By the Numbers

Statistics…are laid down for our guidance.—Lady Bracknell

Teaching is an act of perpetual discretion.—Professor Barzun

When Lady Bracknell first said that, Oscar Wilde expected his audience to laugh at her. One mark of how far our culture has moved from 1895 is the sense we get now that Of course they are laid down for our guidance! Why else would we have them? It is almost not a joke that the apocryphal woman with four children, hearing that one in every five births is Chinese, decided not to have another baby because she didn’t want it to be Chinese.

Nearly as mixed up as the Sinophobic mother is often the educationist or politician whose calls for action proceed from misused statistics and end in trouble. Educationists’ or politicans’ desire to give young people an education should be driven by the wish to see particular individual graduates who are knowledgeable, capable, and discerning. The stats should be an afterthought for the record only, especially if they are drawn from results on standardized tests.

A story that appeared recently in The New York Times will illustrate an aspect of the problem. The principal of an elementary school populated mainly by poor immigrants and other seemingly backward students, well liked by those students, their parents, and school-district officials, had to be fired in order for her school to qualify for funds under a certain Federal program. The reason was that the students, many of them fresh off the boat, scored poorly on standardized tests. The law required either the principal to be fired or the school to be closed down.

Now, that may sound all right to the firm-action enthusiasts, but it is not all right in a world that values discretion: not so much circumspection, though of course teaching often requires it, as separating, distinguishing, and using latitude of choice and decision properly and effectively (Merriam-Webster). Intellectually, the mandate is on a par with the Sinophobe’s decision to have no more kids.

The test for which the principal was fired required students to read a passage about the first moon landing aboard the Eagle spacecraft. One of the questions was whether the passage was fiction or nonfiction. One of the students reported answering that it was fiction because he reasoned that no one can actually ride to the moon on an eagle. Given his background, he had no idea that a space ship could actually fly to the moon, or that its name, in italics, is distinguished from a label, in Roman type. His not knowing the answer was not due to stupidity, nor was it due to a failure of school in his new homeland to teach him reading.

But there is a more troubling element in this test. Telling fiction from nonfiction is a rather sophisticated operation. Many adults cannot do it reliably, as some media recognize with pleasure and profit. If we think it important to ask ten-year-olds to make a distinction that those media happily depend on adults’ not making, we must do so with discretion and not a one-size-fits-all question.

I have not seen the test, but I guess that the students were given a multiple-choice question like This passage is a work of a) news b) history c) fiction d) persuasion. The question was probably worth one point like all the others. Though the answer can be graded easily by a machine, and though the answers to many such questions may easily produce something that could be called a statistic about educational attainment, there are problems. Such questions leave out of account all parts of a judgment except the result, and they prevent us from using our discretion to size up a student’s attainments. This particular question also omits to deal with the problem of classification that it presents without allowing an entirely satisfactory answer. The structure and requirements of a certain kind of standardized test actually rule out questions that would elicit thoughtful answers, forcing a sometimes unsatisfactory choice among a number of givens.

School districts and other government entities want numbers on the cheap and are impatient with demands for subtlety and discretion. They then use these results to decide on the awarding or withholding of money that districts or schools need for their programs. Also, teachers with very large numbers of students naturally look for ways to lessen their burden of work: there is a strong and understandable temptation (that should be resisted if possible) to use machine-scorable tests or their hand-graded simulacra. So it’s not surprising that these tests are widespread, but it is sad, and it is destructive of good education. At some point people will stop—have stopped—thinking of an education as something incidentally sized up by a variety of means including examination and instead think of an examination as the goal towards which an education proceeds. If what mattered in education were what can be examined by multiple-choice questions, much that is good in teaching and learning would be swept away. Even more would go if the resulting statistics were laid down for the guidance of those who must continue to teach and learn.


Trips in Deep Water

Those of us who remember particular school trips fondly and who have subsequently become teachers now realize that there was much more to them than met our young eyes, and more than often meets parents’ eyes. The amount of planning most of them need would surprise someone not familiar with the work, but there is more: Even the most innocuous-seeming ones can turn difficult or perilous in an instant. Difficulty and peril can’t be entirely eliminated except by avoiding life or by shuffling through it in wrappings and shin-guards. Somewhere between this stance and a blithe disregard of caution lies the right way to take a school trip. Exactly where needs some teasing out.

So does the possibility that school trips are less than meets the eye; that they do not amount to much more than an excuse for a cut-up. In an earlier posting I said that school-wide play days, honestly so called, could serve this purpose. I think that trips should generally have more important goals. Some questions follow, which examine trips’ usefulness balanced against their potential for poor learning and for trouble.

