Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The pseudo-science of testing

A brilliant article in yesterday's NYTimes by Michael Winerip, titled "10 years of assessing students with scientific exactitude" describes the ups and downs experienced by the New York school system over a decade of No Child Left Behind-inspired Testing.

It starts with:
In the last decade, we have emerged from the Education Stone Age. No longer must we rely on primitive tools like teachers and principals to assess children’s academic progress. Thanks to the best education minds in Washington, Albany and Lower Manhattan, we now have finely calibrated state tests aligned with the highest academic standards. What follows is a look back at New York’s long march to a new age of accountability.

After reading the full chronological listing, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.


Perhaps the single hardest (worst) part of my job is making and grading tests. I never know in advance how a particular class of students is going to do on a particular test I make up. Well, the students that do extremely well might do well in any variant of it. The students who do extremely poorly may not do that much better in some other variant of it. But for the vast majority of students, I find there is great sensitivity to every aspect of the exam, from the choice of topics, to the subtle deviations of these questions from what has been covered exactly in the notes, the book, or the homework assignments, to the length of the exam, and even the ordering of the questions.

Even in a seemingly objective field of study like Engineering, there is a lot of subjectivity in how one grades (going beyond the obvious subjectivity inherent in the choice of questions to put on an exam). We try our best to be consistent and fair across all the students for the same class; but for the same question and answer, unless one uses shallow multiple-choice questions (the approach adopted by many standardized tests), it is certain that no two instructors would grade the same way. While there may be one way (or relatively few ways)  to get the answer right, there are exponentially many combinations of errors that trip up students. Particularly if one wishes to go down the road of offering partial credit, the art of grading requires one to differentiate between these and place a value judgement on them: do you give a student that got the right numerical answer through incorrect reasoning some credit? Do you give a student that took completely the wrong approach to the problem but applied that approach correctly albeit to give the wrong answer more credit than one that tried out something new and original but failed with it and gave (if it is possible) an answer even further from the correct one? What if you discover upon grading that a question that seems perfectly straightforward to you has been misinterpreted by number of the students to be quite different from what you had intended? How large a number does this have to be for you to factor the possible ambiguity in the wording into account when grading? Does it matter if the misinterpreted question is easier or harder than the originally intended question?

Unfortunately, the politics of public K-12 education and the economics of higher education dictate that we must always have assessment and grading. Testing is a necessary evil that we cannot wish completely away. Let's continue to strive to be as fair as possible in making and grading tests, but let us not pretend that test scores and GPA's are objective, noiseless, measures of a student's intellectual capability (or, in the case of public schooling, of the effectiveness of a system of education).

Friday, December 09, 2011

No mistakes on the Bandstand

As someone who appreciates Jazz, I highly recommend this video. Stefon Harris talks about the importance of paying attention to the teammates when doing improvisation. He gives a great illustration of what it means to go with the flow, and how that's different from commanding the team to do something specific that one has already set one's mind to. 

This talk is also a great metaphor applicable to many interactive activities that an academic is involved with. Whether it is working with Ph.D. students, research collaborators, or even in class while teaching, there has to be a lot of give and take, and mindful awareness combined with a certain letting go of the ego makes for a richer and more rewarding experience. Even seemingly discordant notes are an opportunity to go someplace new. 

I have been experiencing this increasingly in the classroom, myself. I am finding that the more open I am to new ideas coming from the students through their comments and questions, the more willing I am to digress from a pre-set path, the more interesting, the more creative, the classroom experience is for all of us. This allows us to stray away from well-trodden paths of textbook exercises to occasionally discovering entirely new problems. This semester, for instance, based on student questions in my wireless networks class, we formulated and solved an interesting new variant of the problem of power allocation across parallel channels to maximize total rate (a classic Information Theory problem that is solved using the so-called ``waterfilling" algorithm). This variant was similar enough that we could use the same approach, but different enough that we could appreciate resource allocation at a deeper level. And because it was motivated by questions the students themselves had asked and clearly something new to all of us, I think it might just have made a more lasting impression at least on some students compared to the usual routine. 

In light of the ongoing debates about online education, it also occurs to me that this kind of improvisational interactive classroom experience is precisely what cannot be replicated in mass-marketed pre-packaged instructional videos.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Creating a helping relationship: questions to ponder

Carl Rogers, 1902-1987

In a 1958 essay titled "The characteristics of a helping relationship", Carl Rogers, the noted humanist psychologist, formulated the following ten questions, which I present in his own words. He crafted them in the context of being a therapist, but they naturally apply to all kinds of relationships, including the relationship between a teacher and his/her students:
  1. Can I be in some way which will be perceived by the other person as trustworthy, as dependable, or consistent in some deep sense? 
  2. Can I be expressive enough as a person that what I am will be communicated unambiguously?
  3. Can I let myself experience positive attitudes toward this other person --- attitudes of warmth, caring, liking, interest, respect? 
  4. Can I be strong enough as a person to be separate from the other? Can I be a sturdy respecter of my own feelings, my own needs, as well as his? Am I strong enough in my own separateness that I will not be downcast by his depression, frightened by his fear, nor engulfed by his dependency? ...[for] then I find that I can let myself go much more deeply in understanding and accepting him because I am not fearful of losing myself. 
  5. Am I secure enough within myself to permit him his separateness? Can I permit him to be what he is --- honest or deceitful, infantile or adult, despairing or overconfident? Can I give him the freedom to be? 
  6. Can I let myself enter fully into the world of his feelings and personal meanings and see these as he does? Can I step into his private world so completely that I lose all desire to evaluate or judge it? 
  7. Can I be acceptant of each facet of this other person which he presents to me? Can I receive him as he is? Can I communicate this attitude? 
  8. Can I act with sufficient sensitivity in the relationship that my behavior will not be perceived as a threat?
  9. Can I free him from the threat of external evaluation? In almost every phase of our lives --- at home, at school, at work --- we find ourselves under the rewards and punishments of external judgments: "That's good"; "that's naughty", "That's worth an A"; "that's a failure." "That's good counseling"; "that's poor counseling."... in my experience, they do not make for personal growth and hence I do not believe that they are a part of a helping relationship. Curiously enough a positive evaluation is as threatening in the long run as a negative one, since to inform someone that he is good implies that you also have the right to tell him he is bad. 
  10. Can I meet this individual as a person who is in process of becoming, or will I be bound by his past and by my past?
I like this list. A faculty member at another institution pointed me at it, saying that he likes to consider these questions before teaching class, as a way to reflect on how much "regard, empathy, and genuineness" he could "experience (and express clearly) in every class."

For me too, many of these questions resonate with the way I like to interact with students, particularly my Ph.D. advisees. I have learned over time that it is most rewarding to view them not as resources to be exploited, nor as clay to be molded and shaped according to my inclination, but as individuals to be supported in their own personal journeys towards realizing their potential. 

These are not easy questions, and I believe that answering them all in the affirmative represents an ideal that may not always be achievable in practice. For instance, question 9 poses a conflict for a faculty member given that a significant part of their official responsibility when teaching a class is to provide an evaluation of the student's performance. But these questions are certainly worth pondering if we aim to be helpful to others.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Let kids play on mountains

For amusement, late this evening, I took up pen and paper to show my 8-year-old how lines have equations to go with them. You know, simple things like y = x, y = 8-x, y = 5... He patiently helped me identify a few points on each line, and watched me connect them. He was particularly amused  to see the equation approximating the relationship between his age and his younger brother's.

