Pass the Stake and Mallet, Please

In Orson Welles’s movie Touch of Evil Marlene Dietrich plays Tana, a calculating but sympathetic crystal-gazing whorehouse madam with high cheekbones and hot chili. During a shambling trip down Memory Lane the Welles character visits Tana in her “office.” In the background a piano roll is playing. Welles reminisces:

QUINLAN: That pianola sure brings back memories.

TANA: The customers love it. So old it’s new.

* * *

After I first saw the enchanting photograph of Professor James Murray in the OED Scriptorium, I showed it to some of my students. They all wondered why I wanted them to see a weird bearded old man reading books.  Then Harry Potter intervened: now, when I show his picture, the reaction is usually delight to see that someone actually looks like Professor Dumbledore: so old he’s new. (The Royal Mail post box outside Murray’s house still stands, identified with a Blue Plaque.)

* * *

In his article in The New Yorker on Murray, George Steiner, Extraordinary Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, worries that our own schooling is “planned amnesia, our work a hiatus between phone calls.” If he is somehow right, the danger of an amnesiac out for an amble may be that he doesn’t know whether he’s in Memory Lane among things so old they’re new, or in a graveyard where things that are “dead stay that way”[1]. What will he bring back?

* * *

The New York Times provided an educationist’s answer this week in an article on something called “competency-based education.” We are told by its proponents that after a century of equating time with learning as Charles Eliot Norton taught us to do, we must cross the new frontier of another revolutionary change in learning for the twenty-first century and place time itself in the dustbin of history. That is, of course, after we have become a part of another wave of the future and are “deconstructing curriculum into abstract, interrelated competencies” in order that students can give “tangible evidence of learning,” which is assumed to be the equivalent of competence, I mean competencies.[2]

There are difficulties with this approach, even apart from the difficulty of understanding what is meant. The first is that “competency,” i.e., skill, is only one part of learning, which also includes knowledge and understanding. Any system that “deconstructs” learning into “competencies” is already erasing much of what learning is all about.

Another difficulty is that in the system reviewed, students who don’t “attain” a “competency” by passing a test can keep taking the tests till they do. (Are they the same tests?) A moment’s thought about the purposes and methods of assessment will show that passing a test of competency such as a driving test means a different thing from passing a multiple-choice test, for the one is passed by demonstration, and the other by pointing. These difficulties should be so obvious that one wonders what kind of educational demolitionist would make such an elementary mistake as to confuse them.

The answer, I fear, leads to a third difficulty. It is that the demolitionists of time are not actually in favour of a new thing called “competency-based education.” What they really want is to impart impetus to (I almost said re-animate) our old friends “outcome-based education” and “mastery learning.” These “friends” are not so old they are new: they are dead and should stay that way. Anyone whose pedagogical education has continued for more than five years without planned amnesia should recognise the pallor, stiffness and chill. I certainly did! I arrived at an OBE school the year after it was implemented there and saw it abandoned a year later. I attended a workshop on OBE offered by William Spady, where I learned of new “educational paradigms” that “shift happens.” (So it does.) And I was present in South Africa as it slouched towards “Curriculum 2005,” in which an entire country adopted and then abandoned OBE[3]. I worked at two schools that adopted and then abandoned “mastery learning.” The mis-educative[4] “revolutions” reviewed in the Times article bear enough marks of the Beast for me to fear to tread there.

(Some of the proponents of this system are quoted talking about teachers’ fears in the usual fashion of false sympathy combined with the dismissiveness of fools who rush in where angels fear to tread. Actually, a certain caution is salutary in the field of education, strewn as it is with wreckage.)

In any case, the villain time is wrongly so called. In his article on Murray, Steiner notes that Murray “had the capacity for squeezing experience to the pips, for making every sensation yield organized knowledge…. There was no waste motion in heart or brain. We find this omnivorous apprehension, at once sensory and abstract, in Browning’s verse, in Carlyle’s prose, in the prodigal architecture of Gilbert Scott. A tremendous confidence underwrites it, and a gymnastic of concentration and memory.” The problem is not that schooling is chained to seat time. The problem is that education is often misconceived, and the seat time devoted to it badly used. During that wasted time bad habits of work and thought are fixed. If students who have spent twelve years at Jungle Gym Math and other kinds of fooling are suddenly told in “university” that their time is their own and that they must work their way to “competencies” in the hiatuses between their phone calls, how well can we reasonably expect their poorly trained concentration to do? The answer should be obvious.

