Friday, February 1, 2019

The Middle Way



Life is hard and we try to make it easier. Every technological advance we’ve ever made, from the digging stick to the Smartphone, springs from this simple statement. Life is hard and we try to make it easier. So it has always been; so it will always be.

There’s nothing very controversial about that idea, but what’s interesting is the extent to which our desire to make things easier for ourselves may undermine our efforts or make us less happy and successful. There is something in us that doesn’t really like it when things are too easy—and easier may not actually be better for us.

When I was a child, in the 1970s, the country was still in the middle of its love affair with technology and science. Processed food was better than natural food; infant formula was better than breast milk; TV dinners and microwaves were better than cooking from scratch. So much convenience! Life was hard, but technology could make it easier. It was the World of Tomorrow that Disneyland and the World’s Fair promised for much of the 20th century.

The backlash started while I was still a teenager: maybe all those chemically processed things weren’t actually good for you. The Whole Earth Catalogue, health food stores, and whatever remnant of the hippie movement survived into their 30s brought a focus on authenticity and naturalness into the mainstream. And more recently, we’ve seen a different kind of backlash, against the very idea of ease. Now we want things to be “artisanal,” and we want to be involved in the making, ourselves, if we can. Cooking from scratch is difficult, time consuming, and requires some knowledge and skill, but for some people, eating pre-packaged meals (no matter how organic or healthy) is just…a drag. Suddenly we’re seeing all kinds of meal-kit services popping up to provide just enough ease, while still requiring us to do some of the work. It turns out that we actually like to do the work. We get enjoyment and satisfaction out of it. We appreciate the fruits of our efforts more when there is some effort. Just…not too much. Build your own furniture…with an Allen wrench from Ikea.

We’re seeing the same thing in automobile technology. Google and others are pushing hard for self-driving cars, and someday I’m sure there will be a percentage of people who make use of them. But for a whole lot of people, driving is fun, and the thought of surrendering all control is not a pleasant idea. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a future where most of us make use of a wide range of assistive technologies, while still keeping our hands on the wheel. We’ll end up doing some of the work—enough to get some enjoyment out of the process and feel a little bit in control—while still reaping the benefits of the assistive technologies that can unsnarl traffic jams and keep us from drifting out of our lanes.

What does this have to do with education? A lot! We’ve been searching for all kinds of ways to make learning easier, to increase student engagement and motivation. Schools adopt 1:1 laptop policies to put computers into the hands of every student so that they won’t have to take notes by hand. Schools de-emphasize memorization on the theory that the Internet holds all the factual knowledge students will ever need. Many schools use open-source videos to augment or replace textbook reading. At my son’s high school, the science teachers prepare PowerPoint presentations of their lessons and deliver those slide decks, with their notes, straight to the students. Everyone applauds to see adults making an effort to ease the path for students and not bog them down with old-fashioned schoolwork like memorization, recitation, note-taking, and textbook reading. But what if the drive to increase ease decreases learning? What if learning something actually requires a certain amount of effort?

Research seems to suggest that it does. Authors Peter C. Brown, Henry L., Rodiger III, and Mark A McDaniel provide a wide array of examples of how increasing student effort at learning also increases later retrieval of that learning, in their book, Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Writing things down by hand seems to have a stronger effect on remembering what you’ve written than typing or dictating the same words. Memorizing and repeating basic factual knowledge helps build a foundation of conceptual understanding that makes all future learning more meaningful and stickier in the mind. Active manipulation of the instructional content, rather than passive viewing of it, makes a huge difference in how deeply and permanently that content is learned. Spacing out practice and assessment sessions over a period of time, rather than doing massed practice and testing shortly after instruction, allows some time for forgetting and makes the effort at retrieval both harder and more durable over the longer term. We’ve known for a long time that cramming for a test may help you on test day, but it doesn’t help you remember things a week later. Now we’re starting to understand why.

Some education thinkers and writers use the term “productive struggle” to talk about this idea that a certain amount of sweat aids learning. It’s like the idea of the Goldilocks Zone or Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development: that sweet spot where conditions are just right for growth. Make the work too easy and you won’t learn anything new from it; make it too hard and you won’t even be able to do it. Think of lifting weights in the gym: you could bench press a 1-pound weight all day, and it wouldn’t have much effect on your muscle tone. You could struggle all day with a 500-pound weight and accomplish nothing but a headache.

