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.



Is Civilization Corrupting?

There are, of course, whole books (and arguably academic disciplines) devoted to this question so I’ll try to keep it fairly brief here.

I think this is the fundamental question of our time.  It’s particularly relevent to education.  Rousseau’s postulation of the child as tabula rasa who only degrades as he comes into contact with civilization and its authority figures is pretty much the fundamental mental model of schools of education, and even lots of people who consider themselves radical reformers.

But you see this idea emerge in all sorts of areas of life.  I was thinking about this as I was baking some sourdough boules the other day.  It’s a skill I’m still trying to master, and I’m extra motivated right now by the approach of the holidays to be able to bake consistently good loaves for family and friends.

With deep respect to those who’ve chosen to avoid carbohydrates/gluten for both medical and personal reasons, I’m looking at you, bread-haters.

From an archaeological and anthropological perspective, it’s pretty dang clear that civilization and agriculture are completely intertwined phenomena.  Whether you’re a “beer-firster” or “bread-firster,” the fact is that people figured out that they could get reliable food and drink by settling down and growing some grain.

Was this somehow a mistake that our ancestors made back in the mists of history?  I ask that with only a little tongue in cheek.  If you take seriously the myriad and multifarious modern assaults on civilization, you’d have to conclude that its critics are putting forward (at least implicitly) an argument that we’d all be better off in a state of nature.

The fashionable contempt for the work, ideas, and yes, innovations of millenia of fellow humans is just straight up ungrateful.  I think Jonah Goldberg does a really good job of making the case for gratitude in his new book, Suicide of the West.  But he tends to focus on “The Miracle,” a period of skyrocketing prosperity kicked off in either England or The Netherlands roughly 300 years ago.

I’m going to get meta-metaphorical here, so bear with me for a sec.

Most of the laborious bread-making process seems really boring and undramatic.  You have to start out with a healthy starter or mother (which you can inherit from a friend – thanks Nova! – or a family member, but you can also capture spontaneously from the spores floating around in the air).  You add it to a larger portion of flour and water and it spends some time eating and digesting sugars (that’s where the bubbles come from).  Your bread is a living thing, and like all living things, it farts.  This stage is called the levain.  It looks kinda like this:

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Levain.  Photo by Erin Valdez

You take this levain and add even more flour and water.  Now you’re at the autolyze stage, and for hours, it looks like absolutely nothing is happening.  You fold the dough periodically.  Still nothing.

“The Miracle” Goldberg describes reminds me of the final stage of bread-making.  This is when you pop the blob of dough into the hot stove and presto, it undergoes something that bread people call “oven spring.”  This is when the loaf poofs up and any surface damage that you’ve done becomes visible. The tears, or scoring, in the crust not only allow the loaf to rise upwards (producing better texture) but they also allow the beauty of the bread to shine through.

20% Kamut Boule.  Photo by Erin Valdez

This is my way-too-periphrasitic way of saying that millenia of human history are getting no respect these days.  We look at long epochs where it looks like nothing is happening.  But just like the edible manifestation of agriculture, it’s exactly when things appear most idle that the biggest changes are occurring within complex systems.

Progress in all things worth doing is not linear.  We all sort of know this from our own lives.  Why shouldn’t we also take that view of civilization itself?  Why should we heap contempt on the countless tiny innovations and refinements that put us in the position to pass judgement so flippantly on the past?

I’ll just wrap this by noting the central significance of agricultural products, like bread and wine, in many religions.  If you’re from a Christian background, you know that Jesus called himself the bread of life.

Metaphors are centrally important to the way we experience, process, and make sense of the world, a concept that new insights from neuroscience is validating.  I think that one of the dangers of contempt for history and cultural knowledge is that we are actually taking away from future generations crucial metaphors by which they can refine and improve their own lives and the lives of those around them.

When it comes to education, I think this is why I’m such a big fan of the idea of cultural literacy.  That’s a blog for another day…

Speaking Up

I’m going to spend a little of the time I normally use to write this blog this morning on practicing recording a podcast.  I’ve studied up on various forums and contexts, and the advice I’ve heard from all of them is that the key is to practice (big surprise!).  So, even though I’m a little nervous, I’ll give it a shot.

As a long-time fan of the medium, I think I’ll enjoy the process of creating my own.  The barriers to entry have never been lower.  There is so much room to grow — I think that it’s only the beginning of audio taking over content consumption.