He then asked, what about circles? Do they have equations too? So I showed him x*x + y*y = 4, focusing on the positive quadrant, carelessly mentioning there was something called square-root, and showing him where (sqrt(2), sqrt(2)) was on this circle.  This concept he had never heard of before intrigued him.

He then asked, does every number have square roots? I showed him sqrt(4) as another example. He could then figure out square roots of 0 and 1, whose consistency pleased him.

He then asked, what about negative numbers, do they have square roots too? I didn't launch into a lengthy explanation, but pointed out simply that square-root of -1 is nowhere to be found on the number line he is familiar with.

I was thrilled, of course, at the sheer effortless-ness of this conversation, which took all of ten minutes, and touched on such a wide range of mathematical topics, from analytic geometry to surds to imaginary numbers. But my point is not at all to show off my son as a genius of some sort. Like many kids his age, his biggest interests and activities revolve around video games, spinning tops, cartoons, and hanging out with friends.

I believe what this little incident truly exemplifies is that any kid can make creative jumps and connections and ask great questions quite easily when they're simply curious, when their learning is not being controlled via rigid structures, when it is not boxed into an arbitrarily fixed place and time and dragged in lock-step with everyone else. It helps to have an environment that supports this kind of freedom and stress-free exploration. I am grateful for his amazingly unique school, Play Mountain Place, which lets him follow his own interests at his own pace. Learn more about it at

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Inclusive education

At its best, education must be inclusive, and focus on helping everyone grow their abilities.

In the campus bookstore I came across a wonderful book titled "The Power of Neurodiversity," by Thomas Armstrong. In one part Armstrong describes a unique school called William W. Henderson Inclusion Elementary School in Dorchester Massachusetts. In this school, he writes, special education students (about a third of the student population) are included in classes full-time with other students. He quotes former principal William Henderson (now retired):
We challenge students with Down syndrome as well as our most academically advanced students to read as much as they can. We challenge our students with cerebral palsy as well as our fastest runners to exercise as much as they can. We challenge our nonverbal students as well as our most polished speakers to communiate as effectively as they can. We challenge our students with autism as well as our "social butterflies" to interact as positively as they can. The goal for every child at our school is to "get smarter, feel smarter, and act smarter"
Armstrong writes that instead of putting everyone on exactly the same page, this school accepts the diversity of abilities and inclinations and encourages each student individually in academic and non-academic subjects. At the same time, he points out that this approach is much more than having a special ed teacher working with some students at the back of the room while the regular teacher instructs the rest of the kids.

It is clear that such an inclusive classroom experience benefits all students. As a society, we will all benefit from breaking down boundaries that separate people with different abilities.

The above youtube video shows a celebration event at this school.

The founder has written a book titled "The Blind Advantage: How Going Blind Made Me a Stronger Principal and How Including Children with Disabilities Made Our School Better for Everyone," with proceeds going to the school.  I have not read it yet, but it's high on my list.

*** update ***

After I wrote the above, a reader posted a comment recommending that I present some evidence or citations to support the claim that inclusion is beneficial.

First of all, let me say that the idea of inclusion as an educational principle draws its primary support from its appeal to our "better nature", our sense of compassion, our desire to live in a society that draws fewer boundaries between its citizens. The more inclusive a classroom, the more aligned it is with these inherently desirable goals.

Second, I am not sure how much weight I would  place on scientific studies about inclusive classrooms. Like many social problems, there are simply too many variables to control for and it is hard to quantify benefits. No two school classes, in terms of the background, composition, and dynamics between the children and the adults around them, are the same. Inclusion is unlikely to be implemented in a uniform manner, due to varying levels of understanding and support for it. And the long-term benefits in terms of fostering a more open outlook among the children, and improvements in self-esteem are not amenable to ready evaluation.

Having said these, I give below pointers to a few articles discussing research on inclusion in the classroom.

Rebecca Hines authored this 2001 article titled "Inclusion in Middle Schools". It points at research, particularly, as described in the following book:

Kochhar, C. A., West, L. L., & Taymans, J. M. (2000). SUCCESSFUL INCLUSION: PRACTICAL STRATEGIES FOR A SHARED RESPONSIBILITY. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Hines writes that Kochhar, West and Taymans have identified a number of positive benefits of inclusive education, ranging from higher levels of achievement, greater teacher resources, and improved understanding and social acceptance. She identifies other studies that have shown that inclusive classrooms do not have less instruction time, though they do require greater time spent on coordination among co-teachers. She also identifies organizational, attitudinal and knowledge barriers to the successful implementation of inclusive classrooms. 

Another widely cited book that presents further arguments in favor of inclusive classrooms along with guidance on implementing inclusive classrooms based on collaborative teaching is the following: 
C. Walther-Thomas, L. Korinek, V. L. McLaughlin, B.T. Williams, Collaboration for Inclusive Education: Developing Successful Programs, Pearson, 2000. 

The European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education has written a comprehensive survey of research from fifteen European countries on Inclusive Education and Effective Classroom Practices

At the other end of the spectrum, here is a qualitative research account of one particular inclusive teacher's classroom: E. Brown, "Mrs. Boyd's Fifth Grade Inclusive Classroom", Urban Education, 37(1), 2002. 

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Criticisms, and a defense, of the education system

A review article by Steven Brint in the Los Angeles Review of Books, titled "The Educational Lottery" is worth a read. He discusses a number of different perspectives on higher education, based on his evaluation of four recent books on the topic.

