By the Numbers

Statistics…are laid down for our guidance.—Lady Bracknell

Teaching is an act of perpetual discretion.—Professor Barzun

When Lady Bracknell first said that, Oscar Wilde expected his audience to laugh at her. One mark of how far our culture has moved from 1895 is the sense we get now that Of course they are laid down for our guidance! Why else would we have them? It is almost not a joke that the apocryphal woman with four children, hearing that one in every five births is Chinese, decided not to have another baby because she didn’t want it to be Chinese.

Nearly as mixed up as the Sinophobic mother is often the educationist or politician whose calls for action proceed from misused statistics and end in trouble. Educationists’ or politicans’ desire to give young people an education should be driven by the wish to see particular individual graduates who are knowledgeable, capable, and discerning. The stats should be an afterthought for the record only, especially if they are drawn from results on standardized tests.

A story that appeared recently in The New York Times will illustrate an aspect of the problem. The principal of an elementary school populated mainly by poor immigrants and other seemingly backward students, well liked by those students, their parents, and school-district officials, had to be fired in order for her school to qualify for funds under a certain Federal program. The reason was that the students, many of them fresh off the boat, scored poorly on standardized tests. The law required either the principal to be fired or the school to be closed down.

Now, that may sound all right to the firm-action enthusiasts, but it is not all right in a world that values discretion: not so much circumspection, though of course teaching often requires it, as separating, distinguishing, and using latitude of choice and decision properly and effectively (Merriam-Webster). Intellectually, the mandate is on a par with the Sinophobe’s decision to have no more kids.

The test for which the principal was fired required students to read a passage about the first moon landing aboard the Eagle spacecraft. One of the questions was whether the passage was fiction or nonfiction. One of the students reported answering that it was fiction because he reasoned that no one can actually ride to the moon on an eagle. Given his background, he had no idea that a space ship could actually fly to the moon, or that its name, in italics, is distinguished from a label, in Roman type. His not knowing the answer was not due to stupidity, nor was it due to a failure of school in his new homeland to teach him reading.

But there is a more troubling element in this test. Telling fiction from nonfiction is a rather sophisticated operation. Many adults cannot do it reliably, as some media recognize with pleasure and profit. If we think it important to ask ten-year-olds to make a distinction that those media happily depend on adults’ not making, we must do so with discretion and not a one-size-fits-all question.

I have not seen the test, but I guess that the students were given a multiple-choice question like This passage is a work of a) news b) history c) fiction d) persuasion. The question was probably worth one point like all the others. Though the answer can be graded easily by a machine, and though the answers to many such questions may easily produce something that could be called a statistic about educational attainment, there are problems. Such questions leave out of account all parts of a judgment except the result, and they prevent us from using our discretion to size up a student’s attainments. This particular question also omits to deal with the problem of classification that it presents without allowing an entirely satisfactory answer. The structure and requirements of a certain kind of standardized test actually rule out questions that would elicit thoughtful answers, forcing a sometimes unsatisfactory choice among a number of givens.

School districts and other government entities want numbers on the cheap and are impatient with demands for subtlety and discretion. They then use these results to decide on the awarding or withholding of money that districts or schools need for their programs. Also, teachers with very large numbers of students naturally look for ways to lessen their burden of work: there is a strong and understandable temptation (that should be resisted if possible) to use machine-scorable tests or their hand-graded simulacra. So it’s not surprising that these tests are widespread, but it is sad, and it is destructive of good education. At some point people will stop—have stopped—thinking of an education as something incidentally sized up by a variety of means including examination and instead think of an examination as the goal towards which an education proceeds. If what mattered in education were what can be examined by multiple-choice questions, much that is good in teaching and learning would be swept away. Even more would go if the resulting statistics were laid down for the guidance of those who must continue to teach and learn.


Trips in Deep Water

Those of us who remember particular school trips fondly and who have subsequently become teachers now realize that there was much more to them than met our young eyes, and more than often meets parents’ eyes. The amount of planning most of them need would surprise someone not familiar with the work, but there is more: Even the most innocuous-seeming ones can turn difficult or perilous in an instant. Difficulty and peril can’t be entirely eliminated except by avoiding life or by shuffling through it in wrappings and shin-guards. Somewhere between this stance and a blithe disregard of caution lies the right way to take a school trip. Exactly where needs some teasing out.

So does the possibility that school trips are less than meets the eye; that they do not amount to much more than an excuse for a cut-up. In an earlier posting I said that school-wide play days, honestly so called, could serve this purpose. I think that trips should generally have more important goals. Some questions follow, which examine trips’ usefulness balanced against their potential for poor learning and for trouble.

