Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Dark Enlightenment and Duck Dynasty

The Dark Enlightenment has been discovered. Eeeek.

I’ve written about my adoption by the Network and have nothing to change–it’s not something I consider myself part of, per se, but they apparently find my writing helpful. I’m fine with that. I would refer Jamie Bartlett to the above image to reinforce what seems to me to be obvious: the “dark enlightenment” is not characterized by political objectives and has very little unity of purpose.

hbd chick wrote a detailed response to the Jamie Bartlett column which, to the extent I understand it, I agree with. But I would refer someone trying to figure this thing out to read the comments, particularly this one by T. Greer:

The many voices in the ‘dark enlightenment’ do not harmonize. They don’t share the same ideals, aims, or even impulses. They defined by a shared enemy; were this enemy to disappear then so would all talk of a cohesive ‘dark enlightenment.’

The major strand that unites the entire community is a willingness to frankly state opinions polite society does not accept (but in many cases once did) and listen to others do the same.

That is, as I say in response, the defining element of the Dark Enlightenment is not political, philosophical, or cultural views, but a shared loathing of “The Cathedral”. Unfortunately, I can’t find one clear definition of the Cathedral that doesn’t involve reading all of Mencius Moldebug, who I don’t really understand and makes me feel Hemingway brusque. I use the term Voldemort View to characterize the most likely reason for the achievement gap; the Cathedral can be thought of as the Canon of Modern Anathema, the official dogma of views that must not be spoken. Some of the views are actual truths, others are opinions. But if they are uttered, the speaker must be cast out into the darkness and, more importantly, economically ruined.

I can think of no common objective the nodes in that diagram share, but we all hate and despise the Cathedral. Our touchstones are not racial purity, male dominance or a derailing of democracy (all objectives I unreservedly oppose) but the expulsion of James Watson, Jason Richwine, and John Derbyshire—whether we agree with them or not. I almost never hate people. But I hate the Cathedral. Probably in part because I trusted it a couple decades ago, and there’s nothing like a reformed ex-smoker. Screw you if you want me to righteously disassociate. Take my ideas on their own merit or don’t, never assume I agree with any idea unless I say so. But if you’re the sort who demands indignant condemnation, it will be my considerable pleasure to deprive you of that satisfaction. In short–but why be short when English has so many words?—I will not disavow on principle.

I suggest that if the “dark enlightenment” is spreading, it does so not because of any distaste for democracy, much less some weird white guy radicalization, but because the general public is slowly becoming deeply tired of the elites getting exercised about exorcising yet another heretic.

And so to Duck Dynasty, a show I vaguely knew of before the fuss. Phil Robertson opines, identity groups cluck, and all the pundits write cynically about the outrage, secure in the knowledge that the machine will roll over and crush Robertson. But then, glory be, the Robertson clan doesn’t just refuse to back down, it refuses to apologize, and for once, the cultural segmentation of American society turns out to be a net positive. Christians everywhere have time to make their displeasure known, and A&E realizes that the money move lies in keeping Phil, leaving GLAAD out in the cold. Truly a great day. And if you can’t understand why an agnostic with no interest in denying the reality of pre-civil rights America would celebrate that outcome, you don’t understand how much I hate the Cathedral.

Patton Oswalt quoted Steve Sailer’s pithy statement “Political correctness is a war on noticing”. A few of his followers disapproved. The resulting twitter fest is very funny, as a couple of Oswalt’s followers try to alert him to the evils of Sailer, and Oswalt remains blithely unconcerned. Money quote, from Oswalt: “I’ve never been scared of ideas. I can hear all kinds & still keep my feet. Think I’ll call this stance ‘diversity'”.

But then you’ve got the earnest, well-meaning Michael Pershan, one of the only actual math bloggers I read. Pershan is Jewish, I think, although he never mentions it on the site (I remember his wedding announcement vaguely), and I mention this only because when I read this twitter mess my first thought was “he’s Jewish, he went to Harvard, he lives in New York City, and he didn’t see this coming?” But I think he’s a particularly observant Jew (not like noticing things, like observing Jewish custom), and until recently taught at a Jewish boys’ high school, so perhaps he doesn’t get out much.

Anyway, he takes gentle issue with a PoC teacher blogger who makes what would normally be called racist statements were he talking about anyone but white folks, and gets “schooled”, literally, in a key plot point: in the identity culture, all whites are the same. Michael Pershan, like many reflexive progressives (the sort who haven’t really thought it through but hey, all their friends are doing it) wants race and gender warriors to accept that there are “good” whites and “bad” whites. He wants to be able to point fingers and shame bad whites, but is troubled that the PoC and women seem to paint all whites and all males as the same. The identity divas will have none of that, and kick him around for a while. Pershan has retired from both the fray and Twitter, which is too bad. Not that I sympathize with his point of view. If you want to walk the identity path, baby, then all whites are equally undeserving of their largesse. You either reject or embrace the identity and entitlement game in its entirely; there are no half measures. The correct response is to deny the identity folk all satisfaction. It’s okay, they mostly enjoy the process, gives them something to complain about.

