Ep. 116: Researcher Profile – Albert Cheng

May 29, 2019

In this episode, Albert Cheng, assistant professor at the University of Arkansas, talks pure mathematics, gaming, virtue formation, and more.

Drew Catt: Hello. I’m Drew Catt Catt. EdChoice’s director of state research and special projects. Today, I’m the studio to introduce our listeners to a researcher to watch. I’m here with Albert Cheng Chang, assistant professor at the University of Arkansas.

Thanks for joining me today, Albert.

Albert Cheng: Hey. Nice to be with you, Drew.

Drew Catt: So, Albert, would you mind introducing yourself and telling us a little about what attracted you to issues in K–12 education and educational choice?

Albert Cheng: Yeah, sure. As an undergrad—I was an undergrad at UC Berkeley—and I loved math. Naturally, I majored in pure mathematics. I like to make that distinction, not applied math, but pure math, the real stuff. Of course, as an undergrad majoring in that, you run into the situation of, “What am I going to do with it?”

Then I realized I liked teaching it, I like talking about, liked working with youth. Naturally, I became a high school math teacher, and that was my initial entry into the educational.

Drew Catt: OK. And what was that experience like? I mean, my wife is a high school teacher and has her own issues sometimes with, let’s just say, the quirks and personalities of teenagers and the occasional teenage angst.

Albert Cheng: Oh yeah, no, definitely. I totally enjoyed the experience. And yes, it had its quirks. Especially if you were a young-looking, 22-year-old, fresh-out-of-college grad as well teaching some folks that actually aren’t that much younger than you.

But look, it was an enjoyable experience, lots of challenges obviously, taught every type of kid there is under the sun I think at that stage of my life. I got to know a lot of folks from, who grew up in different backgrounds than I did and also taught folks that maybe shared a similar background as I did as well. Eye-opening experience in terms of just working with youth, but also eye-opening in terms of understanding how schools work and what this whole education enterprise looks like from the teacher side of things.

I guess we’re all familiar with schooling since we’ve all been students, but it certainly is eye-opening when you actually have to run the show.

Drew Catt: Yeah, I’m sure. How’d you get from one type of classroom in the K–12 environment to the type of classroom that you’re in now?

Albert Cheng: Yeah, well so, let’s see, I taught for about three, four years, I think. I think towards the end of my stint there I decided that there were bigger fish to fry so to speak. In some sense, I felt like I had more to give, to operate, a bigger role to play in this world.

It’s not to downplay the work of teachers and the work that I did back then. I mean, there was a part of me that wanted to be the 30-year veteran schoolteacher who taught math and to walk out that role and basically seek the good of the school and community that I was working at. But I had mentors in my life that really helped me entertain and think about other potential, other ways to use the talents and gifts that I have.

Certainly that prompted me to think very broadly about education, think broadly about policy, and then eventually took me to grad school.

Drew Catt: Yeah, so what was that experience like for you?

Albert Cheng: Well, I started with a master’s program, went to Biola University down in southern California. Small liberal arts Christian school. Certainly that experience was quite formative. Certainly it’s informed, to this day, much of my thinking on non-cognitive skills, moral formation, character education. Certainly it’s informed my thinking about the purpose of education, what’s education for.

I can assure you that I would not be the same person that I am today had I not spent two years in that program thinking through issues philosophically and theologically and whatever -ogically brand of study I guess, area of study there is in that program.

But then after that, then after kind of a broad type of education, went a bit more technical to get some methodological training, quant type training at the University of Arkansas. Yeah, I think all in all it’s worked out. I have technical training with maybe a broader range of ways of thinking and thoughts. That’s how I ended up where I am today.

Drew Catt: Yeah. I think we first met, might have been AFP San Antonio a handful of years ago. I remember definitely being impressed by your knowledge of games, specifically strategic-oriented games.

Albert Cheng: Sure, of course.

Drew Catt: How do you see the link between kind of like your love of pure mathematics with strategy-related games and larger role-playing games and kind of the gamer world?

Albert Cheng: Why? You’re putting me on the spot. I’m trying to think about how to unite my big hobby with my work. There’s definitely relationships. I think one, my hunch is that gaming builds character. I think most listeners might be familiar with Settlers of Catan.

Drew Catt: Great game.

Albert Cheng: Which by the way … Well anyway, I won’t get into the details of the game, but you know, when the dice don’t roll your way, you have a number of choices of how to respond. Some better than others. On one hand, I think gaming certainly can stretch you individually. That’s all part of education. It’s forming the kind of person you are.

