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2014 November 12

Autodidacts (against and for)

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:05
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Lately I’ve seen a lot of blog posts talking about autodidacts (people who learn things without teachers) as if they were some strange breed of alien being. For example, there is the post Ed tech promoters need to understand how most of us learn | The Hechinger Report, which includes the following paragraphs:

This is a very particular take on learning: the autodidact’s take. We shouldn’t mistake it for most people’s reality. Productive learning without guidance and support from others is rare. A pair of eminent researchers has gone so far as to call the very notion of self-directed learning “an urban legend in education.”

In a paper published in Educational Psychologist last year, Paul A. Kirschner of the Open University of the Netherlands and Jeroen J.G. van Merriënboer of Maastricht University challenge the popular assumption “that it is the learner who knows best and that she or he should be the controlling force in her or his learning.”

There are three problems with this premise, Kirschner and van Merriënboer write. The first is that novices, by definition, don’t yet know much about the subject they’re learning, and so are ill equipped to make effective choices about what and how to learn next. The second problem is that learners “often choose what they prefer, but what they prefer is not always what is best for them;” that is, they practice tasks that they enjoy or are already proficient at, instead of tackling the more difficult tasks that would actually enhance their expertise. And third, although learners like having some options, unlimited choices quickly become frustrating—as well as mentally taxing, constraining the very learning such freedom was supposed to liberate.

And yet, to paraphrase the economist Larry Summers: There are autodidacts. Look around. We all know at least one successfully self-taught expert, and the tech world is teeming with them. How’d they get that way?

While I do see a benefit to teaching (or I wouldn’t spend so much of my time teaching), I don’t think that the autodidacticism should be dismissed as “an urban legend in education”. In fact, the end goal of all my teaching is to turn out students who can continue to learn on their own, without needing the continuing crutch of having a teacher lead them. I’m not sure how successful I’ve been in a lot of cases—I see students for a 10-week class and then they disappear, giving me no clue whether they have developed new ways of learning that stay with them or they have just managed to fake it through my course and relapsed to expecting to be spoonfed immediately afterwards.

I think that Annie Murphy Paul has it wrong when she claims that few people can be autodidacts—she seems to be assuming that it is some sort of innate gift that one is born with (Carol Dweck’s hated “fixed mindset”). I am convinced that becoming an autodidact is something that most people are capable of. I recently read an account of one student who turned herself into an autodidact, and what prompted her to do it—How to become a programmer, or the art of Googling well | okepi:

He was the very picture of the competent hacker I held in my head, that I nursed a secret crush for. But most extraordinary, he threw something together using tools that he’d never used before. Yes, he did spend more time on Google than he did coding, but through sheer force of googling and a prior, general picture knowledge of how these things worked, he’d roped together a pretty sophisticated and working app. He knew where Twilio belonged in the grand hierarchy of things, knew exactly where to apply it, and so, even without knowledge prior, was able to figure things out.

And I despaired. How do you get so good that you can build something out of nothing?

The rest of the semester passed glumly, and without incident. Come winter, I began to panic again. Driven by the need to become employable, I tried my hand at a couple Code Academy website tutorials. Hm. Not bad. I made an attempt at my first website—pretty terrible, just one, static page full of boxes and awful colors, but it was something. Something I realized. Just like my code-god compatriot, when I didn’t understand something, all I needed to do … was google it.

To a large extent, the difference between the autodidact and the ordinary student is not one of competence, but of confidence. It is Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset”—the conviction that you can learn the material and are not doomed forever to learn only what someone predigests for you.  There are tremendous resources now available to everyone that can turn them into autodidacts: Wikipedia, for example, has thousands of excellent articles in all sorts of sciences (and the science articles suffer much less from point-of-view problems and vandalism than pop culture articles).  And, as “okepi” says, Google can find all sorts of answers for you (she goes on to much larger accomplishments later in her post).

I learn a lot of stuff on my own by reading Wikipedia articles, reading survey articles, reading research papers, googling stuff in StackExchange, going to weekly research seminars, even (sometimes) taking classes.  [The astute reader will have noticed that I did not include MOOCs or videos in that list—despite the claim that MOOCs are a godsend for autodidacts, I have found them profoundly unmotivating, and videos as a learning tool are just too bloody slow for my taste—I fall asleep before anything has been conveyed.]

