Efficiently Inefficient

Back in the old days when higher education was inefficient and less expensive, we scheduled classes in late October, students registered in November, and faculty turned in book orders, hopefully, some time before the first day of class. Eager young scholars showed up to class on the first day nervous about the workload and completely unaware what books they might, or might not, need for any given class. Sure, a few eager beavers and over-achievers had already been to the bookstore but they knew not to take the shrink wrap off those shiny new books in case the absent-minded professor changed his mind over the break.

Working in the Registrar’s Office and at the campus bookstore was its own version of hell the first two weeks of class as hordes of students descended on the poor, understaffed workers, and took whatever frustrations they couldn’t express in class out on the poor soul flipping through a course guide or that student assistant working the cash register.

The class can’t be full! I need it to graduate, they demanded.

I’ll have the money tomorrow. Can’t you hold my spot until then, they begged.

What do you mean, they yelled, you don’t have any more books with all the important lines highlighted!

Fortunately, now that universities are efficient but more expensive, we schedule classes in early October, register students about two weeks later, and faculty turn in book orders sometime in between.

Because, of course, now that all these things are automated and more efficient we have to do them sooner because they go faster.

Ostensibly, of course, these efficiencies are supposed to help students make “informed” choices and give them opportunities to  graduate quicker. Universities can better anticipate how many credit hours students will enroll in the next semester, helping them plan for faculty teaching loads and budgets.

Additionally, bookstores can better determine the value of buying back used books and pre-order texts, theoretically lowering prices for students. Such a system would also allow students to order books from Amazon or other off-site stores so they can have the books on day 1 and be ready to learn. They can shop for the best prices.

I feel comfortable reporting that books aren’t less expensive and students aren’t showing up with chapter 1 read on the first day of class.

You might have also noticed that being able to anticipate enrollment hasn’t exactly solved the rising tuition problem or improved graduation rates.

We’re definitely more efficient, though.

In fact, after today (only two or three weeks after the deadline), the students registering for my spring senior level Studies in the American Novel class can pre-order the novels and read them during the last half of this semester.

Yeah, right. Me, too.

While I realize that popular culture imagines college professors who are lazily coasting through the day, here in the real world my colleagues are working 55-70 hours a week teaching the current students they meet 2 or 3 times a week, reading chapters, grading papers, advising students, attending meetings, and finding time for scholarship and research. We are, simply put, focused on the students we have now and not really worried about the ones we might have next semester.

Earlier today, in fact, I needed to spend my morning preparing for next week, reading ahead of my students and wondering how I will keep the D students motivated and the A students interested.

Instead, I was picking novels for a class that doesn’t start until mid-January because for some reason the bookstore needs over 2 months to order books, even though I’ve given them the title, author, publisher, and ISBN number. I’m pretty sure my son could order those books before I finish typing this sentence.

What happens, though, as we become efficiently inefficient is that we are left with less and less time to explore different approaches to teaching our courses. Because I’m ordering books less than halfway through a semester, I can’t know if the books I’m using are worth trying again.

As importantly, I can’t know if the students find the books useful because our course evaluation happens at the end of the semester when I submit my grades.

For the novels course, a class I haven’t taught in a while, I need time to go back through the memory rolodex and ask how 2007 went. What other novels, I might ask, should we read? How, I might wonder, did Craig Thompson’s Blankets work as an example of changing novelistic forms? Would Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge (yes, I think it’s more novel than short story collection) work better to close the semester or should I take a chance on Marilynne Robinson’s Lila (a novel I plan on reading over the holiday break)? Do I really want to read The Blithedale Romance again? Will requiring Moby Dick open me up to accusations of cruel and unusual punishment?

Good questions all, but ones that are difficult to answer in the midst of grading 52 first year essays, completing the state mandated Sexual Harassment Training we have to complete every two years, and preparing my next lecture on audience analysis and passive voice.

Gosh, it’s a real shame we don’t  have an automated system that would help us be more efficient and give me time to finish this semester before I plan the next one.

Just Because It’s Efficient Doesn’t Mean It’s Effective

An adulterer, I told my students the other day, is simply a person who commits adultery. The word provides a description of a person who performs a particular act but it does not imply, state, or define a value.

We were discussing Kate Chopin’s “The Storm,” a short story in which Calixta has a brief sexual encounter with Alcee. The storm of the title works as a metaphor for their hot, torrid moment of passion, an event that offers Calixta her “birthrite.” She and Alcee are happily married both before the affair and after. In fact, her husband Bobinot and her son are riding out the storm at the local store where he has bought her a can of shrimps. She loves her husband, her son, and the gift Alcee has given her in equal measure it seems.

She is, we all agreed, an adulterer. As with most great writers, though, Chopin asks us to read carefully and consider the circumstances before we pass moral or ethical judgement. In other words, like most great literature, we have to recognize that morality and ethics are social constructs that we impose on language, actions, and people. Adultery, then, is only good or bad after we make a judgement and we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of treating things as absolutes simply because they exist. We might still feel compelled to condemn her act as immoral, I told my students, but we also must recognize that her adultery provides her with something that her marriage can’t. Her husband brings her a can of shrimp; Alcee gives her her birth rite. I love shrimp as much as the next person, but I think there’s a pretty clear difference in the two gifts. Language and meaning, Chopin reminds us, is a little more complex than simply parroting age old morality.

