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Measurable Outcomes vs. Higher Education?
So I’ve been getting a lot of articles and essays and rants emailed to me on higher education. Based on my previous posts, the impression seems to be that I’m some kind of educational rebel, railing against all the mainstream trends and the administrators and their experts who are pushing them.
Well, that’s not quite true. I don’t disagree with everything new—like teaching through bloging. And rebelling against a lot of the reigning nonsense is more trouble than it’s worth. I only get really ticked off when this stuff gets in the way of my doing my very modest job: teaching my classes the way I think best.
Case in point so far: outcomes-based education. We’re told by administrators, accrediting agencies, experts, and such that education should lead to measurable outcomes. A class should have a couple of pretty precise learning outcomes, and I should figure out some easy, quantitative way of proving that the result of the class was the students learning such and such skill or competency.
We’re told that the outcomes aren’t meant to cover everything to be learned in the class. You just need to have something to prove the student picked up a couple of competencies or skills along the way. The whole outcome-competency thing usually seems like a sideshow that’s only a bit of a time-suck for the faculty who can’t get themselves in the mood to be professionally driven by measurable outcomes.
Every professor I’ve talked to who teaches political philosophy at a wide variety of colleges and universities grouses about the outcomes/competencies thing. They don’t think it has much to do with their real work, which they usually take very seriously. Still, they're not losing much sleep over outcomes and competencies.
There are faculty who really are all about the outcomes. God bless them. Or God help them. They’re doing their jobs as they think best. And I will defend their freedom to do so—within reason—as long as they don’t bother me—or don’t bother me much.
I imagine that outcomes can be easy or even exhaustive when teaching introductory statistics or introductory accounting. And measurement could easily be by some objective test.
But, as I’ve said before, things aren't so easy when it comes to, say, a class that’s about reading Plato’s Republic. No undergrad masters all or even most of that great book, and what is learned—as they say, the value added—varies quite remarkably from student to student. Socrates himself says that the outcome of participating in the very long discussion presented in that book can’t be determined in advance.
That’s why Plato wrote the dialogue in such a careful way to teaching different lessons to different readers—people, as the Greeks said, with widely varying natures. The dialogue form is supposed to deal with an often-mentioned educational issue these days: Different teaching styles appeal to people with different learning styles.
Some expert or self-help guru might say that the take-away ought to be that you finally know what justice is. After all, you read a whole lot about it. But the book doesn’t really say for sure what justice is—and more questions are left open than closed. The Republic might seem useless in our results-oriented world.
Peter Thiel might even say it’s a nothing but a cost-suck and a time-suck for future entrepreneurs to pay big bucks to take a course that’s nothing but reading a very old book in a time when all you really need to know in terms of information, culture, and stuff can be Googled. But even Thiel doesn’t really think or act that way in his own case: What he learned about the Republic from that great teacher Leo Strauss has shaped some key parts of his thinking and transformational work.
Reading tough books carefully—attending to textual details, considering the diverse ways of life of and predicaments faced by the characters, following arguments, writing accurately and thoughtfully about their contents, applying what what you've learned to your own way of life and personal predicaments—is usually justified these days by the outcomes of critical thinking and analytic reasoning. I, for one, am impressed by how murky these phrases turn out to be, and how questionable—to say the least—are the standardized devices that have been invented to measure them.
But, as I’ve been told, such phrases are what make the liberal arts marketable to the many external constituencies that otherwise would have no idea what to make of them. They are, people are told, competencies that are valuable in many of the more intellectual or high-powered areas of work these days. I’m sure that measuring such outcomes is reassuring to parents and donors who would otherwise wonder even harder about whether college is worth the ridiculously big bucks it costs these days. For some of the most noble administrators, outcomes/competencies talk is a way of selling and so saving what can be saved of the great tradition of liberal education these days.
Students do, in fact, pick up said competencies, and that’s one reason why Berry College graduates do so well in the parts of law school that require writing essays in response to complicated legal questions. Unfortunately, law school, like everything else, is more and more about the mindless necessity of multiple choice, and the evidence I have is that our students aren’t sufficiently prepared on that front. I don’t view it as my job to do anything about that. I’ve taught thirty-some years without composing a single multiple-choice question or giving a single multiple-choice test.
