Here Is Where The Heart Is

In a time of profound polarization, one issue that has elicited bipartisan agreement is that the recently released results of the Nation’s Report Card are grim.  Pundits, lawmakers, wonks, and activists disagree sharply on the causes – depending on who you ask, it’s lack of funding, or the loosening of accountability standards, or too much testing, or school choice, or not enough school choice.

Arriving on the scene just in time to complicate everyone’s narratives is Robert Pondiscio’s new book, How The Other Half Learns.  He seeks answer a deceptively simple question:  what do the kids actually do in school all day?

Education policy people, as Mr. Pondiscio accurately notes, are often curiously incurious about this fundamental question.  Exceptions to this rule tend to be former teachers, as Mr. Pondiscio himself is. 

Teachers know there is not a single answer to this question – it’s just about as messy as the human condition itself.  Understandably, then, it’s hard to imagine many schools being as willing as Success Academy’s Bronx 1 was to fling open its doors to a reporter for an entire school year. 

Success Academy was founded in 2006 by Eva Moskowitz, and has grown to 47 campuses, serving 17,000 students across The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens.  Prior to reading this book, your perspective on whether these charters are shining paragons of academic achievement in urban public schools or they are paternalist institutions of factory model education would likely depend on your underlying moral foundations, a framework described by Jonathan Haidt and others.  Like authority over subversion? You’re gonna love the classroom management that Bronx 1’s teachers execute (mostly) consistently. Value care over harm?  You’re gonna hate what happens to Adama. 

And guess what – this book won’t change your mind about Success Academies, or about “no-excuses” charters, or about “teaching to the test.”  It might cause you to do something even more essential, which is to question why your preference for fairness and equity trumps a working-class family’s preference for authority and safety.

What kids do in school all day — what they do at Success Academy, or at elite preparatory schools, or homeschool co-ops – they live in community, learn norms, forge identity, create, blow off steam, and yes (as Mr. Pondiscio vividly reminds us), vomit.

These are things that humans do in community, and they are the essence of what it means to be in a political order, with all its tensions and limitations.  Take these lucid observations from the closing chapters of the book:

1) “…We expect too much of schools.”  2) “If a government takes its legitimacy from the consent of the governed, so does a school.”  3) “But schools are not values-neutral.”

What would it mean if school reformers contemplated the implications?  On the one hand, we’d understand immediately that no community can achieve perfect equity of outcomes without systemic violence and deprivation.  On the other hand, we’d quickly see that no political order endures without the generally shared agreement that “this is how we do things here.”

These are, in fact, fundamental lessons most engaged citizens would hope that civics courses would impart to students (that civics education is in crisis is yet another point of consensus between the factions).  But Mr. Pondiscio’s sights are set higher: he wants us to note that schools themselves serve to teach these lessons implicitly and indelibly.  In a setting where their individual gifts are as a matter of policy neglected, as Tiffany, one of Mr. Pondiscio’s early students at a district school experienced, what lesson do they learn about whether their contributions matter?  On the flip side, for students who have behavioral challenges, what lesson do they learn if their teachers are afraid of them because they lack the specialized skills to address their needs? 

Success Academy is unapologetically focused on academic achievement as measured by state standardized exams.  Mr. Pondiscio concedes his own ambivalence about this, an ambivalence which I share.  But the parents who are there want that thing.  They don’t have to worry that their child will be marginalized for caring about learning.

Schools that are formed around a distinctive set of values or mission “vastly increase the odds of students acquiring academic and civic knowledge, skills, and sensibilities,” according to Ashley Berner. Spoiler alert: school culture turns out to be the secret sauce at Success Academy. Mr. Pondiscio goes one step farther than this anodyne assertion and reveals the ingredients that make up that sauce – family self-identification, sweating the small stuff, making hard decisions, and the full buy-in of all the grown-ups.

What are the kids doing all day?  They are learning how we do things here


My first op-ed at The Hill was published on Saturday. It’s on the importance of policies that support work-based learning for high school students. Internships in high school were a very important part of my education, as were a number of the paid jobs that I had.

In my research on career and technical education, I’ve been coming up against this idea that academics and vocational education are two separate worlds, two separate paths. Certainly from the policy and funding perspective, we treat them differently.

Usually, the way this is framed — and certainly the way I framed it in this piece — is that students who pursue a CTE pathway are not losing out on academics or the opportunities that an academic pathway can offer. In other words, we’ve oversold “college for all.”

