Archive for October, 2010

Mindfulness 1

Saturday, October 30th, 2010

The comment by Professor William in last week’s posting led me to think about mindfulness for this week’s. It seems to everyone that mindfulness is desirable. Why, then, do we find as little of it as we do? One explanation might lie in contrasting mindfulness with mindlessness and considering whether classroom practices lead to (or require!) the one or the other.  Let me establish the contrast with a number of examples.

To start at the beginning.  Do we tell our students as a lesson opens what they will learn during that lesson? If the answer is yes, we may already be headed in the direction of mindlessness. Curiosity is one of the teacher’s most powerful allies. Why, then, should we undercut it by giving spoilers? The usual answer is that we lower confusion by helping students see where they are going, but this is troublesome.

Consider C. P. Cavafy’s poem “Ithaka,” one of the high points on the last century’s high road. (Every now and then that road comes into view, thank God.) Though it thrilled me when I first read it seventeen years ago (in Alexandria, Egypt! It was written there), I have needed those intervening years to feel that I am starting to understand it. Imagine, then, the unthinking nerve, the banal chutzpah, of introducing the class to it by saying, “At the end of this lesson you will understand (cognitive domain) and appreciate (affective domain) ‘Ithaka.’” No, they won’t, but if they see their teacher cry as he reads it aloud to them, or if they enter the past imaginatively—Homer’s, in which Laestrygonians exist, or Cavafy’s, in which they don’t—they might be mindful enough to launch themselves on their own small journeys of understanding. It’s on such cognitive and imaginative journeys that they will find the mindful study of poetry and not by following a miserable bread-crumb trail to canned meaning. It would be better in students not to get the poem than to fake getting it, have the fakery ratified by a test that can’t distinguish between it and true understanding,[1] and then leave school thinking that that thin stuff was “getting poetry.” Fakery is a kind of mindlessness because it is as detached as inattention and because we drop it as soon as the occasion for fakery is over. Real understanding stays with us. It’s better to say simply that we will be reading a remarkable poem and let the students’ surprise be a little day-trip for them.

Having said all that, I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m one of those educationists who think that everything must be a Voyage of Discovery in order to be an object of learning. Unlike understanding, ordinary knowledge—the kind imparted by “didactic instruction” in Paideia’s terminology[2]—will not take us to the Shores of Many Lands. On the other hand, if learning Principle 19 of Strunk and White[3] helps students to parse Cavafy or to write a balanced sentence of their own, they will see such learning the way athletes see drilling the “fundamentals” as essential to their best performance in games and matches. No sporting coach would say, “All right, we’re going to play ball without practice because practice is boring,” and no classroom teacher should say so either. If drilling, conning, and grunt-work are mixed with production and the free play of mind, students will tolerate them (as they had better, says Flannery O’Connor[4]). The sort of mixing of kinds of learning that a coach takes for granted helps the players’ mindfulness at each one of them.

No teacher using Socratic discussion can know where his class will end up because no teacher can explore ahead of time with students the lacunae in their understanding that a particular discussion might reveal or fill in. The surest way to guarantee mindfulness in students is to tailor questions and discussion to their needs, and these cannot be predicted. Even the formidable Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase stops his questioning after Mr. Hart reveals and clarifies his understanding of a case. I should say especially Professor Kingsfield because as a (somewhat scary) Socratic teacher, he should and does know what questions are called for and what ones are not. The tutors at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, who conduct colloquia on excellent books, spend a great deal of time planning their first question to the class, and somewhat less time anticipating its end. Because the discussion is alive, the participants are mindful of it and don’t drift off to the views out the windows.

On a less exalted plane my 10th-graders were once reading “The Outlaws” by Selma Lagerlöf. I had an idea where I wanted our discussion of the story to go, and I had wanted to concentrate on Tord’s guilt as he is pursued by phantoms. But a discussion takes on a life of its own even when the teacher is mindful of his aims. In an unsuspectingly inspired moment of discussing Tord’s guilt I asked, “Should Tord have told on Berg?” I think it was the use of “told on” that helped, but the class exploded with answers. Since the students’ answers needed justification by reasoning or by quotation, I had to tease out each student’s responses. (I use a visual trick as an aid with my younger classes. I make a chart with the students’ names and, as they respond, write key words or check/tick marks. The kids see my pencil poised over the paper until they have given a satisfactory answer, and then they get their mark, but sometimes they have to take responsibility for what they say by answering further questions, sometimes for further marks. If they talk baloney, no mark. Are they mindful? You bet. Sometimes one student will offer an important point, and classmates will sigh or moan because they had hoped to offer one like it. You do not get a mark for saying, “I agree with so-and-so,” unless you offer fresh justification or a new point of view.) Discussion continued for two days on themes developed from that one question. I could never have anticipated it and would have been a fool to say that we had to leave off the discussion because we had to move onto the next “objective.” They were learning how to justify views on tattling—tale bearing—snitching—squealing—responsible denunciation—and they were coming to grips with some of Tord’s complicated motives.

