Tea and Teaching

July 30, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

This is a picture of a young American in Japan being instructed in the proper way to drink the thick, green ceremonial tea.

At the time, he was newly on the faculty of a high school in a small town in the Japan alps. The other people in the photo were also teachers in the school. Teachers teaching tea to a teacher.

The picture was taken at Korakuen in Okayama, one of the stops on the shokuin ryoko (職員旅行)or faculty trip. It’s an annual event at many schools in Japan, and I was reminded of it by Elizabeth Green’s article about math teaching in the Sunday New York Times Magazine (here), excerpted from her new book,  Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone.  The link from the shokuin ryoko to what’s happening in math class is culture, a difference in how Japanese and Americans think about individuals and groups.

Green’s article focuses on a Japanese math teacher, Akihiko Takahashi, who was inspired by new ideas for teaching elementary-school math, ideas which had been developed in the US.  But while the new methods had flourished in Japan, back in the US, teachers were not learning them, at least not well enough to make good use of them.

The difference seems to be that in Japan, teachers teach teachers to teach.

When Akihiko Takahashi arrived in America, he was surprised to find how rarely teachers discussed their teaching methods. . . . American teachers had almost no opportunities to watch one another teach.

In Japan, teachers had always depended on jugyokenkyu, which translates literally as “lesson study,” a set of practices that Japanese teachers use to hone their craft. A teacher first plans lessons, then teaches in front of an audience of students and other teachers along with at least one university observer. Then the observers talk with the teacher about what has just taken place. . . .  Without jugyokenkyu, it was no wonder the American teachers’ work fell short of the model set by their best thinkers. Without jugyokenyku, Takahashi never would have learned to teach at all. Neither, certainly, would the rest of Japan’s teachers.

It seems like an obvious idea, but if “lesson study” has worked so well in Japan, why has US education has not been able or willing to incorporate it?  The answer, I think, is that if your think of groups as primary and individuals as secondary, jugyokenkyu comes easily. But if you think that individuals come first, jugyokenkyu might be a problem.

The Japanese traditionally have stronger expectations of group loyalty. A group is not just a coalition formed for a specific purpose; it is something more permanent and encompassing.  Compared with Americans, Japanese think of themselves and others more as parts of a group, less as individuals.  They feel an obligation to work as a group for the success of that group.  In schools, the more experienced teachers will work to improve the performance of the less effective teachers, who in turn are obligated to improve themselves.  Both are acting for the interests of the group.  A good group nurtures its individual members to become better teachers.

In the US, we would find that kind of group orientation much too confining and encroaching on our individuality. But more than that, we tend to think about teaching (and most other work) as an individual matter.  Some people do it well, others are less effective.  Rather than a good group making for better teachers, having lots of good individual teachers makes for better group results. 

Even in our differences, we share that focus on individuals. Right now in the US, debates and lawsuits pit charter schools against public schools.  The sides are especially contentious about the role of teachers’ unions.  Defenders say that unions protect teachers so they can be assured of autonomy and remain relatively free from arbitrary and exploitative demands from administrators. Charter supporters say that schools will be more effective if we get rid of unions. That way, the schools can fire the bad teachers and give merit pay increases to the good ones. 

Both these approaches see the teaching staff as a collection of individuals, some more talented than others.  Neither conceives of the school as a real group – as people who mutually regulate and affect one another’s behavior. 

American workers would probably find that kind of real group relationship to be an abridgement of individuality.  We want to be able to choose who we get involved with.   Or to put it another way, how many American schools have a shokuin ryoko? In America, people are free to separate their work relationships from the rest of their lives.  But in Japan, the people you work with also the people you go drinking with after work.  And comes shokuin ryoko time, they are also the people you go on vacation with.*

Not all teachers go – most, in fact, do not – but enough do volunteer to make up a critical mass.  In the trip illustrated above, out of a faculty of about fifty, perhaps a dozen signed up.  But the actual number is less important than the recognized principle: the shokuin ryoko is part of the institution, and teachers feel a collective obligation to make it a success, just as they feel a collective obligation to make their colleagues’ teaching more effective.

* Private-sector firms may have a similar trip for employees – the shain ryoko.

