The Brave New World Of Teaching

One of the teachers at my school recently sent the following post to members of our staff:

Whenever a college student asks me, a veteran high-school English educator, about the prospects of becoming a public-school teacher, I never think it’s enough to say that the role is shifting from “content expert” to “curriculum facilitator.” Instead, I describe what I think the public-school classroom will look like in 20 years, with a large, fantastic computer screen at the front, streaming one of the nation’s most engaging, informative lessons available on a particular topic. The “virtual class” will be introduced, guided, and curated by one of the country’s best teachers (a.k.a. a “super-teacher”), and it will include professionally produced footage of current events, relevant excerpts from powerful TedTalks, interactive games students can play against other students nationwide, and a formal assessment that the computer will immediately score and record.

I tell this college student that in each classroom, there will be a local teacher-facilitator (called a “tech”) to make sure that the equipment works and the students behave. Since the “tech” won’t require the extensive education and training of today’s teachers, the teacher’s union will fall apart, and that “tech” will earn about $15 an hour to facilitate a class of what could include over 50 students. This new progressive system will be justified and supported by the American public for several reasons: Each lesson will be among the most interesting and efficient lessons in the world; millions of dollars will be saved in reduced teacher salaries; the “techs” can specialize in classroom management; performance data will be standardized and immediately produced (and therefore “individualized”); and the country will finally achieve equity in its public school system.

“So if you want to be a teacher,” I tell the college student, “you better be a super-teacher.”

I’m not a Luddite, but neither do I see the imminent replacement of flesh-and-blood teachers.  Thomas Edison thought that the movie projector would revolutionize education because it would allow every student to have the best teachers in the world…does that sound at all like what we’re hearing about the internet?

I don’t think teachers are going away, and I don’t hold this position not from a romantic point of view but from a practical one.  Yes, humans are social animals and yes, it’s much easier to learn in an interactive environment than from a video screen (as someone earning a master’s degree online, I state that last point categorically).  Teachers will remain in large part because of those two points (and I would wager that the classroom of 50 years from now won’t look all that different from the way it looks today).  Do you really think Edison’s position will finally hold sway because of the internet?  A large proportion of the planet has access to Harvard, Yale, and MIT professors and lectures entirely free, and yet…

The other concern at the linked article was the pendulum swing from the teacher as “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side”.  That pendulum will always swing, there’s no reason to believe that the teacher will ever permanently become a mere facilitator of curriculum–again, my own experience reinforces that belief.

I’m far more worried that the state teachers’ retirement system is going to go broke before I retire than I am that the teaching profession itself will disappear.

cross-posted at rightontheleftcoast.blogspot.com

Is the school choice model making winners at educating or winners at marketing?

Jacob Bell at Ed Week’s Inside School Research blog reported that Huriya Jabbar, an assistant professor at University of Texas-Austin and research associate at Education Research Alliance for New Orleans, recently released findings of a study she did which examined the choices school leaders in New Orleans make in a competitive school choice model (bolded emphasis mine):

The study’s findings show that leaders of high-status schools—those which have high student achievement and are often viewed as competition by other schools—were more likely to respond to competition by developing niche programs, instituting operational changes like increased fundraising or expansion into pre-K education, and using more selective or exclusionary practices regarding enrollment.

Leaders of lower-status schools were under more pressure to compete, and employed a larger number of strategies to promote their schools. These strategies included improving academics, providing a wider range of extracurricular activities, gathering information, and increasing marketing.

The most important finding of the study, according to Jabbar, was that two-thirds of the leaders reported not implementing substantial academic or operational strategies aimed at improving their schools in order to increase their competitiveness.

Rather, 25 of the 30 schools promoted existing programs and assets through marketing ventures such as advertising or recruitment fairs. The study determined that changes such as marketing to and screening students were inefficient and unfair.

Yes, the changes such as marketing to and screening of students are unfair (and disturbing), that is, giving unfair advantages to some schools over others by excluding certain students, but that’s not the most troubling aspect of this. The most troubling aspect is that according to this study, competition seems to be spurring competition, not improvements in the enterprise of teaching and learning. I was under the impression that the school choice-based/school-system-as-a-marketplace model was meant to make it so that schools win at offering great education, with competition as a means to that end, and not that they would win, as in they sold their product to the most students because they focused their efforts on marketing.

