Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Kind of Teaching I Like to Do

My university has an adult education program and I have just finished teaching a course for it, an abbreviated version of my seminar on legal systems very different from ours done as four lectures, each two and a half hours long. Interested readers can find recordings of part of the third lecture and all of the fourth on the class web page. It was great fun.

There were two important differences between that class and most classes I have taught. The first was that nobody was there who was not interested in what I was teaching, since the class did not meet any requirement for getting a degree. The second was that I did not have to grade the students. It thus eliminated the two least attractive features of conventional teaching. My ideal class might have some sort of exam at the end to provide me feedback on how good or bad a job I was doing, how much of what I had taught the students had learned—but I would not be the one grading it.

Each year I teach  about ten shorter classes of the same sort, under rather different circumstances. The setting is the Pennsic War, an annual two week long historical recreation event held in a private campground in Pennsylvania. Attendance at the event is upwards of ten thousand people. My classes, mostly an hour long, deal with medieval historical recreation—how to cook from a period recipe, make hardened leather armor, tell a period story in a way that creates the illusion of a medieval story teller entertaining a medieval audience. My classes are part of a Pennsic University that offers about a thousand classes each year, all taught by volunteer teachers to volunteer students. Nobody is there to get a degree and nobody has to give any grades. 

All of which suggests that perhaps there is something wrong with the more conventional model employed for most teaching from kindergarten through college.


PM said...

Isn't the signalling that is provided to employers the most important factor driving the current format? If you can get a degree that separates you from most of your peers, in a way that is perceived favourably by employers, you'll pursue it, no matter the level of interest you actually have in the underlining subject. Maybe everybody should come forward about the fact that college is purely a signalling device, reduce it to one year and then let people enrol in classes that actually are relevant to their first work (by maybe building up your working week gradually over the first years while reducing your class load). Universities could keep some 1 year "signalling" program (tough selection, hard exams) along with a great deal of classes opened to anybody willing to pay the tuition, and those classes could be organised in the way you envision it? Not sure how you can induce that change though, the current system seems kind of set in stone

Nancy Lebovitz said...

There's no substitute for intrinsic motivation. People who like being in charge try to supply external incentives and punishments.

jimbino said...

I taught ESL, which was very satisfying, since the students were always motivated; while they got no credit, they desperately needed English for jobs and schooling.

On the other hand, there's nothing worse than trying to teach Baby Physics or Baby Math to pre-law and pre-med students who take baby courses because they have to maintain their GPAs.

Unfortunately, someday you may be forced to hire one of them as a lawyer or be treated by one as a doctor.

chriscal12 said...

I don't know if you're familiar with Paul Goodman, but this little exchange touches on the problems you mention:

Anonymous said...

I haven't finished listening to the whole lecture, but the Osher group seems to be a lot more talkative than the students from IP Theory this past Fall term.

RKN said...

On the other hand, there's nothing worse than trying to teach Baby Physics or Baby Math to pre-law and pre-med students who take baby courses because they have to maintain their GPAs.

I don't know what pre-med students you're talking about. The ones I knew hardly took baby physics or chemistry (less sure about math). Doing so would have ill-prepared them to score well on the MCAT, a must to get into most any respectable med school.

jimbino said...

Since calculus is not tested on the MCAT, you will be treated by doctors who have no understanding of calculus or other areas of math beyond arithmetic, euclidian geometry and trigonometry.

It's scary to think that the typical doctor or lawyer is less capable of doing science and math than the typical architect or engineer.

Laird said...

I disagree, jimbino. Calculus has no relevance to being a good physician. I suspect that those students would be perfectly capable of learning calculus and higher maths if they had any interest in it or perceived a need to know the material. Medical students don't fit that description. Their focus should be on biology and chemistry. I would hope my doctor had a firm grasp of those subjects. Whether he knows any math or quantum physics is irrelevant.

Joey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joey said...

