Just Because We Don’t Like It Doesn’t Mean We Won’t Remember It

1985Bowling_for_Soup

Click to view music video by Bowling for Soup

Hollywood has been telling us for years that high school might very well be the most important time of our lives. While there are movies about college years, those films really just take the high school concept (jocks, nerds, princess, criminals, etc) and add legalized drinking (as opposed to the illegal drinking that takes place in high school movies) and at least one snobby college professor. It is the high school movie, perhaps best exemplified by movies like Dazed and Confused, Napolean Dynamite and Breakfast Club (although I’m sure any one of us could come up with our own list) that has the ability to capture a more universal, American idea. In theory, we all go to high school; hence, we all have a place in the high school movie.

Obviously, Hollywood plays on stereotypes, often neglecting some issues in order to focus on sex (American Pie for instance), but the basic concept is that who we are in high school largely shapes and predicts our future selves. For a 4 minute refresher on the high school experience, one need go no further than Bowling for Soup’s “High School Never Ends.” The notable exception, it seems, are the “princesses”– those girls who found self-esteem and popularity in their beauty– become less confident the older they get and the “brainy girls’ grow more confident the older they get. (See the link below for more on this difference.) For the rest of us, well, high school never ends.

Now, as is often the case, neuroscience is catching up to popular ideology. Not only is our self-image especially “adhesive” during this time, “the prefrontal cortex–the part of the brain that governs our ability to reason, grasp abstractions, control impulses, and self-reflect–undergoes a huge flurry of activity.” The net result–“During times when your identity is in transition, . . . it’s possible you store memories better than you do in times of stability.”

Our adolescent years, science tells us, offer us great opportunities to learn. We shape our identity, we develop our capacity for social engagement, and our brains are, quite literally, growing by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, we also are a hormonal mess of conflicting emotions and we have limited a limited capability to understand what we are learning. It’s why every parent has entertained, at least once, trading in the 15 year old for a newer, more improved model. (Or, perhaps, for the younger version that was sweeter, kinder, and a tad bit more predictable emotionally.)

Regardless of our emotional stability, the memories are being stored whether we like it or not.

I’m not going to pretend, in a thousand words or less, that I can offer a cure for what ills our educational system, but I do think we have to recognize the extraordinary possibilities available when we work with kids whose brains are in transition. First and foremost, we must recognize that these kids are soaking up information and creating memories regardless of their desire to learn. While we all want active, engaged participation and such students definitely master the material, we also have to remember that exposure matters. Life, as I tell people all the time, is a marathon not a sprint.

I’m under no illusions, either, that we can create a sea-change to the social culture at the high school level. I’m sure there are things we can do to ameliorate things, but high school reflects our larger social construct. Pretty people get more stuff. Athletes are more popular. We have a certain cultural distrust of intellectuals and people who play the trombone. Our high school students, quite frankly and for better or for worse, are taking their social cues from the adult world.

But we can use these formative years to build a catalogue, a rolodex if you will, of memories for our students. Many years ago, I used to use a pop culture reader in my freshman composition classes. The idea, simplistically enough, was that the topics would be interesting to my students and, as such, they would be more engaged. We could talk about music, film, tv, sports, and other contemporary topics and those conversations would create intellectual growth and curiosity.

What I found, however, is that my students were so poorly versed in anything outside of themselves and their own self-interests that they had almost no ability to dig deeper than the surface. They had, quite frankly, just spent the last 8 years of their education studying things that interested them and their only reference point educationally was their own ego. Critical thinking amounted to a “It sucks” or “It’s cool.” Or, when they couldn’t decide, they would tell me “It’s all good.”