By contrast, my lessons on Principle 19 have a very clear aim, known from the outset, towards which all the exercises tend. I ask students to examine collections of sentences and establish parallel constructions where needed. I ask them to form sentences with parallel constructions, given certain facts or ideas that are to be shown as roughly equivalent. I ask them, if they are an able class, to read Dr. Johnson’s comparative criticism of the poetry of Pope and Dryden[5]and explain how it works. I mark Rule 19 on their papers when they make errors of parallelism after they have learned the principle. Because I include some correct sentences in my collections, they can’t rely on the comparative mindlessness of knowing that they will find an error if only they look, or guess, hard enough. And since the sentences require correction, not choosing among multiple choices given (away), they must really know their stuff. Does it help them in any way to hear me state, before they begin learning it, that “by the end of this lesson you will understand and apply principles of grammatical parallelism to writing”? Please! But unlike a lesson “in” understanding, this lesson has a beginning with a particular end in mind. Fine: let there be mindfulness here too.

The variety of tasks helps mindfulness. So do my questions: the students know that in order to pursue their thoughts I have to be paying attention to them, which flatters their consciousness and raises the stakes of their own attention.

As a last word this week I propose that a teacher with the best will and technique in the world will have little success with students who are determined not to be mindful in a classroom. I mean “are determined” in two senses: that they have made a determination and that their prior circumstances impel them. I hope soon to continue my discussion of mindfulness, including turning my attention to some difficulties that teachers have little or no control over.


[1] Such a test produces the “montillation effect,” and neither ratifies true understanding nor smokes out counterfeit.

[2] For a summary diagram, see page 7 of this PDF

[3] “Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form.”

[4] Reading O’Connor’s pungent writing after a steady diet of Edspeak is like eating Sichuan cooking after a week of mush and milktoast. I’d much rather find myself disagreeing with a few of the things she says than reading something generally disagreeable and entirely dreadful.

[5] See the 4th paragraph of this extract from Johnson’s Life of Pope

The Charisma of 14% vs. the Difficulty of Responsibility

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

If you don’t believe that the difference between excellent and good is the difference between 90% and 89%, you probably have the power of resisting a certain kind of specious quantitatively based argument. Let’s test that power on another argument, this one appearing, or at least implied, in a recent BBC article. Beyond the percentages, I also want to consider the possibility that rightness of attitude matters more in learning than convenience of mechanism.

The article reports research showing that people who study material in harder-to-read fonts learn more of it than those who study the material in easier-to-read fonts. The participants who learned the material when it was presented in 12-point Comic Sans grayscale font did 14% better than those who studied it in 16-point Arial pure black. When the authors of the study retested in classroom conditions, a difference in success remained, though the article does not say whether the classroom learners were also 14% better.

One of the authors of the study says that the “disfluency” (I don’t know if this is Edspeak or its cousin Psychobabble, but it means  “laboriousness”) of a task of learning impels the student to try harder in order to get it, which leaves the task better learned. He then argues that students’ reading-matter should be routinely set in Comic Sans type because in time of recession people must spend their educational money wisely on “cost-effective teaching strategies.”

I will not get involved in the Font Wars[1], including the F*** Comic Sans movement, except to say that some fonts are more pleasing to the eye than others and that in general a variety of fonts in reading-matter makes for an agreeable diversity of print and is a sign of a nicely inclusive generosity. On these grounds alone, a font monoculture seems inadvisable. The picture is further complicated, as it usually is, by experimental evidence that Comic Sans is easier for dyslexic students to read than many other fonts, which seems to undercut the findings of the study reported in the article.

So will we see another Revolution, this one in Typesetting for Success? Will we watch the expenditure of millions on Learning-friendly Fonts? One hopes instead that the advice of Professor Dylan William, quoted in the same article, will prevail. It focuses (as did one of my postings) not on teaching but on learning for the answer. “What really matters most when reading is mindfulness,” he said.  “It’s not printing things badly that’s needed, but more thoughtful reading.”

