Are Video Games and Social Networks the New MMR?

I know at least some of the experts quoted in this Daily Mail article are worth listening to, as they join the video games and social networks are making our kids stupid chorus (alarmist title of the week: “Social websites harm children’s brains: Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist”).

But there’s a lot in this article that just doesn’t pass a basic smell test.

There’s this, for example:

Educational psychologist Jane Healy believes children should be kept away from computer games until they are seven. Most games only trigger the ‘flight or fight’ region of the brain, rather than the vital areas responsible for reasoning.

My 4th-grade daughter loves a beat-em-up game called Castle Crashers, in which there is very very little problem solving. You wander around and find things, but it’s pretty random, and mostly you fight. So maybe Healy is right about the fight or flight in that instance.

Except it’s really narrowly conceived. When my daughter plays Castle Crashers, she runs back and forth between the X-Box and the internet-connected laptop. She watches YouTube videos on where to find different “animal orbs” and how to beat certain boss scenarios with different button combos. She cracks me up, because she actually takes notes, in a notebook, and brings it back to the game. She reads forums. She joins XBox live games with other kids where the other kids act as guides and teach new corners of the game.

In fact, if I were going to name the thing where my daughter has most clearly adopted a winning learning strategy, it wouldn’t be anything in her schoolwork. It would be how she goes about figuring out how to get those Castle Crashers animal orbs.

My six year old doesn’t play (by choice, not rule), but loves to watch others play. And she’s constantly asking questions — why did you just get more health? Can you use the shovel here? She makes suggestions that are sometimes brilliant “Katie — use the bow and arrow so they can’t get to you!” She likes to say “It’s a video game for you, and a movie for me!” which is pretty cute, but it’s a movie for her in which she is a stickler for a coherent model of causality. It’s hard for me to imagine a more intellectual undertaking than trying to deduce the rules of the game as a viewer.

I always wonder when I read things like the Mail article — do these researchers take into account the broader context — how do they do their studies? Attach some sensors in a lab and give the kids Pac Man, with no internet connection, no friends, no headset? Because that’s what it starts to sound like. The researchers on these topics often seem to me like the aliens in Slaughterhouse Five, studying humans in a glass dome.

Ok, all fine and good. Difference of opinion. But here’s where it gets ugly. In a week where we are still reeling from revelations that sloppy and in some cases dishonest science caused a generation of parents of autistic children to turn their pain and suffering into a crusade against vaccines, a crusade that resulted in the deaths of kids — in a week like this, Susan Greenfield, a prominent neurologist, has the gall to go wide with the implications:

She pointed out that autistic people, who usually find it hard to communicate, were particularly comfortable using computers.

‘Of course, we do not know whether the current increase in autism is due more to increased awareness and diagnosis of autism, or whether it can – if there is a true increase – be in any way linked to an increased prevalence among people of spending time in screen relationships. Surely it is a point worth considering,’ she added.

That sentence was delivered to the House of Lords, just as 10 years ago other “we don’t really know x, but lets speculate…” statements were given to Rep. Dan Burton’s committee in the U.S. House on the possibility of the MMR vaccine causing autism.

How tone-deaf does a researcher have to be to go there again? Given the recent history of this issue, and the context Greenfield’s delivery, it’s just an incredibly irresponsible statement.

In fact, the most “chilling” thing in this article is that a prominent neuroscientist testifying before governmental body introduced that statement with an anecdote about talking to a teacher, and decided not to end the statement directly after the phrase “we don’t know.” That, not video game use, is the thing most likely to keep *me* up at night.

Gridlock and Partisanship

There’s a lengthy article in yesterday’s NYT talking about California’s new “post-partisan primary” law:

 One outgrowth of California’s budget agreement may have set the table for something the state does often and well: force a national re-examination of a public policy issue, in this case ridding state capitals of partisan gridlock.

In approving the budget early Thursday, California lawmakers also agreed to place on the ballot a proposed constitutional amendment that would do away with partisan primaries in favor of an open-primary system in which the top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, would face off in a general election.

