Is the PISA (global education benchmark) fundamentally flawed?

Source: TES magazine, Jul 2013

What if you learned that Pisa’s comparisons are not based on a common test, but on different students answering different questions? And what if switching these questions around leads to huge variations in the all- important Pisa rankings, with the UK finishing anywhere between 14th and 30th and Denmark between fifth and 37th?

A fair comparison between more than 50 different education systems operating in a huge variety of cultures, which allows them to be accurately ranked on simple common measures, was always going to be enormously difficult to deliver in a way that everyone agrees with.

The Rasch model is at the heart of some of the strongest criticisms being made of Pisa. It is also the black box within Pisa’s black box: exactly how the model works is something that few people fully understand.

… for the Rasch model to work for Pisa, all the questions used in the study would have to function in exactly the same way – be equally difficult – in all participating countries. According to Kreiner, if the questions have “different degrees of difficulty in different countries” – if, in technical terms, there is differential item functioning (DIF) – Rasch should not be used.

“That was the first thing that I looked for, and I found extremely strong evidence of DIF,” he says. “That means that (Pisa) comparisons between countries are meaningless.”

Using iPad Apps to Help Children Learn to Read

Source: Fast Company, Oct 2014

In a recent study from New York University, the popular reading and phonics app Learn With Homer had a measurable impact on the literacy scores of the children who participated.

The randomized, six-week study took a sample of 95 disadvantaged students across seven different Head Start classrooms in Brooklyn …

Adults only stepped in as needed to ensure the kids were staying on track, but did not aid directly in the learning process so as not to taint the results of the trial.

After six weeks, the students who followed Learn With Homer’s lessons showed marked differences in six of the seven phonological skills being measured. They were especially better in three key areas: print knowledge, phonological awareness, and letter sounds. These students scored higher on their post-trial TOPEL (Test of Preschool Early Literacy) test than either group did before the trial began.

Google’s 30 minute job interview

Source: Business Insider, Oct

As a hiring manager, if you research a job candidate and ask the right questions, there’s no reason the interview should last longer than 30 minutes, Google chairman Eric Schmidt and former VP of product Jonathan Rosenberg write in their book “How Google Works.”

“The shorter interview time forces a conversation that’s more protein and less fat,” they write. “There’s no time for small talk or meaningless questions. It forces people, including (especially!) you, into a substantive discussion.”

Google trusts its interviewers to go with their first impressions and determine by the end of the half hour if they want to schedule another interview or not. They also limit themselves to a maximum of five interviews, regardless of the importance of the position.

They found that after one interview, interviewers were ready to make a decision about 75% of the time. Decision-making ability gradually rose to 85% after four interviews and then plateaued. They decided to round up to limiting interviews to five, since computer scientists appreciate that five is a prime number, Schmidt and Rosenberg joke.

“Remember: From the interviewer’s standpoint, the goal of the interview is to form an opinion. A strong opinion. A yes or no,” they write.

Got a “B” grade in Calculus, and Still Got into MIT

Source: MIT Admissions blog, Oct 2014

Here is the story behind the B, the one that I wrote about: I got the B in Calculus based on the work I’d done that semester, but managed to get an A on the final exam, taken later. I wrote about how I loved math, and how struggling with concepts that I’d never encountered before really threw me for a loop because I was used to math coming easily to me. But did past me take this sitting down? No! Well… not in the end!

Because after half a semester of math not working out, I finally decided to put in some quality time with my teacher and a tutor to figure out what I wasn’t getting. And I did that not because I necessarily needed to get an A—I still closed out the semester with a B, after all—but because I wanted to understand the math. That final exam, even though it didn’t affect what went on my transcript, showed that I did, but more importantly it reflected the effort I put in to reach that ultimate understanding. That was the most valuable thing, the effort.

Even though the grades issue was pretty trivial in the scheme of things, the point of that response was that I didn’t give up when faced with concepts that were new and confusing. That’s something of paramount importance at MIT, where new and confusing things are thrown at you all the time and you’re expected to take them as they come.

