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No Such Thing as Different Learning Styles?

A couple years ago I interviewed a few neuro-psychologists and learning experts to see if they could help me understand how I learn and process information. My thinking was, kids with learning disabilities submit to a battery of cognitive tests that supposedly reveal useful information about the way they learn. Could I do the same and find out more conclusively if I'm a visual learner or auditory learner? The experts told me that it was unlikely the tests would help someone who is fine and high functioning. So I passed.

According to recent research, though, the very idea of personal "learning styles"--an idea at the center of many education philosophies--may be false. In fact, we may all learn pretty much the same way. Here's more:

Nearly all of the studies that purport to provide evidence for learning styles fail to satisfy key criteria for scientific validity. Any experiment designed to test the learning-styles hypothesis would need to classify learners into categories and then randomly assign the learners to use one of several different learning methods, and the participants would need to take the same test at the end of the experiment. If there is truth to the idea that learning styles and teaching styles should mesh, then learners with a given style, say visual-spatial, should learn better with instruction that meshes with that style. The authors found that of the very large number of studies claiming to support the learning-styles hypothesis, very few used this type of research design.  Of those that did, some provided evidence flatly contradictory to this meshing hypothesis, and the few findings in line with the meshing idea did not assess popular learning-style schemes.

No less than 71 different models of learning styles have been proposed over the years. Most have no doubt been created with students’ best interests in mind, and to create more suitable environments for learning. But psychological research has not found that people learn differently, at least not in the ways learning-styles proponents claim. Given the lack of scientific evidence, the authors argue that the currently widespread use of learning-style tests and teaching tools is a wasteful use of limited educational resources.

(hat tip: Josh Kaufman)

Culture Matters, An On-Going Series

Dutch drivers are taught that when you are about to get out of the car, you reach for the door handle with your right hand — bringing your arm across your body to the door. This forces a driver to swivel shoulders and head, so that before opening the door you can see if there is a bike coming from behind. Likewise, every Dutch child has to pass a bicycle safety exam at school. The coexistence of different modes of travel is hard-wired into the culture.


Cyclists can’t carry six bags of groceries; bulk buying is almost nonexistent. Instead of shopping for a week, people stop at the market daily. So the need for processed loaves that will last for days is gone. A result: good bread.

It's from a piece on the Dutch and bicyles, via Bobulate.

Continuous, Real-Time, Semi-Structured Feedback Instead of Annual Reviews

In a question on Quora about how a start-up should handle performance reviews, John Lilly writes:

After believing in annual reviews for most of my career, I don't really believe in them anymore. Not timely enough, demoralizing in general (everyone thinks they're above average), and just a hell of a lot of work for everyone. This negative view of annual & traditional reviews is quite strongly supported by university research -- it's just counter-productive, even though we all think we should do it.

My own view is that you need tools like Rypple to do continuous, real-time, semi-structured feedback that adds up, over the course of months or years, to a real picture of how the person is performing, and gives both the employee and managers a way to get better.

Hear, hear. In particular, the "continuous" and "real-time" parts. This ensures that feedback is given soon after whatever event prompted the feedback. I've been involved in feedback sessions that reference events that occured months and months earlier--those never end well.


Other links:

Bryan Caplan offers tips on how to reduce your envy of others.

A University of Chicago project on defining and exploring the nature of wisdom.

Tyler Cowen riffs on which intellectuals have true influence. He has a very high standard for what "influence" means. The upside to such a high standard is it helps prevent word inflation. "Brilliant" is an adjective that has lost meaning due to overuse. The downside to such a high standard is that people who truly do wield influence but maybe not world-changing influence can more easily forget the responsibility that comes with it. When Tyler blogs, people listen. His influence is non-trivial. He should not taking his writing lightly...and I know he doesn't! He's influential.

Steve Silberman's sober, reflective look at what he learned from Allen Ginsburg:

One of my favorite Zen koans is, "Who was Buddha's teacher?" You don't need a spiritual parent to tell you that contentment is elusive and fleeting, that every thing and every place you treasure is in the process of being transformed into something unrecognizable, and that every love affair, killer startup idea and Facebook thread eventually ends with shrugs and a funeral.

