Haters Gonna Hate

A web-comment in my local newspaper today claims ” the main body of scientists did not have high enough ethical standards to remain credible.” His comment was directed at the author of an article discussing climate change, one of the many news articles that are obviously politicizing the damage done by hurricane Sandy. Heaven forbid, of course, that we acknowledge a natural disaster should force us to ask questions about governmental responsibility (FEMA, the National Weather Service, and first responders), personal responsibility (evacuation), economics (pre-storm sales, insurance, lost business, state costs versus federal relief), and which politician might be most well suited to handle such issues. (Hint: Mitt Romney wants to cut FEMA and give out block grants to states. I think. Or, at least, he did during the primaries.) There is, the comment in the paper goes on, no real evidence humans are impacting the climate.

What is most troubling about the comment is not the idea that some random citizen in my home town ignores the logical reality that exponential growth in the number of humans is not impacting the climate. To a certain extent, this is like arguing that increasing the number of students in a class room won’t impact the learning environment. Or, adding more vehicles traveling on a certain road won’t increase the wear and tear. Or, adding more sugar to our diets won’t increase our weight. Or, in case those are examples that don’t make sense: it’s like arguing that adding fans to a football stadium won’t increase the noise level. More people equals more impact. Duh.

But that’s not what bothers me about the comment. The elemental distrust of our citizen scientist is almost stunning in it’s dismissal of the scientific community. His (or her) comment isn’t just a sign of ego run amok; this is an argument claiming a vast scientific conspiracy by scientists across the world to falsify data. These are, I can almost hear our not-a-darwin, the very same scientists who believe in evolution! These “scientists,” he might write, are driven not by numbers and methods of inquiry that require replication but by secular, god-less politics.

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Cognitive scientists tell us “Weighing the plausibility and the source of a message is cognitively more difficult than simply accepting that the message is true — it requires additional motivational and cognitive resources.” In other words, truth, learning, and understanding is hard work. It’s doubly difficult if the information is counter to our accepted beliefs and, when we are feeling intellectually lazy, we all turn into the Dude: “That’s just, like, your opinion man.” Or, as my students might say: it’s all good.

Except it’s not all good. Our commentator represents what appears to be a growing narcissistic willingness to dismiss science or facts when the inconveniently disagree with what we can easily believe. Note that I’m not talking about honest debate regarding numbers or ideas. I think we can have a healthy and intelligent debate about what we should do about climate change. What is the government responsibility with regards to curbing population growth and the use of those things we know damage the environment? Maybe nothing. Perhaps, one might argue, the government is not the moral authority or our parent and if populations or nations want to drill for cheap oil that is our choice. Or, perhaps we want to argue that governments are designed to reign in public consumption when that consumption creates larger problems that individuals can’t handle by themselves.

But we can’t have intelligent, intellectual discussions when people simply dismiss reality because it creates cognitive dissonance. The position that evolution, climate change, gravity, or any other scientific truth is the product of a conspiracy is unconscionable and counter-productive. We have a responsibility to reject, ignore, and correct those people who blatantly reject reality as if they are the only ones privy to truth. One wonders if we pushed if our letter writer would, in fact, say what he means: the main body of science is not as smart as me.

If this idea was the isolated rant of a lone man living in a cabin, I don’t think I would care as much. We could dismiss him as the cranky guy down the street who also yells at the kids to “get off the lawn.” Unfortunately, our letter writer sounds like too many of our politicians running (and being elected). When states begin requiring that schools teach “alternative” theories of creation, when politicians insist that women’s bodies can prevent pregnancy during rape, when major political parties support candidates who call the big bang theory, evolution, and embryology as “lies straight from the pits of hell,” we might consider taking this seriously.

Or, we can take the path of least resistance. A few more storms like Sandy and we won’t have to worry about it.

Data Driving off the Cliffs of Insanity

Data-driven education derives from the growing need for assessment and accountability. Forgetting the irony that as state and local governments provide less and less money per student they ask for more and more data, at some point we need to recognize that data can’t drive education.

