Powerful Stories of Schooling

Movie recommendations for PressingPausers who are interested in education and enjoy independent and foreign films. And who are convinced that the pendulum has swung WAY too far towards standardized curriculum, testing, teaching methods, and schooling more generally. And who know outside-of-school factors greatly impact what teachers are able to accomplish. And who believe poetry, emotion, and the arts are at least as important as Big Data. And who like authentic and inspiring stories about the challenges and rewards of teaching.

1) The Class

2) Not One Less

3) Spellbound

Honorable mention: Hoop Dreams; School Colors; High School II; The Boys of Baraka; The American Dream at Groton; Country Boys; Young, Muslim, and French; Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden.

Teaching As We Always Have, Even Though the “Always On” Generation Isn’t Listening

The false promise of ed tech, part two. Teaching As We Always Have, Even Though the “Always On” Generation Isn’t Listening.

It’s day two of my university’s four-day-long orientation for entering students. Two steps at a time I hurriedly climb the bleachers of our large auditorium to an empty seat in the very back. Six hundred students have gathered for their first academic experience, a faculty panel discussion of a common reading, Karen Joy Fowler’s novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2014). First, however, the Associate Provost gives a talk on academic behaviors important for college success; advising students to “Bring energy for learning; be interested and engaged . . . be open to constructive criticism.”

A long ways from the closest students, a moderator stands at a podium. The students in the back and I look up at a large audio-visual projection of two formally dressed professors sitting at a table across from the moderator. The conversation begins. Question one, “How did your respective disciplines—Psychology and English Literature—help you better understand the novel?” The professors intelligently deconstruct the text. The second question begins similarly, “Again, looking through your disciplinary lenses. . . .” More thoughtfully expressed insights follow. Despite the professors’ expert analysis, something is amiss. Within ten minutes, the students in front of me start to stir, smart phones materialize out of thin air, a few laptops open, two students exchange backrubs. As ten minutes turn to forty, nearly everyone tunes out.

Seymour Sarason offered an apt metaphor for education reform in The Predictable Failure of Education Reform (1993). It is, he explained, like an ocean storm. During an ocean storm, the surface is markedly changed as the result of 100 mile per knot winds, darkening skies, mountainous waves, and incessant lightening strikes. Yet as one descends to the ocean floor, the water chemistry, darkness, and animal life remain completely unchanged. Too often, the modern university classroom, or in this case auditorium, is the ocean floor. Despite the fact that most “always on” young adults text continuously throughout the day, whether they’re in their cars or our classrooms, classroom teaching remains largely unchanged—professors mostly talk and students pretend to listen.

There should be a corollary to the admonition, “Bring energy for learning; be interested and engaged,” such as “Faculty will resist talking at you. Instead they will capitalize on your energy for learning by developing personalized learning environments characterized by meaningful interaction.” The teaching disconnect so powerfully illustrated by the common reading panel discussion provides faculty the opportunity to model the other highlighted academic behavior, “Be open to criticism.”

Deborah Meier argues in The Power of Their Ideas, “Teaching is mostly listening and learning is mostly telling” (1995, p. xi). Likewise, Decker Walker contends inFundamentals of Curriculum, “The educative effect is greater when students do something than when something is done to them” (1990, p. 479). University faculty rarely apply these aphorisms because they think of themselves first and foremost as mathematicians, philosophers, and psychologists who also happen to teach. Consequently, scant time is spent thinking about whether conventional teaching methods are working. Even less time is spent crafting alternative ones; as a result, a talking at students status quo prevails.

This lack of introspection means faculty rarely engage in thoughtful conversation about their teaching strengths, styles, and struggles. That’s why the common reading panel discussion was implemented nearly identically the previous two years. No one on the First Year Program Committee has dared to state the obvious—if the goal is to engage students, it’s not working.

There are several reasons why the common reading panel discussion is not engaging students, but to understand the most salient causes, it’s important to know that Fowler’s novel is a riveting and sometimes emotional story that prompts lots of thinking about human-animal relations. One reason the students tuned out the two distant faculty members sitting on the stage is that they both read their rehearsed responses to questions they had received a few months earlier. Their conscientious preparation and obvious insight was not enough to compensate for the impersonal space coupled with a complete lack of eye contact.

