Troubling Trio

Three articles appearing within one week in The New York Times taken together illustrate one of the many difficulties in wishing that teaching and learning might be studied as a science: we must take education where we find it, not reduced to a lab-like artificiality from which few helpful conclusions can be drawn. They also suggest that the reality surrounding education is itself troubled and that research focused on an ideal but unreal classroom will yield results irrelevant to problems in the air around the real one, and that good education can take place only when larger troubles are recognized and dealt with.

The first article reported that ten law schools plan to add a blanket .333 to the grade point averages of their graduates. The reason for the raise is to make graduates’ transcripts more appealing to potential employers. The word “preposterous” seems to have been invented for this version of putting the cart before the horse. A grade should be given not to attract future notice but to evaluate past performance. In the reality of these law schools the future invades the past, hijacks it, and alters it.

But it is more, or worse, than preposterous. Think of what the students at such schools are learning outside the official curriculum. What kind of lawyer will be graduated from an institution whose education includes an invitation to collude in the misrepresentation of his academic accomp­lishment? Imagine medical schools’ adding academic gas to their graduates’ transcripts so the Mayo Clinic will hire them more readily. Imagine the Mayo Clinic’s patients!

Related to this article was another one reporting on schools and districts that graduate valedic­torians in litters. One school graduated nine, as many as the puppies my boyhood friend’s spaniel Kristen had. It is sad to think that one difference between Kristen’s puppies and these valedictorians is that the puppies were more likely to find a secure adulthood: when valedictorians are a dime a dozen, who will take a second look at them?

The third article concerns students, usually in middle school, who write horrible things about their classmates and post them on line. I am a high-school teacher and therefore do not really know the heart of middle-school darkness, but the reports that come to me sometimes sound like Colin Turnbull’s writing on the Ik of Northern Uganda. They do not jibe with my own memories of middle school, and I do not want to venture for long into that terrain. Still, the phenomenon of “text bullying” made me think of a New Yorker cartoon from the 1950’s.

It showed a boy scrawling a message on a fence about his current enemy—let us call him Billy Newsome because I can’t remember the caption exactly. The message said, “Billy Newsome is a communist.” Children are very good at absorbing the angst of the month from their environment, and many of them look at a blank fence or wall as an invitation to write about it. (Pity they don’t always see an invitation in the blank page.) The two come together in graffiti.

We usually have taboos erected against the intrusion of graffiti. We don’t want the clutter of “spontaneous me” a permanent feature of the public life. Hence graffiti are usually associated with juvenile lowlife and vandalism. In any case, graffitists have a practical limitation in the number of walls available for undetected writing. But the internet has an infinity of blank walls that crave inscription, and many children who, unrestrained by taboos not yet developed for these wide-open spaces and not monitored by parents, are happy to chip in with comments attuned to the insecurities of the moment. Knowing that someone may be looking tends to restrain the writing, but who is looking at the graffitist’s gadget except maybe his cheerleaders?

The article reports a strong desire among many parents to have schools police students’ texting and even their opportunities to text, whether or not they are at school. Naturally, there are also parents who want schools to lay off. The result is that teachers, who are already sorely pressed to teach, and administrators, sorely pressed to run schools, are being drafted into service as the life-monitors of students whose parents buy them potentially troublesome gadgets but don’t give them the preparation in morals and etiquette to use them. What if the parents can’t give them that training or make it stick?

As these articles illustrate, problems in the classroom often start outside, in the honesty and virtue—or otherwise—that students, their parents, and the schools’ administrators bring there. How we foster or combat these external influences will have as much to do with the success or failure of teaching and learning as what we do in the classroom.


Splendor in the Class

Some teaching is good even if it makes lousy TV. Movies and TV programs about classrooms tend to cloud this perception when they show an Oscar-winning actress reading Wordsworth to her classmates, looking and sounding like an Oscar-winning actress reading Wordsworth to her classmates. I love a good reading of the Immortality Ode as much as the next guy, but I don’t mind that Mrs. Knickerbocker (Yes. She taught me English in 10th grade) was not Natalie Wood, or that I am not Robin Williams.

And teachers must sometimes take what they can get in bad TV when judging how their students have done. This is especially true when judging understanding, that most fugitive kind of learning. Robert Frost reported the difficulty among his students in Amherst College, saying, “I have lived with some boys a whole year over some of the poets and I have not felt sure whether they have come near what it was all about. One remark sometimes told me.” He added that this kind of understanding “will have to be estimated by chance remarks, not by question and answer.” While a teacher can frequently get more than this glimpse, teaching is better off dealing with these glimpses as and where it can than by ignoring them in favor only of responses that manifest themselves in “behavior.”

