Thursday, January 23, 2014

getting kids to like school

There are a couple of self-reinforcing cycles that people tend to underestimate:
  1. You like what you're good at, and you're good at what you like. The first causal relationship is well-understood: of course people like to feel good about themselves, and likes are arbitrary enough that's it's easy to "decide" to like what you're good at and rationalize those preferences as necessary. The second causal relationship is underestimated: If I like something, I'm likely to spend some time doing it immediately, which means I'm going to get better at it, and have even more reason to like it.
  2. You do what your identity prescribes, and your identity is shaped by what you do. If I think of myself as a morning person, I'm going to remember that when I set my alarm clock, and I'll set it early. If I think of myself as a punctual person, I want to live up to that by being on time. But conversely, if I play with math somewhat as a kid, and notice that other people don't do that as much, then I might define myself (necessarily in contrast to others; no one's self-concept is based on their humanity) as a math geek.
These are powerful cycles to exploit, because positive reinforcement leads to exponential processes: The more you learn today, the more you can learn tomorrow. The more you invest today, the more you'll have available to invest tomorrow. There are two aspects of exploiting them:
  1. Get on the right cycle: Teenagerhood is considered a high risk time of one's life because that's when we define ourselves. And teachers are always trying to convince us that "math is fun!" so we'll take an interest in it and get better at it.*
  2. Get on the cycle early, so exponential growth gets going: There's plenty of effort to get young girls interested in math and science, and virtually nothing to convince them to study math and science when they get to college. It's much more powerful to get to them early on.
So this is a very long roundabout way of getting to my true point: using financial incentives on kids to get them to do better in school is usually met with extreme skepticism, because extrinsic motivation might crowd out intrinsic motivation, and/or the money sends the signal that doing well in school is something so unpleasant that they have to be paid to do it. But what about when you're dealing with young disadvantaged inner city kids who already believe they can't be good in school, a belief which is reinforced by teachers and parents who by high school will tell them to stop wasting time and get a job? I believe that a well-crafted** financial incentive could be just the thing to trigger young kids into liking the right things and choosing the right identity. If a kid decides to go after a monetary prize for doing something academic, he just might find that he's better at it than he expected, or likes it more than he expected, and voila, either way he's on a virtuous cycle starting from a young age.

As an economist I would put this as: the "model"*** above predicts a positive correlation between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, unlike other models that predict a crowding out effect.


*Hint: gradeschool math is not math. Calculation is tedious and boring, no matter how relevant/relatable you make it. Math is fun, so teach it! Kids don't care whether things are useful, they care whether they're fun. They just say "who cares?" when they're trying to justify their disinterest.

**I have more to say about how to craft them well, but later. Actually it was a conversation with a development/education economist, Francisco Gallego, about what my job market paper has to say about designing education programs in these scenarios that got me thinking about the topic in general. The job market is exhausting but the upside is the fresh mental stimulation from meeting all kinds of new smart people.

***Quotation marks are mandatory here. I will never give in to the sociology definition of "model" :)

Monday, January 6, 2014

non-economic notes from AEA

  1. These are some of the best things I've ever spent $12 on. Squish-into-briefcase-able waterproof black comfortable dashing-through-the-snow shoes!
  2. Economist frugality has gone too far when they schedule the largest annual meeting in a place like Philadelphia in January instead of giving people an excuse to go somewhere they actually WANT to go. 
  3. The interviews I was most intimidated by were the most fun, overall.
  4. I'm an easy sell. Or just getting pretty good at focusing on the good sides to each job possibility. After just about every single interview I told Matt "hey such and such place could be really great! listen to this!"
  5. I'm officially cured of my hesitation regarding 5-hour energy drinks. They're gross, but do the job.
  6. One of those, along with 72 ounces of redbull, 2 liters and 3 cans of diet coke, and two excedrin, definitely set a personal record for caffeine consumption over three days... Someone better hire me, at least so I have health insurance for when my kidneys fail.
  7. Not all interviews start with "So tell us about your job market paper." "So how's your Portuguese?" wasn't anywhere on the list of questions to prepare for...
  8. And "Hi, I'm X, from Y College. I'm the economics department." was an entertainingly creative introduction. (And literally true.)
  9. I am almost physically averse to describing my job market paper in 3-5 minutes a single additional time. By the end of day one it was in such rote form that I knew exactly which phrases I changed between iterations.
  10. As a result, I probably sounded even more like a manic overly-caffeinated nerveball with speech set to "fast forward". Who hadn't slept in a week.
  11. Football (which I already like normally) is way more fun when your brain is too fried to think any other thoughts. Maybe that's also why its entertainment value is correlated with beer intake. And why certain people think it's anticorrelated with, er, intellectualism, although I strongly disagree - they just don't know how much awesome strategy and statistics are involved. (Go Niners!)
  12. Now I know what old people who say funny things like "this cold weather is bad for my hip" mean. Within about a mile of speed-walking through the snow in 15 degree weather I'd aggravated both running injuries that I'd thought were long gone.
  13. Cheese steaks are pretty good but a far inferior local specialty food compared to Mission burritos, New York pizza, Chicago pizza, döner kebabs, Buffalo wings, or southern BBQ (any variety).
  14. Utz pretzels on the other hand...Yum.
  15. In naps on two flights, overnight in an airport, and on my couch this afternoon, I've dreamed about nothing except email conversations scheduling flyouts with schools or receiving rejection news, disaster striking on flyouts, getting good news from schools I'm particularly excited about and then waking up to realize it didn't happen.... I expect to be an insomniac for awhile until signing a job offer.
  16. My Chinese fortune cookie said "Investigate the new opportunity that will soon become an option". Ten minutes later I was invited to Santiago, Chile :D
  17. Speaking of Chile, why on earth did people settle North America when South America and Australia were available? Have you seen pictures of Chile, or the climate averages? Yeah yeah I know the real reasons, but still.
  18. I'm a little ashamed at being so happy to receive a miniature travel iron for Christmas. I'm a devout believer in Downy wrinkle releaser and in NOT putting so much effort into superficial things like creases (which I don't know how to do properly anyway). Oh well, hopefully I'm sending the right combination of "cares about this interview enough to worry about the superficial things" and "too excited about and wrapped up in research to care about it normally" signals.
  19. They say the post-interviews waiting period is the hardest, but I don't know why, because I plan to sleep through almost all of it. Perpetual interview nightmares and all. Goodnight.

Friday, January 3, 2014

gender parity

We're never going to have gender parity in economics until they make pantyhose with zippered crotches, so I don't have to spend 5 minutes undressing and redressing every time I want to go to the restroom during a 30 minute break between AEA interviews for dashing 8 blocks through the snow and waiting for elevators in busy 20-story hotels and fiddling with map and schedule printouts while my male colleagues are in and out in 30 seconds and spend the spare time reviewing their notes :)