Bringing Up Cookie Monster

To the dictum that the four basic food groups are sugar, salt, fat, and alcohol we may add a zesty youthful ramification: they are cookies, crispies, cola, and combos. As a young boy my nephew preferred carrot sticks to cookies, but statistics are laid down for our guidance, and the “norm” will help explain the extraordinary results of the famous Mischel Oreo Experiment[1].

In it the four-year-old experimental subject sat at a table in a mostly empty room facing a single Oreo cookie and a bell on the table. The subject was to remain seated and wait fifteen minutes after the experimenter left the room in order to receive two Oreos but could ring the bell at any time to receive one Oreo. The experiment ended after fifteen minutes, or whenever the subject rang the bell, ate the Oreo, or stood up.

But the Oreo Experiment was also a longitudinal study that yielded fascinating results: the “resisters”—that is, the subjects who got two Oreos—turned out ten years later to have better ability to “reallocate their attention effectively” and showed “greater executive control.” That should not be a surprise, but consider a third finding: the resisters also had “substantially higher scores on tests of intelligence.”

What does self-control have to do with intelligence? Kahneman reports that Keith Stanovich, who established many of the distinctions in thinking used by Kahneman, divides thinking broadly into two types: the intuitive, rapid sort that saves one from leopards on the savannah and also saves one the time of deliberation; and a second, more deliberative kind. This second kind, which turns out to operate as a kind of back-up system or check on the intuitive, rapid thinking, itself is divisible in two.

The first we might simply call brain power or, following Stanovich, “algorithmic” intelligence—the kind usually measured on traditional intelligence tests. The second is what Kahneman calls “engagement”: the power of attending to a problem rationally or algorithmically so as to minimize the susceptibility to “cognitive errors” that our intuitive thinking leaves us open to.

This power confers an evident advantage, according to Kahneman and Stanovich. One’s intuitive thinking tells one that an Oreo is good; one’s algorithmic thinking tells one that two Oreos are therefore better; but one’s engagement with the Oreo Problem allows one to accept the cognitive challenge of getting that second Oreo.

Now, our intuitive thinking, according to Kahneman, is our preferred way of thought. There is physical and neurological evidence that deliberative thinking is more difficult, exhausting, and stressful. When possible we prefer to loaf at ease and invite our souls to cognition and leopard-looking.

The problem for education is obviously that the harder kind of thinking, as well as the ability to marshal attention that must go with it, takes a discipline that I would say must be practiced. Hence the French custom of making children wait to have their wishes gratified. Hence also our own setting of tasks in school that require not just brain power but sustained engagement for their successful completion:

  • Math problems that require inventive and elaborate work, and that require the work to be shown
  • Essays that require a balancing of factual detail and the control of ideas in a coherent exposition
  • Projects that require recurring systematic deliberate attention
  • Theses that require the gathering and interpreting of evidence in the laboratory, library, or field
  • Discussions that require thoughtful answers to questions, and whose answers will in Socratic fashion be the object of further questioning
  • Writing, including “creative” writing, that requires multiple outlines and/or drafts
  • Games that require thinking “down the road” as well as for current perplexities and challenges.
  • Homework that lasts longer than the Homework Lady requires, during which the student foregoes electronic distraction

If we don’t have these things; if, instead, we have had problems and homework that take seconds, essays written once on auto pilot, inane projects, unchallenging discussions, theses that are daisy chains of quotation and plagiarism, multiple-choice tests requiring only recall and pointing to pass, and games requiring the attention-span of a grasshopper and the strategic skills of Beetle Bailey; what kind of young adults will we end up producing?

[1] I draw my account from Thinking, Fast and Slow by the Nobel Economics Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, p. 46. Though this book is worth reading for its insights into cognition, it is also a charming book because of its remarkable generosity and accessibility that nonetheless do not sacrifice rigor and learning. At a recent faculty meeting I also saw a video of the Oreo Experiment in progress. You can see one, too, by Googling “Oreo experiment.”



Toast of Professions

While it was interesting and chilling to read about “doctor burnout” recently in The New York Times, I found myself wondering why the Times doesn’t run a prominent article on “teacher burnout.” The problem is serious: Diane Ravitch reports that 1) most teachers don’t last five years in the profession and 2) the “modal year” of teaching—the year of experience with the highest number of teachers—is, amazingly, year one. When I was in high school, the modal year was year fifteen. Something bad has happened, and not enough people have noticed.