Since no trip is risk-free, the first question must be What about this parti­cular trip makes it worth at least a minimum of risk? It must yield a modicum of value, to be assessed with a clear eye and no baloney. The Activity Director’s “Default Setting” should not be “yes;” it should be “tell me more.” His or her judgment should not be compromised by having to sidle up to a “core value” claiming that “our school values field trips for their own sake” or its equivalent in Edspeak such as “our school seeks out the intrinsic benefits of mobile experiential learning.” Though the trip might have many kinds of value, the most important kind would be curricular value: students will learn something the curriculum requires them to learn. Other values, such as “bonding” or “team-building,” might better find their cultivation in work and activity on the school grounds.

The next question is How does it fit in with other plans and activities, both curricular and extracurricular? An administrator must be ready, like Solomon, to decide at need between competing activities, or, like P. T. Barnum, he will end up with all of them in the tumultuous tent. Something is educational—or “miseducative” (John Dewey’s word)—partly intrinsically and partly as a result of its juxtaposition with students’ other opportunities—demands—distractions. Dewey thought that a whirligig of weakly connected or disconnected activities would be miseducative:  If the kids are in a whirl of things to do, the learning will be faulty, or they will learn the wrong thing.

Will the trip include too many attractive nuisances or too much opportunity for idle mischief—I mean inappropriate behaviors? Nuisances can become more attractive to students who are not absorbed by the main event. How sure are we that they will be? Long stretches of vacant or repulsive time are an invitation to the boredom whose ensuing choice is often subversion or trouble.  Rather have too much to do than too little.

What is the state of relations in general between parents and the school, in particular between parents and the teachers acting as chaperons? A school with healthy, trusting relations will have more leeway for trips than one whose relationships are mistrustful, adversarial, or litigious. This relationship should be the object of a clear-headed examination notwithstanding any claims to the contrary, such as a “core value” stating that, say, “Parent – school cooperation is foundational to our mission.”

If special understanding or expertise is advisable, does a chaperon have it? If not, will there be someone readily available who has it? A class going to a beach will want to know that a chaperon can read the surf, spot rip tides, and use a lifesaver’s can. If not, there had better be a lifeguard. How will availability of the needed expertise be ascertained?

Do all adults understand that they are not to play for popularity among students by disregarding rules, especially those that other chaperons are visibly enforcing? It’s surprising how many “grown-ups” will say to themselves and even to students, “Well, Mrs. Dust may think that’s a good rule, but I am a hero, so I will disregard it.”

Do the students understand procedures for gathering, for quieting down, and for receiving urgent instructions? Have these been reviewed and, if necessary, drilled? As an example, a group of students, no matter the size, should be able, when signaled, to become silent and attentive within seconds.

Some comments to follow the questions:

No first-year teacher should ever lead a school trip except under the direction of another teacher experienced in leading trips.

Chaperons other than teachers should be known to and approved by the school’s administration; otherwise, they should not “count” in determining the student – teacher ratio of the trip or be allowed in charge of small groups when the large one breaks up.

Students should not consider attending a trip their right irrespective of prior behavior and reliability. If deciding what this means ends up being a sticking-point among warring factions, it might be better to give up the trip than to have a stinker-student win a battle to go and then destroy a trip’s chance for peace or safety.

Though of course a student’s coming to harm is the salient disaster of any trip in which it occurs, a word might be spared for the teachers in charge, irrespective of blame. Having been assigned duty on a trip, maybe because no one else was available, an inexperienced chaperon on a trip that goes bad is like Pip during his first time in the whaleboat in Moby-Dick. One moment, things are going as planned; three minutes later, Pip is a castaway, feeling “an immense concentration of self in the middle of…a heartless immensity,” whose “ringed horizon [begins] to expand around him miserably.” That horizon, seemingly with only menace, guilt, and sorrow in the offing, must feel like the most distant in the universe.


More from the Didact’s Dictionary

cutting edge n. [used with “on the”] or adj. [with hyphen] A cliché used to describe an educational movement, technology or technique whose uselessness, waste, or harm has not yet been proven by experience in classrooms. Examples from the past: open classrooms, new math, whole language, and mobile computer labs.

Edspeak n. The skein of bad language tangled around the field of education, sometimes praised by its users as “professional.” Its characteristic vices are vagueness, feigned objectivity, love of cliché, baloney, regressive sentimentality, euphemism, faddism, and scientism–sometimes all in one sentence, though no prizes are given.

essay [Fr. essai, try] n. [archaic] A composition in which the author tries to present or discuss a point with economy, skill, intelligence, rhetorical art, and respect for the reader.  Some schools have replaced it with the I-search paper and FAQs (qq.v.).

