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Tag Archives: education

An interesting and disturbing article came out today from Nancy Folbre on Economix. It describes how grants are given to universities–with strings attached–to hire economics professors with views that are consistent with conservative foundations.

No problem with grants to help fund the services of good professors, but when the political views of professors become the condition of hire, academic integrity is lost.

Concerns about this trend are often framed in terms of academic freedom, putting the onus primarily on universities. After all, if they don’t like the strings attached to donations, they can turn them down.

An editorial in the St. Petersburg Times, which recently broke the story about the Koch Foundation’s support for two professorships at Florida State for which it has the power to screen appointments, musters some admirably old-fashioned outrage.

But, as that editorial points out, the issue reaches well beyond principles of academic freedom.

In the marketplace of ideas, people with a lot of money can buy whatever they want, and that’s fine. Unfortunately, they also have the power to influence other people’s ideas in ways that violate principles of justice, undermine democracy and distort the truth.

I am optimistic that the best US universities recognize the poor influence on their curriculums and refuse such grants. Still, there are plenty of colleges and universities hungry for money that I can see them accepting, and apparently that is happening.

What a shame.


Interesting story here that tells about a new study that has been published in the journal Science. The study claims that introspection has been linked to a particular area of the human brain.

Here’s how it worked: Researchers briefly showed 32 healthy people computer screens containing patterns, one slightly brighter than the rest, similar to tests used in eye exams. First, the volunteers had to rapidly choose which screen contained the brighter pattern. Because some people are simply better observers, the computer adjusted the level of difficulty to each individual so that the task was equally hard for everyone and no one could be completely sure their answer was correct.

Then the volunteers had to rate how confident they were in their answer. The idea: People with good introspective abilities would be more confident when they were right, and more likely to second-guess themselves when they really were wrong. People who are just brash and overconfident might lead an outsider to think they were right, but in reality wouldn’t show that correlation.

Brain scans showed the people’s introspective ability was strongly linked to the amount of gray matter in a spot of the prefrontal cortex, right behind the eyes, the researchers reported.

In addition, the study found people who were more introspective also had stronger functioning white matter in that part of the brain — the nerve fibers that act as a telephone system to allow cells to communicate with others.

The economics here might claim some relevance for improving labor or management performance, but that is not really the point here. It is, though, an interesting finding for anyone involved with education.

But much more research is needed to address the which-came-first question: Are these brain differences innate? Or do they reflect this brain region getting stronger as people try to spend more time monitoring their own mental state, meaning it’s an ability that might be improved with training?

It seems to me that many educators already treat this ability as something that can be improved–with training that involves reflection and dialogue.

Wow. The Case for $320,000 Kindergarten Teachers makes a pretty solid case that good early childhood education makes a reliable and positive difference for people. If we could see a few more studies like this, and we privatize schooling enough, we might actually see teachers getting salaries that will attract talented people to teaching.

I can not help but remember my one year teaching second grade. That year ended with me feeling more accomplished than in any of the 25 years I have taught secondary and college. The kids, with a bit of my help, turned themselves into aggressive learners. At the time I had the feeling–I still have the feeling–that they would all be successful students and successful in life.

The point is only that I have much sympathy for this study. I really believe it is probably true, the link between good early education and a successful life. Then, we still face the problem, how do we know when a teacher is good or not? Who are going to give that big salary to?

Computers at Home: Educational Hope vs. Teenage Reality—this article responds to some research done with young teenagers, looking at computer subsidy programs for lower income families and comparing future school performance with control groups–either groups without computers or higher income families.

The result? “We found a negative effect on academic achievement.” When computers were given to the kids, their scores went down in math and languages. The one positive effect? Better computer skills.

Economists are trying to measure a home computer’s educational impact on schoolchildren in low-income households. Taking widely varying routes, they are arriving at similar conclusions: little or no educational benefit is found. Worse, computers seem to have further separated children in low-income households, whose test scores often decline after the machine arrives, from their more privileged counterparts.

As a teacher, I was simply nodding my head at this, not surprising. But now I have doubts. Maybe there are other legitimate ways to interpret the results. Yes, computers probably do offer kids further distraction from study. Does that mean their education suffers?

Other studies have been done that show brain activity is much higher for someone playing a computer game than when they sit in a classroom or read a textbook. Something is going on there. What are they learning? Games, of course, are one way to learn strategy, and planning. Not math and language, but important skills none the less.

A new study needs to be done. Do not test these kids for math and language, test them for critical thinking skills. I bet the results are very different. Then develop some more games that enhance those math and language skills we like so much.

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For better or worse, two articles today point to a more mature economy here in China. One says,– China’s new generation picky about factory jobs. It claims that there are shortages of labor in manufacturing–something I heard from friends but could not quite believe–partly because of restrictions for too many people to get out of the agricultural sector.

