Avoid ickiness at all costs

This is my last guest post before Joanne returns. (Update: In addition, one of my satirical pieces appeared on The Cronk of Higher Education today.) I have enjoyed this guest-blogging stint and am grateful that Michael Lopez has been on such a roll.

If I were to give advice to a new teacher, it would be twofold: (a) avoid ickiness at all costs; and (b) do not be afraid of repetition.

Teachers often get told what to do and how to do it, but intelligent administrators realize that they won’t (and shouldn’t) follow directives to the letter. When deciding what to follow, what to adapt, and what to ignore, a teacher can safely put icky things in the last two piles. One can take an icky thing and make it less icky, or one can avoid it altogether. No teacher should have to descend into anything tacky or dumb. (Of course, what’s icky for one teacher may not be so for another.)

For me, “turn-and-talk” activities are often icky. I do recognize the exceptions. When learning a language, students can benefit from talking to the person next to them; the more practice they get, the better. When learning a poem, students working in pairs can take turns reciting. But the usual “turn-and-talk”—where the teacher poses a question and then has students talk to each other, right away—goes against my grain, because it makes for a room of chatter, and it often interferes with the thinking. Why turn and talk? Why not pause and think?

I have been in many situations where I had to turn and talk to my partner, and I found it silly. I would have been better off with a bit of space and quiet, and then a full-forum discussion later. Of course, not everyone shares my preferences—but teachers should have some room to be true to their own. There is usually a reason for them.

Yet there are teachers for whom such activities are not icky in the least. They conduct “turn-and-talk” activities as though they were drinking water. It is possible, also, that a teacher might find it offputting at the outset and then warm up to it, or vice versa. In any case, teachers should have some room to listen to their gut, especially when it is squirming and turning.

The second piece of advice seems unrelated, but actually it comes from the same principle. Do not be afraid of repetition, especially when it is repetition of something good. There are many kinds of repetition in the classroom: daily repetition of routines and of subject matter; the act of returning to ideas and works over time; and even drill. I find that my students get a lot out of reading a passage several times. The first time, it hasn’t yet sunk in; the second time, they are starting to find their way through it; and the third time, they can start to notice some of its subtleties. Return to it later, or even in a subsequent year, and they find even more.

Far from being boring, repetition can actually be exciting, as you start to anticipate things: a turn in the poem, a favorite phrase in a passage, or a difficult cluster of syllables. Young children enjoy hearing stories over and over; so, often, do older children and adults. I enjoy rereading books more than I enjoy reading them the first time. (That’s why I have difficulty reading large numbers of books, or part of the reason.)

What do the two pieces of advice have to do with each other? Both come from the principle that you can have exciting lessons (or thoughts) when you allow for a bit of calm—that there’s room for interesting things when you aren’t constantly pursuing novelty and change. Teachers often feel pressure to keep things exciting and active (and to be “innovative“), but this may crowd out some of the greater excitement (which by nature cannot be there all the time). By contrast, if you turn something around and around, day after day, you start to see its textures and patterns. I don’t mean that instruction should be entirely repetitive; of course it has to move in a direction. But the repetition helps it do so.

For whom is this advice intended? For me and for anyone who finds that it makes sense.

The pull and counter-pull of teaching

Education is filled with opposing principles, where neither is absolutely correct. When you’re learning a musical instrument, you need a lot of technical exercises, but you also need to learn to play actual pieces. When you’re proving a mathematical theorem, you should be precise with your steps, but sometimes, if you have an insight, it’s good to take a leap. (Then you can backtrack and fill in the steps.) And so on. Most teachers have certain leanings, but those leanings are not the whole of their understanding or of the truth. Often I find that when I tip just a little bit against myself, interesting things happen.

For instance, my philosophy courses have focused on reading and discussion of texts—for good reasons. The texts are compelling, and the students approach them thoughtfully and enthusiastically. Yet when I give students a chance to take off with their own ideas, I find that they bring forth some of their best work. The moral is not that I should abandon the texts, but rather that I should vary the type of assignment now and then.

