pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
As a child, I loved writing and reading, but fairly early on I started to hate classes focused on these things. They weren't *objective*, so I could be graded poorly through what felt like no fault on my own^. And even if STEM classes had been as subjective as English, my math homework exposed exactly 0% of my soul. Also, there's a rough correlation between how technically "pure" a class is (with math being 100% pure, and Gender Studies as 0% pure) and how much a professor's stupidity matters, and I was not prepared to deal with professors' stupidity.

My CS/Bio double major hurt more than it looked. Not only did it require a lot of courses, and a lot of very long sequences requiring exquisite timing on my part*, but it made my schedule very rigid. I couldn't take the risk of signing up for a potentially interesting but also potentially stupid class, because I couldn't afford to drop it without replacing it, and the chances of finding something else that interested me, fulfilled my degree requirement, and fit into my schedule were miniscule. So I not only refused to take more than the bare minimum number of required social science and humanities courses, I went through some shenanigans to lower the investment those took**.

Lately (5 years post college) I've been regretting that decision. I can do my own reading in social sciences and humanities, but I lack a wise mentor or informed peer group to discuss it with. I'm eternally grateful for the internet for the blogging community that lets me approximate these things, but it's Not The Same.

But maybe it's Not The Same for the better. I went to a Feminist Science Fiction book club last week. I hadn't enjoyed the book, but it was the kind of non-enjoyment that could be turned around by an interesting discussion revealing things I hadn't thought of. That did not happen. My big thought when I left (early) was "hipsters are real." On the other hand, the friend that went with me, who was a religious studies major, felt like she'd gone home to college. So while I'm extremely happy I was able to introduce a friend to something she loves, I'm now thinking maybe it's just as well I kept to my narrow range of interests. Yes, the straightjacket feeling was unpleasant, but it was the only way to get both majors, and they given me a huge degree of freedom post college. In retrospect, the thing to do would have been to gather data from friends about which professors were actually good and try to take their classes, but it didn't occur to me to choose based on anything but class description at the time (hello, introversion***).

So I was reaching peace with my college course selection when I had a dream that I'd reenrolled at my undergrad institution and was majoring in biochem (a subject that interests me more now than it did then, but is still not an area of focus for me). This inspired me to wander around undergrad institution's course website, and then my local university's website. And man, I just want to go be a professional student forever now.

^Which seems like exactly what Alfie Kohn was taking about in Punished by Rewards

*My last semester, I had to pray German 2.5 and a stupid intro CS courses I hadn't completed because nothing depended on it didn't conflict, because I was screwed if they did.

**College required you to take two classes focused on pre-1900s (@ courses) and two classes focused on non-Western civilizations (# courses). The phrase "it had an @ and a # and it was only three credits at a convenient time" may have been uttered. Also, Acting 101 counted towards the humanities requirement.

***Note that I had friends, had friends who took squishy courses, and had friends who were majoring in squishy things. I just couldn't make the leap to soliciting the information from them that I could process into something useful for me.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
My dental insurance covers 100% of preventative care. If you ask about out of network care, they'll say 100% coverage, but with a little asterisk that notes they'll only pay up to a certain dollar amount. I spent another 15 minutes fighting their phone system trying to figure out what that limit was. The first person didn't know, the second person just kept saying she couldn't tell me until she'd received a claim- i.e., after I had already incurred the charges and was on the hook for the remainder. All this time stress + long term control issues surrounding medical care + thinking about teeth is making the broken nerve in my jaw, which is by and large fixed at this point, hurt more and more.

Eventually the second rep was able to direct me to where on their website I could look up the customary fees (after expressly telling me there was no way to know ahead of time). I understand certain things are unforeseeable, but this is a routine preventative care evaluation for which the doctor charges a flat fee (which they made a point of telling me because their rates are well above what most insurance covers, including mine). The professed inability to tell me how much they would cover is emblematic of the worst of insurance agency practices. And the lookup page is usable but lacks polish- why do I have to re-enter my zip code every time? why doesn't the back button work? The upside is that my inter data nerd can look up the reimbursement rates for any procedure in any zip code, and this really does fascinate me.