And just to show the compartmentalization of my ideas: I think many of the people beating down Michael Pershan in that conversation are just fine, as teachers. I often agree with them. Not always. Jason, the PoC blogger who started the sound-off, has a good teaching blog, and I don’t find his writings on identity to be insanely insufferable, which is a compliment.

I want more Duck Dynasty victories. I want the Michael Pershans to laugh at the very idea of seeking approval from identity divas. I want the Cathedral thwarted routinely and eventually dismantled. Not as a blogger, but as a person.

As a blogger, I’ll still write about education policy and education itself from all different angles, including the lamentable determination to ignore cognitive ability.

On that point, I’ve noticed a recurring theme that Razib Khan made in the hbd diva post, also seen here in Rod Dreher’s call for silence on HBD: the notion that most people who “embrace” (their word) racial differences don’t have a clue about the science.

I find this flummoxing. I know that Razib, who has his own node on the Network, is not criticizing the ideas themselves, but rather the people promoting them as ignorant. But who are these people promoting science, good or bad? I’m not sure if he’s talking about me. I’m certain the commenters on Rod’s site, from the “reasonable conservatives” to the “moderate progressives” are criticizing the ideas as wrong and the people promoting them as ignorant.

I don’t read the other sites much, save for Steve Sailer and Razib Khan, so maybe they’re doing all sorts of bad science. For myself, I don’t do science. I barely do math.

I often see reporters refer to “beliefs” or “opinions” about IQ. My “beliefs” about IQ involve the degree to which IQ is inaccurate, missing some aspects of intelligence that might be largely irrelevant to measuring IQ among white populations, but highly relevant in others. Actually, they wouldn’t go so far as “belief” or “opinion” but maybe “wonderings”.

But they aren’t talking about those beliefs, but the “belief” that IQ is meaningful, that IQ is not the same in different populations. That’s not a belief.

Or, as Steven Pinker famously wrote of Malcolm Gladwell’s maunderings on IQ: “What Malcolm Gladwell calls a “lonely ice floe” is what psychologists call ‘the mainstream.'”

When taking down a heretic, Cathedral strategy demands that the heretic be easily expelled with a minimal degree of cognitive dissonance. And so no one takes on Steven Pinker. Many reporters regurgitate what they understand of the Flynn Effect, but no one asks James Flynn if black IQs are, on average, lower than white IQs and whether that might make a difference to academic outcomes or whether the gap can easily be fixed with a more nurturing environment. Only one person asked Harvard’s Christopher Jencks why he blessed Jason Richwine’s doctorate, or why Harvard signed on for it. These people are of the Cathedral and if they challenge the canon, maintaining orthodoxy becomes impossible. So they are left alone, ignored politely when they speak anathema.

I don’t do science. I keep my blog anonymous because of I explore the impact of the Voldemort View, the view that must not be spoken, the view that says the achievement gap between different racial and income groups is primarily caused by differences in cognitive ability, on educational outcomes. I believe that IQ is imperfect as a metric of cognitive ability, although I can’t prove it and my opinion is still inchoate (ooh, Thomas of Convenant!). I accept the mainstream findings that shows a clear and largely unchanging difference in IQs by race and income. If Steven Pinker, James Flynn, or Christopher Jencks have said anything that disagrees with my representation of mainstream research, most fully articulated here, I’m unaware of it. So don’t ask me about IQ and race. Ask them.

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Assessing “Upper Level” Math Students on Algebra I

A2/Trig

I am teaching Algebra II/TRIG! Not Algebra II. First time ever. Last December, I gave the kids a packet with the following letter:

Hi! I’m looking forward to our course.

Attached is a packet of Algebra I review work to prepare you for our class. If you are comfortable with linear and quadratic equations, then you’re in good shape. If you’re not, it’s time to study up!
Our course will be challenging and fast-paced, and I will not be teaching linear equations and quadratics in their entirety—that is, I expect you to know and demonstrate mastery of Algebra I concepts. We will be modeling equations and working with applied knowledge (the dreaded word problems) almost constantly. I don’t just expect you to regurgitate solutions. You’ll need to know what they mean.
I’m not trying to scare you off—just put you on your toes! But you should put in some time on this, because we will be having a test when you come to class the first full day. That test will go in the gradebook, but more importantly, it will serve as notice. You’ll know if you’re prepared for the class.

Have a great holiday.

Reminder: My school is on a full-block schedule, which means we teach a year’s content in a semester, then repeat the whole cycle with another group of students. A usual teacher schedule is three daily 90-minute classes, with a fourth period prep. I taught algebra II, pre-calc, and a state-test prep course (kids killed) last semester, and this semester I have A2/Trig and two precalcs.