FAQs n. A composition in which all the reader’s needs are anticipated except those that are ignored. (Cf. “classic prose[1],” whose motives are not need but curiosity, delight, and respect.)

Gloucester, Duke of n. A British aristocrat who described The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to its author as “another damned, thick, square book.” His type was to have been made obsolete by the Jeffersonian ideal and by public institutions of learning like the University of Virginia, which he (Jefferson, not Gloucester) founded.

I-search paper n. [a nonce word that has outlasted the nonce] A kind of non-fictional composition that makes a virtue of absorption in one’s own world, just what high-school students need.

index n. The search engine of a book. It is read when Google is offline by research grunts needing quotations unimpaired by explanatory and connecting ideas.

multitasking n. [non-standard] claiming to divide the attention into an undiminished quotient, as in 3 ÷ 3 = 3.

peer editing n. editorial homeopathy, in which like cures like.

threaded discussion n. [non-standard] an artificial typed conversation. It simulates talk the way molasses simulates quick­silver but without being able to leave a good taste in the mouth.

!?! An end mark used by writers whose skill is not as great as their indignation.

[1] Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner, Clear and Simple as the Truth, passim.


Hey, Culligan Man!

I sometimes share with my students Robert Frost’s observation that “unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you’ve had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere.” The reactions vary from the predictable ad hominem argument that “he’s just saying that because he’s a poet” to more nuanced thinking, but almost never anything like even provisional acceptance. Most students would never consider, say, that “natural selection” is a metaphor. Most of them, even if they have heard of a cliché, would not think of it as a dead metaphor that has been dug up by its employer for a bad job of verbal zombie work.

The danger to which we expose ourselves in being strangers to the metaphor is not a Night of the Living Dead, though bad writing and speaking do arouse horror in some of their readers and listeners. Rather, it is in an inability to produce sound thinking by metaphor or, when presented with it, an inability to get it. William James in 1890 described the mind as a stream of consciousness, an excellent metaphor and, I venture to guess, ultimately more successful than the one educational theorists favored forty years ago: that the mind was a computer.

(Except, of course, the behaviorists among them, who didn’t recognize the mind. An old joke has two behaviorists at sexual inter­course. After they are finished, one says to the other, “You enjoyed that a lot. How did I like it?” This post-coital query was probably framed by someone who at work in an education research lab claims that educated people meet behavioral objectives. He would probably shake his head walking away from Rodin’s Thinker, who clearly doesn’t amount to much.)

But sometimes we feel unsafe because we are at home in the metaphor. One metaphor around which teachers should feel unsafe is that “a teacher’s job is to deliver instruction.” The immediate reaction is that it makes no literal sense. To deliver something we must first have something to deliver, such as a bag of groceries, a report, or a water softener. “Instruction” is not a thing except as an illicit reification. “Deliver instruction” makes no metaphorical sense either. When I was seventeen I did part-time work as a delivery boy, and I can find no figurative (or literal) resemblance between teaching and that job.

When a teacher does focus instruction on a particular part of his subject, there is still no “delivery” as of a little parcel. It is not a delivery—not anything like it—to get students to understand Strunk and White’s Rule 3 (“Enclose parenthetic expressions in commas”) if they have not understood it before.

Two North American students of mine one year were about as different as it is possible for two students to be. One of them took two years to learn to write a coherent paragraph with a topic sentence and was still a bit shaky at the end of that time. She was diligent and she was attentive, but it took attention, diligence, and rewrites to produce that paragraph. She struggled to read Alan Paton. At the other end was the boy who in our school’s homegrown writing assessment was the only one for years to get a perfect score, which he got every time he took it. He could and did read Moby Dick very well. I mentioned in a previous posting that I sometimes share a piece with one class but not with others. With his class I decided to share D. H. Lawrence’s study of Moby Dick. His first reaction, a sound one, was that the study was idiosyncratic, brilliant and very exciting. His second reaction, also sound but more prudential, was to ask what would happen if he tried writing like Lawrence for his International Baccalau­reate examiners. I told him that unless he was feeling a great deal of confidence in his risk-taking, he might want to stick to a more orthodox style of essay-writing for the examiners but that he was free to try and imitate Lawrence when writing for me. He did, and his tries were very good indeed. Then, for his semester final, he practiced going conventional and did a good job that way too.  Both of these students learned something important, but it wasn’t off the shelf and I wasn’t their Culligan Man.