The Times article makes much of a young man who underwent a change of attitude towards his education because “something clicked inside my brain.” Experienced teachers will recognize that click as the sound of the nickel dropping. Teachers hear it with some frequency, though not often enough for educationists to make it the basis of a self-paced program of learning “competencies” in which the students receive little or no coaching. If our young man got in “30 to 35 hours of schoolwork a week on top of 48 to 56 hours of work,” it sounds as if he finally mastered “a gymnastic of concentration and memory” as Steiner called it. That is rather different from being “liberated” from time.

What is needed for young people like this one is programs in which all three kinds of learning are given their due. “Seat” time can be time in Socratic seminars, time being coached by the teacher to improve their skillfulness, time being lectured and in other ways presented with the material they must get by heart, and time in conferences finding out how well they applied that material to new problems in their formative and culminating assessments.

[1] Flannery O’Connor’s phrase

[2] “When skills came in, skill went out.”—Jacques Barzun

[3] The abandonment was “quiet,” much as No Child Left Behind is being quietly abandoned.

[4] John Dewey’s word


Ms Waterballoon

In an old posting about a high-school teacher who “taught” the American Revolution by letting her class have a water balloon fight, I discussed some of the ways futile or badly informed instruction undercuts education by taking time away from what works and giving it to fooling and clowning.   Another teacher, whom I was trying to persuade to adopt the methods of “shared inquiry” and Socratic instruction by using the Junior Great Books. Her first and only question before rejecting the plan was, “Do they have an answer key?”–an answer key for Socratic questioning! That sort of futile instruction takes a toll somewhere. At my school it was paid in 9th grade, when the fooling stopped, though not Ms. Waterballoon’s class. In many schools it is paid by “educated” young people who have trouble counting, reading, and reasoning.

One could argue that teachers of large classes need “short cuts,” but there are three problems with the argument. One is that class size in our school was capped at fifteen students—exceptionally, eighteen. Something besides class size resulted in Ms. Waterballoon and her anti-Socratic colleague’s “teaching” as they pleased. Another, dealt with in many of my prior postings, is that direct exchanges with students in the form of coaching and Socratic instruction are essential to the development of skill and understanding, and that these kinds of instruction take place in an intellectual terrain where there are no short cuts. The third, which comes up in current criticism of education schools, is that teachers like Ms. Waterballoon have not been prepared by their education to know what they have to teach, or to teach it.

That said, competent teachers, among whom I number myself, can use small classes to great advantage. I am fortunate enough to teach a relatively low number of students in relatively small classes, and so I can do things with students that I would not have been able to do at my first school, where my “student load” was exactly twice as high as it is now. In connection with a paper that most of my students are now working on, I have been able to assign a “planning document” and subjected it to line-by-line criticism (not proofreading), followed by individual meetings with each student. One of my conferees, a bright and articulate boy who hopes to find himself in Cambridge next year, had a close and intense discussion with me about his plan.

Lest I sound like someone who “only” teaches “bright” kids, I should mention that at the same school where Ms. Waterballoon taught, I had a number of students on the other side of the scale from my aspirant to Cambridge. One of them, a diligent young person of unremarkable talent, needed her meetings with me in order to learn how to produce a unified paragraph. It took months, but she ended secure in her paragraphs, if not in her longer compositions. Only coaching can meet individual needs, and coaching can take place only in congenial circumstances.

It is a pity that some teachers will react to those circumstances the way Ms. Waterballoon did. Once she came to school and told her students that thieves had broken into her car and stolen all the work she was planning to grade! I pictured the thieves casing her car for its rich store of used writing paper, smashing the windows in a busy car park at great risk to themselves, stealing the trove, and rushing it to the recycling center to realize their profit.

Surely there should be in-service and administrative remedies for this kind of dereliction, or for other abdications like using class time to catch up on email, and surely these remedies can work in an educational atmosphere that does not resemble the atmosphere surrounding Stalin’s Central Committee.


