What is thing we call education?

by reestheskin on 15/11/2018

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There is one of those beautifully written pieces on Medium, written by the ex-editor of Nature, Philip Ball [link]. It speaks of something particular, and also in the round.

My handwriting has been terrible as long as I can remember. I have tried on various occasions to improve it, but these attempts seldom last as long as the end of the day. In truth, it is not just others who find my writing hard to decipher — after a few minutes I seldom can make much sense of it. And much as though I would like to blame being a doctor for my troubles, I suspect this is just wishful thinking.

Ball’s article is about the fixation on cursive versus, rather than manuscript writing. He writes:

Something like modern cursive emerged from Renaissance Italy, perhaps partly because lifting a delicate quill off and on the paper was apt to damage it and spatter ink. By the 19th century cursive handwriting was considered a mark of good education and character.

I just smile when I read titbits like this. One of those fascinating explanations for something I had never considered or thought about. He argues that the usual arguments for cursive writing — that it is faster, or that it helps with spelling, or that it is useful for those with dyslexia are not well founded. So why does it persist?

He fixes (rightly) on the strange set of beliefs that constitute considered thought in education. You know, the sorts of things that are not far away from the “ I went to school, so I understand education” trope. (The medicine version is of course: ‘I know how to treat people, so I know how to teach other people to treat people’).

He writes:

It suggests that what teachers “know” about how children learn is sometimes more a product of the culture in which they’re immersed than a result of research and data. It seems unlikely, in this regard, that teaching cursive is unique in educational practice. Which forces us to wonder: What happened to evidence?

And then:

This must surely lead us to wonder how much else in education is determined by a belief in what is “right,” unsupported by evidence. Education and learning are difficult to pin down by research. Teaching practices vary, it’s often impossible to identify control groups, and socioeconomic factors play a role. But it’s often the case that the very lack of hard, objective evidence about an issue, especially in the social sciences, encourages a reliance on dogma instead. The danger is greater in education, which, like any issue connected to child rearing and development, is prone to emotive views.

This all bothers me. Not that I think he is wrong, but rather, I find it hard to conceptualise what character of enquiry is both robust and useful in this domain. One look at medical education, and you realise, we are nowhere close to being there.

Time and lives have gone by

by reestheskin on 13/11/2018

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Over 40 years ago, I remember lectures on basic demography, and what changes to the  population  mix of the UK were likely. The late John Grimley Evans was one lecturer, but others went over cognate themes including Klaus Bergmann who pointed out the relevance of increased mobility when considering family and / or social support. ‘Were we prepared to adopt each other people’s grannies?’, stuck in my mind. If you look at the family structures in some working class areas (think parts of Newcastle), and how they have changed, it was obvious what might happen. The sociologist Peter Townsend published studies based in London, highlighting the depth of community support that once existed.

Which is why I get so cross when you come across this as a new problem, as though all these baby boomers (like me) were born yesterday. As though we didn’t know; as though nothing could have been done to prepare for such a change. Remember too, when to study dementia or stroke, or seek funds for such topics was……well futile.

The following is from an article  in the FT (How Britain can heal its ailing social care system | Financial Times). Once again the dismal leadership of the UK compares unfavourably with that of some other European countries

The pressure on staff is becoming unbearable. Good social care is about creating relationships. Staff who work for domiciliary care operations like those run by Allied Healthcare must walk into the home of a stranger, reassure them, figure out what is needed, and build trust. That takes maturity, emotional resilience and time. Yet, all too often, the reality is rushed visits from a plethora of different faces.

A few years ago, I met an 89-year-old man who had made a note of every carer who had crossed his threshold in the past year — Meals on Wheels, district nurse, domiciliary care staff. He showed me the list. There were 102 names on it. Some had only come once, then vanished — probably into better paying jobs at a supermarket. That is the stark reality of how little we value our elderly.

For-profit means, for-profit

by reestheskin on 12/11/2018

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A tidy phrase from Stephen Downes in a comment on corporate cash and universities:

There’s nothing especially new here, though it is helpful to remember that when for-profit corporations donate money, it is with a for-profit objective.

[Link]

Never knowingly relevant

by reestheskin on 11/11/2018

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A few words from Melvyn Bragg about his radio programme ‘In our time’

He insisted that the programme should be “never knowingly relevant” and jumped wildly from the gin craze of the 18th century to the Palaeocene-Eocene thermal maximum. He expected to be out of a job in six months

The Economist | Sweetness and light

In times like ours, not a bad motto to live by.