Troubling Trio

Three articles appearing within one week in The New York Times taken together illustrate one of the many difficulties in wishing that teaching and learning might be studied as a science: we must take education where we find it, not reduced to a lab-like artificiality from which few helpful conclusions can be drawn. They also suggest that the reality surrounding education is itself troubled and that research focused on an ideal but unreal classroom will yield results irrelevant to problems in the air around the real one, and that good education can take place only when larger troubles are recognized and dealt with.

The first article reported that ten law schools plan to add a blanket .333 to the grade point averages of their graduates. The reason for the raise is to make graduates’ transcripts more appealing to potential employers. The word “preposterous” seems to have been invented for this version of putting the cart before the horse. A grade should be given not to attract future notice but to evaluate past performance. In the reality of these law schools the future invades the past, hijacks it, and alters it.

But it is more, or worse, than preposterous. Think of what the students at such schools are learning outside the official curriculum. What kind of lawyer will be graduated from an institution whose education includes an invitation to collude in the misrepresentation of his academic accomp­lishment? Imagine medical schools’ adding academic gas to their graduates’ transcripts so the Mayo Clinic will hire them more readily. Imagine the Mayo Clinic’s patients!

Related to this article was another one reporting on schools and districts that graduate valedic­torians in litters. One school graduated nine, as many as the puppies my boyhood friend’s spaniel Kristen had. It is sad to think that one difference between Kristen’s puppies and these valedictorians is that the puppies were more likely to find a secure adulthood: when valedictorians are a dime a dozen, who will take a second look at them?

The third article concerns students, usually in middle school, who write horrible things about their classmates and post them on line. I am a high-school teacher and therefore do not really know the heart of middle-school darkness, but the reports that come to me sometimes sound like Colin Turnbull’s writing on the Ik of Northern Uganda. They do not jibe with my own memories of middle school, and I do not want to venture for long into that terrain. Still, the phenomenon of “text bullying” made me think of a New Yorker cartoon from the 1950’s.

It showed a boy scrawling a message on a fence about his current enemy—let us call him Billy Newsome because I can’t remember the caption exactly. The message said, “Billy Newsome is a communist.” Children are very good at absorbing the angst of the month from their environment, and many of them look at a blank fence or wall as an invitation to write about it. (Pity they don’t always see an invitation in the blank page.) The two come together in graffiti.

We usually have taboos erected against the intrusion of graffiti. We don’t want the clutter of “spontaneous me” a permanent feature of the public life. Hence graffiti are usually associated with juvenile lowlife and vandalism. In any case, graffitists have a practical limitation in the number of walls available for undetected writing. But the internet has an infinity of blank walls that crave inscription, and many children who, unrestrained by taboos not yet developed for these wide-open spaces and not monitored by parents, are happy to chip in with comments attuned to the insecurities of the moment. Knowing that someone may be looking tends to restrain the writing, but who is looking at the graffitist’s gadget except maybe his cheerleaders?

The article reports a strong desire among many parents to have schools police students’ texting and even their opportunities to text, whether or not they are at school. Naturally, there are also parents who want schools to lay off. The result is that teachers, who are already sorely pressed to teach, and administrators, sorely pressed to run schools, are being drafted into service as the life-monitors of students whose parents buy them potentially troublesome gadgets but don’t give them the preparation in morals and etiquette to use them. What if the parents can’t give them that training or make it stick?

As these articles illustrate, problems in the classroom often start outside, in the honesty and virtue—or otherwise—that students, their parents, and the schools’ administrators bring there. How we foster or combat these external influences will have as much to do with the success or failure of teaching and learning as what we do in the classroom.


Splendor in the Class

Some teaching is good even if it makes lousy TV. Movies and TV programs about classrooms tend to cloud this perception when they show an Oscar-winning actress reading Wordsworth to her classmates, looking and sounding like an Oscar-winning actress reading Wordsworth to her classmates. I love a good reading of the Immortality Ode as much as the next guy, but I don’t mind that Mrs. Knickerbocker (Yes. She taught me English in 10th grade) was not Natalie Wood, or that I am not Robin Williams.

And teachers must sometimes take what they can get in bad TV when judging how their students have done. This is especially true when judging understanding, that most fugitive kind of learning. Robert Frost reported the difficulty among his students in Amherst College, saying, “I have lived with some boys a whole year over some of the poets and I have not felt sure whether they have come near what it was all about. One remark sometimes told me.” He added that this kind of understanding “will have to be estimated by chance remarks, not by question and answer.” While a teacher can frequently get more than this glimpse, teaching is better off dealing with these glimpses as and where it can than by ignoring them in favor only of responses that manifest themselves in “behavior.”

