Education Bookcast

Education Bookcast is a podcast in which we talk about one education-related book or article per episode.
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Dec 20, 2016

In this episode, I review a paper from the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) about language learning and teaching. The key insights are eleven:

  1. Mature adults can learn a foreign language well enough through intensive language study to do things in the language (almost) as well as native speakers.
  2. "Language-learning aptitude" varies among individuals and affects their classroom learning success (but at least some aspects of aptitude can be learned).
  3. There is no "one right way" to teach (or learn) languages, nor is there a single "right" syllabus.
  4. Time on task and the intensity of the learning experience appear crucial.
  5. Learners' existing knowledge about *language* affects their learning.
  6. A learner's prior experience with learning (languages or other skills) also affects classroom learning.
  7. The importance of "automaticity" in building learner skill and confidence in speaking and reading a language is more important than has been recognised by the second language acquisition field since the 1980s.
  8. Learners may not learn a linguistic form until they are "ready", but FSI's experience indicates that teachers and a well-designed course can help learners become ready earlier.
  9. A supportive, collaborative, responsive learning environment, with a rich variety of authentic and teacher-made resources, is very important in fostering effective learning.
  10. Conversation, which on the surface appears to be one of the most basic forms of communication, is actually one of the hardest to master.
  11. If a learner has passed a certain threshold of proficiency in a language, then attrition of their knowledge over time is very low. However, below that threshold, learners tend to forget their language relatively quickly with time.

During this episode, I discuss each of these points, and provide a personal point of view with reference to my own experience of learning multiple languages over the years.

Enjoy the episode.

Dec 20, 2016

I wanted to share some things I learned from my trip to the US this summer, and what my own experience of running maths circles has been like so far.

This episode includes:

  • Discussion of the Summer Math Circle Institute;
  • Tips and techniques learned from the Institute;
  • My own experiences of running maths circles;
  • Potatoes with added sugar;
  • What you should and shouldn't assume about students;
  • Why Math Circles (sometimes) work;
  • Why Bloom's Taxonomy is upside-down; and
  • The role of the teacher in having a vision for the students in his/her care.

Enjoy the episode.

Nov 12, 2016

Interview with Robert Kaplan, co-author of Out of the Labyrinth (the book we looked at in the previous episode), co-founder of The Math Circle, and the man behind the Summer Math Circle Institute course (which I attended this summer). 

Robert Kaplan tells of his colourful background, his experiences starting and running The Math Circle, and the recent explosion of interest and growth in maths circles in the favelas of Brazil.

Enjoy the episode.

Nov 12, 2016

This is a book that I have more of a connection with than many of the others I cover on the podcast. I first bought a book by these authors when I was 17, and didn't read it until literally ten years later. It was a fascinating recreational maths book. I then discovered that they were involved in alternative maths education, and that they had even set up an organisation for this called The Math Circle. This book relates their experiences of running Math Circles, their philosophy and approach to maths and maths education, and some pointers as to how to set up a Math Circle of your own.

Two questions may come to mind. Firstly, what is a Math Circle? Robert Kaplan summarises it as "a conversation, among equals, about math". Secondly, has there been any education or psychology research on maths circles and their effectiveness? I have been looking for this for a long time, and have asked a lot of people deeply involved in the scene, but I am yet to find out about any studies done about them. So, short answer, apparently not.

The word on the street is that they tend to be highly beneficial to students, but that they are "risky" in the sense that, as with any conversation, you don't know what it will be like until you have it. There are maths circles that flop, and there are those that shine. More shine than flop, but there is always the risk of flop.

In this episode I discuss the book, and the following few episodes relate to the Math Circle Summer Institute, a weeklong course I attended in the US where Robert and Ellen Kaplan share their wisdom and help teachers to learn how to run maths circles for their own students.

Enjoy the episode.

Oct 26, 2016

Have a go at some of these:

An athlete's best time to run a mile is 4 minutes and 10 seconds. How long would it take him to run 5 miles?

It takes one orchestra one hour to play a symphony. How long would it take two orchestras to play a symphony?

