Saturday, June 13, 2009

Now What?

I apologize for not having posted in a while. I have been quite busy with finishing out the last few days of school. It has been a busy year. My wife has started up her proofreading business with a smashing good year. Both of us got masters degrees (my second, her first), I have finished up my final days at the Baltimore County Public Schools, and in two weeks, we are off do our new place in Newark, DE so that I can start my Education PhD.

Now that I am done my school year, I think it is a good time to pack up my blog. I am now contributing to a new blog, Liberty and Skepticism, and have started a new blog more aptly titled Education Philosopher. This new blog, I think, will focus on the more philosophical side of education, as I will write for it during my PhD study.

I hope that anyone who reads and enjoys this blog follows the other. (I will probably try to limit that one to matters of education, as Liberty and Skepticism will cover the more philosophical and political stuff).

See you all there.

Reflections from the Finish Line

Yesterday was a hard day; it was my last day in the Baltimore County Public Schools. After two very difficult years, I have decided to give up public school teaching (at least for now) in order to pursue a PhD in Education.

As anyone who has been a schoolteacher knows, it requires a lot of energy just to make it to the end of the year; the stings felt on the worst days often seems stronger than the rewards felt on the best days. But once the finish line is crossed, one remembers the rewards a bit more than the lows; one remembers the lives one touched (and those one were touched by) more than the headaches, tears, and anger.

What I can say, now that I’ve had time to reflect, is that teaching irrevocably changed me…I think for the better. I have much more confidence in my ability to deal with difficult situations than I did before. I have much more strength than I did before. And, yes, I have developed a newfound ability to be stern (while remaining a degree of calm) in the face of challenges. In short: being a teacher toughened me, but in a good way.

And what took me most by suprise is the recurring thought I’ve had over the last few days that I will really miss my life as a public educator. On the average and bad days, I assumed that there was no way I could ever miss it at all! How could one actually miss a job where one felt futile more than one felt productive, where one seemingly struggled uphill daily for so little gain, where the emotional costs seemed to outweigh the benefits at every turn?

Maybe hindsight is always rosier than the view from the trenches, but I did not realize how much I actually got used to all of these things, probably because I got used to them so gradually. There was no precise moment where I said, “Now, I am comfortable in my life and persona as a teacher,” but looking back on it, I can say exactly that. It must have happened, but it happened over two years rather than in one instant.

One of the teachers I said goodbye to yesterday said to me something like this: “Now, go off and do bigger and better things.” Once she realized what she said, she corrected herself; “Well, I don’t know about that; what we do is pretty big and pretty remarkable. You know what I mean, though.”

I could only agree with her. While it might not feel like it at the time, my reflection from the finish line is that teaching IS pretty big and wonderful.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Discipline, Education, and the Concept of Moral Hazard

The term "moral hazard" has been bandied about lately as a term of economics and the question of whether the government should be "bailing out" failing companies. As an economic term, "moral hazard" means the hazard that comes from insulating an entity form failure and the conseuqences of it. "Running the risk of moral hazard" is the idea that a risk we take in insulating others from failure is that they will never learn from their mistakes and may take as big or bigger risks in the future.

While the term has been used in economics, I think it is high time we apply it to the world of educational psychology. More directly, we educators should remain cognizant that every time we "keep students from failing" by artificially insulating them from the consequences of negative actions, we are ensuring that they do not learn from mistakes. In other words, if the best way to learn from mistakes is to realize that they are mistakes, then interfering with the experience of consequences of mistakes means interfering with the best feedback mechanism one has.

Many times in my career as a teacher have I argued this position and many times, unfortunately, I have lost the argument. In a previous post, I referred to one such incident: me and several other teachers brokered a deal with a senior in danger of failing that if he does x and y, we would see to it that he could pass. Repeatedly, he broke the deal. Repeatedly, the other teachers (without me) rebroekered the deal - all to ensure that he could pass despite having broken the agreement on which his success depended.

Many other times, I have seen the risk of moral hazard come into play when teachers explain rules and cosnequences to students only to, when push came to shove, chafe and allow students to break said rules without undergoing the consequences.

Why do we teachers allow and evene encourage such moral hazards to occur?

I believe that, just as in the current economic situation, it is hard to "hold the line" and enforce consequences when the consequences are severe. It is all well and good to say that companies that are irresponsible shall be allowed to go bankrupt, but it is painful to sit by and watch this happen. Thus, the government ends up caving in and taking the emotionally easy way out by not letting companies go under and people go unemployed.

In the same way, teachers allow such moral hazard becasue, as teachers, we generally do not like to hurt kids. We want to see kids happy, and we do not enjoy seeing kids fail. Unfortunately, we do not often realize that while this is a noble feeling, we often do more harm than good by protecting students form the consequences of their actions, and in the process, interfering with the feedback mechanism of natural consequences. She who places her hand on the stove and gets burned will not do it again. She who places her hand on the stove and is repeatedly saved from such an experience (by having their hand yanked away from the stove, etc) will never, or very slowly, learn that the stove burns. But as no one wishes to see a child get hurt, we protect them and unknowlingly slow down their learning process.

I have learned - and this will sound strange - to find a small (very small) bit of accomplishment in allowing students to fail of their own accord. I see it as a learning opportunity for the student. Of course, I don't actively want students to fail and do not try to make them fail; on the contrary, I want to do everything in my power to see them succeed SHORT OF PROTECTING THEM FROM DESERVED CONSEQUENCES. If this sounds strange, let me illustrate with an example.

One particular student of mine did just about everything wrong in the second and third marking period. He showed up late, talked back, did not do work, disrupted class, etc. I talked with him many times and warned him that he was heading for a failing grade. When his third quarter grade showed up as an "E," he did everyhing he could to try and convince me to change no avail. I explained to him that that was the consequence of his actions and that if he wanted to avoid failing the class, he must improve in quarter four. I would not change his grade or offer him any special benefit of the doubt.

From then on, he has improved greatly. He has been much better in class and is now earning a "B." I tell him as frequently as I can that I am proud of his change in behavior, and when asked what accounts for this new and improved showing, he simply tells me that he knows that acting up will result in a failing grade.

So, there you have it. Fairness means helping children succeed while holding to the rules when they don't. The minute one allows the rules to be overlooked and protecting kids from consequences of their actions, one is running the same "moral hazard" risk the economists talk about: we run the risk of interfering with people's ability to learn from, and correct, their mistakes.

What Does "In X's Interest" Mean?

Jonathan is overweight and considered morbidly obese. He frequents fast food resteraunts for most meals, and ignores doctors repeated warnings that, with every meal, he decreases his chance of living. He keeps eating fast food because it tastes much better than food he would make himself.

Tamara smokes marijuana every day. Despite the fact that it is illegal, she likes to smoke it because it helps her concentrate and relaxes her. She is not familiar with some of marijuana's health risks but obviously knows the legal risks. She continiues to buy and smoke marijuana despite this knowlege.


So are these activities in these two actors interests? Some say that eating fast food and smoking marijuana are in these two's interests because (obviously) these two engage in these activities. Others say that the activities are not in these two's best interests and that engaging in the activities is acting against their true interests.

To me, this difference of opinion resides in the conflict between what we mean by interests. Does 'interests' mean 'what one is interested in' or does it mean 'what is best for you'? If the former, then a case can be made that whatever we do because we like to do it is in our interest. We can make the argument that no one knows their interest better than others.

If, by 'interest' we mean 'what is best for someone,' then it is quite obvious that others can know our interests better than we. After all, it makes perfect sense to see that a child may not know what is best for her while a mother might (especially when the child wants candy while the mother pushes vegetables).

This question undergirds much of political theory. The question generally is not, or should not be, framed in an all or nothing way. Those who take the extremely libertarian (and really, anarchistic) view that only the individual can judge what is best for her will be foreced into many untenable positions (like the idea that 5 year olds should be able to choose to marry, drive, or do heroin, or that manic depressives should never be protected from suicide against their will). Those who take the opposite position - that others can often know what is best for the individual) have no reason to deny that the government knows what is best for us to read, see, or do.

Rather than being a black or white issue, the question generally is this: how can we recognize that there are occasions where y can know what is in x's best interest while also recognizing y's right to make decisions about her own life without x coming to dominate y? In other words, how can we respect y's ability to lead her own life while recognizing that there may be occasions where x may be in a better position than y (a kid, a mentally deluded person, a drug addict) to judge x's interests.

One can say, and many have, that the difference is in deciphering whether x is "thinking straight." But this hopelessly begs the question because, in general, we judge "thinking straight" by the conclusion come to. If one is against pornography, then there is no way that the urge to consume pornography can be seen as "thinking straight." If one is against suicide, then there is no way that a person who wants to commit suicide (however rational they, or their reasons, might be) will be seen as "thinking straight." Thus, "thinking straight' as a criterion is too nebulous and up to personal opinion to be of value.

So is saying that something is in x's best interest if and only if it is justifiable. Justifiable to whom? And what is and is not justifiable depends on who the proposition is being argued to. If it is the anti-pornography judge, then arguments for pornography can never be justifiable (like they would be to one who sees nothing wrong with pornography). Different people see different things as justifiable, and there is no cosmic "justifiability" principle.

