Water Water Everywhere

April 16th, 2016

I’ve been away from these postings for a while, but I’m rumbling out of hibernation partly because of Hong Kong’s early spring weather (80s with humidity and rain. I just imagined Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong singing ‘April in Hong Kong’, but it lacks something). More than rain splashed me: Friday was the IB Grade 12s’ last day of lessons before their reading period for the exams begins.

It was rainy, but the G12s, who come to school out of uniform that day, spent some early hours ‘preparing’ the IB Building for the occasion, including booby-trapping the elevator, affixing satirical posters, and raising a huge color banner of Chairman Mao with the IB Coordinator’s face digitally superimposed on the rest of the bust. Against this backdrop they all spent the morning soaking each other and sometimes their teachers with water guns and water balloons. The IB Coordinator received a thorough drenching, and I did not entirely escape the water guns, though spoilsport that I am, I wore my Bean foul weather gear and managed to stay dry underneath. I am not sure it would have protected me against a water balloon to the head, and at one point I thought the jig was up when I rounded a corner and saw dead ahead of me one of my students eye me appraisingly while hefting a water balloon. But I was reprieved as another. more gratifying, target presented itself.  By lunchtime the festivities were over, and the students had cleaned up the broken water balloons and sodden posters and banner. All that was left was the soaking wet building, which was wet to begin with because of the rain.

All the students had a good time, but one student’s face spoke eloquently for the group again and again. It had a look of utterly gleeful intensity. The student to whom this face belongs will probably get a 44 or 45 next July but was having a ball that morning, till the fun and festivity ended. It was a bit like the end of Carnival in The Count of Monte Cristo or Benvenuto Cellini. Carnival is Carnival, but at some point it ends. We don’t always get to continue what makes us gleeful, as this student has the good sense to recognize.

He (along with his teachers!) has more good sense than the founders of a chain of proprietary schools designed to ‘create an educational “ecosystem” that was unusually responsive to the interests of children, feeding them assignments tied to subjects they cared about’. Any teacher reading the article linked above will shudder deeply at three depredations on teaching. One is the administrative nightmare of e-constructivism combined with data shining out of every orifice but not shedding much light. Another is its reduction of teachers to a kind of genial idiocy in support of the ‘work’ done by the students. The third was put best by Flannery O’Connor: ‘Ours is the first age in history to ask the student what he will tolerate learning.’

Not just teachers should be shuddering, and not just about careers in inanition. The article reports that the children at these schools often have a tendency to be caught in ‘rabbit holes’ of special interest, neglecting their ostensible focus of study. Who’d have thought? I for one had an early inkling. In 8th grade I was invited to join a ‘gifted and talented’ class at junior high school, which was called Individual Studies. We spent an hour a day in a room Rich in Resources, during which we could study anything we liked. Dreary basset hound of learning that I was, I started working on a report on South Asian religion. Meanwhile my friend the Golden Boy spent months—months!—working on hexaflexagons and origami fortune-telling cutouts. All of us marveled at the way he coaxed Mrs S into allowing him more and yet more time to exercise his creativity with scissors, paper, and colored pencils. By the time the class was disbanded as a constructivist boondoggle he could have out-Gardnered Martin Gardner on these little amusements, but he didn’t end up gaining much. He himself later regarded his hexaflexagism as a joke.

I have written elsewhere that it takes a Jonathan Winters to make much out of a constructivist attic and that most students are not little Winterses. He was funny, but throwing over education in favor of squirreling is no joke. One of the parents of a student at the ‘academy’ said, ‘We are very comfortable with our kids being guinea pigs.’ Such generosity! But other parents might justifiably question the wisdom of doing so, and they would be right. It is one thing to gamble away ones own money and time at ‘creative disruption’ or ‘failing forward,’ but children? There are times when even a teacher who lets students find out things for themselves must drop that approach and offer good old-fashioned guidance. There are times when the carnival ends and the water guns are put away.

Going back at least as far as Hawthorne and Melville we find American myths of a place of rightness, whether in the forests outside Boston or the mountaintop viewed from the Piazza, where everything is all right (and don”t forget the ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain‘!). But myths made immanent can turn messy. Educationist mythologizers always forget the mess at the end of Individual Studies and get misty-eyed about that mountaintop.