He writes that
The American education gospel is built around four core beliefs. First, it teaches that access to higher levels of education should be available to everyone, regardless of their background or previous academic performance. Every educational sinner should have a path to redemption. (Most of these paths now run through community colleges.) Second, the gospel teaches that opportunity for a better life is the goal of everyone and that education is the primary — and perhaps the only — road to opportunity. Third, it teaches that the country can solve its social problems — drugs, crime, poverty, and the rest — by providing more education to the poor. Education instills the knowledge, discipline, and the habits of life that lead to personal renewal and social mobility. And, finally, it teaches that higher levels of education for all will reduce social inequalities, as they will put everyone on a more equal footing.
He identifies various classes of critics that attack these pillars:
  • Critics he refers to as new "restrictionists", who feel that a college education is wasted on those who are not prepared for it, who argue that college education has been watered down to support this universal access, who in fact argue against allowing/encouraging everybody to go to college, because it is not even ultimately useful to them.
  • Those he calls "educational Romantics", who believe that much of schooling is a form of servitude and limits creativity and rail against all systematized forms of eduaction.
  • He identifies some who rail against the "fool's gold" idea of education as paving the way for social mobility and equality. 
  • And finally he discusses the sect of "true educators", for whom the purpose of education is inner transformation, not sociological. As an exemplar of this opinion, he cites Philip W. Jackson, who has written a book titled "What is Education?" 
Brint writes about Jackson's work:
For Jackson, the good teacher strives for perfection, leavened by a loving outlook. Striving for perfection is important to Jackson. Like religion, education aims high. It wants to tell the truth. It is a moral enterprise, because it seeks to make everyone it touches better than they currently are. Because education is about truth, it is also about correction. The possibility of elevation, as Hegel knew, requires the negation of error. Yet because they must kindle an interest in the spirit of learning, teachers are inclined to downplay students’ weaknesses while applauding their efforts. Because she wishes students to remain on the path of improvement, the teacher makes more of their contribution to knowledge than perhaps is warranted. 
To transform people, education requires a particular attitude of students too: the attitude of receptivity and affection. “We feel close to those objects toward which we profess love,” Jackson writes. “We identify with them … We possess them. They become ‘ours’ … These forms of attachment reduce the separation between subject and object. They bring the two closer together, which is the principal goal of education.” Because education is a relationship between teacher and student, students need to be known by their teachers. The possibility of identification with the subject matter flows as much through the teacher as through the course material. If students do not feel known by the teacher, it will be difficult for them to identify with the course materials, and even to feel the desire to know more about the topic. They must want, at some level, to be like the teacher. For the student, learning involves both grasping and shaping. Students grasp course materials and the spirit of the subject through appreciation, and they shape them for their own uses through assertion.
Ultimately, though, Brint, who I would term a pragmatic conservative, a defender of the status-quo, dismisses all these criticisms as being limited in their perspective, hopelessly idealistic, or worse, dangerous.
Heretics often offer penetrating insights about the flaws of dominant doctrines. They are usually less perceptive about the limitations (or dangers) of the alternatives they favor. The new restrictionists run the risk of forgetting about the problem of inequality and further privileging the privileged. Romantic dissenters do not often require the complement of deep knowledge and discipline on which adult creativity also rests. The “fool’s gold” school has no concrete plan for erecting a just social system in which workers are paid a living wage, non-corrupt labor unions are encouraged, and the wealthy are taxed enough to support decent public services. And “true educators” live in a rarefied world of one-on-one tutorials and private education, one that, however inspiring, is utterly divorced from the contexts in which most teachers actually work.
Brint argues that the system as we have it may be inefficient and under-performing, but may be the best possible compromise for our society. He advocates instead more incremental changes such as cutting down class sizes, stiffer entrance requirements, use of clickers to improve participation, performance-oriented evaluations, and somehow (magically?) ending the "attitude among under-motivated students that 'the only thing that matters is the credential'."

I'm left dissatisfied and underwhelmed by his conclusions.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Joi Ito's Views on Learning

Joi Ito is the new director of the MIT Media Lab. He is a highly accomplished, very well known technologist. He has been the founder of many Internet companies, and chairs the board of directors of the Creative Commons. According the Wikipedia entry about him, he first went to Tufts University for an undergrad in Computer Science, and dropped out. He then went to the University of Chicago for physics, and dropped out of there too. He spent countless hours playing world of warcraft online and credits it with teaching him valuable lessons about management and leadership. So he certainly has had a non-conventional educational path for someone who now heads one of the most visible, most prestigious academic centers.

Today at a conference that I am attending (Emtech 2011), he was being interviewed. I got the chance to ask him the following question after his interview:

What are your views on the University as we have it today and how that's going to change as a lot of changes are happening in technology and society?

Here is his response:
I just was talking to the Ph.D. students yesterday and I said, first of all, if I were at the Media Lab, I probably would have graduated. But, the Media Lab is great, because it is very much an interest-driven learning model, they are focused so much more on learning than some institutions. I think MIT is obviously better than most, but a lot of institutions I feel that you're in the university to try to get out. Because what you're looking for is the degree, and then once you get out... the focus is on the degree and not learning. And I said this as a joke, but I kind of almost mean it, I said to the Ph.D. students, look, if at the end when you are graduating, and I go "psych!" and take away your degree, I want it to be that you still are completely able to get a job as though you had the degree and the degree doesn't matter. I want you to have learned so much and it become so interesting that the degree is something [only to show] that we're happy you are a graduate... the degree isn't the reason why you're here. 
...thinking about the degree as a byproduct of doing great learning and great work is the way I'd like the Media Lab to become... But I really hate classes and education getting in the way of learning. I mean, that to me was why I left, because it was getting in the way of me learning. I think that focusing on learning, and focusing on creativity is a key element of the Media Lab. 
I think there are certain types of characters. Like my sister is a double-Ph.D., Magna cum Laude, Harvard, Stanford... The difference is that when she was 5 years old, 6 years old, she could plan her life. She said this is what I want to be when I'm 25 years old, 30 years old. I couldn't think past the next day and so if it wasn't interesting and useful for me to do today, I was on to the next thing. I think there are more kids like me than there are like my sister, so you have certain kids like my sister who make it through the formal education process, no problem, and they learn tons. But there's a bunch of people, misfits like me who can't fit in... it's not like I want to change all of higher education, but there is a role for this kind of learning through doing, learning through tinkering, interest-driven learning, because I've had, not necessarily the best example, but I'm exhibit A of somebody who was able to stitch together their own learning, without very much formal help, thanks to the Internet in large part. And so, and it's funny because my sister studies education, and after she had become quite well known in the field of education, she looked over at me and said "wait a second, how did you? how did that work?"... and now she is focused on this informal learning stuff, so I sit around and try to explain to her what I'm thinking, and she sort-of rigorously tries to explain it in education-anthropological terms... 
For me, the Media Lab, I'd like it to be a prototype for a new kind of higher education and that we don't become just one side-show, but that the DNA of the Media Lab starts to infect all kinds of other universities and institutions and companies about new ways to think about innovation, think about learning.
I find myself in near-total agreement with his emphasis on interest-driven learning, and the primacy of learning over formal coursework and degrees. This has been the primary theme of many of my posts here...

(The full video of the interview and the Q&A afterwards is available online.)

Thursday, October 06, 2011

In Memoriam

He was not a religious or spiritual leader. He did not bring a nation or a people freedom from oppression or slavery. He was not a general. He never held any political office. But there was something about what he did and how he did it that has clearly commanded the respect of millions around the world.

Steve Jobs gave this commence speech at Stanford, titled "How to live before you die":

Here is the transcript of his speech.

Two inspiring quotes from this speech summarize his attitude towards work and life:

" Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don't lose faith. I'm convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don't settle. "

"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Mind the Gap

This is a brilliant piece by Ira Glass, the host and producer of "This American Life," about a crucial aspect of the creative life that is important for beginners to hear: how to deal with the gap between what we would like to be able to do, and what we can, at first.

I have experienced, and still continue to, experience this in my academic work. I feel quite embarrassed about many of my early papers. How shallow they were! How utterly lacking in novelty, in significance, in rigor!  But over time measured in years, I found, at first to my surprise, that the quality of the papers I am working on is growing, slowly but steadily. This gives me confidence that I'm improving, and feeds the hope that I may yet meet at least my own standards some day (though they are also creeping up in their own sneaky way).

Here is a poster version of the same piece that has been circulating around the web (please tell me if you know who to credit for this):

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Grit, and Beyond

(Image from needledesign)

I have long felt, and I'm sure most of my colleagues would agree, that talent or aptitude, be it in-born or acquired, is not sufficient in an academic environment. This is particularly true in the Ph.D. program, where the environment is dramatically unstructured, and it's not a question of meeting short-term, well-defined, externally-defined goals, with little connection to the outside world (as is the case in most of schooling up to that point, in the form of exams and grades).

Angela Lee Duckworth, a faculty member in Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania has been advocating "grit", a combination of consistency of interest and passion and perseverance of effort over long periods of time, as a metric that is predictive of success. Here is a paper by her and her co-authors: "Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals." In this work, they describe research evaluating the correlation between grit (measured through a suitably designed questionnaire) and achievement in a few different settings --- educational attainment among groups of adults, retention among West Point cadets, and rankings among spelling bee contestants. The researchers conclude that their findings "suggest that the achievement of difficult goals entails not only talent but also the sustained and focused application of talent over time."