What we know, if we watch enough John Hughes films and read enough neuroscience, is we must change the way we approach adolescent education. Our students need reference points outside their own experience whether they are interested or not and regardless of whether they “use” that experience in their 9th grade class or on a standardized exam. I’m not advocating we stop teaching certain skills or that we stop using popular culture references. But I am arguing that we force our students to read, see, and listen to works of art that influence the contemporary moment in which they live even if they aren’t a part of that student’s lexicon. I don’t care anymore if the Iliad is boring (and Troy with Brad Pitt more exciting) and it doesn’t bother me if Picasso’s paintings are weird looking.

They may not like it and they may be bored, but education isn’t just about that moment in time. What neuroscience tells us is that what we experience in 1985 is relevant in 1995, 2005, and all points in between. We may not know when it matters, but the memory is there and available. Let’s stop worrying about skills we can measure in a specific place and time, and start focusing a little bit more on the kind of memories we want these kids to store.

It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like, Spring?

Last night was a good night in our house. I went home, threw some steaks on the grill and drank a cold beer (or three). With two teenage boys, steak is a real treat in our house, mostly because it takes about half a cow to make even a small dent in their hunger.

I don’t want to sound like an old codger, and I’ll willingly admit that good steaks (New York Strip or T-Bones) have always been pricey, but I do remember the days when a nice sirloin was a treat but not a luxury.

I also remember the days when I put the grill away during December. I realize complaining about warm weather might seem odd, especially to my friends in Minnesota. They don’t have a lot of sympathy when I complain about how warm I was playing golf last Sunday (or that I’m grilling steak on Dec. 6). But, can I share my first world problem with a tinge of political outrage?

Lamar Smith, long-time Republican Congressman from Texas (one of those men who is, ironically, an anti-government career politician), has been named chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Smith, despite the fact that he’s from Texas and lives in a state suffering from the worst drought since the 1950s, has his doubts about the impact of humans on the climate and his bonafides regarding science are certainly questionable.

At the same time, Smith notes “we can help future generations get [to space] by encouraging kids to study in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). If America is going to remain competitive in today’s global economy, we need to remain innovative and focused on exploring science and expanding new technologies.” (Maybe the Republicans did learn from the election that crazy has no place in science.)

On the surface, it sounds like Smith at least recognizes that science matters. If I had Smith’s ear, I would tell him let’s leave behind the notion of blame regarding the climate and recognize that we simply must do something about climate change. In other words, stop fighting the idea that humans are or are not having an impact, and start focusing on initiatives that push renewable energy and invest in companies, universities, and individuals who can help us overcome the impact of climate change. I’ll offer Rep. Smith a little more advice, also. Drilling for more oil isn’t the answer and, while this may sound like heresy, in an era with limited funding, I think Smith can invest our money someplace other than pushing educational initiatives from a committee that isn’t an educational committee. (Call me crazy, but how about if we leave encouraging kids to study STEM fields to the Education Agency?)

In other words, Smith’s committee should be investing in research and development. Stay focused. And, while I love NASA, the most important issue of our time is going to be the climate and water. President Kennedy challenged us to get to the moon. How about if Smith challenges us to reduce our carbon footprint? We have some of the greatest scientists in the world–let’s create a Manhattan Project focused on the climate and water availability.

As the chair of the Science committee, I need Rep. Smith to invest in educational initiatives targeting farmers and ranchers in these changing climates. Extension agencies across the West are exploring ways to feed and grow with less water, but they need money for research and, more importantly, money to take that information to the land owners. Land owners need funds to make changes. If we want them to water crops differently help them replace old equipment. Likewise, let’s focus on cities and urban areas reducing the water they use and increasing the LEED buildings. Let’s build smart buildings and let’s build smartly.

I would also encourage Smith to actually visit Texas and look at the ranch lands trying to recover from over-grazing, drought, and falling water tables. If that doesn’t help, perhaps he can head up to HEB, visit the meat counter, and ask the butcher why steak has become increasingly expensive. If that doesn’t help, have him show up to my house and I’ll take him shopping. What he will see is the direct impact of a changing climate on our bottom line. Milk, butter, meat–these are staples of the dinner table and every month of drought increases their cost and impacts college funds, purchasing power, donations, and other tools that drive the economic engine of the country.