Hence the thinness, the insufficiency of “behavioral objectives” and “rubrics”* for determining some kinds of understanding, however apt they may be for determining others. Sometimes we must say with Frost that “one remark was their mark for the year; had to be—it was all I got that told me what I wanted to know. And that is enough, if it was the right remark.”

I had a telling remark one time from a 9th-grade Syrian student who discovered in class that he had a liking for Thomas Hardy. That in itself was wonderful, but when I asked him why he liked Hardy, he said, “His pessimism is attractive,” which was astounding. I guess that comment was not in any catalogue of “appreciative behaviors” ordinarily available to 9th-grade teachers. Even though Because he was below above behaviorist radar, he was well liked and even admired by his classmates. When he recited “Ah, Are You Digging on my Grave?” they listened. Their stillness and silence were a kind of understanding, and it, too, should be a part of what a teacher evaluates.

Sometimes we are distracted from the important job of looking for learning by attending to virtuoso “teaching,” beguiled from the sight of what is learned. Mr. Martin Skelton, a consultant on education, showed my colleagues and me a video of a class he had observed. It opened with the teacher calling on students to show recently learned tumbling moves, and they ran out like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show under his capable direction. Afterwards many of us commented on the coherence of the lesson, the enthusiasm of the students, and the engagement of the teacher.

Mr. Skelton’s question was, “Did you notice that no learning took place?” No, none of us had noticed that, but it was true, as we could see when we viewed the video a second time. No original instruction took place, nor was any student held accountable for muffed moves. If it had been part of a Christmas program, it might have had a purpose in entertainment, but as a lesson it was pointless. One teacher, feeling chagrin at the failure of perception, rationalized by saying that the teacher was “consolidating,” but we all got Mr. Skelton’s point.

The aim of the ensuing discussions was to consider how we might “look for learning” in the classroom to help decide whether our classroom teaching was working. The good teacher must have a good eye and a sturdily modest ego. It is often diffi­cult to know if the kids are learning, for sometimes we hide a dreary shower in razzle-dazzle or the “wonderfulness of me.” Nor does it help to be tied up in notions of crude visibility of learning when assessing it, though some learning is of course remarkably visible. Think of Archimedes springing out of his bath (Behavioral objective: Behavior indicates appreciation of conception: 5/5: Springs out of bath and shouts, “Eureka!”), but remember the “chance remarks,” the passing glimmer on the face, or the misstatement fruitfully rephrased.

* This word, like so many others, is (mis)used in the Ed Biz. It originally refers to the red ochre (rubrike) words printed in an order of Catholic worship, which guide the worshippers in what to say or do. Its descendent definitions in standard English therefore have to do with established rules, customs, or practice. Its nonstandard descendent in the Ed Biz refers to guides of numerical grading that assign points according to demonstrated attainment in tasks, tests, or projects. What are we to call these guides if not “rubrics”? How about the term used in the International Bacca­laureate Organization? It is mark schemes. Rather British, but we could do with a little hands-across-the-seamanship.


The Devil Made Me Say It

Today I offer entries from The Didact’s Dictionary, with apologies to Ambrose Bierce.

Baby Einstein®: The name of a series of proprietary videos by the Walt Disney Company, a corporation with a profitable record in education. We may worry when  Baby Einstein products and MOOCs start to resemble each other.

balonist (bə-lōn΄-ist) n.: one who offers or requires baloney. Not to be confused with a balloonist, whose hot air is confined to his balloon. Cf. “Baloney Bingo”; Richard van de Lagemaat offers a workshop in “Baloney Detection across the Curriculum,” but not at schools of education (q.v.).

brand n.: 1. a proprietary mark burned into the hides of livestock to identify their herds and to distinguish them from members of other herds. 2. a proprietary name given to a product to distinguish it from other similar products. v. 1. (standard) to apply such a mark, which is permanent 2. (non-standard): to use the services of a balonist, often called a Chief Marketing Officer (CMO), help people pretend that a leopard has changed its spots. Sometimes applied to schools’ efforts to position (q.v.) themselves.

education, school of n. 1. any of a number of imaginary institutions that impart sound principles and practices of teaching to their students with a minimum of baloney. 2. any of a number of real institutions that do not.

education for the 22nd Century: Is it too soon to brand a century? CMOs and balonists of the future think not.