Do we want schools that are great at educating or great at marketing?

Giving opinion its due

I have been thinking about Justin P. McBrayer’s New York Times op-ed, “Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts.” McBrayer notes that schools implicitly tout moral relativism by having students distinguish repeatedly between “fact” and “opinion.” According to McBrayer, this creates confusion: Not all truths are proven facts, and not all opinions are “mere” opinion. Unfortunately, when given “fact vs. opinion” exercises,  students learn to treat all value statements as opinion. For instance, the statement “killing for fun is wrong” would count as opinion, when, in McBrayer’s view, it should be treated as fact. Over time, after performing many such exercises, students conclude (without thinking the matter through) that there are no moral facts.

I would take McBrayer’s argument one step further (or maybe in a direction he didn’t intend). Opinion itself was not always viewed as a one-off statement of belief or prejudice. It involved reasoning, choice, and judgment about things that were not fully known or proven. The word derives from the Proto-Indo-European *op- (“to choose”) and later from the Latin opinari (“think, judge, suppose, opine”). The OED gives, as its first definition of “opinion,” “What or how one thinks about something; judgement or belief. Esp. in in my opinion: according to my thinking; as it seems to me. a matter of opinion : a matter about which each may have his or her own opinion; a disputable point.” John Milton’s elevates the concept of opinion in his speech Areopagitica: “Opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making”; a similar idea appears in Thomas Usk’s The Testament of Love: “Opinyon is whyle a thyng is in non certayne, and hydde from mens very knowlegyng.” (Both quotes are included in the OED entry.)

Yet for all its former respectability, opinion has always run the risk of falling back on prejudice and superstition. This is particularly true of group opinion. John Stuart Mill argues for freedom of individual expression precisely because the alternative—unconsidered public opinion—holds so many dangers and so much power:

Men’s opinions, accordingly, on what is laudable or blamable, are affected by all the multifarious causes which influence their wishes in regard to the conduct of others, and which are as numerous as those which determine their wishes on any other subject. Sometimes their reason—at other times their prejudices or superstitions: often their social affections, not seldom their anti-social ones, their envy or jealousy, their arrogance or contemptuousness: but most commonly, their desires or fears for themselves—their legitimate or illegitimate self-interest. Wherever there is an ascendant class, a large portion of the morality of the country emanates from its class interests, and its feelings of class superiority.

Ironically, to protect individual opinion, one must also release it, to some degree, from responsibility Mill does not say this outright, but it seems to follow from his argument:

This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological.

If I can say whatever I want about any subject, if I am not bound to standards of research and reasoning, then my opinion is unfettered but also potentially trivial. On the other hand, if only the qualified elite may speak, then, as Mill notes, certain prevailing opinions go unquestioned while bright and necessary challenges are suppressed.

So, as opinion becomes liberated, it also degrades—to where it becomes near-synonymous with “something that can’t be taken seriously.” As McBrayer points out, the Common Core includes the standard “Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.” How did “opinion” become separate from “reasoned judgment”? The standard seems to imply that opinion does not involve judgment or reasoning; that is both peculiar and telling. One can have the best of both worlds: freedom of opinion combined with recognition that opinion can be well or poorly formed.

From what I have seen of the Common Core in word and practice, it treats opinion and argument as separate. Something that can’t be supported with “evidence” is regarded as mere opinion; something that can has a more elevated status. But facts are not always definitive and must be selected out of many; moreover, there are good arguments that don’t have “evidence” behind them. As a result, there is little room (and no good word) for inquiring into matters of uncertainty—matters that cannot be proven one way or another but that require more than a snap judgment.

To return to McBrayer’s example, killing for fun is wrong—few would dispute that—but why? Why did he not say “killing of any kind, for any reason, is wrong”? Perhaps he was leaving room for the possibility that killing may sometimes be necessary and thus not altogether wrong. In that case, how is “killing for fun” different? Let’s assume he is referring to the killing of humans; if it is true that human life has dignity (which, for the sake of brevity, I won’t define here), then human life should not be taken lightly. Kill if you must (though some would argue that there is never such necessity), but don’t kill gratuitously, whatever you do. Thus, “killing for fun is wrong” follows—or at least can follow—from the axiom that human life has dignity. I have not given any “evidence” that killing for fun is wrong, but I have identified a possible axiom behind the statement.