Thou shalt not kill, for instance. Unless it’s in the name of country. Unless someone is attacking your family. Unless you need food. Like adultery, the morality and ethics of killing is determined in the historical and contextual moment. The rightness or wrongness of a term, in essence, exists independently of the term itself. You might, I tell my students, still decide that Calixta is an unrepentant whore who will burn in hell, but you aren’t going to do so by being intellectually lazy and disregarding all the information leading up to the act itself.

I fear, much like my students who assume Calixta is evil simply because she commits adultery, that educationally we are consistently making the reverse mistake when it comes to technology. We create wired classes, fill back packs with laptops and IPads, push students into online environments, and imagine a day when massive open online classes provide access to all.

We do this because we have somehow decided that technology is good because it makes us more efficient. Access to information has become equated with understanding.

Yet, we don’t really know if any of these formats, bells and whistles, or pedagogical approaches actually help students learn or even if they make us more efficient. Matt Richtel, in his 2011 New York Times article, noted that “schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.” M.O. Thirunarayanan goes even further, arguing that using “untested technological tools in classrooms is unethical” (firewalled unfortunately). Larry Cuban agrees that the use of untested technology is unwise, although he rejects the idea that these approaches are unethical, noting that most new teaching tools throughout history were untested before they went into the classroom. Buying and “deploying new technologies . . . .without capturing the complexity of the many factors determining academic achievement may be myopic,” he concedes.

Even so, we press on because, ostensibly, we have begun automatically tying values to terms without, as Cuban writes, “capturing the complexity” of the problem.

Understand that I’m no luddite. I enjoy and appreciate carrying around my smart phone. I have almost 3,000 songs on an sd card smaller than my pinkie fingernail, and I can access the Oxford English Dictionary 24 hours a day virtually anywhere in the world. I enjoy writing on a computer, watching tv on my 36 inch tv, and binge viewing shows streamed via Netflix. I also like indoor toilets, central air and heat, and escalators.

But I’m also pretty sure none of those things have actually made me better at much of anything. Sure, having an indoor toilet keeps my backside warm on a cold night when nature calls, but I’m not any better at expelling waste than I would be without one. Likewise, having a computer has allowed me to produce and share more writing, but there is no real evidence that the computer has actually made me a better writer. I can just produce more bad writing quicker.

I can say that my students are not better writers today than they were 17 years ago before they had computer access 24/7. My best writers are still really good, and my worst writers are still incomprehensible. I refuse to speculate on the impact of indoor toilets on their defecation.

In much the same way, we might note that technology can change the way we approach information, but there is not really any evidence that technology is actually helping us improve the way we learn or teach. I’m currently in a smart room. I’ve got projectors, computers, blue tooth, and all the stereo system I ever need. Hell, if they had red teeth and yellow teeth technology, we’d probably have those in the classroom also. None of those things helped us discuss Calixta’s adultery.

If a professor has a power point slide projected wirelessly from his IPad but no one learns is he actually teaching?

Certainly, we have created an efficient way to send information out into the world but we probably need to stop imagining that efficiency and effectiveness are the same thing. Technology is really just a tool. Let’s try and avoid giving it meaning before we’ve established it’s value.

Sometimes a Tree is Just a Tree, But Not Always

Over the holidays, my older son (read his blog here) introduced my wife and I to Sherlock, the British tv crime drama. Benedict Cumberlatch (is there a more British name on the planet?) offers viewers a contemporary adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Each episode is 90 minutes long and, quite frankly, they offer some of the best entertainment on tv (or on Netflix as the case may be). It’s always nice to know that your kids have decent taste in tv and movies.

What’s unique about the series, especially to someone used to American television broken into 22 or 40 minute episodes, is that each episode is a mini-movie. At 90 minutes, without commercials, each show offers us a relatively complete look at both Sherlock and the supporting characters. There is, simply put, heft to this show that trusts its audiences’ intelligence while willingly challenging their intellect.

My wife and I are only about four episodes into the series (each season has only 3 episodes so cut us some slack), but I found myself discussing “Sherlock” this morning in class during a conversation about Sarah Orne Jewett’s excellent short story “The White Heron.”

If you don’t know Jewett’s story, you can read the story here. (Go ahead. I’ll stop writing while you read.) Jewett’s story is a great one to teach. On the one hand, she crafts this artistic piece that flows quite nicely, but like most great art, Jewett’s story transcends art to speak to something elemental about human nature. At the time she wrote, Jewett was considered a regionalist much like Twain, Stowe, and others. Of course, as the “anthology” of American literature began to solidify in the post-WW II era and scholars began to define great American writers, Jewett got trapped by her regionalist label while Twain somehow managed to transcend his. That’s a shame, too, but we’ll save the politics of defining a country’s literature for another day.

“A White Heron,” though, is a story that moves well beyond the concerns of the New England woods. Little Sylvia moves to the woods to help her grandmother manage her house and cow. In this story, a John Audubon-type character shows up carrying a gun and a bag full of birds he will stuff and study at a later date. His singular goal on this trip is to find the white heron, a bird Sylvia has seen. One morning, she gets up early, climbs a ridiculously tall pine tree and locates the nest. FYI–if you are afraid of heights, Jewett’s narrative of Sylvia climbing the tree will cause your palms to sweat and your stomach to flutter.

Climbing the tree causes issues for Sylvia, as well. As we all know, sometimes a gun is just a gun and sometimes a tree is just a tree.