So how can we tell whether x is acting in her interest? I think the issue still comes back to what we mean by her interest. I generally take the side that in the absence of evidence that x has sometype of mental deficiency that grossly inhibits her ability to make an objective (or close to) decision, then we lack any ground to say that x is incapable of ascertaining her own interest. (In this case, children, drug addicts, and those suffering from mood or emotional disorders are all considered mentally deficient in this way. Everyone recognizes this of the latter two groups, but children can be seen as mentally deficient in the sense that they lack the intellectual capacity to make fully informed decisions.)

Further, I take the stance that, if a person is seen as mentally deficient based on psychologicl data, we must further ask about the gravity of the decision x is about to make. Unless her decision is one that will have drastic personal consequences of the type she cannot adequately assess, we should let her do as she pleases. Only when what she is about to do has drastic consequences (engage in consumption of a lethal drug, commit suicide, get into an otherwise dangerous and potentially life changing situaiton), should we interfere and prevent her.

Put differently, the two criteria I think should be used in deciding whether x can accurately appraise her interests and whether to intervene are (a) whether the person can justly be seen as mentally incapable of acting objectively or near-objectively; and (b) whether the "interest" in question has potentially disasterous and life-changing cosnequences.

Following this rule would make it so that we can recognize that the child is not capable of deciding to marrry but the adult can. We could see that an adult can decide for herself whether to smoke marijuana but may not be able to judge whether she should continue injecting heroin or cystal meth. We could achieve a libertarian end of "live and let live" without getting to the point of "live and let die."

Saturday, May 16, 2009

On Pathetic Republican Arguments

One of the key principles of rhetoric is to tailor your arguments to your audience. If you are arguing to Muslims, for instance, one should not use logic becuase they do not believe in logic. If one is arguing with democrats, one should do one's best to sound like Karl Marx (they love that stuff!). Etc.

According to this article, there are a handful of republicans with just enough intelligence to employ this strategy - at least they are trying! RNC chairman Michael Steele is trying a new rhetorical poisiton in the gay marriage debate, by arguing that it would hurt small businesses. Here is the quote:
"Now all of a sudden I've got someone who wasn't a spouse before, that I had no responsibility for, who is now getting claimed as a spouse that I now have financial responsibility for," Steele told Republicans at the state convention in traditionally conservative Georgia. "So how do I pay for that? Who pays for that? You just cost me money."

I am not sure that there is a technical name for this fallacy, but the problem with this argument is that it argues againt an effect that is not at all exclusive to the cause being argued against. It would be like arguing against riding on bicycles by suggesting that one could get injured (even though getting injured is not an effect at all exclusive to riding bicycles).

So, let's think about what the REAL implications of Steele's argument against dependents is. If we follow it to its logical conclusions, Steele's argument against forcing employers to pay for dependents could be seen as an argument not only against gay, but straight, marriage, or at very least an argument against having employers pay for ANY dependents (including children).

What is even more horrendous than the fact that Steele thinks he is smart enough to devise an argument is the fact that he is utterly transparent that it is not a sincere argument, but a rhetorical ploy!
Steele said that was just an example of how the party can retool its message to appeal to young voters and minorities without sacrificing core conservative principles. Steele said he used the argument weeks ago while chatting on a flight with a college student who described herself as fiscally conservative but socially liberal on issues like gay marriage.

This brings us full circle, back to the rules of rhetoric. A hidden rule of rhetoric is that while one should always tailor one's arguments to one's audience, one should never disclose that this is what one is doing. Otherwise, one opens onesself up to charges of insincerity and 'ends justifying the means" style of argument.

Steele's suggesting that one can "retool its message to appael to young voters and minorities without sacrificing core conservative principles" will have the likely effect of achieving none of those goals. Arguments for gay marriage (especially those from the young) do not generally focus on economic arguments, but on civil rights arguments (showing that economic arguments will not likely triumph civil rights arguments in their minds). And as for sacrificing core conservative principles, if the principle is (as it always has been to the GOP) that homosexual marriage is immoral, then the principle is sacrificed as soon as one makes the gay marriage argument void of arguments from morality.

(And just for kicks, let me see if I can beat Steele at his own game. Wouldn't his argument against forcing employers to add dependents on to healthcare plans be a GREAT argument IN FAVOR of abortion? After all, the ability to abort potential children certainly would minimize the number of dependents one would claim for insurance purposes, wouldn't it?)

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Does This Sound LIke Something From the USSR?

I just read a quite scary (to me) article today about the forced "govermentizing" of banks, in the form of the government buying bank equity shares. The article is called "Paulson gave banks no choice on government stakes: memos" According to the article, the press now has hold of documents outlining Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's talking points to banks telling them that the government will be buying bank shares and informing banks that they have no choice about this fate.

But there was one quote that caught my attention. Am I crazy, or does this sound like something out of the USSR. (Just add a Russian accent, if you'd like.)

"If a capital infusion is not appealing, you should be aware your regulator will require it in any circumstance," the document said, citing Paulson talking points.

It has been a while since I've read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, and I am not really a big fan of Rand, but I can't help but think back to her book and (if I recall it correctly) the government takeover of the railroads.

Scary, scary stuff.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Is "African-American" a Valid Educational Category?: A Pragmatic View

Recently, a sparring match has surfaced between William Seletan and John McWhorter over whether test performance statistics should subcategorize by racial makeup. The hubbub is over a recent NYT article noting that No Child Left Behind is failing to close the black/white achievement gap. The question: why even keep score of such an arbitrary categorization of race?

Seleatan's point is that in the age of genetics, race is hardly the most pertinent or salient category. He writes that McWhorter is relying on an arbitrary categorizing when he:

[is] for airing "findings that shed less than positive light on black people." Not bad parents. Not people with low-performing kids. Black people.

McWhorter suspects that Seletan's motive is simply to put a hush on any statistic that might make black's look bad.

Just as that is antithetical to what getting past race is supposed to mean, we will not pretend that it's okay that black students don't read and do math as well as white kids in order to provide a way for people like William Saletan to demonstrate that they aren't racists.

To be honest, this is a hard discussion to think about and there are good and bad points made on all sides. But my pragmatic inclination is to say that what counts as a valid category is any category that has something pertinent to say (as measured by whether most people believe it does). By this pragmatic light, race is still a valid category (even if it is not a valid genetic category). We still - and especially black intellectuals - talk of black culture as somehow being seperate from white culture.

While my personal sympathies lie with Saletan - I really cannot see how different skin colors are valid educational subgroups) - my social symphaties lie with McWhorter. The very fact that we as a society are so obsessed with the "black/white achievement gap" (that does bear out statistically) means that there is something to subcategorizing educational statistics by racial groupings.

And I further agree with McWhorter that as long as we are talking about the black/white achievement gap, we should be divulging and publicizing statistics reporting on it, even if it makes one group look bad. And as a teacher, I will go even further to suggest that current statistics suggest that blacks DESERVE to look bad right now! Whether race is a valid genetic category, the statistics tell a story of a whole group of people going awry in many areas, such as criminality, educational performance, and single parenthood. I agree with McWhorter that to put rosy dressings on such statistics would do a disservice to the black community, who obviously needs to hear (and get angry at) such statistics.

So, I think it would be unfair for Seletan to win this argument if only for the fact that, in a pragmatic sense, we are a society that DOES see "racial makeup" as a valid social category. As long as we are talking about the "black/white achievement gap," and as long as such a gap is borne out statistically, refusing to break future stats down by race would be the equivalent to posing a question only to censor the answer. And as long as we are concerned with how blacks are performing as an academic group (no matter how loose that grouping is), I think it would be nothing short of pussyfooting not to let them (and others) see their dismal report card.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Guys Behind the Music

Recently, I saw a commercial for without the "band" that has become the company's trademark. This got me to thinking: who are the people that came up with the music for in the first place (a question we very seldom ask ourselves considering how often their products infest our heads)?

Well, here is some info. The songwriter for these jingles is a 36 year old jingle writer named David Muhlenfield - a senior copywriter at the Martin Agency.

But unlike what many would assume, Muhlenfield is NOT the frontman in the commercials. That honor - and if you think of the royalties, it is an honor - belongs to Eric Violette, a classically trained actor/musician from just outside of Montreal, Canada. it is interesting to note that in 2004 (a few years before the commercials began appearing, if memory serves) Violette starred in a French rendition of Hamlet at the Société Supérieure de Théâtre du Dehors. According to his resume, he lists his role in the commercials as the "main character" under his acting credentials, but research indicates that he also sang in the commercials.

Forgive my frivolity!

Maine: Legalizing Gay Marriage the Smart (and Correct) Way

I am overjoyed to find this article detailing that the state of Maine just passed a law legalizing same-sex marriage. And they did it the smart and correct way - which is great for a person like me, who supports gay mariage rights but disagrees strongly with the "legislation by judicial fiat" approach.