Ms Rogers’ Neighborhood

July 24, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Why are all these parents being arrested? That was the question raised by Ross Douthat’s recent column. It’s also the title of an article in The Week that Douthat links to in a follow-up blog post.* The author, Michael Brendan Dougherty, sees two causes for the arrests.

1.  A decline of neighborliness (Dougherty borrows this from Timothy Carney, The Washington Examiner (here Timothy Carney, a columnist for The Washington Examiner ).  When adults are neighborly, they look after an unsupervised kid who might be in need. Un-neighborly adults call 911, bringing in the State, which is less flexible in what it can do.  Official agencies are quick to use formal procedures and sanctions, Dougherty explains:

The state's guardianship functions were developed to handle only the most extreme cases of neglect or abuse. The incentives of those within these departments incline them to suspicion and dramatic intervention. “We only get called in an emergency, so this must be one.”

2.  The encroachment of the State into areas that once belonged to Family, Neighbors, Church,  or Community.

These two factors – less neighborliness and a more intrusive State – are linked in a vicious cycle. Because people are less neighborly, they call the State. But this gives greater scope to State agencies, consequently narrowing the radius of neighborhood control, which in turn makes people less able to intervene as neighbors.

There are some problems with this account.

First, does this handful of newspaper stories indicate a real problem. Newspapers report on the most egregious cases. We have no idea how many of these “good parents arrested” cases there are.  And many of those will have far less moral clarity than the cases that make for good news stories.   Sorting state interventions into those we like and those we don’t becomes a murkier task.

Second, Douthat is writing about policy. Policies are not perfect; they improve some things for some people, and make some things worse for other people. That’s why policy is political – it’s about who gets what. If a policy improves the lives of many children and parents but has costs for a few others, we’d say that on the whole it’s a good policy. The benefits outweigh the costs, even though in some cases, the policy leads to a bad outcome. Yes, one bad outcome is too many, but in most cases that’s not a strong argument for scrapping the entire policy (wrongful executions and the death penalty may be the clearest exception).

You have only to spend a few days in a child welfare agency to see how many cases there are where state intervention, with all its flaws, is better than the alternatives.

Third, are we really less neighborly? Americans started wringing their hands about the decline of community as early as 1650. Since then, these alarms have been sounded periodically Right and Left.  In recent versions of this jeremiad (say in the last half century) the Right has blamed the government: by arrogating to itself traditional community and family functions, it weakened community. The Left blames the culture of capitalism: its emphasis on competition destroys cooperation.

Unfortunately for the community-collapse theorists (but fortunately for community), systematic evidence for this decline is hard to come by. For decades now, Claude Fischer has done actual research on the topic and has found little to support the image of a land once rich in community now become a nation of isolated and unneighborly individuals.  (See Chapter 4 of his excellent 2010 book Made in America.)

Dougherty’s personal recollection, with its echoes of Jane Jacobs, might be instructive.

Often during this time, and especially in my own neighborhood, I was being silently and unobtrusively guarded by a community of people, many of whom knew my name, and knew something of my mother's situation. When I scratched someone's car with my broken bike handle, I would be returned to my home, and the note explaining it would be addressed to my mother by name. Some of the nosy Italian ladies watched the streets, looking for gossip. But they could help a child who skinned his knee, or bring him inside for a few caramels and a soda if it was raining and the kid had left his key at home.

Where are those Italian ladies today? Probably at work.

The percentage of women who work outside the home has increased greatly – from about 40% in 1970 to about two-thirds today.  The rates for women with children are not much different from the overall rates.  Even women who spoke Italian at home are much more likely to be at work rather than keeping an eye on the neighborhood.  (For “Italian,” I used “speaking Italian at home” rather than “claiming Italian as their primary ancestry. ” If I had used the latter, the rates would have been very close to the rates for all US women.)

There are many reasons that more women have sought jobs in the paid labor force (one summary is here).  I doubt that a decline in “neighborliness” or “community” is among them.** But one possible consequence is the decline in the number of neighbors who are around in the daytime.  That’s not the only cause of changes in the who, where, and how of childcare in the US, but it’s an important part of this changing landscape*** of childhood.


