Humanity is not data-driven

There is much concern about the “Learning Gap.” The learning gap is really two undeniable things: a shame for our purportedly egalitarian society and a measurable fact. The ‘shame’ is in many aspects comforting and the ‘fact’ bears all the weight of the fact that there are three sheets of paper sticking out from under my computer monitor. We choose shame; it’s a feature of our Judeo-Christian cultural origins. We worship facts because they are sure and fixed and immutable. And the Learning Gap is characterized by the gap between the objectivity of the facts—data, and the subjectivity of the shame it engenders.

The ninety-second of the Roman Catholic dogma, one of a set of beliefs treated as fact for nearly two thousand years, states, “Original sin is transmitted by natural generation.(1)” We have been working on our inherent shame, treated as fact, since the conceptions of Cain and Abel. Meaning no disrespect for the great good done by Catholicism toward alleviating pain and suffering, The Church has like so many power structures simply cultivated, if not having actually manufactured, a need that it was prepared to meet for a price. Our hereditary shame, our original sin, deprives us of eternal bliss, but the Church provides an avenue to redemption. We need only do a few simple things: admit our undeserving state, accept the course our spiritual leaders offer and behave as we are told. And it’s not just Catholics. Is it?

We must admit to our sin in creating the Learning Gap. And they tasted of the fruits of class privilege and they knew their sin. We must accept the sanctity of the education reform movement. And on the seventh day they will be tested. And we will be redeemed. And the winged graduates ascended into college. And the “big data”(2) pushers should like this neat pattern correlation too. They ‘discovered’ the Learning Gap correlation, after all.

I say “discovered” because I don’t want to go right to the heart of the problem yet. You see, data are facts, and like the number of sheets of paper on my computer desk, they ‘mean’ nothing. When data are gathered, they can be sorted and arranged to create patterns, which in ‘data-ese’ are called correlations. Just before B goes up, A goes down—every time. Correlative fact, no cause, no opinion, just fact. This is the language of statistics, and we remember what was said about statistics, “Select the data that tells us what we want to know.” Could this be the case with the Learning Gap correlation? Could it be that the reason we find a difference in the performance in one racially defined group students from another racially defined group students is because something is or was going on to cause the difference? No. Because there is no cause to correlations, only data patterns. But we want things to have reasons.

“Why,” we ask, “are we here?” not just “Are we here?” Even Church dogma starts out by using the fact that we can ask as proof that there is a reason. Here’s what David Books says, with which I concur, in the New York Times, 16 April 2013:

“…I’m trying to appreciate the big data revolution, but also probe its limits. One limit is that correlations are actually not all that clear. A zillion things can correlate with each other, depending on how you structure the data and what you compare. To discern meaningful correlations from meaningless ones, you often have to rely on some causal hypothesis about what is leading to what. You wind up back in the land of human theorizing.”

Brooks contends that we seek meaning even in the meaningless and cause for the effect, and we do. It is probably deeply rooted in our psyche.

So why is the Learning Gap occurring between white students and students of color? Well, it is: no question about that. But that’s the learning gap: small “l,” small “g.” Why isn’t there isn’t the Learning Gap (capitalized) among rural, suburban and urban students, or between rich and poor students, or among the states or anywhere else that there is a gap? Well, we use race because that gap sticks to our inherent shame, our unresolved racial discrimination that we so proudly – no wait, make that, shamefully – celebrate in this country year after year. So shame can be made useful.

And the policy makers of today, like the Church leaders of the past, know how to leverage their influence and shepherd the sheep. “Close the Gap to relieve your shame.” But it may not be in the interest of that leadership to resolve the Learning Gap; it may be more useful to keep it in play. How much top down management, often in the form of cost containment, has sprung from the Learning Gap Card? Where does the power rest in dealing with the Learning Gap? And here’s the big one – If the Learning Gap were actually closed, what meaningful goal will have been achieved? How will it be more that a statistical non-correlation of data? Will the color lines go away? Will wealth be distributed more equitably? Will opportunity be truly equal? Will the nation become de-Balkanized?

_____

Those who know me know I have been railing against the obsessive elevation of data, the passionate collection to these completely dispassionate pieces of stuff, often with no prior purpose, and the religious commitment to the value of any correlation divined in the data for years now. I am increasingly convinced that data, as the raw material of the Information Age, can be capitalized, that it can be used to our benefit, or abused to cost. Moreover, similarly to iron or coal or oil, data can be manipulated to greedy ends in this Age of Greed.

Don’t let anyone tell you that the data are indisputable and non-judgmental. The choice of which data to bring forward is certainly disputable and the judgment about which correlations to divine must be highly suspect for hidden causes. Humanity is not data-driven.

_________________________________________

(1)   Loughnan, F. John. Dogmas of the Catholic Church, The Divine Work of Creation, The Doctrine of Revelation Regarding Man or "Christian Anthropology," Revised Feb. 16, 2001. retrieved from http://jloughnan.tripod.com/dogma.htm, 16 April 2013.

(2)   Mayer-Schonberger, Viktor and Kenneth Cukier. Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think, Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (March 5, 2013).

Entertain versus Educate

In my email this morning was an update from the National Council of Teachers of English on LinkedIn. A group member from Australia had posted under the heading “Are You Trying To Engage Your Students Or Entertain Them? ” with these questions: “Should we use entertainment to engage our students? If you are using entertainment to engage your students, is this a less effective way to teach?”
sets