(Notice that I am getting more advanced math classes? Me, too. It’s not a seniority thing. It’s not at my request. It’s possible, and tempting, to think they noticed the kids are doing well. I know the first decision to put me in pre-calc last year was deliberate, a decision to give me more advanced classes because they wanted a higher pass rate. But I honestly don’t know why it’s happening. Maybe they cycle round at this school, moving teachers from high to low and back again.)

So I said the first full day, and today was a half day, but the kids had a whole packet to work on and I wanted to understand I wasn’t screwing around. If they’d done the work, they’d do fine on the test. If they were planning on cramming, too bad so sad.

I was originally going to do a formal test, but decided to just throw a progression of problems on the board. Then I typed it up for next time, if I teach the class again.

A2PrelimAssess

How’d they do? About a third of them did well, given the oddball nature of the test. A couple got everything right. Most of them stumbled with graphing the parabola, which is fine. Some of them knew the forms (standard, point slope), but weren’t sure how to convert them.

Another three passed–that is, answered questions, showed they’d worked some of the packet. The rest failed.

Of the ones who failed, easily half of them had just blown off the packet but have the chops. The other half of that third I’m not sure of.

If you are thinking that kids in Algebra II/Trig should know more, well, they were demonstrably a step ahead of my usual algebra 2 classes. And I think some of them just didn’t know I was serious. Wait until that F gets entered, puppies. Like I told them today: “There’s a lower level option here. Take it if you can’t keep up.” Whoo and hoo.

Pre-calc

I’ve now taught pre-calc twice. The first time, last spring, I was stunned at the low abilities of the bottom third, which I didn’t really understand fully for two or three weeks, leaving some of them hopelessly behind. I slowed it down and caught the bulk of the class, with only four to five students losing out on the slower pace (that is, they could have done more, but not all that much more). So when I taught it again in the fall, I gave them this assessment to see how many students could graph a line, identify a parabola from its graph, factor, and use function notation. If you’re thinking that’s pretty much the same thing I do with the A2/Trig classes, well, yeah. Generally, non-honors version of course is equivalent of honors version of previous year.

I don’t formally grade this; the assessment happens while they’re working. I can see who stumbles on lines, who stumbles on parabolas, who needs noodging, who works confidently, and so on. I was able to keep more kids moving forward in the semester/year just ended using this assessment and a slightly slower pace. One of the two classes is noticeably stronger; half the kids made it through to the function operations before asking for assistance.

This assessment also serves as a confidence booster for the weaker kids. Convinced they don’t understand a single bit of it, they slowly realize that by golly, they do know how to graph a line and multiply binomials. They can even figure out where the vertex should be, and they might have forgotten about the relationship between factors and zeros, but the memory wasn’t that far away.

precalpreassess

While I just threw together the A2/Trig course, I put a huge amount of thought into this precalc assessment last fall. I think it’s elegant, and introduces them to a lot of the ideas I’ll be covering in class, while using familiar models.

Part II is just a way of seeing how many of them remember trig and right triangle basics:

PrecalcAssess2b

PrecalcAssess2a

If you’re interested in assessing kids entering Algebra (I or II) or Geometry, check out this one–multiple choice, easy to grade, and easy to evaluate progress.


Multiple Answer Math Tests

As previously explicated in considerable detail, I’m deeply disgusted with the Common Core math standards—they are too hard, shovel way too much math into middle school. If I see one more reporter obediently, mindlessly repeat that [s]tudents will learn less content, but more in-depth, coherent and demanding content my head will explode.

Reporters, take heed: you can’t remove math standards. The next time some CC drone tells you that the standards are fewer, but deeper, ask for specifics. What specific math standard has been removed? Do students no longer have to know the quadratic formula? Will they not need to know conics? No, not colonics. That’s what you all should be forced to endure, for your sins. In all likelihood, the drone has no more idea than you reporters do about high school math, so go ask Jason Zimba, who reiterates several times in this interview that the standards are fewer, but go deeper. (He also confirms what I said about algebra, that much of it is moved to middle school). Ask him. Please. What’s left off?

Pause, and deep breath. Where was I?

Oh. Tests.

So the new CC tests are not multiple choice, a form that gets a bad rap. I give my kids in algebra one, geometry, and algebra two lots of multiple choice tests—not because I prefer them, and they aren’t easier (building tests is hard, and I make my own), but because my top students aren’t precise enough and they need the practice. They fall for too many traps because they’re used to teachers (like me) giving them partial or most of the credit if all they did is lose a negative sign. Remember, these are the top kids in the mid-level or lower math classes, not the top kids at the school. These are the kids who often can get an A in the easier class, and aren’t terribly motivated. My multiple choice tests attempt to smack them upside the head and take tests more seriously. It works, generally. I have to watch the lower ability kids to be sure they don’t cheat.

