Monday, November 28, 2016

Asking Instead of Knowing

The modern idea of Democracy is rooted in the 18th century European Enlightenment and its belief in reason, rationality, and empirical evidence. The founders believed that if sound arguments were placed in front of people, people could figure out the right course of action. We would read or hear the opposing arguments, laid out cleanly and clearly. We would debate and discuss them, like civilized people, and then we would decide. The arguments for and against the Constitution, laid out in the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers, followed this recipe pretty well. Arguments were made, supporting evidence and precedents were cited, respect was given to opposing viewpoints. Up and down the new states, people read, discussed, and argued—passionately, but more-or-less rationally.
And then, almost immediately, the founders threw reason to the wind and started arguing with emotion, hysteria, and outright lies, just like we do today.

Human nature being what it is, we can’t rely on our better angels to win out when it comes to political discourse. We need to be on our guard, all the time, to separate facts from opinions, and reasonable arguments from nonsense. Not just in what we’re reading and seeing, but also in what we, ourselves, are saying. We have to approach everyone—including ourselves—with a healthy dose of skepticism. The survival of the republic depends upon it.

Screaming matches are no way to settle important problems. When we come at every disagreement with emotion, hunger, and bias, we care more about winning than being correct, and that’s a very dangerous thing when you’re dealing with issues of public policy. If I’m wrong about the best way to provide for the poor and the sick—if my ideas are not, in fact, the best and most effective ones, then I should want to lose the argument—because people’s lives are at stake, and their lives are more important than my ego.

We’ve lost sight of that perspective in our public discourse. We simply assume that our ideas are correct because they’re ours—and that being right in the moment is more important than being effective in the long term. We don’t feel the need to double-check or confirm our arguments or those of our allies, because our allegiance is all the proof we require. We don’t feel the need to inquire into the arguments of our foes, because they are already, definitionally, on the wrong side, regardless of what they say or think.

We don’t do this because we’re awful people. We do this because we are taught from an early age to see the world as black vs. white, inside vs. outside, us vs. them. It informs and infects our worldview and our mindset, and it makes it very difficult to deal with diversity or ambiguity.

If your religion sees the world as divided between the forces of light and darkness, where one side must win and the other must be vanquished, if your culture tells you that your group is civilized and other people are barbarians, then it never occurs to you to ask if your group might, perhaps, be wrong. It can’t be. If your thirteen years of primary schooling tell you that in all things there are only right answers and wrong answers, and that the role of Authority is to give you those right answers, and the role of the Follower is to accept them, then it never occurs to you to question Authority—because it is, by definition, correct.

Everything you see and touch becomes a mirror of your mindset. Physical activity limits itself to a series of competitions—because nothing else is worth doing (and people not interested in competing are weak and useless); storytelling focuses on battles between good guys bad guys (and stories where it’s not certain who’s right and who’s wrong are seen as signs of moral decay); art takes as its single purpose the elevation of the Good and the Beautiful (and anything not fitting the culture’s definition of those things is seen as corrupt and disgusting). Everything becomes a zero-sum game where only one side can win or be right, and other side must be destroyed or dismissed. It’s like the old saying: if the only tool you have is a hammer, then the whole world looks like a nail.

Compromise in such a world is a sign of weakness—surrendering some of your light to the power of darkness. Why would you ever do that? Dialogue with people who disagree with you is foolish unless it’s used to persuade, manipulate, or fool your opponent. Why else would you even engage in discussion with them?

What does this kind of dualistic, Manichean way of seeing the world do to democracy? It limits it to a series of votes that drive people into and out of power. Each side remains hermetically sealed and self-contained—never listening to or learning from the other. One side gets a moment in power, and then it is voted out and its policies erased until the next go-round.

The only way to escape this cycle is to allow the thought to enter your brain that you might be wrong—that the other guy might actually have a better way of doing things—that your Authority Figure might be in error, every once in a while—that’s it’s up to you, not them, to decide what’s best—that’s it up to facts, not feelings, to determine what’s true.