Who can explain these things? Orwell tried, in his travel essay “Marrakech,” to identify and discuss the phenomenon he called “invisibility”: conditions of work or life offensive to decent people overlooked through a kind of blindness among onlookers—including those with an interest in not changing the offensive conditions, but also among those who simply want to get on and not bother themselves. The current anger aimed at unionized teachers is an opposite phenomenon. These teachers, who through unionizing have ensured that they cannot be dismissed without due process, cannot be assigned extra duties without receiving extra pay, must receive good medical treatment if sick, and must work in physically decent conditions, arouse the resentment of their fellow-citizens who are not unionized and do not have those protections. A third cause would be “educational leaders” who like Chairman Mao are always off on a Great Leap Forward or a Cultural Revolution, leaving ruins and widespread demoralization in their wake. Reading Edgar Snow’s biographical chapters of the young Mao suggests that he—and, I think, people like him—have a psychological predilection for chasing schemes: young Mao went from one questionable educational plan to the next, taking each one up enthusiastically in turn, and then dropping it like a bad habit. The child was father of the man. A fourth, evident by contrast with the working conditions of Finnish teachers, is a culture and bureaucracy of mistrust and contempt that asks continual proof, justification, verification—a bit like those doctors who, after years of professional preparation and guidance under the care of mentors are nipped at by office terriers whose job is to mistrust and second-guess their professional judgment, keeping them “in line.” What line?

But those years of a doctor’s training suggest two big differences between him and many teachers: the teachers are often inadequately prepared and then mistrusted for the work they have not been trained to do. Look again at Finland, where teacher education courses are competitive and extremely thorough, and whose graduates receive the trust of their administrators and their politicians. The fifth cause of burnout must then be poor training and poor administrative support.

Anyone who has read these postings knows that Value Added Metrics are a bizarre, counterproductive system of unreal mechanisms that result in throwing out babies with bathwater. Even their supporters in “research” admit that there are no visible, verifiable things teachers can learn to do in order to influence their value-added ratings. We have seen the goofiness of judging physical education students’ “value added” by giving them English tests, leading their teachers to have them play English games, just what they entered physical education to do. Imagine the demoralization in knowing that without any recourse, training, or counseling, you might be judged “ineffective” and fired. Some of my readers probably don’t need to imagine it.

Finally, it must be said that at many schools in the U. S., combative, assaultive, and rebellious conduct by students and parents is protected, often by the same administrators who regret having to protect teachers from arbitrary treatment. Under all these conditions, who would not feel ground down or burned out?

Do a Google search for “teacher burnout” and you will find not a single thing about most of the conditions I have just summarized, but you will find a lot of “research” about how to treat it. The problem is that this shovel-load of solutions is doing nothing to solve the problem. One website gives five ways to reduce burnout. One of them is “push out content in different ways.” This is not helpful to someone who is swamped by the imperative to present content but whose poor training and development keeps him from doing so. Another is “go home!” How helpful, just like those “desiderata” of the sixties advising us to “go placidly amid the noise and haste.” And how futile if the school menaces teachers who do not “give 110%.” A third is “know what you are assessing.” This is a kind of advice easier to give than to take; indeed, it is not advice at all. In a good undergraduate course followed by graduate work in education a teacher would already have learned what he would be assessing. What good can this advice be to a teacher who has been badly prepared? But my favorite is “establish boundaries for your time.” Try that one on your principal and see how far you get.

Actually, any ways that will really avoid burnout will also require a thoroughgoing change in thinking about education in much of the U.S. (not all, thank God). Here are six, all of which I have “done” or experienced at one time or another. Though they may be applicable outside high school, that is where my experience lies.

1.     Receive professional training from practically oriented education programs and master teachers in the field, not in the lab.

2.     Work at a school that limits your load of students to 75.

3.     Work at a school that shows students and parents the door if they are obnoxious, combative, or assaultive.

4.     Avoid a school that is undergoing a Great Leap Forward or espouses Jargon of the Day.

5.     Choose a school whose administrators admire the “business model” of Edwards Deming rather than that of Marshall Stalin. Better yet, choose a school that entirely rejects a business model of education, which is not a business.