We’ve been in a fair amount of PD (pretty good PD, at that) on Common Core; last fall, we spent time as a department looking at the online tests. The instructors made much of the fact that the students couldn’t just “pick C”, although that gave us a chuckle. Kids who don’t care about their results will find the CC equivalent of picking C. Trust them. And of course, the technology is whizbang, and enables test questions that have more than one correct answer.

But I started thinking about preparing my students for Common Core assessments and suddenly realized I didn’t need technology to create tests questions that have more than one answer. And that struck me as both interesting and irritating, because if it worked I’d have to give the CC credit for my innovation.

On the first test, I didn’t do a full cutover, but converted or added new questions. Page 1 had 2 or 3 multiple answer questions and 3 was free-response, but on that first test, the second page was almost all multiple response:

cca2at2

I had been telling the kids about the test format change for a week or two beforehand, and on the day of the test I told them to circle the questions that were multiple answer.

It went so well that the second test was all multiple answer and free response. I was using a “short” 70-minute class for the test, so I experimented with the free-response. I drew in the lines, they had to identify the inequalities.

CCa2test1

cca2test2

I like it so much I’m not going back. Note that the questions themselves aren’t always “common core” like, nor is the format anything like Common Core. But this format will familiarize the kids with multiple answer tests, as well as serve my own purposes.

Pros:

  • Best of all, from my perspective, is that I am protected from my typos. I am notorious, particularly in algebra, for test typos. For example, there are FIVE equations on that inequality word problem, not four. See the five lines? Why did I put four? Because I’m an idiot. But in the multiple answer questions, a typo is just a wrong answer. Bliss, baby.
  • I can test multiple skills and concepts on one question. It saves a huge amount of space and allows the kids to consider multiple issues while all the information is in RAM, without having to go back to the hard drive.
  • I can approach a single issue from multiple conceptual angles, forcing them to think outside one approach.
  • It takes my goal of “making kids pay attention to detail” and doubles down.
  • Easier, even, than multiple choice tests to make multiple versions manually.
  • Cheating is difficult, even with one version.

Cons:

Really, only one: I struggle with grading them. How much should I weight answers? Should I weight them equally, or give more points for the obvious answer (the basic understanding) and then give fewer points for the rest? What about omitting right answers or selecting wrong ones?

Here’s one of my stronger students with a pretty good performance:

A2cctestsw1
A2cctestsw2

You can see that I’m tracking “right, wrong, and omit”, like the SAT. I’m not planning on grading it that way, I just want to collect some data and see how it’s working.

There were 20 correct selections on nine questions. I haven’t quite finished grading them, but I’ve graded two of the three strongest students and one got 15, the other 14. That is about right for the second time through a test format. Since I began the test format two thirds of the way through the year, I haven’t begun to “norm” them to check scrupulously for every possible answer. Nor have I completely identified all the misunderstandings. For example, on question 5, almost all the students said that the “slope” of the two functions’ product would be 2—even the ones who correctly picked the vertex answer, which shows they knew it was a parabola. They’re probably confusing “slope” with “stretch”, when I was trying to ascertain if they understood the product would be a parabola. Back to the drawing board on that.

Added on March 7: I’ve figured out how to grade them! Each answer is an individual True/False question. That works really well. So if you have a six-option question, you can get 6/6, 5/6, 4/6 etc. Then you assign point totals for each option.

I’ll get better at these tests as I move forward, but here, at least, is one thing Common Core has done: given me the impetus and idea for a more flexible test format that allows me to more thoroughly assess students without extending the length of the test. Yes, it’s irritating. But I’ll endure and soldier on. If anyone’s interested, I’m happy to send on the word doc.

Note: Just noticed that the student said y>= -2/3x + 10, instead of y<=. It didn't cost her anything in points (free response I'm looking for the big picture, not little errors), but I went back and updated her test to show the error.


Memory Palace for Thee, but not for Me

Should we teach kids how to memorize?, asks Greg Cochran. It’s a worthwhile question, and I have some thoughts, but got halfway through that post and hit some snags.

The comments, though, got me thinking about memory in general.

Back in high school, I used to write out all the acting Oscar nominees in order, lefthanded, to keep me at least somewhat focused in math class. During college, I’d write out the Roman emperors, English rules from William I to Elizabeth II, or the US Presidents, again, left-handed, to keep myself focused during college. I outgrew this habit at some point, probably when people asked me what I was writing; by my 40s, in grad school, I know I just doodled. I rarely set out to memorize things, and get no pleasure from the knowledge. What I do enjoy is the memories that come back with the data. So 1934 was It Happened One Night, with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, which got me thinking of Roscoe Lee Karns and Cliff Edwards and all the other reporters in His Girl Friday. Then the throwaway movies until Gone with the Wind, all hail Olivia (who outlived her feuding sister), and thinking about what a great decade the 40s was, oops, losing track of the lecture, get back to writing names. Recalling information keeps me focused, but the information itself doesn’t give me much enjoyment.

