Pass It On

In 1994, when I saw a touring one-man Dylan Thomas show by Bob Kingdom, “Fern Hill” burst over me like fireworks. The only possible response was to get it by heart, which I did when I got home and over the next day or two. I recited it to my senior English class once I had learned it.

Monday, twenty years since, was Thomas’s 100th anniversary; a couple of days later I had an email from a student in that class recalling the recitation. “It [the poem] was wonderful then,” he said, “and it still is now,” as he knew from having gone back to take another look.

This correspondence put me in mind of the closing lines of Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys, written ten years after my recitation and ten years before the present:

Pass the parcel.

That’s sometimes all you can do.

Take it, feel it, and pass it on.

Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day.

Pass it on, boys.

That’s the game I wanted you to learn.

Pass it on.


Camels in the Tent

When I read about someone saying, “High-stakes multiple choice testing is here to stay,” I think of the old story about the camel that poked its nose into the nomad’s tent. We know what eventually happened: the nomad was driven out. At each stage of the camel’s entry, the nomad might have told the camel to get out, but failed to do so.

The lesson we are supposed to draw from this fable is that when a camel’s nose appears at the tent-flap, we must keep it out. The lesson is not that when the nose appears, we must say, “The camel is here to stay,” and wave it in.

Another thought about the camel: it might do in the desert, but we keep it out of the garden.


The Reductive Fallacy; the Expansive Reality

Einstein is reported to have said, “Everything should be as simple as can be, but not simpler.” Einstein got it right, but the tendency to get it wrong—to make things simpler than they can be—is called the Reductive Fallacy[1].

Not all uses of this fallacy are whimsical: In education we suffer from a spreading rash of reductionism whose consequences are anything but whimsical. Much of the blame can be laid on the use by educationists of “proxy values” that are said to “represent” something unquantifiable. The problem comes when people start thinking they are that quality or other unquantifiable value. A good example came up in a recent New York Times article about talking to babies and toddlers. It discussed a twenty-year-old study showing that children from disadvantaged backgrounds hear 20,000,000 fewer words than their more privileged contemporaries by the time they get to kindergarten. The reductive fallacy is that all upbringing and education of young children are wrongly subsumed in the proxy value “number of words heard.” Some people took this reductionism so far as to rush into saying lots of words at Junior, or having screens say them. Such things as play, banter, peek-a-boo and love were sloughed off in the rush to word count.

The current reductionist myth is that school is to prepare students to take multiple-choice tests, and that teachers are to be rated by how successful the students are on those tests. The fallacious reduction is to say that performance on such tests is a proxy value for a successful education. The result is to throw away all other kinds of assessment, including some that are better able to assess the varieties of learning.

But there is an even worse effect: This focus on reductionism leaves education impoverished. Sometimes that impoverishment is at a fundamental level, as a BBC article notes in discussing the value of musical education. It turns out that disadvantaged students who study singing or play an instrument have an easier time learning reading.

I don’t want to be an instrumentalist about learning music: it is great for its own sake too. Earlier this week one of my students, who is in my school’s Senior Choir, came into my classroom singing Schubert’s Ständchen, a song with love lyrics by Ludwig Rellstab and a wonderful lilting tune. Whisper who dares!

And earlier this month I went on the school’s Drama Camp, which took place over the long holiday weekend. One of the dramatists is writing his Extended Essay under my supervision: I was surprised and delighted to see that the quiet gravity with which he approaches this less-than-favorite task was entirely replaced by a charismatic verve as he went through his dramatic work. He was the most notably differentiated student on the camp, but others were nearly as keen and talented. What can schools (and education departments) be thinking by abandoning this kind of learning for more multiple choice preparation? The answer is that they are thinking reductively.

Further wrong-headed reductionism occurs when we say that this kind of “enrichment” is only for “elite” schools. Today I went to see a movie called My Voice My Life, a Cantonese-language documentary about the production of a musical play in Hong Kong with a cast of blind students and (what pass in Hong Kong for) troubled teenagers from “Band 3 Schools,” as they used to be called. Though the documentary might leave unanswered questions, there is surely no question that an education with such an opportunity is better than one that has had such opportunities reduced out of existence.

[1] The usual form it takes is to say that something “is only” some other, seemingly more fundamental, thing. If you say, as Bertrand Russell did, that people are nothing but “chance collocations of atoms,” you ease the burden of reflecting on life, but you miss something. Take, for example, Romeo’s first sighting of Juliet on the balcony: “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East and Juliet is the sun.” Let us whimsically apply Russell’s reductionism: “But soft! What chance collocation of photons through yonder gap in a chance collocation of atoms breaks? In that arbitrary direction ‘Juliet’ is another chance collocation of atoms.” Thus is love reduced to physics.


Pictures at an Educational Exhibition: Still Life with Elephant

What is right with this picture, and wrong with that one?

I have reported before on Loreto College, the Mancunian comprehensive school a majority of whose pupils come from impoverished wards of Manchester. The school is one of Great Britain’s best and has a 50% acceptance rate of its applicants to the ancient universities (Oxford and Cambridge). Loreto High School is now adding to the physical nourishment of its students, too, by hiring excellent chefs to prepare tasty and nutritious lunches in the school’s kitchens. The object was to get away from pink slime, white goo, green gunk, and steaming mysteries in gray and brown. What happens when the new dishes are rolled out? The students of Loreto sit down and eat their vegetables.

Consider by contrast other schools where, in lunch “hours” as brief as twenty-five minutes, Daddy’s little vacuum cleaner gobbles a Chick Fil-A or a Big Mac prepared by a “nutrition” company and supplied ready to go at the schools’ cook-free “kitchens.” The political and operational situation of these schools makes genuine nutrition impossible, but the refusal of students to eat such food would subvert even the best plan to fix good lunches.

What does the wrong picture typify on more than one level?

There is a striking parallel of the politics behind factory feeding to the inclusion of “education” companies in the rollout of the Common Core as a business model featuring morsels—gobbets?—whose “digestion” is assessed by multiple-choice standardized tests. Just as factory food provides junk nutrition, factory testing certifies junk education. The parallel is made nearly exact by my former colleague the public-university administrator, who reports that students at that university savage their demanding teachers in course evaluations, refusing the “dishes” set before them.

What are the people who report on the second picture telling us?

Many reports do not tell us what we need to know. They mention incidentally or not at all the complete failure of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to come anywhere near the impossible goal it set for achievement in 2014—a goal that is still on the books. Nor are they paying any critical attention to the incipient impossibility of the goals in the sidestep plan, RAce to the Top (RAT).

Two Living Rooms and Two Elephants

NCLB called for universal proficiency by the end of high school. Since that elephant is politically impossible to remove from the living room, we now have a plan to tiptoe into another living room with another elephant[1]. The plan says, in effect, that a country that could not be made universally proficient in ten years by public education will now be made universally “college or career ready” in two or three years. What is more, this magical thinking appears to be accepted at face value by those reporting on it.

The Visionary Gleam Stops Here

Hence a recent report in The New York Times about the schools of Washington state, which stand to lose their Federal funding because they have refused to enter either of the living rooms. The reporter cast their decision as a “political” move to an “outdated” program whose “benchmark” is “all but impossible to achieve.” The whole truth behind this half-truth is that the “benchmarks” of both programs are all but impossible to achieve. What is more, the non-“outdated” program requires teachers to be evaluated by a demonstrably idiotic and ineffective system.  Is it possible that Washington, like the Montgomery County schools, could decide that enough junk is enough?


[1] I imagine Arne Duncan in a sad echo of Churchill’s “chicken and neck speech” proudly declaiming of RAT, “Some living room! Some elephant!”