On a ship, there are 13 goats and 12 sheep. How old is the captain?

Among schoolchildren, the most common answers to these questions are: 20 minutes and 50 seconds; half an hour; and 25 years old.

Hence the title: where are these thoughtless, silly answers coming from?

The bizarre and somewhat frightening thing is that this is a well-attested finding in many different countries and schools. School students predominantly seem to think that anything involving calculation, in the classroom at least, is a matter of doing a simple arithmetic operation on the numbers given, without any kind of sense-checking or thinking about the real situation behind the numbers. 

This strange phenomenon demands explanation, not to mention fixing. In this episode, we look at several articles concerning this issue, why it's there, and what to do about it.

Enjoy the episode.

Oct 24, 2016

Dr Amanda Serenevy is a mathematician and mathematics educator, focussing on outreach through the medium of Math Circles, and on teacher training. This episode appears as number "27+" because the previous episode, Consider the Circle, was about how Amanda rescued a young girl from a terrible time with maths at school. 

She is the founder and director of Riverbend Community Math Centre in South Bend, Indiana, which works to improve mathematics education within the local community. She runs teacher training courses throughout the year, both to help teachers with their pedagogy, and with their knowledge of maths itself. She also has many local children and young people come to her Math Centre to engage in mathematical activities, the most prominent of these being Math Circles.

In summer, she is the main organiser of the Summer Math Circle Institute at the University of Notre Dame, which is a course for learning how to run Math Circles, and is the place where I met her. She also finds time to spend almost two months a year in Navajo Nation helping to run maths outreach programs, including a three week long summer camp.

She did her undergraduate degree in mathematics at the University of Indiana at South Bend, and her PhD in dynamical systems at Boston University. Interestingly, she declined academic positions at university in favour of doing more maths outreach, and so her choice of career is very deliberate, and she is committed to her cause.

From getting to know Amanda personally, I can say that she is both very personable and very dedicated to her work. It is easy to see how much positive effect she is having on her community, particularly on the children who have clearly gained so much from her help, guidance, and activities. While she has a thorough understanding of the problems with maths education in her country, she somehow isn't completely disillusioned, which is a feat in itself. I was greatly privileged to be able to shadow her for a week while in the US and pick her brains about maths, education, and why America is such a strange place.

Enjoy the episode.

Oct 24, 2016

A very short episode about an article written by a young girl concerning her experiences with maths.

At school, she is faced daily with the same worksheet, always refusing to do it. Her teachers continue to give her the sheet every day for months, keeping her out of the normal classroom. She becomes resentful and angry at maths and at school, and continues her protest of inaction.

When she discovers Math Circles, a different approach to maths education, then she stops feeling neglected and starts, gradually, to engage. With time she not only gains confidence in the maths she is "supposed" to know, but also discovers mathematics as a field full of things to explore - and things she is capable of exploring.

Having gained confidence and understanding from Math Circles, she eventually graduates from high school and enrols in university. (A happy ending, one presumes.)

We will be talking a good deal about Math Circles, so this little story makes a good anecdotal introduction to their potential benefits. It sounds a bit like an advert, but Eliza Vanett is a real person who really underwent these experiences and volunteered to write this herself. You'll hardly see adverts for Math Circles on television.

Enjoy the episode.

Sep 5, 2016

What do you think of mathematics? Is it:

  1. a sterile tool for accounting?
  2. boring, mindless, and annoying stuff your teacher makes you do?
  3. an anarchic, psychedelic adventure?

If you answered 1., mathematician and teacher Paul Lockhart vehemently disagrees with you. If you answered 2., then Lockhart understands your plight. If you answered 3., then you really know what maths is.

A Mathematician's Lament is a short book all about misconceptions, and how the system propagates them into an insurmountable monster hiding the true nature of a cherished art form. Kids in school hate maths lessons. Why? Because they're not really doing maths! They're engaging in a hollow imitation of it (if they're engaged at all), where memorising formulae takes the place of imagination and reasoning. 

