Take away the takeaway

Diana Senechal criticizes our cultural emphasis on takeaways, “the surety squeezed from things unsure,” in a TEDx talk.

Teachers must teach lessons with takeaways that will fit on a poster, she says. Bound to standards-linked objectives and student-centered teaching, they design vapid lessons.

For example, students might read Polonius’ advice to his son: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

They spend days evaluating the usefulness of bits of advice, writing a rubric to evaluate advice, reading a non-fiction article (Common Core!) on giving advice, and, finally, creating an advice manual with a quote from Shakespeare and a quote from the non-fiction article. In five days, they never discuss the context of Polonius’ speech, says Senechal.

It sounds agonizingly boring, doesn’t it?

The author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture, Senechal created and taught the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School in New York City. She’s working on a new book, Take Away The Takeaway.


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).

From Epictetus to road-crossing chickens

Philosophy can engage, inspire and deepen the thinking of high school students, writes Diana Senechal in American Educator. She teaches Philosophy for Thinking at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science and Engineering, a selective New York City public middle/high school that draws an ethnically diverse group of students. (Two-thirds are Latino or African-American; 56 percent qualify for a free or subsidized lunch.)

Her students have published the second issue of their erudite and humorous philosophy journal, Contrariwise, which can be ordered here. 

Students write about Epictetus, the Book of Job, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Pascal, Gogol, virtue, kindness, humor, utopia, dystopia, the DMV — and more.

Peerayos Pongsachai uses math and philosophy to analyze the question: Why did the chicken cross the road?

The journal includes national and international contest winners. Emma Eder (Georgetown Visitation Prep, Washington, D.C.) won first place for The Very Real Problem of Irrationality in the math/philosophy category. Her classmate Julia Sloniewsky took on the challenge of writing as a knight or samurai during the all of feudalism. She won for Letter in the Desk of Hiraku Kikkawa.

The international contest asked students to imagine their favorite dish is “its own nation.”

Who/what is its leader? Its citizens? What does each ingredient do for a living? . . . Write about a philosophical problem this nation experiences — anything from existential angst due to being eaten, to “okra should never have been chosen as secreatry of state.”

Plate’s Republic by Grace Eder, also a Georgetown student, won first place. Second and third place winners came from Italy, China, Turkey, Britain and the U.S.

Adios, muchachos

I’m going to Andalucia for two weeks — and I just used two-thirds of my Spanish for the headline.

Darren Miller, who blogs at Right on the Left Coast, and Diana Senechal, who blogs here, will be guest-blogging. Darren is a high school math teacher in Sacramento. Diana teaches philosophy at a New York City high school.


Bye, bye, boobies

I’m back from my travels in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. I’ve hiked through the cloud forest and soared over it on a “sky bike” at Mashpi Lodge.

In the Galapagos Islands, I saw giant tortoises, sea lions, iguanas, blue- and red-footed boobies, frigate birds, short-eared owls and finches, hiked over lava fields, snorkeled and kayaked.

For nearly five days I lived without Internet access! Meanwhile, Diana Senechal, Michael E. Lopez and Rachel Levy were blogging up a storm. I’m very grateful to my guest bloggers.

Back to Balanced Literacy in NYC?

To those familiar with the history of New York City schools, this should come as no surprise: NYC schools chancellor Carmen Fariña is pushing for a return to Balanced Literacy, which she has long supported and which she sees as compatible with the Common Core.

Some dispute her claim; a New York Times article by Javier Hernández  quotes Common Core architect Susan Pimentel, who says that part of the Balanced Literacy philosophy is “worrisome and runs counter to the letter and spirit of Common Core.” Later, it states that she sees the two as potentially compatible. Compatibility aside, is this return to Balanced Literacy a good idea? I say emphatically no–and will give two reasons that weren’t mentioned in the article. It was in large part my objection to Balanced Literacy (as dogma) that spurred me to write Republic of Noise.

Balanced Literacy, which traces back to initiatives of the 1970s and 1980s, rests on the premise that children learn best when allowed to teach each other and themselves. The teacher is a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage”; students have frequent opportunities to choose their own books; and most lessons involve small group work (or sometimes independent work). The program was extensively developed in NYC schools in the 1990s. Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein mandated it throughout NYC schools in 2003. It is the foundation of the Reading and Writing Project, founded by Lucy Calkins.

