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Guessing the Teacher's Password

53 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 August 2007 03:40AM

Followup to:  Fake Explanations

When I was young, I read popular physics books such as Richard Feynman's QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter.  I knew that light was waves, sound was waves, matter was waves.  I took pride in my scientific literacy, when I was nine years old.

When I was older, and I began to read the Feynman Lectures on Physics, I ran across a gem called "the wave equation".  I could follow the equation's derivation, but, looking back, I couldn't see its truth at a glance.  So I thought about the wave equation for three days, on and off, until I saw that it was embarrassingly obvious.  And when I finally understood, I realized that the whole time I had accepted the honest assurance of physicists that light was waves, sound was waves, matter was waves, I had not had the vaguest idea of what the word "wave" meant to a physicist.

There is an instinctive tendency to think that if a physicist says "light is made of waves", and the teacher says "What is light made of?", and the student says "Waves!", the student has made a true statement.  That's only fair, right?  We accept "waves" as a correct answer from the physicist; wouldn't it be unfair to reject it from the student?  Surely, the answer "Waves!" is either true or false, right? 

Which is one more bad habit to unlearn from school. Words do not have intrinsic definitions. If I hear the syllables "bea-ver" and think of a large rodent, that is a fact about my own state of mind, not a fact about the syllables "bea-ver".  The sequence of syllables "made of waves" (or "because of heat conduction") is not a hypothesis, it is a pattern of vibrations traveling through the air, or ink on paper.  It can associate to a hypothesis in someone's mind, but it is not, of itself, right or wrong.  But in school, the teacher hands you a gold star for saying "made of waves", which must be the correct answer because the teacher heard a physicist emit the same sound-vibrations.  Since verbal behavior (spoken or written) is what gets the gold star, students begin to think that verbal behavior has a truth-value.  After all, either light is made of waves, or it isn't, right?

And this leads into an even worse habit.  Suppose the teacher presents you with a confusing problem involving a metal plate next to a radiator; the far side feels warmer than the side next to the radiator.  The teacher asks "Why?"  If you say "I don't know", you have no chance of getting a gold star—it won't even count as class participation.  But, during the current semester, this teacher has used the phrases "because of heat convection", "because of heat conduction", and "because of radiant heat".  One of these is probably what the teacher wants.  You say, "Eh, maybe because of heat conduction?"

This is not a hypothesis about the metal plate.  This is not even a proper belief.  It is an attempt to guess the teacher's password.

Even visualizing the symbols of the diffusion equation (the math governing heat conduction) doesn't mean you've formed a hypothesis about the metal plate.  This is not school; we are not testing your memory to see if you can write down the diffusion equation.  This is Bayescraft; we are scoring your anticipations of experience.  If you use the diffusion equation, by measuring a few points with a thermometer and then trying to predict what the thermometer will say on the next measurement, then it is definitely connected to experience.  Even if the student just visualizes something flowing, and therefore holds a match near the cooler side of the plate to try to measure where the heat goes, then this mental image of flowing-ness connects to experience; it controls anticipation.

If you aren't using the diffusion equation—putting in numbers and getting out results that control your anticipation of particular experiences—then the connection between map and territory is severed as though by a knife.  What remains is not a belief, but a verbal behavior.

In the school system, it's all about verbal behavior, whether written on paper or spoken aloud.  Verbal behavior gets you a gold star or a failing grade.  Part of unlearning this bad habit is becoming consciously aware of the difference between an explanation and a password.

Does this seem too harsh?  When you're faced by a confusing metal plate, can't "Heat conduction?" be a first step toward finding the answer?  Maybe, but only if you don't fall into the trap of thinking that you are looking for a password.  What if there is no teacher to tell you that you failed?  Then you may think that "Light is wakalixes" is a good explanation, that "wakalixes" is the correct password.  It happened to me when I was nine years old—not because I was stupid, but because this is what happens by default. This is how human beings think, unless they are trained not to fall into the trap.  Humanity stayed stuck in holes like this for thousands of years.

Maybe, if we drill students that words don't count, only anticipation-controllers, the student will not get stuck on "Heat conduction? No?  Maybe heat convection?  That's not it either?"  Maybe then, thinking the phrase "Heat conduction" will lead onto a genuinely helpful path, like:

  • "Heat conduction?"
  • But that's only a phrase—what does it mean?
  • The diffusion equation?
  • But those are only symbols—how do I apply them?
  • What does applying the diffusion equation lead me to anticipate?
  • It sure doesn't lead me to anticipate that the side of a metal plate farther away from a radiator would feel warmer.
  • I notice that I am confused.  Maybe the near side just feels cooler, because it's made of more insulative material and transfers less heat to my hand?  I'll try measuring the temperature...
  • Okay, that wasn't it.  Can I try to verify whether the diffusion equation holds true of this metal plate, at all?  Is heat flowing the way it usually does, or is something else going on?
  • I could hold a match to the plate and try to measure how heat spreads over time...

If we are not strict about "Eh, maybe because of heat conduction?" being a fake explanation, the student will very probably get stuck on some wakalixes-password.  This happens by default, it happened to the whole human species for thousands of years.

 

Part of the sequence Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions

Next post: "Science as Attire"

Previous post: "Fake Explanations"

Comments (77)

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Comment author: Constant2 22 August 2007 07:41:21AM 7 points [-]

"Then you may think that "Light is arglebargle" is a good explanation, that "arglebargle" is the correct password. It happened to me when I was nine years old - not because I was stupid, but because this is what happens by default. This is how human beings think, unless they are trained not to fall into the trap. Humanity stayed stuck in holes like this for thousands of years."

Okay, but there's one innocent interpretation even here. People learn language, and when we learn language we copy the verbal behavior of other people. Maybe "arglebargle" is a synonym for light in some language, or maybe it's a supercategory of light (a category that includes light among other things). Maybe the teacher is still in the process of explaining to us what arglebargle means and the first step is to say that light is arglebargle - later on the teacher will tell us what else is arglebargle so that we will gradually build a good concept of it but initially we need to retain the point that light is arglebargle while not yet knowing what arglebargle is, because this is a step in learning what arglebargle is. In that case, we're learning new language when we learn that "light is arglebargle". That's innocent, it's not a mistake.

This suggests that the error may not be learning the teacher's passwords per se, as such, but learning the teacher's passwords when we should ideally be learning something else. The context matters.

But the student is the student and therefore ignorant by assumption, so it may in many cases be too much to expect the student to know when it is time to learn the passwords and when it is time to learn something else. If the student experiences academic success only from learning the passwords, then it may be that the student is not at fault, it's the curriculum that is at fault - the teacher.

So the right recommendation may not be to tell the student to stop learning passwords. Passwords are a legitimate thing to learn, sometimes, and the student, being a student, doesn't know ahead of time which times. The right recommendation may be to adjust the curriculum so that only the right kind of learning yields academic success.

That's probably not easy.

Comment author: DilGreen 01 October 2010 03:13:25PM *  8 points [-]

This reminds me of my own experience as a student who loved chemistry. We were told a series of useful untruths about what matter is as we went through the system.

Molecules and atoms were like billiard balls.

No, that was an approximation - atoms are made of nuclei and electrons which can be visualised as little planetary systems.

No, that was an approximation - electrons, protons, neutrons are more usefully considered as probability functions.

I didn't do science at university level, so I never got to the next level, but quantum theory was waiting for me there.

I did start an electronic engineering course, and there we learned another useful half-truth - the equations that describe the behaviour of a transistor. Only they don't. They describe a manageable function which is something like the behaviour of a transistor - the real-world behaviour is non-linear and discontinuous (truly horrible - I didn't finish the course...).

