Education control?

post by PhilGoetz · 2013-05-17T16:32:55.717Z · score: 12 (17 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 43 comments

I'm reading Nurture Shock by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman. Several things in the book, esp. the chapter on "Tools of the Mind", an intriguing education program, suggest that our education of young children not only isn't very good even when evaluated using tests that the curriculum was designed for, it's worse than just letting kids play. (My analogy and interpretation—don't blame this on the Tools people—is that conventional education may be like a Soviet five-year plan, trying to force children to acquire skills & knowledge that they would have been motivated to learn on their own if there weren't a school, and that early education shouldn't focus entirely on teaching specific facts, but also on teaching how to think, form abstractions, and control impulses.)

Say they're going to play fireman. The Tools teacher teaches the kids about what firemen do and what happens in a fire, and gives the kids different roles to play, then lets them play. They teach facts not because the facts are important, but to make the play session longer and more complicated.  Tools does well in increasing test scores, but even better at reducing disruptive behavior. [1]

Tools has a variety of computer games that are designed to get kids to exercise particular cognitive skills, like focusing on something while being aware of background events. But the games often sound like more-boring ways of teaching kids the same things that video-games teach them.

Tools did no better than the existing curriculum on certain metrics in a recent larger study. But it didn't perform worse, either.

The first study you do with any biological intervention is to compare the intervention to a control group that has no intervention. But in education, AFAIK no one has ever done this. Everyone uses the existing curriculum as the control.

Whatever country you're in, what metrics do you use, and what evidence do you have that your schools are better than nothing at all?

There may be some things that you need to sit kids down and force them to learn—say, arithmetic, math, and typing—but I kinda doubt it's more than 20% of the grade school curriculum. I spent a lot of time practicing penmanship, futilely trying to memorizing the capitals and chief exports of all fifty states, and studying the history of Thanksgiving and the American Revolution over and over again.[2] We could have a short-hours classroom hours control group, where kids spend a few hours a day learning those few facts they need to know, and the rest of the time playing.

ADDED: There is one kind of control--kids who've not gone to pre-school vs. kids who went to pre-school, or who went to Head Start.

 

[1] I fear somebody is going to complain that disruptive behavior is what we need to teach children so they can innovate and question authority. Open to discussion, but if it worked that way, we'd be overwhelmed with innovators and independent thinkers today.

[2] I actually learned the names of all the states from a song, and learned where they are from a jigsaw puzzle.

43 comments

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comment by DanArmak · 2013-05-17T20:15:27.700Z · score: 8 (12 votes) · LW · GW

I fear somebody is going to complain that disruptive behavior is what we need to teach children so they can innovate and question authority. Open to discussion, but if it worked that way, we'd be overwhelmed with innovators and independent thinkers today.

Uh... We are overwhelmed with innovators and thinkers. This is the most innovative age in technology, science and the arts in history!

I don't know if childhood "disruptive behavior" is correlated or anti-correlated or independent of innovation in adulthood. But your argument doesn't seem to work.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2013-05-24T16:32:34.441Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Email me and I can send you a draft of a rather long manuscript I'm writing, showing from many sources of data that this is the least-innovative age in technology, science, and the arts in at least the past hundred years (and IMHO probably back to at least 1600). 1970 to 2013 was 43 years. Then compare 1970 to 1927, or 1927 to 1884, or 1884 to 1841, or 1841 to 1798. If you think the difference from 1970 to 2013 was even half that of any of those time periods, you're ignorant of history. The stagnation is bad in technology; worse in basic research; almost a total standstill in the arts; and negative in median income.

comment by gwern · 2013-05-24T17:20:40.461Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I take it that you are looking at it from a per capita perspective? If so, I'd be interested to read it; my email's gwern@gwern.net.

comment by satt · 2013-05-29T01:45:43.503Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hmm, "innovation" is a sufficiently vague term that I'm wondering how one can support judgements like "If you think the difference [in innovation] from 1970 to 2013 was even half that of any of those time periods, you're ignorant of history." It's hard for me to think of a way to sensibly quantify innovation in STEM*, let alone the arts.