Right now, I’m thinking about making it an interview-driven podcast, since I’m pretty excited about highlighting how others have engaged in life-long learning or have created the conditions to allow others do that.  If you have ideas or your own experiences in creating podcasts, I’m all ears!

Cultivating leadership by letting sunk costs sink

I’m still digesting an amazing podcast I just listened to on Shane Parrish’s Farnam Street.  The guest, Jennifer Garvey, is a leading thinker and writer on adult development, leadership, and the intersection of these concepts in a world of increasing complexity.  Can’t wait to read her books now!

Anyway, one of the ideas that stood out to me was an idea of leadership being a kind of stage of maturation — which doesn’t mean that it can’t be cultivated by effort.  It just means that we aren’t all equally mature at any given point in our lives.  So, there is a natural limitation to the utility of leadership programs that ask folks to “write a personal mission statement,” for instance.  That may be a valuable exercise, but it’s only useful for people who are at a point where something like that comes naturally.

One concept that she didn’t mention explicitly but that I think was implicit in her perspective was the concept of the sunk cost fallacy.   In case you’re not familiar with it, I think it’s one of the most useful ideas to come out of the field of economics.  A sunk cost is one that is already spent, already done – a ship that has passed.

An example would be how a manufacturer might address the issue of a piece of now-outdated equipment.  It’s not going to allow him to be as profitable as a piece of newer equipment, but he might be tempted to keep using it (even though it’s costing you money NOW AND IN THE FUTURE) because he spent money on it THEN.

Mentally, we do the same thing when we say, well, I got a major in education, so I guess I have to be a teacher.  You can’t get those years (or dollars) back.  Being a teacher may not be the way that you can be as productive and fulfilled as possible, but you’re doing it because you feel like if you don’t, you’ve wasted that investment of time and treasure.

As I’ve been trying to grow personally by gaining new perspectives and developing new habits, one of the hardest parts is overcoming my own propensity to fall for the sunk cost fallacy.  I think growing into new identities is really only possible once you realize that old identities, especially those that cling to external validation or certainty, are the sunk costs of the mind.

Cultivation of better habits, better relationships, and better modes of life can only occur through some kind of death.  You know this if you really unpack the agricultural metaphor of the word “cultivation.”  Plants grow best in soil that is rich in decay.  If we don’t let our old ideas and identities die, we can’t get new growth.

So I’m going to try to let go of as many of the pointless sunk costs in my own mind as possible.  It’s something that I hope the people in my life will help hold me accountable for as a goal.  It’s tough to remember and tougher to implement.   But it’s the only way forward.



Education in Your Earbuds

Today is the 20th anniversary of a BBC Radio 4 program(me) called In Our Time.  I stumbled across it in its first year on my shortwave radio.

That’s right, shortwave radio.  In high school, I was very interested in radio broadcasting — its practice and science.  I went to Radio Shack, bought a model radio kit, and built it.  I think it picked up signals from the local airport, but it’s a little fuzzy now.  My big next step was to save my babysitting money and buy the best shortwave radio $150 could buy (I wish I still had it).

There was this thing that shortwave nerds did (may still be a thing) where you send away to a station that you pick up with a written request for a postcard.  The farther away, the better.  Different times of day were good for stations from different parts of the world.  Stations liked to know where their listeners were, and listeners enjoyed collecting postcards from exotic locations.  I particularly prized my postcards from Radio Finland and the Vatican (both had broadcasts in Latin).

The BBC had frequencies that were strong throughout the day and night in central Texas.  I enjoyed the programming on Radio 4 the best.  It specialized in spoken content, including comedies, music, and cultural topics.  In a household that wisely restricted TV viewing, it was my primary form of non-reading entertainment.

I brought my shortwave radio with me to college and continued to use it to pick up the Beeb.  When it arrived on the air in late 1998, In Our Time struck me as a standout even among Radio 4’s great content.  I think what made it so compelling was its host, Melvyn Bragg.  Mr Bragg invites 3 or 4 academics to discuss a set historical, scientific, or literary topic each week.  He is not himself an expert on the topics (usually).  He is something rarer in public life — a curious, well-educated layman.

Mr Bragg never lets the professors get away with academic B.S. – he confidently, even doggedly, challenges his guests to explain the ideas or events under discussion without jargon or over-reliance on pet theories.  He demands that they make their knowledge comprehensible to his audience.  In this way, he doesn’t condescend to his listeners — he assumes that they, like him, are intelligent, informed, and curious — but not experts.  In fact, I’d say he sort of turns the tables by holding academics, who are used to a certain deference, up to a kind of accountability.  He demands that they engage in nothing less than educating the public.

