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The Boredom Machine Redux

[From time to time an old posting comes to life again for a new audience some time after it was originally written. The following is such a piece. I have added a couple of notes to the original.]

When I was younger, newer to teaching, and more foolish, I imposed structural and rhetorical formulae on my students’ writing. Doing so turned out to be a mistake. My less secure students made some unremarkable gains, but my more accomplished ones had no outlet for their urge to let their writing be shaped by their topic and its ad hoc demands. At one point I shared a good essay by one of my students with the class. A bright and contentious student asserted that it was ‘a bit heavy on its feet’. His own writing was lively but amorphous, and I had criticized him for that latter quality.

This student decided to produce as his next essay a satire of the plodding sort of essay he disapproved of. Everything followed the formula, but it was the most boring piece he had ever written for me. I am (somewhat grudgingly) grateful to him for a lesson learned.

Some years later I had another student, JM, one of the best writers I had ever taught. In those halcyon days before bogus ‘value’-‘added’ ‘metrics’ we used a home-grown writing assessment to judge (not measure) our students’ writing (but not their teachers’ teaching)[1]. It gave a once-off reading of each student, which we shared with students and parents hedged about with qualifiers[2]. Now, JM was the only student to whom we had ever given full marks on his writing assessment, and he got full marks every time he took it.

Our class was studying Moby-Dick, and so I shared with my students an extract from D H Lawrence’s brilliant but idiosyncratic essay on the book—an essay widely said to have (re)established its literary reputation. JM was enchanted, so much so that for his next writing assignment he tried imitating Lawrence’s manner. The result was first-rate. Then came the inevitable question: ‘What would happen if I wrote like this for the IB exam?’ I told him that he ought to write more conventionally for the exam but that he was welcome to make stylistic experimentations when he wrote for me. That was the point at which I think he was lost to literature.

It is in light of experiences like these that I began to resist formulaic instruction in writing. Fortification of that resistance came, as it often did for me, from Jacques Barzun. In an interview of him conducted near the end of his very long life, he asserted, in connection with the ‘writing process’, that ‘all systematic devices for generating good writing are a mistake’. While I could see an exception to Barzun’s dictum made for young students who do not know how to think consecutively or argue persuasively, such devices should be cast off like training wheels from a bicycle.

What should replace such devices is what Barzun called ‘perpetual discretion’, the power of constantly discerning where the individual student is and what he or she needs. Unfortunately, the conditions in which an institution can support teachers in the exercise of this power are growing harder to find: small classes, support of good writing across the curriculum, and freedom from baleful systematic and bureaucratic requirements. It also helps to hire and support teachers and administrators who are intellectually agile.

A moment’s thought will show that this kind of subtlety is beyond systematic and ‘algorithmic’ handling.

But subtlety and discretion are not where we are going. On the contrary, many schools are adopting such writing ‘aids’ as the Jane Schaffer Method, whose strictures are likely to produce essays like my subtle student’s parody and to forestall any student like JM. Now, it is possible that in some middle-school or remedial settings, that parody would be a non-parodic step forward, but it is hard to see how such rigidity could characterize the teaching of writing in secondary schools whose students are said to be approaching college-readiness.

Some of my ToK students will shortly be reading chapter 8 of Stephen Jay Gould’s The Panda’s Thumb. (I should say before discussing that reading that Gould’s writing is exceptionally good, as the IB program recognizes by placing him on the Prescribed List of Authors for its two English courses, including the literature course.[3]) In this chapter Gould examines the question of the level at which natural selection works, offering his own thesis and rejecting two others.  He ends with a synthesis in which he condemns the ‘scientific’ doctrines of atomism and reductionism—the belief that ‘wholes should be understood by decomposition into “basic” units [and] the idea that the properties of microscopic units can generate and explain the behavior of macroscopic results.’

In connection with the subject of this posting the first thing to be said about this excellent chapter is that it in no way and at no point conforms to the requirements of the Jane Schaffer Method, or indeed any method, including methods propounded for the reporting of education research. It is agile and limber, adapting itself to the needs of each part of the argument as they come up, subtly laying the groundwork for his concluding synthesis.

But the second is that atomism and reductionism are dangerous to the teaching of writing too, and for reasons that are not too dissimilar to what makes them objectionable in science. The very model of atomistic and reductionist instruction in writing turns out to be the Jane Schaffer Method, together with other ‘formulaic’ patterns and ‘systematic devices’.

We don’t expect seventeen-year-olds to be dependent on training wheels on their bicycles. Why should we allow them such aids in their writing?