Most of all, I can’t help but be troubled by the fact that those outcomes—those competencies—aren’t really the point of reading The Republic, The Bible, Shakespeare, The Prince, Pascal, Faulkner, Ray Bradbury, or Marilynne Robinson. In each case, as Socrates says, the point is the turning around of the soul (not, for the Greek philosophers, a religious idea) by figuring out who you are and what you’re supposed to do (beyond being productive—which admittedly you should be and Socrates wasn’t).
If the measurable competencies and outcomes were the only or the main point of the class, they might be achieved some other way more quickly and cheaply. That’s why, I think, outcomes-based education undermines old-fashioned or soul-improving liberal education.
Here’s a fine—if more than a bit extreme—article by David Solway on the tyrannical tendency of the outcomes-based educational movement. For me, education for outcomes has seemed mainly annoying because no claim has been made that they represent all or most of what high education aims to do.
But, according to Solway, that’s because I haven’t read the radical documents written by the most fervent of “Outcomes proponents.” He quotes Dianne Bateman: “The basic assumption underlying this approach is that educational improvement depends upon a shift in focus from inputs to outcomes. Once desirable student outcomes are identified, all educational practices are keyed to these outcomes, and educators are held accountable for achieving them. . . . The entire curriculum is redesigned into coherent, thematic programs, courses and units that support the outcomes.”
So some Outcomes proponents want the entire curriculum—all educational practices— redesigned to aim at nothing more or less than achieving measurable outcomes. That is scary stuff. I for one am not sure how prevalent Bateman’s view is. Let’s conclude that it’s scary enough that it’s worth taking Soloway seriously in the next post.
Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.
Research shows that those who spend more time speaking tend to emerge as the leaders of groups, regardless of their intelligence.
If you want to become a leader, start yammering. It doesn't even necessarily matter what you say. New research shows that groups without a leader can find one if somebody starts talking a lot.
This phenomenon, described by the "babble hypothesis" of leadership, depends neither on group member intelligence nor personality. Leaders emerge based on the quantity of speaking, not quality.
Researcher Neil G. MacLaren, lead author of the study published in The Leadership Quarterly, believes his team's work may improve how groups are organized and how individuals within them are trained and evaluated.
"It turns out that early attempts to assess leadership quality were found to be highly confounded with a simple quantity: the amount of time that group members spoke during a discussion," shared MacLaren, who is a research fellow at Binghamton University.
While we tend to think of leaders as people who share important ideas, leadership may boil down to whoever "babbles" the most. Understanding the connection between how much people speak and how they become perceived as leaders is key to growing our knowledge of group dynamics.
The power of babble
The research involved 256 college students, divided into 33 groups of four to ten people each. They were asked to collaborate on either a military computer simulation game (BCT Commander) or a business-oriented game (CleanStart). The players had ten minutes to plan how they would carry out a task and 60 minutes to accomplish it as a group. One person in the group was randomly designated as the "operator," whose job was to control the user interface of the game.
To determine who became the leader of each group, the researchers asked the participants both before and after the game to nominate one to five people for this distinction. The scientists found that those who talked more were also more likely to be nominated. This remained true after controlling for a number of variables, such as previous knowledge of the game, various personality traits, or intelligence.
How leaders influence people to believe | Michael Dowling | Big Think www.youtube.com
In an interview with PsyPost, MacLaren shared that "the evidence does seem consistent that people who speak more are more likely to be viewed as leaders."
Another find was that gender bias seemed to have a strong effect on who was considered a leader. "In our data, men receive on average an extra vote just for being a man," explained MacLaren. "The effect is more extreme for the individual with the most votes."
The great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg passed away on July 23. This is our tribute.
- The recent passing of the great theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg brought back memories of how his book got me into the study of cosmology.
- Going back in time, toward the cosmic infancy, is a spectacular effort that combines experimental and theoretical ingenuity. Modern cosmology is an experimental science.
- The cosmic story is, ultimately, our own. Our roots reach down to the earliest moments after creation.
When I was a junior in college, my electromagnetism professor had an awesome idea. Apart from the usual homework and exams, we were to give a seminar to the class on a topic of our choosing. The idea was to gauge which area of physics we would be interested in following professionally.
Professor Gilson Carneiro knew I was interested in cosmology and suggested a book by Nobel Prize Laureate Steven Weinberg: The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe. I still have my original copy in Portuguese, from 1979, that emanates a musty tropical smell, sitting on my bookshelf side-by-side with the American version, a Bantam edition from 1979.
