Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Valedectorian and the Piano Teacher

I came across two wonderful articles today.

The first is the valedictorian speech given by Erica Goldson at her high school graduation . There's also a video of her speech online.

Erica says (italics mine):
Some of you may be thinking, “Well, if you pass a test, or become valedictorian, didn't you learn something? Well, yes, you learned something, but not all that you could have. Perhaps, you only learned how to memorize names, places, and dates to later on forget in order to clear your mind for the next test. School is not all that it can be. Right now, it is a place for most people to determine that their goal is to get out as soon as possible.
I am now accomplishing that goal. I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. Yet, here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination. I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contest that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer – not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition – a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker. While others would come to class without their homework done because they were reading about an interest of theirs, I never missed an assignment. While others were creating music and writing lyrics, I decided to do extra credit, even though I never needed it. So, I wonder, why did I even want this position? Sure, I earned it, but what will come of it? When I leave educational institutionalism, will I be successful or forever lost? I have no clue about what I want to do with my life; I have no interests because I saw every subject of study as work, and I excelled at every subject just for the purpose of excelling, not learning. And quite frankly, now I'm scared. 
Erica is remarkably mature to have already come to these conclusions about the price of success in a conventional school. I am only just starting to understand the implications myself.


The second wonderful article I came across today was part 2 of a Piano teacher's response to the Amy Chua article, titled "Beyond Carrot and Sticks: How to Motivate Children (Or Why It's Not Necessary)". In this incisive commentary, she diagnoses (correctly, in my opinion) that the core problem with our societal attitude towards education is that it is based fundamentally on the presumption that most children are "lazy":
This vast disconnect between what we expect from children (laziness) and what’s actually there (energy, creativity and curiosity) goes right to the heart of what’s wrong with our educational system today. Our society has a collective idea that Learning Is Boring. “Obviously” children are not going to want to learn about negative numbers, write stories or practice piano on their own initiative, right? So either we have to bribe or coerce them.
She argues that both these approaches are flawed. She advances an alternative theory in five points, that I would summarize and rephrase in three as follows:
  1. Children are naturally creative, curious, and enjoy learning.
  2. But they won't learn in a vacuum; It is essential for the grown ups and others in their lives to interact with them and expose them to a wide range of possibilities through natural experiences and activities.
  3. Learning is not about passively accumulating information and doing well on tests, it's about actively exploring the world, finding out how it works, and developing passions. Towards this end, educational tv shows (or traditional classroom lectures!) are not effective and can actually dampen curiosity.
She adds:
Children do not need to be “motivated”. They come that way naturally. The danger is that they will become “demotivated” – either through passive TV-watching (usually when both parents work outside the home) or through an educational system that emphasizes “right answers” and “good marks” over intellectual curiosity. But, if they are given the tools that will let them pursue their passions, they won’t be spending six hours a day on Facebook
As a college teacher who encounters many such "demotivated" students each year (students who have been trained by the system to be motivated in a classroom setting only by the carrots and sticks of grading), I can tell you that the damage done to their spirits, their creativity, their sense of passion for learning, is deep and hard to reverse.  There has to be a broader recognition of how harmful this widespread "lazy kids" prejudice is.

Monday, January 17, 2011


I was reading an article in the NYTimes by Roni Rabin, which talks about an increasing trend towards young people valuing self esteem above other desires; it ends with the words:
“The idea has been that if we build their self-esteem, then they’ll do better in school and in relationships,” said Dr. Twenge, the “Narcissism Epidemic” author. “Well, that puts the cart before the horse. When you break down the research you see that kids who behave well and get high grades develop high self-esteem — not the other way around.”
Somehow, this rubbed me the wrong way. Setting aside the question of what it means for kids to "behave well", I can tell you that getting high grades does not always result in high self-esteem.