I think another link between maybe gaming and education is the institution that gaming can build. I like to think of schools not just here to serve an individual’s ends. Certainly that’s a part of it. We want schools to give individuals skills so they can make it through college or get into college or find a stable career and have skills to do whatever kind of their life task is. There’s an aspect of education, but there’s also a communal side.

I think education also is about socializing people into communities. It’s about tying people together. Gaming, like schools, can be one of these types of civic institutions that actually help our world run smoothly. I guess part of human nature is to be connected to one another, to be in communion and relationship to one another. I’ve seen just with my hobby how gaming has done that.

I’ve met folks that I would otherwise have never met had I not gamed. I’m happy to send a short article that I wrote for a magazine about what gaming has done for certain folks, myself and friends in that community. Worth the read. I don’t just write education.

Drew Catt: Yeah. And for readers, you can see that article linked directly above these words. So, Albert, it’s kind of fascinating. You’re talking about communities and schooling and gaming. For me, growing up on a farm with a 56K Internet connection, school is where I did have my community of gaming.

I remember staying after school. There was a group of us that would stay after and play Starcraft together because that was the only way that we could have that physical land connection. Those were great times.

Albert Cheng: Yeah. Certainly gaming, the ways we connect are going to look different across communities.

Drew Catt: Yeah. It’s kind of interesting with the rise of globalization and how anyone could be playing a game with anyone, anywhere, at any time. It’s just fascinating to really think of what the sense of community really is and where that lives in a physical space or in a technological sense.

Albert Cheng: No, I mean this really touches on lots of issues. There’s certainly great potential for increasing social connectedness. I actually have a good gaming buddy—now, this one’s online multiplayer computer gaming, not the typical tabletop strategy game that I do— that over just our connection through some strategy gaming online developed quite a close friendship.

I won’t get into all the details, but certainly I’ve been able to have the opportunity to help navigate him and be there for him through a really tough life circumstance. There’s an upside. And then there’s also this downside, too. Certainly we all have our complaints about social media. In some sense, it’s often said that we are more connected than ever, but at the same time, we’re as lonely as we ever have been as well.

These are really big questions about what does technology do to our understanding of being human? How does technology affect us, our lives, how does it affect how we live? Certainly there are, education, broadly speaking, does touch upon these kinds of questions of what’s a life worth living look like? What’s a good life? I could go on. I don’t want to get too off topic here.

Drew Catt: There is no topic. We’re right on topic, Albert.

Albert Cheng: All right, perfect. I like it.

Drew Catt: It’s kind of interesting, because if you think about—circling back to education—thinking about the Socratic method and Socrates and Plato and teaching small groups of individuals in a physical space versus now can that happen in a chat room? More or less like educating everyone that’s reading something and have good constructive dialogue back and forth.

Albert Cheng: Yeah, again, I mean, look. Technology and new inventions, they always open up new possibilities and at the same time close off certain possibilities. Whether things work out on balance for better or for the worse, it’s always tough to predict. Look, with every new thing that comes out, it’s important to gain wisdom and discernment to kind of figuring out how to handle these things.

I think certainly with the Internet and chat rooms and cell phones, yeah, we as a culture really haven’t figured out all the answers to what the healthy, good use or appropriate use of all these things. Certainly in education too, yeah, we really haven’t figured out how to leverage all this. Personalized learning I guess is a hot thing and there’s certainly an upside and a potential of new things.

But it remains to be seen. As far as I know, the evidence on how revolutionary and effective that approach is … Certainly we haven’t seen what maybe some folks have been predicting.

Drew Catt: What are your thoughts on like the hybrid schooling model of the individual taking, doing a lot of the coursework on their own, and then coming together for the larger group discussion?

Albert Cheng: Yeah look, there’s probably a way to do it well. I think one of the dangers or the challenges is how do you strike the balance between letting kids go at their own pace but, in a sense, doing it some kind of siloed fashion where they’re just kind of engaging, not engaging with anybody else. Then also, making sure the student has some type of tie to others who are co-learners.
In some sense, learning is a social and communal activity. I’m not expert in how to pull all this off, but at least I can, I think, my hunch is that there is a human side to things that requires some kind of connection. It’s unclear to me how much that can be substituted with a lot of the digital technology that we have.

But look, as I said before, new technology always opens up new opportunities and closes other ones. Really, we have to be mindful and be careful in discerning what those gains and losses are and taking stock on them.

