Academics aren’t just a ‘white thing’

Standardized tests are a “racist weapon,” argues Ibram X. Kendi, a history professor at the University of Florida. “What if the intellect of a poor, low testing Black child in a poor Black school is different—and not inferior—to the intellect of a rich, high-testing White child in a rich White school?” he asks.

Image result for bell curve testing

“Gathering knowledge of abstract items, from words to equations, that have no relation to our everyday lives has long been the amusement of the leisured elite,” writes Kendi. He prefers to measure literacy “by how knowledgeable individuals are about their own environment.”

A Mexican-American and a first-generation college graduate, Liz Reetz teaches sixth-grade social studies. Testing shows  how “our schools are not educating all students,” she writes on A Plus Colorado.

She “built a curriculum based on teaching students to think, read, talk, and write about history as it relates to identity and social justice,” she writes. Her non-elite students can handle abstractions, if they have “the opportunity to engage with ideas that are meaningful to them.”

Kendi’s ideas are dangerous, she believes.

“Equally intelligent in different ways” says to me: value survival skills in poor and brown people but leave the thinking about big ideas, governing, or improving the world to wealthy people and white people.

. . . You give the power to white teachers, white administrators, white legislators to say “you can’t hold me accountable for the fact that he can’t read, his intelligence is different” or “It’s not my fault she isn’t grasping algebra, her culture doesn’t value numbers or abstract thinking.”

The “notion that communities of color have fundamentally different kinds of knowledge” is racist and ahistorical, writes Reetz.

Pre-Columbian societies tracked the movements of stars and planets, understood complex mathematics, used chemistry and biology to create rubber, and engineered roads and buildings. Do not tell me that my culture doesn’t value abstract thinking.

Abstract thinking “is the heritage of humanity,” she writes. It’s not a “white thing.”

Real or fake? Teens can’t tell

Image result for fake news

Teens may be “digital natives,” but most can’t judge the credibility of online information, concludes a Stanford study.

Students can’t google their way to the truth, write researchers Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew.

At every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation: middle school students unable to tell the difference between an advertisement and a news story; high school students taking at face value a cooked-up chart from the Minnesota Gun Owners Political Action Committee; college students credulously accepting a .org top-level domain name as if it were a Good Housekeeping seal.

Stanford students were asked to compare the trustworthiness of information from the website of the American Academy of Pediatrics (66,000 members, established in 1930, publishes Pediatrics) and the American College of Pediatricians (small anti-gay group that broke off in 2002). More than half concluded the College was “more reliable.” Apparently, it had a nicely designed site.

Students don’t jump to other sites to cross-check information or put it in context, the researchers found.

In a Northwestern study, college students were influenced by how high a story appeared on search results, rather than by the source of the information.

Teachers and school librarians  are trying to teach “media literacy,” writes Jackie Zubrzycki on Education Week. Students need help distinguishing fact from opinion.


All those folks who said students don’t need to know things — they can look it up — should be having second thoughts. Without background information it’s hard to judge what’s likely to be true.

Did the Pope endorse Donald Trump for president? I know the pope doesn’t do political endorsements, so I don’t need to “fact check” the claim. I also use common sense. Did Hillary Clinton adopt an alien baby who survived a UFO crash? Probably not.

Plenty of adults have trouble distinguishing between spin, satire, lies and just-the-facts-ma’am. Leonard Pitts recommends “a news platform that specializes in gathering and disseminating non-fake news.”  He’s talking about newspapers.

History is a mystery

Fourth-graders at the New Hampshire Historical Society Photo: Jason Moon/NHPR

Each year, fourth graders visit the New Hampshire Historical Society in Concord as part of their study of state history. It used to be a “capstone” field trip, said Elizabeth Dubrulle, the society’s director of education. Now it’s a substitute for the history education most no longer receive in the classroom.

“We used to employ a very Socratic method with the kids,” she told NHPR reporter Jason Moon. “We would try keeping them engaged by asking a lot of questions, drawing on what they knew. We had to change that because we would ask questions and it would be crickets. They didn’t know. They weren’t getting the background.”

Dubrulle and the museum teachers give examples of the “history deficit.”

. . . students who named ISIS as America’s enemy in the Revolutionary War or who were unable to name the president during the Civil War.“

. . . “We’ve had kids from Manchester schools, who when they came through our field have trip said they had no idea there were mills in Manchester. They had no idea what those brick buildings were that they saw everywhere.”