Hence the thinness, the insufficiency of “behavioral objectives” and “rubrics”* for determining some kinds of understanding, however apt they may be for determining others. Sometimes we must say with Frost that “one remark was their mark for the year; had to be—it was all I got that told me what I wanted to know. And that is enough, if it was the right remark.”

I had a telling remark one time from a 9th-grade Syrian student who discovered in class that he had a liking for Thomas Hardy. That in itself was wonderful, but when I asked him why he liked Hardy, he said, “His pessimism is attractive,” which was astounding. I guess that comment was not in any catalogue of “appreciative behaviors” ordinarily available to 9th-grade teachers. Even though Because he was below above behaviorist radar, he was well liked and even admired by his classmates. When he recited “Ah, Are You Digging on my Grave?” they listened. Their stillness and silence were a kind of understanding, and it, too, should be a part of what a teacher evaluates.

Sometimes we are distracted from the important job of looking for learning by attending to virtuoso “teaching,” beguiled from the sight of what is learned. Mr. Martin Skelton, a consultant on education, showed my colleagues and me a video of a class he had observed. It opened with the teacher calling on students to show recently learned tumbling moves, and they ran out like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show under his capable direction. Afterwards many of us commented on the coherence of the lesson, the enthusiasm of the students, and the engagement of the teacher.

Mr. Skelton’s question was, “Did you notice that no learning took place?” No, none of us had noticed that, but it was true, as we could see when we viewed the video a second time. No original instruction took place, nor was any student held accountable for muffed moves. If it had been part of a Christmas program, it might have had a purpose in entertainment, but as a lesson it was pointless. One teacher, feeling chagrin at the failure of perception, rationalized by saying that the teacher was “consolidating,” but we all got Mr. Skelton’s point.

The aim of the ensuing discussions was to consider how we might “look for learning” in the classroom to help decide whether our classroom teaching was working. The good teacher must have a good eye and a sturdily modest ego. It is often diffi­cult to know if the kids are learning, for sometimes we hide a dreary shower in razzle-dazzle or the “wonderfulness of me.” Nor does it help to be tied up in notions of crude visibility of learning when assessing it, though some learning is of course remarkably visible. Think of Archimedes springing out of his bath (Behavioral objective: Behavior indicates appreciation of conception: 5/5: Springs out of bath and shouts, “Eureka!”), but remember the “chance remarks,” the passing glimmer on the face, or the misstatement fruitfully rephrased.

* This word, like so many others, is (mis)used in the Ed Biz. It originally refers to the red ochre (rubrike) words printed in an order of Catholic worship, which guide the worshippers in what to say or do. Its descendent definitions in standard English therefore have to do with established rules, customs, or practice. Its nonstandard descendent in the Ed Biz refers to guides of numerical grading that assign points according to demonstrated attainment in tasks, tests, or projects. What are we to call these guides if not “rubrics”? How about the term used in the International Bacca­laureate Organization? It is mark schemes. Rather British, but we could do with a little hands-across-the-seamanship.


The Devil Made Me Say It

Today I offer entries from The Didact’s Dictionary, with apologies to Ambrose Bierce.

Baby Einstein®: The name of a series of proprietary videos by the Walt Disney Company, a corporation with a profitable record in education. We may worry when  Baby Einstein products and MOOCs start to resemble each other.

balonist (bə-lōn΄-ist) n.: one who offers or requires baloney. Not to be confused with a balloonist, whose hot air is confined to his balloon. Cf. “Baloney Bingo”; Richard van de Lagemaat offers a workshop in “Baloney Detection across the Curriculum,” but not at schools of education (q.v.).

brand n.: 1. a proprietary mark burned into the hides of livestock to identify their herds and to distinguish them from members of other herds. 2. a proprietary name given to a product to distinguish it from other similar products. v. 1. (standard) to apply such a mark, which is permanent 2. (non-standard): to use the services of a balonist, often called a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), help people pretend that a leopard has changed its spots. Sometimes applied to schools’ efforts to position (q.v.) themselves.

education, school of n. 1. any of a number of imaginary institutions that impart sound principles and practices of teaching to their students with a minimum of baloney. 2. any of a number of real institutions that do not.

education for the 22nd Century: Is it too soon to brand a century? CMOs and balonists of the future think not.

mission n.: a statement, not necessarily accurate or intelligible, by a school of its reason for existing, usually by imparting vaguely described super powers to its graduates. Example: “Our graduates will demonstrate appropriate critical thinking behaviors in a global context for a variety of self-actualizing purposes in keeping with the aims of personal fulfillment and good world citizenship.” Often considered important in branding and positioning (qq.v.).

