Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Elephant in the Room

Grant Wiggins has a thoughtful blog post up today about academic standards--the third in a series. In this post, he discusses the uselessness of the single grade, either the "A" of traditional grading or the "meets standard" of today's report cards. He proposes a different way of evaluating student work, which is multifaceted and, for a change, useful to students, parents, and teachers.  It is definitely worth a read.

What Wiggins does not discuss, however, is what his proposal would require, logistically. The sad fact is that teachers are already overworked and overwhelmed--especially English teachers who are trying to assign authentic writing work to their students. As budgets force more and more students into a single classroom, the ability of teachers to do evaluate student writing in a thoughtful way becomes more and more challenging (assuming the teachers are qualified and prepared to do such thoughtful evaluation, which is a whole other question).  Even online courses, which are supposed to promise an escape from the tyranny of the clock and the class schedule, are seeing student-teacher rations rise, and curriculum developers remove open-ended assignments and questions in favor of auto-scored, multiple-choice assessments, to make it possible for online teachers to "manage" more students.

I'm not saying Wiggins is wrong. He rarely is (I had issues with his anti-fiction tirade, but other than that, I'm a fan). But someone, somewhere, someday, is going to have to figure out how to reconcile the requirements of high-level instruction with the logistical and financial realities of how we do schooling in this country.

Ha ha!  I'm kidding, of course. They're not reconcilable. Which is the dirty little secret of American education. We know what works. We know what needs to be done. We know how to help all children learn and perform to high levels. We just have no intention of paying for it.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Giveaway #2

I am giving away another copy of "Cool for Cats" on  The giveaway begins on Monday, November 14 and closes on Monday, November 28.  Stop by and sign up for a free book!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Cool for Cats by Andrew Ordover

Cool for Cats

by Andrew Ordover

Giveaway ends November 28, 2011.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

Monday, November 7, 2011

How Do You REALLY Feel?

From Chris Tessone at NRO Online:

The liberal arts were once about studying how to live, informed by literary, philosophical, and historical accounts of how others conducted their lives. Students took a coherent set of core courses and immersed themselves in the Western canon. The academics of today instead offer programs catering to teenage sloth and narcissism, giving kids and their helicopter parents whatever they want for a buck, regardless of quality or rigor, reluctant to miss out on the student-loan-driven bubble now inflating. Anything for the freedom to conduct trivial research, play activist on the side, and enjoy the waning prestige of tenure-track life.


I think maybe that's a wee bit extreme, but only a wee bit.

Take a look at the first comment one encounters below Tessone's piece (at least as of this writing), wherein someone says, "I fail to see how knowledge of Plato and Aristotle makes one significantly more employable than immersion in Foucault and Derrida."

Kind of misses the point, in that the liberal arts are supposed to teach us how to LIVE, not how to WORK...but it does touch on a flaw in Tesson's piece. Either college is a place to go to learn a trade, or it's not. It can certainly offer both kinds of educaton, for people entering with different needs or expectations. I was an English major. Then I got an MFA in theatre. I did not expect either degree to lead directly to a job. However--both degress gave me skills and knowledge that ended up making me employable...often in unexpected ways.

But college IS too damned expensive. No argument there.

And colleges DO indulge in a lot of quasi-academic nonsense. No argument there, either.

Fertile Ground?

There's a lot of talk these days about the "flipped classroom," the idea that we can use technology, specifically streaming video, to accomplish more of the "information download" of our curriculum at home, where students can learn at their own pace, their own way, re-reading or re-watching as often as they need to, without holding up the rest of the class, and then use more of our in-class time for truly interactive activities, such as working problems, doing experiments, or engaging in discussion and debate.

I love it. I think I would have thrived in that world.

Of course, there are a lot of assumptions built into that vision, from the obvious (do all of our kids have computers or hand-held devices with good broadband access) to the slightly less obvious (is there any quality control ensuring that these brilliant videos are, in fact, brilliant--or at least accurate?), to the maybe-not-obvious-at-all-unless-you're-a-teacher (if they didn't care enough to do their reading, what makes us so sure they'll care enough to do their watching?).

This last point is the focus of a blog post I just read, after following various links from a Twitter post this morning. For this author, the relevance is all--and the relevance is missing. As far as he's concerned, the problem is not the quality of the seeds we're planting, it's the fertility of the soil. You can have all the great videos you want, but if the kids don't want to watch them, you haven't accomplished anything.

