Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Category: Education (page 1 of 5)

Young sociology faculty publish twice as much today as in the 1990s

I’m taking a glance at academic work and careers in the book, and came across this really interesting article by John Robert Warren asking, “How Much Do You Have to Publish to Get a Job in a Top Sociology Department?” The brief answer is, twice as much today as in the 1990s.

Here’s the abstract:

Many sociologists suspect that publication expectations have risen over time—that how much graduate students have published to get assistant professor jobs and how much assistant professors have published to be promoted have gone up. Using information about faculty in 21 top sociology departments from the American Sociological Association’s Guide to Graduate Departments of Sociology, online curricula vitae, and other public records, I provide empirical evidence to support this suspicion. On the day they start their first jobs, new assistant professors in recent years have already published roughly twice as much as their counterparts did in the early 1990s. Trends for promotion to associate professor are not as dramatic but are still remarkable. I evaluate several potential explanations for these trends and conclude that they are driven mainly by changes over time in the fiscal and organizational realities of universities and departments.

Warren argues that this is mainly due to greater competition between job seekers, and more pressure to work in interdisciplinary sub fields that encourage collaboration and multiple authorship. The risk at the disciplinary level, of course, is that higher expectations to publish risk driving down the quality of publications (the number of sociology journals has risen in the past 20+ years, and so editors are chasing more articles); and at the individual level, that the pressure to publish a lot makes it harder for people to do good work.

One New Mexico school districts’ 4-day week

My old elementary school
One of my old elementary schools, now closed and scheduled for demolition, Waynesboro, VirginiaPBS’ News Hour recently had a piece about Bayard, New Mexico, a school district that haa moved from a five-day to a four-day school week. It did so mainly for financial reasons, and it’s now assessing the pros and cons of the shift.

It seems that there are benefits in terms of lower absenteeism, better teacher recruitment and retention, and some teachers reporting better classroom performance (both on their own part and on among students). Coaches like it because it makes more time for practices and games. And for kids in rural districts who are spending a lot of time on school buses— kids in this particular district may spend three hours a day commuting to and from school— it means less time on the road.

It’s also interesting how the concerns about the 4-day school week are framed. A lot of it has to do with the babysitting functions of school: librarians complain that they have more unaccompanied kids in their libraries (apparently children in the library are a negative), grandparents and other relatives are more tired, etc.. (This ought to highlight just how much energy teachers have to spend doing these things.) For others, there’s an equity issue: if my kid’s spending less time in school, will they be as well-prepared for college or work as a student who spends more? Equating time spent with outcomes is hardly unusual, in education or the workplace, but still it’s notable how quickly the discussion moves to this ground.

“This exam season, don’t forget to rest up:” REST goes to college

Daniel Payne, writing in the Daily Mississippian, makes the case for college students paying attention to rest:

Hours of caffeine-fueled work with breaks only long enough to change locations overtake the normal flow of student life. There is little time for socializing and even less time for sleep.

Is this the right approach, though? What if rest is actually the key to productivity?

That is Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s theory in his book “Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less.” Pang, a sociologist and historian, states that the technological age’s promise of less work through more efficiency has actually been replaced by the nightmare of never leaving work behind.

This is especially true for college students. Most work is done in dorms, apartments and coffee shops. There is almost no physical or temporal separation between work and the rest of life.

Under the guise of convenience and comfort, working from any place and at any time has caused students to work long, distracted hours. These hours often replace healthy sleep schedules and free time….

It seems counterintuitive to spend valuable work time relaxing to gain more creativity or presence, but research supports the claim that people’s rest is valuable to their productivity.

However, rest can be more than just a tool to increase productivity. It can also be a part of enjoying life as it happens instead of always looking to the next goal or accomplishment.

Feeling that there is more to life than tests or one’s GPA and enjoying the journey itself as much as one’s successes can lead to more life satisfaction. This exam season, don’t forget to rest up.

Of course, lots of people who discover deliberate rest do so later in life, after they’ve spent years burning the midnight oil or taking up assignments at the last minute, hoping that the pressure of a looming deadline will drive inspiration (this is how I worked). But not everyone is quite so stubborn: Cal Newport in his book Deep Work talks about how Theodore Roosevelt did well in college by avoiding overwork:

Roosevelt explained that he would spend “no more than a quarter of the typical day studying,” Newport writes, which typically amounted to only a couple of hours…. The future president would begin every day by mapping out his schedule from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., making note of the day’s classes, daily athletic training, and lunch. The fragmented time that remained would be dedicated to studying, meaning that Roosevelt had an entire evening each day to pursue his many interests.

