Brown Stuff to Go

If a more vivid and startling opening exists in an essay than the sentence beginning George Orwell’s “Marrakech,” I don’t know it:

“As the corpse went past the flies left the restaurant table in a cloud and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later.”

This and the two paragraphs that follow describe with vivid plainness a quotidian horror of a kind that often provoked Orwell to keen thinking about mankind under conditions that he thought could be bettered, but were not. Marrakech led Orwell to wonder why people in fortunate circumstances tend to think of those “beneath” them in dehumanizing ways: “Do they even have names? Or are they merely a kind of undifferentiated brown stuff, about as individual as bees or coral insects?”

This use of a mass noun (stuff) to describe people who should qualify as individuals was startling in 1939. How things have change since then is evident from the lack of surprise that greeted a recent report on American education, which referred to students as human capital—as, really, just another kind of brown stuff. Is it any surprise that in an ambience of acceptance like this, the de-individuation of students implicit in the MOOC and “blended learning” models of education is gaining ground?




To Jacques Barzun’s dictum that “All systematic devices for generating good writing are a mistake” we may now add a caution by Harvard’s President Drew Gilpin Faust about the related topic of machine-graded writing. She is justifiably worried that grading software will miss “irony and elegance” or, for that matter, anything “it hasn’t been programmed to see.” The critical approach of MIT’s Les Perelman has been to have satirical fun with grading software. These eminent cautions matter because we seem to be moving towards a swarmteaching paradigm that will require the adoption of mechanized and mediated inspection of students’ knowledge. What if it doesn’t work very well?

That even Harvard MOOCs are not immune to the pressure to impoverish discourse and evaluation in favor of mass grading is shown by the effort of Professor Gregory Nagy to produce his MOOC CB22x on the ancient Greek hero. How will he grade thousands of students? By assigning multiple-choice quizzes instead of papers. Two difficulties, which I have treated in the past, present themselves. One is that the grade for the sort of qualitative understanding needed for such a course will turn on fine distinctions that cannot be justified. At some point the difference between Excellent (A) and Good (B) may come down to one answer on one multiple-choice question. That is absurd.

The other problem is that the questions themselves remove material from the purview of maieutic discourse where some of it belongs, placing it squarely (and incorrectly) in the domain of simple recognition. An example of this possibility is Professor Nagy’s question about whether Zeus’s will is to cause the Trojan War or the Iliad. This would be an interesting question for the chance it would give a class to discuss the problem of agency in the ancient world, using as examples Zeus and the lesser gods. Students might note that Homer himself invoked not Zeus but Calliope to “cause” his poem by inspiration, and wonder how her agency and Zeus’s collaborated or collided. They might shape these ideas in a well-written, polished essay after the discussion, drawing on their knowledge of the Iliad. But not in CB22x, where the answer is simply that Zeus willed to cause the Iliad. Professor Nagy’s claim that multiple-choice questions are almost as good as essays and discussion appears to be disproven by his own example.

The second component of machine grading is that students will be required to “read” on-line texts, and that their “reading” will be “checked” by seeing how they “annotate” it. Recall for a moment Jack Torrance in The Shining, typing away at his manuscript in the Overlook Hotel. His wife hears the typing and thinks he is working. In fact, he is typing again and again, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Students who have adopted Jack’s philosophy on a MOOC could tag & paste this saying at random on their “reading” to show the nanny machine that they are “doing” it. Who is going to know otherwise in a blizzard of thousands of “notes”? Not Professor Nagy. By contrast, two good questions asked in a live class could reveal sloppy or undone reading. I know: I have used them to do so. It is harder for a student to decide to bamboozle a live teacher than a machine nanny. One morning in my Modern Poetry course in college, Professor Koch sniffed out massive neglect of a homework assignment. He went around the class asking students questions that they couldn’t answer. Finally the usually genial Koch burst out angrily with “Why don’t you read the goddamned poems?” After that, we did. We did.