That’s not to say we can’t collect some information. It’s useful to know that we spend X amount per student, but data and statistics are largely snapshots of a particular moment in time and rarely show anything more than correlation. For instance, we can correlate economic background to test score but we can’t show a definitive causal relationship simply because everyone reading this post knows at least one person who overcame difficult financial circumstances to succeed in school.

More importantly, all educational data shows us is the result measured against an arbitrarily decided target. Yes, we can measure if a student can identify a quote or perform an function but no one really thinks that is the pinnacle of educational achievement. Instead: define critical thinking. (No cheating.) If you do cheat and go look at the definition (synthesizing, analyzing, evaluating, conceptualizing, and reflecting), next tell me how you can measure those in a standardized way. Once you do such a thing, write a book and become a millionaire. However, even if you can create the perfect rubric, how do you get students to learn?

And that’s the problem with data-driven education: it doesn’t tell us whether the approach actually worked because we can’t truly measure all the factors that impact cognition. Dean Taylor over at Helium does a really nice job of breaking down “Factors that affect student learning.” Taylor’s blog pretty much sums up what just about anyone who teaches knows: The moment of cognition occurs when all those factors coalesce. And they don’t always come together every time.

Certainly, students have an ability and a responsibility to overcome the factors that inhibit learning and obviously teachers have a duty to limit the impact of the negative and tap into the positive. But, or perhaps I should write BUT, we can’t expect that teachers can limit the impacts everyday for every lesson for every child. I might be able to help a student overcome their socio-economic status and the lack of educational tradition, but that doesn’t mean that every day, for every assignment, I can also help them feel safe, secure, and well-fed.

And let’s not forget that the barriers to student learning also apply to faculty teaching. Every semester, in a semi-joking tone, I tell my students what one of my professors once told me: Your problems will never become my problems but my problems will always become your problems. It sounds harsh, but how else do we imagine education can work? As a faculty member, I have  an obligation to help my students, but if I’m sick, tired, dealing with my own teenagers at home, getting divorced, or, heaven forbid, struggling with the information and the explanation of the information, student learning will be impacted.

While we might be able to pinpoint those factors that impact learning, we can’t necessarily pinpoint how those factors will interact with information delivered on any given day. This, it seems so inexplicably obvious, is why there are 17 million ways to teach Shakespeare or fractions or economics. One size doesn’t fit all because each day and each student is not one size.

It is time, quite frankly, for schools and educators to start fighting back. We need to begin putting pressure on Boards of Regents, Boards of Education, local business people, and politicians to hold themselves to the same standards. I want assessment and accountability and data on every decision those groups make. If they decide to hire a new president or superintendent, I want data on how they made the decision. I want businesses to give me clear data on how tax-breaks help create more jobs. I want to start asking for data on why their business makes my town a better place and warrants a tax break and I want businesses and politicians held responsible for the behavior of the people they serve. In other words, if my congressman is such a great representative, why does he have such a difficult time explaining some of his votes? In his defense, the issues are complicated, his listeners are often influenced by a variety of factors, and it’s difficult to speak in words that everyone interprets the same way. Oh, and sometimes people are busy and tired and not really focused. Kind of like students. Everyday.

Data isn’t the answer and letting those numbers drive the bus is, inconceivably, taking us to the cliff’s edge. We’re driving over it while our students are sitting at the bottom watching.


Hell Is Coming to Breakfast

The Outlaw Josey Wales–Click to view video

Sitting in the Ronald Reagan National Airport Saturday morning I could feel the partisanship oozing out of DC. Airport kiosks with “Four More Years” on one side and “Vote for Change” on the other, cynically playing to both sides remind me of the raft owner in The Outlaw Josey Wales. His loyalty to the north or south depends on who is crossing the river. This is a guy who could live on K-Street in the 21st century.

