Monday, July 20. 2009
Paul Lockhart's "Lament" repeatedly questions the purpose of education as well as its methods. He doesn't just grieve that true mathematics isn't being taught, but rather that it is not recognized as an art, something that ennobles the spirit and gives joy, something loved for its own sake and not any sort of utility that it brings. He wants math to be lumped in with the liberal arts – literature, music, painting, etc. – things that the education establishment teaches without regard to vocational preparation. This sort of thinking runs counter to the "3 R" crowd just who want their kids to get jobs and balance their checkbooks.
Anyone who would divide education into "the useful" and "the beautiful" is bound to run into trouble, because they are not separate. The useful is beautiful – ask any engineer, businessman, homemaker or child who set about to solve a practical problem and found an elegant solution. The beautiful is also useful – if nothing else, by giving pleasure to its consumers and creators. Any attempt to divide them invariably leads to people running to unhealthy extremes in either direction. On the one hand, you get college professors determined to magnify their greatness by emphasizing their uselessness. On the other hand, you get No Child Left Behind, in which anything that's not part of a pathetically low standard of usefulness is jettisoned. Either way, both utility and joy get destroyed.
What neither side seems to realize is that they are arguing about ethics – in the classic Greek sense of answering the question: "What is a worthwhile life?" Education is just the practical implementation of a notion of ethics. Once you've decided what a good life looks like, you try to prepare your citizens to have that sort of life. Everyone educator and politician starts by saying, "We all agree that we want what's best for the child" – without acknowledging that we have vastly different notions of what "best" really is. You can't say what's a good curriculum until you decide what kind of life you want your children to have . . . and you can't decide that without determining what life is, ultimately, all about. Is life about Work? Is life about Experience? Is life about Happiness?
Last year I went to a workshop for directors of independent schools, a crash-course for new board members. One of the duties of a board of directors is to define the mission statement of the school and to make sure all policies are serving the mission. In talking about mission statements, the facilitator explicitly made the connection to ethics: "Your mission is really about what you want your kids to be. In general, every parent and every school has the same three goals for their kids. We want them to be Successful. We want them to be Happy. And we want them to be Good. The priority you assign to each of those goals will determine the character of your school."
I thought that was a pretty good analysis. Most public schools emphasize Success as the primary goal, with Happiness a distant second and Goodness not even on the radar. Many parochial schools put their notion of Goodness at the top, and then Success, and then Happiness. Waldorf schools explicitly put Goodness (i.e. spiritual capacity) at the top of the list. Happiness probably comes next; Waldorf schools are the few I've ever seen that took Happiness seriously as an important part of human development. No one wants to say that Success comes last – it's hard to be happy without some measure of success – but it is correctly recognized as a means, and not an end in itself.
Tuesday, July 14. 2009
I read Kenny's essay about teaching mathematics so that it becomes obvious: not just how to arrive at the correct answer, but how to genuinely recognize the answer as obviously true. He wants his students to know why communitivity of multiplication is true. I like what Kenny's doing. But it also got me thinking about a different why question . . .
I had a fantastic math teacher at the NC School of Science and Mathematics, Dr. Steve Davis. People warned me before my first class -- "Oh, he has all these stories he tells that have nothing whatsoever to do with math. Especially golf." But then I got to his class, and listened to his stories, and realized all those people were wrong. All his stories were about life, and in his world, math was all about life.
The class he taught was called "Introduction to College Mathematics" or "ICM". (I take credit for coining the popular pronunciation of the acronym: "Ick-um".) The structure of the class was something experimental and new; in fact, the school was being given grant money by Digital Equipment to develop the class, to find a genuinely useful way to incorporate computers into teaching math. The class was replacing pre-calculus, so it had to cover the same sorts of pre-calculus material but also cover a lot of other ground, too.
The first day of class, the very first thing Dr. Davis said was: "Why have you been studying math all these years?" His question was met with stunned silence. Of all the questions we ever had encountered in a math class, this was not one of them. Nobody had the least idea of what to say. After thirty seconds of silence he got impatient and slammed his fist on his lectern. "C'mon, people, WHY? Why have you been studying math? You've been doing it for the past ten years, at least. Why? And don't tell me, 'Because it's good for you.' You are not five-year-olds being told to eat their vegetables."
