Sunday, June 3, 2018

A Simple Strength and Muscle-Building Program and the Death of Bro Splits

Here's a science-based strength and muscle-building program for anyone looking for a change in their old routine. If you're completely new to using weights, this might be a good program to use after about 3-6 months. This program is suitable for advanced beginner to upper intermediate. It's not meant for competitive or aspiring competitive bodybuilders since it's built primarily from compound movements; there are virtually no isolation exercises. The program aims to balance fitness, strength, muscle growth, and aesthetics.

First, I'll present the program then, for the keeners, I'll explain some of the principles behind being successful in the gym. Finally, I'll introduce you to some trends in 21st century exercise science which are signaling the demise of bro science.

I need to say one more thing. You'll notice that each routine is a full-body workout. As I was putting this program together, I thought I'd do a little digging on the state of affairs in the bro-splits vs full-body debate. It turned into a several-day journey down a rabbit hole of surprising science. For those unfamiliar with these terms, bro splits means you assign a different workout day to each major body part. E.g., Monday is chest, Tuesday is legs, Wednesday is back, etc.... With bro splits each body part only gets trained 1x/week. This is by far the favored method for gym bros and professional bodybuilders alike.

A full-body workout routine, on the other hand, usually trains each body part per workout allowing one day rest between each workout. This typically amounts to training 3x/week, although programs vary from 2x to as many as 6x per week.

It's a core bodybuilding dogma that bro-splits are superior to full-body workouts with respect to building mass and strength. This dogma has been so firmly entrenched that for at least 3 or 4 decades no one even bothered to do a comparative study. Well, in 2014, the Norwegian powerlifting team committed sacrilege: Rather than act on faith and tradition alone, they decided to put dogma to the test.

The results of the Norwegian Frequency Project sent shock waves through the weight-lifting world.

Experienced powerlifting athletes following higher frequency programs outperformed those in lower frequency programs with respect to strength and mass. A flurry of studies followed and continue to follow. I'll discuss more below but the upshot is that science destroyed bro science. Carefully measured and controlled studies eclipsed anecdote, tradition, and dogma [gasp!]. Bro splits, despite a ton of cultural inertia, are on the demise.

Reporting on a follow-up study, Baysianbodybuilding.com offers what I consider to be the best explanation of the decades-long unquestioned reign of bro splits:
An additional finding was that the bro split group experienced significantly greater levels of muscle soreness throughout the study. This suggests they experienced greater muscle damage and tentatively supports that muscle damage is not a mechanism of muscle growth. It is probably also the reason bros prefer bro splits: they feel like they work better and because they experience this amount of soreness, they also think they can’t train with higher frequencies. Bros typically base everything they do on how they feel and then rationalize with pseudoscience AKA broscience.
This is enough preamble for now. More science-y stuff later. Let's get to the routine...

The 3 Day/Week Program: Full Body

If you're a beginner or any of the movements in the routine are new to you, pleaseplease consult with a personal trainer or experienced friend before attempting them. You will learn to do the exercise effectively, avoid potential injury, and save yourself from being "that guy/girl" in the gym that everyone rolls their eyes at. I see so many beginners who don't think they're beginners doing all manner of wrong things when working out. Lifting with poor form virtually guarantees injury and no gainz. Also, it's entirely appropriate in gym culture to ask someone who looks like they know what they're doing. Almost all experienced lifters are as enthusiastic as Mormons to share their knowledge with you.
Trigger Warning!

Biological Sex and How it Affects How You Train: TL;DR version. For most exercises, men should do 6-10 reps for mass/strength gains *(sort of--I'll mention something about this later in the post). Women should do 8-15. Men should use longer rest periods. Women should use shorter periods. For the most comprehensive article on the topic: BayesianBodybuilding.com I suggest all women read it.

Day 1:
1. Deadlift
  • 2 warm up sets (more if needed).
  • 3-4 sets x 5-8 reps (men), 8-12 reps (women).
  • I use all 3 kinds (standard, sumo, Romanian) of deadlift depending on how my body is feeling. Go with whatever you like on that day or stay with the same one each Day 1 (muscle confusion principle is fake news). 
  • Go heaviest on your 3rd set. Back off on the fourth to preserve strict form (if necessary).
2. Bench Press
  • 2 sets warm up.
  • 3-4 sets x 5-8 reps, 8-12 reps (women).
  • Your 3rd set should be your heaviest set. Come back down a bit on the 4th set to preserve strict form.
3. Lateral Shoulder Raises
  • 1-2 sets warm up.
  • 2-3 drop sets--each to failure. 
  • E.g., 20 lbs to failure, 15 lbs to failure, 10 lbs to failure. Cheat on the last 2 or 3 reps of each increment. 
4. Standing Barbell Curls
  • 1-2 warm up sets
  • 3-4 sets x 7-10 reps, 8-12 reps (women)..
  • Your 3rd set should be your heaviest. Come back down a bit on the 4th to preserve strict form.
  • Use either straight bar or ez-curl bar. Whatever feels best to you.
5. 3 Sets of Any Ab Exercise

Day 2
1. Squat (or Leg Press if your back is having a bad day)
  • 2 warm up sets (more if you still don't feel warmed up)
  • 4-5 sets x 5-8 reps, 8-12 reps (women).
  • Your third set should be your heaviest set. If doing 5 sets, make your 4th set the same as the 3rd before backing off to preserve strict form.
2. Bent-Over Dumbell Row or Seated Cable Rows (med to narrow grip)
  • 3 sets x 7-10 reps, 8-12 reps (women).
  • I use higher reps here because most people's technique really suffers on this exercise when they go heavy. Use a weight that allows you to squeeze your shoulder blade to your spine.
  • For judoka: Modifying bent-over dumbbell rows mimics one of the core movements in judo. To do this, flair you elbow out as though you are doing uchi komi with your hikite (pulling arm). "Look at your watch" for each rep as you would with uchi komi.
  • Use the negative on this exercise and be sure to hold a full contraction at the top of each rep.
3. Incline Dumbbell Bench Press 
  • 2 warm up sets.
  • 3-4 sets x 5-8 reps, 8-12 reps (women)..
  • Your shoulders are one of the easiest areas to injure so be sure to be well-warmed up before going into your working sets.
4. Calves
  • Do 4 sets of any kind of calve raises if you like. 
  • I've given up on ever growing my calves and do 10 minutes of skipping instead. It's better for the kind of muscle I need for judo anyway.
  • If you believe in miracles and haven't given up on growing calves yet: 3 sets of one kind then 2 sets of another kind of calve exercise.
5. 3 Sets of Any Ab Exercise. Superset with back-hyerextensions. 

Day 3
1. Lunges
  • 2 warm up sets
  • 4 sets of ~16 reps, ~20 reps (women).
  • 1 set = 8/10 reps for each leg. Alternate legs with each rep.
  • I prefer to either hold dumbbells on my shoulders or use a bar for lunges. It helps keep good posture and engage my core. Holding dumbbells at my side doesn't seem to engage my core as much. This is a matter of preference.
2. Dumbbell Shoulder Press (seated or standing--your preference)
  • 2 sets warm up
  • 3-4 sets x 5-8 reps, 8-12 reps (women).
3. A. Wide-Grip Pull Down
  • 2 sets with a medium light weight x 12-15 reps.
  • This is just a warm up for pull ups so don't tire yourself out here. We're just warming up to prevent injury.
3. B. Wide-Grip Pull-Up
  • 3-4 sets x 7-10 reps, 8-12 reps (women)..
  • If you're not used to doing pull ups, use the pull-up assist machine. If you don't have one, put a box/bench under you and use your legs for help to complete at least 7. Use your legs to push yourself up but fight gravity on the way down (i.e., use the negative).
4.  Dips
  • 2-3 sets to failure.
  • When doing dips, bend your knees, cross your lower legs, and pitch your body forward. If you do dips straight up and down, you put yourself at higher risk of shoulder injury.
  • Use a dip assist machine if you're not used to doing dips to build up to unassisted dips.
5. 3 Sets of Any Ab Exercise

Principles and Tips:

The First Rule of Exercising/Sports/Weigh-lifting: Avoid Injury!
Always warm up. If you're feeling off one day, ease up on the weight. Learn and use strict form. Have an experienced friend or trainer check your form every once in a while. Learn correct breathing technique. Learn to distinguish good pain from bad pain. If you get injured, you're out for at least two weeks. That sets your fitness in reverse. 