Opinion does not have to be trivial; it runs the gamut between folly and wisdom. Instead of dismissing opinion, schools should teach students to form theirs as well as they can.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

(I am delighted to be guest-blogging along with Rachel, Michael, and Darren. I probably won’t post anything else this week but will be back on April 4.)

 

Mixed Messages and Mixed-Sex Bathrooms

What with all the brouhaha lately about so-called “rape culture” on American university campuses, as well as the increasingly watered-down definitions of rape and assault, one wonders why a university would want to make it easier for men to have access to women’s bathrooms:

NBC Charlotte learned Tuesday night, due to an anonymous tip, that the University of North Carolina-Charlotte campus now allows transgender students, faculty and staff to use the restroom of their choice…

UNCC posted an update on it’s website, reading, “The current policy states that any student, faculty or staff member may use the restroom that corresponds to the individual’s gender identity.”

cross-posted at rightontheleftcoast.blogspot.com

Sayonara

I’m off to Japan to look at cherry blossoms.

As your vacation from me, enjoy the bloggery of Diana Senechal (On Education and Other Things), Michael E. Lopez, Darren Miller (Right on the Left Coast) and Rachel Levy (All Things Education).

Hollywood can save our families — but won’t


MTV’s “16 and Pregnant” has increased searches for contraceptives and reduced teen births by 5.7 percent, a study concludes. 

Hollywood could “save our families” by changing story lines to promote stable, two-parent families, writes Megan McArdle on Bloomberg View. But don’t hold your breath.

Raising children the way an increasing percentages of Americans are — in loosely attached cohabitation arrangements that break up all too frequently, followed by the formation of new households with new children by different parents — is an enormous financial and emotional drain. Supporting two households rather than one is expensive, and it diverts money that could otherwise be invested in the kids. The parent in the home has no one to help shoulder the load of caring for kids, meaning less investment of time and more emotional strain on the custodial parent.

Extended families can help, but single parents have fewer relatives to call on, especially if the mother was raised by a single  mother, she notes. Government can’t make up for a missing parent. “Even in a social democratic paradise such as Sweden, kids raised in single-parent households do worse than kids raised with both their parents in the home,” writes McArdle.

The distance that matters in this case is not the much-discussed distance between the 1 percent and everyone else. Instead, it is the distance between the top 25 percent and the bottom 25 percent — between the people who still mostly live by the old injunctions to get married and stay married if you want to have kids, often while politely declaring that this doesn’t actually matter, and the people who are actually having their children in much more fragile and temporary relationships.

If Hollywood “believed that married two-parent families were overwhelmingly optimal, that would naturally shape what they wrote, in a way that would in turn probably shape what Americans believe, and do,” she concludes.

Open access, but not open exit

Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida has won this year’s Aspen Prize for community college excellence for a 62 percent graduation and transfer rate, far higher than the 40 percent national average.

Sixty-three percent of transfers complete a bachelor’s degree within six years, the Aspen committee noted. That’s higher than the completion average — 59 percent — for students who start at four-year colleges and universities.

“We’re an open-access college, not open-exit,” the college’s president, Jackson N. Sasser, told the Chronicle of Higher Education.

SFC works closely with the nearby University of Florida to help students transfer and earn a UF degree. In addition, the college offers some four-year degrees in vocational fields, such as information technology.

Students are encouraged to choose a program of study as early as possible.

An online program similar to the travel-booking site Expedia helps them map out classes that meet their degree requirements and are available during the times they can attend class. Instead of a travel itinerary, the program spits out a list of suggested class schedules. A student clicks on one, and a hold is placed for a spot in all of those classes. If he picks a class outside his degree plan, it shows up in red, meaning it’s OK to sign up, but it may not count toward the degree.

Florida high school graduates aren’t required to take remedial courses. SFC offers support to help less-prepared students pass college-level courses.

Teaching math the Shanghai way

Lianjie Lu, from Shanghai, teaches fractions to year 3 pupils at Fox primary school in Kensington, London.

Lianjie Lu, from Shanghai, teaches fractions to year 3 pupils at a London school. Photo: Frantzesco Kangaris/Guardian

Britain has imported math teachers from high-scoring Shanghai to demonstrate teaching techniques, reports The Guardian.  

