Homework at the Barricades

This is a blog about teaching and learning, where political comments on the current demonstrations in Hong Kong would be out of place. Nonetheless, among the images coming from the crowded streets, one kind stands out as due some notice here. I mean pictures of students sitting in the occupied roadways doing their homework.

In general Hong Kong is a very tidy and orderly place. Construction and other disruptions are accompanied by apologies “for the inconvenience caused.” People riding escalators stand to one side so that people who wish to step along may do so on the other side. People whose dogs do their business on the sidewalk carry away the business in a plastic bag or wash it away with a squirt bottle. The New Year’s Eve crowds on the Kowloon Waterfront are almost entirely free of fighting, staggering, and vomiting;  when the midnight fireworks are over, the crowd contentedly disperses, families and all, usually without incident.

So it should be no surprise that young demonstrators here remain mindful of their obligations as students while they are on the streets. For all that I was fascinated by Bill Buford’s book Among the Thugs, in which he did a journalistic report on his fieldwork among British soccer hooligans, Hong Kong seems to work counter to the crowd-dynamic he reported.

This state of things should give pause—though it probably won’t—to the proponents of “value”-“added” “metrics” that attribute solely to teachers all the “praise” and “blame” for students’ success or failure on standardized tests of their learning. No matter who is doing the teaching, in places where students would rather die than not turn in their homework, the scores will be higher than in places where they would not be caught dead turning in their homework.


Gone Marking: Grunt Work Is Forever

There’s no way around it for the high-school teacher in touch with his pupils’ needs and responsive to their work: rolling up the sleeves is a part of a teacher’s life. I am going through an exercise from my Theory of Knowledge students on William James and will have an essay coming in from them Tuesday. Also on Tuesday: essays from the English students. We have a five-day holiday weekend next week, but it will be a working holiday, including a trip with some students. The good news is that some of my Grade 11 students are showing a remarkable keenness and affinity for ToK, a thing I do not usually see so early in this demanding course. The bad news is that I’m not finished yet, so I will not be writing my usual posting.

Oscar Wilde said that “work is the curse of the drinking classes.” I can testify that it is the curse of the teaching classes too.  I worked in private industry for a number of years before starting to teach, and I can report that at almost no time in “the other place” did I work as hard as I do teaching, even after having learned how to work smart rather than hard at some teaching tasks.

Fortunately, some of the grunt work is also aha work–the aha one says as the nickel drops, the face lights up, or the page coruscates.


Crapthink 101

The late Nelson Mandela used to employ an idiom common among black South Africans to describe muddle-headed people: they “cannot think properly.” The notice of muddle-headedness is not always so gentle. Before I became a teacher, my previous line of work took me at one point to a large construction project run by a highly intelligent and ferocious Project Manager whose staff meetings caused white knuckles even among veteran construction managers. I was sometimes invited to these staff meetings, though I usually and fortunately stayed below his radar. If a manager made a claim that the project manager found suspect, the PM would turn his big guns on it till it and the manager making it were a grease-stain on the carpet. He would end such search-and-destroy missions with the question, “Why don’t you think, goddammit?”[1]

The common thread is the sense that “thinking properly” is a requirement of adult life, and that people who can’t do it are held to account, sometimes painfully. How to get people to learn to do so or to work through the consequences of failure is therefore a vital issue. It is also an urgent issue if, as claimed by two American researchers, students emerging from many US universities cannot think well enough to establish themselves in adulthood. I intend to examine this research in a future posting.

For now I want to examine the possibility that many Americans do not think properly when they think about teaching and learning. I am calling this species of intellect “crapthink,” and from time to time I intend to discuss some signs of its presence in the discourse of education.

Exhibit A takes us to the commencement ceremony of a high school I used to teach at. Graduates with honors were entitled to wear an “honors stole” with their other academic regalia. At one point after the ceremony, a parent borrowed the honors stole of an honors graduate, draped it over his daughter’s shoulders, and had her pose for pictures in it. The principal asked her to remove the stole because she had not graduated with honors. The parent said, in his most Augustan manner, “That is so chickenshit!” and directed his daughter to continue posing with the stole.

This is crapthink in action, and it is pernicious. What lesson is Daddy’s Precious learning from her father’s imposture? How is it different in kind from making an untrue claim on a résumé? How is it different in effect from allowing her to pose with an A in a university course for which she did a couple of hours of indifferent study a week? How is it going to prepare her for success in a world that has standards and deadlines and is populated by intelligent and exigent people?

