Monthly Archives: April 2014

Sprint reading – at what cost?

There’s a check on reading speed that Spritz can’t do anything about: our ability to comprehend what we’re reading. There is, however, a non-magical way to read (and comprehend) more quickly. We all have so much to read these days. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could read it faster? The possibility that this fond wish could actually be granted by technology is what’s driving the buzz about Spritz, a new speed-reading app that debuted at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month and will soon come loaded on new Samsung devices. (For now, you can try out Spritz on this demonstration page.) Its makers claim that Spritz allows users to read at staggeringly high rates of speed: 600 or even 1,000 words per minute. (The average college graduate reads at a rate of about 300 words per minute.) Spritz can do this, they say, by circumventing the limitations imposed by our visual system.

It is true that “our eyes impose a lot of constraints on the act of reading,” as cognitive neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene writes in his book Reading in the Brain. “The structure of our visual sensors forces us to scan the page by jerking our eyes around every two or three tenths of a second.” These eye movements take time, slowing down the rate at which we can read.

But what if the words moved, instead of our eyes? That’s the innovation behind Spritz, which employs a technique called rapid sequential visual presentation, or RSVP. When using the app, words are presented one at a time, in the exact spot where our gaze is “focalized,” or primed for visual recognition. Then that word is whisked away and another appears in the same, optimal place — and quickly, quickly, others follow.

RSVP has been studied by scientists for years, and it does appear to bypass the speed limit imposed by eye movements during normal reading. But there’s another check on reading speed that Spritz can’t do anything about: our ability to comprehend what we’re reading. When we read really fast — especially in complex or difficult material — our understanding of the text suffers. (I’m put in mind of the old Woody Allen joke: He speed-read War and Peace, he cracks, and came away with the insight that “it’s about Russia.”)

But all is not lost for those of us who would like to read faster, at least some of the time — because there does exist an “app” of sorts that has been proven to allow faster reading and complete comprehension. It’s called expertise. In their forthcoming book,Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, researchers Henry Roediger III and Mark McDaniel (along with writer Peter Brown) liken expertise to a “brain app” that makes reading and other kinds of intellectual activity proceed more efficiently and effectively. In the minds of experts, the authors explain, “a complex set of interrelated ideas” has “fused into a meaningful whole.”

The mental “chunking” that an expert — someone deeply familiar with the subject she’s reading about — can do gives her a decided speed and comprehension advantage over someone who is new to the material, for whom every fact and idea encountered in the text is a separate piece of information yet to be absorbed and connected. People reading within their domain of expertise have lots of related vocabulary and background knowledge, both of which allow them to steam along at full speed while novices stop, start, and re-read, struggling with unfamiliar words and concepts.

Deep knowledge of what we’re reading about propels the reading process in other ways as well. As we read, we’re constantly building and updating a mental model of what’s going on in the text, elaborating what we’ve read already and anticipating what will come next. A reader who is an expert in the subject he’s reading about will make more detailed and accurate predictions of what upcoming sentences and paragraphs will contain, allowing him to read quickly while filling in his already well-drawn mental model. A novice reader, by contrast, faces surprises at every turn in the text; her construction of a mental model is much more effortful and slow, since she’s building it from the ground up.

Lastly, the expert reader is able to vary the pace of her reading: skimming parts that she knows about already, or parts that she can tell are less important, then slowing down for passages that are new or that (she can judge from experience) are especially important. The novice, on the other hand, tends to read at just a single speed: if he tries to accelerate that speed, by skimming or by using an app like Spritz, it’s likely his comprehension will slide. What’s worse, he probably won’t even realize it: lacking deep familiarity with the subject, he won’t know what he doesn’t know, and may confuse main ideas with supporting details or miss important points altogether.

Expertise has its own limits, of course. Becoming an expert is a long, slow process, and each of us can develop true expertise in only a few areas. But reading with the aid of this “brain app” permits us to read swiftly and with depth and understanding — while reading with an app like Spritz allows us only to read simply, foolishly fast.