This makes the work of the teacher even more complicated than it already was, because every child’s zone of productive struggle is a little bit different from every other child’s—and not only that, but his zone of struggle may not be the same in math, English, science, or social studies…OR in Unit 1, Unit 2, Unit 3, and Unit 4! Aim for the average every day—average amount of instructional time, average difficulty level of assignment—and you’ve made plans that fit no single student perfectly.

So what can we do? Assess constantly, adjust constantly, have alternative explanations and questions at the ready at all times. And most importantly…resist feeling sorry for your students when you see them sweat. Resist the urge to make things easier for them, unless you have really good data to guide you. You may not be doing them any favors.



Thursday, January 3, 2019

To Be or Not to Be Educated


Our older son is home from college—his first year of art school, studying animation—and at the dinner table, while listening to us grill his little brother about his English class’ coverage of “Romeo and Juliet,” he asked this little gem of a question:

“Why does everyone have to read Shakespeare in school, anyway?”

This is a young man who is an avid reader and a vacuum cleaner of a learner: he hoovers up information from a wide variety of sources on a wide variety of topics, artistic, scientific, and historical. He wasn’t asking this question because he hated Shakespeare, or hated reading, or hated school. He was asking it because he genuinely did not know why Shakespeare mattered, or mattered more than anyone or anything else—why his works are still in the curriculum, hundreds of years after their writing.

Consider this, O English teachers. Consider the fate of the young people who should be your ideal students: engaged, curious, compliant, responsive—willing to do the work and able to do it well, but utterly ignorant of why they should be doing it.

I find it appalling, but not surprising. I’ve seen evidence in many schools, in many states, of teachers who dutifully “cover their content” and “deliver their lessons” without every pausing to make the case for why that content and those lessons matter. Their students are a captive audience; why bother convincing them to stay when they can’t leave? At most, they try to jazz up their lessons to make them fun and engaging and entertaining, hoping to hold the attention of their charges—but implicit in that action is the belief that the material itself isn’t (and can’t ever be, on its own merits) fun, engaging, or entertaining.

Why should we ask students in 2019 to read Shakespeare? Here are a few reasons that come to mind:

His plays and poems are worth it, wholly on their own merits. That’s why they’ve lasted. They’re just good. Listen, I am completely on-board with the idea that we should be broadening the canon to include voices and works that were historically kept out. But that doesn’t mean we have to throw away things that have entertained, moved, and taught people for hundreds of years. The good stuff is the good stuff for a reason. If you’ve ever taught “Hamlet” or “Romeo and Juliet” successfully to high school students, you know how engaged and excited they can be. “Hamlet” still has a lot to say, and says it better than most modern authors can.

Is it harder to read now than it was 400 years ago? Sure. That’s why we have teachers.

By the way, many of our great -great grandparents grew up in homes with only two books: the bible and a collected Shakespeare. That’s how thousands, perhaps millions of Americans learned to read English. Without schools, without teachers, without computers, and without a decent recording or performance to guide them. Guess what? If they could do it, our kids can do it.

His stories are so widely and deeply known (rivalled only by the stories of Greek mythology) that they have been adapted or referenced in countless modern stories, plays, and movies. Can you enjoy “The Lion King” without knowing that it’s basically “Hamlet on the Veldt?” Sure, you can. But if you can see Hamlet within Simba, you get the double pleasure of seeing how the modern cartoon uses, twists, and plays off the source material. “Hakuna Matata” is not “To Be or Not to Be,” but it’s interesting to compare how each one functions in the plot and affects the main character. How many English teachers include this in their teaching of a Shakespeare play—not just the play itself, but all of the tendrils snaking out from it into more modern literature and culture?

Outside of his plots and characters, his language, along with the language of the King James Bible, has been source material for pretty much every educated author, thinker, and politician up until, say, the 1970s. To fully understand and appreciated what people wrote, you need to recognize the allusions and references they’re making. How many teachers include this in their teaching of a Shakespeare play—not just a summary of the plot, but a capture of the lines, images, and ideas that have affected more modern literature and culture?