An authentically democratic culture requires humility—the acceptance that you might not know everything. An authentically democratic culture requires empathy—the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes and understand the pain, fear, and joy of someone different from you. We have unwittingly allowed ourselves to create a culture that works against humility and empathy—telling us that no one is more important than Glorious Us, and that our needs, our fears, our desires, and our opinions, are all that matter. And little by little, we’ve defined that “us” down, from humanity to race, from race to country, from country to region, from region to family, from family to individual. We live in 300 million Republics of Me—and the president (and sole resident) of every republic is 100% right, 100% of the time.

How do we break down the walls and re-establish some kind of common space for rational argument and discussion? How do we stop bullying each other with shouted opinions and start listening to each other instead? I think the first step is DOUBT. Science and rationality all start with doubt—with the question, “what if I’m wrong?” We don’t ask in order to give up; we ask in order to find out.
We have to start doubting ourselves and our allies, even if only for a moment. We should doubt ourselves to verify and reinforce ourselves. Doubt ourselves so that we can come back from doubt even stronger. Instead of saying “I know it’s true because it feels right,” let’s put in ourselves in a place where we can say, “I know it’s true because I checked.”

I’ve tried to think of a few steps we can share with students, children, and friends—or to use, ourselves, when we’re not sure what stories to trust.  It’s not comprehensive or all-inclusive, by any means. But maybe it gives people a place to start.



Questions to Ask When We Read News on the Web

·        Should I trust the author?
o   What do I know about the author? What else have they written?
§  RED FLAG: If the author’s other work reveals a bias or agenda (always writing about the same topic; always taking the same position), find a second author who supports what this author is saying…even if you’re in agreement with that bias.
·        Should I trust the publisher?
§  RED FLAG: If the website seems to have a bias or agenda, find a second publication that supports the article’s main positions…even if you’re in agreement.
·        Should I trust the argument?
o   Are there links to supporting resources in the article—or in a bibliography at the end?
§  If so, what websites do those links lead to? Are those sites connected to or allied with the site publishing the first article?
·        RED FLAG: If the author is only citing friends or colleagues, search elsewhere for supporting information.
·        RED FLAG: If the article cites experts but doesn’t link to their work, look up the experts and find out who they are and what biases or agendas they might have, and where they have been published.
·        Am I being played?
o   Is the author laying out a rational argument, or am I being manipulated and coerced?
§  RED FLAGS: Be on the lookout for these logical fallacies (and check the link for many more!). Authors who rely on techniques like these are trying to keep you from thinking rationally and clearly about the facts and their meaning.
·        Ad hominem—a personal slur or attack on the opponent, unrelated to the topic.
·        Slippery Slope—assuming the most extreme result and attacking that instead of the more probably result
·        Bandwagon—appealing to a position’s popularity and the power of the group-mind.
·        Straw Man—misrepresenting an opponent’s argument and then attacking that instead of the actual argument.
·        Tu Quoque—avoiding criticism by turning it around on the accuser and saying “You, too.”
·        Who else is talking about it?
o   Is the story bouncing around the “echo chamber,” or is it being written about and discussed across a wide spectrum of sources and opinions?
·        RED FLAG: If everyone is talking about a story, but they’re all using the same source for their information…approach with caution.

·        RED FLAG: If the story is only being told “in-house,” within a partisan echo chamber, be cautious. There may be a good reason no one else is talking about it.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

How Do You Know?


Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large.
Thomas Jefferson, 1778

Our nation was founded on the idea that power is vested in the people and ceded, judiciously and with severe limits, to government, in order to provide leadership and management effectively. It was clear to the Founders that the right to self-governance came with the responsibility to be knowledgeable about the issues of the day. Ignorance left people susceptible to superstition, prejudice, and the charisma of charlatans. Ignorance would steer the people straight back into tyranny. But the founders argued about whether the “people at large” could really be trusted to be sufficiently knowledgeable; some wanted to limit the right to vote to the literate and/or the people who owned property; most were happy to limit it to Caucasians; all of them agreed to limit it to men.

Where are we, 238 years after Jefferson wrote the words above? We are a nation that provides universal, compulsory education to the age of 17 or 18—unheard of in Jefferson’s time. We are a nation that is trying, in fits and starts, to provide an equitable education to all children, regardless of race, class, or religion—also unheard of. Literacy is not a luxury for the leisure class; in fact, we are awash in reading material, from chick-lit and thrillers sold in airports to blogposts and news articles and emails and text messages read on tablets and Smart Phones. We can access the news of the day at any hour of the day, from our handheld devices, in our cars, and on multiple television channels available on multiple kinds of screens. We are, in fact, drowning in information.

