Posts Tagged ‘education’

I’m on Udemy

Wednesday, April 5th, 2017 | News

Last month, I launched the IT Career Acceleration course for IT professionals looking to take the next step in their career.

Advancing your career is like being an athlete. Even the best athletes in the world have a coach to help them improve. It’s the same thing when you are writing your CV, winning interviews or creating a promotion plan: you need a coach. The course provides that.

That’s all super, except that not everyone wants to have to set up a new account or put their credit card details into an unknown site.

At the same time, there are great education platforms, like Udemy, already out there.

This made a natural fit for the ITCMC content. Which is what I have done. You can now find the Career Acceleration course on Udemy. It includes all of the video lectures and workbooks you get from us direct. The only thing missing is the checklists.

It’s all backed up by Udemy’s 30-day refund policy. Not quite as good as the 60-day one you get direct, but it still makes the purchase risk-free.

Is learning a foreign language really worth it?

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016 | Science, Thoughts

language-school

In an episode of Freakonomics Radio I recently listened to, the show discussed whether learning a foreign language was really worth it.

I wrote a post back in May about whether we should teach foreign language in schools. My main point was that it was essentially a failed system: children simply do not learn to speak a foreign language, despite spending hours of school time per week on it. That is a big opportunity cost when they could be doing other subjects.

The show agrees with me. Not only are most people unsuccessful, but it really does not provide that much benefit. If you look at the economic benefit for example, which if it was giving you additional skills or even just increasing your IQ, we would expect to see big gains here. However, a study in America showed that learning Spanish gave you can economic benefit of around 2%. French was a little better at 2.7%, but there are certainly other things you could do and other skills you could learn that would give you a much greater benefit with the same time input.

This is not true of countries where English is not the primary language. If you live in a country where a relatively obscure language is spoken, and then learn English, you’re economic outlook significantly increases: perhaps 20%. Therefore it makes sense for other countries to continue to teach English as an additional language. However, for English-speaking countries to continue to teach other languages makes far less sense.

There was one benefit the show discussed that did pick up my interest though. Thinking in another language seems to make you more rational. For example, if you are offered a coin toss: heads you get £15, tails you lose £10. The rational thing to do is to take this bet. However, many people don’t. It is called loss aversion and Daniel Kahneman talks about it in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

However, if you get people to think about it in a different language, they are more likely to take the bet. Similarly, if you give them a moral dilemma, “do you switch the train tracks to save five people but kill one”, they are more likely to take the utilitarian view in a second language. Dubner suggests this is because we attach a lot of emotion to the worlds in our mother tongue, but do not have this baggage when thinking in a different language.

Should we start school later?

Tuesday, May 24th, 2016 | Thoughts

child-in-school

Compared to other European countries, especially the Nordics, we start school very early. In the UK, children start school the year they turn five, with many starting while they are still four. In Sweden, it’s seven. The Nordics also have much longer summer holidays: three months in Finland.

All of this does not make much difference to educational outcomes. The Pearson Education Index ranks Finland as the best education system in Europe (1st globally in 2012, 5th in 2014). The UK scores 6th overall, 2nd in Europe. You can compare this to the intense schooling that countries such as Singapore and South Korea and by the time everyone reaches undergraduate level, we see no significant differences between intensive schooling and Finland’s “turn up for a bit in the winter, when you’re older”.

Given that, it then seems sensible to reduce the amount of schooling and allow children more time “to be children” (rather than whatever it is they are being when they are in school). How we would implement this is not clear though.

Free, as in childcare

As a parent-to-be, I like the idea that by the time my child hits five, the state will provide me with free daycare for the next thirteen years of their life. It’s not that I don’t want to be a parent, but that I do have to have a job. And then spend most of my money on daycare. That is super-expensive for one child, let alone more. If you had to pay for child care until each of your kids was seven, well, you literally couldn’t. You can easily be looking at £600+ per month, per child. If you have two children, you are spending over 50% of your take-home pay on childcare even if you earn the average UK salary (and 50% of the population earns less!).

In Finland, this isn’t a problem. The state is mandated to provide childcare and it is on an means tested system. If you don’t earn enough you pay nothing, and the amount you might pay is capped, so even if you are a millionaire your childcare will be cheaper than the UK. It’s a great idea, and the UK has now followed suit, offering free childcare for three year olds.