In China such transformationists with wrecking-balls are regarded with suspicion not because Chinese people have no imagination but because their history has examples of ‘innovation’ at work.  One was Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when schools were closed, books burned, and teachers sent in dunce caps to dig turnips in the countryside.

The second came to mind as I was reading an article on China in The New York Review. Along with the article was a Qing Dynasty painting of the First Emperor as he conducted his ‘transformational’ (but ultimately unproductive) campaign against ‘backward’ Confucian scholarship and education. It was called Burn Books Bury Scholars. In the upper background of the painting a teacher is depicted on his knees before the Emperor, who points to the foreground, where we can see two things. One is a pile of books set afire. The other is soldiers flinging teachers alive into a ravine where they are to be buried while still living.

Like Individual Studies, Burn Books Bury Scholars didn’t last, from which we may derive a grim kind of satisfaction.

I will take further satisfaction from a plan afoot for this summer. A former student, now in his final year of the Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) program at Oxford, will be back to conduct an entirely extracurricular colloquium in philosophy, including readings from Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Rousseau, Gettier, and Nozick. Students are already promising to attend.

The founders of the proprietary schools in the article linked above say that they want their students to know ‘skills that would be useful in the workplace of the future, rather than forcing them to acquire knowledge deemed important by historical precedent’. This is a double shovel-load of baloney. First, many of tomorrow’s jobs are also today’s jobs and planned for, while those that aren’t haven’t been imagined and can’t be planned for. Second, knowledge is only one of the three basic kinds of learning, the other two being skill and understanding. Historical precedent has prescribed learning that successfully promotes such skill as verbal fluency, consecutive thinking, meeting an argument, and marshaling one’s forces to solve a problem or answer a question, to name only a few. And encounters with great thinkers advance us in understanding, or should. Socratic encounters with the lesser thinkers that are one’s teachers also have these beneficial effects.

Water games should be a holiday from these endeavors, not an alternative to them.

The Counterfeit Condemnation

January 1st, 2016

Those darned teachers’ unions! They work as always, according to The New York Times, to come between the people and good education. If only they and Congress would continue to support standardized testing, ‘value’-‘added’ ‘metrics’, and the Common Core as Duncan has taught us to do, things would be fine in US education.

I have never been close enough to a teachers’ union to know personally whether it was ‘an old-stone savage…[that] moves in darkness’, though that seems improbable given what I do know[1]. Nonetheless, for the sake of argument I will assume that is true and that they are the primary enemy of good education, just to see what comes of the argument. Let us also assume that they have somehow rightly and justly vanished or exist nominally with no power.

We may further suppose that VAMs of students’ ‘achievement’ as determined by standardized tests in English and math are connected to personnel actions for teachers—say, terminations, raises and promotion—and administrative decisions such as school closures. What does that get us?

1.     Norman Polikoff of USC has shown that the correlation of VAMs to students’ learning is very low. The state of Tennessee used English test scores as the VAMs of their music and PE teachers, which suggests the possibility of negative correlation, except in PE classes where students drill grammar instead of sports. These findings are supplemented by those of New York City’s Independent Budget Office that the VAM formulas are deeply flawed.

2.     Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford has shown that in places that have adopted VAMs only 20% of teachers who score as ‘proficient’ do so the following year. This is not because they are in the habit of falling into persistent vegetative states but because the ratings are as volatile as a game of chance.

3.     Maria Ruiz-Primo of the University of Colorado (Denver) has shown that the ability of tests to capture learning decreases the more distant they are from learning itself, and that state and national standardized tests are the least likely of the test types she has examined to capture what students learn.

4.     Raj Chetty of Harvard has found that ‘value added is difficult to predict based on teacher observables.’ This means that it is difficult to know what a teacher’s VAM rating will be by observing how he conducts a class. How evidence-based!

These writers’ findings on education, taken together, suggest that VAMs are a useless and capricious measurement and that any system which uses them to evaluate teachers will be acting arbitrarily. The effect of such a system will be wayward, counterproductive and demoralizing. What intelligent person would choose a career working under such conditions? What right-minded policymaker would insist that such a system continue?

