May I Please Find Mr V?

In China teachers typically have their work spaces in shared offices rather than in their classrooms. I have written elsewhere about the professional advantage this arrangement confers by making casual meetings among teachers easier. When closeness becomes a bit burden­some, there are ways to find peace and quiet at need; but most teachers do most of their work in the teachers’ offices.

At our school the Upper Division (grades 7 – 12) has three teachers’ offices, of which one is for the I.B. teachers. The first I.B. coordinator, who advised the architect on our educational needs as the building was under design and construction, and who occasionally got the architect to listen to his advice, insisted that there should be an intercom and P.A. system allowing students at the door of the office to ask to see their teachers.

Consequently, teachers work with an ear cocked to hear if students are asking for them. At four times of day—before the Morning Assembly, at recess and lunch, and after school—our office sounds a bit like an airport lobby, the main difference being that someone is actually listening. Outside the door we sometimes find a scrum of students and teachers, though for long talks or privacy, teachers take students to nearby rooms for sit-down meetings. The hubbub usually centers on assignments, upcoming tests and deadlines. Teachers sometimes set up boxes on the umbrella stand at the door so that students may turn in work even if they don’t see the assigning teacher on deadline day, or are working till the last minute (sigh).

My name has been popular on the intercom this week because the 12th-graders are doing their Theory of Knowledge presentations during class and in groups after school and on weekends. The presentations require a degree of abstraction and application that is comparatively new to them, at least in a culminating assessment, hence the questions. The need to adopt a position while balancing it with the judicious consideration of other perspectives on the same “knowledge issue” takes some getting used to. A gratifyingly large number of students are not just going to the internet to download potted talks, but that means that they have questions.

Yesterday I had a rather long talk with one of my 12th-graders. At a couple of points I thought I saw a head peer around the pylon to look in to the room where we were talking, but by the time I turned around, the head was gone. After our talk ended, the mystery head appeared again—this time attached to another one of my students. He has an aversion to speaking before large groups and is nervous presenting to a group of any size, so we had agreed that he would present alone after school. He was absent from class, so I thought he would be at home the whole day; but he showed up for his presentation date after all. The presentation was nervous, but not painful to watch—a minor triumph, if you will.

The obvious lesson of this week’s interactions with my students is that schools and teachers should be arranged or organized so that the possibility for such interaction is great rather than small. But there are a couple of other lessons, too. Every time a student meets a teacher for one of those scrum talks or a meeting in a nearby classroom, he is learning how to conduct himself with another, to shape a discussion, to handle himself socially—and, of course, to learn his lessons. None of this will be available to students at on-line or “virtual” “schools.”

The other lesson must come from an inference drawn from all this contact: that the students are engaged in their work enough to take extra measures to talk to teachers or to nail down their thoughts. I naturally hope that when I meet with students, I make the meetings worth their while. Good for me if I succeed. But much of the success is also due to the students: to their native gifts, their upbringing as engaged young people, the attentiveness they have acquired at home and from their prior academic experiences, their readiness to think through talking, their receptivity to spontaneity of thought. Some success is due to an accession of courage that comes from some imponderable source and gets them over an obstruction that had seemed insurmountable. “Value”- “added” “metrics” take account of none of these things. VAMs say only that if a student answers more multiple choice questions at the end of the year than at the beginning, his teacher is good; if not, not. Some not!



Extrinsic Motivation

One of my Theory of Knowledge students is a highly talented musician, and, as I found out, highly opinionated! Earlier this week I mentioned to him having found some CD “transcriptions” of old 78 and magnetic records of chamber music by Mozart. From his initial facial reaction you’d have thought I’d confessed to a secret vice, but he quickly composed himself and answered that Mozart was too tame and that he preferred Bartok and Shostakovich. Not content to leave things at that, I pressed on, wondering whether there might be room in chamber music for all three.

Here I must digress to say that my high school’s musical ensembles are unusually good—and unusually successful in musical competitions. It helps to explain my student’s next remarks, which I paraphrase: Bartok and Shostakovich let an ensemble show what it can do. If an orchestra chooses a Mozart piece for a competition, it has already lost. My own non-competitive opinion would be that it has already won, but never mind me. Artur Schnabel said that children learn Mozart because of the small quantity of his notes, but grown-ups avoid him because of the great quality of his notes. My student, midway between childhood and adulthood, might be at a stage of avoiding Mozart without yet having learned the quality of his notes.