However, note that Finland does not have a system where children stay at home and receive more parenting, they just go somewhere other than school.

Letting children be children

Given that most Finnish children go to daycare, the system is actually remarkably like the English one. You can argue that daycare is fundamentally different than school, because it is more relaxed and allows children to learn through play. However, I think this is being unfair to our schooling system.

While some structured learning does go on in reception, a large element of the learning takes place through learning through play as well. I don’t remember doing that much work in reception. I mostly did fun stuff.

There are advantages too

One possible advantage of having some structured learning in these years, is that it may help level the playing field across socioeconomic backgrounds. In the UK, everyone will go to reception the year they turn five and start doing some reading and writing.

This is not the case in the Nordics. If you are not attending school until you are six or seven, your learning will only start if it starts at home. For example, Elina could already read when she started attending school. This gave her an advantage over other children, who may not have even picked up a book before the age of seven.

Should we teach more foreign language?

Monday, May 23rd, 2016 | Thoughts

books

Learning foreign languages is a big thing these days. As we grow into a globalised society, children are being taught other languages from an earlier and earlier age. When I was at school I did French and German at high school. Now, you would typically start learning another language in primary school. This is in the UK, where we are far behind our European neighbours, who often speak several languages.

In Finland for example, you cannot earn a degree without speaking Swedish. So even when you go to university, you continue to take classes in Finnish, Swedish, and often English as well. In Luxembourg, you learn French, German and Luxembourgish (yes, they have their own language and it is taught in their schools).

However, all of this this focus on languages misses one quite important point: teaching children languages simply doesn’t work.

The failure of bilingualism

I remember very little of my French. In fact, the things I do know I probably re-learned last time I was there, rather than remembering. My German is poor too. Even my mum, who enjoys languages, speaks enough French to get by when they go there on holiday every year, would struggle to hold a conversation about anything meaningful.

It is not just us Brits however.

Have you ever spoken to a Canadian from the English-speaking regions? My money is on them having no French skills. They learn it in school: it’s an official language. In reality though, they forget it all as soon as they walk out the door.

Even Finland, greatest education system in the world, and with a dire need to learn another language because only 95% of their own population speak native Finnish (let alone other countries) has not been successful. English is strong in urban areas where they get to practice it, but my in-laws don’t speak English. Elina constantly bangs on about how poor her Swedish is. In Finnish Saturday school. I sit next to a Finland-Swedish woman, who’s Finnish is about as good as mine.

Of course many people are bilingual. However, this is primarly a result of them getting the opportunity to use and develop their skills in society: by living in a country and speaking the language. People who learn a language in an educational system do not develop those skills.

But what about the other benefits?

Learning a language does not provide the direct benefit of being able to speak that language, as discussed about. But what about the other benefits? Are there any? The answer is yes. Though what they are and how much benefit they provide is not always clear.

For example, being able to think in another language is highly beneficial because a language provides a construct for thinking. Therefore, by thinking in another language you are taking a different approach and that will improve your problem solving skills. However, this only works if you can think in that other language. As Elina found, you need to live in that language for years before you start thinking in it, rather than translating thoughts back to your native language.

Learning a language may also improve your cognitive skills, help keep your brain active through learning, help you understand your own language better and develop your multitasking abilities.

These are all genuine benefits and very worthwhile having.

However, if we accept that people don’t actually get the language skills out of the learning, they just get these benefits as a bi-product, we are essentially just using language classes as a proxy for these benefits.

Which is fine, they’re good benefits, but why not just teach a class in that? It might be that learning a language is the most effective way to do that. I doubt it though. Teaching a class specifically to develop these skills would intuitively seem the best way to develop these skills, rather than proxying it through another subject.

Summary

Teaching foreign languages develops important skills and those skills are certainly worthwhile having. However, given the lack of success in developing language skills, it may be that there is a more effective way to do this. Therefore, teaching languages may not be as important as is often claimed.

Reflections on student loan

Saturday, April 9th, 2016 | Thoughts

coins

At the end of last month, I paid off my student loan. Sort of. I haven’t actually sent the money or anything practical like that, but the amount I have accrued in student loan tax is now enough to cover the remaining balance. So once I get my tax bill, it will be sorted. Just in time for me to start paying George Osborne’s increased tax on small business owners.

