereupon she invited my boyfriend and me to join her and her husband and Bond and his wife for dinner.

As I drove our star-struck way downtown, I listened to Michael read from Bond’s biography on Wikipedia, even as I pretended to ignore him: “Honey, they’re not going to give us a test!”  But after he rolled through the familiar list of credits–leader in the American civil rights movement, helped establish the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, twenty years in the Georgia legislature, University of Virginia history professor, past chair of the NAACP–Michael said, “Oh, listen to this.  His father got one of the first PhDs granted to an African-American by the University of Chicago.”

“Really,” I said.  “I wonder if he was a Rosenwald Fellow.”

You’ve probably never heard of the Rosenwald Fellowships, but you’ve undoubtedly heard of many of the Fellows: W.E.B. DuBois, Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Marian Anderson, Katherine Dunham, James Weldon Johnson, Ralph Ellison and nearly every other African-American artist and scholar active in  mid-Twentieth Century America.  The Rosenwald Fellowships, like the MacArthur genius grants which succeeded them, gave no-strings-attached cash to scholars and artists to continue their work; but unlike the MacArthur grants, the Rosenwalds went almost exclusively to African-Americans.

The fellowship program was part of Julius Rosenwald’s one-man campaign for racial justice, a campaign which led him to build the Rosenwald Apartments in Chicago and YMCAs in other Northern cities to provide housing for African-Americans moving up from the South.  It also led him to construct 5,000 schools for black children who were kept out of public classrooms occupied by white students.  The Rosenwald Schools provided primary education to one-third of the South’s African-American schoolchildren between World War I and Brown v. Board of Education.

So why haven’t you learned about any of this?  Because Julius Rosenwald, who made a fortune as the president of Sears, gave much of that fortune away during his lifetime and directed that the rest be spent within ten years of his death.  So his legacy isn’t a foundation with a big building giving out the occasional grant and the frequent press release; it’s the thousands of people educated and housed by his generosity.  But no good deed goes unpunished: for failing to make perpetuity his highest concern, Rosenwald has largely been forgotten.

Not by all of us, though.  I learned the story several years ago when the Spertus Museum in Chicago put on an exhibit of work by Rosenwald  Fellows.  One item in the exhibit was enough to persuade me of the Fellowships’ significance: a kinescope of Katherine Dunham performing new dances influenced by her Rosenwald-funded trip to the Caribbean.  As I watched the motions and the gestures, I recognized the origins of Alvin Ailey’s classic “Revelations.”  Ailey was Dunham’s student; and so, from Rosenwald to Dunham to Ailey, we have perhaps the premier work of American dance.

Thus, after a pleasant dinner in which we talked about theater and travel and the demographic transformation of Washington–Bond’s wife Pam said, “Yes, Julian calls our neighborhood Upper Caucasia”–I turned to him and said, “So, your father was a Rosenwald Fellow?”

He seemed equal parts surprised and gratified to encounter someone who knew about the Rosenwalds, and what an honor it was to receive one, and told the following story:

During a trip South in the mid-1930s to do research as part of his fellowship, Horace Mann Bond drove his car into a ditch.  Apparently a pair of rural African-Americans made their living digging holes in the road and then charging hapless motorists to tow their cars out of them.  While the two entrepreneurs were hooking up the tow truck, one of them observed Mr. Bond’s elegant city clothes and the new car he was driving, and asked how a black man came to have such luxuries.  Mr. Bond explained that he was a Rosenwald Fellow and that the fellowship had paid for the clothes and the car as well as the research he was about to do.  His interlocutor smiled: “You know Cap’n Julius?”  He hoisted the car back onto the road.  “No charge.”

Later, over coffee, Julian showed me an iPhone photo of himself seated next to an extremely elderly white lady who was holding his hand in both of hers.  “Do you know who this is?” he asked.  “In 1961 her book outsold the Bible!”  It was, of course, Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird; and on one of his recent trips South, Bond had gotten to meet her.  “I’m so excited, I’m stopping people on the street to say, ‘Look at this!  I had coffee with Harper Lee!’”

Which is, of course, just how I feel about my dinner with Julian.

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More classroom flipping: testing as learning

The “flipped classroom” pedagogical model is the hot ‘new’ idea in my industry. The idea is to move didactic delivery of knowledge (especially facts) out of the classroom to venues better suited to it, like the web and books, and use live meetings of students and prof for coached use of that knowledge in discussion, exercises, and the like. New, as in, “this is how art, mechanic arts, and sports have been taught for thousands of years”.   I have pretty much drunk this Kool-Aid, partly on the evidence that active learning is the universal practice everywhere the task is to acquire a skill, including very high-level skills. No-one begins teaching the piano with a reading assignment or a lecture.

Another way to “flip” the learning experience is to move testing from a big-deal end-of-the-course high-stakes assessment to frequent, low- or no-stakes events throughout the course. There’s a lot to like about this on its face, starting with the near-complete dissimilarity between what conventional exams measure and what education should be making people better at. I also dislike the infantilizing affective tone of exams that can be graded with an answer key: grownups who quiz each other as a social convention “Hey, guess what I read in the paper this morning.  No, really, guess!” don’t have a lot of friends.

It turns out that low- or no-stakes testing right after we get a dollop of knowledge helps us retain the knowledge, and better than restudying or reviewing the material.  This seems to be the key paper , and why haven’t I known about this for eight years?  Active learning of course has a lot of this built in: after you play a passage on the piano and get some coaching on what you did, you actively ‘recall’ what you learned by playing it again, or playing something else.  It seems that for enduring recall, the task of retrieving something from memory is as important to improve with practice as the act of committing to memory.

The effect size here is notable, and look at those error bars:


Remarkably, you don’t even have to actually ‘take the test’ in the sense of writing down your answers.  And it seems that learning your score on these tests doesn’t matter, never mind whether they ‘count for your grade’.

I think, on the strength of this research, I have to make space in every class session for quick testing , and figure out how to design such tests for the kind of material I teach. Students are mistaken about this stuff, and incorrectly predict that they will remember material better after a week when they study it repeatedly than when they study it once and are tested on it. (Of course, students are mistaken (or misinformed) about a lot of learning technique, like highlighting (lose it).) They will grouse, but at least I have some real research to reassure them with.