It is likely that as a competitive young person he values the extrinsic reward that competition brings to music, and appreciates composers who help “give him an edge.” In his discussion of emulation[1], William James says, “[T]o veto and taboo all possible rivalry of one youth with another, because such rivalry may degenerate into greedy and selfish excess, does seem to savor somewhat of sentimentality, or even of fanaticism. The feeling of rivalry lies at the very basis of our being, all social improvement being largely due to it. There is a noble and generous kind of rivalry, as well as a spiteful and greedy kind; and the noble and generous form is particularly common in childhood. All games owe the zest which they bring with them to the fact that they are rooted in the emulous passion, yet they are the chief means of training in fairness and magnanimity. Can the teacher afford to throw such an ally away? Ought we seriously to hope that marks, distinctions, prizes, and other goals of effort, based on the pursuit of recognized superiority, should be forever banished from our schools? As a psychologist, obliged to notice the deep and pervasive character of the emulous passion, I have my doubts.”

Something tells me that what my student learns through the “emulous passion” will ripen in time, and that he may even come back to Mozart for the quality of his notes. In the meantime, I see no harm in encouraging that passion.

Postscript on the Doctors

Usage at first mention in English letters and history recognizes two doctors: Dr. Johnson and Dr. Arnold. I wonder if it isn’t time to add a third: Dr. King. The thought came to me as we observed the 50th anniversary of “I Have a Dream.” If the report is correct that Dr. King extemporized most of the speech in response to a plea by Mahalia Jackson, it is an all-the-more-remarkable addition to his life’s other accomplishments. Do we really need to introduce what we say about him by referring to him as “The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior”? One time I referred in class to “King’s Birthday,” and in a gentle reproach one student asked, “Which King?” My answer, “Not King Mswati,” was flip, but I saw the point, though not the need for the mile-long moniker.

[1] Talks to Teachers. Dover, 2001, p. 27, but you can also find it here.


Rock, Paper, Scissors

“That’s not fair” is the injured cry of schoolchildren everywhere, but children—and adults—are more likely to think they recognize (un)fairness than to be able to discuss it intelligibly and productively. In his essay “Equality[1],” Sir Isaiah Berlin wrote that fairness “is a form of desire for equality for its own sake.” That sounds rather abstract, but a moment of relocation in the classroom or playground will show what is meant. Late last spring a couple of boys in my room began an argument about who should get what, and my eavesdropping instantly told me that there would be no evidentiary or testimonial way of resolving the conflict. The boys reached that conclusion at about the moment I started to eavesdrop, and decided to let Rock Paper Scissors work things out. Soon they had cooled down.

Now, Rock Paper Scissors is not a jurisprudential enterprise with due process; what it does is to set up a randomized contest in which the two participants have an equal chance at victory. The participants set aside any claims to justice, which have no chance of being correctly evaluated, in favor of equality of opportunity to win arbitrarily. Like the arbitrary convention of dueling that blood washes away dishonor, Rock Paper Scissors says that strength, in trumping weakness (of materials, not of participants, e.g., scissors cut paper but are broken by rock), washes away grievance. Unlike a duel, it gives both participants an equal chance at strength, thus privileging equality for its own sake. It has the further instrumental virtue of pre-empting interference by eavesdropping teachers who might act unfairly or attach punishment to resolution. It may even save a bruise or two.

Rock Paper Scissors is actually a surprisingly sophisticated and even shocking social construct. Participants must give up the possibility of genuine redress in favor of an artificial mechanism that offers no intrinsic satisfaction, only the extrinsic ones of equality of opportunity and possibility of victory. That this is not a mechanism of redress will be immediately apparent to anyone considering the First Amendment: who would take seriously the possibility that people “petition[ing] the Government for a Redress of Grievances” would be satisfied by playing Rock Paper Scissors with the President? And yet in some schoolrooms it works.

I am not arguing against Rock Paper Scissors. Rather, I am arguing that using its equality of arbitrary opportunity for conflict resolutions requires some careful thought or prior acculturation and the adoption of a view that Sir Isaiah would say is “one among many: the degree to which it is compatible with other ends depends on the concrete situation, and cannot be deduced from general laws of any kind; it is neither more nor less rational than any other ultimate principle.”  Things that “depend on the concrete situation, and cannot be deduced from general laws of any kind” require “man the political animal,” as Aristotle called us: people who live in groups and are constantly accommodating ourselves to each other or asserting ourselves against each other. The human faculties needed by excellent political animals (or their leaders) are what Pascal calls finesse, what Kahnemann calls system one, what Gardner calls interpersonal intelligence, and what Jung calls a superior feeling function. These powers are combined in Barzun’s “perpetual discretion” of the good teacher and are either a natural endowment or the work of a lifetime in acquiring–if they are acquired at all.