He starts us off with a parable about a musician, and another about a painter. Imagine if everyone thought that music was those little marks made on the page of music books, or that painting a fence is the epitome of what it means to be a painter. This is the situation that mathematics finds itself in today. Very few people know about the true nature of doing mathematics, and there is no cultural corrective for the mistaken view propagated by the bulk of the education system. This is why Paul Lockhart laments.

This book was originally published in abbreviated form as an article of the same title, which is very close to my heart. I've read it about six times so far if not more, which is more times, I think, than I've read any other publication. I have a lot to say about it. I hope that it will reach a wide audience.

Enjoy the episode.

Aug 29, 2016

Over the past century, women have been gaining rights and prejudice against women has declined. Although many would argue that there's still a way to go, the progress is undeniable. Why, then, do men still outperform women in a number of intellectual domains?

In this episode, we look at several articles that try to answer this question for one cognitive domain in particular: chess. Chess is a good domain to test for a number of reasons:

  • There is little subjectivity or ambiguity in deciding who is a better chess player. In chess, you either win or you lose (or draw), and there's no arguing about it. This isn't the same in most other domains, such as art, literature, music, or scientific research.
  • In chess, it's what you know, not who you know. You don't need to have a professional network or be well-liked to win chess tournaments. You just have to play the game. This is different to other domains, where your career can depend on the judgements of others, and women or other groups may suffer from the effects of a "glass ceiling".
  • There is a lot of data on chess. For the top few hundred male and female chess players, we know who played who; when; at what event; what the exact moves were; and what the result was. This helps our analysis greatly.

So, why do women tend to worse in chess? Are women less interested in chess? Is there some hidden psychological bias or prejudice that is holding women back? Is it just some sort of statistical artefact? Or are men simply cleverer than women? All these theories and more are discussed in detail.

Enjoy the episode.

Aug 15, 2016

I write a little blurb like this for every episode, but I feel that some books hardly need any introduction. This is one such example. Malcolm Gladwell is one of the most celebrated journalists and writers of the early 21st century, and his book Outliers caused a splash in people's thinking about success.

Why? One answer is that it popularised the idea of the so-called "10,000 hour rule", initially discovered by K. Anders Ericsson, concerning how much "deliberate practice" it takes to become a world-class expert in any field. "Popularised" is the key word here, as several others were writing the same thing, but when Gladwell writes, everybody reads. And, for the most part, everybody believes. (So another answer to "why did the book cause a splash?" would be "because it's Gladwell, and he's famous, and everybody likes him.")

The strange thing is, the 10,000 hour rule makes up a minority of what he writes about in his book, but people seem to often forget the rest of the ideas. Since we've already seen the power of extended deliberate practice described in other books (Bounce, Genius Explained, and The Talent Code), it's actually these remaining ideas where we find Gladwell's unique contribution to our knowledge of the development of expertise. And it has a message with is quite at odds with the spirit of the 10,000 hour rule.

Gladwell's unique yet oft-forgotten contribution, then, is the idea of success as being a gift. He's not talking about talent, which he more or less rejects by reference to the aforementioned 10,000 hour rule, but about life circumstances. You don't choose where or when you are born, or the culture you are born into, or the state of the job market or of national demographics or of technology as you are growing up, and yet these very factors have a profound effect on whether somebody is successful. Would Bill Gates have become so rich were he born in Burma instead? Or in the 1920s? Or in fourth century Phrygia? 

Although some of Gladwell's historico-cultural musings can be somewhat open to doubt, in several places he gives evidence strong enough to convince even the careful reader that something funny is indeed going on. In this episode, I hope to help you see where he might be onto something, and where we need to be wary of the potential of his masterful storytelling to obscure his shaky arguments.

Enjoy the episode.

Jul 30, 2016

"Follow your passion" is bad advice.

It seems an almost blasphemous thing to say. And yet in this book, Cal Newport argues that it is, indeed, generally a bad idea to try to base a career on a pre-existing passion.

