Problems with Marking

June 23rd, 2019

 

The simple reason to mark is to let the student (and his parents) know how well he has learned what was taught. But this simple statement hides some complications.

The first is to distinguish knowledge, skill and understanding from one another and to be sure we have assessed each of them effectively. If I ask my students to write an essay on ephemerality in Bashō’s Narrow Road to Oku, the answer should allow me to judge their knowledge of Japan and its writing; their skill in marshaling evidence to make a well-written, coherent argument; and their penetration into Bashō’s world-view and religion. If I ask them multiple-choice questions about Oku, I will not be able to make such a judgment.

We also have a problem with understanding itself. How do we judge that a student has understood something rather than just memorized words that mimic understanding? More fundamentally, if teachers do not actually teach understanding, but only establish conditions in which it can occur, how can they be sure that their students have had the chance they need to establish and communicate the understanding the course requires? Robert Frost said[1], “How do I know whether a man has come close to Keats in reading Keats? It is hard for me to know. I have lived with some boys a whole year over some of the poets and I have not felt sure whether they had come near to what it was all about. One remark sometimes told me…. And that is enough if it was the right remark…. You ought to be marked for the closeness, for nothing else.” One reason why discussion is so important in establishing marks for understanding is that we need discussion so the one right remark can occur.

Frost thought that some colleges rid their curricula of the “poetry nuisance” by not teaching the understanding and knowledge of poetry at all, but “turn[ing] it out to disport itself” with plays and games. The resulting pseudo-understanding he called “sunset raving,” in which the aficionado faces the sunset and goes “oh”, “ah.” The problem: how do we mark oh’s and ah’s and other inarticulate responses? He approved of enthusiasm but he wanted it “taken through the prism of the intellect.” That refraction allows the kind of marking that “oh” and “ah” make difficult.

Of course, we must then set the kinds of assessments that will  allow us to do that kind of marking. Frost could never have imagined that we would reach a point where students’ proficiency in subjects like poetry  is determined entirely by answers to multiple-choice questions. How can we find the ‘right remark’ by a student who is only asked to point?

We also have problems extrinsic to particular courses. They arise because a grade can be used for other purposes than its simple and ostensible one as an indicator. They can, for example, be used in aggregations to determine a student’s suitability for admission to a desirable university or for the award of a scholarship. When grades stop being simply indicators and start being a basis for making consequential decisions, they become subject to the pressure of corruption[2]. This is true not just for actual grades but also for ‘predicted grades’ such as the IB program requires its teachers to give. Predicted grades were originally required to allow the comparison of expectation and results–by the teacher as a check on wishful thinking and by the IBO as a check on faulty marking. Now they are often used as the basis of university admission decisions. No prizes for guessing what kind of corruption pressure is the result.

And what about the practice of grading ‘on a curve’? In this bizarre marking, one’s letter grade depends not on how good one’s results were, but how they compared to the results of others in one’s class. Lady Bracknell’s ghost must be satisfied to be vindicated in asserting that “statistics are laid down for our guidance.”

It’s enough to make people ask, as in a recent article for The New York Times, “Why Can’t Everyone Get A’s?” The writer did not mean to ask why everyone is not doing excellent work in rigorous courses. In fact, he ridiculed rigor as ‘macho’. He meant to ask why the whole system of inappropriate and corrupted marking is not thrown over for the sake of its unfortunate victims.

Frost’s answer was that ‘we are all being marked by each other all the time, classified, ranked, put in our place, and I see no escape from that. I am no sentimentalist. You have got to mark, and you have got to mark, first of all, for accuracy, for correctness.’ That minimum accomplished, you can then establish conditions in which it is possible to mark for taste and judgment. Finally, you will be able to mark for imagination, initiative, enthusiasm and originality.



[1]In his 1930 meditative monologue on ‘Education by Poetry’, which he wrote and delivered while he was a poetry teacher at Amherst.

[2]This phenomenon is the ambit of Campbell’s Law.

Lanterns and Ignes Fatui

June 13th, 2019

Too much fun is of all things most loathsome.—Blake

I am back after a long absence because more needs saying about lanterns (see my last posting) and other lights. I realized the need last March at an education conference I was attending. Now, one reason to go to education conferences is, like an epidemiologist, to detect menacing strains of pedagogy as they begin to establish footholds in the educational world.