6.     Work within school, political, and national cultures that respect teachers.

If that seems like a tall order, then something needs changing.



Reality TV Isn’t Reality; Neither is Fantasy

Though I don’t usually reach beyond the little world of teaching and learning in these postings, a recent non-teaching event attracted my blogger’s attention. I refer to the crash of the most recent X-51 “hypersonic,” i.e., supersonic, aircraft, ending the aircraft’s test flight, though probably not the program. The aircraft is hoped to fly at six times the speed of sound, but of its three tests, two ended in crashes and one in a “flight anomaly,” whatever that is.

What this aircraft has in common with No Child Left Behind is that it is built in fantasyland but crashes in reality. What it has in common with the Federal college loan program is that it is incredibly expensive and enriches those who administer it without doing what it was built to do. What it has in common with both is that it materializes an artificial dream in the cold waking world. I almost said the unforgiving waking world, but the expense of these “dreams”, i.e. marketing schemes and half-baked projects based on dubious “hard data,” is forgiven again and again.

Meanwhile, perfectly serviceable subsonic and slightly supersonic aircraft carry passengers, cargo, and bombs; perfectly good teachers go on teaching without high-tech whiteboards; perfectly good schools go on offering sound programs at plain wooden Harkness tables; and perfectly good state universities offer genuine degrees without the profit motive and jumped-up promotions, I mean admissions, offices.

It is therefore with some hope, mixed with exasperation and suspicion, that I read about a program in Washington to acquaint teachers with their colleagues’ best efforts. I have written a number of times about the importance of watching my inspiring colleagues’ work in forming my own way of teaching, and about the efforts of one school where I worked to have teachers observe and talk with each other. I welcome the chance to observe good teaching and learn from it.

But why, why must we have a shelf of slick videos produced by “a reality television company” as the medium of observation? The eighty videos, five to fifteen minutes in length, were financed by those lovers of bells and whistles at the Gates Foundation. Assuming an average length of ten minutes, we have about thirteen hours of Reality TV produced at a cost of nearly a million dollars. The problem is that Reality TV is of course not reality. These videos are “peppered with quick jump cuts, slick screen labels and a jaunty sound track:” Messrs., Mmes., Misses, & Mss. Holland for Your Teaching Pleasure. Thanks, but I have other plans than to see Plato’s Symposium turned into My Dinner with Socrates.

Some years ago a crew came to my classroom to record my English classes over a period of days for a film they were making. In its finished form it was fascinating but, finally, off-putting as a record of education. We were discussing Moby Dick, and one of the students, a keen and highly articulate boy, offered a splendid extemporaneous firework show in a thesis about Captain Ahab’s motives. The problem was that it was in an important respect wrong-headed, betraying an insufficient understanding of Ahab. The only method of evaluating this understanding live and in a properly formative way was a careful line of Socratic questioning, which would have the added benefit of keeping the class from following their fluent classmate onto an unproductive track. It took some minutes, but my fluent student and I finally reached an agreement that satisfied both of us and left the class also with a clearer understanding. The problem was that the edited version of the movie left out everything except the flashy but wrong-headed statement at the beginning of our dialogue. It was “good TV,” but as an instrument of teacher education it was worthless. Raise your hand if you think you will learn about Socratic questioning with jump cutting and a jaunty sound track, or about teaching music from Mr. Holland.

By contrast, a workshop on Socratic questioning that I offered at a teachers’ conference lasted hours, not minutes, and the way it proceeded much of the time was by my using Socratic techniques during our discussions. The response was favorable. Also by contrast, the Looking for Learning program that my school went through lasted years and involved teachers’ visiting one another’s classrooms for whole lessons and then discussing and writing about them afterwards. No fancy stuff, just pedagogy.

The problem is that one-eyed media are incapable of presenting the full reality of a classroom, just as a Cyclops has no depth perception. (Do you remember how Polyphemus’ thrown rock missed Odysseus’ ship?) I have written about two administrators of my acquaintance who ask a teacher-applicant to teach a lesson, during which one of them watches the teacher and the other, the students. Both of them bring their non-jump-cut perceptions to a discussion of the hiring decision. TV is what Marshall McLuhan called a “cool” medium, and as a result its images are often in need of artificial warming—just what a teacher does not need. Instead, the teacher must be keenly aware of every inch and every pair of eyes in his little space, just as a naturalist sees details in an ecology that escape the TV camera.