Understanding this allusions and references gives reading depth and dimension—it makes reading a conversation, not only between you and the author, but between the author and his or her own historical and literary influences. You are no longer simply reading words on a piece of paper; you’re reading words etched on glass, with another piece of etched glass visible behind it, and perhaps another one behind that. You are part of the long chain of civilized discourse—an endless, Talmudic discussion stretching all the way back to the Greeks, or even further.

Is all of this elitist and old-fashioned? Yes, probably so. I don’t care. When I was teaching, and later, as a parent, I wanted my kids to know their way around Western culture, so they could go to any college, any workplace, or any party, and feel like they belonged there.  What they did with their education once they got where they were going was entirely up to them—accept it whole, reject it entirely, engage in a life-long debate with it—that was the decision I wanted them to be able to make. But you can’t make a decision about something if you don’t have that something and know what it is.



Maybe that’s not your reason for teaching Shakespeare….or the free silver movement…or cell mitosis. That’s totally fine with me. As long as you know what your reasons are, and you share them with your students. “It’s next on the pacing plan” is not reason enough for them, and it shouldn’t be reason enough for us.

Monday, October 29, 2018

One Thing Leads to Another


I was flipping through a poetry book over the weekend and landed by chance on “The Destruction of Sennacherib.” If you read any poetry in high school or college, you probably encountered this piece by Lord Byron. I don’t remember studying or discussing the contents of the poem at all, but I do remember talking about its anapestic rhythm (ba-ba-BA, ba-ba-BA), which can feel like the galloping of horses:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Re-reading that poem made me think about another poem that made martial use of rhythm--Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.

Poetry pedants will know that Tennyson gets a galloping effect by using the opposite rhythm of Bryon’s poem. He uses a dactyl (BA-ba-ba, BA-ba-ba) instead of an anapest. But that’s not why I thought about the Tennyson poem. I actually thought about a piece of music first, the title of which I thought was “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” but which turned out to be the “Light Cavalry Overture.” If you don’t know the piece, you can listen to it here. At about 2:10, you’ll know why the Byron poem made me think of it, because it uses the same anapestic rhythm to make one think of horses galloping.

So: one poem I re-encounter after many years makes me think of a piece of music lodged in my memory, which leads me (by mistaken identity) to another poem I remember from long ago. And so goes our thinking, bouncing like a pinball (if you’re old enough for that simile to be meaningful) from memory to memory. We don’t think linearly and rationally; we think in webs of association. One thing leads to another.

And here we go again: I write the words, “one thing leads to another,” and immediately I think of the song of the same title by The Fixx, which came out when I was in college and was played incessantly at the bar where we used to celebrate and dance after performances of our comedy sketch troupe. And if I choose to linger and daydream, I can let that chain of associations roll out from one thing to another, all day.

What we think about depends on what we know—and who we are, as human beings, depends on what we think about. The self-story that each of us tells is built up of a million discrete events in memory, and how those memories connect to each other. Who I am is not simply the things I’ve done or the things that have been done to me—it also includes the things I’ve read, and heard, and seen, and touched, and how all of those things connect with each other and with my life experiences. I am who I am, in part, because of how those poems and pieces of music connect with each other in my mind, and why one thing suggests the other. All of those things are the pieces of furniture of my mind, and that’s why the room I live in, in my mind, is uniquely mine.

Think about what this means for us as educators. We are introducing students to information about literature, and science, and history, and mathematics, and art—not simply so that they can regurgitate that information on tests, but because we are helping them furnish the rooms of their minds. We are giving them a place to live, intellectually. We are giving them things to think about for the rest of their lives—bits of memory that can float to the surface and attach themselves to new experiences and new information. And how they process those new experiences will depend, to some degree, on the associations and connections that are made between the new and the old. That means the furniture we bequeath to them--the things of the mind that we bring to our students and our own children--matter greatly. 

The first time I drove across the country, I thought about Walt Whitman and the words that open his “Song of the Open Road.”

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, 
Healthy, free, the world before me, 
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose. 

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune, 
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing, 
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms, 
Strong and content I travel the open road. 

Because of that association, I had a very particular feeling about driving across the country, and a feeling about the country I was driving across. I was connected to the history of my nation, and the history of exploration, and the American-to-the-point-of-cliché idea of self-re-invention. I was connected—enmeshed in my country in a variety of ways that were important and meaningful. My life was mine, but not mine alone. I was part of something vast, and part of something deep. Without those associations, I was just some guy, driving West across some rocks, hoping I could get to my hotel before the sun slanted into my eyes.