The article gushes about how this might be a possible solution to the sort of gridlock that nearly brought California down. 

There’s a lot of reasons why that’s wrong, (and why party-free primaries are a disaster for voters) but the simplest is this — what nearly destroyed California was not partisanship, but its requirement that the budget be passed by a supermajority, a horrible systemic flaw that California shares with only two other states.

Supermajority requirements replace majority rule with rule by minority centrists. And since minority centrists have little incentive to play with the majority party (and doubly so when the media lets minority centrists portray them as having a principled moderate stance), there is a hugely disproportionate influence that they end up wielding. This is why three Republican Senators could gut the stimulus bill, and it is why Abel Maldonado, a person that the NYT describes as a” moderate Republican”, was able to threaten California with bankruptcy if he did not get his “post-partisan” bill passed.

If you want to stop gridlock, the recipe is stronger parties, not weaker ones, and a system that allows the majority to rule.

Oh, and a media that stops romanticizing centrist blackmail. But I’m not holding my breath on that one.

Grade Inflation, and the Referee as Coach

In an education world dealing with the impending burst of the tuition bubble, the New York Times decides to cover grade inflation:

Prof. Marshall Grossman has come to expect complaints whenever he returns graded papers in his English classes at the University of Maryland.

“Many students come in with the conviction that they’ve worked hard and deserve a higher mark,” Professor Grossman said. “Some assert that they have never gotten a grade as low as this before.”

He attributes those complaints to his students’ sense of entitlement.

No offense to the reporter, but I have read this article in the newspaper every year for fifteen years.  It’s not a story, even if an academic wraps a report around their gripe. It’s more like a yearly event, like Groundhog Day. Without, of course, the suspense.

First things first. If I was a professor confronted by a student on a grade, I’d be tempted to tell them the truth:  no one cares about your GPA. I mean, grad school cares, I suppose. But I’ve worked top jobs in my field and not been asked for my GPA once. In fact, as an employer, if you see a GPA listed on a resume, no matter how high it is, you usually put that resume in the discard pile. If a person is quoting their GPA at you, it’s a good sign they haven’t accomplished anything of value.

So this whole “I’m going to teach students how the ‘real world’ works by grading them harshly” thing has the battery wired backwards. It’s the professor in many of these cases who has lost sight of how the real world works. What you put on your resume is what you’ve done — not what you scored.

But I wanted to drill down on the most annoying part of this article, because it deals with what formed my Joycean epiphanaic moment in 1994, when I was teaching English Composition 101 to college students.

I taught the rhetorical triangle. I drilled into the students — know your audience, speak to your audience, talk to them from thier assumptions, not yours. We did the essay on flag burning, we did the essay on free speech. It was 1994, it was a university chosen textbook — I’m sure you know the drill.

When we got to assigning the essay on gun control, one of my students came up to me and said, hey, Mr. Caulfield — so what do *you* think about gun control?

Silly student, I thought. Always trying to weasel a bit of information out of me to game the system.

“No, no.” I said, “You have to write for your audience, not me.”

“But I’m writing this for the grade.” said the student, “so aren’t you my audience?”

That was my first semester of teaching, and it was the first time I realized the system is designed to perpetuate a bit of a fraud on students. I was the referee and the coach at the same time. And so all the time I was coaching, students were looking for clues — how was I going to ref this? As they should. They aren’t coming to NIU because they traveled miles and paid thousands of dollars for the pleasure of my thoughts. They came to get the piece of paper that will change the course of their life.

How frustrating is it to students that we stand up there and pretend — “Oh hey, no, I’m teacher-guy now — I don’t know this evaluator-guy you speak of.”

Hey, guess what — they’re just not that into us. The reason they are putting themselves into debt for ten years *is* to get the piece of paper. Treating the teacher like the referee they are (and pressing the ref for a better grade) is sane and exemplary behaviour for a student who can expect to spend well over $100,000 on four years of education.

Do I think the game students are playing is not in their ultimate self-interest? Yeah, probably. Grades and tests are ultimately an easier thing to master than the challenges they will hit outside the academy.

