Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Faking It

The son of friends of ours is required by his teacher to spend twenty minutes a day reading and report on doing so. He is being taught that reading is a chore to be done only under compulsion. Someone who follows the rules may never discover that reading is fun, since he will be cutting the book into twenty minute chunks instead of reading right through it. Our conclusion was that the best solution was to read the book and lie to the teacher, reporting a single two hours as six daily twenty minute sessions. The teacher, or whoever made the rules he is following, starts with the observation that reading a lot correlates with desirable outcomes and concludes that the way to get those outcomes is to compel children to read—whether they like it or not. The likely result is exactly the opposite of the one intended.

Years earlier, we observed a parallel mistake in a different context. Our home schooled daughter, considering a career as a librarian, volunteered to work without pay at a large local library. After a week they thanked her and told her that her term of volunteering was over. Pretty clearly, their assumption was that she was volunteering because her high school required her to, or possibly to get something to claim on her college application, and it was now someone else’s turn. Wanting to volunteer to do useful things is evidence of desirable personality traits. Volunteering because someone requires you to or will reward you for it is not. She found a smaller local library that actually had a use for her services and worked there for a couple of years.

For a third example, consider my previous post and the long comment thread. It is a good thing if people in the SCA are interested in learning what people did in period and trying to figure out how best to do it. But too often, people in the SCA are convinced that being historically accurate is not something worth doing for itself but something you do because other people are pressuring you to do it or in the hope of getting rewards and status. The result is “documentation” that consists not of trying to figure out how something was actually done but of trying to find some excuse for claiming that whatever you want to do is period. Sort of.

In each case the mistake is the same, the attempt to create the effect without its proper cause. To fake it.


dWj said...

I would be a bit surprised if you weren't aware of Feynman's "Cargo Cult Science" speech, but would like to highlight its relevance here; going through the superficial motions without getting the fundamentals right doesn't really work.

RKN said...

I don't think encouraging the boy to lie is a good idea. Tell him and/or his parents to tell the teacher (or rule maker) that he enjoys reading and doesn't require perverse incentives to do so. In other words, why not tell the truth.

David Friedman said...

RKN: If the teacher is willing to accept that, fine. My impression was that that wasn't the case--that the requirement was twenty minutes a day, not merely evidence of enjoying reading.

William H. Stoddard said...

Trying to get the cause by pursuing the effect is one of the characteristic behaviors of the villains in Atlas Shrugged, in domains ranging from economics to sex.

Steamboat Lion said...

This is the essence of the political worldview - caring how things appear rather than how they actually are (or put another way, the triumph of form over substance). Unfortunately there is much evidence in our modern world that this is the easiest path to status and power.

RJM said...

This is so true! I know a couple of examples of how people successfully overcame this idea of "forced learning".

A friend of mine is historian and he had a huge library as a child. He learned lots of facts and history playfully back then and when he started studying history he could actually deal with the interesting questions, while his fellow students were moaning under the pressure. They "had" to learn what he found naturally interesting. And they never discovered that pleasure.

I guess every pupil experiences the same thing with math nowadays. Force someone to learn math and it's a pain in the neck. They will never discover how fun it can be ...

Tibor said...

David: I really liked your comment. As I mentioned before, we are starting a group with some other people whose goal is to go to schools and tell kids why they might want to (not why they should) study this and that, what is interesting about it and so on (based on our experience) and possibly guide those interested to some professionals (at the universities, say) who might give them much better advice than their high school teacher can (or wants to). We should start testing it this fall, so we'll see how that goes. I think we have a little bit of a problem with faking it as well. I would love to go there and tell the kids that what is presented to them as mathematics is most probably nonsense (memorizing algorithms essentially) and there is a good reason they don't like it. But there is going to be a teacher present there and the teacher is the one who decides whether we can come again (and has influence over whether we get to go somewhere else, since he can spread the word to his colleagues). So I will have to somehow mention that, but in a "diplomatic" way so that it does not make the teacher angry. I suppose similar problems might arrive for the folks who are going to be talking about other fields as well.

