Tuesday, October 13, 2020

[inpkrvco] Students interacting with each other

Most discussion of education, e.g., about improving it, focuses on the interaction between instructor and student (or, often even more narrowly, the unidirectional interaction of an instructor at students, filling a bucket).

However, anecdotally, a student's most lasting effects from education are often memories and other consequences of interacting with other students.

If the important part of education is nonetheless the interaction between instructor and student, we would expect education to be trying to prevent students from interacting with each other, to prevent distractions.  Other than, "Don't chat with other students while the instructor is lecturing", is it?  If so, how?

More likely, despite the lack of much discussion about it, society has recognized that students interacting with each other is an important part, perhaps the important part, of the education system, and the system has been designed, perhaps implicitly, to achieve something from the interaction of students with each other.  What is it achieving or trying to achieve?  How is it doing that?

Assume the main purpose of education is to allow signaling in the imperfect information game of high versus low productivity workers (Nobel Prize 2001).  A common way of enabling such signaling is to place hurdles in front of students.

Bullying, a form of students interacting with each other while in the education system, could be such a hurdle.  A bullied student typically suffers negative physical and especially psychological consequences.  Those consequences get reflected in decreased academic performance, signaling low productivity.  Were such bullied students destined to be low productivity workers even if they weren't bullied, that is, has bullying made hidden information visible?  Conversely, are students who survive bullying without much decreased academic performance, perhaps because they were not bullied, more likely to be high productivity?

This depends on what mechanisms determine which students get bullied and how much.  Obviously, this depends on school rules, enforcement, and various societal power structures.  However, one attractive general model of bullying is that it is an ancient human or animal instinct to identify then attack the weakest members of one's own herd, seeking to eliminate them to improve the overall strength of the herd.  Determining the weakest members is complicated, with hidden information everywhere, the same hidden information that the education system tries to make visible (assuming weak = low productivity, which is a big assumption).  Students figure out who to bully by interacting with each other, observing each other closely, something that administrators and instructors in the education system do not have the ability and resources to do.

Along that line of reasoning, students interacting with each other helps gather more information in the signaling game that is education.  Students interact with each other much more than an instructor can.  As they repeatedly interact, students gather more and more accurate information about each other, so such interaction can feed an information conduit for the education system to generate accurate signals.

For example, is there a student with whom other students do not want to work for a group project with groups formed voluntarily?  The other students may have knowledge, gathered through student interaction, knowledge not visible to the instructor, that the student is a low-productivity worker.  A group project, which such a student will therefore do poorly at, makes visible such hidden information.

There might be a feedback effect that obscures the signals generated through the mechanisms above.  For example, bullying causes a decrease in health (especially mental health), which causes more identification as a weak member of the herd (poor health = weak), which causes more bullying.  All the while, the bullying causes decreased academic performance, signaling low productivity.  How strong is this feedback effect?  Does it interfere with signaling so much that it makes the signals useless?  If not, why not?  Perhaps susceptibility to this feedback cycle is itself something usefully correlated with future productivity outside an educational environment, perhaps an indicator for ability to survive temporary adversity.  Or perhaps bullies accurately target the inherently weak instead of those just temporarily weak due to previous bullying.  Hypothesize that political efforts to decrease some forms of bullying happen only when this feedback effect interferes with signaling -- other forms of bullying will remain permitted.

These possibilities are pretty unpleasant to think about, perhaps taboo.  Society might outwardly condemn sinister practices such as bullying in schools, but at the same time secretly permit and endorse them (are group projects institutionalized bullying?) because they are effective at enabling the education system to be a signaling mechanism.

Inspired by the large amount of social-distancing remote education happening during COVID-19.  Students interact with each other much less.  Some students are complaining that remote education is not letting them adequately signal their ability.

Also inspired by anecdotes that dating, another form of students interacting with each other, while in the education system is awkward or difficult.  We may explore this further in a future post.

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