My vigilance was rewarded with the sighting of a theory called “Agency.” I had no idea what to expect when I entered the crowded presentation room, so it took a few minutes of enthusiastic chirping for the presenter’s ideas to become “clear.” In this program each pupil is the “Agent” of his or her education. The opposing “idea” seems to be a desire for some kind of old-fashioned prison regime in which pupils do nothing but suffer arbitrary impositions by their teachers that destroy their autonomy and kill the joy of learning, etc. It was an example of the kind of cartoon dialectics often favored by education reformers, in which grotesque caricatures of antithetical ideas fight each other before the New Synthesis sweeps the field.

The accompanying slide show began with children on the floor putting pieces of cardboard together. It progressed through other children on the floor putting pieces of cardboard together. It continued with pictures of selfless teachers scavenging pieces of cardboard for their children to put together. It compared what each classroom’s children put together with the others—but not invidiously, of course. The culmination was a series of pictures of a Parents’ Day in which the parents ‘got down’ (the presenter’s word) and helped their children put pieces of cardboard together. There was of course no coercive hickory stick in sight, either literal or figurative. The problem was that there did not seem to be any reading, writing or ‘rithmetic either. This lack did not bother the presenter, who said that since children do their best learning when they are playing, they should play all the time.

We also learned how the presenter did SWOT audits. My British readers do not need to worry that the purity of Agency was compromised by swotting, or hard study before tests: this acronym refers to assessing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats presenting themselves to a school. (In my experience, schools rarely summon the fortitude needed to do a truly honest and helpful SWOT audit.) One striking result of the audit was that teachers who objected to the Agency program were identified as “threats” to the school. You can guess what kind of backward subversives they must have been and what a menace they must have posed by objecting to content-free lessons and subject-free curricula.

Though much writing and research may have gone into justifying the “agentic” approach to “study,” the book that for me comes closest to the heart of the program, as it was presented at the conference, is my copy of the Calvin & Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book. Do you remember Calvin’s “agentic” presentation on bats? Funny bit, but imagine him after completing an entire ‘agentic’ education conducting a magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography of your sphincter of oddi.

Unfair? Not at all. Let’s look again at the lights of my title. In my last posting I gave as examples of lantern-bearers the students and graduates of my school who studied and performed music, particularly choral music. I have been present at a number of final concerts in the Hong Kong Music Festival to hear my school’s choir take the prize. Their gathering afterwards on the grounds of the Tsuen Mun Town Hall is a taste of “the glory of existence” like that felt by the lantern-bearers. Well, getting Stevenson’s ‘fine light’ requires work: fueling the lanterns; trimming their wicks; carrying and tending them; affixing their beams; and working in concert with the other lantern-bearers at the links. The same is true of the choir’s victory at the World Choir Games in South Africa and the standing ovation they received at the Royal Albert Hall. And of course it is true of the less spectacular glory of singing in the quads and the staircases.

And since it also requires direction, something must be said about the old choirmaster, who is now the headmaster of the school. There is a wonderful photograph floating around of the choirboys tossing him into the air after one of their performances. How many hours did he plan and teach the boys? How many hours did they rehearse under his baton? How was their joy in that photo made possible by his work and theirs? If they had spent two years cutting cardboard instead, what would the picture look like–if there had been one? Just how happy were they? At a school assembly after the old headmaster had resigned, a representative of the school’s management committee announced to the students that the choirmaster had been selected to succeed him. A fine moment: the minority who had been paying attention to the speaker started cheering and applauding; as the news spread through the hall, the applause spread as well, led by students whom he had spent years training and rehearsing. At about that time he was coincidentally short-listed for the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Award.  According to the tenets of ‘Agency’, though, he would be seen as interfering with his pupils’ self-direction.

For the emblematic light of Agency and our presenter is the ignis fatuus: insubstantial, ephemeral, indistinct, amorphous, unheated swamp gas. The reason I call it by its Latin name instead of the more familiar name “will o’ the wisp” is that it is not a “fine light” but a “foolish fire.”

Lantern-Bearers

April 18th, 2017

There are few things better than a good letter, says this old teacher and aficionado of writing, so I was delighted recently to receive two extraordinary emails, one on top of the other, from a recent graduate who has gone to study abroad. The first one, long delayed, was an account of a trip he & a few classmates took during the summer to another country known for the esteem in which it holds its poets, artists, craftsmen and other heroes. In it he tells about the poetic and other monuments they visited (and the food they ate, speaking of their own heroic labours).  A fine letter about a fine trip, and incidentally a refutation of Yeats when he says of the young, ‘Caught in that sensual music, all neglect / Monuments of unageing intellect’.

