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Before I make my main point, I want to acknowledge that curriculum development is hard. It's even harder when you're trying to teach the unteachable. And it's even harder when you're in the process of bootstrapping. I am aware of the Kahneman inside/outside curriculum design story. And, I myself have taught 200+ hours of my own computer science curricula to middle-school students. So this "open letter," is not some sort of criticism of CFAR's curriculum; It's a "Hey, check out this cool stuff eventually when you have time," letter. I just wanted to put all this out there, to possibly influence the next five years of CFAR.
Curriculum development is hard.
So, anyway, I don't personally know any of the people involved in CFAR, but I do know you're all great.
A case for developmental thinking
Below is an annotated bibliography of some of my personal touchstones in the development literature, books that are foundational or books that synthesize decades of research about the developmental aspects of entrepreneurial, executive, educational, and scientific thinking, as well as the developmental aspects of emotion and cognition. Note that this is personal, idiosyncratic, non-exhaustive list.
And, to qualify, I have epistemological and ontological issues with plenty of the stuff below. But some of these authors are brilliant, and the rest are smart, meticulous, and values-driven. Lots of these authors deeply care about empirically identifying, targeting, accelerating, and stabilizing skills ahead of schedule or helping skills manifest when they wouldn't have otherwise appeared at all. Quibbles and double-takes aside, there is lots of signal, here, even if it's not seated in a modern framework (which would of course increase the value and accessibility of what's below).
There are clues or even neon signs, here, for isolating fine-grained, trainable stuff to be incorporated into curricula. Even if an intervention was designed for kids, a lot of adults still won't perform consistently prior to said intervention. And these researchers have spent thousands of collective hours thinking about how to structure assessments, interventions, and validations which may be extendable to more advanced scenarios.
So all the material below is not only useful for thinking about remedial or grade-school situations, and is not just for adding more tools to a cognitive toolbox, but could be useful for radically transforming a person's thinking style at a deep level.
child:adult :: adult: ?
This has everything to do with the "Outside the Box" Box. Really. One author below has been collecting data for decades to attempt to describe individuals that may represent far less than one percent of the population.
0. Protocol analysis
Everyone knows that people are poor reporters of what goes on in their heads. But this is a straw. A tremendous amount of research has gone into understanding what conditions, tasks, types of cognitive routines, and types of cognitive objects foster reliable introspective reporting. Introspective reporting can be reliable and useful. Grandaddy Herbert Simon (who coined the term "bounded rationality") devotes an entire book to it. The preface (I think) is a great overview. I wanted to mention this, first, because lots of the researchers below use verbal reports in their work.
1. Developmental aspects of scientific thinking
Deanna Kuhn and colleagues develop and test fine-grained interventions to promote transfer of various aspects of causal inquiry and reasoning in middle school students. In her words, she wants to "[develop] students' meta-level awareness and management of their intellectual processes." Kuhn believes that inquiry and argumentation skills, carefully defined and empirically backed, should be emphasized over specific content in public education. That sounds like vague and fluffy marketing-speak, but if you drill down to the specifics of what she's doing, her work is anything but. (That goes for all of these 50,000 foot summaries. These people are awesome.)
David Klahr and colleagues emphasize how children and adults compare in coordinated searches of a hypothesis space and experiment space. He believes that scientific thinking is not different in kind than everyday thinking. Klahr gives an integrated account of all the current approaches to studying scientific thinking. Herbert Simon was Klahr's dissertation advisor.
2. Developmental aspects of executive or instrumental thinking
Ok, I'll say it: Elliot Jacques was a psychoanalyst, among other things. And the guy makes weird analogies between thinking styles and truth tables. But his methods are rigorous. He has found possible discontinuities in how adults process information in order to achieve goals and how these differences relate to an individuals "time horizon," or maximum time length over which an individual can comfortably execute a goal. Additionally, he has explored how these factors predictably change over a lifespan.