(Here is the questionnaire they use to measure grit; perhaps you'd like to try it yourself.)

I think this is very interesting work. At the very least, this paper expands and adds concrete research data to the debate about the sufficiency of talent. It presents compelling scientific evidence that single-minded persistence is an absolutely valuable character trait. But I cannot help feeling that this is still not the whole story.

One critical aspect that is not captured by the grit trait is how self-driven and autonomous the individual is; whether this individual's interests and efforts are being externally defined and driven by others, or if they are coming from within. For instance, some currently popular authoritarian approaches to parenting and education already place a lot of emphasis on focus and hard-work as the essential ingredients. My view, however, is that these do not allow adequate room for individuals to learn to make their own choices and pursue their own interests in a self-directed manner, important in more creative settings. Notice that the examples chosen by the researchers (spelling bee, West point) are not particularly creativity-oriented environments.

Another aspect that is rather orthogonal to the notion of grit is social and communication skill. Those who are most sociable and open to helping, collaborating and discussing with others have more avenues for getting fresh ideas and growing and improving themselves. In an academic environment one is crucially dependent on  communication skills, when making oral presentations at conferences and invited talks, or when writing proposals, papers, reviews.

Success during and after the Ph.D. (and in many other non-academic spheres of activity) requires not only talent and grit, but, in addition, autonomous initiative as well as strong social interaction and communication skills. I believe that these are malleable traits, that individuals can work mindfully to improve themselves on. A good education should help people grow in all these dimensions.

What do you think?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Kids in a foreign land

There is a rather touching article today by Clifford J. Levy in the NYTimes Magazine titled "My Family's Experiment in Extreme Schooling" where he describes his originally-from-Brooklyn family's experience of immersing their kids for several years in a Russian-only school in Moscow. I think these were some brave parents, to trust in their children's ability to flourish in a foreign environment. Of course, this is what immigrant families in the U.S. go through all the time, but it's nice to see a first-hand account of what the experience is like. Vasiliy Bogin, the school's director, seems a fascinating figure.

Update (9/19/11): There is a great video accompanying this article that describes the Humanitarian school in Moscow, made by Julie Dressner (Clifford Levy's wife) and Shayla Harris:

And here's a blog entry by her about it:

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Democratizing education

A NYTimes Article today titled "Skillshare Raises $3.1 million to turn everyone into teachers" highlights, a fascinating site where anyone can sign up to teach a class about something that they know well, and anyone can sign up to learn.

What a wonderful idea! While continuing education classes have existed for decades, I believe this is a game-changer because of how easy it makes offering a class of your own. It points to a bright future where education, in the purest, most enjoyable sense of the word, is democratized. Apparently, this is the very goal, as noted in the article:
Mike Karnjanaprakorn, one of the founders of the company and its chief executive, said he hoped Skillshare would broaden access to classroom learning and education... 
“We can use the Web to democratize learning and make it affordable and accessible to anyone,” he said.
By making it easy to take classes in any topic that you care about, I think this approach will restore the genuine enjoyment of learning that is sadly missing in many traditional classrooms filled with students following a predetermined sequence of courses under the corrupting influence of the carrot-and-stick grading system.

A quick peak at the website shows varied offerings: "How to pick your poison: Sake basics", "The art of the cold call", "How to get profiled in the NY Times",  "How to get a job at a startup", "Running 101: from 0 to your 1st race", "Game mechanics for social apps" ...

Most classes, understandably, are geared towards a general audience and are for a single session; but I wonder if in a few years we may not see full-length courses on this site or another like it, that require much more advanced pre-requisites, for instance, engineering courses like Calculus or Communication theory? (Given the increasing number of engineering Ph.D.'s that go to industry jobs, I think there will be no dearth of prospective teachers). And if so, would the availability of such courses affect enrollment in traditional universities?

Skillshare is currently available in New York (and seems to be starting soon in Philadelphia and San Francisco as well). I can't wait for it to come to L.A.

P.S.: I also discovered that the Skillshare founders have a nice blog to go with their website.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The increasing prevalence of excellence

Mt. Everest
(Photo credit: babasteve)
An interesting phenomenon that occurs in many fields is that what may seem at first to be an extremely rare and difficult achievement, can become increasingly prevalent over time.

It's easiest to find examples of this in athletics, sports, and other physical activities. Think, for example, of the four-minute mile. Originally thought impossible, it was first broken in 1954 by Roger Bannister. Now professional mid-distance runners routinely run a mile under four minutes (the current record is Hicham El Guerrouj's 3:43.13 minutes, set in 1999, nearly 17 seconds lower). Or consider the feat of climbing to the top of Mount Everest. Since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's pioneering accomplishment in 1953, there have been more than 4000 ascents to its summit.

The contributing factors in the repetition of these achievements are i) an awareness that the achievement in question is physically possible, ii) the desire and motivation to repeat/exceed the achievement, and iii) improved understanding leading to better techniques and training.

Anthony Tommasini, the music critic for the NY Times, writes about a similar trend in piano playing in his article "Virtuosos becoming a dime a dozen."  He writes that the ability to play nearly any piano piece with technical proficiency, once considered a rare talent, is now relatively common:
That a young pianist has come along who can seemingly play anything, and easily, is not the big deal it would have been a short time ago. The overall level of technical proficiency in instrumental playing, especially on the piano, has increased steadily over time. Many piano teachers, critics and commentators have noted the phenomenon, which is not unlike what happens in the last decade or so the growth of technical proficiency has seemed exponential.
He adds:
 A reason that pianists are getting technically stronger is that as in sports, teachers and students are just learning to practice the craft better, becoming better conditioned and getting better results... another reason is that pianists are rising to the challenges of new music that pushes boundaries.
Indeed, this phenomenon can be observed nearly all other fields of human endeavor, as varied as painting, writing, architecture, even science and engineering. Often we find achievements that are striking at first, but that serve also to set a bar. This bar is then met or even exceeded, repeatedly, by many others, by that process of striving for excellence and self-improvement that is the natural order of things for our species, taking advantage of cumulative experience and advances in techniques and training.

That core drive for self-improvement is in all of us, actualized through it may be in different ways, different directions, and to different degrees, according to our situation in life, our interests, and our experiences. Whatever the context, the process of education must be primarily about preserving, cultivating, and enhancing this core drive.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tenure is for dreamers

(Photo credit: fmosca)

An online opinion column in the NYTimes has a entry today, "Vocationalism, Academic Freedom, and Tenure," in which Stanley Fish reviews a book titled “The Faculty Lounges: and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For,” by Naomi Schaefer Riley.

