Ready, Fire, Aim

About half a year ago I wrote about my college classmate H, whose IQ went from very low during his elementary school years to 160 during his last year of high school. The story was part of a discussion of problems in social science and how they carry over into the rating of students and their teachers. It seems that a recently released study shows that the increase of children’s IQs, previously “thought” unlikely or impossible, is not so uncommon.

But it would be more proper to say that his IQ test score went up, for H was always intelligent. It’s true that the testimony of his intelligence came from his parents, but I would argue that “anecdotal evidence,” if treated carefully, can be truer than the results of tests, the reaction of test-takers to which is poorly understood, or governed by assumptions that may not be true. As time passes, the results of psychometry and education “science” seem at times to climb in a hyperbolic line ever closer to those asymptotes of understanding, esprit de finesse and good judgment; but the path is not sure, and the goal is not reached. Why not go with finesse and judgment instead or in the first instance?

The article discussing the unexpected findings noted that the “phenomenon” was not understood. Psychological researchers are probably even now planning the expected “further research” to determine what has happened. Who knows that in another few years these lines of research will not grow even closer to the asymptotes? While we wait for them, some items of discussion immediately occur to me.

Just as it is possible but unlikely that a weak, unhealthy and uncoordinated boy of six can emerge chrysalis-like from school age a championship athlete or a ballet dancer, so it is possible but unlikely for a mentally unprepossessing boy to grow into a coruscating intelligence in a few years. Exceptions only sometimes prove the rule, as young Theodore Roosevelt overcame the difficulties of his physically challenged youth. What is more likely is that boys like the four-year-old Albert Einstein had mental lives that went unsuspected by people looking for crude or generally familiar signs of “progress.”  Finesse is ready to read unfamiliar signs and understand exceptions; testing and psychometry are not, as indeed how could they be? How can a test-giver go meta on the very test he is giving? How consider that maybe the test-taker is not getting brighter but more attuned (or reconciled) to taking tests?

The problems of surveying and testing students don’t stop with the possibility of instruments’ giving inaccurate readings. When I was a boy and wanted to play hooky one day, I complained of feverishness. My mother took my temperature, and while she was out of the room doing other things, I applied the base of the thermometer to an electric light bulb so that it would register a higher temperature. My mother, with her finesse, couldn’t reconcile the high reading of the thermometer and my unfeverish forehead. Her eyes narrowed, and she took my temperature again, this time staying quietly in the room. The jig was up, and off to school I went.

By contrast with the good sense of a narrow-eyed skeptical intelligence equipped with a multiplicity of aids to judgment, the big-eyed naïveté of test administrators is astonishing. Do they think that the Little Dears would never throw a test or a survey? If they needed to spend $45,000,000, that is forty-five million dollars, to learn that students can tell a good teacher from a bad, I am afraid for their judgment. A friend of mine who works at a university where students rate their teachers and where the ratings govern personnel decisions reports that most untenured faculty who mark to exacting standards, make unusually high demands, or assign “too much” homework, receive poor ratings. The teachers, to prevent that, oblige the students. The evaluation of teaching is thus caught in an enfilade of survey-fixing. What kind of sense does it make to ask a student to offer a high-stakes evaluation of his teacher in such conditions? Would we allow hospital patients to offer high-stakes evaluations of their surgeons?

And, as so many stories now show, the results not just of surveys but also of tests are subject to corrupt distortion and manipulation of the already somewhat tenuous data that they generate. Campbell’s Law explains the corruption, but good sense can explain the rest of the trouble with “scientific” evaluation.

One may argue that the use of finesse and judgment can be corrupted too, and one would be right; but the answer to corruption in one method of evaluation is not to replace it by another corruptible method. Rather, we should use our good judgment on a variety of evidence to determine how our teachers and students are doing. We should be trying to get to the bottom of poor data. We should be questioning invalid assumptions. We should be fortifying or building a culture that casts a constantly cold eye on corrupt practices. If we have to use tests and surveys, we should be identifying and removing what Campbell called “corruption pressures” and the misuse of data that gives rise to them.



Little Pots of Excrement for Sale

I thought of this wonderful chapter title from Paul Fussell’s Abroad[1] recently in connection with PowerPoint, particularly its increasing use by students giving presentations at school. I have previously said that PowerPoint tends to homogenize discourse, but in fact it tends to do more: it tends to spoil it. This point was made brilliantly in a satirical presentation written some years ago by Peter Norvig, which takes the Gettysburg Address and redoes it in PowerPoint. This send-up, well worth a visit, has Norvig’s permission to be used in any course or educational presentation.

As it should be, for students tend to accept entirely uncritically the false notion that it is “just a tool.” That notion is decisively and thoroughly refuted by Edward Tufte, a professor Emeritus at Yale, in his essay The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint. Professor Tufte makes a strong argument in the 32-page essay that that software has a built-in tendency to inanition, that it can weaken the data sets and associated ideas it presents, that its powers of representation are poor when compared to other, richer media, and that it is tedious to watch. Norvig’s satire shows these weaknesses very well, but the essay goes into devastating detail, particularly in its discussion of the damaged Columbia Space Shuttle in 2003.

Yet Tufte is not just a demolitionist. The essay also discusses how presentations can be improved without PowerPoint and briefly discusses the (rather limited) kinds of presentation that PowerPoint is suited to. Teachers might wish to consider these arguments when deciding how to admit PP to their classrooms. For my part it is a grudging admission: the darkened rooms; the seemingly endless lists read off from the screen; the banality; the tedium, the inevitable delays for plugging in, fixing, and rebooting; the lack of contact with the speaker, who minds his slides more than his audience, the “dreaded build sequences”—all these are problems that simply wouldn’t occur in a well-delivered speech accompanied by a handout of tables and pictures to be examined by the audience at need. I wish we could abandon the little pots of excrement entirely.

