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.

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.

Right Aim, Right Preparation

Since the beginning of the year I’ve been working through the Daily Stoic Journal, by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman. I’ve been thinking about what ritual I’d like to replace this one with once 2018 is behind us. I’m leaning towards it starting all over again.
I have made progress, but I don’t think I’ll ever exhaust the opportunities that the twice daily prompts give me to reflect purposefully and honestly on my day.
At the beginning of the week, there is a selection of readings from Stoic philosophy on a theme. This week’s is “Balance the Books of Life Daily.” I was struck by this passage:

Epictetus relies on choice as the fundamental building block of this ambitious educational program – “I am your teacher and you are learning in my school.”  As a student, you’ve bought into this journey with me.  As Seth Godin would put it, “people like us do things like this.”

The student and teacher then share the same “right aim.”  That’s crucial, but it’s not enough.  The teacher’s value proposition, so to speak, is that he brings the “right preparation” to the mix.  He can help the student, but only if the student trusts him enough to actually start “diligent practice.”

In a K-12 context I think providing families agency in chosing a school that shares their aims is part of what makes learning stick.  It is the role of parents, at least for younger students, to choose the aims that support their family culture and that in turn support the teacher’s efforts to help the child attain the aims.  The key is that this is a voluntary interaction.  The teacher says “Here is my aim, and if you share it, I can help you get there, too.”  The family or students says, “Yes, that’s our aim, too, please help us get there.”

Would this solve all the problems plaguing our educational system?  Of course not.  But it would help teachers, who would be free to define their goals and methods, and it would help families and students, who could then find the teachers/schools who share their aims.

Epictetus is offering a truly liberal education.  He is relying on the choice of participation to be equally as free.  He invites those who want to get to this summit the opportunity to journey with him, an experienced guide.  His role is quite active — no “guide on the side” nonsense here.  He’s the one who can show you the paths and strong footholds.  But you have to do the work.  And if you want what he wants, and trust his experience, you’ll get there, too.

This is both a thrilling and daunting way to think about what education is.  It involves on the one hand a radical toleration of the idea that families will have different notions of the Good, and on the other hand, a belief that they will all want their children to flourish.  Outside of edge cases, the default position of policy-makers should be to respect this voluntary interaction between families and teachers.

Paradoxically, this will allow teachers to define up what they are trying to do.  They will be able to say things like “My aim is to help you become free, flourishing, and happy – want to join me?” and not simply, “My aim is to provide you with enough test prep to meet our state’s minimum standards.”  As Epictetus makes clear, diligent practice is absolutely necessary.  This is clearly not a call to rid students of the necessity for hard work — quite the opposite.  It is a call to those who see the world the same way to join their talents together in a way that gives meaning to their efforts.

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:

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  • 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.



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.


The Playlist’s (Not) The Thing

Yesterday in my Twitter-browsing, I came across an article in New York Magazine by Nick Tabor (h/t Emily Hanford @ehanford) – Mark Zuckerberg is Trying to Transform Education.  This Town Fought Back

Look, I think it would be a mistake to assume that all of the 380 public and charter schools that have adopted the Facebook-funded Summit personalized-learning platform have had an experience as bad as the Cheshire, CT elementary and middle schools did.  It’s clear from the article that this town’s experience seems to be an outlier (at least for now).

Furthermore, I’m not on the bandwagon with the idea that it is a malum in se for corporations to make investments in U.S. education.  In fact, I think this would be good if more private companies supported education for students in need — something that tax-credit scholarships programs make very attractive, BTW.

With those caveats out of the way, let me just say this — beware tech moguls bearing gifts.  The reason has nothing to do with “greed” as conventionally understood.  It has everything to do with the paradox of massive tech companies:

  • they are by nature disruptive
  • they are by nature homogenizing.

The NY Magazine story highlights the first problem — the townspeople were not consulted about this massive change that adopting the Summit personalized-learning platform would bring to both curriculum and pedagogy.  There was, as the story points out, not a chance to opt-in or opt-out.  So, that’s mistake #1.

The second problem is apparent on a few levels.  The core idea of this platform is a very old notion about the role of education.  The author notes:

The modern notion of personalized learning, in which lesson plans are adapted for each individual student, dates back to the Progressive era, and is the general basis for Montessori- and Waldorf-style education, but has never taken hold broadly in the U.S.

