To be employable, study philosophy

Would-be journalists (and others) who want to be employable should avoid journalism programs and study philosophy, advises Shannon Rupp, a Canadian journalist, in Salon. She majored in political science and English, but also took philosophy classes that taught “something applicable to any and every job: clarity of thought.”

While “vague, trendy subjects” go out of fashion, philosophy stays relevant, writes Rupp. The University of Windsor is closing its Centre for Studies in Social Justice, possibly because “no one can actually define ‘social justice’.”

. . .  the importance of defining terms to ensure we all mean the same thing when we’re talking is one of those skills I picked up in philosophy.

I spent a semester defining ordinary things. Hats. Chairs. It’s harder than it looks. And I remember a classmate’s resistance to it. He kept ranting that it was stupid — everyone knows what a chair is! — before dropping out.

Of course, everyone only thinks she knows what a chair is. Or social justice, for that matter. Politicians, CEOs of questionable ethics, and all PR people count on exactly that. They will say something vague — I find the buzzwords du jour all seem to have some reference to “social” in them — and leave us to fill in the blanks with whatever pleases us.

Voila: we hear whatever we want and they get away with whatever they want.

Epistemology — the study of what we can know — teaches how to distinguish beliefs from facts, Rupp writes. Many people confuse the two.

The philosophy of science teaches about objectivity, which journalists often confuse with “being fair or denying personal bias.”

As newspapers began introducing advertorial copy and advertiser-driven sections, they retrained their staff to talk about “balance” instead of objectivity. As if printing opposing opinions somehow makes up for running half-truths.

What objectivity really means is to test for accuracy — regardless of what you suspect (or hope) might be true. In science they test knowledge by trying to poke holes in each other’s research. News reporters were taught a variation summed up by the cliché, “If someone tells you it’s raining, look out the window.”

The version I’ve heard is: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

Teaching “critical thinking” (as opposed to uncritical thinking?) is all the rage these days. Should K-12 teachers study philosophy?

‘Gifted,’ unemployed and living at home

A proud father responded to Matt Walsh’s radio show to tell him he’s  “the sort of person who never should have been a parent.” Unkindly, Walsh reprinted the email on his blog.

Nick starts by objecting to teaching children “how to think,” writing that imposing your views on a child is “tantamount to child abuse.” Instead, “let them think FREELY.”

Chores aren’t important, Nick writes.

Also, the idea that a kid should be forced to “get a job” is abhorrent. My son was very gifted so we gave him all the tools to succeed academically. This meant we didn’t turn him into slave labor and we certainly didn’t tell him he needed to go work behind a cash register. He concentrated on his school work, and we did our job as parents and financially supported him.

. . . My son is almost 29 and he’s been home with us since he graduated. Unfortunately the job market isn’t the greatest (maybe you hadn’t heard) and I’m not going to let him starve on the street. He has a college education, it’s pointless for him to be out working in a retail store or some other menial job. I will be here for him until he is able to get the job he deserves.

Nick advises Walsh to “grow up and get some life experiences.”

Children need guidance, Walsh responds.

 How ’bout I blindfold you, drive you out into the middle of the desert at night, and then leave you there without a map or a GPS? It’ll be great. You can just travel FREELY.

Walsh wonders how Nick knows his son is gifted if he he’s never accomplished anything and would “starve” if forced to take care of himself.

News flash, Nick: Junior ain’t special. He graduated school, good for him. Anyone can do that if they’ve got money, time and no pressures or responsibilities from the outside world. Your little pumpkin doesn’t “deserve” a job.

Walsh,  two years younger than Nick’s son, is married with two children.

No work experience, no respect for “menial” jobs, a sense of entitlement . . . I wonder why nobody wants to hire Not-so-Young Nick. After all, he’s a college graduate!

You’ve probably heard about the Philadelphia mother who advertised for a “sugar baby” to deflower her socially awkward 18-year-old son before he leaves for Harvard. I hope it’s a hoax.

Writing is thinking

Education Realist is teaching Book Club/PSAT, aka “Asian summer school” to a class of straight-A students. Writing is thinking, she tells them.

 “See, when you say you don’t know what to write, you are actually saying…..”

“I don’t know what to think.”

“Bingo.”

“Crap.”

“Indeed. How many of you google other essays and, please god, don’t copy them directly but take the ideas and rewrite them?” A few hands go up. “Yeah. DON’T DO THAT.”

“But I have no idea what to write.”

“Okay. So when you say you want to become a better writer, you are actually expressing the need to…”

“Become a better thinker?”