[1] You will find out what we did and why here.

[2] One year one of the classes threw the tests because of a grievance. Did that make them bad writers or us bad teachers? VAM has a simple, crude answer, and it is wrong.

[3] He is no longer on the list. ‘Nothing Gould can stay.’ Sorry.

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Attack of the–What?

In 2014 I wrote about the Paideia Program at Oakland Technical High School. Started at Oakland Tech during the mid-80s by Oakland Tech teachers assisted by people from Paideia, it worked counter to the prevailing view of North Oakland as a gun- and knife-infested crack war zone whose young people were good for nothing. During the first ten or twenty years of its existence, its students quietly demolished every stereotype of right and left about the ability, education, and the future of poor black North Oaklanders. The Paideia students engaged in close reading of Montesquieu and Machiavelli, Plato and Aristotle, Gandhi and Douglass. They discussed the reading and the ideas it generated in Socratic discussions—real ones. They learned to write. And when they applied to colleges, they were admitted: not just to Laney and Chabot, the nearby community colleges, but also Brown, Bryn Mawr, Cal Berkeley, Cal Poly, Cal State East Bay, Harvard, Howard, Johns Hopkins, Kenyon, MIT, Northwestern, Oberlin, Penn, Pratt, Rensselaer Polytechnic, Spelman, Stanford, and Wellesley.

Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door. Regardless of who said it, this line has identified a pragmatic test of quality that Americans have recognized for years. It describes what happened as the program’s reputation spread. Students from the catchment zones of Oakland’s other high schools, some of them dire places, began to want to go there, including white and Asian students. Some parents removed their children from private schools and sent them to Oakland Tech. Obviously the change was not all down to Paideia, though there is argument about what it was down to. Sociologists, epidemiologists, and criminologists will give it the needed study, but the great mass of the people knew what it knew: here was a free public high school accessible to all, whose graduates went everywhere from the campus down the street to Harvard Yard.

The Paideia program was faced with a “problem”. For a long time, students could gain admission merely by promising and showing they would do the “extra” (i.e., not extra or too much but exactly right) work the program required. Now, if I were a school administrator and some dedicated teachers had achieved such a brilliant success, I’d be asking how the program could be expanded. That is not what happened. It was “frozen” at its current size, which, given its increased fame and desirability, was bound to make applications more competitive and admission more selective. That is what happened, and it could have been avoided.

Build a better mousetrap, and your competitors will try to destroy it. The school forbade the Paideia teachers from seeking applicants among 9th-graders. The managers of Oakland Tech’s “Health Academy” forbade its students from joining Paideia. School district officials said Paideia ignored the district’s master plan for educational “pathways” (but not a widened path to Paideia’s door). In 2017 Ms Maryann Wolfe, one of the founding director-teachers of Paideia at Oakland Tech, resigned, concerned that the program faced a serious threat. Did it? This story works outside so many of the conventional thought-clichés and ways of seeing found in education that little has been reported or examined. A number of claims made “more in sorrow than in anger”—a sure sign of anger under the surface—suggest that it did, but I would like to see an update. 

The best way to close this story for now may be to quote a Paideia graduate. Daniel Hutchinson, an African American attorney, graduated in 1995. He said the program “reset my baseline for what was possible. Without it, I would not have become who I am today.” An admission officer from an earlier Stanford once told Ms Wolfe early in her tenure at Oakland Tech, “When we see an application from the Oakland Public Schools, we immediately throw it in the trash.” Not any more—we hope.

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It Must Be Live

About twenty years ago, the school where a former colleague worked had inadvertently stepped into the vanguard of education by requiring that each teacher conduct one online course. The reason it was inadvertent is that the school instituted the requirement not to improve learning but to save the expense of building new classrooms, which live learning would have entailed. The result was that students as well as teachers strongly disliked this “hybrid learning” and wished to have live classes instead. That is what students[1], teachers and their parents always do when faced with the choice between online learning and live. The New York Times had an article asking why “our schools” can’t reopen as restaurants and theaters are doing and characterizing the alternative as a ‘hybrid rut’. The American Academy of Pediatricians has weighed in with a recommendation that schools return to live classes as soon as possible.

Even in the face of this evidence of overwhelming rejection, professional education disruptionists and transformationists, whether or not in the pay of the Ed Biz, remain unconcerned with the wishes of those who are to be part of the education. Instead, they are worried about ‘unlocking the next paradigm[2]’. I have long thought that no one in education should speak about paradigms who has not read Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions in its entirety and found out what a paradigm is—and is not. Well, I have read it twice, once together with a former colleague, a summa graduate in physics from Cal Berkeley who was also an extraordinarily good teacher.[3] We can assure you that ‘unlocking the next paradigm’ is nonsense.