So if I know all the actors who’ve won best supporting Oscar and then best acting Oscar, and I didn’t set out to learn it, have I memorized that information? Huh. I realized I didn’t know, so I went and Wiki’ed up on memory. This was a helpful read, although I’m sure I have some of it wrong. Take my descriptions at your own risk.

If I understand all this, my echoic memory is much better than my iconic; both being short-term memory associated with a sense (hearing and sight). My students get a kick out of the fact that I look at geometry figures probably five times while drawing them. I can forget which way a right triangle faces in the time it takes me to turn 180 degrees from the book to the board.

In practice, this means my short-term auditory memory would be termed eidetic if it were vision-based, while I suck at that game where they give you 30 seconds to look at a tray of items. I’ve known this for a while, that hearing is extremely important to my short-term memory. I can easily maintain five or six conversations at once (very useful in teaching). However, five days later, my recall isn’t better and often worse than anyone else.

Fun example of this: a few months ago, Steven Pinker tweeted a language and memory study. I started to take it and then ran into a hitch.

The problem was, for me, that the practice wasn’t anything like the test. In the practice, up comes four groups of two letters situated around a cross. Then the screen blanks out, and occasionally you’ll see an arrow pointing to the position to remember. Some time later, a letter pair appears in the space and you indicate if it’s the same pair or a different one.

So I went through 20 or so practices, and did great, getting them all right. Then comes the actual test format, and I fall out of my chair, howling with laughter:

gamechinese

No more letters.

Until today, I didn’t even have the words to describe this. But in the practice, I literally vocalized the four pairs, saying “yn, qg, ds, hm”. The arrow would come up, and I’d say “okay, that’s qg”. Up comes “qg”, it’s the same. The whole test, I did with my short-term auditory memory, the echoic.

I guess if I were Chinese, I could do the real test that way. But the minute it came up, I realized I couldn’t rely on my auditory memory, and that’s game over. I’ve come back to the test since he closed it for research (didn’t want to screw up his results), and practiced two forms of memory. In the first, I say them aloud: “x on top, 7 on left, double T on right” and that helps, but I can’t say it fast enough and the image blanks out. Then I try it using my iconic memory (as I now know it), and if I focus really hard, I can usually see three of them before it blanks out. But it’s really hard.

I wondered if maybe the researcher planned it, but wouldn’t the practice be part of the actual test? I guess for most people it’s not a huge change.

Anyway, it’s a great example of how I use auditory memory instead of iconic. Auditory and visual long-term memory, if there is a such a thing, reverses in strengths for me. I can only vaguely recall the names of my high school history teachers, but their faces are quite clear in my mind. I likewise remember student faces much better than names, which is weird given that my short-term visual memory (iconic) is dreadful, but I guess they aren’t linked. For names, I need not only appearance but position—I can be completely discombobulated if a student changes seats. Periodically, I will randomly screw up names. I went a month calling an Anthony Andrew, despite having taught him two years in a row. So it appears that long-term, I rely more on visual than auditory, whereas short-term it’s reverse. When I think of the word “capybara”, I visualize the page of Swiss Family Robinson, kids’ edition, where I saw it at seven, the picture and the words on the page. The memories of books I recall in this essay are all strongly visual.

Long-term memory breaks down into into explicit/declarative memory and implicit memory (also known as procedural memory). Explicit memory is composed of episodic (autobiographical) and semantic (factual and general knowledge).

So my semantic memory is outstanding. My episodic memory, not anything special, particularly if it’s not autobiographical (there is some difference there).

Reading all this made something very clear that’s bothered me for thirty years or more: I have a terrible time with implicit memory if it involves moving parts not under my direct control. Specifically: driving, horseback riding, skiing, tying shoelaces. I didn’t drive until I was 22, because the act of learning was just so unnerving. Ran away like a ninny from skiing, never bothered with horseback riding. My younger brother finally shamed me into learning to tie my shoes, although which brother, and our relative ages, changes as the years go by, the better to embarrass me. If everything’s under my control, no problem: cooking, typing.

This gave me an interesting new way to think about how I learn. I’ve thought of my memory as a database since I first knew what a database was. Every so often the database goes wonky. Sometimes it’s a random switch of names. Sometimes I just can’t get the name. Once, on a contract, I remember complaining about the fact that I couldn’t remember the name of the Vietnamese PC guy, the one with the really heavy accent. “Which one?” asked my boss. “There are two?” “Sure. Pham and Tran.” “Crap. I had a duplicate data key.”