Unbundling Education: Separate Out the Grading Process

The theory behind outsourcing is that it enables specialization: you do one thing really well and let others do the rest.

Some of the more frustrating customer service experiences happen with entities where there's limited outsourcing and specialization. As I've written before, airlines do way too much. They market their brand and flight routes, they handle reservations and bookings, they maintain aircraft, they deal with luggage. More airlines should do as they do with their regional jet business: focus on something and outsource the rest. In the regional jet example, the big airlines handle reservations and ticketing and outsource the actual flying of planes.

City governments are another example. They try to manage parks, sewers, potholes, utilites, and more. Yes, a government entity, as the sole provider of police, fire, roads, and a few other things, will always be more diverse in scope than any sane for-profit corporation. But many governments still do too much beyond the core essentials, and are not able to do any one of these things very well.

One way to think about improving complex, ill-performing products, services, or experiences is to see whether there's a way to unbundle it and allow greater specialization. Arnold Kling applies this approach to improving higher education. Specifically, he thinks schools should separate the task of evaluating students' work from the task of teaching the concepts. Here's the background:

In the legacy education model, teachers combine coaching, feedback, and content delivery. By coaching I mean advice, guidance, and encouragement. Feedback includes formal grading as well as informal praise and criticism. Content delivery includes lectures and reading assignments.

Perhaps the key to radically changing education is to break up those functions.

1. The coach should be someone who knows the student well, who can relate to and motivate the student, who can recommend a good educational path, who takes account of the student's strengths and weaknesses, and who stays on top of how well the student is doing relative to the student's ability.

2. The formal feedback can come from strangers. Students can solve problems or write essays and have these graded by a separate service.

3. The content delivery should be "pulled" by the student rather than pushed by a teacher. For example, a student and a coach could agree that the student should learn statistics. The student then selects a statistics curriculum and works through it. The Khan Academy lectures on statistics are particularly good, in my opinion. But Carnegie-Mellon has a good on-line stats course, also. My guess is that, overall, there is enough content on line to obtain a world class education.

Then, Arnold writes:

A few months ago, Ben Casnocha wrote,

"Maybe 5-10% of high school high achievers should pursue higher education without attending a four year traditional college. This is the "Real Life University" option for entrepreneurial spirits. This is for folks who can learn a lot on their own, can assemble mentors and advisors to guide the process, and most of all find their creativity smothered by drudgery of school -- or otherwise are on a trajectory higher than what college can offer -- and therefore need an alternative path." 

His estimate of the percentage may be high, particularly in the near term. But that is the group that I wanted to aim at in my post on schools without classrooms.

Anyway, one important issue with alternative education models is interfacing with the legacy credential system. If you take a course from an alternative college, how can you get the credits to transfer to a traditional college or translate into a credible degree?

Arnold's proposed solution: A Means A.

A Means A solves the problem of credibility and comparability of grades in courses taught at different institutions of higher education. The innovation is to separate the grading process from other aspects of higher education. For any college-level course, A Means A will devise an appropriate exam and use independent professionals to grade the exam, according to transparent, standard criteria...

A Means A will extend the reliable, independent grading model of the AP exam to a broad spectrum of college-level courses. However, while the AP program compels instructors to "teach to the test," A Means A will "test to what you teach." That is, A Means A will take course objectives as given by instructors. It will design and grade tests that align with the objectives of the course.

It's a great thought. And it looks like one university is actually implementing part of it.

As a business opportunity, Arnold identifies the risks with A Means A, Inc. A company that promises to accomodate the idiosyncracies and variance of different schools' curriculua will have a hard time scaling the grading process in a cost-effective way. And making the credential have currency in marketplace in the early days will be tough. So while I am not so sure of the business opportunity, I think the high level prescription of unbundling is spot on. There are probably good business opportunties along these lines for education entrepreneurs--just need to brainstorm and iterate a bit more.

What Arnold has done with his A Means A post is bring to the table very specific ideas for improving the education system--not vague griping. And he aims his provocations directly at entrepreneurs--not policy wonks or politicans. A refreshing and useful approach.

Why Might Jobs Not Come Back This Time?