If so, then what benefits does live schooling confer? To start with the pediatricians’ concerns, it keeps children from falling into listlessness, depression and screen-addiction. It recognizes their needs as social beings for companionship. It allows them to test their ability to get along and to improve that ability in real society. It places role models right in front of them. It makes absent-mindedness less likely. (William James said that an absent-minded person is just present-minded somewhere else. That is true, but it is even better if that person is absent-minded somewhere else and present-minded to our lessons!)

It allows or encourages certain kinds of social intellect to develop, particularly if the teacher is skilled at Socratic instruction or conducting. It brings a group of students within the fringe of their teacher’s front-row consciousness so the teacher can respond to their facial expressions and body language by offering advice or criticism. It brings the teacher within the fringe of the students’ front-row consciousness, increasing attention and shortening mental holidays. It makes more likely the development of the affective bond between them that makes schooling possible. It allows concerted work like choral singing and orchestral playing to take place and improve by practice. It allows musicians to be heard in the fullness of their singing and playing.

I was typing the words of the last paragraph, as I usually do, in my flat overlooking one of the school’s quadrangles, when music came in at the window. In a coincidence a novelist would never have dared to invent, the headmaster of the school had led a choir of some dozens of people into the quad. They were placed under and next to one of his favourite trees, which I had seen him inspecting after the school had been struck some years ago by a typhoon. It was the first time I had heard organised singing in the quad since before the pandemic. The tree’s branches were still reaching up through air that was now filled with sound shaped live by his conducting hand.[4]


[1] Except those in Ferris Bueller’s history class.

[2] The motto of a recent online IB conference.

[3] We did it to prepare a ToK science unit together. I still have my thirty-year-old copy with dog ears and marginalia by both of us.

[4] I was going to close with Williams’s ‘Locust Tree in Flower’, but the typesetting program I am using does not allow me to set and place the type properly. Go ahead and look it up live.

.

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Another Beastly Story

Though Æsop’s fables speak across 2,500 years with wisdom still pertinent to education and the wide world, I want to invoke a modern fabulist today: Orwell. Even before writing Animal Farm, he had been known as an opponent of humbug[1]. He detected it in the political world[2], but he was just as able at detecting it in education[3], which takes place not just at school but also in public life. Learning to think like Orwell means learning to recognise humbug / bunk / baloney / BS and to reject it.

There are two chief opponents of recognizing humbug on Animal Farm. The first is Squealer the pig, who speaks not to produce truth and procure the public good but to subvert truth and procure the advantage of the pigs. He does this by lying and producing half-truths. He even writes over the principles that undergird life on the Farm and appear on the wall of the barn. But the second opponent of learning is the chorus of sheep, who do not say “Bah!” to humbug but repeat and echo the latest lies or nonsense with an acquiescent “ba-a-a.”

Some public discourse on education seems to be taken, in type if not in words, directly from the pigs, the sheep and the edited barn wall. The latest examples accompany the depredations made on good education by the corona virus epidemic. Among them is the replacement of a good thing, live schooling, by a rather less good thing, online schooling, as an emergency measure, much as one takes out the biscuit tire in the trunk to get to the shop where the good tire can be repaired or replaced.

It has been a field day for the Squealers of the Ed Biz to promote their “products”, as The New York Times reports. The Times leaves almost unmentioned three problems with this state of things: the “products” don’t work particularly well, they are very expensive, and students & teachers alike hate online learning. Do we hear about the problems? No, we hear sheep-like choruses of “Online learning is here to stay. Online learning is here to stay.” Where have we heard that before?

New Math is here to stay.

Open classrooms are here to stay.

Whole language is here to stay. 

Process writing is here to stay.

“Value”-“added” “metrics” are here to stay.

“Agency” is here to stay. (My readers of a certain age can easily add to this half-dozen.)

One academic notes rather dimly that ‘we will never in our lifetimes see a more powerful demonstration of the conservatism of educational systems.’ Actually, we see such demonstrations daily. The academic appears to regret that people in education don’t embrace the methods of high-tech business disruptionists. The reluctance is because they remember, much of the time, that children are not a means to a commercial end but ends in themselves, and that changing how we teach them should be done carefully and always with an eye to the public good.