RJM: You might like this. It is about the experience of Timothy Gowers a mathematician and Phelds medalist with teaching a lesson at a grammar school...and trying to make it interesting - trying to show the kids it can be fun:

Lex Spoon said...

It's also a good example of teaching being behind the times of changes that have happened in the larger culture.

Nowadays, kids are totally convinced about reading due to social sites. You can't *stop* them from reading.

Patrick Sullivan said...

What about kids for whom reading is not fun? They still need to learn to read.

Power Child said...

@Patrick Sullivan:

Good question.

Different kids benefit from different approaches. Some kids benefit from relative freedom, being allowed to explore, etc. Other kids do better under a more militaristic/authoritarian scheme where they are forced to do certain things until they become habits.

About reading, specifically:

Widespread literacy is a quite recent development (bit of a tie-in there to one of David's recent blog entries!), with a few groups having achieved a culture of literacy long before others.

For some groups, a culture of literacy is less than a few generations old. (I can think of at least one group for whom a culture of literacy has never really taken root at all.) Kids from those groups may not see reading as something useful or enjoyable, but as a chore, and often an arbitrary one at that. In some groups, reading may even be seen as an out-group behavior, and may be discouraged.

I agree with you, that if 100% literacy is the goal, then for some kids forced reading may be the least worst option.

Joshua Kronengold said...

I thnk there's something interesting regarding this phonoemon and gamification -- not that game techniques can't be misued just as much as force techniques can (noting that the SCA is mostly, though not entirely, an exercise in gamification, not force), but that by tacking on an extra reward to the thing you want than a punishment for not doing it, it can be easier to construct positive feedback loops that continue after the incentive is removed.

Patrick R. Sullivan said...

It would be interesting to hear David Friedman debate Thomas Sowell on this point. As one of Sowell's most powerful anecdotes in his autobiography is about how one demanding teacher in his high school affected his life (as well as others) for the better.

Tibor said...

Patrick: There is a difference between demanding in the sense "expects a lot from the student" and demanding in the sense "expect the student to exactly follow the rules set up by him however ridiculous they are". I may be wrong, but I suspect the Sowell's demanding teacher was of the first category, not the second, since doing something you find stupid just because someone told you to do it (and there is no other benefit apart from not being punished for not doing it) is the best way to teach you to hate the thing (in this case reading). And people are always better at something if they actually enjoy it at least a little bit.

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

Patrick: As a matter of fact, the link I posted here - by Timothy Gowers - describes in my opinion a very demanding way of teaching mathematics. But also a very interesting oppossed to the not very demanding but extremely dull way it is usually taught. Perhaps you could say some kids can't do it if it is this demanding...well, they can still do it, but slower. There is no reason to teach everyone on the same difficulty level. It is like teaching 5 kids how to play the guitar at once and trying to "balance" out the difficulty so that everyone can keep the pace. Then everyone learns a lot less than they could (the less experienced/talented or those who simply give it less time at home will not grasp what is being taught very well, the better ones will get bored by the slow tempo). If I remmember correctly, that is actually one of Sowell's arguments in a study of his about students and positive discrimination (or affirmative action or whatever you want to call it) - he analyzed black students who got accepted to MIT and similar prestige schools, because of the affirmative action, where they did not keep up well and ended up learning less than other those who studied at "worse" colleges. But I guess that is a little bit off topic already. Sorry for that.

Power Child said...

@Tibor Mach:

doing something you find stupid just because someone told you to do it (and there is no other benefit apart from not being punished for not doing it) is the best way to teach you to hate the thing (in this case reading).

Many elementary-school aged kids have very different notions about what is stupid than you and I do. In fact, their notions about what is stupid are often different from their own notions about those same things if you ask them several years later. And this doesn't even take into consideration the intelligence of some kids vs. others, or whether they go home to environments where reading is done for fun (as many kids do not).

Patrick Sullivan said...

Tibor, you are wrong, Sowell's teacher was of the 'follow the rules' type. If he made an error in grammar, spelling, or punctuation in a paper, he had to re-write it something like ten times.

Tibor said...

