Plain Speaking from Jane Eyre Redux

About a year ago I made the following posting. I’ve touched it up a bit: it speaks to some concerns I’ve addressed in recent postings, so I thought it would be worth reposting.

[Adèle] was a lively child, who had been spoilt and indulged, and therefore was sometimes wayward; but as she was committed entirely to my care, and no injudicious interference from any quarter ever thwarted my plans for her improvement, she soon forgot her little freaks, and became obedient and teachable.  She had no great talents, no marked traits of character, no peculiar development of feeling or taste which raised her one inch above the ordinary level of childhood; but neither had she any deficiency or vice which sunk her below it.  She made reasonable progress, entertained for me a vivacious, though perhaps not very profound, affection; and by her simplicity, gay prattle, and efforts to please, inspired me, in return, with a degree of attachment sufficient to make us both content in each other’s society.

This, par parenthèse, will be thought cool language by persons who entertain solemn doctrines about the angelic nature of children, and the duty of those charged with their education to conceive for them an idolatrous devotion: but I am not writing to flatter parental egotism, to echo cant, or prop up humbug; I am merely telling the truth.  I felt a conscientious solicitude for Adèle’s welfare and progress, and a quiet liking for her little self…

Jane Eyre, Chapter XII


Today’s guest writer was a first-rate novelist, and her words are instructive because she also happened to have been a teacher. The extract from Charlotte Brontë goes back to the 1840s, long before even Teachers College was founded, but it is worth a second look for what it says about perennial conditions of teaching and learning and about discourse on education.

Brontë spent a number of years as a schoolteacher and a governess, the experience of which gave her an understanding and clarity of thought about education that she shows in what she says about her pupil and “herself,” if we may call Jane that; for Jane, like Brontë, was earnest, grave, and reserved. Let us take a look at her observations and conclusions.

We see first of all that Adèle had to accept Jane’s authority and give up her waywardness and “little freaks.” Given Brontë’s own (brief) experience in an abusive school, we may be sure that Jane would not have wanted to impose an abusive regime on Adèle, but merely to insist on a certain tractability or readiness to meet her governess’s reasonable expectations in order to become “obedient and teachable.”

What expectation did Jane have of Adèle? Not that she “achieve proficiency” in her subjects; not that she engage in “mastery learning;” not that she become a Baby Einstein: no, Jane expected her to make “reasonable progress.” There was no question of saddling with unreasonable expectations a girl whom we in a modern mathematical metaphor would call “average,” a word Brontë would not have considered using. Nor, we feel, would Jane have let Adèle get by with work below her capacity.

Finally, Jane had an expectation of reciprocal regard and care: that Adèle would entertain a “vivacious, if not very profund, affection” for her; she, in turn, became attached enough that the two of them could be content in each other’s company. At a school where I taught, the governing emotion was said to be “unconditional love.” That seems too extravagant to be normative, but some kind of emotional tie must exist between teacher and pupil.

These seem like reasonable goals for an ordinary pupil, but they would have to maintain their integrity against five ways of thinking inimical to good teaching and learning, which Brontë names (I give them here in her order):

1.  Thinking that children have “angelic natures.” We may reject St. Augustine’s belief that children in their natural state deserve damnation[1] and yet still have some reservation about how naturally good they are[2]. This reservation is a basis of our rationalizing and justifying punishment or correction, and it helps any good teacher keep a weather eye out for trouble.

2.  Conceiving an “idolatrous devotion” to one’s children or pupils. We have in this kind of mistake the starting-point of much mischief, including what some educational psychologists call the “permissive-indulgent” style of child-rearing or teaching.

3.  Flattering parental egotism. Given the difficulty of letting down a parent who thinks Junior walks on water, leaps tall buildings, and understands string theory, the alternative has a certain attractive but dangerous appeal. Three dangers lurk in it: The parent is abetted in forming unrealistic expectations of Junior, which he or she then sometimes expects the teacher to abet with or without justification; the school is suborned in various kinds of academic fakery; and the teacher is accustomed to misrepresentation of Junior’s accomplishments. All teachers, but not all parents, recognize the first danger. Of the second we may instance cases of schools’ offering “accelerated courses” to students who can’t handle them because parents demand them. Of course the jig is up when, say, the AP test scores come back and 40% of the students taking the test get a 1 or 2. But forces other than just parental egotism lead to such impostures, so we should not just blame parents—or our attitude towards parents—for them. But teachers (and their administrators!) should find ways to keep these dangers from becoming real by giving honest assessments tempered by humanity.

4. Echoing cant[3]. This old-fashioned but excellent word refers to a kind of baloney all too common in the Ed Biz when The Biz is not echoing nonsense. A good example would be the way that Jerome Bruner’s thinking was (over)simplified or misrepresented to justify “mastery learning” and in doing so to put an onus on the teachers, some of whom did not have, and should not have been expected to have, the nimbleness of conception necessary to adapt singlehandedly a structure of learning to the developmental needs of dozens or hundreds of pupils. The basis for this onus was the cant expression that any subject can be made teachable to any pupil at any stage of development, a manifestly false position.

