Learning

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.

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.

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. 

Problem teaching

by reestheskin on 25/09/2018

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“I have been seriously attempting to raise money to carry out this science education effort ever since the Nobel Prize (in 2001),” Wieman said. “While on sabbatical last year I prepared about 34 proposals for support directed to private individuals and foundations, mostly in Colorado, and to state and federal funding agencies,” he said. None of the proposals were awarded.

Carl Wieman.

MacIntyre’s lecture and Harré’s tutorial were doubly life-changing

by reestheskin on 07/08/2018

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The title above and quotes below are from this article by Lincoln Allison. To create teaching machines, you need to make teaching so bad that even the machines can do it. We are almost there.

The most particular annoyance for me was the doubling of seminar size from nine to 18 – allegedly to free up time for research. As if anyone is going to develop the capacity for original thought because they have two or three more hours available in the week! To some of my colleagues, this was merely a technical change, but to me it was the abolition of the real seminar, the thing we should have been most proud of in the English university system.

….

It was part of a general deprioritising of teaching. I remember a colleague looking at her extremely poor ratings on student “feedback” and remarking gaily: “I’m really not very good at this, am I?” She had just had a book published that was extremely well received, and she couldn’t care less that she was failing in her core duties to communicate her ideas within an academic community. Her remark stiffened my resolve to leave – especially once students picked up the vibe about the level of staff interest in teaching and became less challenging and more instrumental.

Much of what I have seen and heard of UK universities in the 14 years since I retired seems to relate to what I would consider proper university teaching about as much as “value” tinned food relates to fresh food. And I think that just as there are people who have never tasted fresh food, there are people who have not experienced real lectures and seminars.

Nature Cannot Be Fooled

by reestheskin on 19/07/2018

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Education is probably the field in which we deceive ourselves the most, because the damage only appears decades later. We pretend that all children learn at the same rate and in the same way. Every teacher and parent knows this to be untrue, and to deny it is folly. But deny it we do.

Jonathan Katz.

Exams and the internet

by reestheskin on 16/07/2018

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Algeria Shut Down the Internet to Prevent Students from Cheating on Exams

Via Bruce Schneier. The solution in New South Wales, Australia was to ban smartphones.

MOOCs revisited

by reestheskin on 09/07/2018

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One selling point of MOOCs (massive online open courses) has been that students can access courses from the world’s most famous universities. The assumption—especially in the marketing messages from major providers like Coursera and edX—is that the winners of traditional higher education will also end up the winners in the world of online courses.

But that isn’t always happening.

In fact, three of the 10 most popular courses on Coursera aren’t produced by a college or university at all, but by a company. That company—called Deeplearning.ai—is a unique provider of higher education. It is essentially built on the reputation of its founder, Andrew Ng, who teaches all five of the courses it offers so far. Link

The MOOC story is like so much of tech — or drug discovery for that matter. Finding a use for a drug invented for another reason often offers the biggest payback. This story has barely begun.

The case against education

by reestheskin on 27/06/2018

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This is a tweet from Dylan Wiliam — who knows more about education than…..well I am too polite to go there.

“goes straight to the top of my list of studies that I trust but wish were not true. I think it is the most important book on education I have ever read.”

He is referring to Bryan Caplan’s disturbing and excellent book. (The case against education). One comment of mine: not in all possible worlds.

The power of genetics

by reestheskin on 17/06/2018

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And no, I wouldn’t have thought the effect was measurable. Wrong again.

From the results presented here it is clear that there has been a slow but steady decline in the frequency of certain variants in the Icelandic gene pool that are associated with educational attainment. It is also clear that education attained does not explain all of the effect. Hence, it seems that the effect is caused by a certain capacity to acquire education that is not always realized.

Selection against variants in the genome associated with educational attainment. PNAS.

BMJ visual summaries and not being wrong

by reestheskin on 23/05/2018

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Maybe it is just me, but I find many of the graphics in the BMJ hard to follow. The image below is from a clinical update on “Depression and anxiety in patients with cancer” (BMJ 28 April 2018, p116-120). It occupies two whole pages. I am not certain what problem the graphic is trying to solve. For me, it just induces a sense of incomprehension. Or nausea.

In dermatology, there was a famous US academic known for producing slides with numerous arrows, many involving feedback. It was professional cargo-cult science (as the BMJ is cargo-cult education). Sam Shuster always cautioned: more than 3 or 4 arrows per slide, usually means bullshit.

