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.

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.

 

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:

future-jobs-skills.ffc08449f169a75803815aa2bc0dcc88

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:

W181004_LITTLEWOOD_ANEXAMPLE.png

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.