* In his blog, Douthat is responding to criticisms from “many liberals.”  But for some reason, of all the critiques in all the blogs in all the world, he wanders into mine.

** No doubt, some on the far right would argue that feminism poisoned the minds of American women and made them less neighborly and more selfish and ambitious, with the consequence that they abandoned their “natural” function of staying home and watching over the kids in the neighborhood.

*** That changing landscape is literal as well as figurative. Seven years ago in a post (here)about concern for children’s safety, I reprinted a map showing the shrinking, over three generations in the same Sheffield family, of the range that children would wander.  

Naming Variables

July 21, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Variable labels – not the sort of problem that should excite much debate. Still, it’s important to identify your variables as what they really are. If I’m comparing, say, New Yorkers with Clevelanders, should I call my independent variable “Sophistication” (Gothamites, as we all know, are more sophisticated)? Or should it be “City” (or “City of residence”)? “Sophistication” would be sexier, “City” would  more accurate.

Dan Ariely does experiments about cheating.  In a recent experiment, he compared East Germans and West Germans and found that East Germans cheated more. 

we found evidence that East Germans who were exposed to socialism cheat more than West Germans who were exposed to capitalism.

Yes, East Germany was a socialist state. But it was also dominated by another nation (the USSR, which appropriated much of East Germany’s wealth) and had a totalitarian government that ruled by fear and mistrust.  For Ariely to write up his results and call his independent variable “Socialism/Captialism,” he must either ignore all those other aspects of East Germany or else assume that they are inherent in socialism.*

The title of the paper is worth noting: “The (True) Legacy of Two Really Existing Economic Systems.”  You can find it here.)

The paper has been well received among mainstream conservatives (e.g., The Economist), who, rather than looking carefully at the variables, are glad to conflate socialism with totalitarian evils.

Mark Kleiman at the Reality Based Community makes an analogy with Chile under socialist Allende and capitalist Pinochet.

Imagine that the results had come out the other way: say, showing that Chileans became less honest while Pinochet was having his minions gouge out their opponents’ eyeballs and Milton Friedman was gushing about the “miracle of Chile”? How do you think the paper would read, and what do you think the Economist, Marginal Revolution, and AEI would have had to say about its methods?

* A couple of commas might have made it clearer that other East-West differences might have been at work. Ariely should have written, “we found evidence that East Germans, who were exposed to socialism, cheat more than West Germans, who were exposed to capitalism.”

Nannies and States

July 20, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ross Douthat is puzzled. He seems to sense that a liberal policy might actually help, but his high conservative principles and morality keep him from taking that step. It’s a political version of Freudian repression – the conservative superego forcing tempting ideas to remain out of awareness.

In today’s column, Douthat recounts several anecdotes of criminal charges brought against parents whose children were unsupervised for short periods of time.  The best-known of these criminals of late is Debra Harrell, the mother in South Carolina who let her 9-year-old daughter go to a nearby playground while she (Debra) worked at her job at McDonald’s. The details of the case (here among other places)  make it clear that this was not a bad mom – not cruel, not negligent. The playground was the best child care she could afford.

One solution should be obvious – affordable child care.  But the US is rather stingy when it comes to kids. Other countries are way ahead of us on public spending for children.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

Conservatives will argue that child care should be private not public and that local charities and churches do a better job than do state-run programs. Maybe so. The trouble is that those private programs are not accessible to everyone. If Debra Harrell had been in France or Denmark, the problem would never have arisen.

The other conservative US policy that put Debra Harrell in the arms of the law is “welfare reform.”  As Douthat explains, in the US, thanks to welfare rules changes much lauded by conservatives, the US now has “a welfare system whose work requirements can put a single mother behind a fast-food counter while her kid is out of school.”

That’s the part that perplexes Douthat. He thinks that it’s a good thing for the government to force poor women to work, but it’s a bad thing for those women not to have the time to be good mothers. The two obvious solutions – affordable day care or support for women who stay home to take care of kids – conflict with two cherished conservative ideas: government bad, work good.

This last issue presents a distinctive challenge to conservatives like me, who believe such work requirements are essential. If we want women like Debra Harrell to take jobs instead of welfare, we have to also find a way to defend their liberty as parents, instead of expecting them to hover like helicopters and then literally arresting them if they don’t.