Another good tip for avoiding injury is to always "leave one in the chamber." This means end your set when you fell like you might still be able to do one last rep but that it would require you to break form. In other words, do as many reps as you can with strict form. There's a time a place for breaking form, but as a general rule, avoid it as it increases the odds of injury, which in turn will set you back.

For a more detailed account of how to prevent injury, read my more detailed post here.

Number of Reps:
Fact: You can't get stronger without lifting weights heavier than what you're used to lifting. The way to lift heavier weight is to drop the number of reps. This is why, for strength training, you shouldn't be doing more than 8 reps. Once you can do 4 sets of a weight at 6-8 reps, you should increase the weight, or better yet... (For women, work in the 8-15 rep range. See article linked at the beginning of the program).

What I've said above isn't entirely true. There's still some conflicting literature but it seems like the most important variable for muscle hypertrophy is total training volume for a body part. This means 3 sets x 8 reps of 100 lbs (= 24 000 lbs) should give you the same results as training 2 sets of 12 of 100 lbs (= 24 000 lbs) or 6 sets x 2 reps of 200 lbs (= 24 000 lbs). Same volume = same results regardless of how you got there. My guess is that this is only true within a certain range of combinations as, were it possible, lifting 24 000 lbs once probably won't give you the same results as the above possibilities.

Level of Resistance:
In a standard pyramid progression, you start off with a relatively lower weight but relatively higher reps. For each set, increase the weight but decrease the reps. 

  • Set 1: 70 lbs x 8 reps.
  • Set 2: 80 lbs x 7 reps.
  • Set 3: 90 lbs x 5 reps.
  • Set 4: 100 lbs x 1 rep.
The benefit of standard pyramid progressions is that, when you reach your heaviest weight, your muscles, tendons, and ligaments are really warmed up. The downside is that you can exhaust your muscles by the time you get your heaviest weight so your technique suffers.

In a reverse pyramid, you start off with a heavy weight and low reps. With each set you decrease weight and increase reps.

  • Set 1: 100 lbs x 5 reps.
  • Set 2: 90 lbs x 7 reps.
  • Set 3: 80 lbs x 8 reps. 
The downside of a reverse pyramid is that you risk injury when you lift heavy before the body part is fully warmed up. The upside is that you're at full strength when you do the heaviest set.

My solution is to combine the methods. This way I get the benefits of both while diminishing the downsides of each. I do a standard pyramid up to and including my third set. At my third set, I'm still close to full strength but fully warmed up. On my fourth set, I bring the weight back down slightly below my third set. This way I preserve strict form on my last set. If I'm doing 5 sets, I might stay at the higher weight for set 4 but do one less rep then come down for the last set.

  • Set 1: 70 lbs x 8 reps.
  • Set 2: 80 lbs x 6-7 reps.
  • Set 3: 100 lbs x 4/5 reps.
  • Set 4: 90 lbs x 6-7 reps.
Rest intervals:
I like to rest around 90 seconds- 2 min between sets but if I'm really focused on building strength I might even increase rest times up to 3 minutes. Science says, for men, longer rest periods are better for muscle hypertrophy (for women, it seems like short rest periods are likely better).

If I'm close to a judo tournament, I reduce rest time to 1 minute: I want the workout to more closely mimic the explosion-recover intervals of a match and to keep my heart rate up. 

Number of Sets:
You'll notice that for many of the exercises, I've given a range of possible sets. This is to allow flexibility in the program.  If you're more on the beginner end of weightlifting or are restarting after a break, you'll want to use the lower number. If you're more in the intermediate or higher range, you'll want to use the higher number of sets.

Also, regardless of where you stand, some days you have more energy than others in the gym. Build flexibility of sets into your routine to accommodate the variation in how you feel on any given day. Why leave an exercise early if you still have lots of energy? Why do one more set if you're already exhausted? Nothing good will come of it except an increased risk of injury.

Rest Days:
By most standards--especially evolutionary standards--our daily lives are sedentary. For this reason, just cuz you're not in the gym lifting on your off days, it doesn't mean you should be sitting on your butt watching Netflix. You were probably already sitting in your office all day. At least go out for a walk. Better yet, participate in a physical group activity. Take a dance class. Do a martial art. Coach a kids' sports team. Just do something to get off your butt!

Summary: Personalizing your Program
Recall that volume is the dominant variable for muscle and strength gains. Think of all the above variables (including rest period) as means of individualizing a program in a way that maximizes total training volume for your body. There are 4 variables to play with: number of reps, number of sets, weight (% of max), and duration of rest period. What you should do is play with each to find the combination that results in the highest total volume per exercise.

For example, I find that pretty much no matter the weight (in the working weight range), I have trouble going above 8 reps. My power drops off significantly after the 6th rep. So, for me to do the most volume, I use low reps (5-7) and high weight. I also find that I recover fairly quickly between sets, so I use moderate rest periods. This allows me to get more sets done in a workout.

An average woman might find she can reach higher total volume when she does high reps of med-low weight with short rest periods. So, this is what they should do.

The key idea here is that as you get to know your body, you should individualize this or any program to suit your body. Use a pre-made program as a general template but the exact combination of sets/body part, rest periods, reps, and weight (% of max) aren't going to be optimal for everyone. No program can be optimal for everyone given human diversity. Learning to customize your program comes with experience and experimentation. 

More on Bro Splits vs Full-Body Programs

Let’s talk a little bit more about the bro splits vs full-body workouts. Recall that with bro splits, you assign a day to each major body part and maybe train a minor muscle on that same day (e.g., chest and biceps; back and triceps). In each workout you try to “destroy” that particular muscle group with the idea that it will take a long time to recover. 

With a full-body program we usually train all (major) muscle groups during each individual workout. Two implications follow: First, you will train each major muscle group several times a week (3 in a standard program). Second, your muscles won’t get “destroyed” after each work out since you’re only doing 3-5 sets for a particular muscle group as opposed to the 14-18 (or more) in a standard bro-split. It follows, that you can train each muscle group more frequently.

Why do full-body programs seem to be outperforming bro splits? First, (on average) protein synthesis mostly occurs over the first 48 hours from your workout. This means that the majority of muscle growth/repair occurs only in the first 48 hours, post workout. After that period, resting your muscle has minimal mass/strength gain benefit. After 48 hours, your muscle is, in effect, ready to be trained again .

Understanding this allows us to properly conceptualize the debate between bro splits and full-body programs. It’s not really that training your full body in a session has some magical powers, it’s that a full body program allows you to increase each muscles’ training frequency over a given period. In a standard bro split, each major muscle group is trained only 1x/week, but muscle growth only happens for the first 48 hours. In a (standard) full-body program, each major muscle group is trained 3x/week. This means there are 3x the growth periods compared to a bro splits program.

Hold On a Second...
If you’ve been lifting for any reasonable amount of time, your spider senses should be tingling from what I’ve said. Something’s not quite right. Anyone who’s an experienced lifter will tell you that for muscle growth you simply can’t push a muscle group hard enough in just 3-5 sets of a single exercise. To really get that drained, quivering-jello-muscle feeling, you need to work that muscle over at least 3 or 4 different exercises of 3-5 sets each. That is, you need a minimum of 14-18 sets on each muscle group to truly damage it in order to get the gainz you’re after.

What am I getting at? When we compare full-body to bro splits programs, total training volumes will differ. And the research is clear on one thing: Training volume is a primary driver for mass and strength gains. The whole point of bro splits is to increase training volume over what one could do in a full-body program. That’s why bro splits became the gold standard for weightlifting. Let’s look at that more carefully.

Assume a standard bro split program:
Day 1: Chest 16 sets.
Day 2: Legs 16 sets.
Day 3: Rest
Day 4: Shoulders 16 sets.
Day 5: Back 16 sets.
Day 6: Rest
Day 7: Arms 16 sets.
Compare that to a 3x/week full body program where each body part gets 3-4 sets x 3 times/week (9-12 sets/body part/week).

When we compare the two programs head to head, for each body part, the bro splits program does an additional 4-5 sets of volume each week (assuming we hold reps constant). That’s a big difference. Take chest for example. Even if I’m only benching 150 lbs x 6 times, for 4 sets that’s 3 600 lbs (900 lbs x 4 sets) of volume difference in just one week between the programs. Now add together the volume difference for each body part between programs. That’s a massive difference in total volume between the programs in just one week. Imagine over a year.