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New laws on labour trafficking: the need for defining conditions in SG

Bar on what is forced labour should not be set so high that new law ends up nailing no one

Labour

A group of Bangladeshi men arrive in Singapore expecting to earn a basic monthly salary of $600 plus overtime because that is what they were told back home when they were recruited to be construction workers. The amount is stated in the approval letter from Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM) which they receive before they board the flight. Within days of arriving, however, their employer gives them the lowdown: their basic pay will be $520, and they will have to sign a fresh contract reflecting the reduced terms. Having taken loans of more than $3,000 to land their jobs here, the men sign on the dotted line. If they refuse, they know, they might be sent home penniless to face a huge debt.

They start work and soon learn that other workers have been similarly deceived by the same employer, who also makes them work extra hours without overtime pay. There are illegal deductions too and some months their basic salary dips to below $200.

This is a hypothetical case, but such practices are not uncommon here, say migrant worker advocates who deal with foreign workers in various states of distress. If migrant workers facing such multiple forms of abuse complained in Europe, the United States, Canada or Australia, their allegations, if true, could be prosecuted under laws banning human trafficking. In those countries, the law covers vulnerable migrant workers who are deceived or coerced into commercial sex or labour and exploited.

Singapore is planning a dedicated law to combat human trafficking, but judging by discussions so far, such cases may fall outside its purview. Public consultations on the Prevention of Human Trafficking Bill, likely to be introduced in Parliament by November this year, ended on April 18. It covers sex and organ trafficking, which are already illegal here, as well as labour trafficking which is not prohibited under current laws. Continue reading

What Finnish Education needs

Education in Finland: Pisa isn’t the full story | The Guardian, Dec 2013

Despite Finnish education’s strong performance in Pisa, it isn’t all perfect – science and maths standards are declining and top-performing students aren’t being pushed enough
Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights, Iceland

Northern Lights: is the Finnish education system letting down its brightest students? Photograph: Arctic-Images/Getty Images

As a Finn, I know we can have a reputation for being dour and seeing the glass half-empty. Perhaps such pessimism is a feature of small, northerly nations, where people see more of the inside of drinking establishments than they do sunshine in winter months.

To avoid national stereotyping, I will therefore caveat what I am about to say by noting that the Finnish education system has much to commend it, notably equality of access, high societal regard for the value of education, and teacher respect.

Finnish performance in the programme for international student achievement (Pisa) league tables has led to an influx of educational tourism to Finland since the rankings were first published in 2001. We may have slipped in the latest judgment from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – which tests more than 500,000 pupils in 66 countries ranking performance in reading, maths and science – but we are still very much at the top tier of the world’s best performing educations systems and the attention isn’t likely to disappear soon.

Today’s results, however, show Finland dropping out of the top 10 performers in maths, with a score of 519, 22 points lower than the last ranking three years ago. Reading skills fell 12 points to 524, while the science ranking dropped nine points to 545. Signs of this were already showing in PISA 2009, although the slippage was less than anticipated.

I am concerned that the Finnish education system is letting down our brightest students. In every country, there is a debate about whether education systems should group children according to their ability. In Finland, we have taken a firm stance not to do this based on the belief that having mixed groups has distinct advantages, such as childrenteaching each other.

But are we giving enough room for our most intelligent young people to flourish? Every summer the organisation I run, Technology Academy Finland, brings the brightest teenagers in the world to Finland to work on science projects together. This year, the Millennium Youth Campwelcomed 60 students from 31 countries to work on sophisticated problems such as designing sanitation systems for a space mission to Mars. At this end of the educational spectrum, where the children’s ambitions are to improve on the work of Nobel prize-winners, it is vitally important to stretch the young people’s minds.

In many Finnish classrooms, however, the pace is determined by the lower-achieving students. In the lower grades, all children from the most talented to the least talented are grouped together. Some commend our system for serving all students well, regardless of family background or socio-economic status. But it means our brightest cannot maximise their potential. No other country has so little variation in outcomes betweenschools, and the gap within schools between the top and bottom-achieving students is slim.

We are kidding ourselves if we think these smart young people can make up the gap at university. Firstly, we run the risk that their intellectual energy is diverted into less worthwhile pursuits, getting them into trouble at school. Secondly, starting from behind makes it much less likely that the Nobel prize-winners of tomorrow will come from Finland.

To address these fault lines, we should maximise the use of the possibilities of technology in the classroom. Studies have shown that theuse of tablet computers in the classroom improves learning, while some video games have been shown to improve brain function.

More use of the flipped classroom model, where instruction is delivered online and homework is moved into the classroom, allows students to learn at their own pace. It would also allow us to economise the expensive resource of teacher time for direct interaction with students. Another benefit is that instruction is given by those best qualified in a given subject.

