The Arts of Give and Take

Education is not escaping the imperative to mechanize, as David Bromwich[1] details in his article “Trapped in the Virtual Classroom.” Though Bromwich’s article is also worth reading for its reflections on our intellectual wrong turns, I welcome it for its concern with the “arts of give and take,” which include conversation and Socratic discussion.

These arts are vital, and they are under threat. One of the chief threats comes from a perverse determination by educators and their commercial epigones to ignore elements of knowledge that do not lend themselves to mechanized treatment, and indeed to ignore elements of the mind that cannot be reduced to machine-likeness. How else could we have reached the point where knowledge of a subject is equated with the ability to take multiple-choice tests?

Take a classroom—mine—in which Theory of Knowledge students are examining how ethical knowledge is constituted and justified. The treatment is bound to be introductory and perhaps unavoidably cursory, but this course is not itself meant to be an ethics course. This week’s topic was corruption. Small groups were asked to consider the Texarkana test preparation case[2] and the Atlanta cheating scandal and to come up with a definition of corruption that would cast a net around the bad fish but let the good fish escape. Their definitions went on the board, and I wrote a Socratic question by each one. They are invited to a conversation in which they reconsider their definitions in light of my definition-specific questions and these further questions:

1.     Are teachers who erase their students’ wrong test answers and fill in right answers corrupt?

2.     Are teachers who give their students right answers to tests corrupt, and are the students who receive them corrupt?

3.     Are teachers who offer courses of test preparation corrupt and are students who take them corrupt?

All of this is done using the “arts of give and take.” Nothing like the considered treatment and discussion would be possible in a mechanized transmission of information followed by multiple-choice testing. A good classroom seeks and sometimes achieves this educational virtue, and it is important to remember that such virtuous classrooms are not virtual.

[1] The Sterling Professor of Literature at Yale

[2] Used by Donald Campbell in his formulation of Campbell’s Law


Roll Up Your Sleeves

Yesterday our school had its ‘Inter-house Swimming Gala,’ a day-long contest in which the school’s houses swam for victory, or waited to swim for victory. Hong Kong is studded with municipal swimming pools or, more accurately, complexes comprising many pools and ‘lakes’ with geographic features and, in the case of ‘our’ pool, bleachers; for we had the gala at one of the municipal pools.

I took not one but two seats in the Sargent House bleachers: one for myself and one for the steady stream of students who came by to talk during the gaps between cheers about their IB English submissions and their college admission essays. Finally, a bit after my last student conference and a bit before the end of the gala, I left with a colleague to attend a citywide meeting of teachers of the IB’s Theory of Knowledge course. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the recently released ‘Prescribed Titles’ for ToK essays, due in March. The talks were productive and helpful.

This morning I had a letter from a former colleague, also of mature years if not as mature as mine, who with his wife took a job at another school in east Asia. Now, this former colleague established and ran one of the world’s pre-eminent Model United Nations conferences and took his students to two other conferences in addition to his work as a successful IB history teacher. He wrote to say that he was overwhelmed with work, though I guess he will find a way, as he always used to do, to stay on top of it. (When I had to go in to the school on weekends, as often as not he was there planning the week or the conference ahead. He is the teacher who taught me to use classroom furniture flexibly depending on the kind of lesson to be taught.)

Also this morning I read a wonderful article in The New York Times about Xavier University, a Catholic historically black college founded in New Orleans by St. Katharine Drexel, which has the most successful rate of placing African-American graduates in medical schools of any undergraduate program in the country, including the Ivies. I was highly impressed by the determined dedication to teaching and learning displayed by its faculty, and by the same kind of dedication displayed by its students, many of whom were from disadvantaged backgrounds and the first in their families to attend college.

The title of today’s posting is the Text: “Roll Up Your Sleeves.” Though care must be taken to avoid burnout in students or teachers, the late Jaime Escalante, a high-school teacher of renown, put succinctly what he thought the “secret” of success in teaching and learning was: “a very simple and time-honored tradition: hard work for teacher and student alike.”


“Are Our Kids Tough Enough?”

The three-hour BBC documentary “Are Our Kids Tough Enough?” is about a group of Chinese teachers who travel to England in an experiment to teach 9th grade using Chinese methods for a month. It portrays the ways of teaching typically employed at excellent Chinese schools and in our laboratory school, which is rated Outstanding by Ofsted, the British office that inspects and regulates state schools. Watch it, but watch it with caution.

I think it is important to spoil the suspense at the outset: the Chinese teachers produce significantly better results with English pupils than do the teachers of an outstanding English state school. The reason you need to know this at the outset is that there is not very much evidence presented in the documentary of how these results are attained. Scene after scene shows boys & girls charmingly rebelling against the harsh and demanding teaching regime, sleeping during lectures, making mischief, and dissolving in tears; the classrooms are appalling nightmares of mismanagement and ineptitude. If the classes were really so constantly awful, how did the teachers succeed? The documentary will not tell us.

The makers of the documentary do a bit of playing to the British gallery. The soundtrack includes music from old prison-camp movies, the Chinese teachers are usually (but by no means always) shown as severe by contrast with the gentle British teachers, and the troublemakers are articulate and sympathetic, not feckless louts. The whole experiment is treated as a competition till near the end.

Again and again the charge is made during the documentary that Chinese teaching does nothing but tell students to take notes and memorize. This in spite of (brief) footage shown during the last hour of Chinese teachers giving help and encouragement, and of students working out an understanding. It also ignores the PISA results on solving problems with which students are not familiar, in which Chinese students outdo British and American.

In short, the documentary does an incomplete job. We are left with some big unanswered questions. They have to do with “Chinese methods,” but they also and more importantly have to do with the culture of learning. It may be that the larger questions are not questions of pedagogy but questions about what a culture values in its young.

We are not answering those questions in a culture where expectation and blame fall on teachers but not on students, parents and society.