As he says, it’s a distinctive challenge, but only if you cling so tightly to conservative principles that you reject solutions – solutions that seem to be working quite well in other countries – just because they involve the government or because they allow poor parents not to work.

Conservatives love to decry “the nanny state.”  That means things like government efforts to improve kids’ health and nutrition. (Right wingers make fun of the first lady for trying to get kids to eat sensibly and get some exercise.)

A nanny is a person who is paid to look after someone else’s kids. Well-off people hire them privately (though they still prefer to call them au pairs). But for the childcare problems of low-income parents, what we need is more of a nanny state, or more accurately, state-paid nannies.

Charlie Haden (1937-2014)

July 12, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

At age 22, Charlie Haden was the bassist the original Ornette Coleman quartet.  He had already been playing for a couple of years with bebop pianist Hampton Hawes.  Ornette played music that, at the time (1959), was considered so far out that many listeners dismissed it as noise. (“They play ‘Some of These Days’ in five different keys simultaneously.”) Ornette became even freer, moving even further from the basic changes, and Charlie followed along.

Haden was also a very melodic bass player. That’s especially clear in his duo work with guitarists like Pat Metheny and Egberto Gismonti and pianists Keith Jarrett, Hank Jones, Kenny Barron (“Night and the City” is one of my favorite albums). He remained rooted in bebop, notably as leader of Quartet West (with Ernie Watts, the man responsible for my giving up saxophone). 

He had polio as a child in Iowa, and in recent years suffered from post-polio syndrome.

Here is a brief video made at the time Charlie recorded the duo album with Keith Jarrett, who does much of the talking here.

Needs (One More Time)

July 10, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Before I read Benjamin Schmidt’s post in the Atlantic (here) about anachronistic language in “Mad Men,” I had never noticed how today we use “need to” where earlier generations would have said “ought to” or “should.” Now, each “need to” jumps out at me from the screen.*  Here is today’s example.

Why not: “Even more proof health care records should go digital”?

In a post a year ago (here), I speculated that the change was part of a more general shift away from the language of morality and towards the language of individual psychology, from what is good for society to what is good for the self.  But now need to has become almost an exact synonym for should. Just as with  issue replacing problem** – another substitution flowing from the brook of psychobabble – the therapy-based origins of need to are an unheard undertone.  Few people reading that headline today will get even a subliminal image of a bureaucratic archive having needs or of health care records going digital so as to bring themselves one Maslow need-level closer to self-actualization.

It looks like need to and issue will stick around for a while. Other terms currently in use may have a shorter life. In the future (or as we now say, going forward), “because + noun” will probably go the way of  “my bad.” Because fashion. And by me, its demise will be just groovy.  I wonder if language scholars have some way of predicting these life-spans. Are there certain kinds of words or phrases that practically announce themselves as mayflies?

Oh well, at the end of the day, the bottom line is that it is what it is.

* As Nabokov says at the end of Speak, Memory “. . . something in a scrambled picture — Find What the Sailor Has Hidden — that the finder cannot unsee once it has been seen.”

** In 1970, Jim Lovell would not have said, “Houston, we have an issue.”  But if a 2014 remake of “Apollo 13” had that line, and if the original weren’t so well known,  most people wouldn’t notice.

Replication and Bullshit

July 9, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

A bet is tax on bullshit, says Marginal Revolution’s Alex Tabarrok (here).  So is replication.

Here’s one of my favorite examples of both – the cold-open scene from “The Hustler” (1961). Charlie is proposing replication. Without it, he considers the effect to be random variation.

It’s a great three minutes of film, but to spare you the time, here’s the relevant exchange.

    You ought to take up crap shooting. Talk about luck!

    Luck! Whaddya mean, luck?

    You know what I mean. You couldn't make that shot again in a million years.

    I couldn’t, huh? Okay. Go ahead. Set ’em up the way they were before.


    Go ahead. Set ’em up the way they were before. Bet ya twenty bucks. Make that shot just the way I made it before.

    Nobody can make that shot and you know it. Not even a lucky lush.