That which is simple is wrong; that which is complicated is useless (Paul Valery).

Go where the messes are

by reestheskin on 13/04/2018

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(Isaiah)Berlin had learned that if you studied them with philosophical intent, certain second-rate minds grappling with first-rate problems could teach you more than first-rate minds lost in the shrubbery. (Another reason, perhaps, that he abandoned analytic philosophy.).

Mark Lilla in the NYRB

Which for some reason reminds me of a quote from the Economist:

Professors fixated on crawling alone the frontiers of knowledge with a magnifying glass.

Just one point in your life?

by reestheskin on 09/03/2018

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Training gets a bad rap for a reason – it’s all a bit, well, dull and inflexible. At one point in my life I point blank refused to be in a room with round tables, a flipchart, coloured pens and a bowl of mints for inspiration.

Donald Clark Link. And please no breakout sessions.

I have no idea how I do what I do (spoke the dermatologist)

by reestheskin on 21/02/2018

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This article (‘Humans may not always grasp why AIs act’) in the Economist gets to the right answer, but by way of a silly example involving brain scanning. The issue is that people are alarmed that that it may not be possible to understand how AI might come to a certain decision. The article rightly points out that we have the same problem with humans. This issue looms large in medicine where many clinicians believe they can always explain to students how they come to the correct answer. The following is one of my favourite Geoff Norman quotes:

Furthermore, diagnostic success may be a result of processes that can never be described by the clinician. If the right diagnosis arises from pattern recognition, clinicians are unlikely to be able to tell you why they thought the patient had gout, any more than we can say how we recognize that the person on the street corner is our son. Bowen claims that “strong diagnosticians can generally readily expand on their thinking”; I believe, instead, that strong diagnosticians can tell a credible story about how they might have been thinking, but no one, themselves included, can really be sure that it is an accurate depiction.

We are Strangers to Ourselves, as Timothy Wilson put it.

Flat out on the apprenticeships

by reestheskin on 20/02/2018

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The article is about Germany, but I just wonder how much the rite of passage of moving out of the family home is relevant.

Second, apprentices in less prestigious positions are paid very poorly, she said. A trainee hairdresser might receive just €350-€400 (£311-£356) a month, not enough to allow them to move out of their parents’ house, Professor Solga explained, and sectors with shortages such as hotel work or food processing often involve shift and evening work. “For young people, they are not the best working conditions,” she said. THE

“Debt douses every flame – it’s a great retardant.”

by reestheskin on 19/02/2018

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The result, he says, is not only a meek student population but also “the biggest Ponzi scheme in British history” – a comparison famously made by Theresa May’s former adviser Nick Timothy.

“The great thing about a Ponzi scheme”, Professor Sutherland continued, “is that you can keep expanding it.”

(All the way to jail, some might say).

John Sutherland (‘The war on the old’ and now the ‘War on the young’, quoted in the THE. Not so much kindling a flame, nor even filling the vessel, then.

MAD and Mutually assured instruction

by reestheskin on 12/02/2018

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Young people, both rich and poor, are ill-served by the arms race in academic qualifications, in which each must study longer because that is what all the rest are doing. It is time to disarm.

I guess we need a version of CND fit for out time. Economist.

Statistics

by reestheskin on 08/02/2018

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I love statistics, but I am just not very good at it, and find much of it extremely counter intuitive (which is why it is ‘fun’). The Monty Hall problem floored me, but then Paul Erdos got it wrong too (I am told), so I am in good — and numerate — company. During my intercalated degree in addition to a research methods tutorials (class size, n=2), we had one three hour stats practical each week (class size, n=10). We each used a Texas calculator, and working out a SD demanded concentration. Never mind, that during the rest of the week we were learning how to use FORTRAN and SPSS on a mainframe, ‘slowing’ down the process was useful.

Medicine has big problems with statistics although it is often not so much to do with ‘mathematical’ statistics but evidence in a broader sense. IMHO the biggest abusers are the epidemiologists and the EBM merchants with their clickbait NNT and the like. But I do think this whole field deserves much greater attention in undergraduate education, and cannot help but feel that you need much more small group teaching over a considerable period of time. Otherwise, it just degenerates into ‘What is this test for?’ exam fodder style of learning.

