Category Archives: Education

Teaching from textbooks

This Atlantic article isn’t a fan. I’m split on this. In general I think multidisciplinary learning centered around a topical theme engage students more than reading a textbook. The problem arises when there’s a certain body of knowledge that has to be mastered, for example to pass the USMLE. You just have to master a broad range of topics, and I think it can be hard to teach  that effectively without one. Plus, there’s something to be said for having a framework in which to put your existing knowledge. It’s easier to incorporate new facts when you have a skeleton on which to put them. Otherwise there’s a lot of randomness. The flip side of this is that when you have a survey that’s too broad, it also feels random–this was how I felt about introductory biology, for example: at one point you’re learning about organelles, then a neuron, then the heart’s chambers, and it doesn’t all feel like it ties together.


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Topic Tuesdays: African-American History and Civil Rights

So to flesh out what the new curriculum might look like in practice, welcome to the first Topic Tuesday, where I provide a theme as a jumping off point for learning. The core of the topic is a list of subheadings with questions. It’s not meant to be an exhaustive or complete list of things that should be known, nor are these learning objectives that should be memorized. It’s just a list of questions I think are interesting, what I’d like to learn more about myself, along with some ideas for projects, readings and media, and other resources.

For this week, we’ll be taking a look at two important and interrelated stories that have shaped our country: African-American history and civil rights. Both of these are topical this time of year, between Martin Luther King day and African-American History month.

What did I overlook? Let me know in the comments section!

Starting points:

1. Origins of the slave trade

Discovery questions: How did the slave trade originate in the Americas? How was it different from indentured servitude? How was it different from slavery in the Ancient World? What drove the demand for slaves? What parts of Africa did slaves come from, and what aspects of the political situation there facilitated the export of people? How were slaves transported to the New World?

Readings and resources:

2. The Institution of Slavery in the United States

Discovery questions: What was life like for slaves in the US? How were their freedoms limited? How did the US compare to other countries during this time?

Readings and resources:

3. The abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad

Discovery questions: Describe the origins of the abolitionist movement. What was life like for free blacks? Escaped slaves? Research the life of Frederick Douglas. Read Uncle Tom’s Cabin – how did this book inspire the anti-slavery movement? How did it perpetuate stereotypes? What was the Underground Railroad?

Readings and resources:

4. The Civil War

Discovery questions: Was slavery the primary reason for the Civil War? What were some of the key sources of friction in the years leading up to war? What prompted Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation? How does the portrayal of the Civil War in Gone with the Wind correspond to real life?

Readings and resources:

5. Reconstruction and Jim Crow Era America

Discovery questions: What constitutional and legal changes were supposed to guarantee the rights of citizenship to African-Americans? What was life like for newly freed slaves? What legal, political and social/cultural mechanisms were used to keep them out of mainstream society and for intimidation?

Readings and resources:

6. The civil rights movement and integration

Discovery questions: What are civil rights? How are they protected by law? How did the civil rights movement start? Who were its leaders? What triggered the Montgomery bus boycott, and was it effective? Who was the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and what was the I Have a Dream speech? How was the American civil rights movement perceived by the rest of the world? Research the life and baseball career of Jackie Robinson. What was significant about Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown vs. Board of Education, and what were some of the struggles related to integrating schools?

Readings and resources:

7. Notable African American writers, musicians and other contributions to the arts and culture

Discovery questions: Read some of the below works of literature. How were the writers reflective of the time they lived in? How did jazz evolve? How does it differ from blues? Gospel? What are some of the subgenres? Listen to examples of each. Read about the life of Ray Charles.

Readings and resources:

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Tools for language learning: lexical chunking

So clearly I am no expert on second language acquisition. I have however found it helpful in my studying to make Anki cards for not just vocabulary, but also for full sentences or phrases. I’ve been reading book 1 of Harry Potter in French, which means I have an easily comparable English version, and although the paragraph structure is the same, it’s not a word for word translation. And (duh) the French version sounds, well, more French than it would if you just translated it word for word. (Side note: the translators put a lot of thought into translating proper names, as indicated, so that some of J.K. Rowling’s puns or at least the flavor of the English version would get carried through. Hogwarts becomes “Poudlard”; Diagon Alley becomes “Le Chemin de Travers”.) I’ve also been memorizing pieces of the dialogues in Colloquial French 2.

This approach has a name: lexical chunking. Basically it means that you focus on how language fits together, instead of grammar, which is the usual emphasis of a language course. This helpful guide points out that, you’ll still be understood if you don’t know the different between I go and I will go, but you will not be if you don’t know the different between tomorrow and yesterday.

How to implement it? I think a big part is just having authentic sources to listen to. It might be dialogues in a course, or music, or novels, or movies or TV in the target language. Having a transcript is key–and then learning chunks. For example, “Can you please pass the green beans?”, and then substituting in different food items.