Since no trip is risk-free, the first question must be What about this parti­cular trip makes it worth at least a minimum of risk? It must yield a modicum of value, to be assessed with a clear eye and no baloney. The Activity Director’s “Default Setting” should not be “yes;” it should be “tell me more.” His or her judgment should not be compromised by having to sidle up to a “core value” claiming that “our school values field trips for their own sake” or its equivalent in Edspeak such as “our school seeks out the intrinsic benefits of mobile experiential learning.” Though the trip might have many kinds of value, the most important kind would be curricular value: students will learn something the curriculum requires them to learn. Other values, such as “bonding” or “team-building,” might better find their cultivation in work and activity on the school grounds.

The next question is How does it fit in with other plans and activities, both curricular and extracurricular? An administrator must be ready, like Solomon, to decide at need between competing activities, or, like P. T. Barnum, he will end up with all of them in the tumultuous tent. Something is educational—or “miseducative” (John Dewey’s word)—partly intrinsically and partly as a result of its juxtaposition with students’ other opportunities—demands—distractions. Dewey thought that a whirligig of weakly connected or disconnected activities would be miseducative:  If the kids are in a whirl of things to do, the learning will be faulty, or they will learn the wrong thing.

Will the trip include too many attractive nuisances or too much opportunity for idle mischief—I mean inappropriate behaviors? Nuisances can become more attractive to students who are not absorbed by the main event. How sure are we that they will be? Long stretches of vacant or repulsive time are an invitation to the boredom whose ensuing choice is often subversion or trouble.  Rather have too much to do than too little.

What is the state of relations in general between parents and the school, in particular between parents and the teachers acting as chaperons? A school with healthy, trusting relations will have more leeway for trips than one whose relationships are mistrustful, adversarial, or litigious. This relationship should be the object of a clear-headed examination notwithstanding any claims to the contrary, such as a “core value” stating that, say, “Parent – school cooperation is foundational to our mission.”

If special understanding or expertise is advisable, does a chaperon have it? If not, will there be someone readily available who has it? A class going to a beach will want to know that a chaperon can read the surf, spot rip tides, and use a lifesaver’s can. If not, there had better be a lifeguard. How will availability of the needed expertise be ascertained?

Do all adults understand that they are not to play for popularity among students by disregarding rules, especially those that other chaperons are visibly enforcing? It’s surprising how many “grown-ups” will say to themselves and even to students, “Well, Mrs. Dust may think that’s a good rule, but I am a hero, so I will disregard it.”

Do the students understand procedures for gathering, for quieting down, and for receiving urgent instructions? Have these been reviewed and, if necessary, drilled? As an example, a group of students, no matter the size, should be able, when signaled, to become silent and attentive within seconds.

Some comments to follow the questions:

No first-year teacher should ever lead a school trip except under the direction of another teacher experienced in leading trips.

Chaperons other than teachers should be known to and approved by the school’s administration; otherwise, they should not “count” in determining the student – teacher ratio of the trip or be allowed in charge of small groups when the large one breaks up.

Students should not consider attending a trip their right irrespective of prior behavior and reliability. If deciding what this means ends up being a sticking-point among warring factions, it might be better to give up the trip than to have a stinker-student win a battle to go and then destroy a trip’s chance for peace or safety.

Though of course a student’s coming to harm is the salient disaster of any trip in which it occurs, a word might be spared for the teachers in charge, irrespective of blame. Having been assigned duty on a trip, maybe because no one else was available, an inexperienced chaperon on a trip that goes bad is like Pip during his first time in the whaleboat in Moby-Dick. One moment, things are going as planned; three minutes later, Pip is a castaway, feeling “an immense concentration of self in the middle of…a heartless immensity,” whose “ringed horizon [begins] to expand around him miserably.” That horizon, seemingly with only menace, guilt, and sorrow in the offing, must feel like the most distant in the universe.


More from the Didact’s Dictionary

cutting edge n. [used with “on the”] or adj. [with hyphen] A cliché used to describe an educational movement, technology or technique whose uselessness, waste, or harm has not yet been proven by experience in classrooms. Examples from the past: open classrooms, new math, whole language, and mobile computer labs.

Edspeak n. The skein of bad language tangled around the field of education, sometimes praised by its users as “professional.” Its characteristic vices are vagueness, feigned objectivity, love of cliché, baloney, regressive sentimentality, euphemism, faddism, and scientism–sometimes all in one sentence, though no prizes are given.

essay [Fr. essai, try] n. [archaic] A composition in which the author tries to present or discuss a point with economy, skill, intelligence, rhetorical art, and respect for the reader.  Some schools have replaced it with the I-search paper and FAQs (qq.v.).