But I’m not going to blame students for trying to play the game we built better.You want different behavior? Change the game.

And please, oh please, admit that you’re the referee. We can see the same person teaches the class as grades the papers — those Clark Kent glasses aren’t fooling anyone.

“Do something difficult”

There are times were Seth Godin sounds like any other marketing 2.0 consultant. And there are times where he’s just brilliant.

From the Wired/TED interview, this is one of the brilliant times:

Wired: You’ve said that a tribe doesn’t have to be encouraged to connect, they want to connect with each other. And that you as the person in the center aren’t required to do anything.

SG: That part’s not true. It requires you to do a great deal. But what you don’t need to do is sell people on the fact that they want to connect. That’s human nature. We want to connect with like-minded people. What you have to do that’s very difficult is create the platform –- whether it’s a cocktail party or a technology -– where people can get over social friction, where people can make connections that would ordinarily feel awkward. So why does TED as a conference work? It works because after traveling all that way and paying all that money, it’s expected that you will join the TED tribe. Whereas if the TED conference didn’t exist and you just called people on the list and said why don’t 20 of us get together for coffee, that would be a weird phone call to make…. That’s part of what it means to make a movement – do something difficult to overcome the social friction.

I really can’t say it any better than that.

Pay-For-Performance and the Anti-Commons

There’s a lot of talk about pay-for-performance scenarios lately. Oh, heck, there’s always been a lot of talk about it. But with a new administration in place and higher ed insitutions tightening their belts, it’s newly back in play.

Which makes reading this article by Thomas Frank in the WSJ today interesting. Particularly this passage:

According to Bill Black, a professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and an authority on dysfunctional financial systems, “It is the compensation system that has proved to be the weak point in everything critical that went wrong, that has produced a global catastrophe.”

At each stage of the disaster, Mr. Black told me — loan officers, real-estate appraisers, accountants, bond ratings agencies — it was pay-for-performance systems that “sent them wrong.”

I’ll admit, I have my problems with Frank as a theorist, even when he’s talking sociology. And Bill Black? No idea who he is. 

But this is really just the most recent iteration of this viewpoint, one that I believe will be relatively unchallenged when the history of this era is written. In the financial arena, as in our current health care system, no one manages losses or gains from end to end. The tragedy of the anti-commons is that in order to preserve the pristine state of  your deeded property you let your toxic sludge roll downhill.

When I was in software, it would be sales people, incentivized to sell specs we couldn’t possibly build. Then the sales sludge rolled down onto the programmers. Had we been incentivized to ship, had it been a major portion of our pay, I’m sure we would have shipped crap and pushed the toxic sludge onto support. I’ve seen that happen at other companies that tie major compensation to ship dates. 

And recently we see bank managers paid for the number of loans they get, so those loans can be quickly sold into tiered mortgage backed securities. The sludge rolls down to Wall Street. And now we, the public, will buy the sludge at above market rates to prevent economic collapse.

And in health care millions of dollars are spent not healing people or keeping them healthy, but in pushing them out of coverage. Doctors are rewarded for not referring people to surgery, for spending less time with patients, often with disastrous results. Just keep pushing them through — in a couple years the patient will have a new job (or no job) be on someone else’s insurance books. Until then — patch, patch, patch.

Ditching the Commons was supposed to get people to take better care of resources, and take a longer view of wealth. But in an anti-commons driven by performance pay, your best chance of survival is often not to keep the sludge from rolling onto your lawn, and certainly not to clean it up, but to make sure it keeps moving through at a decent clip.

Three examples, relatively simple: software sales are pretty simple to track, health care has well established metrics for general health and well-being, and billions of dollars has been spent modelling financial risk. Yet each pay for performance plan, wrongly designed, adds accountability and reduces responsibility.  

And education is even more complex, even more long term than these examples.

I don’t know what the answer is, but when we start talking pay for performance I plan on asking plenty of questions.

OK, battery dying…see you on the other side…


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