Third will be “online discussion boards.” Just what we need: classroom discourse like “Comments” columns, home of what Shakespeare called the reply churlish.  (There are exceptions that prove the rule.) But churlishness is not the only problem: Kevin McGrath, a coordinator of CB22x, sputters, “You have a group who are—they talk about Christ, or about pride. They haven’t really engaged with what’s going on.” In a classroom the reply churlish could be checked, and the pronouncement pompous punctured. In a MOOC, who will rout the rubbish?

An answer may be in kinds of hybrid courses being tried out at various places and examined in the New Yorker article linked above[1]. The examination must be very careful and ready to detect wishful thinking and tendentious reporting. Dr. Faust’s worries are justified, and perhaps the answer will turn out to be the one Amherst has given: a No to MOOCs with Harvard. That should be no surprise. Robert Frost, who taught poetry at Amherst for a number of years, thought talking about poetry and marking for the understanding of it a very subtle thing. One of his students reported a class where a classmate gave a stupendous reading of a poem they were studying. Frost looked at him and said, “You get an A forever.” No MOOC will ever say that.

[1] and in my 3 May posting.


Ready, Fire, Aim

The “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) act gave the US twelve years to achieve an unprecedented mass apotheosis by 2014. In comparison, putting a man on the moon involved one man and one moon. The man was already highly proficient, and the moon was obligingly predictable. The thousands of engineers and scientists that were mustered to help this one highly proficient man meet his objective contrast to the teachers and their drivers mustered to help millions of less-than-proficient children achieve a proficiency that they do not have, often do not want, and sometimes simply cannot manage. Now, a year from that wildly improbable deadline, we are nowhere near achieving the goal—as any sensible person could have predicted.

But sense is not part of the cutting edge of education. Hence “RAce to the Top” (RAT), thanks to which music teachers’ skill at instruction is being evaluated according to their students’ scores on English tests. Sometimes it is evaluated according to the scores of children who are not their students. It is only a matter of time before the RAT goes belly up as well.

Anyone with a sense of the history of misbegotten educational movements in the U.S. must be wondering what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards the schoolhouse to be born. My candidate for Beast of the Year is the Common Core. Its goal is “to create the next generation of K–12 standards in order to help ensure that all students are college and career ready no later than the end of high school.” Any educationist material referring to a “next generation” strongly tempts me to take out my Baloney Bingo board, but let it pass for now: we have a more ominous target to take aim at. What did we learn from NCLB’s promising universal proficiency in twelve years? Not what we should have if CC promises universal college and career readiness by the end of high school. And it does so by requiring that all 12th-grade students, some of whom now use study guides over a period of weeks to get through Of Mice and Men, will in twelve years be able to read Thomas Paine and G. K. Chesterton unaided[1].

Did I say twelve years? Sorry: that was NCLB. New York is already testing its students on the Common Core, which has not yet been implemented in its schools. Students report being nervous, which shows they have more sense than their state’s education administrators. I wonder how the teachers feel. At least New York’s teachers don’t receive bad ratings if the students in their music classes can’t pass an English test, but that is cold comfort. Will they receive bad ratings if their students do not succeed in a curriculum that has not been implemented?


Class Size, Standardized Tests and Undead “Science”

It’s back! The undead duck (canard in French) that class size doesn’t matter is on the loose again, quacking now in The New York Times. The question must therefore be asked:  why do teachers say they would reject a $10,000/year raise if it meant an increase of 3 in class size? Why do parents want smaller classes for their children? The obvious answer is that class size does matter.

Garlic, stakes, & silver bullets don’t seem to work, so let’s examine the “science” behind the claim. Very little of it is reliable, even by the wildly generous standards of the Ed Biz, but one study most people seem to accept is the Tennessee STAR Study. In it there appears to be no difference in the “educational effect” of classes of fifteen and of twenty-three.

