All Right, Boys and Girls, Step Up to the Milking Machine


Things have actually reached that stage figuratively, if not literally, in the developing trend to gather “student data” and send it to the Cloud or to other repositories. Advocates of the vanishing ecology of privacy have even started to propose legislation to govern how the data will be handled in and distributed from these repositories. Future-of-the-month enthusiasts in education often buy into their latest projects without thinking them through; hence as usual the second thoughts about the decisions to store data—second thoughts that do not come from the education administrators making the decisions or from the commercially connected foundations encouraging them to do so, but from concerned parents, whose stake in their children is not to turn a profit.

Another worrisome thing is the trend towards “data-based education” that tallies, orders, and divines from test results to provide “diagnosis” “in real time” to teachers (and perhaps to a data repository). All they or their employers need to do is pay lots of money for the software systems and tests provided by commercial enterprises, instead of using good teachers, who can make subtler judgments and exercise a more profound influence on students, all in real time. Of course, the tests are largely multiple-choice “instruments” that have no ability to gauge the kinds of skills, understanding, and consecutive thought developed in pointed conversation and in essay-writing. My own brief experience feeding in to this commercial system left me profoundly disquieted by the expense and unsatisfactoriness of it all. It is creepy to think that we are moving towards thinking of education as a kind of “behavior” that can be sized up by multiple-choice tests.

One thing that we must remember in distinguishing between philanthropic educational enterprises (or eleemosynary institutions, if you prefer) and profit-making “educational” businesses is that the mission of the first is to provide education, while the twofold mission of the second includes making a profit. Sometimes that mission eclipses the educational one, as a breaking story about an allegedly corrupt chain of for-profit schools suggests. Past postings of mine have shown that not just for-profit enterprises are subject to corruption pressures, but we should not go off half-cocked buying into these systems.

As an alternative, why not examine a philanthropic institution like Loreto College? It is what in England is called a 6th-form school, a kind of academic junior-and-senior-year college preparatory school. It is located in a poor inner-city neighborhood in Manchester. 57% of its students live in “council wards” classified as impoverished, and a third of them have parents who did not go to university. Yet it is rated in the top 1% of secondary schools nationally, and a whopping 50% of its applicants to Oxford and Cambridge are accepted. Surely a school that does so well without skimming a profit has something to teach us all?


A Foolish Inconsistency

Yesterday my colleague the geography teacher asked me to visit the Theory of Knowledge class he began teaching this year. His plan is to ask the students to conduct an analysis of vehicular and pedestrian traffic at the school’s three entrances, to draw some conclusions after analyzing the data, and then to try and fit their work into the “Knowledge Framework” of “Human Sciences.” It is an ambitious plan and will clearly call for a kind of work much different from the rote memorization that people say is characteristic of Chinese education.

His classroom’s chairs are arranged around work tables, not in rank-and-file order. I was immediately struck by the atmosphere of the classroom, which was an amiable order-in-chaos. The longer I watched, the more strongly the unobtrusive grounding in orderliness made itself evident under the chat and banter, including banter with the teacher. Each table was assigned a task, and a spokesman from each table presented to the class as a whole at the end of the lesson for classmates’ and the teacher’s comments. The students took the comments seriously. After the class, he and I had lunch in the teachers’ canteen and had a long talk about alternatives to exam-based courses.

It may be tempting to dismiss this kind of productivity as due entirely to privilege: this is a good school, and Hong Kong has a high per capita GDP. That doubtless has something to do with something, but not all to do with everything. For one thing, the school has a tradition of welcoming and supporting students from comparatively disadvantaged backgrounds, though it is true that they do not constitute a large part of the student population. But Hong Kong itself, including its schools for the poor, has remarkably good results on the PISA tests, including tests that require what we call “higher-level thinking.” And if this class is any example, Hong Kong has many teachers who are ready to try approaches other than stuff-and-examine—this at a time when the American “education reform movement,” as it is misnamed, has brought back the stuff-and-examine model to NCLB and RAT schools, with their Test Preparation.

