Malcolm Gladwell has a piece in the latest New Yorker on what's wrong with our school system, and how to fix it.

Gladwell starts by discussing college scouting, and how difficult it is to predict how well the top college quarterbacks will do in the NFL. For quarterbacks, the NFL game is qualitatively different from the college game: much faster, much more dynamic, much more athletic. The only way to tell for certain that they'll be great NFL quarterbacks is to see how they play in the NFL. Gladwell goes on to suggest that selecting teachers faces similar problems — that we cannot hope to predict in advance how good teachers are going to be. As a secondary example, he uses a financial advising firm, who interviewed 1,000 candidates, offered internships to 49, jobs to 23 of those, and expected roughly half of them to end up making it. In the case of the advising company, it took three to four years of sustained observation to find the actual performers.

Gladwell also makes some points about dynamic range in teaching. If a median teacher covers one year of material in one year (by definition, I suppose), there exist many bad teachers who cover only half a year of material and many good ones who cover a year and a half of material. Teacher effects are a very strong predictor: on average, moving from a 50th to 85th percentile quality teacher is about as good as cutting class size in half. According to one study, if we replaced the bottom 6-10 percent of teachers with median quality teachers, we could close the education gap we have with a bunch of other better performing countries.

Gladwell's suggestions are that we make it much easier to get into the teaching business, eliminating things like required masters degrees which are expensive and have little correlation with performance. He suggests eliminating easy and automatic tenure, rigorously evaluating performers, and paying good performers a lot more.

These suggestions are all fine as far as they go, but Gladwell kind of goes off the rails because he fails to understand some key differences between teaching, football and financial advising. Football has very strong zero-sum and winner-take-all properties: there are a a total of 267 victories each season to divide among 32 teams, and only one team can win the Superbowl. The difference between a world-best performer and an almost-but-not-quite-world-best performer is therefore enormous. It's critical to constantly evaluate whether your quarterback is the best possible rather than merely very very good — the merely very good ones are actually "failures." Financial advising isn't quite as zero-sum, but I posit that there are many more people who want to be financial advisers than there is a need for financial advisers.

Teaching, on the other hand, is a very different situation. Gladwell himself notes that merely replacing the worst teachers with median quality teachers would be an enormous win. And we don't need just a few good teachers, we need a giant mob of them.

I am a firm believer that in nearly all cases, practice and effort can improve skills. It's true for football, it's true for financial advising, and it's true for teaching. In the case of teaching, Gladwell makes a good argument that we have identified some of the skills involved: how good is the teacher at giving rapidly iterated useful feedback, how often is the teacher interacting with the group. Everyone who wants to get better at anything needs to practice and put in effort.

But Gladwell thinks we need to hire four teachers for everyone one we "end up" with, weeding them out and washing them out like financial advisers or football players. I disagree. We need more focus on the skills that make teachers successful, and more incentives for teachers to learn and practice those skills. But we're not trying to find the 30 best teachers, we're trying to teach a whole nation of kids. We're trying to create a situation where every teacher is as good as the 85th percentile teacher is today. Instead of taking a stance that teaching is something that only a chosen lucky few could ever do, let's assume that nearly all teachers can get better with appropriate practice, and that many of them can probably become good enough with the right incentives.

Analogy from my personal life: I am an amateur musician. If my goal is to become a professional classical concert pianist, the appropriate course of action (other than, at my age, seeking psychotherapy) is to spend every waking moment practicing. There is very limited demand for my skills, and I have to be not only very very good, but actually better than almost anyone else. On the other hand, if I want to become a very good piano player, it is sufficient to practice for a couple hours a day, especially if I practice in good ways. I think becoming a teacher is a lot more like becoming a good piano player than a professional concert pianist, and I think our policies should reflect this. So while I agree with Gladwell about relaxing masters degree requirements, rigorously evaluating performance, and increasing pay for performance, I don't think the analogies with quarterbacks or financial advising are very strong.

(Aside: I am no football expert, but Gladwell could check his facts better. One of the lynchpins of his football argument is that colleges generally run the shotgun spread and the NFL doesn't. However, Tuesday Morning Quarterback suggests otherwise.)

(Update: Anna says that attacking Malcolm Gladwell is kind of beating up a strawman.)

"Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else" by Geoff Colvin

A short, fast, enjoyable read. The basic arguments of the book, all of which I found more or less compelling, if not entirely groundbreaking:

  • There is very little evidence of "innate talent" in most fields, such as chess, music, mathematics, or business. (In sports, there is obviously some influence of body type; the book argues that this is less profound than you might think, although it's obviously important.)