From what I’ve seen here, that willingness to work at problems until they make sense is more valuable than raw aptitude. That’s something that’ll carry you through your four years here.

Why teaching humanities improves innovation

Source: World Economic Forum blog, Sep 2014

To lay the foundation for a future based on ideas and invention, businesses and governments should consider how new products and methods emerged in some of history’s most innovative economies: the United Kingdom and the US as early as 1820, and Germany and France later in the nineteenth century. In these economies, innovation was powered not by global scientific progress, but by the population’s dynamism – their desire, capacity and latitude to create – and willingness to allow the financial sector to steer them away from unpromising pursuits.

What economies need instead is a boost in dynamism. The problem is that the historically most innovative economies have lost much of their former dynamism, despite retaining an edge in social media and some high-technology sectors. And others – for example, Spain and the Netherlands – were never particularly dynamic. Meanwhile, the emerging economies that are supposed to be filling the gap – notably, China – are still falling short of the levels of innovation required to offset the declining benefits of technology transfer.

economies today lack the spirit of innovation. Labour markets do not need only more technical expertise; they require an increasing number of soft skills, like the ability to think imaginatively, develop creative solutions to complex challenges and adapt to changing circumstances and new constraints.

That is what young people need from education. Specifically, students must be exposed to – and learn to appreciate – the modern values associated with individualism, which emerged toward the end of the Renaissance and continued to gain traction through the early twentieth century. Just as these values fueled dynamism in the past, they can reinvigorate economies today.

A necessary first step is to restore the humanities in high school and university curricula. Exposure to literature, philosophy, and history will inspire young people to seek a life of richness – one that includes making creative, innovative contributions to society. Indeed, studying the “canon” will do more than provide young people with a set of narrow skills; it will shape their perceptions, ambitions, and capabilities in new and invigorating ways.

Age is an Attitude

Source: NYTimes, Oct 2014

Even smart people fall prey to an “illusion of control” over chance events, Langer concluded. We aren’t really very rational creatures. Our cognitive biases routinely steer us wrong.

If people could learn to be mindful and always perceive the choices available to them, Langer says, they would fulfill their potential and improve their health.

Langer’s technique of achieving a state of mindfulness is different from the one often utilized in Eastern “mindfulness meditation” — nonjudgmental awareness of the thoughts and feelings drifting through your mind — that is everywhere today.

Her emphasis is on noticing moment-to-moment changes around you, from the differences in the face of your spouse across the breakfast table to the variability of your asthma symptoms.

When we are “actively making new distinctions, rather than relying on habitual” categorizations, we’re alive; and when we’re alive, we can improve. Indeed, “well-being and enhanced performance” were Langer’s goals from the beginning of her career.


… innovations are coming from the combination of human inspiration and computer-processing power

Source: WSJ, Sep 2014

Turing thought would someday show that machines could think in ways indistinguishable from humans. His belief in the potential of artificial intelligence stands in contrast to the school of thought that argues that the combined talents of humans and computers, working together as partners, will always be more creative than computers working alone.

Despite occasional breathless headlines, the quest for pure artificial intelligence has so far proven disappointing. But the alternative approach of connecting humans and machines more intimately continues to produce astonishing innovations.

no matter how many logical tasks such machines could perform, there was one thing they would never be able to do, Ada insisted. They would have no ability to actually think and “no pretensions whatever to originate anything.” Humans would supply the creativity; the machine could only do what it was told.

there is another possibility, the one that Ada Lovelace envisioned: that the combined talents of humans and computers, when working together in partnership and symbiosis, will indefinitely be more creative than any computer working alone.

This was the approach taken by the most important unsung pioneers of the digital age, such as Vannevar Bush, J.C.R. Licklider and Doug Engelbart. “Human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, and the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines we know today,” Licklider wrote in 1960.