Other results would ensue. Salary scales would tend to flatten for senior teachers (assuming there are any) since no one would be fighting to keep them. Charter schools, looking for ways to make a profit at someone’s expense, would certainly flatten their salary scales. Many ‘CEOs’ of charter schools already publicly say that they don’t want teachers who have been around a while. Instead, they want short-timers, backpackers, and interns young and compliant enough to be used and then discarded after a few years (hence charter schools’ 24% annual faculty turnover). Alternatively, raises would be given on the basis of VAM ratings. Few teachers would survive the Volatile Arbitrary Measurement crapshoot with the two successive years of highly effective ratings needed to receive ‘merit’ raises. More disincentive, if such were needed, to clever and promising young people to become teachers.

Please note that in all this reform nothing has been done to improve the quality of teacher education or the standard of teachers’-college graduates. How bad are the teachers’ colleges? We could quibble, but if a study can find that only 7% of them offer ‘strong support [to student teachers] from program staff and cooperating teachers,’ most of them must not be very good.

Finally there is the fact that before students can be made college-ready or career-ready, they must be work-ready. Work-readiness does not come miraculously to most young people: it must be nurtured and developed by sound child-rearing, which does not mean permissive-indulgent ‘parenting’ and schools that give away the store. In the article the Times linked to its editorial, a boy called Imari Nicholson, after failing chemistry, pulls up his socks and aces it because he wants the college-readiness an A in chemistry will bring him. He implicitly rejects crapthink solutions provided by indulgent educationists or parents—or he doesn’t have such teachers or parents.

The Times would do well to look at all the things that can come between a child and a good education:  poor or dysfunctional upbringing, fecklessness, poor teacher education, poor school administration, lightweight curricula, counterproductive demands by government, administration by idiotic statistical systems instead of finesse and good judgment—and, yes, self-serving teachers’ unions. To concentrate on just one of them will all but guarantee that nothing changes and that some things worsen.

[1] For example: If it were true, how could the highly unionized system of education in Massachusetts produce what are widely recognized as the US’s best school results? Or, for that matter, Finland’s highly unionized system?

Look Both Ways

December 29th, 2015

One should feel gratified to look back on the departure of Bunkin’ Duncan from the Department of Education and the seeming death of No Child Left Behind, except for the persistent sinking feeling that nothing has really changed. Duncan’s replacement John King Jr. sounds as if he supports the same kinds of things Duncan did. As for NCLB: its successor act, a kind of zombie bill called Every Student Succeeds[1], seems to keep it all too, except that it de-federalizes enforcement. We may expect it to prove that bad ideas, bad policies, bad implementation and bad ‘measurement’ lead to bad results at the state level just as they did at the federal level. So much for looking back. What lies ahead?

The US will continue to have two-tier education. The first tier will comprise successful primary and secondary schools full of motivated pupils and the universities they ‘feed’. The second tier will have lots of Potemkin villages of ‘learning’ filled with disaffected desultory ‘students’ who learn little at any level—primary, secondary, or tertiary—and for whom ‘failure is not an option’ only because true education is not an option.  Though exceptions like Oakland Technical High School’s Paideia Program and New Orleans’s Xavier University will continue to be first-tier, they will prove the rule that for poor students or students of color the options are comparatively unattractive.

The US will continue to have a two-tier culture of teaching and learning. In the first tier will be those who live in places like Massachusetts with its remnant of Puritan respect for education[2], or who come from personal and family circumstances advantageous to students and from places like East and South Asia, where education remains a prized and respected attainment worth working hard for. The second tier includes the substrate analyzed by Richard Hofstadter in Anti-intellectualism in American Life, but it includes more as well. I mean the large population who while not harboring an animus against education, do not get to experience education at its best and do not particularly want to try it. They are likely to think that the Homework Lady is rigorous in her demands. Wait till they meet the Boss, assuming they can find work in the global economy.

The states will be no more successful implementing ‘value’-‘added’ ‘learning’ under ESS than was the federal government under NCLB and RAT. It is not that states are necessarily as bad as the feds at doing education administration. Massachusetts proves otherwise. It is that no one can implement VAL because it is based on something that does not exist. Worse, it operates like a chance mechanism, a stochastic process, a roll of the dice.

The Sirens of Online Learning will continue to make mischief, and many poor souls will listen. These postings have included many explanations why OLL is a second-rate alternative to live education, so let me just present the latest, which came out this week. It is a study showing that old-fashioned toys are better for babies’ language acquisition than bells & whistles are because they leave it more likely that the parents will interact with the babies. Human interaction is a key to education at all levels from infancy to adulthood, and OLL is just a gimmicked-up version of letting the gadget do the baby-sitting. But it is cheap, and it is seductive: just think: no more salary bills or pesky persons.