This, also, was new. We weren't used to teachers yelling at us to answer questions -- at least, not on the first day, and questions we had never been taught the answer to. We were smart kids -- we were not used to not knowing the right answer, and perhaps too embarrassed to admit that we didn't.
"You mean, you actually let someone force you to do something for ten years, and you never asked why you were doing it? You actually let someone waste that much of your time?" His tone was mocking.
Another thirty seconds of silence. "I'm sorry," he said, tossing his chalk into blackboard tray, "But I can't go on. I can't teach this class until you answer that question for me."
"Well, it's useful," one girl timidly offered.
"Yes. WHY is it useful? Useful for what?"
"Well, there's money."
"You mean, making money? I can tell you from personal experience, mathematicians don't make much money." (smile)
"No, doing calculations on money."
"Good. Money's important. But we could have stopped at third grade if all you needed to do was add up your loose change. Why did you keep studying math?"
"Well . . . You have to know math to do engineering and physics."
"Are you going to be an engineer?"
"Ummm . . . no."
"I suspect that most of you will not become engineers or physicists. Most of you will never use calculus in your professional lives. Why do you study mathematics?"
And so it went, in a Socratic dialog, for the whole 45 minute class. I don't remember everything that was said, but I remember where we wound up: mathematics was a tool for modeling the world. It was "the queen and servant of the sciences" (quoting E.T. Bell), the most generalized way we understand the universe, and also the most universally applicable way of making predictions about how something will behave. That set us up for the material we would cover for the rest of the year: geometric probability, the graphing of functions, an understanding of limits, interpolation and fitting of functions to data . . . all of which naturally led us into calculus. More importantly, though, was the way that lecture made me feel about mathematics. What previously had seemed abstract, cold and useless now felt immediate, powerful, and alive. I felt like someone was showing me the secrets of the universe.
I also must confess: he was correct. I became a molecular biologist, but I never used calculus again. What I did do was a lot of algebra and a lot of fitting curves to data . . . the very skills we developed in that class.
I think of all this, after reading Kenny's essay, because Dr. D was trying to give us the other "why". We had spent years learning how to manipulate symbols, and never fully appreciated the value of the tool that we had. Every "word problem" that had been given to us was bizarrely arbitrary: we never knew, exactly, why it was important to know how many apples Johnny had. It was just more symbols, pushed around for no reason. Dr. Davis gave us the reason. No, better yet: he made us find the reason.
Monday, June 29. 2009
Kenny wrote an excellent defense of the rights of minors in his essay "Of Strip-Searches and Students," in which he commented on the recent Supreme Court case of Safford Unified School District v. Reading. 13-year-old Savana Reading was strip-searched by school administrators on suspicion that she was carrying ibuprofen. (Yes, you read that right -- an OTC drug available in every household in the country is contraband in a government-run school.) The High Court found (thank God) that Savana's 4th Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure were violated. But Kenny is looking for a larger legal precedent. He wonders: why shouldn't minors enjoy the same legal rights as adults, when it comes to respecting their basic human dignity?
Read Kenny's essay if you haven't already. Then come back here, because I want to propose another angle from which one could construct a theory of the legal privacy rights of minors.
^ ^ ^
It's hard to talk about the legal rights of minors without also talking about the legal rights of parents. In general, the law provides parents with absolute power and authority over their children. Children do require a lot of governing, relatively speaking, and our culture trusts that the parents are the ones most likely to have the child's best interests at heart when using that authority. A parent's powers are pretty broad – they can search, seize, and physically restrain the freedom of their children as they see fit. Most people see that arrangement as appropriate; so long as the children are not physically endangered and adequately provided for, parents should have that right to exercise those powers. (As a matter of good parenting, I think parents are well advised to restrain their use of those powers. You should, in general, treat children with all the respect and autonomy you would accord to any adult, within the bounds of the child's ability to hold up their end of an adult relationship. But I still think it is appropriate that parents have the legal right to those powers.)
The only problem with that arrangement is that it gets us used to thinking of children as entities without rights. We wouldn't think it wrong to search our own children's rooms if we suspected wrongdoing, so we generalize that out to "children have no privacy rights at all." I think parents have rights that may trump the child's right to privacy (or association, or religion, or speech, or many other constitutional rights) but that doesn't mean the children don't have those rights at all.