For our future competitiveness, we also need to encourage more students into maths, science and technology. While teaching these subjects is very difficult, flipped learning could make a difference especially for very young children. Teachers of younger students are expected to teach practically all subjects, and there is some criticism that many may be unsuited for instruction in mathematics.

In the upper grades, Finland has introduced a lot of freedom for students to select courses. As a result, fewer and fewer students select physics, chemistry and some of the more intensive maths courses. When it comes to university, some are finding that they are not qualified to their faculty of choice. Although they did not realise it when selecting their courses, too many are disqualifying themselves from courses such as computer science, where graduates are better paid and more likely to get a job in their chosen profession.

Much of the fall in today’s ranking, however, boils down to a simple question of economics. Education budgets are under pressure in these times of austerity, but we should be wary of cutting funding for our future. Investment in education is as crucial to nations’ long-term fiscal health as fiscal prudence in other areas. If Finland’s education system is to succeed, we must avoid complacency and continue to focus on reforms so our young people are best equipped for the competitive world of tomorrow.

Dr Juha Ylä-Jääski is the president and chief executive of Technology Academy Finland.

What drives success? The Triple Package of traits

A SEEMINGLY un-American fact about America today is that for some groups, much more than others, upward mobility and the American dream are alive and well. It may be taboo to say it, but certain ethnic, religious and national-origin groups are doing strikingly better than Americans overall.

Indian-Americans earn almost double the national figure (roughly $90,000 per year in median household income versus $50,000). Iranian-, Lebanese- and Chinese-Americans are also top-earners. In the last 30 years, Mormons have become leaders of corporate America, holding top positions in many of America’s most recognizable companies. These facts don’t make some groups “better” than others, and material success cannot be equated with a well-lived life. But willful blindness to facts is never a good policy.

Jewish success is the most historically fraught and the most broad-based. Although Jews make up only about 2 percent of the United States’ adult population, they account for a third of the current Supreme Court; over two-thirds of Tony Award-winning lyricists and composers; and about a third of American Nobel laureates.

The most comforting explanation of these facts is that they are mere artifacts of class — rich parents passing on advantages to their children — or of immigrants arriving in this country with high skill and education levels. Important as these factors are, they explain only a small part of the picture.

Today’s wealthy Mormon businessmen often started from humble origins. Although India and China send the most immigrants to the United States through employment-based channels, almost half of all Indian immigrants and over half of Chinese immigrants do not enter the country under those criteria. Many are poor and poorly educated. Comprehensive data published by the Russell Sage Foundation in 2013 showed that the children of Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese immigrants experienced exceptional upward mobility regardless of their parents’ socioeconomic or educational background.

Take New York City’s selective public high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, which are major Ivy League feeders. For the 2013 school year, Stuyvesant High School offered admission, based solely on a standardized entrance exam, to nine black students, 24 Hispanics, 177 whites and 620 Asians. Among the Asians of Chinese origin, many are the children of restaurant workers and other working-class immigrants.

Merely stating the fact that certain groups do better than others — as measured by income, test scores and so on — is enough to provoke a firestorm in America today, and even charges of racism. The irony is that the facts actually debunk racial stereotypes.

There are some black and Hispanic groups in America that far outperform some white and Asian groups. Immigrants from many West Indian and African countries, such as Jamaica, Ghana, and Haiti, are climbing America’s higher education ladder, but perhaps the most prominent are Nigerians. Nigerians make up less than 1 percent of the black population in the United States, yet in 2013 nearly one-quarter of the black students at Harvard Business School were of Nigerian ancestry; over a fourth of Nigerian-Americans have a graduate or professional degree, as compared with only about 11 percent of whites.

Cuban-Americans in Miami rose in one generation from widespread penury to relative affluence. By 1990, United States-born Cuban children — whose parents had arrived as exiles, many with practically nothing — were twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to earn over $50,000 a year. All three Hispanic United States senators are Cuban-Americans.

Meanwhile, some Asian-American groups — Cambodian- and Hmong-Americans, for example — are among the poorest in the country, as are some predominantly white communities in central Appalachia.