This is a difference in class size of 8, nearly three times the number a plurality of teachers would not want  $10,000/year to accept. Something appears not to add up, but the reality[1] is not that the educational effect is equal. Rather, it is that a class of fifteen is no better at preparing its students for the Stanford Achievement Tests in English and Mathematics than is a class of twenty-three. Raise your hand if you think that everything learned in a classroom—even an English or math classroom—is assessed by the SATs. No hands at all? Very good! This class is obviously not gulled by studies that use inadequate proxy values.

As yesterday’s posting points out, much that students learn in a classroom goes beyond what can be transmitted by didactic instruction or assessed by multiple-choice tests. What is more, the SATs do not penalize students for wrong answers, thus giving them a probabilistic “gift” of 20% of their guesses as right answers. I have dealt with “test-taking skills” that have nothing to do with knowledge, but the answers gained by the use of these “skills” or by guessing are counted no differently from genuine knowledge. Let a student try to bamboozle the teacher of a small class in a carefully graded essay or a personal interview and see how far he gets.

This is what the parents and teachers who want small classes recognize. When a writer therefore says that mandating large classes is “good policy but bad politics,” she has got it quite wrong. It is bad policy; and the politics, which simply recognize that truth, are good.


Just Say No to Foam

The learning most easily forgotten is the kind of knowledge transmitted by the didactic instruction of textbooks and lectures. We are so used to this kind of learning that some of us may even ask, “Is there any other kind?” One answer is playing itself out remarkably in San Jose, California, but before focusing on it, here are answers to that question given by Mortimer Adler[1] (and others): 1) the kind of understanding promoted by questioning, dialogue, conversation, recitations, and other live dialectical processes; 2) the kind of skill cultivated by a good coach who requires practice at which he notices, advises, models, encourages, and reproves. In both cases the teacher involves the student, who emerges from these encounters wiser and more skilled than when he entered them.

“Just the facts, Ma’am,” Sergeant Friday used to say. That may be fine for someone whose job is to gather evidence, but a prosecutor must synthesize a case from that evidence, a judge must pass judgment on it—and a student must be able to act on it; and for these activities information alone won’t do. The kind of stuff transmissible by lecture and textbook tends to be “just the facts,” but they are far from the end of learning. A university student needs to understand that his education requires him (we hope!) not just to absorb information but to analyze it, synthesize from it, and judge the results. To learn to do so requires more than a lecture can give because it requires live, personal interaction.

And that is what the California State University at San Jose appears to be discovering. Its engineering course in circuits has gone from a pass rate of 59% to 91%. This remarkable improvement in a single year is the result of having the didactic instruction delivered on line, combined with the adoption of small classes that focus on projects. Presumably these projects are authentic, and the projectors are guided by a teacher who can coach and question as the projects proceed. The reporter says, “it is hard to tell” whether the improvement is due to the adoption of the online lectures or the adoption of the small classes. No, it isn’t hard to tell. Any experienced teacher knows  what will happen when you supplement lectures with a live work in progress. If online lectures free up teachers to get down with their students, they are bound to have good results when the teachers take their mandate seriously. Here is an example of people who have made an important discovery about the value of 1) and 2) above. It would be a pity if everyone thought the victory was due to the canned talking heads alone.

One problem with “blended learning” is that though good teachers have been doing the real thing for years without calling it an awful name, it is now turning into a chant that replaces thought, a bit like “Four legs good, two legs better” in Orwell. The other is that in an age where restaurant-goers can be persuaded to pay good money to eat dishes of foam from the blender, school-goers may end up paying good money for “blended learning” of a similar kind. One really hopes that CSUSJ and other public universities can proceed along the trail blazed by Provost Ellen Junn[2] and not end up feeding their students easy dishes of foam for three or four years.

[1] In The Paideia Proposal, source of my claim that knowledge didactically taught is most easily forgotten.

[2] She got this program going at CSUSJ.