But are we knowledgeable? Can all the information available to us protect us from tyranny? I think it can, but I’m not sure it does.

The Transcendentalists, authors like Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman, were firm believers in discarding the masterpieces of old and creating new works of art, new ways of seeing and thinking that were uniquely American and did not rely on ancient authority. They demanded that we think for ourselves, rely on ourselves, and break old patters of thought. I think they would have applauded the ways in which we’ve challenged the gatekeepers of old, who filtered what could or couldn’t be published and seen by the public. Everyone has a voice now; everyone can be heard. But I have a feeling they would have been horrified by the end result, because what we’re saying to each other is often vile and ignorant. When you get rid of the gatekeeper and the filter, a lot of garbage gets through.

This has been written about quite a lot, in books like True Enough and How Do We Know What Isn’t So? It’s been talked about for almost two decades, even spawning the word “truthiness” back in 2005. Everyone has an opinion and everyone has a set of facts and figures, drawn from…somewhere…to back them up. All points of view seem equally true and valid; all points of view are argued equally passionately. All that matters is which side you’re on, which point of view you decide to listen to.

If we’re going to make important decisions, then it’s up to us to assess the validity of the information we hear. If we just select our favorite TV authority and believe everything they say, we’re not really self-reliant or self-governing. In fact, we run the risk of being slaves or stooges, without ever quite realizing it. We have to pay attention to the fact that each of us lives in an information bubble and echo-chamber, and we have to take steps to force ourselves out of those bubbles to hear new information and opinions, and figure out what’s real and true.

The first step is relatively easy; it’s just a matter of will. We have to make the decision to seek out alternative or contrary points of view. But the assessment and evaluation is trickier, and this is where education becomes important. We have to make sure our schools are doing more than delivering information to children. We don’t need schools solely or primarily for that anymore. Kids can learn about Topic X in any place and at any time. But is that something worth knowing? Is it true? We need schools to teach the skills of analysis, assessment, and evaluation—and we can’t wait until high school or college.

Let’s start here: in a world where everyone has an opinion and voices it loudly, how do we know whether the opinion or point of view we’re starting with is even right? How do we know whether our deeply held beliefs are true, or if they’re based on misconceptions and biases? This step, all by itself, is intensely difficult, and something people tend not to do if they don’t have to. It can be deeply troubling and upsetting. So I ask you: when was the last time you deliberately and consciously challenged your beliefs (political, cultural, religious, economic, aesthetic) to see if they were valid and worthy? How did you go about it? What was your process? What different information or perspectives did you bring into your life? How did you make sure you weren’t’ simply dismissing those points of view, but were, in fact, allowing yourself to engage with them with an open mind?

Don’t forget, everything we now understand to be nonsense was once thought to be true: the world is the center of the universe; bad luck can be prevented by throwing spilled salt over your shoulder; the king derives his authority directly from God; illness is caused by imbalances of “humours;” take your pick. We believe what we believe fiercely, and we don’t give it up easily or willingly.
This is one of the main reasons for the partisanship and divisiveness in our country. We can’t see past the borders of our own mini-nations of like-mindedness, and we think—we decide—that anyone who lives beyond those borders is evil or insane. Like the old magazine cover showing how New Yorkers view the world, we focus only on what is close to us.

So: are we raising our children with the intellectual curiosity and confidence to question everything, including their own assumptions? Are we letting them cast their minds far from the comforts of home to see how other people live, and love, and think? Do we have the confidence, as parents and teachers, to allow them to question and test the opinions they’ve inherited from us? Are we secure enough in what we believe (having tested and confirmed it) to know that, after questioning and testing those things, our children and students will arrive at the same conclusions we have?  And if they don’t…is that okay?

If we invite our children and students to undertake that journey of questioning, are we giving them the skills they need to navigate those waters and plot a safe course? Ask your children—ask your students: “How do you know whether something you’ve read is true?” Go on—ask them. Let’s see if they have an answer, beyond, “my teacher gave it to me,” or “my parents told me.”