Jeff Jarvis says the jobs that technology has eliminated are not coming back, and Paul Graham rightfully asks, "Why not this time?" Historically, technology eliminates jobs but also creates new ones. Eliezer Yudkowsky, in the Hacker News thread, posits five possible reasons why "this time it's different" (i.e., this time the jobs won't come back):

1) The amount of regulation and regulatory burden has increased sufficiently between then and now, that new business relationships have a much harder time replacing old destroyed business relationships. I.e., it's now more expensive to hire a new employee.

2) It's a novel change in the financial side of the economy. Like, capital-holders now try to make killings by investing in the right HFT funds instead of trying to go out and invest in new businesses. Implausible? Maybe, but finance has changed a lot recently, so the difference, if there is one, might be there.

3) The amount of re-education required to get a new job has increased enough to be a killer barrier to re-employment, whether because of employers having imposed an arbitrary demand for bachelors' degrees or because the jobs are actually more complex.

4) Ricardo's Law does allow individual regions to lose as a result of tech improvements, because if someone else beats your comparative advantage, people will want to trade with them instead of you. There's nothing ahistorical about the Rust Belt having a persistent recession within the US. This is now happening to the whole US; people no longer want to trade with us, but China is growing plenty.

5) The Thiel hypothesis: Recent technological developments are intrinsically more boring than past technological developments; people are trying to build web apps that will sell to Google for $10 million instead of trying to invent the next "microchip" or "electricity". It's not that the 21st century poses a novel obstacle to forming new business relationships to replace old ones; rather, 21st-century technologies that obsolete jobs are missing a wow factor or wealth-generating factor that previously increased demand or increased total wealth at the same time as obsoleting jobs.

Here's a useful Paul Krugman post about how technology "hollows out" the middle of job market -- low-skill (janitors) and high-skill (chemists) people are okay but middle-skill workers suffer. He notes the hollowing out is now creeping into higher and higher skilled professions.

Here's a Boston Globe piece on how manufacturing in America is alive and well -- we make way, way more "stuff" than China -- it's just that there are fewer manufacturing jobs because of huge productivity gains.

Here's Nick Schulz and Arnold Kling on creating jobs in the New Commanding Heights of the American economy: healthcare and education. They happen to be the two most regulated and government controlled sectors. "To revitalize these sectors and revive the American job market," Nick and Arnold say, "we must open up these industries to competition and entrepreneurial reform."

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It's from Chris Yeh.

"A New Mindset and Skillset to Compete"

Thomas Friedman writes about the changing job market in America:

The rise in the unemployment rate last month to 9.2 percent has Democrats and Republicans reliably falling back on their respective cure-alls. It is evidence for liberals that we need more stimulus and for conservatives that we need more tax cuts to increase demand. I am sure there is truth in both, but I do not believe they are the whole story. I think something else, something new — something that will require our kids not so much to find their next job as to invent their next job — is also influencing today’s job market more than people realize.

And later in his column:

Whatever you may be thinking when you apply for a job today, you can be sure the employer is asking this: Can this person add value every hour, every day — more than a worker in India, a robot or a computer? Can he or she help my company adapt by not only doing the job today but also reinventing the job for tomorrow? And can he or she adapt with all the change, so my company can adapt and export more into the fastest-growing global markets? In today’s hyperconnected world, more and more companies cannot and will not hire people who don’t fulfill those criteria.

But you would never know that from listening to the debate in Washington, where some Democrats still tend to talk about job creation as if it’s the 1960s and some Republicans as if it’s the 1980s. But this is not your parents’ job market.

This is precisely why LinkedIn’s founder, Reid Garrett Hoffman, one of the premier starter-uppers in Silicon Valley — besides co-founding LinkedIn, he is on the board of Zynga, was an early investor in Facebook and sits on the board of Mozilla — has a book coming out after New Year called “The Start-Up of You,” co-authored with Ben Casnocha. Its subtitle could easily be: “Hey, recent graduates! Hey, 35-year-old midcareer professional! Here’s how you build your career today.”

There'll be much more to say later in the year! But this sneak peek is relevant to the current moment, and Friedman nicely captures a few of the key ideas. If you want to pre-order the book (from an empty Amazon page), you can do so here.