Things get especially murky with schools, in which the teachers and administrators are acting in loco parentis – that is, they are delegated some of the powers of the parents while the children are in their care. They are permitted to control where the children go, what they are allowed to say, and can even apply certain punishments. The question is: do teachers and administrators have the same powers as parents when it comes to privacy, or not?
My feeling is no. I think the only parental powers over children that are given to other adults are those that are explicitly delegated from the parents. If a school wants the right to search a child's backpack or locker, they need the explicit consent of the parent. If a parent does not delegate those parental powers, then a child has exactly the same constitutional rights as an adult. (You may find, by the way, that adults don't have as many rights as you might think. There is no legal expectation of privacy in most workplaces, for instance – your email can be read, your desk searched, etc.)
This model isn't perfect. Savana could still be strip-searched for ibuprofen under this legal theory, had her parents signed some consent form that gave administrators the power to do so. As long as there are bad parents, there would be bad outcomes. But this, at least, would start us from the correct basis: children have the same rights as adults, unless some other parental power prevails.
Saturday, May 23. 2009
In response to Kenny's comments on the primacy of effort:
Wednesday, December 31. 2008
If people default to giving their children whatever education system they themselves grew up with, then the trend is even more pronounced in spiritual education. We want our children to believe what we believe, and to value what we value . . . regardless of whether those values have really panned out for us. I was always puzzled by the term "faith of our fathers," as if the fact that our ancestors believed it should have any significance for what I believe. It doesn't make logical sense, but it does make psychological sense. Our parents are the template from which we build our model of the world and our model of human relationships. If it was good enough for Mom and Dad, and good enough for me, then by God it's gonna be good enough for Junior.
I think we are susceptible to the same errors the Spanish parents are making about their kids education, in the spiritual realm. We take the kids to church, figuring that we want to give them some kind of baseline experience for spiritual life, but in fact our models for what makes a good spiritual education are completely lacking. Maybe they get what we got – catechism, a sense of reverence and community, a bunch of stories that are both wondrous and confusing – but is that what they really need? It might be the spiritual equivalent of the Spanish kids memorizing 18th century poems – it might look like they're learning something, but it's not what they really need.
Unfortunately, I am perpetually perplexed when it comes to the spiritual education of my children. I do not really regret having a "churched" upbringing, and yet I spent years and years unraveling the confusion and anxiety brought on by my early church experiences. The only thing I can thank the church for is giving me an unsolvable koan to chew on throughout my adolescence: how can people say this is the most important thing in the universe, and yet live the way that they live? How can so much of this stuff intuitively feel correct, and yet logically make no sense at all? Maybe that was all an important part of my spiritual development . . . and then again, maybe it was so much noise. Do I really want to baptize my children into this confusion?
The primary reason my kids are in a Waldorf school (aside from an excellent education) is that the Waldorf teachers seemed to have a pretty good notion of how to nurture the spiritual capacities of children without getting into the thorny issues of theology. I figured that bought me a few years to continue working out this question: what can we give our children to aid their spiritual development? Right now, my answer to that question is not that different from run-of-the-mill parenting advice: keep them out of trouble, keep them basically sane and sociable, and trust they will be able to find their own way.
Sunday, December 28. 2008
I heard a story on NPR about Spain's struggles with their education system. The story lead-in segued from Europe's overall financial crisis to the particulars of Spain's difficulty in staging an economic recovery, primarily because they lacked the skilled workforce necessary to cultivate new industries. Critics say the education system is based almost entirely on rote learning and memorization, with almost no attention paid to reading comprehension or critical thinking. That critique is supported by the fact that Spanish students score the lowest among Western European countries for reading comprehension, mathematics, and science. The teachers say most parents expect the school system to drill their students with facts, just as they were drilled when they were in school. That lopsided notion was apparent when NPR interviewed a principal, who claimed that his school didn't require rote memorization, but then immediately showed off their students' ability by asking some kids on the playground to recite an 18th-century poem. "A very long poem," said the reporter. The principle, and another parent interviewed, thought the problem was that they just weren't doing enough study of classic Spanish literature, and that they needed to start the students earlier and work them harder.
I'm surprised and gratified that someone thought to look at how other countries were dealing with their education – I had not heard anything like this since the press noticed a study of what made Finnish students so successful. I suspect we can learn as much from a bad example as a good one. We might scoff at what seems like an obvious flaw in Spain's education system – "look, the test scores show it's not working, you're teaching the wrong thing" – but then again the reaction of American teachers and schools to critiques of their methods sound a lot like those of the Spanish teachers: "We're just not doing enough of what we're doing, we need more money, we need to start kids earlier."