I once taught a unit on the Cold War to some high school students, during which, I gave them an old, 1960s-era textbook chapter (theme: the USSR is actively trying to conquer the world) and a more recent essay by Noam Chomsky (theme: the USA is using the pretext of the Cold War to solidify and extend its power worldwide). The two pieces disagreed on pretty much everything, and it left my students perplexed…and angry. They didn’t find it fascinating; they found it annoying. They demanded that I tell them which point of view was “right.” I’m not being cute, here. They actually demanded. They didn’t find the intellectual exercise of compare-and-contrast interesting. They wanted an answer, and they wanted it right away.

People who demand an answer will almost always get one. There are plenty of teachers, parents, and political leaders more than willing to provide simple, clear answers to whatever problem is in front of them. Sometimes, the answer will be something positive and helpful like, “we all must make sacrifices and work hard,” but sometimes, the answer will be something like, “it’s all because of the ____.” (fill in the blank with any minority group.)

Self-rule requires that we not settle for other people’s answers. We have to do the work, ourselves. Raising a citizenry capable of self-rule requires that we not provide answers so quickly and easily. Socrates taught us, many centuries ago, the power of teaching-through-questioning. Instead of giving our children or students easy answers, let’s drive them crazy—and make them think—by responding with questions of our own: What do you think? Why do you think that? How do you know you’re right? If you don’t know whether you’re right, how might you find out?

We shouldn’t be replacing yesterday’s gatekeepers and guardians of information with newer, even less-trustworthy authorities. We should be able to trust ourselves, as Emerson suggested. But, in the words of the Russian proverb that Ronald Reagan loved to quote, to tease Mikhail Gorbachev, “Trust, but verify.”



Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Most Important Things

The most important things to teach children are critical thinking and problem solving skills, so that children can learn how to think.

No—the most important thing to teach children is academic content across the subject areas, so that children can have something concrete to think about.

No—the most important thing to teach children is how to take tests strategically and effectively, because, in the end, that’s how they’re going to be judged by the educational gatekeepers who hold children’s futures in their hands.

You would think, after teaching generations of children, we’d know which things were most important to focus on. But you’d be wrong. In fact, if I’ve learned anything in my years working in education (a debatable proposition), it’s that any sentence starting with “you would think,” is a sentence that’s going to end in tears.

So allow me to complicate the issue even further. I’m all for teaching skills and teaching content and even approaching tests strategically, but I’d like to offer another candidate for your consideration: the ordinary and often-overlooked skills of note-taking and studying.

Seriously?

Yes, seriously. The more I think about it, the more amazed I am that we obsess over what to teach, but spend so little time focusing on what students should do with what we teach them. I mean, obviously, we focus on “doing” when it comes to activities, assignments, and tests. We focus on final, summative products. But are we focusing enough on what students do in the earliest moments of learning? When we teach, through lecture or demonstration, what should they be doing? When they read, in groups or alone, what should they be doing? When they go home and reflect (we hope) on their day, what should they be doing? And when they are preparing to engage with upcoming activities, assignments, or tests, what should they be doing to ensure that their demonstrations will be successful? How should students receive the information and ideas we provide them with?

I have very clear memories of being taught, in 6th grade, how to take notes in outline form. We were learning about ancient Greek mythology, and our teacher showed us how to organize information by listing things in sequences of increasingly indented numbers and letters or bullet points. It worked perfectly for something as linear as the pantheon of Greek gods. It helped us capture the important information in an easy-to-read format, and more: it helped us see how some details related to and supported the main ideas, and how other details supported or illustrated those first details. 
I’m not saying that traditional outline note-taking is the only method, or the best method; I’m just saying that it was a method. It taught me that the catch was just as important as the pitch, and that where I put information in my notebook was as important as where I put my house-keys when I came home from school. In both cases, if I just threw stuff down randomly, it would create anxiety down the road, when I needed stuff and had no idea where it was.