Power Child: And would you suggests that making someone read is a way that someone can learn to appreciate books (let's not consider whether it is desireable to force some likes and dislikes onto children now)? If not then there are no better solutions. Even if we agree that enjoying reading is an objectively desireable trait (I am not so sure about that even though I do like reading books myself), you are left with two options:
A) The people who enjoy reading will do so and those who do not won't.

B) The people who don't like reading will be forced to pretend they do (more than just by social pressure) by strict measures that are supposed to teach them to appreciate that, but usually when you are forced to do something the effect is quite the opposite. And for that reason even some of those who might actually enjoy it won't. They will think reading is the thing they are supposed to "appreciate" at school. It works precisely like that with mathematics. It is enjoyable for many people who actually do it for themselves without even realizing that what they do (various puzzles where you have to use logical thinking to solve them) is closer to mathematics than what is being taught at school as mathematics which they will then you they hate.

There is no option
C) Everyone will actually learn to like books and everyone will be happy.

So if we are to choose between A) and B), I think A) is a much sounder option. (and it is not exactly clear that uniformly making people like certain things, even if they then truly enjoy them, is a good thing, so I would even say A) might be better than C) even C) were realistic)

There are of course things a good teacher can do to motivate children to read. But those consist of showing the kids that it can be interesting and leaving the rest up to them, not telling them "this is important, you will do it" (again, it is exactly like that with mathematics...they tell you it is important and that is the reason you should remmember things like the quadratic equation solution formula...well, I study mathematics myself, I have just before my Ms degree final exams and I have used the quadratic equation formula maybe twice. For most people, that knowledge is useless completely. It is the process of thinking and coming up with the formula yourself that is useful for pretty much everyone since it is a great way to improve your logical thinking and it is actually enjoyable...and also not present at all in the usual schooling methods at elementary and secondary schools).

Is it possible some people will discover later in life that books are nice even though they did not like reading when they were young? Of course. But I see no reason to force them to read while they don't like it.

The only exception would be if there was something fundamental you should learn at a young age, because if you realize too late that it might be a good idea, it is too late. There may be such things. For instance, if you decide you want to be the best guitarist in the world when you're 30, you are going to have it tough facing competition that has been practicing since they were 5 years old (of course "best" in music is subjective, so substitute it with your favourite sport if you don't like the music example).

But I don't think reading books and especially since I guess in this case it is supposed to be belletry, not scientific literature, is anything like that. You can catch up anytime you want to.

Tibor said...

following the previous post:

Also there is another problem - of efficiency. If you realize when you're 30, that it would be good to already know the basics of modern physics, since you just decided you want to be professional physicist, it is a shame -from your current standpoint. But if someone forced that knowledge on you without any motivation of your own back when you were young, you probably would not have learned much. You would learn just enough to pass the exams. Maybe, if your parents insisted you have good marks, you would try a little bit more. But no examination is perfect and if you want to, you can learn stuff, even get an A and actually understand almost nothing (not actually nothing, but not much more than that). However, you lose a lot of time in the process. Time that you could have spent better. Catching up when you have an actual incentive (other than being forced) to do so, might mean that in a year you learn what you would have learned in 4 or 8 years of being forced to learn against your will...if you think it cannot be that much, consider how much you have learned about something at a high school (and grammar schools take 8 years) you did not like then and then got interested in and how long it took you to learn the same amount of information when you enjoyed it (if there is such a thing of course).

However, kids are not taught by their future selfs who know what they are going to like and what they will consider to be important. They are taught by teachers who usually just apply a standard curricullum for everyone (at classicall schools). I see no reason why chemistry is considered more important than, say, programming, economics or survival in the wild. All of them can sometimes be useful, all of them can be enjoyable for some people. But I don't see how chemistry is special. And I think form most people (myself included) it actually turns out not to be very important in their lives.

So again, we are left with either allowing the people to make mistakes when they are kids and regretting it later (and catching up) while letting them discover what they might actually enjoy...which does not mean there is no room for a teacher - but a teacher that is a guide, not a master...or we somehow devise what is important for someone without letting him make a judgement of his own.

I guess, I have lost myself a little bit there and went on to talk about a much broader topic, so I'm sorry again for that :)

Tibor said...