What the Washington schools should be doing is spending that million dollars to free up teachers to attend their colleagues’ lessons, or to bus them across town if necessary, and to meet about them afterwards. The Washington schools chancellor had the right idea when she said her aim was to be “very clear about what good teaching looks like.” She must now continue by putting good teaching, not good TV, on offer in her schools, and other people in Washington must leave fantasyland and dreamland when building their programs.



A Bit of Poetry

Holiday time, and time for an extract that has been on my mind this week (with apologies for the mandatory double spacing).

There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,

Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.

For all

That struck the earth,

No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,

Went surely to the cider-apple heap

As of no worth.

—from “After Apple Picking” by Robert Frost



Film Clip Education

“‘We don’t want to know if you can pass multiple-choice tests,’ said Stephanie Wood-Garnett, an assistant commissioner in the New York State Education Department’s office of higher Education. ‘We want to know if you can drive.’” This sensible-sounding bit of seeming practicality was reported last month in connection with New York’s pending adoption of the “Teacher Performance Assessment,” the result of a collaboration between Stanford and Pearson, an “education company.”

Actually, the statement is baloney. To see why, consider what the “Assessment” requires a student teacher to do. The candidate prepares lesson plans and then teaches for a week or so, recording the lessons as he goes along. She then offers a written discussion of what worked well and what didn’t. Finally, he makes an edited ten-minute film clip of the week and submits it. The plans, self-criticism, and film clip are then graded by “evaluators” “trained” by Pearson. After reading this I thought of my first driving examination, which I failed because I could not properly park parallel, which the examiner, present during my test drive, was able to note. The analogous situation to this test would be for me to take my own test drive alone with a recording device, make an edited ten-minute film, and send it to a “trained” “evaluator.” Would my edited film include the parallel parking? All of it? Would my self-criticism include criticism of my reversing while turning? In short, a video clip edited by the person being examined will not tell Ms. Wood-Garnett what she ought to want to know.

(Still, at least Ms. Wood-Garnett knows, or claims to know, that multiple-choice tests demonstrate nothing worth knowing. To prove it, she should persuade her colleagues in the Department to reject “Value-Added Metrics,” which are also based on multiple-choice tests of questionable proxy values. She may also persuade them to mandate conditions of teaching that do not force teachers to rely so heavily on such tests in their classes.)

Ms. Wood-Garnett’s faith in the “Assessment” is seconded by Raymond Pecheone, a “professor of practice” at Stanford, the leader of the office that developed it. He says that the “Assessment” is “very analogous to authentic assessments in other professions, in nursing, in medical residencies, in architecture.” But no, it is not “very” analogous. In a medical residency, a candidate doctor works long hours under the direct supervision of experienced physicians, who advise, correct, encourage, teach, and admonish him all the time. An analogous “residency” would entail the distance marking of a ten-minute tape of a week’s hospital rounds by a “trained evaluator.” Professor Pecheone says the “Assessment” “collect[s] authentic artifacts of teaching that all teachers use on the job.”  Some assessment! Is it teacher education or archaeology? The presence of “artifacts” proves nothing, or next to nothing.

When I cast back to my own teacher training and first year on the job to see what taught me my job, I don’t find lists of lesson plans or packs of papers on which I had written down self-criticism. I had four master teachers during my practicum. One was excellent, one reasonably good, and two useless. The excellent one monitored my work frequently and allowed me to watch him teach. We had frequent discussions of what I had done. During my free periods of the first year of teaching, I visited the classes of the colleagues who had the best reputations for teaching, and I asked colleagues to visit my classes and comment on them. I think a compendium of evaluations by these colleagues (not the useless ones) would be more to the point than a sheaf of papers and a glamour clip, which proves only that teachers can do branding too.

The ostensible reason for implementing the “Teacher Performance Assessment” is that teacher educators can’t be depended on to give rigorous evaluations the way a film-clip “evaluator” working for a profit-making company can. The problem is that similar “Assessments” have already been used on student teachers, and they only “weed out” 1 – 2% of the candidates assessed. Some rigor!

* * * * *

Next week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the start of my teaching career. I had thought of making a posting of it—but no, the best thing to say has already been said by Professor Barzun: “Teaching is a blessing thoroughly disguised.”