I think this is actually a fascinating metaphor, if we unpack it a little. I just completed work on a survey that was sent out to readers of the books published by the Large Non-Profit Organization for which I work. The readers, all of whom are educators of one type or another, were asked (among other things) what their greatest challenges were, in terms of student achievement. It was an open-ended question, so they were free to write anything they wanted to. And they said a good many things. But the one issue that came up more often than any other in their responses was student motivation (or the lack thereof).

OK--so from this persepctive, the problem is the soil. The seeds are fine, but the soil is arid. We give them the good stuff, and they just don't care. This would be the more traditionalist view of education. We're trying to pass on our culture, our heritage, our history of learning, and Those Damned Kids with their videogames and their hip hop music and their tattoos and their [fill in the blank] just don't care. So....Not Our Problem.

But there are other people who take the opposite view, such as the writer of this blog post. "The curriculum in these classes is typically irrelevant to their lives," he says, "except for the need to earn grades good enough to placate their parents and impress college admissions officers." Clearly, for him, the problem is not the soil; it's the crappy old seeds we've been hoarding in our garden sheds for years, which nobody else wants. The soil is fertile, but not for these seeds. So....Totally Our Problem.

Unfortunately, this kind of attitude can lead to some lousy educational practice, such as teaching down to the kids, only giving them stuff they already know, or already know about. Our whole culture, and much of our economy, is already designed to entertain and please children; I'm not sure our educational system has to follow suit, just because it's easier. And I've seen plenty of teachers do just that.

Education is not supposed to be the least-engaging sub-set of Entertainment. It's supposed to be the intellectual pathway that leads us out of childhood and into adulthood. There's a physical pathway that we can't help but walk, where, sooner or later, we're not kids anymore. There's a communal/spiritual pathway that most of us, in the West, have abandoned, where rituals and rites of passage mark us, in some inescapable way, as adults in our community. And there's an intellectual pathway, where we lean the things that adults need to know: the facts, the skills, the stories of our history; the myths and norms of our culture. We can learn these in apprenticeship to a craftsman, or by working next to our parents in the fields or in the home, or we can learn them in school. Every culture has a different set of Things That Must Be Learned in order for the next generation to take the reins successfully.

Now, I'm all for making things relevant to students. ALL FOR IT. But that means finding a way to bring them to us, not bowing down and surrending to them. Our job isn't to leave them in the nursery to play with the toys they're already used to. Our job is to make our world relevant --to make the case that the world beyond their noses is important, and that learning about it, and how to navigate successfully in it, is the most interesting project avaialble to them. And I think we're doing a lousy job of selling that idea.

Maybe we're not bothering to sell the idea at all. Maybe we're just droning on and on in our classrooms, assuming our curriculum is so vital and important that it will speak for itself, without our help. If so, it's not working.

Or maybe we're doing a lousy sales job because some of us actually don't believe in the product. Too many of us don't believe the adult world is really worth inheriting.  We're pissed off; we're disappointed and disenchanted. We mourn our own childhoods too much, and we can't ever escape what it is we had to leave behind. We watch the same teenage movies they watch, and listen to the same teenage music they listen to, and follow the same fashions that drive them to spend their money. It's the best game in town, and every year, as we age, we become less and less adept at playing it.

Or maybe we're doing a lousy sales job because the whole idea of history, or culture, or canon, or authority of any kind, has been cast in such disrepute over the last couple of generations that we don't feel we have the right to hold anything up as worthy of respect, study, or emulation. Everyone is corrupt, and everyone is a racist, and everyone is simply out for themselves, so for Christ's sake, don't listen to us. Follow your own hearts, and your own ethics, and be the generation that will truly revolutionize society and lead us back to the garden.

Which is fine, as far as it goes. I'm all for social justice. I'm all for empowering young people to respect their own vision and to fight for a better world. Truly. But doesn't that fight have to be grounded in knowledge of what has come before...and knowledge of why attempts to make things better have sometimes failed?  Don't we want them to know that the baton is being handed to them, and that their lives are just a single segment of the Great Race of human history?

With all of the problems and possibilities facing us--us as a nation and us as a world--with all of the promise and threat of the years ahead, how could education possibly be seen by students as irrelevant?

If you've spent your life in a dark room, the concept of light might seem foolish, or worthless, or unimportant. But you don't need someone to lecture you endlessly on the importance of seeing. And you don't need someone to leave you in the dark because the people in charge have decided that there's really not much to see. You need someone to turn on the lights.