A Thousand Flowers vs. Bloom’s

Of all the things that are “taken for granted” in the world of education, Bloom’s Taxonomy has to be at the top of the pyramid — pun intended.

2001 version of Blooms


In 2017 Doug Lemov of Uncommon Schools published a very intelligent take-down of this educational holy cow.  He makes the observation that knowledge/remembering being at the bottom of the pyramid is misleading for a lot of teachers — they assume that this position means that it is a “lower” cognitive skill.

Ron Berger’s critique at EdWeek instead points out that modeling and creating are the ways we typically learn outside of the traditional K12 setting.  By putting them at the top of the pyramid, teachers may wait too long before engaging students in these kinds of activities.

The pyramid, first published in 1956, is basically a progressive model for understanding the learning process.  In my experience, even schools that do not consider themselves progressive still employ the framework without too much hand-wringing.

Cognitive neuroscience is showing us that these processes really can’t be split into neat levels.  Knowledge needs to be used in order to make it stick, and this in turn leads to greater understanding.  By chunking processes that have become automatic through practice, our brains are then able to take on more and more complex tasks.

Bloom’s Taxonomy makes an appearance in a recent ed policy paper published by the Pioneer Institute and authored by Theodor Rebarber and Neal McCluskey.   It contrasts the results of two educational reform initiatives that have gained traction since the early ’90’s.  The first is the standards-driven approach, which culminated in the Common Core State Standards.  The second is the school choice movement, exemplified by “voucher” programs, Education Savings Accounts, and charter schools.

In first part of the paper that the authors document what I think is sometimes an underappreciated dimension of CCSS.  Namely, that they instantiate Bloom’s Taxonomy in law.  The authors then take a close look at how CCSS math standards have actually lowered the bar for math proficiency vs. international benchmarks.  This happens because students are expected to take the abstract step of talking about how they solve problems vs. demonstrating the ability to solve problem.

The authors did not apply a similar scrutiny to the ways in which ELA Common Core Standards have incorporated Bloom’s Taxonomy as they were out of the scope of the analysis.

Based on what I’ve seen of the ELA standards, I think the same issue is at work.  The goals of the Common Core program were lofty and the designers meant well.  In some places, the standards may have improved instruction.  But the damage to education is that a particular pedagogical approach, en vogue in the 1950’s, has been instantiated into law.

As much as I’ve promoted better understanding of the science of learning among leaders and teachers, I wanted to just take a second to note that no matter how “settled” the science of phonics, knowledge-building, field trips, or anything else I like is, I don’t think any of it should be mandated.  I think that in a free society we should speak up about what we think, share it with people that we care about, and use persuasion, not compulsion.

I hope that my fellow-travelers who are (quite rightly) excited that (for now) phonics seems to be winning the reading war will remember what it was like to be on the losing side, and refrain from lobbying for  phonics instruction mandates. Doing so will lead to a backlash, and likely relegate phonics to the kooky fringes once again.


Recommended Reading

One of the best things about the Book It! program is that it encourages students to write down the books that they read on a monthly basis.

2nd Grade Books read 1
Erin’s November, 1986 Book List

I regret that I did not keep up that habit (note that I did have some help from Mom).  As the saying goes, the best time to start a good habit was 32 years ago, and the next best time is now.  So I thought I’d use this blog as a way to record what I’ve been reading on a semi-regular basis.  Please feel free to share ideas, thoughts, or recommendations based on what’s below.

Couple of additional notes – I’m a big fan of re-reading books, so I’ll make a note of when a book is on a second or third (or more) pass.  There are also some books (especially poetry/philosophy) that I like to dip into a little each day, as opposed to read cover-to-cover in several sittings.  Finally, some books I consume as Audible, others in written form, and others I do a little of both (especially using the fantastic WhisperSync technology).

