Education Bookcast

Education Bookcast

United Kingdom

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


39a. The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett  

Unlike many books that I cover, this is one that I read recently and felt an urgent need to share its contents even before I got to the appropriate theme in a series of episodes. It hit me right where it hurts - in my fundamental assumptions about human nature.

As I research the field of education and produce this podcast, I have been generally assuming that people are more or less the same everywhere in their fundamental modes of thinking and feeling. I presumed that the topic of motivation, for example, or that of cognitive biases, can be covered in a more or less general way. However, this book has had me realise that different people from different places think in very, very different ways... and that I (and the majority of my listeners) are among the people on the extreme end of a spectrum that runs from East to West.

People in the East and West think differently from each other in fundamental ways. Consider the following:

Which two of these three would you consider to form a natural group: monkey, cow, banana? Westerners almost always group the monkey with the cow, as they are both animals (categorisation focus). Easterners group the monkey with the banana (relationship focus). There are 24 pens. 18 are blue, 5 are green, and 1 is purple. You can have one. Which one would you like? Westerners tend to choose the purple pen (scarcity makes it seem more valuable, plus they like to feel unique). Easterners ask for a blue pen (they want to fit in). Which task would you be more motivated to do: one you choose yourself, or one that your mother chooses for you? Westerners prefer to choose their own (autonomy as a motivational driver); Easterner are more motivated when their mother chose the task (what the hell?!).

I hope you can see that this totally changes how I have to think about things. I now have to contextualise not only everything I think about, but *everything I read*, since so many psychologists say things as if they were universal, but then they are overturned once you test these things on people from a different culture! This even includes apparently "universal" traits such as cognitive biases, with Easterners usually avoiding the Fundamental Attribution Error where Westerners almost universally fall for it; and the principle of scarcity, an idea with strong ties to economics that rarer things are considered more valuable, which seems to not always be followed by people from the East.

Hopefully, you will find your mind broadened, and your assumptions annoyingly and uncomfortably challenged, just as mine were.

Enjoy the episode.

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38. Uncle Staś' advice column [RTTP, homeschooling, and the dangers of social media]  

I've received a lot of messages from listeners (as well as from an author!) in the past few days. Several of these messages are things that I would like to share, and there are two in particular that I would like to talk about since I imagine there may be many listeners who have the same questions.

Firstly, I talk about my interactions with the folks at Reacting to the Past, and in particular with Mark Carnes, who emailed me within a day of the release of the episode about his book (Minds on Fire).

I then talk about homeschooling, as I had a request from a listener for information on this topic, as she is considering homeschooling her children. Although I plan to cover homeschooling and unschooling in some detail on the podcast, I do not have plans to do this for some time as there are other topics to cover, and so I thought it would be good to have a quick summary for those who are bursting to hear about it.

Finally, I talk about social media, and in particular its use at university. A listener contacted me requesting that I advise him on this, and so I thought it would be helpful to more people if I discussed it on the podcast.

Please keep in mind that any opinions shared in this episode are my own, and that this is an unusually opinion-heavy episode of the podcast. I am usually quite insistent on proper evidence, but here I am relaxing that requirement to be able to talk about things more freely in terms of my feelings or conjectures on certain topics, rather than hard facts that I know to be true.

Enjoy the episode.

37. A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster  

The words "theory" and "fun" in such close proximity may make you suspicious. Or, they may make you curious. "Fun" is one of those ideas that is so natural and intuitive, and yet for that very reason is so hard to pin down.

Raph Koster has a somewhat peculiar view of what fun is: "Fun is just another word for learning." As the head of Sony Online Entertainment, I'm inclined to believe him. If fun is learning, how do we ensure everyone in education gets more of it - and the right kind?

This book is a meditation on certain central themes in the theory of games and play, and provokes us to think about why games aren't used more in education. (Correction: I try to provoke you to think this, based on some concepts taken from the text.) The problem seems not to be whether games teach, as they always do. They problem is that they aren't teaching the right things.

We go in with questions. We come out with an understanding of the central problem of game design for education. Not a bad way to spend an hour.

Enjoy the episode.

36. What is fun? What is play? What is a game?  

In recent episodes, we have been discussing games and play, and their relevance to education, as well as to an improved understanding of human psychology. In this episode, I approach some central questions of the field: What is a game? What is a toy? What is play? What is fun?