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the mantra should be “CTE for all.”

Kids who are interested in academics should be encouraged to learn a skill or a trade. I think this is where liberal arts colleges can find a way to survive and thrive in the 21st century. I’ve been noodling on this concept for a while, then a tweet from Nassim Nicholas Taleb perfectly crystalized it for me:

Liberal arts colleges that can deliver excellent, rigorous, real academic instruction as well as find ways to advise and encourage their students to graduate with certifications in more practical areas may find that there are significant benefits for the employability of their alumni.

This could be accomplished through partnerships with coding academies, employers, online schools. There are likely countless other mutually beneficial arrangements.

BUT, that’s not really where the true value of a liberal arts education combined with a trade-focused apprenticeship would lie.

It would arise from the combination — or cross-pollination — of multiple disciplines and modes of seeing the world, the creative collisions of concepts within the minds of individual students. This is where the unexpected insights to solve real-world problems will emerge.

Cognitive science is providing good reason to believe that developing multiple specialized domains is one of the key ways that our brains can come up with the most creative and surprising leaps. I think the debate about CTE vs. academics has been drastically underinformed on the developments in cognitive science. I think this is where I’d like to concentrate my research over the next few months.

Schools of Trade-offs

There have been predictions that the higher education bubble will burst for at least a decade now — I remember really awakening to the issue because of some excellent writing on the subject by George Leef back in 2008-2009.

The problems are multifarious but many critiques start with the unsustainable amount of college loan debt that U.S. students have taken on ($1.5 trillion, second only to the amount of mortgage debt), but I think the issue is in the way we talk about it is the real root of the issue.

Teachers and schools and parents tell students about the famous wage benefit of the B.A. or B.S. They hear ad nauseum that successful people have college degrees, and popular culture sends a similar, reinforcing signals that the only meaningful rite of passage to adulthood is a four-year-long residential college or university experience.

Higher education used to be a niche product. Thank goodness there is now broad access to this option. But we don’t have to go so far in the other direction to use as a measuring stick for success “college for all.”

It is naive to expect higher education to meet the needs of the majority of employers or even for society’s need for entrepreneurs. But by telling students that their worth (both self-worth and potential value-add to the economy) are dependent on this one path and giving them “free” money to attend a four-year institution, are we at all surprised that many of them are pretty dissaffected? That many are sympathetic to the idea of “free” college tuition or the blanket forgiveness of student loans? They did what their parents and society told them to do, and many are worse off because of it.

If a student attends college or university because she wants to challenge her mind to learn rigorous academic subjects, taught by serious professors, she ought to have many good options for where she can obtain this kind of education. Instead, the vast majority of higher education institutions are not set up to appeal to these students.

That’s simply because a good number of students choose not to pursue these subjects. As a life-long fan and promoter of the liberal arts, I am fully aware of this fact, and fully comfortable with it.

If the marketplace weren’t weighted the way it is (through the federal student loan system) towards attending four-year colleges/universities, students would have to actually take into account the costs of their educational decisions. This would lead to the closure or reorganization of some higher education institutions. It would also force those that remain to choose what their value proposition is — a rigorous education in the arts and sciences or an equally rigorous training in technical (or applied) subjects.

Each path has its benefits and drawbacks. There is no way for bureaucrats in departments of education or school districts to make this kind of call for each student that they are charged with preparing. The only answer is for each student to make these kinds of trade-offs for himself, and the only way for him to make this decision with skin-in-the-game is for him to be able to see and (to the extent possible) bear the full costs and benefits of each path.

I think in the end that reframing the conversation we have about post-secondary education is the first step. A few proposals:

  • Raise awareness among teachers, school leaders, and parents that the rhetoric that they use to describe post-secondary options is extremely important. Panning technical school or setting up expectations that the “best” outcome is attending a four-year college can be very easy positions for college-educated adults to slip into conversation. But students internalize these kinds of signals.
  • More specialized high schools. Choice policies can support this goal, and if students attend schools that actually value their interests or pursuits, they are more likely to be successful.
  • Make it a little harder to get into college debt. Not impossible, just harder. College debt is particularly pernicious in cases where a student doesn’t even emerge with a degree, so policies that make this burden less likely may be worthwhile.
  • Online education options are better and better all the time. Let’s consider what this may mean for students getting high quality, lower cost courses in high school and beyond.
  • HR departments at major employers can reconsider using the B.A. or B.S. as a screening mechanism for hiring.
  • Support systems, like the Texas State Technical College, that get an amazing ROI for their graduates in terms of employment in middle-skills jobs. This system is an example of how public dollars can be spent efficiently to meet workforce needs of employers while also benefitting students with widely recognized (as opposed to proprietary) credentials.