Here’s my list from roughly September to now, in no particular order:

  • Atomic Habits, James Clear.  I found this book so useful and will be going back to it again and again.  The concept of making 1% improvements on a daily basis has motivated me to start habit-tracking using an app, so that I can see my “streaks.”  Right now, I’m using HabitBull, but it’s a little crash-prone.  If I find something better, I’ll share.
  • The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.  The authors’ observations about the doctrine of “safety-ism” taking over American parenting, schooling, and childhood are spot-on.  I saw this phenomenon gaining strength as a middle and high school teacher from 2004 to 2014.  Each year, parents got more and more reactive to things like students receiving B’s (as opposed to A’s), field trips becoming more and more tricky to pull off due to safety concerns, and a general sense that friction of any kind had to be foreseen and forsworn in institutional contexts.  It worried and puzzled me then, and I’m relieved that there are organizations like LetGrow that are helping parents and schools fight back against these damaging presuppositions.  I loved that the authors make a really clear case for viewing childhood through the lens of antifragility.
  • Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday.  This one is a re-read, and I should probably re-read it 3-4 times a year.  If you are interested in a really engaging introduction to Stoic thought or applying CBT-like techniques to the mess in your head, this is the go-to.  See below for the real-life implications of both allowing your ego to run amok and restraining it.
  • Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue, Ryan Holiday.  I mean, what more can I say?  This book has it all –professional wrassling, libertarian billionaires, Florida Man, and blackmail.  The biggest take-away for me we might all do better to engage in more conspiracies for good — by which I mean being singularly focused on a goal, enlisting the right people to help, and doing it out of the spotlight.  Seeking credit is death for any long-term, big, and important plans, and I think this true of making changes in your own life or in the world.  That dopamine hit you get from the “likes” to your Facebook post that you’re starting a diet actually robs you of the motivation to make healthy changes.  Really.
  • Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles and Discover Your Hidden Potential, Barbara Oakley.  Re-read.  Going through transitions in your life, especially as you approach the middle of it, can be really hard.  This book helped me get my head right about how much is still within my power to change for the better.
  • How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, Michael Pollan.  I’ve written about this one here already.  I think its perfect companion piece is Mindshift, so read them back-to-back.
  • Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age, Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman.  I love biographies, and I’m especially fascinated by the stories of people who kick-started the new age.  What’s interesting about Shannon is how he (outside of short period following a break-up) was really not a tortured genius.  Just a genius, who had a good life, loving family, and remarkably modest ego.  Kind of the polar opposite of Steve Jobs, whose biography by Walter Isaacson I re-read as a companion.  I like doing the whole Plutarch thing where you study the lives of people in similar situations or positions that exemplify different virtues and vices.
  • Poetry/fiction/philosophy: for morning readings, I like to dip into A Book of Hours, which is a compilation of Thomas Merton’s writings arranged by times and days of the week.  You really can’t beat P.G. Wodehouse if you need a laugh at the end of the day.  His insight into human nature and its foibles is downright Shakespearean.
  • What I’m reading now: As a fan of both detective fiction and yes, in the spirit of full disclosure, true crime, I’m happy to recommend Margalit Fox’s new book, Conan Doyle for the Defense.  One of Fox’s previous books, a history of the decipherment of Linear B and especially Alice Kober’s role in it, taps into my other obsession, the Greek Bronze Age.  She is one of the finest writers of biography out there, a craft honed by her years as the writer of obituaries at the New York Times.

Please feel free to share other ideas or suggestions for the next round-up (probably coming in January).


Review: Learning How to Learn (Part III)

This is the final part of a three-part review of Learning How to Learn.  Here are the links to part I and part II.

Of the many insights packed into Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying, I’d say the concept of metaphors and deliberate practice may be the two that have the most far-reaching ramifications for pedagogical practice.

On Thursday we took a look at metaphors and the vital importance of helping students build a varied and rich network of mental models and stories.

Today, I won’t even scratch the surface on the topic of deliberate practice.  I’ll attempt to sketch what it is, why it’s important, and then point you to some terrific resources to learn more.

Drs. Oakley and Sejnowski define the concept thus:

Deliberate practice means focusing on the material that’s most difficult for you.  The opposite is “lazy practice” – repeatedly practicing what’s easiest.