I remember this debate from decades ago as Entertain versus Educate. Now after years of realizing that getting attention was a challenge, but that underestimating kids was a trap too easy to fall into, I have to wonder why the debate continues. The questions in themselves suggest a limited and simplistic perspective of teaching and learning. I use the terms ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ purposefully here, because they are but two, albeit significant, pieces of the human development process, of which education itself is a shared set. Education is a major part of human development, but it extends to other areas of our existence too. It helps to sustain as well as develop us. The reason this matters is that the member’s questions trap us in a decontextualized viewed of a single teacher activity—frontal performance. And disconnected from the greater whole of assisting human development, the questions lead nowhere; whether the frantic pup chasing her tail catches it or no means little, except perhaps to the pup—at the moment.
Yet the questions are legitimate enough in the arena in which they are offered. For many decades—I would say since John Dewey—educators have been reticent about asserting what they understand—when they do—about what happens in successful learning environments. For me, it was an epiphany that classroom success is what the kids do, as in learning, not what I do, as in teaching. And while this would suggest that what the teacher does to achieve engagement is important to that learning, it is not to say that entertainment is equivalent or necessary to engagement. That notion, I believe, comes from the influence of marketing in the age of television.
When education policy is so dominated by the American competitive business model, is it any wonder that we see teachers asking questions which might easily be rephrased as, “Should we use entertainment to entice our students? If you are using entertainment to entice your students, is this a less effective way to sell?” I viewed the British Arrow Awards at the Walker Art Center; entertainment sells and selling entertains. I have concluded that the question isn’t whether or not it teaches, however. That question only arises in a culture wherein the teacher can be seen as the manipulator and the student as the manipulated. Marketing is about deception, misdirection, generating needs, and satisfying immediate gratification. Yes, it informs about products and opportunities, but it does not invite thoughtfully making decisions based on holistic or long-term needs and goals.
I suggest we try to move the messages beyond entertainment in the classroom toward how we can help students in “thoughtfully making decisions based on holistic or long-term needs and goals.” Does entertainment have a place in this? I think so. Our students, in the over-developed countries, are awash in the catch-phrase culture of commerce, the sound bite polemic of politics and car crash nuance of news. In this era of super-superlatives, it may not be necessary to be the very most entertaining absolutely all the time to get the very best from your outstanding students. My students, and I would bet yours too, are better than that. Kids are good and they want to be and do better. What’s more is that they are reasonable.
Entertainment is fine for keeping it a little lighter, breaking the ice and dealing with failures. Learning will happen when kids see something in it for them. If you do anything well for your students, it should be to help them see the long view. Help them visualize goals for their lives and plans for how to reach those goals. Help them understand how to tell shit from Shinola, how to make decisions informed by the realities of their lives and futures. In short, help them take control of their lives; do not try to control them. Show them the power of thinking. Thinking is a highly desirable form of engagement.
Teaching is nothing by itself. Teaching and learning on the other hand form a partnership vital to the success of all. Teaching empowers learning. And if you teach for the adulation, you will get nothing like the letters I get now from students, whom I tried, apparently with some success, to empower twenty and more years ago when they were 12, 13, and 14—the “unteachable” ages.
Try this little experiment: challenge your students to entertain you in your subject area. Perhaps they should start by working in groups to create the most entertaining lesson on a new concept, formula or experiment. Check what you learn, and use it as a teaching strategy later. Or have them teach you about what’s important to them in an entertaining way. Maybe teachers should think in terms of engaging in learning with their students, and get beyond entertainment as an end or a means.

Letter to the Legislature

Greetings leaders in Minnesota education,

The education of America’s and especially Minnesota’s young people is never far from my thoughts. We are at a time when the drill in learning is very narrow and intense, but neither as deep nor as broad as the human potential. Even my own children seem governed by finding the right answers, and looking no farther until those answers falter. Yet in recent years we are seeing a resurgence of the thought process over the right answer, as if thinking were the diamond long buried in the mud of modern education policy. Critical thinking is coming back.

For over thirty years, a proponent of critical thinking, I urge you to consider the outcomes of our educational system in terms of human beings and quality of life over corporate profits and quantity of data. Critical thinking must take a front seat in the learning process. How we think is how we will be able to learn that which is not yet known. We need a future generation capable of shaping a world that we cannot now imagine, not a generation shaped by the last two decades of wealth acquisition in a digitized environment.

Here is an article supporting my contention that the sterility and superficiality of our bubble test education system is failing our children and youth: “Deep Education,” Francois Victor Tochon, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Beside feedback from academics, there is similar reaction from the business world to say schools must look beyond today to prepare young people for tomorrow, not yesterday.

Outside the politicized arena of schools as data factories for the world economy contest, there is still hope for schools as places to educate a Great American Society. Innovation must be more than a catch phrase; it will be the reality in a future of constant and untested re-invention. The foundations of learning are a vital jumping off place, but will our students have the stuff to take the leap into this unknown?

For the sake of our young people, please step back and consider the wisdom of our current policies. What would teaching and learning look like with the politics taken out? Put Minnesota back in the lead in education.

Respectfully,

Jay C. Ritterson

Yet another inversion of good sense

Growing Gap Between What Business Needs and What Education Provides

   The priorities seem a little skewed here. Is the purpose of the education of America’s children to feed the interests of business above providing their development as complete persons with quality lives? Or is quality of life only determined by one’s ability to feed the machine? If all children were educated broadly and deeply, would some not choose to thrive in a business environment and help it prosper? Or would the problem be an extension of the raging "never enough" attitude? Never enough productivity. Never enough profit. Never enough. If "business" – and just who we mean when we say that, I’m not sure – were as concerned with quality of life as bottom lines, we may have a sufficiently common interest to have success all around.
   First, if we get away from the ridiculous notion that everyone needs a college education – good for the education industry – and assist the educators in providing the actual skills needed, we would get better results. Schools are not factories producing products to compete on the open market. And educators are not likely to jump on the dehumanizing process of developing better widgets. A team effort would certainly help.
   We must face up to the reality that societal change, not institutional change is what is needed. We suffer from institutional feudalism, and we need to shift to a more open and collaborative system. As any modestly educated individual will have observed, the decline of feudalism and the rise of the merchant class was also a period of booming creativity, and it drew heavily on structures and arts of the ancients to develop a launch pad for the Renaissance.
   I think a creative workforce who have passed through a period of business sponsored internship sounds brilliant, and the potential for a better quality of life while helping American business lead in the world sounds a lot more promising. Certainly sounds better than a life spend passing from grade to grade, school to school, job to job, employer to employer, as if we were spending 70 years going from one room to another with little more than a door to connect them – ending up out the back in the alley of retirement. Maybe we should start with some windows instead of just banging on the walls.