Several times I have been asked to participate in signing petitions voicing support for x state's attempt at "legalizing" gay marriage. Each time, I have been caught in a quandary. I strongly feel that states should make marriage laws as diverse as possible, stopping short of sanctioning coercion. (In fact, I question what qualifies the state to decide who we can and can't marry altogether.) At the same time, the libertarian principal I base that on also leads me to a principal in tension with the previous one: that legislation should be legislative and not judicial. Thus, I supported the idea that New York should legalize gay marriage, but was angry as hell at the idea that the judiciary could have the power to override a legislative matter that had NO CONSTITUTIONAL BEARING.

So, I am pleased to see that Maine, following the leads of Vermont and Connecticut, in signing a bill into law legalizing the ability of gays and lesbians to marry. One of the reasons I am pleased about this, in fact, is because when the decision is legislative, critics cannot say - as they often do! - that the bill is unrepresentative of the will of the people. per our democratic republican process, the very fact that these laws were enacted by the congress means that they were conducted properly and, should the people disagree, the people may vote the candidates out of office or petition to those candidates.

And the fact that these laws are enacted properly - by elected representatives - is also to be noted because this trend means that those who live in highly conservative states should not have to worry about the state judges usurping the authority of theiir representatives. In other words, as much as I like the idea of gay marriage being legal, I do not believe that it should be legal in states that do not wish it to be legal. Per the constitution's 10th amendment, the issue of marriage laws is deferred to the states. Until the 10th amendment is undone (or a gay marriage amendment pro- or con-) is added to the constitution, I think it would simply be unconstitutional to force states to legalize (or illegalize) something supported by the representatives.

So, Maine has done the smart thing here. I, for one, am overjoyed. HOpefully other states follow suit. And maybe someday, we will allow gay people to give blood.

On How to Eliminate the Department of Motor Vehicles

My wife and I were recently at the local DMV to get our names changed on our licenses (both of us are hyphenating our names). It never ceases to amaze either of us how inefficient these people are, which got us - libertarians, both - pondering ways to eliminate, or at least minimize, the role of the Department of Motor Vehicles in everyday life.

Here is an idea we had. The Department of Motor Vehicles is responsible for issuing drivers licenses and ensuring that those who get licenses are good enough drivers to be on the road. Of course, we also require every driver to have valid insurance. So, why not consolidate these two facts and let insurance companies be responsible for ensuring that qualifying for their insurance is accompanied by a driving test? I have little doubt in my mind that having insurance companies issue licenses as a condition of gaining access to their insurance would be more efficient and cost-effective than having the state do it.

The issue is really one of who has the more compelling interest in screening drivers - the state or the insurance companies. Yes, the state has an interest in screening drivers because they pay (or force us to pay, rather) for the roads, the EMT services and the emergency rooms that could be aversely affected in the case of accidents. But, insurance companies have an immediate interest in screening drivers, as they stand to lose money should they insure less than careful, or able, drivers.

I think that privatizing licensure in this way would not only make the screening process for drivers more rigorous (and thereby, have a likely effect of cutting down the number of accidents), but be less costly to the general public. If this large role (which the DMV doesn't do all that well to begin with) were handed over to the private companies, the DMV's traffic and, let's hope, necessry expenditures would be cut in about one half.

It could be argued that such measures would result in stricter driving tests which would ultimately mean that fewer people drive. So be it. Insurance companies would not make tests too strict (as they want customers), but would likely not make tests too lax (as they don't want to increase risk of paying out). My guess is that - think colleges here - the best insurance companies will be the most selective because they can afford to be, and the lesser companies may be less selective. Those who decide to make their tests minimal so as to accept as many clients as possible will then have to deal with the larger payouts that will likely result. Companies with tests that are too lax will likely either go out of business or acquire a horrible reputation.

Drivers who can only afford to be with the worst companies can "work their way" to better companies by taking the stricter insurance companies' tests. As stricter insurance companies will likely have lower rates (as they will pay out less and be more selective), once drivers feel like they are good enough to take the tests of "elite" insurance companies, they can try them.

All of this rests ony my general belief that businesses, while not always trustworthy, are often more trustworthy than government. They must work to stay in business (whereas government can always steal more money no matter how inefficient). Voting with dollars is more efficient than voting every 2, 4, or 6 years (and the number of non-elected government positions dwarfs the number of elected ones).

So, tell me. What do you think?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Reverse-Reasoning in the IQ Debate

The debate over the existence, and mutability, of IQ is a tricky debate. I am a follower of the debate and try to keep a very open mind. But as I am not a statistician or a psychometrician, I feel that the best I can do is to read and decide on conclusions made by others. And as I try to keep an open mind, I often feel like my opinion and inclination changes with each new book or article that I read. (I try to remind myself that this open-mindedness may be a good thing in a debate so doctrinaire.)

One thing I can't help but think about, though, is that like so many other debates, this one often seems vulnerable to what I call reverse reasoning: figuring out the conclusion you want to come to and finding a way to get there. In particular, any debate with social ramifications for action are particularly vulnerable to this type of reverse reasoning.

In the case of the IQ debate, concluding that IQ is relatively fixed can be used to justify some sort of passivity on the part of educators and policy makers. Libertarians are likely to like this option because it makes arguments for increased education spending (like Head Start) a bit harder to make. This argument is also likely to appeal to those teachers who are frustrated and exasperated by working with students and being met with little to no demonstrable improvement. (I've been here and I can attest that the frustration felt when working with underachieving kids meet with few real results certainly make this view look a bit more appealing. That way, teachers can take the blame off of themselves and place it onto the students' fixed limitations.) I don't think teachers consciously do this, but often this view of a fixed intelligence will seem more appealing to those frustrated by hitting a ceiling with students.

On the other hand, the view that intelligence is a fluid, rather than fixed, entity is equally vulnerable to reverse reasoning based on where one wants to end up. I find that this view is almost always that chosen by those with strong egalitarian political beliefs, and strong aversions to suggestions that some are better than others "by nature." This is also the view that predominates the education field. My guess is because seeing intelligence as malleable provides a good rationale for the field of education. It is much easier to be an educator when one chooses a view of intelligence that sees education as integral to its development. (This is like the idea that it is much easier to play the lotto if one has a belief that one can win.)

The IQ debate is so frought with emotion that I worry about the prevelance of reverse reasoning in the debate. I worry that many of the people I've talked to have made up their minds more based on what they want to see happen than on what facts suggest. I try my best not to take sides on anything other than the facts of the matter (and the reason i've not really taken sides is because the facts of the matter seem quite open at this point).

Why Don't Students Like School (A review of Willinham's fantastic new book)

A new book by cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham has come out entitled Why Don't Students LIke School? I am generally skeptical of books claiming to take the latest brain/mind research and apply it to education primarily because of the "brain based ways of learning" fad promulgated by motivational speaker Eric Jensen (and preached unquestionably in professional developments). I picked this kone up, though, primarily due to a blurb on the back of the book by education theorist ED Hirsch, who I very strongly admire. Surely, any book Hirsch reccomends is at least worth a shot.

I was right. This book is fabulous in its 'back to basics' approach. Willingham's main point seems to be that the best way to increase a child's ability is repitition, repitition, repitition. By increasing the number of facts a child can recall automatically, one increases the amount of 'free space' a child has available to think. [ex.: (3+4) - (2-1) is a lot easier when one can recall the math facts automatically.]

Anyway, I strongly, strongly reccomend this book to all concerned with education theory. I hope this book gets used within the schools, but suspect that Jensen will be the continued drug of choice, as his theory manages, unlike Willinham's, to confirm all the constructivist impulses that educators have been in love with for the last 20 years.


If you are a teacher, like myself, you have doubtless been inundated by advice about teaching to multiple intelligences, active (rather than passive) learning, teaching students to think rather than memorize facts, etc. If so, then you can't afford to pass up this book, which will provide a very helpful guide as to why some of these well-intentioned ideas are wrong, and what it means for you as a teacher.

Dan Willingham's Why Don't Students Like School? is a book applying findings of cognitive psychology to the world of education. Sound a lot like Eric Jensen and his wildly popular book Teaching With the Brain in Mind? Well, unlike Jensen - who educators hear a lot about - Willingham is a PhD in cognitive psychology (while Jensen, who has a bachelors in English, is "working towards" a PhD from an online university, while making his real living as a motivational speaker). Long and short: Willingham is the real deal and I move to suggest that this book infinitely deserves more popularity amongst educators than anything Jensen has written.

Willingham's basic theme is that, despite everything you've heard, nothing works to increase student ability like factual learning and practice. In fact, one of his first ideas is to point out that what seperates the excellent student (or adult) from those performing less well is their ability to recall facts. The more facts you know about your subject, the more you can understand your subject because of significantly less energy spent on fact recall or retention. With facts learned to automaticity, more time can be spent on higher-order concept learning, and once that becomes automatic....etc.

While that may sound mundane, think of how many times you as a teacher have heard the idea of "rote memorization" and "regurgitation of fact" denegrated. Of course, Willingham is not advocating the strawman position that teachers do nothing but drill, drill, drill and enforce memorization of text passages. (No one actually holds that position!) What he reminds us, though, is that the critical thinking we hear so much about teaching our kids simply CANNOT happen without giving kids the requisite background info that must be employed to think critically. (One cannot critically reflect on whether the revolutionary war was justified without some big factual understanding of Colonial American and Empirial Britian, for example.)