Cynicism aside, as I travel back to work, I’m increasingly struck by how little our decision makers understand about education. Reagan was, in many ways, almost the quientessential American President. He valued education, but only up to a point, and he was certainly interested in making people aware he was just “common folk.” Much like President George Bush (the son), an Ivy League MBA, it was important to him that we saw him working a chainsaw and riding his horse.

Both these men left educational legacies and I want to give them their props. They cared, but like almost every politician, they also fell into the data death spiral. Education is about failure and messiness. We can’t assess learning in any effective way. We can’t nationalize knowledge and measure progress with standardized testing in ways that transform “American Education.” Reagan’s and Bush’s eventual educational legacies are mixed and trending downward. One might argue both have pushed higher ed toward the high tuition, high stakes mess in which we exist today by trying to over-simplify a complex system.

This isn’t to say that such testing and the collection of data is not useful. Certainly, TAKS tests, ACTs, and ACT test scores tell us how students do as measured against other students. I’m not even opposed to considering standardized knowledge. Clearly, we need to have basic math skills and all students must understand the language of power. Standardized tests can offer us a comparison. They can even tell us, based on the premise that those who have mastery of this standardized knowledge, who will succeed. We just need to develop an efficient, effective way to teach using best practices based on the data available. It seems so simple. Or, should I say so simplistic.

We have to move beyond measuring outputs and pretending that all students enter into an educational situation with equal skills. Even in Texas where we are struggling under the remnants of Bush’s state level educational reform, our students who pass the TAKS (or STARR) come to us with such a wide-variety of skills, we can’t generalize abilities or create classes that work for everyone. Remember that the TAKS is a minimal skills test. Over 30% of college students enter our universities needing remedial classes. More data isn’t going to solve the problem. We have to remember that some students enter the tests with a greater knowledge of, and greater long-term access to, the standardized knowledge we claim to value and some students enter the exams without any access to the language of power.

It seems to me we have forgotten that our educational system is unique throughout the world: we are trying to educate every child, regardless of ethnicity or income. Think about that for just one minute and imagine the complexity. Think about the last time you had to learn something or the last time you were in a meeting listening to a speaker (or heck, if you are married, think about a time your partner droned on about his/her day). How long could you listen and how was your recall of the events? More to the point, how would you feel if we judged everyone based on such data? Consider, as John Taylor once did, how we might judge dentists under this philosophy.

Now think about what impacted your ability to listen: hunger, your partner mad because you told him he “droned” on and on (and on) before you left for work, a head cold, a new good looking colleague, ill parent, ill child, season premier of your favorite show, a snub at the water fountain: the list could go on and on. Notice none of those are really measurable educational statistics and yet every one of them has a major impact on how you learn.

And this is why data leaves us scrambling and fighting amongst ourselves. Feeding every student before they test won’t necessarily improve scores, but that doesn’t mean we eliminate free and reduced breakfasts. More money doesn’t necessarily equate to higher educational achievement, but that doesn’t mean cutting funding will help. Better technology in the classroom will not create more STEM students, but un-wiring the school won’t help engage students.

About the only thing we can all agree on is that education matters. But if we keep trying to create national policies that are “data” driven, we also have to recognize that our education will continue to disappoint us and it will continue to fail. Hell, won’t just be coming to breakfast. It will stick around for lunch and supper also.

Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say (if you can)

When my wife and I were dating, we had a discussion about lying. We had probably been listening to some Hank Williams’ lament about cheating hearts and the conversation wound its way to truth and truth telling. These were the kinds of conversations we had before children ruined our brains.

In typical English phd fashion, I told her that we can do nothing BUT lie. Truth, whatever that may be to each of us, resides in the brain and we are only capable of using symbols (words in this case) to try and capture that truth. Since symbols are never the things they represent, we will always lie to each other. I’m sure, at such a moment, she was wishing she had married a chemist or kinesiology major.