Anders Ericsson, whose book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, is a deep dive into exactly what, why, and how deliberate practice is the factor that distinguishes experts from amateurs.  Experts develop mental representations about and within their domains.  Drs. Oakley and Sejnowski use the term “brain chains” to describe the phenomenon.  Here’s Ericsson on this process (pp. 99-100):

Deliberate practice both produces and depends on effective mental representations.  Improving performance goes hand in hand with improving mental representations; as one’s performance improves, the representations become more detailed and effective, in turn making it possible to improve even more.

Seeing the “big picture” is what experts do.  But you can’t get there without building up a lot of smaller connections that get more and more frictionless through recall and practice.  

The path to get there is NOT to try to teach students to “think abstractly” or “use critical thinking skills” – those are manifestations of expertise, not means of getting there. 

If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success you know that he popularized the “10,000 Hour Rule.”  Well, guess where he got that?  From Anders Ericsson.  

The trouble with the popular understanding of the 10,000 Hour Rule is that it kind of glosses over the most important feature of it — that those 10,000 hour have to be taken up by a particular kind of practice — deliberate practice.  Check out this episode of Freakonomics on which both Anders Ericsson and Malcolm Gladwell give their perspectives on this point.

Drs. Oakley and Sejnowski provide students with a number of techniques by which they can develop the habits of deliberate practice, including interleaving, active practice, and recall.

If you’re a teacher or otherwise interested in helping students develop their knowledge and talents, I recommend that you pick up Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School?.  It draws on many of the insights regarding practice and the differences between novices and experts and applied them to the art of teaching.  Here he is in a fantastic chapter, “What’s the Secret To Getting Students To Think?” (p. 143 – emphasis mine):

Whenever you see an expert doing something differently from the way a nonexpert does it, it may well be that the expert used to do it the way the novice does it, and that doing so was a necessary step on the way to expertise.

To wrap up this mini-series inspired by Drs. Oakley and Sejnowski, here are the resources I recommend you look at next:


Review: Learning How to Learn (Part II)

This is the second part of a three part review of Learning How to Learn.  Here are the links to part I and part III.

Drs. Oakley and Sejnowski cover a lot of ground in Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying.  Yes, it’s chock-full of neuroscience, goofy (and memorable) images, very practical tips, and bracing exhortations.

Yet it’s not really about about “quick-fixes” or even, as the kids say theses days, “hacks.”  The book’s more profound take-aways for folks who work in the education business, as teachers, policy-makers, or leaders are:

  • Metaphors matter when it comes to learning anything;
  • Mastery requires deliberate practice.

I think that if folks got their head around the first point, so much else would fall into place. I believe that bad metaphors or a poor understanding of how they work is at the root of many issues, including our current polarized political climate.  Allow me to justify this claim.

We speak and think in metaphors all the time without noticing.  Part of this is because a lot of our metaphors are so worn that they have lost the force of the original meaning.  Part of it is because metaphorical communication is the only way to tell a truth about the world, at least as well as we can understand it.

Kids learn this way – by comparing one thing or process with another, unfamiliar thing or process.

The more they know about the world, the more they can name and describe things, or relate them to stories that they know, the more quickly they can assimilate and/or discard comparisons that no longer hold.  The fewer stories they know, the fewer connections or conjectures they can make when faced with novel situations.

So far, so good.  What does this have to do with polarization?

I’m convinced that pedagogy that focuses on strategies or skills for reading comprehension falls prey (see, that’s a metaphor) to the false notion that thinking can be divorced from meaning.  That’s why I really don’t like the phrase “critical thinking.” Thinking occurs when we are thinking about something.

But if kids are deprived of knowledge about the cultural web of metaphors, allusions, and references that we’ve all created through our speech, how can we expect them to become curious about things?  Eager to read to learn?

Here is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, The Knowledge Gap, by Natalie Wexler, as cited by a recent Knowledge Matters Campaign release on NAEP scores.  I just ran across it today, and I CANNOT wait to read the book.   I think it demonstrates this point with perfect (and tragic) clarity:

In Ms. Arredondo’s first-grade classroom, the focus of the lesson is the skill of identifying captions, after a recent test showed that most students couldn’t distinguish them from subtitles.

