Teaching demands starting where comprehension ends

How Craig Barton wishes he’d taught maths” is from Timothy Gowers‘s blog, and many sections are not unique to math; they apply to teaching almost anything. Like this:

I’m jumping around a bit here, but a semi-counterintuitive idea that he advocates, which is apparently backed up by serious research, is what he calls pretesting. This means testing people on material that they have not yet been taught. As long as this is done carefully, so that it doesn’t put students off completely, this turns out to be very valuable, because it prepares the brain to be receptive to the idea that will help to solve that pesky problem. And indeed, after a moment of getting used to the idea, I found it not counterintuitive at all.

In English, “pretesting” as such is often not possible, but it’s useful to attempt to gauge students’s knowledge and go back to wherever the student is confused—which may be very simple aspects of language, like parts of speech. I often had debates about this subject in grad school, when other grad students or professors would lament students’s weak grasp of “basics” or “fundamentals” like comma rules. The stern professors had a point, in that university students should know those things, but I would counter that, if students don’t know them, it’s useful to teach them, even in “advanced” classes. Sometimes students seem to have not been taught much of anything in high-school English classes. Many high-school English classes have devolved into discussions of feelings and vague hand-waving about a given book, and students emerge from them with few concrete skills.

To be sure, sometimes the opposite is true. While teaching in grad school, I had a series of students, all good writers, all of whom had been taught by a particular teacher in a particular high school, and she apparently really drilled students in close reading and essay construction, like someone out of “The Writing Revolution.” The results showed. I meant to send her a letter thanking her but never did. I would guess that she did a form of “pretesting,” albeit without multiple-choice questions, to ascertain students’s skill levels and then base each day in class on what students know. I used to do something similar at times, by doing quick yes/no questions based on raised hands, in order to get a sense of where students were. Now, reading “How Craig Barton wishes he’d taught maths,” I think I should have spent more time and energy on assessment.

In most if not all subjects, it’s not possible to teach (or learn) advanced topics without mastering fundamentals, so an instructor should go back to wherever someone lacks mastery and begin building up from there. If that doesn’t happen, students—in the broadest sense, even outside formal school—at most muddle through and at worst waste everyone’s time. It’s nice to see someone as eminent as Timothy Gowers coming to a similar conclusion.

Links: Cheese and olive oil, Greenland is melting, aspirational mate pursuit, OLED computer displays, and more!

* “Greenland’s Melting Ice Nears a ‘Tipping Point.'” I wonder what it is going to take for us to start really doing something, like taxing carbon emissions and building a substantial number of new nuclear power plants.

* Funny book review: “Nice for What? A comic’s look at dating now.” Or, as Arts & Letters Daily puts it, “When did campy misandry become contemporary shorthand for communicating one’s feminist bona fides?” A favorite line: “Having a relationship is a lot like writing: To be good at it, you have to be interested in other people and believe you have something interesting to offer them in return. Many people who pursue either do so poorly because they are actually interested only in themselves.”

* CO2 rises in well-sealed, closed-door bedrooms, so maybe, when possible/feasible, we shouldn’t sleep with the door closed?

* “Aspirational pursuit of mates in online dating markets.”

* “Are we in the Middle of a Programming Bubble?” I have wondered about this, as it seems that programming, or some aspects of it, is paid disproportionately to many peer professions. So why don’t markets adjust? Or are markets adjusting? Is information about just how well programming can pay not propagating to the rest of the market? Or is it really really that hard and most people can’t do it?

* “15-inch, 4K OLED laptops are coming thanks to new displays from Samsung.” OLED displays are amazing, as everyone who has used one knows.

* “[The United Arab Emirates] Held Me as a Spy—And the West Is Complicit.” I don’t get the interest in or fascination with Dubai. The country’s marketing of its liberal values is just marketing.

* “California will sue Huntington Beach over blocked homebuilding.” Good news.

* Colleges and governments have been fleecing Millennials.

* “Another Side of #MeToo: Male Managers Fearful of Mentoring Women.” It’s like no one thinks of second-order consequences.

* How Ideologues Captured the Canadian Publishing Industry.

* Don’t go to law school, but you already know that.

* “Facebook Reports Record Profit.” Keep this story in mind when you read all those hysterical media stories about the company; as you’ve read here, there is no actual Facebook crisis—just a media one. Again, I agree with most of the Facebook criticism, but my verbal agreement is less important than the behavior of users.

* Cal Newport on Why We’ll Look Back at Our Smartphones Like Cigarettes.

* “Why is high school four years?” It could be three or five.

* Why fiction sales are plummeting. Some of the criticism from “Nice for What? A comic’s look at dating now” is likely applicable to fiction too.

* “The Millennial Generation and the Problem of Meaning: Explaining Jordan Peterson’s meteoric rise.”