In other words, Roosevelt worked intensely, but for limited hours each day, and interspersed his focused work with long periods of serious leisure– and it paid off. “Despite spending significantly less time on his classwork than his fellow students, he still managed to achieve honors in five of his seven first-year classes.”

And thanks, Daniel!

A new project on the craft of academic sabbaticals

What makes a successful academic sabbatical? I want to find out. And I want your help.

Few of us get any explicit training in how to take a sabbatical as graduate students. After all, our advisors aren’t around to counsel us, because they’re away.

Once out in the world, we tend to assume that sabbaticals are simple, even unproblematic: once the obligations of teaching and advising are removed, our creativity will naturally uncoil, the Muse will be unleashed, and all the pent-up ideas and articles and revisions will just tumble out.

And while academics treasure sabbaticals, the practice is oddly under-studied. The research on academic sabbaticals is not nearly as extensive as sabbaticals themselves: for example, sociologists have studied their effects on job satisfaction, but little attention has been given to what distinguishes successful sabbaticals.

I know first-hand that a great sabbatical can be intellectually transformative. In 2011 I had a three-month sabbatical at Microsoft Research Cambridge. During those three months, I did much of the research behind my 2013 book, The Distraction Addiction, laid the groundwork for my current book, and helped me forge a new sense of my self as a writer.  When I was writing REST, I found lots of examples of scientists, scholars and artists who completed ambitious projects, extended lines of inquiry, or asked questions that defined their careers and occupied decades of their lives.

So my experience is not unusual. But I also don’t think that good sabbaticals are merely the absence of professional obligations and daily distractions. Sabbaticals, like all forms of creative rest, are actually a skill. We can learn a lot about how sabbaticals actually work by collecting stories from scholars of their experiences.

So I want to interview academics about their sabbatical experiences. (I include people who are on tenure lines, who are lecturers or adjuncts, or continue to do scholarly work.) I want to hear how you prepare for sabbaticals; how much you’re able to disconnect (or not) from your normal lives and duties; what your daily sabbatical schedules look like; and what non-professional interests or activities you develop. I want to know how things like e-mail, electronic publishing, the quickened pace of professional life, and publishing pressures have affected the way your spend time on sabbaticals. And of course I want to know what differences sabbaticals really make in professional lives.

How can you help?

I’ve got six open-ended questions, which you can read below. You can email your responses to askpang at restful dot company (yes, “company” is a top-level domain!); alternately, if it would be easier, we can arrange a time to talk via Skype or phone (or in person, if you’re in the Bay Area). I’ll treat all answers as confidential, and not identify people in talks or articles.

Thanks for your help.

THE QUESTIONS

1) I’m curious about how scholars view sabbaticals— what assumptions influence their expectations about the opportunities they present, how they should be used, what long-term effect they can have on one’s work or career. As a student or young professor, what were you taught about the purpose of sabbaticals, and how one should use them? For example, did your advisors or colleagues see the sabbatical as an opportunity to continue ongoing work, to finish existing projects or start new ones without the usual distractions of classes and committees; as a chance to explore a novel area or experiment with a riskier project; or as something more like a retreat, an opportunity for mental restoration and reflection?

2) How connected or removed were you from your normal life on your sabbatical(s)? Where did you go? Did you have regular contact with your graduate students, department, or other institutions, or did you avoid such contacts? Did your family move with you? More broadly, how helpful do you think being away— away from your home campus, normal working routine, and being among people in a similar situation— is for making sabbaticals a success?

3) I’m interested in the daily practices of creative people: how much time they spend each day doing their most important work, when during the day they work best, how regular their schedules or routines are, and what other daily activities (such as walks, cycling, or other exercise) that aren’t obviously productive but which stimulate new ideas or are mentally restorative. Can you describe your daily routine during your sabbatical— how your organized the day, how many hours you spent working? Did your routine include activities you did that to outsiders wouldn’t look like work, but which helped you think? Finally, how different was your daily routine on sabbatical from your routine during the academic year?

4) What difference did your sabbatical make in your intellectual trajectory? What significant publications did you start or complete during the year? Did you develop new research interests or embark on projects that you think you wouldn’t have otherwise?

5) What advice would you give to others about how to get the most from their sabbaticals?

6) For purposes of sorting people into their various scholarly and disciplinary categories, can you tell me what field you work in; when you completed your highest degree; and your current affiliation.