There are some things for which teachers are essential—it is very hard to learn a foreign language well on your own, without a native (or near-native) speaker to help you hear the differences between what you say and how a native speaker would say it.  Theater is hard to do on your own (though a group of autodidacts could get together to learn to act).  Feedback on writing is very valuable, as is having an audience for public speaking. And there are times when it is useful to have the structure of a scheduled course to help with time management—to keep you on task to meet an external deadline when there are dozens of other things to do. But in a lot of cases, a textbook is all the structure that is needed, or an on-line tutorial document, or even just a particular problem that needs to be solved shaping what needs to be learned.  I learned those skills decades ago, and I think that my son learned them well by the time he was halfway through high school.

So I know how to be an autodidact, but how do I teach it to others?  That is a question I have no easy answers for. I try giving open-ended assignments, I try scaffolding by having students search for answers to specific questions, I try deliberately leaving material out of a lecture or a lab handout and telling students to go read about it in Wikipedia, and I try whatever else I can think of that will get students to learn on their own.  For some students something clicks, and they start doing more learning on their own—sometimes a lot more. For others, I’ve not found a secret sauce.

I particularly despair of those students who take copious notes in class and want to record my lectures (I have two of them this quarter)—they seem to have developed the attitude that I am the sole source of knowledge, and that if they just cram everything I say into their memories, they’re golden. But I’m not interested in hearing my words echo back to me—if I wanted that, I’d lecture to an empty classroom.  I’d much rather the students wrote down two or three keywords from my lecture, so that they could find what others had to say on the topic using Google and Wikipedia—or even looked up the topics I’m covering in the textbook (which does have an index). I’d rather that they thought about how to derive the algorithms we are learning in class, rather than trying to memorize what are really fairly arbitrary recursive definitions (and ones that are more easily derived than memorized).

Does anyone have any good techniques for converting note-takers into autodidacts?  Those are the techniques I need to learn (and I didn’t really see anything in Teach like a Champion that would help).


2014 May 12

Answer getting

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:16
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I read a post last week by “Mathy McMatherson”, talking about students in his math “intervention” classes (which is the current euphemism for remedial math):

A Student with an Answer-Getting Mentality will:

Blurt Out 1-2 Word Answers because eventually I’ll say the right thing and the teacher will acknowledge it and then move on with the lesson and I can stop paying attention. If the teacher asks me why, I can just say “I don’t know” and they’ll explain it or just call on someone else. It’s easy for me to give a quick answer and be wrong. It’s hard for me to admit I struggle with this and need time to work it through knowing that it’ll probably be wrong anyway.

Assignments are Turned In On-Time but are Incomplete or Incorrect because I just want to be done with the problems as soon as I can so we can move on to the next thing. Once it’s done, it’s done and I don’t want to think about it again. I’ll get it back tomorrow with a grade so my teacher knows I did it, but I already forgot what the problems were about anyway.

Take notes and do problems with the teacher, but becomes disruptive during those ‘investigations’ they make us do every once in a while. When we take notes, I know what I need to write down. When we do problems, I know what the answer looks like—I just look at the examples we just did. But when we do investigations, I never know what they want us to do. Most of the time we don’t even finish—what’s the point? And the next day they just tell us what we were supposed to do anyway. Just tell me how to do it so I can move on.

Avoid Showing Work because the answer keys just have the answers on them, so I guess I should just do as much as I can in my head. This makes it easier for me to copy too, since I don’t have to worry about all that scratch work. But, deep down, I know I don’t show my work because I’m not confident in all of the steps that lead up to the answer and I don’t want to admit that by trying to put it down on paper and letting other people see my mistakes. Mistakes are bad, right?

“I’ll do it because the teacher told me” mentality. All I want is for the teacher to not bother me and let me sit here and think about other things. If I turn in my work, they’ll leave me alone.

These behaviors are not, of course, unique to remedial students.  I see versions of the behaviors even in quite good college students, continuing into grad school. Disruptive behavior is rare (college students just don’t bother showing up if they don’t want to participate), but avoiding showing work, forgetting a problem as soon as it is “done”, doing things only because the teacher requires it, turning in incomplete or incorrect work, blurting out random guesses—those I certainly see.