[1] Americans would call it ‘bunk’, a word that has an interesting history. Felix Walker, the Congressman from Buncombe County, N.C. (fl. 1820), gave a speech fuller than usual of that quality. He gave it a name when answering people who asked him what he was talking about: ‘I was speaking to Buncombe.’ The word eventually shrank to ‘bunk’.

[2] In, for example, his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’

[3] In his autobiographical essay ‘Such, Such Were the Joys

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Another Cup of Tea

It was time for tea again with my former colleague J, six months after our last visit. We decided to go to a nice old-fashioned tea shop in the New Territories. The corona virus having been kept almost entirely at bay in Hong Kong, the mall containing the tea shop was full of customers, though we were masked and had to have our temperatures taken when we went in. We settled on a “cream tea” and, after some enjoyable personal catching-up, turned to school.

It was not a happy discussion on J’s part. For the past few months she had had to shift from live teaching to managing the ‘flickering blue stuff’[1] on her Zoom screen, as had we all. We both know, as do our students, that live teaching is better and that the FBS is a temporary expedient. The problem any good teacher must solve is how to carry on with at least some integrity and success. She does not need administrators breathing down her neck. She does not need all those tendentious education consultants that appeared after the closures like worms in a spadeful of freshly turned earth. She does not need the dreary shower of meetings. She wonders how much better it would be for her students if the money spent on the consultants, the programs, the software and the administrators were spent to upgrade all the students’ residential bandwidth and, if needed, to lend them a cheap laptop.

In addition, J has to deal with a weird and troublesome practice called “challenge grading.” The way it works is that a teacher gives her students two grades: the actual grades they earned and “challenge grades,” which are estimates of the best grades they could be earning. 

J’s school is also buying an expensive program of “adaptive baseline assessment” that will independently “help you understand what your students know”, i.e., will, for a price, help second-guess “challenge” grades.

How helpful! Let me see how it would help me. I teach the IB course in theory of knowledge, as I have done for twenty-five years. In it I assist students to achieve second-order thinking about knowledge in the arts, ethics, history, human sciences, math, and natural sciences. While doing so, I devise “formative assessments” that teach while examining how they have done and prepare them for their culminating assessments. I get to know each student and his intellect. I talk to him. I question him. I watch him at work, encouraging and reproving at need. From this mass of material, I form a grade to summarize how he has done and to offer an estimate of how he will do. But under challenge grading this exercise in “perpetual discretion” is not enough. I must also divine how each student would perform in imaginary ideal circumstances with imaginary ideal preparation. That seems to be impossible, but the “program of adaptive baseline assessment” claims to come to the rescue with multiple-choice tests on doing sums, understanding  vocabulary, and telling which two doodles of five have a family resemblance. Some rescue.

Actually, what I would need is to find another school—let’s say the school where I actually work. Fortunately, that school, unlike my former colleague’s, does not require “challenge” grades and manages with a light touch. I say that very gratefully, not smugly. 

(Another former colleague wrote very recently, “There is so much planning at this place that nobody is ready for anything.” That summarises the trouble both these capable teachers face at their schools.)

The man who founded the IB program at my school explained how he managed it: “Hire excellent teachers and then let them do their job.” Imagine that! My former colleague remembers him with fondness and respect, as do I. Maybe we should have raised our teacups to him before we finished.

Postscript: PISA Results

Not long after teatime, I ran across the recent release of the results on their triennial tests in 2018 by PISA (the Program for International Student Assessment). Here are a few items from a quick reading:

•  No Child Left Behind and the Common Core have had no impact at all on the US’s results since 2000, of which the graphical linear representation is a trend-line as flat as the horizon.

•  Almost all schools in the ambit of Chinese culture (Beijing/Shanghai/Jiangsu/Zhejiang, Hong Kong, Macau and Singapore) do a remarkable job of keeping their students from being low achievers even among ‘disadvantaged’ groups. For example, Hong Kong, 37% of whose students are the children of immigrants, left only 5% of its students behind as low achievers.

•  Students attending schools with more computers per student scored significantly lower in the PISA assessment than their peers in schools with fewer computers per student. On average across OECD countries, one additional computer per student in a school was associated with a 12-point decline in reading scores before accounting for other factors, and with a 6-point decline after accounting for students’ and schools’ socio-economic profile.


[1] Orwell, in his essay ‘Marrakech’, describes colonial natives from the perspective of their masters as an ‘undifferentiated brown stuff’. The image is precisely analogous to mine of the talking postage stamps on my class screen. One thing that carried both of us along the Zoom road was the memory we had of the whole human beings we had taught before the school closures. Orwell achieved his satirical dehumanization by using a mass noun to describe people. Many people in education practice such dehumanization with no satirical intent.