The problems we have within both medicine and medical research have been talked about for a long while. Perhaps things are improving, but it is only more recently that this topic has been acknowledged as a problem amongst practising scientists (rather than medics). This topic certainly resurfaces with increased frequency, and there have been letters on it in Nature recently. I like this one:

Too many practitioners who discuss the misuse of statistics in science propose technical remedies to a problem that is essentially social, cultural and ethical (see J. Leek et al. Nature 551, 557–559; 2017). In our view, technical fixes are doomed. As Steven Goodman writes in the article, there is nothing technically wrong with P values. But even when they are correct and appropriate, they can be misunderstood, misrepresented and misused — often in the haste to serve publication and career. P values should instead serve as a check on the quality of evidence.

I think you could argue with the final sentence of this (selected) quote, but they are right about the big picture: narrow technical solutions are not the problem here. Instead, we are looking at a predictable outcome of the corruption of what being a scientist means.

When lectures work

by reestheskin on 06/02/2018

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“What were your most memorable moments at university?”

 

“There was a man called Walter Ullmann who taught medieval critical philosophy at 10am – and there was standing room only. I went every week, regardless of how wasted I’d got the night before, because he was brilliant.” THE

Reminds me of people queueing to get into to listen to Isaiah Berlin. Some merit as a metric: standing room only. (Until H&S arrive)

PS. And,  for another example, see this from a recent book review of a biography of Enrico Fermi (The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age. By David Schwartz).

[the author]..He interviewed many of Fermi’s students and colleagues, shedding light also on Fermi the educator (his lectures were so renowned that even notes taken by his assistants were a bestseller).

TEF that!

Theatres of the mind

by reestheskin on 19/01/2018

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I am not a big fan of lectures. The single best piece of advice I received at medical school was not to attend. I therefore skipped lectures for three years (although I got the handouts). It is not that all lectures are bad, they are not. It is just that often they are used for ‘content delivery’, much as we think about delivery of a takeaway. They are ill suited to this role, now that we can write and distribute text cheaply. Good lectures serve a different purpose, but you don’t need too many of them and, in my experience of medicine, there are very few people who lecture well. Lecturing well means choosing those fragments of a domain that lend themselves to this media type. Lectures are (and should be) theatre, but the theatre of the mind needs more.

By chance, I came across the following thoughts from the preface to the Ascent of Man (the TV series and the book). Bronowski understood many things, and I still marvel at how prescient his ideas were.

If television is not used to make these thoughts concrete, it is wasted. The unravelling of ideas is, in any case, an intimate and personal endeavour, and here we come to the common ground between television and the printed book. Unlike a lecture or a cinema show, television is not directed to crowds. It is addressed to two or three people in a room, as a conversation face to face – a one-sided conversation for the most part, as the book is, but homely and Socratic nevertheless. To me, absorbed in the philosophic undercurrents of knowledge, this is the most attractive gift of television, by which it may yet become as persuasive an intellectual force as the book.

The printed book has one added freedom beyond this: it is not remorselessly bound to the forward direction of time, as any spoken discourse is. The reader can do what the viewer and the listener cannot, which is to pause and reflect, turn the pages back and the argument over, compare one fact with another and, in general, appreciate the detail of evidence without being distracted by it.

Then there was PowerPoint and lecture capture.

Off piste, no more; and wear a helmet.

by reestheskin on 12/01/2018

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The endless concern about stamps of approval and achievement distorts education and can even rob an interesting career of its joys. A professor friend introducing students at an East Coast college to Beethoven was greeted with a dead-eyed question from the back of the class: ‘Excuse me professor, will this be in the test?

FT

Textbooks and smartphones

by reestheskin on 11/01/2018

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A new copy of Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien’s widely used introductory economics textbook costs more than some smartphones. The phone can send you to any part of the web and holds access to the sum of human knowledge. The book is about 800 heavy pages of static text. Yet thousands of college students around the US are shelling out $250 for these books, each semester, wincing at the many hours ahead of trying to make sense of this attempt to distill the global economy into tiny widgets and graphs.

Link

Quote of the day

by reestheskin on 10/01/2018

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The easiest way to predict the future is to prevent it.

Original version is Alan Kay (the easiest way to predict the future is to invent it), and this permutation is his, too. As he says, very appropriate for education.

