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.

On Seneca & Sasse

This is a re-post from a blog I wrote at Ricochet.com.

As I watched the livestream of Senator Ben Sasse’s keynote address kicking off this year’s ExcelInEd Conference, I was reminded of a fairly famous Latin phrase: non scholae sed vitae discimus – we learn not for school but for life.

Senator Sasse is a smart guy, a former college president, and well-read.  I’m a fan of his frequent appearances on Jonah Goldberg’s podcast.  His thesis this morning was “Education and schooling are not the same thing.”  It’s a pretty bold thing to say that to a group of people whose livings depend on … schools.  So kudos to him for speaking the truth.

It’s because I’m a fan and supporter that I thought it was worthwhile to point out a couple of issues that tend to undermine rather than bolster his thesis.  He leads with a talking point that has been used ad naseum by the fans of John Dewey — whom Sasse rightly goes on to critique.

He characterizes the current form of education that we have as based on a “Prussian” model, in which students sit in age-segregated rows and learn primarily through lecture.  He describes it as an “industrial model” of education, designed to maximize social control and prepare students for jobs in factories.  This banality is trotted out by those advocating progressive (i.e. Dewey-an) reforms, such as more group work (“cooperative learning”) and constructivist approaches to learning.

Yet Dewey was Senator Sasse’s target as the popularizer of the “industrial model.”  Something isn’t adding up here.

And, I have to add, this idea that lecture is the primary mode for most student instruction in public schools and that they all sit in rows is a strawman.  Teachers, especially in elementary grades, are taught in schools of education (and therefore heavily influenced by Dewey) that young children should work in groups, precisely in order to achieve the “socializing” effect that Dewey wanted to achieve.  Students would “construct” meaning not based on truth or on facts that the teacher might have been in position to share, but based on interactions and input from their peers.

The old-timey pictures of kids sitting in rows and learning by lecture, well, they exemplified Catholic education in the 19th and part of the 20th centuries.  And guess what?  Up to mid-century, these schools may have been the best poverty intervention program ever introduced into American cities.  It was a school like this (St. Pius X in Savannah, GA) that shaped and set Justice Clarence Thomas on his path in life, for instance.

Anyway, back to Dewey.  He had a strong distrust/dislike of Catholic education, a point which Sasse correctly invokes.  Dewey did not like the idea of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, an older and (yes) classical notion of education.

When people who favor educational freedom, revolutionizing funding structures, and generally shaking up the way we think about what school (i.e., my tribe) trot out the “industrial model” argument, it sets my teeth on edge.  Lots and lots of schools used (and still use) a lecture mode, with a teacher doing teacher things, and students doing student things, like paying attention, taking notes, and asking/answering questions.  A lot of these were Catholic schools.  I truly don’t think you can blame this convenient set-up (which we know dates back millenia, v.i.) for all the problems with education in this country.

Relief found in Neumagen near Trier, a teacher with three students (180-185 AD) Photo: Wikipedia / Shakko

The bigger issue is that we ask schools to do too much.  This goes back to Dewey’s articulation of the idea that the school should be the vehicle through which the child is “socialized.”  And these social ends tend to be measurable outcomes like employment.

This is the verse in the hymn where conservatives and libertarians join the choir — obviously, employment/economic productivity is an outcome that we want, and since taxpayers are footing the bill whether someone learns to read or ends up incarcerated, let’s make sure schools are focused on skills-acquisition.

You hear a lot these days about career and technical education (CTE) and I’m very much in favor of there being lots more available.  But I’ve also heard industry leaders basically make the Bismarkian case that public school systems should be responsive to their workforce needs (based on 5 and 10 year projections).  They tend to be the same folks who talk about 21st Century Skills and Critical Thinking.  Because these seem to support the idea that students will be employable/economically productive after graduation, lots of education reformers (especially on the right, broadly understood) get on board.

Other flavors prefer schools to be in the business of making good citizens or creating entrepreneurs.  These too, are both a little too narrow and too broad.

Which brings me back to that Latin phrase.  Guess what?  While that phrase is attributed to Seneca the Younger, it was actually an inversion of what he wrote.  He was anticipating an argument against a literary (classical) education from his correspondent, Lucilius.  These letters, by the way, have gotten additional attention lately given an English edition that Tim Ferriss recently published, based on Gummere’s translation.

So who inverted the phrase?  That’s right.  Germans.