3. Developmental aspects of entrepreneurial thinking
Saras Sarasvathy and colleagues study the difference between novice entrepreneurs and expert entrepreneurs. Sarasvathy wants to know how people function under conditions of goal ambiguity ("We don't know the exact form of what we want"), environmental isotropy ("The levers to affect the world, in our concrete situation, are non-obvious"), and enaction ("When we act we change the world"). Herbert Simon was her advisor. Her thinking predates and goes beyond the lean startup movement.
"What effectuation is not" http://www.effectuation.org/sites/default/files/research_papers/not-effectuation.pdf
4. General Cognitive Development
Jane Loevinger and colleagues' work have inspired scores of studies. Loevinger discovered potentially stepwise changes in "ego level" over a lifespan. Ego level is an archaic-sounding term that might be defined as one's ontological, epistemological, and metacognitive stance towards self and world. Loevinger's methods are rigorous, with good inter-rater reliability, bayesian scoring rules incorporating base rates, and so forth.
Here is a woo-woo description of the ego levels, but note that these descriptions are based on decades of experience and have a repeatedly validated empirical core. The author of this document, Susanne Cook-Greuter, received her doctorate from Harvard by extending Loevinger's model, and it's well worth reading all the way through:
Here is a recent look at the field:
By the way, having explicit cognitive goals predicts an increase in ego level, three years later, but not an increase in subjective well-being. (Only the highest ego levels are discontinuously associated with increased wellbeing.) Socio-emotional goals do predict an increase in subjective well-being, three years later. Great study:
Bauer, Jack J., and Dan P. McAdams. "Eudaimonic growth: Narrative growth goals predict increases in ego development and subjective well-being 3 years later." Developmental Psychology 46.4 (2010): 761.
5. Bridging symbolic and non-symbolic cognition
Eugene Gendlin and colleagues developed a "[...] theory of personality change [...] which involved a fundamental shift from looking at content [to] process [...]. From examining hundreds of transcripts and hours of taped psychotherapy interviews, Gendlin and Zimring formulated the Experiencing Level variable. [...]"
The "focusing" technique was designed as a trainable intervention to influence an individual's Experiencing Level.
Marion N. Hendricks reviews 89 studies, concluding that [I quote]:
- Clients who process in a High Experiencing manner or focus do better in therapy according to client, therapist and objective outcome measures.
- Clients and therapists judge sessions in which focusing takes place as more successful.
- Successful short term therapy clients focus in every session.
- Some clients focus immediately in therapy; Others require training.
- Clients who process in a Low Experiencing manner can be taught to focus and increase in Experiencing manner, either in therapy or in a separate training.
- Therapist responses deepen or flatten client Experiencing. Therapists who focus effectively help their clients do so.
- Successful training in focusing is best maintained by those clients who are the strongest focusers during training.
http://www.amazon.com/Self-Therapy-Step-By-Step-Wholeness-Cutting-Edge-Psychotherapy/dp/0984392777/ [IFS is very similar to focusing]
http://www.amazon.com/Emotion-Focused-Therapy-Coaching-Clients-Feelings/dp/1557988811/ [more references, similar to focusing]
http://www.amazon.com/Experiencing-Creation-Meaning-Philosophical-Psychological/dp/0810114275/ [favorite book of all time, by the way]
6. Rigorous Instructional Design
Siegfried Engelmann (http://www.zigsite.com/) and colleagues are dedicated to dramatically accelerating cognitive skill acquisition in disadvantaged children. In addition to his peer-reviewed research, he specializes in unambiguously decomposing cognitive learning tasks and designing curricula. Engelmann's methods were validated as part of Project Follow Through, the "largest and most expensive experiment in education funded by the U.S. federal government that has ever been conducted," according to Wikipedia. Engelmann contends that the data show that Direct Instruction outperformed all other methods:
Here, he systematically eviscerates an example of educational material that doesn't meet his standards:
And this is his instructional design philosophy:
In conclusion, lots of scientists have cared for decades about describing the cognitive differences between children, adults, and expert or developmentally advanced adults. And lots of scientists care about making those differences happen ahead of schedule or happen when they wouldn't have otherwise happened at all. This is a valuable and complementary perspective to what seems to be CFAR's current approach. I hope CFAR will eventually consider digging into this line of thinking, though maybe they're already on top of it or up to something even better.