All of these useful untruths are like passwords - they allow us to reliably accomplish things in the world, but they do not give us real power over or understanding of the domain they address. Nevertheless, it would be hard to do without them.

Comment author: handoflixue 19 May 2011 07:52:41PM 9 points [-]

Given how much got accomplished with prior models of the atom, I wouldn't say these are necessarily good examples of passwords. They also weren't approximations so much as older models. It's sort of like learning the geocentric model first, and then later updating to the heliocentric model, and then finally learning that the sun actually revolves around the center of the universe as well.

I'm honestly a bit puzzled as to why we insist on teaching so many older models in science, without appropriately labeling them. Perhaps the math is easier to learn, and perhaps it's just much easier to teach the models you grew up with originally.

Comment author: Rixie 28 March 2013 03:11:34PM 2 points [-]

Actually, when I learned these I learned them all at once, with the "older model" tag attached to them, and then I was given a "current model" that I was told that I wouldn't understand yet, and so we worked with the planetary system thing.

That's progress?

(You are trying to submit too fast. try again in 711 milliseconds. This website really values accuracy.)

Comment author: army1987 29 March 2013 12:35:16AM 1 point [-]

(You are trying to submit too fast. try again in 711 milliseconds. This website really values accuracy.)

I once read something like “This page was generated in 0.[fourteen digits] seconds.”

Comment author: Chrysophylax 30 January 2013 01:49:11AM *  -3 points [-]

A password is a type of (usually partial) extensive definition (a list of the members of a set). What we want to teach is intensive definitions (the defining characteristics of sets). An extensive definition is not entirely useless as a learning aid, because an student could, in theory, work out the related intensive definition. Unfortunately, this is extraordinarily difficult when the definitions relate to wave dynamics, for example.

A password is an extensive definition being treated like the objective - a floating definition, where the intensive definition is no longer being sought. Extensive definitions do not restrict anticipation, and so can only ever be a step towards teaching intensive definitions. Learning passwords is wrong by definition - if it's useful, it's no longer a password.

In the case of a student learning a foreign language, providing extensive definitions is very useful because there is no difference between saying "the set {words-for-apple} includes apfel" and "apfel means apple, and the set {words-for-apple} contains all words meaning apple" - the intensive and extensive definitons are provided together, assuming the student knows what what an apple is.

Comment author: Joshua_Fox 22 August 2007 08:09:11AM 1 point [-]

90% of anything is crud, including schools and perhaps the scholarly motivation of most students, but the better schools don’t teach the better students by rote learning.

The magic words, as you point out at the bottom of your essay, are helpful for getting one’s thoughts into the right part of science. Most people would have a train of thought that is not quite as reflective as what you described, something a bit more confused like: - "Heat conduction?" - Something to do with heat spreading out from hot to cold. - This is strange. The near side should be hotter. - Well, maybe the plate’s made of some weird material or something.

The teacher is posing a trick question, by requiring thought outside physics and in the area of teacherly psychology. This is a good way of reminding the students that all areas of science are connected. But good science works by creating models which are simplifications of the world. In a physics class, the model focuses on physics and not human psychology. Too many trick questions, and students will never learn the laws of thermodynamics, as they spend their brainpower trying to outwit the teacher.

Comment author: Lars_Pensjö 22 August 2007 11:49:10AM 1 point [-]

You touch into a topic that is all too common in the first half, and that is the problem of definitions. It is not unusual to find people having an argument over something, without first doing a clear definition of the question.

For example, what is intelligence, and what is conscience? There are lots of discussions about the possibility or impossibility to create artificial versions of these, without first having a common definition. Such an argument is almost a waste of time, except for the situation where it may lead to better understanding of definition.

Another famous example is the question of the meaning of life. Define life first, and I think the question will be easier.

Yet another example is the Chinese Room (a human not understanding Chinese will take a chinese question and use a set of written rules to produce an answer in chinese). The question is then, can this construction be considered to understand chinese? This is a very hot discussion, but I see no attempt to first define what you mean with "understand chinese".

I can't help thinking about the the computer that produced the answer 42, because the question wasn't exact enough. While quite funny the first time I read it, people still ask questions that way.

Comment author: conchis 22 August 2007 12:10:55PM 0 points [-]

Excellent post Eliezer.

Comment author: Scott_Aaronson 22 August 2007 01:03:37PM 0 points [-]

Bravo.

Comment author: Zubon2 22 August 2007 01:37:25PM 7 points [-]

I think of politics here: trying to guess the electorate's password. An elected official is rewarded for giving the answer that will get him the most votes. If that happens to be a well-conceived policy decision, that is a happy coincidence.

The hard part about teaching students not to guess the password is teaching teachers not to accept password guesses, and how to distinguish verbal behavior from thought.

Comment author: Flo 22 August 2007 02:03:04PM 0 points [-]

Unless my memory decives me very badly, Richard Feynman has made a closely related point in the opening chapter of "Surely you're joking Mr.Feynman" (when his father told him that things move because of the sun, while he learns in school that things move because of "energy").

Comment author: Nancy_Lebovitz 22 August 2007 04:35:40PM 3 points [-]

There's a lovely bit in Egan's Diaspora showing the viewpoint character understanding a concept from physics by applying it in various contexts.

More generally, I don't know if much is known about how people get from input to understanding.

Possibly of interest: Mathsemantics, which grew out of a project to find employees who understood what numbers mean. The book (about a questionaire for the purpose) is very interesting, the articles listed mostly look minor except for the one about grokduelling (you win if you understand the other side better), and they're looking for research ideas.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 20 February 2012 07:02:48PM 0 points [-]

Corrected link for Mathsemantics.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 August 2007 04:41:27PM 1 point [-]

Okay, but there's one innocent interpretation even here. People learn language, and when we learn language we copy the verbal behavior of other people.

This is not innocent! Just because everyone does it, doesn't make it okay. You can't trust your instincts! Humanity stayed stuck in a thirty-thousand-year trap because of this - because we took everything confusing, and found we could imitate verbal behaviors about it just as well as we could imitate verbal behaviors about anything else.

Too many trick questions, and students will never learn the laws of thermodynamics, as they spend their brainpower trying to outwit the teacher.

Need they have such limited brainpower? Next time, use a special material with the insulator nearer the radiator.

You touch into a topic that is all too common in the first half, and that is the problem of definitions.

What do you mean by "first half"? But in any case, yes.

Richard Feynman has made a closely related point in the opening chapter of "Surely you're joking Mr.Feynman"

Good point. I changed "arglebargle" to "wakalixes" in the text.

Comment author: simplyeric 14 March 2010 04:04:31PM *  3 points [-]

"Okay, but there's one innocent interpretation even here. People learn language, and when we learn language we copy the verbal behavior of other people.

This is not innocent! Just because everyone does it, doesn't make it okay. You can't trust your instincts! ...."

We have to be careful about the notion of "can't trust your instincts." There is a fundamental process of language aquisition I think we'd be hard pressed to deny. This is similar to learning about thermodynamics. The first word we know is "mommy" (often, +/-). At this stage, and for a long time, we don't understand what it really means, this concept of "mother" (and many of us never will). How is that different than "conduction"? You have to start somewhere, and necessarily small.

On the other hand, the notion in teaching that you have succeeded if they know the passwords is insidious and lazy. The big password fetish nowadays is standardized tests: if the students test well, then you've succeeded in teaching them well. It's passwords with no follow-up, no synthesis.

