Books: The Green Revolution

January 12, 2013

As our library didn’t have any of the next few books in Ralph McInerny’s series of Father Dowling mysteries, I decided to try reading one of his novels set at the University of Notre Dame. The Green Revolution sounded like it could be interesting, involving conflict over what role football should have in an institution of higher learning.

The very first chapter explores the depth of devotion Notre Dame students and alumni have for their school’s football program – something I can’t relate to at all, but I was interested in getting some insight into that mentality. After the first chapter, however, such devotion was simply taken for granted and used as background for the unfolding mystery.

A number of interesting characters are introduced, most of them members of the university faculty or administration. One reader review at amazon.com says that McInerny “is at his best indulging in light, elbow-ribbing satire of Notre Dame’s eccentric faculty. He is in a unique position to do so, having taught at the university for over fifty years, and he even manages to slip in some pointed commentary about the school’s increasing secularization.”

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Writing as an essential academic skill

September 30, 2012

Someone on Facebook drew my attention to this article in the The Atlantic about a low-performing school that was turned around by a focus on analytic writing. That’s not an approach that educational reformers usually take, but I hope many schools learn from the example of New Dorp.

The article explains how, decades ago, educators adopted an approach to teaching writing that really didn’t teach them how to write. The idea was that if they were given interesting writing assignments, they would pick up the skills they needed. Unfortunately, that approach doesn’t work very well.

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IQ and the Flynn Effect

September 23, 2012

Unlike a lot of people, I’ve always enjoyed taking IQ tests. Earlier this year, salaried employees in the department where I worked had to take a series of tests that were supposed to measure one’s leadership potential. Some of them dealt with experience and ambition in relation to leadership, and one test measured abstract reasoning. We were told not to worry about this last test, that it was only one piece of the larger picture. But for me, that test was the best part of the whole process.

I’ve never wanted to get into management, so I have naturally not sought out the kind of experiences the other tests were asking about. What leadership positions I’ve been in have usually come sort of by default – because I was the only one willing to do it, or because I seemed the “obvious” choice (president of math league in high school because I got the highest scores, and Bible study leader at church because I am the pastor’s wife).

The kind of abstract reasoning and pattern recognition used in a certain kind of IQ test, however, is something I’m good at and I enjoy doing it. Partly I enjoy it because I know I do it well, but it’s also the kind of puzzle I enjoy solving. I think the test I took (a long time ago) that was supposed to measure aptitude for computer programming was of this nature. I not only did very well on it, but I enjoyed taking it so much that I figured I would enjoy computer programming also.

I always assumed, growing up, that such tests measured some actual trait labeled intelligence. That’s what the people who made and administered the tests thought, of course, and I suppose most other people did also, until psychologists began to recognize that intelligence was really made up of a number of broad abilities.

I remember learning about the idea of multiple intelligences, a number of years ago, when I was looking for resources for teaching Sunday School. On the one hand, it makes sense to recognize that different people learn best in different ways, which seem to be at least somewhat related to this idea of multiple intelligences. On the other hand, it seems to be stretching the word intelligence to the point that it doesn’t mean very much, to use it for abilities that do not deal with reasoning.

No doubt society has often inappropriately treated people with high abilities at abstract reasoning as superior to those with other kinds of abilities, and it is good to recognize the value of those other kinds of abilities. But it should be possible to correct that tendency without divorcing the word intelligence from its traditional meaning related to reasoning ability.

All that was somewhat in my mind as I started reading an article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. James Flynn discusses the fact that IQ scores have steadily risen over the decades, and asks Are We Really Getting Smarter? I had not realized that scores were, in fact, increasing, because the tests periodically are updated and re-standardized, so the scores appear to remain constant. Someone who scored well on a test today would have scored even better on one of the older tests. But someone who scored well several decades ago would not score nearly as well now.

Flynn was the one who initially drew attention to this trend, though it was the authors of The Bell Curve who coined the term Flynn Effect, in recognition of the work done by Flynn to document it. A number of different explanations have been offered, but Flynn’s own explanation, in the WSJ article, is that modern education has trained people do perform better at abstract reasoning activities.

If IQ tests really measured something innate, then people who lived a hundred years ago should have performed just as well. (Better nutrition and protection from infectious diseases have been offered as explanations for the increases, and they may account for part of it, but improvement in those areas does not seem to follow the same pattern of gradual, linear progression seen in IQ scores over several decades.) People in a less technological society did not have all the knowledge we do, but they should have had similar aptitude.