No thanks, Mr. Science Man, I’m keeping my bro splits. Keep your stupid "science" away from my precious gainz!

What’s going on here? In a lot of the comparative studies they have to hold training volume constant across the two types of programs. Without this control, volumes are different and there's no way to can point to frequency as being the differentiating variable. Great for controlled science but this doesn’t translate well outside of the lab since the whole point of bro splits is to increase training volume. I’ll bet my last scoop of protein powder that if you compare training volume between any real-world full-body program vs any bro split program, there will be a significant difference in total weekly training volume (favoring bro splits).  If total volume drives gainz, it's bro splits all the way.

Hold on a tick. We started this whole article citing the trend in the literature, across various studies and study designs, that full-body training generates results superior to bro splits. But the studies are a sham. They're comparing apples to oranges. Bro splits have higher volume. If volume drives gainz, how can a lower volume program produce moar gainz than a higher volume program? The meat in my head is getting overtrained with all this!

Resolving the Paradox
Wait! There’s more! There’s another training dogma that’s come under increasing scrutiny: that muscle damage is the mechanism for muscle hypertrophy. Bro splits seek to maximize volume because it is the best way to guarantee maximum muscle damage. The reasoning goes like this:
Moar muscle damage leads to moar bigger muscles. And moar volume leads to moar muscle damage. So, moar total volume leads to moar muscle damage which leads to moar bigger muscle growth. By transitivity, moar volume leads to more bigger muscles. Therefore, bro spliz all the way.
But what if muscle damage isn’t the primary driver of muscle growth? And what if, like everything else in the world, the law of decreasing marginal returns also applies to training volume?

I'm not going to rewrite an already excellent article so I'll summarize. Short term spikes in inflammation (signaled by interleukin 6; IL-6) trigger the metabolic pathway for muscle repair. But long-term/chronic inflammation (also signaled by IL-6) interferes with muscle growth. IL-6 serves a dual role depending on its intensity and duration.

See where we're going with this?

Bro splits lead to long-term inflammation since there is massive muscle damage. But what does this do to the potential for muscle growth? Recall, it undermines it (relative to a short and intense IL-6 signal). What does high frequency training do? It leads to short-term spikes in IL-6 which...(say it with me) activates the muscle-growing metabolic pathways three times a week.

Pair this with what we observed above, that most protein synthesis (muscle-building) usually only occurs over the first 48 hours post work out, and we're on our way to resolving the volume-frequency paradox.

Let's walk through it. The law of decreasing marginal returns tells us that there's some upward bound to the gainz we can make by adding more volume to our workout. At some point, more volume isn't going to translate to moar units of gainz. We can see this by imagining extreme ends of a continuum of volume training. At one end I lift one pound/week. Surely adding one more unit of training volume will lead to a better  rate of gainz. At the other extreme, all I'm doing is lifting weight, from the time I wake up, until the time I go to bed. In fact, I sleep with a 45 lb plate on my chest so that with each breath I exert force x distance. Adding another 45 lb plate on my chest at night (i.e., increasing volume) isn't going to add more units of muscle gain. In fact, adding more volume at this point probably decreases my total gainz and negatively affects rate of gainz.

Somewhere between the two ends of the continuum, there's a point where adding more volume doesn't increase units of muscle gain (i.e., the marginal rate). I'm still making gainz but the amount of gainz/unit of additional volume starts to drop. And somewhere beyond that point, adding volume will actually undermine muscle growth.

Bro splits push us past the point where we make optimal gainz from volume. The additional units of volume in bro splits are actually detrimental to growth rather than beneficial (relative to lower volumes). The kind of inflammation we get undermines optimal growth whereas frequency training gives us the amount of volume much closer to the goldilocks zone--and we get that optimal volume 3x/week.

There's another lesson here. If, after training, you experience short-term soreness and you want to preserve your precious gainz, don't suppress it with anti-inflammatories or anti-oxidants. You're interfering with the muscle-building signal.

EDIT: I just discovered this interview with  Firas Zahabi, George St. Pierre's (GSP) coach, who is widely regarded as one of the best MMA coaches in the world--he also happens to be a philosophy major! I can't recommend watching this interview strongly enough. It summarizes everything in this article

To summarize, two main dogmas of bro science are under serious attack from non-bro science (aka, science): First, contra bro science, full-body training (i.e., high-frequency training) is superior to bro splits for muscle hypertrophy.* Second, contra bro science massive muscle damage and subsequent soreness don't guarantee optimal gainz. The amount of muscle damage and inflammation matters. A third take-away is that for any weightlifting program, experiment with reps, sets, weight, and rest periods to maximize total program volume for your body.

*Note: It may be the case the bodybuilders using steroids will still do better on bro splits because the steroids allow their bodies to recover faster from massive muscle damage. It's also what allows pros to train twice a day. This should not be read as an endorsement of steroid use!

Caveat: Pretty much all of the studies that show superiority of higher frequency training over lower frequency training used cohorts of advanced lifters or athletes. There was little or no difference in the results of studies that used beginners to compare different relative training frequencies. This is probably explained by the fact that beginners will make significant gainz no matter what they do. For advanced athletes, the low hanging gain-fruits have already been plucked. Different training methods will matter more.

Additional Sources Consulted: 

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Holy Grail of Teaching: Better Learning Outcomes with Less Prep-Work and Grading

This post is directed primarily at teachers but I think students and parents alike can benefit from reading it in order to understand what goes on behind the curtain. I'm going to focus on course design rather than teaching technique, although the two overlap. Designing a course is perhaps one of the most complex and challenging tasks under the sun because it requires balancing a large number of competing objectives. Let me explain.

1. Depth vs Breadth: Every class period you spend going deeper into a sub-topic is one class you take away from the breadth of the course content. And vice versa.

2. Reinforcement vs New Content: Every class you spend reinforcing previous content is a class you don't spend on new content. And vice versa.

3. Predictability vs Flexibility: For some reason, students panic or perceive instructors as disorganized whenever the original syllabus changes. However, different cohorts will find different units interesting (and uninteresting). Ideally, we want to tailor a syllabus to a cohort; that is, if a cohort finds a unit particularly interesting there are good pedagogical reasons to extend the unit. Similarly, if a cohort finds a unit boring, you want to be able to cut it short sometimes. The trade off, however, is that every time you change the syllabus, students panic or perceive you as disorganized . On the flip side, you maintain rigidity at the cost of students not getting additional time on what they enjoy or shortening units they don't enjoy.

4. Assessment and Incentive vs Time Grading: This is a big one. Here's the reality: For a variety of reasons I won't get into--because I'll start ranting like a lunatic--most students have been conditioned to see little if any intrinsic value in doing any school work. This includes doing the readings before class, any kind of written activity, or self-assessment activity. In other words, if it doesn't count towards their grade, most students either won't do it or will do a crappy job of it. However, here's the thing about learning a new skill or new content: It ain't happening without practice and repetition. To quote Aristotle, "We are what we do repeatedly. Excellence then is not an act but a habit." So, how do we get students to get the practice and repetition they need for learin' to happen?

Easy fix, you say. Just make them do lots of assignments. Problem: students hate what they call "busy work." Students must perceive assignments to be both relevant and worthwhile for them. Instructors must give careful forethought to the content of assignments, how they fit in to course objectives, how they relate to other course material, and how much weight they should be accorded as a percentage of the course grade. When weighting an assignment or task you must consider the direct relationship between weight and student motivation. You must also constantly refer back to your course objectives: What do you want your students to be able to know and do by the end of the semester? This should inform your weighting.

The major trade off with assessments involves grading time. It's all fine and dandy to assign regular homework or assignments but someone has to grade those. And that someone also has to prep classes and probably wants a faction of a life outside of their job. And if that someone is a grad student, they also need to do coursework, work on their dissertation, submit to journals, submit to conferences, attend colloquium talks, attend various committee meetings, etc... You get the point.

Anyhow, in my method described below, I'll explain how to juggle these competing ends in a way that delivers better learning outcomes but with less prep-work and grading than you're probably doing.

Teaching College Kids in the Twenty First Century
Check it. Yo, yo. What's up? Immabout to drop some knowledge on y'all. <----Talk like that a lot.