Another big idea in educaiton that Willingham works to dispel is the idea that we all have different learning styles - auditory, visual, kinesthetic, etc. Cognitive science, in fact, has shown the opposite: with minor variation, we all learn very similarly. While I may have a better memory for visual phemonena than you (who may be better at remembering sounds), we remember IDEAS not through the media in which they were delivered, but by...thinking about them. When memorizing words and definitions, we are not being asked to memorize sounds or visuals, but ideas, and the fact that I am an auditory or visual learner does nothing to predict what presentation method will help me memorize the best. (The amount I studied, of course, will.)

I don't want to give the impression that Willingham's book is about bashing education icons and maxims. It is not It is a book for teachers designed to bring up ideas we may not have thought about, and to suggest how to apply these ideas to our classrooms. Each chapter is focused around a question ("Is Drilling Worth It?" "Why is it So Hard for Students to Understand Abstract Ideas?") and gives a detailed, but engaging, answer. At the end of each chapter, the author makes several concrete suggestions for how the answer can shape how we teach as well as reccomendations for further readings.

All in all, this is one of the single best education books I have read, and cannot wait to share it with fellow educators. As mentioned, I sincerely hope that this book becomes as widely devoured as those by Eric Jensen and Howard Gardner. Willingham offers a valuable and very constructive counterpoint, especially to Jensen's "brain based ways of learning."


Anyone looking for more can visit Willingham's website, where there are plenty of good articles and videos.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Show Up, and Get a B - Another way k-12 does not prepare for the real world

I have recently come across an interesting article documenting a sad trend in college students increasing sense of entitlement. According to the article, professors and administrators are noticing an increasing sense amongst students that they are entitled to certain grades, and an increasing aversion to earning, rather than getting, grades.

The article makes some interesting points but I think it misdiagnoses the problem at lesat a little bit. As a k-12 educator, I think that this sense of entitlement in college students comes from the disjunct between the k-12 schools indirect teaching of entitlement and the college's continued emphasis on earning, rather than being entitled to, academic success. Like it or not, k-12 schools ARE leaving kids unprepared for college by getting them used to the idea that all children will be successful and that effort, rather than product, will be rewarded. Unfortunately, the real world doesn't work that way, leaving those students unprepared for the large paradigm shif that will doubtless come their way.

“I tell my classes that if they just do what they are supposed to do and meet the standard requirements, that they will earn a C,” he said. “That is the default grade. They see the default grade as an A.”

Why do the students think this way? As a teacher, I have seen many teachers TELL students that the default grade IS an A, and that one works to maintain, rather than earn, the high marks. I just dealt with a student yesterday who relayed that her teacher told her exactly this (and I have seen countless other teachers do this).

Of course, mathematically, this is quite untrue. The default grade at the beginning of each quarter is a 0%. If the first assignment is worth 100 points, and the student does half of the assignment, the grade becomes a 50% F. If they do the entire assignment, of course, their grade is a 100% A. From there, the grade can change based on the number of points per assignment and the relative weighting of the assignments, but in no way is the default grade ACTUALLY an A (despite what we tell students).

And there is another way in which the "default A" is unworkable. As Charles Murray points out in his book Real Education, "C" measn "average" in education parlance, or at least, it used to! It is a statistical truism that half of kids will be at or below average and half of kids will be at or above average. If our grade books were redesigned to allign with how they should look, student grades would create a bell curve where "C" would be the tip. "A" means "excellent" in education parlance, and as such, we are giving out too many "A's" if we are giving them to stduents who are not excellent in their subject. (My estimate would be about 10-15% should be getting "A's").

I think that it stems from their K-12 experiences,” Professor Brower said. “They have become ultra-efficient in test preparation. And this hyper-efficiency has led them to look for a magic formula to get high scores.”

The first half is right; the second is not. In the county in which I teach, for instance, 60% of the overall grade for a class is made up of classwork, and 25% is made up of tests and quizzes. On top of this, classwork is most often graded for completion, rather than accuracy. (Tests are generally the only thing grade for accuracy.) This literally means that a student can do all classwork without understanding the content, bomb every test and quiz, and still walk away with a "D." If she does all homework in addition to classwork, she would recieve a "C," and if she does all classwork and homework while scoring 50% "F's" on all tests and quizzes (still not understanding much of the material), she would recieve a 85% "B". I see it happen all the time where a student has a "C" in a class but does not know anything but the rudimentary skills for the class. This trend is at its worst when that student gets passed to Spanish II (or Algebra II) without mastering the requisite amount of info from the previous class.

My point: this teaches students that effort is to be rewarded above product. While this sounds like a good idea, the article points out that it is not. In essence, we are sending kids from an institution which, for 12 years, has taught them that effort rather than product is what counts and throwing them into a 4 year institution that operates in precisely the opposite way! In a college spanish class, it is rare that homeworks are graded for anything but accuracy (if they are graded at all), and tests constitute the majoity of the grade. Contrast that with the high school spanish class where student classwork and homework is graded on completion and together constitutes 75% of a stduent's grade.

There is another huge problem with what k-12 institutions' inadvertent inflating of grades and putting primacy on effort rather than product: it leads to students who become easily discouraged when they get bad grades.

“I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade,” Mr. Greenwood said. “What else is there really than the effort that you put in?”

“If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point?” he added. “If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong.”

What's the point? First, the point is to learn, rather than to earn a grade. (We are not good at teaching this in k-12 either.) Second, it is unrealistic (unless surrounded by k-12 walls) to expect that hard work garauntees a product worthy of a high grade. The real world does not work that way. If two people work just as hard at work and one turns in a better finished product than the other, then the better product will yield higher rewards. In college, one can put in all the work one wants, but if one doesn't understand the subject well enough to pass the test, then one does not deserve to pass the course as if one did understand the subject.

But k-12 works differently. In our zeal towards egalitarianism and a very chimeric belief that all children should have success, we have created a aystem so singley focused on this goal that it is artificially padded. In our desire to see all students experience success, we have made a system that places little emphasis on mastery (an elitist concept, that!) and put it on hard work (which all students are at least capable of). And even then, we treat students who do not work hard as "students with special needs" and offer even more "supports" that do little more than ensure that less effort is required of them (lest they earn an F at something!).

For those who think I am exaggerating this last piece, a previous post the story of a student I work with who simply does not show up to class and does little work. The school, however, has made deal after deal with him that he can pass the year if he does x and y. When he doesn't follow through, they re-instate the deal. When I asked why - why not let him experience the consequences of his actions - the most common response is, "Well, if we do that, he might not graduate, and that would be a shame." In other situations, I have been explicitly told to grade students for effort rather than product, or to use a more relaxed standard when grading certain students.

In the bizarre world of k-12 ed, this makes a certain bit of sense to most teachers. Fairness, we are repeatedly told, means giving everyone a tase of success. But as I hope to have pointed out, this egalitarian model does not fit with what kids will experience after high school either in college or the world of work. I shudder to think at how poorly we are preparing students for the merit-based world they will face after high school, where one is not entitled to grades, praise, or raises, no matter how hard one works, and where what matters is product rather than effort.

The Narcissism Epidemic (book review)

There is a fabulous new book by Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell entitled The Narcissism Epidemic. Twenge's previous book studied the rise in narcissistic values in today's teenagers and twenty-somethings, where this book studies this distrubring trend as applied to all age groups.

While reading this, I could not help thinking about many of my students, from the girl who will not hesitate to talk about how hot she is while insulting other students like its nothing, to the student I work with who has behavioral problems (that many teacehrs erroneously beleive stem from poor self-esteem rather than an inflated ego). I would not only reccomend this book to all concerned citizens, but particularly to educators.


"Narcissism is the fast food of the soul. It tastes great in the short term, has negative, even dire, consequences in the long term, and yet continues to have widespread appeal." (p. 259)

For all intents and purposes, The Narcissism Epidemic is something of a sequel to Jean Twenge's previous book, Generation Me. Wheras that book focused on the younger generation's (and gen y's) increase in narcissistic behavior, this book focuses on the same trend as a nation- and worldwide phenomenon. From our ever-increasing obsession with fawning over the lives of the rich and glamorous (Real Housewives of Orange County, anyone?) to our rampant consumerism, this book tells the tale of a nation in a very strange state of decline. In a sense, we are loving ourselves to death.

The first few chapters start off with the hard numbers. Twenge and Campbell have administered, and chased down, several experimental studies which demonstrate a very clear trend towards a more narcissistic attitude in the population. Young people list "being famous" as an important life goal far more frequently than their predecessors, the rise of platic surgery has increased FIVEFOLD in the past ten years (which COULD be explained by the fact that it has become more affordable, but the increase is so large that this explanation is unlikely to be the MAIN one). More and more newspaper articles and tv shows focus on narcissistic themes than in years past. Infintitely more people, when given the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, yield results consistent with narcissism than in years past. In other words, the rise in narcissism is thoroughly documented here.