The two techniques (not “strategies”) Professor William recommends are reading in groups and following along with a finger. Those of us who have been exposed to teachers of “speed reading” know that most of them advocate using a finger to aid in reading. I have saved my own students the hundreds of dollars they might have paid “speed reading” people by showing them how to read using their fingers. Some adopt the method; some don’t. Those who do, report that it works. It certainly did for me when I learned it in university by watching over a classmate’s shoulder as he used it with his own work. If I gave it up later, it was more for ease of life than for lack of results. Reading in groups can be effective, whether it be listening in a group to someone read aloud or forming study groups for studious reading.

(Who knows that the students might not even be influenced to take up these techniques by seeing snippets of movies in which they are used? I refer to Good Will Hunting and The Paper Chase. Students are unlikely to end up reading as well as the Matt Damon Character in GWH, and they may not feel the same urgency of need as students at the Harvard Law School in TPC to master their material, but they might at least be intrigued by the possibilities that clips from these movies suggest.)

The point is that the intrigue, the interest, the responsibility would devolve on the students, which is where they belong. A properly motivated student will study whether the material is in Comic Sans or Arial, Times New Roman or Bookman Antique. A student with a motivated finger, a notebook, and a pen in hand stands a decent chance of learning; a shtik fleish mit tzvei eigen—a piece of meat with two eyes—will fail to learn, no matter what automatic mechanisms are chosen and bought for its edification.


[1] They are vicious, complete with fulminations and anathemas, as in the days when the homoousians and the homoiosians duked it out in the early Church; and they don’t even have the debatable justification that salvation depends on the outcome. Or I don’t think so. Maybe someone has argued that Comic Sans will cause the Collapse of the West. My own view is that CS is not a nice font, but that seeing it doesn’t cause seizures and moral degeneration.

Testing 3

Friday, October 15th, 2010

Many of the difficulties associated with testing and other assessments would fall away if they were viewed in a different and better light. Let’s try looking at them as I propose to do in this posting, and see whether this look helps us to draw some useful conclusions. There seems to be a need: why else is the word “testing” so often associated with the words “mania” (mental illness) and “high stakes” (gambling)?

First, we should agree that there is no such thing as an objective test and then ask ourselves what other kinds of test there can be. I’ve never cared for the expression “objective test” because it doesn’t convey much except as a label for something that asks a lot of simple questions and requires choosing simple answers, usually by pointing. Let’s run through Webster’s definitions of the word and eliminate them one by one.

Does it form a “final cause,” as Aristotle called it? That is, does it constitute a purpose that shapes what aims towards it? All good sense tells us that it doesn’t, though the Testing-and-Accountability people have turned tests into final causes. If we didn’t feel the imperatives they artificially impose on testing, people would assume, correctly, that the purpose of taking, say, English is to learn English, not to do well on an English test. (Then they would buy more novels and fewer test prep books!)

Does the test exist independent of the mind? Well, yes, but only in a trivial sense, for every test is in that sense objective: there they are, indubitably, on the desk, whether multiple-choice or essay. Surely that isn’t what we mean either.

Does it verify by scientific methods? In most cases, no, though some people claim that some tests are sometimes scientific. I think these claims need careful examination because “scientific” is usually used as a recommendation but is applied without much rigor. This is not a definition to rally around.

Does it ensure that the material examined is not affected by personal perspectives or feelings? Here we have a problem. The designer of the test always uses personal perspectives or feelings to decide what is important and therefore included. He or she also decides on wording, presentation, and “how much it counts,” which also require a perspective. Are the test-writer’s perspective and feelings somehow privileged against the “charge” of “subjectivity,” i.e., having a point of view? If a test were truly independent of perspectives, then anyone from any culture with any background could be expected to do equally well on it, assuming they knew the same things (whatever that means); but we know that that is not the case. (See my posting about the immigrant who thought the Eagle was a bird, not a spacecraft.)

Is that what we want in a test, assuming it can be achieved? I hope not in high school, where students should be learning to recognize and justify their take on things. A “subjective” test might help not hinder them in such endeavors.

Feelings, perspectives, and ideas shape those facts and give them weight (or weightlessness). For example, fill in this blank: Columbus __________ America in 1492. It would be rather difficult to do so without a perspective on Columbus and on the Americas. The question is not whether perspectives per se are suspect or distorting, but what makes some perspectives useful or sound and others useless or unsound. Bertrand Russell’s “lunatic who thinks he is a poached egg” has a “perspective” that we may legitimately discount. Thomas Kuhn notes that even the equation f = ma depends for its meaning on the “perspective” of the scientist who encounters it. The object of testing should not be to eliminate perspective but to hold it to some standard of fitness. Please note that I’m not saying there is “no right answer.” That is something that a 9th-grader says before he or she learns what finesse is. I am saying that perspective and feeling can have a perfectly valid place in testing.