Firstly, as blunt and uninspiring as it may sound, most people don't *have* a passion to begin with. Hence the need to "find yourself" or figure out what you want to do with your life. People who do have a passion are usually passionate about something that can't provide them with a career, such as supporting a local sports team.

Secondly, passions are usually the *result* of a successful career due to the build-up of skills that allow for more interesting jobs, rather than something that people start with. Having higher quality skills that are in high demand means that you can "trade them in" for a job which is in high demand. To think that you can go in to a field and get an exciting job right away is rather naive, and the entry-level positions don't tend to be the sorts of things that inspire people.

This book was written by the author as he was contemplating where he would go with his career after finishing his PhD, as he confronted the fascinating question: what makes for a career that people love? Through a combination of personal stories and broader research, the author argues his perhaps unorthodox position to us in very convincing style.

Enjoy the episode.

Jul 18, 2016

With The Talent Code, we have another perspective on the development of expertise. Daniel Coyle looks at "talent hotbeds" in music, sport, and academics in order to piece together a theory of how people get good at things. In the process, he discovers different types of teachers, necessary for different stages in the process of achieving mastery.

Jul 4, 2016

In Genius Explained, we saw how people considered "geniuses" build up their skills over many years prior to their production of great works. Although this training usually happens in childhood and adolescence, we saw at least one case - that of George Stephenson - where the key knowledge and expertise were built up in early adulthood. This prompts me to cover a book about adult development to supplement our series on expertise.

Meg Jay writes not just about adolescents, but directly for them. She is a therapist specialising in the twenty-something years, and her experience in therapy combined with her knowledge of the background scientific literature contributes to the value of this book.

Her main thesis is that many people today appear to believe that the twenties should be a period of unrestrained fun and thrill-seeking, and that "grown-up" concerns such as building a career, finding a partner, choosing a place to live, or raising a family can be left to the thirties, since "everything happens later now". Her response to this is that the twenties are not a time that can be wasted, since they are of such great developmental importance. Various biological and particularly neurophysiological changes during the twenties make it a time of great learning and of building habits for a lifetime.

Her interviews and case studies with clients show that the twenties can be a rather harrowing time, with young people unsure of what they are supposed to be doing with their lives, and often not doing anything at all with them. Often paralysed by a combination of apparently limitless choice, endless time, and the day-to-day banality of doing anything in particular, many twenty-somethings end up doing the rough equivalent of nothing at all, unemployed or underemployed in an eternal "Starbucks phase".

This book should interest both those who are interested in psychology and adult development in general, and those who are in their twenties or know people who are and would like some practical advice from an expert.

Enjoy the episode.

Jun 20, 2016

Last episode, we got to see the lives of three exceptional individuals in depth: Charles Darwin, George Stephenson, and Michael Faraday. In today's episode, we take a look at how people have tried to bring up children to be prodigies, and to what extent they succeeded. We also look at genius writers so as to get a view of a more "artistic" kind of high achievement. Finally, Michael Howe explains explicitly why he thinks that the idea of inborn talent being necessary for genius doesn't have any real evidence behind it, and what he thinks the secret to genius really is.

Jun 6, 2016

In Genius Explained, Michael Howe takes us through biographies of many people with great achievements, who we might consider to be "geniuses". It is an investigation into what makes geniuses so great, chiefly through looking at their upbringing. I'll refrain from sharing his conclusions in this brief description to keep up the suspense :).

In this first part, we will look at Charles Darwin, George Stephenson, and Michael Faraday in depth.

May 23, 2016

A continuation of last week's episode about Daisy Christodoulou's book.

May 16, 2016

This should be a controversial episode!

I cover this book in the interests of looking at the cognitive science it refers to. However, this is also the sort of book that tries to undermine, or even overthrow, what might be interpreted as a failing ideology among many educators. It is therefore not possible for me to talk about it without at least paying some heed to a long-standing debate in education circles: progressivism versus traditionalism.