After some by-play and betting and a deliberate miss, Eddie (aka Fast Eddie) replicates the effect, and we segue to the opening credits* confident that the results are indeed not random variation but a true indicator of Eddie’s skill.

But now Jason Mitchell, a psychologist at Harvard, has published a long throw-down against replication. (The essay is here.) Psychologists shouldn’t try to replicate others’ experiments, he says. And if they do replicate and find no effect, the results shouldn’t be published.  Experiments are delicate mechanisms, and you have to do everything just right. The failure to replicate results means only that someone messed up.

Because experiments can be undermined by a vast number of practical mistakes, the likeliest explanation for any failed replication will always be that the replicator bungled something along the way.  Unless direct replications are conducted by flawless experimenters, nothing interesting can be learned from them.

L. J. Zigerell, in a comment at Scatterplot thinks that Mitchell may have gotten it switched around. Zigerell begins by quoting Mitchell,

“When an experiment succeeds, we can celebrate that the phenomenon survived these all-too-frequent shortcomings.”

But, actually, when an experiment succeeds, we can only wallow in uncertainty about whether a phenomenon exists, or whether a phenomenon appears to exist only because a researcher invented the data, because the research report revealed a non-representative selection of results, because the research design biased results away from the null, or because the researcher performed the experiment in a context in which the effect size for some reason appeared much larger than the true effect size.

It would probably be more accurate to say that replication is not so much a tax on bullshit as a tax on those other factors Zigerell mentions. But he left out one other possibility: that the experimenter hadn’t taken all the relevant variables into account.  The best-known of these unincluded variables is the experimenter himself or herself, even in this post-Rosenthal world. But Zigerell’s comment reminded me of my own experience in an experimental psych lab. A full description is here, but in brief, here’s what happened. The experimenters claimed that a monkey watching the face of another monkey on a small black-and-white TV monitor could read the other monkey’s facial expressions.  Their publications made no mention of something that should have been clear to anyone in the lab: that the monkey was responding to the shrieks and pounding of the other monkey – auditory signals that could be clearly heard even though the monkeys were in different rooms.

Imagine another researcher trying to replicate the experiment. She puts the monkeys in rooms where they cannot hear each other, and what they have is a failure to communicate. Should a journal publish her results? Should she have even tried to replicate in the first place?  In response, here are Mitchell’s general principles:

    •    failed replications do not provide meaningful information if they closely follow original methodology;
    •     Replication efforts appear to reflect strong prior expectations that published findings are not reliable, and as such, do not constitute scientific output.
    •    The field of social psychology can be improved, but not by the publication of negative findings.
    •    authors and editors of failed replications are publicly impugning the scientific integrity of their colleagues.

Mitchell makes research sound like a zero-sum game, with “mean-spirited” replicators out to win some easy money from a “a lucky lush.” But often, the attempt to replicate is not motivated by skepticism and envy. Just the opposite. You hear about some finding, and you want to see where the underlying idea might lead.** So as a first step, to see if you’ve got it right, you try to imitate the original research. And if you fail to get similar results, you usually question your own methods.

My guess is that the arrogance Mitchell attributes to the replicators is more common among those who have gotten positive findings.  How often do they reflect on their experiments and wonder if it might have been luck or some other element not in their model?

* Those credits can be seen here – with the correct aspect ratio and a saxophone on the soundtrack that has to be Phil Woods. 

** (Update, July 10) ** DrugMonkey, a bio-medical research scientist says something similar:   
Trying to replicate another paper's effects is a compliment! Failing to do so is not an attack on the authors’ “integrity.” It is how science advances.  

Don’t Explain

July 3, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Adam Kramer, one of the authors of the notorious Facebook study has defended this research. Bad idea. Even when an explanation is done well, it’s not as a good as a simple apology. And Kramer does not do it well. (His full post is here.)

OK so. A lot of people have asked me about my and Jamie and Jeff's recent study published in PNAS, and I wanted to give a brief public explanation.

“OK so.” That’s the way we begin explanations these days. It implies that this is a continuation of a conversation. Combined with the first-names-only reference to co-authors it implies that we’re all old friends here – me, you, Jamie, Jeff – picking up where we left off.

The reason we did this research is because we care about the emotional impact of Facebook and the people that use our product.

