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Morendil comments on A Rational Approach to Education - Less Wrong

-4 Post author: jrichardliston 16 November 2011 06:43PM

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Comment author: Morendil 16 November 2011 07:23:20PM 10 points [-]

I suspect that most thinking about education is prone to various flavors of the Just World Fallacy, so I'd advise you to be especially cautious around that.

For instance, you might think that if you point out an outcome that everyone seems to agree the educational system should achieve, and then point out that this outcome isn't being achieved at all effectively, then people in charge will wake up to that fact and this will be enough to effect change in the system.

This fails, because it omits the hypothesis that the most prized outcomes of the educational system aren't the ones that are generally admitted and discussed. (In particular, I have come to suspect that the most valued outcome among people in charge is to ingrain compliance, so that people who go through school and higher ed are trained to show up for work and not complain too much.)

Comment author: endoself 16 November 2011 07:43:58PM *  5 points [-]

In particular, I have come to suspect that the most valued outcome among people in charge is to ingrain compliance, so that people who go through school and higher ed are trained to show up for work and not complain too much.

Which people in particular do you think are consciously optimizing for this?

Comment author: [deleted] 16 November 2011 08:53:17PM *  5 points [-]

John Taylor Gatto wrote extensively about this:

Comment author: endoself 16 November 2011 11:36:30PM 1 point [-]

I read the first article, and I have two questions.

First, what evidence is there that these people played an important role in the development of the school system. The article makes a good case if these were actually the influential people here, but it is clearly arguing for a specific conclusion, so I cannot trust it on this without further evidence. The implication that Carnegie was involved in this is particularly surprising, since his philanthropic creation of public libraries seems to pursue the opposite goal. Also, all the quotes were, as far as I recall from Americans. Do other countries have better public school systems, did they have their own evil plans, or did they copy blindly from the US?

Second, what is maintaining the current system? The people quoted mostly lived decades ago, but you seem to imply that inertia is not the only thing preventing reform.

Comment author: [deleted] 17 November 2011 12:20:31AM *  0 points [-]

I'm not implying anything. Your question made me think of Gatto, and I figured the signal-to-noise ratio in his writing would be worthwhile enough to recommend. I don't think I can respond to your questions until I've fully digested the book, but it's nowhere near the top of my reading list, so I don't anticipate that occurring soon.

Comment author: endoself 17 November 2011 01:07:16AM 1 point [-]

I'm not implying anything.

Sorry, I confused something Morendil wrote with you.

it's nowhere near the top of my reading list

Me too.

Comment author: Morendil 17 November 2011 07:43:25AM *  3 points [-]

Here's another example, which should even more clearly make my point: many teachers I remember from childhood used to give out graded papers in class. They would:

  • mention grades and observations out loud in front of the whole class
  • praise kids with high grades
  • scold kids with bad grades
  • give out papers in order, sorted from best grade to worst
  • sometimes read out loud from the most ridiculous passages in kids' papers

If you wanted to design a system so as to maximize humiliation (ETA: within the bounds permitted in routine situations, see below), that is pretty much the way you'd go about it.

Now you would not necessarily consciously think to yourself "I'm doing things this way so as to humiliate most kids and encourage social shunning of the few getting top grades". That isn't the kind of things we allow to have running through our minds.

If you had any conscious thoughts about this at all, they might have to do with "holding up the bright kids as examples to the rest" and "giving each their due".

But "the meaning of a message is the response it elicits": even though a teacher's conscious motivations may not include humiliation, if humiliation routinely occurs as a result of their actions we must entertain the hypothesis that it is a fully endorsed outcome of the system.

Now if you take a step back from just "grades", one tiny component of the system, and look at the bigger picture? One thing that quickly becomes apparent is that the system has one adult in charge of twenty to forty kids, and it is in the nature of kids to be unruly. And this is supposed to last for hours on end. So we should not be surprised that the system includes provisions (more than one) whereby the teacher is encouraged to assert their authority over the kids, to somehow "keep them in line".

Comment author: wedrifid 17 November 2011 08:56:11AM 3 points [-]

If you wanted to design a system so as to maximize humiliation, that is pretty much the way you'd go about it.

I would include more nakedness if I was maximising humiliation.