I think Mr Tabor is right that the idea of personalized learning is old, but I think it’s a mistake to trace its ultimate origin back to the Progressive era.  The core idea goes back to our friend Rousseau and his Romantic idea that civilization corrupts the child.

Furthermore, while Montessori-style education is not generally practiced in public schools, the philosophy of the role of the teacher as a “guide on the side not sage on the stage” is 100% the conventional view in schools of education and in most school districts.  Again, theory and practice are different things, but Zuck’s ideological commitment is indistinguishable from what most professors of education espouse.

On the surface, it would appear that a philosophy or platform that adapts to the individual student would enhance diversity, not homogeneity.  I think this is one reason that some well-meaning libertarian education reformers are attracted to tech-enabled personalized learning.

But pay close attention to the way that these programs are actually implemented.  Here,  Mr Tabor gives the students’ perspective on what it was actually like to have the “playlist” be your teacher (emphasis mine):

They also noticed the computer was easier to trick than a teacher. They could skip the lessons and pass the multiple-choice tests, if they were so inclined, either by making educated guesses, or by working the odds, retaking them until they answered eight out of ten questions correctly (even though the teacher would get pinged after a few consecutive failures). Other students realized they could open two separate browser tabs, one with the questions and another with the answers, and cheat their way through.

That’s right.  As you’re likely aware, computers as we know them run on zeros and ones, yeses and noes, on and off.  Binary choices.  In the core educational context, relying on “playlists” that students can game to determine mastery (based on multiple choice quizzes) seems to be pretty much the opposite of enhancing student individuality, creativity, and problem-solving.

BTW, as an official TED-Talk-Speaker-Approved™ metaphor for a framework of learning, “playlist” might be one of the dumbest ones yet.  I mean, it’s already outdated – content is streaming and/or algorithm-optimized now.

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I don’t want to be unfair to Montessori fans.  The approach has much to recommend itself when done well.  But it might not be scalable, at least in conventional school settings.  In fact, it might cause a good deal of harm if it is imposed in inappropriate contexts, and it might be particularly bad when it’s computerized.

This is where the tech moguls and sometimes other philanthropists really screw things up — they take an idea that might work in a smaller setting, with well-trained teachers and lots of community buy-in (hello school choice) and then say, well, technology brings down the price of everything else it touches (disruption) so if we (badly) map this idea onto some code and bring our (homogenous) platform to any particular community, it must bring about the desired results.

When the power of education is concentrated in just a few institutions, it makes it a lot easier for bad ideas to be imposed from the top down and do lots of damage.  One of the most compelling arguments for educational freedom is that it will bring about more pluralism in education — more groups, organizations, and more families will become gatekeepers.

And I think that brings me to the thing that really nagged me about this story.  It’s clear that the community that fought Zuck and won is a rather affluent one.  It’s clear that parents had the power of both voice and exit (emphasis mine):

As the school year in Connecticut went on, some parents tried to move their kids into classes that weren’t using the platform — but administrators said they couldn’t, because it would disrupt the distribution of students to teachers. A few reportedly pulled their kids from the district. And a cadre of others committed to getting the program suspended.

They created a group on Slack, the workplace messaging system, and a private forum on Facebook, where they could share links to relevant news articles and social-science research.

I’m very interested in the demographics of the 380 other schools that have adopted the Summit platform.  I’m interested to learn whether the ones that have had a problem with it tend to be in more affluent areas than the ones that have not raised the same kind of ruckus.  If you are a parent with limited choices for your child’s education, you may not be as effective in advocating against changes that are having a negative effect on your child.

As I’ve discussed here before, I’m actually a fan of online education.  What I’m deeply skeptical of is whether conventional school settings are the place where the power of online learning can truly and meaningfully be unleashed.  It may be that in conventional school settings, a combination of lecture and Socratic methodologies works best.

If that’s not palatable to you, then we need to figure out a way to make it possible for more families to afford schools that are narrowly tailored to meet their needs.  These schools will adopt a variety of approaches to learning.  And if they are accountable to families, they are far more likely to produce better outcomes — no matter their approach.