This conversation comes back to me at the ISSOTL conference here in Hamilton. I’ve listened with great interest as people try and develop a language that seems suitable for discussing teaching and learning but we are failing. It’s certainly no fault of the participants (myself included). This is my first time here and I will say I’m impressed. First, this is a conference where people wear jeans and seem genuinely interested in teaching and learning. Many conferences about teaching and learning are peopled by suits who are really focused on networking, job hunting, or seeking their next consulting gig.

But even here, earnest as we are, the terms are elusive. If we discuss students as “change agents,” what do we mean? Change what? Agents of what? I think the group-speak might assume some liberal, progressive agenda, but what about other change that challenges our assumptions of education? Do we want those change agents? And, someone wondered, change agents for whom? We in higher education server a variety of contradictory masters, not the least of whom is our own intellectual ideology, like politicians, students, parents, administrators, the public, and others.

This difficulty of communication really struck home in a discussion of undergraduate research yesterday. We asked questions regarding the impact of changing demographics on undergraduate research. The data tells us that students who engage in undergraduate research projects are more likely to persist to graduation, but our anecdotal experience tell us most students who participate in undergraduate research are white, economically privileged students with high entrance scores. In other words, these students would have graduated anyway. Would participation in undergraduate research help the economically underprivileged student with average scores graduate? More importantly, once we dig down, would that student even want to do undergraduate research as we define it? Our undergraduate researchers must dedicate hours to either lab time or individual library time and, if at all possible, travel to conferences (they are like mini-mes). The kid not particpating probably works 20-30 hours a week. When in the world is she going to go to class, work in the lab, take 3-4 days off for a conference, and work to pay her rent and increasingly high tuition? She’s also not doing a study abroad in case anyone is interested. Have we forgotten in higher education that when most people travel it’s called a vacation and they don’t get paid for those days?

My point to my wife way those many years ago wasn’t that truth doesn’t matter or that I planned to cheat on her someday. My point, made badly by a boyfriend to a girlfriend seeking reassurance (she married me anyway), was that we have a tendency to waste our time playing with words. Yes they matter. Lord knows everyone realizes that our words can be used for us or against us when the bean counters in the administration or the government meet and it’s important for us to play the buzzword game, but we of all people must realize it’s a game.

Instead, we need to ask other questions about worthwhile programs like undergraduate research, change agents, and study abroad (etc). As we struggle with the best ways to teach students, instead of getting hung up with definitions, we need to ask who our programs are inviting to the table? And why those people in that way? And, perhaps most important, we need to stop worrying about what we call it and focus more on who are calling. Most of all, there are times when I have to remind myself that talk doesn’t cook rice, as the Chinese proverb tells us. We can’t always know what we mean, but we can always mean what we do.

Academics are an easy lot to make fun of. I’ve been to conferences and heard papers about “Queering Hawthorne” and seen presentations arguing that video taping student presentations helps the improve (one–who cares?; two–not duh?), but the papers were delivered by people struggling to understand the world around them and working hard to articulate those ideas in ways that would help students think and explore the world around them.

The ISSOTL conference has the same kind of people: honest, good folks trying to help students think critically, become good citizens, find jobs, and, at the end of the day, become smarter. Even if we have no idea what any of those words mean.

Hitting the Bricks (And Hoping You Don’t Get Mugged)

The only way to understand a city is to hit the bricks. If you have a car, it’s worth driving into some residential areas outside the city center, but if you really want to get a feel for a city, you need to beat feet. In some cities, you might have to take the subway (New York), the El (Chicago), or the Trolley (San Francisco) just to really experience the area. In Seattle it’s worth jumping on the ferry across the sound and taking their public transportation to West Seattle. The goal, of course, isn’t just to feel the city but to walk among the people. Buildings are buildings. Sure Seattle has the Rainier Tower and New York has, well, New York buildings, but when you walk through these two cities it’s not the buildings that create the real difference on the streets. Let’s be honest: people are people (so why should it be, you and I should get along so awfully–sing it with me!) but it’s pretty different walking the streets of Millwaulkee versus the streets of Chicago versus the streets of Baltimore.

