Slipping in the Egregious Vocables

If someone told you that a counterfeiter should be pardoned because he was clever enough to make 20s that fooled a change machine the speaker had designed, you would be right to start laughing—or to check your pocket to see that your wallet was still in it before he left the room.  I’m torn, then, between laughter and looking for my wallet when I read a report that the makers of the e-Rater essay grading machine think students capable of gaming it are demonstrating higher-level thinking anyway, and so should be allowed a pass.

For it turns out that the machine can be gamed, though a thoughtful person could have anticipated the game. A critic might have guessed that a problem would crop up in the manufacturer’s substitution of inane machine-gradable proxy values for the human power of recognizing, let us say, stylish complexity or depth, which a good essay might be expected to have. The proxy values reward no such thing, for they can’t detect it. Instead, they reward long sentences, big words, and five-sentence paragraphs, which good writing has, except when it hasn’t.

To see a different but related example of the problem of proxy values in rating, you can substitute for an e-Rater your computer’s Flesch-Kincaid Readability Tool and experience how it can misgrade the readability of a piece of writing. If you download Shakespeare’s Sonnet LX (“Like as the waves make towards the pebbl’d shore”) and scan it with F-K, you will “find” that it gives the sonnet a 2nd-grade “readability.” To test the value of that “judgment,” go ahead and share the poem with your second graders and see how long the discussion lasts.

The marking machine also has a tin ear and is a sucker for lies, as we might have expected. If presented the five samples of awful writing that open George Orwell’s “Politics and the English language,” it would probably pass them. Hence, sentences like this one by Lancelot Hogben

Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes such egregious collocations of vocables as the basic put up with for tolerate or put at a loss for bewilder.

would get a pass even though Orwell’s dismissal of it has become justly famous: “He is playing ducks and drakes with a battery that can write prescriptions.”

Les Perelman, a director of writing at MIT, reports that he has had some other revealing fun with the e-Rater and can now offer advice on how to fool it. Since e-Rater prefers big words, he says, he advises gamers to use “egregious” rather than “bad” as Hogben does (though Hogben’s sample is a rich lode of other fool’s gold too). He also says you can write nonsense so long as it “looks” as if it has been written well. He argued in one top-scored essay that universities are going broke because they overpay their teaching assistants, who go off on private jets to South Seas holidays. Who knows? It might even pass an essay claiming that Joel Klein respects teachers or that No Child Left Behind leaves no child behind.





I recently had a wonderful letter from a former student who had graduated magna cum laude from her university. A remarkable student, she avidly learned English, which was not her native language, and she did very well in Theory of Knowledge, which was not in her “comfort zone,” as she put it. Nonetheless, she said that her English and ToK studies still have “resonating effects” on her.

I mention this not because I revel in incense-burning by former students (though incense is pleasantly fragrant) but because my former student went to Penn’s Wharton School, where she undertook a double major in finance and computer science engineering. This is not the first time I have had a good word come back to me from a business student about studying Theory of Knowledge, and I think it illustrates some important features of good education. They are in danger of being forgotten in a public rhetoric that focuses on narrow results, narrow measures of accountability, and impersonality in how learning is “delivered.”

The effects of a good education on a receptive student are long-lasting, dynamic, varied, and hard to predict—or to “measure.” We should not disparage the transfer effect. Indeed, we had better trust it, for it is of vital importance in a world both where education matters and where things change rapidly. I have argued that the study of literature and of the work of first-rate thinkers who are also good writers can be like an ideal conversation, which is not just entertaining but also beneficial and educative. My own undergraduate education has lasted nearly forty-five years, for I rarely spend a week when I don’t go back in some significant way to the terrain that I first scouted in college. It was bigger than I thought. My former student says, “I continue to value philosophy, and I continue to look forward to challenges rather than staying in comfort zones.” She will do well not because reading Hardy, James, or St. Anselm was relevant or irrelevant to finance and computer engineering but because the liberal education of which they were a part made possible a capacity and plasticity of intellect that allowed her to absorb and understand disparate material and to make sense of a young life that has been intense and varied.

It should then be obvious that there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in value added metrics. I hate to beat a horse that should have a death certificate pinned on its decaying rump, but there are a lot of people that keep carrying the corpse around and acting as if riding it will get us somewhere. The reason to despise VAM (and their agents GERM, NCLB and RAT) is not that teachers’ unions are against them, but that they are empty measurements and don’t get at what education is about or what seems to trouble it in much of the U. S. I am not going to review all the arguments that have been made (those interested may thumb through my past postings, visit Diane Ravitch’s website, or read articles by the New York Times reporter Michael Winerip), but it is disheartening, after studying these arguments and finding them persuasive, to discover that noted columnists are still rallying around this zombie warhorse. It is simply impossible to credit, as one of them does, the value of “discovering” what ails university education by testing entering freshmen and emerging sophomores to find out how good they are at buying airplanes[1]! My former student would consider it absurd. She had other things to do than be a make-believe purchasing agent in order to see whether her professors were “delivering” value for money.