And it did much more than that: learning how to take down information schematically helped me see how information worked, right from the start; it taught me that information had a structure and organization and purpose to it, and it taught me how to listen for that structure and organization. The way I wrote down notes actually helped me think about what the information meant.
And yet, so few of the teachers I know teach these skills explicitly. They have a variety of reasons for not touching note-taking or study skills, including:


  • They assume these things were taught in an earlier grade
  • They assume they’re just “picked up” in life, somehow
  • They feel like they don’t have time in their pacing plans
  • They don’t know an effective method for note-taking, themselves
  • It simply doesn’t occur to them that explicit teaching of note-taking is needed


These are all valid and understandable excuses, but think about the unfortunate results. We spend all our time preparing engaging and rigorous lessons, honing our instructional practice to a fine point—but the people on the receiving end have no tools with which to catch what we’re pitching. Day after day, we see students writing down nothing or trying to write down every word we say, verbatim, and we don’t do anything about it. Or, at best, we type up and photocopy some notes to help them prepare for an exam. But the exam isn’t the problem here—it’s the day-to-day, moment-to-moment understanding that we are failing to facilitate and support by helping students organize and visualize the information they’re trying to process. We assume they’re just “getting it,” and perhaps processing it later. We need to start looking at note-taking as a vital part of the learning process.

What’s Changing

The good news is that note-taking is starting to get a little more love, thanks to the Common Core State Standards and the focus, even in non-CCSS states, on close reading. Close reading is a technique used to help students read complex texts more deeply and analytically, instead of focusing solely on the usual, what-happens-next kinds of questions that can make class so deadly. In the close reading process, the teacher sets a clear purpose for reading, has students engage in multiple readings of the text, and then leads one or more rigorous, text-based discussions, perhaps culminating in a writing activity.

Critical to close reading—and to the instructional shifts inherent in the new standards—is the ability for students to cite evidence to support their claims when discussing or writing about text. I don’t know how students can even hope to do this if they haven’t taken some notes while reading, either marking up the text itself, making use of a graphic organizer, or having a note-taking method that allows them to identify selections of text that they think will come in handy in the upcoming discussion.

If students learn a clear and concrete method for taking notes on their reading, they should be able to participate in any text-based discussion in class—even if they’ve had trouble understanding a section of the text. Everyone should be able to come to the discussion ready to either answer a question or ask a question. No students should be penalized for being confused, if they have grappled with the text as best they can, and have come to class with something. Students who think note-taking is boring or unnecessary may change their minds after the first text-based discussion at which they find themselves unprepared to contribute.

What Could Be

If note-taking is as integral to learning as I suspect it is, it needs to be taken more seriously—not simply just at a classroom level, but across the entire school. Especially as students get older and deal with multiple teachers, it’s crazy-making to have to do things in completely different, often arbitrary ways. Why does your first-period teacher require your name to go in the upper left, followed by the date, when your second-period teacher requires your name to go in the upper right, after the date? Why does your science teacher post assignments on Blackboard, but your English teacher posts somewhere else that she likes better?  So much of what we do in school meets the individual needs and desires of the adults, and makes the world incoherent for students and their parents. Some of the individualization may be important to the way the content is taught, but a lot of it is probably personal preference.

Think how powerful it would be if schools did more than simply hand out a planner at the beginning of the year. Imagine if at an opening assembly, the principal taught all students how the school expected them to use the planner (after some collaborative decision-making among staff).  Here’s where you should write down your homework for each subject; here’s how we’d like to see you write it down, so that it’s the same across classes—easy for you to check (and easy for your parents to check).  And then: here’s our school-wide, recommended method of note-taking.  There are some basics we like to see across all subjects and grades. Your subject teachers may have tweaks and additions related to their subjects, and that’s fine: science teachers may need something extra, social studies teachers may, as well. But the core of note-taking is something we’d like to be consistent across grades and subjects.

Imagine how much easier it would be for teachers to check notes in class—and for mentors and coaches to see how students are doing during observations. Imagine how much easier it would be parents to help their children at home. Imagine how much easier it would be for students to use their notes.

Students don’t have a union representing their interests, but they definitely have a vote in how school is run. If they find a class boring or confusing, they can zone out, check out, or act up in protest. We often treat those things as student character flaws rather than pointed and deliberate commentaries on what we’re doing.

We need to pay attention to what the school day looks like and feels like to the student. We need to do whatever we can to decrease fragmentation and incoherence, to make school feel like a thoughtfully constructed community, where the parts reflect and comment on each other and on the whole. If we want students to be active participants in and shapers of their learning, not docile spectators, we need to care about—and think carefully about—how we want them to engage with that learning, minute by minute and day by day.