Not in this story. You don’t have to be a Freudian devotee to read Jewett’s description and realize that Sylvia’s decision to find the heron and tell the young man carrying his gun around for the whole world to see is about a lot more than just getting sap on her clothes and scratches on her hand.

In fact, Jewett offers us a pretty clear sense that Sylvia is right at that age where she must choose to follow the young man or remain a sylvan creature of the woods. Certainly, there’s nothing real complex about reading the story. Sylvia (sylvan) is at home in the woods. The woods allow her to remain innocent and childlike. The guy shows up with a gun, she climbs a tree, and she’s got sap all over her after her climb.

But, and here is where I think Jewett is so good, Sylvia has a choice. She can see that following the young man, giving in to that slight flutter in her stomach (and other areas), will take her from that sylvan world and force her into the violent, industrial experience of adulthood. In doing so, we also know that Sylvia will lose not just that innocent purity. We know she will also lose that innate, natural intelligence that comes from not being an adult.

Or at least an adult like the ornithologist. He has to kill the birds to study them. He literally murders innocent creatures in the pursuit of knowledge.

In Jewett’s story, we discussed in class today, sexual awakenings and sexuality is one step away from “knowing” and experiencing, but those responsibilities and that information doesn’t necessarily make us smarter. Just more experienced. After all, the young man (even with his fully loaded gun–wink, wink, insert your own joke here) has no idea where the heron might rest but Sylvia does.

Which led me to a brief discussion of Sherlock today. The last episode my wife and I watched, “A Scandal in Belgravia,” is incredibly sexually charged. Irene Adler, a dominatrix, has taken some comprising photos of a client and Holmes is tasked with finding the photos. Throughout the episode, there is the implication that Holmes is at best a virgin and at worst an asexual character who doesn’t have time for human relationships.

We have, in some ways, Jewett’s concept in reverse. Throughout the episode, the more Holmes engages with the hyper-sexualized Adler, the more addled he becomes.

In essence, sex and sexual tension works to decrease his intellectual ability. Much like Sylvia, Holmes must decide, at one point in the show, to reject Adler’s advances so that he can hold on to his intellect.

Which, one of my students pointed out, makes sense. Adam and Eve, we noted, get punished when they eat fruit from the tree of knowledge and the first thing they notice is their nudity. They will labor in the fields and in child birth. The human curse, I tell my students, isn’t just getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden so that they have to sit in my class at 8:00 am twice a week. The human curse is forcing us to become slaves to our physical desires. We are eternally cursed to experience both the pleasure and pain of the body’s desire and those desires distract us from our innocence and the intellectual purity implied. Meditation, prayer, breathing deeply–these are all designed to help us reject, ignore, and reduce those passions.

I am, of course, oversimplifying a little but we certainly, I told my class, want to pay some attention to the relationship between sex, experience, and intellectual insight as we read through the stories in our class. Physical desire is, simply put, distracting and intellectual debilitating.


Which is why, I told them as we finished class, you should never sit next to someone attractive when you are taking a test.

Writing Without A Net

My older son sent me the first draft of his essay discussing the hyper-protective cooperative principle in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” the other day. If it’s been a while since you studied the hyper-protective cooperative principle (or if you’re like your friendly, neighborhood English professor and can’t always remember these terms at the drop of a hat), the basic concept behind HCPC is that the digressions, nonsense, or irrelevancies in a work of literature are, in fact, worth your attention.

To a certain extent, the HCPC argues that one of the markers of good writing is that everything matters. There is an implicit agreement that the author’s writing will be genuine and the reader’s hard work will be worth the effort.

Anton Chekhov, the 19th century Russian playwright and short story writer, argued, for instance, that if a gun appears on stage in Act 1, someone better get shot before the play ends. To not do so, he might say, would be disingenuous and unfair to your audience.

I’ve written before about Eliot’s poem. “The Waste Land,” and I say this without meaning to sound dramatic, is one of the world’s great poems. It is also a lot of damn work to understand, but the readers’ effort, according to the HCPC (and my son’s paper) is worth the effort. Eliot isn’t being difficult just because he wants to show off and prove he’s smarter than the rest of us.

My son begins his paper, though, not with a discussion about Eliot’s poem but with a reference to the woods near Burkittsville. For all you horror movie fans out there, you probably get the allusion to The Blair Witch Project. What, you ask, does a 1999 horror movie have to do with a 1922 poem? You would have to read the paper to find out, but if my son does his job right, the seemingly irrelevant reference should be vital to understanding his essay about HCPC and Eliot’s poem. It’s both an application and explanation of the concept.

What struck me as most interesting about my son’s paper, though, wasn’t the complexity of the task but the willingness to take a chance. He is, after all, merging a discussion of a contemporary horror film with a work of great literary import.

As someone who has read more than his fair share of student essays, my first thought when I read the paper was that the approach here was outside the norm. (Actually, my first thought was, “I’m going to steal that idea for next time I teach the poem.”) The easy and safe way to approach something like Eliot is via metaphor or irony but the truly simple approach is carefully avoiding anything that might be wrong.

I was reading my son’s essay at the same time I was reading through the Pew Research Center’s Portrait of the Millennials titled “Confident. Connected. Open to Change.” While I’m not a big fan of generational behavioral trait surveys, they do often provide us with a broad, general understanding of age cohorts. Anyone with high school or college-age children should click over and take a look at the study.