Outside of the classroom more students than ever are working part-time or even full time. Depending on the source, around 5/6 of students work at least 19 hours/week. When they aren't working, many of them aren't doing school work. And if they are doing school work, many of them are simultaneously texting and watching cat videos.

  • Choice 1: Whine and complain about students "these days." 
  • Choice 2: Only teach to the minority of students who are highly motivated and/or don't have jobs. This may be combined with Choice 1.
  • Choice 3: Accept that you are powerless in the face of broad sociological trends and adapt your teaching/syllabus accordingly such that you are able to reach the average student.
I'm not going to convince you which you ought to choose. Allz imma say is that I chose 3. And immabout to explain what that choice means in practical terms.

Most importantly, it means that with a few exceptions you must make class time for whatever skills or knowledge you want your students to acquire. Lemmi add a few details to that.

There are different levels of knowing which can be sliced and diced various ways. The three broad categories I have in mind when designing my courses and lessons are: (a) Basic comprehension, (b) application, (c) theory-level. There are other ways to conceive of levels and kinds of knowing--this is simply how I do it. Let's look briefly at what each means.

Basic Comprehension: A student has basic comprehension of a concept or argument if they can reproduce it. For example, they demonstrate basic comprehension when they can answer questions like: What does happiness mean for Aristotle? What does Locke think the purpose of government is? How does MLK distinguish between laws we should follow and those which we may permissibly break? Answering these questions doesn't require deep understanding but it demonstrates basic (superficial) knowledge of course content and themes. There is an even lower level of understanding which is recognition. This kind of "knowledge" is tested on multiple choice tests. The student needn't be able to recall or express the information on their own--only recognize it when presented to them. Pick the level you want your students to achieve and build in-class activities that bring them to this level. Basic comprehension is rarely the final goal; however, it's a necessary rung on the ladder to the other levels.

Application: The next level of understanding requires that students be able to apply new concepts, arguments, or skills to novel cases. For example, I might present students with a famous literary or movie character and ask them to evaluate whether Aristotle would call this person happy. Or I might ask them to evaluate whether Locke would consider a certain political revolution or law to be justified. Or I could present them with a particular law and ask them whether MLK would recommend we follow or ignore the law. In all cases I'd require them to justify their answers by appealing to the original author, otherwise there's no way to distinguish between lucky guesses and understanding.

Theory-Level: At the level of theory students begin to understand the various theoretical trade-offs and implications of different views. They compare theory to theory and draw logical implications of theories. This is requires a very high level of understanding and can only be reached after the first two have been firmly established. I find the best way to develop this level of knowledge is to get students to 'toggle' back and forth between theoretical frameworks. For example, I might present a case and ask them how different theories would appraise it. Then I'd ask them to evaluate the relative costs and benefits of the differing appraisals. (More on this below)

Whatever level(s) I want my students to attain, I must create in-class activities that foster those levels of development. Why? Because, if you accepted Choice 3 above, students are not going to do it (well) outside of the classroom. Now, you can go back to Choice 1 and whine and complain that they should. But guess what?

They. Aren't.

So you decide. Given that most students--culpably or not--are not going to engage in deep learning outside of the classroom, what level of learning do you want them to possess by the end of the semester? Pick it and stick it into your syllabus; that is, set aside class time for developing that level of knowledge.

The Bottom Line: The days of lecturing then sending students home with readings, exercises, and assignments is over. A student taking a full-load and working full time doesn't have time or make time to put in the deep concentration required for deep knowledge acquisition. Knowledge acquisition (all levels) must now be deliberately built into classroom activities otherwise it won't happen for most students. Stop whining and accept the new world order. Thanks, Obama.

The Basics
To repeat so far: All good courses begin with a firm understanding of the course objectives. You need to decide BEFORE designing the rest of your course what the students ought to be able to do and know, and the level at which they know it. This will help mitigate (but not entirely eliminate) some of the above competing trade offs you have to make. For example, if I want them to acquire a particular skill, then I have to build doing that into the syllabus. This means I'm going to reduce some of the content in order to make time for skill acquisition. To explain a bit more about how course objectives help 'set' your syllabus, I'll begin by describing common pitfalls.

On the first day of class, you read through the course syllabus, skimming over the course objectives/learning outcomes section. Or maybe you even spend a little time explaining each. What happens next? With the exception of the first week, for the rest of the semester you never mention them. Then, you are shocked! shocked! I tell you! when at the end of the semester you students fail to meet these outcomes.

Rule #1: Build in and reinforce your chosen learning outcomes. As I've said, one of my course objectives is for students to be able to interpret and argue from various competing positions. That is, I want them to learn how to see an issue through eyes that are not their own and to formulate arguments from that perspective. How to do this?

First, in each lecture, anytime an issue or case is presented, I ask the class to tell me what previous authors would have said. Then I ask them how another author would respond. This can be done through group work, take-home assignments, or soliciting volunteers. It's also important to model the skill yourself so students have template. The point is, anytime a situation arises where a course objective can be realized/practiced, we do it.

But here's what usually happens. Teachers fixate on getting through the material. "I can't stop anytime students have a chance to occupy different points of view, I'll never get through the material." This is what I mean by designing your course from the objectives.  If a core objective is for students to be able to argue from competing perspectives then opportunities to do this shouldn't be interfering with a well-designed syllabus. The syllabus should be built to allow students to practice exactly this thing!!!111!!!--not just to bulldoze through a set of readings. The fact that the pace of readings "interferes" with your course objectives should tell you to go back a revise the syllabus. Begin with objectives then decide on number of readings.

Build your objectives into the assignments and classwork. You can't just tell students "here are your objectives for the course" then magically expect them to achieve them. Where on God's green earth did someone ever acquire a new worthwhile skill without close supervision, repetition, guidance, practice, and critical feedback? It takes a lot to acquire a new cognitive skill. You are teaching someone to think differently. That means you're fundamentally changing the way their brain operates. This does not happen overnight and it certainly doesn't happen by accident.

All ranting aside: You must build time into your syllabus for your students to practice and develop the course objectives. Like I said, it does not magically happen. So, if you want students to be able to reconstruct arguments, you must build class time into your syllabus to do this. Also, the fact that you build it into class time in sends a message to students that it's important--it's not just an afterthought. In the next section, I'll give more concrete suggestions on how to do this and explain why it needs to be part of class time.

Rule #2: One of the wisest things I've ever heard comes from Paul Woodruff. In his excellent book, The Ajax Dilemma, he says "If you want to know what an organization values, look at what it rewards." Most students will only do what they are rewarded for and they will do it in proportion to the size of the reward. So, reward them (i.e., give them points) for the things you want them to do and how much you want them to do it. Want them to do the readings before class? Find a way to reward that. Want them to show up to class? Find a way to reward that. Want them to improve their writing? Reward the improvement not just the writing (more on this below). If you don't reward something, from the point of view of students, it's just "busy work." Reward the things you value for your course (which should be the course objectives).

Yeah, I know students are supposed to be intrinsically motivated by the beauty of knowledge and all that nice stuff. But if we want to reach as many students as possible we need to be a bit Machiavellian or Pavlovian--pick your metaphor--in our approach. Below I will give you specific ways that I have found to be successful in rewarding the various outcomes I seek.

The Holy Grail Method: How to Get Better Learning Outcomes with Less Prep-Work
Where I teach, most classes meet 3 times a week for 50 minutes. If you teach a course that meets twice a week, you can modify my method by making every 3rd or 4th meeting the activity day.

  1. Mondays and Wednesdays are new content (i.e., lecture).
  2. Fridays are reinforcement, application, and critical appraisal.
  3.  5 minute, 5 question multiple choice auto-graded online quizzes at the beginning of each lecture class.
  4. Quizzes should involve the core elements of the reading. Lectures should answer the questions on the quiz.
  5. Fridays are in-class group work.
  • Each activity sheet contains three main sections: Basic comprehension, application to novel cases, theory-level questions. Ideally, the sections are related.
  • For all exams, questions are selected exclusively from the Friday work-sheets. This incentivizes effort and care in doing them.
  • Only grade 3 or 4 questions selected at random (same for all groups) for the assignment's grade. This reduces grading time but ensures members work collectively and check each other's work.
  • Reading Quizzes: 25% of final grade. (lowest 3 scores are dropped)
  • In-class group assignments: 25% of final grade.
  • Midterm: 15% of final grade
  • Short paper: 15% of final grade
  • Final paper: 20% of final grade (2x10% each peer editing sheet; 20% responsiveness to peer reviewers; 60% the final version of the paper).
Getting your Students to Read: Any way you slice it, part of a good education at any level should improve reading skills. And how do we get better at anything? We do that thing, and we do it at a level slightly beyond our existing level. The? A? problem is many students nowadays don't read. [Shakes fist in the air]. How do we get them to read? Well, what gets rewarded gets done.