5. Propping up humbug. It’s too bad that the only person to use this word besides Jane is Scrooge, for humbug is forever, though its details may change from time to time. But humbug becomes dangerous when it is made into law. What else are No Child Left Behind’s demands for “proficiency” and penalties for poor performance on “value-added learning” tests than a gigantic prop to humbug? What else are the breaches of Campbell’s Law in corrupt school districts that we have read about in the last two years?

To these five ways of thinking Brontë offers five antidotes: reciprocity, attachment, expectation of reasonable progress, telling the truth, and conscientious solicitude for students. To me it is no contest.


[1] St. Augustine could be severe, or dark-humored. To a questioner who asked him what God was doing before he created the heavens and the earth, he answered, “He was creating hell for people who ask foolish questions.”

[2] Thus my colleague the geography teacher had a small lidded earthenware pot near his classroom door labeled “ASHES OF TROUBLESOME STUDENTS.”

[3] the expression or repetition of conventional, trite, or unconsidered ideas, opinions, or sentiments; especially : the insincere use of pious phraseology. “cant.” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. (16 Jul. 2011).



Whim of Iron, Path of Hare

Have you been following the whirligig in which the University of Virginia’s president was fired and then reinstated sixteen days later? Fans of Edbiz horror shows are having a field day, but one serious issue (among many) comes to mind. This is the first time in my experience, either direct or by report, that an official “educational leader” or body of them (UVa’s Board of Visitors) ever admitted making a mistake and then immediately attempted to rectify it. Consider their actions in contrast with those of the Feds concerning No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. NCLB is a clearly failed scheme, hence the widespread waivers to its requirements. RAT is starting to show its stinky stuff too, with good teachers being fired and good programs impugned as a result of its irremediably flawed “metrics” and sanctions. Meanwhile, the lousy schools and programs stay that way[1], and no one is saying “sorry.” No one ever does, or at best the exception proves the rule.

The etiology of this organizational sickness is not hard to determine, and we can begin by looking at UVa. By all accounts the reinstated President, Teresa Sullivan, understood the way a university works and is best run. It does not work like a business because it isn’t one, and it shouldn’t be run that way. Ideas and education are not products, and teaching in many of its important fundamentals is not a process, for understanding doesn’t proceed, it occurs. Scholarship is more artisanal than industrial or bureaucratic—or is when not mediocre.

The good educational leader knows how to nudge things along and treats her school or college like the organism it is. Organic change takes time, and the governance of that change proceeds in line with the Burkean prescription for change by “insensible degrees.” This includes change in the structure of the organism as well as in its purpose and methods. If something doesn’t fly, it doesn’t fly.

The alternative “principles” are to be found in certain political systems and in many contemporary education and business organizations. Many  educators or leaders govern in accordance with these “principles” of management:

1.   Have one set of visionary and enabling principles set unilaterally by the “educational leader” or the other managers/administrators and propagated without substantive discussion.

2.   Do not admit when these principles are wrong, or permit any public admission. If disaster looms, change the principles quietly, issue waivers, or blame misguided predecessors.

3.   Propagandize, advertise, or market rather than achieve an equilibrium of quality.

4.   Do not tolerate dissensus, or what are sometimes miscalled “philosophical differences.”

5.   When a hundred flowers bloom, cut them down. Accept only approved species in approved “gardens.”

6.   Root out deviationists, I mean terminate the contracts of those with whom one has “philosophical differences.”

7.   When someone finds a problem in the approved way of doing things, get rid of her. “No man, no problem,” as one manager said after making a tough management decision.

The supposed rationale for upholding these principles is that those in charge have been proved by experience and intelligence to be capable of leading, and that their “leadership” should not be impeded by pesky qualms and second thoughts. The problem is that past experience doesn’t always fit someone to handle present problems (particularly if that experience is in business and the present problems are educational), and many “educational” leaders abandon intelligence in favor of thought-clichés. In an organization using top-down management, there is no reliable way check the propagation of troublesome “ideas” or their rigorous enforcement. By contrast, an organization that is comfortable proceeding along open lines by insensible degrees can recognize and avoid large and fatal mistakes; and in an environment with real give-and-take, a leader can be given the advice that he or she needs.

An illustration of management along the less desirable lines given above is the incipient hare-brained stampede of educational organizations towards “on-line” education even though there are good reasons to doubt its effectiveness in place of education in situ[2]. Some of the stampeding herd hear “Harvard” and start pawing the ground with their hooves; others are on the run towards education on the cheap. The accounts I’ve read of Sullivan’s ouster suggest that some Board bison were spooked by the idea that UVa would plod like a tortoise behind its quick-footed betters and lose the race, whatever it is. All the principles of management discussed above then came into force as a singularly bad decision came down.

The good news is that the Board of Visitors reversed itself. The bad news is that it was news.

[1] Compare, for example, PISA test scores from 2001 with those most recently released. Other evidence is available too.