Universities ‘must read applicants’ work

by reestheskin on 08/11/2018

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Leading universities should pledge to actually read the work of applicants for research positions rather than use controversial metrics during the selection process, a Nobel prizewinner has argued.

No, not a spoof, but words from Harold Varmus. Sydney Brenner, a good while back, observed that people tended not to read papers anymore, they just xeroxed them.

Modesty

by reestheskin on 05/11/2018

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Modesty seems to be under negative selection — among modern scientists, at least. So I warmed to this comment on a report of some recent work on the genetics of Africa and hunter-gatherers.

Rare genetic sequences illuminate early humans’ history in Africa

Deepti Gurdasani, a genetic epidemiologist at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Hinxton, UK. But it’s plausible, she adds. “There is literally nothing in Africa that is not possible since we have no idea what humans were doing on the continent 5,000 years ago.”

On observing those not so ‘minute particulars’

by reestheskin on 01/11/2018

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This is from an article in Nature.

Under pressure to turn out productive lab members quickly, many PhD programmes in the biomedical sciences have shortened their courses, squeezing out opportunities for putting research into its wider context. Consequently, most PhD curricula are unlikely to nurture the big thinkers and creative problem-solvers that society needs.

That means students are taught every detail of a microbe’s life cycle but little about the life scientific. They need to be taught to recognize how errors can occur. Trainees should evaluate case studies derived from flawed real research, or use interdisciplinary detective games to find logical fallacies in the literature. Above all, students must be shown the scientific process as it is — with its limitations and potential pitfalls as well as its fun side, such as serendipitous discoveries and hilarious blunders.

And from a letter in response

My father designed stellar-inertial guidance systems for reconnaissance aircraft and, after he retired, would often present his work to physics and engineering students. When they asked him what they should study to prepare for such a career, he would reply: “Read the classics,” by which he meant Aristotle, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Blaise Pascal.

The best scientific and technical progress does not come out of a box. It is more likely to emerge from trying to fit wild, woolly and tangential ideas into useful societal and economic contexts.

As the historian Norman Davies once said:

“Since no one is judged competent to offer an opinion beyond their own particular mineshaft, beasts of prey have been left to prowl across the prairie unchecked.”

Or as the Economist once put it”

“…professors fixated on crawling alone the frontiers of knowledge with a magnifying glass.”

This is the tragedy of our age: 90% right and 100% wrong. And that is even before we get to  medicine.

Money matters

by reestheskin on 31/10/2018

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This article and data on funding streams in higher ed is well worth exploring. It adds a necessary counterpoint to any consideration of what has happened to HE in the UK over recent decades. And, I see the time span maps closely to my own career as a Professor. I still struggle with the ‘why’ question. Some of the graphs are scary.

Wonga: not dead yet

by reestheskin on 30/10/2018

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This is a THE quote referring to the late Sir David Watson. [Link]

In England, he said, undergraduates had been reduced to “state-sponsored Wonga-style customers”; you can see what I mean about that turn of phrase.

I can indeed. And I claim to have come up with  similar terminology independently.

Exodus

by reestheskin on 25/10/2018

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I do not have a coherent overview of many of the traditional professions, but I wonder if people will soon say similar things about doctors.[Link]

“The big issue that concerns me at the moment in the English education system is the supply of high-quality teachers. We’ve seen quality issues in recruitment to teaching and our schools are getting increasingly desperate to find decent teachers. The whole workload issue has come to a big head again in England with teachers having very big workloads and their conditions of service is deteriorating a lot recently. We’re seeing a big exodus in teaching and so of course, we need a bigger inflow to maintain the balance.”

Michael Day.

Dylan Wiliam talking sense again

by reestheskin on 24/10/2018

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Wiliam is talking about schooling, but it is also true of medical education.[Link]. 

“For me, I think the issue in the United States in particular is how we improve education at scale. I argue there are two things that have particularly powerful impact. One is a knowledge-based curriculum, recognizing that the purpose of curriculum is to build long-term memory into our students and what distinguishes novices from experts is knowledge not skills. And the second one is creating a culture where every teacher accepts the need to improve, not because they’re not good enough, but because they can be even better.”

I am pleased with the  comment about long-term memory: intellect’s ballast. Knowing things matters. 

“They have mobile phones, social media, but no proper toilets and clean water.” Link.

