Revitalizing Classroom Life

Back to school edition.

The sooner educators craft alternatives to the 20th century “transmission of knowledge” model of teaching the better.  Why?  Because traditional school knowledge is instantly accessible via the media and internet and there’s much more to preparing students to participate in pluralistic democracies than transmitting information. 

In fact, if we mindlessly accept the “transmission of knowledge” model as a given, one might ask, after about the third grade, are teachers really necessary any more?  In fact, why require school attendance at all? 

The alternative that I’m advocating for is to question and challenge the educational status quo by asking, “What might teachers do differently and better than television programming, films, radio programming, periodicals, and Internet websites?”

Some may fret that alternative models of teaching will be characterized by watered-down curricula taught by teachers with little subject-matter expertise.  This is not what I am promoting.  I believe teachers need more, not less, subject-matter expertise, and that we need to develop more, not less, substantive curriculum materials.  Importantly though, in order to revitalize our classrooms, we must reconceptualize what constitutes subject-matter expertise and what qualifies as rigorous curricula.

Most curricula consist of objectives, content, and learning activities designed to promote specific knowledge, skills, and attitudes.  Too large a percentage of teachers rely on fill in the blank worksheets and the “questions at the end of the chapter” and emphasize information as an end-in-itself.  In large part, this explains many students’ relative disinterest in seemingly interesting subjects like history and their tendency to forget the information their teachers transmit.  The opportunity cost of this “information as an end to itself” approach is that too little time is spent on helping students develop lasting skills and attitudes, including what Dewey convincingly argued was the most important attitude of all, “the desire to go on learning.”

Skill development, including higher-order thinking, is one substantive way teachers can make unique and important contributions.  Even though the television documentary may be illuminating, the independent film thought provoking, the radio interview engaging, the newspaper article informative, the Internet website current and comprehensive, the media are ill equipped to help students think conceptually and analytically, to write clearly and convincingly, to collaborate thoughtfully and effectively, and to resolve conflicts imaginatively and sensitively. 

In short, there needs to be a serious rebalancing of emphasis between knowledge, skills, and attitudes.  I am not advocating a watered-down curriculum exclusively focused on the process of learning.  In contrast, I am calling for a delimiting of the traditional curriculum and what may be thought of as a “knowledge as the means to developing lasting skills and attitudes” model of teaching and learning.

What might this look like?  In different parts of the country individual teachers, teaching teams, departments, and school/university partnerships are implementing promising alternatives to the transmission of knowledge model, but few know anything about their examples because the public schooling conversation is currently dominated by students’ standardized test scores and the need for greater teacher and school accountability. 

In Nike’s Swoosh We Trust

Just returned from the Olympia High School Girls Swimming Parents Meeting. My 57 MA students from this summer would have enjoyed a big chuckle if they could have been there.  

Some context.  A few weeks ago, one of my teaching partners challenged our students to think through the pros and cons of corporate sponsorship of public school athletics and academics. A spirited debated ensued with intelligent arguments on both sides. I sat in silence which was remarkable because I believe very strongly that public schools should be as free of corporate sponsorship and logos as absolutely possible. Most of my world is gray, this is an exception.

School attendance is compulsory so students are a captive audience. Why should we help corporations build brand loyalty as soon as possible? I also believe some corporations want to squash debate about the merits of free market capitalism. Try developing a thoughtful, rigorous social studies program in that environment. How will we ensure a vibrant democracy if our youngest citizens aren’t challenged to consider the advantages and disadvantages of free-market capitalism?

Near the end of the debate, my colleague turned to me and asked me to weigh in. An impassioned rant ensued.  By the looks on their faces, I’m guessing half were inspired to think about it in new ways and half wondered what type of institution grants an insane person tenure.

Flash forward to tonight’s meeting.  Damn if the first handout didn’t have an effin’ swoosh on the bottom of it.  Shortly after coming to grips with that, I learn Nike has been given the team’s suit, cap, t-shirt, and sweats bidness in an “amazing deal”.  The “spirit package” (suit and cap) is only $55.  So maybe we’re saving five to ten dollars.  