And every so often I just file away a false fact. For a good decade or so, my memory said that Richard Nixon had been governor of California. It’s not that I thought he was. I knew he wasn’t. But my memory thought he was, so if I were writing out the presidents who had been governors, Dick Nixon would be on the list. Took me years to find and fix that key.

In most cases, I effortlessly add information to my semantic database, creating links and keys between “data” fields and update references—that is “learning”, without really thinking of it as such. Until I was 25 or so, I had no idea how to learn if the process couldn’t be added to the database. As described in the “learning math” essay, I was completely helpless in those cases. When I was younger, I was often told I was exceptionally bright, and while I didn’t disagree, there was always this nagging concern—if I’m so bright, why are some things utterly incomprehensible to me?

Thanks to my first real job out of college, I finally figured out that, when the learning process wasn’t invisible, I had to learn through an insane series of trial and error tasks in which I traverse the landscape like Wile Coyote waiting for something to blow up in my face—this is how I learned programming and most of the math that I know.

So, put into my new terminology (probably inaccurately), if the new information has no link to my current knowledge, if I have no way to store and access it, I have to go out and acquire a metric ton of episodic memories to create a database table for my semantic memory, to build the connections and cross references. I have always known that this is somewhat unusual; I’ve watched many folks listen to lectures and get right up to speed while I’ve been sitting around unable to focus. I’ve tentatively concluded that my data fields have far more attributes—more metadata, if you will (but not metamemory, which is different), which makes the initialization more labor-intensive, but more useful in the long run.

Obviously, storage and recall is a whole field of memory study, and in some way everyone struggles with the process I describe. But for me, it was a very clear gap between the information I could or couldn’t learn, and I had no way of bridging that gap for the first 25 years of my life. For a long time, whole areas of learning weren’t under my conscious control and I had no way of anticipating what they might be. The trial and error, Wile Coyote process was a huge breakthrough that changed my life and expanded my career paths.

So when people talk about memory palaces, like in The Mentalist or Sherlock, I’ve got no frame of reference. My memory is not spatial, but associative. It’s a database that I retrieve, not a room where I put things. Do not tell me that it’s just a simple technique that anyone can learn. I couldn’t. Full stop.

End the investigation into Ed’s memory.

I imagine that during ed school, I read something about semantic memory. Lord knows Piaget must mention it somewhere. I probably dozed through a Willingham post on it, or read it in a book. But you know me, it doesn’t get put into semantic memory until I have a data table and some crosstabs.

I am not trying to become an expert on memory, nor am I unaware of the fact that there’s probably all sorts of reading I could do simply to discuss it more intelligently.

But all this leads me to a few observations/questions.

First, it seems that the myth of ‘they’ve never been taught’, the problem of kids forgetting what they learned, could be framed as the difference between episodic memory and semantic memory. That is, the kids I’m describing remember the topic as an episode in their lives, not as reference information, and since it wasn’t a very interesting episode they lose it quickly.

Next, I’ve remarked before, and will do again, that many smart kids (in my work, almost entirely recent Asian immigrants) can regurgitate facts and learn procedures to a high degree of accuracy but retain none of them and even while knowing them have no idea what to do with them outside a very limited task set. Whenever you see kids screaming “we have to have the test today” they are kids who know they will lose the information. So these kids may be relying entirely on episodic memory? If this is true, our reliance on test scores as a knowledge indicator becomes, er, unnerving, particularly since this behavior seems so strongly linked to one demographic here in the US. And I speak as someone who likes test scores.

Then the opposite case: in math, at least, I’ve noticed that fact fluency is not required for understanding of higher math, and that it’s not at all unusual to see kids who are fact fluent but can’t grasp any abstraction. It may be that these kids are filing math facts into implicit memory, as tasks. Or maybe that’s always the case in math.

It goes without saying that memory is linked to cognitive ability, right? Oops, I said it anyway.

I’ve also noticed that teaching, like police work, is a profession with limited need for semantic memory (the content fact base, rules of the job) and a tremendous need for episodic memory (what worked last time). This may be why teaching isn’t given much respect as a profession, and also why smarts, past a certain level, doesn’t appear to play much of a role in teaching outcomes.

And so, Greg Cochran asks whether we should teach kids to memorize.

Realize too that the memorization battles are just another front in the skills vs. knowledge debate. The skills side, touted primarily by progressives and, separately, many teachers themselves, emphasize the need for students to know how to do things—think critically, problem solve, analyze information. The knowledge side, headed by the great E. D. Hirsch, complain about the skills stranglehold and want to emphasize the need for students to know things—facts organized into a logical curriculum. Those pushing for memorization are squarely on the knowledge side of things, and often mock teachers for being too stupid to understand the importance of knowledge.