mission n.: a statement, not necessarily accurate or intelligible, by a school of its reason for existing, usually by imparting vaguely described super powers to its graduates. Example: “Our graduates will demonstrate appropriate critical thinking behaviors in a global context for a variety of self-actualizing purposes in keeping with the aims of personal fulfillment and good world citizenship.” Often considered important in branding and positioning (qq.v.).

position: n. (used with “assume the”): a stance often adopted by a teacher in the ordinary course of work. v. (non-standard, usually used of shape-shifting by organizations) to play make-believe about oneself or one’s product with respect to similar products and to brand accordingly, as with Baby Einstein,® or a school or university that sees education as a product.

standard (stănd΄-ərd) n.: 1. something set up and established by authority as a rule for the measure of quantity, weight, extent, value, or quality. 2. (educ.)a. a statement of a particular thing the graduate of a school can do. b. a claim made by a balonist of what the graduate of a school or university will be able to do, but what the graduate will not actually be able to do. adj.: well established by usage in the speech and writing of the educated and widely recognized as acceptable. (ant.: non-standard)



Mr. Eyal Ophir, a recent graduate of Stanford, reports that “shortly after he came to Stanford, a professor thanked him for being the one student in class paying full attention and not using a computer or phone.” This item stimulated a memory of my own undergraduate days. The scene: a chemistry lecture. Professor Reinmuth, perhaps unfairly stigmatized as a dull lecturer, noticed that two students were whispering to each other. He paused for a moment and, when they did not take the hint, announced, “Gentlemen, you are excused.” The offenders slinked from the room. That was the one time during my undergraduate career when I saw any students not paying attention, or not appearing to pay attention, to what the professor was saying. It never occurred to me that students could have, should have, might have multiple tasks during a class.

Professor Reinmuth eventually took private lessons in public speaking and later in his career was complimented for the quality of his lectures; but, dull or brilliant, they were the center of the class, and students were expected to attend to them. In his class and in all my classes I took notes, using the left side for quick one-word and symbolic margin­alia, which I would later amplify. I had no idea that I had privately invented “Cornell notes,” as they are now called in the Ed Biz.

Nor had I any idea that in my review of marginalia I would be doing something increasingly rare not just in class but outside: building purposefully and soundly on information and ideas previously encountered. The same New York Times article reporting on Mr. Ophir also reports on his psychology research, which shows that people who habitually divide their attention (what is called “multi­tasking”) tend to be easily distracted. More troubling, multitaskers, when faced with the choice of getting new information or of analyzing what they already have, prefer the new. That response, which made sense in an environment full of leopards and brush fires, makes less sense in one where people must pause for consideration, synthesis, and judgment. It is strange and disquieting to think that new technologies might promote atavistic responses and leave untested or actually diminish mental powers needed in environments other than caves and savannahs.

(William James wondered whether there can be such a thing as too much peace and perfection, leading us to recoil from Chautauqua meetings, wishing for dirt and dust-ups. Maybe the people who multitask feel a lurking nostalgia for leopards and brush-fires, but this is a blog about teaching and learning, not about paleoanthropology in everyday life.)

The short of it is that Mommy’s little throwbacks may be noticing many shiny new things, but they should be learning to pay attention. That is because they should be learning how to hold to something new long enough to become familiar with it, to analyze it, and to find or make a place for it amidst what they already know (or to boot it out). Otherwise they will have an attic instead of a mind. Attics are fine, but they are upper rooms, not living rooms.

One of the best ways to acquire the intellectual and mental powers I am talking about is to take a long course of instruction in a traditional subject. The traditional subjects (say, the Seven Liberal Arts or any subject under the tutelage of a Muse), having been around for hundreds or thousands of years, have developed ways of analyzing and synthesizing (or rejecting) the raw data submitted to their consideration. By assimilating these ways, students start to furnish their minds, thus making a starting-point for the development of their own skill and understanding. A subject teaches not just a subject matter but how to handle it, though we can’t handle the matter unless we learn to pay attention long enough to have ideas about it. A young mind, guided by the accomplishments of the past, learns inclusion, arrangement, analysis, and synthesis; by the transfer effect, these powers can turn to other, newer subjects once they are developed and can assimilate the new material and make something worthwhile out of it.

They will not develop by being subjected to “courses” in “critical thinking” or “information literacy.” Subjects have their particular ways of testing their own truth claims, and these ways have themselves been tested in years of struggle, rejection, and proof. By contrast, what is the likelihood of students new to history producing something of value when asked to tell in critical-thinking courses “how they feel” about the causes of current tension in the Middle East?

