A gigantic pyramid scheme

It was the opening sentence of an Opinion piece in last week’s Philadelphia Inquirer that first caught my eye:

Ask students what year Columbus sailed the ocean blue and they’ll likely respond with “1492!”

I’m guessing that most students these days have no idea when Columbus sailed over here. After all, as yesterday’s Washington Post reports, two-thirds of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is, and 22% “haven’t heard of the Holocaust or are not sure whether they’ve heard of it.”

As for Siri Fiske, the author of the Inquirer piece, whatever she may know about historical facts, she seems out of touch with present-day practices:

Schools have been drilling such facts into children’s brains since the dawn of public education. In past decades, long lectures and rote learning were necessary evils…

You have to go back many decades before you find long lectures and rote learning as standard practices in K12 classrooms.

Fiske goes on to say:

Information had to flow in one direction only — from all-knowing teachers to students — because there was no practical way for students to teach themselves.

No practical way? In one of the best math classes I ever attended, back in the late 1970s, we each worked independently, at our own rates–essentially teaching ourselves via well-designed textbooks.

Fiske explains:

Modern technology has irrevocably disrupted that flow of knowledge. The digital revolution has made it necessary to reorganize the classroom and radically alter the student-teacher dynamic.

Necessary? I’m guessing whatever necessity there is to alter classrooms comes from a very specific aspect of the digital revolution that Fiske omits: the short attention spans fostered by cell phones and social media. These days, maintaining students’ on-task focus is more challenging than ever.

For Fiske, though, the reason not to lecture is Google and websites:

Say a teacher is introducing her class to the solar system. Today, students can instantly Google any facts they’d need to know about the planets. They can even create their own solar system models on NASA.gov. In the near future, students might even break up into teams and embark on space exploration missions, thanks to virtual-reality headsets.

Given the new digital landscape, a half-hour lecture on the solar system can be a waste of time.

Fiske continues with a bunch of unsupported assertions:

Lecturing also fails to impart the knowledge and skills students will need in their future careers.

Today’s students are.. ill-served by educators who cling to an outdated, top-down teaching approach.

Prepping students for the modern workforce means coaching them on how to analyze material and approach topics in unconventional ways.

The closest she comes to justifying these claims is this:

Nearly 90 percent of executives report trouble finding workers with soft skills like critical thinking and creativity.

If this is true (Fiske provides no link), it’s also true that employers report trouble finding workers with hard skills like literacy and numeracy.

What bugged me the most about Fiske’s piece, though, was her reliance on the debunked Learning Pyramid theory, and on an irrelevant study conducted by a private company whose mission includes promoting “innovative solutions” and “technology integration.” So I wrote the following letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer (which the Inquirer has declined to publish):

Siri Fiske’s April 4th piece (“Modern teachers shouldn’t waste time lecturing students”) claims that “students retain only about 5 percent of information” from lectures, “but 70 percent when they practice a skill themselves.” But the study Fiske cites, by the National Training Laboratories, appears neither in Fiske’s hyperlink, nor in a Google scholar search, and its conclusions were debunked four years ago by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham (“Why the ‘learning pyramid’ is wrong”, Washington Post, 3/3/2013). Second, Fiske claims that students whose schools focus on real-world problems like app-development and drone-flying “are more likely to attend four-year colleges” and get “better test scores.” But the study Fiske links to, a study by MIDA Learning Technologies, was of 2nd and 5th grade classrooms, and it investigated something else: whether project-based STEM learning “influences classroom instruction and student engagement” and “students’ ability to problem-solve.”

The Learning Pyramid is everywhere. Here’s one of its most popular guises:


Regarding the Learning Pyramid’s checkered history and viral spread, the Association of College & Research Libraries has a great blog post here. It turns out the Pyramid was initially proposed, not as a theory of learning, but as a model of levels of abstraction:


Over a half-dozen decades (it first appeared in 1946), the Learning Pyramid was perverted from a model of abstraction into a reason to replace teacher and textbook-based instruction with hands-on projects.. and at no point has it had any empirical backing.