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Cupcakes or Bust!

The shutdown last June of Hong Kong’s schools was doubly distressing because we had only just come out of the springtime quarantines and closures a few weeks earlier, and we had hoped they were finished for good. Students stayed mostly at home for the summer, showing remarkable fortitude in accepting restrictions on their usually active lives. I had wondered whether the summer philosophy colloquium I hold every year would work on Zoom. I need not have worried.

Three former students expressed interest in helping conduct the colloquium: a graduate of Oxford’s courses in philosophy, politics and economics (PPE), a current PPE student, and a rising senior with a philosophy major at Columbia. (The first of these started the colloquium six years ago.) We worked out a syllabus mainly of their devising: Plato’s Crito, extracts from Hobbes’s Leviathan and Locke’s Second Treatise, one of Marx’s philosophical manuscripts of 1844, a lecture by Amartya Sen, an extract from Fred Hirsch’s Social Limits to Growth, and extracts from Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Each of them was to prepare and lead discussions of one or two of these readings. They supplied material to help the younger students manage the readings, some of which are very difficult.

About twenty students and graduates signed up, and most of them attended through the entire programme. When we discussed the easier readings, many people became involved; when we worked on the harder ones, a few talked while most listened. The quality of discussion was generally excellent. I was happy to see, among other bits, an animated but polite discussion between the Marxist of the group and its Nozickian. I felt frustrated at hearing these discussions among the talking postage stamps on my Zoom display and wished that some students did not need to turn off their video because they had narrow bandwidth at home, but I was pleased that the talks went as well as they did.

In the past I’d bought cupcakes from the best cupcake shop in town, Sift in Wan Chai, and served them with the philosophy on ‘cupcake day’, the last session of the colloquium. This year that was, of course, impossible. But the education department decided just yesterday to reopen the schools again, and the young leaders thought it would be nice to have a reunion of the group with cupcakes later in the month. Since cupcakes are an unconditional good, serving them without philosophy will offer a nice belated end to this summer.

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Here to Stay, Gone Tomorrow

In my last posting I anticipated the return of my school to live classes. The month or so since then has entirely gratified my expectations. Juniors taking theory of knowledge have just begun work on ethical and moral knowledge. One lesson earlier this week may speak for the rest. It began with a Socratic discussion about the sources and qualities of moral knowledge. It was a good way to start clearing away intellectual underbrush and glib thinking. We’ll continue the discussion in segments, but the first segment laid some interesting and important issues on the table, which the students were keen to discuss. 

(One of the provisions for the reopening of school was that students’ desks must be a meter apart and face forward in rank-and-file order. Arrangement into small discussion groups and Socratic circles is forbidden. Students kept this generally in mind, but at a couple of points we might have had a cross between a permitted and an impermissible arrangement: students kept their places but faced each other in small groups. There was no crowding, so I took them as generally complying with the rules.)

The ensuing discussions were exciting and fruitful. I moved around the classroom making comments and asking questions. As I spoke with one group, its neighbors could continue in their own discussions or turn and listen to me or other groups. I considered it a highly successful lesson—one that would have been mostly unfeasible online.

In the last posting I also discussed threats to classroom instruction by commercial interests connected with the sale of teaching technology, noting that the drumbeat had started for more online lessons in the wake of the corona virus. Unfortunately, the turn towards flickering blue stuff is now also being supported by people within the Ed Biz who have no visible connection to commercial interests. Such was an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by one Flower Darby entitled ‘Sorry Not Sorry: Online Teaching Is Here to Stay’.

We need to examine such claims in light of the fable about the camel at the entrance to the nomad’s tent. The camel takes over the tent by inches. The moral warns us about the danger of not stopping pernicious incursions on our professional autonomy and lives. The same warning might be given about unwanted educational incursions on our classrooms. By contrast, Ms. Flower Darby is saying, in effect, that the camel is here to stay; but she is wrong. Trends are nothing but collections of individual decisions, and by changing our thinking and deciding, we can keep the tent our own.

Ah, but it is not about us, intones Ms Darby, it is about the students. I find this argument stupidly automatic and deeply offensive. There may be some serious and subtle discussion about what kind of teaching helps students best, and how to deal with educational emergencies, but it does no good to indulge in simplistic moral blackmail. Teachers are for students too.