Spoken-word Week: Why dip into youth culture?

I’m going to write about my best teaching experience. It took place at Edison High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota in March of 2009. It was the best experience because it encompassed all the best things about teaching and learning: modeling the joy of meaningful learning, supporting students in directing their own learning, and honoring all of the demonstrations of learning. Of importance to them was a change in their thinking, mostly about themselves and their capacities, and about their interest in learning. I called the lesson Spoken-word Week. Of importance to me was the opportunity to learn with the students and as a participant on their field of engagement, to bond with them.

I am certainly not the only teacher to use spoken-word as a teaching tool. I wasn’t first or even remotely early in doing so. That is only to my discredit. I do take credit for something more important than a race to be first. My goal was not to be a good teacher; being a good teacher is professional vanity, and worrying about it is driving American education nowhere. My goal was and remains to help the students have a better shot at a good life. I have wanted them to know themselves and the world they live in and, using that understanding, to continue to learn and to flourish. In the end, I think we accomplished that, at least to the point of moving in the right direction. Moreover, we accomplished a coup on a broken educational system. Students gained the kind of understanding of the power of words that adds depth to reading and strength to writing beyond the shallow mandates of education policy. My four classes of sophomores did outscore other sophomore classes at Edison on state mandated reading tests, but my classes included the only sophomore honors English class. So much for comparison testing.

My goal in doing a Spoken-word Week has roots in my longstanding desire to do a better job of connecting with my students. I have always felt effective teaching, like effective parenting, is an act of mutual love. It is after all a very personal activity, nurturing personalities, shoring up vulnerabilities, meddling with a person’s thinking. It has to do with feelings as well as cognition. Good learning does after all feel good. Good teaching feels good too, and it’s no blind luck that the two good feelings are concurrent. To access this sort of relationship meant knowing myself and my students at more than a casual level, and attempting to access this relationship revealed how little I knew them. They were not white, middle class, suburban, adult males! And since I was teaching in a multi-racial, increasingly multi-lingual and multi-national urban district, none of them ever would be. I had a lot to learn.

As it turns out, this was a good thing. Not only did I learn about them, I also learned a little about how to learn about others. As a survivor of the hippie years, “white, middle class, suburban, adult male” was something I had already done and had been moving beyond. Here was an opportunity to enrich my life enormously, because an asset almost all students have is that they are not locked into the “who” about themselves or others the way adults are. But there’s a downside to that too; they aren’t often very good at explaining from whence their “who” was coming. They live their values, they don’t recite them. They may know that Our Lady of Guadalupe is significant in their community and may even know the story of the vision, but few know the connection to Tonantzin. So they weren’t able to tell me about their psychological and moral development or their cultural or historical roots. To help me know my students, I have turned to professional sources to develop that knowledge, which I could then use to refine and individualize my instruction.

So when the Minnesota Humanities Center[1] offered a two day workshop on East African history and culture in 2008 and another on Teaching Latino Students in 2009, I jumped at the opportunities. Such offerings were not available to me for teaching Vietnamese, Lao, Hmong or Bosnian students when those waves came. Teaching African American students has been for a long time buried in teaching race relations. Teaching American Indians is still suffocated under the blanket genocide denial. And help in how to teach to poverty is unlikely to happen in our free-market equity glut. At Edison, my students were African American, Latino, Hmong, Congolese, Egyptian, Somali, Oromo and European American. Among these were many practicing Evangelical and Roman Catholic Christians, Shamanists and Muslims. A considerable number were out LGBT and allies. About one fifth lived in homes where English was not used regularly and 95% received free and reduced cost lunch. One in four was homeless or highly mobile. The Minnesota Humanities Center’s workshops were helpful to my understanding this feast of diversity. They gave me a cultural math to count my blessings.

From the East African history and culture workshop, I learned about the history of the region of the Horn of Africa and its relationship to Ethiopia, the European colonial powers and, of course, Islam and the Arabian influence. I also learned that oral poetry remains the traditional literary form of Somalia. Poems are created and recorded on cassettes now, and these are copied and distributed widely, their poets virtually universally recognized, respected and cited without any copyright law. The poems often deal with an admiration and respect for the land, and at other times commemorate leadership and bravery in colonial resistance or tribal conflicts. Both themes are deeply bound to the cultural roots of the nomadic people of the region.

The workshop on teaching Latino students was even more explicit in using poetry to explore and declare cultural roots. “Knowing one’s cultural roots is essential to forming a complete identity,” was the message central to the workshop and widely held by those in cultural studies and social justice. An excellent recent example of this is the Tlingit produced documentary Smokin’ Fish[2]. Learning from whence one comes informs us greatly on where we are going, and where they are going is the biggest part of school children’s life.

Learning about one’s roots was not the only recommendation for identity building however. Also significant to understanding one’s identity is understanding one’s place in the world, one’s situation or condition. Abuse and oppression ranked high with my students. Poverty is so shamed that it was not owned by many of them, even though most lived in unhealthy and dangerous poverty. So my students steered well clear of painting themselves with that brush. Yet these were the highly charged energy sources that made the poetry purposeful. Their spoken-word poems would be a way to assert this developing identity, a way to fight back at damage, and move forward with pride.

At the time of the workshop, a spoken-word open mic club thrived on St. Paul’s Latino West Side, and YouTube offered tens, perhaps hundreds of videos of spoken-word poetry by Latino, African American, American Indian, GLBT and other poets. These were messages confronting the denial, damage and destruction of group and personal identity. Victims spoke out against their abusers. Oppressed spoke out against their oppressors. A few spoke out about the liberation of being able to speak out. The message was clear; who they were was not going to change and their identities were not going to be denied. That meant that how they were viewed was going to have to change. Because the students in the classroom were preaching to a choir, of course, the wide world did not change, but my students did. It was clear to them and me that it is not necessary for any of them to accept the flawed view a repressive society had of them. Who they were and were going to become was up to them. These young poets stood up and declared who they were. They expounded a view of their world past and future that was theirs. They spoke with strength and pride, and that was just what my students needed to be able to do to break through the ceilings of race, language, culture and poverty that limited their futures.