Of course, recognizing the ubiquity of a problem, or even its cause, does not necessarily lead to a solution. I still don’t know how to budge the students off their answer-getting mindset. Unfortunately the blog post does not furnish much in the way of suggestions, ending with

One of the things I’ve realized is that any intervention strategy has to address both this Answer-Getting mindset (which, as I write this post, I guess I could also call a Failure-Avoidance mindset) as well as any missing mathematical skills. This Answer-Getting mindset acts as a wall between my classroom and any long-term understanding—before any real learning can occur, I need to break these habits. As long as a student lives in fear of failure, they’ll never be able to learn as effectively as they could be. My very first goal in any intervention needs to be breaking down this wall and creating some kind of intrinsic motivation and self-worth.

So breaking down the answer-getting mindset is important, but how does one do that?

I try to combat the answer-getting mentality by requiring students to write up design reports that describe how they arrived at the design they came up with, and grading them primarily on the accuracy of their description and process, rather than the quality of the final design (though serious errors in the design or any errors in the schematic will result in a “REDO”). Most of my design problems don’t have a single “correct” answer, and the only way I can tell whether the design is any good is by following their chain of reasoning in creating it. As I mentioned in my previous post, some students are beginning to do a careful job of describing their design methods, while others appear to be just pulling numbers out of the air (there may be method in their designs, but they keep it well hidden).

To reduce “failure avoidance”, I try to keep any one assignment from having huge weight (I don’t have exams, for example, but only quizzes with the same weight as for weekly design reports, and with the same redo policy).

To reduce dawdling until the problem goes away, I commit to staying in the lab until every group has completed a working project.

None of these measures are enough, by themselves or together, to eliminate answer-getting mindset, but I think I’m making a little progress.  Does anyone have suggestions for other strategies I can try?


2014 April 16

Between halves of the hysteresis lab

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 19:47
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In Hysteresis lab too long, I planned for today’s lecture:

The groups then struggled with coming up with the right RC time constant for their oscillators. I’m probably going go over the calculation in class tomorrow, since I think everyone got a reasonable result, but not everyone was clear enough about their method to write it up well. I want to see clear explanations in the lab report, so I’ll go over it to help them smooth out the bumps in their explanations.

Some other things I want to do tomorrow:

  • Talk about Carol Dweck’s work on mindset, as one of the students frequently wonders aloud whether the class is too difficult for her, and some of the other students may be thinking that they “don’t have the ability”. So far as I can tell, everyone in the class has the ability to master all the material in the class—but I need to get them out of “fixed mindset” into “growth mindset” and recognize that they can do more than they credit themselves with, if they are willing to work for it.
  • Have them go over their computations of the finger-touch capacitive sensor and compare answers with each other. I want to make sure that they express their answers in standard units (like pF) and that they are careful about units (mixing mils, cm, and F/m probably confused a lot of students).
    During the lab time, I had each group come up to use my micrometer to measure a double-thickness of packing tape. I must be using a different roll of tape than in previous years, because we consistently got about 1.7mil (0.043mm) with my Imperial units micrometer (that is we measured 3.4–3.5 mil for the double thickness), while last year I had 2.2mil.  I should probably get a metric one, but I may be too cheap to spend $14 on a tool I use once a year in this class. Besides, this gave me an opportunity to tell students the difference between mil and mm, which most of them did not know. Since a lot of materials still come with thickness specifications in mil, they should at least be aware of the existence of the unit and the potential for confusion. (Several had done the prelab homework assuming 2.2mm, which would be very thick packing tape.)
  • Assign one of the voltage-divider do-now problems from last year. Perhaps this one?
    • What is the output voltage for a 3-resistor voltage divider? (I’ll draw the circuit)
    • You have sensor whose resistance varies from 1kΩ to 4kΩ with the property it measures and a 5v power supply.  Design a circuit whose output voltage varies from 1v (at 1kΩ) to 2v (at 4kΩ).

And that was pretty much how things went today. I started with the fixed-vs.-growth mindset message, and pointed them to my blog post on Carol Dweck’s book (not for the book or the post, but for the pointers in the post).

