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The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Metis and Salman Khan



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In Seeing Like A State, James Scott emphasizes the importance of local knowledge. He associates this notion with the Greek word metis, which captures the ability to use skills and intelligence to respond to a changing environment:

Think of the complex physical activities that require constant adjustment to the movement, values, desires, or gestures of others. Boxing, wrestling, and fencing require instant, quasi-automatic responses to an opponent’s moves, which can be learned only through long practice of the activity itself. Here the element of deception enters as well. The successful boxer will learn to feint a move in order to provoke a response of which he can then take advantage. If we move from physical contests to such cooperative activities as dancing, music, or lovemaking, a similar practiced responsiveness born of experience is essential. Many sports combine both the cooperative and the competitive aspects of metis. A soccer player must learn not only the moves of his or her teammates but also which team moves and fakes will deceive their opponents. Such skills, it is important to note, are both generic and particular; while each player may be more or less skilled at different facets of the game, each team has its particular combination of skills, its “chemistry,” and each contest with an opposing team represents a challenge that is in some ways unique.

This sort of concentrated, local knowledge and improvisation looms large in virtually every area of human activity. Sadly, it is hard to teach:

The skills of metis may well involve rules of thumb, but such rules are largely acquired through practice (often in formal apprenticeship) and a developed feel or knack for strategy. Metis resists simplification into deductive principles which can successfully be transmitted through book learning, because the environments in which it is exercised are so complex and nonrepeatable that formal procedures of rational decision making are impossible to apply. In a sense, metis lies in that large space between the realm of genius, to which no formula can apply, and the realm of codified knowledge, which can be learned by rote.

Very little of formal education aims at capturing the various implicit routines that go into any skilled activity. Generally, we pick these skills up through experience.

You might think that education through videos might continue this trend. After all, rather than being taught by different teachers, a model in which all students watch a lecture by one person results in a much more homogenous experience. However, as a Wired article on Salman Khan — a favorite at this blog — suggests, this sort of unique knowledge might be one of the chief advantages of his educational system, which is under trials at several schools. There, students watch Khan’s lectures, and then spent the majority of class time doing problem solving while aided by teachers.

This gives students the ability to travel at their own pace, rather than at an averaged pace that frequently satisfies no individual student. From the article:

The result is that Thordarson’s students move at their own pace. Those who are struggling get surgically targeted guidance, while advanced kids like Carpenter rocket far ahead; once they’re answering questions without making mistakes, Khan’s site automatically recommends new topics to move on to. Over half the class is now tackling subjects like algebra and geometric formulas. And even the less precocious kids are improving: Only 3 percent of her students were classified as average or lower in end-of-year tests, down from 13 percent at midyear.

For years, teachers like Thordarson have complained about the frustrations of teaching to the “middle” of the class. They stand at the whiteboard, trying to get 25 or more students to learn the same stuff at the same pace. And, of course, it never really works: Advanced kids get bored and tune out, lagging ones get lost and tune out, and pretty soon half the class isn’t paying attention.

Of course, the same is arguably true for books, which also enable stopping and starting at individual paces. But videos of lectures seem to appeal to many people, particularly children. And videos enable describing the implicit steps in problem-solving that seem to leave many kids in the dark:

Several students I spoke to also pointed out that Khan is particularly good at explaining all the hidden, small steps in math problems—steps that teachers often gloss over. He has an uncanny ability to inhabit the mind of someone who doesn’t already understand something. “He explains things step by step, rather than assuming you already know how to get from A to B,” Brannan says.

Using class time to handle problem solving enables teachers to engage much closer with students; while the technology enables teachers to see exactly how children are proceeding. Presumably, this enables teachers to better cater one-on-one tutoring depending on the needs of their classroom and the abilities of individual students:

Among those impressed was Courtney Cadwell, a seventh-grade math teacher at Egan Junior High in Los Altos. When I visited her class, she pulled me over to her laptop and showed me her kids’ statistics. She flicked through screenfuls of colorful charts illustrating what subjects the kids were working on and how many videos they’d watched and problem sets they’d done. The software even told Cadwell how many minutes the students had worked at home.

“Oh my gosh,” she exclaims when she gets to one student’s account. “Kristofer, he’s working on systems of equations and subtracting fractions?” Clearly, even after working with the system for almost five months, it still has the ability to surprise her. A look at the data shows that the students seem to advance in spurts: A kid will grind away at a subject, seemingly stuck, until suddenly something clicks and he vaults forward, sometimes going on a tear and mastering several new subjects in a day or two.

Historically, we have known very little about what pedagoligical tools are best in teaching. By providing the tools to measure and assess how all students are doing at any point in time, Khan seems to have come up with an innovation that promises to bring to education the enormous productivity gains that are commonplace elsewhere in the economy.

Finally, Khan mirrors the insight of Ali Carr-Chellman that gaming may be an effective motivator:

Borrowing another trend in software, Khan’s team also added gamelike rewards to the interface. They came up with a welter of points, badges, and awards that kids can vie for. The Los Altos teachers were surprised—almost flabbergasted—by how powerfully the rewards motivated their students. When I visited the fifth-grade class of Kelly Rafferty at Santa Rita Elementary, the room teemed with kids milling around the school’s laptops, checking out one another’s latest achievements and trying to help each other on various modules. Rafferty pointed to a boy pecking away at division problems. “He’s done something like 500 multiplication problems,” she said. “Could I ever get him to do 500 of anything? No. So it’s funny the things that motivate them.” She noticed that one student had worked on problems at home from midnight to 2 am the night before. 

It seems likely that motivation plays a large role in educational underperformance. While children from more affluent backgrounds may put in effort into education due to their belief that it will pay long-run dividends; children from less privileged backgrounds possibly are less motivated by the distant pecuniary rewards of education. Immediate gamelike rewards may play an important role in keeping such kids motivated.

The promise of Khan’s experiment is that it may usher a new wave of innovation and genuine productivity expansion in education. For centuries, we have known little about what exactly teachers should do to better teach children. Every new teacher has largely been forced to come up with techniques on their own. Promisingly, it seems that we may be starting to put education in the same category as most other goods in a modern economy, where routine improvements in productivity are the norm . 



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