Any large generational study will offer interesting contradictions. This generation is happily connected and more than willing to live in the fish bowl of Facebook and Instagram, but 70% also have tattoos hidden from the public and they understand privacy boundaries better than most generations. It’s a generation that is less religious but more socially engaged; they face awful economic and employment opportunities but remain almost blissfully optimistic; they’ve seen divorce rates stabilize yet they marry later than any generation; they’ve grown up in an incredibly permissive culture yet teen pregnancy and drug use are dropping.

And they are the most sheltered generation in history. Forget rubberized playgrounds, this is a generation of “Megan laws . . . [and] Code Adam — you know, some kid is lost at a Wal-Mart. Bam, all the doors shut, no one gets in or out until that one child is found. But we’re very used to this now — throughout our society and culture — this new protection.”

Most important, they do not chafe under the protection; they expect it. They feel special and entitled because we’ve made them, well, special and entitled. In some ways, they are open to change because we have done such a good job of sheltering them that they feel safe. If the change doesn’t work, they know we will be there to bail them out.

Yet, for all that safety, education, and optimism, we are also watching a generation that is almost counter-intuitively unwilling to take chances. Change happens: they don’t necessarily push change. They are, in the words of John Mayer, “waiting on the world to change.”

Academically, I see this in my classes. At the beginning of every semester, I now have to discuss academic rigor. The goal, I tell my students before an exam or assignment is not to avoid being wrong. The goal is to be correct without the fear of being wrong. Academically, we are held to high standards of proof and analysis.

Education and learning is about failure and leaving the shelter. You have to walk across the wire without a safety net. Instead, too often, I read papers or answers that are neither right or wrong. Like too much public commentary, the answers and essays I read play it safe, working very hard to avoid being wrong. Everything begins to read like a Wikipedia post: long on facts, every side represented (regardless of their intellectual merits), with virtually no actual commentary.

What’s the poem mean, we might ask? Well, the student writes, there are many ways of looking at Eliot’s poem.

That’s not an answer. That’s intellectual laziness. This is a student waiting, expecting in some respects, someone to tell them which of those ways is most important, best, and safe to follow.

Note here that I’m not necessarily being critical of either parents or our current generation of young adults. There’s nothing inherently wrong with providing shelter, safety, and raising a generation of confident people.

But we also need to find a better balance between security, self-esteem, and a willingness to write without a net.

My son’s paper doesn’t have the answers to understanding Eliot’s poem. He’s still, despite his willingness to step out on that intellectual limb, an 18 year old writer learning how to put an argument together, but as both his father and a fan of Eliot’s poem, I’m proud he’s willing to let go of that tree trunk and do the hard work necessary to say something worth reading.

Discipline Breeds Performance: A Sort of Book Review

I’m about halfway through Paul Tough’s really intriguing book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Tough’s thesis, at a basic level, is that raising and educating successful children isn’t a game of chance. Instead, he argues, neuroscience, social science, and good old fashioned observation tell us that our contemporary emphasis on cognitive skills is misplaced and, eventually, not terribly effective. Too often, focusing just on knowledge attainment creates kids who know a lot of stuff (let’s play Jeopardy!), have a great deal of ambition (I’m going to be rich!), but lack volition (you mean I have to work for it?).

Instead, Tough notes, successful students exhibit an ability to persist at boring tasks, a willingness to delay gratification, and a tendency to follow through with plans. As Tough moves through the various studies and evidence (and he is putting together a pretty strong case), his discusses seven basic traits that are indicative of success: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity.

Again, I am only about halfway through the book so I can’t say definitively how this idea “has the potential to change the way we raise our children” (as the book jacket claims), but I can say it’s about time we begin recognizing that academic success isn’t simply about, well, academics.

Note here that I’m not talking about disciplining students or punishment. The inevitable idea that threats, whether in the form of detention, time out, suspension, jail, spanking, etc. are  effective tools for altering behavior is for a different discussion. While I willingly admit that a well-timed swat on the backside or removing folks who are a danger to the rest of us might be necessary at times, we also know that those are short term solutions to larger problems. They work, in essence, as a way to get someone’s attention but they do not create long-term positive behavioral changes. There’s a reason recidivism rates are so high in American prisons.

I’ll also note that I’m using discipline in a pretty general way here as I try to simplify a really large, complex idea into a 1000 word blog, but I think the term itself captures basic ideas Tough proposes.

Discipline breeds performance I tell my children, students, players I coach, and anyone else who will listen. I recognize that is an oversimplification but I think we can also agree that things like grit and self-control fuel the other five items Tough mentions as essential for persistence toward academic success. Importantly, discipline, like writing, reading, riding a bike, and most other things in life are learned skills. Practice might not make perfect, but practice does make competence. You can’t, I tell my students, learn to write if you don’t pick up a pen. (Or, push letters on the keyboard.)

Simply put, those students who study and work are more likely to achieve success, or, and I think this is important, are more unlikely to fail. The fortitude to study, especially on those subjects we find distasteful, boring, and useless speaks to an ability to recognize long-term goals. The willingness to study provides the opportunity to succeed and, as with so many other things, success begets success. Students who master a subject, or even students who manage to survive a subject they expected to fail will by extension become more confident, optimistic, and willing to take chances learning other subjects. And, importantly, their ability to adjust socially will improve.