KISS: derm immunology

by reestheskin on 22/10/2018

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This was the ‘final’ video in the edderm101:core concepts video series (link to series).

 

Skin immunology (KISS!) from jonathan rees on Vimeo.

Norman’s Law of eLearning Tool Convergence

by reestheskin on 22/10/2018

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Maybe more of a theory than a law, but still:

Any eLearning tool, no matter how openly designed, will eventually become indistinguishable from a Learning Management System once a threshold of supported use-cases has been reached.

They start out small and open. Then, as more people adopt them and the tool is extended to meet the additional requirements of the growing community of users, eventually things like access management and digital rights start getting integrated. Boil the frog. Boom. LMS.

Norman’s Law of eLearning Tool Convergence – D’Arcy Norman dot net

Predictive analytics in medicine: its all over now baby blue

by reestheskin on 19/10/2018

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Big Data and Predictive Analytics: Recalibrating Expectations | Clinical Decision Support | JAMA | JAMA Network

Yet despite these innovations and those to come, quantitative risk prediction in medicine has been available for several decades, based on more classical statistical learning from more structured data sources. Despite reports that risk models outperform physicians in prognostic accuracy, application in actual clinical practice remains limited.

It seems unlikely that incremental improvements in discriminative performance of the kind typically demonstrated in machine learning research will ultimately drive a major shift in clinical care. In this Viewpoint, we describe 4 major barriers to useful risk prediction that may not be easily overcome by new methods in machine learning and, in some instances, may be more difficult to overcome in the era of big data.

The hype cycle marches on.

Rebel’s lament

by reestheskin on 17/10/2018

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To punish me for my contempt of authority, Fate has made me an authority myself.

This is a validated Einstein quote (many claims of what he did say, appear mistaken).

Einstein quotes

The 9 Cognitive Distortions Taught in College…

by reestheskin on 17/10/2018

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The 9 Cognitive Distortions Taught in College… – The Polymath Project – Medium

In each case, university customers are increasingly paying for management of feelings, rather than access to knowledge. It is as if universities have discovered what Pepsi figured out in the 1950’s, Your Customers Want Your Therapy, Not Your Product.

Inverse mentors and inverse role models

by reestheskin on 16/10/2018

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I do not like the term mentor. It is a perfectly fine word, it is just that I have a suspicion of the people who tend to use it. I prefer to think about people I would like to be like; or not. And think about how some people can help me; or hinder me. But the following exchange between Nassim Taleb and Tyler Cowen is fine.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb on Self-Education and Doing the Math (Ep. 41 – Live at Mercatus)

TALEB: I don’t know, but I know how to find inverse mentors.

COWEN: How do you do that?

TALEB: People — you know they’re doing something wrong, and you figure out what makes them do something wrong. There’s a fellow I worked with, and I knew that he was a complete failure but a nice person. When he would do something wrong, he was always caught into details. I realized that there’s only one set of details. You cannot get into more than one set of detail. So that’s one thing I learned.

Also, I find inverse role models, people you don’t want to be like when you grow up.You pick someone and you go with it. You have an instinct to know what you don’t want to look like. Look at what they’ve done, what they do, and then you counter-imitate. You do a reverse imitation, and it works.

It’s a forever escalator down to pain

by reestheskin on 15/10/2018

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Is College Worth the Expense?

Yes, it is the US of A.

What we’re seeing with the highest [student] debtors is unbelievable,” says Darryl Dahlheimer, program director for financial counseling at the nonprofit Lutheran Social Service. “It’s a lifelong maiming of their finances.” One in three holders of student debt today is 90 days late or more on their payments. “Once you default, it’s a matter of cascading penalties,” he says. “It’s a forever escalator down to pain.”

Let them eat chocolate cookies

by reestheskin on 14/10/2018

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OBJECTIVES

“Results from end‐of‐course student evaluations of teaching (SETs) are taken seriously by faculties and form part of a decision base for the recruitment of academic staff, the distribution of funds and changes to curricula. However, there is some doubt as to whether these evaluation instruments accurately measure the quality of course content, teaching and knowledge transfer. We investigated whether the provision of chocolate cookies as a content‐unrelated intervention influences SET results.

…….

CONCLUSION: The provision of chocolate cookies had a significant effect on course evaluation. These findings question the validity of SETs and their use in making widespread decisions within a faculty.