Her students want to know what their teacher wants them to say. She tells them to say what what’s on their own minds.

“But what if there’s nothing there?”

“. . .  if you don’t know what to think, then I’d rather you write articulately and carefully about why you don’t know what to think, instead of making something up.”

“And that will help my vocabulary?”

Only, if they learn to think about the meaning of words, she replies.

I agree. Clear writing requires clear thinking.

Understanding why algorithms work

Children need to learn algorithms to understand math, write Alice Crary, a philosophy professor, and W. Stephen Wilson, a math professor, in the New York Times.

. .  it is true that algorithm-based math is not creative reasoning. Yet the same is true of many disciplines that have good claims to be taught in our schools. Children need to master bodies of fact, and not merely reason independently, in, for instance, biology and history.

Mastering an algorithm requires “a distinctive kind of thought,” they write. It’s not “merely mechanical.” In addition, algorithms are “the most elegant and powerful methods for specific operations. . . . Math instruction that does not teach both that these algorithms work and why they do is denying students insight into the very discipline it is supposed to be about.”

Some commenters claimed math reformers advocate a “balanced” approach that includes algorithms, writes Barry Garelick in Education News. He is dubious.

I am reminded of a dialogue between a friend of mine—a math professor—and an public school administrator.  My friend was making the point that students need basic foundational skills in order to succeed in math. The administrator responded with “You teach skills. But we teach understanding.”

. . . The reform approach to “understanding” is teaching small children never to trust the math, unless you can visualize why it works. If you can’t “visualize” it, you can’t explain it.  And if you can’t explain it, then you don’t “understand” it.

According to Robert Craigen, math professor at University of Manitoba, “Forcing students to use inefficient procedures that require ham-handed handling of place value so that they articulate “meaning” out loud in every stage is the arithmetic equivalent of forcing a reader to keep his finger on the page and to sound out every word, every time, with no progression of reading skill.”

The power of math, however, is allowing for exploration of concepts that cannot be visualized.  Math is what takes over when our intuition begins to fail us.

Garelick, who’s launched a second career as a math teacher, links to a 1948 math book’s illustration of different ways to do mental multiplication:

Figure 2 (Source: Study Arithmetics, Grade 5)

Thinking deeply about … um … what?

Students will read more short informational texts under the new Common Core Standards and have less time for complete books — fiction or nonfiction — writes Will Fitzhugh, editor of the Concord Review.

Among the suggested texts are The Gettysburg Address, Letter from Birmingham Jail, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and perhaps one of the Federalist Papers, but no history books, writes Fitzhugh.

In the spirit of turnabout, English teachers could stop assigning complete novels, plays and poems, Fitzhugh writes.  Instead of reading Pride and Prejudice, perhaps Chapter Three would do.  ”They could get the ‘gist’ of great works of literature, enough to be, as it were, ‘grist’ for their deeper analytic cognitive thinking skill mills.”

Teachers will have to “to wean themselves from the old notions of knowledge and understanding” to offer “the new deeper cognitive analytic thinking skills required by the Common Core Standards,” Fitzhugh writes, perhaps with a touch of sarcasm.

In 1990, Caleb Nelson wrote in The Atlantic about an older Common Core at Harvard:

The philosophy behind the [Harvard College] Core is that educated people are not those who have read many books and have learned many facts but rather those who could analyze facts if they should ever happen to encounter any, and who could ‘approach’ books if it were ever necessary to do so….

That’s the idea, writes Fitzhugh.

The New Common Core Standards are meant to prepare our students to think deeply on subjects they know practically nothing about, because instead of reading a lot about anything, they will have been exercising their critical cognitive analytical faculties on little excerpts amputated from their context. So they can think “deeply,” for example, about Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, while knowing nothing about the nation’s Founding, or Slavery, or the new Republican Party, or, of course, the American Civil War.

Students will learn that “ignorance is no barrier to useful thinking,” Fitzhugh predicts. “The current mad flight from knowledge and understanding . . . will mean that our high school students [those that do not drop out] will need even more massive amounts of remediation when they go on to college and the workplace than are presently on offer.”

Via Jim Stergios of Rock the Schoolhouse, a Common Core skeptic.

Among Common Core exemplar texts are Evan Connell’s Son of the Morning Star about The Battle of Little Big Horn and Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, RiShawn Biddle points out.

Reading, ‘riting and coding

“I think everybody in this country should learn how to program a computer because it teaches you how to think,” said Steve Jobs.

Code.org is launching a campaign to persuade schools to offer computer programming: Nine out of 10 high schools do not.