From here, our authors talk about everything from whether narcissists tend to suffer from low self-esteem (quite the opposite, as many self-help gurus and educators have yet to figure out), whether narcissism helps one get ahead in life (only if you are a entertainer, it seems), and whether narcissism has its root cause in the well-intentioned self-esteem mmovement of the seventies and eightgies (you betcha!).

As an educator myself, this last point was one of the most fascinating for me. While students today often do not think twice about cheating, disrespecting teacher and peers, or expecting grades without doing the work, we continue to mistakenly believe the problem to be low, rather than way too high, self-esteem. All the while, Twenge and Campell are careful to distance themselves from the view that we should NOT praise our kids or ignore their self-esteem, which is far from what they are saying. They are simply pleading for moderation. Praising a child's virtues is different from overpraising their every move. The authors use the obsesity analogy: just as recognizers of the obesity epidemic do not want us to stop eating, but only eat in moderation, recognizers of the narcissism epidemic are only suggesting that we praise in moderation (while also encouraging hard work) rather than going overboard like we have been.

There are also some timely chapters on how narcissim played a key role in the 2008/2009 recession. While everyone is quick to blame the banks, consumers, and the government, we seem squeamish about criticizing what the three groups had in common: unbounded and irrational greed! Consumers were buying houses and things they did not need so as to satisfy increasing desires to live high on the hog (without having to earn it). Banks focused on quick profits rather than prudent investments in their willingness to dupe consumers into predatory loans. The government just wanted to see everyone own a house (which somehow became a right rather than a privilege to be earned). Twenge and Campbell do a great job in showing that for each group, the culprit was greed, narcissism, and a belief that everyone could have everything without having to (as in years past) exercise hard work and prudence.

But how to stop these trends? Unlike the previous book, Generation Me, the Narcissism Epidemic focuses many of its pages to offering suggestions on how we get out of this dizzying mire of narcissism. Most chapters conclude with a section called "Treatment for the Epidemic" and the last sixth of the book is made up of chapters offering "Prognosis and Treatment." Some suggestions are - or should be! - quite commonsensical: teach your children prudence, work-ethic, and that it is not always about them, regulate the credit industry, teach prudence and humility in school, participate, and encourage others to participate, in social clubs that nurture a sense of community. Some are interesting but quite fantastic: tone down the fevered pitch of product advertising, make "less is more" a new societal catchprase, tax luxury items more heavily (as a libertarian, I am not a great fan of government regulation.)

[One suggestion that Twenge and Campbell infuriatingly left off the list is to let irresponsible spenders feel the full consequences of their action. As it stands now, the government is doing the opposite by penalizing those not in debt by forcing them to "bail out" those who are. Message: narcissists are more important and deserving than the average Joe.]

Whereas I gave Twenge's earlier book a three star review, I am giving this book five stars. Unlike the previous book, this book was more cohesive, well-documented, and contained focus not only on the problem but on possible ways out. As an educator, I urge every parent and educator to read this book so that we can see exactly what the misguided self-esteem movement has led to. As a citizen I urge everyone to read this book to get a sense for the import of narcissistic values and how they threaten to make a great country significantly worse.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Why High-School Diplomas Don't Always Mean What They Advertise

Below is an example of why one should not trust a high-school diploma to indicate mastery of much of anything.

Two weeks ago, I was approached by the school social worker to be party to a deal made for a student in danger of failing Algebra 2. A senior, this student was in real danger of not graduating in large part because he skipped much of the second and third quarter. The deal went like this: the student would promise to attend every single Algebra 2 class, attend every single one of my Study Skills classes (where he could recieve tutoring), and once these criteria were filled, the student would be allowed the chance to pass the class. I entered into this agreement with the stipulation that, as this student has had several allowances made for him, this would be his last chance. Miss a class and the deal is void.

The next day, he failed to attend my Study Skills class. Thus, per our agreement, the deal was void. Or so I thought.

Yesterday, when I was off because I had just gotten married, the social worker did what she promised she wouldn't do: she reinstated the deal. When I asked her and the vice principal why, they both told me - this only seems like a tall tale - that we just wanted to get the student through, and it would affect our numbers if we did not. Besides, they said, giving him the piece of paper might allow him to get a job that he couldn't get without the diploma.

So, you heard it here first (or maybe you are already familiar): diplomas often mean little more than that teachers and principals let a student skirt by so as to boost their numbers and pass the buck.

These are the days when I really question why we have diplomas in the first place. If they are not standards based, or if standards are so movable that they are merely inconveniences to be stretched, I am not sure what diplomas are to signify. Surely not academic mastery! That wouuld...gasp...expect something out of students and hold them to expectations. (How dare we!)

Thus, it may be in employers best interests to administer employment tests rather than relying on the fact that an applicant has a high-school diploma. Whether someone has a diploma seems to be little evidence that they can read, write, think, do math, or do little more than be passed along by lazy administrators and teachers.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

We Almost Got Through the Evolution Unit Without a Hitch.

My coteacher and I are administering the unit test on evolution starting in two days. Thus, the unit which entails treading on thin ice is almost over...but not without a snag. Over the past two years, my coteacher and I have fielded many questions and endured many explanations about such things as gaps in the fossil record, how evolution could produce such complex things as humans, and general disbelief that we are related to simians.

And today, another such comment occurred. During a brief video on transitional forms - "fishibians" to be exact - a student suggested that scientists stop "making stuff up." I treated this comment like any other - with a brief reiteration of the various lines of evidence for evolution.

But, unlike many other times in the past, this comment really bothered me. Generally, I can "brush off" such comments as made by students that are simply in disbelief that evolution could produce such varied and complex creatures (didn't we all experience a twinge of disbelief when first exposed to the theory?)

Her comment got me thinking about the low state of science education in this country and our underperformance in conveying how science arrives at its conclusions. To me, it is as absurd to ask whether one believes in the theory of evolution as it is to ask whether one believes in the theory that the holocuast happened. There is a difference between whether one believes it and whether it happened. But when we ask whether someone believes in evolution, it makes such a question sound like evolution is a story that depends for its validity on our assent. Of course, what is true is true regardless of whether someone mistakenly ignores evidence and chooses not to believe the theory.

What I and other science teachers try to do is to get kids to understand that scientists would not simply state a theory and write about the theory if there were no evidence for the theory. Scientists do not make things up, and the rare ones that try are quickly called out by the peer review and "open disclosure" policy in sceince that demands replicable experiments and that findings be made public for examination. (Anyone who wants to see how quickly science sniffs out frauds can examine the piltdown man hoax

But the crucial issue, to me, is how little we spend in our science classes talking about (a) the scientific process and how it works, and (b) how scientists come to know things like the theory of evolution from employing that process. We talk a lot about facts to do with cell biology, genetics, macromolecules, and evolution. But what we forget to talk about is how the scientific method was used to get these facts. We talk about the double helix model of DNA but neglect to talk about how Francis and Crick came to the theory, and how the theory survived the scrutiny of other scientists. We talk about genetics, but do not emphasize (or underemphasize) the magnificence of Gregor Mendel's experiments (and later experiments by folks like Hershey and Chase).

If we did this more - focused on science as a method used to solve problems and adduce evidence to suppport conclusions - then we might not get as many comments about how scientists are "making all this up." Stduents might better understand not only that there is evidence for evolution, but how that evidence points to evolution (and how evolution has survived test upon test).

So, my coteacher and I are almost done the unit on evolution. But everything seems to indicate that we as a nation are nowhere near done teaching people about evolution.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

When Teachers Vent

Occasionally, teachers get together with other teachers - after school in an empty classroom, over drinks at a local "happy hour" - and vent. And once this venting gets going, it is hard to put the breaks on. I am guilty of it, and I don't feel bad about this because most of my teacher friends do it too.

What do we vent about? Generally, we vent about students: how difficult it is to teach this one, the latest story about that one, did you know this other one is in a gang, etc. To the outsider, this might appear a bit like pessimists giving voice to their pessimism, or see it as an example of a bunch of lazy teachers complaining about having to teach.

But, as an insider, I think these venting sessions are necessary. I would be the last to say that teaching is one of the hardest professions there is (maybe it would be if there were fewer days off and perks), but will certainly say freely that teaching is like no other profession out there. Not only is it unique in that our "clients" generally are forced to "buy" our "product" by force, but also because for 9/10ths of our day (save for cafeteria duty and transition between classes), teachers do their job in isolation from any peers whatsoever. In most professions, when things go wrong, one can talk to a coworker or peer in the office. With teaching, there is none of that. At the end of the day, I see many tired, stressed, and dragging adult faces when I leave the building, and I am sure my face looks the same as theirs.

So, naturally when teachers get to talking after school, they let it rip. They were not able to vent all day. When the knucklehead in second period told them to f*** off, she just had to keep her cool for 5 more hours (and try not to get angrier when someone in period 4 followed suit). My story today happened during second period, when a student ran out of my room because I refused to write him a pass, only to have an administrator catch him, bring him back to class, and TELL me to write a pass for him so that he might be appeased. Soon after, my class broke loose, and kids began throwing paper balls into the trash can, cursing up a storm, and generally ignoring anything I had to say (as they had just seen a peer get away with running out of the classroom).