Side note: I figured out what's wrong with Punished by Rewards as it relates to the business world. I'll believe that money does a poor job of getting any individual to work harder or smarter, but it is the best system we have for allocation of scarce resources.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
I am almost sold on the removal of grades, but not quite. As people evaluating the use of grades based on their own experiences go, I'm not a bad choice. My elementary school was Alfie Kohn's wet dream, I went to a super traditional (and shitty) middle school for 6th and 7th, was homeschooled for 8th, which meant no grades, but a substantial emphasis on passing the state exams. My high school didn't do grades but did have "evaluations" , and I took a bunch of college classes (with traditional grades) during high school.

No grades worked great for elementary school and homeschooled year. I'm innately self-motivated/had really internalized my parents motivations for me, and I learned a lot, with a useful but not excessive amount of stress. My elementary school managed to sort us by ability for math and literature classes without us figuring it out, and that was sheer win. Grades in middle school were neutral to negative: I was crushing my fellow students academically despite not working particularly hard.* My mom briefly tried to enforce making me do three hours of homework a night regardless of how long it took me to do the assigned work, but it didn't stick, and I had my As to argue against any attempt to learn more. The only time I got less than an A was when I got sick and missed a test, which was a regular occurrence because I was getting ill from stress, and boy did those Bs devestate me. Also, my good grades led to substantial threats of physical violence. So grades were pretty fail here.

So I'd be all set to get rid of grades entirely, if I hadn't gone to my high school. It nominally had narrative assessment, but each category was summarized by "exceeds expectations" "meets expectations" "below expectations" and "substantially below expectations", which functioned just like grades, except that teachers could mark you down to "below expectations" because they expected you to discover cold fusion and you merely did all your assignments and got 100%s on tests. Doing narratives for 5 classes of 10-30 kids each was a substantial burden for the teachers. Whatever the potential benefits of narratives are, they're lost when the teachers start copy/pasting between evaluations (sometimes forgetting to change the name) or otherwise writing pro forma evaluations without reflection. For a while I gave the evaluation forms to my college profs who were also giving me formal grades, and that was really interesting information. For example, many teachers/professors can put aside their personal dislike of you and grade you fairly. But give them a blank space to talk about your citizenship skills and they will tear you down. The net effect was that you stopped being graded on your work and started being graded on your worth as a person. I'm pretty sure Kohn would agree this is bad.

The thing is, the criticisms of my social skills were probably merited. Listening to headphones during class was inappropriate, and there were substantial issues in my interactions with other students. But getting graded (I'm sorry, "evaluated") on them at the end of the semester just made me defensive and angry, especially since my poor interactions might have something to do with being in an environment where it was not out of place for a girl I didn't know walked into my homeroom and asked "to see the smart girl", and I recognized it as the same fascination -> resentment -> anger pattern that my hellish middle school experience had followed. By systems thinking, there were things I could have done to improve my situation, but morally, it was Not My Fault and fuck them if they thought they were going to trick me into admitting it was My Fault by listening to their stupid grades. Which is I think a substantial part of what Kohn thinks normal grades are doing to most kids, and yeah, I can see that.

So I'm very, very on board with grades as fail, but it's one of those things where an attempt to implement the solution in a less than perfect environment will inevitably end in something worse. My (small, homogeneous, private, populated with the children of aging hippies) elementary school could pull it off. My (small but being forced by the district to grow too large, heterogeneous, public, populated with kids who were failing out of normal schools) high school could not, and the results were worse than when (really, unbelievably shitty) middle school or traditional colleges just assigned us grades. It's sort of like how I wanted to go to a large college specifically so I could be just a number. I'd had personal attention and I didn't like it.

*Not to downplay my own intelligence, but I think a lot of my advantage here came from having parents who could afford to feed me regularly. Only 10% of students were judged capable of paying the full $1 for lunch.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
Punished by Rewards presents some very compelling evidence that rewards don't make us do tasks better, except for extremely simple tasks we already know to do perfectly. For anything other than assembly line work, incentives discourage creativity and exploration and thus often end up leading to worse outcomes. Sort of like that research showing that men get dumber in the presence of pretty women. I'm willing to accept that premise, but I think what the author ignores is that money determines whether a task gets done at all.