* For example, which was the bigger innovation, Ure's 1830 thermostat or Bardeen, Shockley & Brattain's 1947 transistor? And how ought I interpret multiple discoveries/inventions like the transistor (which was independently patented at least twice before Bardeen, Shockley & Brattain, but never put into production)?

comment by buybuydandavis · 2013-05-18T19:07:11.281Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

The main requirements at school are sitting still and being quiet. Perfect for a corpse, not so good for a child. In fact, rather like torture for a child with a natural impulse to move and explore. Pair the torture with enforced learning, and you can condition the desire to learn right out of him.

I've seen a couple of TED talks now where they make computers available to kids with no instruction at all, and they work and work at them until they figure them out, and keep learning the material supplied.

Give your kid a desk where he can stand or sit and work at a computer with Khan Academy, and he'll run circles around the kids crippled in the usual school environments.

I am so jealous of what's possible for kids today, and so happy for them. They're going to make it over the barbed wire and out of the prison camp. They're going to escape.

comment by Desrtopa · 2013-05-18T19:18:06.851Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Well, unfortunately, what's possible for kids today and what kids today are regularly exposed to are very different things.

comment by loup-vaillant · 2013-05-22T22:58:19.567Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

They're going to escape.

Education fighting an old existential risk: kids out of the box.

comment by Lumifer · 2013-05-17T19:37:58.036Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

what evidence do you have that your schools are better than nothing at all?

"Nothing at all" doesn't happen any more in the Western countries. Education is legally mandatory and if you don't go to a normal school you have to have some alternate acceptable form of education (e.g. homeschooling). The zero-intervention control group that you desire does not exist in real life.

In the third world you can find large enough groups of kids who don't go to any schools, but good luck trying to disentangle the effect of that from the general economic/status/IQ factors. Kids who don't go to school generally don't go because they can't and that makes for huge selection bias.

comment by DanArmak · 2013-05-17T20:12:48.454Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Education is legally mandatory and if you don't go to a normal school you have to have some alternate acceptable form of education (e.g. homeschooling).

Worse than that, homeschooling is almost entirely exclusive to the Anglosphere. It is illegal in almost all other countries.

comment by Petruchio · 2013-05-22T13:37:32.312Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That is very interesting. Why is that?

[Edit] A quick browse through the list, it seems that western europe has homeschooling with very strong restrictions, while Eastern european nations have it banned totally. Exceptions in eastern europe include Russia (post-1992) and Ukraine.

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-05-24T05:56:24.570Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That is very interesting. Why is that?

Well in Germany it was banned by the Nazis who wanted to make sure all kids were exposed to their propaganda, and the law in question has never been repealed.

comment by dhoe · 2013-05-24T12:34:23.698Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Are you sure? It seems like the Weimar constitution (article 145) introduced mandatory school attendance in 1919?

comment by Eugine_Nier · 2013-05-25T23:02:55.745Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That's not the same thing as banning homeschooling. For example, the US had mandatory schooling, but that requirement can be satisfied by homeschooling.

comment by dhoe · 2013-05-26T06:34:26.700Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

"Mandatory school attendance" in Germany means exactly that though. The legals concepts are Bildungspflicht or Unterrichtspflicht in Austria (mandatory education) which can be satisfied by homeschooling, while Schulpflicht (mandatory school attendance) prescribes visiting an actual school.

Where did you get that "Hitler did it" from?

comment by [deleted] · 2013-05-18T04:11:49.459Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

.

comment by Alsadius · 2013-05-19T02:30:46.118Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If you go to the wrong school, it's only pretending to get educated that's mandatory.

comment by wedrifid · 2013-05-19T15:06:39.974Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If you go to the wrong school, it's only pretending to get educated that's mandatory.