The last part of the discussion in this article has to do with the desirability of working with a school’s Learning Management System, an “underdeployed tool with significant potential for fostering dynamic teaching and learning interactions.” With that kind of endorsement, no wonder it is underdeployed. I suspect another reason for running shy of a LMS is that it ends up treating education like a canned good.

Whatever purpose online education may have served in the corona virus emergency, we must not conflate emergencies and standard operations. That kind of distinction may be hard to keep in mind while the emergency is in progress, but Hong Kong’s experience should offer some hope for real teaching in the better times that can follow.

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Back to School

My school will open its doors to students this week for the first time in four months, and I am delighted. The students’ feelings about returning are possibly more ambivalent, but I think that, on the whole, they are also happy. Now is a good time to reflect on what the closure of schools has taught us—or of what it has reminded us, for some of these insights are so old they’re new.

For thousands of years, people with insight have known that we are a species that is meant to live and function in groups. Aristotle’s statement usually translated as “Man is a political animal” actually has the connotation that human beings form groups for governing themselves. He went so far as to say that someone who lives outside human society “must be a beast or a god, for he is no man.” Our language itself seems to support this notion: The word “egregious,” meaning literally outside the group, describes something conspicuously bad or flagrant.

“Egregious” also has an archaic meaning of “remarkable for good quality,” showing that not just extraverts have shaped the language. During the first two or three centuries of the Christian era, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, like St Anthony and St Melania, had a strong vocation to solitude. It turns out that they have something to tell us about the problems of isolation. The eremitic life, that is, the life of a hermit or anchoress, has its hazards. Dullness, torpor, depression, feckless lassitude: all these afflictions come to someone practicing self-isolation. Does that list sound familiar? The Desert Fathers and Mothers ascribed these afflictions to the agency of a devil called the Noonday Demon. To maintain their goodness against his onslaught required all the wisdom, discernment and strength they could muster, and was beyond the powers of many.

The best artistic representation of spiritual troubles during isolation is, I think, Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Temptations of St Anthony. The saint self-isolated in his thirties and lived another sixty or seventy years. At one time he reports having been besieged by devils, and Bosch gives us the scene around his cell as a surreal pandemonium.

If isolation is difficult for a discerning devotee who knew what he was in for and chose the solitary life anyway, how much more difficult must it be for a young person with little prior reflection or assistance? It is true, of course, that today’s students are not as isolated as yesterday’s hermits; but Skype and Zoom, though useful in a limited way, are not reality, which we should know in the deep places of our being. Cyber-hermits have trouble with this reality, and some of them are caught up in dark places—not their bedrooms, darkened except for the blue flicker of their screens, but mentally or spiritually dark places.

A positive reason for students to return to a real school is the opportunity presented to them when they immerse themselves in a community. It is an opportunity to see and learn about human associations and to find in those associations things worth knowing about. I mean not just subjects but norms, ways of thinking and the other complexities of human nature that we call a culture. Schools can reflect a wider culture and have some elements of a culture of their own. The wider culture may expect us to read, write, count, think and speak effectively; a particular school’s culture may be alive to particular interests. My own school’s culture includes an interest in and respect for music, for example. Smaller groups within the school may have specialized interests. The magazine of which I am the teacher-in-charge allows its staff to write and publish articles, poems, and art under the direction of editors and layout staff. If the magazines are published and sold without much detailed direction from me, it is because the student culture makes this kind of work possible.

I don’t mean to say that a school is full of students smiling and working happily together like the Cossacks of the Kuban on their collective farm. Some students’ favorite class is recess, and their favorite classroom is the tuck shop. Some students hear a different drummer, and a good school or university culture will let them step to the music they hear. Schools with good cultures accept variety in their teachers and students while at the same time leading them towards some broadly conceived common goal. They work live and in real time with real groups of real people, as in real life.

The reason many teachers have not liked online education during the corona virus pandemic is that at some level they recognize how less satisfactory than reality it is. On some level most students have come to the same conclusion, and for the same reason. I am afraid their—our—opposition will not be credited even though we were the ones who had the experience. We are already hearing the drumbeat in favour. 