That was my goal: empower students to be themselves and assert themselves into the best life possible for them. Spoken-word poetry was the vehicle, their identity the engine, their personal and cultural experience the fuel that would carry them forward. Would this improve their language skills? Students learn to read and write according to their perceived need for these things. Would the power of words to set one free, and the opportunity to be accepted and respected as ‘who one is’ help shape that perception? If this activity could open a door through which the possibility of a better life would appear, then walking through that door would indeed require one to develop one’s language skills. Pedagogically then, this was a good thing to do.

As a lover of literature who favored nineteenth and early twentieth century British novelists, I found spoken-word coarse and grating. As a privileged 63 year old, planning to retire from the classroom in just over two years, I had nothing to gain by going so far off my turf. But as a teacher, I had no choice; I believed this was the best thing I could do with my students. And I was right.

I would have to learn about this stuff with them. In fact, I would have to learn more and sooner. I would have to learn how to learn this as a student as well as learning about it for my knowledge base and lesson planning. Learning, however, is something I do well. I immersed myself in examples of spoken-word, listened, watched and reflected. I read about spoken-word and its background and activity—Harlem Renaissance, beat poets, hip-hop, Nuyoricans, Gil Scott Heron, Bob Dylan. I read about the background of Somali poets and poetry, and contemplated the parallels to Western styles. I explored how the poets worked and where they performed. As a past actor, I appreciated the value of sharing space and time with a performance. The dynamic of that sharing is unique in its immediacy and temporality. I understood that memorizing meant rereading and reexamining text for a deeper connection. As a poet, I knew that poetry can capture and express that about which we might otherwise say there are no words. I began to plan the lesson. They would have to do what I had done to learn what I had learned.

What have I done?

The lesson was simple: introduce with examples, discuss with open-ended questions, explore on the Internet for inspiration, write as groups—comparing and sharing as you go—refine and rehearse, present and listen to presentations. It would, I thought, take about a week to create and another to present.

Did this work?

Well, “work” is a relative term. Did this show demonstrable results on standardized tests that indicate something about America’s competitiveness in the global marketplace of the future? I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care. I care about the individual student’s competitiveness in the American workplace, and I care about what the students see in the commonplace of a mirror. And in this assessment, it worked.

The most requested activity from the same students in the following year in my junior classes and those of others was classroom or school-wide open-mics for spoken-word. Their genre had been honored, their language had been honored, their words had been honored and they had been honored, and they liked it. Several of the students participated in an emerging spoken-word club and a school-hosted, public open-mic. A few participated in the city-wide slam later in the spring.

One poet, using the piece she wrote for my class, won an award at the city-wide slam. Hers was an intensely personal piece exposing the pain and rage her sexual abuse and the eventual forgiveness of her perpetrator. Najma, on the other hand, was able to leverage her college admissions the following year with the poetic skill demonstrated in my classroom, where she stunned her American classmates with an incredible, memorized poem expounding the endurance of national pride she held for her homeland and its people. Before her performance, she was simply another demurring Somali girl. From almost all, it was noted as the best, most remembered lesson of the year in my year-end survey.

I would have to say it worked because it changed their thinking about themselves and their capacities and about learning. And it worked for me because I modeled the joy of meaningful learning, supported students in directing their own learning, and honored all of the demonstrations of learning. Then I have often been the subversive in the system, who didn’t do as I was told and still got good results.

Would I do it again?

Well, I am doing it again. Now retired from the classroom, but still teaching and volunteering with the Latino Youth Development Coalition in Minneapolis, I was asked to help with a college entrance essay writing project for Latino middle and high school students. Their interest is to get these students, at high risk of dropping out, to start thinking about college as a real possibility in their lives. As part of what I will do in preparing them, spoken-word should help in focusing those with as yet forming self-identities, to aid in building a positive self-image, and to assist in revealing an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses that writing the essays will require. So, yes, I would do it again.


[1] Minnesota Humanities Center, 987 Ivy Avenue East, St. Paul, MN 55106, http://www.minnesotahumanities.org.

[2] Smokin’ Fish. Luke Griswold-Tergis & Cory Mann, Producers, Native American Public Telecommunications, 1800 N. 33 St., Lincoln, NE 68503, 2011.

Defending Aleppo


Education Week – Teacher

Published Online: August 7, 2012

Five Practices for Building Positive Relationships with Students

By Kelley Clark

The objective is posted. The Do Now is ready to go. Your well-planned lesson is aligned with state standards, includes a variety of instructional methods, and offers opportunities for both summative and formative assessments.

What might still be missing? A strong positive relationship with your students, the kind of connection that makes them want to go above and beyond in your class.

Can you have a good lesson without having a positive relationship with your students? Yes. But …

Clark recommends and comments upon these five steps:

1) Leave yourself reminders on your laptop.

2) Never let the other students see you react inappropriately to a student’s comment.

3) Actually use the information you receive from a first-day student survey.

4) Schedule "bonding" time.

5) Finally, and most simply, learn your students’ names immediately.

Kelley Clark is a high school math teacher and member of the Teacher Leaders Network. She was the 2010 Secondary Teacher of the Year for Williamsburg-James City County in Virginia. She earned her graduate degree from the College of William and Mary and is currently a part of their clinical faculty program.
You can follow her on Twitter@kkssclark.

cited above


I opened and read this article this morning only to be discouraged by the minimal simplicity of the five practices, which seem to me only humane, and moreover by the promotion of these practices as something teachers, even new teachers, would not have been told, in case they hadn’t already figured it out, by colleges, colleagues or workshops.

Building relationships with students seems to be a natural, even automatic inclination for anyone interested in teaching. For the few who aren’t this sort of person, there was and should still be instruction in the importance of relationship building in introductory college education courses. AFT’s ER&D Foundations course has promoted and articulated a much deeper, research based set of practices to build relationship with students since its inception in 1981. The press, as in the case of Marzano’s articles and books, have preached relationship building for at least as long. John Dewey wrote about it nearly a century ago. Yet here we are teaching teachers to be humans at such a fundamental level.