But I had to keep my chin up until the end of the day because, as any teacher knows, when one loses their cool in front of the kids, the kids come at you all the harder triggering a nice downward spiral. But all of this stoicism gets to us.

And that is why the after-school venting sessions are so necessary to us. Other teachers are the only ones who understand how we feel, and letting go to them serves as a catharsis. When my colleage tells me her stories about teaching the same student who ran from my class, she is subtly telling me that I am not the only one who is having thsee problems - not the only one feeling like their mind is slowly being lost. And when the two of us complain about how difficult it is to motivate the unmotivated students, we are subtly letting each other know that we are not the only ones who feel like we are banging our heads against the wall with no results.

So, I know that many outsiders view with contempt the vision of teachers griping to eachother about their kids. But these people don't realize how lonely a profession teaching is, and how frustrating it can be both for that reason and for many others. to a teacher like myself, being able to vent to other teachers who understand what it is I am going through is simply better help than talking to a therapist who doesn't.

Monday, April 13, 2009

House of Cards: The Economic Down Turn and the Impossibility of Playing the Blame Game

Recently, I watched a MSNBC special entitled "House of Cards," about the origins of the current recession - the bursting of the "housing bubble." I assume that the special is based on the book by the same name, which I am going to read as soon as I can. It was quite an interesting, and maddening, special. Of course, I am not an economist, so the following essay will not be written as if I were one. Rather, I want to focus on something others may have missed during the special: while the media and public are wont to blame someone - government, wall street, consumer greed - for our current financial predicament, the special never gets involved in blaming anyone in particular. In fact, the special seems to make an implicit point that, like a house of cards, no one piece can be "blamed" for sending the edifice crashing.

But first, here is my attempt to summarize as best I can thespecial's depiction of the fiasco. The government (Bush administration and Congress) had a noble idea that we should do all we can to promote home ownership, and particularly minority home ownership. Thus, the federal reserve encouraged lenders to find 'creative' ways to give loans to those they might not otherwise give loans to. And that they did. An example of one type of new mortgage offer is depicted here:

“the pay option negative amortization adjustable rate mortgage.” It was designed to help first-time homebuyers who couldn’t actually afford the cost of the loan. Those homebuyers would have the option to pay only part of the interest they owed each month. The unpaid interest was added to the total amount of the mortgage. As a result, the mortgage balance increased; instead of the mortgage being paid down, it was getting bigger.

Now, as stupid as banks were to concoct such doomed-to-fail schemes, consumers were stupid enough to sign on to them. Thus, home ownership went up, home prices went up (because 'loose' loans made it possible to raise home prices as there was now more demand) and banks went lower and lower, only to push home prices up and.... etc.

So who do we blame? The two most common suspects are the banks who created such hairbrained schemes and the government. Generally, those who have left-leaning sympathies blame the former and those with right-leaning or free-market symapthies blame the latter. Even though I have free-market sympathies, I blame both and neither (and can't understand WHY no one thinks to blame consumers for where they spend and misspend their money!).

The problem is this. Each group is responsible for a certain piece of the puzzle, but wiithout willing participation by ANY of these three groups, the party would have been cut short and the housing bubble wouldn't have soared to gargantuan and unjustified heights. Yes, the government cut interest rates and encouraged banks to do what they did, but if banks or consumers didn't take the bait, the point would have been moot. Yes, banks practiced predatory practices, issuing loans to people they knew could not afford the loans they signed on to, but the consumers eagerly joined the action. And yes, the consumers were stupid and greedy, but had the banks not played to that stupidity and greed, there would have been no transaction.

And this, to me, is one of the beauties of capitalism. In a centrally planned system, it would be easy to blame one party (the government and its economics board). But also, since all economic decisions would be centralized, mistakes like this one would be easier and more frequent, as there would be fewer checks and balances. In the current case, THREE distinct groups rather than one economics board) had to make the exact same mistake in order for catastrophe to strike. The problem is not that one group screwed up (which is all that would have to happen to send a centrally planned economy into a tail-sprin), but we all screwed up.

And here is the other great thing about capitalism. Were the president familiar with capitalism, he would recognize that one of its assets is that it punishes the guilty. If capitalism were allowed to work, the guilty banks would be penalized with bankruptcy and the stupid and greedy consumers (who bought houses they could not afford knowingly) would be homeless. (Of course, the government - just as guilty a party as the rest - would not be punished becuase they can just keep stealing money. from the public to stay in buisness.)

Thus, while some see capitalism as encouraging greed, if it were allowed to work in this situation, we would see that greed is just as often punished in a capitalistic economy.

But, really, the point here is that those intent on playing the blame game need to explain how the group they decide to blame could have done their damage without the willing complicity of the other two. I don't see how that could happen, and that is why I blanche at any suggestion that there is A guilty party (other than all the government and bank officials as well as consumers who let greed, rather than temperance, dominate their thin heads).

But give Obama seven more years, and this will surely not be the case. The next time the economy goes awry, we will be able to blame one party - maybe the nationalized banking comission, or the centarlized economic planning comission. Until then, I like not being able to blame JUST ONE party.

Nonverbal Communication, Autism, and the Interbrain Problem (Review of Tantam's book on autism)

Autism is one of the most tricky disabilities there is to understand. It is also one of the most prevalent As a special educator, I find autism puzzling and am always interested to try and understand it as a phenomenon. Recently I recieved a complimentary copy of "Can The World Afford Autistic Spectrum Disorder" to review (courtesy of It is a book that offers quite a novel theory about what autistic spectrum disorder is (primarily, the author says, an impairment in ability to pick up on an interpret nonverbal communication). For those not familiar, this view is in direct contrast to the predominant theory that autistic spectrum disorder is marked primarily by the inability to see others as intentional agents and, therefore, understand people as people. Anyone interested in the puzzle of autism should check this book out.


The title of Digby Tantam's book - Can the Wold Afford Autistic Spectrum Disorder - is a bit of a misnomer. The question only comes up, and is answered in the affirmative, in the book's last chapter. The majority of the book is devoted to a novel theory the author expounds that the primary impairment encompassed by ASD is that of nonverbal communication (rather than, say, mindblindness).

Theorists have debated for the past 10 years (at least) what the main impairment of autism was. Is it trouble with language? Lack of ability to see others as persons with intentions? Lack of ability to process emotions in self and others? The dominant theory, with Simon Baron-Cohen as its progenitor, is that autism is primarily a disorder marked by "mindblindness," or, lack of ability in tke autistic to see others as intentional agents, and hence, be able to "understand" people AS people.

Tantam offers a different, and quite convincing, theory. Tantam suggests that autism is a disorder (sticky term, that) marked first and foremost by difficulty reading non-verbal communication. To use his term, autistics have difficulty with things involving the "interbrain" connection between people. Most of us are born with and have no trouble developing our ability to "read" people and the subtle cues - gaze, body language - that autistics often cannot pick up. He uses a computer analogy; if the interbrain is like the internet (that non-physical connection that we have between each other), then the autistic is the one who cannot log on.

The first two chapters of the book are devoted to illuminating to us neurotypicals how important nonverbal communication is to everyday life (as we often forget because nonverbal communication is so automatic to us). The next few chapters are devoted to outlining and defending the interbrain theory. Tantam finishes off by suggesting some things that autistics and particularly those who care for them can do to help them cope with this lack of ability to access the "interbrain" world of nonverbal signals.

I would suggest that anyone reading this also read Simon Baron-Cohen's book "Mindblindess," which outlines the main theory Tantam is arguing against. To my mind, I think that Tantam's theory, while still quite speculative, is interesting and suspect that mindblindess (inability to see others as intentional actors) and the lack of ability to "access the interbrain" are quite connected. When one cannot appropriately read nonverbal communications, it becomes all the harder to "see what others are thinking." If one has trouble telling that someone is angry (recognizing their arms crossed, their face turn red, and their voice get tense), then it stands to reason that it would be very hard to predict what that person will do. In other words, I suspect that one will not need to choose between Baron-Cohen's theory and Tantam's theory. I suspect that mindblindess and lack of "interbrain ability" are quite related (whether one causes the other or they simply develop in parallel.

The last few chapters will be the chapters most helpful for caretakers of autistics (like myself). The author suggests that caretakers can help autistics navigate the world of nonverbal communication by acclimating them to it strategically - at once making sure they are not bombarded, but stay connected to others. We can also monitor out own behavior to be as literal and as verbal as possible, making sure that we cut down on the number of nonverbal cues we personally send out.

And as to the question of whether the world can afford autistic spectrum disorder, the author's answer is an unambiguous: "We better." He acknowleges the difficulty in expecting neurotypicals to accommodate themselves to such a large degree to the autistic, but also argues that autistics often have traits that it would be a shame for the world to go about. In the author's own words, "If the future lies more and more in collaboration with machines, then we may need more people with ASD, not less." For all the difficulties (both for autistics and neurotypicals) that ASD can cause, it would be a real shame to deprive ourselves of the unconventionality, originality, and often outstanding intellect and talent often associated with ASD.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Would Privatizing American Education Threaten Democratic Values?: An Analogy Between Schooling and the Media

This article... argues that, in an increasingly fragmented world, privatised control of civic education in state-funded schools in England threatens the integrity of public education and the civic objectives of state schooling.