As a teacher, I wonder if it is possible to instill this skill into students the skills of rationality and critical thinking. I teach the third grade, and it is not immediately apparent how to apply this with my own class.
The problems I foresee are as follows:
- Young children often do not know the basics on the subject which they are learning, be it math, science, art, religion, literature etc.
- Many children are very shy, and try to give as short of an answer as doable to a verbal prompt.
- Written prompts are arduous, straining the attention span and writing capabilities of the students. This is not a bad thing, but it presents difficulties in the economy of time and material to be presented.
- Attention spans in general are very short.
- Experiments can be very infrequent, and nigh impossible with certain subjects.
- Children, at this age, are likely to take the words of a parent or teacher at face value, and naturally parrot it back. This may be a hard habit to break.
In the sequences, it is suggested teachers should drill into students words don't count, only anticipation-controllers. How practical is this for an elementary school level? Also appreciated would be any ideas or experiences on how to do this, or how to combat the above problems. Hearing from other teachers would be excellent especially.
This post is a followup report to this.
On Friday's lecture, I was able to briefly cover several topics as an introduction. They centred around rationality (what it is), truth (what it is and why we should pursue it), and Newcomb's Paradox.
The turnout was as expected (6 out of a total 7 group members, with 1 having other obligations that day). Throughout the talk I would ask for some proposed definitions before giving them. It is unfortunate when I asked what "truth" is, mysterious answers such as "truth is the meaning of life", and "truth is the pursuit of truth". When asked what they meant by their answers, they either rephrased what they said with the same vagueness or were unable to give an answer. One member, however, did say that "Truth is what is real", only to have other members ask what he meant by "real". It offered a rather nice opportunity for a map-and-territory tangent before giving some version of "The Simple Truth".
I used the definitions given in 'What Do We Mean By "Rationality"?' to describe epistemic and instrumental rationality, and gave several examples as to what rationality is not (Dr. Spock, logic/reason, etc). As a practice, I introduced Newcomb's Paradox. There was ample debate with an even split between one-box and two-boxers. Due to time constraints, we weren't able to come to a conclusion (although the one-boxing side was making a stronger argument). By the end of lunch period, everyone seemed to have a good grasp that rationality is simply making the best decision to achieve one's goals, whatever they may be.
Overall, I'd say it was successful. My next turn is on October 3rd, and apart from a little review, I'm going to go over the 5-second level, and use of words. Saying what they mean is something we as a group need to work on.
Just recently at my high school, a group of classmates and I started a science club. A major component of this is listening and giving peer lectures on topics of physics, math, computer science, etc. I picked a topic a bit off to the side: philosophy and decision making. Naturally, this includes rationality. My plan is to start with something based off the sequences, specifically "How to Actually Change Your Mind" and "A Human's Guide to Words".
I was hoping the Less Wrong community could give me some suggestions, tips, or even alternative ways to approach this. There is no end goal, we just want to learn more and think better. All our members are among the top 5% academically of their own grade. Most of us are seniors and have finished high school math, taking AP Calculus this year. We have covered basic statistics and Bayes' Theorem, but only applied it to the Disease Problem.
Any help or ideas are appreciated.
Update: Thank you for all these suggestions! They are incredibly helpful for me. I will attempt to make a recording of the lecture period if possible. I will make another discussion post sometime next weekend (the first lecture is next Friday) to report how it went.
Update 2: Report here.
I am considering trying to get a job teaching statistics from a Bayesian perspective at the university or community college level, and I figured I should get some advice, both on whether or not that's a good idea and how to go about it.
