education philosopher

Why I Left the Public Schools (a post hoc reflection)

Posted in Teaching by KevinCK on June 24, 2009

Now that I have left my teaching career – brief at two years – I am better in a position to reflect on the good and the bad. A post I wrote not too long ago focused on the good (that is often only seen in hindsight as the dizzying schooldays don’t leave much time to the luxury of being satisfied). Now, I suppose, it is time to spill the beans on some of the bad. I want to write about why I left the public schools.

Long story short: towards the end of my first year and beginning of my second, I stopped believing in the product that we were selling. I began to mistrust much of what the administration and professional development speakers were telling me I was supposed to do. I began feeling like the things I was being paid to do actively undermined ever being able to help students. On my worst days, I would explain to my wife that I “felt like the Nazi who was paid to pick off Jews because it was supposedly in someone’s self interest,”  or to say it bluntly, I thought the things I was being paid to do were dead-nuts wrong.

What were some of those things? Grade inflation was one. Many an argument was had with supervisors telling me not to fail a student who, according to the grade book, should be failed. They told me that the student would become discouraged if I faied him (or, less likely, her). I retorted that a possible reason for their discouragement in the face of failing grades is that folks have made it so that students never have to get failing grades, and that possibly, the best motivator for a student was to be held accountable for their level or workmanship. (I often did fail these students, but over very constant objection.) (more…)


Review of Scruton’s “Culture Counts”

Posted in Book reviews, Education, Philosophy of by KevinCK on June 23, 2009

scrutonAn Extended Essay on the Value of Cultural Education (3 of 5 stars)

Roger Scruton’s book, I think, is slightly mistitled. The subtitle should probably read something like: “on the importance of education as a furtherance of cultural knowledge.” (Not as pretty and less likely to sell bools than “faith and feeling in a world besieged.”)

This extended essay is an argument for the importance of educating students not just in academics or technical skills, but cultural education. And anyone involved in education knows that this is the minority position right now. Music and art programs have been long under attack, and literature courses focus as much on technical writing skills as they do on examining classic works. Even the mention of “great works” or “the canon” is likely to rouse the ire of many. We prefer John Grisham and JK Rowling.

Scruton further makes things interesting by pointing out that while schools today focuses on “knowledge that” (facts) and “knowledge how” (technical skills). But what also needs to be remembered – what Scruton believes is the chief value of education in culture – is “knowledge what,” which means “knowledge of what to do, how to apply what I’ve learned, and what to feel in given situations.” (As a special educator dealing with students with social/emotional issues, I focused a lot on instruction on how to act and how to feel appropriately, but this was always a “special ed thing.”)

The big criticism I have of Scruton is that he fails to make any compelling case as to why cultural education (education in classic works of literature, art, music) is the only way to achieve this “knowledge what” Yes, the great works of literature are often great because they express characters and dilemmas deeply and thoughtfully, giving the student a wonderful way to view these people and issues objectively. But just as George Eliot produced works that do this, so do contemporary authors like Wally Lamb, Jodi Picoult, and – yes – John Grisham. Scruton prefers the former authors, but doesn’t explain why the latter can not achieve the same things. (And Scruton’s case against pop music is even more ridiculous, reminding me of the used-to-be-hippie who, while listening to classic rock stations, wonders why they don’t make music like they used to. Scruton, like this poor hippie, doesn’t realize that classic rock stations play the hits that survived the test of time, rather than all the top 40 songs that didn’t.) (more…)

A Case Against Teachers Unions

Posted in Politics of Education, Teaching by KevinCK on June 23, 2009

Here is an articleexposing one of the pernicious effects of teachers unions; since teachers are so difficult to fire, an exorbitant amount of tax money is spent paying bad teachers NOT to teach. This sould anger the hell out of taxpayers, who have no choice but to pay for, and in most cases send their sons and daughters to, increasingly ill-run public schools.  Here’s an excerpt:

NEW YORK – Hundreds of New York City public school teachers accused of offenses ranging from insubordination to sexual misconduct are being paid their full salaries to sit around all day playing Scrabble, surfing the Internet or just staring at the wall, if that’s what they want to do.

Because their union contract makes it extremely difficult to fire them, the teachers have been banished by the school system to its “rubber rooms” — off-campus office space where they wait months, even years, for their disciplinary hearings.

