27 Oct 2011


“If I put bandages on my dolls,” Angelina asked one day, “will you give me more pocket money?”

Following the advice of some educationists, I have been giving Angelina pocket money since she was five. The idea sounds great. Children learn to save money and do simple arithmetic. They also become more confident by talking to grownups at the cashier. The interval of giving money is important. If you give every day, children tend to spend the sum at hand and have no incentive to save.

“Why would you want more money?” I asked.

“So that I can buy toys for my brother.”

Hmm, a legitimate reason. “But I don’t need bandages on the dolls. How about tidying up your toys instead?”

Angelina hesitated. She did not want to earn money by doing things she did not like. After some negotiation, she proposed to have the amount linked to her test or dictation results instead.

The next day, I started to feel very guilty. Paying for test results is against all education principles I have learned so far. Coincidentally, my friends at the hospital shared the stories of their children at lunch time.

“But shouldn’t we reward the learning process but not the results?” I asked them tactfully.

“Can you cite one paper to show that it works?” Szeto replied. I was much relieved. Even Szeto said so. Yet, I was still too embarrassed to mention that the reward was money.

Imagine how surprised I was when I read this article from Science last week.[2011;334:300] The National Math and Science Initiative in the United States has been paying students for satisfactory results at the Advanced Placement tests since 2007. The results were remarkable. Under this scheme, the number of students passing the tests increased by 124%, and even by 216% among African Americans and Hispanics. The rate of increase was over four times greater than schools not covered by this scheme.

Of course, the morality behind the scheme is highly debatable. Nonetheless, finding incentives to encourage learning remains the responsibility of teachers.

20 Oct 2011


Angelina brought her composition back. It began proudly with ‘I am clever and lazy’. Her mother fainted.

“How could you write that?” I said. “Even if you think so, you don’t need to tell your teacher.”

“She even used ‘and’, not ‘but’!” Angela said as she regained her consciousness.

Angelina was consistent with her statement. Later, we opened her handbook and found it full of codes we could not decipher.

“What is N.D.N.W.?” I asked.

“No dictation next week,” she answered.

“How about R.M.B.?”

“Read I can ride my bike.”

“This is ridiculous. You will forget what they mean soon.”

“But I remember.”

I paused. This was an argument I could not win. I tried to figure out why I was so upset. Perhaps it was because our administrators were also creating lots of short forms I could not comprehend. If my daughter wishes to become one of them, what can I say?

13 Oct 2011


Last week, GW, HC and SW were discussing what to say on the university orientation day. They were quite surprised when they learned that I did not have to speak at the sharing sessions. After all, the Faculty even invited colleagues who graduated from other medical schools.

I explained that I talked at one of those occasions four years ago. My speech could be summarized as follows:

“Dear students and parents, thank you for coming to our university today. When you go through different exhibitions, you would be wondering what career to pursue and which university to enter. What a question. If you come twenty years ago, many people would tell you that doctors could make a fortune. Not anymore. Although doctors are still whining about manpower shortage, it is clear that many new doctors are produced every year. It does not take a deep knowledge in economics to understand that the income of doctors will decline significantly in the years to come. Take the private market for example; newcomers are already earning less than half of their predecessors.

“This to me is a good thing. High achievers who wish to earn as much as possible are better off doing businesses primarily about money. This is better than trying to get the same amount out of our patients’ pockets. At the end of the day, I hope that those of you who choose to enter our medical school will instead focus on serving the public and improving medical care. Thank you very much.”

After these years, I can elaborate much more on this topic. For some uncertain reasons, however, no one invites me to talk again.

6 Oct 2011


Last month, our dear colleague asked us to vote him as a representative in the Faculty. I could not be more surprised. Clearly not every researcher, including brilliant ones, dreads meetings. Summer bugs cannot talk about ice.

Every year there are at least several entries at the Freakonomics blog on voting. One of the earlier stories goes like this:

An economist met another economist at a polling station. After an embarrassing moment of silence, one of them said sheepishly, “My wife made me come.” The other responded, “Me too.” The first economist came up with an idea, “If you promise not to tell anybody I came here, neither would I.” The colleague eagerly shook his hand and said, “Deal.”

As Steven Levitt explained, the chance of a single vote to change the outcome of an election is infinitesimal. Therefore, at the individual level, voting is almost always a waste of time.

This view is a taboo according to the current general education curriculum. Voting is our civil responsibility. You may also argue that if everybody holds the same pragmatic view and does not show up at elections, the society would be at stake.

Let me ask you a question: Have you helped at an elderly home last weekend? Okay, some of you have. Have you helped in Fukushima then? There are many things ought to be done in this world, but it does not mean we have to do every one of those ourselves. For example, I regularly do volunteer work in some areas, and can feel at ease when I cannot help on other occasions. Of course, it could be problematic if nobody shows up at elections. But would it really happen?

So, did I vote in the end?

What a question! First, I promised to vote. Second, our colleague would make a great representative. Third, unlike a usual election, I need to lower my own chance of being elected.

Congratulations, R!