It is by their very naturalness that play, fun, and games are hard to define. We can sense what they are, and that's exactly what makes them hard to put them into words. Jesse Schell surveys the literature and puts together the ideas and definitions of many thinkers to come up with his own favourite definitions.

Jesse Schell's book The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses is a thick, exhaustive tome on a complex subject. There's no way I could do his book justice in a single episode - it would need to be a quadruple-bill at least. But I wanted to introduce my audience to his book, and what better way to do it than through the fundamental questions of the field?

Enjoy the episode.

35b. Minds on Fire by Mark Carnes  

This is a continuation of the episode on Minds on Fire by Mark Carnes. The main idea of this part of the episode is the effects that Reacting to the Past, and role-play in general, have on the "self", i.e. the psychological construct of our selves.

Enjoy the episode.

35a. Minds on Fire by Mark Carnes  

Last episode, we looked at the various ways in which games can both improve our theoretical understanding of human psychology and of learning, and also at how they can be used practically to improve people's lives. In this episode, I want to discuss a particular practical application of games, and that is in so-called Reacting to the Past.

Reacting to the Past is a type of live role-playing game where each participant plays a character from a particular historical time and place. For example, the setting may be the French revolution, and players would take the roles of King Louis XVI, Lafayette, Robespierre, and others. Each player's (secret) objective is in line with what those personages wanted to happen historically - for example, Louis XVI's aim is to crush the revolution and preserve the monarchy, whereas Robespierre aims to overthrow the monarchy, institute universal male suffrage, and end slavery in French colonies.

On every conceivable measure, Reacting to the Past games have been shown scientifically to be superior to traditional classes. The effects are so numerous as to be hard to list. Students come out of Reacting to the Past games with:

improved public speaking; greater resilience in the face of failure; improved leadership and team-working skills; greater acceptance of the role of fortune and randomness in life; a stronger (actual) social network, and friends for life; greater capacity for empathy; a more positive attitude to their studies; increased self-esteem, even while their narcissism reduces; and much deeper and more solid knowledge of history than those taking part in traditional classes on the same material.

It's remarkable!

In the episode, I go through the way that the classes are run and the benefits that they bring, and I compare them to the ordinary student experience. I also share the ideas behind *why* this pedagogical approach seems to work so well. I hope you can join me in enthusiasm for this teaching method.

Enjoy the episode.

34b. Which is broken: reality, or Jane McGonigal's mind?  

This episode serves two purposes. On the one hand, I want to go over some more ideas from Jane McGonigal's book, as it is so rich in fresh and original ideas (they're fresh to me, anyway).

On the other hand, I would like to go through a pointed criticism of the book entitled Jane McGonigal's Mind is Broken written by Edward Champion. Given how much I got from her book, I am surprised that there are people who are so strongly against it. I think it is good to go through it in the name of balance, though I can't pretend that I share Edward Champion's opinion, or believe that his piece is particularly well argued.

Enjoy the episode.


34a. Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal  

Jane McGonigal is a game designer who believes that, in many ways, games bring out the best in people. The reason for their popularity, she claims, is that they satisfy fundamental human needs. This leads, for example, to the highly insightful and completely counterintuitive notion that a big reason for people playing games is that it makes them feel productive.

She peppers her book with reality "fixes" - comparisons of games with reality, where games come out on top, and lead the way to a better future. Here is a full list of those fixes.

Unnecessary obstacles: Compared with games, reality is too easy. Games challenge us with voluntary obstacles and help us put our personal strengths to better use. Emotional activation: Compared with games, reality is depressing. Games focus our energy, with relentless optimism, on something we're good at and enjoy. More satisfying work: Compared with games, reality is unproductive. Games give us clearer missions and more satisfying, hands-on work. Better hope of success: Compared with games, reality is hopeless. Games eliminate our fear of failure and improve our chances of success. Stronger social connectivity: Compared with games, reality is disconnected. Games build stronger social bonds and lead to more active social networks. The more time we spend interacting within our social networks, the more likely we are to generate a subset of positive emotions known as "prosocial emotions." Epic scale: Compared with games, reality is trivial. Games make us a part of something bigger and give epic meaning in our actions. Wholehearted participation: Compared with games, reality is hard to get into. Games motivate us to participate more fully in whatever we're doing. Meaningful rewards when we need them most: Compared with games, reality is pointless and unrewarding. Games help us feel more rewarded for making our best effort. More fun with strangers: Compared with games, reality is lonely and isolating. Games help us band together and create powerful communities from scratch. Happiness hacks: Compared with games, reality is hard to swallow. Games make it easier to take good advice and try out happier habits. A sustainable engagement economy: Compared with games, reality is unsustainable. The gratifications we get from playing games are an infinitely renewable resource. More epic wins: Compared with games, reality is unambitious. Games help us define awe-inspiring goals and tackle seemingly impossible social missions together. Ten thousand hours collaborating: Compared with games, reality is disorganised and divided. Games help us make a more concerted effort - and over time, they give us collaboration superpowers. Massively multiplayer foresight: Reality is stuck in the present. Games help us imagine the future together.