If he shows up, though, he better bring a pair of shorts because last time I saw old man winter he had on a swimsuit.

The Educational Sky is Falling (Unless It’s Not)

Finally some good news about education. According to the Pew Research Center:

“Record shares of young adults are completing high school, going to college and finishing college, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of newly available census data. In 2012, for the first time ever, one-third of the nation’s 25- to 29-year olds have completed at least a bachelor’s degree. These across-the-board increases have occurred despite dramatic immigration-driven changes in the racial and ethnic composition of college-age young adults, a trend that had led some experts to expect a decline in educational attainment.”

You might have missed this story in yesterday’s paper. And probably today’s paper. I doubt you will read about it again any time soon. Certainly, I’m not arguing there is a conspiracy against admitting that our k-12 and universities are doing great things, but . . . Well. Okay. Maybe I am, at the least, feeling a little beat up after the last few years’ attacks on higher ed. I’m sure the report was just lost in the election day news cycle. (Which, of course, begs the simple question–why release it the day before the election if you want people to pay attention?)

If you go read the report, you will note, naturally, that the authors credit “some” of the higher completion rates to the economic recession. Such a recession, in the logic of the report, increased completion because there were fewer jobs for the high school dropout. Right. Because that kid who in 2005 would have dropped out suddenly gained a frontal-lobe and realized his long-term interests were better served by staying in high school. Teens have long been noted for their ability to forgo instant gratification for long-term gain.

For our colleges facing an influx of across the board demographic changes, the argument must be that fewer job possibilities increase a student’s desire not to leave college. It’s possible, based on this logic, that the increased minority populations were able to remain in college (paying ever higher tuition that the “experts” tell us is making an education unattainable) because of financial aid. In other words–a bad economy removes all other opportunities leaving students no choice but to remain in school. Except we know that, traditionally, minority students, in particular Hispanic students, eschew financial aid. We also know that for underprivileged students a poor economy often increases family responsibilities, leading them to work more (to support the family) and decreasing their likelihood of completion.

I have a different suggestion for why more students are completing k-12 and college despite what we might consider increasingly difficult conditions and less than ideal learning environments.

Click to view

Teachers.

Like the folks in Arizona who worked their tails off inspiring a generation of students despite political pressure and threats.

Or my neighbor across the street who leaves her house at 7:00 in the morning and gets home around 4:30.

Or my colleague’s wife who works almost every weekend trying to teach science to 5th graders in an economically disadvantaged school.

Or maybe a coach who helped some kid who never dreamed of going to college get recruited and signed.

Or my colleagues across my college campus who help 1st generation students know they can succeed.

Or my colleagues who work every Saturday or Sunday morning grading papers, writing detailed comments that help students perform at a higher level.

Or my friends in financial aid, student life, IT, and housing who work weekends finding ways for our students to persist to their degree.

Crazy as it sounds maybe we can all take a week off from beating up teachers unions and college faculty. Maybe, instead of telling us over and over again that traditional schools aren’t working, or that teachers unions are full of fat cats destroying America (by the way–type Teachers Unions Destroy Education into your browser–man there are some bitter people out there), we can bask in the glow of our success.

Teachers and students are working hard. Hard work is paying off. It’s not a radical concept. It might not be sexy and it might not sell newspapers, but would it hurt to take a breath and pat an educator on the back this week?

In the face of radically different demographics and changing student populations, our schools are succeeding. In an era where government support for education is at an all time low or incredibly uneven, yet required accountability is at an all time high, our teachers at the k-12 level and at the university level are getting the job done.

Nah. There’s got to be some other reason.

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.

Click to view video

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.

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.

Butt out, or Why Smoking Bans are Problematic

My campus sits on the precipice, looking down the slippery slope of instituting a smoking ban, or, at the least, creating smoking areas that are so inconvenient and uncomfortable smokers are effectively banned from campus. On it’s surface, this sounds like a fine idea. After all, as we ALL know, the science is clear–second-hand smoke kills!