The 64-million dollar question, though, is how we instill those non-cognitive strengths in students at the earliest ages. Tough begins his book discussing Tools of the Mind, a curriculum “that combines activities specifically designed to promote self-regulation with activities that focus on academic skills, while also giving children the opportunity to practice self-regulation/executive function skills.”

Let me note first off that in an ideal world our parents would be teaching us self-regulation and executive function skills.

Of course, if we lived in an ideal world, I would have my own private island in the Mediterranean and chocolate would be considered a health food.

Instead, I suspect we need to re-think our early education programs. Certainly, we have to provide academic and cognitive skills at the early stages of a child’s education, but we also need to recognize that increasing as student’s vocabulary or her math skills as a kindergartner or pre-school student is less important than teaching her how to complete tasks, control her impulses, and avoid distractions.

I recognize that such a system seems a bit draconian and in direct contrast to the idea of education as a tool to teach socialization or the emphasis on standardized knowledge and grade level testing.

But, and I think this is the argument Tough is making, such a system supports both. Students who learn self-regulation at an early age will have the confidence to explore new ideas and a heightened ability to learn.

I just hope in the second half of the book Tough shows me how we can pull this off.

Actively Learning Passively

As with any profession, education has its share of buzzwords, none more prevalent these days than “active learning.” On the surface, we all know that students (and the rest of us) learn by doing. To truly master a subject, we must take control and actively engage with the material. Active learning isn’t just about practicing. Certainly, you can only talk about welding so much before you have to take a chance on blowing yourself up and light the torch. You have to do arithmetic to get good at arithmetic. Active learning, though, is about seizing control of the educational process. After we learn to multiply, active learning is the willing application that shows understanding beyond simple regurgitation of ideas. It’s the difference between simply welding two pieces of metal together and understanding how to mix the gases.

We also know that the long term goals of education have always been to create active learners, but in the American system, we have industrialized education at the lower levels, focusing on facts and passive recitation. Such a focus is at the heart of the debate regarding standardized tests (passive measurement) and things like portfolios. In the “old days” (a relative term for sure), we imagined that students would take all these facts we dumped in their heads for 12 (or 16) years and after school, while gainfully employed, they would apply and actively engage.

Such a method was tried and true, especially at a time when a high school degree was the standard educational pinnacle. Yet, we have spent a good decade now trying to disrupt the classroom and reform education.

One easy way to think about the birth of classrooms is to go back to the development of the printing press. Gutenberg gave us this great tool that allowed us to reproduce books, unfortunately, no one could read the them (or the user manual). Eventually, these crazy dudes in robes emerged, stood behind a podium, and read to the masses. It was live theater without the acting. More importantly, it was the basis for our educational model. We could, as so many others have noted, take a person from 1650 and drop them in a modern classroom and they might not notice a difference. (Well, except for all the women in the room.)

Usually, when people make this claim, they have that little smirk that displays some sense of wonder at the backwards notions left in the world. I’ll admit that I’ve been guilty of such a smirk in the past.

However, as I was sitting at a presentation the other day, listening to yet another speaker tell me how important active learning is and how we need to push more faculty away from the old ways of teaching, I wondered if, perhaps, we aren’t taking things to an extreme and complicating the classroom more than we need to do so.

I think this is particularly true in K-12 when we often ask kids to behave in ways totally foreign to both their biological abilities and societal expectations. Our frontal lobes, those things we most need in place to actively engage intellectually, aren’t formed until our early 20s. When we lament a child’s lack of desire to learn, we are really, it seems to me, lamenting the fact that the kid doesn’t love the subject as much as we do. More importantly, we are asking the 10 year old (or 16 year old) to use a part of his brain that doesn’t even exist.

I also wonder, as we think about an educational format that has existed (and worked by the way) for 400 years, why we are so hell bent on changing the formula? Yes, sitting at a desk and listening to someone lecture isn’t that much fun and yes it is a passive learning format. I’m sure Plato and Aristotle’s students wondered how that guy could go on and on (and on and on). People listening to monks in robes read probably spaced out periodically.

But they also learned stuff. The history of humanity is the history of innovation and invention. Many of the things invented and innovated are directly tied to educations that involved long hours of passive receipt of knowledge.

We might also note that in no other industry (and I’m including education) would we take a winning formula and decide demand disruption. Ask the folks at Coke how well New Coke went over in the 1980s.

I can’t honestly write that I want a return to large lecture halls and silent students, but I think I can admit that I regularly have my doubts about our desire to disrupt an educational model that values the sage on the stage. That sage has earned her spot and has valuable things to say. Certainly, she also wants to inspire her students to go forth and actively engage, but I think we also need to recognize that they can’t be inspired if they don’t hear her speak first.

Take This Test and Shove It

There’s nothing inherently wrong with standardized testing. SAT, ACT, GRE, STARR, TAKS, and other such exams can offer us a benchmark of shared knowledge. While I willingly admit that such tests have cultural biases, from a practical standpoint we might also note that doing well on these exams offers access to power. In other words, the exams, for better or for worse, do represent certain academic values and they offer us insight into where our students stand with regards to understanding those values.

We do something similar in our classes on a smaller scale all the time. Every 6 weeks or so, I give a “standardized” exam to my students. The exam measures their performance on information we’ve covered in the class and I have a yard stick allowing me to see where each student stands. Each student takes the same exam with the same questions.