Perhaps the new normal is understood to be the capitalist constructivist nature of our global economy, and education functions as component assembly for this knowledge industry. This norm has already begun to replace the humanities emphasis with the economic emphasis, humanity v. economy. Even so, the marketing side would tell us that the perception of being liked will increase our readiness to trust and purchase. So too with the students: “I like it that you’re being so successful on these otherwise mindless, heartless online tests.” And there is an academic return when students feel cared about, especially the most needy students. Of course, it is much easier to achieve this perception of being loved when the teachers really cares about her or his students.

And that brings me to the real question: Why would someone become and continue to be a teacher if they didn’t actually love the kids? Kids, all of them though perhaps not all the time, are so great it should be easy to care about them, and feel that they all deserve the best education. And they will give as good as they get. It turns out that when you want them to succeed, they want to succeed. They are the other half of the relationship. Care about students, and they will, as far as they are capable, care about you. Teach them because you care, and they learn because they care. This by the way is even more pronounced among distressed populations.

Clark may be right on target with her five practices, but if she is, it’s plain to see why American education is in trouble. If we need to be taught to teach with compassion, we must be suffering from a debilitating emotional ineptitude. Human emotions are assets, not encumbrances. Caring is purposeful in the survival and maintenance of the individual and community and species, but it seems it is becoming vestigial. Perhaps in a cut-throat economy, we can learn to live and die without caring.

Thanks, Kelley. Soldier on. I just hope you aren’t defending Aleppo.

Front Phrases

It isn’t what we say; it’s how we say it. Because language is symbolic, it lends itself to labels and sound bites, bits that represent so much more. Because language is metaphoric, it lends itself to misleading eloquence, phrasing that conjures appealing imagery. Appearance trumps significance almost every time. Most important about what we say is that it sounds good. We must therefore question everything we see and hear. We have iconized words to represent complex and widely varied philosophies or policies. We ride these banner words for reasons only loosely related to those words. We parade verbal icons before movements whose function and purpose are cynically disconnected from the originating reality, and sometimes fairly antithetical to the operation and even existence of institutions to which the words were initially connected, words subsequently employed to leverage change for obscure and sometimes Machiavellian ends.

What do these iconic phrases mean? Here begins the examination of one such verbal icon, Education Reform. A search of book titles related to “education reform” at Barnes and Noble online reveals 32,640 titles. We can only guess what range of thought this encompasses. Even if the ideas enfolded in the pages of these books are repeated on average a thousand times, it chokes thought to accept that the phrase, which drives billions of dollars and millions of votes, can probably be safely construed only to mean ‘changing something that will affect school age children.’ Of course, it can be pretty certain that it will fuel a great deal of media-fanned political heat. In the end, what is likely to get changed is the flow of money, which generally moves away from schools and often into profit margins and dividends.

Look at the words according to Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary (electronic).

Education:

noun :

1 a : the action or process of educating or of being educated; also : a stage of such a process b : the knowledge and development resulting from an educational process <a person of little education>
2 : the field of study that deals mainly with methods of teaching and learning in schools

Reform:

noun :

1 : amendment of what is defective, vicious, corrupt, or depraved
2 : a removal or correction of an abuse, a wrong, or errors

Let us assume that “the field of study that deals mainly with methods of teaching and learning in schools,” and “a removal or correction of an abuse, a wrong, or errors,” are pretty good indicators of what is suggested by the Education Reform advocates. At least something about what happens to school aged children is impacted by “methods of teaching.” It is certainly impacted by methods of learning too, but the field of educational psychology seldom enters the Education Reform discourse. The simplified findings of brain research are sometimes forced into that discourse. Unfortunately, modern brain research is more about what happens in the brain when one learns, but not so much about how one learns.

Memorizing Cassius’ appeal to Brutus probably looks the same as memorizing the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence in terms of brain activity. So how do we memorize better? Should we even be memorizing? Is that “learning,” and if not, what is? And what do we memorize? Our definition of education doesn’t touch on the processes or content we teach and learn. We can fault Merriam-Webster for the shortcoming in its definition of education, but how can we change the rules mid-game? That’s the definition we had going on. And that’s the danger of defining; defining attempts to fix the temporal into the perpetual. The practical reality of teaching and learning is something more and different from “the field of study that deals mainly with methods of teaching and learning in schools.”

If teaching and learning has to do with building society, and it probably does, then social policy probably should specify some of what we are taught. If part of our society, however, wishes to have its members learn, say, music, should society at large have the right, because it has the power, to deprive it of that area of learning? Well, we can’t manage the issue of rights and power here. In practice, our working definition of education deals with methods of learning, how we learn, and public policy doesn’t actually try to legislate that. At the same time, our definition doesn’t deal with what we learn or why, while public policy does put considerable energy into what we learn and in an off-handed way, why we learn it. The latter is not often stated, as it happens, but since the testing that matters is a measure of economic potential, we may extrapolate an economic motive in the prescribed content of education. Not a necessarily bad thing, though a bit flat given the depths of which societies and cultures are capable.

How we learn, returning to our line of argument, likely is affected by “methods of teaching.” At first glance, this seems like the place to effect change to reform this broken world; it looks “manageable,” and in need of repair. If the advocates of Education Reform are to be believed, they may provide the best evidence that past practices in teaching were indeed flawed.  These advocates were either well educated and are deceiving us, or they were poorly educated and shouldn’t be making education policy decisions. One questions whether the policy makers themselves know the answer to that one.

In reality, teaching and learning are complex interpersonal activities, much as parenting and (he improvises) childing. They are reciprocal processes, highly individualized and adaptive, deeply steeped in personal, sometimes sectarian morality, and served with a degree of social propriety and responsibility. Where do we draw the lines around these domains? The beliefs of which institution, family, religion, heritage, state, define those lines? How do we make the right things happen and keep the wrong things from happening when we can’t always agree on what those things are? Still, without having any clear idea what we are referring to, we will leave “methods of teaching” in our Education Reform policy, and move on to the “removal or correction of an abuse, a wrong, or errors,” because the reform part of our policy may resolve this methods conundrum.