He describes the key arguments in Riley's book:
The standard rationale for academic freedom is that the business of the academy is to advance knowledge by conducting inquiries the outcomes of which are not known in advance. Since the obligation is to follow the evidence wherever it leads rather than to a “pre-stipulated goal” (a phrase Riley takes from my writings), researchers must be free to go down paths as they suggest themselves and not in obedience to a political program or an ideology. That is why (and again she is quoting me) “the degree of latitude and flexibility” that attends academic freedom is “not granted to the practitioners of other professions.”
But, Riley observes, “a significant portion of [the] additional degrees that colleges have added in the past few decades have been in vocational areas,” and those areas “simply do not engage students in a search for ultimate truths,” but instead have pre-stipulated goals. “Do we need,” she asks, “to guarantee the academic freedom of professors engaged in teaching and studying ‘Transportation and Materials Moving,’ a field in which more than five thousand degrees were awarded in 2006?”
Riley makes the same point about “vocational courses” that have been around for a while. Freshman composition, for example, “does not demand that faculty ask existential questions.” Ditto for courses in “Security and Protective Services,” and “Business Statistics.” These are, she says, “fields of study with fairly definitive answers” and it would be hard to argue that they are “essential to civilization.” Those who teach these and similarly vocational subjects “don’t really need the freedom to ask controversial questions in discussing them.” 
He points out that her work is essentially a two-pronged argument against tenure. On the one hand, in many subjects, the faculty don't need tenure because they are not addressing "controversial" questions or even fundamentally "new" questions. On the other hand, those that are addressing such questions are not doing much that is relevant to society's needs, and are instead engaged primarily in writing convoluted papers on obscure topics. In fact, they're not even fit to teach, and are better off being replaced by non-tenured faculty who are well prepared to teach general courses. In Riley's world, then, there are two kinds of faculty: those that do relevant research, but don't need tenure because their work is not controversy-generating, and those that do irrelevant research, who don't deserve tenure because they serve no useful purpose for society.

So it turns out that the very people who, under traditional definitions and standards, would be protected by academic freedom and tenure, shouldn’t be in colleges and university classrooms in the first place because they are selfishly pursuing their own narrow interests and contributing little to the well-being of either students or society. The entire machinery of tenure is based on the imperative “to say something new,” but, Riley contends, there aren’t very many new things to say, especially in the humanities: “With thousands of PhDs being minted every year, topics are drying up by the minute.”
Wouldn’t it make more sense, Riley asks, to hire broadly educated persons who made no pretense of “advancing knowledge” to teach most of the courses? “Wouldn’t someone who has spent more time on that broad education and less time trying to find some miniscule niche on which to write a dissertation be the better teacher for most of those classes?”
In other words, let’s get rid of the research professors for whom academic freedom and tenure make some sense, at least historically, and have a teaching corps that understands itself to be performing a specific task (the imparting of basic skills to undergraduates) and can be held to account directly when their superiors determine that their performance is inadequate. In short, we need more instructors who don’t merit tenure, and once we have them Riley’s conclusion is inevitable: “There is no reason why tenure shouldn’t be abolished at the vast majority of the four thousand degree-granting colleges and universities in the United States.” There is no reason because every reason usually given in support of tenure and academic freedom has been shown to undermine itself in the course of this quite clever argument.

Fish does not agree with this argument of Riley's. He says that

it demonstrates the practical and political necessity of defining academic work in a way that justifies the resistance to monitoring by external constituencies. 
What Riley shows is that vocation-oriented teaching, teaching beholden to corporations and politically inflected teaching do not square with the picture of academic labor assumed by the institutions of tenure and academic freedom. She says that, given the direction colleges and universities are going in, faculty members have little claim to the protection of doctrines that were fashioned for an academy that holds itself aloof from real world issues, either political or mercantile. 
I say, and have been saying for years, that colleges and universities should stop moving in those directions — toward relevance, bottom-line contributions and social justice — and go back to a future in which academic inquiry is its own justification.
This is certainly an interesting, contrarian, viewpoint, at a time when Deans and Presidents all over are making the case that universities should be more responsive to society's needs, and are soliciting funding for specific research areas.

I am not sure I agree entirely with either Riley or Fish. Riley's arguments appear shallow and unconvincing: they show little appreciation of the connections between an educator's passion for teaching and his/her practice of free inquiry, and exhibit a similarly limited understanding of the practical reasons why someone working in a vocational field like transportation engineering might still want tenure (in all fairness, I should note that I have not read her book; my comments are based entirely on how her work is portrayed by Fish).

I do find myself more sympathetic to Fish, because of his support for the academic enterprise. Where I part ways with him is his view that colleges and universities should not move towards greater relevance and engagement with society. He has fallen for a false dichotomy. It is not a question of either / or. The academic world spans a wide range of disciplines, with differing objectives and rationales.  We do not need to choose between academic inquiry that is directed towards specific ends, and academic inquiry that is its own justification. We can, and should, support both kinds of academic inquiry. And if tenure is (and I believe it is) useful for faculty in pursuing either of these, whether directly by allowing freedom of expression, or indirectly, as is often the case, by providing them an attractive environment of stable employment that compensates for the relatively low pay they often receive compared to a more monetarily rewarding but less inquiry-oriented job in industry, then it is worth preserving.

What tenure and academic freedom and research funding (both private and public) ultimately buy for us as a society is a large body of dreamers. Some of these dreamers, indeed, spend their lives developing the cure for a disease that affects millions or technologies that bring us together, which is wonderful. Others, however, plod along for years sincerely and wholeheartedly investigating an obscure subject that only a few of their colleagues completely understand or care for. And that should be lauded too. What these dreamers have in common is a deep faith that it is fundamentally worthwhile to seek after knowledge, to learn, to discover, to reshape old ideas into new forms, to seek wisdom, to think, to build, to create, to demonstrate, to read, to deliberate, to reflect, to write.

Their dreams, not necessarily in a flashy or immediately obvious way, but often quite subtly and indirectly, not necessarily in leaps and bounds, but slowly and steadily, not necessarily individually, but as an aggregate collective, sustain and nourish the spirit of humanity. Their dreams inspire curiosity and improve our understanding of matters big and small and obscure and pertinent. Their dreams open up new possibilities. Their dreams expand our horizons, inch by inch, in every possible dimension.

This is neither to say everyone who deserves tenure gets it, nor that everyone who gets tenure deserves it; but to the extent that this is the case, what is called for is a reform of the process by which tenure is granted, not an eradication of the very concept. 

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Accepting change

Richard Thieme, a writer, formerly a priest, is a brilliant speaker, whom I had the occasion to see recently at a conference. His website, Thiemeworks, has many interesting pieces of writing by him. Here's a passage from an essay titled "The face we see in the digital mirror", that merits reflection (italics mine):

Think of the common spiritual practice of “journaling,” for example. Journaling began when people like James Boswell participated in the discovery and creation of a different kind of sensibility and self by using pen and paper to bring it into being. Today, bloggers engage in a web of self-discovery that older generations dismiss as shallow, but the collective self they are co-creating is in fact appropriate to the technology. When William Harvey described the circulation of blood, it is a historical fact that no physician over 40 ever accepted his theory. In religious life, too, new revelations are accepted one funeral at a time, but along a much longer timeline. Generations must pass away before the new sun can rise and shine.
In more mundane aspects of our lives, however, this impact cannot be avoided. Aspects of our lives that used to be unthinkably accepted as fixed by tradition, for example, have become modules in a self-generated persona or trajectory for which we are increasingly required to accept responsibility. Teaching children to learn how to learn is more important than teaching children stuff. Teaching children how to assemble themselves in an ongoing way is more important than teaching them how to live in a fixed and rigid way in a context that refuses to remain stable and thereby undermines that very fixity.
We used to be born into a religion, for example, and now we change religions and “shop for churches.” We used to stay married, but more and more people divorce and remarry. We used to choose a vocation and stay with it, but now we expect to have several careers in a lifetime. In every dimension of our lives, that which we took for granted as divinely ordained was in fact determined by an unvarying context for our lives, and it is that very context that our technologies undermine and transform. Then new contents inevitably flow into the new contours generated by a new context.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Love in education

Alisha Coleman-Kiner is the Principal of Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tennessee. President Obama gave a commencement speech at her school this year, to recognize the impressive gains it made in graduation rates under her leadership.