Information literacy, if it has a meaning, means the ability to do well what Mr. Ophir reports as harming our concentration and as lessening the suppleness with which we change mental direction purposively. It is electronic gobbet-gathering. For the 97% of students who are likely to be unsuccessful multitaskers, information literacy will be a dead end marked by a heap of facts and wasted time. By contrast, let the following story illustrate literacy-without-qualification.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was lecturing an audience about Samuel Johnson. While telling them about Dr. Johnson’s practice of letting his home serve as a halfway house for down-and-out or destitute people, he mentioned a “fallen woman” called Poll, whom Dr. Johnson had brought home one night half dead over his shoulder (she gradually regained her health at his house). The audience started laughing. Coleridge coolly said, “I remind you of the parable of the Good Samaritan.” The audience stopped laughing. Coleridge’s literacy allowed him not just to recognize the story but to apply it in a live situation. The audience’s literacy allowed them to respond: twelve words and a reaction. They might have gained knowledge about the Good Samar­­­itan in a course of study, but they gained it in a way that allowed them, perhaps by further study and thought, to attend to it and foster its potential for live influence rather than to drop it for the next shiny new thing that came along. If learning includes knowledge, skill, and understanding, what could literacy mean except the ability to do what Coleridge and his audience did? And how could they have done so without the ability to pay attention?


At the Table

We often speak of a teacher’s philosophy of teaching, but we rarely speak of a classroom’s, and yet classrooms do have their philosophies and can impress them on teachers. Sometimes that is a good thing.

In the 1930’s the Phillips Exeter Academy adopted the “Harkness Table” as the result of a gift whose donor specified that the classrooms using his gift should have classes conducted as conferences in which students were encouraged to speak up and discuss.

Some years ago I watched a video of a math class being conducted at a Harkness table at Exeter. The dynamic was decentralized and exploratory, with small groups of students working independently at different problems, discussing and chalk-talking their way through them either on boards or in clusters at the table on paper. The teacher had a noticeable but unobtrusive presence: his role was advisory. During this class he did not direct any comments to the group as a whole, but let them get on with their exploration and learning.

At some point later in my own career I thought I was ready to try some of the Harkness lessons. I got some encouragement from a colleague and from a classroom. By an accident fortunate for me, the classrooms at the school where I taught were furnished in half-hexagonal tables that could be arranged into a kind of doughnut that simulated a large Harkness table. My colleague had done so, and I decided to follow suit.

Some good things immediately ensued, and some bad things vanished. No more students in the back of the class doodling (it was too long ago for them to be texting their friends). No more of the kind of student who vanishes in the third row, never to be heard from again. Everyone was in the front row in places of equal importance. The quality of discussion improved, and with it, understanding. It turned out that the doughnut had its uses. When the class broke into its discussion and work groups, I could stroll inside and outside them.

Another colleague of mine used the tables to form hexagons for a number of work groups when they were needed. He could also form the doughnut. A third colleague went with the doughnut as I did. The only time we arranged the tables traditionally was during exams, and our classes were better for the other arrangements.

Of course, more than just an arrangement of tables is needed for a good class. To start with, classes should be small enough that the whole group can function as a discussion group. In my experience the ideal size of such a class is from twelve to fifteen students. I once attended a class at St. John’s College, Santa Fe, whose object was to read and discuss The Ambassadors. A group of twenty-two was workable in that class because all the members of the class understood St. John’s way of conducting discussions, all were motivated, and all were mature. One can’t count on those conditions among ninth-graders discussing the tenth chapter of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or eleventh-graders digging in to William James on “The Perception of Reality.”

The next requirement is that all students—and the teacher!—share a way of discussing. That way is an old-fashioned one: conversation. For the same reason it takes years to prepare a dinner for six, it takes much time and effort to get ready for a twelfth-grade colloquium on Isaiah Berlin’s “Equality.” Students should know or be taught how to manage themselves in one. They should understand why a class is not like those televised eruptions of shouting heads, not even during a “class debate.”

Now, the teacher is of course not strictly a conversationalist and must be ready to advise students when they need it. Students should learn to recognize certain traps and not to fall into them—post hoc—question-begging—tu quoque—special pleading—ad hominem. My beginning students easily and frequently beg the question, most of them not having learned what question-begging is until I tell them in 11th grade. It would also help if students learned to avoid bad habits of speech such as using “like” as a space-filler or saying “I’m like” instead of “I said.” (A New Yorker cartoon shows a Valley Ophelia telling Gertrude, “So he’s like ‘To be or not to be,’ and I’m like ‘Get a life.’”)