Even that pretence isn't always what is required. Merely attendance to the place where education is supposed to happen.

comment by Alsadius · 2013-05-19T17:23:16.659Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That seems like it's just a particularly threadbare form of pretending to me, but I suppose we're just quibbling now.

comment by latanius · 2013-05-18T16:53:08.471Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Possibly relevant: Sudbury schools, with the curriculum of "do whatever you want, as long as you're in school, surrounded by interesting stuff". Also, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn. It really seems that we are doing quite bad by default...

As it turns out, for example, kids are quite good at learning stuff from each other (including things like reading... "I can't always get the big kids to read me stories, so I'd better go and learn this <> thing from them"...)

Now, find a way to prevent that from happening. Sorting kids by age and separating the groups? Perfect.

comment by Baughn · 2013-05-18T23:08:04.621Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

Your second point is very important.

It's not just about lost opportunities to learn.. well, it mostly is, but consider socialisation. Kids are supposed to learn how to act in society from.. who, exactly? Obviously not the teachers, they aren't around enough of the time to do it, and socialisation isn't really in the curriculum anyway. So. Parents, typically, and hope you have good ones.

Historically, you'd learn from older siblings or friends, but families are smaller and age-sorting has almost entirely eliminated cross-age friendships. That's bad; eliminating that problem might be a good start towards fixing schools.

comment by MugaSofer · 2013-05-20T06:57:30.294Z · score: 4 (6 votes) · LW · GW

From my own experience of criticizing the school system in meatspace, people think you're supposed to be socialized by your classmates. This is often claimed as the "real" purpose of school, usually after you've demolished any claim that they, y'know, educate kids.

comment by bbleeker · 2013-05-20T11:02:09.986Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

IMO children being socialized by each other is one of the problems with schools. It's surprising most people turn out as well as they do...

comment by MugaSofer · 2013-05-20T21:12:56.739Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Apparently someone did an actual study to see if homeschooled kids were poorly socialized. They weren't.

I don't think they checked for antisocial behavior, just social skills and, I dunno, maybe friends? It's been a while since I saw it.

EDIT: Actually, I think there was a note about homeschoolers being less vulnerable to peer pressure, however they measured that.

comment by Petruchio · 2013-05-22T13:49:18.807Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

IIRC, when public education was first debated, the arguement was that it would create good citizens. Hence the focus of social studies and history.

And I concur, the main purpose for school seems put children into a society and let them develop from there. Not that it does its job particularly well, but there you go.

comment by Decius · 2013-05-22T05:05:23.820Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

age-sorting has almost entirely eliminated cross-age friendships. That's bad.

Nominated for largest understatement of the day.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2013-05-19T14:36:49.847Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

A little dubiousness about Sudbury-- basically a claim that the democracy aspect means that you need to be good at small group politics.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2013-05-17T21:02:32.602Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Everyone uses the existing curriculum as the control.

And there's nothing wrong with that - you need to compare two things, and it's very helpful to have a common point of comparison so everyone's control groups match up at least nominally. In this case, the common point is 'existing curriculum'.

comment by MugaSofer · 2013-05-20T09:04:43.625Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

The real trouble with calling the existing curriculum a "control" is that it encourages people to think of it as part of the background of life rather than a system that was built to serve a purpose, and using thougrilly non-empirical heuristics.

And, lo and behold, we find that an actual control may do as well or better than the "control".

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2013-05-20T14:27:50.078Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

But... doing the experiment in the first place is to test whether you ought to change that background. It's already an assumption of our society, and the people doing the experiments are already trying to do better.

comment by MugaSofer · 2013-05-20T21:07:38.966Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Except people don't do experiments to test the control. A control is what you call "not experimenting".

It's a framing thing.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2013-05-20T22:03:43.912Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

o.O

They're testing the new thing, whatever that is, with the idea that if it's better, we go out and do that instead. The test is in the comparison.

The very idea that they're testing this with the existing program as a control sounds like a criticism of the existing method, saying, "We can probably do better than this!"