Most importantly though, the wording of the questions, and the highlighting of their academic disciplines, meant they spent almost all of their time deconstructing the text as English and Psychology scholars when the story begged a human response. The professors’ intelligence was evident, but not their humanity. That’s why so many students turned to social media. Parker Palmer, inThe Courage to Teach, illuminates why the reading panel went poorly by detailing a typology of teachers’ questions:

• The question we most commonly ask is the “what” question—what subjects shall we teach?

• When the conversation goes a bit deeper, we ask the “how” question—what methods and techniques are required to teach well?

• Occasionally, when it goes deeper still, we ask the “why” question—for what purpose and to what ends do we teach?

• But seldom, if ever, do we ask the “who” question—who is the teacher? How does the quality of my selfhood form—or deform—the way I related to my students, my subject, my colleagues, my world? (1998, p. 4)

Conventional wisdom seems to be that educational technology is the key to engaging the “always on” generation. In contrast, I believe the best way forward is to pay more attention to the self that teaches. Based upon the wording of the questions, the First Year Committee thought of the faculty panelists exclusively as scholars. Students would have responded much more positively if the panelists had first talked more spontaneously and authentically about how the story affected them as human beings—vulnerability being a key factor in learning.

This seeming reticence to explore the self that teaches takes me back to a few years ago when I participated in a faculty seminar with colleagues from across our liberal arts campus. During the seminar I enjoyed getting to know Kai, a young English professor, whom I learned was a talented and accomplished poet. At the time, we were both teaching first year writing. Before the start of one of our meetings, I told Kai about a successful class activity that was based upon an essay I had published a few years earlier. Dumbfounded, he said, “You share your writing with your students?!” “Yes,” I replied, “usually a few times each semester.” The thought had never entered his mind. The more Kai and I embrace Parker’s idea of the self that teaches and reveal something of our humanity, the better our odds of truly connecting with our “always on” students.

Embracing the self that teaches in order to reveal one’s humanity is admittedly abstract advice. How might that concept inform a new and improved first academic experience for any university’s entering students? The answer lies in the second half of my university’s common reading experience—small, writing seminar–based discussion groups of sixteen students. My group was relieved when I noted, “That could’ve gone better.” Then I began our discussion by reminding them that people have markedly different feelings about animals. Next, I explained the evolution of my thinking about animals and how that impacted the way I read the novel. The students were interested in how fearful I was of dogs as a child and were amused by my foolhardy attempts to outrun a few. Then, I confessed that as a middle-aged adult I didn’t understand how a few of my close friends thought of their dogs almost as children until my family pressed me to get one of our own. “Now, after nine fun-filled years with our amazing labradoodle,” I said, “I completely understood their special bond.”

I used my story as a springboard for talking about the importance of being open-minded in college to different ways of thinking and being. I also asked them about their relationship with animals and whether they liked the book or not. Forgetting their phones, they engaged one another. We should eliminate the large group faculty panel discussion altogether, in favor of the smaller, more personal discussion groups. And if we can get the faculty small group leaders to reveal something of their humanity, we may engage the “always on” generation in ways that revitalize the university classroom.

References

Fowler, K. J. (2014). We are all completely beside ourselves: A Novel. New York: Plume.

Meier, D. (1995). The power of their ideas. Boston: Beacon Press.

Palmer, P. (1998). The courage to teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Sarason, S. B. (1993). The predictable failure of educational reform: Can we change course before it’s too late? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Walker, D. (1990). Fundamentals of curriculum. New York: Harcourt Brace Javanovich.

The Problem With Direct Democracy

Let’s start the new year off with some heresy.

Education, medicine, policing, journalism, fill in the cross-section of the work world, every work collective is attempting to reinvent themselves; to save money; to work smarter, not harder; and ultimately, to meet people’s needs more effectively. Thoughtful reformers across the gamut repeatedly cite the importance of public participation in reform efforts.