My ninth-grade students are studying rhetoric and logic. Most recently, they read G. K. Chesterton’s essay “The Fallacy of Success.” We examined how Chesterton takes apart the idea of success, and how his reference to the myth of King Midas enhances his argument. They did well with this.

Then I thought: why not have them take apart a concept themselves? I had them choose a word from a list, to which they contributed (the options included happiness, justice, power, friendship, solitude, collaboration, courage, wisdom, and more). They were to (a) explain how the term is commonly understood; (b) explain what’s wrong or incomplete about that understanding; (c) explain why it’s important to come to a better understanding of the term; and (d) offer a more complete definition. This began as classwork, with one sentence for each part; later, they expanded their responses into an essay.

I am reluctant to repeat or paraphrase my students’ responses, since I don’t have their permission. I can say that they were all interesting, and some quite moving. Much came out of this exercise. Yet it was informed by our reading and discussion of “The Fallacy of Success.” There need not be a contradiction between analyzing someone else’s essay and writing your own (with your own ideas). In the best of scenarios, the two support each other. Still, it isn’t just a matter of striking a “balance”; the correct proportion may be an unbalanced one.

Back to the original point: our educational leanings need something to pull against them. Very few opinions or preferences in education contain the whole truth. We may go ahead and lean—the leanings do matter–but allow for a bit of sway now and then, as it may turn out to be the best thing that happened all year.

What does it take to read a book on a train?

Well, it takes a train, a reader, and a book… and then maybe some quiet and other conditions.

When I saw the GothamSchools link “Liza Featherstone: Everyone’s reading on the subways, but that culture is under threat,” I thought Featherstone’s piece (on AM New York) would be about the noise on subways. It wasn’t, so that will be the subject here. This may be somewhat New Yorkish in focus, but I imagine some of it applies to other places.

I used to treasure my reading time on subway rides (even if I was falling asleep, as I often am at the end of a hectic day). Now, I can only count on the morning rides for reading.

Almost every day, when I ride home from school, a bunch of youngsters get on with a boombox, announce “What time is it? Showtime!,” turn on the throbbing music, and start break dancing–doing flips, standing on their heads, wiggling their legs in the air, etc. They’re careful not to swing their feet into anyone’s forehead–so long as everyone is on guard and doesn’t lurch forward all of a sudden.

Some of these dancers have remarkable agility. You (or I) can’t help admiring their aerobic precision on crowded and rickety trains.

But what happens to reading on the train, if it’s always “showtime”? I feel like bursting into a train car, yelling, “What time is it? Book time!” and then just opening a book. That would never fly, though; the next noisy act would put an end to my gesture.

Some say that this is part of New York culture: that if no one were allowed to perform on trains, the city would lose much of its character and soul. There’s something to that. To be a New Yorker, according to many, is to stay unfazed while crazy stuff happens around you–and even enjoy it.

But reading is also part of New York culture, and even the staunchest New Yorkers can’t read well when there’s too much brouhaha. (When there’s break dancing, I see few readers. Most people look up or away.)

What does this have to do with education? you might ask. Well,the problem is not that we live in a noisy world (we do–but there’s no changing that). The real problem lies in the uncertainty about how to stand up to it. Many of us–including myself–let the noise have the upper hand, at least in certain contexts.

In the next piece (which I am scheduling for tomorrow) I will take a look at the uncertainty.

(Update: tomorrow’s post will be about something else. I had a few false starts with the uncertainty piece–too large a topic.)

 

Breaking the tablets

Last week, my tenth-grade students read the prologue of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra; to supplement this, I had them listen to part of the fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony no. 3 and read Exodus 32 (about the breaking of the tablets). The former has lyrics, sung by a contralto, that are only a slight rearrangement of “Zarathustra’s Roundelay”; the latter is important because Zarathustra speaks of seeking out tablet-breakers as companions. On my own, I have been thinking about how teachers are (or can be) breakers of tablets. I am making this analogy cautiously, so take it with all the salt you need.