When my children encounter a beautiful sunset, I would like them to be able to connect it not only to memories of past sunsets, but also, perhaps, to a Van Gogh painting they’ve seen, and to happy memories of going to museums with their parents. When they hear an old, sad song as adults, I want them to be able to be able to think about what that song meant to them at a time of youthful heartbreak, and how that heartbreak has cooled in the ensuing years to a wistful memory, and how past loves and losses have taught them to be better people. The more things we put into their brains, the more things they can think about and connect to their present experiences. That isn’t elitism or snobbery; it’s just what makes life rich and full.

A world bereft of association is a thin and sad world. X = x = x = x. Everything is just itself. A world of limited association is just as impoverished. This is why arguments about the literary canon do matter. Are the "dead white males" still important to our culture? Obviously I think so, since I just made reference to some of them. But are they the only singers of songs and painters of pictures whose thoughts and ideas should be rattling around in our minds? Hardly.

The power of association is not always a happy and positive thing, but it’s always an important thing. When I encounter horror or injustice today, it connects and resonates with what I already know—about world history, about American history, about what we have solved, and about we have failed to fix. If every story in the news is simply itself—isolated and disconnected from any context or precedent—then it’s easy to avoid accountability. “Oh,” we can say, when someone shoots up a synagogue full of children and old people. “It’s just some guy who has a mental illness.” But it’s not just “some guy,” and it’s not simply mental illness. The actions are connected to a centuries-long history of Antisemitism and conspiracy-mongering, and are also connected to a decades-long history of anger, among some, at American Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights and other progressive movements. If we don’t know these things, and think about these things, then every day of horror can be dismissed as a simple and solitary event, and we cannot grow and make progress.

Everything we teach our children is a simile. Nothing is just itself; it’s powerful and worth learning because of its associations. How is it like this other thing? How is it not like this other thing? What caused and led to it? What did it, in turn, cause and lead to? What does it make you think about?

My love is like a red, red, rose…why? Because it is beautiful? Yes, perhaps. But also, perhaps, because it is delicate, and can easily be injured. Because it requires tending and care in order to thrive. Because, no matter how carefully I tend it, the fact is that the rose, and my love, are living things, and will wither and die someday. There is nothing I can to do stop that, and it makes things matter all the more.

So yes, I will love thee still, my dear, “till a’ the seas gang dry…and the rocks melt wi’ the sun.” But that day is coming, for thee and for me. And knowing it should make every moment with my love—and every moment along the open road we’re traveling—precious. Which brings me back to my old friend, Walt Whitman, for whom I always have a chair waiting in the room of my mind. He sings out to me across the years, and to all my fellow countrymen and women...if anyone has ears to hear.

Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me? 
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?







Monday, October 22, 2018

All Trees; No Forest

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, our total annual expenditures on public education (Kindergarten through Grade 12) are projected to be $654 billion this year, or just shy of $13,000 per pupil. That sounds like a lot of money, but spread across a not-quite-ten-month school year, it averages out to about $342 per student, per week, or about $68 per day, all expenses included. Not a bad deal, actually, for educating our children.

But are we educating our children while we're schooling them? I wonder, sometimes. What are we getting for our money and time? I'm not even counting what they learn in college, for those who go to college. Just think about the inputs and outputs in our K-12 system:


  • Our children spend 13 years studying reading and writing, but thousands and perhaps millions of graduates can't distinguish a fact from an opinion, assess an argument for logical validity, or figure out when to use their, they're, or there.
  • Our children spend 13 years studying mathematics, but thousands and perhaps millions of graduates can't figure out Annual Percentage Rates on loans, can't figure out whether a sale price is actually a good deal, may not realize that 1/3 is greater than 1/4, and in general can't protect themselves from getting ripped off.
  • Our children spend 13 years studying social studies and history, but thousands and perhaps millions of graduates can't identify other countries on a map, can't place key events of world or even American history in chronological order, do not understand the basic functioning of our government, and are increasingly in danger of selling our democratic birthright to the next authoritarian strongman who promises easy answers to their problems and satisfying punishment of their enemies, both foreign and domestic.
  • Our children spend 13 years studying science, but thousands and perhaps millions of graduates have no real understanding of the scientific method as a system of learning and discovery, rely on faith or mythology instead of empirical evidence to teach them how the world works, and think that a scientific "theory" is no more reliable than a guess.