I’m guessing I might have been the only parent in the crowded room that immediately started wondering what does Nike get for their $5-$10. What are the trade-offs?  

The Quakers have this great concept that if you feel compelled by “that of God within you” to say something in a meeting you have an obligation to the group to do so.  I didn’t feel obligated to the group since I didn’t know many of the people, but I knew I’d be upset with myself on the drive home if I didn’t speak out.  

So here’s the jest of what I said, “I know the cost to swim has gone up this year, the economy is poor, and people are hurting, and so the savings matter, but I for one would rather pay a little more to not advertise for Nike. [The coach, a friend who I assisted last year, had more of a “Ron you’re insane” look on his face, but I pressed on.] The students are a captive audience, and I think we should think through what Nike is getting out of ‘our great deal'”. The wonderful senior captain tried to alleviate my concern by spinning the deal.  In turn I encouraged her and her teammates to think critically and decide whether they want to advertise for Nike.

A few minutes later a parent said, “I for one just want to thank you for finding a good deal.”  In other words, go back under the rock from which you emerged.  

It’s moments like that when I have to really fight cynicism because I think if parents don’t challenge their kids to think through decisions like that, critical thinking is an impossibility, and without critical thinking, can we really maintain a vibrant democracy?

One other parent complimented the “eloquent” way I expressed myself, but I suspect she was questioning my sanity at the same time.

When I got home I learned this wasn’t an isolated incident. Olympia High School is now a “Nike-school”.  

Here’s my question to “great deal” swimming parent.  Where do you suggest we draw the line?  Why not a Reebok middle school and a Puma elementary school with free Usain Bolt “I enjoy reading” posters? I’m sure we could get more and more corporate sponsorships to subsidize more and more of public school costs. You want lower property taxes, then fine, let’s plaster billboards on school busses.  Let’s return to Channel One televised news with Skittles commercials every 90 seconds.  Let’s sell football stadium naming rights to the highest bidder whether they’re a good corporate citizen or not.  Let’s sell computer lab rights to Intel and plaster a placard on the door.  

If we get creative, we can probably avoid paying any property taxes.  Then we’ll have more than enough money to go buy more sports shit with swooshes all over it.

Housing crisis, foreclosures, financial institutions teetering on the brink.  Say you’re about to lose your house, forget walking away from it.  Offer it to NIKE or some other corporation. They’d probably assume half the liability and half the payments in exchange for painting giant swooshes on the roof, garage doors, and sides of the house.  Housing crisis averted.  No harm done.  

Running a little low on cash, get branded.  I’m guessing Nike would pay you $1,000 to have the swoosh tatooed on the back of your neck.  That is unless you’re a public school teacher and around 150 kids, 180 days a year, in which case I’m guessing they’d double it.

2012 London Games

Dear International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge:

Congrats on a successful Olympics.  Like most everyone, I enjoyed watching them.  I’m writing to offer my services for making the 2012 marathon an even more interesting event for spectators watching on television around the world.  

The problem with conventional marathon coverage is there’s no frame of reference for viewers to truly appreciate how fast the men and women are running. When the men reel off 4:45 mile after mile it only looks kinda fast.  

If you can find it within your budget to pay my expenses I’m willing to come run a part of the marathon at my normal 7:45 per mile pace. I will wear a white t-shirt with 7:45 on the front and back in large black block letters. I have several friends, some slower, some faster, who are willing to give up a week of their summer to provide this service as well.  

My idea is to sprinkle recreational runners throughout the course so that viewers have a frame of reference for how fast the pace is.  When the lead pack passes me running 3 minutes per mile faster, I will spin like a top, which viewers, no doubt, will get a kick out of.