By the end of the semester, my students have taken 3 or 4 such tests, completed some other assignments, and we can use their performance to determine how well they understand the material from the course. While each exam might be important, no single exam is so high stakes it controls the final grade. Such a process has been in place educationally for a good while now. It works because it holds students accountable but also judges them based on the totality of their work. Students who perform at a high level earn high grades, but a student doesn’t have to be perfect to earn a passing grade. Sometimes, heaven forbid (and don’t tell their parents), they are simply average in their understanding.

My exams and other performance measures certainly aren’t perfect, but they do reflect the information I find most valuable for any given class. Some classes ask students to know more facts and figures; others ask students to apply material or perform a task. All of the exams, though, represent a professional opinion regarding the most important information discussed in the class. Exams reflect the academic values of the teacher.

Certainly, I might find it useful to see how and where my students “fit” with regard to other students of similar age and education. State or national standardized tests offer us that opportunity. You say your high school has a rigorous science program and you teach the ideas, concepts, and facts the profession finds important? Great. Good work. Let’s find out where your strengths and weaknesses might lie. We can then highlight your strengths and find ways to improve your weak areas.

Each year we start the process all over again. Amazingly enough, such a process has helped America become one of the most literate countries in the industrialized world and has helped create a university system that is the envy of the world. We may not be first on those “world-wide measures” of academic performance, but no one else in the world tries to offer every child an equal education. And last time I checked, things are going pretty well around here.

Naturally,  we can’t leave well enough alone s0 we have spent the last 10 or 15 years in education completing undercutting any sort of constructive exam process by creating high stakes testing and performance measures that, essentially, punish both students and schools if a student under-performs on one exam. Instead of using larger state-wide testing to identify areas of weakness that might allow us to improve, we have developed a state-wide minimum skills test that we use as a hammer to punish.

Texas, long a leader in educational “reform” willing to put its taxpayer dollars where its governor’s mouth is, pays $1.2 billion (that’s a B) to Pearson to cover the costs of STAAR testing. (Because, of course, no one in Texas is capable of writing a standardized test.) We have spent a decade attacking public education with nearly constant “reforms” designed to hold educators “accountable” for their student performance (all the while, of course, cutting funding and trying desperately to create charter schools).

As I noted a few days ago, there’s nothing evil about wanting students to have a base-level of information. Certainly, we can all agree that an educated high school student will know how our political system works (or how it works in theory because it clearly doesn’t work in practice anymore), know how to multiply, understand the basic laws of nature, and have a certain vocabulary. These might or might not be separate from some higher level skills depending on the age of the student. We can’t make everyone a great critical thinker, but I’m fairly certain we can teach everyone how to multiply 9X9, understand the basics of gravity, and remember George Washington is one important dude in American history. (Actually, as I write that statement, I also realize how naive I sound but bear with me.)

What bothers me the most about standardized tests, though, isn’t the exorbitant cost. Sure, $1.2 BILLION might seem like a lot of money (and don’t forget to add millions more in indirect costs), but Texas has a trillion dollar economy so this is couch change in the big picture. Likewise, the worst part isn’t that standardized, high stakes testing simply increases the industrialized concept of education. The assumption behind such testing is that learning takes place in this linear process where intelligence and intellect is easily measured, assessed, and accounted for. Picture Charlie Chalpin (or Lucille Ball) on the assembly line. Diane Ravitch calls standardized testing companies vampires as they suck the life-blood out of the classroom.

The real, long term destructive power of standardized testing is the fact that we use them as bludgeons to beat teachers and students and that use implies a distrust of teachers. In essence, we daily attack the professionalism of our teachers. We are, without a doubt, hiding our collective political disdain for education professionals behind a desire to “improve performance” using STAAR (or TAKS or any other set of letters). The long term cost is high turnover and fewer highly qualified people willing to consider teaching as a viable profession. Not only do standardized tests and curriculum turn the classroom into an assembly line, they remove the creative energy from those in the front of the room.

And when teachers go through the motions, so do the students. That’s not exactly the standardization we need.

Uncommonly Common Core Misses the Point

When I teach T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” my students invariably hate it. The poem is difficult, no doubt. Filled with allusions to texts and ideas they’ve never heard of, foreign language passages, and references to myths long since dead to them, they consistently tell me something like “it was so hard, I didn’t even understand the footnotes.”

Eliot, I tell them, would argue your lack of understanding is evidence his poem matters. Our lost communal myths have created a sterile, empty, and fragmented world. Eliot, in the poem, argues for a return to shared stories. When we have consistent cultural narratives, I tell them, artists’ poetry would make sense to everyone.

Lest we imagine such a trend is new, I tell my students, it’s worth noting that we might read Homer’s The Odyssey as a conservative cautionary tale. The suitors try to re-define the myth of power in the kingdom, rejecting the rule of law and the gods. The price they pay is slaughter in the mead hall. The epic poem ends with a pretty strong call for maintaining the shared myths of the past.

Of course, later in the semester we call into question how narratives are constructed and we discuss the politics and power associated with myth.

But a part of me sympathizes with Eliot. There are days when I’m teaching and realize my students have virtually no shared narratives. We exist in a world so overloaded with information that it resists cultural narratives. People have become islands of individualized data, music, television, and culture. Individual choice has superseded communal bonds.