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I'm on a semi-hiatus from blogging this summer; daily posting will return in the fall. Below are some random posts from the archives on many different topics.

Serving the Audience vs. Doing Your Thing (and Other Links)

Talking Funny is a four-way conversation between Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Ricky Gervais, and Louis CK on the craft of comedy. Here's Part 1 (and embedded below). One bit jumped out in Part 1: Gervais argues that you shouldn't care about the competition or the customer or the market -- you should just be you, tell your jokes. Rock and Seinfeld respond that you have to be thinking about the customer and the competition. You have to be at least as good as whoever performed previously in the venue. Both sides are right, of course. It's interesting to hear them talk about how to navigate the tension.


Other links:

  • Robin Hanson riffs on "morality porn" and the "X porn" construct more generally.
  • The always-interesting Christopher Caldwell writes against excessively gruesome warning labels on cigarette boxes, calling it "more about class than compassion" (i.e., rich people against poor people).
  • A fascinating piece in The Atlantic called The Triumph of New Age Medicine. Here's the debate about the article. I'm sympathetic to the author of the piece. If it works, it works. Some of the harder core people opposed to alternative medicine remind of me hard core atheists who attack quiet, religious folk taking comfort from their faith.
  • Bill Simmons says Will Smith does not take creative risks by doing the same sort of movie over and over and eschewing opportunities to take on new roles. Yet, Simmons does the same thing over and over. We don't expect him to pump out fiction or other sorts of non-fiction. Why do we frown upon actors who don't dabble within their broader profession, yet we think no less of writers to stick to a shtick, be it non-fiction/fiction, academic vs. narrative, etc.? One theory: we think acting is easier than it is; we think acting is acting and there is no sub-specializing.

Chris Rock on Job vs. Career

Chris Rock, in his unique blend of wisdom, riffs on the difference between having a job and having a career:

He seems to define a job as something you hate and a career as something you love. I'm not sure that's the most useful distinction and definition. But, I love Rock's point that loving what you do causes you to always think there's not enough hours in the day. And his story about dropping out of the tenth grade and how he should have just dropped out of the second grade, while exaggerated, is perversely true. 

(hat tip: Marci Alboher)

Assorted Paragraphs and Links

Things I would blog about were I blogging more regularly (normal pace will return in August):

Peter Beinart on Rep. Anthony Weiner:

Truth be told, I don’t think the real reason pundits are baying for Weiner’s head has anything to do with his ability to be a good congressman. It’s more primal than that. We live in a kick-them-while-they're-down culture. We love to see the powerful humiliated because it proves that they were no better than us to begin with. Yet we simultaneously imagine that because they're powerful and famous, they don't need the empathy that we'd desire were we in their stead. Instead of being moved by their suffering, we revel in it.

How many of the pundits mocking Weiner have marriages that could survive the kind of scrutiny they have been giving his? The realization that everyone’s private life is messy and flawed should produce humility and compassion. Instead, pundits enter the public arena as disembodied Olympian figures, entitled to render the harshest of verdicts, secure in the knowledge that no one will ever investigate their most intimate of domains.

The kick-them-while-they're-down culture was also on display after the Mavs beat the Heat and LeBron hate escalated to epic levels. Speaking of LeBron, here's Bill Simmons on LeBron, which may be relevant to anyone born with multiple natural talents:

Is it possible that he's so talented that he never ended up concentrating on one great thing? He never developed a go-to gimmick like Dirk's high-post game, Wade's one-on-one game, Kobe's one-on-one game, Duncan's low-post game … he's like one of those fancy diners that has a six-page menu loaded with options, only when you ask the waitress what's good, she says, "I don't know, everything!" But wait … I asked you what's good.

Simmons recently launched Grantland. From his excellent opening post, on why he's running a collaborative site instead of penning solo columns:

Writing is a fundamentally lonely thing. It's just you and a blank Microsoft Word document. The process can drive people crazy. (And has.) It's much more fun to create something with other people. It just is.

The Last Psychiararist on Julian Assange:

Assange believes that truth needs no intent, which is obviously false. Without a context, the truth can mislead.  Excluding the context on purpose, when you know that it will be misunderstood, is often as good as lying.  This has always been my/everyone's concern about Wikileaks.