* * *

BBC reports that schools in Hong Kong and Shanghai are going from strength to strength as their students score among the best in the world on the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests. While Hong Kong’s per capita GDP is among the world’s top ten in the IMF rankings, Shanghai, though also a highly prosperous city, is part of a country placed 94th in that same ranking, and its PISA rating is high even though more than 50% of its students are from the families of poor migrant laborers[2]. Shanghai abandoned its system of showcase schools and decided it would try to bring the “showcase” to all its schools. It will be really interesting to see how this exciting endeavor plays out.

Meanwhile, I thought you might be interested in a few of my own observations of schooling in Hong Kong based on what I have seen while teaching there.

The city spends more than a fifth of its “national” budget on education.

It recruits most of its teachers from the top 30% of university graduates. (The US recruits most of its teachers from the bottom 30%.)

Good-natured raillery does not seem to descend into bullying very often  in this part of the world. One day a 10th-grade student of mine finished his seat work early and took out his Kindle. When I asked him what he was reading, he said, “The Wealth of Nations.” I asked him what he thought of Adam Smith. “He is a better writer than Karl Marx,” the student, a Marxist, replied. Earlier that week he dealt with the heat by fanning himself with a traditional folding fan that he carried with him. Did his classmates give him guff because he is a Communist who reads economics on his Kindle in his spare time and fans himself with a decorated folding fan? No.

As the BBC article points out, though most Chinese parents are not “tiger mothers,” most repose a great deal of faith and respect in education.

It is not unusual for Hong Kong students to bow to their teachers out of respect. By contrast, during my first year of teaching, in California, a student told me “F*** you” with impunity. I don’t need the bows—incense will do—but think of what kind of teachers will stay in a system where they are cursed by their students, humiliated by their administrators, and vilified by their politicians; and compare them to the kind of teachers that stay on in a system and culture that respect them.

Hong Kong is the only city I have heard of with celebrity tutors, some of whom even start franchises for after-school lessons. You can see their billboards around town. Most Hong Kong students who can afford tutors have them.

Though Hong Kong’s students have a life in which school figures highly, most of them do not seem driven, despondent, or gaunt with overwork. The same kinds of shouts and glee ring across the schoolyard there as in any American schoolyards, but the playing stops at the classroom door. And, yes, there is even (a modicum of) chatter and laughter behind that door, though there are predominantly other things too. The point is that, if as a result of their attending to their studies they were to be told to “get a life” (which would never happen in Hong Kong), they would puzzle over what was meant, for they have a life, and study is in it.


[1] It referred to an incident reported by D. H. Lawrence during his stay in Mexico, but some gems can survive a change of settings.

[2] Though it is true that most migrant cohorts comprise students not yet old enough to take the PISA tests.



Late Great Teachers

The death of Professor Piero Weiss, a concert pianist and gifted teacher, at the age of 83 saddened me and sent me back in time. My college required (and still requires) its students to take a class that surveys Western music from plainsong to the 20th Century. I was officially enrolled in another teacher’s section of that class. The other teacher, now at Bard College, was good and enthusiastic; and I credit him with opening my ears to Mozart. But my classmates enrolled in Professor Weiss’s class kept praising him and inviting me to audit his lessons.

I found, when I started auditing, that my classmates had not oversold him. He often set the classroom aroar, whether with laughter at his bone-dry jokes delivered with a George-Burnsian cigar in hand or with applause at his wonderful “examples” played on the classroom’s “not altogether satisfactory” piano. He opened my ears to Schubert, his favorite composer, and propelled me through Carnegie Hall to a lifelong appreciation of a great pianist, the recently retired Alfred Brendel.

William James in his Talks to Teachers reads from Charles Darwin that he had a great regret in life: he had not spent more time “listening to music and looking at pictures” because of these activities’ beneficial effects, of which he felt deprived. I have been fortunate both to live much of my life in places with music nearby and to have had my interest in listening to music kindled by teachers like Professor Weiss. We must therefore also regret the passing of music education, whether in playing or in appreciation, at so many schools.

We must simultaneously and I think with a degree of anger deplore the movement in education towards teaching software, which along with everything else that is happening to schools across the United States is lessening students’ chances of learning at the feet of a superb teacher. The anger that inflames this regret is due to the wish of companies selling the software to make a profit even if their “products” do not do any better than a traditional textbook taught by a live teacher, and to ignore or misrepresent the evidence of these unspectacular results.

And, according to a New York Times article published yesterday, that is just what the Education Department’s What Works Clearinghouse has determined in its analysis of studies of various brands of software’s effectiveness. It turns out that most of the studies finding a benefit in teaching software have not been conducted under properly rigorous protocols. What is more, the software being sold costs in some cases three times as much as the textbooks it is meant to replace.

To judge by the extract from a mechanized math lesson in the Times, the software might have some value in the remedial instruction of students who lack the basics, and I would like to see the results of some studies done to assess its helpfulness in those circumstances. But it’s hard to see how such elementary material will help any students get airborne, much less soar.

It is also hard to see how schools whose IT resources are underfunded, scrappy, and unreliable will be able to run complex and sophisticated programs for large numbers of students. Better to leave instruction in the hands of experienced teachers with their “perpetual discretion” (and their cigars) than in an IT system with down syndrome. That is, of course, if all the concomitant cutting of teachers’ pay and benefits does not reduce them to the level where the only people that can be hired as teachers are, as Richard Hofstadter put it, “drifters and misfits.”