This quote is taken from an abstract for an article in a prominent education journal. It voices a common criticism towards the idea of privatizing American education, via either a voucher or a wholly private model. The argument is that, by getting rid of the "common school," education becomes unstandardized and, hence, threatens the idea of a common value set needed for a functioning democracy. Here is a nice summary of what the argument often looks like:

The Undermining America Argument: Choice will siphon off needed funds from public schools and, as a result, the quality of public education in the United States will suffer. In addition, choice will undermine democratic values and lead to segregation and division.

The problem I have with this argument is twofold. First, it contains an assumption that I am not convinced is valid: democracy relies on the citizenry sharing common values. While this statement is often bandied about as fact, it is generally never, but really should be, argued for. But this is a discussion for another time, as this objection is not the one which concerns us here.

The primary reason I object to the argument that a plurality of private schooling option would undermine necessary common values is simply that the conclusion is dubious. And such can be seen if we look at an analogy: that of the media, and whether it functions best as a monopoly or plurality.

The irony that one notices is that the biggest defenders of public "common" schooling tend to be on the political left. This has been true since John Dewey and Edward Thorndike all the way to the present day, as seen with Jonathan Kozol and Alfie Kohn. (Yes, the right supports public ed as well, but vouchers and privatization seem to be primarily a "right wing" phenomenon). But another argument found primarily on the left argues against the "monopolization" of the media. There is a disjunct between these two arguments. One the one hand, it is said that monopolizing education is healthy for democracy, and on the other, that monopolizing the media is unhealthy for a democracy.


Wouldn't one expect that those in favor of pluralism in the media would also be in favor of pluralism in education? Both the media and the education system, after all, have to do with the exact same thing: educating citizens. Why is it that there exists no argument that pluralizing media sources would result in an undermining of democratic values?

The reason is that those in favor of citizens having a plurality of media sources to choose from argue, rightly, that a diversity of voices is good for democracy and when news sources become monolithic, a well-educated citizenry is threatened. An extremizing of this argument can be seen here:

Arguably, the US's much-vaunted "free media" practice a form of adroit self-censorship that's all too reminiscent of Soviet models of the past. Example: could a state-owned American media machine have been much more avid as a cheerleader for the US occupation of Iraq?

In other words, the minute we have an entirely state-run media (or corporate run monopoly on media) then the easier it is for society to be indoctrinated rather than educated.

But I fail to see how this argument would not also work brilliantly as an argument against a monopoly of state-run schools! Let's try it out by taking the above quote and changing a few words:

Arguably, the US's much-vaunted "liberal education" practice a form of adroit self-censorship that's all too reminiscent of Soviet models of the past. Example: could a state-owned American school system have been much more avid as a cheerleader for the US occupation of Iraq?

The point I am trying to make here is that, if critics of privatization of schooling as a threat to common values were consistent, they would also be equally against pluralism in journalism and the press. If different people get their news from different places, we will ot all receive the same news, and therefore (allegedly) democracy will break down.*

Of course, we rightly realize that a plurality of media sources does not hurt, but helps democracy by offering people a choice on what news to receive, and keeping everyone in check by making it extremely unlikely that the type of indoctrination hinted at in the above quote could take place. People can choose their news and news organizations must compete with each other.

The exact same can be said for why pluralization of education outlets is a benefit to democracy. Allowing choice in educaiton means that one source (federal or state governments) do not control the curricula for every child. This means that, while certain schools will choose to indoctrinate in certain ways, a diverse populace will be sustained. Schools will be forced to compete for business, and as a result, will strive to produce better education than competitors. (Can you imagine how low the quality of news would be if the federal government or Foxnews were the only game in town with no one to compete against?)

In closing, democratic values are not threatened, but strengthened by, a plurality of news media sources. No one (save for Dr. Sunstein) takes seriously the argument that, for a democracy to function, we must all receive the same news. Thus, I don't see how the education situation is not directly analogous. No one should take seriously the idea that for a democracy to properly function, all students must receive exactly the same education.

*[Ironically, legal professor Cass Sunstein actually does make a similar argument in his book, where he argues that the proliferation of media sources is a bad thing because it produces a fractious polity which, apparently, makes democracy less workable rather than more robust. Not many agree with Sunstein, for good reason.]

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Why Ebooks Must Fail? Hardly.

Recently, I read an online article, entitled "Why Ebooks Must Fail." In short, the article is an economic argument against the viability of ebooks (for ebook readers like the Amazon Kindle and Sony Ebook Reader) from the perspective of the publishing industry. As an owner of an Amazon Kindle myself, I took great interest in the article. I also think the arguments are dead-nuts wrong.

The author's point is that the book publishing industry is built on and depends on a certain model of doing business and that "ebooks don’t follow these rules."

In brief, publishers act as middlemen between authors and the buying public. Publishers contract with authors and pay authors advances (that will be recouped by future book sales). In addition to paying authors, publishers must pay for marketing and design of the book. In order to afford this, they "presell" books to stores, not all of which will be sold (but the publishers make money in these presales and have incentive to presell as much as possible so that they can get as much money as possible.) In order to encourage stores to buy as much as possible, publishers will accept returns of unsold copies for full monetary credit.

So, in order for publishers to be able to spend money on author advances, marketing, and production is that they make money "preselling" books (even if they have to give some back later in "buying back" unsold copies) they still get short-term cash flow via "presale."

And the author's argument - why he thinks ebooks must fail - is because ebooks do not work this way, and cannot be "presold" to "brick and mortar" bookstores in the way that paperbacks and hardcovers can.

Ebooks are effectively sold on a consignment basis - meaning the money for the sale is distributed after the sale is made, not up front. Stores don’t buy inventory, they put the file in a database and distribute copies as they are sold. This means that ebooks don’t have a huge returns problem, but it also means they cannot generate short-term cash flow like print books do.

Unfortunately, one never gets a straight answer as to why this inevitably spells death for publishers, other than the sense that publishers depend on the short-term income of "presales." But am I crazy, or do presales seem to be almost the equivalent of a loan made by bookstores (where the bookstore is simply paying the publisher in advance of the actual sales)? Actually, it is unclear why publishers wouldn't be making the exact same amount of money if bookstores payed publishers AS THE SALE OCCURRED rather than BEFORE THE SALE OCCURRED. (Think of it this way: a loan shark pays you winnings before your team actually wins, with the stipulation that you pay the money back if the team loses. How is that ANY DIFFERENT quantitatively from the loan shark who waits to pay you until after your team wins?!)

The other thing that annoys me about this article is that the author seems to forget that this situation is not at all unique to book publishers. Record companies have gone through a DIRECTLY ANALOGOUS situation when CD's gave way to mp3's. And they are doing fine, because they figured out a way to adapt.

Record companies play a role directly analogous to book publishers. Record companies "sign" artists to their label, give them monetary advances to be recouped by the artist's future sales, and pour money into marketing and sales of the artists' records. Also, like book publishers, record companies "presell" to record stores and promise to "buy back" the remaining unsold units. This was how they got their "short term" income to be invested into marketing and production - that is, until the mp3 trade changed the rules.

As evidenced by the first two years of Napater (a file-sharing website), there were initial growing pains, and the record industry was forced to change their rules about many things, nonetheleast of which was the fact that mp3's (which have no physical existence) cannot be presold, and hence, record companies had to learn to wait until "units" were sold to the public to be paid.

One could easily see our author's article having been written about the mp3 industry, arguing that mp3s must fail because they do not accord with the record/CD model of doing business. But the record companies did adapt, and it took a small number of years for them to do it.

The author also complains about the fact that publishers will have to adapt the way they do marketing and advertising, suggesting that these are new costs (all to sell books which are less expensive than their physical counterparts).

Ebooks will still have to be sold and marketed, just in different ways as there will be far less reliance on an upfront advance buy-in, but far more reliance on ongoing marketing through the use of content and metadata - as well as user-generated content and promotion tools to get the book marketed. These are completely new expenses for publishers who traditionally think of marketing as publicity and display advertising for new books, not ongoing support and marketing for long-term sales.

New expenses? Yes and no. While the expenses of e-marketing may be new, they would simply REPLACE the expenses of marketing physical books to "brick and mortar" establishments. The expense of designing websites, blurbs for existing websites, etc, will simply replace the costs of designing in-store displays. And I have to imagine that the cost of involving authors in cyber-chats to promote their books would be less expensive then flying those authors to bookstores and putting them up in hotels for book tours.

Of course, as much as I want e-books to replace regular ones (I don't miss regular books at all!), it will be several years until publishing goes fully digital. As such, the transition will not be as "all-at-once" as our author dreads, and the "cash flow problem" will likely not be catastrophic, as it will happen very gradually, allowing publishers to adjust gradually (just as mp3's replaced CD's over several years, and record stores even still exist).