Robin Hanson quotes the following, in a post about wearing helmets while biking:

Ordinary cycling is not demonstrably more dangerous than walking or driving, yet no country promotes helmets for either of these modes.

An interesting account of how someone went to therapy to deal with severe social anxiety. He gives a nerveracking presentation in front of others, and then:

But then [the therapist] played back the video of my presentation, and I was even more surprised. The thoughts rushing through my head really were not apparent at all in the video. I seemed a little nervous, but nothing compared to how I actually felt.

Here are the 20 Thiel Fellows under age 20 who won the $100k grant. They look great.

The Risk of Working Hard

Seth Godin writes:

If you're going to work...

work hard.

That way, you'll have something to show for it.

The biggest waste is to do that thing you call work, but to interrupt it, compromise it, cheat it and still call it work.

In the same amount of time you can expend twice the effort and get far more in exchange.

Agreed, so why don't people work hard? Here's a non-obvious reason: working hard is risky. If you work hard and fail, you don't enjoy the self-protection that less than 100% effort affords. If you get a C on a test in school, and you didn't study much, then it's no big deal -- you just didn't study enough. If you get a C on a test in school, and you studied really hard for it, then you must just be dumb.

In other words, if you work hard and fail, there's the presumption that you're innately not very talented. If you don't work hard and fail, you can credibly preserve the belief or illusion that had you only put forth 100% effort, it would have worked out.

(A hat tip on this idea is owed to some writer I can't remember, maybe Gladwell.)

Randomness and Serendipity on the Internet

This is a short biography of a link, as it relates to the randomness and serendipity that drives conversation on the web.

A couple weeks ago Tim Harford, the Financial Times columnist and author of the stimulating new book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, was in town on book tour. I've read Tim's stuff for some time but hadn't met him, so I went to his talk at the World Affairs Council and we grabbed dinner afterwards. We had a delightful chat, and later that night Tim linked on Twitter to an old blog post of mine, 50 Ways to Expose Yourself to Randomness.

Seeing that Tim is -- according to the hottest economist in America -- the best economist on Twitter, he has a strong following and the link got picked up a bit.

This morning, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a noted foreign policy scholar and former Obama State Dept official, tweeted: "Someone that I follow sent out a great piece last week on ways of adding randomness to your life, but now I can't find it. Pse resend!"

An hour later, Michael Clemens, an economist from the Center for Global Development -- who I randomly met at a conference in Miami on Latin America and who I've stayed in touch with online ever since -- replied, "50 ways to expose yourself to randomness" from @BenCasnocha" Presumably, Michael remembered Tim tweeting about it and figured it was the link Anne-Marie remembered.

Shortly thereafter, Anne-Marie wrote a post for CNN's GPS blog about creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, and linked at one point in the piece to my post on randomness. It was cool for me to see this -- I read Anne-Marie's book The Idea That Is America a couple years ago, and linked to her post on the development of China three years ago. Cooler yet, Fareed Zakaria just tweeted the CNN post on creativity and asked Amy "Tiger Mom" Chua for her reactions. And Amy Chua just replied.

I'm detailing the backstory here because it's fun to point out the random connections that gave rise to Anne-Marie's link on...cultivating randomness. Every day in the blogosphere and twittersphere these types of conversations happen; being able to trace the outlines of how ideas and memes come together is one of the unique joys of the online intellectual experience.

It's also worth pointing out that it was a year-old blog post that got picked up by Tim et al. Blog posts are easily searchable and archivable. It would have never happened with a tweet. It supports the point of my post (and Anil Dash's): Twitter, Transience, and Tempo.

Finally, I think it's relevant that in-person relationships played a role in how the link made its way into Anne-Marie's post. I met Tim for dinner, and afterwards he took a closer look at my blog and then felt compelled to tweet it out. I met Michael, the guy who responded to Anne-Marie's initial question, in-person in Miami and he started following me (and I him) after that. The internet does a marvelous job at connecting people from around the world. Even if I've never met a blogger or tweeter I follow, the connection I feel I have with them is anything but superficial. But it remains the case that an in-person interaction creates a unique bond. In my experience, even just one in-person meeting can enrich the online communications with the person for years to follow.