Assuredly, if there is something abusive, wrong or in error about the methods of teaching they should be corrected or simply removed. To say there may be something abusive, wrong or in error about the methods of learning challenges reason, and further justifies leaving the learning aspect out of this discussion. We can agree that we want to avoid anything that is “abusive, wrong or in error.” Fair enough, as long as we can agree on that which is constructive, right and correct. Ah. That points to the soft-spoken or unspoken but hard sought goals of the Education Reform movement. Does constructive mean building a sound, secure society or a productive, profitable work force? Does right mean, among other things of course, all for one or everyone for himself.[*] And does correct mean there is only one right answer? We would have good cause to distrust anyone who even attempted to answer these questions. If they are still being asked after millennia of contemplation, one ought to consider the possibility that their irresolvability is their answer. The conundrum not only persists, it seems to loom over this Education Reform policy.

A year ago, I visited the Cathedral in Ely, East Cambridgeshire, England. I was of course impressed by the age, the history, the grandeur, but I was most impressed by what the Reformation had accomplished at Ely, and across England. Under the reign of the deeply religious, nine year old King Edward VI and his Lord Protector, Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset,

The 1547 Injunctions against images were a more tightly drawn version of those of 1538 but they were more fiercely enforced, at first informally, and then by instruction. All images in churches were to be dismantled; stained glass, shrines, and statues were defaced or destroyed; roods and often their lofts and screens were cut down; bells were taken down; vestments were prohibited and either burned or sold; church plate was to be melted down or sold.

(taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_Reformation, 06 Aug 12)

Standing, as I did, among the destruction of nearly an acre of Norman stained glass, scores of friezes of angels’ faces, dozens of religious statues and more, some over 500 years old at the time, and the destruction of the original Saxon remains including the seventh century tomb of the founding nun, Etheldreda, was a profoundly numbing experience. This was a compounded crime against heritage. Local lords and their knights paid the Crown for the privilege of wreaking this destruction.

I became acutely sensitive to the potential for loss of roots, the loss of heritage and the consequential loss of identity inherent in reform. Were the Tudor Protestants about reforming what was an abuse, a wrong, or errors in the Roman Catholic Church in England? No. We know it was about diverting the wealth and power of the Church to the Crown. I make no defense of the Church, but ask who paid the price over time. It turns out that all across England, Victorian wealth replaced much of the lost glass and statuary and even rebuilt many churches, and I’m glad they did. But where did that wealth come from? That which made Great Britain great, the factory workers of the great industrial revolution and the exploited lands and people of the British Empire paid for the sins of fathers not their own. Reform appears to be the great change that never changes.

So, where does that leave us, and how is it that we hear this term and others similarly devised so often? They are front phrases of modern policy. Front phrases are façades raised to make actions and even words appear “pretty.” They are spins on the truth, euphemisms of reality, dust thrown into credulous eyes. Not only do front phrases mean whatever the speakers or writers want them to mean, they give vice the visage of virtue, and pledge solidarity with disparate purveyors of fraud. You see, it isn’t what we say; it’s how we say it.

Assume nothing. Question everything. Look for evidence. All arguments are logical, but not all logics are reasonable. Humans are capable of reasoning. They are also capable of obfuscating, and lying with the appearance of reasonableness. Education Reform sounds like a good thing, but what does it mean? And above what army does it rise as a standard?

Now should we try “Restore American Values?”



[*] I am aware of the gender exclusion here. It is intentional.

Critical Thinking for a Sustainable World

Introduction

To teach others to think critically, we must start by thinking about their thinking—and to do that, we start by thinking about our own thinking.

Teaching critical thinking is teaching to improve, enlarge, enhance thinking. Students must therefore become as completely aware of their thinking as they can be, just as they will have to know something of how their body works to be able to manage its healthy development. To think critically, as we shall see, we must consciously control how we think: When and what do we ask? What ideas can be put together to work and what cannot? And so on. Notice I have shifted to “we” over “they.” We teachers must be or become consciously aware of our thinking and practice critical thinking skills in order to teach it. Critical thinking is what we teach and the path by which we teach it. We need to be able to play basketball to teach others to play, to read to teach reading, to do the math to teach math. We need to know how to think critically in order to teach critical thinking.

This takes the ‘us’ and ‘them’ out of our classrooms, as it should. Step back for a minute. We have had it drummed into our heads that we are teaching so that students can do well on standardized tests. Okay. These tests are indicators of our educational health, especially as compared with other nations in the global market place. This is something of a leap, but it is a fairly clear assumption. If test scores are assumed to correlate to our economic standing in the world, they don’t. Zero-growth France (July 2011) scored better one tests than thriving (0.1% growth) Germany. and the U.S., having score lower than both grew more (0.9% growth) in the same period, while none of these approached China’s 9.0% growth. Now, guess who isn’t taking the tests?

In fact, our students and ourselves need to be learning in preparation for a much more important global crisis looming on the horizon. We are expending our host planet. We are already suffering millions of avoidable deaths through weather conditions, natural disasters and seemingly insatiable violence. In education, this situation is both a mandate for action and an opportunity for success. By addressing our educational systems to these crises, and ignoring the cries of the gored ox of corporate America, we not only make a start on solving the biggest problems we will have faced, we also have an authentic arena for teaching and learning – an imperiled world.

Teaching critical thinking and using authentic instruction may often seem to be subversive activities. Meeting standards and classroom evaluation is not only possible, but may even be better achieved when lessons include conscious teaching and learning of critical thinking mind-sets and skills. As you work through this class, try to be intentional of serving both masters. The motivation to learn what is needed to accomplish authentic tasks will overcome the learners’ reluctance we see directed at empty lessons seemingly taught for their own sake. The foundation skills of reading, writing and math are among the tools used for mastering the more engaging skills of making decisions, solving problems and planning real change. The learning in school not only carries over into students’ lives, it becomes a directing force in those lives. And your students will be those to whom others look as leaders.

