Panama Canal

9th June 2019

Cheery Friday Greetings to our Learning How to Learners!

Book of the Week

Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1874-1914, by David McCullough. This is a fantastic book (a National Book Award winner) about the successes and disasters of both great and awful—and great-but-awful—leaders.  After the charismatic Ferdinand de Lesseps—the Steve Jobs of his day— spearheaded the successful construction of the Suez Canal, the French grew to adore de Lesseps’ ideas almost as much as de Lesseps himself did. (As Bill Gates has said “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they cannot lose.”) De Lesseps’ desire to create another sea level Suez Canal in Panama ultimately doomed the project, killed thousands, and ruined tens of thousands more.  When the Americans subsequently took over, their initial leadership was worse than that of de Lesseps. That is, until John Frank Stevens (he of “Stevens Pass” in Washington State), took over. Between Stevens—who ultimately appeared to crack under the strain—and his successor, the very different, but equally effective George Goethals, the canal took shape. You’ll learn of Dr. William Gargas’s David against Goliath story competing against malaria, yellow fever, and perhaps worst of all, pig-headed bureaucrats. And you’ll get a sense of how the front line laborers, primarily from the West Indies, did the hardest work under appalling conditions.

Construction of the Panama Canal was the biggest construction project in history—of inestimable value in uniting the globe.  Its clever use of the fearsome Chagres River to provide the energy to run the locks is a lesson in elegant engineering. During our tour of the Canal last week, we were surprised to learn that the Panama Canal competes with the Suez Canal in bringing goods from the Far East to the Americas.  McCullough’s book gives a wonderful understanding of the main players and issues behind this extraordinary human feat of engineering.

If The Cuckoo Don’t Crow

LHTLer Susannah Rosenberg brings our attention to the 2-minute video “If The Cuckoo Don’t Crow,” which provides a wonderful example of a Suffolk accent while also telling the story of the expert who ignored the hurricane warning of an “amateur.” For a fun romp through more of the accents of England, watch voice coach Andrew Jack’s one and a half minute  “A tour of the British Isles in accents.” And here’s a three minute tutorial on how to do an Australian accent.

Annals of Great ResearchInterleaving

We’ve always been fans of researcher Doug Rohrer and his work involving the importance of interleaving when learning various topics. (This approach is especially important in learning mathematically-based subjects.) Rohrer knocks it out of the park with his team’s gold-standard, pre-registered study “A randomized controlled trial of interleaved mathematics practice.” As the everyday English abstract notes:

“Every school day, many millions of mathematics students complete a set of practice problems that can be solved with the same strategy, such as adding fractions by finding a common denominator. In an alternative approach known as interleaved practice, practice problems are arranged so that no two consecutive problems can be solved by the same strategy, and this approach forces students to choose an appropriate strategy for each problem on the basis of the problem itself. We conducted a large randomized classroom study and found that a greater emphasis on interleaved practice dramatically improved test scores.”

Great stuff! [Hat tip: Ryan Stocker]

Cracks in the Ivory Tower

This insightful interview by Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed with the authors of the new book Cracks in the Ivory Tower is well worth reading in full.  A few key grafs relate some of the author’s findings about universities:

“…the more financially insecure a department is—e.g., by having a high faculty-to-major ratio, declining enrollments, a bad job market or few opportunities for outside grants and revenue sources—the more often its classes seem to appear as gen-ed requirements. Also, mandatory gen-ed credits have gotten more stringent over the years—especially in writing composition, foreign languages and the ‘first-year experience’ classes that many universities now require. Keep in mind that in most universities, the more butts in seats, the more money your department gets. If you can’t get volunteers to take your classes, you can always force students to take the classes instead and say it’s for their own good. It’s also pretty easy to convince yourself it really is for their own good.

“A learning objective that looks good on paper ends up actually becoming a way to prop up departments that need enrollment, even though students are not learning much in their courses. And the students— or others—end up footing the bill through tuition payments on a largely ineffective product…

“Universities are perplexing places. They are filled with left-leaning faculty (like Jason) and even more left-leaning staff and administrators who profess a commitment to social justice. Yet most universities work hard to increase their status by becoming ever more exclusive and elitist. Universities are hierarchical in their own operations, and reinforce other social hierarchies in their outcomes. They serve as gatekeepers of prestige, power and status. Many top institutions have plenty of physical capacity to expand the number of students they admit, but they instead work to keep admissions rates and the number of undergraduates as low as possible, all to enhance the elite status of their brand.”

That’s all for this week. Have a happy week in Learning How to Learn!

Barb, Terry, and the entire Learning How to Learn team


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