New playlist from Skincancer909 on YouTube

by reestheskin on 09/01/2018

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Real numbers from the opaque world of cookbook publishing

by reestheskin on 08/01/2018

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In my professional area of medical education there is clear market failure. Publishers are simply unable or choose not to, to develop what we need. And the institutions — universities — despite their origins have simply looked the other way, ignoring the needs (and wants) of their students. And do not get me started on “lecture recording”.

The quote below is a great article on some of the economics of book publishing: it is about a cookbook. And why not?

One of the most opaque industries around is publishing, not here online, but good old-fashioned print-books and their digital and audio spin-offs. Poke around and try to find some hard sales numbers and you’ll quickly find that it’s near impossible to do so. You can find bestseller lists from reputable sources like the NYTimes, Amazon and others but tying those rankings to an actual number of books sold at retail is simply not doable. Publishing costs, deals, and profit lines are even harder to shake loose.

“Why We Are Self Publishing the Aviary Cookbook – Lessons From the Alinea Book”. Real numbers from the opaque world of cookbook publishing. [Link]

And if you want insights into the research publishing business, here is a link to a great article that appeared in 2017 on this topic by Stephen Buranyi. Mind you, I almost have a sneaking admiration for some of the crooks: foxes in the henhouse.

Teaching led research, anybody?

by reestheskin on 03/01/2018

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There is something about teaching that makes you a better researcher. I know this is very countercultural wisdom, but I believed it all along. Luria, Magasanik, and Levinthal all believed it. Levinthal and Luria both had a very strong influence on me in this regard.

An (old) interview with David Botstein, in PloS genetics. Link

At least we are spared the ‘research led teaching’ mission statements.

Allan Holdsworth RIP 16/4/2017

by reestheskin on 31/12/2017

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Legato to kill for

I am a bad (awful) guitarist, but remain fascinated by guitars and the people who wield them. In recent years I have become ever more interested in the pedagogy of the guitar, and what insights it may throw on professional practice and education, and how people learn outwith the academies. And even if I would not have expressed it in these terms at that time, as a teenager the guitar was my intellectual bridge into understanding that there is as much — if not more—  discipline and rigour outside the academy than within it. (If you are interested in the ‘how’ of learning the guitar, check out Gary Marcus’ book).

With many great players, even if I cannot work out exactly how they do it, I have a good idea. You can spot the pentatonic or the classic major and minor scales easily enough: Clapton doesn’t play the same notes as Akkerman. But the first time I heard Allan Holdsworth (playing with Bill Bruford), I was confused. I couldn’t work out the scales and his phrasing was not like that of any guitarist I knew (nor was I any wiser, quite frankly, after seeing him on stage at Newcastle University,  on this tour I suspect).

Bjørn Schille, says it well below 

“As opposed to much of the music I spent time listening to and examining, his music left me with both chills and a feeling of total confusion. I had no idea what he was doing. Both his chord progressions and his phrases defied my sense of tonality and sounded like nothing I had ever heard. At the same time, it all sounded so perfectly unstrained and logical; like a beautiful language I had yet to understand. His choice of notes may have resembled jazz, but the character of the music had a much darker melancholy, as well as an absence of the swing rhythm that to me makes traditional jazz always a little too cheerful.”

(Bjørn Schille, Master Thesis in Musicology – February 2011 Institute of Musicology, University of Oslo [ you can hear the author here])

There was an obituary in the Guardian here, which contains a phrase from the Mahavishnu himself (worthy of Holdsworth’s tombstone, I think):

The guitarist John McLaughlin has wryly admitted he would have been happy to borrow just about anything his fellow Yorkshireman invented, if only he could have figured out how it was done.

There are some YouTube clips below. The sound is not too good, but they give a flavour of his genius. There is also a 12CD boxed set released shortly before he died [link here]. He would have hated the title.

Childhood lost?

by reestheskin on 06/11/2017

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Childhood, which is supposed to be the province of spontaneous play, has become highly administered, with parents and schools priming their human capital investments — children — for a merciless jobs market: “Between 1981 and 1997, elementary schoolers . . . recorded a whopping 146 per cent gain in time spent studying.”

FT link here

Rearranging the deckchairs

by reestheskin on 06/11/2017

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Woodrow Wilson once remarked that it is easier to change the location of a cemetery than it is to change a curriculum.

Via Jon Talbot, commenting on an article on the ?failures of online learning. I would only add the comment made by Henry Miller, in the context of medicine: curriculum reform, a disease of Deans.