We have so far succeeded in disconnecting learning in American schools from virtually everything in the lives of the students and the world around them. American education has become an end. It needs to be reestablished as the means to the best life we can make for ourselves and our future and our world. Educators and their students must always be thinking about what’s next and where we are taking ourselves. So, as you started out thinking about your own thinking, think about your role in creating a world sustainable into and beyond the 21st century.

Definitions

Cognition is a term referring to the mental processes involved in gaining knowledge and comprehension, including thinking, knowing, remembering, judging and problem-solving. These are higher-level functions of the brain and encompass language, imagination, perception and planning.

Mets-cognition is often simply defined as “thinking about thinking.” In actuality, defining metacognition is not that simple. Although the term has been part of the vocabulary of educational psychologists for the last few decades, and the concept for as long as humans have been able to reflect on their cognitive experiences, there is much debate over exactly what metacognition is. One reason for this confusion is the fact that there are several terms currently used to describe the same basic phenomenon (e.g., self-regulation, executive control), or an aspect of that phenomenon (e.g., meta-memory), and these terms are often used interchangeably in the literature. While there are some distinctions between definitions, all emphasize the role of executive processes in the overseeing and regulation of cognitive processes.

Critical Thinking “What is critical thinking and how to improve it.” Fisher, A. (2001) Critical Thinking: An Introduction, from chapter 1. Cambridge University Press.

Authentic Instruction is a model for high-quality instruction developed by Fred Newmann (1993). It lists five major components of the teaching process:

  1. Higher-order thinking. Higher-order thinking requires students to “manipulate information and ideas in ways that transform their meaning and implications, such as when students combine facts and ideas in order to synthesize, generalize, explain, hypothesize, or arrive at some conclusion or interpretation.” When students engage in higher-order thinking, they must solve problems and develop new meanings for themselves. There is an element of uncertainty and unpredictability in the process.
  2. Depth of knowledge. Depth of knowledge means that students deal with the significant concepts or central ideas of a discipline. Students use knowledge to understand arguments, solve problems, or construct explanations.
  3. Connectedness to the world beyond the classroom. This third feature of authentic instruction connects the classroom to some “real world public problem” or personal experiences that the student can relate to.
  4. Substantive conversation. This feature involves considerable discussion and interaction about the ideas of a topic that develop and build on ideas presented by others in the conversation. It involves the sharing of ideas and multiple exchanges in which students and other participants develop shared understanding of a theme or topic.
  5. Social support for student achievement. This last feature involves the development of “high expectations, respect, and inclusion of all students in the learning process.” Social support is more than token acknowledgement or praise for participation. It occurs when teachers convey high expectations for all students and encourage all students to participate in the learning experience.

Sustainability “As Nancy Tierney writes …, for the purposes of this journal, sustainable activities are those that meet contemporary needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. This definition derives from the Brundt land Commission (1987) report and has been accepted by many as the root meaning of sustainability. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (1993), the word ‘sustainability’ as an adjective to describe that which is “capable of being maintained at a certain rate or level,’ seems to appear first in 1972. To put this in context, Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, a collection of essays on a land ethic and conservation, was first published in 1949; Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a treatise on the unintended ills caused by the pesticide DDT and considered by many to be the catalyst for the environmental movement in many industrialized nations, was published in 1962; and the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970. Over the last 30 years, as scientists, environmentalists, and policy makers more closely examined the world’s ecological systems, the word “sustainability” has gathered force and turned into a movement. Reports from the field started coming back, raising our awareness of ecosystem degradation; air pollution; global climate change; depletion of freshwater stores; loss of biodiversity; major industrial accidents, such as Bhopal, resulting in thousands of deaths; and chronic industrial pollution, such as that found in Cancer Alley in Louisiana. It is doubtful that many of us would wish to turn the clock back to pre-Industrial Revolution times and suffer the miseries and uncomfortable conditions of those centuries. However, we can strive to improve and even radically alter the systems we’ve created over the last 200 years to acknowledge our burgeoning understanding of the role of contemporary human impacts on our planetary environment and our social relations with each other.”

(Kirk, Camille M. “Sustainability: Taking the Long View.” Planning for Higher Education, March-May 2003, p 9-12)

Editorial Note:

So we are working toward a world that provides the best achievable quality of life for the greatest numbers of people over the longest time. That may be our goal, but where are we starting?

It has been more than 40 years since the first Earth Day, when playing outside with a Frisbee was a gesture of oneness with our blue-green planet. What direction have things gone since? We see a world sickening with waste and resource abuse, while millions are seduced by the opiate of plastic geegaws and electronic gadgets, the very production and disposal of which contribute to the world’s ills. We have been conditioned to consume stuff at a great cost to the Earth. Is this the progress we anticipated? Can we have progress without a clear goal, thoughtful planning and the ability to think beyond our personal wants?

As long as we are focused on the material things of this world, and as long as we design our educational systems to create competitors in such a materially valued world, we will continue in the thoughtless consumption of our planet, seven billion bacteria consuming their host. To change this will require millions over decades at least. Some have taken the first steps. Steve Jobs will not be there at the end, nor will any of us, if only because there should be no ending in the plans. But what would have happened to Apple without the steps Jobs took? Or those that lead on from his foot steps? Each of us may only represent a few steps along the road, but it will take us all and those who follow on. Those others are our students.

Critical thinking can enable all of us to look at decisions and see where they may take us. It can help us make sound decisions ourselves. Critical thinking can help with solving problems rather than buying “solutions” that turn into problems. It can help us avoid creating problems for ourselves, while we can better solve the problems life throws at us. Critical thinking can help us plan a better course for ourselves and plan in concert with others. It can allow us to look ahead of today and know we have to plan for tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Critical thinking can help us to be reasonable. It can make our choices and actions understandable, and invite cooperation from other reasonable people. Critical thinking is simply living together thoughtfully and valuing the idea that thought and creativity are our greatest human qualities.