I don’t need to stay in the athlete’s village, any five-star hotel will suffice.  And I doubt that you’re aware of this, but flying coach is getting more and more challenging.  Oh and I’m hoping to play the Old Course at St. Andrews sometime during the week.

Looking forward to hearing from you.



Self Analysis

One consequence of being frugal is I serve as my own psychotherapist.  In today’s session I explore why I cross-train year round, do fairly well in triathlons, yet choose not to race.  

Today was Ironperson Canada in Penticton, Canada.  Last year I attended the 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run triathlon to ride the bike course, vacation with the family, and cheer on a few friends from Olympia. The day after the race they wanted me to sign up for this year’s version.  

I enjoyed race day a lot, but chose not to register because training for an Ironperson would require me to compromise my commitment to balancing family, work, and fitness. 

The last few years I’ve been less and less interested in competing in triathlons at all which explains why my “season” this year begins September 6th at 9:30a.m. and ends September 6th around noon.

Here are three possible theories on why I’ve become less interested in racing.  

1) The “fear of success” theory.  I’m a solid age-group competitor, but not a great one.  Most races I finish somewhere around the top 20%.  Maybe my casual commitment to the sport is not really about balance.  Maybe I haven’t committed to fulfilling all of my potential because I’m afraid of breaking through into the top 10%. Psychologically, maybe being above-average is more familiar, comfortable, and safe.  If I went “all in” I know I could improve a little bit, or more accurately at my age, I know I could slow down more slowly than my peers. That would lead to higher finishes, but what if I’m wrong?  What if what you see is what you get?

2) The “I’m too frugal” theory.  I tell myself I don’t want to spend the necessary money on a time trial bike with disc wheels and I don’t want to pay the steep race entries fees and associated travel costs. Of course 1 and 2 could be related because I can afford the upgrades, race entries, and related travel costs. Are 1 and 2 distinct theories or should I renumber them 1A and 1B?

3) The “best case scenario doesn’t mean that much to me” theory.  This is the one I think is most relevant.  What is the best case scenario?  I move up in the standings and occasionally win my age group when a few more talented burners are no shows.  Or I qualify for Ironperson Hawaii in Kona at age 50.  To each of those possible accomplishments I say, so what?  None of them would change my life in any meaningful way. 

So there you have it.  That’s why you probably won’t see me at your next triathlon. Rest assured though, even though I enjoy training more than competing, it’s not like the competitive fire has been completely extinguished.  

Take last Thursday night’s club ride for example.  

About 25 of us were crawling through a few rollers towards the base of a two mile climb.  I grew impatient and went to the front thinking that everyone would dial it up.  Instead, I pulled away further and further until I was completely clear.  I rode hard for a few miles to the base of the climb and put about 400 meters into everyone.  At the first and second false top I thought I was going to make it over the third and final one. Visions of the King of the Mountain jersey were dangling in my head, but alas, three guys blew by me 100 meters from the top.  That was equal parts frustrating and exhilarating (Note: I caught them on the descent).

The joy is in the journey.  Or put differently for me, the joy is in the training.

The New Necessities

I’m now officially on the bandwagon of people writing about people’s struggles with debt.  One straight shooting commentator recently summarized the problem this way: We’re buying things we can’t afford.  But that insight begs the question why?  Here are the most commonly offered answers:

• credit is too widely available 

• financial illiteracy

• ubiquitous internet access makes on-line shopping a continuous temptation 

• a lack of personal discipline more generally

Here are a few additional reasons that are not an important enough part of the debt discussion:

• a lack of meaningful community and an associated spiritual longing 

• partners with different spending habits and different levels of commitment to saving and investing

• increasing expectations that things like a high speed internet connection, eating out weekly, a cell phone, and cable television are necessities of middle class life

In what follows, I zero in on the last two bulleted points.  

No matter how large my blog readership grows, I will not considerable myself successful until I get my wife to read it more regularly.  Maybe the next sentence will help.

I probably don’t tell her it enough, but for a lot of reasons, I love L.  