There is a well-known phenomenon known as the impostor syndrome, that affects many bright students in college and beyond, often precisely those that get high grades. It consists of a track of thought that loops continuously through these students' heads that says "I don't deserve to be here. All my grades and accomplishments to date were somehow a fluke. They will discover soon enough that I am a fake and an impostor, and then I'll be shamed and booted out."  It is a particularly insidious form of self-doubt, because it is precisely at moments of achievement, say doing well in a course or getting an award, that it raises their anxiety levels ("oh no! I've managed to fool them once more!").

The following article in Science Magazine describes the phenomenon well:

It notes:
Clinical psychologist Pauline Clance and colleague Suzanne Imes coined the term "impostor phenomenon" in a 1978 paper in Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice. They gave this name to high-performing but inwardly anxious women who were among the professionals attending Clance's group-therapy sessions. "These women do not experience an internal sense of success," wrote Clance. "They consider themselves to be 'impostors' ” despite scoring well on standardised tests, earning advanced degrees, and receiving professional awards. Early on, this phenomenon was associated with women, a belief that persists today. But subsequent studies, including another by Clance, have shown that men are affected in equal numbers.

I first heard of this term directly at a workshop on college teaching while I was a grad student at Cornell, organized by Prof. Richard Felder from NCSU. Felder is a well known educator, who wrote an article about this titled "Impostors everywhere" that is worth reading.

I remember heaving a sigh of relief when I heard him mention this phenomenon and thinking "Oh, so it's not just me."  Merely knowing that this unhelpful thought pattern had a name, and was not a burden I carried alone, made a big difference for me in ameliorating its impact, though it did not quell my voice of self-doubt completely. (For the record, I'm a lot better now. I still feel clueless at times, but am comforted that I'm not much more clueless than many of my peers.)

Having given the matter much thought over the years, I feel that what exacerbates the impostor syndrome, or perhaps even gives rise to it in the first place, is adopting the world view that ties one's sense of self-worth to one's achievements and treats achievement as the goal of one's efforts.

Conventional wisdom (as captured in the quote by Dr. Twenge I started this note with) propounds a chain of reasoning that goes as follows:   hard work => mastery => success and achievement => self-esteem. This achievement-driven philosophy of life sets success and achievement as the desirable ends of hard work, and asserts that self-esteem would be a natural product of such achievement.

In the academic world, where one's professional identity is formed entirely of one's achievements (just read the bio of any speaker's talk announcement), this is certainly the dominant discourse. And I do not deny there is some logic to it. We know from experience that there is a variation in quality, and such lists of achievements, particularly in the form of peer-reviewed awards and honors, provide a short-cut when forming a judgement about the quality of someone's work. Nevertheless, there is something fundamentally unhealthy about accepting this discourse uncritically.

There is a different way of viewing the world, that doesn't put achievement first.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna admonishes Arjuna:
कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन।  मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोस्त्वऽकर्मणि॥
To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits; let not the fruits of action be thy motive; neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction.  (2:47)

This philosophy, referred to sometimes as Nishkam Karma (desireless action), has much in common with the practices of Zen Buddhism, as well as Stoicism. See, for instance, the following related quote from Marcus Aurelius's Meditations:
If you work at that which is before you, following right reason seriously, vigorously, calmly, without allowing anything else to distract you, but keeping your divine part pure, as if you were bound to give it back immediately; if you hold to this, expecting nothing, but satisfied to live now according to nature, speaking heroic truth in every word which you utter, you will live happy. And there is no man able to prevent this. (3:12)
I think the deepest self-esteem arises naturally if one follows such a philosophy and consistently values learning, hard work, and service as meaningful  in themselves, and not merely as the means to achieving success or avoiding failure. It is challenging to adopt such a mindset in our competitive, achievement-driven world, but let that not stop us from striving.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Focus on effort, not talent

Yesterday, I wrote about Amy Chua's self-congratulatory article in the Wall Street Journal on her authoritarian approach to parenting. I came across a wonderfully well written response to that article today in a blog by a Piano teacher:

I agree with this blogger wholeheartedly that the other extreme of ascribing success to talent instead of effort is not a helpful approach to parenting either. It reminded me of the following article by Carol Dweck that appeared in the Scientific American in 2007, which makes this very point nicely:

Carol Dweck writes that what distinguishes successful learners from unsuccessful ones is a growth-oriented mindset that focuses on effort, not talent:
Several years later I developed a broader theory of what separates the two general classes of learners—helpless versus mastery-oriented. I realized that these different types of students not only explain their failures differently, but they also hold different “theories” of intelligence. The helpless ones believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that. I call this a “fixed mind-set.” Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so. Like Jonathan, such children shun effort in the belief that having to work hard means they are dumb.
The mastery-oriented children, on the other hand, think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work. They want to learn above all else. After all, if you believe that you can expand your intellectual skills, you want to do just that. Because slipups stem from a lack of effort, not ability, they can be remedied by more effort. Challenges are energizing rather than intimidating; they offer opportunities to learn. Students with such a growth mind-set, we predicted, were destined for greater academic success and were quite likely to outperform their counterparts.
We validated these expectations in a study published in early 2007. Psychologists Lisa Blackwell of Columbia University and Kali H. Trzes­niewski of Stanford University and I monitored 373 students for two years during the transition to junior high school, when the work gets more difficult and the grading more stringent, to determine how their mind-sets might affect their math grades. At the beginning of seventh grade, we assessed the students’ mind-sets by asking them to agree or disagree with statements such as “Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t really change.” We then assessed their beliefs about other aspects of learning and looked to see what happened to their grades.
As we had predicted, the students with a growth mind-set felt that learning was a more important goal in school than getting good grades. In addition, they held hard work in high regard, believing that the more you labored at something, the better you would become at it. They understood that even geniuses have to work hard for their great accomplishments. Confronted by a setback such as a disappointing test grade, students with a growth mind-set said they would study harder or try a different strategy for mastering the material.
The students who held a fixed mind-set, however, were concerned about looking smart with little regard for learning. They had negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something was a sign of low ability. They thought that a person with talent or intelligence did not need to work hard to do well. Attributing a bad grade to their own lack of ability, those with a fixed mind-set said that they would study less in the future, try never to take that subject again and consider cheating on future tests.
Such divergent outlooks had a dramatic impact on performance. At the start of junior high, the math achievement test scores of the students with a growth mind-set were comparable to those of students who displayed a fixed mind-set. But as the work became more difficult, the students with a growth mind-set showed greater persistence. As a result, their math grades overtook those of the other students by the end of the first semester—and the gap between the two groups continued to widen during the two years we followed them.
Dweck concludes that the key to raising smart children is to inculcate in them a growth-oriented mindset. She writes that "people also communicate mind-sets through praise. Although many, if not most, parents believe that they should build up a child by telling him or her how brilliant and talented he or she is, our research suggests that this is misguided." She argues that it is far better to commend them for their effort, to emphasize the brain's ability to grow, and share with them stories of people (e.g.,  mathematicians) who are successful because they pursue their interests with passion and hard work.

I also recommend another recent book that makes the same point: Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else, by Geoff Colvin.

Authoritarian Parenting

An article by Amy Chua, a professor at Yale law school, in the Wall Street Journal, titled "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior," defends an approach to parenting that is about as far from the humanistic, freedom-oriented, model of education as you can get.

The style of parenting she advocates essentially consists of the parent deciding what they want their children to be good at and forcing them to work extremely hard to become good at it.  I don't dispute that this approach to raising superstar kids can work in getting them to be stellar at violin or piano. Or chess --- the famous Polgar sisters ( are a good example of the results that can be obtained.

Nor do I dispute that a genuine desire to see one's children excel and do well in life is what lies behind such an approach to parenting.

But it is, nevertheless, deeply disrespectful of the child as an individual. She writes:
What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. 
I can think of a lot of things that are fun even if one is not good at it. Like attending sleepovers, having playdates, being in a school play, watching TV or playing computer games, choosing one's own extracurricular activities. All  choices that Amy gleefully reports that *she* chose to deprive her daughters of.