At the beginning of each class for which there is an assigned reading, give an online (i.e., auto-grading) 5-question multiple choice quiz. Make the quiz password protected (Canvas and Blackboard have this feature). Put the password up on the board when you enter the classroom. Doing this also solves attendance problems since you can only do it in class. You don't need to take attendance because students will show up if there are points at stake. Boom goes the dynamite.

Aside: I drop the 3 lowest scores. This allows me to avoid dealing with determining the legitimacy of absences. You get 3 free low scores. I don't care if you slept in or went to the doctor. You get three. That should cover life. Don't make me play detective.

Selecting Readings and Reading Length: Readings should be no more than about 7 pages or 3 arguments. Think about what you can cover in a class period. Can you cover more than 3 core arguments? My experience is, no. Not with any depth or discussion. So, why assign what can't be adequately covered?

Also, if the reading is longer than 7 pages, students won't read it. Remember they have 4 other classes. If every class assigns 7 pages per class that's 50 pages of reading for each class meeting. That's 150 pages per week if instructors only do lectures and no activities. That's just not going to happen. Don't set your students up for failure. I try to assign about 5 pages if it's dense and 7 if it's from a non-academic source.

Benefits to you: There's a happy upside to this. You only have to prep for 5 pages twice a week rather than for a chapter three times a week. You're welcome.

How to Design your Quiz: 
The quiz should not be difficult. Basically, you want it so that the average student will get 3/5 or 4/5 if they read the article. We're not trying to trick the students here. We're only giving them a small reward to do the reading. We are telling them, "I value you reading this article. Here's a cookie for doing it."

Question 1 should always be: "What is the main point the author of the article is trying to convince us of?" The other questions should involve core sub-arguments or sub-conclusions. Stuff like,
The author gives 3 reasons in support of X. Which of the following is not one of the reasons.
You can also do some obvious application questions: E.g., "What would the author say about the following case:[...]"

The point is that we need to reward them for the things we want them to do. We want them to read, so we reward reading. If they read the article, the quiz should be fairly easy.

Variation: Marcus Schultz-Bergin has a nice variation. Students are allowed to have notes open for the quizzes. This incentivizes them to be active readers and take notes while doing the readings. I'm contemplating using this myself.

Getting Students To Pay More Attention in Lecture.
Set the online quiz so that when they get a question wrong, the correct answer isn't revealed and build your lecture around the quiz questions. (And obviously ban cell phones once they've taken the quiz)
Most students will have gotten at least one question wrong on the quiz. They want to know what the right answer is. So, build your lecture (in part) around the questions on the quiz. If you built the quiz out of the key arguments and points, this should be fairly simple to do. Now, your students are looking for particular information throughout the lecture.

I know what you're thinking. But why should they care about learning the right answer if they've already lost the points for it on the quiz? Let me explain:

Quiz Redo: At the end of the week, students have the option of retaking their quizzes. The score of the first attempt and second attempt are averaged. This way, they're still penalized if they didn't do the reading the first time around but are incentivized because they can still improve. Also, the more poorly they did the first time around, the more incentive there is for them to listen and take notes during lecture. They are rewarded for paying attention and improving. Message to students: I value you improving and learning--See! Here's a cookie for doing it. Motivation problem solved. Learning is happening.

Details: Redo quizzes are open from Friday after class until Saturday evening. I don't allow the redo immediately after the first attempt because I want them to have to go back to their notes. This will better reinforce the information. I don't extend the redo time to Sunday because I don't want the quiz -taking to interfere with them doing the reading due Monday. Boom.

Activity Fridays
Imagine a world where you're told to read an article then you receive a lecture on it, never to hear about it again until six weeks later when you're asked to explain some ideas in that article from memory. Add to this that you have to do this for six weeks of other readings in five other classes. Gee, I wonder why students don't do well on exams. Then, a few months later at the end of the semester you're asked to write a paper that incorporates many of the ideas from the entire course. Your teacher is shocked and dismayed when you can't do this.

What do we want our students to do? Learn the content. Learn to apply the content. Learn the theoretical implications and trade-offs of the content. When in the above process did they do this? Answer: Nowhere.

Let's fix it.

Every Friday (or every 3rd period--you choose) I have students do activity sheets. The sheets are divided into three sections. As you might have surmised, the sections are: Basic content questions, application questions, and theory-level questions. Most groups create a group google-doc. The assignments are short enough that the average group should be able to do 80% of it in class and the fastest group should finish in class. However, it isn't due until the day after the next lecture (i.e., Tuesday at 5pm in my case). This way there's ample opportunity to polish. And--let's be honest--I ain't grading it until the following weekend anyway.

Fact: Most group-work is a dismal failure if it's assigned for outside class time. This has remedies but they're fairly involved so I'll set them aside. Besides, the purpose of the weekly group activities is fairly circumscribed so having them do most of it in-class works best. Also, I'm there to give immediate feedback and assistance if they're struggling or just need confirmation.

Here's a problem of group work that arises regardless of whether it's in or out of class: Some members do better work than others. If members are graded as a group, the students who did better work get penalized by the bad work. This is compounded by another problem: Students usually parcel out work for group work, so no one learns the content from questions they didn't do.

Solution: Tell the students, "I will pick 3 (or 4) questions at random to grade. Your score on those questions determines the group's grade on the assignment." Now, rather than each student working on their own questions and failing to learn/reinforce the content of the other questions, students have an incentive to at least work in pairs and check each other's work. [Previously I graded the entire assignment but I'm going to switch to this method]. Because they don't know which questions I'm going to grade, students are motivated to do well on all the questions and check each others work.

Benefit to YOU: Not only do you avoid grading a bunch of individual assignments but you also don't have to grade all of each group assignment. Onerous grading averted. You're welcome.

How to Get Students to Perform Better on Exams
Ok, I've just explained how we achieve and reinforce the various levels of learning. What about this exam stuff? The midterm exam will be composed exclusively of questions from group-work assignments. Now they have yet another incentive to carefully answer the questions.

Benefits To You: You don't have to come up with all-new midterm questions. Just select from the ones you already have on the sheets. Besides, everything you want them to be able to know and do should be on those sheets.

But here's the biggest benefit. In the old school method you had to prepare 3 lectures a week. That's a pretty big time suck especially if it's a class you haven't taught before. Now you're only prepping 2 lectures a week. You just cut prep time by 1/3 over the course of a semester.

I know what you're probably thinking. "Well, yeah, it's one less lecture but I still have to make the activity sheet." Yes and no. You do have to make it BUT you build the activity sheet as you're making each lecture--not on a separate occasion. So, on Sunday night as I'm making my Monday lecture, I'm also writing down questions I want the students to internalize based on the lecture I'm going to give!  For example, if in my lecture I'm covering Aristotle's definition of happiness then I go into the activity sheet and guess what question I write? [Whisper: Explain Aristotle's definition of happiness]. Then in the application section I'll present a case and ask whether Aristotle would consider such and such a person to be happy. Next comes theory...I might ask them to contrast or defend Aristotle's view against a hedonist view we covered earlier in the course. I repeat this process for Wednesday's lecture.

When Friday comes around, the activity sheet is already complete because I made it Sunday and Tuesday night as I was building my lectures. Now instead of making yet another lecture and grinding yourself into exhaustion, you can drink yourself into a stupor or do whatever it is you like to do on your nights off. You're welcome.

More on Exams
I think of exams as a test of my teaching, not of my students' learning. If I structured the course well, lectured clearly, allowed them to interact with the content sufficiently and in various ways, gave the right incentives, gave them a reason to care about the content, then the majority of my students should do well. If they didn't do well then I need to change some things. If I've done my job, the class average should be a B.