Ms. Arredondo is trying to get the kids to understand the concept of a caption, which she’s explained before: it’s a label that tells us about a picture. When it’s clear the kids don’t remember the definition, she tells them again.

But the kids have trouble grasping the idea. “Words?” one student ventures, when asked to repeat the definition. What the students are interested in is what’s going on in the pictures.  When Ms. Arredondo shows the children a book with a picture of a shark, they’re eager to know what the shark is eating.  When she shows them a picture of a planet, they want to know if it’s the moon. But Ms. Arredondo doesn’t answer these questions, because the point is not to have students learn about sharks or planets but to identify the captions that go with the pictures.

By the time she shows the students a funny photograph of a bunch of goats that have climbed a tree–a photo that cries out for an explanation–they don’t even ask about it. It’s not clear they’ve learned what a caption is, but they seem to have learned that their questions about the content of the photos aren’t going to be answered.

One of the arguments in favor of reading used to be that it gave you the experience of getting out of your own skin and experiencing the world through the eyes of another, only to discover that you had more in common with them than you initially thought.  In other worlds, fiction helps develop your theory of mind and your imagination.  One might even go so far as to say your empathy.

But if kids don’t read books that stretch them much past their own experiences or lives and they are taught that books are really just an exercise in “getting to the main idea,” for instance, they won’t be able to:

  • Understand that other people have inner lives and motives too, and that disagreements do not make them your enemy
  • Comprehend arguments that draw on historical comparisons or philosophical schools of thought that are unfamiliar
  • Have a nexus of diverse metaphors into which they can weave or challenge new ideas.

Kids who learn about, say, the Roman Monarchy, Republic, and Empire, are arguably on a far better footing later in life when it comes time to learn about the American Revolution.  What made it so radical?  What ancient examples were the founders both drawing on and resisting?  Were they successful?  If so, how so?  If not, why not?

We lament the state of civics education in this country.  And we are right to do so.  But that’s a symptom of (and I use this in its literal, not pejorative sense) ignorance.  The word ignorant simply means “without knowledge.”  We can’t blame the students.  The educational system has in many cases been rigged specifically against imparting knowledge.

We’ll take a closer look at what deliberate practice is and why it’s so important on Monday.

Review: Learning How to Learn (Part I)

This is the first of three-part review of Learning How to Learn – here are the links to part II and part III.

I’ve name-checked one of my favorite thinkers and writers on the science of learning, Dr. Barbara Oakley, a couple of times already on this blog.  It’s time I share with you a little bit about why you should be as excited about her work as I am.

Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terry Sejnowski are the teachers of Learning How to Learn – the number 1 MOOC in the world.  They wanted to bring their insights from the course to students of younger ages.  The result is the new book, Learning How to Learn: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying.  Unless you have above average knowledge of the latest neuroscience, I’d say this book is for you, too.

The earlier in your life you pick up, read, and adopt these ideas, the better off you’ll be.  As one of my other favorite life-coach-y authors, James Clear, often says: “habits are the compound interest of self-improvement.”

There is so much goodness here that I’d like to split this review into at few parts, if my faithful readers will bear with me.

The first chapter, “The Problem with Passion,” is the antidote to Facebook/LinkedIn memes like this one:

Steve jobs best famous quotes ideas pics images (14)


Drs. Oakley and Sejnowski beg to differ, and add personal stories to support their science:

It’s easy to believe that you should only concentrate on subjects that come easily for you.  But my story reveals that you can do well in subjects you don’t even like.  The truth is, it’s okay to follow your passions.  But I also found that broadening my passions opened many wonderful opportunities.

I think this is a message that all of us, of all ages, need to fully embrace.  As someone who is persuaded by the idea that division of labor generally leads to the flourishing of societies and individuals, I think it will lead to impossibly bad results if we misapply the insight to mean that young students (let’s say up to 8th grade) should be free to concentrate their time only on the subjects that they “get” or that seem to hold some fascination.