One executive of a Silicon Valley company invites us to consider the waste of “all those buildings” dedicated to education alone. (He says this from the executive offices of his building dedicated to commerce alone before leaving for a resort full of buildings dedicated to leisure alone, or to a concert at a building dedicated to the arts alone.) A lot of students are grateful for “those buildings.” Most students of the Leshata Secondary School in a shantytown near Johannesburg, who lived in shacks when I went there, passed the national school-leaving test. One reason was that the school remained open as a place to study in the evening, which they would have had trouble doing in their shacks. Less dire examples can be found of the benefit a school building can bring to a poor neighborhood. For the better off, the need for such places also remains. Where will they learn laboratory sciences except at a school with labs? If they watch Mr Wizard or Professor Wonderful do an experiment on TV, they gain some knowledge, but what about the skill they gain doing an experiment themselves? What about the understanding they derive from their own endeavors, including the translation of their own work into their own writing?

Another tech CEO thoughtfully points out that the pandemic has taught us how vulnerable we are in real schools compared to online: “Humans are bio-hazards,” she says, but “machines are not.” There is an answer to this breathtaking idea. You can find it in Hong Kong, whose human citizens, taking the right hygienic precautions together, are not biohazards.

The enthusiasts of ‘creative disruption’ have their reason to get rid of “those buildings.” It is that educational routines everywhere and without exception are stale and need ruining, like the village in Vietnam that was saved by being destroyed. Thomas Hardy’s novel The Mayor of Casterbridge begins with the drunken mayor betting his wife in a game of chance. He loses her. The creative disruptionists think like the Mayor, though they are not even drunk, and approve of using people in bets—in this case, other people’s children.

Finally, we have the problem of lousy schools. I’ve written about the high school whose salutatorian received an SAT score in the 500s, and the high school whose salutatorian could not compute fractions on his summer job. Whatever problems lie behind such results will not be solved by lots of pretty lights, bouncing balls and unsociable distancing. 

To someone with a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. The tech people need to leave their hammers at the forum door.

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What’ll It Be?

Next week my grade 11 students will face a deadline to do for the first time something called a “ToK Presentation” and to produce something called a “Presentation Planning Document.” Much can be said about these two productions, but for now I want to focus on their difficulty. Success requires that students simultaneously balance and handle some rather complex intellectual demands of a kind they have not had to handle before.

Of the three basic kinds of learning—knowledge, skill and understanding—this work demands more than the usual amount of new and detailed understanding from students who hope to do well. As these postings have frequently pointed out[1], understanding is more likely to come from Socratic questioning, which works on each individual student’s needs and helps him find the understanding needed to meet them. The original and greatest Socratic questioner usually did his teaching in small groups or with individuals. Plato’s dialogue the Symposium takes place at a dinner-and-drinking party, the original meaning of the Greek word. The guests are few, the conduct is temperate, the wine is cut with water, and each claim made by one of the guests receives Socrates’ undivided attention for as long as needed. The Crito takes place in Socrates’ prison cell as the time approaches for him to take the poisoned chalice that will kill him. At the end of each piece the participants understand something they had not understood before.

It is possible for understanding to come to a listener, but it is less likely than to a participant. We may be happy to hear what others say, and we may get something from it, but we will be surer of understanding if we have our own chance to ask and be questioned. In these circumstances a teacher must “read” the group or his collocutor, moving things along or slowing them down at need, so that everyone, listener or speaker, may achieve an understanding.

It should be unnecessary to say that for teaching purposes, the best conditions for such a colloquy exist in a live classroom with a small number of students paying close attention to each other and to the teacher. Physical proximity does wonders for attention, and distance diminishes it. When students are arranged in a circle, everyone is in the front row and on the spot. When students are arranged in a display on a Zoom screen, everyone is in the back row and at ease. Why, they may even be looking at other material than their assigned reading! When work in a live classroom divides into small groups, the teacher can divide attention between the group he’s talking to and the other groups, moving from one to another at need. When the students are arranged in Zoom “breakout rooms”, the teacher completely loses touch with other groups than the one whose “room” he has entered, and “movement” becomes arbitrary. Obviously, the other groups lose touch with him, too, and that can have its consequences, as one of my “rooms” found out two weeks ago to the utter embarrassment of one of its members.

It is therefore troubling and exasperating to hear people argue in favor of online lessons, not as a necessary stopgap in time of pandemic to be abandoned as soon as possible, but as a positive alternative to live lessons. Such was the position taken by Jeannie Suk [sic] Gersen, a professor at the Harvard Law School who also writes for The New Yorker. She asserts that Zoom makes lessons “more personalized, not less”. Now, it turns out that the class she teaches has one hundred and ten students in it. I mention that number because Gersen says she conducts her class using the “Socratic method”. I don’t recall any Platonic dialogue with one hundred and ten participants, and that is no accident: the Socratic method demands fewer participants than one hundred and ten. Gerson’s Socratic questioning involves not a close examination of the state of an individual’s understanding, but asking dozens of her students questions during single lessons in order to have a “dialogue” with them. What kind of “dialogue” is possible with dozens of individuals in a two-hour lesson? What kind of examination? Think of Crito. Think of Thrasymachus. Think of Alcibiades. It is hard to avoid concluding that the governing genius of this dinner party is not Socrates but Howard Johnson.

