Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Goldilocks Zone

Climate scientists talk about planets where life can exist as planets that exist in the Goldilocks zone: not too hot and not too cold.

I think there might be a zone like that for school assignments: not too hard and not too soft, like the Three Bears' beds.

The other day I ran into an assignment that I thought was too hard. The assignment was to analyze the global financial crisis and determine whether or not the federal government should intervene, and why or why not.

This seems to me to be the $64 trillion dollar question, possibly the hardest question in the world right now. The student that I was tutoring said that yes, the government should intervene. But then she went on to simply describe how bad the crisis was. She didn't say what the government should do, or why it should do that.

But could you explain that? I couldn't. I trust Paul Krugman's judgment that the government should intervene, probably by nationalizing the banks. But I can't explain why Krugman thinks that. And it would take me weeks to get up to speed enough to explain it.

I know that there are lots of questions about what the government should do: how big the bail outs and stimulus should be; how much debt the government can accrue as a percentage of GDP before our own bonds become bad investments; which toxic assets the government should buy, and for how much; how the government should deal with mortgage defaults; whether any of this is fair to the average citizen; what to do about the money that has already simply disappeared into the pockets of CEOs at banks and car companies; and on and on ad nauseum. I don't understand credit default swaps or zombie banks, but I believe that the Dow could go much, much lower, and that unemployment will go a lot higher before this is over. That is to say, I know that this is a very complex issue that I don't really understand at all. I really, really hope that some people in the Obama administration understand it, and that the Congress acts on these understandings.

Back to the pedagogical issue. Some people say that difficult assignments are good for students. But I think there's such a thing as an assignment that is too difficult. The ideal assignment is challenging, but the student should be able to do a good job on it with some guidance from the teacher. It should be a little harder than the last assignment, but not a lot harder. Assignments that are too difficult can be harmful in that (1) they can frustrate the student and in the long run make her cynical about school, if the student understands that she doesn't really understand the assignment and that she just has to fake her way through it; (2) they can teach students that school is mystifying and at times meaningless, because often you don't understand what you are supposed to be doing. This is demoralizing.

Grading presents a problem because if an assignment is too difficult, the teacher either has to give the student a bad grade despite the fact that she struggled hard to do the assignment, or the teacher gives the student a good grade for a bad paper, which misinforms the student about what a good job on that assignment would look like.

I think sometimes that teachers who teach little kids think more about these things than college teachers do. I am teaching a first grader to read. I know that giving him a "hard" book, like Frog and Toad Are Friends, would be a mistake right now. I can read that aloud to him while he watches. But when I want him to read to me, I give him Go Dog Go, or Hop on Pop. He reads those over and over again until he is perfectly confident with them. Then we might go on to The Cat in the Hat. His reading is carefully paced to challenge yet encourage him and give him a sense of mastery.

That's harder to do at the college level, where texts are not so easy to sequence. Still, I think college professors should think carefully about the sequence of assignments and try not to give freshmen and sophomores assignments that they will only be ready for when they get to graduate school.

Do graduate students in economics know the answer to the global financial crisis? Could they write an essay supporting government intervention in the economy? Could Geitner do it? Can Obama? Is there anybody out there who really knows what to do? Or can even explain what the options are, and why some are better than others? I trust that there might be, but I bet you can count the number of people who really understand this on one hand.

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