The example of Shanghai must also discourage glib dismissals of Chinese methods. It has the best PISA results in the world, but its per capita GDP is only 40% of the US’s and a slightly lower percentage of Hong Kong’s. Half its students come from a background of urban and rural poverty. The Shanghai metropolitan area’s population is greater than that of 40 PISA countries, and even the city proper is more populous than 33 of those countries. (I exclude the “city states” of Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore.)  What this means is that excellent education, including “critical thinking,” is being effected on a huge scale in a population that by the standards of “developed” countries can hardly be called privileged.

But the dismissalists will call Shanghai a showcase that gives a false impression of China’s education. After all, China ranks 94th among the world’s countries in per capita GDP. Go to the rural areas, and things will not look so good. Well, that is exactly what Andreas Schleicher recently did. This OECD advisor on education visited rural Chinese schools, including one primary school near the Burmese border serving only impoverished farm villages. He reports to BBC that the education there is of a high standard in spite of the comparative paucity of resources. Maybe Shanghai’s is better, but the rural education appears to be good. The next PISA results will be more inclusive of the variety of Chinese education, but if a city of twenty-five million cannot be taken as suggestive, the explanation may lie in its being dismissed as sour grapes.

The last dismissal is that Chinese culture and American are different and therefore incomparable. It presents an opening a mile wide, but I will step in at only one point. A recent study done at Boston College showed that American primary and secondary students are by far the most sleep-deprived in the world, and that this deprivation is largely due to the use of electronic appliances after what should be bedtime. The authors of the study claim that if these students would turn off their gadgets and get a good night’s sleep, they would do better in school. As it is, their sleepiness leaves teachers having to dumb down their classes. In China’s rural areas no one can afford the gadgets to lose sleep over.

But no teacher whose “effectiveness” is being “rated” by “value”- “added” “metrics” will find the VAM formula modified for the sleep deprivation that is beyond his control. Just so, none of the yes buts applied to China’s schools are also applied to the VAMs by which American schools are now being rated (except, in some places, a weak and useless metric for  “disadvantage”). I know that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds, but inconsistency can be foolish too.


Creativity: Running the Gamut from A to B

On Friday I had the required viva voce discussion of a completed I.B. Extended Essay with its student author. The subject was politics, and I, having studied politics in college, was his supervisor. The rules governing supervision forbade me to supervise closely or to edit his work: I might offer suggestions and advice, but the work was to be largely the student’s own. The essay will probably gain its author the not-often-given grade of “A”, but I did not have too much to do with my student’s success, except to establish conditions in which understanding might come to him.

I merely suggested that he do a search in the local city and university libraries for political science writing on the role of party politics in governance. He caught fire during his search, and even went so far after his review of “the literature” as to arrange for an interview with his “Legislative Councilor,” the local name for a legislator. The result was an original piece of work with a surprising but effective and well-grounded thesis about local politics. I could not have seen this thesis coming with a telescope.

I credit him with some kind of creativity, though not to a degree that would be exalted in the annals of history or political science. There was no suggestion of the outcome of the paper in the original proposal, which was for a pedestrian piece of descriptive writing, not out of place in high school, but unremarkable. The problem in using the C word to describe what he did is its well-known resistance to definition, systematic study, or other means of capture and domestication such as “scaling”.

Professor Barzun exposed the difficulty in discussing “The Paradoxes of Creativity[1]” and noted that the same word is used to describe the drive that led to Michelangelo’s frescos in the Sistine Chapel and a mysterious and precocious power about which it has been seriously claimed that “after kindergarten, schools do not draw on creative ability.” Barzun does not try to define creativity, much less “scale” it; but he does analyze the word as having four distinct “layers of meaning”: 1) the “commonplace quality of initiative,” 2) “the ordinary, widespread knack of drawing, singing, dancing, and versifying, modestly kept for private use[2],” 3) “the trained professional artist, including the commercial,” and 4) “the rare bird, the genius, whose works first suggested the idea that a human being could be called a creator.” He notes that “[t]he specific traits of creative genius have never been ascertained, nor any correlation with genetic, medical, or environmental factors.” This has not kept social scientists from attempting (and failing) to do so. Hence the unhelpful designation as geniuses those who score at one end of the bell curve on intelligence tests—the opposite end from idiots (this used to be the psychologist’s designation when I was a boy). I have written elsewhere about this foolish system. Even Edison’s distinction between inspiration and perspiration as constituents of genius runs into the contrary examples of Flaubert, who sweated over every word; and Balzac, “who had to write trash for ten years before his genius erupted” in the production of over a hundred novels in under twenty years. (Flaubert’s sour comment on this eruption was, “What a man Balzac would have been, had he known how to write!”)