What it really boils down to is this. Does the end justify the means?  And is that end (of raising kids that excel at the piano or violin or chess or whatever other difficult skill you can think of that requires tens of thousands of hours to become very good at) fundamentally desirable in the first place? Why?

Parents considering this model should ask themselves: having never owned the momentum of their growth, having never set their own path, how will kids raised in such an environment chart their own course when they grow up? What kind of citizens will they make? What kind of world will they shape, whose own freedom has been subdued by will and violence, in the name of excellence or some other lofty goal of another's choosing?

As a college faculty member, I have seen too many failed products of precisely such a regimented approach to parenting. Timid young men in their twenties who write on their graduate school application that they know they should go to do a Ph.D. because their parents believe they should. Students who are brilliant at accomplishing a given task and getting A's in courses, but utterly unable to make progress independently in research unless given a lot of structure and external motivation. Students who are unable to bring themselves to question authority or mainstream ideas, who therefore find it difficult to think and act out of the box. Self-centered students who never volunteer or propose (without prodding) to do something that might benefit their peers, or be of service to others, or change their environment for the better in some way.

As the parent of children with a Chinese mother, who is nothing at all like her, I am particularly dismayed by the stereotype that Amy chooses to promote and propagate with her choice of words. What she is describing is better referred to as authoritarian parenting. I do not recommend it to you, regardless of your national or cultural background.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Advice on Ph.D.-level Research

In September 2002, while the memories of my own graduate school experience at Cornell were still fresh, and I was just starting out my career as an Assistant Professor at USC, I wrote this document offering advice to new Ph.D. students in my group.

I had nearly forgotten all about it. I stumbled across it this morning, and thought I'd share it here.

Experience has taught me that it's hard to give one-size-fits-all advice, but much of what I wrote then still seems reasonable to me. One sentence I would certainly change in the document, though, is "Always, always, focus your research on problems not tools..." I'm not entirely sure what I was thinking of when I wrote this. Although I have been generally more problem-oriented in most of my own research on wireless networks, in recent years I've gained much respect for research on developing and enhancing theoretical tools that can address a wide range of problems. For instance, in ongoing work, we have developed an algorithm for linear combinatorial optimization with unknown random variables. I'd consider this one of the most satisfying pieces of research I've worked on, precisely because it provides a theoretical tool that is broadly applicable to problems in many disciplines beyond my own.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Happy new neural connections

Oliver Sacks has a nice Op-Ed piece this morning in the New York Times, titled, "This Year, Change Your Mind". In the article, Sacks urges us to engage our brains in challenging new tasks and activities, and keep learning even as we age. Though we may tend to lose the motivation to keep trying out new experiences over time, and have less time to set aside from work, he notes that we're not so limited by our biology.  He writes:
While some areas of the brain are hard-wired from birth or early childhood, other areas — especially in the cerebral cortex, which is central to higher cognitive powers like language and thought, as well as sensory and motor functions — can be, to a remarkable extent, rewired as we grow older. 
He cites a number of examples of neuroplasticity (the ability of our brain to strengthen and create new neural connections) in adults, including this one:
I have had many reports from ordinary people who take up a new sport or a musical instrument in their 50s or 60s, and not only become quite proficient, but derive great joy from doing so. Eliza Bussey, a journalist in her mid-50s who now studies harp at the Peabody conservatory in Baltimore, could not read a note of music a few years ago. In a letter to me, she wrote about what it was like learning to play Handel’s “Passacaille”: “I have felt, for example, my brain and fingers trying to connect, to form new synapses. ... I know that my brain has dramatically changed.” Ms. Bussey is no doubt right: her brain has changed.
From an academic standpoint, I think these findings suggest another direction in which we should rethink our present system of education, which emphasizes learning only for children and young-adults, and  provides relatively fewer opportunities for life-long learning among adults in their thirties and beyond.

Anyway, I sure do look forward to continue changing my brain this year, and wish you many new neural connections too.