[2] Something that Harvard, MIT, and Stanford recognize in the status of their recently devised online offerings as not carrying credit or being associated with any programs in which a student can matriculate.


Do You Believe in Magic?

Here it is mid-July, and I am getting emails from students whose Extended Essays I’m sponsoring for the IB diploma. They’re at work on them this summer because they have to complete the 3500-4000-word essays during a senior year filled with other demanding assignments. Senioritis, a disease endemic to the United States, is deadly in any serious academic environment and therefore not an option, nor is leaving everything till the last minute. In the IB program, some last minutes are really terrifying and eventually back-breaking to students who have not found out how to manage their time and marshal their forces effectively. By contrast, students who have paced themselves like long-distance runners break the tape, not their backs. A good high-school education should help the students to find themselves in that position at the last minute.

For that is the only way that they will know how to succeed at any university worthy of the name. The alternative being bruited about is to water down university education so that badly prepared high school students will get Bs in spite of their deficiency. Talk about trout in the milk! High school should be the place where the ability to do sustained work and manage heavy workloads is developed. (And some of it might even start a little earlier, in middle school, to replace beanbags and bedsheets with history and courses like Jungle Gym Math with algebra or other high-school preparation.)

What can be done? A certain amount is in the hands of the teacher, who can give guidance and suggestions or structure the work to include formative assessments and milestones. But teachers who are overwhelmed with large numbers of students are in no position to offer significant mid-course corrections to those that drift. Very often they can barely finish marking the final submissions, which leaves them unable to intervene in the process of writing. If students’ classmates are as inexperienced as the students themselves, little good will come of peer editing: Can a peer be expected to exercise the kind of judgment that experience, knowledge, and understanding confer on a teacher?

And teachers cannot singlehandedly work against academic and social cultures that countenance excuse-making and magical thinking. If it is in the school’s and parents’ blood to tolerate senioritis, a teacher who does not have an extraordinary pedagogical charisma will be able to do little. If all but a few “responsible” adults in a school and at home are winking and nodding at Junior while he goofs off, the odd teacher who disapproves will injure only himself by doing so.

The school that tries to buck the prevailing culture in which it finds itself will fare no better. Imagine a school in the Land of Magical Thinking deciding that to combat senioritis, it would send second-semester transcripts to its seniors’ chosen colleges whether or not it was asked to do so. Not much imagination is needed to figure out the consequences. Nor would it help that some of the colleges would do nothing when presented with the transcript of a disastrous second semester.

Something large-scale is needed for such schools. Meanwhile, we must preserve expectations and standards of care and diligence in places that still have them.



Paris or Bust

Chinese education is often reported in the U.S. as a system “that stresses memorization over thinking and creativity.” While that stereotype has some truth to it, it is also in some ways wrong. We could also say that the system stresses getting results as opposed to leaving its graduates functional illiterates who cannot study at the college level. Shanghai is really trying to extend its schools’ ambit of effectiveness even to the city’s poorest residents, and such inclusiveness has not kept Shanghai from scoring at the top of the world in the PISA tests.

Hong Kong’s schools also do well on PISA, though it has an education system different from the rest of China’s, and has just modified that system to adopt its New Senior Secondary (NSS) curriculum. Onlookers familiar with international curricula have noted a resemblance to the International Baccalaureate curriculum, which certainly does not rely on memorization over thinking and creativity. One example will suffice to make this point, though many others might be instanced. In the English courses 20% of the final grade depends on an essay analyzing a prose passage or a poem that the candidate has never seen before, and no part of the grade is based on a multiple-choice test. 30% of the grade depends on oral work, including a rather demanding extemporaneous commentary on a literary passage.

In addition to public and private schools, Hong Kong has a third category, called Direct Subsidy Schools (DSS), which receive public money even though they are private. In return for that money, the schools offer the NSS curriculum to most of their students, who take the city’s school-leaving tests in their senior year. They may also offer the IB curriculum as an alternative to NSS.

If the IB curriculum stresses thinking and creativity in addition to prescribed knowledge, then a student body that did well on its tests would probably count as reasonably creative and thoughtful. What are we to say, then, about a Direct Subsidy School of my acquaintance, given the IB results of its first cohort to try for the Diploma? On its first endeavor, this semi-public school got an average score of 38 out of 45, placing it in the 92nd percentile of worldwide results. More remarkable was its average score of more than 6 out of 7 in English, which almost every student there speaks as a second language. The picture of education in China may be more complex than the newspapers are letting on if such IB results and PISA scores mean anything. They certainly suggest that the students at this semi-public school are thinking and creating just fine, and that the city knows its educational business.

Meanwhile, in the US, No Child Left Behind is being left behind. As usual, the replacement “strategy,” called RAce to the Top, is being highly touted. But NCLB or RAT, not much seems to change. The dismal statistics continue, leaving all the Edbiz press releases sounding ominously like the military bulletins in the Proust novel, announcing French victories closer and closer to Paris.