Nothing important will be done to put a stop to scandalously bad teacher education, nor will anything important be done to keep school administration out of the hands of incompetents or monsters of the deep. It is well known that some teachers’ colleges graduate teachers who are less knowledgeable than suburban high-school students. It is less well known that teachers as a profession are dead last in rating their work environment and their relations with their supervisors.

Teaching will be a less popular professional career option and will attract fewer bright prospects. The 24% average annual teacher turnover rate in charter schools suggests that they will have to keep manning the shovels at full steam to stay open. (Someone should man the personnel department instead.) Public schools don’t do much better. And if lessons continue a trend to make them idiot-proof, it won’t be long before only idiots will give those lessons. And then there is always that Stalinist principal[3]. We know that places like Wisconsin are making it harder for teaching to be attractive. It is appalling to think that all these averages and general statistics include schools that are very good, which means that like the Little Girl with the Little Curl, when they’re bad they’re horrid. Bright young people may do charitable turns, but except at the good schools they won’t stay. Why should they? Baloney like DoE’s TEACH ad campaign won’t make a difference. Some schools and districts will attract more clever new teachers than they know what to do with, and the others will not. It is sad to think that even with its demonstrable second-ratedness, online learning may become more popular just to (try and) fill the gaps in humanity.

[1] Too bad it wasn’t called All Students Succeed.

[2] The Boston Latin School, a public school founded in 1635, comes to mind. All students are still required to take Latin and to declaim publicly in English or another language. There are five applicants for every place.

[3] Unlike in Finland, where bright teachers are taught and then trusted. The linked article in Smithsonian magazine is worth reading from end to end.

Holiday Wishes

December 21st, 2015

May your classroom be full, but not too full, of eager students.

May your students not be jaded.

May they have turned off their gadgets before they went to bed.

May they greet you when they encounter you.

May they look you in the eye but not get in your face.

May they bless, not curse you.

May they never say “whatever.”

May they get their work done—by themselves.

May the sparks that light up their studies be sparks of interest, not Spark Notes.

May their parents appreciate what you do for them and see you as an ally.

May your classroom be live and virtuous, not virtual.

May you be the master, not the slave, of your classroom’s gadgets.

May your school’s and classroom’s routines serve not thwart your needs and your students’.

May your classroom’s main source of light be sunshine.

May its main source of sound be live voices.

May your bag of tricks be bottomless.

May the only value-added in your life be the value added to your abundantly deserved retirement accounts.

May your administrators be educators not businessmen.

May they keep education from becoming preparation for standardized tests.

May they never think that education is a product.

May they share your horror of baloney and pink slime, whether in the cafeteria, the classroom, or the office.

May they back you up not cut you down.

May your school’s mission be expressible in under ten words, none of them a superlative.

May nothing in your building leak.

May your school’s IT network work.

May value-added metrics be subtracted from your life.

May Arne Duncan enjoy a contented and very long retirement from his job as Secretary of Education.

May he spend it studying the work of Professor Harry Frankfurt.

May the Race to the Top bottom out.

May No Child Left Behind be left behind.

No Artificial Teachers!

November 6th, 2015

For the last four years I have been a critic of the advance of on-line “learning” and “virtual” “schools,” starting with  a discussion of a 2012 study showing that on-line ‘schools’ did worse at improving their students than did genuine schools. I welcome such studies but have claimed that even without them good sense could explain why they would fail and why they can’t get at the heart of good teaching. I argued that education is a humane profession not a set of processes, and that it is important for students to have real people at the core of their learning, not machines or dire transformationists.

This stance is reinforced (again) by research conducted at Stanford on the difference between on-line ‘learning’ and more traditional forms of learning. The recently released findings show that

“While findings vary for each student, the results in CREDO’s report show that the majority of online charter students had far weaker academic growth in both math and reading compared to their traditional public school peers…. This pattern of weaker growth remained consistent across racial-ethnic subpopulations and students in poverty.”  [emphasis added]

This news comes on top of the failure of California State University San Jose to implement an on-line learning program that came in with great fanfare but slunk away in ‘underwhelming’ results.