A friend of mine, a transportation engineer, shared a story with me recently about an award his office received for a particularly successful redesign of a small downtown in Central Washington state. What stood out in the write-up was how thoroughly his team sought citizen’s input on what improvements they most valued before ever picking up a shovel.

Another friend is in the State Highway Patrol. Last week I shared a lengthy article with him about changes afoot in the Seattle Police Department. Here’s his insightful reply:

I’m all for a new approach to policing and public safety, but it needs to be driven by citizen initiatives and new laws not local prosecutors deciding what to file based on what they think is important. I don’t agree with a lot of the prostitution laws, but it is still illegal. Just like I didn’t agree with the marijuana laws, but it was still illegal. The citizens determine what laws we live by not selective prosecutors and politicians.

That makes imminent sense. The education parallel is we need new approaches to K-12 schooling and teacher education, but it needs to be driven by citizen initiatives not middle managers at the Office of Public Instruction.

But I have to believe, given the notion of connoisseurship, or specialized expertise, that there are limits to direct democracy. When it comes to reforming our medical system, I trust Atul Gawande way more than I trust myself. Why? Because from reading him I know he has patients’ best interests in mind. Plus, he has highly specialized expertise.

Like everyone, I have some thoughts on how to improve medicine–I’d like my doctors to work more closely together, I’d love to see a dermatologist sometime before I die, and it would be nice if rising costs were in line with the Consumer Price Index–but I have no idea how to get from here to there. I don’t need a seat at the table, I trust the Atul Gawande’s of the world to reinvent medicine. I’m content, if in the end, I get to vote for what he and his doc friends propose.

For the last three decades education reform has been largely ineffectual because nearly every change has been imposed on teachers from well-intentioned people outside of schools—whether Presidents, Secretaries of Education, Governors, Superintendents of Public Instruction, CEO’s, wealthy philanthropists, and academics. When it comes to revitalizing K-12 schooling, I trust teacher leaders in those schools way more than I trust President Obama, Arne Duncan, Tom Friedman, Bill Gates, Randy Dorn, or myself.

Here’s the most bold education proposal imaginable—let’s empower teacher leaders to reinvent their profession. Let them decide themselves what to teach; how to teach; and how to evaluate, promote, and reward one another. I’ll be content if, in the end, I get to vote up or down for what the teacher leaders propose for the schools in my community.

When it comes to redesigning a small town’s downtown, I trust my transportation engineer friend. When it comes to reinventing policing, I trust my State Trooper friend. Because they have citizens’ best interests in mind and they are far more expert than me in their respective fields. That’s why I’m more a fan of representative democracy than direct.

I Just Bought a Drone

Tuesday night, while the Good Wife and I slept, our checking account was ransacked by the Internal Revenue Service. This is where our (personal) record amount of federal taxes will eventually end up.

BF-AH180_12taxr_G_20140411180904

The Internal Revenue Service needs reinventing. Could there be a worse name? It sounds like something from an Eastern Bloc dystopian novel. How about the Public Commons or the Public Commons Service? Now the most dreaded sentence in the English language will be, “Hi, I’m from the Public Commons Service.”

Granted, that’s barely scratching the surface of what’s wrong with the PCS. The main problem with our tax system is once our checking account is raided, we have next to no say over where our federal tax dollars go (apart from voting for two senators and a congressional representative). For example, despite being anti-war educators, 27.7% of our federal taxes go to the military (defense and military benefits + veteran benefits) while 1.32% goes to education. We’re forced to help purchase drones, when we’d much rather help purchase improved teacher salaries.

At the same time, our hawkish neighbors might compensate for our military stinginess by designating far more than their 27.7% for the Pentagon. And of course, our other neighbor, Dan, Dan, The Transportation Man, would significantly increase his 2.65% transportation contribution.

A few significant improvements would result from this experiment in direct financial democracy. 1) Complaining about tax rates would decline. 2A) Government departments and programs would have to explain to the public why they’re deserving of a greater percentage of the total revenue available. And 2B) The more they could demonstrate fiscal responsibility, the more support they’d gain.