* Parmigiano-Reggiano is Italy’s practically perfect food? I would have thought olive oil.

Links: The death of the blog, what we can infer from behavior, insect collapse, and more!

* “The Millions Will Live on, But the Indie Book Blog Is Dead.” Shoot. Am I dead?

* “Impeach Donald Trump,” note the source here.

* “Nothing Can Stop Google. DuckDuckGo Is Trying Anyway.” There is much caterwauling in the media about privacy, Google, and Facebook. Using DuckDuckGo is one of the easiest and simplest ways of (marginally) increasing a person’s privacy. Yet almost no one does it (except me). What should we infer from that?

* “I work with kids. Here’s why they’re consumed with anxiety.”

* “The Rise and Demise of RSS.” I still use an RSS reader most days.

* “The Art of the Pan: What’s the Point of a Bad Review in 2019?” To warn readers?

* “Is This Higher Education’s Golden Age?” An interesting read but sort of wrong: higher education does have a curious stranglehold over many people’s lives, and yet its largesse is concentrated among a small number of people.

* Turns out that “Extreme opponents of genetically modified foods know the least but think they know the most.”

* “Insect collapse: ‘We are destroying our life support systems.’” By the way, it also looks like we are living through climate change’s worst-case scenario.

* Interview with poet and culture guy Dana Gioia.

* “Elsevier journal editors resign, start rival open-access journal.” This is good news.

* “‘They Own the System’: Amazon Rewrites Book Industry by Marching Into Publishing.” This is not optimal in many ways, but I also don’t see an alternative. Book publishers and retailers have been complacent forever, and by the time they woke up (have they awoken?), it was too late.

* “China’s Looming Crisis: A Shrinking Population.” Maybe we ought to try harder to make sure we don’t face the same challenge.

* “Why do authors have to be ‘moral’? Because their publishing contracts tell them so. My compulsion to rub strangers up the wrong way in a political sense grows only more enticing.”

* Insurance problems may kill football.

Links: Concentration and the artist’s task, institutions advance faster than cognition, The Sopranos, and more!

* “A $20,243 bike crash: Zuckerberg hospital’s aggressive tactics leave patients with big bills. I spent a year writing about ER bills. Zuckerberg San Francisco General has the most surprising billing practices I’ve seen.” I previously wrote about the need for price transparency. We need it now, even for ERs.

* Waymo’s CEO says autonomous cars “will always have constraints.” They are not a panacea for urban transit and are not going to be here in the next five years, and they will likely be weather-dependent.

* Is fusion power much closer to becoming reality than is commonly anticipated? If so, it will solve or substantially ameliorate the world’s energy problems, along with the geopolitical conflicts fueled by the world’s desire for oil.

* The Third Self: Mary Oliver on Time, Concentration, the Artist’s Task, and the Central Commitment of the Creative Life: “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”

* What we gain from keeping books.

* Progress happens in institutions, not morals?

* “Meat-free ‘Impossible Burger 2.0’ tastes even closer to the real deal.” I tried Beyond Meat burger and found them surprisingly good.

* U.S. Carbon Emissions Surged in 2018 Even as Coal Plants Closed. We need nuclear energy and battery-powered cars, now.

* Interview of David Chase, who spearheaded The Sopranos.

* “Mommy bloggers” when their kids grow up. If I were the kid, I’d be outraged too. It’s a tremendous violation of privacy.

* More buildings should be made of wood.

* Ocean Warming Is Accelerating Faster Than Thought.

* Voters don’t even really know what taxation rates are, let alone what they should be. What conclusions should be drawn from this?

* The Unbearable Heaviness of Clutter.

* Saudi Women, Tired of Restraints, Find Ways to Flee.

* “Tucker Carlson has sparked the most interesting debate in conservative politics.” Note that I’m not endorsing the conclusions from either Carlson or the writer of this article, but I will say that it’s nice to see non-stupid political pieces.

* “F.B.I. Opened Inquiry Into Whether Trump Was Secretly Working on Behalf of Russia.”

* Conceivably NSFW, but: “A painted table, modelled after one that was owned by Catherine the Great (1729-1796)?” Is this authentic? I can’t tell. I do want one.

Links: The fight against free speech, why not to get in bar fights, student loans, states of mind, and more!

* The Upside of Your Dark Side, Free Speech, and ‘Problems of Comfort’.

* Why not to get in bar fights; even if you “win,” you often lose.

* Why the West Coast Is Suddenly Beating the East Coast on Transportation?

* “What a Student Loan ‘Bubble’ Bursting Might Look Like?” This is not a great article but the question itself is a good one. The big issues remain: 1. Student loans can’t be discharged through bankruptcy and 2. Right now, schools have almost zero incentive to systematically, substantially reduce costs to students.

* “What Europeans Talk about when They Talk about Brexit.” Fascinating, better than the title may suggest.