Inspired by Steven Weinberg
Books can change lives. They can illuminate the path ahead. In my case, there is no question that Weinberg's book blew my teenage mind. I decided, then and there, that I would become a cosmologist working on the physics of the early universe. The first three minutes of cosmic existence — what could be more exciting for a young physicist than trying to uncover the mystery of creation itself and the origin of the universe, matter, and stars? Weinberg quickly became my modern physics hero, the one I wanted to emulate professionally. Sadly, he passed away July 23rd, leaving a huge void for a generation of physicists.
What excited my young imagination was that science could actually make sense of the very early universe, meaning that theories could be validated and ideas could be tested against real data. Cosmology, as a science, only really took off after Einstein published his paper on the shape of the universe in 1917, two years after his groundbreaking paper on the theory of general relativity, the one explaining how we can interpret gravity as the curvature of spacetime. Matter doesn't "bend" time, but it affects how quickly it flows. (See last week's essay on what happens when you fall into a black hole).
The Big Bang Theory
For most of the 20th century, cosmology lived in the realm of theoretical speculation. One model proposed that the universe started from a small, hot, dense plasma billions of years ago and has been expanding ever since — the Big Bang model; another suggested that the cosmos stands still and that the changes astronomers see are mostly local — the steady state model.
Competing models are essential to science but so is data to help us discriminate among them. In the mid 1960s, a decisive discovery changed the game forever. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson accidentally discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB), a fossil from the early universe predicted to exist by George Gamow, Ralph Alpher, and Robert Herman in their Big Bang model. (Alpher and Herman published a lovely account of the history here.) The CMB is a bath of microwave photons that permeates the whole of space, a remnant from the epoch when the first hydrogen atoms were forged, some 400,000 years after the bang.
The existence of the CMB was the smoking gun confirming the Big Bang model. From that moment on, a series of spectacular observatories and detectors, both on land and in space, have extracted huge amounts of information from the properties of the CMB, a bit like paleontologists that excavate the remains of dinosaurs and dig for more bones to get details of a past long gone.
How far back can we go?
Confirming the general outline of the Big Bang model changed our cosmic view. The universe, like you and me, has a history, a past waiting to be explored. How far back in time could we dig? Was there some ultimate wall we cannot pass?
Because matter gets hot as it gets squeezed, going back in time meant looking at matter and radiation at higher and higher temperatures. There is a simple relation that connects the age of the universe and its temperature, measured in terms of the temperature of photons (the particles of visible light and other forms of invisible radiation). The fun thing is that matter breaks down as the temperature increases. So, going back in time means looking at matter at more and more primitive states of organization. After the CMB formed 400,000 years after the bang, there were hydrogen atoms. Before, there weren't. The universe was filled with a primordial soup of particles: protons, neutrons, electrons, photons, and neutrinos, the ghostly particles that cross planets and people unscathed. Also, there were very light atomic nuclei, such as deuterium and tritium (both heavier cousins of hydrogen), helium, and lithium.
So, to study the universe after 400,000 years, we need to use atomic physics, at least until large clumps of matter aggregate due to gravity and start to collapse to form the first stars, a few millions of years after. What about earlier on? The cosmic history is broken down into chunks of time, each the realm of different kinds of physics. Before atoms form, all the way to about a second after the Big Bang, it's nuclear physics time. That's why Weinberg brilliantly titled his book The First Three Minutes. It is during the interval between one-hundredth of a second and three minutes that the light atomic nuclei (made of protons and neutrons) formed, a process called, with poetic flair, primordial nucleosynthesis. Protons collided with neutrons and, sometimes, stuck together due to the attractive strong nuclear force. Why did only a few light nuclei form then? Because the expansion of the universe made it hard for the particles to find each other.
What about the nuclei of heavier elements, like carbon, oxygen, calcium, gold? The answer is beautiful: all the elements of the periodic table after lithium were made and continue to be made in stars, the true cosmic alchemists. Hydrogen eventually becomes people if you wait long enough. At least in this universe.
In this article, we got all the way up to nucleosynthesis, the forging of the first atomic nuclei when the universe was a minute old. What about earlier on? How close to the beginning, to t = 0, can science get? Stay tuned, and we will continue next week.
To Steven Weinberg, with gratitude, for all that you taught us about the universe.
Long before Alexandria became the center of Egyptian trade, there was Thônis-Heracleion. But then it sank.