Less than 2.4 percent of college graduates earn a degree in computer science, fewer than 10 years ago, despite rising demand for programming skills, according to the nonprofit group.

Code’s site includes links to online apps and programs that teach programming. Some are geared to young children.

Should kids learn programming, as they might study a foreign language, to develop thinking skills?

Coding isn’t just for boys – but sometimes it seems that way – reports the New York Times.

Grit is good, but academics come first

Stressing character traits such as “perseverance, self-monitoring, and flexibility”  over cognition is a mistake, writes Mike Rose, a UCLA professor. Many so-called “non-cognitive” traits require thinking skills.

Some colleges and universities are trying to measure non-cognitive traits to find “diamonds in the rough,” but so far high school grades, backed by test scores, are the most accurate predictors of college success.

Dan Willingham writes on the challenge of measuring non-cognitive skills.

Thinking without knowing

Teaching thinking skills independently of the factual content of a topic is a  waste of time, writes Tom Bennett on The Behavior Guru. He includes some wonderful art.

Black Belt in Bloom’s. Can’t spell ‘Taxonomy’.

“Say you want a child to become more discerning in understanding the veracity of historical sources. You start them off by teaching them…well, some history, just to be controversial. Then you offer them a variety of sources. The next bit’s guaranteed to blow a few gaskets: then you tell them which source is better, and why. You heard me. Teach them. Don’t fanny about getting them to thought shower it in discovery clusters; tell them. Then work through more examples at the same time as you teach them the most accurate stories you can impart. Start asking them which sources are most attractive, and get them to justify their answers.”

Students need “facts about what happened, facts about which sources support the narrative; facts about which source is virtuous, and which vicious,” Bennett argues. “Knowledge is best learned in context.”

Via Stuart Buck.

Reading and wandering

Reading a book is a physical act, writes Andrew Piper on Slate, arguing that an e-reader just isn’t the same. Every night, he reads his children a bedtime story.

As I begin to read, the kids begin to lean into me. Our bodies assume positions of rest, the book our shared column of support. No matter what advertisers say, this could never be true of the acrobatic screen. As we gradually sink into the floor, and each other, our minds are freed to follow their own pathways, unlike the prescribed pathways of the Web. We read and we drift. ‘The words of my book nothing,’ writes Walt Whitman, ‘the drift of it everything.’

Reading sets minds wandering, the best way to discover new ideas, writes Piper. “New connections, new pathways, and sharp turns are being made as we meander our way through the book, but also away from it.”

. . .  We may be holding the book together, but our minds are no doubt far apart by now. The fairy tale is the first story of childhood because it tells of such leaving behind (parents and home), of entering the dreamscape of the woods—and the mind. It tells of the crooked path of change. How can one know where reading books ends and dreaming in books begins?”

Via Annie Murphy Paul.

Do readers’ minds wander less with an e-reader? I prefer to read a real book, if I’m not traveling, but reading a screen is still reading.

Helicopter-ed kids in the classroom

At 50, after a successful career selling magazine advertising, Rod Baird became a high school English teacher at an affluent high school near New York City. Counterfeit Kids criticizes education fads — Baird thinks the “sage on the stage” makes a lot of sense — but the book’s real target is overprotective, esteem-boosting, college-obsessed parents.

Baird’s privileged students don’t like to read books, think or learn. Victims of the “cult of college,” they’ve been pushed by their parents to earn good grades and get into a “good” college. Nothing else matters.

In his first year, he taught non-honors English to 11th graders — B and C students — who’d figured out they’d already lost the college race.

“A palpable contempt had set in, they way they slouched in their seats, the way they openly cheated. . . . they no longer cared.”

Thanks to their parents, they had way too much self-esteem to blame themselves for their lack of success, Baird writes. Instead, they assumed the system was unfair.

Teachers are too student-centered, Baird writes.

We are trying so hard to teach that we are accepting their responsibilities. With all of our elaborate rubrics and review sheets and methodologies and layers upon layers of special education services and ever-changing pedagogies and assessments, we are smothering them, preventing them from learning the basics, from how to think for themselves, to self-discipline, to English grammar, stunting their growth . . .

Students who’ve been told they learn by doing believe they have no obligation to listen or read, Baird writes. Group work — “collaborative learning” — teaches them to follow the group leader, who does most of the work. “We love group work,” a student tells him. “Usually you don’t have to do anything until the teacher comes around with her clipboard and rubric. Then we pretend we are doing what she asked us.”

His students are good at following specific directions — if there’s a grade to earn. Asked to think for themselves, they flounder.

Baird shares his techniques for jolting students out of their complacency and getting them to think.