Branding Irony

A posting of mine last year worried that the language of branding and the language of education would end up more or less the same, leaving the claims made for a school sounding like the claims made for Baby Einstein®. As we know, Disney offered refunds to buyers of these “educational” materials after doubt was cast by advocacy groups on the advertisements saying that they had educational value. Now, instead of carrying false educational claims, these videos merely undercut the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics that children under two not watch TV at all.

The irony is that while a profit-making company scaled back what it asserted for its “educational materials,” actual schools, and not necessarily profit-making ones, have been inflating the claims they make for their curricula, according to The New York Times.

The baloney scrutinized by the Times has to do with schools that say they teach “advanced” or “rigorous” subjects, when evidence suggests that they don’t. The number of US students completing ostensibly “rigorous” curricula has gone up more than two and a half times between 1990 and 2009, from 5% to 13%. But the trout in the milk is that achievement as gauged by AP and SAT scores has remained flat or gone down.

What does this mean? Part of the explanation became apparent when the Times reported that one unfortunate student was ill prepared for pre-AP by her middle school, where in eighth grade she had to take something called Jungle Gym Math. “It had some geometry. Some algebra. It jumped around.” I can just picture the class, down the hall from the Sandbox History classroom where they dress in sheets. They bob for apples. They jump around. I can picture some alleged adult at that middle school thinking it would be appealing to “brand” math by using “jungle gym” in the course title. The right-minded alternative would have been an articulated year-to-year curriculum that brought students to a level of readiness in 10th grade that would leave them able to take AP (or IB, my preferred program). When they got to 8th grade, an articulate teacher would tell them, “There’s a jungle gym class already. It’s called ‘recess.’ You are 2/3 grown up, and so you will take a math class. It’s called ‘algebra,’ and that is what it really is.” No branding, just generic integrity.

When I was a boy, I remember seeing a parody Learn-to-Draw book, showing how to draw a portrait in four stages, each represented by a panel. Panel 1: a circle. Panel 2: a potato. Panel 3: the potato with smiley-face features. Panel 4: John Singer Sargent’s drawing of Henry James. What is wrong with these pictures is the same thing that is wrong with programs that spend years with beanbags and bedsheets and then suddenly take the victims and toss them into trigonometry and differentiation.

Why do they do it? To be able to say that they have a “nurturing environment” in middle school and “rigorous college preparation” in 11th and 12th grade? The only answer conceivable lies somewhere between baloney and b*******.[1] What makes this particular kind especially reprehensible is that it victimizes young people by playing fast and loose with their education.

How fast and loose? Those scoring failing grades (1 and 2) on AP tests number 42% of those who take them.

[1] See Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor Emeritus of Moral Philosophy, Princeton University: On Bullshit.



Happy Easter

No posting this week.


The H Word

At the website of a lady known for her advice on homework I recently read a few pages that prompted some reflection of my own. These thoughts are based on my experience, and they also draw on my memory of an article that appeared in The Economist in the early 1990s[1].

That article discussed the difference between the United States and European countries in the amount of homework assigned to high-school students. American pupils tended to have much less than their European counterparts. It made the claim, which I have not seen anywhere else, that an education study showed the assignment of graded homework to be the most closely correlated predictor of success in university—even more closely correlated than, for example, the family’s “socio-economic status” or the level of the parents’ education.

Though startling, this finding makes some sense. If students know that they must do homework in order to succeed in a course, and if they have been brought up with the discipline and support from their parents and teachers to attend to it, they are developing intellectual and also moral habits that will prepare them for their university careers, where homework is a serious fact of life.

At my own university we expected to work roughly two to three hours outside of the classroom for every hour we spent in it. That figure includes reading, but, yes, it worked out to about 30 – 50 hours of homework a week. Students who are taught to manage demanding loads of work handle it much more effectively than those, like me, who come to their freshman year from high schools where homework made up a much smaller part of the week. These favored students’  intellectual habituation includes stamina, facility at handling ideas in print, ability to seize the important matter in a long assignment, and relatively good skill at keeping ideas in mind for current and future use. Their moral habituation includes a sense of their obligation to work seriously and the ability to regret ignoring their work or doing it poorly.