Some background on myself: I just got my Masters in computational biology, to go along with a double Bachelors in Computer Science and Cell/Molecular Biology. I was in a PhD program but between enjoying teaching more than research and grad school making me unhappy, I decided to get the Masters instead. I've accumulated a bunch of experience as a teaching assistant (about six semesters) and I'm currently working as a Teaching Specialist (which is a fancy title for a full time TA). I'm now in my fourth semester of TAing biostatistics, which is pretty much just introductory statistics with biology examples. However, it's taught from a frequentist perspective.
I like learning, optimizing, teaching, and doing a good job of things I see people doing badly. I also seem to do dramatically better in highly structured environments. So, I've been thinking about trying to find a lecturer position teaching statistics from a Bayesian perspective. All of the really smart professors I know personally who have an opinion on the topic are Bayesians, Less Wrong as a community prefers Bayesianism, and I prefer it. This seems like a good way to get paid to do something I would enjoy and raise the rationality waterline while I'm at it.
So, the first question is whether this is the most efficient way to get paid to promote rationality. I did send in an application to the Center for Modern Rationality but I haven't heard back, so I'm guessing that isn't an option. Teaching Bayesian statistics seems like the second best bet, but there are probably other options I haven't thought of. I could teach biology or programming classes, but I think those would be less optimal uses of my skills.
Next, is this even a viable option for me, given my qualifications? I haven't taken any education classes to speak of (the class on how to be a TA might count but it was a joke). My job searches suggest that community colleges do hire people with Masters to teach, but universities mostly do not. I don't know what it takes to actually get hired in the current economic climate.
I'm also trying to figure out if this is the best career option given my skillset (or at least estimate the opportunity cost in terms of ease of finding jobs and compensation). I have a number of other potential options available: I could try to find a research position in bioinformatics or computational biology, or look for programming positions. Bioinformatics really makes "analyzing sequence data" and that's something I've barely touched since undergrad; my thesis used existing gene alignments. I could probably brush up and learn the current tools if I wanted, but I have hardly any experience in that area. Computational biology might be a better bet, but it's a ridiculously varied field and so far I have not much enjoyed doing research.
I could probably look for programming jobs, but they would mostly not leverage my biology skills; while I am a very good programmer for a biologist, and a very good biologist for a programmer, I'm not amazing at either. I can actually program: my thesis project involved lots of Ruby scripts to generate and manipulate data prior to statistical analysis, and I've also written things like a flocking implementation and a simple vector graphics drawing program. Everything I've written has been just enough to do what I needed it to do. I did not teach myself to program in general, but I did teach myself Ruby, if that helps estimate my level of programming talent. Yudkowsky did just point out that programming potentially pays REALLY well, possibly better than any of my other career options, but that may be limited to very high talent and/or very experienced programmers.
Assuming it is a good idea for me to try to teach statistics, and assuming I have a reasonable shot at finding such a job, is it realistic to try to teach statistics from a Bayesian perspective to undergrads? Frequentist approaches are still pretty common, so the class would almost certainly have to cover them as well, which means there's a LOT of material to cover. Bayesian methods generally involve some amount of calculus, although I have found an introductory textbook which uses minimal calculus. That might be a bit much to cram into a single semester, especially depending on the quality of the students (physics majors can probably handle a lot more than community college Communications majors).
Speaking of books, what books would be good to teach from, and what books should I read to have enough background? I attempted Jaynes' Probability Theory: The Logic of Science but it was a bit too high level for me to fully understand. I have been working my way through Bolstad's Introduction to Bayesian Statistics which is what I would probably teach the course from. Are there any topics that Less Wrong thinks would be essential to cover in an introductory Bayesian statistics course?
Thanks in advance for all advice and suggestions!
If our morality is complex and directly tied to what's human—if we're seeking to avoid building paperclip maximizers—how do you judge and quantify the danger in training yourself to become more rational if it should drift from being more human?