The Westchester bomb cyclone and the achievement gap

I’m about to make an observation that’s not remotely original, but this weekend’s experience was a revelation for me nevertheless, so I’m posting.

We’ve just emerged from the Great Tarrytown Blackout: two days without heat or running water in the wake of our second “bomb cyclone” of the winter.

Sidebar: It’s a good thing I like learning new words, because new-word enthusiasm mitigates the pain I feel having to learn new words about the weather. I don’t want to learn new words about the weather. Ever. And why are there new words about the weather to learn anyway? Seriously, I’m mystified. How can I have lived this long and not know all the words a normal human being who is not a meteorologist needs to know about the W-E-A-T-H-E-R? Why couldn’t I go to my grave never having encountered the phrase “polar vortex”? My parents did, and their parents before them. Ditto for bomb cyclone, a term I had never in my life laid eyes on until almost exactly two months ago, and now here it is again. Plus I got suckered on this month’s bomb cyclone because the first one was a hyped-up bust (BarStool posted a hilarious rant on the ridiculousness of January’s bombogenesis,” yet another weather word I didn’t need in my life), so I assumed the second one would be, too, and I wasn’t prepared. Wasn’t prepared as in: wet laundry mildewing in the washing machine, Subaru imprisoned behind its electric door in the garage, rooms too cold to begin with so the temp didn’t have far to fall before hitting the 50s, no idea which-hotels-where take large, hyperactive dogs, etc., etc.

Anyway: two days without heat, light, or running water.

Our back story is that during Hurricane Sandy we lived without heat and light for nine days. We stayed in our house nearly the entire time, till we finally moved in lock, stock, and barrel with my friend Debbie. I still remember vividly the joy of making coffee in her beautiful kitchen with its beautiful Nespresso machine—the first one I’d ever seen; her parents had carried it back from Italy—running on its beautiful electricity and illuminated by her beautiful electric lights. (Thomas Edison! A great American!)

By the end of the Hurricane Sandy blackout, the temperature inside our house was down to the 40s, and I was suffering a mild depression. Mild depression was the good news; others in the neighborhood were clearly experiencing some cognitive impairment. Specifically, they were developing paranoia. Paranoia about Con Edison and its whereabouts, which is not going to land anyone inside the DSM-5, but still.

That experience may sound strange, but there it is. A very short period of sustained dark and cold will alter ‘cognitive status.’ I know, because I lived it.

Point is, I think our entire household probably has some mini-PTSD on the subject of power outages. I say that because, prior to Sandy, power outages felt like adventures.

That was then. This go-round all three of us—C., Ed, and I (Jimmy & Andrew’s home had electricity)—fell apart. Our collective mood darkened, we felt severely stressed, and we had no ability to focus. Whatsoever. Ed had a huge amount to get done over the weekend and did nothing at all; C. had papers to grade and an IEP to write and did none of that; I, in what I thought was a concession to reality, didn’t even try to do anything productive but instead assigned myself the task of going through old magazines & tossing them, and I couldn’t manage even that.

It was pretty shocking, especially given the fact that it’s not as if we’ve been living on the Island of Peace and Quiet for lo these many years. I’ve always been able to work in the middle of commotion; in fact, I like a certain amount of disruption and surprise.

That’s why I have two large, young hyperactive dogs.


Sunday afternoon, with the electricity back on and the (cold) water sporadically spurting out of the faucets once again, C. said he was thinking about his students.

We had been disrupted for just two days, and our ability to focus had crashed. We weren’t sick, we weren’t hurt, we weren’t even tired. We were disrupted.

And our concentration was shot.

Most of C’s students are poor, and quite a few of them—by no means all, but quite a few—lead chronically disrupted lives.

How does a child leading a chronically disrupted life focus in school?

And how much of the achievement gap is down to chronic disruption alone?

I bet it’s a lot.

Off-topic: Broward County and the “H factor”

Broward County has been on my mind.