Comment author: Hopefully_Anonymous 22 August 2007 04:51:48PM 0 points [-]

"Need they have such limited brainpower?" -perhaps. I'm interested in our energy/environmentally constrained limits, past, present, and future, on our ability to model reality, etc. We do apparently have limited brainpower, and sloppy routes to the accumulation of knowledge. It's worth examining the most efficient paths (even if they may have irrational elements) to the accumulation of best models of reality.

Comment author: Tiiba2 22 August 2007 08:08:05PM 3 points [-]

On the other hand, if techers make first-graders intuitively predict what 2+2 equals, they'll never get around to making them anticipate who it was that discovered America. There are a lot of passwords. Plus, the kids just won't work that hard.

Comment author: Constant2 22 August 2007 08:22:37PM 1 point [-]

"This is not innocent! Just because everyone does it, doesn't make it okay."

That's not what I said. I said it is okay, directly. Not because everyone does it, but because it is a legitimate aspect of some kinds of valuable learning. But there's probably a miscommunication here about exactly what "it" refers to. My point was to try to draw a distinction between a couple of things which you seem to have missed in your reply.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 August 2007 08:30:32PM 3 points [-]

Constant, just because something is part of how humans learn language, does not make it okay. We know that something is arglebargle without knowing what arglebargle is, but, this is not labeled as "a hint about someone else's mental associations to a word", it is labeled as knowing that something is arglebargle. That's the error, right there: a floating, non-anticipation-controlling belief that feels like ordinary knowledge, and is not labeled as a hint about someone else's word-associations. Just because this is part of how human minds learn language, still doesn't make it okay. The human mind has a crappy design. That's what blogs like Overcoming Bias are for.

Comment author: Constant2 22 August 2007 09:37:07PM 3 points [-]

"Constant, just because something is part of how humans learn language, does not make it okay."

Learning the passwords is okay in the context of learning language (I think). Take it away and you impede the ability to learn language. More generally, I think that learning empty slogans isn't wrong, it's merely incomplete. Part of learning is unintelligent aping, where we first learn to go through some of the motions without necessarily understanding them. You have to start somewhere. Understanding is complex and so necessarily requires passage through stages which do not each one constitute understanding, just as an office building as it is being built passes through many stages where what it is is just a useless structure that serves no immediate purpose. What is bad is not learning the passwords, it's failing to learn more beyond the passwords. Similarly, what is bad is not laying a foundation under a building, what is bad is abandoning the construction of the building after the foundation is laid but before the building is complete.

"a floating, non-anticipation-controlling belief that feels like ordinary knowledge, and is not labeled as a hint about someone else's word-associations"

It is almost necessarily the case that people who do not understand yet (e.g., students who are in the process of learning), do not yet have the understanding that it takes to understand that they do not understand yet. Knowing that you did not know is more easily done in hindsight once you know, than while you still do not know.

So the burden is probably better placed on the teacher to ensure that the students' education is not left incomplete.

I myself find it hard to see what the gaps are in my knowledge unless that knowledge is tested. So I think a good place to start in fixing whatever problem it is that you see, is in the testing of the students.

Comment author: Shakespeare's_Fool 22 August 2007 09:44:09PM 0 points [-]

Eliezer,

School is all about words?

In shop class if the pieces didn't fit together, weren't sanded down smooth, or the contraption didn't work, you flunked the course.

In chemistry lab, if you didn't measure the pH right, same problem.

In physics if your measurements of waves or acceleration down the inclined plane were wrong down went your grade.

Guess we must have gone to different schools.

John

Comment author: TeMPOraL 28 May 2012 05:59:09PM *  5 points [-]

I've never seen or heard of such a school, at least not in my country. Maybe vocational schools grade like that, but in high schools I know, there's no fitting togetger, sanding, or measuring anything. It's just memorizing theory and solving exercises.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 28 May 2012 08:31:38PM 1 point [-]

In both 10th grade chemistry and AP chem we had some degree of grading based on how close our values were to the correct values. I'm not actually sure this helps that much in practice though because I'm pretty sure that some kids fudged their data.

Comment author: TeMPOraL 13 October 2012 01:11:01AM *  0 points [-]

(exercising necromancy again to raise the thread from the dead)

We had this situation on CS studies in numerical methods class and in metrology class. In both cases, most of the students fudged the data in the reports and/or just plainly copied stuff from what the previous year did.

Comment author: army1987 10 August 2013 12:43:02PM 1 point [-]

I'm pretty sure that some kids fudged their data

Well, that means that at least they knew what data they would have expected to get if they had done the experiment right, which takes more understanding than just memorizing the teacher's passwords.

Comment author: arundelo 28 May 2012 07:56:06PM *  6 points [-]

(Thread necromancy courtesy of TeMPOraL's comment.)

inclined plane

Here's Feynman criticizing the Brazilian educational system (in the late 1940s and early 1950s), but I get the impression from his writing that he thought this was a widespread problem that was particularly bad in Brazil. (See for instance the stuff about American textbooks later "Surely You're Joking".)

Then I held up the elementary physics textbook they were using. "There are no experimental results mentioned anywhere in this book, except in one place where there is a ball, rolling down an inclined plane, in which it says how far the ball got after one second, two seconds, three seconds, and so on. The numbers have 'errors' in them -- that is, if you look at them, you think you're looking at experimental results, because the numbers are a little above, or a little below, the theoretical values. The book even talks about having to correct the experimental errors -- very fine. The trouble is, when you calculate the value of the acceleration constant from these values, you get the right answer. But a ball rolling down an inclined plane, if it is actually done, has an inertia to get it to turn, and will, if you do the experiment, produce five-sevenths of the right answer, because of the extra energy needed to go into the rotation of the ball. Therefore this single example of experimental 'results' is obtained from a fake experiment. Nobody had rolled such a ball, or they would never have gotten those results!

-- "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!", Richard Feynman (p. 217)

Comment author: army1987 10 August 2013 12:46:40PM 0 points [-]

Not to mention all the 20th-century textbooks mentioning the tongue map thing...

Comment author: Constant2 22 August 2007 10:02:38PM 7 points [-]

To expand on my point, I think there is not enough testing in schools, and what testing there is is too associated with grades. Suppose that you are teaching a child to ride a bike, but suppose that each time he falls you give him a bad grade. At the end of it he knows how to ride a bike really well, and any honest assessment of him should be, "great, he learned well, he's done". Unfortunately, that is not what happens in school. Instead, all his stumbles on the way to learning are summarized and then put into the report card that his parents see.

Once the child has learned, why should it matter how many times he failed in the process of learning? What should matter is whether he knows now.

Because children are keen not to get poor grades, they are worried about never stumbling even once in any of the tests of their knowledge, because they know that each stumble will make it into their permanent record. In order to make it at least possible for students never to stumble, the tests must be designed so that with enough preparation students will not stumble. This limits what can be tested.

The test of getting on a bike and trying to ride will invariably result in stumble after stumble until the child eventually learns to ride. This kind of test is therefore necessarily excluded from the tests that the school will give children. And since such tests are key to learning important aspects of knowledge, schools will fail to teach those aspects of knowledge.

Imagine a bike riding course in which children are taught the theory of bike riding but not actually placed on a bike until the end of the semester. In fact, to ensure that at least some students will pass the test, even the final exam cannot place them on a bike, but will instead need to be a form where they regurgitate the bike riding theory they learned.

I am exaggerating of course, but I do see this as a pronounced tendency in learning.