* “Why Internet Censorship Doesn’t Work and Never Will.” You could replace “censorship” with “moderating at scale.”

* “How America Grew Bored With Love: The pop love song and rom-com have died, relics in a world of instant gratification and consumerism.” A good polemic, but I’m not convinced it’s true.

* Riva-Melissa Tez has a very unusual background; she also has good followers on Twitter.

* Are experiences and states of mind irreducible and incredibly important for every aspect of modern life? Are they in short supply, relative to most other inputs, in the modern world? Ignore the title on this essay, which is much better than the title implies.

* Log Cabins? No, These Wooden Buildings Are High-Rises.

* “One of the most readable criticisms of US housing finance and policy I’ve ever seen,” a better title from Patrick McKenzie than the actual title.

* The Portland Trailblazers discover quality coffee.

Links: The future of the book, the archetype of the artist, price transparency, evolutionary psychopathology, and more!

* The ‘Future Book’ Is Here, but It’s Not What We Expected. Woah: “Almost half of author earnings now come from independently published books. Independent books don’t outsell big-five books, but they offer higher royalty rates—roughly 70 percent versus 25 percent. For the first time—perhaps since the invention of the printing press—authors and small presses have viable independent options beyond the ‘traditional’ publishing path with its gatekeepers.”

* An essay on Lionel Trilling, not that interesting, but I note this: “English departments have replaced the personalized essay at which Trilling excelled with the impersonal apparatus of theory and jargon, and whatever the agenda of the humanities in the academy they are fading away in the culture at large.” I didn’t appreciate the extent to which that’s true when I started grad school. If I had, I think I would’ve made other plans. Also: “The self is created in privacy.”

* How the Myth of the Hedonistic Artist Lost Its Allure.

* Do I offend? A piece compatible with.

* “I Used to Write for Sports Illustrated. Now I Deliver Packages for Amazon.” This is yet another reason to not try to be a “writer.”

* The World’s Leading Electric-Car Visionary Is Wan Gang, not Elon Musk?

* “Two Roads for the New French Right,” a much deeper piece than the headline implies.

* Hospital prices are about to go public. Good news if true. I wrote about some of the madness in the current healthcare market in the linked GWC story. Few people think systematically on this issue, and most of the simple fixes you hear people advocate are either wrong or missing pieces.

* “How Hitler Nearly Destroyed the Great American Novel: When Houghton Mifflin published ‘Mein Kampf’ in 1933, it sparked what could be the strangest saga in publishing history.”

* U.S. Grip on the Market for Higher Education Is Slipping. Perhaps we should stop actively alienating much of the rest of the world, if we want to retain the lead in this vibrant export industry?

* Book Review: Evolutionary Psychopathology. I have now read some chapters in the book, and it will be of interest for some people, but it is written in the textbook genre.

* “A tour of elementary OS, perhaps the Linux world’s best hope for the mainstream.” It is strange to me that Linux still has so many problems with mainstream use, as I write this on the verge of 2019.

* Nuclear energy is key to saving the planet. A point you have read here many times, but it’s still true.

* “Let the Fountain Pens Flow!” I switched to Pigma Micron PN writing pens a while ago because they’re just less fussy, especially for carrying around.

* Sugar’s Sick Secrets: How Industry Forces Have Manipulated Science to Downplay the Harm. If you are going to do a resolution for 2019, “eliminate sugar” is a good one.

Links: The reality principle, Columbus, the case against sugar, the nature of fashion, and more!

* “The Unsafe Feminist: Rebecca West and the ‘Bitter Rapture’ of Truth.” A good intro: “In an era when indulgent university administrators and professors treat students like spoiled children, one longs for intellectuals who address their audience as adults.”

* Law schools are bad for democracy. And many other things.

* The Corruption of the Republican Party.

* “How Hermann Hesse became a hero of the Sixties counterculture.” I read this as comedy.

* Columbus is doing really well, but if it doesn’t develop a rail system it will choke on its own traffic—like Nashville.

* The U.S. Appetite for Sugar Has Skyrocketed, with bad consequences.

* The Itsy-Bitsy, Teenie-Weenie, Very Litigious Bikini.

* Techies miss what Facebook actually is. See also me, “Is there an actual Facebook crisis, or media narrative about Facebook crisis?

* 2018 Was the Year of the Scooter? In other news, did you know the electric Vespa is supposed to be published in 2019?

* How meritocracy and populism reinforce each other’s faults.

* “Number of babies born in Japan is the lowest since records began.” Pretty distressing, if you think about it.

* Middle school in 2008 vs 2018.

* “Direct Instruction: A Half Century of Research Shows Superior Results.” Yet it may implicitly lower the status of teachers, so guess how much uptake of this method has occurred?

* The gap between the very good and the truly great.

* True Things About Me by Kay Davies, a book you should read.

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