Book Recommendation

The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel (Harriman House, 2020) is nominally about personal financial management. As you might expect from the title, the book discusses psychology — references to people like Daniel Kahneman are sprinkled throughout. It also connects to history and politics. For example, the last chapter would be useful for a course on political economy or democratic erosion in the United States. But more importantly, and my main reason for posting about it, is that it is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Some of the wisdom that it contains:

Expectations always move slower than facts.

Happiness is results minus expectations.

Use money to gain control over your time, because not having control over your time is a drag on happiness.

No one is impressed by your possessions as much as you are.

People are keenly aware of how much they’ve changed in the past, but they underestimate how likely they are to change in the future.

The most important part of every plan is to plan on the plan not going according to plan.

Scientific Teaching: A Review

A colleague who was cleaning out his office gave me a copy of Scientific Teaching by Jo Handelsman, Sarah Miller, and Christine Pfund (W.H. Freeman and Co., 2008). Intrigued by the title, I gave it a quick read. The book contains some general information on active learning and presents a template for organizing faculty development workshops on topics like assessment, but it was not the guide to effective teaching that I had expected. The book does not discuss empirically-backed research on how people learn. At all.

Instead, Handelsman, Miller, and Pfund favorably discuss learning styles, a zombie educational concept that refuses to die. They heavily reference Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post-16 Learning: A Systematic and Critical Review by Frank Coffield, David Moseley, Elaine Hall, and Kathryn Ecclestone (Learning and  Skills  Research  Centre, 2004) as support for their argument. In the process, they fundamentally mischaracterize the report’s findings.

For example, on page 9, they write that Coffield et al. (2004) “identified over 70 unique approaches to learning styles . . [that] range from models that explain learning styles as innate . . . ‘flexibly stable’ or . . . that contribute to learning efficacy.” Coffield et al. (2004) state very clearly that these are claims made by those who advocate for the concept of learning styles, not that evidence exists for those claims. In fact, when Coffield et al. (2004) examined thirteen commonly used learning-style inventories, they found that twelve did not meet one or more basic criteria for internal consistency, test-retest reliability, construct validity, and predictive validity. They conclude that the field of learning styles ‘‘is bedeviled by vested interests because some of the leading developers of learning style instruments have themselves conducted the research into the psychometric properties of their own tests, which they are simultaneously offering for sale in the marketplace . . . After more than 30 years of research, no consensus has been reached about the most effective instrument for measuring learning styles and no agreement about the most appropriate pedagogical interventions” (p. 137).

The lack of evidence for the existence learning styles was also discussed in detail by Harold Pashler,  Mark McDaniel, Doug  Rohrer, and Robert Bjork in ‘‘Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence’’ (Psychological  Science in the Public Interest  9, 3 [2008]). They note in this article that adjusting teaching  techniques  to students’ expressed preferences for particular forms of instruction (i.e., learning styles) does not correlate to observable cognitive or skill aptitudes, and that only a handful of published studies citing the existence of learning  styles had conducted valid experimental tests. The lack of evidence for learning styles was also discussed in this 2009 interview with the cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham.

In sum, Scientific Teaching‘s reliance on a concept that was widely discredited both before and soon after its publication renders it misleading and, therefore, useless.

Creating Wicked Students

I recently read Creating Wicked Students : Designing Courses for a Complex World by Paul Hanstedt (Stylus Publishing, 2018). Hanstedt argues, I think correctly, that:

“most of our students are not like us . . . most professors are highly autonomous in their learning, interested in high levels of abstraction, and intrinsically motivated when it comes to their fields. This is not the case for most of our students. Some of them simply view our classes as a hoop they have to jump through. Others don’t understand what all the fuss is about, why these ideas are so much more important than, say, real life; and others just struggle. They may have come to college without the tools we had or without the preparation to master high levels of thinking and reams of content. Almost all of them have been shaped by a testing culture that puts an emphasis on content mastery over conceptual thinking” (p. 44).

Students therefore need to be “forced to take responsibility for their own learning . . . There is really only one way for people to gain authority: They must assume it, repeatedly and often , . . That sense that one is capable of engaging in complex problem-solving can only come from solving complex problems” (p. 65-66).