Drew Catt: I can remember some of the more recent graduate courses that I had where the professor had virtual office hours. And it wasn’t just like, “OK, let’s chat.” It was a more or less through the software, it was a video conferencing system. There was one on one video conferencing. I found that highly valuable because I could still stay after work at my desk and do it, not have to go hassle with parking on campus, paying for parking, and getting into their office and everything.

There was a certain level of convenience, but it was still nice to be able to see someone’s face and to be able to—

Albert Cheng: I do remember taking a number of online classes and meeting I guess it was what, synchronous, or asynchronous is people not together, right?

Drew Catt: Right.

Albert Cheng: So, the opposite of that, and we had a professor in the middle and we looked like The Brady Bunch on the screen and met for a few hours talking about educational philosophy. It was quite the experience.

Drew Catt: There’s just something about being able to read someone else’s facial expressions.

Albert Cheng: Yeah, yeah.

Drew Catt: That totally adds a whole other layer to any conversation.

Albert Cheng: Right, right, right. I do also remember another online class where we were posting discussion comments on a forum. And having to wait five hours for someone to respond to you was not the most pleasant intellectual exercise.

Drew Catt: Yeah, which is kind of interesting, doing a parallel between those two experiences and modern social media.

Albert Cheng: Yeah, yeah.

Drew Catt: Yeah, that’s really interesting. What kind of stuff have you been working on lately, Albert?

Albert Cheng: What have I been doing? Well, so much of my work is in the area of character and virtue formation. I’ve done work in figuring out how can we measure this better, if at all. And two, my main, the question that keeps me up at night and that I’m curious about most is, “How do we form character? Where’s virtue come from? How do we, why is it that certain people latch on to certain habits and practices and others don’t?”

It’s really a question of, yeah, virtue and moral formation. how does that happen? I’m doing several pieces, I’m involved in several projects that are pursuing those kinds of questions or pursuing answers to those kinds of questions in some way, shape or form. Certainly, recently I was appointed to as a senior research fellow to Cartis, which is a think tank in Canada that does work in Canada and the U.S., throughout North America.

For them, one of their big projects at least in their education portfolio is describing what adults who are educated in different kinds of environments and schools, what do those adults look like? What do their, what’s their education entertainment look like? What’s their employment and work life look like? What do their families look like? What kind of value systems do they have? What’s the nature of their civic participation, civic life?

All outcomes that are informed or influenced by the value systems that they grew up in. That’s just kind of an example of a project where we try to understand better how the moral communities that we grew up in affect us over the long run. Anyway, I could go on, but I don’t want to bore listeners with research. If you want to go there.

Drew Catt: I’m kind of interested in this values, learning values, values formation. Especially when I started doing some of the parent survey work. I started coming across the question, and it seems like, I don’t know if it’s a generational divide or what, but where values are taught, where values are learned. And it seems like there is a divide.

It’s whether values should be taught at school, values should be taught at home, values should be taught at church, values should be taught in the community.

Albert Cheng: Yeah, no, I mean look, there are all these different places. I think David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, has a new book out. He uses the term, the phrase, “moral ecology.” I think there’s, I don’t know if he’s the originator of that term, but in a sense, we all grow up in some kind of environment, or in a network of environments I should say, that collectively then form some kind of ecology.

What your home looks like, what your school looks like, for those that belong to some faith community, that’s going to affect how they view and think about just big questions in life and what the value, or what the good life looks like.

It really is a network of things, as you say. My own view is to figure out, effective formation happens when there is consistency. Certainly if, for example, if a young child is getting one message from school and one message from the home, that leads to some kind of confusion and incoherence, which probably isn’t helpful for development.

I think there’s some child psychology research on this, so don’t quote me on this. I’m less familiar with that stuff, but look, values and lots of formative processes happen in the rich kind of network and web of communities. Should one trump the other? Maybe there are places, certain relationships, that might arguable be more important.

Maybe the parent-child relationship probably should count more than say the relationship between some tutor and the child, or like a piano teacher and the child. Look, I mean I think if you conceive education as child rearing and bringing up a child into some kind of maturity, it takes folks in lots of different places to come together and paint a coherent vision of what the child should look like.

Drew Catt: That’s kind of interesting, self reports of where values are learned. I’m just thinking like my own experiences, because if you had asked me when I was graduating high school where my value system came from, I would have probably said some combination of my parents and my church, my youth group, the sports teams that I was on, the coaches that I was interacting with.
But then, honestly, within the last couple of years, I realized that the majority of the values that I have come directly from my great grandmother who was like the family figure that, growing up, I looked up to the most. It was never, even in part of my mind as a teenager, that I had consciously and definitely in a lot of ways subconsciously, copied a lot of her value system, which is just fascinating.