Educationally, we are trending the same direction. Computer analytics allow students not only to target academic areas where they might struggle, we are slowly developing ways to self-select examples targeted to our preferred learning styles.  On one hand this makes sense. We know that most kids are educationally equal until sometime around the 3rd-4th grade. We begin losing the economically disadvantaged students as the course materials change and becomes less relevant to their daily lives. Individualizing education offers us the opportunity to create assignments and lessons that are relevant, timely, and worth studying for students. The potential to engage students and encourage persistence to high school graduate is exciting.

As we create the bubbles of individual understanding, however, we will continue to lose those shared stories that bind us on emotional and communal levels. If every student in a class is reading a different story or studying a different math problem, we are learning in a bubble of isolation. Certainly, we can come back together and discuss higher learning skills, but we are losing something along the way.

Like Eliot, I have this sense that we need a base level of knowledge that helps us remain culturally connected. I have, in many ways, sympathy for the standardized test movement, believing that at the heart of standardized testing is rooted in this desire for some shared knowledge.

In many ways, there is wisdom in requiring that everyone progressing through a school has a base level of knowledge and we can claim they know certain things. These bits of knowledge, facts, and ideas help us come together. We might not like all the facts, but sometimes learning isn’t about individual goals but the communal good. We all benefit, for instance, if everyone understands basic math and core citizenship rules.

In a perfect world, of course, we might come to some agreement about that shared narrative.

Anyone who has participated in (or even read about) textbook adoption meetings, though, knows no such agreement exists. There’s a reason Odysseus finally just killed all the suitors. That’s old school veto power.

In the absences of shared agreement about narratives (or even factual knowledge), the federal government has pushed a Common Core upon our states. On the surface, one might imagine these are good things. We will, as a nation, decide what an “educated” person knows and we will incentivize states to meet these minimum goals. Diane Ravitch notes her lack of support centers around both the process and the lack of serious research into the standards: “They are being imposed on the children of this nation despite the fact that no one has any idea how they will affect students, teachers, or schools. We are a nation of guinea pigs, almost all trying an unknown new program at the same time.”

Well, at least we’ll be united in failure if they don’t work. Maybe that’s our shared narrative.

Certainly, these are major issues with regard to the Common Core.

But like so many other things, including standardized tests, a Common Core misses the point. The problem with education isn’t that we don’t have goals. Lord knows anyone teaching today is assessed, outcomed, and evaluated half to death. We also don’t have disparate goals as educators: reading, writing, and arithmetic. At a base level, we all want these three things.

Our problem is that the path to a common core of knowledge is fragmented into shards of personalized knowledge. We might know how to read, but we never read the same thing. Periodically, I’ll catch a news story about newly minted American citizens. They stand proudly: a community of learners who studied the same text, memorized the same laws, and conquered shared ideas.

I wonder, as I watch them, if we haven’t over-complicated the core. Perhaps Eliot was on to something–what we need is a return to simple stories, myths, and narratives that we all share.

Develop This

Rick Hess, author of the book Cage Busting Leadership, argues over at Education Week that “it’s no surprise that professional development (PD) is nearly everyone’s favorite go-to. After all, if one is disinclined to rethink staffing or spending, replace employees, reward excellence, or root out mediocrity, hoping you can train staff to be better at their jobs is really all you’ve got left. The problem: most PD doesn’t pay off.”

Research into the effectiveness of professional development finds almost  “no ‘valid’ or ‘scientifically defensible evidence’ of effectiveness.” One of the problems, Hess notes, is that too often “professional development is provided in sessions with names like, ‘Unlock the Sunshine! Shedding Light on the Opportunities Created by State Assessment 2.0.’ She [Roxanna Elden] explains, ‘Usually, these sessions use PowerPoint presentations to [tell] teachers that rigor is important, suggest[ing] we’ve spent most of the year training our students to make different colored Play-Doh balls.'”

Let me first say that anyone who attends a session that promises to “Unlock the Sunshine!” gets what they deserve.

Let me also add that, while Hess is speaking specifically about professional development in K-12 education, we might be able to extend his argument to the college campus, as well. Such a claim might seem surprising considering that I am the Director of our faculty development center, a purveyor of such professional development opportunities for college faculty.

But, as you might imagine, I’m not talking about the workshops we provide. In my area, I tell presenters that if the faculty don’t leave with at least one thing they can apply tomorrow in their class, we have wasted their time. We are not interested in theory, idealism, or stating the obvious. No one ever comes to a session believing we need more passive learners, less rigor in the classroom, or worse retention. Our attendees might be interested in what neuroscience has to say about learning, but that’s not why they showed up to learn how twitter can be used to engage students.

Yet, I still attend workshops and training sessions (at other schools, of course) where I am reminded that learning is difficult and interested students learn more. I sit in on glorified pep talks telling me how important a college education is, how unprepared our students are, and how difficult it is to work in our current educational environment. Speakers spend inordinate amounts of time telling me we need to teach critical thinking skills, communication skills, and, more and more, soft skills.

No shit, I want to say.

I have no doubt there is little hard evidence professional development results in tangible changes in the classroom, but the fault isn’t with professional development, at least theoretically. The problem is the kind of development we consider professional and, more importantly, our institutional ideology regarding development.

The development we offer is often so “disconnected from the realities of classrooms” that the best thing I can say about my last PD conference is that the food was good.