Language and cultural references are sometimes given as explanations for certain subgroups of society not performing as well, but the non-verbal problems that use only geometric shapes should eliminate that issue. Yet as Flynn points out, people who have not gone through modern education would have difficulty understanding what in the world such questions were about.

We are trained at such a young age to recognize abstract patterns, finding similarities in unrelated objects (similar shape or color, for instance), that it is hard (for me, anyway) to imagine lacking that kind of recognition. But it makes sense what Flynn says: if success in life is based on ability to hunt animals, or make furniture or clothing, the idea that the moon and a cantaloupe have something in common (because they are both round) may sound like nonsense.

Of course, in a technologically advanced society, abstract reasoning is an important ability in many jobs. But it’s good to be reminded that IQ is a useful measure only to the extent that what it measures is useful.


Back to school

September 13, 2012

I’ve always liked the beginning of fall and a new school year. Refreshingly cool weather, a fresh new start with new classes, new subjects, new things to learn, and new goals to reach for.

Except for an online course I took a few years ago, it’s been a long time since I went back to the school in the fall – except for the “back-to-school” nights at my sons’ schools, which have a whole different feel for a parent than a student. I’ve always found things to learn, but generally not in the intense fashion that I associate with going “back to school.”

I’m back on a college campus this fall, but not as a student. Last week I started a new job, on the staff of Black Hawk College. I’m thrilled at the opportunity to be part of the learning environment, and I appreciate the community college’s commitment to making learning accessible to many people who for one reason or another face significant if not insurmountable barriers to becoming a student at a traditional four-year college.

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Innoculating against innumeracy

August 29, 2012

For years parents have been told how important it is to read to their young children. Today I read that it may be just as important to do household math with young children. An article in the Wall Street Journal reports that

Math skill at kindergarten entry is an even stronger predictor of later school achievement than reading skills or the ability to pay attention, according to a 2007 study in the journal Developmental Psychology.

My first thought was surprise. How could math be even more important than reading? My next thought was that now conscientious parents will feel pressured to improve their children’s math skills prior to age 5.

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If I ran a museum…

May 18, 2012

After my sons’ enthusiastic response to National Chocolate Chip Day on Tuesday, I decided to look for s0me more “days” to celebrate. But before I even got started, I opened an email from APTE (a provider of educational resources) and found out that today is International Museum Day.

I started thinking about what museum to visit this weekend. Then I realized that my son has a Boy Scout campout this weekend, so the museums will have to wait for another weekend. But in the meantime, I got thinking about the idea of museums.

The APTE email informed me that “the word museum literally means a seat or shrine to the muses. In Greek mythology the nine muses were brought to life to rid the world of evil and sorrow. Their job was to protect art and knowledge.”

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JA BizTown

March 21, 2012

I’ve been a Junior Achievement classroom volunteer for several years, but today was my first experience with JA BizTown. I agreed to volunteer mostly because my son wanted me to, but now I’m glad I saw firsthand what it was all about.

When I was a junior in high school, I got my first exposure to business operations, as part of a Junior Achievement company called Vendex. We sold $1 shares in our company to raise capital, then manufactured denim tote bags, and sold them. My mother used her Vendex bag for years, and I wish I still had one now as a memento of that experience.

At the time I had no interest in the administrative side of business. I had to help sell shares, and later tote bags, but other than that I stuck to working in production. I learned about the problems it created when workers were absent, or when they sat around talking instead of working, and the station I was working at had nothing to do because one of the previous stations on the line had gotten behind.

That was a year-long program (meeting weekly), so we got a good look at what it took to have a successful business. (We did earn a profit, though I don’t remember how much of a dividend we were able to distribute at the end.) Our adult volunteers (from Stanley Tools in New Britain, CT) had already procured the product idea, design, and production machinery (sewing machines), but we did the rest – under their excellent guidance.

BizTown, on the other hand, is a one-day simulation (though some businesses do make and sell simple products), giving students less in-depth but more breadth in terms of what goes on in the “real world” their parents work in. They each have a job (for which they had to interview in the weeks of preparation back at school before the actual event), they receive two paychecks which they deposit at the BizTown bank, and during breaks from work they go out into the “city” and spend money at other businesses.

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