Progressivism is hard to pin down exactly, because it's used as a catch-all term for many ideas in education. Some people who would call themselves educational progressives would have completely different ideas from other self-described progressives. Ideas huddled under the progressive umbrella include character education; "whole-child" learning/development; using more "authentic" assessments (i.e. not paper-and-pencil tests); experiential learning; and discovery learning, to name but a few. You have to say though, they did a good PR job naming their ideas "progressive" - who doesn't like progress, after all?

Daisy Christodoulou is one of the relatively un-trendy educators who rails against progressivist ideas rather than campaigning for them. A former teacher in the English state school system, after several years she left her job to study cognitive science. As a teacher, she followed all the advice and guidance of her superiors and training bodies and institutes, but found that, despite this, her students weren't learning much. During her subsequent degree, she feels that she found out why - because the progressive ideas that she was being taught as a teacher in training are completely out of line with the actual science of how people think and learn.

Although it's a slim little volume, I've had to split it into two parts to cover it in enough depth. I try my hardest not to be biased and to be fair to all sides of this debate, and any failings on this point are my own. It's hard remaining neutral on such a hot topic, I have to say! I hope that the ideas in this book help to enrich your own understanding of this controversy in education, whatever your views.

Enjoy the episode.

May 9, 2016

We are now moving on to a series of episodes answering the question: How do people get good at things? In Bounce, Commonwealth champion and Olympian table-tennis player Matthew Syed shares his research into this topic.

May 2, 2016

The funny thing about Malcolm Gladwell is that everyone seems to enjoy reading him, but few remember many details of what he actually wrote. I had a conversation with a parent of one of my students not long ago about the overestimation of the importance of IQ, referencing some studies done by Lewis Terman. She listened with rapt attention and deep in thought. The information seemed new, original, and surprising to her. I mentioned that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this in his book Outliers, to which she responded, "I read that book!" Apparently these things don't stick!

Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking is one of Gladwell's many bestsellers. He seems to have an enduring interest in both psychology and in education, which means that he'll make several appearances on the podcast, even though he's "just a journalist". He seems to draw people in with his combination of Viking-quality storytelling and modern statistical and scientific thinking. It seems to me that his later books are more knowledge- and idea-rich, and his earlier ones are a bit more take-one-idea-as-far-as-you-can.

The idea in Blink is that some apparent thinking is done without conscious processing (although Gladwell puts it in much sexier terms). For example, art critics know whether something is a genuine Greek sculpture or not because they can *feel* it, and they often can't explain why. Their intuitions can be - tend to be, in fact - more accurate than careful and detailed analysis and background investigations. What's going on here?

If you've been paying attention to the podcast so far, you should see where this fits in with the themes we've been exploring. Several books so far have been concerned with something similar. Thinking, Fast and Slow is about cognitive biases, which are subconscious "wrong" thinking. The Power of Habit looked at how people can learn even when they can't form any long-term memories. "Picture yourself as a stereotypical male" dealt with stereotype threat, i.e. how people subconsciously fulfil stereotypes about groups they belong to.

Apart from the idea of subconscious thinking, Gladwell also discusses some cases where this thinking is accurate, and others where it is wrong, or even disastrous. Surprise surprise, experts tend to have valid intuitions, whereas novices shouldn't trust their gut feeling. This idea of the differences between experts and novices is one reason why we're covering this book now, as our next theme for the coming weeks will be the question "how do people get good at things?".

Enjoy the episode.

Apr 25, 2016

A natural continuation from last week. Habit formation, and breaking habits, takes willpower. So how does willpower work?

Like a muscle.

  1. Willpower gets tired. You have a limited "store" of it, and it gets drained over the course of a day. So, if you had a stressful day at work, then you are much more likely to cave in and have that chocolate cake / cigarette. (Sound familiar?)
  2. Willpower gets stronger with use. People who adopt strict exercise regimes, for example, start eating healthier, studying more (if they're students), and drinking and smoking less. This is also true when people take up some other willpower-heavy scheme, such as trying to improve their study habits.
  3. This is the weirdest one - willpower is more or less directly related to blood glucose levels. If you've just eaten, you'll have more willpower; if you're hungry, you'll have less.