I would therefore argue in favor of tests that demand a grasp of factual detail and also of significant ideas, the two examined from a perspective articulately and sensibly maintained by the student and appropriately judged by the teacher or marker. Yes, I have used the J-word, one of the only words that matter in the evaluation of anything at all advanced. Otherwise, there is no alternative to tests that give the highest grade to Funes the Memorious, whose command of tens of thousands of unconnected facts is not just useless but harmful.

The answer to the danger of arbitrariness of judgment is not “objectivity.” It  is the achievement of good judgment by teachers and the nurturing of their connois­seurship in subjects where it is needed.

But since good judgment is still not perfect, its vagaries can be minimized by ensuring ampleness of assessment. I mean not just lots of tests but a mixture of kinds: oral and written, ex tempore and prepared in advance. A good example would be the basket of assessments for the International Baccalaureate program’s “language A1” courses: two handwritten essays, one on works studied and one on a work not seen before; two oral presentations, one prepared ahead of time and the other, the fearsome “Formal Commentary,” prepared in twenty minutes and executed in fifteen (the commentary, not the student); and two papers written ahead of time by the student on a theme he or she has chosen. None of these counts more than 25% of the final grade awarded by the IBO. Two of these are graded by the teacher, whose work is vetted by a “moderator.” The others are graded by professional “examiners.” The moderators offer comments to the teacher after the moderation is finished, and all teachers can attend workshops where they learn to teach these courses and to mark course material. These seem to me to be sounder precautions against arbitrariness and poor judgment than the whisking away of judgment and evaluation by ostensibly but not actually “objective” tests.

Another guarantee of sensible evaluation is to have teachers who have learned the subjects they are teaching—seemingly obvious until we discover that upwards of 40% of high school teachers teach subjects they did not major in. Yet another is collegiality in the faculty room, with all the good things it produces. A third, connected to collegiality, would be frequent table-talk about assessments, with more experienced teachers and newer ones discussing how to go about making them.

If we can manage some of these changes in how we view tests, much of the insanity and gambling will fall away.

The Class of a Thousand Spaces

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

The best and most versatile classroom I taught in was the emptiest one, the one with the most usable space inside and nearby, the one with the least of mandated clutter, the one with the fewest gadgets. It also had highly rearrangeable furniture that could be adapted to any number of needs.

(My desk, a hand-me-down from a principal, was the size of an aircraft carrier. That was inconvenient. Even its spacious desktop, seemingly a blessing, was a trap, tending to swallow up small or even not-so-small items and to allow the formation of geological features if neglected. The way I handled the inconvenience of the desk was to put it at one end of the room and ignore it whenever possible. I didn’t teach from it.)

A bad classroom is not necessarily a cheap classroom, nor is an excellent one necessarily expensive. The question I have of any classroom is Will you adapt to the needs of the lessons given, or must the teacher adapt his lessons to your design? The more the classroom’s features are fixed or assembled, the less they can be harmonized with a teacher’s plan.

If a course is going to embrace Socratic discussion, a conference table would be ideal, but in a flexible classroom serving a number of pedagogical purposes there can’t be such a big thing. My classroom had small tables shaped in half-hexagons and free-standing chairs. The tables could be arranged in a somewhat ungainly but workable ring that served as a conference table, and that was the “default setting” of the classroom, or its arrangement at rest. Everyone was in the front row: the perfect setting for colloquia, seminars, and the spotting of surreptitious texting and game-playing. And, if needed, I could get up to make a point, come into the center of the “table,” and do a little theater-in-the-round.

I sometimes put a hexagon in the center for demonstrations. After my Theory of Knowledge classes had read about the “need to know” in José Ortega y Gasset, I would have them gather around the hexagon, and I would throw five dice, playing “Petals around the Rose”. The class’s task was to figure out how I got the number that I called out after each roll. Students who didn’t need to know could sit on the periphery, but most had an interest, and some became obsessed. It becomes easier to understand how Andrew Wiles could take eight years to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem if you have had a problem eat away at you and just had to solve it.