She wrote a refreshing and inspiring essay reflecting on her experience, where she argues that " ...before we set high expectations for children, we have to love them."

Coleman-Kiner writes that education cannot be separated from other basic needs for children - food, shelter, family happiness. Love, a deep sense of caring, lights the way towards fulfilling all these needs. Education must therefore be built on a foundation of a heartfelt connection between the educators and students. She writes eloquently:
Children cannot eat love, but our love for them directs us to help them find sustenance. Love cannot shelter them, but our love for them directs us to support them by acknowledging the academic challenges that can result from homelessness and, when we can, helping them to secure shelter. Love cannot stand between children and abuse, but it can help them heal.
Success with children who have been cast aside by our society begins with love. Typical reforms may succeed through early adolescence when they depend on technical capacity and behaviorist methods, but by the time children reach adolescence and have fully absorbed the negative messages about their value to the larger society, the only thing that will get through is love. We can try to capture love through lists of characteristics and action steps, but until we delve into the real meaning and value of love in education, we will all be spinning our wheels.
How did I make such massive gains at Booker T. Washington? I loved my children. I hired people who would love my children. And then I did my job.
This essay hits the nail on the head. An educator who does not care deeply for his/her students, and who, avoiding the warm generosity of love, maintains a "professional" detachment at all times, cannot adequately facilitate and support them in their learning, and cannot ultimately inspire them to go beyond that learning.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Ending Ignorance (part 1)

A couple of months ago, I came across an article in the New York Times, titled "A Better Way to Teach Math" lauding a new pedagogical approach called JUMP Math, used so far mostly in Canadian schools, that has proven very successful.

John Mighton, the founder of the successful JUMP math program, has written a couple of books. Interested in finding out more about his experiences and thoughts on education, I read through one of them, called "The End of Ignorance."

Mighton's principal contention is that everyone can do well at any subject, learn anything. This is the refreshing premise behind the JUMP program, that there is no fundamental reason for any student to do poorly in math at any level at school.

You only have to think about this for a second to realize what a shockingly controversial statement this is in our society, where the majority of people do not consider themselves mathematically "talented". As Mighton writes:
As a society, we are living under a vast spell or illusion. We have effectively hypnotized ourselves, but not in a single performance. It has taken twelve or thirteen years of school to put us in a suggestive state so that we all believe more in our limitations than in our potential, and it is difficult for anyone to snap their fingers to break the trance. 
Many people are convinced that there is a gene for mathematics. This gene seems to come with an expiry date, though, and most people can remember the year it gave out --- when they had a particularly bad experience with the subject.
People cling stubbornly to the idea that children will excel in a subject only if they are blessed with the right genes in spite of all the evidence from early childhood development that contradicts the notion of inborn abilities.
So what goes wrong? Mighton's analysis is that for successful learning it is crucial to proceed in small steps with incrementally increasing complexity, while maintaining an environment of excitement due to successes, rather than frustration due to failure.
Unfortunately, children do not have  the intellectual fortitude needed to deal with constant failure. Marilyn Burns has said that "success comes from understanding," but one might just as well say that understanding comes from success. Success is not simply a by-product of learning, it is the very foundation of learning. Generally the things that children can do successfully make sense to them, even if they don't completely understand what they are doing. 

(to be continued.)

Thursday, June 02, 2011

An Education as Free as Air and Water

We all need heroes, role models. People we admire, whose lives offer us examples of how to lead the good life.

One of mine is Peter Cooper, the great nineteenth century inventor, industrialist, and philanthropist.

Peter Cooper lead an immensely productive life. He was, by turns, a tinkerer, a cabinet-maker, a grocer, the owner of a glue factory and then an iron works, and president of two telegraph companies. He built America's first steam locomotive, called Tom Thumb, which famously ran (but lost, only due to a malfunction before the finish) a race against a horse in 1830. I like the account of that race given by John Latrobe, a lawyer with the Baltimore & Ohio railroad, who was an eyewitness. The locomotive was pulling about three dozen men in a car behind it. Latrobe writes:
... the day was fine, the company in the highest spirits, and some excited gentlemen of the party pulled out memorandum books, and when at the highest speed, which was eighteen miles an hour, wrote their names and some connected sentences, to prove that even at that great velocity it was possible to do so. 
Peter Cooper invented Gelatin (his wife Sarah came up with the name "Jell-O"). He was involved with the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable. And, in 1876, at the very young age of eighty-five, he ran, albeit unsuccessfully, for President of the United States as the candidate of the Greenback Party, which advocated moving from the rigid gold-backed monetary policy of the day to a more flexible currency like we have today.

He made a fortune, of course, with his many successful endeavors. But what I have always found most admirable about  him is what he proceeded to do with his fortune. In a panegyric account of Peter Cooper titled "The Honest Man" that appeared more than five decades ago in American Heritage magazine,  Peter Lyon writes:
Dimly at first but with increasing clarity, his fellow citizens, and especially the humbler among them, perceived that Cooper earnestly professed, in everything he did, to serve mankind. Hence his inventions; hence even his manufacture of glue. To Cooper the fact that he made money was, if not actually irrelevant, at least not the main goal. Money was a kind of temporary reward for moral behavior, for doing good; the main goal was, as he phrased it, “to give the world an equivalent in some form of useful labor for all that I consumed in it.” His inventions, his commercial enterprises, were not enough. He found time to work in other ways as well: for the Public School Society, which fought to make education compulsory; on New York City’s Common Council, where he had in his charge the project of insuring the city’s water supply; for the Juvenile Asylum, for New York faced then as now the problem of juvenile delinquency; for the New York Sanitary Association; for a free milk dispensary.
Perhaps his most lasting good deed, the one that has had the most impact, was his founding of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in 1859, popularly known in his time as the Cooper Institute. A place where education could be, in his words, "as free as air and water".

Lyon indicates that Cooper was motivated by the story he had heard many years before, from a visitor to a polytechnic university in France:
“What made the deepest impression on my mind,” Cooper said later, “was … that he found hundreds of young men from all parts of France living on a bare crust of bread in order to get the benefit of those lectures. I then thought how glad I should have been to have found such an institution in the city of New York when I was myself an apprentice … I determined to do what I could to secure to the youth of my native city and country the benefits of such an institution … and throw its doors open at night so that the boys and girls of this city, who had no better opportunity than I had to enjoy means of information, would be enabled to improve and better their condition, fitting them for all the various and useful purposes of life.” 
Since its founding, through its classes and public lectures, this Cooper institute has been a vibrant center of intellectual life in New York City. Barely a year after its founding, on February 27, 1860, the then-presidential-candidate Abraham Lincoln gave a well-received speech in its Great Hall, which he ended with the striking words "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it." Talking in part of the widely disseminated photograph shown here, which was taken that very day by the photographer Mathew Brady, he said "Mr. Brady and the Cooper Institute made me president."