[1] One time he did train his guns on me, but I survived. His “compliment” was to say, “I don’t pay you enough to think, goddammit.” Sometimes we take our attaboys where we can find them.


Iquination, Satiation, and Teviation

Banesh Hoffmann, a colleague of Einstein’s in Princeton, wrote a book in 1962 called The Tyranny of Testing.  In it, he offered a detailed and wide-ranging critique of multiple-choice testing as a basis of determining “intelligence” and “scholastic aptitude.” He couldn’t have known that such tests would also eventually be used to determine “teacher effectiveness,” though he would surely have been astonished, if not outraged.

Anyone who has read Maria Ruiz-Primo’s study of the usefulness of different kinds of test to capture data on the “opportunity to learn” (OTL) knows that big standardized tests are the worst kind to use. That is doubtlessly due to limitations in how they reveal what students actually know;  but their weaknesses can be pinpointed, as Dr. Hoffmann notes. Here are the weaknesses:

•  They deny the creative person a significant opportunity to demonstrate his creativity, and favor the shrewd and facile candidate over the one who has something of his own to say.

•  They penalize the candidate who perceives subtle points unnoticed by less able people, including the test-makers.

•  They are apt to to be superficial and intellectually dishonest, with questions made artificially difficult by means of ambiguity because genuinely searching questions do not fit into the multiple-choice format.

•  They take account only of the choice of answer and not of the quality of thought that led to the answer.

•  They neglect skill in disciplined expression.

•  They have a pernicious effect on education and the recognition of merit.

A new point may now be added, as the SAT plans to do away with its penalty for wrong answers (which raises a problem I have dealt with):

•  They reward successful guessing as well as thinking.

There is also a statistical problem with the tests. Hoffmann points out that the SAT’s ability to determine “scholastic aptitude” turned out to be about as statistically valid as determining a group of people’s heights by taking their weights. If what we needed to know is that heavy people tend to be taller than light people, we could have achieved the confidence through measurement that a moment’s critical thinking gives us; but that is not what we need to know. We need to know just how apt or learned or intelligent individual people are. That is more troubling.

The problem with the SAT is, of course, that even its promoters now admit it does not accurately measure aptitude, and for some years have let it be known as just “the SAT.” Those letters stand for the nothing the test actually measures,  but they have been kept because of their value in branding. One is tempted to say that some value is better than none, but in this case it is actually worse than none. In a parallel argument, Hoffmann shows that IQ tests do not measure intelligence (something we also know by reading Stephen Jay Gould). Instead, they measure a phantom “quantity” that Hoffmann, tongue in cheek, calls iquination—the ability to do well on IQ tests. What should we call the parallel phantom ability to do well on the SAT? I would propose satiation except that it already has a legitimate meaning and does not need an illegitimate one.

A third part of Hoffmann’s argument against the multiple-choice test is that the weaknesses of its questions show that “it is not designed to test deeply what it is designed to test superficially.” Test-makers also use ambiguity as a proxy quality for difficulty. There are many examples of weak questions; I choose at random one of Hoffmann’s examples of an authentic SAT question, in which the underlined part must either be left unchanged or “corrected”:

Cod-liver oil is very good for children. It gives  them    vitamins they might otherwise not get. (1) NO CHANGE (2) , it (3) , for it (4) ; for it

Hoffmann notes that this question was rated as “easy” by the College Board, but anyone with an ear for the rhythms of English, including the English professors he consulted, would say that it is impossible to choose between (1) and (3) without having a context for the sentence(s). A facile test-taker, on the other hand, will quickly figure out that it must be either (3) or (4) and that (4) would break Strunk & White’s Rules, which leaves (3). Some aptitude, I mean satiation!

The Metrics Claque now hooting up “objective” “measurement” of teachers’ “effectiveness” proposes to expand the use of such tests to rate how good individual teachers are. Remember:  First, what they measure in teacher “effectiveness” is a phantom entity. Second, they are not very effective at measuring it. Third, their questions penalize subtlety and discernment, and reward guessing and second-guessing. The Metrics Claque should long since have been shown the door. Instead, it seems poised to bring a new phantom into the gray pantheon. Let us call it teviation (for Teacher Effectiveness Valuation) and its proponents Teviants.



In general, school started off well, but there has been one snag. In one of the courses I teach, the introductory reading I chose has proven too difficult for many of my students. I know this because I have already spent some time having pointed discussions about the reading, because they have already had some time to work in groups to share their understanding, and because they have had seat time to read, pencil in hand. Reading pencil in hand yielded in some students no more than question marks. In the group work I could see that some of the students were asking their classmates to explain it, while others paid cursory attention or none at all to their reading or to what was being said about it. The whole class’s discussion showed that there were more questions than answers and as much silence as questions.