position: n. (used with “assume the”): a stance often adopted by a teacher in the ordinary course of work. v. (non-standard, usually used of shape-shifting by organizations) to play make-believe about oneself or one’s product with respect to similar products and to brand accordingly, as with Baby Einstein,® or a school or university that sees education as a product.

standard (stănd΄-ərd) n.: 1. something set up and established by authority as a rule for the measure of quantity, weight, extent, value, or quality. 2. (educ.)a. a statement of a particular thing the graduate of a school can do. b. a claim made by a balonist of what the graduate of a school or university will be able to do, but what the graduate will not actually be able to do. adj.: well established by usage in the speech and writing of the educated and widely recognized as acceptable. (ant.: non-standard)



Mr. Eyal Ophir, a recent graduate of Stanford, reports that “shortly after he came to Stanford, a professor thanked him for being the one student in class paying full attention and not using a computer or phone.” This item stimulated a memory of my own undergraduate days. The scene: a chemistry lecture. Professor Reinmuth, perhaps unfairly stigmatized as a dull lecturer, noticed that two students were whispering to each other. He paused for a moment and, when they did not take the hint, announced, “Gentlemen, you are excused.” The offenders slinked from the room. That was the one time during my undergraduate career when I saw any students not paying attention, or not appearing to pay attention, to what the professor was saying. It never occurred to me that students could have, should have, might have multiple tasks during a class.

Professor Reinmuth eventually took private lessons in public speaking and later in his career was complimented for the quality of his lectures; but, dull or brilliant, they were the center of the class, and students were expected to attend to them. In his class and in all my classes I took notes, using the left side for quick one-word and symbolic margin­alia, which I would later amplify. I had no idea that I had privately invented “Cornell notes,” as they are now called in the Ed Biz.

Nor had I any idea that in my review of marginalia I would be doing something increasingly rare not just in class but outside: building purposefully and soundly on information and ideas previously encountered. The same New York Times article reporting on Mr. Ophir also reports on his psychology research, which shows that people who habitually divide their attention (what is called “multi­tasking”) tend to be easily distracted. More troubling, multitaskers, when faced with the choice of getting new information or of analyzing what they already have, prefer the new. That response, which made sense in an environment full of leopards and brush fires, makes less sense in one where people must pause for consideration, synthesis, and judgment. It is strange and disquieting to think that new technologies might promote atavistic responses and leave untested or actually diminish mental powers needed in environments other than caves and savannahs.

(William James wondered whether there can be such a thing as too much peace and perfection, leading us to recoil from Chautauqua meetings, wishing for dirt and dust-ups. Maybe the people who multitask feel a lurking nostalgia for leopards and brush-fires, but this is a blog about teaching and learning, not about paleoanthropology in everyday life.)

The short of it is that Mommy’s little throwbacks may be noticing many shiny new things, but they should be learning to pay attention. That is because they should be learning how to hold to something new long enough to become familiar with it, to analyze it, and to find or make a place for it amidst what they already know (or to boot it out). Otherwise they will have an attic instead of a mind. Attics are fine, but they are upper rooms, not living rooms.

One of the best ways to acquire the intellectual and mental powers I am talking about is to take a long course of instruction in a traditional subject. The traditional subjects (say, the Seven Liberal Arts or any subject under the tutelage of a Muse), having been around for hundreds or thousands of years, have developed ways of analyzing and synthesizing (or rejecting) the raw data submitted to their consideration. By assimilating these ways, students start to furnish their minds, thus making a starting-point for the development of their own skill and understanding. A subject teaches not just a subject matter but how to handle it, though we can’t handle the matter unless we learn to pay attention long enough to have ideas about it. A young mind, guided by the accomplishments of the past, learns inclusion, arrangement, analysis, and synthesis; by the transfer effect, these powers can turn to other, newer subjects once they are developed and can assimilate the new material and make something worthwhile out of it.

They will not develop by being subjected to “courses” in “critical thinking” or “information literacy.” Subjects have their particular ways of testing their own truth claims, and these ways have themselves been tested in years of struggle, rejection, and proof. By contrast, what is the likelihood of students new to history producing something of value when asked to tell in critical-thinking courses “how they feel” about the causes of current tension in the Middle East?