This gave me a moment for reflection. I am 29 years old. I graduated at 21, so eight years seems pretty good going. Most people, however, will not have the opportunity to repay their loan anywhere near as fast as me.

First, my loan was quite small. When I went to university, tuition fees were £1,000 a year. Most of my loan was made up of maintenance loan, the money they lend you to live on. This was about £3,500 in my day but is probably more now. The year after I started at university the fees went up to £3,000. More recently, they have risen to £9,000. Living costs are probably rising too, so let’s say you need £5,000 a year maintenance loan now.

In total that makes for £16,000 a year. Assuming you get your degree in three years (not everyone does), that means you will have built up £48,000 of debt by the time you leave university: almost four times the amount that I left with.

Second, I am a software consultant, which is a well-paid industry. Many people will never earn the amount of money I earn. If you are a teacher, for example, only senior management will have pay higher than a software engineer who is a senior but still very much in the trenches of everyday code writing.

According to the Official of National Statistics, as reported by the BBC, the average earnings for people with a degree are £29,900 per year. This compares with £17,800 for people without a degree.

Let’s say you are earning £29,900 as a graduate. £17,335 if that is below the threshold. That leaves you £12,565 that is taxable for student loan. This is taxed at 9%, so that means you would be paying back £1,130 per year. With a loan of £48,000, that means you will be paying back the loan for 42 years.

That figure is far lower than it would be in real life, however, because it does not factor in the interest on your loan. That will add a large amount on to your debt, especially as £29,900 is the average earning over your career, not what you will be earning at the start. Initially, you will be lucky just to pay the interest off.

This is irrelevant however as your loan is cancelled after 30 years.

What this means in practice is that if you go the university now, you can expect never to pay off your student loan. What you can expect to pay is an additional 3-4% tax for the 30 years after you start your first graduate job.

Is student loan a good idea?

I have written before about the difficultly of arguing against tuition fees, though there are some points that seem to hold up.

However, with the new system, the sheer nonsense of it all seems to work against the tuition fee system. We have a series of ‘loans’ that we never expect to be paid back. We’re not saving the entire cost of tuition because most people are never going pay it all back.

We are saving some money, of course, an additional 3-4% tax on graduates for most of their working lives is a considerable amount of money. However, given we could just tax everyone more, and then provide everyone with a free at the point of access education, without having to subject people to the choice of lumbering themselves voluntarily with the additional tax, you can make a good case for abolishing tuition fees.

Going to university is still worth it

Even with the current system in place, the best choice is still clear. As graduated out-earn non-graduates by an average of £12,100 per year, even with the additional tax of £1,130, you are still almost £11,000 better off with a degree.

Piano: six months on

Saturday, January 23rd, 2016 | Music, Thoughts

piano

Six months ago I bought myself a piano and began taking lessons. It was hard to fit in: I had to give up my guitar lessons and when my singing teacher left I did not pursue another. I am not moaning like some rick stuck-up kid, but it was a good reminder for me that you can only do so much and need to allocate your time accordingly.

Now that I have spent six months with it, it seems like a good time to reflect on my progress so far.

I am still practising every day. You have to, if you want to achieve mastery (or even basic competency) of an instrument. I am finding it about as difficult to motive myself as I did with guitar. It’s a struggle to sit down ever day, but I do get it done.

I am finding it easier than guitar. With guitar, I literally could not play anything for the first six months. After that, I finally got one basic song down. Getting the muscle memory to make those chord shapes takes ages. With piano, I was playing a song in my first lesson. It was very simple song, but I was playing it. I can also see myself making progress, whereas often with guitar it feels like I am not getting any better. This has all be done with around twenty minutes practice a day. With guitar, I was usually doing an hour.

I can’t read music yet. I know how to, but in the heat of the moment I am lost. I have to start counting up the bars using FACE or ACEG. Interesting though, I need the music in front of me, and to keep my eyes on it, to be able to play the music.

I feel like I am building muscle memory, rather than learning. I can nail a piece, but as soon as I make a mistake or lose my place, it takes my ages to find it again. I am hoping this will disappear over time. As the songs her more challenging, it should push me to sight read more and more.

Always break it down. If you are struggling, break it down into a small section. Once you have this down, build it back up again. Slowly. Use the metronome to help yourself keep the beat. It is annoying, but useful.