In Exodus, Moses comes down to the mount to see that the people have made a gold calf idol (well, they brought Aaron the gold, and he made the idol for them). Moses arrives, sees the idol, and breaks the tablets in anger, the tablets that he had received from God. (Later, in Exodus 34, God gives him the words for the new tablets.) Moses then asks Aaron, how did this occur? And Aaron replies, “thou knowest the people, that they are set on mischief” (King James version).

Now, I would suggest that one aspect of being a student (whether you’re attentive in class or not) is learning to set idols aside. At times a teacher has to break the tablets and create new ones.

On an immediate level, this might take the form of a teacher changing the lesson plan when it’s clear that the students don’t understand or aren’t paying attention. But it’s possible to see this as a single and permanent event.

A teacher comes with a sense of the subject (and often a love for the subject). She has something she wants the students to see, grasp, and make their own. She knows they won’t get it right away, and she wants them to persevere until they get it.

The students are not always open to this. Either they want nothing to do with it, or they make partial attempts toward limited goals (such as a good grade). Some learn to fake their way through; some distract themselves during class and at home. Sometimes this reaches a pitch where those who don’t take class seriously dominate the lesson. They have essentially erected their idol.

The teacher then realizes that something has to crack. Breaking the tablets here would mean: recognizing that this is going in the wrong direction, stopping right there, and starting over with something more basic, so that the students can build up to the subject. It doesn’t mean making the subject “relevant” or eliminating its challenges and strangeness; it does mean rewriting the tablets so that they actually reach the students. (This may relate to the distinction Michael Lopez made in his excellent recent post.)

But isn’t it wrong for a teacher to get angry at the students? It depends on the kind of anger. There is a warm kind that wakes the students up, helps them see the situation, and points toward the good. Sometimes a teacher must say, “this has gotten out of hand.” Even in college and graduate school, professors do this; the students may be distracted not with chatter, but with this or that intellectual fad or bad habit. I remember a professor raging over the ubiquitous misuse of the verb “subvert.” That’s almost a case in point.

I say “almost” because the individual instances don’t really do this justice. Many teachers have a turning point in their practice. It may recur, in different contexts, but they will always draw on that first experience. It’s where they realize that they aren’t reaching the students (or many of them) and that they must reach them. They break not only the lesson, but their conception of what they are doing, and start with something else.

Now, that new approach may be incomplete. (Maybe it’s inevitably so.) It’s a common error for an educator to “see the light” and then think that his or her new method is all that’s needed. It isn’t. What matters here is the gesture of breaking through to the students. In one sense, this gesture happens over and over; in another, it happens only once.

This is where the likeness breaks down. One can’t compare a teacher’s “new covenant” with the new tablets that Moses inscribes. There’s a gulf between the two, whether or not one regards Exodus as sacred text. Still, there’s something to the analogy, for all its imperfections.

A brand-new crossroads in education

According to Ken Kay (former president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills) and Bob Lenz, we face a crossroads with the implementation of the Common Core. We could focus on mapping the standards to curricula, or we could use the standards to transform teaching and learning. The authors cheer for the latter.

The common core can and should serve as a unique transformational opportunity for our nation’s teaching and learning systems. Educators who leverage these standards to teach and assess such competencies as critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration will lead the way to postsecondary and career success for more students.

They associate the second path with the 21st century and its attendant skills. Other details are unclear–for instance, what books they think would be good to read in literature and history classes.

But vagueness may be a 21st century skill in itself, if a satirical piece by Arnold Arons tells truth:

REPORTER: Dr. Platitudeford, how do you and your colleagues characterize the salient features of the instructional methods you advocate?

DR. PLATITUDEFORD: They are innovative, individualized, inquiry-oriented, performance-based, experiental, and unstructured.

Oops–this piece, “Educational Practices–An Expert View of Human Trends,” was published in 1973. (Hat tip to Richard Hake for bringing it to my attention a few months ago.)

Maybe we’re at a crossroads, but the two roads aren’t what Kay and Lenz suppose. Who knows what they are until we’ve traveled them a bit? There’s a chance, though, that they might be the well-worn roads of clarity and obfuscation.