On the growth of zombie departments

DSCF3614

When I was an undergraduate at Penn, one of the graduate students I met was an historian of American technology named Deborah Fitzgerald. Later, when I taught American technology I enjoyed walking students through one of her articles, on the history of hybrid corn and the deskilling of farmers (this was especially resonant when I was teaching at UC Davis, which had deep ties to California agriculture). Continue reading

Gestures and Childhood Creativity

In the philosophy of mind, there’s a concept called “embodied cognition,” which holds that thinking isn’t just something we do with our brains; we do it with our bodies, too. The big idea behind this theory is that “the mind” isn’t something that we should imagine as only confined to the brain; cognitive processes are also stimulated by bodily activity.

For example, I spell with my hands: there are words I can spell while typing that I can’t spell when writing longhand, because my memory of their spelling is locked up in the pattern my fingers make on the keyboard.

Keyboard

In effect, we think with our whole bodies. (And not just bodies. The principle can even be extended to technologies like word processors, and even religious artifacts.)

One area that embodied cognition researches have explored is how gestures affect cognition. Lots of people gesture when they talk, or think through problems; some of us (especially in Silicon Valley) get up during meetings and pace. What researchers are finding is that the gestures we make when we’re working on problems aren’t just ways of burning off nervous energy; gesturing actually helps us solve problems.

This is true of kids as well as adults. A couple years ago, a team of German neuroscientists studying high schoolers in Berlin discovered “differences between people who gesture frequently and those who gesture rarely,” suggesting that “gesturing may be a function of, and may even contribute to, brain development.” Now, a study from the University of York has shown that the same holds true for younger children. As Jessica Stillman explains on Inc.,

the research team asked 78 kids aged nine to eleven to list as many uses as they could think of for common household items like a tin can or newspaper (a standard test of creativity in psychological research).They found that the more the children gestured, the more creative ideas they came up with. Why?

“Gesturing may allow us to explore the properties of the items — for example, how the item could be held, its size, its shape, etc. — and doing so can trigger ideas for creative uses,” York University psychologist and study co-author Elizabeth Kirk explained.

But they didn’t stop there, as Science Direct explains:

In a second experiment, 54 children, ranging from 8 to 11 years old, completed the same alternative uses task. In some cases, children gestured normally; in other cases, the researchers instructed the children to “use your hands to show me how you could use the object in different ways.”

The data indicated that the encouragement worked: Children who gestured normally produced 13 gestures, on average, while those who were specifically prompted to gesture produced about 53 gestures, on average.

And encouraging gesture in this way boosted creativity: Children who were encouraged to gesture generated a greater number of novel uses for the everyday objects than did the children who were not given any special instruction.

One other very interesting finding was that restricting their ability to gesture did not seem to suppress how creative they were. In other words, kids who had to sit on their hands generated about the same number of ideas as kids who could gesture. but kids who were free to think with their hands came up with more creative ideas. As Kirk says,

Many people assume that we gesture to communicate, but it is becoming clearer that we often gesture to help us think. Previous research shows that children can be taught gestures to help them solve problems. This research shows – for the first time – that it also helps them to think creatively.

A preprint of the article is available as a PDF here.

So what does this mean for education? It certainly suggests that insisting that kids sit still and be “orderly” during lessons can inhibit problem-solving and creativity. More broadly, the research on embodied cognition should alert us to the ways that activities we might otherwise see as unproductive, or irrelevant to learning, or disruptions in the classroom, may actually help kids learn and solve problems.

Rope swing

It’s also important to see education as an enterprise in which the body is a participant, not irrelevant or a distraction. We already know that physical activity and exercise can improve learning in both children and adults; we should also help kids recognize that for some kinds of problems, getting up and moving around is going to help them find solutions.

“To create, we need both technique and the freedom from technique”

One of the great Silicon Valley tropes is that inexperience is a positive. The extreme expression of it– I’m simplifying here, but not that much– is that young people who aren’t already experts in a field don’t have the bad habits and assumptions that insiders have about what can’t be done, what’s impossible, or how things are supposed to work (or simply are), and therefore are able to be totally innovative.

This is, to put it mildly, an idea that deserves to be examined more fully. It’s like assuming that because I don’t speak Arabic, or know anything about poetry, that I’ll have better insights about interpreting 9th-century Arabic poetry than someone who’s spent a lifetime studying the subject, and can, you know, actually read Arabic. Or that a person who knows nothing about quantum mechanics can have a brilliant insight into quantum mechanics, precisely because they’re ignorant of it.