I’m glad I was able to begin a liberal arts education as an undergraduate. I want serious liberal arts pursuits to flourish, but we will continue to see these subjects founder as long as they are forced to compete in a zero-sum game against “liberal arts lite” — disciplines that are specifically designed to appeal to students with weaker academic preparation or interest.

We will continue to see widespread disaffection as well as long-term economic repercussions as long as students (influenced both by policy and cultural expectations) use time and resources on majors that give them neither a real grounding in traditional arts or science disciplines nor the mastery of any technical domain.

It’s time to stop talking down the kinds of preparation that can enable people to live meaningful and rewarding lives. It’s time to stop communicating, implicitly and explicitly, that gaining a technical certification is somehow a less than optimal outcome for any given student.

It is possible in one life to gain both a liberal arts education and to gain technical proficiency in, say, coding. It obviously doesn’t have to be a binary choice for an individual, but it does seem clear that relying on a single delivery system (four-year colleges/universities) to provide both is simply not reasonable, and isn’t the approach we take in other areas of significant investment in our lives.

Disaggregating the sources from which we get various learning will only make the providers of these options better, lower the costs, and multiply our choices. It will also give education providers an ability to specialize and professionalize in ways that they haven’t been able to before.

The Work of the Mind

2018 was the year of the Stoic Journal. I benefited greatly from the bite-sized but profound selections from Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus and from the daily prompts to write something of my own reflections on them. Not coincidentally, I think 2018 was also the year that taught me how much I need more discipline in the management of my emotions. Sometimes you only learn that the hard way.

This year I’m going a bit deeper by reading the companion volume, The Daily Stoic, as well as supplementing with additional readings from Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. Today’s passage prompted a few thoughts on the sequence of the seven exercises that Epictetus posits as the “proper work of the mind:” choice, refusal, repulsion, preparation, purpose, and assent.

I think that the order of these exercises is important. Making choices is the first thing we have to do. Choice and refusal are two sides of the same mental action, and (at least in the English translation) they both seem to be cognitive functions.

Yearning and repulsion are a pair as well, but these fall more into the realm of the moral “tastes” as described in Jonathan Haidt’s indispensible The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Disgust is one of the six pre-rational moral dimensions, and its opposite would be attraction.

Preparation and purpose seem again to fall into the realm of cognitive functions. We normally think of purpose as necessarily preceding preparation (at least that’s what most self-help gurus teach). But what if it’s not? More on that below.

Assent – how exactly is this different than choice? Faithful readers will not be shocked that I suggest we turn to the original language for some insights.

The verb translated above as “to choose” is ὁρμᾶν. Its meaning is closer to stir up, set in motion, or simply, start. The word choice in English implies a weighing of options, pro and con. But that’s not what the Greek suggests.

Which gets us to how this might be different than “assent.” The verb in Greek is συνκατατίθημι, to set down together or at the same time with. It’s used to describe voting the same way as someone else or entirely agreeing with someone else. Assent is an extended meaning, and in the passage there is no suggestion of someone else with whom we may agree.

We assume that the order of our actions looks like this: deliberate choice of purpose, careful planning of tactics, execution of tactics, success.

I think Epictetus is suggesting something very different. We have a pre-rational impulse, whether for or against a particular object (ὁρμᾶν / ἀφορμᾶν), which then sets into motion a feeling of either disgust or yearning, which in turn leads to us preparing for our end, which is only really clear to us after we’ve made the preparations, and then finally, we actively vote for this purpose (which was already set in motion by our pre-rational consciousness) with our rational faculty.

What is far more important than thinking we can plan our lives or even our short/medium/long term goals is training that part of ourselves that is really in charge — the source of our impulses and yearnings.

Epictetus says that only corrupt κρίματα (“decisions”) can pollute the mind. κρίμα is explicitly a word used of weighing and judging in Greek. The seven works of the mind add up to κρίματα.