Comment author: Morendil 17 November 2011 09:17:41AM -2 points [-]

Ever heard of hazing rituals? Ever heard of spanking?

Public nudity is one of our society's taboos, making it both a potent tool for ingraining compliance and one that therefore cannot be used in routine situations. The fact that it has been used on a regular basis in hazing rituals is telling.

As for partial public nudity, in the form of spankings, it used to be a routine form of punishment; both in homes and in schools. Its demise (and relegation to pornographic fantasies, or so I hear) is relatively recent.

Comment author: wedrifid 17 November 2011 09:46:55AM 1 point [-]

Ever heard of hazing rituals? Ever heard of spanking?

Yes. I'm not sure why you ask.

Comment author: Morendil 17 November 2011 01:42:34PM 1 point [-]

Those were rhetorical questions. (If LW had a Dark Arts penalty jar I'd be putting in a dime in it.)

Comment author: wedrifid 17 November 2011 02:04:05PM 1 point [-]

That they were trying to be rhetorical was obvious. Yet the rhetorical meaning made no sense as a reply to their context.

Comment author: Morendil 17 November 2011 02:53:06PM -1 points [-]

Both hazing and spanking involve full or partial nudity, contributing to their ickiness, and in my cultural experience at least, both have a moderately strong association with the school system.

I mentioned those because you seemed to point to the absence of nakedness, in the "teacher giving out graded papers" situation, as an objection to my argument that the school system appeared to have maximum humiliation as an outcome. Implicit in that argument was "maximum given the constraints of the situation" (and I've amended my comment to make that explicit). Hazing and correction are two situations where the context allows more humiliation, and that's precisely what we see: so I see those two as counter-objections to your objections.

Does that help make sense of that comment?

(I could, of course, also be wrong or just plain confused. In this particular case I didn't think I was.)

Comment author: prase 17 November 2011 11:21:15AM 0 points [-]

If you wanted to design a system so as to maximize humiliation (ETA: within the bounds permitted in routine situations, see below), that is pretty much the way you'd go about it.

Humiliation and praise can serve as motivation factors, not necessarily to train compliance.

Comment author: Morendil 17 November 2011 01:47:34PM 0 points [-]

Any evidence to back that up? If you wanted to design a system to result in maximum student motivation, and you had done even a modest amount of research on the topic of motivation, I'm pretty sure you would not do it that way.

Comment author: prase 17 November 2011 03:51:47PM *  0 points [-]

Evidence to back up what? That threat of humiliation when failing exam can motivate people to learn more? I find it obvious. At least it works for me.

I don't say it's the optimal way to motivate. That doesn't exclude the possibility (quite probable in my opinion) that most people in charge (from teachers to education ministry bureaucrats) who consciously endorse the practice think it is.

It even seems to me that motivation is essential part of your hypothesis. The praise and humiliation aren't indiscriminate, they serve as reward and punishment. The questions are what is rewarded more, whether learning or compliance, and what certain people believe is the main purpose.

(I think that school rewards both learning and compliance, just don't think that mere existence of humiliation and praise is evidence for either being more important.)

Comment author: Morendil 16 November 2011 10:00:21PM -1 points [-]

Almost anyone defending the usefulness of grades, to start with; e.g. recent ministers for education in my country. Any number of teachers I know. Typical example: not getting full marks on a math exam because of "sloppy presentation", such as forgetting to write in the day's date.

Note I didn't claim it was conscious; you can cling to something desperately and never admit it even to yourself.

Comment author: endoself 16 November 2011 10:05:38PM 0 points [-]

To what extent do you think that it is conscious?

Your first example sounds like status quo bias. I cannot tell what causes your second example (and I notice that I am confused). What do you think causes teachers to act like this?

Comment author: Manfred 16 November 2011 10:41:46PM *  4 points [-]

For instance, you might think that if you point out an outcome that everyone seems to agree the educational system should achieve, and then point out that this outcome isn't being achieved at all effectively, then people in charge will wake up to that fact and this will be enough to effect change in the system.

This is not what I expected when you mentioned the Just World fallacy. If you notice an outcome that everyone seems to agree the educational system should achieve, and notice that it is not being achieved at all effectively, that may be because there is no practical way to do so. Now that's an unjust world.