In my high-school debating team I learned to recognize ad hominem arguments—the kind that attack the person rather than the idea. Proponents of on-line ‘learning’ often say the reason teachers oppose it is that they are afraid of losing their jobs or are afraid of the unknown. Well, of course we would rather not lose our jobs, but most teachers I know offer educational arguments because they believe in them. As for the unknown: teachers don’t fear it, they face it every year on the first day of school. Skeptical readers who are not teachers are invited to manage a roomful of seventeen-year-olds and see what I mean.

I have written about undead educationist “thinking”; the stuff being talked about online “learning” qualifies as undead. It can’t be reasoned with and can’t be destroyed by research. Does anyone have a stake, a mallet, and a ton of garlic?

Carnival of Errors

October 24th, 2015

Shortly after the hasty departure of Professor Snape from Harry Potter’s school, a student asks what has happened to him. Professor McGonagall, the acting headmistress, replies, ‘He has, to use the common phrase, done a bunk.’ [Cheers] Like Snape, Bunkin’ Duncan has suddenly left the Department of Education. Unlike Snape, who was on a secret mission for the good, Duncan and his promoters seem to have done nothing but harm either in secret or in public.

A lurid but not extraordinary example exists in the unfortunate state of Tennessee. In their haste to be first in RAT[1], Tennesseans have built themselves a sinking ship of testing and teacher evaluation whose details have to be read to be believed. (Read them here.) I will choose only two to relate in this posting. (1) Teachers of ‘untested’ subjects like P.E. or music are to be evaluated by students’ math and English test scores, including students they don’t even have for P.E. or music. (2) Tenure is granted after five years only following excellent ratings for the prior two years.

The first item is so manifestly absurd and contemptible that nothing needs to be said except ‘Read your Mencken’ and ‘Where are the tar and feathers?’ but the second sounds at first like a reasonable proposal. Look more closely, though, and you will see it is just as bad, and perhaps more sinister. A Stanford professor has done research[2] determining that the measuring system is so volatile that teachers have only a 20% chance of getting excellent ratings two years in a row. That is roughly the odds of throwing a 7 in craps. Care to bet your career on a throw of the dice? Step right up! But thank Arne and DoE before you throw.

[1] RAce to the Top, the ironically named program of the Department of Education to replace one set of bad guidelines (NCLB) with another

[2] You have to pay $5 to read it, but I have saved you the time and expense by paying to read it and reporting it in this posting.

The Arts of Give and Take

September 18th, 2015

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

September 11th, 2015

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?”

September 2nd, 2015

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.

O horrible, o horrible, most horrible!

August 28th, 2015

The school where I began my teaching career required all 9th-graders to be able to write a five-paragraph essay and all 11th-graders to write a successful research paper under the dual guidance of their English teachers and one other-subject teacher. I am not a great fan of the five-paragraph essay because I hold with Barzun that ‘all systematic devices for generating good writing are a mistake.’ Even so, I see the need for some students to start with training-wheels, as it were, before the unaided bike ride actually begins.

I was therefore deeply shocked to hear about a new-teacher orientation at a state university in which the following exchange took place. One new teacher asked the Director of Academic Technology what to do with students who ‘struggle with the five-paragraph essay’ and do not like writing at all. The director replied that the teacher might make an alternative assignment ‘like a poster’. (No advice on buying crayons and scissors was given.)

The principal of my first high school would have had a better answer to that question. It would have been to advise the teacher to help the students learn the five-paragraph essay. If a student had been foolish enough to assert to that principal that he did not like writing at all, the answer would have been very clear: If you want to be a sophomore, you will learn how to write a five-paragraph essay whether you like it or not.

If students at this university can avoid learning to write because they ‘don’t like it at all,’ what do they have to look forward to? The university’s president said at the same convocation that he wants students to ‘own their own minds.’ What a statement! Fan away the misty cliché about ownership and it becomes perfectly meaningless and unintelligible. If a student doesn’t like writing and therefore doesn’t have to do it, if he doesn’t like reading more than a few pages a day, if he doesn’t like demanding teachers and savages them in the course evaluation, if he likes computing but not counting, and if he can’t hold up for thirty seconds in a Socratic discussion, what kind of mind will he ‘own’?