Educational myths like “learning styles” ironically perpetuate the bigotry of low expectations because they teach students that it’s OK not to push themselves to improve their abilities in say, math, science, or reading.

But I digress.

Drs. Oakley and Sejnowski don’t spend time tilting at the windmills of the educational establishment (and I include in that number loads of education “reformers”).  They are quite correct that true change start with the individual and with the individual’s ability to grow, change, and improve.  How better to empower the next generation than by letting them in on the marvelous secret that their factory-installed equipment is more than up to the challenges that life poses?

As we’ll see, Drs. Oakley and Sejnowski make the case that metaphors are the way we can “hack” our brains to learn new subjects.  Having exposure to a number of different subjects, especially ones that are very different from the domains where we are most comfortable, is a powerful way to make new and creative connections and discoveries.

While specialization has many benefits, let’s not forget that our brains are antifragile.  Getting too comfortable, or falling into “rut-think” (Chapter 14), can lead to stagnation and complacency.

I’m excited to share more with you about this book in the next few posts.  Hopefully I’ll find a way to move a little faster than one blog post per chapter!



Taking Knowledge for Granted

The 2018 World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report includes a summary of the outlook for skills over the next four years, classified in terms of “growing” and “declining” demand:


This report and others like it are the source material from which many business, academic, philanthropy, and government leaders derive their point of view on which outcomes K12 and higher education should be oriented to produce.  Here’s one particularly silly graph from Harvard Business School that I ran across right after publishing this post — h/t @stuartbuck1 via @iowahawkblog:


I’d like to share a little bit about my own journey to learn new skills, especially analytical skills.

Analytical skills are things like being able to apply statistical models to data sets and thereby derive useful insights from them.  I’ve been taking some courses in Python as preparation for a data science program.  After completing this introduction, I’ll need to take some courses in statistics.

Here are a few things I can assure you about the computer science and Python courses I’ve been taking over the past couple of months:

  • I’ve used Memory, verbal, auditory, (not spatial) abilities (“declining” skill #2) every single time I’ve settled down to complete basic Python lessons via MOOC.  I don’t know how I would be able to track the lessons, delivered via written notes and video (with speech), without “verbal and auditory abilities.”  Oh, and also, it’s kind of important to remember what you’ve learned from lesson to lesson in order to complete the end of course coding assignments.  So, you do need some “memory abilties,” too.  As to spatial abilities, when and if I get to the point of actually being able to slice up and use data sets, knowing how to present that information in useful, interesting, and memorable ways via infographics will absolutely require extremely well-developed spatial abilities.
  • Reading, writing, math, and active listening (“declining” skill #5) are sine qua non for learning “analytical skills.”  It’s particularly weird to see math on this list.  I can assure you that data science jobs (one of the fastest growing categories of jobs now) are typically filled by people who are pretty dang good at math. Statistics are a basic pre-req for learning “analytical” skills needed for these kinds of jobs.

Here’s the syllabus for the Statistics and Data Science MicroMasters Program by MIT offered through one of the leading MOOC providers, edX.  Let’s take a second to zoom in on the last paragraph of the program description (emphasis mine):

Anyone can enroll in this MicroMasters program. It is designed for learners that want to acquire sophisticated and rigorous training in data science without leaving their day job but without compromising quality. There is no application process but college-level calculus and comfort with mathematical reasoning and Python programming are highly recommended if you want to excel. All the courses are taught by MIT faculty at a similar pace and level of rigor as an on-campus course at MIT. This program brings MIT’s rigorous, high-quality curricula and hands-on learning approach to learners around the world – at scale.

This program is targeted at folks who would like to be qualified for one of the hot (and highly compensated) jobs in data science.  But guess what?  It would really help if you had COLLEGE LEVEL CALCULUS in order to take advantage of this offering.

If you never learned algebra well, you’ll struggle in calculus.  If you don’t have calculus, you may not have access to the best jobs that the 21st century offers.