Link

On having a Welsh Temperament

by reestheskin on 13/10/2018

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Some tidy words from a Master

Anthony Hopkins: ‘Most of this is nonsense, most of this is a lie’ | Film | The Guardian

When I was at the National all those years ago, I knew I had something in me,” he says, “but I didn’t have the discipline. I had a Welsh temperament and didn’t have that ‘fitting in’ mechanism. Derek Jacobi, who is wonderful, had it, but I didn’t. I would fight, I would rebel. I thought, ‘Well, I don’t belong here.’ And for almost 50 years afterwards, I felt that edge of, ‘I don’t belong anywhere, I’m a loner.’ I don’t have any friends who are actors at all

On the ability to read — and avoiding meetings

by reestheskin on 12/10/2018

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This is from a transcription of a podcast from the Mercatus centre and Tyler Cowen. It is an interview with Charles C Mann.

COWEN: Your works are, in scholarly circles, very highly respected. Hardly anyone, if anyone, knows more about the history of the New World than you do, as illustrated in your books, 1491 and 1493. The breadth and also depth of your knowledge of the environment and history of environmental movements in your new book, The Wizard and the Prophet, again seems virtually without parallel. So I would ask, what is the Charles C. Mann production function? How do you get this stuff done? What is it you know about being productive in your path? I’m not saying you would tell other people to do exactly what you did, but what’s your insight into how you’ve become Charles C. Mann? What’s your production function? What’s the secret?

MANN: [laughs] Well, I don’t go to meetings. And unfortunately, academia is replete with meetings. One of the reasons for living in Amherst is that they don’t request me to come and talk to people. So there’s a huge amount of the overhead of, say, an academic job, that I’m very lucky not to have to do.

The other thing is that, because I live near a university, I’m able to use the University of Massachusetts Library. And there’s a bunch of colleges and universities around here, good libraries, a wonderful thing, and they’re kind enough to let me use it even though I’m like a parasite.

The second thing is the wonderful tradition of scholars in which, if somebody with a plausible interest in what they’re doing calls them up or writes to them, nine times out of ten, they’re very happy to talk to you about what they’re interested in. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to this tradition. People will talk to me for hours; it gains them nothing. I try to make it pleasant for them, but frankly, it’s sort of nuts, but they’re willing to do this.

Then the third thing is that I am able to sit down and read a lot of stuff, and my secret weapon is that I can read.

The business of academic publishing: “a catastrophe”

by reestheskin on 11/10/2018

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The business of academic publishing: “a catastrophe” – The Lancet

How is it that publishers can continue to make profits of 30–40%? How can Elsevier get away with charging, as described in the film, $10,702 for an annual subscription to Biomaterials? It’s partly that if you are a major research university you need access to all journals not just some of them, says Richard Price of Academia.edu, a platform for academics to share research papers. It’s a question of moral hazard, explains Stuart Shieber, a Harvard professor of computer science: the consumers of the research, the academics, are not the people who have to pay. It’s the libraries who pay, and the academics remain insensitive to price…..

In addition, publishers sell bundles of journals. It’s like cable television, you get a few things you do want along with a lot you don’t, explains one librarian. But unlike cable television you don’t know what others are paying—because publishers do secret deals with libraries.

Yes. But it speaks volumes about universities, too.

Economics Nobel: Paul Romer and William Nordhaus

by reestheskin on 10/10/2018

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Paul Romer and William Nordhaus, were awarded this year’s ‘Nobel’ for economics. I first came across Romer in the David Marsh book, Knowledge and the Wealth of Nations. Since then I have read quite a bit of Romer’s more public work. Nordhaus pens great articles for the New Your Review of Books, too.

The FT writes of Romer:

One of his first big contributions was to show that “ideas” were the missing ingredient of economic growth, contributing as much as the traditional inputs of labour, skills and physical capital — and that this could help explain the big variation in growth and living standards between otherwise similar countries.

He went on to show that rules, or policy interventions — around patent law, competition law or subsidies for research and development — are vital to encourage actors in a market economy to produce the ideas needed to drive long-run growth.

The second paragraph is something I failed to fully appreciate before middle age.

But Romer has also said some very sensible things in this context about higher education (as readers of my web pages will know).

“In the old model, a teacher had to be so engaging that he inspired students to put in the effort that is necessary for learning,” Romer explains. “The problem is that that is not a scalable model [emphasis mine]. There simply aren’t enough inspiring teachers and inspirable students.”

“What we have right now is a reputational model for universities rather than an outcome model,” Romer says. “The presidents at the elite institutions know that if the competition were to be based on some credible measure of output or value added, they would lose.”