But the second letter: it would not be too much to say it was dithyrambic, at least in tone, and happy, as Wordsworth was happy in saying, ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.’ When Barzun said that entering university should be ‘a revelation of wonders undreamed of’, he was speaking of experiences like my former student’s. He reports working hard to do well in his chosen course of study, which has been gratifying; but he saves his greatest and most enthusiastic praise for his co- and extracurricular activities, particularly reading poetry and making music, but also his projects at building things.

Poetry and music! How sensible in a STEM major, which is what he is. He is a positive echo of Darwin, another STEM major (do we see why this is an idiot acronym?), who neglected what my former student has been embracing. Darwin reported in later life, ‘If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness….”

Happiness! It is easy to forget this desideratum, or to lose sight of it among the other things we hope education will do. (I speak here of honest, informed, non-magical hopes. By contrast, much contemporary thinking about education seems to aspire to Lady Bracknell’s assertion that ‘ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.’)

The type of happiness I want to speak about now is reported in Robert Louis Stevenson’s wonderful essay ‘The Lantern-Bearers.’ It is the type my former student has been experiencing. Briefly, the lantern-bearers exist in a town of Stevenson’s boyhood, where every autumn they ‘tasted in high degree the glory of existence.’ They did so by carrying bull’s-eye lanterns lit but hidden from passersby. They were devoted to this fine but hidden light, which they shared when congregating on the links outside town where they shone their lights.

A prosaic ‘realist’ such as Stevenson despises but the Gates Foundation approves of may complain that the boys smell of hot tin, they burn their fingers, they meet in a damp sandy dirty hole, they have unremarkable conversations, and there is no way to ‘measure’ what they are learning and thus no value reliably added. This ‘realist’ would miss the point. I have written about my school’s ‘Cave of Music’, but there is more to say about its musical lantern-bearers. Some of them gather before 7:00 a.m. in the damp of early morning to make music. (Sound, unlike the light of a bull’s-eye lantern, is not easily hidden). Some break into song in the stairwells or gather to sing Renaissance madrigals at sundown in the quad outside my window. Some, the rascals, when they think I am not looking, take out their sheet music to confer secretly during class. Some pursue their music after graduating. Another former student, who joined his college choir abroad, is back home and has joined a choir of alumni who still sing under the baton of our headmaster, who used to be the choirmaster. (Who says administrators can’t be lantern-bearers?) The group of graduates reported above, who visited the monuments of poetry and history, are lantern-bearers. And so is my letter-writing ‘STEM’ student.

Education must allow them to bear their lanterns, for Stevenson says, ‘The true realism, always and everywhere, is that of the poets: to find out where joy resides.’

 

C and Other Notes

September 10th, 2016

Sometimes we can be grateful and baffled at the same time by articles we read about education. A good example is one sent me by a friend, an invaluable conduit of research and a thinker about teaching whose letters and conversation go beyond thought-clichés. This article includes a review of three studies comparing students according to the technology of note-taking they used. “In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand.” The authors of the studies offered an explanation: since longhand can’t keep up with the professor’s words the way keyboarding can, longhand note-takers are ‘forced to process, condense, and use their own words’. All this real-time thinking done in the heat of the moment becomes memorable as well as effective.

This discussion took me back to university, and in particular to the classroom of Professor ‘C Minus’ Schilling, the superb but exigent teacher of a course on American foreign policy. I had developed a technique of note-taking by which I would try to discern the controlling ideas and the underlying outline while taking notes, marking the outline points with the ‘Romans’ and ‘Arabics’ of the old-fashioned outline form as the lecture proceeded or later that day.  In the margin I would make quick judgments of what was in the main body: an exclamation point marked a good item, while a star marked something of central importance. Question marks identified puzzles or dark matter. Statements of questionable value got the mark of ‘BS’.

I had neither an eidetic memory nor the power of instant synthesis, so these notes helped, particularly in C Minus’s class, where my and my classmates’ pens would smoke across the page as his lectures proceeded. Did this real-time ‘processing’ that we did while taking longhand notes help us to comprehend and remember what C Minus said? It is hard not to think so; hence my smile of recognition as I read these findings.