It’s been on my mind for the same reasons it’s been on everyone else’s mind, but it’s also taken me back to a book I read a few years ago, which believe it or not is at least tangentially related to the subject of this blog:

The H Factor of Personality: Why Some People Are Manipulative, Self-Entitled, Materialistic, and Exploitive–And Why It Matters for Everyone by Kibeom Lee and Michael C. Ashton

The “H factor”–“H” stands for honesty and humility–is a core personality dimension uncovered by a form of corpus linguistics:

Trait theory takes a lexical approach to personality, which assumes that traits can be described using single adjectives or descriptive phrases. If enough people regularly exhibit a form of behavior and no term exists in a given language to describe it, then according to the lexical hypothesis, a term will be created so that the trait may be considered and discussed with others.

Until the late 1990s, when Lee and Ashton plucked the H factor from the Korean language, lexical research had uncovered just five such dimensions. They argue that “H” should take its place alongside the Big Five:

  • Emotionality (E): emotional, oversensitive, sentimental, fearful, anxious, vulnerable versus brave, tough, independent, self-assured, stable
  • Extraversion (X): outgoing, lively, extraverted, sociable, talkative, cheerful, active versus shy, passive, withdrawn, introverted, quiet, reserved
  • Agreeableness (A): patient, tolerant, peaceful, mild, agreeable, lenient, gentle versus ill-tempered, quarrelsome, stubborn, choleric
  • Conscientiousness (C): organized, disciplined, diligent, careful, thorough, precise versus sloppy, negligent, reckless, lazy, irresponsible, absent-minded
  • Openness to Experience (O): intellectual, creative, unconventional, innovative, ironic versus shallow, unimaginative, conventional

And, now:

  • Honesty-Humility (H): sincere, honest, faithful, loyal, modest/unassuming versus sly, deceitful, greedy, pretentious, hypocritical, boastful, pompous (You can take the quiz here.)

Fun side note: Lee and Ashton weren’t actually looking for a 6th personality factor when they found it. They were looking to see whether Korean personality adjectives sorted into the same five categories Western adjectives do.

The answer was yes: Koreans describe personality the same way we do.

Having established the apparent universality of the Big 5, they decided to see what happened when they sorted the list into 6, 7, and 8 factors:

[N]ow we wondered how the Korean adjectives would sort themselves out if we asked the computer to sort them into more than five groups. So we checked out the results for six and seven and eight factors. . . . To some extent we were just procrastinating, taking a break from the chore of writing the manuscript. But we were curious to see what would happen.

(Now there is one fruitful bout of procrastination.)

The rest is history:

When we looked at the results for eight factors or seven factors, some of the categories were very small, consisting of only a few adjectives. But the results for six factors were much more interesting. . . . . [T]here was a sixth factor that was fairly large and easy to interpret: on one side, it had adjectives (translated from Korean) such as truthful, frank, honest, unassuming, and sincere; on the other side, it had adjectives such as sly, calculating, hypocritical, pompous, conceited, flattering, and pretentious….

At first we were surprised to see that there was a large sixth factor. The previous studies of the English personality lexicon had found only five; no sixth factor could be recovered…. [W]e started checking the results of some recent lexical studies conducted in various European languages. Now, most of these studies had focused on whether or not the Big Five would be recovered. In a few studies, however, the authors did mention briefly the results they found when they examined six factors. In each case, they found a factor that was defined by terms such as sincere and modest versus deceitful, greedy, and boastful–much like the factor that we observed in our Korean study.

So: basically the H factor is the a****** factor.

The corrupt a******* factor.

Which brings me to Broward County and its police department.

When reports emerged that one Broward County deputy had failed to enter the building, and, subsequently, that other Broward officers had also failed to enter the building, I wondered.

Who runs into the building where children are being murdered?

Because we know people do run into the building.

What kind of person runs inside?

What kind of person doesn’t?

Like everyone else, I’d seen multiple references to “Broward cowards”….but what makes a cowardly police officer? What makes 3 or 4 cowardly police officers inside the same sheriff’s office?

Having read The H Factor, I think the answer is corruption.

Who runs inside the building?

People with integrity.

When corrupt officials are in charge, no one is safe.

I’ll post my Goodreads review of The H Factor later on.