But walk we must and that’s what I do (much to the consternation of my wife when I tell her). Miles and miles, circling (or squaring, really) progressivley out from the hotel. Doing so reveals inner city gems. Get off the Inner Harbor in Baltimore and you walk up to Marble Hill and Mt. Vernon. Little corner bars (excellent places to watch a game) and one of the best little liquor stores in America tell us that “The Wire” might have been a great show on cable but Baltimore is more than drug deals gone bad.

But occasionally walking reveals some ugly, scary things about ourselves. Frankly, that tension between who we think we are and who we might become is one reason I love to travel–it forces me out of my comfort zone. If I’m hungry, I have to take a chance. (Don’t, by the way, ever tell a waitress in Atlanta to “suprise me” when she asks what kind of beer you want–note to all waitresses: blueberry is not a beer flavor to a guy with a Texas accent).

You don’t know this (because I don’t have a photo up) but I’m just a middle class white guy from West Texas. Born in the South, I’m pretty comfortable around all kinds of people, but we can never forget that in America, too often, diversity and tolerance means that we eat at a Mexican food place and laugh at a Tyler Perry movie.

And that’s what made my walk last night in Hamilton, Canada so interesting. And disturbing. I’ve walked a lot of cities, including Houston, TX, the most ethnically diverse city west of the Mississippi (although you would never know it if you are there on the weekends. I guess all the diverse people are indoors. Boring downton and I’m not just saying that because I’m from that area) and I’ve rarely been scared. Heck, I’ve walked a few non-American cities and not been scared.

But there I was in Hamilton, Canada last night. After my crack in yesterday’s blog about Canada and _Strange Brew_ I want to reiterate that I have nothing against Canada. I loved Calgary (even though some homeless woman there yelled at me repeatedly asking why I took her shoes–or at least she yelled at someone or some apparition in my general direction).

I hit the bricks last night. I walked, looking for some Canadian food. Evidently, Canadian food is either Chinese, Italian, Mediterranian, Korean, or Japanese (which makes sense–what exactly would Canadian food look like). This is something I should celebrate–diversity, difference, multiple languages crowding the streets–a veritble United Nations outside the hotel.

But I was nervous. Inexplicably. Young adults everywhere. Teen-agers. Young mothers with strollers. I know logically I was in no danger (I hope) but even the teenagers walking the streets worried me. I ate some delicious Indian food at Mahal’s, voted the best Curry in Hamilton one year. I had the Lahori Fish. Yum. I couldn’t understand a word the waitress said but she was friendly. A group of teen age boys came in, rowdy, orderd about  4 cheap items on the menu and talked trash the whole time (I assume–they weren’t speaking English but they laughed a lot).

When I left and tried to walk off my supper (if you go to Mahal’s, split the Lahori fish–they are generous with their portions), I got nervous all over again but I didn’t realize why Hamilton scared me until right before the hotel. I was walking behind two guys, both smoking, and both cussing up a storm. F-this, and GD that, and then when they spoke what I can only assume where equivalent words in Arabic, it hit me. Of all the diversity, with all the groups and clusters of people, they were all divided by ethnicity and language. English speakers here; Indians there; Arabic speakers on the other side. And never the twain shall meet. It seemed so tribal (and I don’t mean tribal in a necessarily negative connotation referencing issues of civility. I mean tribal, in this case, literally.)

My walk last night seemed fraught with a tension lurking right under the surface. This is not, I don’t think, a reflection on Hamilton but a reflection on me and largly irrational. I am a product, for better or worse, of an American culture that values difference but is also strongly insistent on a unified culture (united we stand, divided we fall). We still rally around collective holidays and collectively Americanized events. Doing so suppresses individual cultural differences in favor of the larger collective ideology. We really are a melting pot, blending those things we find most valuable into an American flavor (witness: TexMex food). And it works for us.

As I prepare for the day (ironically drinking Starbucks Arica Katuma coffee in Canada at a Sheraton hotel), I can’t wait for tonight’s walk. I just hope that woman with the stroller isn’t standing on the same corner. I think her baby sneered at me last night.