Compared to their complexity, the putative faculty of “emotional intelligence” seems rather thin and unsatisfactory, and the idea of “teaching” it must include notions of acculturation, lifelong learning, and regeneration that will go well beyond the schemes of workshopping and scripted learning typically peddled in their stead. Indeed, there does not even seem to be a clear notion of what “emotional intelligence” is, and what “social-emotional learning” entails. If it is not to be another bit of washed-up Edbiz wreckage like “transactional analysis” and “self-esteem”, we will need a huge clarification. If I like Rock Paper Scissors, it’s not because it is a tool of the “emotionally intelligent” but because it is one welcome process that careful upbringing,  acculturation, clear thinking and perpetual discretion make useful in its place.

[1] Available in its complete form in Concepts and Categories and in a usefully abridged form in Introduction to Great Books 2


Old-timer and Proud

Year 27 of my teaching career feels good so far, though I say so myself. But how can I be sure, given that Hong Kong, like all other locations rated tops by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)[1], does without “value”-“added” “metrics”? A modicum of assurance is provided by the “exercise book inspections” mandated by the local education department, as well as by the inspections that department conducts of local schools.

But Finland has no school inspection system. Indeed, one of its mottos about its teachers can be expressed in five words: “train them; then trust them.” And the training is both rigorous and highly sought after: the University of Helsinki has twenty applicants for every place in its teacher-training program, about the same selectivity as Harvard. This even though thirty years ago Finland’s schools had many of the problems reported for American schools. The trust is shown in teachers’ working conditions, which include two hours of professional development a week as well as extensive meetings with colleagues. This plan for professional development continues throughout a teacher’s career. Whether by inspection or by collegiality, it seems that two top systems assume life-long learning in its teachers as well as in its students.

The International Baccalaureate program has a self-study requirement that encourages schools to reflect on what they do well. I meet with colleagues regularly to discuss the courses I teach. My school’s I.B. division has started a formal program of visitations of classrooms by colleagues. This goes for highly experienced teachers as well as the less experienced ones, and it takes place in addition to informal visits we make to see our colleagues in action.

And of course, maybe most important, I can think of what I know now that I didn’t know during the beginning years of my teaching career. It took me a number of years to feel that I had an eye for students who might have special needs or had organic problems not apparent to most people. It was not till my tenth year of teaching that I met colleagues who got me started at turning my classroom into a “class of a thousand spaces.” And I was bound to be more experienced with the varieties of humanity by having years of contact with students of all kinds.

I studied Yeats with Professor Koch in university, but now, when I in turn teach his poetry to my Grade 12s, I have more than Michael Rosenthal’s anthology to go with, having carefully examined Roy Foster’s biography and Richard Ellmann’s study of him in my “spare time.” I am a better reader of Shakespeare now than I was twenty-five years ago: when Harold Bloom says that Antony and Cleopatra is the one play that shows everything Shakespeare can do, I feel more confident now than at the start of my career that I understand what he means and can convey some of the Bard’s opulent creativity when I share the play with my Higher Level students.

When I started teaching Theory of Knowledge (ToK), I felt as overwhelmed as most teachers taking on that challenge for the first time. The course remains a challenge, but as an examiner of fourteen years’ experience I feel now that I can meet it adequately. In ToK as in the other courses I have taught for a long time, I have a deep bag of tricks. It is in the nature of maturation in a long career that this kind of capacity develops in those who want it to develop; and it can’t be rushed, or at least I never felt anyone could have poured expertise into me from a bottle or lined it into me from a program of software.

It is in light of this development over time, shared by experienced teachers everywhere, that I read with deep disapproval that charter schools tend to reject experience of this kind in the teachers they hire. Like hamburger stands, they are “led” by principals and “CEOs” [sic] who are still young enough to be scratching their pimples, and staffed by teachers in “foreshortened teaching careers” who run through on the way to their next destination like crap through a goose. If such places were actual junk food emporia instead of purveyors of pink slime education, we could say at least the business model suits the business. But as I have argued in many prior postings, a school is not a business, and education is not a product, so teachers should not be transients, and their careers should not go out, out like brief candles. Bring on Year 28!


[1] The localities with the top five ranks in PISA’s score for “reflecting on and evaluating” reading are 1) Shanghai, 2) Korea, 3) Finland, 4) Hong Kong, and 5) Canada. This is not a score given for work by rote.