Corrupt κρίματα happen when somewhere in that chain of impulses and mental activity there is a flaw. If our first impulse is bad that can lead us to assent to a wrong action. If we are not repulsed by a bad idea, that can also lead to a bad outcome. In other words, all along the way, we have to be aware that our judgement is subject to corruption.

In the new year I want to work on finding ways to become more conscious of each of these steps in the process of forming judgements. This includes becoming more aware of the moral dimensions that motivate me, as well as more empathetic to those those that motivate others.

Trial by Fire

In August, 1997 I arrived at college with a lot of curiosity but without a lot of direction.  I knew that I wanted to study history.  As an avid numismatist with a specific interest in ancient coins, I wanted to know enough Latin to read inscriptions with facility.

Reverse of silver denarius, struck by Marcus Antonius in 42 B.C. to celebrate the assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, 44 B.C.

So far, so nerdy.  I enrolled in Latin with the vague idea that archaeologists of classical sites needed to know Latin, and that maybe that would be my path.

I found that Latin was really hard, at least for me.  This had a lot to do with the fact that I lacked study skills and was pretty bad at managing my time.  Throw into the mix that on the afternoon my sweet family was moving me into the dorm, there was a fire.  My poor parents had to drive all the way home from Michigan to Texas knowing that I would be spending a good part of my first semester in temporary housing.  

It was a fun but chaotic first few weeks.  It felt like summer camp with some classes thrown in.  Not exactly the best conditions for developing strong habits, but I don’t blame the fire.  Other girls in my situation didn’t struggle as badly — the far more likely culprit was my lack of discipline.

To struggle academically was a new thing for me.  I was homeschooled, and while I had taken community college classes, co-op classes, and a variety of correspondence graded courses, I really hadn’t had to try very hard.  I read voraciously, listened to BBC Radio 4, tinkered, and generally spent a lot of time pursuing my interests (see above, numismatics).

There is much to recommend homeschooling, but I will say that there is one big potential downside — it can incentivize not sticking with subjects that are worthwhile but difficult.  I think the wide availability of online courses and diffusion of hybrid homeschooling programs, like Classical Conversations, has largely mitigated this risk.  

Furthermore, my difficulties in Latin really didn’t relate to how much I wanted to learn it.  I truly enjoyed the subject and the classes.  

But enjoying and wanting to learn weren’t enough.  I wasn’t doing the work.  I was still dabbling.

Latin required a sort of precision that I simply hadn’t had to master before.  But I realized that if I wanted to learn the language, I’d have to put in the work.  It wasn’t impossible, but it would be hard.

Over Christmas Break, in between shifts working as a waitress at a local Chinese restaurant, I (finally) made and studied flashcards for vocabulary and grammatical forms.  I went back and looked at the quizzes and tests I’d flubbed and corrected my errors.

That was a pivotal four-ish weeks of my life.  When I returned for the Spring term, my grades dramatically improved, not just in Latin but in my other subjects.

Why?  I think it was because I realized that while professors could give grades and assignments, I was the owner of my education.  Only I could decide what and how to alter my long-term memory.  They could (and did) inspire, encourage, and correct, but only I could sit down and do the work.

I found that, once I put the time in, Latin became fun — so much fun that I decided to take Greek the following fall.  The rest, as they say, is history.  

I credit that Latin class and the faculty of the Hillsdale Classics Department, especially Professor Joe Garnjobst, with helping me to take a critical step forward in my maturity as a human being.  It was only the beginning, but as I learned there, initium dimidium facti.

My hope is that we who have a role in education, whether as parents, teachers, tutors, or school leaders, will remember that what we are doing is formation.  We are helping other human beings accomplish not just higher levels of knowledge of the world, but ideally, a better understanding of themselves in the world.

We don’t really know what we’re capable of until we bump up against challenges.  May we take our jobs so seriously that we only remove the obstacles that a child truly can’t move, and leave in place the ones that only seem insurmountable. 

Home for Christmas

Last week I shared a few thoughts on the vital importance of the books that we select to read aloud to children.  Today I’d like to reflect a little on how being read to was a key way that we got through a difficult transition, and became stronger as a family.  

Regular readers of this blog know that Mom’s recordkeeping from back in our homeschooling days was pretty meticulous.  I don’t think the list above is exhaustive, but it is representative of the kinds of books Mom wanted us to experience in an audio format.  While we were reading a lot on our own, listening to Mom read us stories was different and special – it gave us a shared experience with her and with each other that formed memories and references that we share. 