But I wasn’t smiling at another part of the article. You would think that research verifying the value of longhand notes would yield only one conclusion—but no, our author went in an unexpected direction. Instead of promoting individual note-taking in longhand, she promotes ‘designated note-takers’ to type for the rest of the class in turn, posting notes on a class web page.

The ostensible benefit is that each student thereby has his notes scrutinized by the teacher and learns thereby to do better. There is some merit in that claim, but not as much as in the practice we used to call ‘comparing notes’. In the case of C Minus’s class, a bunch of us would go over our material from time to time, editing in light of our discussions and anchoring our insights in conversation. Contrast this and the ethos of having the material ‘just a click away’ and you will understand where the problem lies.

* * *

While preparing this posting I Googled C Minus’s name and was saddened to learn that he had died in 2013 after a 59-year career at my university. Students who braved his severe marking to take his course were nearly uniform in praising it as a highlight of their undergraduate studies. Students who visited his office after receiving one of his low grades on the midterm came away convinced that, yes, they deserved the mark they got and resolved to do better on the final exam. I was prouder of the B+ I got from him than of many of the A’s I received from other professors.

His unique style of lecturing included remarkable and sometimes hilarious ‘enactments’. I remember especially his imitation of a MIRV-missile attack. He had the curious habit of reinforcing his points by drawing series of parallel line segments on the blackboard. By the end of the lecture the board would look like one of Jasper Johns’ line pictures (do a Google image search of Jasper Johns Lines). I eventually realized that he would start a new doodle when he shifted to a new argument or main point and could use the doodles to help organize my notes.

One day a classmate asserted that the Spanish-American War was promoted by American business interests in general for their profit. He said, ‘That’s an interesting thesis, Madam, but there is not a shred of evidence to support it.’ I looked at a classmate of mine, and we both started ducking as we wrote, like ‘Milton’s Daughters Taking Dictation’ by Romney. The panzer cannon let off its first BOOM, and then for the next twenty minutes C Minus shot the thesis to rubble.

We all knew that he was destroying the thesis and not our classmate, who was not kept by the experience from asserting other ‘theses’ later in the course. On the last day of class he ended early with the unexpected announcement that he ‘objects in principle to students’ conducting evaluations of their professors.’ He then said, ‘For all I know, you will find the packet on my table of interest’ and left the classroom. One of us went up to inspect it, and it turned out to be forms for the students’ ‘course evaluation guide’. We filled it the forms in, ignoring C Minus’s last word of the term, and one of us took the forms to the Guide. When it came out at the end of the year, C Minus ended up with the strongest overall rating in the department.

The Newspaper Test

August 13th, 2016

Last week I wrote about a successful businessman who said that the most important thing a student can learn for a successful career in business is how to write because when you learn how to write, you learn how to think. Along these lines I will cast back to my tenure, before teaching, in an engineering and construction company whose president became Secretary of State. (Before his work in business he had served in three other cabinet positions.) Occasionally a memo from the president would cross my humble desk. When one did, I was always impressed by its lucidity and freedom from jargon, cliché and baloney.

These four qualities help us to know what to look for in good writing; others can be found in Clear and Simple as the Truth by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner. Take for example their dictum that ‘classic prose’ is to be read not solved. If you don’t immediately know what kind of bad writing I am talking about, look at the winners of the late Denis Dutton’s Bad Writing Contest to see. Another justly famous kind of badness is Orwell’s translation of a famous passage from Ecclesiastes into polysyllabic flab.

How do we judge good and bad writing? This posting went into some detail, but for today’s discussion I want to reprint an excerpt from an essay by a high-school student that got an undeserved 4/6 from the New York State Regents, a passable mark. It opens, “In life, ‘no two people regard the world in exactly the same way,’ as J. W. von Goethe says. Everyone sees and reacts to things in different ways. Even though they may see the world in similar ways, no two people’s views will ever be exactly the same. This statement is true since everyone sees things through different viewpoints.” It is entirely free of content except the title extract, whose sense is repeated three times, the third time with question-begging. A good writing teacher (but not software that marks writing) could help the student see and solve these problems. A good writing test would give such writing  a failing grade.

Arum and Roksa say that college students are more likely to learn when they have teachers with high expectations, and of course this goes for high-school students too. It’s therefore a pity that so many ‘universities’ systematically prevent this from occurring by basing personnel decisions on surveys taken of students who are more interested in ease than in expectation. But a teacher must not just ‘have’ expectations; he or she must act on them, and schools and universities must establish and maintain conditions in which this teacherly action is possible. It is hard work, so there must not be too much of it to do properly.