Calling an end to the day

In contrast with Andy Rotherham, who lauds efforts to create round-the-clock schools, I write here about the importance of calling an end to the day. (In all fairness, he didn’t say that individual teachers should be working around the clock—but one wonders how such a school could get by without a cadre of late-night and early-morning teachers. Sleep goes by the wayside, as do the rhythms of the day.)

Today my spring break begins (I don’t teach on Fridays). This morning I started clearing the clutter off of my desk. It was a fairly straightforward matter, yet in the rush of the past two months or so, other things took priority, and the piles mounted higher.

I had neglected meals, dental work, basic home repairs, correspondence, friends, family, musical instruments, and book upon book that I hadn’t had time to read.

Most of the teachers I know work longer and harder than I do, from what I can see. They spend evenings and weekends at school. They get to school before dawn. They spend hours at home grading homework and tests. They take on additional school duties and activities.

We live in a society that places high priority on work. Few professions have reasonable hours; most of them sprawl over one’s life. Many European countries take a different approach to work (though this might be changing): their work days are shorter, their vacations longer, and their work duties more contained. Here, in the U.S., long work days are a fact of life.

Teaching, though, goes a bit farther. It requires your soul (or whatever you would like to call it). It takes most of what you have: intellect, wit, emotion, presence of mind, physical stamina and agility, character, intensity of intention, and much more. There are days when lessons seem to go effortlessly—but on other days, you must throw yourself into the lesson in order to get things going or quell disruption. You have to be alert and responsive, minute after minute, and then do the same in the next lesson, and the next.

Unless you exercise caution, and unless you have made something of a fortress in your life, you can end up with nothing but school. I don’t just mean that you spend all your time on it; I mean that you lose even the sunset, even the sense of a meal. To have an hour to yourself (or with others), to enjoy the rhythms of the day, becomes taboo. The dedicated teacher is the one running down the hall with papers to photocopy while wolfing down a power bar.

To resist such sprawl, one needs a stronghold outside of school, an obligation to call an end to the day at some point—maybe not every day, but on certain days. For some, this may be religious observance. For others, it may be their children. For others still, it may be a commitment (not having to do with school) or a self-imposed routine. Some may have combinations of the three. It must be something sacred (in a religious or secular sense), something that cannot be eroded.

Why is it important to have a stronghold? For one thing, it makes life more interesting; you have a retreat, a chance to put together the many events of the day and gain some perspective on them. For another, it means you have more to bring your students. Teachers about to drop of exhaustion cannot be good role models—or maybe they can for a little while, until they actually drop. Students need to be around adults with interesting and varied lives, whether or not they know about these lives.

I don’t tell my students much about my life, but now and then I let them in on a special occasion. For instance, last week I went to my high school in Boston to attend an alumnae (girls’ school) book discussion led by two of my former English teachers. My students were excited to hear about this and asked me about it afterward.

No matter what the pressure to do “whatever it takes,” teachers need a counterweight: a time and place that does not and will not belong to school. It is good for everyone: for the teachers themselves, for the students, and for our rude and ragged world.

There is still another benefit: the twilight gets a larger audience.

Will this boy graduate high school?

subwayThe other day, on the subway in NYC, I saw this ad. It turns out there has been some commotion over it. (Approved and defended by Mayor Bloomberg, it is part of New York City’s recent campaign to raise awareness about teen pregnancy.)  I would like to add my own two or three objections to the mix.

First, this is an example of the “precision fallacy” in statistics. (That’s the best term I could find; there may be better.) Specifically, the ad confuses the individual’s probabilities with those of the group. It may be that “kids of teen moms are twice as likely not to graduate than [sic] kids whose moms were over age 22,” but this probability doesn’t hold for individuals.

Second, adults put words in this child’s mouth (and banal words at that). A baby or toddler would not say anything remotely close to this, unless someone had prepped him to do so.

That brings up a larger problem: from a young age, children are trained to describe themselves in statistical terms, at school and elsewhere. They learn to say, “My growth in such-and-such a skill is 30 percent,” or “I was one of the sixty percent who had the right answer.” In measure, in the right context, this may be fine–but when it’s the dominant lingo and mode of thought, it crowds out substance and meaning. (I wrote a satirical piece about this tendency.)