In each of those disciplines, students learn facts, figures, definitions, and processes day in and day out, year in and year out. Some of them, they remember; some of them, they forget. But how can so many people who have graduated from our schools have so little conceptual understanding of the core concepts that lie at the heart of those disciplines? If they don't "get" those basic, critical ideas, then what was the point of all those days and years, all those tests and papers and project? What was the point of any of it?

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Questions Worth Asking; Answers Worth Hearing


As teachers, we ask questions constantly. “Why didn’t you participate in class?” “What’s ¼ + ½?” “Who saves Scout and Jem from Bob Ewell?”  The questions go on and on, all day, all week, all year.

We know from our teacher-training that wait time is hugely important. The great Bob Marzano has said so, and who are we to question him? (Actually, we have every right to question him, and all the rest of our gurus, but that’s a topic for another day.) We need to give students ample time to process our questions and formulate their responses, and our sense of time is often very different from theirs. Every teacher I know has had training in this concept, but very few teachers seem to get much professional development on any other aspect of questioning, which is really shocking.

Questioning is the heart and soul of what we do. Questioning is teaching, and has been, all the way back to Socrates, who never did anything but ask questions. One could argue that in online schools, questioning is the primary “value add” that the teacher brings to the equation. After all, the core curriculum is already written, and the system “teaches” it to students without much direct involvement from us. Sure, we need to develop supplemental lessons, remediation lessons, and so on. But our most consistent and meaningful contributions to learning are the questions we ask our students, whether we ask those questions in a classroom, over email, by text-message, or on the phone.

The time we reserve for instruction is at a premium—for teachers as well as for students. We want to make sure that time spent is time well spent—for all of us. So the question for us to ponder, as educators, is: are the questions we’re asking students really questions worth asking? Why are we asking them? What are we hoping to get from them?

Looking back on my own classroom practice, I realize that a lot of the questions I asked were simply confirmation questions. I taught them X; I wanted to see if they learned X; so I asked them X; and they told me X. I call that a “confirmation question.” because I wasn’t really using it as formative assessment to learn anything new or interesting about student thinking. In fact, if I was looking for X and I got Z instead, I often said something like, “not quite,” and moved on to another student until I got my X.

Crazy! The most interesting data in the room was that Z….or that Q, or whatever wrong answer I was getting. And I passed right by them, surfing over all the wrong answers until I got the answer I wanted…which was the one piece of information I already knew.

Are we asking questions to get the answer we’re hoping for—confirming what good teachers we are? Or are we asking questions to uncover misconceptions or procedural errors so that we can help students learn?  If it’s the latter, then we should be crafting our questions in much more interesting ways, to deliberately uncover goofy or mistaken thinking. Our “aha” moments as teachers shouldn’t come from the boring right answers; they should come from the interesting wrong answers. Even simple, fact-based questions can reveal so much about what students are thinking, if we set them up properly. Elizabeth Green talks about this at length in Building a Better Teacher.

And what about the questions that we don’t know the right answers to, because each student will have a unique and different response? Those are beautiful, wonderful questions—and as a profession, we don’t ask nearly enough of them. I’m thinking of questions like:

  • What makes you think that’s true?
  • Why do you think that’s important?
  • How did you figure it out?
  • How else might you have been able to do that?
  • What if I changed this one little fact? How would that change your answer?


These are the questions that give us insight into students’ minds, and help us see not only what they’re doing, but why they’re doing it. They are questions that focus on process: thinking process, problem-solving process, argumentation structure. They are questions that help students think about their own thinking, which is such a critical part of growth and maturity.

Yes, they take a long time. When we ask questions like these, we have to think, too, because there is no one, pre-ordained, correct answer that we can check off somewhere. We have to consider each response, sometimes probe for further information, reflect on what it all tells us about the student, and then take action on whatever insights we glean. But ultimately, that analysis, reflection, and action is exactly what requires us to be in the room with students, even if the room is an interactive whiteboard (or an asynchronous discussion thread).

Socrates had nothing but a patch of grass, a tree for shade, and a set of infuriating questions. How much more do we really need?