Albert Cheng: Yeah, and a lot of this is subconscious. We’re not aware of what kinds of habits and practices we’re adopting. I had a colleague who was doing a project on understanding how students were using technology in their classroom and how they were trying to figure out the right principles and guiding values to help them use technology appropriately in the classroom.

I think some of the focus group interviews that they had, they easily got students to say, “Oh yeah, I don’t go to certain inappropriate, not-safe-for-work websites at school. Therefore, I must be using it well, right?”

What’s fascinating though is that when he was in the classroom observing students, the very same students, the students who kind of gave, assessed themselves positively on that front were the very same ones that were using the devices to go to Amazon or other shopping sites to look at shoes and things to buy. The thing is that’s not a values neutral act, right?

Actually, kind of in, I suppose modern Western cultures so to speak, more in our American society, where consumerism is valued, the kids were living and breathing it. They weren’t even aware that they were actually, they didn’t make the connection that maybe there are certain degrees of inappropriateness that I’m embodying by spending my time just kind of perusing other shopping sites.

Just in the same way that there’s probably some kind of inappropriateness with looking at, going to sites that aren’t safe for work.

Drew Catt: Yeah, that’s kind of a fascinating thing to think about. Because it’s one is seen as definitely societally acceptable.

Albert Cheng: Yeah, right, right. So, you know, we almost need to … And I guess that goes back to the original point of, we talked about, having discernment and times of reflectiveness to self evaluate our behaviors and to see if we’re behaving in a way that reflects a life worth living. What’s fascinating is that the conception of a life worth living, of a good life, are things that you don’t just derive from yourself. You actually discover these things in relationship with others. You practice life together and figure out life together.

No one, like Athena, was it Athena that kind of sprung out from Zeus’s head or am I mixing the gods up?

Drew Catt: I haven’t done Greek mythology in many years, but go ahead.

Albert Cheng: Shame on me for forgetting, but you know it’s not all our values just kind of out of our own will just kind of spring up in isolation, from within ourselves, right? We learn values and have conceptions of what the world ought to be and how we should live based on observing others, deliberating with others, engaging with others in particular practices.

I guess yesterday was Mother’s Day, and so I’m sure we all have certain traditions, whether it’s to take our mother out for brunch, but in the practice of taking out your mother for brunch, you discover and kind of sketch out what love might look like, what familial love might look like.

You don’t just imagine what love is in the abstract in isolation, kind of disconnected or alienated from the actual embodied world.

Drew Catt: Yeah. It’s always fascinated me that in American English there is one umbrella term of “love.” Yeah, we’ll put these descriptors on it, like familial love.

Albert Cheng: Mm-hmm.

Drew Catt: Paternal love, maternal love. It’s always struck me, like studying the Japanese language in high school and for part of college, like how many different words for love there were. And each one had this different meaning instead of just the adjective in front describing it.

Albert Cheng: Yeah, the world and, I suppose, reality is complex. I’m not of the school of linguistics that says you can capture everything with words. Actually, there’s a fun, speaking of going back to my pure math days, there’s actually a couple theorems in math that suggest sort of this gets into cardinality and [inaudible 00:32:13], but there are different sizes of infinity and one of the proofs—I guess I’m going way into the weeds here—does suggest that there are these unnameable words that exist. Unnameable words, things that are true but are unnameable. Anyway, sorry, that just got weird really fast.

Drew Catt: No, no, no. These are the conversations I love. I think we did come kind of full circle back to talking the pure math. Albert, before we go, any last words? Any pieces of forthcoming or previous research that you’d like to plug of your own?

Albert Cheng: Oh, forthcoming? What is forthcoming? I don’t know. I don’t know that there’s anything that soon, at least I can’t remember. Shame on me, but you asked for final thoughts. Let’s just say I just want to encourage everyone to get into strategy gaming and see how that can enrich your life.

Drew Catt: I will be honest, Andrew Luck, being the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, I think there was a direct relationship between the number of people in the Greater Indianapolis area that started playing Settlers after he announced that it was his favorite game.

Albert Cheng: Good for the city.

Drew Catt: Yeah. Well, this has been a great conversation, Albert. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Albert Cheng: All right, yeah, yeah. Pleasure to chat.

Drew Catt: And to our listeners, be sure to subscribe to our podcast on platforms like SoundCloud and Apple Podcast and others for more of our coverage of new school choice research, education reform policy chats, and more. Thank you for listening, and we’ll see you back soon with more EdChoice Chats.