Beyond that, I did not bear this child as a teen, nor did 99.999999 percent of NYC subway riders, in all likelihood. (For all we know, this kid’s mom might have a chauffeur.) The “you” is not a real you, nor the “I” a real I. Yet here’s a tear-streaked face bringing sadness to a passenger’s day–and to what end?

What good does it do even for the target audience, teens who might get pregnant or father a child? If I were a teen looking at the picture, I’d want to wipe the little boy’s cheeks. I’d want to take out a book and read to him. Yet I wouldn’t be able to do so. I might dream of being a parent one day–and, if I were foolhardy enough, I’d want that day to come soon.

Worst of all, this ad gives the impression that the boy’s existence is a mistake and his fate sealed (or at least tipped in a direction). This is wrong. Once a child comes into the world, he or she is no mistake. Nor do we know what that child’s life will be.

Of course teen pregnancy is no light matter, no matter how it’s handled. I imagine many involved with the ad had good intentions. Still, it  fails to inform, enlighten, or persuade. And what a sad-looking kid.

Superfun sameness

In a New York Times op-ed, editor Pamela Paul points out a “farcical reversal” of our concepts of work and play: “schoolwork is meant to be superfun; play, like homework, is meant to teach.” Video games in particular have reversed (or mixed up) these roles; schools are making increasing use of video game technology in the classroom, while many recreational video games come packaged with a purported educational purpose. This ends up compromising both study and play:

Many of the games marketed as educational aren’t as much fun as video games children would play if left to their own devices. But the added bells and whistles still make it harder for them to focus on plain old boring work sheets and exams. Imagine how flat a work sheet would seem after a boisterous round of Zap the Math From Outer Space.

I agree with Paul but would call this “superfun sameness” instead. Study and play have become more and more alike–especially when “driven” by computer games. What’s more: they are alike in a disturbing way: hyped up, cloyingly interactive, and oh, so much fun. The result: students lose tolerance for things that seem slightly boring at first.

This happens on many fronts (not only with video games). Students get the message that their studies are supposed to be immediately gratifying and tailored to them. I often hear students (not at my school specifically, but in many places) complain that this or that book isn’t “relevant” to their lives and that they don’t enjoy it. What they’re really saying is that they haven’t learned to exercise patience and stretch the imagination.

I haven’t tried this experiment, nor do I plan to do so, but I’m willing to bet on the outcome: Give a high school class a unit on Hamlet. One group gets just the book (and a few video clips of performances); the other gets an interactive Hamlet video game, where they get to take photos of their friends and dress them up as the characters, follow the ghost around the castle, reenact the final swordfight, etc. Each group is aware of the other. One week into the project, students are given a survey on their interest levels and their desire to remain in their current group. The survey is repeated at the completion of the unit and then a year later. I imagine the first survey would show many students wishing to switch from the book group to the video group (but not vice versa); the second survey would have a less pronounced result, and the final survey would show a preference for the book group.

In other words, if you can persuade kids to stick with something that’s initially difficult or not palpably fun, you see their interest grow over time. But if you give up, you encourage the “relevance” crutch: you feed their demand for studies that feel good and seem to meet their needs and wants, right now. “Relevance” and “fun” are not exactly the same, but in their shallowest form they become close to synonymous. When omnipresent, they become that shallow.

It takes a lot of energy to get students to stick with something in their studies that doesn’t immediately grab them–but it’s worth the struggle. Then they become capable of a larger range, and they overthrow the tyranny of relevance.

In contrast with Paul (or seeming contrast), I see many instances where play could be educational (for instance, working with an electronics kit) and study could be fun (for instance, learning songs in Russian). The problem lies not in the overlap but in the homogeneity, the cutesiness, and the appeal to a lazy part of the mind and character.

The listening deficit

A few weeks ago, I held a “parents’ philosophy roundtable” at my school. Parents came to discuss passages from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which the eleventh graders had been reading for their course in political philosophy. When the parents read the passages out loud (their first encounter with this text, in most cases), I was struck by how carefully they read, how much they relished the phrases. Their listening bolstered the discussion.

