I tried to post this at David Wiley’s blog

But something was wrong with the CAPTCHA system. 

In any case, my comment on his recent post:

I think we have also lost the idea that part of what education is supposed to do is impart to the next generation a common body of knowledge and skills that allows society to, quite frankly, function. And for a lot of those things we have to learn we may not have an intrinsic motivation for learning them.  I think here of Jere Brophy (who probably knew more about and believed in student motivation more than anyone) — he called intrinsic motivation “ideal but unattainable as an all-day everyday motivational state”. Any socially just system must recognize that relying purely on intrinsic motivation results in a society where education only benefits a few. 

On a more personal note, I’ve been teaching a course on statistical literacy the past two semesters to incoming freshmen, and it’s an eye-opener. I would say nearly everything we teach is important to being an empowered citizen in the 21st century, and that some of what we teach is absolutely vital. 

It’s been interesting to think about my class in the context of recent open learning experiments, because so much in my class does not apply to the sort of scenario they address.

It’s not really an option for my students to leave the class without understanding margin of error, or why randomized control trials are more highly valued than cross-sectional observational studies. And the core skill — to be able to quickly break down the strengths and weaknesses of a quantitative argument presented in the media — is so crucial and at the same time so complex a skill that I envy photo-a-day projects and paint-this-picture communities. 

Here’s what I know from teaching this course though:

  • Students don’t get this on their own (even just based on the motivational issue)
  • There is a huge difference between a well designed class and a poorly designed class in whether students do get it. 

Now, if we agree that it’s perfectly fine that our public debate in this country continues to be horrifyingly statistically illiterate, except for conversation between people that care enough to bother to learn what a good quantitative argument looks like, then that’s fine, I suppose. Just rely on intrinsic motivation and an internet connection, and the people that want to learn about stats will learn about stats.

But if we actually think that education might not only be a consumer good, but part of a cultural transmission, then we are going to have to deal with extrinsic motivation, and outcomes, and all of that stuff. Because, to put it simply, we want to build more of the classes that work, and less of the ones that don’t.

I really want to make clear I am not knocking current MOOCs etc. I am just saying they are not relevant to the problems I am facing in the classroom. Yet.

That said, I just got a message that the great people down at UMW may have duct-taped up the sort of Ed Roulette system I describe here: — *that* could be major for my purposes, so it’s early days yet…

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