Another line tells us that a classroom is a place where twenty children sit and watch a grown-up work. That is the approach invited by the classroom arranged in rows facing a teacher’s desk, or lectern, or podium. For a traditional lecture, nothing could be better; and there are times when only a traditional lecture will do. But other aims call for other means, and a classroom and teacher adaptable to those means can bring about results achievable in no other way.


Baloney Bingo

What are we to think of a proposal that a school’s mission should be to produce “motiv­ated global contributors”? The proposer said in support of the phrase that “I like the word ‘global.’” Now, I like the word “nectarine” but would not want it in a school’s mission.  Nor, even if I particularly liked the word “global,” would I want it in the phrase “motivated global contributors.”

The reason for suspecting this phrase has to do with the ideal of aptness in language—not an easy ideal to work with. That is why most civilized countries insist on years of instruction in language, why people who are keen on words push beyond their lessons to explore what words can do, and why Shelley would not defend poetry by saying that it helps one pass multiple choice tests. It is why learning a language is more about understanding than about knowledge, though it is very much about knowledge.

Given the need for years of instruction mixed with and followed by more years of exploration and acquaintance, it is shocking how little the teaching profession thinks of good language, to judge by what it permits and even encourages in profes­sional speech and writing.

Consider again the proposed mission statement: we don’t know what a “global contributor” is. The phrase carries a vague suggestion, maybe of making a great impact in the world, or maybe of thinking of the consequences of what one does for the world as a whole, or maybe of philanthropy on a worldwide scale, or maybe of returning to the Earth what one takes from it, whatever that may be.

Another problem is the insistence on motivation, as if having motives would be supererogatory normally, but not at our school. And never mind what the motives may be, so long as we have them.

It is hard, when confronted with an expression like this one, to avoid conclud­ing that the proposer doesn’t particularly care what it means so long as it “sounds good.” A “good sound” doesn’t even have to be euphonious; it merely needs to be vaguely suggestive of a moral or social good—the more vaguely, the better.

The field of education is full of this kind of talk and writing, of which the mission statement is not a particularly egregious example. It does not have to be so. Read excellent writers on teaching—Plato, Rabelais, William James, Mortimer Adler—and you move into another climate of discourse, one free of the usual dreary showers.

I think there are two explanations for the predominance of bad language in education. One is that we are nearly the world’s oldest profession, many of whose excellent practitioners have been leaving their thoughts behind for thousands of years. Someone who whose ambition embraces more than teaching—who may be a Global Education Contributor—may feel daunted by or resentful of this repository of well-written wisdom and advice. Such a person will try for new language if he or she can’t come up with new thoughts; and if the previous language was apt, the new language is liable to a falling-off.

The other is educationists’ predilection for baloney, a kind of talk that Professor Barzun calls “flatulent Newspeak.” This taste has many explanations, none of them to the credit of the profession. Professor Frankfurt wrote a famous philosophy paper about one variety of baloney, “bullshit,” which arises from a lack of concern with accuracy and the truth as compared with, say, the wish to sound good or to say what people want to hear.

No signs exist anywhere of a general move away from baloney.  What are ordinary teachers to do when presented, as they inevitably will be, with language that offends their intellect and their aesthetic and moral sense? I am grateful to a colleague for a suggestion: the game of Baloney Bingo.

To play, produce a series of bingo cards, but instead of having the numbers 1 – 75, these cards should have a word or phrase taken from current baloney in the field. Each letter (B-I-N-G-O) has fifteen possible words or phrases. Here are fifteen suggestions:













personal opinion




Put five of these phrases under the letter “B” instead of the five usual numbers. Do so with all five letters except the free space. Distribute cards to your colleagues, who then take them to faculty meetings, teachers’ conferences, and professional development courses. Each time you hear one of the words or phrases, mark it. The first person to get BINGO wins.

It probably won’t do to interrupt meetings and conferences with cries of BINGO, so you should just note the time when you hear a phrase. After the meeting, compare cards so that the teacher with the earliest time of completion wins. Beware of offering prizes for bingo games at conferences, lest they produce a perverse side-effect: Imagine a really dreadful BINGO-maker giving a talk that would normally be shunned. Suddenly this BMer will become the most popular speaker at the conference. One way to judge a conference is to see how quickly it produces BINGOs.

Baloney Bingo may not solve the problem of awful language, but it will allow you to have fun with it, and teachers must often take their rewards where they can find them.