Do today’s students know how to listen? Many lack the practice, from what I have seen. It is not their fault; entire school systems emphasize group work and rapid activity over anything contemplative or sustained. Before they have a chance to think, or even take something in, students must turn and talk, complete a chart, or fulfill a role within a team. Moreover, their days are filled with rush and noise.

Listening may be more important to education than we realize. In a recent post, E. D. Hirsch points out that we actually listen to texts when we read them silently:

The old debate about whether silent reading has an active, internal auditory component is over.  Reading—even skimming—is indeed accompanied by “subvocalization.” Although some teachers use this term to refer to children whispering to themselves as they make the transition from reading out loud to silent reading, researchers use this term to refer to the internal voice we all hear while we read silently.  We use an inner voice and an inner ear. Reading IS listening. Gaining expertise in listening thus transfers rather directly to expertise in reading.

To listen to a text while reading silently is to take in its tones, textures, and shapes; its hidden jokes and ironies; its contrasts and contradictions; its rising and falling; its speeding up and slowing down. To do any of this, one must, at the outset, set aside practical tasks (such as finding the topic sentence). One must cede to the text for a while and let it show itself. Then one can appreciate a passage like this (from Mill’s On Liberty):

Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.

Part of the meaning lies in the syntax. If one listens to the repetition of “tyranny” and “eccentricity” (or “eccentric”) in the first sentence, one hears the clash of the two. One may question Mill’s assertion that eccentricity has generally been proportional to genius, etc. (this sounds plausible but cannot be proved)—but this is subordinate to the larger point: that the loss of eccentricity suggests the loss of much more, and that we should keep eccentricity alive, if only to break through the forces that squelch it. I would say the same about listening.

How does one practice listening? First, one must have good things to listen to. Humdrum, clunky texts will tire and pain the ear. Well-tempered works will wake the hearing up. Second, one must set aside time for listening and only listening—with no other tasks or expectations. This allows one to pay full attention to whatever it might be and to put aside distractions. Third, one must do it regularly.

I worry that schools are placing far too little emphasis on listening. The Common Core ELA standards for listening and speaking make almost no reference to listening; almost all of the standards in this section refer to speaking. I think I understand why: listening (without an accompanying assessment) is difficult to measure. Nonetheless, anyone taking the Common Core literally may assume that classrooms should be abuzz with student talk and activity. The author and educational consultant Sue Cowley captures a common sentiment when she writes, “As far as possible, keep teacher talk to a minimum and active student learning to a maximum.”

Other rubrics reinforce this message. The Danielson Framework, currently used for teacher evaluation in many districts, gives highest rating to teachers whose students initiate discussion, arrange their own instructional groups, and select their own material—and not to teachers who lead the lesson and have something to say. Some curricula, such as the Core Knowledge Language Arts Program, treat listening as essential, but far too many others would push it to the edges.

This is a shame. When listening to something for a stretch, I find great freedom, because my mind has time to do what it wants. I can take the text (or music, or whatever it may be) and consider it from this or that angle, play with it, raise questions about it, follow it beyond its conclusion, go on tangents here and there, and simply enjoy it. I can find eccentricity in listening, since I don’t have to socialize my reactions right away. Listening is rarely perfect; the mind wanders and returns, but even those wanderings have their reasons.

Listening allows us to immerse ourselves in something and to leave behind the stress and frazzle. It is more than a skill; it is an encounter. Take away the listening, and we are left with little more than a closet full of clanging tools. We get things done, we walk away with a takeaway, but something is taken away from us in turn.

The TED bubble

This is my last guest post, so I thought I’d take on one of my favorite big topics: the fad of the big idea. In an era of TED talks, “essential questions,” and so-called “higher-order” thinking, we are witnessing a shiny bubble that will pop sooner or later. Eventually it will come clear that we need much more than grand ideas. We need a better grasp of details and their relation to larger structures.

 TED (“Technology, Entertainment, Design”) is a nonprofit organization devoted to “ideas worth spreading”; it is chiefly known for its conferences and online videos of talks.