Comment author: waveman 06 December 2010 06:51:49AM 7 points [-]

W Edwards Deming pointed out in the 1950s, in his books about quality management, the folly of combining measuring for the purpose of improvement with measurement for the purpose of remunerating people. If you do this, the whole measurement process is corrupted - "you get what you measure". Almost invariably however the two forms of measurement are combined because it seems more efficient. As I speak, ambulances are waiting for many hours idle outside my local hospital for a spare bed for their patients, because if the hospital tells them to go to another hospital the hospital gets demerits for failing to have a bed available. If they make them wait, no such demerits are given.

Later, psychologists found that when you externally reward and punish people for doing things, any other intrinsic rewards from the activity tend to be extinguished. Thus (in part) the contrast between the 5 year old who is brimming with enthusiasm for learning and the resentful 14 year old who does as little at possible at school.

Maria Montessori found that if you place children consistently at the sweet spot of learning, where they have to make some effort but it is not discouragingly difficult, they remain enthusiastic and learn rapidly. Micro-tests occur all the time in Montessori classrooms to assess progress. Mainly the tests involve a self-assessment that this activity is boring now so I will move to the next one.

Comment author: Hopefully_Anonymous 22 August 2007 11:23:23PM 2 points [-]

Some of the critics of Eliezer's point are falling in the trap of justifying a functional system rather than looking how to optimize it. I think Constant's point that we often regurgitate on the path to understanding. But still, I think primacy should be given to figuring out how to optimize these learning processes, rather than justify the functional elements of the learning processes we currently have.

Comment author: Constant2 23 August 2007 02:42:23AM 0 points [-]

"I think primacy should be given to figuring out how to optimize these learning processes, rather than justify the functional elements of the learning processes we currently have."

Part of the problem may be that a lot of the educational system simply has no proper criterion of success. What, after all, is a successful class in (say) physics? The teacher's success is measured by the students' success, but the students' success is measured by their performance on the exams, and the exams are written by the teacher, so the teacher is indirectly evaluating himself. Which is not a proper criterion of success. Even if the educational system as a whole writes a national exam to test the teacher, the fundamental problem remains, because the test is written by the same organization that is ultimately testing itself.

What is a teacher supposed to teach? How is this decided? I think there is such a large gap between learning and life that in effect a lot of learning goes untested, or tested badly (e.g., tested by the very organization whose performance is being tested).

This is presumably much less of a problem in vocational training. The value of a vocational school is tested in the workplace, and it is quickly discovered whether a particular school churns out worthless graduates.

Comment author: brooksfoe 23 August 2007 04:49:44AM 6 points [-]

Uh, Eliezer, when you were 9, had you seen a wave? Did you have a sense that a wave was different in several ways from other kinds of things, even from other kinds of fluid behaviors -- different from a current, say?

Now, when you were 9, had you seen an arglebargle? Did you have a sense of how arglebargles differed from other things? (If so, how?)

And are there ways in which the characteristics you did recognize in waves, when you were 9, also do in fact apply to light? On the other hand, are there ways in which the characteristics you recognize in arglebargles apply to light?

I would venture to say that you did learn something meaningful by repeating your teacher's explanation that light is "made of waves". You are overly discounting what counts as experimental evidence of the real-world phenomena which words refer to. You had a lot of experimental evidence of waves at age 9. You'd seen them, for a start. When your teacher told you that light is made of waves, he was helping you to understand something about light by explaining it in terms of something you had real-world experience of.

Similarly, when my 3-year-old asks whether stars are burning but planets are not, I don't tell him that actually stars aren't "burning" as such. I say yes, and what he said counts as learning, not "guessing my passwords" -- even though he doesn't fully understand yet what I would understand by the word "burning".

Comment author: James2 23 August 2007 08:48:09AM 5 points [-]

Disagreeing with the original post is a bit like disagreeing with the statement that there's too much crime. What I find remarkable, though, is how useful password knowledge is. I mean you might think it would have zero use, but it doesn't. For instance, all knowledge of geography is password knowledge, unless you have actually been to the place. Yet, most people will argue that knowledge of geography is a good thing because it makes you form little mental boxes that are useful for organizing future knowledge (e.g. there are some people from a place called China, and they're probably very different from people from a place called Botswana).

Comment author: James2 23 August 2007 08:48:34AM 0 points [-]

Disagreeing with the original post is a bit like disagreeing with the statement that there's too much crime. What I find remarkable, though, is how useful password knowledge is. I mean you might think it would have zero use, but it doesn't. For instance, all knowledge of geography is password knowledge, unless you have actually been to the place. Yet, most people will argue that knowledge of geography is a good thing because it makes you form little mental boxes that are useful for organizing future knowledge (e.g. there are some people from a place called China, and they're probably very different from people from a place called Botswana).

Comment author: Lars_Pensjö 23 August 2007 10:54:08AM 1 point [-]

When you are presented with a new concept, the first step is to "mechanically" learn it. At that point, you are able to solve only questions that closely match what you were taught.

The next step is to really understand the meaning of the concept, in a deeper sence. In school, this is usually achieved by providing excercises that are progressively harder and harder. Harder in this case means that the questions diverges more from the learnt material and more and more requires deeper understanding of the concept.

If you only go so far as learning the "mechanical" part of the concept, you usually will forget about it rather quickly. If you, on the other hand, really understand the meaning behind the concept, the knowledge will stick much longer. And not only that, it is okey to forget about the mechanical steps and only keep the basic understanding as you can quickly and easily look up the mechanical part when you recognize a problem.

I think this is all a normal learning process, practised everyday in school.

Comment author: Floccina2 24 August 2007 04:58:43PM 0 points [-]

Some of this is becuase school is more about testing than about teaching. It is easier to test for the words.

Comment author: Doug_S. 11 February 2008 04:35:43AM 2 points [-]

"Imagine a bike riding course in which children are taught the theory of bike riding but not actually placed on a bike until the end of the semester. In fact, to ensure that at least some students will pass the test, even the final exam cannot place them on a bike, but will instead need to be a form where they regurgitate the bike riding theory they learned."

You think that passage is a joke, but it's an exact description of my high school's driver's education unit.

Comment author: Quill 29 April 2008 01:23:09PM 0 points [-]

For example, what is intelligence, and what is conscience?

Um, do you mean "consciousness"?

Comment author: Chris_Horton 11 July 2008 11:46:15PM 1 point [-]

Great essay! As someone who has taught physics off and on for decades, I couldn't agree more!

See the discussion of Cognitive Instruction, Math Modeling at the ASU Modeling Physics Instruction site, http://modeling.asu.edu/CIMM.html, for an approach to math teaching founded on this insight. Verbal behavior and symbol construction, which is nearly all of what is taught in mathematics classes after 4th grade (excepting Geometry) do not represent conceptual understanding, and indeed aren't really mathematics. No wonder students hate it and most can't really learn it!

Comment author: Arcturus_Kirwin 12 July 2008 09:45:23AM 1 point [-]

But, brooksfoe. When you say "Yes", you could then expand, refine and add new information to your child.

You could say, "Yes, but it's a very special kind of burning. It's called fusion. It's what happens when lots of pressure makes a gas called hydrogen turn into another gas called helium, giving off lots of heat and light!"

Comment author: pbhj 10 October 2009 12:30:54AM 3 points [-]

I've had this sort of conversation - I'm going to guess you're not a parent Arcturus - your response is full but fails to explain at 3 year old level what a gas is, what pressure is, what hydrogen and helium are, what "heat and light" means in this context. Basically all the important concepts are undefined. Are you going to proceed and explain everything you know about the universe?