I got to thinking about all of this because of an entry on the second page for December 1990 – The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.  Just in case you decide to check it out — let me be clear, this book is not Great Literature.  It’s a silly but moving little tale about generosity of spirit and the True Meaning of Christmas.  Yet its warm and genuinely funny observations about how self-righteous we can all be made it an instant classic in the Davis household.

1990 was a memorable year for us.  In November, we moved to central Texas from central Florida, and Mom and Dad were doing their best to help us with the transition by creating “new traditions” for us as a family.  Not being close to grandparents, aunts, and uncles was tough on all of us.  We felt (and were) very far away from home.

Mom read the book in installments, beginning on the first Sunday of Advent.  Dad did the Scripture readings and let us light the candles on the Advent wreath.  (The evangelical churches we attended growing up didn’t emphasize these rituals, so Dad shared the tradition with us at home).

At the risk of sounding a little sacrilegious, Mom’s readings from TBCPE kind of stole the show.  What made it so great was that from the moment she started reading the memorable opening paragraph to the end, she was always (unsuccessfully) trying to suppress laughter:

“The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world.  They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down toolhouse”

Laughing together as a family is one of the things that made that season so special.  We could have read the book individually and silently on our own, and it would never have stuck in our collective memory the way that it did when Mom read it to us.  

Culture thrives by means of shared rituals — sacred and secular.  Mom and Dad helped all of us put down new roots in a new home by giving us meaningful and memorable stories.  There was a kind of perfect balance of solemnity and mirthfulness that our Advent Sundays embodied.  You know, a little lesson in the Incarnation itself.

As Gladys Herdman reminds us, “Hey!  Unto you a child is born!”

Education is Curation

What we select, what we leave out, what we do, what we don’t do.  These are the essential ingredients of education.

We are swimming in an ocean of information.  But there has always been more to know than any one person can possibly know.  We are just more aware of that now.  We have better tools to access the far-flung, abstruse, and recherché.

Which calls into question our notion of what “knowing” anything means. The classic argument against teaching that focuses on particular content (“knowledge rich”) is that it’s pointless to spend time in second grade learning about, say, the War of 1812 when a) who cares and b) if you need/want to learn about it, just ask Siri.

Book: Paul M. Rapin de Thoyras – This illustration is from the 1816 book, The History of England, from the Earliest Periods, Volume 1 by Paul M. Rapin de Thoyras. The source holder of this book is the U.S. Library of Congress., Public Domain, Link

This argument doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, and mostly because background knowledge is just another way of saying “literacy.”

Allow me to make a stronger case for the “knowledge acquisition is a waste of time” crowd than the one above.  This one is based on the idea that we don’t know what we think we know, and that if you think you know everything about the War of 1812 because you had a unit on it in second grade, you will be less curious/more falsely confident.

Now that is a good point.  Which is why I think (and I think most people on either side of this issue do) that education has to be about more than just the facts.  But here’s the thing – the facts are a pretty darn good starting point to discuss the big ideas and questions that have been part of our human experience for millenia.

There is a lot of belly-aching about fake news these days.  And it mostly comes from people who are worried that we no longer have any consensus on the facts.  These are sometimes the same people who (under different political regimes) argue in favor of constructivist models of education – i.e., students learn best through discovery and through constructing meaning with their peers in groups.  The same crowd that gets worked into a lather about the “industrial model” of education.  The same crowd that hopes the government will regulate speech because we’re all just too stupid now to distinguish truth from lies.

Hmm. I wonder if there is a correlation between schools de-emphasizing knowledge (as opposed to “strategies” or “skills” or “critical thinking” or “practical” subjects) and our sense that there is a crisis of both civic life and civics education.

I don’t believe that all schools have to teach the same curriculum for schools to do a better job of teaching citizens that facts matter.  It’s not the explicit but the implicit curriculum of schools that has taught Americans to care less about facts, knowledge, or what a person says that matters, and to put a far higher premium on subjective interpretations or constructions of reality.

Learning that there was a war that happened in 1812 may seem pointless.  But if a school’s curriculum is otherwise healthy, it will use this fact to help students understand, as they grow more mature, that our republic is fragile.  It has been from basically the beginning.  Sometimes the threats have been external, sometimes internal.  And this realization should point us towards the virtue of moderation.  And a shared sense of moderation is a pretty good basis for a civil society.

What we select, what we leave out, what we do, what we don’t do.  These are the essential ingredients of education.