FAQs n. A composition in which all the reader’s needs are anticipated except those that are ignored. (Cf. “classic prose[1],” whose motives are not need but curiosity, delight, and respect.)

Gloucester, Duke of n. A British aristocrat who described The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to its author as “another damned, thick, square book.” His type was to have been made obsolete by the Jeffersonian ideal and by public institutions of learning like the University of Virginia, which he (Jefferson, not Gloucester) founded.

I-search paper n. [a nonce word that has outlasted the nonce] A kind of non-fictional composition that makes a virtue of absorption in one’s own world, just what high-school students need.

index n. The search engine of a book. It is read when Google is offline by research grunts needing quotations unimpaired by explanatory and connecting ideas.

multitasking n. [non-standard] claiming to divide the attention into an undiminished quotient, as in 3 ÷ 3 = 3.

peer editing n. editorial homeopathy, in which like cures like.

threaded discussion n. [non-standard] an artificial typed conversation. It simulates talk the way molasses simulates quick­silver but without being able to leave a good taste in the mouth.

!?! An end mark used by writers whose skill is not as great as their indignation.

[1] Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner, Clear and Simple as the Truth, passim.


Hey, Culligan Man!

I sometimes share with my students Robert Frost’s observation that “unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you’ve had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere.” The reactions vary from the predictable ad hominem argument that “he’s just saying that because he’s a poet” to more nuanced thinking, but almost never anything like even provisional acceptance. Most students would never consider, say, that “natural selection” is a metaphor. Most of them, even if they have heard of a cliché, would not think of it as a dead metaphor that has been dug up by its employer for a bad job of verbal zombie work.

The danger to which we expose ourselves in being strangers to the metaphor is not a Night of the Living Dead, though bad writing and speaking do arouse horror in some of their readers and listeners. Rather, it is in an inability to produce sound thinking by metaphor or, when presented with it, an inability to get it. William James in 1890 described the mind as a stream of consciousness, an excellent metaphor and, I venture to guess, ultimately more successful than the one educational theorists favored forty years ago: that the mind was a computer.

(Except, of course, the behaviorists among them, who didn’t recognize the mind. An old joke has two behaviorists at sexual inter­course. After they are finished, one says to the other, “You enjoyed that a lot. How did I like it?” This post-coital query was probably framed by someone who at work in an education research lab claims that educated people meet behavioral objectives. He would probably shake his head walking away from Rodin’s Thinker, who clearly doesn’t amount to much.)

But sometimes we feel unsafe because we are at home in the metaphor. One metaphor around which teachers should feel unsafe is that “a teacher’s job is to deliver instruction.” The immediate reaction is that it makes no literal sense. To deliver something we must first have something to deliver, such as a bag of groceries, a report, or a water softener. “Instruction” is not a thing except as an illicit reification. “Deliver instruction” makes no metaphorical sense either. When I was seventeen I did part-time work as a delivery boy, and I can find no figurative (or literal) resemblance between teaching and that job.

When a teacher does focus instruction on a particular part of his subject, there is still no “delivery” as of a little parcel. It is not a delivery—not anything like it—to get students to understand Strunk and White’s Rule 3 (“Enclose parenthetic expressions in commas”) if they have not understood it before.

Two North American students of mine one year were about as different as it is possible for two students to be. One of them took two years to learn to write a coherent paragraph with a topic sentence and was still a bit shaky at the end of that time. She was diligent and she was attentive, but it took attention, diligence, and rewrites to produce that paragraph. She struggled to read Alan Paton. At the other end was the boy who in our school’s homegrown writing assessment was the only one for years to get a perfect score, which he got every time he took it. He could and did read Moby Dick very well. I mentioned in a previous posting that I sometimes share a piece with one class but not with others. With his class I decided to share D. H. Lawrence’s study of Moby Dick. His first reaction, a sound one, was that the study was idiosyncratic, brilliant and very exciting. His second reaction, also sound but more prudential, was to ask what would happen if he tried writing like Lawrence for his International Baccalau­reate examiners. I told him that unless he was feeling a great deal of confidence in his risk-taking, he might want to stick to a more orthodox style of essay-writing for the examiners but that he was free to try and imitate Lawrence when writing for me. He did, and his tries were very good indeed. Then, for his semester final, he practiced going conventional and did a good job that way too.  Both of these students learned something important, but it wasn’t off the shelf and I wasn’t their Culligan Man.