He shows a number of studies where people were either paid to do something or told to do something. Universally, the people who weren't paid performed better and were happier. But that's not a fair comparison, because it's not money vs. nothing, it's money vs. cognitive dissonance, and cognitive dissonance is extremely powerful. So that's great, if you're dealing with students who don't have any choice. But even though I like my job a lot, I wouldn't do it if I wasn't paid. Oh, I'd do things, and some of them would be coding things, but why should I help work generate money for work when they're not generating money for me? Money is the signal that I should be working for them rather than, because more people want what work produces* more than they wanted the sock pocket, and way more than they want me being Malcolm Gladwell, however much I might enjoy it. Money isn't everything, of course, and I'll trade some money for better conditions, but if everything paid the same, had the same job security, and had the same working conditions I'd be a scientist. Which would be bad in a global sense, because way more people want the product I work on than want my biology research. Ce la vie. More than that, different people give different levels of value to work. Suppose someone slightly preferred the environment at Google, but was may more valuable to Microsoft. Differential pay is how we make it more enticing to work at Microsoft.

So while I agree with Alfie Kohn that trying to use pay to *incent* better work output, differential pay in response to differential output is still a valuable signal that should not be ignored. One consequence of this may be that people work slightly more to get slightly more money, but the real value comes from the sorting

*All two of you that don't know where I work: I'm paranoid about googlability, but you've heard of it, and it's popular.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
One thing that kept driving me absolutely nuts reading Punished By Rewards was his insistence on tutoring and collaborative projects. Every muscle in my nerd body screams at this. "NOT FAAAAIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIR. DON'T LET THE DUMB KIDS DRAG ME DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOWN."

But a large portion of that stems from our grading process. If there is no grade, the dumb kids can't drag down it down. An additional portion of my rejection of the idea comes from the fact that the smart kids who mostly help others are going to get tortured by the other students. But again, a lot of that comes from grades. If every kid has the sense that they're learning and that they aren't competing with other kids, they'll be a lot more accepting of help. I still find it problematic if there's a huge differential in abilities, so some kids are doing most of the helping and some the majority of receiving, but in groups of roughly equal-ability kids who each have their own strengths and weaknesses, that seems like a brilliant idea.

It's not like group grading is such a good deal for the left half of the bell curve either. They may get a higher grade, but they're not learning as much, and they know they didn't earn the grade. In a world where they didn't have to care about the grade, they could focus on learning.*

*Obviously there's a few more steps in between those two points, but I am beginning to think that grades as know them are flawed.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
Time to talk about one of the things Punished by Rewards gets right: the use of punishment and rewards can mask other problems. To take an obvious but important example, take a kid misbehaving in class. Maybe he's just a twerp, and being punished for bad behavior/rewarded for good (Kohn doesn't see a difference) is the only solution. But maybe he's acting out because recess is too short, or he's anxious about what a bully is going to do to him after school, or because his eyesight is too poor to read the board. In those cases, everyone would be better served by longer recesses/not turning a blind eye to bullying/glasses.

But as I type that, I'm coming up with caveats. What if he's acting out because of a really terrible home life? Or what if that's why the bully is bullying? Fixing the long term problem is a fantastic goal (if you can accomplish it without creepy government melding), but we can't put every child's education on hold while we make their lives perfect. Moreover, at some point they will need to learn how to behave well, and not hurt other people, even when they are suffering themselves.

Okay, so there's a continuum here. But I have no trouble believing that right now we're too far on the "incent them into doing it" side, and spending insufficient time on fixing the ultimate problems. I see it in workplaces too: rather than do the hard work of creating a good working environment, companies try to solve the problem with money. And they might get slightly more.

There's a related issue of "just because you can edit doesn't mean you should"