If that sounds high consider what's happened in the course leading up to the midterm:
  • They've actually read the material, 
  • They've gotten feedback on how well they initially understood the material (i.e., the first quiz),
  • They've had a lecture on the material where any misunderstandings can be clarified,
  • They've worked collaboratively with others to ensure that they can comprehend the content, apply it, and understand the relative theoretical implications and trade-offs,
  • They've had an opportunity to improve on their previous quiz and are rewarded for it; i.e., via the redo quiz they reread their notes and group assignment answers and they get more feedback on how well they understand it.
  • They get feedback on their group work.
  • They get a review session where they can clarify any uncertainties. (i.e., they interact with the content for the SEVENTH time.)
  • They study the assignment sheets in preparation for the exam (that's EIGHT times).
  • They take the exam.
Again, if I did my job right, a student would have to make a concerted effort to get anything below a B. They would have to willfully ignore everything that's happened in and out of class. (Yes, there are such students but they are a small minority.)

Here I have given you the blueprint for student success without overburdening yourself with grading and class-prep time.

My Studints Dont Rite Good and Reading There Riting Makes me Want to Stab my Eyeballs with Hot Needles

I'll elaborate more in a future post but here are the basics:

After the midterm I assign and grade a short paper (3 pages) with extensive feedback. This gives students a feel for how I grade and what I'm looking for (and of course I've also told them this when I assigned the paper). For all other papers there is peer editing (I only assign one more longer one). For their term paper I give them about 10 days to write the best paper they can. It's due 10 days to two weeks before the final version is due. I emphasize that it must be what they consider to be a finished version--not something thrown together the night before. I have them bring two printed copies and we do an in-class peer editing session.

Each student must edit 2 papers (meaning each paper is edited by two students). We do it on a Friday. Half of the time is allotted for each paper and what isn't finished is due on Monday in class. I've created a fairly extensive peer editing sheet. It should take around an hour for each paper. Their peer editing is worth 20% of their final paper grade (10% for each one) AND 20% of their final paper grade is how well they respond to each peer reviewer. Since they have motivation to edit each other well AND respond to the suggestions, the results have been great. What gets rewarded gets done. You can't tell them to invest a lot of time and effort into doing a peer edit then not count it for anything. Similarly, we can't expect them to respond to peer editing if there's no value in it for them. "I think it's valuable to respond to your peer editors. See! Here's a cookie for doing it."

Again, we want student to get better at writing. But you can't get better at anything unless you have a chance to learn from and correct your mistakes. If you simply ask students to turn in a paper at the end of the semester, when did they get to learn how to write better? Where was the opportunity for improvement? Most students just look at the final grade on their paper and that's as far as it goes. Responding to peer editing and rewarding it provides the opportunity to improve, and that's what we should be aiming for.

Also, as most of us know, weaknesses in own reasoning and writing are often invisible to ourselves--otherwise we wouldn't have made them public in the first place! Peer review allows us to recognize our own errors and weaknesses in the work of others. When we come back to our own work, we are better able see the once-invisible problems. Through peer editing we become better writers because we learn to edit ourselves.

If you'd like, here's a copy of my peer editing sheet to use or modify.

An Objection
I want to address just one of many possible to criticisms of my method. By using carrots and sticks I'm not teaching them the intrinsic value of reading, learning, knowledge, writing, etc... I'm only reinforcing what they've long been taught: That education and learning are primarily valued for extrinsic reasons.

This is where YOU come. The passion you bring to the classroom, the ways in which you tie the content to their lives and concerns, the encouragement you give, and the readings you select will all contribute to this end. Not all material speaks for itself for everyone.

I think it's unrealistic to think that most students will be purely intrinsically motivated from the start--especially if the course isn't an elective for them. But there's no reason why we can't have both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Some might only respond to the extrinsic motives. Fine. But my experience has been that if we can just get them to do the reading, students will start to appreciate the intrinsic value of the content. If I need to use extrinsic motives to get there, so be it.

This is not to say there aren't legitimate worries of extrinsic motives for education crowding out or corrupting the intrinsic ones (See: Michael Sandel). Maybe I'm just being pragmatic. Wait. No. I'm not. I'm also an idealist. I really do believe that if I can just get a little bit of engagement, most students will come to see the intrinsic value too. Anyone in this line of work has to believe that what they're teaching has intrinsic value. Also, it's possible that students do sometimes see the intrinsic value of a class but for pragmatic reasons, they don't do the work. They've got a life and concerns outside of school, just like us.

We must fight fire with fire--or pragmatism with pragmatism. If it's pragmatic reasons (e.g., a part-time job) that prevent a student from acting on what they perceive as the intrinsic worth of doing a reading or thinking about their paper then I'm going to give them pragmatic reasons to counter those obstructing pragmatic reasons: "Federalist #10 is one of the greatest American political documents you'll ever read. It'll change how you think about democracy and about your government."

Still not enough to get you to read it? Ok.

"Here's a cookie for reading it."

Hey, teach! This is good shit!

Friday, March 16, 2018

Identity, Truth, and Stoicism in the Face of Crumbling Norms of Civil Discourse

Yo. Check it. You can't have a functioning democracy without at least two things: a concern for truth and civil discourse. Although perhaps too obvious to state, democracy requires citizens have a concern for truth. Without it, policy will be ineffective at best. Y'see, in (many conceptions) of democracy, policy represents, to some degree, the will of the people. If "the people" are more concerned with short-term political one-up-manship rather than quality of evidence and argument, a country will be governed by policy disconnected from the best evidence and arguments.

A political community often contains an assortment of views on the same issues. While some differing views might each partake in some aspect of the truth, there's no reason to suppose all will. I know this will come as a shock to some of you, but some beliefs just are false. 

Let's assume it's better to get everyone to buy into a policy or view than it is to force it onto a segment of the population. If each is equally convinced of their own 'rightness', how do we not only reach agreement but also lead those holding objectively false views into the light of reason--without outright coercion? That is, how do we get people with false beliefs to change their minds and endorse the policy based on the best evidence?

Think about how it is you discarded previously held views that turned out to be false. Did your change of mind occur by someone shouting at you and calling you an idiot? Did it arise after being ignored? After being mocked? My guess is probably not. 

While not the only means of effecting doxastic change, engaging in respectful discourse probably increases the odds. It also helps when people present compelling arguments, counter-arguments, and evidence. In other words, tone, attitude, and content all matter for changing people's minds. I'll call this loose cluster of methods and attitudes, the norms of civil discourse. [Note: There's a fair amount of philosophical literature on the exact content of the norms of civil discourse. For my purposes, a broad intuitive account is sufficient].

In this post, I want to explore the ethical dimensions of belief, and how the various things we cling to sabotage our path to truth and civil discourse. By drawing on Stoic ideas, I’m going to suggest we all have within us the resources to reconcile the competing passions that have lead to the current breakdown in civil discourse and its corrosive effects on good policy-making. 

Setting the Stage
In perhaps one of the best known psychological studies of the 20th century, subjects are asked to distinguish between real and fake suicide notes. As they do so, they receive feedback on how well they are able to make the distinction. He's the twist (one of them, anyway): The feedback they receive has nothing to do with their performance. It's all a sham. Before they even began the task, experimenters had randomly pre-sorted the subjects into three groups: Those that will be told they are excellent, average, or below average. To summarize, experimenter feedback is predetermined regardless of how subjects perform and has no relation to subject performance

In the next phase of experiment, the fact of the predetermined feedback is revealed to the subjects. That is, the subject are told that the feedback was totally unrelated to their task performance. Subjects are then asked to self-assess their ability to distinguish between real and fake suicide notes. 

Of the 20 assigned to the ‘good-guesser’ group, how many do you think changed their self-assessment after the predetermined nature of the experiment was revealed to them? E.g., how many people who were told they were good-guessers evaluated themselves as average or below average? Keep that number in your head. Now, of the 20 who were told they were bad guessers, how many do you think changed their self-assessment after the reveal?

Now that you have those two numbers in your head, I’m going to give you a choice. I can tell you the real numbers from the study, or I can invent some fake numbers to tell you.

Which do you prefer that I do?

I’ll reveal the real numbers in a moment but I want to make my first claim which is central to Stoic philosophy (it actually comes from Plato but the Stoics adopted it...): Every soul is deprived of the truth against its will. By this, the Stoics mean that it is human nature to want truth and knowledge. We have an intrinsic affinity for truth and knowledge. If we have false beliefs, it is only because we have been mislead or we have not yet been taught.