This is the kind of magical thinking that brought us Theranos.

Presumably there’s a sweet spot between innocence and expertise, where outsiders know just enough to be able to see that a field or industry is ripe for disruption. But there’s much better evidence that the disruptions we should take seriously come from people who are incredibly knowledgeable, and have actually done the work of mastering a field.

For one thing, in most fields you have to learn a lot in order to declare yourself an expert. Everybody knows that health care is screwed up and that the tax code should be reduced to a postcard-sized set of rules– unless you’re a doctor or tax accountant, in which case you understand just how complex these systems are.

Further, in most fields you have to know an awful lot in order to understand what even counts as an interesting problem, where the gaps in a field’s knowledge are, or what things really are efficiencies.

Finally, creativity rests on a foundation of endless, sometimes boring, preparation. As mathematician Stephen J. Merrill puts it in his article “To Again Feel the Creative Voice,” (International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education 5:1 (March 2007), 145–164):

The creative voice speaks to those who have prepared themselves. The tools to implement any insight received are those experiences, techniques, and abilities developed up to that time, and, developed to an extent that they are automatic Y not needing conscious intervention. This means that there are no shortcuts to being creative. One must practice the musical scales, draw the urns, and complete the mathematical exercises…. To have a creative event, one must have both the inspiration and the ability and experience to execute it. Developing technique as an artist, writer, or scientist is necessary.

Merrill the quotes musician Stephen Nachmanovitch:

To create, we need both technique and the freedom from technique. To this end we practice until our skills become unconscious. If you had to think consciously about the steps involved in riding a bicycle, you’d fall off at once. Part of the alchemy engendered by practice is a kind of cross-trading between conscious and unconscious. Technical how-to information of deliberate and rational kind drops through long repetition from consciousness so that we can “do it in our sleep.”… When the skill hides itself in the unconscious, it reveals the unconscious. Technique is the vehicle for surfacing normally unconscious material from the dream world and the myth world to where they become visible, nameable, singable.

Identity projects, adolescence, and success

A recent book by Stefanie DeLuca, Susan Clampet-Lundquist, and Kathryn Edin, Coming of Age in the Other America, that aims to explain how some poor kids manage to thrive, go to college, and build good lives, and others don’t. The researchers had previously studied things like programs that allow families from poor neighborhoods to relocate to middle-class suburbs, or voucher programs that give their children the chance to go to better schools; in this book, they also talk about more personal factors. One of the things they discovered, as Alana Semuels explains in The Atlantic, is that many of the successful kids “found what researchers call an ‘identity project,’ essentially a passion or hobby that helped motivate them, went even further, onto college or decent jobs.” Of course, other opportunities were important, but “what helps them excel, more often than not, are these identity projects.”

Bob, for instance, got into Japanese anime as a kid, and then found a passion by following the musical group Insane Clown Posse. Another—whose father was shot in the courtyard of her public housing complex—was passionate about dance, which drove her to apply for and be accepted into a competitive arts school. Another reared pigeons, an interest that kept her off the streets.

About half of the youth researchers studied found this “life raft,” which helped inspire them despite tough conditions. Out of the 116 youth studied who are not still in high school, 90 percent of those with an identity project graduated, while only 58 percent of those without one did so. And 82 percent of those with an identity project were in school or working, compared to 53 percent of those without an identity project.

This is true for high-achieving kids as well. In the late 1990s, psychologists Roberta Milgram and Eunsook Hong observed childhood hobbies are a good predictor of later-life intellectual interests.* Some gifted children show precocious ability in one particular area from an early age, others demonstrate talents in several areas. How then can you tell if teachers should accelerate their studies math or art, or science or literature? High achievement in any field isn’t just an expression of genetic ability; even prodigies need to practice, and the gifted won’t flourish without developing discipline and resilience. Practice can be dull, failure and setbacks are inevitable, and early promise is no insurance against critical and professional disappointment. Gifted students who make the wrong choice or are pushed by demanding parents to become young mathematical wizards or chess masters are likely to rebel and abandon their studies as adults. Push in the right direction and children will flourish; push in the wrong direction, and they child will eventually break.

Milgram noticed two things about the way we assess gifted children. First, because assessments tend to be done by schools, giftedness is usually identified by academic achievement and IQ: the bright underachiever, or the child who doesn’t test well, tends to get overlooked. Second, gifted students have lives outside the classroom that aren’t measured by tests given at school. Could those hobbies help predict future achievement?