I dare say if you listened to all the episodes on various themes, from Roman history to Shakespeare to physics, you’d gain as good an overview of the subject as most 101 level university courses.

Moreover, you’d learn that the stance of intelligent skepticism — of the spirit of energetic inquiry — is just as important to education as the facts themselves.

For these reasons, I rejoice that In Our Time has been available as a podcast for years now, and that all of its magnificent back-catalog is available for free — no analog shortwave radios required.


Online Education

My opinion on the subject of online education has evolved over the past ten years.  In part, it’s because the technology is catching up to the previously unique aspects of in-person education, and in part, it’s because I’ve benefitted both as a student and teacher using online tools.

In 2010 and 2011, I ran a Latin and Greek tutoring business.  I found that I could not keep up with demand and that travel time was eating into my profits.  I think if I had kept at it a little longer, one way to manage this would have been to raise my rates.

The other way to maximize my productivity would be to take the travel out of the equation.  I worked with a great homeschooling family who lived a good distance from my home, so traveling to work with them was costing me about an hour a day.  I took what I thought was a big risk at the time and asked if they would be willing to work with me via Skype.

They agreed.  It didn’t take me very long to realize that if I could find other like-minded teachers, we could actually start our own online school.  I chickened out on that dream, and went back to teaching in a conventional school setting.

I’m glad that by now, there are some really excellent online options for classical education.  I hope that more teachers will begin to feel empowered to start their own schools, eliminating (or at least significantly reducing) the overhead by leveraging technology.  Students will benefit from the increased innovation and customization that will be unleashed.

In-person education will always have a place.  But the increasing pressure on mediocre or poorly-differentiated schools and institutions of higher education will mean that we’ll see more close, merge, or evolve.

The in-person education of the future will look a lot like the kind of settings that would have been familiar to previous generations – tutor-led small groups, specialized curriculum, and opportunities for students to engage in apprenticeships during the day.

Teachers can and should be excited about these changes that are shifting the power away from administrators and that will allow them to become artists and entrepreneurs.  Families will be able to better match their child’s education to their abilities and interests.

So, yes, my opinions about online education have evolved.  The problems with the status quo are so fundamental and pervasive that I don’t think they can truly be solved from within the system.  I’m open to being proven wrong about that, too.  If you care about increasing opportunities for students, I hope you’ll engage with others from a place of learning and humility.  We owe that to the future.

Let’s Give Them Something to Write About

When I was a kid, I really didn’t like keeping a journal.  Being the world-champ introvert I am, even putting my feelings or thoughts into a diary felt too exposed.

I think that’s one reason why I don’t really like the idea that commonly, the first encounter kids have in school with writing is an assignment to write about themselves or their feelings.  For me, it was more fun to imagine what might be, rather than reflect on my own experiences.

By now, most education people are hip to the insights that Susan Cain shared in Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking (whether these ideas have really trickled into practice is another matter).  I was lucky not to have had to endure a lot of group projects as a kid.  But I got pressure during my teaching career to use methods that were better suited for extroverted learners.

I’m actually not advocating that introverted people shouldn’t be stretched to be more social.  There is nothing wrong with learning how to interact well with others, even if that’s more uncomfortable for some of us than others.

This is where I think classical education has some really valuable tools to share.  For instance, formal writing can be introduced as imitations of other passages, or reflections on or re-tellings of fables.  Learning writing through the imitation of good models was known as progymnasmata, and Classical Academic Press has a new writing and rhetoric curriculum based on this approach. (Full disclosure, I do some contract writing/editing for CAP’s Latin and Greek products).

It may seem counterintuitive these days that something “creative” like writing could be taught through imitation, but I actually think it’s a pretty common phenomenon for authors to say something like, “I wanted to write like David Foster Wallace, but after a while, I realized that I couldn’t, and I developed my own voice.”

The idea with the progymnasmata is to give students something to write about aside from their own interior experiences.  I’m willing to bet that this intentional focus on inhabiting the world or mind of another is an excellent way to build empathy or at least moral imagination.

For educators  and parents concerned about a world that rewards performative narcissism, I think it might not be a bad idea to look back and see if there might be some wisdom in the methods and habits that prior ages practiced.