Two of my students got full marks on their IB Literature Extended Essays, which I supervised. The IBO prescribes five hours of contact time between student and supervisor, though the supervisor must obviously spend the preparation time needed to make the contact valuable. What is more, the supervisor is forbidden to edit or proofread drafts. The two students and I conferred at all stages of the work, and as the diplomats say, the discussions were productive. The students are bright and productive; they had a thing or two to learn not just about their subjects but also about writing and thinking; and they learned it. (One was on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; the other was on Calvin and Hobbes.)

Oh, yes: two others did not get full marks. One of them still got an A, adopting a risky strategy for rewriting midway through the process, in which the risk paid off. The other, whose best writing is as good as high-school writing gets, was not motivated by the task and wrote as if not motivated. This brings us to a very important point that ‘value’-‘added’ ‘metrics’ overlook: a teacher with the best will in the world can lead the proverbial horse to water but can’t make him drink.

One thing the teacher has, or ought to have, in addition to functioning good judgment, is the fortitude to use it, and to back it up with grades, including failing grades. If little Dobbin wants to make messes on the sidewalk and eat the flowers from the garden, he must be made to learn that it is not all right. It’s the same as with Alex’s sailing school (see last week’s posting): you’ve got to learn to right the boat, and you’ve got to do so by actually righting a boat. As with sailing, so with writing: the way to learn writing is to write. The writing must be criticized, and it must be done again and again. That is what Arum and Roksa’s ‘writing-intensive course’ is.

One way to show what schools and universities are doing would be to subject student writing to the Newspaper Test. In this test five A and five B papers are selected randomly and published anonymously in the daily community newspaper with this introduction:

‘STU is proud to present this random selection of excellent and good student writing so the community can see how well its students are learning this essential task.’

 

Failing and Sailing

August 5th, 2016

As an expatriate teacher I often spend my summer holiday at least partly on trips to see people I’ve been away from. This summer’s visits included get-togethers, but it also included a reunion. A cousin of mine and her husband, whom I had last seen over twenty-five years ago, had settled in a ‘flyover city’ that I had carelessly flown over all these years. The business they started there became highly successful, but they recently decided to sell it and retire to a coastal place well known for its semi-rural charm.

During my last visit they had two very young children. Now both are grown. The second son, after graduating from a small liberal-arts college, found a job at the home office of a ‘tech giant’ not too far from his parents. Number one son turned away from academics to ‘work with his hands’. (Arabic-speakers, when someone’s manual artistry or labor has made their life easier or more worth living, call down a blessing on him: tislam eedak: blessings on your hands. We lack that appreciative expressiveness.)

The episode in his career that his father chose to relate to me was his tenure as a teacher at a sailing school for young people. The first thing to say is that a candidate couldn’t even start the sailing course if he or she couldn’t swim offshore and back or right a capsized little boat alone. The teachers would approach the candidate in the water and call out advice on righting if it was needed, but the candidate had to do something with the advice, and failure was a very real option.

Some of the children’s parents (and many of them were used to getting their way) would plead for admission if Junior failed, and sometimes even asked that the tasks be waived. Not a chance. Qualification was real, and Alex was expected to hold to the standards in the face of tears and countervailing pressure.

It was a good story, and nothing needed to be said about applicability to his teaching cousin’s work, but my cousin’s husband also had one bit of advice—maybe for me and maybe for my students. This highly successful entrepreneur said, ‘If there is one thing that a student should learn in order to prepare for a successful business career, it is how to write because in learning how to write, you learn how to think.’

 

High Noon

July 17th, 2016

Schools in Hong Kong let out for the summer holiday in mid-July, but exams finish a few weeks earlier, thus disproving the claim that the city’s students do nothing except for an exam. My school’s grade 12 students, having finished their Education Department or IB exams, maintain a minimal presence on campus, with exceptions to be discussed below; but the lower grades have ‘post-exam activities’ and, in the IB division, continued classes. Among the most prominent activities at this time of year are musical and dramatic productions.

The four year-end concerts are done without the competitive pressure of the citywide Interschool Music Festival held in March and, some people including me think, produce better music as a result (though the competitive results are also formidable). I attended two of the four.