For me the key issue here is ‘scalability’ (first para). I wrote at that time:”Romer’s solution, a company he founded called Aplia is, I think, the direction we should be going in.”

I think there is a lot more that needs to be said about this. We are living though a world of massive expansion in higher education, driven by institutions that have failed to get to grips with the fundamentals that underpin their own value proposition.

Now I never knew that

by reestheskin on 10/10/2018

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In 1903, Elizabeth Magie patented the Landlord’s Game, a property-based board game created with two sets of rules: a monopolist set in which the winner took all and an antimonopolist set in which all wealth was shared across society. It is revealing that only the former set of rules took off, giving birth to the bestselling game Monopoly. Radical Markets sketches a vision of how society might look if it adopted Magie’s second set of rules. Unlike playing with Monopoly money, the stakes in this societal game could scarcely be higher, and the importance of this book could scarcely be greater.”–Andrew G. Haldane, chief economist, Bank of England

Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society: Amazon.co.uk: Eric A. Posner, E. Glen Weyl: 9780691177502: Books

Humankind and mediocrity

by reestheskin on 09/10/2018

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Premature optimization, noted Donald Knuth, is the root of all evil. Mediocrity, you might say, is resistance to optimization under conditions where optimization is always premature. And what might such conditions be?

Survival of the Mediocre Mediocre

I think this speaks to the value of conscious thought over reflex.

Publishers and universities.

by reestheskin on 07/10/2018

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It is easy to make facile comparisons between universities,  publishing, and the internet. But it is useful to explore the differences and similarities, even down to the mundane production of ‘content’.

This is from Frederic Filloux form the ever wonderful Monday Note

Dear Publishers, if you want my subscription dollars (or euros), here is what I expect…

The biggest mistake of news publishers is their belief that the presumed uniqueness of their content is sufficient to warrant a lifetime of customer loyalty.

The cost of news production is a justification for the price of the service; in-depth, value-added journalism is hugely expensive. I’m currently reading Bad Blood, John Carreyrou’s book about the Theranos scandal (also see Jean-Louis last week’s column about it). This investigation cost the Wall Street Journal well over a million dollars. Another example is The New York Times, which spends about $200 m a year for its newsroom. The cost structure of news operations is the may reason why tech giants will never invest in this business: the economics of producing quality journalism are incompatible with the quantitative approach used in tech which relies Key Performance Indicators or Objectives and Key Results. (

In France, marketers from the French paid-TV network Canal+ prided themselves of their subscription management: “Even death isn’t sufficient to cancel a subscription,” as one of them told me once.

Millennials

by reestheskin on 06/10/2018

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As the joke goes, everyone hates millennials until they need to convert a PDF document into Word.

Edward Luce.

Politics as a dominant negative mutation.

by reestheskin on 05/10/2018

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If Scotland offers a lesson in how to shift the behaviour of a higher education system at speed without resorting to bribes, it is that keeping institutions in a state of anxiety about their financial future and in competition for political favour can be very effective. There are also echoes of 2013, when student grants were cut while spending on tuition fees was protected. Now, the evidence points to disadvantaged young people outside SIMD1 areas being squeezed most, even while the SIMD1 figures are being successfully driven upwards. Yet again in Scottish HE, the rhetorical investment in free tuition is casting its long shadow, and being in or out of the political spotlight makes all the difference.

WONKE

Theory follows practice

by reestheskin on 04/10/2018

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When working in Africa in the 1980s with my good friend Victor Pretorius, I heard a legend about an important tribe in Central Africa, the Masai. The legend claimed that a genius member of the tribe in the nineteenth century or earlier had the idea that cow’s urine was the safest fluid for washing cooking utensils. Compared with the previous practice of using far from clean river water, it avoided the dangers of dysentery and probably saved many lives. This simple and effective public heath practice was cast out by medical missionaries who had quite different ideas, more religious than medical, about what was clean and what was dirty. Neither the original genius, nor the missionaries, knew anything about the epidemiology of water-borne disease. Whether or not there is any substance to this legend, it has stayed in my mind as a metaphor appropriate for many of our problems today. Inventions such as Newcomen’s steam engine, Faraday’s electrical machines, and the idea that fresh urine is a sterile fluid, all came long before their scientific understanding.

James Lovelock, A Rough Ride to the Future. This is like so much of real discovery in clinical medicine, although the academy gets to write the history of how it is supposed to work.