But it is not just universities that expect a high level of attention paid and work done inside and outside the classroom. High-school programs like the International Baccalaureate require constant attention to the demands made not just by academics but also by extracurricular pursuits in the program of Creativity, Action, and Service (CAS). And individual schools can can have their own demanding programs  too. A school that I worked at in Egypt used to play host annually to a group of students from a justly famous New England college preparatory school known for the rigor of its program and its students’ success at gaining admission to excellent universities. These students spent a good portion of every day on their trip to Egypt pursuing their regular studies and the additional work generated by their Egyptian explorations. This work included reading short stories by the wonderful Naguib Mahfouz. The teachers invited me to speak to the students about the stories and told me that they would be receptive to any insights I might be able to give. True to advance billing, they were marvelous, even though I dealt with some relatively arcane stuff such as a disguised appearance of the Azrael, the Death Angel of Islam, in one story and the affinity of another story with the ending of Proust’s chapter “Madame Swann at Home.” They took good notes and asked good questions. They appeared bright-eyed and keen, not gaunt from Dickensian workloads. One teacher came back to me after the talk and told me that a couple of them even thought they might have a look at Proust! When I complimented their interest, attentiveness, and diligence, she said that they had been well prepared. So they had.

This kind of preparation, whether in the IB program or in the homegrown program at a good secondary school, cannot take place without hard work and discipline. It is therefore distressing to read the homework lady’s prescription that homework must not exceed two hours a night for seniors, and ten minutes less per night for each grade under 12th. My distress is not due to a belief that all students regardless of educational goal should have heavy homework loads, which I do not hold. It is due to a problem with truth in packaging. If the homework lady and the NEA are making a blanket recommendation for a maximum of two hours’ homework a night, then they are being unrealistic or perhaps not entirely frank about what is needed if a student’s goal is solid college preparation.

The homework lady also recommends letting teachers know, by means of a typical weekly agenda kept to the hour, what occupies a student’s time after hours. The page containing the agenda strongly implies that the purpose of communicating the agenda to a teacher is to let him know that Junior has other things to do than homework. Very well, if the student and her parents have previously discussed the work week with a realistic eye to making hard choices and setting genuine and not magical goals. But if the point is to get a teacher to accept a student’s uncritical choices of how to spend time, it is misguided. One of the possible occupations on this agenda is personal computer use. What if the student blocks out two or three hours a day? Must parents and teachers accept this choice? My own approach would be to tell such a student, “You make your decisions, and I will make mine. You cannot magically think yourself into a day that includes both solid learning and lots of leisure.”

What should the homework itself consist of? The homework lady’s recommendations are a combination of good sense and dogmatic silliness.  An example of the latter is her pronouncement that homework requiring the student to ask for help is bad homework. Now, if the student is so lost that he or she has to get Mom, Dad, or a friend to walk her through the whole thing, something is wrong; but it may not necessarily be the assignment. I say nothing of tasks that a student just copies off without actually learning anything. But what about a sensibly set task of investigation leading the student possibly to discover something that he or she doesn’t already know? If the point is not just to copy down “sources” that confirm a student in his (possibly bad) ideas, then “asking the source for help” might be very productive indeed. Such an assignment combined with a teacher conference to go over what was learned would be even more productive.

As we move toward a model of education in which learning is a “mechanized deliverable,” maybe the object of this dictate and others like it is to smooth the way for an on-line instruction requiring no subtle interventions of the kind that a teacher, but not a machine, can make. What doesn’t fit isn’t allowed.