Patrick: In that case, it would actually be interesting.

RJM said...

@Tibor Mach: Thanks for the link. Very interesting, indeed.

Power Child said...

@Tibor Mach:

I am just trying to make a simple point: many children will not learn to enjoy reading even if (perhaps, in some cases, especially if) you introduce it to them in the most progressive way possible. So if getting them to read is important, even if just for the sake of practice and acclimation, using a militaristic/authoritarian approach may be the least worst option, even if it results in them not enjoying reading afterwards. At least they know how and have had practice, should they ever NEED to read.

Granted, this approach could be harmful to kids who might otherwise learn to enjoy reading, though I suspect those kids will eventually discover this enjoyment on their own anyway, despite the way they were taught.

Since enjoying reading is uncommon (widespread literacy is only a recent development, and for some people reading is associated with out-group behavior and is therefore discouraged) many teachers are likely to face classrooms where most kids do not and never will enjoy reading. I'm not a teacher, but as far as I know the practicalities of teaching usually require that the same set of assignments and expectations be given to each student in the class.

Mike Huemer said...

I suspect that if the kid said "I want to read 2.5 hours a week, rather than 20 min a day", that would be ok with the teacher.

How can one make assignments seem less like a chore? Maybe giving the student a very wide range of choices? And instead of saying, "You have to do x," one could say, "I will give you 'points' for doing any of the activities on this list ..." Practicing the piano, reading an article, writing some computer code, .... There could then be a list of point values.

Tibor said...

Power Child:

Yes, I understood that. I just don't think "appreciating books" is a "skill" that meets the requirement of being objectively important to everyone. Being able to read might be, but I guess you don't really need to push children into that much (I wanted to learn the first letters before I went to school for example, because I wanted to read as many bedtime stories as I pleased and whenever I pleased). That is because even the kids find it useful (especially today, when they do a lot of stuff on the internet which is full of written text). But the boy from the article is supposed to "learn to enjoy good literature" or something like that, not learn how to read (since he obviously has to know that already if he is supposed to be reading books at home) and I don't see how that is necessary for everyone to do. Also, usually it is not just "enjoying literature" but "enjoying the literature the teacher or the people who make the curricullum come consider worthwile". I don't know if that is the case this time, so maybe this point is irrelevant now.

Anyway - could you please give me examples of any skills that are objectively important for everyone to know (enough to justify the "enforcement") and that are at the same time likely to be disliked by at least some students (no matter how those skills are taught)? I honestly cannot think of anything. But it could be just my bias against forced learning that prevents me from finding a good example.

David Friedman said...


I'm tempted to suggest learning the multiplication tables as an example--but my daughter insists that they aren't all that useful. Perhaps they would have been before calculators were readily available.

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

David: I am not so sure, but I think I would rather side with your daughter on this one. It actually might be useful to everyone (when you go shopping for groceries, you usually don't carry a calculator with you and even though most people have those in their phones, it is not very practical to use it for something like 3 times 6), but I'm not sure it really requires the enforcement. If people understand how addition, substraction, multiplication and division works (which I believe the kids can be taught in an interesting way), they will practice it naturally every time they actually need to calculate something. Since you have to do that quite often, you simply learn it without much effort (the same way people learn a foreign language if they live in a foreign country for long enough...provided that not everyone you get acquianted there with can speak a language you already know).

Also it reminds me of a horrible way, we were taught "mathematics" at a grammar school (in what would otherwise be 6th grade of the elementary school...I think you call that middle school in the US). We were given cards by our teacher. There were (I think two) arithmetics problems on each card, it did not require any real thinking, but of course it was easy to make mistakes. Some lessons were spent only by filling the cards. When we finnished one card, the teacher checked it, and if there were any mistakes, the card did not count and we had to start again with another one. In a semester we had to solve a given number of cards (I don't remmember how many exactly, my guess is about a hundred). Those who did not manage to do it all at school (such as me, I've never been actually very good at doing mistake-free arithmetics without a calculator) had to stay after school until they filled the quota. Then the next year, it was the same thing with slightly more difficult problems ("simplify this expression" and such). I really liked mathematics when I was at the elementary school, but quickly learned to hate it (I had a D from mathematics in the 4th year of the grammar school). Then I changed the school to a busines high school because of the math. And there we had a class called "statistics" which I really enjoyed and started to like maths again, which lead to me actually studying maths at a university.