There is more than a whiff of class privilege that lists like the one published by WEF give off.  If you were to break it down (i.e., analyze) the list of so-called skills, you’d realize that they aren’t skills at all but by-products of a well-rounded, character-enhancing, rigorous education.

You know, the kind that kids who attend great schools with lots of family support take for granted.  

By diminishing the importance of strong abilities in math and reading, lists like these and the un-critical adoption of them as measures of educational quality can actually be used to excuse the failures of the educational status quo.  ACT scores in math are actually declining?  NBD, math isn’t that important.

Well, unless you want the kinds of skills that give you access to the decision-making class — the class that publishes lists that take cultural literacy, math, and verbal abilities for granted.

Is Civilization Corrupting?

There are, of course, whole books (and arguably academic disciplines) devoted to this question so I’ll try to keep it fairly brief here.

I think this is the fundamental question of our time.  It’s particularly relevent to education.  Rousseau’s postulation of the child as tabula rasa who only degrades as he comes into contact with civilization and its authority figures is pretty much the fundamental mental model of schools of education, and even lots of people who consider themselves radical reformers.

But you see this idea emerge in all sorts of areas of life.  I was thinking about this as I was baking some sourdough boules the other day.  It’s a skill I’m still trying to master, and I’m extra motivated right now by the approach of the holidays to be able to bake consistently good loaves for family and friends.

With deep respect to those who’ve chosen to avoid carbohydrates/gluten for both medical and personal reasons, I’m looking at you, bread-haters.

From an archaeological and anthropological perspective, it’s pretty dang clear that civilization and agriculture are completely intertwined phenomena.  Whether you’re a “beer-firster” or “bread-firster,” the fact is that people figured out that they could get reliable food and drink by settling down and growing some grain.

Was this somehow a mistake that our ancestors made back in the mists of history?  I ask that with only a little tongue in cheek.  If you take seriously the myriad and multifarious modern assaults on civilization, you’d have to conclude that its critics are putting forward (at least implicitly) an argument that we’d all be better off in a state of nature.

The fashionable contempt for the work, ideas, and yes, innovations of millenia of fellow humans is just straight up ungrateful.  I think Jonah Goldberg does a really good job of making the case for gratitude in his new book, Suicide of the West.  But he tends to focus on “The Miracle,” a period of skyrocketing prosperity kicked off in either England or The Netherlands roughly 300 years ago.

I’m going to get meta-metaphorical here, so bear with me for a sec.

Most of the laborious bread-making process seems really boring and undramatic.  You have to start out with a healthy starter or mother (which you can inherit from a friend – thanks Nova! – or a family member, but you can also capture spontaneously from the spores floating around in the air).  You add it to a larger portion of flour and water and it spends some time eating and digesting sugars (that’s where the bubbles come from).  Your bread is a living thing, and like all living things, it farts.  This stage is called the levain.  It looks kinda like this:

levain 5-26
Levain.  Photo by Erin Valdez

You take this levain and add even more flour and water.  Now you’re at the autolyze stage, and for hours, it looks like absolutely nothing is happening.  You fold the dough periodically.  Still nothing.

“The Miracle” Goldberg describes reminds me of the final stage of bread-making.  This is when you pop the blob of dough into the hot stove and presto, it undergoes something that bread people call “oven spring.”  This is when the loaf poofs up and any surface damage that you’ve done becomes visible. The tears, or scoring, in the crust not only allow the loaf to rise upwards (producing better texture) but they also allow the beauty of the bread to shine through.

20% Kamut Boule.  Photo by Erin Valdez

This is my way-too-periphrasitic way of saying that millenia of human history are getting no respect these days.  We look at long epochs where it looks like nothing is happening.  But just like the edible manifestation of agriculture, it’s exactly when things appear most idle that the biggest changes are occurring within complex systems.

Progress in all things worth doing is not linear.  We all sort of know this from our own lives.  Why shouldn’t we also take that view of civilization itself?  Why should we heap contempt on the countless tiny innovations and refinements that put us in the position to pass judgement so flippantly on the past?