Sometimes the room filled with hexagons, or at any rate the conference table divided in pieces. The I. B. English A1 students had to study poems and a Shakespeare play in detail, and their examination was a twelve-minute talk given in private to the teacher after having been prepared in twenty minutes on an extract from one of the works studied. The presentation was followed by three minutes of questions and answers or conversation with the teacher. The students were not to know which extract they would speak on, and they could not use books or any notes prepared by them before the examination. It was a daunting challenge, and one thing they had to be able to do was talk in their own words about what they had read. The ideas had to be their own, not downloaded ones. How else to have this happen but get the kids to work over the poems in detail and talk about them with each other and me, taking notes as they worked? The classes would break into small groups with guiding questions set by me. After studying the poems or play at home, they discussed them with each other, taking notes on their work and answering my questions. I would stroll around the class, “eavesdropping,” as I put it, on their endeavors, guiding as needed. Of course, where a lecture became necessary I could talk to the class as a whole, re-establishing the conference table or having them face the blackboard, where I would write things down.

The whiteboard was available for what used to be called blackboard work by students, who would come up and write answers, solve problems, or fix bad sentences. Students usually enjoy that and feel a bit of an edge knowing that they are going to produce an answer in writing in front of their classmates. Whiteboard work also gives the more fidgety and restless students a chance to do something. (They are the same students who volunteer to pass out dictionaries and to rearrange tables: at last a break from sitting down.)

I could use a collapsible lectern, too, for formal speeches, and have the class face the speaker. This minimalist classroom had no facilities for Power Point talks, which I liked. Power Point has a way of homogenizing discourse, and it diverts attention from the speaker. (My colleague the geography teacher had a New Yorker cartoon posted on his classroom door. An executive devil in hell is interviewing a job-applicant devil, who is sitting attentively. The executive devil says, “I need someone well versed in the arts of torture. Do you know Power Point?”) It is also frustrating to have the almost inevitable delays as things that don’t work properly have to be fixed. Time is short and knowledge is great, and we don’t need this.

Along one side of the room was a counter at above-knee height. At one end was the classroom’s computer. In the center were reference books: a classroom set of hardbound “college dictionaries,” the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, Fowler, a thesaurus (old-fashioned arrangement), the American Heritage Dictionary, The King’s English by Kingsley Amis, and Modern American Usage by Wilson Follett (and edited by Jacques Barzun, Carlos Baker, Dudley Fitts, James Hart, Phyllis McGinley, and Lionel Trilling!). I also had a set of national flags the size of index cards, each on a small pole with a stand. Students would place their national flag in a display area on the counter. I usually had between thirty and forty flags on display.

But all this could be swept aside at need. 9th-graders did set designs of The Admirable Crichton or The Miracle Worker and had the choice of 2- or 3-D designs. The 3-D designs, sometimes really elaborate constructions, had to rest on the counter during their period of display. (All of them were judged for faithfulness to stage directions and artistic flair by the art teacher and me.) And sometimes students used the counter as part of a classroom stage.

We also used space outside the classroom. On one side was a walk shaded by very large lilac trees and an apple tree, good places for practicing scenes or working up notes on poems. On the other was a quadrangle of lawn with two or three shade trees. A walk up to the next building had a balcony that could be used for, say, Balcony Scenes. I had two pairs of students volunteer to learn and enact the entire Balcony Scene from Romeo and Juliet instead of doing smaller excerpts. One of the boys even wore a doublet and hose (“those pouffy things and tights”) for the show. When students chose to do the Breakfast Table Scene from The Miracle Worker, we could use a large nearby porch and have pitchers of water and a bowl of scrambled eggs from the cafeteria. The whole thing could be hosed down after the show. Students working on scenes from plays could work outdoors, staying out of each other’s hair and keeping their presentations at least a bit under wraps. The seniors, in the run-up to their I. B. exams, could work under the shade-trees on their final review. I would circulate among the groups, making suggestions and telling them stuff I thought they needed to know.

The ranks-and-files devotees might think that this would be an inchoate jumble, but it was not. They might also wonder whether  students bothered those in neighboring classrooms, and here too the answer was (usually) not. After a period of some years, a competent teacher learns how to manage things by being subtly omnipresent and taking a dozen pulses more or less simultaneously. For their part, students who have the modicum of manners and sense not to turn a flexible system into a barroom brawl or a donnybrook appreciate the chance to have flexibility in their classroom and lessons. So did I.

Mommy, Mommy! I’m Making a Text-to-Self Connection!