The book gives numerous examples of people who have demonstrated vast amounts of willpower, and shares strategies from those people. Like a typical Gladwell, it blends scientific research with individual cases into a sort of easily digestible yet nutritious risotto.

And then it spends a chapter giving ill-advised parenting advice based on a lack of proper research on the subject. Well, you win some, you lose some.

Enjoy the episode.

Apr 18, 2016

Up till now, we've had several episodes looking at the question of "why do people do what they do?". Most recently, we asked and answered that question from the perspective of persuasion, in a sense addressing the sub-question "why are people persuaded to do what they do?". Now we get a chance to look at it with the lens of habit: "why do people do the same things so often? How do these habits form? And how can we get rid of them?"

In case you think that habit is unimportant, my first priority would be to disabuse you of that notion.

  • Psychologists estimate that around 40% of people's day-to-day behaviours are based on habit. To put that more strikingly, almost half of our day-to-day decisions *are not decisions*, but things that we do automatically.
  • Doing things according to habit requires little or no willpower, whereas going against it quickly depletes that limited mental resource. People who appear to have strong willpower usually just have deeply ingrained good habits.
  • Habits never really go away. (What?) It is possible to "break" an old habit, but only by replacing it with a new one.

Now that you're convinced about the importance of the topic, it's time for me to persuade you to listen to the episode. 

  1. You're a smart, curious person. You're just the kind of person who would listen to this. And you've listened to other episodes of the podcast, and other podcasts about psychology and learning. (commitment & consistency)
  2. Thousands of people just like you have listened to it already... (social proof)
  3. ...and if you delay, the server will be overloaded and there will be none left! So hurry, while stocks last! (scarcity)
  4. I've spent all this time making it just for you, won't you do me the kindness of listening to it? (reciprocity)
  5. Professor Carol Dweck says you must listen to it. (authority)
  6. Nice phone, by the way. (liking)

If you're confused about what just happened, try going back and listening to episode 14 again. If you need any more reasons, here are some episode 11-style attempts...

  • Give me 10 reasons why you shouldn't listen to it. (cognitive difficulty)
  • Listen to the Bookcast, it'll have you hooked fast! (cognitive ease)
  • You have to admit, it has a nice logo. (halo effect / judgement by basic assessment)
  • I know you. You pride yourself as an independent thinker, and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. However, you have a great need for other people to like and admire you, and you tend to be critical of yourself. Luckily, you have a lot of unused capacity, which you are yet to turn to your advantage. This episode can help you with that. (Barnum effect)
  • You've already spent so much time reading this, do you want all that time to go to waste? (sunk cost fallacy)
  • Ok, ok, if you don't have time, just listen to the first hour. Oh alright, jeez! The first 20 minutes then! (anchoring) (contrast effect)

Enjoy the episode.

Apr 11, 2016

So far in the podcast, among other things, we've looked at the topic of motivation. In the last few episodes, we've also started to look at human irrationalities and their consequences. In this episode, we look at a topic that combines "why people do things" with human irrationality: persuasion.

Robert Cialdini spent most of his working life searching for the answer to one question: what is it that persuades people to do things that they wouldn't otherwise do? In this classic book, Cialdini summarises his findings over the length of his career as a psychologist.

He focuses on the six key "weapons" of influence, as well as a number of specific techniques that "compliance professionals" (salespeople, negotiators, and the like) use to get better results. In particular, he also explains how some of these methods have been used by educators to great effect. And in explaining these methods to us, he gives us an insight into how people's minds work, and a more detailed look at people's irrationalities. 

Enjoy the episode.

Apr 4, 2016

Last week, we saw the destructive effects of a psychological phenomenon not many people would have heard of known as "stereotype threat". This week, we look at some ways of mitigating the effects of stereotype threat. How can we stop children and students from stereotyped groups from underperforming in exams because of their knowledge of their own backgrounds? David Sherman and Geoffrey Cohen summarise the results of recent research showing that a technique called "self-affirmation" can be used to stop not only stereotype threat, but a host of other irrational behaviours, and gives us a new, different, and somewhat more optimistic view of people's irrationalities.

