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.

Swimming in the Deep End

I’m late to the Cal Newport bandwagon, but better late than never.  I’ve about finished Deep Work, and coincidentally ran across this tweet earlier this week:


It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Great Hearts Academies, and classical education, in general.  The question of how technology is best used (if at all) in classrooms is a heated one, and I’ve written about it a little bit here.  I’m heartened but not surprised by the growing number of reports (beginning as early as 2011) that the engineers and designers of most useful (and addictive) technologies are limiting their own kids’ exposure to these very products.

There are situations in which I think tech can be very helpful, especially in some urban and rural areas, where it is often difficult to find funding for a teacher of advanced math or foreign languages.  Giving students access to highly competent teachers via video-conferencing gives them opportunities that they would not otherwise have had.

But it has always irritated me to hear that kids “need” technology in classrooms in order to get ready for 21st century jobs or some such.  The truth is that they (even students from the lowest income backgrounds) have loads of exposure to technology outside of school.  Part of the point of iPads and iPhones is that they are “closed gardens” in the sense that they are idiot-proof and also hard to hack.  If that’s the case, how much time does it really take to learn how to operate today’s tech?  It’s super easy.  Kids catch on and surpass grown-ups without so much as darkening a classroom door.

In other words, if you’re really trying to get kids ready for the 21st century, take a page out of Deep Work and help them develop the habits and taste for deep work.  Help them develop the space within themselves to think the revolutionary and disruptive thoughts that will lay the groundwork for 22nd century jobs (and beyond).  Help them learn what their elders can’t seem to do — develop the self-control in a context of digital distraction to go deeper than this generation can.

Learning to read a hard book, write a report, take apart computers and put them back together, hold an extended and deep conversation — these are the real advantages that some kids will gain to as part of their formal education.  The question, as the NY Times article above asks, is which ones?

The best ways that technology can truly improve education should probably be invisible to students, or as seemless as possible, and integrated into very human interactions and as part of a rhythm that allows for deep work.

If we treat tech as a “quick fix” for systems broken by profound and long-standing social, political, and economic issues, we shouldn’t be surprised when it doesn’t deliver.  We shouldn’t be surprised when it does what it does best — amplify and extend human wisdom and weakness.

In many ways, tech in education is a boon and a blessing.  I’m personally involved in some efforts to make the classics more accessible through technology.  Finding the right way to integrate it will take time and wisdom and reflection.  We humans invent new tools and then figure out what they’re really for.

Let’s not assume that they way the big tech companies envision (or prefer) their products being used in classrooms will be the real and best application of these tools to the ed space.

And let’s be careful of cronyistic schemes that give large tech companies leverage over the lives and minds of students who are not operating in the context of true educational freedom.  Let’s strive to give all families the ability to choose schools that support their beliefs and values, including their preferences about how much screen time their kids get.


A Thousand Flowers vs. Bloom’s

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

2001 version of Blooms


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Recommended Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Review: Learning How to Learn (Part III)

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

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

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

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

Drs. Oakley and Sejnowski define the concept thus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Review: Learning How to Learn (Part II)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Learning How to Learn (Part I)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve jobs best famous quotes ideas pics images (14)


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

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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



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.

“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:


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 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.

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.