When I asked you whether you wanted me to tell you the true numbers or fake numbers for the study, you very likely wanted the true ones. I’m even willing to go so far as to say that you felt pulled to know the truth. And if I’d given you the fake ones, you’d have probably been upset with me. Human beings have an intrinsic affinity for truth and knowledge. You just experienced it yourself.

Not so fast though. What is the content of the study that you want to know the truth about? After debriefing, only three of the 20 subjects who had been told they were good guessers didn’t continue to believe that they were above average! Of the 20 who had been told they were below average, only three of them revised their beliefs about their abilities too! (For anyone familiar with all the p-hacking issues in psychology, this effect size isn’t one that can be waived away.)

I just finished telling you that a drive for truth and knowledge is intrinsic to human nature. But here we have a well-designed and multiply replicated study in which subjects were given the truth yet refused to take it into account in revising their self-conception. Their self-assessments were completely impervious to countervailing evidence. Only 15% of subjects in each group responded to evidence that undermined a prior belief.

What gives? Well, an affinity for truth isn’t the only component of human nature. As Aristotle observed, we are by nature social and political animals. In other words, we have an intrinsic affinity for being part of a group. Being part of a group requires two things: First, that we share the cluster of beliefs, behaviors, and values particular to the group of which we are a member. Second, that others see us as sharing those beliefs, behaviors, and values.

Let’s return to the study. Why didn’t the subjects merely accept the truth of what the experimenters were telling them and revise their self-assessments accordingly? To quote the study:
It is proposed that personal impressions and social perceptions become relatively autonomous from the evidence that created them. As a result, subsequent challenges to that evidence, and hence to the impression it fostered, will have surprisingly little impact— far less impact than would be demanded by any logical or rational impression-formation model. (Ross, Lepper, and Hubbard, 1975)
In other words, subjects began to self-identify and see others as identifying them as members of particular groups—‘good guessers’ or ‘bad guessers’. To generalize, when you challenge someone’s beliefs, you are not only challenging beliefs but their identity. In order for people to relinquish beliefs tied to their identity they must also change their identity. 

But that’s not even the most difficult part: They have to surrender their membership in a group. Groups are defined, in part, by their beliefs. If you no longer share the same core beliefs as that group, not only can you not self-identify as a member but the other members can no longer identify you as a member. When a group identity is central to someone’s life—like a political or religious group—you best believe they’re going to reject evidence before they compromise the relationships that imbue their lives with meaning.

Stoicism, Truth, and Civil Discourse
I began by telling you that we have an intrinsic affinity for truth and knowledge but even if you hadn’t read about the above study, that claim is on the face of it worthy of ridicule. Everything we’ve witnessed in the the current political climate undermines it. Now we have an explanation: Another intrinsic human drive—belonging to and preserving identity and group membership—completely sabotages our natural affinity for truth.

I’m going to argue for two solutions that come out of ancient Stoic thought. Stoic thought can be boiled down to two practices: 
  1. Discover what is necessarily true of the world and 
  2. Determine what is and is not in your power to do about it. 
Below I'll suggest what I take to be three facts about the world and then I’ll  suggest what you can do about them. The first applies to how we self-identify and the second applies to how we conceive of others. The third, to how we handle our political environment.
Fact 1 About the World: If you self-identify primarily in terms of a group that is defined by particular beliefs you will sabotage your path to truth.
On it’s own, merely being a social animal doesn’t undermine our affinity for truth. It’s the nature of the particular groups with which we identify that do. People ARE interested in truth but only so long as personal identity and group membership aren't threatened. From the individual point of view, this means that individually we can be part of the solution to civil discord if we reconceptualize or, at least, re-order our identity. Instead of primarily self-conceiving as a member of a particular political group, I can self-identify as a member of the group "rational animal." 

What are the values and behaviors of members of the group "rational animal"? Good reasoning and a concern for truth. In other words, self-conceiving in this way pulls us away from a conclusion-based identity and towards a process-based identity. A reasoner examines the strength of reasons (evidence and claims) and the logical relationships between reasons and conclusions. 'Rational animals' are primarily concerned with quality and method of justification for beliefs rather than dogmatically clinging to and defending particular beliefs.

Importantly, when we identify primarily as rational animals, it shifts our disposition towards others: First, we more likely come to view those with whom we disagree as partners rather than adversaries in the shared enterprise of pursuing truth. We become more calm and charitable because we want to learn rather than impose or defend a view. 

Our concern for the process of justification--i.e., why someone believes something--helps us become better listeners since we can only evaluate justifications if we listen carefully. Not only are we better off for being better listeners, but we likely diffuse much of our interlocutors' animosity when we present ourselves as genuinely interested in why they hold certain beliefs. In short, we begin to turn down the dial on the reactive emotions and attitudes that have rendered political discourse so intractable. 

Epistemic Humility: We ought to always take seriously the possibility that our current view is mistaken. Self-conceiving primarily as a rational animal makes it easier to change our views in the face of new or better evidence and arguments.  Consider for a moment how many beliefs about the world you hold. There are probably an almost infinite number. Now consider all the other people in your country. How likely is it that there are more than a handful that share each one of your millions of beliefs? The odds are staggeringly small. Now consider the millions of people with whom you don't overlap on at least some beliefs. What are the odds that YOU, in the face of widespread disagreement, are the only one in the country that holds all the true beliefs about the world? 

As someone who primarily identifies as a reasoning being, you are not wedded to any particular conclusion but to standards of evidence and a process. So, your views can more easy be responsive to new or better evidence and arguments.

Fact 2 About the World: Conceiving of our Political Others as Evil or Idiots or Both is a Poor Strategy for Changing Minds
Stoic thought offers us insight in how we ought to conceive of others if we hope to mitigate the culture war and our own emotional outbursts that obstruct the pathway to truth. I argue we ought to adopt the Stoic teaching to act as though "every soul is deprived of the truth against its will." 

There are two ideas contained here. First, humans have an affinity for truth (despite the fact that other variables interfere with its attainment); and second, as members of the human species, we are 'rational animals'--which implies we are all sensitive to reasons and arguments (although, perhaps to varying degrees).

Here is Epictetus counseling his student on how to handle someone with an obviously false and harmful view:
Student: Yes, but she is in error.
Epictetus: Well, act on her idea. As long as you don't lay it out for her, though, she has nothing besides her own idea of right and wrong to guide her. So don't get angry at [her] for being confused about what's most important, and accordingly mutating from human to snake. (Discourse I. 26)
Marcus Aurelius had similar thoughts in this somewhat amusing example:
Are you angry with him whose armpits stink? Are you angry with him whose mouth smells foul? What good will this anger do you? He has such a mouth. He has such armpits: It is necessary that such an emanation come from such things--but the man has reason, it will be said, and he is able if he takes pains, to discover wherein he offends. Well then, and you, too, have reason: by your rational faculty stir him up his rational faculty; show him his error [...]. (Meditations Bk V. 28)
And here is more of the same from Epictetus again:
Well, when a guide meets up with someone who is lost, ordinarily his reaction is to direct him on the right path, not mock or malign him, then turn on heel and walk away. As for you, lead someone to the truth and you will find that he can follow. But as long as you don't point it out to him, don't make fun of him; be aware of what you need to work on instead. (Discourse II. 11. 3-4)
Think of it this way. When a student reasons incorrectly on a math problem, we don't get angry with them. We assume they genuinely wanted to get the question right: They aimed for truth not falsity. No one would think it reasonable to yell and get emotionally upset because of the student's error.  

Instead, as a teacher or peer, we adopt a compassionate disposition and work through that student's reasoning process to help discover where they erred. I submit that reconceiving of our cultural and political *others* as truth-seekers--inadvertently making errors in judgment in good faith--will dispose us to be more kind and dial down our own animus both of which opens the door for civil discourse. [All the while we should adopt a stance of epistemic humility; i.e., we should continue to take seriously the possibility that our own view is mistaken unless it aligns with a consensus of relevant experts. Then more confidence is warranted.]