My friend is a skeptical theist. She, for instance, scoffs mightily at Camping's little dilemma/psychosis but then argues from a position of comfort that Rapture it's a silly thing to predict because it's clearly stated that no one will know the day. And then she gives me a confused look because the psychological dissonance is clear.
On one hand, my friend is in a prime position to take forward steps to self-examination and holding rational belief systems. On the other hand, she's an opera singer whose passion and profession require her to be able to empathize with and explore highly irrational human experiences. Since rationality is the art of winning, nobody can deny that the option that lets you have your cake and eat it too is best, but how do you navigate such a narrows?
In another example, a recent comment thread suggested the dangers of embracing human tendencies: catharsis might lead to promoting further emotional intensity. At the same time, catharsis is a well appreciated human communication strategy with roots in Greek stage. If rational action pulls you away from humanity, away from our complex morality, then how do we judge it worth doing?
The most immediate resolution to this conundrum appears to me to be that human morality has no consistency constraint: we can want to be powerful and able to win while also want to retain our human tendencies which directly impinge on that goal. Is there a theory of metamorality which allows you to infer how such tradeoffs should be managed? Or is human morality, as a program, flawed with inconsistencies that lead to inescapable cognitive dissonance and dehumanization? If you interpret morality as a self-supporting strange loop, is it possible to have unresolvable, drifting interpretations based on how you focus you attentions?
Dual to the problem of resolving a way forward is the problem of the interpreter. If there is a goal to at least marginally increase the rationality of humanity, but in order to discover the means to do so you have to become less capable of empathizing with and communicating with humanity, who acts as an interpreter between the two divergent mindsets?
In a recent thread, SarahC said:
I'd prefer more posts that aim to teach something the author knows a lot about, as opposed to an insight somebody just thought of. Even something less immediately related to rationality -- I'd love, say, posts on science, or how-to posts, at the epistemic standard of LessWrong.
... so here's the place to float ideas around: is there an area you know a lot about? A topic you've been considering writing about? Here's the place to mention it!
From a poll on what people want to see more of, the most votes went to:
- Game Theory
- Direct advice for young people
- General cognitive enhancing tools (such as Adderall and N-Back)
- Information Theory
Some that got less votes:
- Data visualization
- (Defence against the) Dark Arts
- Moral Philosophy (looks like that's being done already)
- Getting along in an irrational world
- Existential risks
- Medicine, Applied Human Biology
... but there are certainly many more things that would be interesting and useful to the community. So what can you teach us?
[...] Daphna ran through the same nine sequences with all the children, but with one group, she acted as if she were clueless about the toy. ("Wow, look at this toy. I wonder how it works? Let's try this," she said.) With the other group, she acted like a teacher. ("Here's how my toy works.") When she acted clueless, many of the children figured out the most intelligent way of getting the toy to play music (performing just the two key actions, something Daphna had not demonstrated). But when Daphna acted like a teacher, the children imitated her exactly, rather than discovering the more intelligent and more novel two-action solution.
These experts in machine learning argue that learning from teachers first requires you to learn about teachers. For example, if you know how teachers work, you tend to assume that they are trying to be informative. When the teacher in the tube-toy experiment doesn't go looking for hidden features inside the tubes, the learner unconsciously thinks: "She's a teacher. If there were something interesting in there, she would have showed it to me." These assumptions lead children to narrow in, and to consider just the specific information a teacher provides. Without a teacher present, children look for a much wider range of information and consider a greater range of options.
This experiment is from:
D. Buchsbaum, A. Gopnik, T.L. Griffiths, and P. Shafto (2011). Children's imitation of causal action sequences is influenced by statistical and pedagogical evidence. Cognition (in press). pdf
The other paper cited in the Slate article is:
E. Bonawitz, P. Shafto, H. Gweon, N.D. Goodman, E. Spelke, and L. Schulz (2011). The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery. Cognition (in press). pdf