The society is creating a free, online curriculum on New Hampshire history for fourth graders.

It’s not just a New Hampshire problem, according to Knowledge Matters. Elementary students devote 85 minutes a day to language arts, but just 18 minutes a day to social studies. (And social studies may not mean history or civics.)

Most elite universities don’t require history majors to study U.S. history or government, complains George Will, citing an American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) study.

Who he?

Who he?

Others let students satisfy the requirement with “micro-history” courses such as “Hip-Hop, Politics and Youth Culture in America” (University of Connecticut), and “Jews in American Entertainment” (University of Texas).

More than a third of college graduates couldn’t identify Franklin Roosevelt as the architect of the New Deal in a recent ACTA survey. Nearly half did not know the lengths of the terms of U.S. senators and representatives.

Know to learn

Via Knowledge Matters’ Seize the Day page.

How ‘Friends’ led to the fall of civilization

Friends and its “tragic hero, Ross Geller,” triggered the downfall of Western Civilization, writes David Hopkins on Medium.

Ross Geller was a professor of paleontology on Friends.

Ross Geller was a nerdy paleontology professor on Friends.

“Ross was the intellectual and the romantic,” he writes. His so-called “friends” groaned with boredom whenever he talked “his interests, his studies, his ideas.” Eventually, Ross went crazy.

The show ended in 2004, the year that “reality television became a dominant force in pop culture,” writes Hopkins. Paris Hilton released an autobiography.  Joey Tribbiani, Friends‘ dimwit actor, got a spin-off TV show.

Hopkins was a teacher that year. As coach of the chess club, he saw his students picked on and bullied, he writes. “My students were smart, huge nerds, and they were in hostile, unfriendly territory.”

Astronaut Mark Watney was smart and studly in The Martian.

Martian astronaut Mark Watney was a smart, studly scientist.

I just saw The Martian on DVD. Matt Damon plays the hero astronaut, who uses his knowledge, strength and courage to survive. “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this,” he pledges.

The Martian glorifies a specifically male nerdery, one whose values sync up with those of traditional masculinity: physical endurance, survival in a hostile landscape, honor, adulation,” writes Katy Waldman in Slate. She complains because the brave and brainy female astronauts are also beautiful.

Is that so bad?

All reading and math makes Jack a dull boy

The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David.

All reading and math skills — without exposure to the arts — makes Jack a dull boy — and not much of a reader, argues Jay Greene. “More research is beginning to show that a broader education, including the arts, may be essential for later success in math and reading as well as the proper development of civic values and character skills, including tolerance, empathy, and self-regulation.”

Kindergarten and first-grade teachers are spending less time teaching music, art, dance and theater, research shows.

Long-term success in math, reading and science depends on the general knowledge and fine-motor skills learned through the arts, studies show, Greene adds.

Researchers urge teaching children “a better understanding of the world”  by improving science and social studies instruction and building foundational skills through “the arts, music, dance, physical education, and free play.”

Greene’s research has found that “field trips to art museums and to see live theater” not only build general knowledge, they “change student values to promote greater tolerance and empathy.”

When books ‘smell like old people’

In a digital age, turning teenagers on to reading literature is harder than ever, writes David Denby in Lit Up. The book chronicles his year observing 10th-grade English classes at a New York City magnet school, Beacon.

Sean Leon, who gets to select his own reading list, teaches Brave New World and 1984 to students who know little about totalitarianism. He includes Siddhartha, Sartre’s No Exit and Viktor Frankl’s Holocaust memoir, but no Shakespeare.

These are some of the books that change teenagers' lives, writes David Denby.

These are some of the books that change teenagers’ lives, writes David Denby.

A colleague at Beacon teaches the venerable Scarlet Letter by having students act out scenes. They spend a month on the novel.

Denby also made regular visits to a high-achieving school in the affluent suburbs where test scores are high, but few students enjoy reading. Teachers try to sell students on entry-level books, supervise their independent reading and encourage them to move up to more challenging literature.

He also visited a low-performing, all-minority school in New Haven, Hillhouse, where a boy said, “Books smell like old people.”

A Long Way Gone, the memoir of an African boy soldier, was a hit with black students in New Haven.

The memoir of an African boy soldier, was a hit with black students in New Haven.

Many of the students “lacked necessary information — facts, for want of a better word,” Denby writes. “When wars took place, how American politics worked, who were the country’s great men and women, how a bank did its business, what, exactly, they had to do to get into the professions or get any kind of good job — general information about how the world worked.”