To answer this, Milgram looked at people in their 30s who as high school seniors had been identified as gifted by the Talpiot program, the Israeli Defense Force’s program to identify the nation’s brightest students. (The IDF isn’t just one of the world’s most famous armies. Because most Israelis serve in it, it’s also one of the world’s largest social science laboratories.) Milgram found that 45% of the Talpiot seniors had turned their hobbies into professions as adults. Further, while as a group the Talpiot students were more accomplished than the average, kids who’d turned their hobbies into professions were among the most accomplished.

She also noticed something else about hobbies and leisure among gifted children. Their leisure ranged from watching TV to hacking into computer networks on a military base, but hobbies that were more challenging had the biggest payoff in the long term. Non-challenging leisure activities were relaxing, but they also tended to be “passive, repetitive, and require little involvement or effort.” Challenging leisure, in contrast, was stimulating rather than relaxing, and required effort and dedication. But it also had much bigger payoffs.

Challenging hobbies gave kids a creative outlet that they sometimes did not have at school; a platform for developing self-discipline, resilience, and other emotional resources necessary to succeed and deal with setbacks. That was why “challenging leisure activities lead to creative accomplishment” and “unusual and high-quality products in a specific domain.”

A couple months ago I wrote about a project started in the 1950s by Berenice Eiduson that tracked the careers of a group of California scientists, and looked at how and why some had accomplished careers and others did not.

*See Roberta Milgram, Eunsook Hong, “Creative out-of-school activities in intellectually gifted adolescents as predictors of their life accomplishment in young adults: A longitudinal study,” Creativity Research Journal 12:2 (1999), 77-87.

If you want to produce drones, teach kids nothing but STEM

The Guardian has a piece by 16 year-old Orli Vogt-Vincent about “STEM subject snobbery,” and how the emphasis on science, technology, education and maths* leads us to both underfund arts classes, and encourage kids to see them as unserious. (Vogt-Vincent is something of a phenom when it comes to writing about higher education; her piece on how constant testing gives her panic attacks is quite something.) She writes:

At 16, I am constantly baffled by people who believe they can define what is of academic value. People see me as an equation – because I am academic, I should not choose dance and drama at GCSE.

“But you’re, like, clever – why dance?” was one friend’s response.

“What do you even do? An extra A* to prance around?” was the response of someone who, needless to say, was not my friend….

There’s this stigma with the arts that only “unintelligent” students take those subjects. I still struggle to be taken seriously for taking arts subjects. I was told by advisers that dance and drama wouldn’t help me to get a suitable career, and by other adults that I was wasting my potential.

This is the view from England, but you’d find the same problem in many schools in the United States.

The problem is, if we want people to be creative as scientists and engineers, discouraging them from taking arts classes (or for that matter discouraging them from playing rugby or football** or whatever) is exactly the wrong way to do it.

While I was writing REST, some of the most interesting studies I read compared the hobbies of high-achieving and low-achieving scientists. In particular, there was a study started in the late 1950s by UCLA sociologist Bernice Eiduson to understand what separated great scientists from their less accomplished colleagues.

Lots of psychologists had tried to figure out what marked some people for greatness, but no one had found the thing— the single personality trait, the “genius gene,” the cognitive edge— that all successful scientists share. Eiduson thought that by watching their careers unfold over several decades, and talking to and testing them at regular intervals, she might see things in successful lives that one-off interviews and short studies couldn’t.

Los Angeles

UCLA

Eiduson found forty young and mid-career scientists who agreed to be interviewed about their life and work, sit for psychological tests, and most crucially, keep doing so. All of them were products of top graduate programs, promising researchers, and young enough to have long, productive careers. Eiduson would follow this group for more than twenty years, and in that time the lives of the forty diverged. Some were elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. Others received promotions and prestigious chairs at their universities. One became a presidential science advisor. Four won the Nobel Prize; one, Linus Pauling, won it twice. Others settled into less distinguished careers. Some continued to struggle to do serious science, but couldn’t keep up. They became administrators, or focused on teaching.

.Los Angeles

UCLA

From a sociological standpoint, it was an ideal outcome. A group that looked roughly the same decades earlier had split into two parts. The challenge now was to figure out why.

So what did she find that separated the top performers from the rest?

It wasn’t performance on intelligence tests— there didn’t seem to be a genius gene— nor were there personality traits that were really unusual. (The high performer were ambitious and competitive, but so are lots of people.) No, what separated the great from the good were— as Eiduson’s collaborators would discover after she died in 1985— other factors.