It is exceedingly easy to say that we should learn things for life and not for school.  But by placing “life” or “practical considerations” as the end of education, those in power are predetermining the course that families, absent a context of full choice, can make.  There are choices that schools and school systems make about what is out and what is in – the selection of some texts, the absence of others.  And if the system decides that its job is to fit students for “life” (whatever the trendy or cronyistic definition of skills happens to be at the moment), the results will be poor.

My Stoic point of view may be showing here, but the point of education ought to be self-governance.  Socialization, in the Deweyan sense, is the exact opposite of this goal.  I urge my fellow travelers to avoid adopting the progressive the “industrial model” line of argumentation (complete with invocation of paper tigers like drill/kill, sage on the stage, etc.), and realize that when they make arguments in favor of schools that will adapt students better to a new age of disruption, they are simply following in the footsteps of Dewey, and replacing one measurable, socially acceptable goal with another.

Senator Sasse rounds out his talk by reminding his audience that students “aren’t widgets, they are souls.”  And I think this is a far more compelling line of argumentation to pursue.  Since it is folks like him who shape the narrative of policy discussions, I’d urge him to resist the use hackneyed progressive tropes about “industrial education” and instead make the case from first principles.

The moral high ground in this debate is that parents and families should be in charge of defining both the end towards which and the means by which they educate their children.  Some may just choose to put their kids in desks that are in (heaven forbid) rows.

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.

School Choice, Civics, and Schumpeter

This is a repost from a blog I wrote at Ricochet.com.

I had the opportunity to watch a livestream of an event hosted by the Fordham Institute, Education 20/20. Jonah Goldberg was one of the two featured speakers. It was great, and I appreciated that Michael Petrelli, who was the moderator, highlighted that the best approach to addressing the issue was persuasion.

Mr. Goldberg mentioned that the private schools in his area (the DMV) are highly progressive in their approach, relying on the Howard Zinn narrative of American history. He noted that “school choice” may not solve the issue of kids not learning civics, tying this issue to the larger Schumpeterian phenomenon of the elites failing to pass along the values that made their position and wealth (capitalism itself) possible.

I wanted to bring up a couple of points that I think may be of interest in the context of what seems to be a contradiction – on the one hand, we want to expand the choices that families have in educating their students, and on the other hand, that we are concerned that too many kids are not learning civics.

First, here’s an excerpt from Corey DeAngelis’s recent work on the outcomes for students in private schools, specifically related to positive civics outcomes:

It’s time we set the record straight. The preponderance of the evidence suggests that private school choice improves test scores, high school graduation rates, tolerance, civic engagement, criminality, racial integration, and public school performance. And, of course, all of these benefits come at a lower cost to the taxpayer.

It supports Mr. Goldberg’s hunch that stronger local ties and local control would actually increase the sense of belonging and sense of gratitude, not to mention the “thickness” of social networks.

Second, I wanted to highlight the work of an organization that is doing EXACTLY what Mr. Goldberg identified as a need in schools, and doing it through voluntary, rather than compulsory, means. The Bill of Rights Institute, led by Dr. David Bobb. Their mission, “Educating Individuals about a Free Society,” is focused on reaching middle and high school students, largely in public schools, to read and interpret primary texts, understand both sides of the debate, and have civil and informed conversations. They also do amazing work to educate teachers in founding ideas and documents.

If you are inclined to support and organization that has been dedicated to the importance of civics before it was the latest “sexy” trend in education, you really couldn’t do better than BRI. Also, if you happen to live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and would like to see one of BRI’s events in action, Dr. Bobb will be speaking at the Bill of Rights Day at Founders Classical Academy in Lewisville, TX.

Five Reasons to be Thankful for Twitter

While Twitter can be a narcissistic cesspool of irredeemable depravity, it can also be a total delight. I was reminded of this as I scrolled through my feed this morning while I waited on the oven to finish it’s magic on the bread.

This morning the Fordham Institute posted a link to an intelligent critique of Sir Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools written by Robert Pondiscio back in 2015.  Fortunately, the conversation among education reformers seems increasingly to acknowledge the important contributions that cognitive science can make to this whole teaching and learning endeavor.