I have not entered this debate because until now I haven’t had a framework for my answer of “it depends”. Do we want to reward bright kids for memorizing content knowledge without a clue about what it means and little ability to use it, as is de rigueur in many Asian immigrant populations? I submit that we don’t. Do we want our kids of middle ability or higher to memorize math facts and general content knowledge, the better to improve their reading comprehension and understanding of advanced math? I submit that we do. And how much memorization, exactly, can we expect and demand from our low ability kids? I submit that the answer is “We don’t know, and are scared to find out”.

In other words, memorization requirements, like everything in education, is ultimately set by student cognitive ability, which we aren’t allowed to discuss in any meaningful way. But teachers like me, who are required to deal with a 3-4 year range in ability levels, with a canyon-sized gap in content knowledge from high to low, have to make decisions about skills vs knowledge debate every day. Those on the outside should realize that teachers have many good reasons for pushing back on the memorization point, given the students they teach and the expectations forced on them by those who don’t know any better.

Yeah, I said six essays a month? Feel free to laugh at me. But I have a part 2 on this one, and I’ll try to finish it soon.


2013: Taking Stock and Looking Forward

Am I a hedgehog or a fox?

Certainly my life choices reflect a fox. At four or five, people would ask me what I wanted to do when I grew up, and I had no idea. By the time I was a teenager, I knew this lack of focus, this tendency to be relatively good at a bunch of things but outstanding (at my own level) at nothing in particular, was going to be a problem. I’ve had four or five separate occupations, several of which I describe in this post, an essay that pretty much says “fox” from start to finish—as does my essay on acquiring content knowledge through reading, I think. For a person with little ambition, I’ve successfully used my brains to make a decent living in those four or five occupations; for eighteen years I averaged 25 hour work weeks (in tech, averaged over the year, in tutoring, over the month) and raised a son on the income. (I work more hours now as a teacher, but I also get paid vacations, something I had only five years out of the previous thirty.)

Until I began tutoring and then teaching, I never felt I was using more than a fraction of my intellect and almost none of my interest. Teaching test prep and then tutoring in a wide range of areas, in contrast, grabbed me from the start. I was using the full range of my intellect, first to learn two major tests and the middle and high school curricula in three subjects. Then, when I started teaching, I was fascinated by the challenges of developing curriculum and engaging and motivating students, to name just two of many job attractions.

But in teaching, I’m a fox as well, teaching three subjects, test prep even now in four major tests (twelve earlier in my career), and morph pretty effortlessly from one subject to another, day to day and, back when I was a tutor, hour to hour. I’m not trying to win converts to any subject other than classic films. No hedgehog as a teacher, certainly. Teaching has given my writing focus and purpose; I have actually stopped looking for tutoring work because I have more time for writing.

Despite all this, as a thinker and writer, I see myself as a hedgehog. Yes, you can laugh. But this collection of essays is premised entirely on the Voldemort View, that all the policy, all the teacher training, all the curriculum arguments run up against the reality of cognitive ability, and that our refusal to accept this reality is having terrible consequences.

Everything I write begins with that premise.

And yet. I’ve convinced a good many people that teachers aren’t low-achieving, scoffed at the pretend fuss over the lack of minority teachers, but also argue that teacher intelligence, past a certain level, doesn’t appear to be that important. I routinely remind my readers that students in the middle third of the cognitive spectrum forget most of what they were taught, that teaching algebra is like banging your head with a whiteboard, and that no one has had success teaching advanced math to the moderately retarded, but I also talk about the joys of teaching kids with low motivation and low (for high school) cognitive ability. I’ve been arguing, lately, that many recent Asian immigrants are not as smart as their test scores might indicate, and am starting to wonder if black ability might not in some cases, underrepresented by test scores. IQ purists scoff at my opinion that we haven’t really investigated how, and what, we can teach people with lower than average cognitive ability—more than one reader has derided my comment here as goofy idealism.

I get all that, but they all feel linked to the same idea. While I don’t write about other subjects much, I have the same notion: a small number of fundamental ideas inform all my opinions. I have changed my mind on these fundamental ideas, and it’s always a pretty big deal for me, something I remember and acknowledge. That sounds more hedgehoggish than fox, someone who is driven by central ideas, as opposed to a million flexible gametime decisions about important issues as they arise.

So I feel like a hedgehog, but any examination of my life or interests leads inexorably to the fox.

Isaiah Berlin originated the fox/hedgehog paradigm to explore Tolstoy’s psyche: “Tolstoy, in Berlin’s telling, was torn between the hedgehog’s quest for a single truth and the fox’s acceptance of many and, at times, incommensurable truths.” Berlin argues that Tolstoy’s final years were ruined because he wanted to be a hedgehog but could not deny his essential foxiness.

Well, I ain’t ruining my second half being fussed by deciding which side of the dichotomy I fit in with. But I will say this: time and again, I find that people build “if…then” constructs from fundamental ideas that I didn’t sign on to. These people are then annoyed at me for backtracking, inconsistency, or some other sin of logic.