I’ll just wrap this by noting the central significance of agricultural products, like bread and wine, in many religions.  If you’re from a Christian background, you know that Jesus called himself the bread of life.

Metaphors are centrally important to the way we experience, process, and make sense of the world, a concept that new insights from neuroscience is validating.  I think that one of the dangers of contempt for history and cultural knowledge is that we are actually taking away from future generations crucial metaphors by which they can refine and improve their own lives and the lives of those around them.

When it comes to education, I think this is why I’m such a big fan of the idea of cultural literacy.  That’s a blog for another day…

Education in Your Earbuds

Today is the 20th anniversary of a BBC Radio 4 program(me) called In Our Time.  I stumbled across it in its first year on my shortwave radio.

That’s right, shortwave radio.  In high school, I was very interested in radio broadcasting — its practice and science.  I went to Radio Shack, bought a model radio kit, and built it.  I think it picked up signals from the local airport, but it’s a little fuzzy now.  My big next step was to save my babysitting money and buy the best shortwave radio $150 could buy (I wish I still had it).

There was this thing that shortwave nerds did (may still be a thing) where you send away to a station that you pick up with a written request for a postcard.  The farther away, the better.  Different times of day were good for stations from different parts of the world.  Stations liked to know where their listeners were, and listeners enjoyed collecting postcards from exotic locations.  I particularly prized my postcards from Radio Finland and the Vatican (both had broadcasts in Latin).

The BBC had frequencies that were strong throughout the day and night in central Texas.  I enjoyed the programming on Radio 4 the best.  It specialized in spoken content, including comedies, music, and cultural topics.  In a household that wisely restricted TV viewing, it was my primary form of non-reading entertainment.

I brought my shortwave radio with me to college and continued to use it to pick up the Beeb.  When it arrived on the air in late 1998, In Our Time struck me as a standout even among Radio 4’s great content.  I think what made it so compelling was its host, Melvyn Bragg.  Mr Bragg invites 3 or 4 academics to discuss a set historical, scientific, or literary topic each week.  He is not himself an expert on the topics (usually).  He is something rarer in public life — a curious, well-educated layman.

Mr Bragg never lets the professors get away with academic B.S. – he confidently, even doggedly, challenges his guests to explain the ideas or events under discussion without jargon or over-reliance on pet theories.  He demands that they make their knowledge comprehensible to his audience.  In this way, he doesn’t condescend to his listeners — he assumes that they, like him, are intelligent, informed, and curious — but not experts.  In fact, I’d say he sort of turns the tables by holding academics, who are used to a certain deference, up to a kind of accountability.  He demands that they engage in nothing less than educating the public.

I dare say if you listened to all the episodes on various themes, from Roman history to Shakespeare to physics, you’d gain as good an overview of the subject as most 101 level university courses.

Moreover, you’d learn that the stance of intelligent skepticism — of the spirit of energetic inquiry — is just as important to education as the facts themselves.

For these reasons, I rejoice that In Our Time has been available as a podcast for years now, and that all of its magnificent back-catalog is available for free — no analog shortwave radios required.

Book It!, Program Design, and Aristotle

Among the many artifacts that I’ve recently encountered in the educational portfolios my Mom carefully kept was this letter:book it letter_LI

Book It! is a 34-year-old program with a very simple mission: encourage kids to read.  Since 1984 (according to Pizza Hut’s numbers) roughly 1 in 5 American kids have participated in the program.

Teachers or homeschool parents simply enroll their students in the program by the October start date each year.  There is no charge.  Teachers and parents then work with students to set monthly goals for reading.  When students reach this goal, they get a certificate that can be “cashed in” at a local Pizza Hut for a free personal pan pizza.  They have a strict policy against pizza parties in classrooms, instead emphasizing the individual nature of the award (how retro).