Masha Gessen is less sanguine. Gessen, a staff writer at The New Yorker and a visiting professor at Amherst College, thinks there is big trouble with online lessons, though in the linked article she voices many other concerns in addition. She notes that her students prefer live lessons and gives reasons why that preference is sound. Of course, she is at Amherst, the home of close colloquy, the opposite in technique and intention from remote and massive lessons. It is the place where Robert Frost could seek signs of students’ understanding so subtle that in a less intimate setting he might have missed them altogether. 

And it is a place like my own, at least in ideal conditions. One of the ways I’ve tried to imitate the closeness of colloquy typical in Socratic teaching is by establishing “office hours” during which students may Skype me either singly or in small groups for a discussion of matters that concern them. My impression is that it works better than barging into “breakout rooms,” though it is rather less satisfactory than live teaching. I hope that it will work as well as it can and that when conditions become normal again, we will return to the kind of teaching that we know works.

For we do know what works. 


[1] E.g., here

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Tea for Three with Æsop

One reason Hong Kong has not been ravaged by the novel corona virus should be evident to anyone who casts back in memory to the days when school children were taught how to draw a moral from a fable of Æsop’s (Ooh! A ligature!) or to interpret an old saw. Think, for example, of the saw that “a stitch in time saves nine.” Just as someone darning socks has an easier job of it by darning when the hole is small, so the people of a city, by jointly and severally following a few simple directions for prophylactic hygiene, do not have to suffer the massive lockdowns widespread deaths that result when a virus gets out of hand.

I recently went for afternoon tea at the old Peninsula Hotel with a former colleague. (I teach at a city school; she, at an “international” school.) A member of the hotel’s staff took our temperatures when we entered. Tea tables were spaced two meters apart. All the staff were masked, as were we till we reached our table. No group was larger than four. Even the string band that played tangos and fifties movie tunes from a balcony wore masks.

After friendly catching-up, our talk moved to the closure of Hong Kong’s schools. Chief among the consequences has been a shift from live teaching to online. Our circumstances of teaching are different, our students are different, and our administrative structures are different; but we found that our concerns were the same. They are not always or necessarily what our schools’ managers focus on, but they are important.

First: As these postings have often argued[1], of the three kinds of learning achieved in school, only one can be treated massively or mechanically. This also happens to be the kind of learning that students tend to forget most easily and quickly. The other two[2] must be achieved under the tutelage of a live human teacher.

This means that, second, online learning is unfitted to do many of the basic jobs of education. My former colleague and I commiserated the unsatisfactory way online teachers must ignore their students’ need for improved skill and understanding. Online courses that offer “breakout rooms” and “office hours” cannot eliminate this deficit. A few students troubled by having to ask questions in front of a live class will open up in a chat thread, but they are exceptions that only slightly prove the rule.

We must therefore conclude that, third, online learning is only an emergency expedient, not the next brave new world of education. Even The New York Times, long a gull for novel stupidity in teaching[3], has recognized this, calling for online learning to return to a supporting role after the emergency recedes.

Fourth, educational “managers” must keep their heads rather than go off half-cocked. Unfortunately, many of them are losing their heads in the educational game of “Ready, Fire, Aim.” This game has dangerous consequences. The danger is increased by the flatulent and idiotic discourse “educators” often favor[4]. My former colleague instances an “exploratory” session held by her school’s “management” about online learning. One of the ground rules was that “negative” ideas were not permitted. It was as if the “managers” had learned from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

And so we come back to Æsop, who warns us against the volcano that labors, only to bring forth a mouse. It helps to remember the long term. In doing so, we can be reassured that, like the tortoise, we’ll win the race by being deliberate and steady. Of the sixteen to twenty years that many of our students will require for their education, the current difficulties have taken up about 5% of the time, a thing that educationist hares are likely to forget. Maybe they need to take some time off for a nice cup of tea.


[1] For example, here and here

[2] All three are identified here

[3] As here

[4] I am referring to Western education, not Chinese. Chinese educators favor zheng ming over bullshit, and their paramount educator, who has been dead for 2,500 years, has been giving lessons for most of that time.