  • It turned out that the best scientists showed “an unusual urge to experiment athletically as well as scientifically,” and selected “athletic activities that could be carried from youth into old age.” (These quotes are from an article by Maurine Bernstein, Robert Scott Root-Bernstein, and Helen Garnier, who continued and extended Eiduson’s work.) The top scientists took full advantage of the region’s geography: they played tennis, went swimming, hiking, and skiing. This being southern California, there was also an over-representation of surfers and sailors. Their less distinguished colleagues, in contrast, reported low rates of participation in sports.
  • They saw rest and recreation as connected. As Robert Scott Root-Bernstein put it, elite scientists shared the belief that “time relaxing or engaging in their hobbies could be valuable” to “their scientific efficiency and thus to their careers.” For them, playing the piano or painting was just another “expression of a general aesthetic sensibility about nature.” What they did in the lab, the court, the climbing wall, and the lecture hall were woven together, different activities linked by common interests and shared passions. Low achievers, in contrast, said nothing about serious hobbies. They “had none or found them irrelevant to their work.”
  • They expressed fewer anxieties about time pressure. For the Nobel laureates and world leaders, swimming or hiking didn’t compete with their time in their laboratory, and they didn’t feel that the time they spent on deliberate rest was stolen from more productive things. Because they practiced deliberate rest, seeking out activities that gave their conscious minds a break and provided a mental and psychological boost, but left their subconscious minds free (free to run through ideas, test and reject possibilities, and hone in on a solution), their sense of how much time they worked, and how much time they had at their disposal, differed from their less successful colleagues. In contrast, less well-cited, well-known scientists saw themselves as too time-pressed for hiking or surfing or playing the piano: they had too many commitments, too many obligations, too many demands on their time.

There are tons of examples I could give— and do give in the book— of world-class minds who are also great athletes, serious painters, musicians, even pool players (Albert Michelson, who measured the speed of light, was a master billiards player). And there’s good evidence that being good at these different activities strengthens creative ability, and provides much-needed deliberate rest for busy, hard-charging people.

So extrapolating from Eiduson’s work, if you want to produce people who have technical skills, but never will be able to do anything more imaginative than quality control for LG, then teach them lots of science and math, and nothing else. In contrast, if you want to produce people who’ll create category-defining products, overturn paradigms, and make scientific breakthroughs, by all means offer the physics and chemistry— but also encourage them to play sports, learn to paint, and play music.

Or as Vogt-Vincent put it,

Stopping young people from expressing themselves at such a young age is not doing them any favours…. To study arts subjects, you have to take risks, push yourself emotionally, expressively and creatively in every lesson, you have to persevere and be interpretive, passionate and collaborative. I’ve worked harder in these subjects than I’ve ever worked in my life.

* Since we’re talking about an English article.

** Once again, talking about an English article here.

Using EEG to measure the impact of education

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Westmont College, a Christian liberal arts college in Southern California, is going to try to measure the impact of international education on students by scanning their brains:

Last fall researchers at Westmont started a study that uses headsets to test electrical activity in the brains of 30 freshmen. The students will be scanned again in two years, after they have had a chance to study abroad, and they will be scanned once more after they graduate. The tests can be used to measure empathy and nine categories of “executive functions,” which include areas like memory, reasoning, and problem solving, said Gayle D. Beebe, Westmont’s president….

The theory, Mr. Beebe said, is that students who spend 15 weeks abroad in a highly structured, fully immersive program end up with a greater intellectual capacity and an increased ability to work with people from different cultures than do their peers who stay on the campus. That’s an important matter at Westmont, where Mr. Beebe said about 70 percent of students study abroad.

The college has big plans for its study. This fall Westmont’s psychology and neuroscience professors will scan another group of 30 students and continue monitoring the initial group, with the hope of securing funds to scan an entire class of about 325 students. Mr. Beebe said the tests would let campus officials build a “databank” to help them “shape some of the experiences and teachings” in Westmont’s curriculum.

It’s an interesting idea, but scientists the Chronicle talked to are skeptical, mainly because EEG is a poor tool for measuring what they want to measure, and it’s not clear that you can sort out the effects of foreign study from other factors, anyway. Neurologist Robert Burton, whose work I quite admire, is quoted as saying, “I was trying to think of something more ridiculous, but I couldn’t.”

Nonetheless, the idea of using brain imaging or other tools in education is bound to become more popular. Some of the programs might even tell you something that other kinds of tests, or the biographies of students, don’t. Stranger things have happened

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