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Teach the Tension

Two recent topics of discussion around my house have been the presidential election (obviously) and the challenges of teaching critical thinking (just as obviously, if you know my family). You will perhaps not be shocked to learn that I think the two topics are related.

There used to be a saying in politics that if you tried to fly a plane with only one wing, all you’d do is go in circles. And yet, we no longer seem to value having a left wing and a right wing in our country, to balance our flight and help us move forward. Discourse and compromise are seen as weakness at best, capitulation at worst. Only one side can be right. And it has to be 100% right, 100% of the time.

Part of this is just power politics. But part of it has to do with a dualistic view of the world. There are two (and only two) sides to every issue, and if one of those sides is Good, the other must be Evil. If you’re on the side of Good, why would you want to compromise with Evil? You wouldn’t.  And since no one thinks their own opinion or viewpoint is evil, everyone feels justified in building walls and fighting against what they see as the Army of Darkness. It is a medieval, even Manichaean, way of thinking, and it makes democracy, from town halls up to the halls of Congress, very challenging.

Our education system can fall victim to the same kind of thinking, in its own way. Within any subject, there are Basic Facts that have to be learned. They are true, and correct, which is why they’ve been written down in textbooks for students to learn. Some things are simply correct, and some things are simply incorrect. Students need to learn the difference between the two. That’s why we have tests. We grow up seeing each school day as a series of right and wrong answers, and it’s hard not to impose that view on the rest of the world. Even in English classes, where literature is supposed to be open to interpretation, students quickly learn that there are right interpretations (the textbook and the teacher’s) and wrong interpretations (theirs).

There are neurological reasons why we think this way—and end up teaching this way--and reasons why it’s difficult to stop thinking this way. Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, does a great job of explaining how our lazy brains fight against critical, analytical thinking whenever possible, replacing genuine thought with reflexive reaction. It’s not that we’re incapable of reason; it’s just that it’s hard work that our brains would rather not do. When faced with an array of political policy ideas from two or more candidates, our brains will defer to simpler, more visceral decision-making options, like a candidate’s party, or height, or hair, or smile, or the strength of his or her chin. If those characteristics have correlated (even somewhat) with strong leadership skills over the years, our brains will substitute the knee-jerk reaction to the hard work of reasoning. We “know” that one candidate is better than another, but how do we know that we know? What makes us so sure we’re right, and the other side is wrong?

It’s easy to say things like, “Question everything,” in response to the knee-jerk reaction, but how can we teach ourselves—and our children—how to question things effectively, in order to challenge our confirmation bias and think more critically about the issues in front of us?

I believe the first step is to remind ourselves that in most cases, the two sides of an issue are not separate from each other, at war with each other, and utterly irreconcilable. In fact, in most cases, the two sides of an issue live in dynamic tension with each other in a constant push-pull on our affections and desires. We believe strongly in equality, but we know that mandated, enforced equality, whether in school or in political systems, can kill initiative and creativity, and create a world of drab sameness. We believe strongly in freedom, but we know that unregulated, unrestricted freedom can lead to chaos and a world where physical or economic might makes right. Equality and freedom are both important aspects of American political thought and life. Their demands push and pull at us all the time. Sometimes we move more in the direction of equality at the expense of freedom; sometimes we do the opposite. We are always in search of the best middle-ground. The middle-ground isn’t capitulation to an enemy; it’s the attainment of balance.

You could have the same discussion about freedom versus security—whether it’s my freedom of speech versus your right to be safe from insult and offense, or my freedom to carry a gun versus your right to live without being afraid of me. Which is more important—freedom or security? It’s a false question; they’re both important. The question is how we balance our rights and needs.

What I’m saying is that, instead of spending all of our time teaching discrete things—things which, in themselves, are simply right or wrong—we should make sure kids have time to explore the tensions among things—because critical thinking is all about assessing how things interact, play off each other, and affect us. And when you understand that you are eternally caught in a tug-of-war between competing needs, you will stop seeing one side as God’s and other side as Satan’s—or, in school—one side as The Right Answer and one side as The Wrong Answer.