One more example of misguided advice about homework will show another problem. The homework lady says that “Read two chapters in the novel” is a poor assignment and gives alternatives. Well, a student who is accomplished enough in reading to manage two chapters in an assignment should also have been taught what to do with those chapters and not need spoon-fed suggestions for analysis. An example of the kind of training one should be able to count on is the method of reading prescribed by the Introduction to the Great Books in its program of “Shared Inquiry.” If a student has already become accustomed to write down questions about 1) what he doesn’t understand, 2) what seems important, and 3) what he agrees or disagrees with, and if these questions end up forming the basis of a discussion that helps secure understanding, then the kind of specification recommended by the homework lady becomes unnecessary—which it should be, for such tips encourage the student to expect intellectual hand-holding. Remember: I am a high-school teacher, and of course the lower grades and probably 9th grade might need more structure at first, but a teacher’s object should be to remove these structures as soon as possible, even if it causes students some discomfort at first. If they can react to discomfort by rallying their forces, they have taken a step forward.

I don’t want to suggest that the homework lady has nothing good to say. I think she is exactly right to despise make-work and to frown on imbecile work sheets and problem sets that don’t have a productive goal.  But a lot is at stake in the debate over homework, and we must be prepared to bring to that debate a subtlety akin to what we bring to the understanding of our students. One size never, ever fits all.

[1] Regrettably, I cannot give the details because I don’t remember them and can’t locate the piece in The Economist’s index. Sorry.



Fast School Nation

Last May I noted, after googling “McLearning” and scoring a remarkable hit, that we are moving toward a view of learning that prefers “instruction” which can be “delivered” as well by a machine as by a teacher. One of the reasons I gave is that junk learning, like junk food, will be cheap to “deliver.” Now that The New York Times reports cheapness trumping quality in education, the issue is worth another look.

The place to start is with a teacher in an ordinary traditional classroom. Professor Barzun justly asserts, “Anybody who has ever taught knows that the act of teaching depends upon the teacher’s instantaneous and intuitive vision of the pupil’s mind as it gropes and fumbles to grasp a new idea[1].” This is one reason among many why “teaching is an act of perpetual discretion.”

Another is that a teacher is a coach, and coaching requires immediate adaptation to the needs of the person being coached. This is as true of the writing coach as of the golfing coach. When I have meetings with my students about their writing, each meeting is different from the others because each of my students writes differently, thinks differently, and responds differently to instruction.

The third reason is that no one can teach understanding; rather, the good teacher provides conditions in which understanding takes place. One of those conditions is provided by Socratic instruction, which seizes on a student’s own words and uses them to probe for understanding and help the student achieve it. Another is provided by what we all call “teachable moments,” which occur spontaneously throughout the day but cannot be planned or machined. The last reason to recognize perpetual discretion as an ineluctable condition of teaching, as I have argued, is that students learn best when they feel some kind of affective tie with their teacher, and ties do not come into being en masse or mechanically.

On-line learning cannot provide any of these guarantees of perpetual discretion, but on-line learning is where we seem to be going. My first experience with it came when I reviewed the material produced by a Midwestern state university for use by students at a distance for high-school credit. The school I then taught at wanted one of our failing students to use the material to get the equivalent of a high-school English course. Well, the material was shocking on two counts. One was its concentration on memory of factual detail at the expense of understanding. The other was its idiocy in, for example. asking questions of interpretation by multiple choice. I advised the school not to use it because it overlooked real understanding and had no way of adapting itself to individual students.

A former colleague of mine reports that “our” school now requires every student to take one on-line course. He reports that the students think the on-line courses stink. The teachers think so too, but there’s no avoiding the ad hominem argument addressed to teachers who say what they think: “You’re just saying that because you’re a threatened teacher.”

How could anyone think differently? What possibility does on-line software have of instantaneous and intuitive vision? This same former colleague had the good fortune to study under Professor John Searle, author of the famous “Chinese Room Argument” against artificial intelligence. But even if Searle is wrong, it would take an unusual student to form an affective tie to a Chinese Room.