Seriously - if you want to convince people to change the educational regime, you had better include the current educational regime as one your experimental groups (whether or not it's given the name 'control'). If you don't, the experiment will not directly address the question of whether whatever else you were trying was any better than what we've got now.

comment by MugaSofer · 2013-05-23T15:51:11.251Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think you're misreading my comments. I'm not complaining that someone finally tried checking if the current educational regime was better than no regime at all; I'm complaining that this wasn't the first thing they checked, like it is in every other field.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2013-05-23T18:00:30.302Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Just try getting that past an ERB. Holy crow.

comment by juliawise · 2013-05-18T01:20:12.819Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I read this recently, and my impression was that the key part was having kids plan (absorbing, playful) activity and then do it for a long time rather than switching around, so as to develop concentration/self-control/the prefrontal cortex.

I notice myself skipping around a lot, especially since getting a smartphone, and I've been trying to implement something similar for myself ("I will read this entire article without switching tabs").

Curriculum described at Tools of the Mind

comment by [deleted] · 2013-05-17T20:53:16.680Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I actually learned the names of all the states from a song and learned where they are from a jigsaw puzzle.

I had a state Jigsaw puzzle at one point and I distinctly remember the "Fifty Nifty United States Song." so I want to confirm that you are not the only one who has had these things happen.

comment by Alsadius · 2013-05-19T02:24:12.840Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I suspect a lot learned it from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNUDDaEOvuY as well.

comment by robotczar · 2013-05-19T01:02:06.221Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It is important to ask if an instructional intervention better than none at all, or more generally to ask if our formal education is better than no education at all. People just assume that what schools do is beneficial. We need evidence to determine if that is true for any educational intervention or system.

One truth is that formal education is intended to teach specific things that "society" or our culture want children to learn. If we don't direct learning, likely many fewer children would learn the intended information or skills. I make no assertion about whether students should be learning these things; but it seems some things like reading and multiplication are obviously good for most children to learn. Fewer students would learn these things is no formal education were required.

The popular assertion that we should teach young students "how to think" or "form abstractions" (which may be the same thing) makes the common mistake of assuming that such things can be learned via instruction (or any planned activity). Again, we need empirical evidence that thinking can be taught . We also have Piaget and others suggesting that younger students do not have sufficient cognitive development to learn abstractions or other specific cognitive abilities. Lastly, we know that higher order learning in any domain requires a good deal of lower level knowledge (e.g., facts) be acquired before higher order learning can occur.

comment by ChristianKl · 2013-05-29T08:44:04.978Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

it seems some things like reading and multiplication are obviously good for most children to learn. Fewer students would learn these things is no formal education were required.

How do you know? Especially how do you know that every child benefits from being forced to learn those skills at the same age?

Both of those skills are also easily taught by computer games. Even a game like World of Warcraft that isn't designed to teach them does probably a good job at teaching them.

comment by Petruchio · 2013-05-17T17:15:22.740Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What do you mean by "un-googlable education program"?

comment by tgb · 2013-05-18T00:36:15.812Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I interestingly misinterpreted this to mean that it was an education program that taught only what could not be trivially Googled. This struck me as a plausible first pass for what should be left untaught.

comment by PhilGoetz · 2013-05-17T17:38:08.700Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If all you know is that it's an early-learning education program called TOOLS, you can't google it, unless you know a way to make google case-sensitive. There are many educational tools. (And I don't even know if it's capitalized. I'm listening to the book on audio.)

comment by OrphanWilde · 2013-05-17T17:20:56.816Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think he means that it's nearly impossible to find information about it online, either because it's hardly heard of, or the fact that the name makes it very difficult to isolate, or some combination of the two.

(If it's the same as "Systems and Tools Educational Model", it should be fairly easy to find. If it isn't, I guess that's proof in favor of the author's assertion there.)

comment by PhilGoetz · 2013-05-17T17:41:48.775Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

No, turns out it's "Tools of the Mind". A problem with audiobooks is I can't go back and check anything easily when writing about them.