Some concepts have to be held in abeyance pending formulation of more basic concepts and development of methods to "understand" those concepts such as experience of water waves that helps us to understand the concept of E-M waves via metaphor.

Comment author: wedrifid 10 October 2009 12:45:08AM 5 points [-]

Just exposing the child to words used in their correct context is of significant value. Some of these the child may prompt further curiosity but even those that are ignored have begun to be built into a framework for understanding.

Comment author: MrHen 21 January 2010 07:12:02PM 4 points [-]

I remember discovering this secret through a few related events. The one that comes forefront is my brother and I laughing at a magazine advert showing a sumo wrestler ski jumping. I made the comment, "Ha, he's going to fall like a rock!" My father was there and asked why? Didn't I know that the weight of the object doesn't determine its falling speed? Apparently, whenever that concept was taught to me it didn't stick and so I wasn't using it to make predictions. But based on the tone of his voice I knew I was supposed to know this and, even though I had no clue what he was talking about, I immediately responded by saying, "Because of drag!"

This was stupid of me. It got my dad off my back and so I had correctly guessed the teacher's password and the rest of the day I tried to figure out why the weight of an object wouldn't make it fall faster. It wasn't until years later that I saw proof in a science museum experiment and I accepted the theory as fact.

The event caused me to notice, however, that I had switched theories to try explaining my prediction. I made a bad prediction, but instead of saying oops I started desperately grabbing for evidence that backed up my result. How evil of my younger self. But now that I noticed I was doing this I was able to stop it. It also caused me to start seeing this happen in others. I am still surprised at how often people do this and never think that they could be doing something wrong.

Comment author: lutorm 31 May 2010 05:05:16PM 3 points [-]

"If you aren't using the diffusion equation - putting in numbers and getting out results that control your anticipation of particular experiences - then the connection between map and territory is severed as though by a knife. What remains is not a belief, but a verbal behavior."

I'm surprised noone's commented on this before, but I think this is overly restrictive. If I'm familiar with the process of diffusion, I intuitively know what's going to happen, without actually plugging in numbers. I don't need to do math to reach the right conclusion, I can just sort of visualize what's happening. I think you progress from mechanically plugging in numbers to generalizing the behavior into a pattern that you can apply, like people can catch a ball in the air without actually calculating a parabola. That doesn't mean that there is no connection between map and territory. Of course, you have to take some care to make sure you're applying the right pattern, but that's no different than knowing to apply the right equation.

Comment author: handoflixue 19 May 2011 08:01:10PM 4 points [-]

It seems to me that passwords and placeholders occupy about the same space, and probably look fairly similar when they're first being taught. Knowing that light, sound, and matter are all waves tells me they have something in common. It means once I learn what a wave is, I ought to be able to predict some behaviors of all three based on this new information. If I also know that some things are not waves, I'll have a decent foundation for when to apply the wave equation, once I learn it.

Indeed, "password" itself seems to be a password for the concept of a placeholder. Now that I've puzzled that out, though, the new question arises: is it actually useful to learn a placeholder, or should we teach the wave equation first, and then go in to "light is a wave, and here is why", "sound is a wave and here is why"?

Certainly, being up-front about it when we're using a placeholder or an approximation would be wise. I must have had an odd experience in school, since there was generally at least one other student that would ask "what does 'wave' MEAN?" and then we'd all either learn what it meant, or that it was a placeholder to be learned about later.

Comment author: aspera 09 October 2012 04:36:56AM 1 point [-]

I agree with you, a year and a half late. In fact, the idea can be extended to EY's concept of "floating beliefs," webs of code words that are only defined with respect to one another, and not with respect to evidence. It should be noted that if at any time, a member of the web is correlated in some way with evidence, then so is the entire web.

In that sense, it doesn't seem like wasted effort to maintain webs of "passwords," as long as we're responsible about updating our best guesses about reality based on only those beliefs that are evidence-related. In the long term, given enough memory capacity, it should speed our understanding.

Comment author: Caravelle 22 June 2011 09:49:57PM 3 points [-]

When I was a kid I had this book called "Thinking Physics", which was basically a book of multiple choice physics questions (such as "an elephant and a feather are falling, which one experiences more air resistance ?", or "Kepler and Galileo made telescopes around the same time and Kepler's was adopted widely, why ?") aimed to point out where our natural instincts or presuppositions go against how physics actually work, and explaining, well, how physics actually work.

Really, the simple idea that physics are a habit of thought that have to be worked on because our defaults are incorrect (or, as I realized much later, are correct only in the special case of the everyday life of a social hominid) has been helpful to me ever since, and too few people have it or realize it's important.

I think it gets to what you're saying : one shouldn't learn physics (or anything for that matter) as a list of facts or methods to apply in the classroom, one should work to integrate them into one's mental model of the world. Which is not as easy as it sounds.

Comment author: hairyfigment 20 July 2011 02:33:40AM 1 point [-]

Welcome to Less Wrong! Do you also post at Slacktivist, where Fred dissects the Left Behind series?

If so, you might appreciate this: I think the part about integrating knowledge into your view of the world gets at the root problem with Left Behind. If we assume those books represent the authors' views in some way, then the authors seem to have no concept of facts fitting together. So for example it doesn't matter that Jesus lies about the characters' actions, and their effect on his own, while using mind control to make those characters give the "right" responses to his canned speech. It only matters that the words come from the Bible. This makes the biblical "prediction" technically true. The Bible itself is reliable because of biblical inerrancy, and for no other reason -- God is not always honest in other contexts.

Comment author: Caravelle 24 July 2011 05:53:02PM 0 points [-]

Hi ! Yep, it's the same me, thanks for the welcome !

I don't know if I'd call integrating knowledge THE root problem of Left Behind, which has many root problems, and a lack of integration strikes me as too high-level and widespread among humans to qualify as [i]root[/i] per se...

But yeah, good illustration of the principle :-)

(and thanks for the welcome link, I'd somehow missed that page)

Comment author: hairyfigment 24 July 2011 08:12:38PM *  0 points [-]

Well, I was trying to think of a general rule that L&J could follow in order to repair their worldview. (Obviously we should consider following this rule as well, if we can find one.) I came up with, 'Ask how all the facts, as you see them, fit together.'

We could probably find a better version. Eliezer suggests the rule, 'Try to find the thought that hurts the most,' or loosely paraphrased, 'Ask what the Sorting Hat from Methods of Rationality would tell you.' But for L&J such an imaginary conversation would likely end with the phrase, 'Get behind me, Satan!' They do not expect to have the brains to see how their facts fit together, considering this the province of God. And yet I feel like they must have some experience with judging beliefs successfully. Surely they can't have formed a publishing empire, and survived to the point where they could hire assistants, solely by doing what 'the proper God-appointed authorities' told them to do? (Though they do lump airplane pilots and scientists together as 'practical authorities.' And we know that more belief in the wisdom of 'traditional authority' correlates with more gullibility about any claim the authorities in question have not condemned -- see Chapter 3 here. Hmm.)

So I want to say that a personalized version of my rule would have a better effect than imagining criticisms directly. Perhaps we could tell the authors to imagine in detail what they would see if (or when) God shows them how all their facts fit together, and exactly how this would allow them to answer any and all objections. This seems connected with the act of imagining a paradise you would actually prefer to Reedspacer's Lower Bound as a long-term home. Both involve the rule, 'Ask how it would actually work given what you know about people/yourself.'