And it would take an extraordinarily expensive Chinese Room, assuming one were possible, to ask effective Socratic questions or otherwise to display instantaneous intuitive vision. How much does Watson cost, which can play Jeopardy, and how much more subtle than Watson is a good teacher?

My fear is that none of this will matter. The attraction of on-line learning to its proponents is not that on-line learning is better than learning in the classroom. The attraction is not even that it is as good. The attraction is that it is cheaper. “Pedagogical” justifications will inevitably follow (cherchez la flimmeflamme), some of them based on “research” that will be treated with less caution than it deserves.

What will our on-liners do when they are faced with a life of cruxes that don’t wait for a mouse click or that don’t have choices a) through e) laid out for them? What will they do when they work for a boss who doesn’t give them a study guide for the project he assigns them? What will they do when they face an intense and brilliant Socratic professor in college?—assuming they do face him instead of another screen.

[1] Begin Here, p. 20



That’s Just Your Opinion!

One of the most common disparagements heard in those sanctioned mêlées sometimes called “class debates” is the argument that “that’s just your opinion!” It is also one of the most unfortunate. An important aim in any class that includes oral discourse should be to cultivate thoughtfulness and conversation, by means of which students examine ideas carefully. It allows them to test the ideas and to test themselves. Being quickly dismissive, on the other hand, evades thought and responsibility.

Part of the blame for poor discussion and conversation lies with the teacher who allows it, but the rest must go further back. I want to start with the dictum, often taught in grade school and reinforced in high school, that knowledge is of two kinds: fact and opinion. This dichotomy, in itself unhelpful, usually goes along with a belief that opinions are somehow of secondary weight or importance to facts, evidently because not everyone agrees on them.

I’ve got news for those who hold this belief: not everyone agrees on facts either, but that doesn’t keep them from being facts. More useful than the fact – opinion dichotomy is Professor Barzun’s distinction between facts and ideas, particularly as this distinction plays out in the study of history[1], where a fact is a datum nameable in conventional terms, and an idea is “an image, inference, or suggestion that goes beyond” such data. “The statement of a fact gives the impression of ending with itself, whereas an idea leads us on.”

So far are ideas from being of secondary weight or importance that without them, history is not just impossible, it is intolerable: “the ‘bare facts’ do not interest, in the sense of engaging the attention.” One of the formative effects of history should be to allow its students to see the treatment of ideas with a deftness and judgment that they might hope to acquire or at least to appreciate.

There is not much to say about the facts of the Monroe Doctrine except that “it was promulgated in a presidential message to Congress on December 2, 1823.” How, then, does the “authoritative work on the Monroe Doctrine[2]” by Dexter Perkins run to more than 1300 pages? Almost everything that can be said about the Monroe Doctrine goes beyond the facts and enters the realm of ideas.

I almost asked How will students learn to find their way in this realm? Instead, I need to ask Whether students will learn to find their way at all. It is a serious issue when they are kept from developing and exercising their own deftness and judgment by taking a proper history course, and when “class debates” have more to do with heated finger-pointing than with examining and teasing out the ideas that come into play in the course of a genuine discussion. Are the students going to develop and test their powers of analysis and synthesis by examining Great Issues in American History (Hofstadter)? Or will they prepare for multiple-choice tests by conning “just the facts” from purgatorial textbooks, which often turn out to have strong and questionable ideas embedded in their presentation? If these ideas are presented as facts, they do a disservice to intellect and they leave the students handling them impaired in their judgment, if not in their “class debates.”

Given the constraints of money, time, and Testing-and-Accountability being imposed on schools, they may not get a history course at all. It would be a terrible loss for today’s students not to be able to discover this way of thinking about the world that has the potential to make one wiser than one had been before taking it up. “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”—T. S. Eliot

[1] Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff, The Modern Researcher, Fourth Edition, p. 147 et seq

[2] ibid.