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:


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.

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. 

Homeschool Moms are Visitors from the Future

In honor of my sister’s birthday, I just want to take a moment to celebrate homeschool moms.  Her kids are now the second generation in our family to have received their education at home.  We didn’t realize it while we were busy with phonics and multiplication tables, but Mom was actually a visitor from the future.

The future is customization, personalization, and making choices in conformity with your deepest-held values.  It is quirky, artisanal, and bespoke.  In the future, people can their own vegetables at home.

Oh, wait.  That’s now.

Homeschooling has seen incredible growth over the past decade.   Test-driven education and the democritization of knowledge by technology are fairly obvious drivers of the growth, but I’d say homeschoolers actually lead the ed tech market, not the other way around.

What are the obstacles to growth for homeschooling?   The biggest one has been custody.  If both parents work and have to work, there hasn’t been a good option except for a traditional school setting.

But what if the homeschool mom of the future is actually either a mom or dad who, thanks to technology, can work from home?   It shouldn’t be surprising that homeschooling, or some hybrid version of it, has gained popularity in Silicon Valley.

Homeschooling looks very different today than it did when we were coming up.  But the desire to give your kids an education that gives them the tools to think independently, act creatively, and contribute meaningfully is the same.

So, here’s to the brave visitors from the future who walk among us.  May we be wise enough to follow their their lead.

The Paradox of Appreciation

Jay Greene’s recent post, “Want More Art Ed?  Decentralize School Control,” makes some really excellent points about the current paucity of arts education in public schools, among them:

Even if distant bureaucrats valued the arts as much as many parents and communities do, bureaucrats cannot give priority to the arts because that is not the basis by which the success or failure of their distant management is judged.

It got me thinking about a passage from C.S. Lewis’s essay, “The Parthenon and the Optative,” quoted at length in Tracy Lee Simmons’s elegant apologia for classical education, Climbing Parnassus:

Tell a boy to “mug up” a book and then set questions to find out whether he as done so.  At best, he may have learned (and, best of all, unconsciously) to enjoy a great poem.  A second best he has done and honest piece of work and exercised his memory and reason.  At worst, we have done him no harm: have not pawed and dabbled in his soul, have not taught him to be a prig or a hypocrite. But an elementary examination which attempts to assess ‘the adventure of the soul among books’ is a dangerous thing.  What obsequious boys, if encouraged, will try to manufacture, and clever ones can ape, and shy ones will conceal, what dies at the touch of venality, is called come forward and perform, to exhibit itself, at that very stage when its timid, half-conscious stirrings can least endure such self-consciousness.

The very nature of the arts poses a challenge to measurement.  Will the standard be that all students can read sheet music?  Play a ditty on a recorder?  Draw a still life?

Guitar and Clarinet on a Mantelpiece, Picasso, courtesy of the MET
The Guitar and Clarinet on a Mantlepiece, Pablo Picasso, 1915.  Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

It’s unlikely that consensus could be reached at scale on such a prescribed program; instead, arts standards are far more likely to be of the species Lewis warns us about — an exercise in creating a generation of art critics, and not in creating artists.

Teaching students to “understand” or “appreciate” a subject before giving them worthy examples to imitate or an inkling of its elements can lead to deep frustration (for some) and a false sense of confidence (for others).   Lewis reminds us that appreciation cannot really be aimed for directly.  It is a byproduct of having put in some work on the front end.  Most worthy things are like that.

Setting Sail with the Argonauts


In 1763 Samuel Johnson, being interrogated as to the utility of a classical education, turned to the boy who was rowing Boswell and him down the river:

“What would you give, my lad, to know about the Argonauts?” “Sir (said the boy), I would give what I have.”  Johnson was much pleased with his answer, and we gave him a double fare.  Mr  Johnson then turning to me, “Sir (said he), a desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind; and every human being, whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all that he has to get knowledge.”

In 2018 we might ask ourselves if, with the opportunity cost for knowledge about the Argonauts at an all-time low, we have fully appreciated how revolutionary is the democratic access to learning that was once the preserve of the elite.

But Johnson would not, I think, have been satisfied had the boy responded, “Sir, I can just Google that information when and if I need it.”  The Argonauts in this anecdote stand in for a whole body of knowledge.  What the boy would have given dearly for was not merely to be acquainted with Jason and his adventures, but access to the literature which featured and merely alluded to these stories.  In 1763 fluency in cultural tropes familiar to the elite could be a ticket to personal advancement.  That is not the moral Dr. Johnson derives.  He understands that there is something deeper than the mere access to information at stake.  He understands something about human nature.

True knowledge has an active property to it – it is not a passive link waiting on us to click it.  What we see in all the great stories is that we must approach knowledge with a sort of awe, because it has the power to change us.

Questions of how and why we seek knowledge – and the question of its effect on our character – have preoccupied me for years.  I’d like to use this site to engage with others who think deeply about these problems and share constructive (and creative) responses.  Some of my posts will be on point, others will be tangential and desultory.

Welcome aboard!

P.S., to learn more about about Dr Johnson’s life and times, I recommend this BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time episode from 2005.