Having a teacher is really valuable. Not only do they instruct and help you correct your mistakes, but they also reinforce the stuff you already know. I know I should break it down and use the metronome, but often I do not because I don’t like doing it. Having these concepts constantly reinforced is useful on its own.

Who Gets What And Why

Friday, August 14th, 2015 | Books

Who Gets What – And Why: The Hidden World of Matchmaking and Market Design is a book by Nobel laureate Alvin E. Roth on market design.

He begins by pointing out that not all markets are money driven. Community markets commonly are. Food for example will typically rise and fall in price depending on supply and demand. It’s relatively simple. Many markets are matching markets however. These involve much more complicated transactions.

Take the job market for example. This is not simply supply and demand. You have to both want to go work for a company, and the company has got to want you. I cannot simply turn up at Google’s offices and announce I am starting work. Nor can they demand I come work for them. We have to be matched by agreement. This is common – university applications and martial partners are good examples. These are major issues in our lives.

He then states that a free market is one that works well because of strict rules. The free market is not one where people can do whatever they want but one were the players find a safe environment in which to transact.

This is often not the case in matching markets. Take school applications for example. When I was a kid we lived next to an okay school. However, I wanted to go a better school down the road. The risk was that if I put the good school as first preference and the close school as second preference, I would fail to get into the top school because they had other priority students and fail to get into the okay school because it was over-subscribed from people who had put it as their first preference.

Typically people will instead put the okay school as their first preference to play it safe. This is bad market design because it does not allow participants to express their true preference and often not to get what they actually wanted.

Can you fix this by implementing a market that allows people to express their true preference without the risk? It turns out you can!

Roth describes a multi-round matching algorithm that makes this possible. Here is how it could work for a school system:

  • Parents list their true preferences for the schools they want
  • Round one starts and each school makes offers based on the students that each school wants (typically based on proximity, or perhaps test results)
  • Each student tentatively accepts the the best offer according to their preference
  • In round two, the school makes new offers based on the places freed up from rejected offers in the previous round
  • Students can then switch their offers if they get a better one, or hold on to their existing offer
  • Rounds repeat until there is a stable match for as many people as possible

I am unlikely to have done the algorithm justice. I’m not a Nobel laureate – buy the book if you want to understand it. However, the outcome is that people can list their true preferences without the risk of losing out and everyone gets the best match possible.

Let us take continue with my school problem. I list the good school first and the okay school second. Under a traditional system I could miss out on both. Under this system, it does not matter that I listed my true preferences because the okay school would make me an offer in round one, which even if I didn’t get an offer from the good school, I could still accept. In addition it works better for the schools because the multi-round system means they get the students they most desire who also want to go attend them. Everyone comes out on top so it is in both parties interest to take part.

He also discusses unravelling. This is where a market moves further and further forward. Graduate recruitment is a good example of this. If you wait until people have finished their degree to make a job offer, they have often taken another offer. So you begin making offers earlier, and then everyone does it earlier, so you move even earlier. In the end you are making offers after their first year, without any guarantee they are going to get a good degree at the end!

The university American football bowls were a good example of this. They would often make deals with teams before the year had finished. These teams would then go on to lose a few games and thus the bowls would end up with mediocre teams in the “play-offs”. Exposing limits typically does not work. That is to say “nobody makes offers until this date” participants typically ignore it or make informal deals.

A better solution is to redesign the market so that it is not in their advantage to go early and begin the process of unravelling. In the case of the bowl series, the five major bowls combined to rotate who gets the biggest championship game each year. Getting the top teams and thus far higher viewing figures makes it well worth them only getting it one in five times.

Controls on markets rarely work as well as a well designed market. Take prohibition in the US for example. It didn’t stop people drinking, it just created a black market. Organised crime got involved. This is a big problem because when prohibition ended, the criminals didn’t stop being criminals, they just did something else.

This might be a good lesson for the war on drugs. Not only it is obviously failing to control drug use and supporting organised criminal activity, but even if we decriminalised drugs, which the evidence shows is clearly a good thing, we would also have the legacy of organised crime to mop up.

A better market is also a thicker market. One where there are plenty of buyers and sellers that can be matched. There are a number of ways to do this.

Commoditisation is one. Take coffee for example. If everyone sells individual coffee you need to build up a relationship with each coffee grower to ensure their quality is high. But if you implement national standards and grading, people can buy a specific grade coffee without this information. You can even have a futures market.