The Cave Man and the Man Cave

My 12th-graders have just finished their Theory of Knowledge Presentations: ten-minute talks in which they explore knowledge issues implicit in a real-life situation they have chosen to examine.  The good news was that this year’s students took the assignment more seriously than last year’s students did, and on the whole they therefore did very well.

Only a foolish teacher would place the bad news rhetorically as if it somehow balanced the good in such a success, and so I won’t say, “The bad news is….” I am happy with the results but feel a touch of (seemingly) cave-mannish regret.

That retrograde regret is for the loss of live human beings at the front and center of public speaking by students. I have written elsewhere about the potentially deleterious cognitive effects of PowerPoint as she is spoke, detailed with devastating thoroughness by Edward Tufte[1]. The sidelining of the human is no less to be regretted.

And it is a literal sidelining, as anyone can see who looks on the darkened scene at the front of the Lecture Theatre during presentation time. In the center glows a projected pie chart (“The one thing worse than a pie chart is lots of them”—Tufte) or a baffling “graphic.” At the side, in the dark, with one half of his face aglow in the chart’s reflected glory, a student chatters away. Did I say “one half of his face”? His whole face is aglow if he falls into one of PowerPoint’s common traps and faces the screen to read his lines, rather than the audience to deliver them—but we can still see only the half of his face that faces the audience!

Many of my students have an appealing or even charismatic platform presence, but much or most of that is undercut when they choose to throw away their advantages and play second-fiddle to a projection. And what a projection! The satirical type of the awful throwaway starts with Lincoln’s magnificent anaphora in the Gettysburg Address that “We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” The music of it is irresistible, as is its buildup to the climax that the “honored dead” have consecrated it. All this depends for its effect on being a part of a delivered speech by a capable speaker. Consider by contrast how  the “same(!)” material might be handled in a typical PowerPoint slide. The list of bullet points is the sorriest possible parallel construction, and it sacrifices the possibilities of live rhetoric and human interaction for a dearly bought concision. It would do so even if turned into “the dreaded build sequence” with spins and pans and close-ups.

One of my students explored this unfortunate graphic terrain in his presentation. He is good humored, personable, and well liked by his classmates; and he has a solid platform presence. In the rush to PowerPoint he threw away all these advantages, standing to the side in semidarkness to read off slides of maroon lettering on a black background.  The thought briefly occurred to me that I had made my way into a man cave. It lacked Naugahyde furniture with nail-head trim, but the feeling of claustrophobia among badly lit masses was just right. I will offer him a private word with some advice. It would be a shame if after twenty years of unchanged speaking habits he were to end up recording presentations for an on-line “school[2].”


[1] The Tufte piece argues that PowerPoint is not just a tool, a thesis developed in thirty-two pages of text and illustration. I shared the booklet with a colleague who came back to me hot under the collar, saying, “PowerPoint is just a tool!”

[2] This is not an idle nightmare. Lots of “audio-visual materials” of appalling paint-peeling dullness are now sold to schools for presentation to miserable captive audiences, whose only escape is sleep or daydreams. Why should the nightmare change just because more such things are now being produced?


Sorting Out Knowledge, Skill, and Understanding

Learning takes three forms, each of which is best developed with a different kind of teaching. Knowledge of factual detail, taxononomy, tables, formulae, and other fixed objects of study, classification, and arrangement is conveyed by didactic instruction such as lecture and recitation or in textbooks. In the younger grades the recitation can be en masse with singing and verses. The usual way of learning it is to get it by heart. For those who learn through the eye, that means study of the printed page. Those who learn by the ear might prefer to say their lessons aloud, or hear them read. The action types and wiggle-worms will want to move around as they study, or may work with manipulatives such as flash cards that they can fiddle and twiddle.

Skill at writing, speaking, physical arrangement, handling the apparatus of a laboratory, or what my P. E. coach used to call “the fundamentals” and their combination, is built up through practice and demonstration guided by coaching. The coach intervenes with words, red ink, or demonstration of the right technique. What he or she does will be determined by the student’s needs after the initial demonstration (a didactic activity) is scheduled and presented. Skill is directly tied to achievement in an activity that demands it: mere dribbling is useless without a sense of basketball, and “information literacy” is useless without a subject that it can be applied to.