The 700 or so teachers can practice yoga, work on their novels, paint portraits of their colleagues — pretty much anything but school work. They have summer vacation just like their classroom colleagues and enjoy weekends and holidays through the school year…

Because the teachers collect their full salaries of $70,000 or more, the city Department of Education estimates the practice costs the taxpayers $65 million a year. The department blames union rules.

One of the things that angers me about this article is that the last sentence quoted blames unions, which is only partially true. In order for unions (involuntary ones that teachers MUST join to teach in the schools), government has to give them the power of exclusivity. One does not generally have these types of problems in districts where being a union member is voluntary. So, let’s not just blame the unions, but the governments that gave them monopoly power over the supply of teachers! (more…)

Dan Willingham on Brain-based Learning

Posted in Brain-based learning, Mind, Philosophy by KevinCK on June 22, 2009

Here is a great videoby cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham discussing why we might be skeptical of brain-based learning and claims that brain research can or should inform education.

His primary focus is on showing that brain-based learning is premised on the faulty assumption that knowing how the brain works (and knowing how specific parts of the brain works) is in any way equivalent to knowing how the mind works. As he says, educators are best to study how the child’s mind works (what interests children, how to create engaging learning experiences, how to increase focus) rather than studying how the brain works.

I especially like Willingham’s thought that teachers who use practices that have proven effective in their classroom would not likely be moved by brain studies offering suport  or refutation by brain studies. Unless one is a neurology professor or neurophilosopher, one probably will care more about whether x practice works on the mind, rather than the brain (even if one recognizes that the two are one in the same, the former is understandable via folk psychology).

On Reading What One Agrees With

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on June 20, 2009

It seems to be a truism about people that we gravitate toward thoughts that we agree with, and tend to be much more critical, if not outright avoid, that which we disagree with. This is something that I try like hell not to do, even though I still find myself engaging in this habit more often than I’d like. When reading a book, it is much more comfortable to read those viewpoints I agree with and avoid books espousing ideas I think are wrong. The former is leisurely and the latter can be downright stressful.

Currently, I am reading a book called Fingerprints of God, where a journalist symapthetic to religion journeys to see if god can be proven by science. As an atheist, I tend to disagree with many things written in this book, and to be honest, I find myself from time to time pausing to “internally argue” with the author or one of the scientists she profiles. This is what I mean when I say that reading what one disagrees with can be hard work – mor unnerving than reading a book should be.

But quite frankly, for all of that, I become quite bored reading things I agree with over and over again. As an atheist, there is a hidden twinge of excitement in reading books espousing disbelief in god, but that twinge, at least for me, goes away after a while. One can only read the same arguments again and again. While I have recently read Thomas Sowell’s excellent Housing Boom and Bust, a libertarian explanation of the ’08-’09 recession that I pretty well knew I would agree with, I tend to read works by libertarians sparingly. It may be frustrating to read works from elsewhere on the political spectrum, but at least it does not often get old. (more…)

Can We Really Call Consciousness an Illusion?

Posted in Mind, Philosophy by KevinCK on June 18, 2009

After writing the previous post, calling into question whether neuroscience can inform educational practice, I began doing a little bit of research on the philosophy of consciousness (one of my old favorites). While reading through a book blurb for Daniel Dennett’s book Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness, I rediscovered one of my pet peeves: the assertion that the mind and/or consciousness is an illusion. Here is the blurb that got me going:

 Like a persuasive magic show, consciousness fools us into believing that the brain’s seamless illusion is real, even though consciousness is a purely biological phenomenon.

Arguments that consciousness/the mind are illusions generally point towards the fact that thoughts, feelings, etc, are not objectively existing things (that can be observed by someone using their five senses). Therefore, since consciousness/the mind ARE those subjective experiences, these entities are illusions in that they don’t objectively exist.

I can see at least something in this point, but I do not agree with it. When we say that something is an illusion, we are saying that it doesn’t exist in any objective sense and that while it may appear to, that is only because “it” is “fooling” us into thinking that it is there. At first glance, consciousness seems to be like that.

But there is another thing that I think is necessary for something to count as an illusion – something that does not apply to the mind. It must be able to be stepped back from. In order to say that the bent twig in the water is an illusion brought about by the manipulation of the twig’s image in the water, the twig must be able to be pulled out of the water. In other words, to say that a thing is an illusion, we must be able to compare it with the reality that is being covered up. Quite literally, we cannot do this in the case of the mind. (more…)

Can “Brain-Based Theories” Actually Be Relevant to Education?

