Burns Day, Parents’ Day, Bloombergsday: Three Cheers for Real Life

Friday night being Burns Night in Scotland, I told my 12th-graders about it during Friday’s lesson[1]. It was a good example of Kenneth Koch’s dictum that interest precedes understanding: I chose a Youtube clip of a recitation in very broad Scots of “To a Mouse.” The amusement was palpable, for my students could barely understand a word. As I hoped would happen, a few of them whipped out their pads & raised the poem so they could follow along, though the poem is written in somewhat broad Scots too. To one student’s question whether Burns wrote songs, I answered that many of his poems have been set to music, including most famously “Auld Lang Syne.”

It turned out that that student knew more about Burns than I had realized. Over the weekend I had an email from him directing me to some Youtube clips of “A Red, Red Rose.” His favorite, and his classmates’, is of the school’s combined choirs singing it at last year’s Homecoming Concert, accompanied by three soloists from the combined orchestra. The reason it is the favorite is that it was the last school concert conducted by the very popular music director and dean of culture before he became headmaster. My student is in the choir, though he has other accomplishments, too: he is the captain of the cross-country team, and next year he will be enrolling in the Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) program in Oxford.

(I was at that concert, memorable not just for Burns but also because it ended early to allow people to get home before a typhoon made landfall on Hong Kong.)

Yesterday was Parents’ Day at the school, when parents confer with teachers. As is the Chinese practice, the parents, the student, and the teacher meet together. Though the dynamics can vary, the usual approach is for the parents and teacher to come to an understanding with each other and with the student about how things are going and what if anything needs to be done. The parents tend to be supportive of the teacher’s aims, and will often reinforce what the teacher says. (Sometimes the teacher supports the parent’s aims, as I did with one mother, to whose plea that her son be neater and tidier I added my bit. The student took it without sullenness.) It is an excellent way to see how the family dynamic works, which in turn allows the teacher to understand why Junior is the way he is. And it often allows me to find out helpful things. I had been worried that a particular student of mine had some kind of problem with his fine motor coordination affecting his handwriting. Mom & Dad were able to confirm that it had been diagnosed by a doctor, which will make matters simpler if we decide to ask the IB Organization to allow the student to type his exams instead of handwrite them.

And today The New York Times published an article about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s generosity to Johns Hopkins, where he went to college. An undistinguished student in high school, Bloomberg received his fat envelope on the promise of things to come rather than on quantitative measures of value addition. He reports his escape from the “crushing boredom” of high school to an undergraduate program where he felt as if he’d “died and gone to heaven,” a reaction I sympathized with: I sometimes tell my students when I think they are receptive that my own undergraduate career was like being born a second time. Now, Bloomberg’s successes at Johns Hopkins, while they included “a smattering of As,” had more to do with his political and social success as a class leader: president of his class and his fraternity.

What these three days have in common is their location in real life and real interactions among people. It is hard to see how our soon-to-be-Oxonian could have achieved his fondness for Burns from a “functioning learning module.” How could I know as much about my students as I learn from them and their parents while meeting with them? Where would Mayor Bloomberg’s fondness for his alma mater be if instead of a BMOC he had been a BMOLCD?

[1] It always involves reciting and singing Burns, usually after a dinner of haggis, neeps & taddies, and lubricant toasts of whisky.


Virtual Unreality and the Difference between Mist and Fog

Such dutiful chattels are we

That, caught in the digital spree

With the budgets all shrinking,

We give up our thinking

And cheer for the on-line degree.


Apologies to the friend who sent me the original limerick: I reworked it a bit, but the theme is important. My friend, who works at a public institution of higher learning, made the alarming discovery that a sister institution now awards on-line master’s degrees in “instructional science and technology.” In an acronym too good to be true, the program is called MIST. A visit to its web pages will reveal the FOG within, but first we must allow Thomas Kuhn to shed some light.