The book has many case studies and psychological experiments backing up the points that it makes. Overall it reads like a sort of manifesto, but for me, the most important thing was the way in which it explained things about people that I never realised before. It gave me a new perspective on human motivation, on learning, and on myself. I hope you will gain from it as I did.

Enjoy the episode.

33. Interview with Malke Rosenfeld of Math in your Feet  

Malke Rosenfeld is the creator of Math in your Feet, a program to teach students mathematical concepts through the medium of dance. (Really!) She does school workshops and teacher trainings, and now has a new book, Math on the Move, describing her approach and the theory behind it. We talk about interdisciplinary learning, embodied learning, liking vs. hating maths, and attitudes to "alternative" teaching methods.

Malke herself, like many people, never really "got" maths while she was at school. After getting involved in the percussive dance scene, she one day woke up to the possibility that "surely there's math in this". From there, she went on to develop her unusual, and potentially controversial, but certainly fun, pedagogy.

She draws on the ideas of Seymour Papert from his book Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, and on modern neurological research showing the extent to which we think through our bodies, and have to understand things in many ways for them to really sink in.

Enjoy the episode.

32. The Visual Edge by Sargy Letuchy [interview]  

Today we have an interview with Sargy Letuchy, a public school teacher from Chicago, who has produced some materials to help other teachers with standards-based learning. The Visual Edge is a workbook of graphic organisers for K-12 teachers in the United States. Along the way, we also discuss some other pertinent education topics.

Enjoy the episode.

31+. How I learn languages  

Depending on what counts as knowing a language, I speak anything between 7 and 12 languages, namely:

English, Polish, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, French, Russian, and Persian well; Hungarian to a lesser extent; and Georgian, Armenian, Lithuanian, and Tibetan in the past, now mostly forgotten.

Besides this, I have some knowledge of classical languages (Latin, classical Chinese, and ancient Greek); one constructed language (Esperanto); and there are a couple more languages that I've had a smaller amount of exposure to (Turkish and Maltese).

I think that my experiences may be worth sharing to a general audience interested in education, and in teaching and learning languages in particular.

First, I recount my story. How did I get from bilingual child to adult polyglot? Secondly, I talk about my methods for learning, Finally, I share some lessons learned from my experiences.

This episode does not make use of references or scientific studies, but just relates my personal experience. It is a case study that gives a sense of what it feels like and how it works to learn numerous languages. I hope that you can take something useful from it.

Enjoy the episode.


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31. Lessons learned from 50 years of language teaching at the Foreign Service Institute  

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

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. "Language-learning aptitude" varies among individuals and affects their classroom learning success (but at least some aspects of aptitude can be learned). There is no "one right way" to teach (or learn) languages, nor is there a single "right" syllabus. Time on task and the intensity of the learning experience appear crucial. Learners' existing knowledge about *language* affects their learning. A learner's prior experience with learning (languages or other skills) also affects classroom learning. 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. 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. A supportive, collaborative, responsive learning environment, with a rich variety of authentic and teacher-made resources, is very important in fostering effective learning. Conversation, which on the surface appears to be one of the most basic forms of communication, is actually one of the hardest to master. 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.

30. Cultural Learnings of America for make benefit glorious podcast of Education Bookcast  

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.

29+. Interview with Robert Kaplan of The Math Circle  

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.

29. Out of the Labyrinth: Setting Mathematics Free by Robert & Ellen Kaplan  

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.

28. Why do kids give stupid answers to simple maths questions?  

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.

27+. Interview with Dr Amanda Serenevy  

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.

27. Consider the Circle by Eliza Vanett  

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.

26. A Mathematician's Lament by Paul Lockhart  

What do you think of mathematics? Is it:

a sterile tool for accounting? boring, mindless, and annoying stuff your teacher makes you do? 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.

25. Chess, gender, and intelligence  

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.

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