It’s not an easy thing to do. I’ve tried. When students are used to reading history textbooks, it’s very challenging to bring competing first-person accounts of an event to them. They don’t find the diversity of perspective and agenda fascinating; they find it annoying. They don’t relish the idea of evaluating resources, synthesizing arguments, and reaching their own conclusions. They slam their books shut, glare up and me, and say, “So, which is it? Which one is right?” Remember: we have lazy brains.
Reason is an amazing gift, but it’s not a gift we like to use. We think we like it—we fool ourselves into believing that we’re rational, reasoning creatures. But we’re not. Not if we can avoid it. If Position A is published in a glossy-looking, professional published book, and Position B is published as a third-generation photocopy, we will want to believe Position A.  If Position A is presented first, we will want to believe Position A—or, at the very least, our deference to it will color the way we read and think about Position B.

How do you know what you know? What makes you so sure what you know is true? What makes you so sure that what you don’t believe in is not true? What if you’re wrong?


Our history of thought goes back to Socrates, who badgered and annoyed people with questions that came at them from every angle, undermining every conclusion and assumption they had, so that people had to stop assuming and start reasoning. Who can provide that annoying but necessary service for us today, if not our teachers?

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Show Your Work

When I was in high school, there was nothing I hated more than math. And in math class, there was nothing I hated more than showing my work. It felt like a tedious chore with for no real purpose—a hoop somebody wanted me to jump through. Math was not open to poetic interpretation; the answer was either right or wrong. And no one ever offered me partial credit for getting an answer partially correct, or for demonstrating an interesting, if flawed, process. As far as I could tell, nobody even looked at my work. So why did I have to show it?

Today, if my high-school aged son is to be believed, the situation doesn’t seem much improved. And that’s a shame. The Common Core State Standards in mathematics--and the new math standards in many non-CCSS states—make clear that reasoning, arguing, and critiquing are vital skills within mathematics, and that teachers should be instilling in students a devotion to precision and perseverance. None of those mathematical habits of mind reveal themselves in the calculation sitting to the right of an equal sign and a question mark. They reveal themselves in the process—in the work a student does along the way to an answer. There are real and strong reasons to show your work. But if a teacher doesn’t understand those reasons and make use of them, the practice can easily remain an exercise in hoop-jumping.

As Elizabeth Green explains in her excellent book, Building a Better Teacher, the right answer is often the least interesting piece of data available in a classroom. It is the wrong answers that give teachers real information about how students are thinking and where they may be going astray. And while a seasoned veteran may be able to intuit a problem from nothing more than a final answer, most of us will have an easier time understanding what’s going on by making the student’s thought process visible. In written assignments, that’s precisely where have students show their work is important.  

What about in the heat of a class discussion? Students can show their work here, as well, by talking about their process. Asking “what did you do?” is far more valuable (and interesting) than asking “what did you get?”  It allows the class to explore multiple problem-solving strategies and assess what works and what doesn’t. It helps students become comfortable and fluent in “talking math.” And it can make error an interesting topic of conversation rather than something to be embarrassed about and try to hide from.

There’s a lot of talk about Growth Mindset in the education world. Well, a vital component of Growth Mindset is the willingness to fail, and try, and fail again—the understanding that failure is a natural part of the process of learning, a necessary step on the way to success. Athletes understand this perfectly well. A baseball player with a batting average of .300 is considered pretty good; a player who bats .400 is considered outstanding. Outstanding—with a 40% success rate! In basketball, perhaps the greatest player of my lifetime, Michael Jordan, said this:  “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot, and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” He doesn’t say that he succeeded in spite of his failures; he says he succeeded because of them. Because he was willing to put himself out there, and make a mistake, and learn from the mistake, and press on.

We need to find ways to model this more positive view of failure for our students. Instead of focusing solely on end-results, we need to show students the long road it took to reach that goal. How many drafts did it take for an author to reach the final manuscript? How many publishers rejected the book before it was accepted? How many experiments did the inventor go through before hitting on the right combination of ingredients? What challenges and setbacks did a historical figure endure before doing the great work for which they are remembered?

And what about us? Are we willing to model failure personally in front of our students? Can we admit to them when we’re wrong, or when we don’t know the answer, or when an activity we planned didn’t go as well as we had hoped? Can we show them that there’s no shame in falling down, as long as we get back up again, brush the dust off ourselves, and push on?