One highlight was the appearance of the senior mixed choir comprising choristers from our school and our sister-school with the senior orchestra, including the former first violinist, a 12th-grader who had given up his chair to a junior.  Together the groups played and sang ‘Wenn alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras’ from Brahms’s German Requiem. The performance was dedicated to the memory of two popular members of staff who had died recently. Another was Francis Poulenc’s four little pieces of St Francis of Assisi. Light pleasure came from a number of jauntily done barbershop numbers.

The Drama Committee performed an original murder mystery, with the audience seated as if at a wedding banquet. It was done with great verve and dedication by a cast including many 12th-graders in their valedictory performance, and seems to have fooled most of the detectives in the audience. One might prefer the Drama teacher’s choice of new material and stages, or the music teacher’s more traditional choices, but I think that that is not the main point in school productions.

The main point is to give students a chance to immerse themselves in their art and then to share it with a receptive but critical audience. It is to show that art matters and, as Wallace Stevens said of metaphor, it engages with the ‘primary high noon of being’.

Incompleteness and Infallibility

June 26th, 2016

I want to assert a principle that seems to govern education ‘reform.’ I will call it the General Incompleteness Theorem (GIT1). It says

Any organization’s proposal for education reform will tend to be incomplete, reductionist or tendentious—possibly all three.

This principle is meant to be not cynical but cautionary: people who keep it in mind when examining reform proposals should be asking themselves

•       Where are the unexamined assumptions?

•       Where are the untested claims?

•       Where are the ignored counterarguments?

•       Where are the reductionist ideas?

•       Where is the realistic examination of who stands to gain?

•       What is the (not-so-)hidden agenda?

•       Where are the booby traps and land mines?

This principle sometimes works in destructive tandem with another, which we may call the General Infallibility Theorem (GIT2), which states that

An educational leader or organization never admits errors or mistakes.

Call this terrible tandem GIT2 or GIT Squared.

Some things are pure GIT2.The US Federal education policy is a good example. The US Congress foolishly passed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) by using wishful and magical thinking. When it proved unworkable, the Department of Education granted waivers with the onerous requirement attached that a second program, Race to the Top (RAT), should replace it. Now the mess is in the hands of the states under Every Child Succeeds (ESS) and a badly implemented Common Core. Nowhere in all this capricious presto change-o is any admission that any of it was badly conceived, badly executed, badly monitored, and badly measured. Only mediocre results persist.

Other things dabble a bit in GIT. A paper was published recently suggesting that behavioral science could lower the freshman-year dropout rate at four-year colleges. Now, when I hear behavioral science promoted, I think of a joke about two behaviorists having sexual intercourse. After they finish, one says to the other, ‘You enjoyed that a lot. How did I like it?’

The joke is on behaviorist reductionism, but more seriously, the problem the paper proposes solving[1] can be handled better using another approach, which I have written about. The problem is that doing so would conflict with easy assumptions about what high school and university entail on students and teachers alike.

Let me end with my possibly unique case of an education organization admitting error. It was the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors admitting that they had been wrong to fire the university president and reinstating her. The admission had the effect not just of restoring the president but also of ending an educationist wild goose chase at its outset before it could cause too much damage.

The remedies are humility, good sense, a keen eye for the whole, and a lively realization that education is by and for human beings.



[1] p. 33

Say No to Mutant Schools

June 11th, 2016

Much is made in fashionable school-chatter of the saving power of mutation. In particular, this chatter takes pseudo-Darwinism one step further by asserting the power of mutation to adapt not just to the present, as the social ‘Darwinists’ modestly proposed, but also to the future. Of course it isn’t called mutation but rather something upliftingly paradoxical like ‘creative disruption.’

The most appalling educationist mutagen I have read about recently is the ‘Director of Education’ at a San Francisco-based chain of for-profit schools. In a posting a couple of months back I criticized this chain, but there is more to say, though it is hard to know what to say first. Should I mention the deployment of Orwellian cameras in all classrooms? The bureaucratic burdens imposed on teachers? The constructivism?