Why to Move to a New Place: It Slows Down Time

Steven Johnson, author extraordinaire, is moving from New York to the Bay Area (at least for a little while). Here's one of his reasons:

And then there's the passage of time. Another old friend -- my oldest, in fact -- wrote an email to me after I told him the news of our move. We've both been in New York for two decades, and we are both watching our kids growing up at lightning speed. "Change like this slows down time," he wrote. When you're in your routine, frequenting the same old haunts, time seems to accelerate -- was it just four years ago that our youngest son was born? But all the complexities of moving -- figuring out where to live, getting there, and then navigating all the new realities of the changed environment -- means that the minutes and hours that once passed as a kind of background process, the rote memory of knowing your place, suddenly are thrust into your conscious awareness. You have to figure it out, and figuring things out makes you aware of the passing days and months more acutely. You get disoriented, or at least you have to think for a while before you can be properly oriented again.

So that is why we are moving: for the natural beauty, yes, and the climate, and the Bay Area tech scene, and the many friends out there we haven't seen enough of over the past twenty years. But more than anything, we're moving to slow down time.

Knowing Your Audience in the YouTube Era

A few months ago, when Senator John Kerry was in Pakistan to push for the release of CIA agent Raymond Davis, he held a Q&A with local media in Lahore. You can hear by the questions that the local journalists are not at all fluent in English. So when I watch the back and forth, I'm struck by the complexity of Kerry's sentences and vocabulary.

Kerry doesn't seem to be making an attempt to speak in clear, short sentences that the folks in the room would understand. Instead, he offers circular answers with words like "consternation" and "signatory":

"Sometimes, to the consternation of many of us..."
"Your government is a signatory to that"
"We don't want this relationship to come into a difficult situation because we're unable to find reasonableness."

What's going on? Is John Kerry trying to communicate with the people asking him questions? If so, he's not doing a very good job. He has forgotten to simplify his language to fit the audience. He doesn't "know his audience."

But perhaps he does know his audience -- it's just that the audience is not the local media assembled in the room. The audience consists of all the people who will be reviewing video footage of the exchange, including English-fluent decision makers in Pakistan and policy makers in U.S.

Jay Leno -- and all TV stars who perform in front of a live audience and the cameras -- know this concept well. The physical audience in Leno's studio in Los Angeles is not the audience that counts. His real audience is middle America watching at home on TV, and he tailors his jokes appropriately. I know corporate executives who do as Leno does. They go give a talk in front of 50 people, videotape it, and then email it out to 1,000 clients. Their audience isn't the 50 people who hear the speech live -- it's the 1,000 clients who watch it on YouTube.

Bottom Line: "Know your audience" is an axiom of public speaking and communication. But most advice on this front assumes your audience is whoever is in the room listening live. In an era of cameras and YouTube, your audience rarely consists only of the people listening to you live. Usually there will be (or can be) a YouTube audience as well. Communication strategy ought to account for this now-obvious but sometimes still overlooked reality.

I Loved You, I Loved You, I Loved You

Derek Miller, a writer and technology thinker, passed away a couple days ago. He wrote a touching final post that was scheduled to publish upon his death:

Airdrie, you were my best friend and my closest connection. I don't know what we'd have been like without each other, but I think the world would be a poorer place. I loved you deeply, I loved you, I loved you, I loved you.

If you scroll through the most recent few entries (of his 10 year old blog), he writes about his decline with great eloquence, honesty, and clearheadedness.

It's a privilege (is that the word?) of the modern age to be able to read these types of blog posts -- dying people documenting their decline in a public forum. There's something comforting in it, for me.

It's chilling when someone dies unexpectedly and their last blog post or tweet is especially banal or random.

Derek, long fighting cancer, prepared a thought-out goodbye post. Yet, a couple weeks ago he was tweeting about the the future of the iTunes store. He knew he was days or weeks away from dying...but in the meantime, why not link to a good commentary on whether iTunes will move to the cloud?

Perhaps it's not so chilling, after all, these sorts of seemingly trivial postings. Live each day of your life doing the things you like to do, tweeting about the things you always tweet about. Until there are no more days left to live.

RIP, Derek.

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