We teach critical thinking then because it enables students to become their best selves, fully actualized human beings, something more than components in a board game of global economy. We will not be able to do enough alone, but if we don’t try, if we don’t start, we must bear the criticism of the adage: If you are part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. We may never reach our ideal, but the goal of moving in the right direction may be achievable.

CiS Edison/Delano Exchange

During the first week of May this year, fifty students stepped into one another’s lives for a few hours over two days, twenty-two of them from a very inner city school in northeast Minneapolis and twenty-eight from a small rural town now turning into a metropolitan bedroom community thirty some miles to the west. In the short time they spent together, following counterparts through a few classes, eating lunch together, and talking and listening to each other in follow up sessions, they were able to accomplish what seems beyond our leadership. The teenagers figured out what people who spend a little time getting to know one another usually seem to figure out; they have much more in common than they have in difference.

The exchange between Edison and Delano has happened the last two springs. It has been carried out with the College in the Schools writing and literature classes of the two schools. Its initial purpose was and remains an academic one. Interacting with people who are culturally different will allow students to expand their scope as they research and read about cultures. Cultures are complex interactions of values, language and traditions played out in an attempt to be safe, secure and perhaps comfortable in a challenging world. We all live in various cultures, sub-cultures and micro-cultures. We know that if we only have a limited set of experience in cultural settings, we will only have a limited understanding of the world. We will only have one way of seeing people and will only be able to understand them and their actions in our limited context.

Helping students better understand their world, College in the Schools courses are directed to expanding the students’ world view. The writing students research and compose an ethnography, an in depth study of a micro-culture. These students have a chance to practice the art of getting inside other people’s “closed” worlds through the exchange. The literature students read Arundhati Roy’s novel “The God of Small Things,” which examines cultural conflicts and issues set in Kerala, Indian. Since the literature students need to open up the differences and cultural conflicts in the novel, they can examine those in the light of their experience confronting the presumed differences our two school groups held prior to the exchange. This will help them understand the unresolved cultural differences in the novel.

Since the two schools represent distinctly different cultural milieus, the exchange became an opportunity to encounter cultural difference with a human face. The students got to expand their perspective to better study and understand how difference can be both enriching and troubling. However, the students accomplished much more. In the process of talking and listening to each other, they generally concluded an important understanding about what we must do if we really want to live together.

At the end of the second day’s follow up discussion session, it had become clear that opening up and talking about home life and personal experience was a source of surprise to some and puzzlement to others. The very diverse city kids opened up about family configurations and expectations, and their feelings about these, revealing considerable differences from one student to the next. They seemed comfortable with difference. Though more limited than the conversations that go on in their classrooms, this openness was surprising to the students from the small town. Conversely, the reticence of the kids from the exurbs to discuss much about their private lives could have come right from a Lake Woebegone routine. That puzzled the city students. The students were examining this phenomenon in a rich dialogue as the time was running out.

With this the only seemingly significant difference out on the floor, students were asked to say what they thought would happen if people don’t talk about such things and what they felt they were taking away from the two days together. The answers were often the same. They were simple, clear and powerful:

“Talking is learning.”

“We need to know about one another.”

“If we don’t talk, we remain divided.”

“We’re all mostly alike. We’re all high school students. We do the same things.”

The students from both schools laugh at what by now looked like foolish preconceptions of the others, but they left with a profound insight into human relations. To get the Edison students back on the bus took considerable prying loose. Emails and numbers were exchanged with promises to stay in touch. The consensus on the bus ride back into town was to say thank you for this exchange.

 

How is it that fifty high school students can reach this level of understanding, this elevation of human dignity in just a few hours over two days? How could they engage so amicably with people they had always thought so alien in this sort of process and walk away having made new friends? How could these kids talking among themselves reach such a morally good understanding about human beings and grow in that process? How could that happen when our leaders seem so bent on dividing us and building walls between communities? A handful of teenagers could tear down those walls in a matter of minutes.

Embrace your cultural identities

The connection between culture – heritage and history – and individual identity is definite. We are our histories, our experiences and how we have been given to understand values. We may reject or deny, but rejecting or denying something still brings it into our existence. Only ignorance can create that which is not. Knowing and understanding our own personal and familial histories is clarifying, if not actually defining of our knowing and understanding of self. Discovering more of our history, the historical context of the place we grew up and spent our formative and the stories of the people who surrounded and influenced those years, expands our knowledge and understanding of self, who we are and how we got to be us. More knowledge and understanding comes from knowing and understanding the further back history of the place we grew up and the histories of the people who came there, those histories that created the historical context of or childhood and youth and peopled it with people such as they were.

All this knowledge and understanding of where we came from and how we came to be who we are, for good or bad, forms the layers of our culture—personal, familial, associative, local, regional, national/ethnic and global. We are to a greater or lesser degree a product of all of this, and the better we know it, the better we understand it, the better we know and understand who we are as an individual in all of this. And the more empowered we are to do something about it if we wish, or not, possibly depending on how comfortably fitted all the parts of our self are.

This knowledge and understanding is also very empowering for changing our relationship to others. We may walk away from some things and toward others. We may capitalize on our strengths and bolster our weaknesses. (Yes, I used that word – humbling, yes but not humiliating and not euphemistic.) We may share what we know with others to help them understand us, and we can better understand others and truly appreciate their differences, differences that can teach and enrich us as encountering new histories and new people do, when those encounters are equitable. Self knowledge is self empowerment. Shared knowledge cast light on the shadow of ignorance. Ignorance, observed a nineteen year old sociology student, leads to fear and fear leads to hatred. Then doesn’t knowledge lead to security and comfort, and don’t security and comfort lead to acceptance and love, love in the sense of loving thy neighbor, love and the binding force in community?

We should study and discover our on histories and heritage and the histories and heritage of as many others as we practically can, certainly those with whom we must live and work and learn. And I think this is particularly true for those in the dominant positions in a society. Whiteness has no privilege when we know its history, class has enormous, too often unmet responsibility when we know its history, and affluence has a counter balance whose history suggests to possibilities of a future price, a consequence. What we don’t know is perhaps what is or will be hurting us. We can start to make a better world when we learn everything we can about the individual piece of the world that we are.

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