Kuhn says that scientific knowledge exists within “disciplinary matrices.” I have suggested that this is true not just of science but also of any home base of learning. We must therefore examine not just an offered array of “knowledge” but the matrix in which it is held in order to make full sense of it.

The MIST program’s chief aim is to respond “to the increasing demand for professionals who understand learning theory, instructional design and technology, interactive media, assessment and research.” I immediately wondered where this demand is coming from. In my own twenty-five years of experience teaching, I have not encountered a demand for a “professional” who “understands learning theory.” Nor am I sure what is meant by “understand…research,” which could mean a number of things: know how to conduct successful and useful research, know how to abstract educational concerns from the classroom systematically, know how to help students in their researches, or know how to write a second-rate pseudo-scientific monograph on education and have the patience to read one[1](or the good sense not to).

Another of the program’s aims is to have its participants “construct a functioning learning module using interactive multimedia software, information technology, and media.” Nowhere in this description is it suggested that the participants will actually get real live students to learn something, as how could they in an on-line program without a practicum? In that context, what can “functioning” mean? Powered on?

A hint appears in the program’s summary of its offerings in “assessment and evaluation”: the participants will “develop techniques for judging the performance of instructional delivery.” Well, “instructional delivery” is either a bad metaphor for good teaching, or it is a good metaphor for bad teaching, since good teachers are not Culligan Men. What is more, every experienced teacher knows that sometimes the student does not “accept delivery.” There is also the problem that bad assessment, usually multiple-choice, can manifest the montillation effect, whereby a student scores well on a test of something he doesn’t really understand. If assessment cannot or does not tell the difference between a student and a Chinese Room, we may well ask what good it is.

And then there is the aim of getting participants to “explore and develop real-world methods of assessment through the use of psychometric techniques.” I wonder what real world they have in mind as using psychometric techniques for the assessment of learning. The last time I examined it[2], psychometry measured not learning but psyches. Maybe they want the participants to construct “instruments” for “measuring” “assessment,” but it all seems rather meta, if not futile.

Finally, we have the program’s aim of getting its participants to “conduct…tests” of “instructional and learning management systems.” After reading this, I felt a vague unease that sharpened as I examined the other descriptive material, failing to find in it anything about conducting tests of students. I also wondered what it could mean to be a testable element of an “instructional and learning management system.”

And so we come back to the disciplinary matrix in which this “knowledge” is located. It is an alien place, abstracted from reality and specificity. It seems more concerned with systems than with students and more concerned with technology than with brainpower. Whatever workplaces its graduates will be going to are no workplaces I can recognize as schools. I must therefore ask where the “demand” is coming from that this program is designed to meet. No good answer suggests itself, and bad answers crowd in. Maybe the reality is as “virtual” as the program.

[1] William James, who said that the pioneering research in psychology was done in Germany because “Germans are incapable of boredom,” would be astonished by how this Teutonic power has spread, particularly in the field of education. His Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals is anything but boring, and it is always practically, not theoretically, oriented. Of course, James himself was a classroom teacher, and by all accounts a marvelous one.

[2] None too closely, thank you. I sometimes feel towards psychometry the way Sir Thomas Beecham felt towards Stockhausen. When asked if he had ever conducted Stockhausen, he is said to have replied No, but that he once trod in some.



The recently released publication U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health is an eye-opener for many reasons, not least its findings that American children (and adults) are in worse health than those of other OECD countries. But this is a blog about teaching and learning, so I will focus on its findings about the effect of poor education on health.

Diane Ravitch has long and often argued that children’s health and their education are strongly interconnected. Hence her recommendation that “education” should start with antenatal education and preparation of poor and otherwise disadvantaged mothers, and continue in a public program of pre- and post-K education combined with parental support. But the US Health report gets down to detail:

• In 2006 the life expectancy of 25-year-old American men without a high school diploma was 9.3 years shorter than those with a bachelor’s degree or higher education; the corresponding disparity for women was 8.6 years.