Not Enough Sugar and Too Much Water

On the hour long ride from the Toronto airport to Hamilton, Canada, we met some talkative, relatively aggressive Canadians returning home who wanted to talk politics. Pleased as I was that 9 hours of sardine time was being topped off in a van with politcal discourse, I will admit that I was surprised at the aggressiveness of the Canadians’ dislike of Obama. (Well, mostly I was surprised at their aggressiveness. I didn’t think they got all that worked up about much more than hockey. And beer.But, it’s also true that my knowledge of Canada is largely shaped by _Strange Brew_. Aye.)

Either way, after the woman told a story about a poor doctor in Arizona whose practice shut down because of Obamacare (good to know Fox News makes it this far north) and the man worried Obama was soft on defense (from a Canadian? I am no war-monger, but I’m a bit tired of my tax dollars–and my neighbors sons and daughters–carrying the rest of the world’s water on defense), the conversation mercifully died and we rode in peace.

Naturally, and perhaps ironically, the only places open to eat when we arrived where loud. But they had cold beer. People might look different all over the world, but the Bar and Grill sure doesn’t. As I fell in bed, exhausted from doing nothing all day, I noted Starbucks coffee in the room. Smile.

Except I can never understand why hotels don’t leave you enough sugar. Why two sugars for two cups of coffee. Do they really think I want to use one sugar and one sweet in low in each cup? Are they trying to save me from myself and save me from too many sweets?

In much the same way, I don’t understand the guilt cards they leave on the towels (9 billion gallons of water are wasted every day washing towels for your 1st world, middle class travelers–you can save the world by hanging up your towel you earth killer). This is the towel you will use after you finish showering with the rain-forest shower head that uses 400 gallons and dumps so much water the bathtub can’t drain. I’ve been swimming in pools with less water. But if I hang my towel up, I’ll save the planet?

At least I’ll have a good cup of coffee. Almost.

Sitting in a Air way Station. Ticket to my destination. La, la

“I’m sitting in the railway station. Got a ticket to my destination.” Sing it with me. Except I’m not in the railway station, but I don’t think DFW rhymes with anything.

I’ve seen _Super Size Me_  (forgive my formatting here–my tablet is being persnickety this afternoon) but I still get chicken nuggets when I fly. These are things I don’t eat on a regular basis. I’m no health nut, but being on a plane seems to bring out the fatalist in me. For all you Hee Haw fans, sing along: “Gloom, despair, and agony on me. Deep dark depression, escessive misery.”

Airports, I think (and unfortunately I travel enough to make this claim) have quickly become embletic of the American middle class. (In much the same way that a bus station might be said to depict America’s lower class travelers. How many of us have traveled via Greyhound lately? Where are most bus stations located in a city?)

We are mobile and that is good, but we want our mobility cheap and with all the conveniences of home. Restaraunts, convenience stores, haircuts, shoe shines. We leave one strip mall and land in another. Along the way, we sit and try to carve out a small piece of privacy in the noise around us, hoping we didn’t miss our flight.

And I think this is part of what really bothers me about flying. I’m 9 hours today without a moments peace. Noise every where. Announcements, people talking about why they are leaving their husband (maybe I just attract those people), men talking tough about business and business partners, a woman sighing as she’s working a Soduko, and the debate. On every tv in the airport. Really? For why? Is DFW trying to encourage political discourse before we board? Red aisle, blue aisle? Will the republicans in the audienc admit air traffic controllers should be regulated? Will the democrats realize de-regulation made it possible for them to afford the ticket?

I really love Simon and Garfunkel. “Homeward Bound” is a great song, but I’m partial to “The Boxer.” I even like the Mumford and Sons remake. Sitting on the plane, humming about railway stations, almost allows me my own private space. Now if someone would just turn off the dang tvs.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

NYT > U.S. > Politics

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Dilbert Daily Strip

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)