  • The way to get good at something is to practice it. The way to get very good is to practice it a lot.

  • "General intelligence" is not well correlated with being world-class.

  • The kind of practice that actually helps is "deliberate practice", which is practice that focusses on specifics, has short direct feedback cycles, and is at the boundaries of current performance. Deliberate practice is difficult and mentally demanding. Teachers are often crucial in designing deliberate practice regimes, especially in the early stages.

  • Many so-called "geniuses" (Mozart and Tiger Woods are studied in some detail) who have exhibited astonishing skill at what seem to be astonishingly young ages are often touted as having innate skills, but they are in fact the product of precisely this sort of deliberate practice.

  • It takes about ten years and 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become world-class. This is a rule of thumb. There is evidence that in the current world, it takes longer than that in the sciences.

  • In some fields such as music or athletics, it is very important to start young, because the effect of practice compounds over time and once adolesence ends, other demands have a very strong tendency to interfere if the practice isn't central to someone's life. A study examined music students in three different departments: one in which the students could go on to become international soloists, a second in which they went on to become orchestra players, and a third in which they went on to become teachers. The only variables that had any real explanatory power for dividing these groups were how many hours they practiced, and how many hours they had practiced before turning 18.

  • In business it is less important to start young, primarily because very few people are trained to be business leaders from an early age. The book briefly examines the wisdom of this, and suggests that this is likely to start happening more.

  • At any stage of life and for nearly any skill, deliberate practice is a key to increasing performance.

  • Most organizations and businesses are very bad at encouraging deliberate practice. (In general, I found the section on organizations to be the weakest, although I will have to think about it some more).

  • To become world-class, achievement has to be primarily intrinsically rather than extrinsically motivated. However, extrinsic motivation is frequently a good way to start children on a path --- they'll either get into it or they won't. Additionally, the line between extrinsic and intrinsic motivations is blurry: specific, constructive feedback is both at once, and many child prodigies start out of a desire to spend time with or imitate their parents.

  • To become world-class takes a huge amount of sacrifice, and there's nothing intrinsically right or wrong about making this sacrifice. It's a cost/benefit tradeoff. In general, the older you are, the greater the costs relative to the benefits.

I'm still digesting the implications for my own life. I think my practice often tends to by nature by somewhat deliberate, although I could (and will try to) apply this principle more consistently.

I've been thinking about love recently and wanted to learn more. I read this book last night. Well, actually, Anna told me it had to go back to the library today, so I decided to read the first chapter to see if I wanted to order it again, and then I got a bit sucked in, and then I decided it didn't require full reading but only skimming, and then I was done skimming it.

I was hoping that the book would be a "General Theory" a la Einstein's "General Theory", but it ended up feeling more like "Unspecific, Vague Theories of Love." I was also pretty familiar with a lot of the material. I can't really recommend this book, but I'll quickly summarize the key points:

  • In some sense, we have three brains: the reptile brain, the limbic brain, and the neocortex. All mammals have at least some limbic brain. Higher mammals have more limbic brain and at least some neocortex. Abstract reasoning and logical thought are all about the neocortex. Love and emotions come more from the limbic brain. Thus they cannot be (fully) controlled rationally.
  • Neural networks are rad. I don't necessarily agree with this point or understand why the book was making it.
  • Traditional psychoanalyst theories (Freud etc.) are not valuable. The authors clearly had an axe to grind here. I have no dog in it.
  • We fall in love because we're mammals, and mammals need affection and close connection. This was really the main point.
The authors were trying to argue that new insights in brain theory tell us a lot about love, but I dind't find it especially compelling. It's always fun to read about chicken wire mother experiments, and how emotional expressions cross culture and also species barriers to a large extent, but it didn't really make me think about how to live my life. At least the book was short. A fun fact:
  • Echidna's are pretty much as close to the borderline with reptiles you can get and still be mammals. They are solitary and meet only to mate. They lay eggs and carry the eggs around in a kind of open-air uterus. They also have the smallest limbic brain of any mammal.

Welcome to derifatives.

This is my "public" blog, as opposed to my "private" blog over on livejournal. Of course, with me the public and private are never too far apart, so I'm not 100% sure yet what's going to go here and what's going to go over on livejournal.

Things you're likely to read about here at derifatives:

  • My musical projects
  • My attempts to learn to draw better than a five-year old
  • Technical issues related to machine learning or computer science
  • Books I've been reading
  • Attempts to balance traditional professional, personal, and artistic goals in a world of limited time and resources
I'm sure other topics will pop up as I go along.


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