“We care.” This will persuade approximately nobody. Do you believe that Facebook researchers care about you? Does anyone believe that?

Regarding methodology, our research sought to investigate the above claim by very minimally deprioritizing a small percentage of content in News Feed (based on whether there was an emotional word in the post) for a group of people (about 0.04% of users, or 1 in 2500) for a short period (one week, in early 2012).

See, we inconvenienced only a handful of people – a teensy tiny 0.04%. Compare that with the actual publication, where the first words you see, in a box above the abstract, are these: 
We show, via a massive (N = 689,003) experiment on Facebook . . .[emphasis added]
The experiment involved editing posts that people saw. For some FB users, the researchers filtered out posts with negative words; other users saw fewer positive posts.

Nobody's posts were “hidden,” they just didn’t show up on some loads of Feed. Those posts were always visible on friends’ timelines, and could have shown up on subsequent News Feed loads.

“Not hidden, they just didn’t show up.” I’m not a sophisticated Facebook user, so I don’t catch the distinction here. Anyway, all you had to do was guess which of your friends had posted things that didn’t show up and then go to their timelines. Simple.

Kramer than goes to the findings.

at the end of the day, the actual impact on people in the experiment was the minimal amount to statistically detect it

That’s true. At the end of the day, the bottom line – well, it is what it is. But you might not have realized how minuscule the effect was if you had read only the title of the article:
Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social network  [emphasis added]
On Monday, it was massive. By Thursday, it was minimal.

Finally comes a paragraph with the hint of an apology.

The goal of all of our research at Facebook is to learn how to provide a better service. Having written and designed this experiment myself, I can tell you that our goal was never to upset anyone.

I might have been more willing to believe this “Provide a better service” idea, but Kramer lost me at “We care.” Worse, Kramer follows it with “our goal was never to upset.” Well, duh. A drunk driver’s goal is to drive from the bar to his home. It’s never his goal to smash into other cars. Then comes the classic non-apology: it’s your fault.

I can understand why some people have concerns about it, and my coauthors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused. In hindsight, the research benefits of the paper may not have justified all of this anxiety.

This isn’t much different from, “If people were offended . . .” implying that if people were less hypersensitive and more intelligent, there would be no problem. If only we had described the research in such a way that you morons realized what we were doing, you wouldn’t have gotten upset. Kramer doesn’t get it.

Here’s whey I’m pissed off about this study.
  • First, I resent Facebook because of its power over us. It’s essentially a monopoly. I’m on it because everyone I know is on it. We are dependent on it.
  • Second, because it’s a monopoly, we have to trust it, and this experiment shows that Facebook is not trustworthy. It’s sneaky. People had the same reaction a couple of years ago when it was revealed that even after you logged out of Facebook, it continued to monitor your Internet activity.
  • Third, Facebook is using its power to interfere with what I say to my friends and they to me. I had assumed that if I posted something, my friends saw it.
  • Fourth, Facebook is manipulating my emotions. It matters little that they weren’t very good at it . . . this time. Yes, advertisers manipulate, but they don’t do so by screwing around with communications between me and my friends.
  • Fifth, sixth, seventh . . . I’m sure people can identify many other things in this study that exemplify the distasteful things Facebook does on a larger scale. But for now, it’s the only game in town.
And one more objection to Kramer’s justification. It is so tone-deaf, so to the likely reactions of people both to the research and the explanation, that it furthers the stereotype of the data-crunching nerd – a whiz with an algorithm but possessed of no intepersonal intelligence.

Earlier posts on apologies are here and here

The title of this post is borrowed from a Billie Holiday song, which begins, “Hush now, don’t explain.” Kramer should have listened to Lady Day.

UPDATE, July 4
At Vox, Nilay Patel says many of these same things.  “What we're mad about is the idea of Facebook having so much power we don't understand — a power that feels completely unchecked when it’s described as ‘manipulating our emotions.’”  Patel is much better informed about how Facebook works than I am. He understands how Facebook decides which 20% of the posts in your newsfeed to allow through and which 80% (!) to delete. Patel also explains why my Facebook feed has so many of those Buzzfeed things like “18 Celebrities Who Are Lactose Intolerant."