Saturday, January 08, 2011

The carrot is the stick

In the matter of using grades as incentives for students to work, Psychology Today provides some insight. While grades do encourage good students to work harder, they discourage students that do not make the grade who then see no further point working. Also, "working" does not necessarily mean "learning". We know of lots of short-cuts and poor study methods or techniques that can help students "score" but are not particularly helpful for long-term learning and lifeskill development.

A lot of my kids observe that what they learn in school has no application in their future lives. That's true because though they can achieve their As and Bs, they have no further utility for what they've learned. Mere stepping stones, that's all they are, not connecting that what they are about to learn next may well necessitate what they've learned before as a foundational prerequisite. So every time they have to learn something new, it's always from scratch. Painful, and ultimately pointless.

Grades are most useful as feedback; an indicator of what went right and what went wrong in order to adjust the student's path on the learning curve. When we grade students' submissions, our comments in the margins (more constructive and less vitriolic, preferably) are of more value than the digits we assign at the top of their papers. Grades are not meant to compare one student against another. Turn school into a win-lose proposition, and everybody loses.

Back on her feet

It's good to see Q-tip walking normally again. A couple of weeks ago, she developed a limp which deteriorated such that she could barely support her own weight on all four paws. But she's been responding well to her treatments and has regained almost full mobility and her appetite. While she can walk just fine, she is having difficulty with two particularly dog-specific activities: scratching behind her ear with her hind foot and shaking herself dry after a bath.

We will be maintaining her diet of Hill's Prescription Diet l/d while keeping her topped up with ursofalk (for liver support) and SAM-e (for arthritic pain and liver health). She's learned to lap up her daily dose of Ultimate Joint Care from a spoon, though sometimes we use it as a pretend "gravy" to complement her dinner. Now to taper off her dosage of prednisolone (a painkilling steroid) and hope that she hasn't grown dependent on it.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

The influence of disfluence

I learned a new word: "disfluency". Applied to classroom teaching, it means that the lesson is not structured in such a way that facilitates the easy absorption of content by the student. It's quite the opposite of what we're encouraged to do, which is to make the learning as smooth and painless as possible because we think that the kids learn better when learning is easy.

But new studies at Princeton suggest that disfluent lessons are actually more effective forms of delivery for "long-term learning and retention". The simple reason is probably that in order to learn, the brain must actively engage (i.e., work) to make the necessary connections in order to come to a useful understanding of the presented material. If everything's nicely handed over on a silver platter there's little work for the student's brain to do. Usually, the one who learns most from such a lesson is the teacher who's connected all the dots already then presented the finished picture. Where's the fun in that?

So, maybe we should stop beating ourselves up over lessons that didn't go according to plan. The harder the kids have to work for meaning, the better they'll appreciate it. Hopefully, they'll remember you and come visit you in your retirement home when that "ah-ha!" moment finally arrives.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Touchy subject

Maybe people in S'pore are stressed out because we don't touch each other in a healthy way? We get amazing reports of rather over-exuberant S'poreans who go overboard to the point of unwholesome physical contact: see Exhibit A and Exhibit B (just in today's papers, mind you); and frown on those who engage in more or less normal PDA, some reported in a more sensational way than others (perennial kaypohness from Stomp). Worst of all, few of us have much regard for the well-being of the non-human animals living among us.

Norine Dworkin-McDaniel (whose name sounds like a Ferelden Dwarf's) writing for CNN tells us that touching is a healthy way to de-stress and boost our immune systems. I agree, though I reserve the right to keep random strangers at least at arm's length. But for some reason, I do not have this reservation for random non-human animals. Needless to say, my own pets are slowly growing bald due to endless stroking behind the ears, under the chin and over the back. See how chirpy and smiley I am? D:

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Dances with bunnies

If ever there was a happy ending to animal abandonment, chemical weapons, PoW atrocity and WWII, somehow I'm not surprised that it can be found in Japan. See "Bunnies frolic on Japan's old chem weapons site" (Wired), plus vid.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Big fish, small fish

While Swift wrote "Gulliver's Travels" to comment on the society of his day, the movie starring Jack Black tends to focus more on the character of Gulliver himself.

Black's Gulliver has everything he could possibly want, being the king of his own empire of... one. He has his own apartment in trendy Manhattan, his own steaming cup of Java every morning, and has risen through the ranks in his publishing company to be the Head of the mail room. The biggest fish in the tiniest pond is Man Mountain Gulliver.

True, success is not easy to attain and we want to maintain that sense of accomplishment as long as we can. But holding on to small successes could mean sacrificing bigger dreams. Gulliver hopes for a much grander abode and pines for his crush of five years, but the cliff-side mansion is beyond his salary to afford and he can only  admire his crush from afar, believing that there is an impassable barrier between his station in life and hers.

Gulliver's successes as the literal giant in Lilliput are likewise impressive, rising to the rank and commensurate privileges of General of the Lilliputian army in record time by leveraging on his one advantage, his size. Oh, and another advantage: shameless plagiarism. So Lilliput is really a parallel of his life in the real world.

But his inadvertent trip to Brobdingnag, the land of giants, opens his eyes to the truth of his insignificance and powerlessness as a person. By being contented with easy successes, he simply crumbles under a real challenge and loses everything -- autonomy, dignity, identity -- everything.

Human life is nothing but a series of challenges. When we're at the top of our game, when we seem invincible, when we can manage any problem that comes along with a dismissive wave of a hand, what we have is not the enjoyment of our success but the settling in of stagnation, ennui and stasis. We're always looking for the next big thing to overcome, even if it means risking our stability and current state of equanimity.

Athletes savour their success but leave their trophies on the shelf to risk failure by testing themselves again in the new season. Career people seek promotion and greater responsibilities, though the work becomes more difficult and there's always the chance that they'll be stretched beyond their abilities. The risk of failure is what drives us on to the next stage of growth. Being fixated on a past success is like admiring a trophy without moving on. That's why they call it "atrophy".

Gulliver, of course, learns this life-lesson, bouncing back from his setback with a help from his little friends. As far as OUR little friends go, the PM says, despite doing well so far they "must continue trying to do better". Some people will see this as putting more pressure on our students. The reality is that although seeking out new challenges to overcome may be a risky proposition to our fragile egos, it's the only way to grow.