Since its founding, many tens of thousands of students have benefited from Peter Cooper's generosity. To this date, Cooper Union offers a first-rate free education in the form of a full tuition scholarship (valued at over $120,000 in today's terms) to every admitted student. With about 900 students pursuing majors in Architecture, Art, and Engineering, it is one of the most selective colleges in the United States (it was recently rated by Newsweek as the #1 most desirable small school in the country, and is routinely identified as being among the very best schools in other popular college rankings).

It was privilege for me to have the opportunity to attend this unique institute as an undergrad. Here I took classes not only in Computer Programming, Thermodynamics, Linear Algebra, Electronics, and Telecommunications, but also in History, Philosophy, Ethics, Poetry, French and Chinese. Here, working with a close-knit group of brilliant classmates, I gained confidence in my abilities by working over a winter break, just for the fun of it, to design and simulate an 8-bit computer from scratch; by writing an AI program that not only played Othello, but also spat out choice Shakespearean curses at the opponent when it was not doing well; and by designing and fabricating a new class of microwave digital gates for my senior group project. It was while wandering its halls, gripped by  the romance and idealism of youth, that I was influenced by faculty who not only challenged their students to work very hard and to value the life of the mind, but also exhorted them to do something meaningful with their lives. And here it was, through many late pre-exam nights in the EE department lounge with friends, learning together by teaching each other, that I discovered my calling. The enduring warmth of this great man's magnanimity afforded me four of the happiest years of my life, and helped me build a strong foundation for the future. I am forever grateful for it.

Peter Cooper has continued to be an inspiration in my life. Motivated by his example, I have sought to give back in my own way. Because the research experiences I had as an undergrad played a big role in my going to graduate school and pursuing a career in academia, each summer I host two to four undergraduate student interns in the lab I direct at USC, giving them a chance to experience what graduate-level research is all about, by working independently or in pairs on a sizable experimental or theoretical project over the course of five to ten weeks.  A good number of them have gone on to do Ph.D.'s at places including Columbia, U. Michigan, MIT, Stanford, UIUC, USC. Six of these, over the years, have been from my alma mater, including one that joined just today. By my reckoning, I have at least a dozen more to go... (even then only symbolically, of course; it is impossible for me to ever completely repay the debt I owe Peter Cooper and the wondrous place that bears his name.)

The new Cooper Union building in New York City, built in 2009.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Paper tigers in academia

Yesterday, while flying back from a workshop in the east coast to Los Angeles, I came across a well-written, provocative (and already quite controversial) article in New York Magazine, titled "Paper Tigers", by Wesley Yang. The subtitle is a good summary of the main question the author concerns himself with: "What happens to all the Asian-American overachievers when the test-taking ends?"

There are certainly shortcomings in this essay.  For instance, Wesley Yang doesn't adequately cover the female perspective. And any such broad cultural commentary cannot avoid making sweeping generalizations that do not apply to many Asians in America (though he does acknowledge this himself). 

However, I also found myself in agreement with some key observations that Wesley makes. He talks about something called the "Bamboo Ceiling" that he describes as 

an invisible barrier that maintains a pyramidal racial structure throughout corporate America, with lots of Asians at junior levels, quite a few in middle management, and virtually none in the higher reaches of leadership. 
The failure of Asian-Americans to become leaders in the white-collar workplace does not qualify as one of the burning social issues of our time. But it is a part of the bitter undercurrent of Asian-American life that so many Asian graduates of elite universities find that meritocracy as they have understood it comes to an abrupt end after graduation. If between 15 and 20 percent of every Ivy League class is Asian, and if the Ivy Leagues are incubators for the country’s leaders, it would stand to reason that Asians would make up some corresponding portion of the leadership class.
And yet the numbers tell a different story. According to a recent study, Asian-­Americans represent roughly 5 percent of the population but only 0.3 percent of corporate officers, less than 1 percent of corporate board members, and around 2 percent of college presidents. There are nine Asian-American CEOs in the Fortune 500. In specific fields where Asian-Americans are heavily represented, there is a similar asymmetry. A third of all software engineers in Silicon Valley are Asian, and yet they make up only 6 percent of board members and about 10 percent of corporate officers of the Bay Area’s 25 largest companies. At the National Institutes of Health, where 21.5 percent of tenure-track scientists are Asians, only 4.7 percent of the lab or branch directors are, according to a study conducted in 2005. 
Analyzing the situation, Wesley notes that it's not primarily an issue of overt bias, but of unconscious bias due to perceptions.  His view is that these perceptions are shaped by Asian family values.  He argues, provocatively, that the very values that many Asian parents drill into their children: being humble, self-effacing, rule-obeying, trouble-avoiding, and hard-working, which are helpful for getting them in large numbers into top schools and getting excellent grades, may actually create a barrier to entering leadership positions in America: 
Maybe it is simply the case that a traditionally Asian upbringing is the problem. As Allyn points out, in order to be a leader, you must have followers. Associates at Pricewaterhouse­Coopers are initially judged on how well they do the work they are assigned. “You have to be a doer,” as she puts it. They are expected to distinguish themselves with their diligence, at which point they become “super-doers.” But being a leader requires different skill sets. “The traits that got you to where you are won’t necessarily take you to the next level,” says the diversity consultant Jane Hyun, who wrote a book called Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling. To become a leader requires taking personal initiative and thinking about how an organization can work differently. It also requires networking, self-promotion, and self-assertion. It’s racist to think that any given Asian individual is unlikely to be creative or risk-taking. It’s simple cultural observation to say that a group whose education has historically focused on rote memorization and “pumping the iron of math” is, on aggregate, unlikely to yield many people inclined to challenge authority or break with inherited ways of doing things.
Wesley Yang talks about an organization called LEAP which runs leadership training programs for Asian and Pacific Americans, and quotes its CEO J.D. Hokoyama: 
Aspiring Asian leaders had to become aware of “the relationship between values, behaviors, and perceptions.” He offered the example of Asians who don’t speak up at meetings. “So let’s say I go to meetings with you and I notice you never say anything. And I ask myself, ‘Hmm, I wonder why you’re not saying anything. Maybe it’s because you don’t know what we’re talking about. That would be a good reason for not saying anything. Or maybe it’s because you’re not even interested in the subject matter. Or maybe you think the conversation is beneath you.’ So here I’m thinking, because you never say anything at meetings, that you’re either dumb, you don’t care, or you’re arrogant. When maybe it’s because you were taught when you were growing up that when the boss is talking, what are you supposed to be doing? Listening.”
This certainly struck a chord with me. I cannot count how many times over the years I have heard faculty colleagues comment negatively on Asian Ph.D. students that keep really quiet in class and in research meetings. Their complaint is that this not only makes it hard to gauge what they are understanding and what they are not, but also feels unfair in an academic environment because they are depriving the group of the benefit of their own ideas. I know of at least one colleague who prefers not to take on quiet Asian students in his group for this reason.

Tigers - pay attention! It's not enough to do well on paper. You have to find your voice and learn to be more participative and assertive. You will be more likely to be perceived to be helpful to others and to have leadership qualities, which will open up more opportunities for you in the future.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011


Photo from Summerhill Photographers

, founded in 1921 by A.S. Neill, is an unusual school that everyone should know about. It provides complete freedom to the children in what, how, and when they learn. It has been a great inspiration to the small number of similar schools around the world.
Quoting from its website:

Today, all over the world, education is moving towards more and more testing, more examinations and more qualifications. It seems to be a modern trend that assessment and qualification define education. 
If society were to treat any other group of people the way it treats its children, it would be considered a violation of human rights. But for most of the world's children this is the normal expectation from parents, school and the society in which we live. 
Today many educationalists and families are becoming uneasy with this restrictive environment. They are beginning to look for alternative answers to mainstream schooling. 
One of these answers is democratic or ‘free' schooling. There are many models of democratic schools in all corners of the globe, from Israel to Japan, from New Zealand and Thailand to the United States. 
The oldest and most famous of these schools is Summerhill, on the east coast of England.