I was also struck by the difference in perceptions of what a successful education should be. The average Spaniard evidently has a pretty crude notion of what it means to be educated: if an eight-year-old can recite rote knowledge, that must mean they learned something. That's what they grew up with, and by golly it's going to be good enough for their kids, too. I wonder if we have similar holes in our own cultural perception of education. I imagine that we're proudly holding up our SAT scores, while some Finnish teacher is shaking her head sadly and saying, "Yes, you taught them to read, but did you noticed you killed their joy for reading? You gave them the skills, but you never taught them how to work collaboratively in a group. How can you possibly call that education?" How ironic would it be, if we struggled to perfect our education system, and then discovered we were dead wrong about what education should be?
Wednesday, December 10. 2008
Kenny brought up a few good points on improving education in his comments yesterday, so let me follow up on that:
Saturday, November 29. 2008
As a book about the roots of success, you can be sure Malcolm Gladwell Outliers would have something to say about education. He concludes that the well-documented "achievement gap" between the most affluent and the poorest students can be almost entirely attributed to summer vacations. Standardized test scores of Baltimore public school students at the beginning and the end of the school year suggest that poorer students keep up with their richer peers during the school year, but fall behind during the summers. Presumably the richer students have more intellectually stimulating summers – parents that talk with them, books to read, special summer camps and programs – while the poorer students just watch TV for three months. Gladwell gives an enormous shout-out to the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools, whose fundamental philosophy is to fill up the students' lives with non-stop academics – class from 7:30 am to 5:00 pm, and homework until 10:30 pm or 11:00 pm every night, and class on Saturdays and through most of the summer as well.
I don't doubt that the KIPP schools work . . . depending, of course, on your definition of "work." Gladwell's analysis is far too pat, too "presto," to be the whole truth of the matter. Yes, the Asians have a reputation for being good at math, and perhaps the only reason they are is because of the sheer volume of work they do. Then again, they also have a reputation for being uptight hacks with high teen suicide rates. They might have the high IQ scores, but they might have sacrificed some creativity in the process of their non-stop "cultivation." Gladwell himself pointed out in earlier chapters that high IQ did not necessarily correlate with creativity, or practical intelligence, or social savvy. It surprises me, then, that Gladwell immediately accepts that work is the magic ingredient in the KIPP schools. Aren't there other explanations that could work equally well here? Lots of questions come to mind:
I'm not saying that Gladwell is wrong, exactly. But he's a long, long way from having proven his case.
Wednesday, November 26. 2008
Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers is supposed to question the fundamental assumptions we have about success. So, naturally, I started to ask myself, "What unquestioned assumptions is Gladwell making about success?" Maybe there are still some stones to turn over.
One assumption implicit in the book is the primacy of specialization. Success is defined as "doing really, really well at one particular thing." That is the subject of his book: the outliers are the people who are extraordinarily good at one thing, be it programming, law, music, or athletics. And, of course, the path to success boils down to finding your niche, and then working really, really hard in that niche.
If being really good at one particular thing is your goal, then Gladwell's advice is perfectly valid. In a modern society and modern economy, specialization is a very successful strategy. The abundance of our economy is based on division of labor – everyone gets really good at one thing, and then we all share the benefits of each other's specialization. We reserve the highest economic and social rewards for the super-specialists – the people who are the very best in their particular fields. So, isn't it sensible to equate "success" with "high achievement in a particular field"?
Sure . . . if the conditions of our society and economy remain the same. A generally healthy, stable economy can support a whole lot of specialization. But what happens if things become unstable, if the economy and the society fall apart? Most of us find apocalyptic scenarios to be disturbing, because we know that our chances of survival in that world are slim. If the electric grid fails, if social order falls apart, then people like me who have become really good at programming computers will probably be really dead. Then the new champions of the world will be subsistence farmers, survivalists, outdoorsmen and hunters. Specialization (except for a very few skills) will be a hindrance, and generalization – the ability to do whatever needs to be done -- will have renewed valued.