Money can be a useful tool for easing congestion in a crowded market. Ticket reselling sites are a good example of this. The ticket market is broken. Gig tickets are typically sold all at one price, even though some people want to attend an event so much that they would be willing to pay a premium. Ideally this would be done at the original point-of-sale, but it isn’t, so the ticket resale market has sprung up to fix this.

Speed is also important. eBay is a good example of this. They have transitioned from an auction format which takes time and there is no guarantee you will win. Now, most transactions are Buy It Now, matching buyers and sellers instantly. Their feedback system is also an example of an evolving market. Initially people would always leave positive feedback for sellers, because otherwise the seller would retaliate. Now, only buyers can leave feedback, so they are free to be honest about bad experiences.

Filtering can also be an issue in over-crowded markets. If you are an attractive woman in online dating, you may receive more messages than you can respond to. Or for popular jobs, a company will receive more applicants than it can sort through. Roth suggests that one way in which a degree can be valuable is almost like a peacock’s tail. If you can show you can deliver on a three year project, it doesn’t matter that it might not be relevant to the job you apply for.

In summary, many markets are not just simple money-driven commodity markets. matching markets are complex and often do not work well or safely. This is a major problem because matching markets affect huge areas of our lives – education, jobs and love! Therefore it is important that we design these markets in such a way as to make them work as well as possible for all participants. Importantly, it is possible to do this with good market design.

who-gets-what-and-why

The arguments against tuition fees

Sunday, July 26th, 2015 | Religion & Politics, Thoughts

Last year I argued that there is little difference between having and not having university tuition fees. The arguments placed against it were largely insubstantial and I have yet to have a decisive point against tuition fees.

However, in this article I will offer some arguments that could be used to defeat the idea.

Putting poorer students off

There has been a decline in university applications since the rise in tuition fees. According the BBC, the number of applicants dropped nearly 10%.

This is in itself not a problem. When people realise the full cost of university, perhaps people decide that it is not worth it. Which could legitimately be the case. Wages are market-driven thus the skills we need could continue to attract applicants while those we don’t could see a drop-off, and this would be the system working.

It would however be a problem if it turned out that there was a substantial drop in applicants from poorer backgrounds while wealthier backgrounds did not see such a drop as this would suggest we are creating a less egalitarian society.

However, this is not the case, and thus this argument falls down. According to the UCAS figure discussed in the previously mentioned BBC article, applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds dropped only 0.2%, while those from privileged backgrounds dropped 2.5%.

Supply and demand

In theory you might expect tuition fees to better match the demand for labour. This is because people might be more inclined to choose professions such as doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc, that give them a chance to pay off their loan. Whereas my guess (and it is a guess, I have no figures to back this up) is that people who study English or contemporary art, will be less likely to pay the loans off.

This does not necessarily follow though. If you are going to be a penniless artist you do not need to worry about paying your loan off because it is income dependent.

Also this assumes that people pick their courses both rationally and with financial ends in mind, neither of which may be true.

An alternative system that better match skills shortages to labour is a system such as Finland operate. In Finland, it’s free to go to university. You get like five years free, including a maintenance grant, which is enough time to do a bachelors and a masters. It’s open to all EU citizens for free too!

The catch is that there is a cap. They only take so many people, so if you want to go study sports science for example, there may be say 50 places per year and if you don’t make the cut, you don’t be doing that subject (or any subject).

This system means that people could potentially miss out on higher education. Though more likely they will just switch onto an under-subscribed course. However it does do a good job of making sure that the best people are fulfilling the countries labour needs.

Long term equality

In Capital in the Twenty-First Century Thomas Piketty suggests their is evidence that a more highly educated population leads to higher levels of equality in the long term, as shown by the Nordics.

Therefore we may decide that as tuition fees put people off attending university (this point is debatable, though applications have gone down in the short term), we may want to pay for as many people to go to university so that in the long term we create a better, more equal society.

Triple crown

Monday, July 14th, 2014 | Public Speaking

Triple-Crown

A few weeks ago I attended Toastmasters district training where I found out there was such a thing as a “triple crown”. The way I found it out was that Kevin said “congratulations on your triple crown, here is a prize”. Apparently, if you earn three educational awards in the same TM year, there is a name for that…

Sex differences in mathematics and reading

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013 | Religion & Politics, Video

Gijsbert has published a new video based on his latest research findings.