In 2017 Mental Floss published 12 Cheesy Facts about Pizza Hut’s Book It! Program.  If you’re looking for a fun and truly informative dive into some serious 80’s nostalgia, check it out.  But that’s not all…

I had been wondering if there had been any scholarly research on the outcomes of the program, and sure enough, the above-mentioned Mental Floss article pointed me to “Effects of extrinsic reinforcement for reading during childhood on reported reading habits of college students” (Psychological Record, 1999, by Flora, S. R., & Flora, D. B.) – here’s the PDF in case you’d like to check it out yourself.

From the abstract (emphasis mine):

Answers to direct questions about Book It! and parental pay for reading suggest that when a child is extrinsically reinforced for reading the child will increase the amount read, enjoyment of reading may increase, and if they do not yet know how to read fluently, the programs may help the child to learn to read. These results provide no support for the myth that extrinsic rewards for reading undermine intrinsic interest in reading. Rather, extrinsic rewards for reading set the conditions where intrinsic motivation for reading may develop. Any concerns that reinforcement programs for reading will decrease later reading behaviors are unfounded.

I was a voracious reader as a kid, and no doubt I would have read stacks of books without the fast-food incentive.  But it didn’t hurt, and in the process, I got in the habit of writing down lists of the books I read, which is a good practice.

There are a lot of lessons that I think education reformers and philanthropists can take from this program:

  1. It’s free and easy-to-understand.
  2. The program’s design does not take a stand on which kinds of books kids have to read.  The teacher newsletters offer ideas and suggestions, but these are purely voluntary.
  3. The program relies solely on the most local level of knowledge in terms of setting up the program’s metrics, i.e., parents and teachers.  These grown-ups frequently work with students themselves to set up their reading goals, taking interests and ability into account while also providing some gentle nudges towards more challenging books.
  4. Homeschoolers have been welcomed from the beginning of the program, and now students in online schools are welcome, too.  In other words, the program is flexible.
  5. Extrinsic motivation properly engaged can lead to the development of intrinsic motivation.  Incentives matter.
  6. It’s a privately-sponsored program.  It very clearly helps out Pizza Hut to bring in additional business through loss-leaders like personal pan pizzas.  And this is not a weakness – it keeps the program’s design and mission simple and laser-focused.

There is a lot of debate in education reform circles about intrinsic vs. extrinsic loci of control, motivation, and grit these days, and Book It! has certainly has its critics.

I’ll be coming back to those important issues in the future.  But Aristotle kinda sums up my POV, so I’ll let him take us out this morning (emphasis mine):

Again, of all the things that come to us by nature we first acquire the potentiality and later exhibit the activity (this is plain in the case of the senses; for it was not by often seeing or often hearing that we got these senses, but on the contrary we had them before we used them, and did not come to have them by using them); but the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre-players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts. 

Home Is Where the School Is

“I support educational freedom, but I’m worried about the families that don’t know how to choose what’s best for their kids or who don’t care.”

I’ve heard some version of this many times in conversations about an issue that I care passionately about.

I’ve decided start telling the story of my parents’ decision to homeschool back in the 1980’s.

It’s going to be fun for me to take this stroll down memory lane.  My mom kept meticulous records of my early education, and going back through those scrapbooks has given me a renewed appreciation for wisdom and courage it took for my folks to make what at the time was a radical decision.

Some quick background, first.  My parents were high school sweethearts.  They married after graduation, and I came along about three years later.  Dad attended a technical school and got certificates in HVAC and electrical wiring.  Mom took a course in recordkeeping at the local community college and worked at a photo lab (kids, ask an old person what that is).

There was not a B.A. between them, and their income was very modest.

So, on paper, they were “those” parents that elites worry about making good choices for their children.

Fun with phonics, ca. 1984.  Photo by Keri Davis.

And yet…

Mom and Dad loved to read, and were always learning new things. Dad is an ingenious tinkerer and dreamer, and Mom is unbelievably organized and conscientious.

In the following weeks (and who knows, maybe months) I’ll share some of the artifacts from their early decision-making process, the choices that were available to them, the risks that they weighed, and the political context for homeschooling in Florida in the mid-80’s.

I’m extraordinarily blessed to have parents who made the sacrifice to educate their kids by their own lights and conscience.  Their story deserves to be told, now more than ever.