Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
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.
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.
How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.