Based on self-affirmation theory, people's irrationalities more often than not don't stem from a "lazy controller" as described by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow (see episode 11), but rather from a need to protect one's ego. For example, people will ignore evidence against what they currently believe not because of some in-built, immovable bias, but because the evidence is threatening to their sense of self. All that it takes for them to approach the new evidence rationally is to remind them that their sense of self is strong and multi-faceted enough that changing this one opinion won't lead to an identity crisis.

So, were the self-esteem and self-help pioneers right in suggesting that we look at ourselves in the mirror and say how much we love ourselves? It turns out that the "self-affirmation" that Sherman and Cohen refer to is very different - indeed, almost diametrically opposed - to that which has been advocated by numerous self-help gurus. Self-affirmation works when it is *subconscious* and in a *different* field to the one in which one's ego is threatened; the gurus, meanwhile, suggest that we actively face difficulties in learning, for example, by saying "I am intelligent" to ourselves. In short, make sure you understand self-affirmation theory by looking at the evidence first, rather than jumping in with whatever sounds like it might work.

An absolute gem that seems not to be much talked about, self-affirmation theory gives us both practical approaches to dealing with problems, and a fresh and surprising theoretical viewpoint on various issues in cognitive science. I hope you find it as fascinating as I do.

Enjoy the episode.

Mar 28, 2016

Ethnic minorities and women are disadvantaged enough as it is. When considering why members of some ethnic groups tend to do badly in school, and why girls tend to do worse than boys in mathematics, people present all kinds of arguments, including economic, cultural, and sometimes even (very controversially) genetic reasons. A contributing factor that one seldom hears about is the pernicious psychological effect known as stereotype threat.

Stereotype threat describes the unconscious tendency for people to worsen their performance in a task when they are reminded of a negative stereotype that a group to which they belong has. For example, when girls are made to put their gender on the front of a mathematics exam script, then they do worse than when they aren't so asked. This means that merely reminding girls of their gender is enough to make them be momentarily worse at maths, as if subconsciously trying to confirm the stereotype.

This kind of effect has been repeated with other stereotyped-against groups, such as african american and latino children in the United States. Interestingly, the positive side of the effect seems to be very small - white children don't benefit from being reminded that they are white, for instance.

The "reminding" mentioned here can be very subtle. The students don't need to be aware of what is going on - it's a classic subconscious process, like priming. For instance, even getting people to write down what part of town they're from is enough to activate racial stereotype threat.

It should be obvious that there are serious practical implications. One in particular that is worth mentioning is that some examinations require students to write down their gender and/or their ethnicity before starting, which is shown to activate stereotype threat and thereby reduce performance. Apparently this is what happens in the USA with the SAT school-leaving test, although I have had trouble confirming this.

This article describes the phenomenon, and discusses some potential ways of mitigating the effect. Michelle Goffreda originally wrote it as a blog post on the MIT Admissions blog ( With her permission, in this episode I read it out and add my own comments.

Mar 21, 2016

A classic book on people's irrationalities.

Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and cognitive scientist. Together with his late research partner Amos Tversky, he co-founded the field of cognitive heuristics and biases in psychology, and that of behavioural economics. This all stems from his investigations into the irrationalities of human thought.


In this book, he explains his findings from a lifetime of research.



In the introduction to the episode, I mention some PISA reports with international perspectives on education. Here are links to all six volumes of the 2012 report:

Volume I: What Students Know and Can Do: Student Performance in Mathematics, Reading, and Science

Volume II: Excellence through Equity: Giving Every Student the Chance to Succeed

Volume III: Ready to Learn: Students' Engagement, Drive, and Self-Beliefs

Volume IV: What Makes Schools Successful? Resources, Policies and Practices

Volume V: Creative Problem Solving - Students' Skills in Tackling Real-Life Problems

Volume VI: Students and Money - Financial Literacy Skills for the 21st Century

The other figure I mention, who talks about education in international perspective with an anti-PISA stance, is Yong Zhao. His website is

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