I think I’ll let the Prime Mutagen begin for herself: ‘We encourage our members of staff to express their pain points…” I am deeply disquieted by a list of staff desiderata that begins with ‘expressing pain’, particularly when it strongly implies that the pain has no treatment. The list goes on to include some action-clichés for teachers and ends with this bizarre and creepy promise: ‘We know we are going to iterate quickly.’ Taken precisely, this statement is meaningless in its context, for (re)iteration is saying something (again and again). She must mean, ‘We will mutate quickly’. Either she is talking baloney or she is promising that whatever we thought her schools were, they would not be that in, say, a year’s time. How reassuring to parents, on top of surveillance and constructivism! By contrast, she asserts, ‘[o]ther schools tend to move in geologic time’. This is evidently meant to be a criticism of schools that retain their identity instead of shedding it like a snake its skin or a mutant its genes.

It may be worth re-iterating some countervailing values to be sought in schools.

1. Teach subjects. That seems obvious, but there is no reason to think that in a constructivist environment that is what will happen. By contrast, since a subject is a constellation of facts and ideas seen in the light of some unifying factors, it implies that the material can be approached both systematically and intuitively. It allows students to absorb the ways in which consecutive, analytical and synthetic thought takes place and to try those ways themselves. If after some years of training in a discipline a student wants to step out of the disciplinary matrix, it can happen in what one hopes will be a thoughtful way.

2. Respect both Continuity and Contiguity. William James thought that attention shifted via these two means of association. Continuity makes associations on the basis of rational connections between things encountered or handled in consecutive ways. Contiguity’s connections are more serendipitous and startling, and the best way of judging them is the pragmatic test: what follows from them? The best ones are fruitful. The danger in emphasizing contiguity is the danger of getting lost in rabbit holes or of developing garbage-heap minds like that of Borges’s Funes the Memorious. One mark of a good teacher is the ability to get these modes of attention to complement each other, and one mark of a good school is the readiness to let him or her do so.

3. Think teleologically. It helps in setting a course to know what place you want to reach, what state you want to attain, or what purposes you want to serve. These include ethical purposes. These should be expressible in language that Orwell would welcome reading rather than Newspeak. There should be some freedom in how to get there, though perhaps how much is a judgment call.

4. Avoid ‘disengagement contracts’. This expression I get from a BBC report on British university education, though the phenomenon it names can be found in the US. The two ‘parties’ tacitly agree to something like this: you will allow me to disengage from my teaching and setting and marking of tasks so I can pursue the kind of ‘research’ that will put me on a tenure track or get me a prestigious chair. I in turn will let you disengage from learning through imbecile ‘assignments’ so you can have fun, find yourselves, and still gain a credential. During my own university career, ‘gut’ courses like Professor D’s at Teachers College were regarded as rarities, and even Professor D eventually stopped letting students set their own grades. How many Professor D’s would we find now? In the lower-school version tenure and research do not loom so large but many other features are the same.

5. Let the education be primarily philanthropic. The profit motive has no business in education because someone will get short shrift if (increases in) earnings are threatened. What is more, there should be a compelling state interest in seeing that education remains cheap. Scotland, a country of about five million people, has twenty universities, which charge no tuition to Scots. What is more, Scottish students who borrow for their non-tuition expenses pay back their loans based on how much they earn, not how much they borrow, with no interest penalty for low earners. Alex Salmond, the former Scottish First Minister, put the philanthropic principle graphically: ‘Rocks would melt in the sun[1]’ before he would consider introducing tuition fees.



[1] And remember that this is Scottish sun.

Life and Limb for Learning

May 28th, 2016

This weekend a cousin of mine is taking his boys on the hike up Half Dome in Yosemite, about thirty-four years after I took him and his brother there. The last part of the Half Dome Trail is set on the rock face, where stanchioned cables are laid on in the summer to help people with the ascent, which would otherwise be a class 5 climb. It is still not for the faint-hearted.

Or at least that would be the judgment of an American in his armchair. It is not the judgment of the children of the village of Atuler in Sichuan, or their parents. This village, built on a mountaintop, is accessible to the ‘neighborhood school’ only via an 800-meter rock face that is climbed or descended using vine ladders and some free climbing. (Read about and see pictures of this hair-raising school commute here.) To put these children’s challenge in perspective, remember that the Half Dome cables go for only 120 meters, the prominence of Half Dome is about 400 meters, and the face of El Capitan itself is 900 meters high.

The reaction of foreign media was mainly tongue-clucking at the primitive conditions in which many rural Chinese lead their lives, as indeed those conditions deserve (and would deserve in other countries where the poor are left behind). Strangely, no one mentioned the fact that was immediately evident to me: the people of Atuler must attach great value to education—so much as to risk life and limb for it.