I Failed

How will large language models/artificial intelligence change K-12 education? Maybe the better question is will large language modes/artificial intelligence change K-12 education? Through teaching, research, and writing, I spent most of my academic career trying to make high schools more democratic, more international, more personal, and more relevant and purposeful.

I’m sad to report that I failed bigly. The fact of the matter is, except for all the surreptitious texting under desks, the typical high school today functions remarkably similar to the way Cypress (California) High School did when I graduated in 1980. What other institution in American life can you say that about?

Lesson learned. K-12 education is incredibly resistant to change. Like YouTube, surely ChatGPX-like devices will have some effect, but probably not enough to fundamentally alter the teacher-student relationship. One education scholar uses an ocean metaphor to explain the futility of education reform. Schedule tweaks, new curriculum initiatives, education technologies, all create changes on the surface of the ocean just as high winds do. Descend to the ocean floor however, meaning the teacher-student relationship in the classroom, and the water’s darkness, chemistry, and animal life are completely unaffected by the tumult on the surface. The teacher still mostly talks and the students listen.

Despite it being so obvious, it wasn’t easy to admit my my failure, you know, professional identity and ego and all. But the consolation is a quiet confidence that I have made a positive difference in a lot of individual teacher’s lives. Despite not having dented their work environment, I have made meaningful contributions to their professional success. I’ve failed, but I’m not a failure.

And even though I’ve admitted defeat and let go of my teacher education identity, I am still helping individual teachers on occasion, just fewer of them. Yesterday, for example, one of my first year writers from Fall 2021, a prospective teacher, wrote me seeking advice. Here’s how she started her missive:

“I hope all is well! I am reaching out to you because I need some advice. I figured you would be an excellent person to reach out to because you are part of the education faculty and have taught abroad and done things I want to do with my life. I also think you won’t sugarcoat things and you will tell me the truth.” 

I liked that she didn’t think I’d “sugarcoat things”. So, in that spirit of keeping it real, I predict high schools in 43 years, make that 2066, will still look and feel pretty damn similar. Given my protein bar consumption, it’s unlikely I’ll live long enough to see if my prediction comes true. I hope it does not.

Postscript: Not an “institution”, but same idea.

Why Did Hamline University Tell Erika Lopez Prater Her Services Were No Longer Needed?

According to this book, American higher education is captive of the Radical Left and the “woke mob” to the detriment of students.

This illuminating case study about an adjunct art history professor who showed a painting of the prophet Muhammad and lost her job suggests some colleges are restricting academic freedom to stem the tide of enrollment decline.

“Arguments over academic freedom have been fought on campuses for years, but they can be especially fraught at small private colleges like Hamline, which are facing shrinking enrollment and growing financial pressures. To attract applicants, many of these colleges have diversified their curriculums and tried to be more welcoming to students who have been historically shut out of higher education.”

It suggests this phenomenon is not the result of a vast left wing conspiracy; instead, it’s demographics plain and simple.

Attempting to slow enrollment decline does not justify giving up on academic freedom. It’s a dead-end strategy with negative ripple effects including declining faculty morale, and quite possibly, fewer promising applicants for faculty positions.

Related: Why Some Students Are Skipping College

Put A Fork In It

The semester is a wrap. My parting words to my students.

“The very end of my first class as a brand new professor at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC ended in a humorous manner. I spoke for about ten minutes, doing my best to tie together all the course’s loose ends. I was pulling out my egghead professor vocab and thought everyone was listening closely. After I finished, Josh raised his hand. ‘Oh great,’ I thought, ‘Josh is going to thank me for the brilliant summary and the course more generally.’ Instead, he said, ‘Dude, you have a pierced ear!’ Then the discussion devolved into why I had never came to class with an earring. Lesson learned, keep the end-of-semester spiel very, very brief.

Price writes that ‘the more we train ourselves to notice delights—the everyday beauties and kindnesses and amusing absurdities, the things that make us laugh or that we feel grateful for—we will feel more positive.’ She goes on to suggest we say ‘delight’ out loud whenever we experience anything that sparks joy. I’m trying to adapt this practice. This morning, on my drive in through the Nisqually Delta, I saw a huge flock of birds flying in ‘V’ formation. I said ‘delight’ to myself. Then I immediately thought of this class and what I wanted to say to you now that we’re at the finishing line.

And here it is. Delight.

It’s been a complete and total delight to get to know each of you individually and collectively. I hope the rest of Year 1 goes well and that we cross paths again sometime in the future.”

Ron

The Calm Before The Storm

Wednesday, 11:30a.m., National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day. More specifically, the week before I’m buried under final papers. Ensconced in my home office, alternating between reading, writing, and watching the Salish Sea flow northward thanks to a southern wind.

All while grooving to a folk/acoustic/electronic vibe compliments of Sylvan Esso, Becky and the Birds (Wondering), the Cowboy Junkies (Sweet Jane), and Helado Negro (Lotta Love).