Another (less related) thing comes into mind - I remember having to learn that "a triangle is an intersection of 3 half-planes" (again in the 6th grade). I had never known what that is actually supposed to mean until maybe one or two years before I started studying at a university (before which I took some private mathematics classes to catch up with the level of mathematics at the grammar schools). But I had to recite that when I was examined, so I would get a good mark. I distinctively remember that I hesitated to say that just because I did not know what it really meant...even though I knew it was the right answer.

So, given all that, it is no wonder I am biased against forced teaching :)

Rebecca Friedman said...


Thank you. You're entirely correct. Knowing how to do multiplication in my head has been extremely useful - but half the time what I'm multiplying is fractions, and having the multiplication tables themselves memorized is just plain useless. In the few times the answer I'm looking for actually -is- in the tables they wanted me to memorize, the time it takes to actually calculate it instead is negligible - and good practice. I'll thank my math-learning computer games, my genes, and my mother's lessons with Math As Applied To Doing An Extra-Large (1 1/4 the normal) Apple Pie for my comfort with math. Memorizing the multiplication tables was stupid.

... But my parents did enough other things right that I don't really blame them for getting that one wrong. I'm just not going to inflict it on -my- kids.

In general, I strongly disapprove of forced teaching. At least in part because not everyone is ready to learn the same things at the same age. There are various things my parents never forced me to do that I picked up on my own, when I was old enough to handle them. In hindsight, there are various things where I think I should have tried earlier - but not a single thing that I tried and refused that I think I should have been forced to continue with. For various reasons - mostly, I think it wouldn't have worked then and would have stopped me coming back when I -was- ready - but also... when you let kids make their own mistakes, you also let them learn from their own mistakes. And looking back and saying "OK, I was wrong - how can I not be wrong next time" (or, "OK, last time I said on this much evidence, I was wrong. Maybe I should get some more evidence before I decide that this time") can help you develop some very useful skills.

But I can go on about this for rather a while, so, I'll just say I share Tibor's bias and leave it there.

Tibor said...


One more things comes into mind. If you work out the logic of something it is very easy to reproduce the results afterwards. It takes some time, but after you do it a few times you memorize it without even trying to do so. If you however spend your effort on memorizing results instead (which is basically how maths is mostly taught), you might remember them for a while, but unless you have a very good memory (mine is actually very bad), you will forget it quite fast since you won't know how it works and therefore not only will you be unable to reproduce the results, but the results will really mean nothing to you. Yesterday, I found out that I forgot the definition of a polynomial coefficient (the same thing as a binomial one, but with more than two possible results) which I needed for a statistical argument. But since I knew what it meant and therefore how it was constructed, I was able to quickly reproduce the formula. If I learned things just by memorizing then without thinking about the meaning (that would actually be extremely difficult on the university level, but it is common on lower leves), firstly I would have had to look it up somewhere and secondly I would understand it a great deal less which would hinder my efforts when I actually have to use it to come up with stuff that I cannot look up (because it is not written anywhere).

Rebecca Friedman said...

Tibor: Well, I knew how to do it. Mom and Dad never told me "Seven times eight is fifty-six" - I got the original result by multiplying it out. That just made memorizing it kind of unnecessary, though, since I could just do the calculation if I needed it.

Eric Rasmusen said...

We're homeschooling for the first time, with two of our four children who need more challenge than in school. This issue comes up a lot with history, because history is an intrinsically fun subject. We're telling them to read one book from a list each week, but they're all books they might read for recreation anyway. I hope we're not making it a chore, and that they more get the impression that this is "guided recreation" rather than real gruntwork like memorizing dates (which they also have to do--- thus providing contrast).

David Friedman said...