Reading Aloud

I wrote this quick post Monday before I had a chance to see Daniel Willingham’s piece in the NYT on the same theme – please check it out.  It’s brilliant and balanced, as you’d expect.

Audio story-telling is blowing up.  According to a June 28 story from Forbes:

“Audiobooks are up 29.5% in net revenue over 2016 according to the Association of American Publishers and up 22.7% in unit sales over 2016 by the Audio Publishers Association’s estimate.”

And it’s not just audiobooks – according to the same story:

“podcast revenues clocked in a $314 million, still small but up 86 percent from the year before,”

Moreover, just take a look at what apps are doing – for instance, it seems “sleep stories” are having a moment – consider podcasts like Sleep with Me and the catalog of bedtime stories from the app Calm, both for adults and kids.

Does this phenomenon signal an end of literacy?

There is an academic controversy concerning whether it was a norm in the ancient world to read aloud.  Whether it was or not, it was certainly the case that private readings of poetry were a common form of entertainment, especially among the elite.  Public recitations, speeches, and of course, theater, were also forms of amusement for wider and more popular audiences.

It may be that we are simply rediscovering the power of the voice to make stories come alive.  Great audiobook narrators bring out meaning and flourishes that we may miss by reading words on a page.

Yet, undoubtedly, listening to a book does not give us as easy an opportunity to stop and ponder as reading the text.

Both modalities bring richness to our reading lives, and perhaps the next revolution will be a technology that can more easily coordinate the experiences (Audible’s WhisperSync is a great start, but it does require that you purchase the book twice – in audio and Kindle formats).  Perhaps head-ups displays synced to ear buds will be the next iteration of reading.

In the world of edu-speak, the books that teachers read to students, typically from kindergarten to 2nd grade, before most students can read text fluently, are called “read-alouds.”  I think there are few areas in education that need to be more carefully considered than the books presented to children in these formative settings.

Often the approach is to give them stories that are “relatable.”  And certainly, there is nothing wrong with sprinkling in these kinds of tales.  But the opportunity is wasted if children’s imaginations aren’t stretched a little to include magical or far-flung places and times.

Think about how powerful it is to read a book to a child  — you are communicating that not only have you chosen a book for a child, but that you think it’s so important that you are reading it aloud to them, allowing yourself and them a chance to be immersed in a story.

That’s an awe-inspiring interaction.  Let’s approach these teaching moments with careful thought to the lessons, both implicit and explicit, that students pick up from the stories we share with them.

What does practice make?

One of the striking points I took away from Anders Ericsson’s Peak is that he establishes a very clear distinction between knowledge and skills, with a strong preference for developing skills.  Towards the end of the book, he suggests that humanity may have mis-named itself — instead of homo sapiens, we ought to say that we are homo exercens.

(Faithful readers can find an obligatory classics-nerd quibble over the nomenclature at the end of this post).

Developing skills as opposed to simply having knowledge of a topic is clearly the approach we’d want to take in domains that have clear skill-based milestones and markers of achievement.  These include the domains explored in Peak — chess, violin, memory competitions.  They would also include foreign language and math, I think.  The techniques he describes are incredibly useful for developing expertise in these kinds of domains.

What they do not include is reading comprehension.  And here’s where it’s important to get our terms right.  When advocates make the case for knowledge-rich curriculum, it is inevitably met by those who counter that exploration and active learning are the most effective ways for students to grow.  And they have a point.  Wonder is the only beginning of the love of wisdom (this line from Plato’s Theatetus is often misquoted as “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom”).  That’s why knowledge-rich curriculum advocates should at the same time insist on methodologies that support inquiry, such as Socratic seminars and class discussions around “big questions.”  Wit & Wisdom’s ELA program is to be commended for incorporating these practices very thoughtfully.

For math, it’s becoming clear that personalized learning platforms, which rely on purposeful practice algorithms, can really boost students’ basic math abilities.  Incorporating well-designed programs that support students in their efforts to develop automaticity seems like a smart move for most schools.  I hypothesize that it will result in more students feeling confident enough to pursue higher math and science.

The same kind of approach can be used for developing some basic skills in foreign languages, where vocabulary knowledge is a steep obstacle for students seeking to read a text or express an idea.  Gabriel Wyner has done some amazing work showing how it can be overcome through using digital flashcard platforms like Anki that use research-based review/repetition models to ensure full mastery.  Speaking and writing fluently are different matters – they are not something you can achieve through flashcards alone.  Having a fluent speaker/writer of the target language to give you deliberate practice using the vocabulary you’ve built is crucial.  Duolingo is great for vocab-building, and is really starting to build out its capabilities for supporting conversations with native speakers.