Over at Salon, Alex Pareene nails what TED talks tend to have in common. (Note: not all TED talks fit this formula–and not all talks that fit it come across as formulaic.)

The model for your standard TED talk is a late-period Malcolm Gladwell book chapter. Common tropes include:

  • Drastically oversimplified explanations of complex problems.
  • Technologically utopian solutions to said complex problems.
  • Unconventional (and unconvincing) explanations of the origins of said complex problems.
  • Staggeringly obvious observations presented as mind-blowing new insights.

What’s most important is a sort of genial feel-good sense that everything will be OK, thanks in large part to the brilliance and beneficence of TED conference attendees. (Well, that and a bit of Vegas magician-with-PowerPoint stagecraft.)

Pareene takes issue primarily with the TED conference’s smug elitism and its avoidance of controversial topics. My criticism is related but different; to me the main problem is the insistence on bigness, and, with it, the avoidance of the sort of modesty, tentativeness, and probing  that could make the speeches even more interesting.

Take Salman Khan, for example. I bring him up not to pick on him (I’ve questioned the viability of the “Khan Revolution” before) but to turn toward the subject of education. At the time of his TED talk, Khan had created a library of some 2,200 instructional videos on mathematical and scientific topics. Now there are about 3,200, and the range has expanded. The talk begins with a montage of videos and topics: a hypotenuse, a map of animal fossils, integration, galaxies, and more. “If this does not blow your mind,” he says, “then you have no emotion.”

He then tells the story about how it began, how it grew, and how, bit by bit, he realized that it was more than a collection of videos. It was a way of flipping the classroom; that is, with the help of these videos, students could learn the content at home and then come to class to work in groups, receive extra help, engage in projects, and so on.

A dialogue starts up in my mind:

—But wait! I want to hear more about the hypotenuse.

—Oh, you can, in your own time. Let’s focus on the big idea for now.

And there lies the problem. If we are content with a swift montage of topics, if we choose not to bother with the actual geometry, astronomy, or calculus of Khan’s videos, then our trust in his “flipped classroom” is wishful trust indeed. By this I don’t mean that an error or flaw in the videos would invalidate his project. Rather, his presentation  excites the audience precisely because it doesn’t go far into the subjects (or at least partly because of that).

Now, we find a similar phenomenon in classrooms that emphasize ungrounded “big ideas” and “essential questions.” For example, you have classes that emphasize the “scientific method” without making clear that in order to apply it well, you have to know the science. Yes, certain principles apply to all scientific investigations, but they must be translated properly into the nitty-gritty.

Or take “interdisciplinary thematic units” that focus on a theme such as identity, prejudice, or progress. The danger of such a focus on a “theme” is that it can (and often does) encourage sloppy analysis. For instance, if you’re studying Sophocles’ Antigone in a unit on dissent, you may think the play is primarily about dissent and gloss over whatever doesn’t fit. To work well with themes, one must handle them loosely and with great caution.

Now, big ideas are not bad. Whether they’re ideas about the past, present, or future, they can help make sense of phenomena. The challenge is to determine when they do and when they don’t. To this end, one must be willing to bear with the details, to admit to error, and to do without bigness for long stretches of time.  A “big idea” economy can’t sustain itself. In fact, it could land us in a rut. If we’re too hooked on the grandeur of ideas, we won’t know what to do when they wobble or break down.

We have seen the rise of the entrepreneurial geek (e.g., Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates), the person who can turn an intense, specific intellectual interest into something popular and huge. It’s dazzling, but some of the dazzle deceives; the person had to do the unpopular work behind the scenes. Spectators come to believe that they can jay drive straight to the big stuff; it rarely works that way.

So, let’s expect students to delve into the details–to practice a scale until they get it right, to memorize a poem and thus learn all its tones and turns, and to learn the binomial theorem and its proofs. Through such study, students will encounter ideas of many sizes and will learn to tolerate their temporary absence. They may not make it big; why should they have to? But whether or not they do, they will have something solid.

Now that’s a big idea. But it isn’t revolutionary, and its implementation isn’t easy.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after its original posting but before any comments appeared.