The English teacher, who gets students for 80 minutes a day, five days a week, struggles to get them to read To Kill a Mockingbird and Shakespearean sonnets but finds they’re turned on by a Hemingway story about a man who loses his nerve, his wife and his life while big-game hunting.

“Fifteen-year-olds will read seriously when inspired by charismatic teachers alert to what moves adolescents,” Denby concludes.

In a discussion with On Point on how to get teens to read, he talks about books that engage young readers and potentially “change lives.” He includes Waiting for Godot and No Exit.  I read both when I was a teenager — not for school — because I read everything. I don’t think these are the books to turn non-readers into literature lovers.

In defense of knowledge

The Knowledge Matters campaign is lobbying for schools to teach a broad curriculum including history, science, geography, art and music — especially to “those least likely to gain such knowledge outside school.”
You’d think there’d be no need to ask schools to teach knowledge,  but it’s being pushed aside by drill in reading skills and by the belief that kids don’t need to know anything because they can just look everything up.

“Fifty years of solid research demonstrates that broad knowledge is vital to language comprehension and deep knowledge is vital to critical analysis,” argues the Knowledge Matters campaign. “Through broad and deep knowledge, students become the informed, thoughtful citizens our nation—and world—needs.”

From information to knowledge to wisdom

Most Likely to Succeed, which celebrates San Diego’s High Tech High, argues for schools to focus on “the relational skills” needed in the workforce, writes David Brooks in the New York Times. That includes “being able to motivate, collaborate, persevere and navigate through a complex buffet of freelance gigs.”

But it means students will learn less about the world, he writes in Schools for Wisdom,

At High Tech High, one group “studied why civilizations rise and fall and then built a giant wooden model, with moving gears and gizmos, to illustrate the students’ theory,” Brooks writes.

Most Likely to Succeed doesn’t let us see what students think causes civilizational decline, but it devotes a lot of time to how skilled they are at working in teams, demonstrating grit and developing self-confidence.

. . . teachers cover about half as much content as in a regular school. Long stretches of history and other subject curriculums are effectively skipped. Students do not develop conventional study habits.

The road to wisdom starts by learning facts, such as “what a neutron or a gene is, that the Civil War came before the Progressive Era,” argues Brooks. Then students must learn to “link facts together in meaningful ways.”

At some point while studying a field, the student realizes she has learned a new language and way of seeing — how to think like a mathematician or a poet or a physicist.

At this point information has become knowledge. It is alive. It can be manipulated and rearranged. At this point a student has the mental content and architecture to innovate, to come up with new theses, challenge others’ theses and be challenged in turn.

Wisdom comes with experience, Brooks concludes. “The stairway from information to knowledge to wisdom has not changed.”

Why do students — and teachers — hate history?

Why Do Students Hate History? asks Grego Milo, a world history teacher in Ohio, in Ed Week.

The textbook covers 5,000 years — from the origins of civilization to the 21st century. He focuses on some time periods and goes lightly on others, but worries that students don’t care about DaVinci, the Roaring Twenties or Sun Tzu.

Students who dislike his class tell him it’s boring. “How is learning about the Treaty of Versailles going to help me in life?” they wonder. (I wonder if they’re fans of Don’t Stay in School.)

That’s a “good question,” writes Milo. Strengthening his students’ “thinking skills” is his top priority.

I want them to make reasoned decisions that consider the many variables of an event. I want them to understand a decision’s consequences, for the long term as well as the short.

Students can “practice decision-making skills with any subject,” so why chose “a boring one,” writes Milo.

He doesn’t like teaching history as a chronology of topics.

Why do my students have to learn about the fall of Rome or the East India Trading Co.? Maybe one of them would like to focus on elections in Burundi.

History “only becomes interesting when you know enough about it so that new information makes sense,” responds Pax Britannica in comments. “It is also impossible to make sense of the past if we study it out of sequence.”

Why do some history teachers hate history? asks Katharine Beals on Out in Left Field. She continues here and here.

The fall of the Roman empire or elections in Burundi?

Why teach about the Roman empire, if some students would prefer to study elections in Burundi?

Students have to learn some basic history before they can know what topics they might find interesting, she writes.

Chronology creates a story. What happened next? That’s inherently interesting, writes Beals. Chronology also makes things easier to remember and helps clarify an event’s causes and effects.

I’ve always loved history. But I didn’t love social studies. Our world history class consisted of hopping here and there around the globe with no sense of what might have led to what. There was no history.