Understanding, the bane of behaviorists and pons asinorum of pedagogues because it is an inner light, cannot be taught. Rather, we teachers must establish the conditions in which it can make its illuminations. The usual way of doing so is Socratic questioning or other demands for explanation and application that will show the inner light at work in unfamiliar terrain that has not been memorized. Since understanding can be mimicked in lousy assessments, a teacher looking for understanding must avoid those lousy assessments and set probing essay topics, seminars with question time, and conversations. Essays should receive clear, specific comments lauding insight and reproving glib superficiality. Consecutive thought should be evident. Teachers should demand sentence or paragraph answers showing needed detail in a matrix of good language.

A moment’s thought will yield the insight that didactic instruction is most suitable to electronic or textual mediation, while coaching and Socratic instruction demand human contact in order for skill to improve and understanding to dawn. A teacher with textbooks and e-stuff at his or her disposal should therefore arrange things so that precious class time is given over to interaction rather than simple exposition.

Looking into the backward and dark abysm of time at one of my early insights along these lines, I realized that I was foolish to take class time for the simple exposition of grammatical rules and the nuts and bolts of composition if I could shift that out of the classroom. I therefore bought texts of programmed instruction in grammar, and I devised written lessons to expand on Strunk and White’s lapidary pronouncements, which the students could work through in their own time (no apologies, Homework Lady: learning is great and the opportunity for helping students live is limited). Let them learn in the privacy of their own desktop to “enclose parenthetic expressions between commas[1]”, but let the teacher their writing coach use red ink and meet with them to discuss why they used commas on only one side of the non-restrictive appositive in their last essay. At that same meeting the teacher can offer suggestions on arrangement, diction, and concept-work; and he can ask for a rewrite.

Or maybe the teacher, having assigned a Yeats poem and an apposite bit of interpretive text, will set up work groups in class, in which students have questions to answer about the poem as they work through it with their classmates. Since the teacher is best heard when he is answering my question, the teacher can circulate, answering my questions from students in turn as they come up, derailing trains of thought to nowhere, and maybe doing a bit of blackboard work for the class as a whole if one question seems “popular.” If there’s no way around it, the teacher simply must explain, as with Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras or the appositives of “Presences” in “Among School Children,” offering a lecture on the topics, with question time during and afterwards. The point is to be available for the students’ deficits in skill and understanding.

The kind of didactic instruction best placed on e-stuff is the kind that any student will be able to get by simple listening, whether once or a number of times. Work on e-stuff is not the place to improve skill (for it can’t) or to enable understanding (for that should be in response to the student’s needs and deficits as revealed in what she says or writes).

The problem with “schools” that rely chiefly on e-stuff is that they have no reliable means to improve skill or to enable understanding, which in such places can occur only by accident. This must be done live, in real time, in order to use the window of opportunity that an evanescent interest provides or that a particular error demands in order to supply immediate and effective correction. It also allows the teacher to hold students instantly responsible for their misunderstandings and to probe understanding that is incomplete. Ingenious exceptions will only prove the rule that people improving their skill need coaches and that people with incomplete understanding need Socrates.

Flipping” may work if it consists in the deployment by teachers of their precious time in improving skill and understanding. It will be useless if it is simply a switching back-and-forth of homework and lectures that when combined don’t really improve skill or understanding at all.[2] But any effective work along these lines will not “turn education upside down”; it will turn it right side up.

[1] Strunk and White’s Rule 3

[2] A footnote on a comment made in the linked article: evidently some teachers are accused of using seat work not to improve their students’ skill and understanding but to free the teachers to answer e-mail and catch up on Facebook. If teachers regularly do such things, it suggests an abdication of professionalism on their part, and on the part of administrators complicit in their dereliction and of their unions (if any). It is good reason for counseling and personnel action aimed at the particular teacher or “tolerant” administrator, but it is not a good reason to impugn the professionalism of teachers generally.


Gone Marking

No time for a full posting this week because I am listening to and assessing the 12th-graders’ ToK Presentations during class, after school, and on weekends. It’s also time to write letters of reference for their applications to universities in the UK, the US, and Hong Kong. (Each place requires a different focus in the letters sent.) But there is enough time to note that experience is one of the best ways to gain confidence in one’s assessment of Presentations, and that experience is one of the best teachers of how to write a good letter of reference that does not sound (and is not) made with the cookie cutter. Schools that favor teachers with little experience do their seniors a disservice.