Why won't the change happen quickly? Because ebook readers are quite expensive. The Kindle 2 lists at $359, and it is unlikely that the casual reader will buy it. At its prohibitive price, buying ebook readers is not in the economic interest of most readers (who may go through several books a year, but not enough to justify the one-time cost of $359). Where I read enough books a year to make the cost worthwhile (or at least a non-factor) I don't see too many readers eager to give up the, at this point, more cost-effective option of "real" books.

All of this means that publishers won't be suddenly starved of the "short term" income provided by preselling books. They will not wake up one day and find that this income is gone. Instead, what will likely happen is that publishers find a gradual diminution in "presale" revenue each year until one day, the last bookstores close their doors.

But in their place will be ebooks stores. And while publishers cannot presell ebooks to these stores, they will still get the same amount of money, but in a more "real time" scenario; instead of getting the money from book sales in advance, they will get them, say, on a monthly basis (or even in absolute real time, as the sales happen).

And I cannot think of one reason why publishers cannot function this way. Just as most other businesses do, publishers can learn to make their money as sales occur, rather than before sales actually take place. Record companies have gotten used to doing this. So can book publishers.

In the end, "Why ebooks Must Fail" may be better named, "Why the Old Model of Book Publishing Must Adapt."

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Reflection on, and Review of, Gatto's "Weapons of Mass Instruction"

Recently, I read John Taylor Gatto's book "Weapons of Mass Instruction." Gatto, a former New York City Teacher of the Year, has become an outspoken advocate of abolishing compulsory education. While I share his libertarian sentiments, I similarly distrust his solution of "open source education" which basically means that every child is on his or her own to get an education however they can (i.e., some may be homeschooled, some may become apprentices at an early age, and some may have to "learn on the street.")

One criticism I did not put in my book review was that Gatto demonstrates a Rousseauean faith - a faith I do not share - in the "natural" education written about in books like Emile and those authored by Maria Montessori. Here, students choose their own educational trajectory and, through sheer will, educate themselves (possibly with teachers playing the role of 'facillitator'). This idea sounds good in theory, and would probably work for some highly-motivated and passionate kids. But (a) youth and short-sightedness are otften positively correlated, and I shudder to think of how many kids would not become educated (about anything socially productive or marketable) if left ot their own devices. (b) I think that this approach mistakenly assumes that students know what their interests are from the get-go (where many actually find new interests via education that they would not have chosen on first blush).


I began this book with high hopes. I am a libertarian and, like Gatto, a teacher who is very unsatisfied with our (mis)education of children. Like Gatto, I strongly feel that the "one size fits all" system may be more accurately summarized as a "one size fits a few quite well, and the rest can fend for themselves" system.

For all that, I found Gatto's case to be surprisingly weak. First, Gatto breaks a cardinal rule of those aiming at reform: tearing down a system need always be accompanied by putting something explicit in its place. Gatto's "open source education" proposal is far from explicit. "Let kids get education on their own, each in their own way," is about the extent of his suggestion, and the suggestion begs many questions: what about those who come from unmotivated or ill-equipped (financially or intellectually) families? How can we ensure that students pursue not only what they are immediately interested in, but also become well-rounded? Gatto might not feel these questions to be important enough to address, but many others do.

He attempts to allay our concerns about open source education by reminding us that many folks have been successful without formal schooling. Abe Lincoln, after all, became president with only a fourth grade education. NASCAR driver Danica Patrick does not possess a high school diploma. Craig Venter, of the Human Genome Project, was a D student who passed high school by the skin of his teeth (Gatto fails to mention that he went on to get a BS and PhD, which would ruin his argument against the value of formalized education).

All in all, Gatto provides us with about 30-35 examples of people who have achieved a lot without formal education. I am sure, if you give me about a week, I could come up with at least as many examples of students who did not achieve much without a formal education and an equal number of examples of those who have achieved a lot that would credit formal schooling as a key component to their success. Unfortunately, Gatto's argument here is so highly anecdotal that one is tempted not to call it an argument (but an appeal to emotion).

He does make some interesting observations about formalized schooling's inability to (he says it is a deliberate lack of desire to) foster skills like critical reasoning. I wholly concur, but fail to see how the inexorable conclusion to this is to abolish formal schooling. (Gatto is convinced, in a very conspiracy-theoristic tone, that the government is deliberately dumbing down students to make them better sheep. He never really cites evidence for this.) Gatto's argument here is analogous to a person cooking a recipe and when the results turn out less-than-tasty, automatically making an argument that the utensils (rather than the recipe) is the problem. In other words, the fact that schools often turn out ill-equipped and ill-learned kids could as much be attributed to HOW we instruct rather than the fact that we do it under compulsion. (Other nations don't seem to have our problem turning out kids who can think.)

Frankly, I am surprised that Gatto does not even consider the idea of revamping the school system we have, maybe into a competitive voucher system. And if creating an education system relevant to student interests is the concern, then a voucher system may achieve a similar objective to Gatto's ideal without leaving everything up to chance and luck of the draw, as his "open source education" does.

When it all comes down to it, I admire much that Gatto stands for. Like him, I am deeply dissatisfied with the system of schooling that I teach in, and am convinced that we can make schooling fit individual students better. I, too, decry the increasing centralization of education (and notice that it is accompanied by lessening performance.) But I don't think that Gatto's solution is TOO laissez-faire ("anything goes") in a way that leaves too much up to chance (especially for those who are not lucky enough to have parents who can homeschool or ambition to self-study). He does not provide any reason to suppose that a voucher system could not allay many of the problems he discusses, but in a way that guarantees at least some degree of guarantee that all students have the opportunity to receive schooling.

For a much more interesting, plausible, and fact-based book on educationa reform from a libertarian perspective, read "Education and Captalism."

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

On the Human Quest for Cosmic Purpose and Rationale

On anothe blog, a fellow atheist hs written a piece oce the human quest for external purpose. Many humans, that is, quest for a purpose in life that is extenal and not of their own making ("I am part of god's plan, etc.)

The author of the article correctly notes that as the universe does not itself have desires and is not cognizant, the world has no ultimate purpose (and even if a god created us for or with a purpose, that is not mean we are bound by that purpose or that it is a purpose that would satisfy us.

Early in the article, though, he asks a very non-rhetorical question that I think should and can be answered:

I do not know where this want for an external purpose comes from. Perhaps it is some left-over brain program from our childhood where we are inclined to prefer the values of our parents. Perhaps it is something that is taught from one generation to the next without stopping to consider the wisdom (or foolishness) of doing so.

Fyfe cannot identify with the search for an external, larger, purpose to life, or the emptiness many can feel when they do not find one. While I can relate - I have no need to find a 'bigger' purpose - I can certainly relate to those who do and think I can give some explanations here. And a search for a 'bigger' purpose has little to do with motivations that Fyfe proposes.

Why do we search for grand purpose in life rather than being satisfied with human-made purposes? First, I believe that we do this because many lives that contain hardship are assuaged by the belief that "there has to be more than just this." Slavery is a good example of this. The slave, who was/is forced to toil for many hours a day under brutal condition, and who had no control over his/her life, may take comfort in the idea that he/she is part of something larger and better than his/her own day-to-day. Saying that the slave's own life is the purpose of his/her life does not do becuase he/she feels their life to be intrinsically purposeless.

But what about those who are better off? Why do folk with relatively happy (or at least very tolerable) lives feel the need to search for a larger purpose? I have known many who've done this - who go into a particular profesion, for instance, because they feel they are "serving the greater good," or the like. Even if they are creating this purpose for themselves (which often they have), they are comforted by the fact that they are serving a purpose larger than themselves, and would be unsatisfied with the suggestion that they have created, rather than been given, a purpoose for their lives.

In these cases, having a purpose imposed on one (or the feeling of it) makes the purpose feel more real and legitimate. It does not feel self-serving, but other-serving. Teh best analogy I can think of is the satisfaction of scoring well on a test of someone else's creation versus scoring well on a test that one whore oneself. The latter does not cause satisfaction because the task was too easy, as one simply gave the answers to questions one created. The real satisfaction lies in beating the challenge of performing well under conditions not of one's own making.

In the same way, creating one's own purpose to live up to is less satisfying, because less challenging, than fulfilling a life purpose created by onesself.

Another reason why serving a "larger" purpose is seen as more fulfilling than serving one's own individually made purpose is because when serving others, one can feel like they are making a difference in the worldd, rather than just in themselves. This is seen by the familiar film and book plot/theme of the shallow business person (or other type of egoist) that lives like solely for themselves but unexpectedly finds joy in helping others (which was, generally at first, against his will). [films like "Family Man" or "Two Weeks Notice" are more popular examples.]

I have never really felt the need to seek after an externally imposed, and larger, purpose. But I have felt the need to help others rather than pursue solely what is in my own personal interest. I did this when I became a teacher rather than went into a PhD program. I wanted to do the latter, but did the former because I wanted to do something at once hard, helpful, and effectual. All I can say is that this choice, while certainly the tougher path, felt more "solid" than the self-serving goal of PhD because it involved helping others by making a sacrifice. While I was not searching for a higher purpose, I can attest to the psychological pull that serving social (and in some sense, larger) purposes can have over serving individually made (and smaller, by radius) purposes.