•  Early-childhood education helps shape early childhood development, which in turn shapes readiness for school and ultimate educational attainment.

•  Knowledge, problem-solving skill, and a “sense of control over life circumstances” come with education, and these “psychosocial factors” have been strongly tied to healthful “behaviors.”

•  While some research shows that unhealthful “behaviors” and poor education merely have common antecedents, other evidence supports “causal connection” between education and health. (I suppose that given the way social “science” goes, someone has got to “prove” that people take better care of themselves when they know how to do so, and that I should be grateful for the grunt work. Thank you, grunts!)

Their concluding “Next Steps” include, as recommendations for countering the “social factors” in poor American health, improved education for children and young adults. Readers of these postings know that I have sometimes disparaged “scientific” results that seem to “prove” what everyone already knows, but when “science” and humanity coincide in the important recommendation that poor kids get the care they need, it is worth reporting.

(Who knows? It might raise some of the blame from the teachers of these children, who even now are being disciplined or fired for “value-added ratings” that are due to circumstances beyond their control.)



Self-esteem and Reality

The most startling result in a recent BBC report on “self-esteem” among U.S. college freshmen is that in the last fifty years the proportion of those who think of themselves as “gifted” at writing has increased by half, from 30% to over 45%. This amazing self-estimation coincides with an average SAT I writing score of 488, down slightly over the last six years and undistinguished at any time, particularly in a test that appears to reward length and ignore errors. And other tests can confirm that this groundswell of self-esteem is groundless.

I have been teaching for half those fifty years, and while I have had a number of students who wrote well, I would say that only two of them had outstanding talents for writing. One of them, a West African girl, had lived in the U.S. for a number of years but returned to Africa. The other, a Syrian boy, was fourteen going on fifty. Actually, so was the West African girl, now that I think about it. They were both extraordinarily aware of themselves and of others, having a powerful imagination harnessed to a strong, verifiable sense of reality. They also had a flawless ear.

Unlike Dede and Susu, the students reported on in the BBC article seemed to have a rather weak sense of reality. Jean Twenge, the US psychologist featured in the report, claims that “[w]hat’s really become prevalent over the last two decades is the idea that being highly self-confident—loving yourself, believing in yourself—is the key to success. Now the interesting thing about that belief is it’s widely held, it’s very deeply held, and it’s also untrue.” Another psychologist, Roy Baumeister of Florida State University, notes that while there is often a correlation between high self-esteem and success, he was unable to say which way the causation ran: was it that self-esteem caused success or the other way around?

It may be Baumeister’s scientific duty to be unsure, but my sense of human nature and of the nature of students tells me that success causes self-esteem. Further, a sense of success in accord with reality means achievement at particular things or kinds of thing. And it means genuine success, not the sort of fakery associated with, say, certain writing tests that “certify” bad compositions as good.

The problem with empty or fruitless self-esteem may be that it has no such connection to testable reality and is based on airy claims. Harry Frankfurt in his book On Bullshit investigates the proliferation of BS and thinks that it may be partly due to a retreat from the belief in standards of truth, rightness, and quality to refuge in a kind of sincerity in which personal claims are privileged against testing and questions. The problem with this refuge is that it is preposterous: “As conscious beings we exist only in response to other things, and we cannot know ourselves at all without knowing them.” What is more, “[f]acts about ourselves are not peculiarly solid and resistant to skeptical dissolution” and “[o]ur natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial.” One can only conclude, he says, that “insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit”—as is self-esteem, when based on privileged and untested claims.

What the young people being surveyed should be receiving is not indoctrination in baloney. They should instead be receiving instruction in how to do real things, success at which can lead them to esteem themselves in accordance with a strong, verifiable sense of reality. If they are not as gifted at writing as Dede and Susu, we may still get them to write as well as they can and to recognize their accomplishment realistically. Then, unlike Ben, who can’t tie his shoes but is aiming for Brown, they will judge themselves and their prospects accurately and justly.