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.

Enter your edu-combination code

I meant to post something much earlier today but have been wrapped up in final edits of my book manuscript (before it goes to copyediting), final preparations for a presentation tomorrow, and final gazes at the trees and rooftops out my window before I move back to Brooklyn on Saturday.

I am so wrapped up in these things that I’m not sure what’s going on in education at the present hour. I gather there have been premieres of a new film, American Teacher, by Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari. I gather Mark Zuckerberg wants kids under 13 to have Facebook access for education purposes. But I don’t know enough about either of these things to write about them.

Then an op-ed by Rick Hess caught my eye: “Common Core: Giving Happy Lie to the ‘Reform Consensus.’” Hess states that many “reformy types” assume a consensus that just isn’t there, and that the small-government conservatives are finally speaking up and making this clear.

For several years now, would-be reformers have gotten away with claiming that there’s a goopy, groupthink “reform consensus.” They depict the edu-debates as a simple-minded morality play between a “reform” phalanx and “adult interests.” This line has been sold most assiduously by Democrat for Ed Reform-types and NCLB enthusiasts who think conservatives are supposed to quietly, cheerfully sign on to the grand schemes crafted by their betters.

I’m not in a position to evaluate Hess’s larger argument. But the imagined “goopy, groupthink ‘reform consensus’” has bugged me, no matter where it comes from. Many people have combinations of views that don’t align with a particular platform. And hooray for that. Without such variation, there would be no reason for an education discussion at all. You would have a set of views, you’d fight those holding the opposite views, and that would be that.

One thing that keeps me interested in education policy is the perplexing nature of almost every issue. If it weren’t perplexing, it would be just something to get done. Instead, it’s something to think about, fight for, learn more about, question oneself about, and so on. Yes, one needs to get things done at the same time; one can’t just dwell in perplexity. But the doing of the things also casts them in new perspective, as do reading, thinking, and discussion.

One doesn’t necessarily feel perplexed about everything in education; one may be sure about many things. But a hundred years ago, or a hundred days ago, one might have taken a different stance, even an opposite one. These matters change in meaning over time.

Nor does the lack of “consensus” preclude alliances of various kinds. But they are stronger if they make room for differences among the members, as long as the differences don’t render the alliance meaningless. For instance, two people working together on a curriculum may have very different ideas about school governance, but as long as school governance doesn’t figure large in their work together, they can disagree cordially and keep the work going.

There may be education groups and organizations whose members agree on most points. That has its place too. Many fine schools have a very cohesive staff who agree on the school’s goals and curriculum. The danger occurs only when the agreement gets smug–when those outside the circle are written off automatically or put under pressure to conform.

In-fighting and squabbling are sad things. Imaginary consensus is just as sad, if not sadder. What, then, is left? Hearty agreement, hearty disagreement, without shame or scorn. That, and the recognition that even the most well-considered views are approximations and that anyone can be wrong.

You’re no Zuckerberg, so get a degree

On Community College Spotlight: Maybe Mark Zuckerberg did OK without a college degree, but the U.S. needs more college graduates.

Also, for-profit colleges get help in Congress in their battle against proposed Education Department rules that would deny loans to career colleges with high debt and default rates.

To heck with Harvard

Larry Summers, the former Treasury secretary, Harvard president and Obama  economic adviser, was pitted against Amy Chua, Yale law professor and self-proclaimed “tiger mother,” at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, notes the Wall Street Journal. An Ivy League degree isn’t everything, Summers said.

“Which two freshmen at Harvard have arguably been most transformative of the world in the last 25 years?” he asked. “You can make a reasonable case for Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, neither of whom graduated.” If they had been the product of a Tiger Mom upbringing, he added, their mothers would probably have been none too pleased with their performance.

The A, B and C alums at Harvard in fact could be broadly characterized thus, he said: The A students became academics, B students spent their time trying to get their children into the university as legacies, and the C students—the ones who had made the money—sat on the fund-raising committee.

Of course, thanks to grade inflation, the Ivy League isn’t turning out B or C alums any more. The elite colleges take A or A+ students. The most creative and entrepreneurial may not see the need to complete a degree.

Newark kids use Facebook to protest rats, guns

Two weeks after Facebook’s founder promised $100 million to improve Newark schools, students used Facebook to organize a protest against their high school’s inability to control gangsta, rodent and insect infestations.

On Thursday, students at Barringer High School in Newark walked out of class in protest, saying their school is unsafe and unsanitary.

Students tell The Star-Ledger of Newark there are rats, mice, cockroaches, spiders, guns and fights in the hallways.

During the afternoon protest, students left the building in waves of 10 or 20, but some said security guards blocked doors to prevent anyone from going outside.

Students spread the word of the protest on Facebook.

Mark Zuckberg’s donation was conditioned on Gov. Chris Christie giving Newark Mayor Cory Booker control of the schools, something the governor may lack the authority to do.  It’s not clear how this will be resolved.

The money wasn’t likely to make a difference, writes Rick Hess. Newark is spending $940 million this year,  more than $22,000 per pupil, and graduates less than half the students.  (And can’t keep the schools free of rats.) An extra $100 million over four years, even if it generated matching funds, is not significant.

Furthermore, Zuckerberg missed the chance to “use the money to leverage hard-to-win changes.”

It’s hard for even far-seeing union leaders to convince veteran union members to accept reforms to evaluation, tenure, or pay policies. It’s much easier if they can tell their members that such changes are what it will take to unlock new funds. District leadership reluctant to close half-empty facilities, overhaul operations, or push for cuts in benefits will find its path somewhat easier if such measures will open doors for new funding. As in any negotiation, one’s leverage is greatest before signing on the dotted line. Unfortunately, Zuckerberg missed an important opportunity to provide political cover to Booker and Christie, or to ensure that his money would be well spent.

Superintendents don’t have much discretionary money, so $50 million a year could make a difference, “if spent smart,” Hess concedes. But the signs aren’t promising.

Booker is promising to solicit ideas from the community, seems none too eager to suggest tough measures, and Zuckerberg didn’t push or demand tough medicine. This sounds to me like a formula for more tepid measures to boost professional development, add programs, tweak curriculum, and the rest.

The legal problems give Zuckerberg a chance to rethink the donation. If he can’t condition the donation on mayoral control, he can condition it on agreement to make difficult changes.  Of course, that lets an outside philanthropist dictate school policy, which will be very unpopular.