You might think that authors who wrote about the kingdom Jesus will establish on Earth wouldn't need to hear these rules. You'd be wrong. :-)

Comment author: Caravelle 24 July 2011 08:49:06PM 2 points [-]

"Surely they can't have formed a publishing empire, and survived to the point where they could hire assistants, solely by doing what 'the proper God-appointed authorities' told them to do? "

Dunno; I wouldn't underestimate to what extent plain instinct can make one behave in a rational-like manner even though one's beliefs aren't rational. How those instincts are rationalized post-hoc, if they're rationalized at all, isn't that relevant.

"Perhaps we could tell the authors to imagine in detail what they would see if (or when) God shows them how all their facts fit together, and exactly how this would allow them to answer any and all objections."

I would agree with Eliezer's rule more than with yours here. For one thing, the issue isn't so much that L&J aren't following the right rationality rules; I suspect they don't want to follow the right rationality rules. I don't know if they haven't realized they have to follow them to be right, or don't care that much about being right (or to be more accurate, they're sufficiently married to their current worldview that they don't even want to consider it might be wrong), but I'm pretty sure if someone suggested they follow either your rule or Eliezer's they'd just stare blankly.

So there's that. But if we assume we managed to get them to listen to what we say, then I think Eliezer's rule would work much better, because it's much harder to misuse. "Ask yourself how things would actually work" is prone to rationalization, I can just picture the sentence getting translated by some brain module as "picture your current model. Nice, innit ?".

Or, put another way, I think that the part of the brain that actually examines one's beliefs, and the part of the brain that gives you the warm glow of self-satisfaction from being right, are not the same part of the brain. Your question will get intercepted by the warm glow part of the brain.. Eliezer's question... will not. In fact it looks specifically designed to avoid it.

In particular, if "try to find the thought that hurts you the most" would elicit "get behind me Satan", I'm not convinced that "try and work out how your worldview would actually work" wouldn't have the same results. Satan is the Great Deceiver after all. How easy would it be to assume, once you meet the first contradiction, that Satan is clouding your thoughts...

Comment author: mdcaton 11 August 2011 05:04:53PM *  3 points [-]

Although this is an old article I came to it from the Theory of Knowledge article (link below). I'm commenting because this crystallizes my objections to a repeated theme at LW: that irrationality comes from unquestioned cached thoughts, and that modern education systems exacerbate this tendency. In other words, I'm questioning whether password-guessing and memorization in education are actually avoidable, even at the highest levels of optimization, and whether this isn't in fact the result of the expansion of knowledge and the limits of human cognition.

I'm not even going to argue whether those are true statements and whether they are bad. But my own background has raised questions about what the solution might be. My idealistic assumptions about how people should learn used to track the predominant ones on LW much more closely. I'm currently in a technical graduate program for a profession that is different from most other types of graduate programs because in this field, the first few years are spent memorizing huge reams of information and taking multiple choice tests (have a guess as to what I'm studying?) My fellow students and I would genuinely love to really understand from a critical perspective all the information that is getting shoveled into our brains. But doing that, rather than memorizing lists of word correspondences, takes time that we just don't have. Therefore in reality our tests are really just exercises in figuring out which bar to press so we get the food pellet. (I like that analogy better than "guessing passwords".) And perhaps most scandalous, once we're "in the system", we students recognize the need for it to be this way even though it's frustrating.

Scandal! Unethical? Stupid? Cynical, at least? Maybe yes to all. But the pragmatic reality is that there's a trade-off. There's such a massive amount of material that no human who ever lived would be able to critically digest it all unless the training lasted far longer than it does, and while the system is certainly not optimized, the body of knowledge itself is so rife with detail not predictable from first principles that until the limits on cognition fundamentally change, this will continue to be the case.

So, regarding the strategy students can adopt, the two ends of the spectrum are: 1) You can just memorize details long enough to regurgitate them in the lever-pressing experiments, and understand nothing critically; or 2) You can insist on trying to critically understand everything, and you will certainly fall behind and fail. You. Yes, you, reading this, because you're human, and this applies to all humans. ("Not me! I'm special! I still care about my fellow man, the human spirit, etc." Sorry, can you tell I've had this conversation before?)

Unfortunately, given the pace the material is presented and tested, you'll end up much closer to #1 than #2. Even if you disagree with my assessment that a body of knowledge can be such that large amounts of memorization are necessary, this still raises the omnipresent problem of how to maximize whatever it is you want to maximize while surrounded by irrational humans (who are running the schools, and who believe that memorization is necessary). If you want to do the thing you're being trained for, you need the piece of paper. To get that paper, you have to pass the tests. To pass the tests you need to just memorize and not think. I guess I could just declare the whole enterprise unethical and forget about this profession and move out in the woods somewhere. So if you can tell me how to maximize career satisfaction and income out in a nice forest away from everyone instead of memorizing reams of B.S., I'm all ears. Seriously.

As knowledge accumulates, this problem is only going to get worse, and extend to more fields. Certainly education has not yet been optimized but all fields are not math and physics, and there's enough unpredictable detail in the world that as knowledge accumulates, so will the memorization required to learn that knowledge. And if we can't always use critical thinking at every step - which we can't - then password-guessing is better than nothing.

Post I came in from: http://lesswrong.com/lw/70d/theory_of_knowledge_rationality_outreach/

Comment author: lessdazed 11 August 2011 05:52:10PM 3 points [-]

In the school system, it's all about verbal behavior, whether written on paper or spoken aloud. Verbal behavior gets you a gold star or a failing grade. Part of unlearning this bad habit is becoming consciously aware of the difference between an explanation and a password.

In other words, I'm questioning whether password-guessing and memorization in education are actually avoidable, even at the highest levels of optimization

So, regarding the strategy students can adopt, the two ends of the spectrum are...I guess I could just declare the whole enterprise unethical and forget about this profession and move out in the woods somewhere.

This seems like shifting the goalposts. How the system should be and what to do given that it is what it is are different questions. The OP addresses the first and you criticize it as if it addresses the latter.

Comment author: paper-machine 11 August 2011 05:55:20PM 4 points [-]

that irrationality comes from unquestioned cached thoughts, and that modern education systems exacerbate this tendency.

I don't think LW claims that's the only place irrationality comes from. There's the various biases, an inability to update, akrasia, and so on...

I'm currently in a technical graduate program for a profession that is different from most other types of graduate programs because in this field, the first few years are spent memorizing huge reams of information and taking multiple choice tests (have a guess as to what I'm studying?)

Actuarial science, I imagine. My second guess is pharmacy, but that seems less technical than actuarial science.

And perhaps most scandalous, once we're "in the system", we students recognize the need for it to be this way even though it's frustrating.

Can you explain specifically "the need for it to be this way"? Would a person learning these things via SRS or a comparable long-term memorization system not wipe the floor with the crammers in real life? If someone who actually knows the material isn't at an advantage, then why do you need to know these things in the first place.

I ask because I'm leaning toward "recognizing in hindsight the reason behind the structure of the system" is a bias in its own right, though I can't say its been analyzed anywhere, and I don't have enough evidence to definitively say one way or another.

I'm a math grad student, and I also have a larger-than-feasibly-possible, unwieldy mess of information I need to learn, but I don't get the mercy of a multiple-choice exam.

So, regarding the strategy students can adopt, the two ends of the spectrum are: 1) You can just memorize details long enough to regurgitate them in the lever-pressing experiments, and understand nothing critically; or 2) You can insist on trying to critically understand everything, and you will certainly fall behind and fail.

False dichotomy.

If you want to do the thing you're being trained for, you need the piece of paper. To get that paper, you have to pass the tests. To pass the tests you need to just memorize and not think.