On the interweb I see a Stephen Marche prediction that artificial intelligence is going to “Kill the Student Essay“. That hits close to home.

“Essay generation is neither theoretical nor futuristic at this point. In May, a student in New Zealand confessed to using AI to write their papers, justifying it as a tool like Grammarly or spell-check: ​​“I have the knowledge, I have the lived experience, I’m a good student, I go to all the tutorials and I go to all the lectures and I read everything we have to read but I kind of felt I was being penalised because I don’t write eloquently and I didn’t feel that was right,” they told a student paper in Christchurch. They don’t feel like they’re cheating, because the student guidelines at their university state only that you’re not allowed to get somebody else to do your work for you. GPT-3 isn’t “somebody else”—it’s a program.”

Marche adds, “It still takes a little initiative for a kid to find a text generator, but not for long.”

Please tell me there’s no way for ChatGPT to replicate my charming personality.

“Kevin Bryan, an associate professor at the University of Toronto, tweeted in astonishment about OpenAI’s new chatbot last week: ‘You can no longer give take-home exams/homework … Even on specific questions that involve combining knowledge across domains, the OpenAI chat is frankly better than the average MBA at this point. It is frankly amazing.’ Neither the engineers building the linguistic tech nor the educators who will encounter the resulting language are prepared for the fallout.”

I resemble that! I’ve been wrongly assuming that my Multicultural Education take-home final exam was text generator proof.

Going forward, I guess I’ll have to require students to pass through a metal detector and write it in-person.

The Academically Disengaged

We need more Bill Waltons, the former college and professional basketball legend whose playing days were cut short by numerous injuries and related surgeries.

“My injuries piled up,” Walton explains. “Bad back, broken bones, ankle and foot problems, broken hands and wrists, knee injuries, and broken noses.” By his count, Walton had 38 orthopedic surgeries to mend his various injuries.

Currently, Walton is a wonderfully idiosyncratic basketball analyst whose “glass of life” is constantly overflowing. The list of things he appreciates is exceedingly long. His positivity is contagious. His commentary is 45% basketball and 45% philosophical, interdisciplinary ramblings. The remaining 10% of the time he’s busting his partner’s chops. Their faux exasperation with each other can’t hide their chemistry and mutual affection. It just works.

Midway through yesterday’s UCLA-Oregon game (Bruins off the Duck schneid), Walton said something that instantly clarified my thinking about my teaching this fall. He said, “You can’t learn what you don’t want to know.” Turns out, after a little sleuthing, he was quoting Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, who in one of their songs wrote, “You ain’t gonna learn what you don’t wanna to know.” Shame on Walton, one of the greatest passing bigs of all time, for not crediting Garcia.

Much is being written about the growing academic achievement gender gap. Here is my Reader’s Digest point of view on it based upon my “on the ground” experience. A third of my students are male. At least half of them are excellent, by which I mean they think deeply about what they read, participate actively in class discussions, and write better and better over the course of the semester as a result of working at it. They’re sensitive, caring, and socially conscious. A privilege to work with.

The other subset doesn’t read, participates sporadically in ways that do not deepen our discussions, and pay little to no attention to their peers. They’re way more interested in their phones than what we’re reading and thinking through.

“Well Ron,” the K-12 teachers are probably saying, “your job is to get them interested.” I don’t want to ever become some of my colleagues whose answer to this dilemma is for the Admissions Office to just admit “better” students. My K-12 friends are right, but so is Walton, I mean Garcia, no matter how much magic my engaged students and I can muster, “You ain’t gonna learn what you don’t wanna to know.”

Compared to my female students, a disproportionate number of my male students don’t like to read and lack curiosity about themselves and others. While still a minority of males, this disengaged subset seems most interested in two things. A diploma and a job. Rightly or wrongly convinced of the need for a diploma for improved job prospects, they are resigned to playing the game of school for four years. At a large cost. 

These students would benefit immensely from a gap year or two. Especially if we had a respected National Service program that they could opt into. 

Absent that, some of the apathetic will do just enough to graduate relatively unchanged. And for many others, their apathy will get the best of them, and all they will have to show for their limited effort is years of debt.

Thinking Slow Together

That’s how an excellent colleague of mine describes her teaching philosophy. It perfectly encapsulates what I strive to do with my students as well.

The phrase “thinking slow together” echoed in my mind while reading David Sims’s review of Dave Chappelle’s SNL appearance

When watching Chappelle, I vacillated from unconsciously laughing at many of his punch lines to consciously questioning how he set up a few others. A singular talent, I thought he was very funny, but I also experienced some uneasiness and couldn’t give completely in to him.

I didn’t understand why until thinking slowly about it with Sims’s help. And there is the power of the printed word. In a world where faster is always seen as better, writing and reading force us to take time to ponder things, to consider others’ viewpoints, to formulate tentative ideas, and to clearly communicate them.

And as in the case of Sims’s review, that slowing down results in more profound, longer lasting insights than live audio or television generate by themselves.