Generalizing from Barzun’s focus on art, I would say the four levels of meaning in our general term “creativity” could be taken as 1) having initiative or being eager for results; 2) having a knack, propensity or talent; 3) having this talent developed and fully realized by training, study, and practice; and 4) being a genius, about which more below. Suffice it to say now that geniuses are rare.

My own student, while not a Balzac, a Flaubert, or a Machiavelli, took his material and worked on it in an engaged and productive way and produced an original and creditable thesis where none had existed before. I would be inclined to say that he was thoughtful, diligent, and keen with concept-work: a combination of numbers 1) and 2) with the likely prospect of eventually achieving 3). Reaching this level is an accomplishment, which I duly celebrated in our viva voce. It also seems more clear-headed than it would have been if I had merely said he had been creative, which tells us very little if anything. And it seems truer than if I had said he was not creative because he had worked under the discipline of political science instead of having been free as a bird.

Ah, freedom! But freedom is not creativity, as Barzun further notes. He proposes that many people, when they talk about creativity, really mean “a release from compulsion and regimentation.” Thus, the “cult of creativity springs from the hatred of abstractness, dependence, repetition, and incompletion in work (emphasis added)”—undesirables whose roots ultimately go back to our culture in general and not just, or even primarily, to our schooling. The problem with hidden hatreds is that under the guise of “unleashing,” they can lead to the “creation” of wreckage. One alternative to cultivation of this hatred might be more work like the Extended Essay, which finds and answers a concrete question, encourages independent thought, puts things in a new way, and has a beginning, middle, and end—the whole in the context of an academic discipline holding out the promise of development to level 3).

In another and rather less satisfactory alternative, we are told in The New York Times about “departments of creativity” in colleges, where creativity is defined as “the ability to spot problems and devise smart solutions.” The reason for this alternative’s comparative unsatisfactoriness is that it is too narrow and lacks what Thomas Kuhn called a “disciplinary matrix.” Some works of genius are solutions, but not all: to what problems are Macaulay’s Third Chapter or Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony solutions? And on a less exalted level, what problem did my own extended essayist solve? It is true, the Times reports, that one college program has led among other things to the production of portable toilet-stall door locks made of coat hooks and Lincoln Logs; and we must be grateful for any level-2) inventiveness that increases our privacy rather than strip it away; but this doesn’t seem anywhere near exhausting the possibilities of “creativity” in school. Nor will we do so by attempting to “scale” it. Barzun quotes from a study rating jobs according to an Index of Creativity, giving as an example of “exceptional” creativity “the amateur botanist who strictly limits hours at his regular job and often spends 20-hour days to complete botanical experiments.” So much for “scaling.”

And still the question persists: what is genius? Dr. Johnson called genius[3] “that power which constitutes a poet; that quality without which judgment is cold and knowledge is inert; that energy which collects, combines, amplifies, and animates.” So “Dictionary Johnson” could not capture its meaning in a definition, though he is strongly suggestive of what genius does. William James described “minds of a high order” as a enabling “genial play with … massive materials, … an easy flashing of light over far perspectives, [and] careless indifference to the dust and apparatus that ordinarily surround the subject and seem to pertain to its essence.[4]” Compared to it, he says, the “mania for completeness” is positively vulgar. He makes this comment on p. 993 of a 1300-page book. It suggests that he thought that though “careless indifference” is the right mode for some kinds of mental phenomena, meticulous attention and hard work are another mode, also required in their turn—another of creativity’s paradoxes unlikely to be unraveled by Baby Einstein or Departments of Creativity.

But all this will not keep us from talking about Creativity. Barzun notes that “[i]n a new reference book of contemporary quotations, there are fifteen entries for Creativity and only three for Conversation, two for Wisdom, one for Contemplation, and none for Serenity or Repose.”

[1] In The American Scholar, Summer 1989, pages 337 – 351.

[2] Or, now, for occasional use in blog postings.

[3] In his Life of Alexander Pope

[4] Principles of Psychology, Harvard, 1983, p. 992.