Lilianjie Lu stands in front of 21 seven and eight-year-olds in a London classroom, struggling slightly with her English but with a winning smile on her face, as she attempts to teach them all about fractions.

The classroom has been reconfigured to resemble a Shanghai classroom. The carpet has been taken up, desks which are normally clustered in friendly groups are in straight rows, and all eyes are on Lu and her touchscreen.

. . . The class is repetitive, going over and over similar territory, stretching the children slightly further as the lesson progresses, picking up on mistakes and making sure that everyone is keeping up.

British teachers move more quickly, says Ben McMullen, deputy head at Fox school and senior lead in the local maths hub. Chinese teachers “dwell on it for what seems a long time so every single child understands exactly what’s going on.”

Lu is now asking the children what a fraction is. “If the whole is divided in to three equal parts, each part is a third of the whole,” one child explains. The other children follow suit, repeating and adapting their answer to explain the fraction written on the board.

“There’s a lot of chanting and recitation which to our English ears seems a bit formulaic,” says McMullen, “but it’s a way of embedding that understanding.”

McMullen spent two weeks observing at a Shanghai primary school in September. Math lessons are shorter there, but better, he says. “I saw better maths teaching in 35 minutes than I had ever done in an hour and ten minutes.”

In Shanghai every child of the same age is on the same page of the same text book at the same time.

. . . Children have mastered their jiujiu (times tables) back to front and inside out by the time they are eight. Classrooms are bare and text books are basic, minimal, “not that appealing” to look at, admits McMullen, but of exceptionally high quality and thoroughly researched.

Lu studied math teaching for five years at a university and teaches only math at her Shanghai elementary school. In Britain, primary teachers teach all subjects and have little training in how to teach math.

Online students are ‘telepresent’ — as robots

Thomas Felch uses a telepresence robot to connect with students at Nexus Charter in Columbus, Ohio. Photo by Nichole Dobo

Thomas Felch is a “telepresent” teacher at Nexus Academy of Columbus. Photo by Nichole Dobo

Nexus Academy of Columbus, an Ohio charter high school, is experimenting with telepresent teachers, writes Nichole Dobo on the Hechinger Report.

The school employs some “in-the-flesh” teachers, but others teach online courses from a distance, interacting with students  “through a computer screen or phone call,” writes Dobo. Now, the school has two robots.

Thomas Fech, who teaches social studies from his home in Arizona, enjoys using the robot to talk to students and staff in Ohio.

Lights flash on the robot body when a teacher signs in to control the robot. A screen the size of a small tablet computer shows a live video of the teacher’s face. A webcam flips open above the screen, revealing the Cyclops eye that helps the long-distance teacher “drive” around the school. They zip around the school just like any other teacher – except when the robot crashes into walls and doorways. The depth perception and peripheral vision aren’t great, Fech said. But the technological hiccups don’t bother him.

“It’s fun,” Fech said. “I like driving it around and feeling like I am in the school. It’s neat to feel like I am part of the classroom.”

Michigan State has been experimenting with “telepresent” robots that let online graduate students participate in face-to-face classes.

PhD candidates can take educational psychology and educational technology in person or online.  Until now, online students appeared on a wall-mounted screen. They felt like “second-class citizens” in class said John Bell, an associate education professor.B9c1WIwIUAQ0_ap

In the pilot, two online students used KUBI telepresence robots: The online student’s face appears on an iPad screen, and the student can move the pedestal to control his or her point of view. Two others used Double robots, which can move around the room.

“The students were ecstatic,” said Bell. “It changed how they engaged with the class. One student said, ‘This was the first time it mattered to me if I knew the names of the face-to-face students because I could turn and look at them.’ That was a dramatic response.”

Let boys be boys

“Rather than being appreciated for the future explorers, warriors and leaders they were designed to be, boys are viewed as defective little girls,” writes Rhonda Robinson on PJ Media. “What is the real trouble with boys? Well, simply put, they are not girls.” 

Robinson homeschooled five girls — and then two boys. She discovered there’s a difference. “In my house ADD is considered a personality type, not a mental disorder,” she writes.

As a homeschooler, she could spend her boys outside to play when they couldn’t concentrate. Schools can’t do that. Robinson also blames feminist ideology. “Boys with uniquely masculine strengths, once prized, are no longer valued. In fact, these traits of boyhood are considered dangerous, even pathological.”