Admittedly, these ideas won’t slow the accelerating gap between the Haves and Have Nots. On April 15th, I listened to a panel of tax experts discuss tax reform on the Diane Rehm Show. I was much more intrigued by the tone of the discussion than the details of their ideas. The tone was, “Our tax system is so complex that improving it by simplifying it is impossible, but I’m happy to play along with your national audience anyways.”

As anyone who has tried to improve K-12 schooling, reduce global warming, reduce money’s influence in politics, or eradicate drugs and crime from their community will tell you, those who have a vested interest in the status quo benefit greatly from a sense of overwhelming complexity. Reformers, whether tax or otherwise, can’t wrap their arms around the whole problem, and therefore, don’t know where to begin making changes. Eventually they try piecemeal reforms. Before those reforms take hold, people’s patience runs out. Gradually, everyone and everything reverts back to “normal”. With each passing year or decade, what’s viewed as “normal” becomes more deeply entrenched, making significant change even more difficult.

Tax reformers have lots of good ideas including deductions they’d tweak or eliminate altogether. But they can’t see the forest because of the trees. Their ultimate challenge is to convince the public that simplifying and improving our tax system is possible.

 

 

 

 

What Education Reformers Get Wrong

Diane Ravitch is the author of Reign of Error, a critically important book about all that’s wrong with the education reform movement.

Ravitch is a wonderfully independent thinker in an era of unprecedented educational groupthink. Her purpose is to convince readers that conventional wisdom about how to improve public schooling is all wrong. She’s especially critical of “corporate reformers”—the George W. Bush administration, the Obama administration, the Gates Foundation, Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein among many, many others—that want to apply free-market business principles to education.

The corporate reformers see student testing as a panacea for not just improved student learning, but better teaching. They insist that we evaluate teachers and principals based upon how their students score on standardized tests. Ravitch explains that K-12 educators want to be held accountable for their students’ learning, but details why emphasizing standardized test scores is so problematic.

There are two overarching purposes of public schooling in the U.S.—to prepare students for democratic citizenship and to prepare students for the world of work. Never mind that it’s nearly impossible to know what the job market will look like in ten years, the corporate reformers emphasize preparation for work almost exclusively. That’s because they’re anxious that our country’s economic lead over other nations is steadily shrinking, and that as a result, our quality of life will gradually decline.

The Reign of Error is essential reading because Ravitch details the importance of citizenship education, and by doing so, restores much needed balance to the rationale for public schooling. In doing so, she explains how the quality of our democracy hinges in part on the quality of young people’s history education, humanities coursework, and critical thinking skills.

Corporate reformers, a distinct majority in education policy debates today, argue that our economic predicament is so dour we have to focus on strengthening our economic competitiveness above all else. In essence, we can’t afford to worry about the health of our democracy.

But what the corporate reformers fail to grasp is that when it comes to global competition, the relative health of our democracy is quite possibly our greatest competitive advantage. Nearly every government in the world is in some form of crisis. In the U.S. money dominates politics and the U.S. Congress is obviously flawed, but everything is relative. Our government is less corrupt and more responsive than most others; our press is freer than most; our judiciary more independent; and our rule of law, more robust.

We shouldn’t frame school improvement as a zero-sum global competition. It’s okay if students in Singapore, Finland, and South Korea are smart. At the same time, competition is so engrained in our national consciousness, if we have to compete, we should take the less obvious path, and strive to create the world’s most vibrant democracy. One that’s increasingly responsive to its citizens. We need to strengthen history education, embrace the humanities, and cultivate critical thinking in public K-12 schools and trust that our economy will be fine.

With apologies to Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, one economic and one political,

And sorry we could not travel both

And be one traveler, long we stood

And looked down one as far as we could

To where it bent in the undergrowth

Then took the political path, as just as fair,

And perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear.

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Can Schooling Be Reinvented?

What a privilege to work with my first year writers and graduate pre-service teachers this semester. Both groups embraced the course content and my discussion-based approach.

Some of my grad students were especially appreciative of the opportunity to think about competing purposes of schooling, educational inequities, and the challenges of education reform.