Friday, October 1st, 2010

The East Side of Manhattan used to embrace an extraordinary variety of neighborhoods, from the Silk Stocking District to the Lower East Side, the East Village, and the Bowery. It also comprised most of District 2 of the New York City Schools. In the 1990’s District 2 saw another new era in education. Diane Ravitch reports[1] that a method of reading instruction came into force called Balanced Literacy, designed, so it was claimed, to bridge the gap between enthusiasts of “whole language” English instruction and those who favored phonics and other traditional methods. It worked the way all plans do that try to bridge the gap between irreconcilable differences or to compromise something that will work with something that won’t.

After about ten years a “study” of the district showed that reading scores had improved and vindicated Balanced Literacy and District 2’s methods of imposing it. Before accepting the study’s claims, let us go over Ravitch’s review of what Balanced Literacy does and how the program was put in place.

The idea is to break up reading into lots of little processes (as usual, called “strategies”). Then the teacher, who plays a marginal role in the classroom, gets the students to recognize those processes while reading books that they choose, alone or with small groups of their classmates, actually saying the name of each “strategy” as it is used in reading. “A student might say, for example, ‘I am visualizing,’ ‘I am summarizing,’ ‘I am making a text-to-self connection’…. In theory, students who become conscious of reading strategies become better readers.” The teachers’ role was minimized in a bit of semi-constructivist[2] enthusiasm that would leave students learning mostly without their intervention.

Ravitch also reports that the district’s program entailed having all staff “focus relentlessly” on the faithful implementation of Balanced Literacy. This “focus” included daily propagandizing, monthly day-long meetings for principals, and frequent inspection tours of classrooms by principals and district officials to see that the teachers were following their instructions, with penalties imposed on those who did not. In the course of his tenure (1987 – 1998), the superintendent of District 2 replaced two-thirds of the district’s principals and half its teachers, many of them, Ravitch suggests, for not teaching Basic Literacy as demanded.

After the 2000 Census figures became available, further “studies” took note of new demographic data for the neighborhoods of the district. These studies showed that many of them had gentrified and that most of the improvements in reading could be explained by demographic changes rather than by the effectiveness of Basic Literacy. Some note was made of the district’s poorer schools and how Balanced Literacy appeared to be a complete failure there. The original study praising District 2’s embrace of Balanced Literacy cost six million dollars and a number of years to undertake, and it led to the widespread adoption of methods District 2 had used before the new studies had a chance to catch up with it. The usual Study Wars ensued.

As I read Ravitch, I imagined the poor kids at their books: “Driven by hunger…I’m visualizing…a fox tried to reach some grapes…I’m making a text-to-self connection…hanging high on the vine…I’m making a prediction…but was unable to…I’m making a text-to-self connection… although she leaped with all her strength…I’m making an inference…As she went away the fox remarked…I’m making a prediction… ‘Oh, you aren’t even ripe yet.’…I am summarizing.”  Next I imagined the poor teachers working at schools that had been turned into re-education camps, monitored day-in-day-out by gimlet-eyed commissars for signs of deviationism, listening to their students stammering out their self-reflexive lines but mandated not to intervene with techniques approved by experience.  I thought of the students from educationally shaky backgrounds, who would need extra inter­vention by the teachers but would not get it because of the constructivist chaos of the lessons. It is unimaginable till reported.

It is also avoidable. People in the field of teaching should have a strong enough sense of history and humanity to be able weigh and choose among alternatives for education, rejecting what is harebrained, vicious, or fanatic and approving what is sound, innovating cautiously at need rather than in a succession of paradigm shifts followed by Cultural Revolutions. They would do so without waiting for battlefield reports from the Studies Wars. As Hofstadter puts it, some things are “better vindicated by the educational experience of the human race than by experimental psychology” or, by extension, the other “scientific” disciplines often used in the Ed Biz in lieu of good sense, a cultivated imagination, and a sense of reality. I’d rather trust a historian, a critic, or an educated generalist of large and generous views on what can be accomplished—or not—in education than I would a specialist of narrow attainment and ungenerous tendency.

In his essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” Sir Isaiah Berlin distinguishes the narrowness of the hedgehog from the subtlety and finesse of the fox (clearly a different fox from the one at the grape arbor). It’s the hedgehogs who in Gulliver’s Travels do their tailoring by trigonometry—and who in the Ed Biz gain credibility with schemes such as I have just outlined. We need more foxes and fewer hedgehogs in teaching.


[1] in The Death and Life of the American School System

[2] an educationist doctrine that students must “construct” their own lessons with a minimum of teacherly interference.