I can hear some of you, including my past-self, mocking this idea:
"This is lunacy. Have you ever read the comments section of an article on vaccines, climate science, GMOs, Trump, Obama, etc...? There is no way these people are even remotely deprived of the truth against their will. Their ignorance is entirely willful."
This may be true for what I call the 'true believers' but I don't think it's true of the vast majority of people.  There's selection bias in the comments sections of the internet. Those with the most extreme views and loudest voices are going to be disproportionately represented. Let's not make the mistake in believing those holding extreme views and attitudes are representative of all with whom we disagree. 

I think the vast majority of people are responsive to argument and evidence when its presented in a way that doesn't immediately threaten their identity or make them out to insufferable morons. Treating people as though they are genuinely concerned with truth raises the odds that they will be open to evidence and argument. And even if agreement isn't reached, we can all count as a win the gain in civility.

Final Fact: You Can't Outrun Disagreement
In closing, I want to dispense (draw on?) some wisdom from an American philosopher. In Fed #10, James Madison is trying to solve what is called The Republican Dilemma: How do we give power to the people but at the same time avoid the tyranny of the majority; i.e., avoid a large faction from ganging up and trampling the rights of a minority group. Part of his answer involves arguing against Rousseau. Rousseau's solution revolves around ensuring that political communities have relatively homogenous values, interests, levels of wealth, and ways of living. If everyone is in the same 'faction', the worry of some factions suppressing others is mitigated. Madison rejects Rousseau's view on the grounds that it is human nature for factions to form. He says
The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. (My italics for emphasis)
Here is the insight: We can’t outrun disagreement. So long as people have different talents, values, and interests as well as the liberty to pursue them, we will disagree with each other. Even in our own families we must live with and get along with people with whom we deeply disagree. 

Again, we can appeal to the Stoics' useful advice: Figure out what is necessarily true of the world then determine what is and is not in your power to do about it. Knowing that you will never outrun disagreement with people with whom you must live, you must determine how to respond to it. They ain't going nowherez and neither are you. 

Are you going to demand that everyone believe what you believe? Are you going to get whipped up into an emotional frenzy with every dissenting view? Are you going to treat each person with whom you disagree as though they are idiots? This path is exhausting and yields no fruit. Trust me. I've tried it. I've tried it a lot.

To summarize, I instead suggest the following: (a) avoid identifying primarily as a member of a group defined by particular beliefs; (b) Identify primarily as a member of the group of people concerned with the process and standards of justification for beliefs rather than with conclusions; (c) take seriously the possibility that you could be wrong, particularly if you aren't an expert and your view conflicts with a consensus of experts; (d) engage with others as though they are deprived of the truth against their will; (d) avoid the temptation of identifying the loudest and most obnoxious as representative of a group (availability bias, sampling bias--for those keeping track!).

Drawing on Kant and Rawls and every major wisdom tradition, there's perhaps an even simpler way to think about the problem of disagreement and the norms of civil discourse: Employ the principle of reciprocity. How would I like to be treated by those with whom I disagree? You may be tempted to reply, "Ya, but...they aren't very nice to me!"  Ok. But barring some special cases, do you increase or decrease the likelihood of persuading them to your view when you adopt acerbic strategies? I mean, what are you even trying to achieve in engaging? 

And what about the state of civil discourse? We are all all responsible for the tone of discourse within our purview--regardless of what others do. That is in our respective control. Nothing I can do will guarantee someone's civility towards me, but this doesn't mean I can't affect the probabilities one way or the other.

Jefferson and Adams: A Beautiful Bromance 
A Case Study In Civil Disagreement
If there ever was a model for the kind of civil dialogue I'm talking about, it can be found in the friendship and correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. These two life-time friends and political adversaries wrote letters almost daily to each other despite fundamental political disagreement. They weren't perfect though: After Jefferson won the presidency (against Adams, the incumbent!) they didn't write to each other for 13 years. However, once the ice thawed, they resumed their regular correspondence in which they regularly disagreed, until both their deaths in 1826. (Crazy history note that boggles my mind: The two friends died only 5 hours apart. Adams' last words were 'Jefferson still lives'. But that's not all. They died on July 4th) 

There is lengthy exchange of letters between the two in 1813--the year they had renewed their friendship. The topic concerned equality and how to ensure that the 'pseudo-aristocracy' (i.e., those whose status and power are a consequence of wealth and birth--not virtue, talent, and wisdom) don't hijack government to their ends. Before addressing Adams' view, Jefferson writes:
On the question of which is the best provision, you and I differ, but we differ as rational friends, using the free exercise of our own reason, and mutually indulging in its errors. [my italics]
Notice a few things: The appeal to the values of friendship; that is, they can disagree on fundamental matters while maintaining mutual respect and while avoiding animosity. The value of the relationship and civility supersede any outcome. Also important is the acknowledgment and mutual conception of both as appealing to reason while also admitting their mutual fallibility--even under optimal conditions. 

Later, after presenting his arguments against Adams' view, Jefferson writes,
It is probable that our disagreement of opinion may, in some measure, be produced by a difference in character in those among whom we live.
Here, Jefferson importantly acknowledges the more general point that different life experiences shape our respective assumptions about the world. We cannot expect those who haven't lived our lives, met the people we've met, or shared the various circumstances that we have to hold the same views as us. Each of us experiences only a very minute subset of the human experience. And if our experiences shape our beliefs about the world, of course we will have different beliefs about the world, human nature, institutions, and so on... (Caveat: Relativism and infallibility don't follow--people can still be wrong).

Disagreement produced by differing life experiences has implications for our basic assumptions about the world. From the point of view of the norms of civil discourse, Jefferson's comments underscore the importance of mutually recognizing and acknowledging in one another the possible effects of our different experiences. I would venture that it is the failure of acknowledgement and consideration of differing experiences which draws out the reactive emotions.

Finally, in closing the letter Jefferson writes:
I have thus stated my opinion on a point on which we differ, not with a view to controversy, for we are both too old to change opinions which are the result of a long life of inquiry and reflection: but on the suggestions of a former letter of yours, that we ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.
The take-away here is that we needn't always agree. Sometimes agreement isn't forthcoming. However, given that we cannot outrun disagreement, what matters at least as much as reaching resolutions is how we engage with each other. Also, on matters where we do disagree deeply, there is an obligation to explain to others our reasons for the views we hold. That is, we must be willing to submit our own justificatory reasons to rational scrutiny. We can't simply demand that others agree with us.

Closing Thoughts
I study ethics and political philosophy. I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in my research over the last couple of years. Every time I come up with what I think is a good idea, a voice in my head goes, “Hey, wait a minute. Didn’t my parents tell me this when I was, like, five?”  And I don’t think much of what I’ve said here is any different. Nevertheless, that fact that so many, including myself, forget to employ these common sense ideas testifies to the value of their reminder. 

Additional note regarding self and group identity in terms of beliefs: I think there's an important distinction to be made between how we treat identity made up of empirical beliefs (observable facts about the world) vs identity made up of normative (i.e., value) beliefs. Without going into a lot of detail, I think there are good reasons for people to hold on more tightly to the value-based beliefs that form their identity. But I think we ought not hold on so tightly to an identity constituted by empirical beliefs. Doing so forces us into a position where we might have to deny a scientific consensus (think vaccine-safety denier, flat-earther, creationist, global warming deniers, etc...). This not only forces us to adopt dishonest strategies to maintain our beliefs and to dismiss legitimate argument and evidence but it undermines the important political role of empirical experts in forming policy. In clinging to empirical beliefs, as non-experts we apportion an inappropriate amount of credence to our own beliefs relative to those of a consensus of experts.

What I have said applies to the vast majority of disagreement. However, there are special cases where I'm not convinced such a conciliatory attitude is appropriate. Most obviously, this applies to how we deal with overt neo-Nazis deliberately intimidating the well-being of others. 

Finally, before I'm inundated with tu quoques, let me make the following brief comment. We can acknowledge all I have said above and also agree that there is a time and place in discourse for humor, rhetoric, satire, and sarcasm. In fact, they are what can make political discourse fun--especially when done tastefully and between friends. Furthermore, in some contexts, humor and satire have shown to be effective means of persuasion (google it yourself--there's a lot of literature!). 

Finally, with respect to my failings, the Stoics present their virtues as aspirational; i.e., they recognize the human propensity to screw up sometimes despite knowing better. Nevertheless, they give us a target at which to aim as we bumble through life. I have screwed up and continue to screw up a lot in terms of acting on these norms of civil discourse but I'm working daily on hitting the target more than missing it.