There is something valuable—I would say essential—in the personal ties that make good teaching and learning possible, whether in high school or in college. These ties, shaped by feeling and by the conventions of the student-teacher relationship in a culture where education is valued, are overlooked in the current quality hubbub. Though it is hard to say just what the signs of such ties should be, I instance a few examples. I have mentioned students who write or return to school to thank their teachers.  Teachers also receive notes from students thanking them for writing college recommendations or conducting interviews for admission to a university. In some places it is traditional to give presents of nominal value to teachers. In China I have seen Teachers’ Day cards.  Richard Lanham in his Handlist of Rhetorical Terms notes a kind of composition called padeuteria, a poem originating in ancient Greece thanking a teacher for what the writer has learned, or thanking God for teachers. Professor Lanham says drily of this kind of composition that it is a “genre which has often suffered from neglect.” If you look up this word in an American dictionary, you will not find it. That may tell us more than value-added metrics.

[1] Read this article by Louis Menand in The New Yorker, which discusses not just the value of airplane purchasing but also the value of university education.



A Good Workshop

Sometimes a small experience can tell us about a big picture. That is one of the lessons of a superb three-day workshop I just concluded, though another lesson is notable too. It is that a good workshop can do wonders for one’s professional development. I say that who have survived some really dreadful workshops in which not only did I learn nothing, but I came away a dispirited or angry teacher: Someone spent good money and I spent my precious time for that?

But the workshop I just attended left me a sense of accomplishment and learning rather than that unfortunately familiar feeling we often get after a conference—something like the feeling a mark gets after being bilked in a confidence game. But this was no confidence game; it was solid throughout. How did it happen? What do I conclude from it?

It took place in a country that has been working hard and successfully for a number of years to improve the quality of its teachers, though many of my classmates, highly experienced teachers, were also eminently qualified. Note 1: the participants in a good workshop, though not omniscient, are experts in their profession, and are treated as such.

The participants had given up three days of their Easter holiday and expected something solid in return for time lost. Note 2: A good teacher gives precious time and in return expects precious learning and experience. Note 3: A good workshop leader anticipates high professional expectations and sets out to meet them.

The material being covered, the new English A Literature course of the International Baccalaureate program, was developed over a period of years in a truly collaborative effort embracing specialists and classroom teachers as genuine partners rather than handed down by ukase. In Finland this would be the standard procedure since its teachers are seen as respected and knowledgeable professionals and are expected as a matter of course to develop and shape the curricula they teach. One of the main participants in the development of this course was our presenter, a working classroom teacher. Note 4: Good workshops are connected to good programs. Note 5: Good programs are the result of collaboration among professional equals, not the result of imposition by managers unconnected with the classroom.

I couldn’t help contrasting this workshop with those at the last teachers’ conference I attended. At that conference no working teachers gave workshops; neither I nor my colleagues carried away anything particularly memorable or applicable to our work lives. Note 6: Good workshops for teachers are led by teachers.

The workshop was live and required constant face-to-face collaboration among the participants in real time. I had recently experienced an on-line workshop in another course with a world-famous expert in that course. She was good, but I got much, much less out of three weeks of clicking and tapping and strands and pages than I did out of three days of genuine meetings. Note 7: Good workshops (and indeed good courses everywhere that demand more than the simplest grunt-work) are live, not on line.

The work that took place at the workshop bore directly on the classrooms in which the English A Literature course would actually be taught and was intended to help teachers succeed in teaching that course. Note 8: A good workshop has a specific focus on particular knowledge and understanding, and it seeks particular results in a particular place: the classroom.

The English A Literature course has specific criteria for success (and, yes, failure). The participants in this workshop looked at actual essays and listened to actual oral presentations with the aim of understanding and applying the criteria of success to those “performances.” After marking them we discussed each one thoroughly, criterion by criterion. Note 9: A good workshop discussing “quality” and standards must explicitly and thoroughly treat those standards in live and collaborative ways.

The workshop presenter, one of the two or three best I have ever seen, constantly referred his own remarks and ours back to his own classroom experience and ours. The laboratory, the experimental classroom, and the showroom never entered his discussion or ours. Neither did any “technology,” gadget, or software except in connection with solving particular classroom problems. He was not a promoter or a pitchman for a system, a theory, or a product. Note 10: The originators, promoters, and marketers of particular theories, software, and products should be banned from workshops because workshops are not Tupperware parties. Note 11: The best way to communicate workable innovation is through natural word of mouth untainted by “tipping-point vanguards” and other marketing tools. Note 12: Branding and marketing have no business in education. “Representatives” of commercial enterprises should be turned away at the door.

The presenter spoke ordinary English that was remarkably free of jargon, except the course’s necessary terms of art, which teachers had already internalized. Note 13: Ordinary language is an extraordinary joy, but a necessary one. Note 14: Surely teachers who expect their students to know and speak good English may expect their workshop leaders to do so as well.

My school’s I. B. Coordinator approved my participation in this workshop because he supports his teachers’ needs and wants them to do their best. He did not approve it because he thought I would like to take a trip. Note 15: Good workshops have participants who attend workshops for the right reasons and are supported wholeheartedly by their schools’ administration.




Holiday Reprise: The Class of a Thousand Spaces

One of my more popular postings appeared exactly eighteen months ago. For the holiday I offer it again here.

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.