Consider an email message from one such student, S:

I got to thinking about your response during our discussion about alternatives to the current education system. You mentioned alternatives for individuals (un-schooling, for example), but what about for the entire public education system? How unrealistic is it to envision a transformation in the public education system itself? Do you think that it will ever be possible to overhaul the system and completely refashion some of what is most central to it? Things like students progressing through school year by year with their grade level, dividing education into various subject matters, having education happen primarily in designated schools? I love public education. I LOVE that it is accessible to everyone in our country. I do not want to work at a private school or home school my own children. But I’m a dreamer and an idealist and I am wondering if it is reasonable to dream of a new ideal for public education. In your professional opinion, is it worth it to dream the big dreams? I know I’m asking that question in a way that begs a “yes” response, but I’m actually hoping you’ll say “no” so I can focus on what’s in front of me now instead of spacing out whenever education reform is mentioned and getting lost in imaginary ideas.

S’s reference to age-based grade levels, traditional academic subjects, and existing school buildings are “regularities of schooling”, educational practices so engrained in our thinking that we no longer question their value or consider alternatives. We could add the nine-month school calendar, letter grades, and teachers working independently in separate classrooms.

Sometimes teachers-to-be say, “I’ll be content if I can’t just touch one student’s life.” Really? If you’re the least bit caring and conscientious you should be able to check that box off a month into your career. A second level of impact is becoming a teacher that improves some students’ life prospects every school year. S may be after even more than that though, a third level of impact, providing enlightened school or district leadership. Is a fourth level, contributing to a complete reinvention of K-12 public schooling as we know it, possible?

I would love S and some of her fellow graduate students to prove me wrong, but even if I live another forty years, I do not expect my great grandchildren’s schools to look significantly different than those of today. My descendants and their teachers will use new and improved technologies, but teachers will still do most of the talking and students will often wonder, “Why do we need to know this?” I base this prediction on the incredible stability of schooling over the last one hundred years; the fact that each generation of parents feels their school experience was perfectly adequate; and the fact that teachers are kept far too busy to seriously reconsider the regularities of schooling on a local, let alone, grand scale.

So what’s S to do? There are lots of possibilities for intelligent, inquisitive, progressive teachers like her. Being a teacher that improves students’ life prospects will prove immensely challenging and rewarding. Another option is to become a caring and conscientious school or district administrator that improves teachers’ work lives, and by extension, helps large numbers of students. A related option is to take the baton from me in five or ten years and become a teacher educator who helps beginning teachers flourish, and by extension, large numbers of students.

Another option is to team together with like-minded teachers to create innovative, alternative public schools. There have always been innovative, alternative public school schools that challenge the educational status quo. The problem has been replicating their practices on a large scale. “Scaling up” proven reforms is the illusive holy grail. Maybe S’s generation will be the first to solve that puzzle. If not, accomplished classroom teaching, enlightened administrative leadership, and/or excellent teacher education service are all socially redeeming, career worthy pursuits.

Postscript—daring to disagree, a preeminent ed reformer predicts the end of schooling

Flipped Classrooms

A few weeks ago, I showed a 75 minute long documentary to my graduate students. That only left us 25 minutes to discuss it. Next year, I thought to myself, why not assign the viewing of the film before class and then use class time to explore it and a related case study in greater depth.

“Flipping” classrooms is a promising new educational phenomenon. Here is how a New York Times education blogger describes the flipped classroom:

Teachers record video lessons, which students watch on their smartphones, home computers or at lunch in the school’s tech lab. In class, they do projects, exercises or lab experiments in small groups while the teacher circulates.

Initial experiences and findings are positive.

My favorite education reform metaphor is an ocean storm. The water surface is dramatically changed by high winds. There’s also unusually dark skies, lightening, and extremely high surf. But the farther you go below the surface, the less significant the changes. Until, on the ocean floor, the animal life, water chemistry, the entire environment is unchanged. In education reform, the teacher-student relationship is the ocean floor. Schools change bell schedules, require uniforms, buy tablets for students, and implement site based management, but the teacher-student relationship remains the same as one hundred years ago.

Flipped classrooms and schools may mix up the ocean floor.