Too many PD sessions discuss the ideal classroom situation. I don’t blame the professional professional developers. They travel around the country delivering the same message to every group of teachers, regardless of the type of student or the classroom working conditions. When I sit in a session regarding engaging student writers, I have no doubt many of the ideas I hear would work–if my class had 10 students with an average ACT of 32. Unfortunately, my faculty have 1 kid with a 32, 4 with an 11, and 26 somewhere in between. All with varying degrees of desire and training.

That doesn’t mean we need to stop professional development, though. Instead, we need to wrest control of development from the administrative units who see it as an easy panacea to falling test scores, understaffed faculty, and tired teachers. Most importantly, though, faculty development has to move beyond an hour long session of idealism and platitudes.

Faculty development only works if faculty have time to develop. K-12 teachers and university faculty can attend all the sessions in the world, but when they return to the office or classroom with a 100 students, tests to grade, and return to their 10-12 hour days, they don’t have time to implement change. Instead, we need targeted development opportunities delivered in 30 minutes or less that focus on one simple thing a faculty member can change in the classroom in which she teaches.

But, probably, what we really need is less faculty development and more leadership development. I wonder if those sessions would be any more effective?


Pop Go the Quizzes

kid_testingBack when I first started teaching, I didn’t give quizzes on the readings. I was young, naive, still in graduate school, and not really able to imagine that anyone would skip the reading. Or, I reasoned, if they fell behind they would work hard to catch up and I didn’t want to punish people for being sick or busy. Daily quizzes smelt too much like intellectual baby-sitting for my tastes. I’m sure, too, the lack of daily quizzes reflected my own sense that such things were trivial and not something we needed to do in college. Students choose to attend. That choice (coupled with the tuition bill) would motivate them to do the work.

After a few years of teaching, I changed my tune. I realized that daily quizzes offered us an opportunity to reinforce important moments from the text. Even more importantly, I found students increasingly uncomfortable without the road map quizzes offer. For many students, the quiz reassured them they were “on the right track.”

Mostly, though, what I realized is that too many college students are lazy, walking hormonal teenagers barely removed from high school with frontal lobes that perform about as well as the lights during a tornado. Blink, blink, blink. Quizzes, in so many ways, become these little tasks that either help students up the mountain of knowledge or move them closer to the chasm’s ledge. (I realize I shouldn’t over-generalize. Plenty of college students aren’t lazy.)

My dilemma with quizzes, on some days, exceeds my ability to comprehend it. On the one hand, I do recognize the need and benefit of daily competence-based quizzes that serve the dual purpose of ensuring the student has done the work and helping us build the base of learning. You can’t, for instance, talk about William Faulkner’s ideas regarding the human heart in conflict with itself in “Barn Burning” if you don’t at least know why Ab Snopes burns barns or the setting for the first court trial. Simply put, we need what I tell my students is the cocktail party information. (Of course, I have to then explain what a cocktail party is.) If you’re standing with the boss and her husband, I tell them, and Beowulf comes up in conversation, I want you to at least know Grendel’s mother didn’t really look like Angelina Jolie in gold lamé body paint. (Then I have to reassure them cocktail parties aren’t all literary trivial pursuit contests.) Certainly, these are lower level thinking skills, but, I tell them, we need those before we can climb to the top of Bloom’s Pyramid.

On the other hand, good students already do the reading and the bad students are going to fail the quizzes anyway. One of the things that distinguishes bad students from the rest of us is that bad students don’t tend to do their work, regardless of the consequence. In other words, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen evidence (beyond some anecdotal stories) showing quizzes help motivate students to do the work.

Teaching, at any level, is a delicate balance between the carrot and the stick. (Of course, most kids dislike carrots enough, they may see both as tools of punishment.) Our brains aren’t really designed to learn new things. “Thinking,” Henry Ford once remarked, “is the hardest work there is, which is the probable reason so few people engage in it.” The second part might be a bit harsh, but it’s worth noting that the bulk of our brains are designed around avoiding thought. The goal of our brains, whether we like it or not, is heavily dependent upon memory: most of the problems we solve in any given day are ones we’ve solved before and our brains like it that way. There is safety, literally, in allowing the brain to avoid hard work and remain prepared for survival. It’s hard work to re-wire the way we think.

But the worst part of quizzes, regardless of whether they serve to motivate, educate, or separate, is that I have to grade the damn things. I realize I could automate the process. The LMS our school uses can do such things and if MOOCs really have a way to transform education, it will be via the analytics that allow mechanized grading that can also create new quizzes based on the students’ demonstrated abilities.

But, and I say this as someone who teaches online, I feel compelled to grade each quiz myself (not because I’m a martyr or feel worried some computer will take my job) because if the quiz is intended in any way, shape, or form to teach, I need to know what the student misses and how he misses. Is it some lazy inclination? A misunderstanding of the question? Is there a pattern to the errors? Are we seeing weaknesses with language, thinking, ability, or effort?

More importantly to the student, I think, is the necessity of receiving some human feedback regarding their efforts. Again, I recognize the possibility of online learning and the value access might have to those who don’t have schools or opportunities. At a base level, computerized grading (and teaching) is efficient and helps students measure how well they can perform a task but learning is about more than just performing tasks. Teaching and learning isn’t about efficiency, I think. It’s about how information is passed person to person and generation to generation. There’s a complexity that works against the industrialized mechanics of automated grading and course delivery.

Not every A or F is created equally and sometimes those quiz answers let us see those subtle, individualized differences. It’s just a shame there are so dang many of them to grade some days.

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.)