Here are a few videos about this school:

It really is still ahead of its time. 

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Motivation and the Ph.D.

Recently, a couple of my colleagues sent around the following three articles to the faculty mailing list:

These are all criticisms of the modern Ph.D. system. The authors make two key points in common:
  • Ph.D.'s take too long.
  • There are few jobs for Ph.D.'s that relate to their research training.

On the face of it, it is hard to disagree with these articles, but there's more to the Ph.D. than these points would suggest. I'll limit my thoughts to the Ph.D. in engineering, which is what I'm most familiar with. The situation is quite different from field to field. While the duration of the Ph.D. is very long in the humanities (routinely taking 10-12 years), it is much shorter in many domains of engineering (4-6 years is the norm).

Nearly all engineering Ph.D.'s do get a job after graduation, but the quality and research-orientation of those jobs shows high variance. I recognize that a good number of the students who did their Ph.D. under my guidance are now in jobs they were sufficiently qualified to do after their masters (perhaps even undergrad!) Not only is there a great paucity of tenure-track academic positions, there are also relatively few industrial research jobs these days, as many companies have laid off their internal groups doing basic "blue skies" research. In my own area of communication networks, aside from a few examples like Microsoft Research and Qualcomm, it's hard to find a large industrial research group in the U.S. (There are more opportunities in the rest of the world, though, for students willing to move to places like China or India). 

Nevertheless, I think there is something deeply valuable about the Ph.D. process, that is not accounted for in the discussion in these articles. It is (or, at least, should be) a far more autonomous learning process than the undergrad or masters degrees because of the focus on independent research. Students are challenged to develop their critical thinking abilities and gain confidence in their ability to reason from first principles. By going in depth, they reach the very boundaries of knowledge, and in many cases for the first time in their lives, help contribute something new to human knowledge. And some students even find a way to balance this depth with  breadth acquired by attending a wide range of talks and courses in fields outside their main focus area. Despite its length, I think a Ph.D. in a high quality engineering program is not a waste of time. 

With respect to jobs, I would like to think that even those of my students who are now in engineering jobs that didn't absolutely need a Ph.D., find that they are better equipped in some ways because of their Ph.D. experience. As for the paucity of academic and research positions, there is a different perspective on this: that the resulting competition may be a good thing. One of the comments posted online by Igor Litvinyuk (who I found to be a faculty member in Physics at Kansas State) on the Nature article "Reform the PhD system" is worth re-posting here in full, as it offers a sharp rebuttal (I should note, however, that I don't share this market-based view entirely): 

Fierce competition for academic positions is the only way to maintain excellence in academia. That's why academia needs more qualified Ph.D.-holding candidates than there are vacancies. Otherwise every Ph.D. graduate would be guaranteed a tenure-track position. It seems like that is what most of the authors and commentators here advocate. But society's interest in having its investments in research to be put into most efficient use by the most qualified people surely makes some extra spending to maintain competition and sustain excellence worthwhile. The populist goal of matching every Ph.D. candidate with a well-compensated satisfying permanent job in academia may seem humane and desirable, but it is not necessarily in the best interest of society as a whole. There is an obvious contradiction in most of the articles here: they claim that Ph.D. overproduction as an established fact, while at the same time stating that unemployment level among Ph.D. holders is lowest of all educational levels. 
So earning a Ph.D. clearly improves everyone's employment prospects. How does it square with the argument that many of those positions do not require a degree and resources are wasted on training people for them? Even if that argument had some merit, those extra costs have to be compared with advantages the society gains from having an excellent merit-based academic research system. Some measure of frustration and disappointment among the less successful contestants who chose to participate in this competitive system is unavoidable and is not unreasonable price to pay. Is it really all that different from other walks of life where competition is the norm, i.e. sports, literature or show business? After all nobody forces people to enter those Ph.D. programs, do they?
So if nobody forces people to enter Ph.D. programs, and many of them don't get research-oriented jobs, why do they enter them? And what influences where they end up after the Ph.D.? Over the years, having observed and interacted with many Ph.D. applicants and students in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at USC, I have made the following observations:

  • For many students from international universities (at USC, we get many applicants from Asian countries such as China, India, Iran, South Korea), doing a Ph.D. in the U.S. is primarily a ticket to the U.S. job market in high-tech areas. For most of these students, there is no motivation to stay in academia. They also see relatively little significance in the distinction between a creative research-oriented position, and a regular development/programming position in industry. They are often quite happy at the end of their Ph.D. to land a salaried industry job, regardless of its research content, because it pays well, is relatively stress-free, and guarantees a happy and stable  future in the U.S.

  • Many students who come straight from undergrad or an MS with little prior exposure to a non-academic setting, might be academically strong, but are still unmotivated and unclear about why they are doing a Ph.D. It's where the conveyor-belt of life has brought them, precisely because they were good at school: having been good at school, they specialized in science and mathematics in high school; having been good at high school, they went to engineering school; having been good at engineering school they applied to grad school, so here they are. All their life the schooling system has controlled their destiny and pointed them towards a Ph.D. They get here, and go through the Ph.D. trying to do their best at it. At the end of it though, feeling at least a little burned out by having faithfully followed the system all these years,  all they want to do is finally, finally, enter the "real world" in the form of any decent job that they can land (research-oriented or not).

  • Students who have had prior industry experience and then come for a Ph.D., particularly from within the U.S., are generally more motivated to seek research positions after the Ph.D., than students in the above category. They appreciate and value the intellectual autonomy afforded by a research position as compared to a non-research position.

  • The bar for academic positions is extremely high. Students need to demonstrate not only a rich publication record, but also should have worked on cutting edge topics, should be outspoken, and should have good networking skills to have interacted with faculty and researchers at other places who can refer/recommend them. For this reason, generally only those Ph.D. students that are extremely motivated to go after a tenure-track position from the very beginning figure out how to get them. (Paradoxically, though, given my previous two observations, a good number of those that go on to tenure track faculty positions have never been in industry.)

  • In engineering, another interesting, albeit relatively smaller, category of Ph.D. students are those that go on to found or work at small startup companies. Here again, with their focus on stability and their concerns about visa issues, I rarely see international students venture in this direction. In some cases, this category consists of students following their entrepreneurial faculty advisors; in many others, it's an expression of the great self-confidence and independence needed to be an entrepreneur. I would argue the Ph.D. is helpful for these students by exposing them to the possible opportunities for a high tech start-up.

My observations suggest that the kinds of jobs that Ph.D. students in engineering seek and find after their graduation (and to some extent, even the richness of their experience in graduate school) are very much a function of their individual motivation when they enter the Ph.D. program. This, in turn, depends on several factors, including (1) whether they have had prior exposure to an industry job before coming for the Ph.D., (2) whether they are international students, and (3) their risk-orientation. It would be nice to see these hypotheses investigated  more systematically through quantitative surveys.