So, for example, the basic Voldemort View: Mean differences in group IQs are the most likely explanation for the achievement gap in racial and SES groups. Or, cognitive ability is the chief determinant of academic ability and other life outcomes.

People build all sorts of “if…thens” from this. If IQ is not malleable, then a high IQ group is superior and more desirable than a low IQ group. If cognitive ability determines academic academic, then it’s not worth educating people with lower cognitive abilities. If higher test scores, then higher academic ability. If smarter, then better. And a host of others.

Hell, no. I’m not backtracking. I’m not in denial. I’m saying, categorically, that these things do not necessarily follow. Go ahead and believe them, that’s fine. Just don’t tell me that I have to accept all those if…then constructs just because I accept the reality of cognitive ability. No superiority or preference follows directly. I can pick and choose the if…then constructs that interest me from that point. And I can change my mind–for example, the last two years has seen me become noticeably more skeptical of higher test scores (although I still think in the main they’re good).

Of course, maybe that refusal to lock in the “if…thens” is what makes me a fox. Huh.

Anyway. The point of all this is to introduce the essays that got the most traffic this year. The numbers are from the last 365 days only. I have made the cutoff 1500 views—whoo hoo! (well, close. I let a 1490 slip in.) Just under half of them (10 out of 22) were written last year. I am not bothered by this. Many of my posts have high information content, others are used by teachers as lesson guides. Google likes me a lot. But I only wrote 61 posts this year, an average of 5 per month.

Traffic growth was huge.

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
12 2878 1326 932 912 1107 3764 6485 10303 5466 5986 14574 13851 67584
23 11846 9416 11386 18306 22891 12032 14086 23491 19077 26747 27296 19265 215839

As I said when the blog hit 200,000 views, this seems like a tremendous amount of activity for someone who barely averages five posts a month. I was reading Old Andrew’s retrospective, since he’s another teacher who writes about policy (as do Paul Bruno and Harry Webb), and he mentioned that his traffic grew substantially. Andrew stays focused on a few key topics, and really was a go-to blog for OFSTED issues this year (I only vaguely know what OFSTED is, but it’s something English). Well, I’m not really a go-to blog for anything. I’ve definitely written a number of go-to essays, but that’s not the same thing. I’m not focused enough to be a go-to blog for a particular issue. (There it is, fox again.) Given the random nature of my subject matter, I find my traffic levels astounding.

I have been very pleased at the development of the comments section. Several recent posts saw seventy or more comments and some active discussions.

Goals for next year:

  • Try to average 6 essays a month.
  • Grit my teeth and finish essays that got stalled. I have at least ten draft posts with lots of research that I never get around to completing.
  • Review the major topics I write on and set myself some goals to further develop some of the ideas. I am well aware that I haven’t finished my series on Asian immigrants (see the previous bullet), but I never even started some plans I had to write on reform math, and high school curriculum.
  • Continue developing some of the strands I started in late November and December on different educational reform philosophies
  • Evaluate what the next steps are for getting an even wider reader base.
  • Write more under my own name. I did that more through August, but I now have four different essays in draft form.
  • Dote upon the granddaughter who will be making her appearance in May. Please tell me I look far too young to be a grandparent.

Hope my new readers will check out the essays below. I refuse to say it’s a fox list. But it’s….eclectic.

Asian Immigrants and What No One Mentions Aloud 10/08/13    6,663
Philip Dick, Preschool and Schrödinger’s Cat 04/05/13    6,305
The Dark Enlightenment and Me 04/28/13    4,532
Core Meltdown Coming 11/19/13    4,063
Kashawn Campbell 08/26/13    3,631
Homework and grades. 02/06/12    3,380
Algebra and the Pointlessness of The Whole Damn Thing 08/19/12    3,076
The Gap in the GRE 01/28/12    2,964
Why Most of the Low Income “Strivers” are White 03/18/13    2,499
Noahpinion on IQ–or maybe just no knowledge. 10/31/13    2,408
College Admissions, Race, and Unintended Consequences 09/01/13    2,373
Dan Meyer and the Gatekeepers 08/01/13    2,334
SAT Prep for the Ultra-Rich, And Everyone Else 08/17/12    2,293
The myth of “they weren’t ever taught….” 07/01/12    2,186
About 01/01/12    1,929
Teacher Quality Pseudofacts, Part II 01/05/12    1,899
Jason Richwine and Goring the Media’s Ox 05/12/13    1,896
Not Why This. Just Why Not That. 11/30/13    1,839
Binomial Multiplication, etc 09/14/12    1,824
The Voldemort View 01/06/12    1,736
An Asian Revelation 06/28/13    1,669
Banging Your Head With a Whiteboard 05/11/12    1,490