MOST fundamentally, groups rise and fall over time. The fortunes of WASP elites have been declining for decades. In 1960, second-generation Greek-Americans reportedly had the second-highest income of any census-tracked group. Group success in America often tends to dissipate after two generations. Thus while Asian-American kids overall had SAT scores 143 points above average in 2012 — including a 63-point edge over whites — a 2005 study of over 20,000 adolescents found that third-generation Asian-American students performed no better academically than white students.

The fact that groups rise and fall this way punctures the whole idea of “model minorities” or that groups succeed because of innate, biological differences. Rather, there are cultural forces at work.

It turns out that for all their diversity, the strikingly successful groups in America today share three traits that, together, propel success. The first is a superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite — insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.

Any individual, from any background, can have what we call this Triple Package of traits. But research shows that some groups are instilling them more frequently than others, and that they are enjoying greater success.

It’s odd to think of people feeling simultaneously superior and insecure. Yet it’s precisely this unstable combination that generates drive: a chip on the shoulder, a goading need to prove oneself. Add impulse control — the ability to resist temptation — and the result is people who systematically sacrifice present gratification in pursuit of future attainment. Continue reading

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What suffering does

On a more contemplative note this weekend – is there any point to the ‘hard stuff’ in life? I resonate with Brooks when he writes about how when we look back, pain, suffering and failure have become particularly formative, even ennobling.  

David Brooks for the New York Times 

Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself in a bunch of conversations in which the unspoken assumption was that the main goal of life is to maximize happiness. That’s normal. When people plan for the future, they often talk about all the good times and good experiences they hope to have. We live in a culture awash in talk about happiness. In one three-month period last year, more than 1,000 books were released on Amazon on that subject.

But notice this phenomenon. When people remember the past, they don’t only talk about happiness. It is often the ordeals that seem most significant. People shoot for happiness but feel formed through suffering.

Now, of course, it should be said that there is nothing intrinsically ennobling about suffering. Just as failure is sometimes just failure (and not your path to becoming the next Steve Jobs) suffering is sometimes just destructive, to be exited as quickly as possible.

But some people are clearly ennobled by it. Think of the way Franklin Roosevelt came back deeper and more empathetic after being struck with polio. Often, physical or social suffering can give people an outsider’s perspective, an attuned awareness of what other outsiders are enduring.

But the big thing that suffering does is it takes you outside of precisely that logic that the happiness mentality encourages. Happiness wants you to think about maximizing your benefits. Difficulty and suffering sends you on a different course.

First, suffering drags you deeper into yourself. The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that people who endure suffering are taken beneath the routines of life and find they are not who they believed themselves to be. The agony involved in, say, composing a great piece of music or the grief of having lost a loved one smashes through what they thought was the bottom floor of their personality, revealing an area below, and then it smashes through that floor revealing another area.

Then, suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control. When people are thrust down into these deeper zones, they are forced to confront the fact they can’t determine what goes on there. Try as they might, they just can’t tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or to stop missing the one who has died or gone. And even when tranquillity begins to come back, or in those moments when grief eases, it is not clear where the relief comes from. The healing process, too, feels as though it’s part of some natural or divine process beyond individual control.

People in this circumstance often have the sense that they are swept up in some larger providence. Abraham Lincoln suffered through the pain of conducting a civil war, and he came out of that with the Second Inaugural. He emerged with this sense that there were deep currents of agony and redemption sweeping not just through him but through the nation as a whole, and that he was just an instrument for transcendent tasks.

It’s at this point that people in the midst of difficulty begin to feel a call. They are not masters of the situation, but neither are they helpless. They can’t determine the course of their pain, but they can participate in responding to it. They often feel an overwhelming moral responsibility to respond well to it. People who seek this proper rejoinder to ordeal sense that they are at a deeper level than the level of happiness and individual utility. They don’t say, “Well, I’m feeling a lot of pain over the loss of my child. I should try to balance my hedonic account by going to a lot of parties and whooping it up.”

The right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness. I don’t even mean that in a purely religious sense. It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred. Parents who’ve lost a child start foundations. Lincoln sacrificed himself for the Union. Prisoners in the concentration camp with psychologist Viktor Frankl rededicated themselves to living up to the hopes and expectations of their loved ones, even though those loved ones might themselves already be dead.

Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different. They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically. Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that almost always involve suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability. They hurl themselves deeper and gratefully into their art, loved ones and commitments.

