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:

2018-11-15

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).

 

Learning How to Learn (Part III)

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 appear to 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:

 

Learning How to Learn (Part II)

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)

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!