While certain elements of Balanced Literacy, applied prudently, could be part of good teaching anywhere, the program as a whole has dangerous weaknesses. Many critics have pointed to the lack of curricular focus and the implied disparagement of direct instruction. The NYT article quotes Robert Pondiscio, who became an eloquent and passionate critic of Balanced Literacy as a result of teaching it in the South Bronx:

“One of the best things you can do to build reading proficiency is to build a strong base of background knowledge,” said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a research organization. “When you have 24 kids reading 24 books, you’re not accounting for that.”

Indeed. Moreover, when there’s no specific content that the students are learning together, what do they get instead? Strategies, strategies, and more strategies. Reading strategies, writing strategies, strategies for remembering your strategies. In the absence of content, such strategies become vapid. Forget about holding a candle; they can’t even hold hot air to subject matter. Also, some of these “strategies” involve sidestepping the text–for instance, a teacher might encourage students to figure out unfamiliar words (that is, to figure out what they actually are) by looking at the pictures.

Here’s my contribution to the discussion: Balanced Literacy is to be distrusted because it is an all-encompassing pedagogical package that comes with both a worldview and a fever. Moreover, its emphasis on group work discourages high-level, sustained, and original work and thought. [Read more…]

Triple play

I’m off to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. (Blue-footed boobies!) Michael E. Lopez, Diana Senechal and Rachel Levy will be blogging in this space.

Michael is a California litigation and appellate attorney, and also a newly-minted Ph.D. in Philosophy, specializing in Philosophy of Education (among other things).  He blogs — sporadically — at Highered Intelligence and regularly fills when I go on vacation.

Also a regular vacation blogger, Diana teaches high school philosophy and writes nonfiction, satire, and poetry. Her students write a philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE. She is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in School and Culture and a blogger.

Rachel is a parent, teacher, writer, and soon-to-be doctoral student. A D.C. native, she lives in Ashland, Virginia, with her husband and three children. She has taught high school and middle school English for Speakers of Other Languages and Social Studies, as well as preschool. She normally blogs at All Things Education.

Teamwork for what?

“Social-emotional skills’ such as teamwork, collaboration and communications are fashionable these days, writes Diana Senechal. She thinks students need to learn “a different way of being with others, a way of coming together for something interesting and beautiful.”

Teen socializing can be one of the most miserable experiences in life. If you don’t fit in, you have several options: to try to fit in, to take pride in not fitting in, to ignore the whole thing, to experience shame, or to build friendships over time. Many young people do a combination of all of these—and still go through school with a sense of rejection that stays with them for years, even decades.

If students get together to study a work of literature or music, they “come together as participants and witnesses, as people with ideas and questions,” Senechal writes. In her eighth-grade English class, she “came to know my classmates, and they me,” in discussing The Sword in the Stone, Henry IV, Antigone, The Glass Menagerie and  more.

Something similar happened in other classes, in chorus, and in our production of Romeo and Juliet. We were given room to think about something, to appreciate something, to work on something substantial.

Most group work  “degenerates into regular socializing with a task added on,” Senechal writes. “Too often, the group members shut out the student with the unusual idea (who, in many cases, would get much more done if allowed to work alone).”

Teamwork is not good in itself, she argues.

Just as much as students need to work together, they also need to think and act on their own. . . . Yes, there are times when you need to learn how to work together (on something specific)–for instance, how to act together in a scene, or how to conduct a physics experiment together. Still, the teamwork skills (if that’s the right term for them) will be determined by the work at hand. Teamwork as a generic skill does not exist (or if it does, it’s dreary).

. . . schools should offer more than the purely social; they should give students something worth learning and doing together, something beyond the peer group and its limited, limiting judgments.

Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture.

I think people learn teamwork only when they’re on real teams coming together to dramatize Romeo and Juliet, sing in the chorus, march in the band, win the game, put out a newspaper and so on.

I’m baaaaaaaack

I want to thank Michael E. Lopez and Diana Senechal for their wonderful contributions to the blog while I was off cruising the Norwegian fjords and celebrating a family wedding — the first of six weddings we have in the next five months.

Let me remind you that Michael blogs at Highered Intelligence and Diana is the author of  Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture

Power to the introverts

Our culture is designed for gregarious team players, says Susan Cain, author of Quiet, in this TED talk on The Power of Introverts.  Schools require children to work in groups, “even in  the most solitary of assignments, such as creative writing,” she complains. Students need the chance to think and learn on their own too. “Solitude is the school of the soul.”

Diana Senechal’s Republic of Noise also criticizes the mania for group work, collaboration and “groupthink,” rather than solitary contemplation.