The suffering involved in their tasks becomes a fearful gift and very different than that equal and other gift, happiness, conventionally defined

The Empirical Kids

My student Marc (thanks Marc!) highlighted to me this series of David Brooks essays on youth/children – how they grow up, cope and thrive.

OP-ED COLUMNIST By  Published: March 28, 2013 282 Comment

Twelve years ago, I wrote a piece for The Atlantic, called “The Organization Kid,” about the smart, hard-working, pleasant-but-cautious achievatrons who thrive in elite universities. Occasionally, somebody asks me how students have changed since then. I haven’t been perceptive enough to give a good answer.

But, this year, I’m teaching at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale, and one terrifically observant senior, Victoria Buhler, wrote a paper trying to capture how it feels to be in at least a segment of her age cohort. She’s given me permission to quote from it.

Buhler points out that the college students of 12 years ago grew up with 1990s prosperity at home, and the democratic triumph in the cold war abroad. They naturally had a tendency to believe deeply “in the American model of democratic capitalism, which created all men equal but allowed some to rise above others through competition.”

Then came Sept. 11. That was followed by the highly moralistic language of George W. Bush’s war on terror: “Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”

But Bush’s effort to replicate the Reagan war on an evil empire led to humiliation, not triumph. Americans, Buhler writes, “emerged from the experience both dismissive of foreign intervention as a tool of statecraft as well as wary of the moral language used to justify it.”

Then came the financial crisis, the other formative event for today’s students. The root of the crisis was in the financial world. But the pain was felt outside that world. “The capitalist system, with its promise of positive-sum gains for all, appeared brutal and unpredictable.”

Moreover, today’s students harbor the anxiety that in the race for global accomplishment, they may no longer be the best competitors. Chinese students spend 12-hour days in school, while American scores are middle of the pack.

In sum, today’s graduates enter a harsher landscape. Immediate postgrad life, Buhler writes, will probably bear a depressing resemblance to Hannah Horvath’s world on “Girls.” The hit song “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis “is less a fashion statement, more a looming financial reality.”

Buhler argues that the group she calls Cynic Kids “don’t like the system — however, they are wary of other alternatives as well as dismissive of their ability to actually achieve the desired modifications. As such, the generation is very conservative in its appetite for change. Broadly speaking, Cynic Kids distrust the link between action and result.”

A Brookings Institution survey found that only 10 percent of young people agree with the statement, “America should be more globally proactive.” The Occupy movement, Buhler notes, “launched more traffic jams than legislation.” The Arab Spring seemed like a popular awakening but has not fulfilled its promise.

In what I think is an especially trenchant observation, Buhler suggests that these disillusioning events have led to a different epistemological framework. “We are deeply resistant to idealism. Rather, the Cynic Kids have embraced the policy revolution; they require hypothesis to be tested, substantiated, and then results replicated before they commit to any course of action.”

Maybe this empirical mind-set is a sign of maturity, but Buhler acknowledges that the “yearning for definitive ‘evidence’ … can retard action. … The multiplicity of options invites relativism as a response to the insurmountable complexity. Ever the policy buffs, we know we are unable to scientifically appraise different options, and so, given the information constraints, we stick with the evil we know.”

She suggests calling this state of mind the Tinder Effect, referring to the app that lets you scroll through hundreds of potential romantic partners, but that rarely leads to a real-life encounter.

Buhler’s most comprehensive disquiet is with the meritocratic system itself. It rewards an obsessive focus on individual improvement: “Time not spent investing in yourself carries an opportunity cost, rendering you at a competitive disadvantage as compared to others who maintained the priority of self.”

She wonders if the educated class is beginning to look at the less-educated class — portrayed on TV in shows like “Teen Mom 2” and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” — as a distant, dysfunctional spectacle. She also wonders if the mathematization of public policy performs a gatekeeper function; only the elite can understand the formulas that govern most people’s lives.

I had many reactions to Buhler’s dazzling paper, but I’d like to highlight one: that the harsh events of the past decade may have produced not a youth revolt but a reversion to an empiricist mind-set, a tendency to think in demoralized economic phrases like “data analysis,” “opportunity costs” and “replicability,” and a tendency to dismiss other more ethical and idealistic vocabularies that seem fuzzy and, therefore, unreliable. After the hippie, the yuppie and the hipster, the cool people are now wonksters.

And, yes, I gave her an A.