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Apr 22, 2010

To build and to maintain

In most cases, building and maintaining relationships are closely linked abilities. However, I know just a few people who are reasonably good at the former, but are terrible at the latter. Let's call them achilleids, after Achilles who was famously refusing to forgive Agamemnon. It is a rare and a tragic flaw of character; it is incorrigible if the one does not know this about oneself.

Achilleids can be cordial and charming; they can be good friends, selfless and hard working. They get along with others just fine, until the moment the other person does something wrong to them. Most people have a series of strategies to overcome the conflict and get past it. We learn to forget and forgive, pretend bad things did not happen; we find excuses for others as we find them for ourselves; we make up and go on. Why? Because we figure that the benefits of maintaining a relationship outweighs the temptation of ending it. After all, our relational network (sometimes called the social capital), is crucial for our well-being; it is indispensable for jobs like ours.

The achilleids simply cannot do that. They measure relationships in stark black and white terms.Their imagination is easily taken over by fantasies of conspiracy and revenge. They find it difficult to imagine alternative - and more generous - explanations for other people's actions. They seek constant proofs of their friends loyalty, and insist on exclusive relationships. When such exclusiveness does not materialize, they become jealous, and impulsively rewrite their list of friends, scratching one person after another, until almost everyone is gone. Once an achilleid builds a cadre of enemies, he will see any relationship between his friends and his enemies ad a hostile act. If you are my friend, you may not be friendly with my enemies.

If this sounds like a case of fifth-grade logic of friendship, it is probably because it is. Achilleids are just immature in the ways of human relationships; they may get the strength of Achilles in many areas, but also inherit his vulnerable heel. They see the social world in starkly egocentric (not egotistical) terms. It all becomes about me - is this good for me or bad for me? Is this done to help me or to hurt me? The higher calculus of human relationships is just inaccessible to them, because they simply cannot see beyond the immediate circle of relationships between them and other people.

As it is the case with all human flaws, some achilleids find a compensatory strategy, if they are aware of their problem. Those moderate achileids will occasionally blow up, build a conspiracy theory, but then recognize their error (even without understanding it), and get to normal. The stubborn and entrenched achilleids do not know about their problem, and have no choice but construct elaborate conspiracy theories. Because if my friends fall away from me one by one, there must be a conspiracy against me, right? And one thing about conspiracy thinking - it manufactures a lot of proof. The stronger the belief, the more clear evidence our brain produces out of every day life to support that belief. Life is very hard for them, because no one can measure up to their expectations, and because reality provides a lot of proof of other people's evil intention.

The knowledge of one's own shortcomings is of the most useful kind. Denying or projecting one's weaknesses onto others is a recipe for a very unhappy life. I certainly have a list of my own demons, but the inability to forget and forgive is certainly not one of them.

Apr 8, 2010

The Netflix Effect

When you log in to Netflix, it will remember who you are, who your friends are, all movies you saw in the past, and the movies your friends saw and recommended. It will take all of these factors into consideration, and offer you a movie you're will like; quite accurately, I must add. How is it possible that when a student walks into a classroom, the professor does not know her name, her academic history, her strengths and weaknesses – virtually nothing? Most importantly, we almost never know what the student already knows, exactly, and what she needs to learn.

The problem is that differential education, developmental portfolios, and other such worthy educational idea just never had the technology to make them workable and economical to use. Remember the buzz about electronic portfolios? Universities spent a lot of time and money on them, imagining how we will be able to track each student's learning journey. And it all failed miserably, because no one has the time to grade papers in one's own class, not to mention going back and reading each student's academic journey. Even looking up 25-30 transcripts is an ordeal no one has the time for. The same is true for pre-assessments. They are often crude, fragmentary, and give more of a snapshot than any real tool for individualizing instruction. The latter is impossible to do, because… you've guessed right, time.

The truth is, we need the same level of sophisticated data analysis tool the netflixes and the googles of the world just recently mastered. Their computers manage to learn from every search, every purchase, and every click you make. Learning from users, and then selling back to users what they have learned is the secret. Their algorithms analyze and store that information, and convert it into more helpful helpful information. That is what we really need to borrow from them. Every time a student looks for information, registers for classes, asks a question in class, writes a paper, completes a quiz – every time a computer will record, remember, digest, and spit it out for the students and for her instructor.

I imagine working on a new class a few weeks before semester begins. I pull up not just a list of names, but a set of graphics, of easy to read profiles, which assemble themselves into the whole class profile, recommend me content and strategies, assignments and assessments that will move these particular students forward the farthest. All of this would be matched with what I can offer – my strengths, my background, my research, and classroom experience. The Teachflix will even suggest who should teach a class, picking the best instructor for a group profile of students not by what department we happen to be in, or what expertise we happen to claim, but by what we actually know and can deliver. It will also write a professional development program for me as an instructor, scrutinizing what I did the last time around and mercilessly disrobing my weaknesses and gaps, the opportunities missed. And you know what? It is no more difficult or scary than the Netflix; the same algorithms can probably be used. All we need is some imagination, a lot of money, and people to do it. Looks like something a private company might pull off?

Apr 1, 2010

Nudging and Sasha’s challenge

Subtle economic pressures often have large consequences. For example, the high cost of healthcare is, in part, a result of incentive for doctors to deliver more treatments. Individual doctors may not be aware of succumbing to such pressures, yet the aggregate effect is real. A book called Nudge
is about influences on our choices.

Here is an example from our little corner of the world. Teacher education institutions rely on part-time instructors for a significant part of their instruction. UNC actually relies less than many other schools, and we tend to have long-term, proven adjuncts. The existence of full-time and part-time faculty nudges us to use more part-timers for student teaching supervision, and rely more on full-time faculty for teaching other classes. Why? – it is partly a function of the cost: part-timers cost less, and every semester, we have a large cohort of student teachers. It is partly a matter of qualification: many former teachers and principals make very good supervisors, but teaching classes requires narrower, deeper expertise. It is partly a matter of flexibility: student teaching supervision is easy to break into smaller pieces (we pay $400 for supervising one student teacher), while full-time faculty's workload is normally expressed in 3-credit chunks.

In many ways, the division of labor is quite natural. However, it creates some unintended consequences. Some full-time faculty members have little opportunity to get out to the field, and to check how much their classroom teaching is still connected to the reality of K-12 schools. The strength of a teacher education program critically depends on the level of constant interaction of theory and practice. And although each individual instructor swears to know everything there is to know about real schools, the aggregated and accumulated effect of the disconnect may be larger than one person can notice. See our students in action on a regular basis may just spur more innovation in our own teaching.

As long as we notice and understand the negative nudging, it can be remedied with conscious counter-nudging. Here is my challenge: let's commit every faculty member, full time and part-time, to supervising at least one student teacher every semester. The School can pay a small overload (the same $400) per each student teacher, so the scheme remains cost-neutral. If we agree to this as a matter of policy, no immediate results may be apparent. However, in the long run, we would create a significant factor to keep our programs healthy. I will definitely joint the others, and supervise a one student teacher each semester.

Just to make it clear: the proposal does not save us any money; none at all. It is not a matter of cost saving, but simply a matter of counter-acting a negative nudge. We don't have to be passive in the face of economic pressures.