You don't have to foresee a collapse in society for such considerations to still be worthy of consideration. I recently read a financial column in the New Yorker that discussed some recent failures in the world's food economy. Shifts in the global economy had suddenly left many countries with not enough food, and facing starvation. The reason for the failures was that the World Bank and various governments had focused on making the food economy more efficient, to raise everyone's standard of living, but in so doing had made it less reliable. Because the food economy was more interdependent and specialized, disruptions in the system could suddenly leave millions of people starving, because countries had done away with their inefficient national food reserves. It was grim reminder that achieving peak performance when things are going well could result in disaster when things don't go well.
Also consider the opposite scenario – what if things go amazingly well? The "new economy" brought in by revolutions in communication and computer technology is opening up huge, undreamt-of opportunities. It also promises to make things very, very different, in ways we can't possibly anticipate. Our education systems generally assumed that the economy would be relatively stable, and that you could study to work in a single field, and then work in that field your entire life. That was the world our parents grew up in. But younger generations are facing a very different world, one in which no one keeps the same job more than a few years, and in which nearly everyone changes entire careers several times. Rather than gearing up students for specialization, education is facing the opposite problem: how do we make students adaptable enough to adjust to changing times? If you look at the mission statements of schools these days, you will see phrases like "life-long learning", "creativity", "problem-solving", "flexibility", "team-oriented." We already sense that the future might not belong to the specialized, but rather to the adaptable.
I see another peril in super-specialization, which is harder to define. While we admire people who passionately pursue excellence in a single endeavor, there is also something slightly . . . dehumanizing about it. I recently read a Wall Street Journal article about a growing number of families pushing their children into particular sports ("Under Pressure", October 4, 2008). "I just want them to be great at something," says a father who tracked his sons into being champion golfers at 6 years of age. When specialization is the result of self-directed passion, it is an expression of freedom. But when kids are forced to specialize, and sacrifice everything for the field of their parents' choosing, it feels like slavery. Loss of self-determination is too high a price to pay for greatness.
Saturday, November 15. 2008
I had written earlier about my concerns about teasing and bullying in my own children, as a prelude to discussing a lecture I heard by Kim John Payne, a prominent authority on handling bullying in schools.
Payne turned out to be, above all else, and excellent story-teller. He had made a concerted study of coming-of-age rituals in various indigenous societies, and had come out of the experience inspired to bring a more enlightened understanding of childhood development, and especially managing conflict, to modern Western culture. He told several stories about those experiences, most of which were both funny and interesting. I don't think I'll do him just repeating them, though you could probably hear many of the stories in the books and CDs on his website. But I can at least give the high points of his talk, and the take-home message:
Payne found that all coming-of-age rituals throughout the world shared the same fundamental structure:
The process is shaped like an hour-glass, with the person "squeezed" through an intense experience in the middle (the "liminal" stage) and ultimately released again into greater freedom and autonomy. [My first thought, in seeing this map of coming-of-age rituals, was: "That's exactly the structure of all spiritual experience."]
Payne correlated this structure of coming-of-age rituals with what happens with bullying in the schools. The bullied student goes through a process of isolation and endurance, resulting in extreme disorientation, but ultimately (if things go well) changes and emerges into a new form of belonging to the community. It's not a perfect fit, as analogies go, and Payne didn't push it too far, though he did seem to have some conclusions about what it means for bullying:
The other big take-home message (and I'm not sure if this directly ties into the whole coming-of-age theme or not) was that bullying always starts small, primarily with verbal put-downs. Put-downs have become a staple form of entertainment in our society; for instance, every 18-minute episode of Friends was found to contain over 50 put-downs. Kids follow the example that parents and popular culture set; we are essentially teaching them that verbally abusing others is fun and acceptable. Eventually, put-downs become a compulsive, addictive behavior: criticism creates a temporary feeling of camaraderie, superiority, and power, but later leads to a sense of isolation, shame, guilt, and emptiness. Payne's first recommendation for schools is to teach students, teachers, and parents to become aware of gratuitous criticism in their own communication, and to challenge every occurrence of it. There is nothing profoundly new about such advice: Buddhism includes "right speech" in its prescriptions for moral behavior, and nearly everyone's mother said (if not practiced) "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." And yet, I know most people (adults and children alike) would find Payne's "blame, shame, and put-down diet" to be extremely challenging. If we're not complaining or criticizing someone or something, then what do we have to talk about?
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