Here are my top five education Twitter follows (a little early for a #FF, but just in time to browse instead of a post-turkey nap):

  • Robert Pondiscio (@rpondiscio) posts frequently about the importance of curriculum, school culture, and educational choice.  He uses his platform to keep the conversation in education focused on what matters — helping all students get the kind of education that will enable them to flourish.  BTW, one heart is not enough to express how much I “favorite” this one:

2018-11-22 (3)

  • Matthew Ladner (@matthewladner) is the man to follow for the hottest (and smartest) takes on school choice policy, both in Arizona and around the country.  Also, his memes are pretty dank.
  • Lenore Skenazy (@FreeRangeKids ‏) is the founder and president of Free Range Kids, an organization whose mission is to challenge the culture of “safetyism” in parenting and schools.  She has practical advice for teachers, parents, school leaders, and policy-makers on how to create the conditions for kids to develop antifragility.
  • researchED (@researchED) is an organization that seeks to help teachers put the insights of cognitive science into practice.  Their feed is full of useful links to the latest research and journalism in the field.
  • Derrell Bradford (@Drynwyn) is one of the country’s most effective coalition-builders in school choice policy.  His strong support for educational freedom and advocacy for this issue arise from clear convictions, which give him the ability to work with anyone who shares those beliefs, regardless of other policy disagreements.

Let’s follow suit, and seek to find agreement, rather than division, around our Thanksgiving tables today, and everyday.

 

 

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.

 

Remember the Alamo?

EdWeek just published an article by Stephen Sawchuk, How History Class Divides Us.  Reading it at the elegant Ascension Coffee in Dallas yesterday, I chose not to give in to my impulse to alternate between shouts of “Amen!” and “Damn straight” (over and over again).  I’d like to maintain my access to Avocado Toast on Hippie Bread + pourovers.

Mr Sawchuk kicks off by noting the recent controversy at the State Board of Education over the history teaching standards related to — what else — The Alamo.

My faithful readers will not be surprised we’re going to turn to Mike Judge, the Oracle of Austin, to illustrate this point.

A 2004 King of the Hill episode, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Alamo,” told us everything we need to know about how culture wars over history textbooks have led to the dumbing-down of content.

Bobby_hill_and_hank
“How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Alamo.”  King of the Hill, 2004.

Hank is outraged when Bobby brings home a new Texas history textbook whose entry on The Alamo is:

The Alamo was a mission in present-day San Antonio, population 1.5 million.

Hank goes to the principal and then the school board, and is told that the reason the content on The Alamo is so weak is because of “objections, mostly by lawyers.”

This episode tracks pretty closely controversies over textbooks from the 1930’s, as traced by Mr Sawchuk:

Americans have never been all that united as to what belongs in or out of history classes, or even which specific civic values those classes are supposed to inculcate.

He then takes us to several schools that have essentially discarded history textbooks in favor of an approach that focuses on careful reading of primary sources.  The idea is that by learning that there are often competing contemporary versions of events as well as perspectives students will build their critical thinking abilities — with the hope that these skills will assist them better understand current events.  (For more real-time tracking of culture wars in public schools, Cato publishes the Public School Battle Map.)

How does this relate to civics?  Well, it may suggest that learning to discuss controversial topics in history is a good practice for discussing controversial issues that arise in civics.  Furthermore, students who have a good understanding of the historical context of the founding and the form of government that emerged from it may lead these facts becoming more “sticky.”

Civics and history are deeply intertwined subjects.  Poor history learning undermines civics education.  It does more than just remove context and facts from discussions — it robs students of the opportunity to practice moral reasoning.

It is impossible to get all parents to agree on the scope of history books.  This inevitably leads to dumbing down of the content in those books and further perpetuates the problem.

First, I think there is a possible policy solution.  Allowing parents the opportunity to choose private schools will lead to better sorting in terms of ideological pre-commitments.  Before you object that this will only make polarization or national instability worse, I’d recommend you take a look at Corey DeAngelis’s recent paper on the role of private education enhancing the stability of nation-states.

Counterintuitively, forcing a single narrative on all students will actually lead to more cynicism about “fake news” and facts in general.  And to respond by removing all controversy take the life out of history.  Better to deal with those controversies in communities where there is trust and solidarity, rather than in courtrooms where there is only coercion and constraint.

Second, as discussed in Mr Sawbuck’s story, there are curricular resources that can make history class better, as well as prepare students for civics education.  For parents, teachers, and students who want to fall in love with history, my personal recommendation is the Gilder Lehrman Institue .  It offers rich resources for primary-source based curricula, outstanding teacher development events, and online courses.  GLI’s online library has over 60,000 American history primary documents digitized and available for free.

Learning both sides of a story builds empathy, moral reasoning, and maybe even the ever-elusive unicorn of education-reformers, critical thinking skills.

It’s time that we, like Hank Hill, take history seriously.

 

 

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 is currently offering.  Enjoy your low-paying occupation that robots (enabled by data science) will soon make obsolete.

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.