But it’s simply a categorical error to argue that reading comprehension can be effectively taught in the same way.  Decoding, yes – Direct Instruction in phonics is pretty much as skills-based as you can possibly get, and it works.

If you’re interested in the research supporting the claim that reading comprehension is not a “skill,” my former boss, Jason Caros, does a really good job summarizing it here.

As promised, I’d like to go back to the distinction Ericsson draws between homo sapiens and homo exercens for a moment.

From Peak, p. 258:

The small issue I take here is that “knowing” is an inadequate translation of sapiens.  That could have been covered with sciensSapiens is from the verb sapio, the original meaning of which was to have a taste for, savor.  Savor is itself a derivative, as is the Spanish sabor.  It’s the root of the word sapientia, which the Romans used to translate σοφία.

The Latin language associated the idea of wisdom with having a taste for something.  I really like that.  To me, having a taste for something really does capture something essential about the characteristic of wisdom.  A wise person has something that we used to call discernment.  It’s more than just knowing something.

You build up a taste for something by repeated exposure and reflection, by talking about it with others who appreciate the same thing, and seeking to experience the best manifestations of that thing.

Perhaps the origin of sapiens is a useful reminder that wisdom emerges from a broad range of areas (domains) in which we have, if not mastery, at least facility.

Keeping a clear the distinction between what we can learn to do via skill-building and what we can discern via knowledge-building is essential in debates about approaches to literacy.  We need both modes, and I’m grateful that there are researchers like Ericsson out there showing us the way to increase our human potential through purposeful and deliberate practice.

The Gift of Not Enough

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the role of scarcity in our lives.  Economists often argue that this idea is exactly what their discipline exists to study.

I think that all great art is about scarcity, too.  We rarely think of Michelangelo or Frida Kalho as having any traffic in the dismal science.  But perhaps we should.

Having a set of constraints, whether they be artistic conventions, expectations of genre, or limitations on materials, gives the artists something to perfect, subvert, or even ignore.  All of these choices become meaningful in the context of what’s come before.  Without those expectations, there cannot be the element of surprise or delight or shock.

It reminds me of a scene in a movie that I’ve come to loathe, Dead Poets’ Society:

Mr Keating asks his student Neil Perry to read aloud from the preface to their textbook on poetry.  After Neil reads the author’s attempt to give students a formulaic way to appreciate poetry, Mr Keating orders the class to tear out the introduction.

The fictional Professor Prichett’s method of teaching appreciation by plotting importance on the y axis and perfection on the x axis does sound really terrible.  Mr Keating uses this as the counterpoint to his preferred method, which is to teach students to “think for yourselves” and “savor words and language.”  These are high goals, indeed, and likely ones that almost any teacher of language or literature aspires to instill in her students.

But maybe the introduction also included lessons about meter and poetic registers and other genre-specific expectations.  These might indeed have been very useful, especially if the author had pointed out how poets used them to great effect.  In other words, Professor Prichett is a straw man in the argument against the understanding of the formal dimensions of poetry.

Thinking for yourself starts with intellectual humility.  Savoring words and language starts with understanding the ways that other great minds have used and changed them.  Mr Keating taught his class that their feelings, their “barbaric yawps,” were superior to the real art and discipline that goes into creating immortal works.  He taught them that their authenticity is what made their efforts great.

This romantic rubbish has of course infected all sorts of educational institutions, including the permanent class of education reformers.  Here’s my favorite send-up of this scene and its utter and banal ubiquity in our culture:

But what it fails to take into account is scarcity.  The point of haiku is that it has seventeen syllables and three lines.  That’s all you get.  Working within those definitions is a challenge and can yield beautiful results because it forces you to cut out every word but the essential word.

I’m not arguing that art has to follow the rules.  To the contrary, I’m arguing that sailing through the straits is the only way to get to the open sea.  Failure to navigate them correctly leads to a return to the starting point or shipwreck.

BTW, if you’re interested in watching a good movie set in a prep school, I’d recommend The Emperor’s Club.  It presents the whole business of learning and teaching seriously, taking stock of the formative value of both academic and moral instruction.