The second is titled–China to bid on US high-speed rail projects. The irony here might be painful for some in the US, that high tech manufacturing needs to be imported from a country that has dominated low tech manufacturing over the last 25 years.

One of the difficult lessons of development economics is that investment somehow needs to encourage movement away from primary industry in favor of manufacturing and–finally–the tertiary sector. A subset of manufacturing might be a move from low tech manufacture toward high tech, where higher wages can be generated and better education can be rewarded.

That brings us back to the article on shortages in the labor markets, where younger workers are demanding more from a job than just a living wage.

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As a teacher of economics, editorials on education interest me on two levels. One, the debate about learning strategies and how that dictates teachers’ approach in the classroom. Two, education is obviously important as an investment both in social welfare and potential production.

Cynthia Tucker’s article, Improving education begins with better teachers, is an unfortunately shallow critique of the direction education policies are taking.

Educating all of our children, including those from poor and dysfunctional homes, is clearly in the national interest. In a globally competitive market, and with nations like China and India emphasizing high-quality education, we simply cannot afford not to educate everybody.

And it does no good to point fingers at parents — some of them busy trying to make ends meet, some of them functionally illiterate, some of them simply irresponsible. No child chooses to be born into a home without the obvious advantages.

I’ve heard from too many public schoolteachers who blame their students’ poor performance on their parents’ failures. That suggests to me those teachers don’t have much faith in their students’ ability to learn or in their own ability to teach them.

My own experience is not only from US schools, but would suggest that teachers’ attitudes are often a reflection of management and administration. Teachers often–very often–find themselves in a work environment where the ideals they embraced in their education studies are ignored in favor of high scores and keeping parents happy.

Despite the strides made in learning science, and the obvious advantages of active learning and critical discussion, classrooms are often still a reminder of old ideals, rote learning and unquestioned acceptance of the facts.

Why does it happen? Yes, sometimes because a teacher does not really accept the research and they revert to the methods of their own teachers. Just as often, it happens because administration demands obedience and results at the cost of an interactive environment.

What to be done? For one, quit appointing MBA’s to manage schools. Yes, schools are in many ways a business, but–to borrow the metaphor–management should be schooled in the proper methods of production, and learning production is complex enough to require great devotion of study on its own.

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This story is about Farmville, something I know about only because some of my old students are playing it on Facebook. I wanted to read the story because I have this suspiscion that this is another one of those computer games that is quite educational.

I was–at first–disappointed.

And with FarmVille, “there’s an appeal that’s just cute, with the amazing ways people take the farms and develop them out as their own.”

In the end, he hopes, “people will see this as a fun little escape.”

“It was completely mindless and just mine,”

Later, the story sounded a bit more like this was something educational, maybe people just don’t recognize that it is.

To John Reifsteck, a corn-and-soybean grower in Champaign County, Ill., there are parallels between virtual and actual farming. “Success at FarmVille requires foresight, persistence and a willingness to help others — just like farming in the real world,” he wrote in an online column last month.

This makes people uncomfortable and people tend to dismiss it, but research consistently suggests that game playing–video games too–stimulates our minds much more than sitting in a classroom.

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foreignHere is a story on how high tech companies in the US are having a hard time recruiting innovative engineers because of tough immigration requirements.

The immediate question–Why is the US not able to produce its own innovative engineers? It does get briefly mentioned in the article but is quickly dismissed as, “a slouching education system that cannot be easily fixed.” Interesting because many Americans argue that US education standards–at least at university level–are the best in the world.

Another engineer claims that there are plenty of qualified Americans for these jobs, hinting that companies hire the foreign engineers because they are cheaper. The real point for these people is protectionism and buy American nationalism, but whether the US produces its own engineers or not, it benefits everyone to have cheaper resources, including cheap innovation.

Like has been mentioned before in this space, that protectionist attitude will, more than anything else, keep the US in recession and world trade stagnant.

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I was intrigued with this story about kids becoming critical thinkers and overacheivers after being introduced to the game of chess.

chessEvery one of my students learned to play chess this year. What’s more, they all began to think more clearly and often, and think before they acted. Achievers blossomed and borderline drop-outs are now making the honor roll and are seriously thinking about college and jobs that do not involve fries or result in an orange jumpsuit and leg irons.

Think of the potential. During a time when funds are running dry, if they’ve not already evaporated, and handwringing about how to turn children into thinkers seems to be growing, a chess movement in education could be just what we need to begin to revive education.

Turns out that many of these kids are facing expulsion from school because they can not afford tuition. The recession has taken jobs from many of them or their families, and some who have been accepted to university can not find funding.

Their response? Challenge President Obama to a game of chess. Not sure I understand the point, but who knows?