These complex problems are unstructured, require the transfer of knowledge from one context to another, and are authentic — making them very different from the academic tasks that students typically encounter.

I found the book thought provoking and decided to try including some wicked problems in my comparative politics course. I’ll put an example in my next post.

Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide

Christopher L. Caterine’s Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide (Princeton U. Press, 2020) is packed with sound career advice for people who have obtained doctorates. The book is also highly relevant to anyone who is just contemplating post-baccalaureate study, because it points out three systemic flaws in graduate education:

First, graduate programs typically emphasize the production of subject matter experts, leading to what Caterine calls the overspecialization trap:

“[N]obody outside the academy can monetize knowledge of . . . constructions of gender in eighteenth-century French novels. Even scientists aren’t safe on this count . . . many still face hiring bias because of the excessive specialization that graduate school requires. Trying to convince nonacademics to value what you study is probably a losing battle” (p. 89).

Just as doctorate holders should emphasize how they study when applying for jobs, graduate programs need to be oriented around methodological training rather than the delivery of factual knowledge. Any worthwhile graduate program needs to teach its students how to quickly distill large amounts of unfamiliar and often contradictory information down to its essentials and present “a coherent narrative in a public forum on short notice” (p. 123). This skill is in constant demand by employers, whereas being the world’s foremost authority on a post-Augustan Roman poet is not.

Second, the elements of good teaching are also immensely beneficial job skills, yet how many graduate programs train their students to become competent teachers? Good teaching requires one to be adept at project management, public speaking, running meetings, balancing divergent stakeholder interests, and emotional intelligence (p. 104). For example, running a classroom debate on a policy topic for which there are no cut and dried answers is an example of the ability to engineer “discussions that orient people toward a shared understanding or goal” (p. 108). These are the kinds of attributes that employers prize.

Finally, just like anyone else, academics need to present themselves and their expertise in an understandable, unambiguous manner. Judging by the terribly written cover letters and resumes I have seen from job applicants, this is not a skill that people commonly acquire through graduate education.

So, for anyone out there thinking about graduate school, what’s the evidence that a program in which you are interested will adequately prepare you for a non-academic career? If you are already university faculty, what aspects of your work have value outside of academia, and how can you clearly communicate this to potential employers? Leaving Academia: A Practical Guide will show you how to find answers to these questions.

Review of McGuire’s Teach Students How to Learn

I stumbled across Teach Students How to Learn by Saundra Yancy McGuire (Stylus, 2015). Like The New Science of Learning by Doyle and Zakrajsek, it contains some useful advice. Here is a brief review:

The bad

The book has an excessive amount of personal anecdote — such as conversations with and exam scores of individual students — but no presentation of statistically significant findings on overall changes in students’ performance. The author also favorably discusses learning styles and the Myers-Briggs inventory, neither of which is scientifically supported. A more concise presentation with a greater emphasis on empirical evidence would be more persuasive.

The good

McGuire’s focus is on teaching students about the benefits of metacognition, including a specific method of introducing them to Bloom’s taxonomy (Chapter 4). Why is this effective? In high school, students earn high grades without much effort, so they enter college suffering from illusory superiority and ignorant of the actual learning process. Coaching students on specific study strategies (Chapter 5) will therefore benefit them. One example: as professors, we typically know what shortcuts to employ to efficiently find and retain information contained in a book. Students, in contrast, may not know what an index is or how to use one. McGuire also rightly discusses the role of motivation in student learning (Chapters 7-9), and she points out that there are both student-related and professor-related barriers to motivation. These barriers can be mitigated by the instructor.

A final comment

The underlying assumption of this book is that students want to learn, and if they are equipped with the right tools, college becomes a more valuable and rewarding experience for them and their professors. While I think this is a noble and generally accurate sentiment, I’m seeing an increasing number of U.S. undergraduate students for whom college is simply a credentialing process. For these students, the diploma is the goal, learning is not.