I think this might represent a more general problem of "rewarding good behavior" versus "creating an environment where good behavior is easy." A prime example of this is money. In theory, money incents good behavior (and good behavior can include things like producing a widget or hospital care). But it is also the raw material with which we produce things (like widgets, and hospital care). Our policy of throwing good money after bad in the worst schools is insane, but so is our policy of rewarding schools that are already doing well with more money while keeping their student population the same size. The invisible hand doesn't actually work by creating incentives to make widgets, it works by driving sub-par widget makers out of business.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
One of Punished By Rewards points is correct but a bit of a straw man- Rewards don't teach anything to anyone, they just change behavior while the reward is in place. Well, yeah. When my dad promised us dinosaur toys if we behaved through all of the grocery shopping, I don't think he thought we were learning a life long lesson about the value of not screaming for every sugary treat in sight. I think he was tired and stressed out and assessed that he didn't have the energy to deal with a meltdown, and the dinosaur toys did that. Compared to giving in to a meltdown, or being strong though the meltdown but yelling at us the rest of the day, bribery was a pretty winning strategy. Kohn's insistence that parents and teachers should, at all times, be willing to put infinite energy into teaching the correct long term strategy, no matter what the short term costs, seem like the kind of nonsense you get from nonparents- or, since he in fact has two kids, the kind of nonsense you get from breadwinner parents who refer to parenting their own children as babysitting.

This is even more ridiculous when you apply it in classrooms. Teachers only have so much time and energy. If you have an assignment where the value comes in two parts- the actual learning, and the learning to learn and be self motivated and all that jazz- any one student will probably benefit more from getting 100% of both of those, even if it slows him down. But the time it takes to teach that one kid to *want* to do the assignment comes at the expense of the traditional learning of the other 29, and it may well work out that everyone is better off if they only get 70% of the self motivation. Or it maybe not. That's an empirical question that I think he should be lauded for raising but questioned for assuming the answer lay all the way on one side.

It does, however, raise questions about merit pay. If you pay for the sort of things that can be created in students via bribes, you'll get more bribing and less instilling a lifelong love of learning. He also brings up evidence that when students are rewarded for teaching other students based on the junior students test scores, the senior student gets a lot angrier and teaching suffers. Those are both valid concerns. On the other hand, paying the same amount whether you actually teach students or spend all day watching film strips does not seem to be working out for us.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
Got a new batch of tiny ninjas today, some of whom are ninjaing for the first time. Since the last time I taught, three weeks ago, I've gotten halfway through Punished by Rewards, whose premise is that external rewards, up to and including certain kinds of praise, are counterproductive. It has every sign of being a rewarding book, in that it's well researched, well written, and it goes against large portions of my beliefs. I'm not sold on it completely, but it certainly had some points that were worth considering.

One of the biggest challenges in assisting/teaching is knowing how much correction to give the kids. Up till know, my big concerns were not discouraging them and not disrupting the class.* So most of the time I stuck to things that could be explained in one short sentence: "hands up", "wrong leg", wrong technique, etc. In certain situations I might try something that required a longer explanation and/or modeling, like shortening their stance or correcting the motion of a kick. I also try to state things in the form of question ("where should your hands be?") as often as possible, because I want to respect the distinction between "knowing but having difficulty applying" and "not knowing." I also try to recognize their achievements as often as possible, so that me looking at you intently doesn't become a bad thing.

Punished by Rewards has added new things for me to worry about. For one, over praising children is way easier than I thought. Information is good, but praise as reward can demotivate the same way tossing them an M&M after a good kick could.**

Second, any time I correct them, I'm denying them the chance to notice and correct themselves (or in certain circumstances, a chance for their fellow student to notice and help, teaching them both many valuable interpersonal skills. This sounds like the sort of thing educational researchers who never interacted with actual children would say, but I actually saw it and it's really impressive). One of the things the new kids struggle with is translating the instructor's words and demonstration into motion in their own body. When I go up and give them individual instruction, they missing a chance to practice teaching it to themselves.

On the other hand, learning by observing or even listening is basically impossible until you have a certain core skill set. It's like trying to learn a language entirely by observing an emotionless lecture with no visual aids. Once I've, say, shown a kid the difference between extending her leg and flexing her leg, she'll be much quicker to catch that distinction next time. And it's really frustrating to known you're doing things really wrong but lack the skills to know what. I guess what I'm saying is there's an early version of the Dunning Krueger Hump, which is nearly impossible to overcome without enough instruction to orient yourself, and I'm trying to help the kids over that.

But I've given up on getting them to actually punch things instead of softly swinging their hands, or on shouting on impact, rather than after they finish a technique. They'll get that in their own time.

*And also making sure I was telling them the right thing, but to do that I just avoided correcting the upper belts.

**I am not 100% convinced on the extreme version of this advanced by PbR, but I said this was a thing I was worrying about, not a thing I was definitely doing wrong.


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May 2014

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