I think Jim should recognize that just because the MCAT doesn't currently test calculus, it doesn't mean that doctors don't know calculus. More important are the pre-requisites to medical school. Most doctors that I know did take calculus, although that was when it was a prerequisite for medical school. I've taken a year each of calculus and statistics, even though calculus is no longer required for admission to any med schools. Most of the other pre-meds I know like math.

Jimbino, you may be displeased to hear that in 2015, the MCAT's physical sciences section will be replaced by a new section that "recognizes the importance of socio-cultural and behavioral determinants of health and health outcomes." Even though sociology makes me a little uneasy, broadening the pool of applicants shouldn't be a bad thing.

And to be fair, some of the general chemistry and physics concepts will still be covered in the biological sciences section.

Now, if med schools also reduce their hard science requirements, then I think Jim's nightmare could come true.

Speaking again of calculus, I think you'll find this interesting:

Feel free to interpret that however you like.

Tibor said...

Laird: I disagree. A good medical doctor should understand at least the basics of statistics (and so should a good lawyer). I've read quite a nice book called "The drunkard's walk" which I use as an answer to "what do you do?" because it explains the contours of probability and statistics in a simple (but not oversimplified) way and has some good stories in it as well.

Some of those stories are medicine and law related. Mlodinow (the author) lists quite a few cases (in the US and Britain) where bad mathematics lead to conviction of a probably innocent person (or at least the arguments given by the prosecutor that were based on maths were nonsense). If the defendant's lawyer knew mathematics better in a similar case, he would be able to dismiss the prosecutor's arguments and very likely tip the balance on their side. On of the cases was this one:

It was a gross misunderstanding of statistics - the Bayes theorem in particular.

In medicine, Mlodinow offers his own experience with AIDS testing. Again a misunderstanding of conditional probability led the doctor to a false belief that the chance of him (Mlodinow) not having AIDS (after one test) was extremely low...which then led to a few very stressful hours for Mlodinow, before he looked up the probabilities and realized that the doctor doesn't understand it. It could have been much more severe however, if the patient were also someone who didn't understand it. Another real life example of the same mistake was with an olympic sportswoman and drug tests. That is a case both for a doctor and for a lawyer.

David Friedman said...


Thanks for the reference to the book. If I teach my course on analytic methods for lawyers, which includes statistics, again I may want to use it.

Tibor said...


You're welcome.

It is this one in particular (just for the case there are more books that go under the name of "drunkard's walk).

I think there are about 4-5 law related stories (all of them court cases) and a bunch of stories from other disciplines (mostly medicine). I gave out all the copies of the book I had (I will have to buy more for future people that ask me what I do exactly), so I can't look it up precisely.

But I definitely think it is a good idea to suggest that book to law students - anyone can easily grasp the basic concepts from there without almost any prior understanding of mathematics.

By the way, could you summarize (here, or in a blog post) your experience with teaching analytical methods (I assume it involves a lot of mathematical thinking) to lawyers? I would really like to know they like it and how well they are able to follow the logic of it. I assume (judging from your previous post about teaching maths) that you actually teach logical thinking and not alghoritms, so I would really like to know how that goes when tried on law students (who do not use as much logic in most of their other lectures..actually maybe in the common law system, the lawyers have to develop a little bit more logical thinking, than they do in the system we have).

Jonathan said...

I have every sympathy with your sentiments expressed in the original post. I still remember suffering the educational system from the receiving end. I spent a lot of my youth on it; I laboured quite successfully at the time; but there's little of it that I remember now, because I've had so little use for it all ever since. I'm mostly self-taught in whatever skills I have now.

David Friedman said...

Tibor asks about my experience teaching analytic methods.

The course spends a week or two each on a bunch of subjects that lawyers cannot expect to be competent in but will find it useful to be familiar with. That includes accounting, statistics, game theory, ... .

It's not a required course for anything, so I suspect my students tend to be more comfortable with math than the average. That said, it seems to work pretty well.

For more details, including audio recordings of the class, see:

Tibor said...

David: Thank you.

Perry E. Metzger said...

John Taylor Gatto would appear to be in agreement with you. Here is an essay of his in which he claims that the idea of education has gone horribly wrong. It is entitled "Against School":