Yet another reaction was clarified for me by a student who asked me during group work, “What should we do if we can’t find anything about this piece on the internet?” I told him that I had chosen the piece partly because I didn’t expect them to be able to, but then suggested some methods for approaching the reading by asking questions of it.  By contrast, a lot of students, when something is difficult, turn to a pre-digested version, which they then describe as what the author “really said” or “was trying to say.” I hate that formula in discussing poetry, and I hate it in discussing prose; but I can’t blame students for falling back on it. The culture of pre-digestion leads them inevitably to conclude that a reading with depth, weight, or thickness is unreal because unreadable, while the digest is real because they can get it. It teaches them that the correct response to difficulty is to give up and try something less troublesome.

But the troublesomeness of this particular reading remains. Next week, I will make some adjustments in how they approach it, giving the excellent readers a chance to test themselves and the more tentative ones a way to approach its insights more fruitfully.

A teacher connected with his class has the ability to size it up on the wing and to make any adjustments needed. It is part of what Barzun calls the teacher’s “perpetual discretion.” To speak of it thus is to generalize, but the connection a good teacher makes with his class plays out in particulars, such as the Reading Drama I have just told you about.

It also has to be said that being a good student includes the readiness and ability to meet good teaching partway, the way Adèle meets Jane Eyre. My students have clearly been trying to do so. Ideally, in another week or two we will come away from this challenge with an understanding that allows us to proceed.

We could say, among other ways of putting it, that I have connected with my students and they have connected with me. The connection is personal, for I dealt with students individually and in small groups to help them gain the understanding they lacked. The connection is professional because it is governed by the demands, constraints, and opportunities in the teacher – student relationship. The connection is also, let it be said, instrumental, for it is a means to an end: that the students learn what is to be taught.

As against this kind of connection—personal, professional, instrumental and reciprocal—we are now presented with another kind of connection brought to us by “science” and “technology”. The advertisement-cum-article in which this connection was expounded tells us that the sense of connectedness is revealed by students’ scaled answers to comments such as “I feel comfortable going to my teacher for help” and “My teacher really cares about me”. The questionnaires are compiled and the compilation of responses is performed by a suitably paid “education” company.

Problems immediately reveal themselves to an adult possessing “critical reading skills”, or what used to be called an educated general reader.

(1)    The “education” company assumes that students’ answers are the valid result of sound evaluation and ripe judgment. Raise your hand if that jibes with your experience of sixteen-year-olds. I do not mean to disparage unduly the not-completely-formed powers of judgment evident in our not-entirely-adult students, but rather to suggest that judgments of this kind must be treated with caution. That does not happen when they are combined as equally valid in a composite result naïvely and uncritically presented as a “scientific” “measurement”.

(2)    The survey misuses averages and endangers standards. Ms. Campbell, the teacher in the report, is not judged to be good or bad but “below average” in “connectedness.” Let us suppose that Ms. Campbell and her colleagues all improved their “connectedness” by equal leaps and bounds—or, more correctly, let us assume that students start rating them as “more connected.” Rather than receive congratulations for this improvement, Ms Campbell would still be judged “below average.” If things went the other way and she and her colleagues suffered some kind of mass demoralization or drop in their students’  regard, such that their scores all dropped, Ms. Campbell would still be “below average” rather than, say, abysmal. Of course, that could also happen if the students rated them low because of pique. In all these shifting sands, where are standards?

What is more, if “average” is a point on the scales in questions given to the students, the survey has failed to understand something elementary: “average” is not a judgment, it is a statistic. If students rate all their teachers “above average,” we are faced with the troubling conclusion that average is above average or that above average is average. In this kind of system, what can “average” mean? I hope no one from the “education” company tells me that average does not mean average!

But there is more. Teachers like Ms. Campbell receive these data because the “education” company that generates them and the school administrators who pay its fees believe that the onus of improving the ambience of education rests entirely on the teacher. They also appear to believe that handing out results from a questionnaire is a valid substitute for sound pedagogy and effective educational leadership.

At one point in the article we are assured by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that “when combined with test scores and observations, student surveys made for a more consistent and reliable way of measuring how teachers were performing.” That conclusion has been confounded by a thorough debunking of the study that produced it. We also hear a Harvard professor assure us that we can’t stop using numbers and “go back to nothing.” Who said anything about nothing? We could “go back” to discernment, discretion, educational leadership, and the mutual regard of students and teachers.