Posted in Brain-based learning, Education, Philosophy of by KevinCK on June 16, 2009

As a teacher, one of the education fads (some might say “areas of research”) I was bombarded with was “brain based ways of learning.”  College classes, professional developments, and staff meetings brought up the “latest research” to demonstrate the insights from neuroscience can be used to inform educational best practice. “Educational consultants” like Eric Jensen have made fortunes writing books and giving talks purporting to do just this – apply the latest neuroscience findings to educational practice.

brainAs one can probably tell already, I am a bit skeptical of many of these goings on. The initial reason I was skeptical when I heard of the “brain based education” enterprise is that, to be honest, most of the “findings” …ahem…coincidentally concluded all of the most recent fads already going around in education circles (authentic project-based assessment, constructivist approach, multiple intelligences, etc.). Was the research driving the conclusions, or were the conclusions driving the cherry-picking of the research, I wondered.

But after further reflection, there existed another reason to be skeptical of “brain-based resarch,”  and that we are nowhere close to being able to translate “brain” and “mind,” and even if we were, knowing how the brain works is not really all that important to knowing how the mind works. As to the first part of that statement, we are nowhere close to being able to have James think of something, looking at a brain scan, and being able to tell what he is thinking about. And as to the second part, even if we could do this, having James simply tell us what he is thinking about makes  the ability for us to interpret his thought from an MRI interesting, but not at all necessary. (more…)

Universal Pre-K Education? No thanks!

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on June 15, 2009

Here is a really great John Stossell 20/20 clip making the case against moves to institute universal pre-K education.

My biggest fear with attempts at universal pre-k education is that it seems like the more government wants us to hand over our kids’ education to them, the worse results we get. And then a circular effect occurs whereby the government that screwed up tells us that the problem can only be solved by giving them even more control over education. But if k-12 education is already abysmal enough to land us at #23 (behind Turkey) in the industrialized world, then why in the world would I want to trust them with pre-K?

Maybe after we universalize pre-k, they’ll ask us to hand over our kids to universal pre-pre-k, and then maybe post-high school. Maybe after that we will nationalize all colleges.

Review of Willingham’s “Why Don’t Students Like School”

Posted in Uncategorized by KevinCK on June 13, 2009

WhyDontStudentsCover-fullBelow is an review I wrote for Dan Willingham’s phenomenal book “Why Don’t Students Like School?” Willinghan, an educational psychologist, writes about the most effective ways to get students to learn what you want them to learn. I loved it because Willingham takes unconventional but justified views on such educational matters from multiple intelligences (they don’t exist) to constructivism (well and good, but drill is still the most effective learning strategy).

———————————–  (5 out of 5 stars) ——————————

If you are a teacher, like myself, you have doubtless been inundated by advice about teaching to multiple intelligences, active (rather than passive) learning, teaching students to think rather than memorize facts, etc. If so, then you can’t afford to pass up this book, which will provide a very helpful guide as to why some of these well-intentioned ideas are wrong, and what it means for you as a teacher.

Dan Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? is a book applying findings of cognitive psychology to the world of education. Sound a lot like Eric Jensen and his wildly popular book Teaching With the Brain in Mind? Well, unlike Jensen – who educators hear a lot about – Willingham is a PhD in cognitive psychology (while Jensen, who has a bachelors in English, is “working towards” a PhD from an online university, while making his real living as a motivational speaker). Long and short: Willingham is the real deal and I move to suggest that this book infinitely deserves more popularity amongst educators than anything Jensen has written. (more…)

Reflections from the Finish Line

Posted in Teaching by KevinCK on June 13, 2009

IMG_1850Yesterday was a hard day; it was my last day in the Baltimore County Public Schools. After two very difficult years, I have decided to give up public school teaching (at least for now) in order to pursue a PhD in Education.

As anyone who has been a schoolteacher knows, it requires a lot of energy just to make it to the end of the year; the stings felt on the worst days often seems stronger than the rewards felt on the best days. But once the finish line is crossed, one remembers the rewards a bit more than the lows; one remembers the lives one touched (and those one were touched by) more than the headaches, tears, and anger.

What I can say, now that I’ve had time to reflect, is that teaching irrevocably changed me…I think for the better. I have much more confidence in my ability to deal with difficult situations than I did before. I have much more strength than I did before. And, yes, I have developed a newfound ability to be stern (while remaining a degree of calm) in the  face of challenges. In short: being a teacher toughened me, but in a good way. (more…)