Information literacy, if it has a meaning, means the ability to do well what Mr. Ophir reports as harming our concentration and as lessening the suppleness with which we change mental direction purposively. It is electronic gobbet-gathering. For the 97% of students who are likely to be unsuccessful multitaskers, information literacy will be a dead end marked by a heap of facts and wasted time. By contrast, let the following story illustrate literacy-without-qualification.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was lecturing an audience about Samuel Johnson. While telling them about Dr. Johnson’s practice of letting his home serve as a halfway house for down-and-out or destitute people, he mentioned a “fallen woman” called Poll, whom Dr. Johnson had brought home one night half dead over his shoulder (she gradually regained her health at his house). The audience started laughing. Coleridge coolly said, “I remind you of the parable of the Good Samaritan.” The audience stopped laughing. Coleridge’s literacy allowed him not just to recognize the story but to apply it in a live situation. The audience’s literacy allowed them to respond: twelve words and a reaction. They might have gained knowledge about the Good Samar­­­itan in a course of study, but they gained it in a way that allowed them, perhaps by further study and thought, to attend to it and foster its potential for live influence rather than to drop it for the next shiny new thing that came along. If learning includes knowledge, skill, and understanding, what could literacy mean except the ability to do what Coleridge and his audience did? And how could they have done so without the ability to pay attention?


At the Table

We often speak of a teacher’s philosophy of teaching, but we rarely speak of a classroom’s, and yet classrooms do have their philosophies and can impress them on teachers. Sometimes that is a good thing.

In the 1930’s the Phillips Exeter Academy adopted the “Harkness Table” as the result of a gift whose donor specified that the classrooms using his gift should have classes conducted as conferences in which students were encouraged to speak up and discuss.

Some years ago I watched a video of a math class being conducted at a Harkness table at Exeter. The dynamic was decentralized and exploratory, with small groups of students working independently at different problems, discussing and chalk-talking their way through them either on boards or in clusters at the table on paper. The teacher had a noticeable but unobtrusive presence: his role was advisory. During this class he did not direct any comments to the group as a whole, but let them get on with their exploration and learning.

At some point later in my own career I thought I was ready to try some of the Harkness lessons. I got some encouragement from a colleague and from a classroom. By an accident fortunate for me, the classrooms at the school where I taught were furnished in half-hexagonal tables that could be arranged into a kind of doughnut that simulated a large Harkness table. My colleague had done so, and I decided to follow suit.

Some good things immediately ensued, and some bad things vanished. No more students in the back of the class doodling (it was too long ago for them to be texting their friends). No more of the kind of student who vanishes in the third row, never to be heard from again. Everyone was in the front row in places of equal importance. The quality of discussion improved, and with it, understanding. It turned out that the doughnut had its uses. When the class broke into its discussion and work groups, I could stroll inside and outside them.

Another colleague of mine used the tables to form hexagons for a number of work groups when they were needed. He could also form the doughnut. A third colleague went with the doughnut as I did. The only time we arranged the tables traditionally was during exams, and our classes were better for the other arrangements.

Of course, more than just an arrangement of tables is needed for a good class. To start with, classes should be small enough that the whole group can function as a discussion group. In my experience the ideal size of such a class is from twelve to fifteen students. I once attended a class at St. John’s College, Santa Fe, whose object was to read and discuss The Ambassadors. A group of twenty-two was workable in that class because all the members of the class understood St. John’s way of conducting discussions, all were motivated, and all were mature. One can’t count on those conditions among ninth-graders discussing the tenth chapter of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or eleventh-graders digging in to William James on “The Perception of Reality.”

The next requirement is that all students—and the teacher!—share a way of discussing. That way is an old-fashioned one: conversation. For the same reason it takes years to prepare a dinner for six, it takes much time and effort to get ready for a twelfth-grade colloquium on Isaiah Berlin’s “Equality.” Students should know or be taught how to manage themselves in one. They should understand why a class is not like those televised eruptions of shouting heads, not even during a “class debate.”

Now, the teacher is of course not strictly a conversationalist and must be ready to advise students when they need it. Students should learn to recognize certain traps and not to fall into them—post hoc—question-begging—tu quoque—special pleading—ad hominem. My beginning students easily and frequently beg the question, most of them not having learned what question-begging is until I tell them in 11th grade. It would also help if students learned to avoid bad habits of speech such as using “like” as a space-filler or saying “I’m like” instead of “I said.” (A New Yorker cartoon shows a Valley Ophelia telling Gertrude, “So he’s like ‘To be or not to be,’ and I’m like ‘Get a life.’”)

Another line tells us that a classroom is a place where twenty children sit and watch a grown-up work. That is the approach invited by the classroom arranged in rows facing a teacher’s desk, or lectern, or podium. For a traditional lecture, nothing could be better; and there are times when only a traditional lecture will do. But other aims call for other means, and a classroom and teacher adaptable to those means can bring about results achievable in no other way.