Step two to three is lacking in justification.

I guess I could just declare the whole enterprise unethical and forget about this profession and move out in the woods somewhere. So if you can tell me how to maximize career satisfaction and income out in a nice forest away from everyone instead of memorizing reams of B.S., I'm all ears. Seriously.

What? If you truly feel the profession is unethical (and why you would feel this way is not quite clear), pivot into another profession. It's not like everyone has to be a physicist or a construction worker. There are plenty of professions in the world (though perhaps not as many jobs as there used to be, I suppose).

As knowledge accumulates, this problem is only going to get worse, and extend to more fields.

That's why we have SRS, nootropics, expert systems and (ultimately, someday) FAI.

Certainly education has not yet been optimized but all fields are not math and physics, and there's enough unpredictable detail in the world that as knowledge accumulates, so will the memorization required to learn that knowledge.

Heh! Math has plenty of "unpredictable detail." Heh.

And if we can't always use critical thinking at every step - which we can't - then password-guessing is better than nothing.

There's a difference between password-guessing and memorization that I think you've ignored in this... well, for lack of a better word, rant. There's nothing wrong with memorizing facts; there's everything wrong with memorizing the answers to questions.

For instance, at some point a pharmacist needs to memorize that, say, grapefruit juice is contraindicated for some kinds of high blood pressure medicine (or was it cholesterol medicine? I don't know, I'm not a pharmacist.) If we ask them, "What do I need to know about high blood pressure medicine?", the answer "Don't take it with grapefruit juice," isn't a fake answer.

What would be a fake answer is if we were taking a different class of HBP medicine that didn't interact with grapefruit juice, but the pharmacist said "Don't take it with grapefruit juice," anyway on the principle that grapefruit juice interacts with some HBP medicines.

That's probably unclear, but I'm sure someone else will clarify the situation better.

Comment author: lessdazed 11 August 2011 05:59:07PM 2 points [-]

I don't think LW claims that's the only place irrationality comes from. There's the various biases, an inability to update, akrasia, and so on...

Analogously,

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, Chapter 1, first line

Comment author: wedrifid 11 August 2011 08:28:38PM 2 points [-]

So, regarding the strategy students can adopt, the two ends of the spectrum are: 1) You can just memorize details long enough to regurgitate them in the lever-pressing experiments, and understand nothing critically; or 2) You can insist on trying to critically understand everything, and you will certainly fall behind and fail.

False dichotomy.

Nothing described as "two ends of the spectrum" is ever a false dichotomy. Or a true dichotomy, for that matter.

Comment author: paper-machine 11 August 2011 08:42:35PM 0 points [-]

While they do sometimes treat this as two ends of a spectrum, their ultimate conclusion

To pass the tests you need to just memorize and not think.

Relies on the earlier (perhaps unstated, or implicitly stated) premise that 1) and 2) are mutually exclusive.

Comment author: wedrifid 11 August 2011 10:02:19PM 2 points [-]

If you believe that the passage in question is a false dichotomy then you either do not understand what a dichotomy is or you parsed the quoted text incorrectly. The two ends of the spectrum are mutually exclusive (and look somewhat extreme) but for them to be dichotomous the entire rest of the spectrum - all the moderate parts - must be excluded.

Even if the text is somehow wrong or stupid it is not a false dichotomy.

Comment author: paper-machine 11 August 2011 10:26:58PM *  1 point [-]

Would you rather I called it a fake spectrum?

EDIT: I really don't understand the issue. In order to apply excluded middle to reach the conclusion, they have to both hold that the two ends of the spectrum are dichotomous, and that the rest of the spectrum either doesn't exist, or is inconsequential. So it's a spectrum in a name only, which as far as I can see is as good as a false dichotomy.

Comment author: wedrifid 11 August 2011 10:44:02PM 1 point [-]

Would you rather I called it a fake spectrum?

That is one of many things you could say that isn't just strictly and trivially false.

But it isn't my preferences you are satisfying. I don't mind if you say wrong things, I'm just going to reply with a correction if you do. (So 'rather?' is a strange question!)

Comment author: paper-machine 11 August 2011 10:50:07PM 2 points [-]

Let me rephrase, then. "Is there anything you would correct in characterizing the aforementioned as a fake spectrum?"

Honestly, if I have to write so strictly, it's almost too much effort.

Comment author: wedrifid 11 August 2011 11:04:11PM *  1 point [-]

I thought the answer 'no' would have come across, even while I distanced myself from the personal connotations.

Comment author: JGWeissman 11 August 2011 05:55:32PM 3 points [-]

An alternative to having students of a field incrementally memorize its information for regurgitation on tests only to forget most of it after the test, would be to store the information in a well organized database and teach students how to search the database for information relevant to the current problem they face.

I don't know how a student in the field could achieve this change.

However, there are fields, such as software engineering, where you can work that way if you want, and make lots of money without getting licenses or degrees from established institutions.

(It is encouraged to read old posts, and comment on them when you have something to say.)

Comment author: gwern 15 August 2011 07:53:06PM 4 points [-]

"But concise is not always precise, and without precision, concision is just vague at best, and misleading at worst. Several years ago, a student wanted to contest the scoring of one of his test answers in my introductory psychology course. The test question was something to the effect of “What is the primary advantage of an experimental study over a correlational study?” and an example sufficient answer would have been, “Causal conclusions may be drawn from an experiment, but not from a correlational study.”

The student’s answer was, “In an experiment, you actually test something” (the word ‘test’ was underlined twice). When he questioned why his answer earned no points, I explained that it failed to distinguish the two study types at all, as both correlational and experimental studies “test something” (i.e., in introductory terms, a relationship between variables and cause-and-effect, respectively). He looked at me earnestly and rebutted, “But you said some of the questions could be answered in one sentence, and I underlined ‘test’ twice.”

After a moment of silence (to contain my disbelief at his statement), I asked him what it would have meant if he had only underlined “test” once, or not at all, and how was I to know those distinctions in meaning. He had no answer."

--"Precision First", L. Kimberly Epting

Comment author: RobinZ 03 September 2012 04:14:39PM 2 points [-]
Comment author: AlanCrowe 03 January 2012 04:14:02PM 9 points [-]

I've just bumped into a fun link about guessing the teachers password. It is only 184 words so here it is:

I do a game called k9 nosework with my corgi. You take a qtip dipped in certain scents and hide it in boxes in the beginning then progressing to furniture and outside areas. The game is for the dog to find the qtip and identify; there's even a contest / sport. If you decide to do the sport, the handler has to read the dog and decide if the dog is identifying a given bit of car or whatever as the location of the goal scent or if the dog is just sniffing. The point of this rambling is even the plain trainers that do k9 nosework know that the handler has to go blind and can't know where the scent is or the dog will learn to read the handler instead of learning to use its nose to find the scent. The idea that the police are unaware of this is ludicrous, since this sport grew out of nose training for police dogs, and it's a major training obstacle.

The meat of the comment is "the handler has to go blind". It took me a while to work out what is being said here. My understanding:

You take up the sport. You hide the scented qtip yourself. You train your dog to sniff it out. Your dog does good. You go to the competition. The judge hides the scented qtip and you don't know where. Your dog does bad. Explanation: Your dog never learned to sniff out the scented qtip, he learned to read you and the tells you gave away when he sniffed near where you knew the qtip to be.