Of course there are criticisms of this approach as well, and the NY Times column details them. Obviously at least some grammar is important. But chunking can be a valuable approach to gaining fluency by getting a built-in set of phrases for many common situations–interactions that follow a script, as it were.

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More on why French is pretty useful, actually


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The New Republic trashes French language learning

…or at least, dismisses it in favor of Spanish or “Chinese”. (Side note: if you write about learning Chinese, as opposed to, say, Mandarin, you should not be writing about language learning.)

The article goes on to say how we learn French as an affectation, to be more European in taste, rather than to be useful in any way, and that, barring an affinity for French literature, we should be using supposedly more practical languages. Because it’s just not useful, apparently.

Look, I get that Spanish has more speakers (500 million vs 300 million for French, per Wikipedia). And it’s not that I’m opposed to people learning Spanish. But while Spanish opens up Latin America, French has much of Africa, various island nations and French possessions, as well as Belgium, Switzerland, etc. French expands your world at least as much as Spanish does.

In general, I think that people should learn the language they want to, for the reasons they want. Want to learn Korean because you like k-pop? Fine. Japanese because you like anime? Also fine. Feynman had this story about how he really wanted to take a Portuguese class because he saw a cute girl taking it, but made himself take Spanish because it was more practical. Then he ended up going on sabbatical to Brazil and his Spanish was useless. Learning a language opens up a new way to see the world. And especially for a language like French, that includes so much more than learning it for some elitist reason. The parents who enroll their kids in French immersion can see that–too bad the writer can’t.

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MOOCs vs independent learning

I’ve flirted with MOOCs a couple times, mostly through Coursera, and haven’t gotten too far. Mostly the issue has been one of time–I get behind, and then the course ends, and the material gets taken down. It’s a bummer–there was a data analysis course I really wanted to finish–but the times I’ve tried, I’ve been forced to realize that I’m just not as committed to the class as I might hope.

This New Yorker article on MOOCs, from last May, finally made it to the top of my stack of reading material, and touches on my experience. It talks about some of the appeal of MOOCs, giving everyone with an internet connection access to courses taught by faculty at elite institutions–certainly the description tempted me to wonder if my schedule could accommodate the course on the hero in Ancient Greece–but also some of the associated concerns, including their low completion rates (although that may not be such a big issue), and the fear that widespread availability of MOOCs would gradually push universities to adopt the model as a way not of expanding horizons but of reducing faculty costs.

What the New Yorker article doesn’t address, really, is what forcing everyone to stay on the same schedule adds to the educational experience. It makes sense for colleges that want to offer credit for MOOCs, because you need to have so many credits a semester to be a full-time student for financial aid purposes. And maybe having a big cohort lets you have a more active online discussion. But otherwise, it seems like it encourages the very drop-outs over which that has been so much handwringing.

Contrast this to the Khan Academy model, which focuses on getting to mastery of a topic before moving on. Okay, for math it may be more important to not skip around than in some other subjects. But even in the humanities, removing the time pressure might allow for exploring certain topics more deeply, rather than skimming superficially through the readings in order to stay on schedule.

The downside, of course, is that you have to make time. I did a couple years of high school math as a correspondence course and moved…slowly. But you could change the requirement to keep up with the course to a different type of requirement–in a school context, you have to spend 30 minutes every weekday working on this material, and the computer would be able to see that you were doing it, but the actual content could go at your own pace. The time to completion might go up, but so would the percentage of students who complete the class. And that seems like a fair trade.

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From zero to fluency, quickly

Some interesting tidbits from Lessons learned from fifty years of theory and practice in government language teaching, a paper describing the Foreign Service language school’s experience in preparing novices to use a new language professionally:

  • Unlike adult language learning in other contexts, where students’ motivations might vary from interest to travel to relocation, the FSI language school is training people for a fairly uniform purpose, and gets feedback from its graduates about the particular areas in which they feel underprepared–so the school has a constant iterative model.
  • The goal for language learning should not be to use the language exactly like a native speaker, but to be able to use it to get stuff done: “proficiency”.
  • In some ways, adults are better at learning languages than kids due to increased efficiency. A 10-month Russian course gets its graduates to be able to use the language near fluently in just over 1000 hours, versus 12-15,000 that children spend learning their native language.
  • Immersion seems to be most helpful at *higher* levels of proficiency. In other words, not being able to pick up and move to a country where the language is spoken is no excuse.
  • Some languages just take longer for English speakers to learn than others.
  • To develop a feel for trickier aspects of the language–grammar points, tones–you have to know they exist, so you can pay attention to them.
  • Conversation is actually one of the hardest pieces to learn!

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