I then spent a fair amount of time going over one way to estimate the needed RC time constant from the design spec for the period of the oscillator. I tried to make a few points: that we were using the simplest model we could get away with, that there is no point to spending hours on theory when a couple of minutes with 5¢ components would let them adjust the parameters, and that we were re-using the same few formulas over and over again. I told them that I was not going to give them detailed instructions for any of the design tasks—I likened it to the difference between getting a Lego kit with detailed instructions of what pieces to put together, or getting a pile of Lego blocks and being asked to build a box with a particular volume. I’m going to give them bricks, not kits.

I did show them the sort of signal one might see on the oscilloscope, just sketching it by hand, and talked with them about where this big deviation from what our model predicted came from (capacitive feedback from the output to the input). I used that as a segue to talking about capacitive voltage dividers, where we derived the formula from our standard voltage divider formula and the impedance of a capacitor. I pointed out that since we had not included this phenomenon in our model, the periods would end up being much smaller than the simple RC calculation suggested. I also told them that they should try to figure out what is going on when they have unexpected results like that—where are the models wrong and does it matter?

We spent just a little time on doing the finger-touch capacitance together. I did not set anything up for them, but just asked them to explain how they had done it, writing it up on the board as we went. We ended up with estimates of the finger touch capacitance around 45pF.



2012 February 16

Carol Dweck’s Mindset

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 20:28
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Last week I read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, and I was not impressed.  I had previously read some of her shorter articles, and was hoping for more detail, but the book does not deliver.  Like many pop psych books, it takes a simple idea that can be adequately explained in 5 pages and tries to fill 239 pages with it. Most of the book is anecdotes about famous people (businessmen and athletes, for the most part) classifying them in a simple binary system: growth mindset or fixed mindset.  Occasionally there is some justification given for the classification, but more often it is just a bald statement, followed by a “growth-mindset-good” or “fixed-mindset-bad” outcome.  About the only anecdotes that have any feeling of depth to them are the ones about herself.

The binary distinction she makes is between a “fixed mindset”—a belief that one’s abilities and disabilities are innate, and a “growth mindset”—a belief that one can improve almost any aspect of oneself.  I know very few people who fall neatly into one or the the other of those categories.  Most people believe that they can improve easily at some things and only with difficulty at others.  Depending what things you ask about and how hard you force a binary choice, you can get very different classifications for the same person.  Her observation (backed up by some decent studies) is that people who approach a learning task with a fixed mindset for that task do not do as well as those who approach the same task with a growth mindset.  The main advice that comes out of this observation is to praise process and effortful achievement, rather than innate ability or effortless achievement.  This is a fairly obvious, common-sense thing to do (I’d been practicing it for years before reading Dweck), but it is nice to see the education community finally backing away from the rather stupid position of praising everyone all the time in order to “build their self-esteem”.  Self-esteem is only good if it reflects reality, which means that it must come from achievement, not empty praise.

If you want to know what is in the book, without wading through the 239 pages, read the Wikipedia article on it, as there isn’t much more content to the book than is in the one-page article.

I was hoping that Chapter 8: “Changing Mindsets: a Workshop” would finally give some useful advice, but it turned out to be just an advertisement for the author’s Brainology™ product with almost no useful information at all!  It is really very clever marketing, to get people to pay $17 for an advertisement!

So, if you want to know about Dweck’s work and its implications beyond the one-page summaries in Wikipedia, newspaper articles (like this one in the NY Times), or TV shows (like this piece in Good Morning America) (all of which are better written than her book), you should read her research papers on her website. They are meatier than the book, and you can get both the evidence and the conclusions in a fraction of the time that it would take to read the book.  Try starting with one of these, for example:

Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance.pdf

Person vs process praise and criticism – Implications for Contingent Self Worth and Coping.pdf

I’ve not been able to find out what is in the Brainology™ product—the website is full of testimonials and the results of studies that (naturally) conclude that the product is great, but almost nothing about what is actually taught.  At $79 for a student, it is a very pricey product for

Given the contentless nature of the website and the book chapter about it, I’m certainly not planning to waste any of my money on Brainology™.

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