Our approach was home unschooling, so no required reading--although the kids read a lot. Our son learned a lot of history and geography playing computer games. He still is very fond of the Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings II games, which seem to have quite detailed and competent historical backgrounds.

Would it work to simply recommend histories, primary sources, and historical novels that you believe to be both reliable and readable, and leave it to the kids to choose to read them? You don't specify ages. Casanova's memoirs is a wonderful and readable primary source, although not likely to interest a young child. Mary Renault and Cecilia Holland are historical novelists I think well of. Our daughter greatly enjoyed Duff Cooper's biography of Talleyrand. Kipling's _Puck of Pook's Hill_ and _Rewards and Fairies_ are good series of historical short stories, suitable for a range of ages.

Anonymous said...

It irks me tremendously that childhood itself isn't voluntary. Being born is not voluntary after all. If at least they had euthanasia rights!

If I were king of the world, I would treat children as citizens and make everything radically consent-based. Alas, I am not king of the world.

Eric Rasmusen said...

I'm amazed, David--I've actually got a copy of Duff Cooper's Talleyrand history! It indeed is good. I don't like Renault much, though--- too much degrading of the myths.

These are kids aged 9 and 11, though, so they're more in the Puck of Pook's Hill range. My son has already devoured Hornblower, also good for history.

Computer games are underrated. They are addictive, but that's a good thing, not bad, if they're educational. Fun computer activities are the best thing ever to happen to typing and to foreign language learning. As with books, the parent can tremendously influence the child just by channelling him into one fun use of time instead of another.

My son Ben is limited to 1/2 per day of computer games, but before our trip to Gettysburg this summer I allowed him unlimited Gettysburg battle computer game time, and actually bought a new game (the old Hutsell DOS Civil War game is the one we had-- wonderful, tho primitive).

Just tonight I was wondering how to answer his request to buy Total War: Rome. The web reviews say it is a first-rate game; the historical quality gets less enthusiastic reviews. My tentative decision is to let him buy it. Am I right commenters?

David Friedman said...

Re Renault ... . Are you thinking of the Theseus books? I was thinking of the books set in Athens much later, from _Praise Singer_ on. Also the three book Alexander series. I don't think any of those rest on myths at all.

The Aubrey Maturin books are better than Hornblower. At least, Renault said so, in strong terms, and I agree. Hornblower differs from his contemporaries in being more like us. Aubrey and Maturin feel much more like period types.

My younger son has been disagreeing with my older son on the question of computer games. Patri thinks his son should be limited in how much time he spends playing them. Bill's response is that he wasn't limited, and a good thing too. I should try to get him to do a guest post on the subject.

Computer games are how Bill taught himself to type--as we discovered playing Diablo on the house net, when misspelled words started appearing on our screens. And he learned to spell because he didn't want to look stupid to the people he was playing online games with.

David Friedman said...

My son says that the reviews are correct about Total War: Rome, but that there are add-ons available online that improve it.

Eric Rasmusen said...

Theseus is the only name I can recall from Renault, so those must have been teh books I read. Maybe I should look at the Athens ones.
I love the O'Brien books and I think Benjamin will like them in a couple of years. He likes technical details such as cannon calibres.

Thanks for the Total War: Rome info!

Bill Friedman said...

To provide more information about Rome: Total War, and the historical accuracy of the Total War series in general:

The geography is accurate. Geography is necessarily accurate, because the creators don't want to look like idiots.

Everything else is accurate only by coincidence. The Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt, for instance, is using New Kingdom (IIRC) era equipment and uniforms; the creators claim this was for the sake of more varied gameplay because they didn't want another Macedonian pike faction, as they historically were. Similarly, the steppe nomads in modern-day Russia are of completely the wrong culture, being Scythians instead of Sarmatians.

The Europa Barbarorum game mod fixes all of these issues and, in general, makes it a much better game. There exist similar mods to fix historical errors with Medieval II, but I do not know if that's the case for the other Total War games - as I understand, they're harder to mod.

(If he likes historical wargaming, incidentally, he really ought to try Paradox Interactive's games. They're very historically detailed and accurate, and they cover practically every period in history, with a different game for each era.)

Best of luck!
Bill Friedman