Updating Comparative Politics, Part 2

In my search for a new book to use in my comparative politics course, I sort of stumbled across Coffee and Power: Revolution and the Rise of Democracy in Central America by Jeffery M. Paige (Harvard University Press, 1997). I say “sort of” because Paige, a sociologist by training, was a prominent scholar of agrarian revolution and development in the 1980s and 1990s — a name I had encountered as a doctoral student.

Search results for his publications turned up Coffee and Power, so I pulled it from the library. The book meets many of my criteria for being worthy of inclusion in my course. It is a multi-country study set in Central America that goes beyond the traditional white male Britain-France-Germany presentation of comparative democratization. The writing is academic but not too heavy with pointless jargon. And it serves as a good example of how to do research in the field.

The problem, as with the book I’m trying to replace, is that Coffee and Power, being than two decades old, is now very much a historical analysis. I don’t think a 400-page work that discusses events from the 1930s through the 1980s will succeed in getting undergraduates here interested in additional study in comparative politics. But I did figure out a way to use the book for what I think would be a good assignment, shown below.

Read Jeffery M. Paige, Coffee and Power, p. 53-84. Do a qualitative comparative analysis of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Classify each country as “high” or “low” for the following independent variables related to the coffee industry:

  • concentration of land ownership (average area of farm per number of farms)
  • farm productivity (amount grown per land area)
  • farm productivity (average yield)
  • technological sophistication (use of high-yield varieties or fertilizer)

Based on your findings, what can you conclude about the economic class structure and the likelihood of democracy in each country?

Updating Comparative Politics, Part 1

The good old days.

Last semester I was finally somewhat satisfied with the way I had organized my comparative politics course, after much failed experimentation (described, for example, here, here, and here). However, I would like to replace one of the books, Around the Bloc by Stephanie Elizondo Griest. Around the Bloc is a good fit for my course for a number of reasons. First, the author is Tejana, and I like students to read authors with different cultural backgrounds. Second, the book recounts Ms. Griest’s experiences in Russia, China, and Cuba, which automatically serve as fodder for comparison. Third, students learn about someone who at their age ventured forth into unfamiliar environments and came back better for it. Fourth, the book is stylistically well-written. The problem? Griest’s adventures took place twenty years ago, and they are described across 400+ pages. While I think students need to have some grasp of history to understand contemporary politics, I prefer that a book of that size include more recent events.

I would love to hear suggestions about possible replacements for Around the Bloc.

The Intel Community and the Theory of Knowledge

Today we have a guest post from David Young, Head of Theory of Knowledge and Ideas, The English College in Prague. He can be reached at david [dot] young [at] englishcollege [dot] cz.

A while ago I was asked to  develop a critical thinking course for an International Baccalaureate (IB) school as a preparation for its Theory of Knowledge course.  As someone who teaches global politics, I was drawn to two books: David T. Moore’s Critical Thinking and Intelligence Analysis (2nd ed 2007), and the invaluable The Art of Intelligence (2014) by William J. Lahneman and Ruben Arcos. Both have had a significant impact on my teaching and my position as the school’s co-coordinator for Theory of Knowledge (ToK), a core element in the IB programme.

In ToK, students are supposed to formulate and evaluate knowledge claims and ask questions about the acquisition of knowledge, making it one of the most challenging elements in a congested pre-university curriculum. I’ve found the analysis of intelligence and the ethical issues surrounding its collection and dissemination to be an exciting way for students to learn about ToK concepts such as reason, imagination, intuition, and sense perception. From my perspective, using principles of intelligence analysis has both enhanced my understanding of ToK and improved the course for students.
Continue reading “The Intel Community and the Theory of Knowledge”

Review of Learning Assessment Techniques

LATsSome of more widely-known practical guides for college teaching:

A recent addition to the list is Learning Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty by Barkley and Manor (2016).

The bulk of this book consists of an easy-to-use directory of assessment techniques, many of which can be found in the other books. Here, however, the emphasis is on how the data generated by each technique can be collected, analyzed, and packaged for dissemination.

The focus on the links between learning goals, learning activities, and outcomes assessment can be summarized with two questions people should be asking themselves:  Continue reading “Review of Learning Assessment Techniques”