Like every married couple, we have our issues and our moments. Vague enough? Issues and moments are inevitable when two imperfect people pursue intimacy. Nonetheless, there are some things we’re amazingly in sync about.  For example, our parenting instincts are extremely similar.  We explicitly respect and trust one another’s parenting.  We also share a deep desire to live more simply which a story from last week illustrates.

Last week A and J were camping with friends so we had fun spoiling Marley and practicing being emptynesters.  Thursday night’s plan was to go out to dinner. But after going out to lunch with a colleague at work and then attending an afternoon meeting that was catered, I didn’t feel like going to another restaurant.  Most women (or men) anticipating a nice dinner out would not switch gears too gracefully.  

So it was with some trepidation I suggested an alternative, “Instead of going out to eat, do you want to throw a simple picnic together and bike to Priest Point Park?” Not only did she say “sure” but she meant it.  No big deal.  What a blessing.  After cutting some honeydew, tossing some tortilla chips and sandwiches into a backpack, we were off.  We washed it down with. . . water in water bottles.  

It wasn’t fine dining, but it was a nice experience.  We got a little exercise in and we had an uninterrupted conversation surrounded by towering pines and the Puget Sound.  

The vast majority of personal finance discussions revolve around increasing one’s income and far fewer challenge people to reduce their monthly expenses.  Overtime, the middle class has grown accustomed to eating out and to high speed internet at home, cell phones, and cable television among other things.    

It’s interesting to run the numbers for just those items.  Weekly dinner out for a family of four at an inexpensive restaurant with water, $60 x 4 =$240/month; high speed internet at home, $45/month; family cell phone plan, $100/month?; cable television, $45/month.  That’s approximately $330/month  or $3,960/year and then let’s round up since we’ll need at least $40 to drive to dinner 52 times.  So every household needs approximately $4,000 for what might be referred to as new necessities.    

We are products of our environments.  No man or woman is an island unto themselves, meaning we tend to follow examples set by our family, neighbors, and friends.  It’s difficult to swim upstream and live simply and save when there’s so much momentum for mindless consumption and spending.  

I feel very fortunate to still be swimming upstream with the person I fell in love with 23 years ago.

Cultural Differences

Recently, I listened to two well educated erudite Tacoma/Seattle sports journalists (granted, those words aren’t normally strung together), let’s call them J1 and J2, reporting from Beijing on the radio.  I like the J’s, but they reminded me that every traveler is susceptible to at minimum subtle forms of ethnocentrism that take the form of projecting onto other people in other places one’s own assumptions about how things should be done.  In the course of their reporting, both lamented different aspects of their Chinese experience.  J1 got on a jammed pack bus outside the Water Cube only to have the driver wait five minutes until his prescribed time to leave.  J2 wanted the hosts to “lighten up” and try to enjoy themselves more.  J1 seconded that point in a completely independent segment.

While traveling in Europe during the winter and spring, L and I were struck by how few times we had to show our passports and how we never received visa stamps.  Given the apparent streamlining of work, maybe passport control agencies can be given the new responsibility of helping orient newly arriving travelers.  


With a passport stamp that reads as follows:  Welcome to Foreignland.  Lots of aspects of people’s lives in Foreignland are different than what you are accustomed to.  During your stay, we hope you come to appreciate the different ways Foreignlanders approach daily life.  If not, that’s okay, but please understand that the different ways Foreignlanders live work just fine for them. For example, Foreignlanders’ bus drivers may follow their schedules more to the letter of the law than you are accustomed to. While you are in Foreignland, the burden is on you to adjust to the way they live their lives. Also be aware that Foreignlanders may not be as “laid back” as you are accustomed to or would like. Odds are Foreignlanders will not change into the people you’re more accustomed to interacting with during the course of your stay. If you are unable to adjust to the different ways Foreignlanders live their lives, consider returning home rather than exiting the airport.  

Granted, that’s one LARGE stamp, but if you’re like me, your passport has lots of blank pages.