Unless it doesn’t. Certainly, smoking (first-hand) makes one susceptible to various illnesses and increases the possibility one might get cancer. (Remember–it increases the possibility: it doesn’t guarantee cancer. That’s a lot like telling people not wearing a seat belt increases the possibility of getting killed in a car crash. But correlation is not causation.)

But the science on second-hand smoke is far from conclusive and the science of second-hand smoke on outdoor environments is almost non-existent. In other words, I can fully understand banning smoking in a classroom where there is a captive audience and exposure is direct. This is an issue of comfort and consideration. (However, while the barn door is open and the horses are already gone, city government bans on smoking in business constitute an incredible over-reach of power.)

Consider my son’s junior high science experiment. One night at the supper table, I was ranting and raving about seat-belt laws (it’s not the government’s job to tell me to wear a seat-belt. One of the true human rights in this world should be the ability to be a total doofus) and segued into smoking bans. Note that junior high boys are prone to wearing Axe body spray in disproportionate volumes. Smell, and the impact of that odor, necessarily dissipates in larger spaces. As my wife and I struggled to taste our food in the presence of an overpowering, eye-watering chemical explosion that makes me wonder how they think angels will fall from heaven just to be near someone wearing this stuff , I pointed out that if we made him sit in his bedroom, we might be able to taste the food. Why? Because there is more not-Axe in the air and that overpowers the Axe. Thus, a science fair project was born.

We gathered three different sized tanks, attached gauze to a stick, and rigged up a hose so we could blow cigarette smoke into the various sized tanks. He would then measure the change in the gauze to determine how space impacted the concentration of smoke. Fortunately, I have plenty of friends who smoke and were willing to blow into a straw. (No one in my family smokes–cigarettes are too expensive and the cost would detract from my other vices.)

It worked just like you might imagine. The smaller the space, the dirtier the gauze. Not scientific enough for you? Fortunately, my son also did his due diligence and read his science. I won’t provide the References page here, but suffice it to say, one the major problems with the “second-hand smoke kills” idea is that it treats all second-hand smoke the same. In other words, too many people (including the Surgeon General of the United States) acted like the husband/wife who lived in close proximity with a smoker for 45 years (a person who might smoke 4 packs a day) was exactly the same as the student who walks past her English professor once a day for 5 seconds. (By the way, check out Dr. Terry Simpson or John Stossell regarding the myth of second-hand smoke for some interesting information.)

My son, by the way, didn’t win or advance in the science fair competition. I’m sure it reflected the quality of the project not the nature of the project.

I don’t want to treat the issue of smoking lightly. I have some sympathy for companies who are providing health care (or paying large portions of health benefits) incentivizing or even restricting smoking. That’s clearly an economic issue and business owners should have power to make those decisions (and live with any negative consequences). We know, scientifically and logically, that there are direct and negative impacts from smoking that have an influence on the individual engaged in the activity.

But we can’t let bad science and minor inconveniences impose their will on the civil liberties we must protect. One of the most important roles a university should have is a willingness to take unpopular stands in the name of the greater good. We are bound by a necessary desire to seek the truth and we must teach our students to think critically, and, as Anonymous notes in an essay in Inside Higher Ed, we must teach  “our students to differentiate between significant risks (such as smoking) and totally insignificant risks (such as secon hand smoke outdoors).  We should be teaching our students to deconstruct misleading government and advocacy group statements, such as the claim that ‘these is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke.’ By such criteria, there is no safe level of exposure to sunlight either.”

If we aren’t careful, we might have to buy our Axe and perfume from some black market dealer in an alley behind the science building. He’ll have a separate stand for donuts and snickers bars, also, because the ban against over-eating and it’s second-hand impact can’t be far behind.

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.)

FiveThirtyEight

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.)

Scott Adams' Blog

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.)

The Dish

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