Why is this fun? Well, John Holt's book How Children Fail has a lovely story about guessing the teachers password

... since it was clear to me from the way the children were talking and acting that they hadn't a notion of what Nouns, Adjectives, and Verbs were. Finally one child said, 'Miss ---, you shouldn't point to the answer each time.' The teacher was surprised, and asked what she meant. The child said, 'Well, you don't exactly point, but you kind of stand next to the answer.' This was no clearer, since the teacher had been standing still. But after a while, as the class went on, I thought I saw what the girl meant. Since the teacher wrote each word down in its proper column, she was, in a way, getting herself ready to write, pointing herself at the place where she would soon be writing. From the angle of her body to the blackboard the children picked up a subtle cue to the correct answer.

Dogs do this too!

The relation of my comment to Eliezer's point is delicate. It is not correct to decenter and imagine yourself as the teacher; Eliezer is not writing pedagogy. You have to decenter and imagine yourself as the sniffer dog. You train hard, winning lots of praise and treats from your owner. You wag your tail happily. Then you go to the competition and discover that you haven't learned the skill that you were supposed to learn, at all!

Comment author: TodesBrot 01 April 2012 08:32:49PM 0 points [-]

Bravo, pretty much all I have to say...

Comment author: PerennialChild 29 June 2012 10:10:49PM 0 points [-]

This is no doubt a good way to control the problem, but I'm not grasping whether or not de-emphasizing the use of "passwords" would be the ideal thing to do. After all, language was invented so that people could effectively and easily communicate their understanding with others. It hardly helps to NOT drill in the common language to students, otherwise we'd be dealing with people using long, complicated circumlocution to describe what should be a very simple concept.

But this article is correct. Technical knowledge: asking HOW something works, and solidifying critical thinking skills is paramount to good education... but that's no reason to be overtly strict, and doing away with verbal behavior. It's been used and has worked for centuries, which doesn't necessarily mean that it's useless.

Comment author: gwern 12 July 2012 06:19:40PM 6 points [-]

In 1990, after seven years of teaching at Harvard, Eric Mazur, now Balkanski professor of physics and applied physics, was delivering clear, polished lectures and demonstrations and getting high student evaluations for his introductory Physics 11 course, populated mainly by premed and engineering students who were successfully solving complicated problems. Then he discovered that his success as a teacher “was a complete illusion, a house of cards.”

The epiphany came via an article in the American Journal of Physics by Arizona State professor David Hestenes. He had devised a very simple test, couched in everyday language, to check students’ understanding of one of the most fundamental concepts of physics—force—and had administered it to thousands of undergraduates in the southwestern United States. Astonishingly, the test showed that their introductory courses had taught them “next to nothing,” says Mazur: “After a semester of physics, they still held the same misconceptions as they had at the beginning of the term.”

The students had improved at handling equations and formulas, he explains, but when it came to understanding “what the real meanings of these things are, they basically reverted to Aristotelian logic—thousands of years back.” For example, they could recite Newton’s Third Law and apply it to numerical problems, but when asked about a real-world event like a collision between a heavy truck and a light car, many firmly declared that the heavy truck exerts a larger force. (Actually, an object’s weight is irrelevant to the force exerted.)

Mazur tried the test on his own students. Right at the start, a warning flag went up when one student raised her hand and asked, “How should I answer these questions—according to what you taught me, or how I usually think about these things?” To Mazur’s consternation, the simple test of conceptual understanding showed that his students had not grasped the basic ideas of his physics course: two-thirds of them were modern Aristotelians. “The students did well on textbook-style problems,” he explains. “They had a bag of tricks, formulas to apply. But that was solving problems by rote. They floundered on the simple word problems, which demanded a real understanding of the concepts behind the formulas.”

http://harvardmagazine.com/2012/03/twilight-of-the-lecture

Comment author: CAE_Jones 30 January 2013 03:55:55AM 0 points [-]

This reminds me of an exchange from when I was in highschool physics, talking with someone a year ahead of me who was a freshman in college physics.

I've tried looking for the original conversation, but we apparently talked about Batman, asteroids and boats too much for Google to find it.

Basically, I posted a problem from my Physics homework in which we had to determine what would happen if Batman jumped off a bridge into a passing boat, in which a criminal was making an escape (or committing a crime, or some such thing).

He complained that the only problems he got were random asteroid collisions in the middle of Nowhere, Space.

There was another that was descriptive rather than involving solving an equation, asking to explain what was wrong in the situation where Superman, hovering in an alley, reaches down to grab a fleeing criminal, without moving in any other way. (Conservation of momentum, and all that). He attended a certain prestigeous engineering university in the American Midwest, and I was at my state's Math and Science school (Juniors/seniors, science fair was a big deal taking up a year and then some, and I didn't have to go through a horrible chain of time-consuming prerequesits to get into most of the classes I wanted to take).

We both bailed on math and physics around the same time, after Calculus 2. And lab reports in college physics proved a huge obstacle (if the overwhelming ugh fields around academic writing weren't enough, the fact that we were mostly just letting a cart roll down a slope, and writing about it in the context of the phenomenon of the week made my only interest in pointing out sources of error rather than treating it as an actual experiment).

I then proceeded to sit in a building for the next five years and fail roughly one class every other semester for three of those years, and still don't have the piece of paper saying I can speak French. Looking for the above-mentioned conversation did bring up posts where I could actually speak math, though, making me wonder how things would have gone had I found Overcoming Bias / LessWrong in 2007 or 2008. (Perhaps I would have been less prone to go off on wild tangents complaining about my life? Hmm...)

Comment author: Epiphany 03 September 2012 07:25:28AM 0 points [-]

Eliezer, thank goodness you exist.

Comment author: Rixie 28 March 2013 02:51:01PM -1 points [-]

This is kind of like in the (fantastic) (children's) book The Myserious Benedict Society. In the book, a bad person invents a machine that uses TV and radio broadcasts to control people's minds. They project words into every broadcast, so that people are subliminally affected. The good guy builds a machine that allows him to hear the words directly. He gets gibberish. Things like, "poison apples, poison worms." He sends in a group of four children to investigate. They are to go to the school set up by the bad person and attempt to gather more knowledge about the machine. While at the school, they excel at their studies through, um, various means, because they heard that the best students get hooked up to the machine. While they are being hooked up to the machine, the bad guy asks them what they think of when he says the phrase, "Poison apples, poison worms." Immediately, the lesson on how corrupt the govournment was, the lesson that was entitled "Poison apples, poison worms" comes back to them. And it's like this that the bad guy can control peoples' minds with gibberish, the words mean something to the children that he uses. What counts is what's going on inside the children's minds, not the actual broadcasted words at all.

Comment author: Rixie 28 March 2013 03:01:05PM -1 points [-]

Not that that's what this article meant, I just though that this may amuse or interest one or two people . . .

Comment author: Flashko 02 May 2013 05:04:49PM 0 points [-]

I should give me two cents in here, but know that I am new here, and may not be completely accurate as of now. I read this over, and a few comments, and took into consideration most of your views

To me this is a relevent piece. Me being in class I am paying attention to the Educator before me and wondering why Xe Just gives out the meaning. Then it hit me. The teacher was not going into detail about [why] its relevent. Im currently in Geometry, and she was talking about major, and minor arks; however Xe was not going into what could be used in the situation that would need arks. Xe is implanting the password to everyone as we speak, and its not Xir fault, but the Education Xe is required to give. Xe has no decision in doing this. Xe has to, its Xir job to tell us the answers and for us to Repeat.

Comment author: gwern 02 December 2013 05:12:30PM 1 point [-]

An interesting little demonstration is to pose the "How old is the shepherd?" word problem / riddle to kids at school: http://robertkaplinsky.com/how-old-is-the-shepherd/