Here is an interesting vido, where Michigan State University Professor of Education Yong Zhau talks about finding a balance between the push for standardization and pluralism/individualism in American education. (The video takes a few minutes to load and is a bit less than 10 minutes.)
A professor of mine at the University of Delaware, Amanda Jansen, pointed me towards this link after following my discussion with author James Bach (who seems to favor a form of self-education where students are the prime movers of their own education). I, on the other hand, am a strong supporter of a voucher system of the type I think is hinted at in Zhau’s video.
It seems that the issue – like many issues – is often framed in a very extreme binary way: either we allow students 100% control to study what they want when they want, or we push for a highly standardized, NCLB style education where a student’s educational trajectory is quite inflexibly decided for them. As a supporter of a voucher-style approach (whether by voucher, tax-credit, or wholly private but subsidized), I think there is a third way, whereby states could mandate certain minimal curricular objectives while leaving parents and students (not just students, mind you) free to choose what kind of education they, or their children, should have.
As Zhau notes in the video, the largest benefit of such a system is that while certain standards do exist in order to ensure that students acquire the basic skills (reading, writing, math) that would need to be employed to acquire more specialized skills, parents and students can choose the type of school that they think would best suit their child. Not only can they choose the type of school by approach (Montesorri, disciplinarian, online, etc) but they might choose the academic focus they want for their child (arts, humanities, technology, etc.) As it stands now, unless parents want to pay above and beyond the taxes taken to support public schools, parents and students have no choice of where to attend school and very little choice of what to study. (more…)
Occasionally, it happens that an assumption that is highly taken for granted is questioned. In these cases one is asked to defend what one never expected would need explicit defense. In this case, the person asking for a defense is James Bach (author of “Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar,") and the principal is the legitmacy of coercion for the sake of student learning.
Bach and I have been discussing his book and my review of it for several go rounds. He advocates for a non-coercion principal in education that “respect[s] the integrity of a child’s mind” and sees all attempts to direct a student’s mind where it does not want to go as unjustly coercive. I, as a former schoolteacher and PhD student in Education, argue that in many cases, coercion of children is justified, and one instance that this is so is in coercing students to learn things that they may not want to learn but society feels they need to learn.
(It is important to note that I am a political libertarian and probably have much common ground with Bach in the belief that, on the whole, we should do our best to avoid coercive meaures and that only the most compelling counter-claims justify its use. I am also a staunch supporter of a voucher system with a minimal curriculum in order to (a) ensure that all students can be educated formally while (b) ensuring that only a minimal amount of core curriculum is mandated, while the rest is flexible.)
Bach suggests that coercing students to learn what we (society, parents, teachers, bureaucrats, etc) feel students should learn is analogous to kidnapping a foreign tribe and educating them to suit our need. I quote Bach at length:
In the 1830’s, Captain Fitzroy, of the Beagle, kidnapped four members of a tribe from Tierra Del Fuego and took them to England. They were “educated” for a couple of years, then brought back to their tribe along with a missionary. That little expedition ended poorly (comically poorly… look it up). Yet, I can’t see the fundamental difference in Fitzroy’s situation and your philosophy. Isn’t a mind a terrible thing to waste? Weren’t those savages miserable and naked? Even the abolitionist Darwin said they were! Wasn’t Fitzroy working that middle ground between enslaving the whole population and enslaving just a few for just a little while? He thought he was doing the RIGHT thing by kidnapping them. Do you condone that?
As mentioned, I don’t think that analogizing public education to kidnapping a tribe of people has occurred to that many folks over the years and, as such, most of us take such analogies as absurd on their face. But this feeling must derive from some sense that the analogy is unjustifiable and that calling it absurd is justifiable. Thus, explicating the distinction must be possible. (more…)
Two days ago, I reviewed James Bach’s book, Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar. Yesterday, he wrote me a very thoughtful response. There was so much germ for discussion in his response to my review, that (I hope he doesn’t mind), I am deciding to use this post to discuss his response.
Bach and I take very different approaches toward schooling. He is a bit more libertarian than I in his belief that education should be self-directed. His book uses phrases like “follow your energy” to mean that students’ learning should be entirely motivated by what they want to learn when they want to learn it. While I am sympathetic to this approach, I also believe that children and young adults are…children and young adults, and that there is a difference sometimes between what students may want to learn and what they should know.
Bach touched on the heart of our disagreement when he wrote the following:
It seems to me that a lot of folks who fret about “success” have a definite idea about what that means for them, and then expect everyone else to have the same goals. But, who are you and I to say what some student “needs” for “success”? Each of us is the only possible arbiter of that for ourselves. (Yes, this goes even for children. My son hasn’t gone to school in years.)
Who are we to tell children what their needs are? We are parents, teachers, and mentors. It is quite an uncontroversial fact that more experienced folk have foresight that young people do not necessarily have. I would not let my children choose all of the meals that they eat, because they do not know as much about nutrition as I do. I would not let my children drive a car without forcing them through some type of drivers training (even if they think the week they spent studying the booklet is enough). For similar reasons, I would not trust a five year old to judge what she will and will not study in order to prepare for a future that she is unaware the consistency of. (more…)
Review of Bach’s “Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar: How Self-Education and the Pursuit of Passion Can Lead to a Lifetime of Success”
(3 of 5 stars)
The original title for this book was School Kills. While James Bach changed the title, there is still some of this very message in his book. Bach is not as anti-school as he is a believer that the best learning is that a person does on their own because they want to.
Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar alternates between chapters outlining Bach’s theory of learning (a very Montesorrian free-flowing approach) and autobiographical chapters detailing his fall from high-school as a drop out to his rise in the computer world – all due to the kind of self-motivation and passionate learning he was disallowed from in high school. At times, Bach can come off as a bit cocky and conceited, like when he tells us of memorizing hte first 41 digits of pi just for kicks (reciting them for us again), or when he explains why he doesn’t “know how to talk about things that don’t matter.” (kindle edition, loc. 1798)
I have mixed feelings about this book, especially as a teacher. One the one hand, I was and am very much one of the buccaneers Bach talks about. I coasted in high school, went to a non-academic music college, discovered learning on my own, read constantly, and now have two masters degrees and am in pursuit of a PhD. Bach is certainly correct that the best learning – that which is often discouraged in school – is that which one does passionately on their own.
On the other hand is the question that Bach does not much address as to whether this approach would set as many kids up for failure as success. It is evident from Bach’s book that he was strongly motivated and had an uncanny sense of self-discipline. I have met too many students whose motivations (for anything) was low enough that I would not trust that if they guided their own education, they would come up short of what they needed. Also, there is a question which has existed ever since Montessori pioneered the student-directed education theory about whether students should be the judge of what information they will need to learn. Self-education may be a good idea for some, but do others have the motivation and forethought required to guide their own education? These are open questions that I found to be unconvincingly handled in Bach’s book.
Whatever your take – or if you don’t have a take at all – this book is an interesting read. Bach is very open and introspective, and writes in a very inviting first-person style. And for those interested in hearing Bach’s view of education applied (dare I say) systemically, check out Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling.
Once, my mentor teacher told me about the “10:2 theory.” It states that for every ten minutes of meaningful learning a child does, she should have 2 minutes of a “brain break.” I was open minded, but she could see a bit of skepticism in my face, so she assured me that it was a “research based” practice. I asked her if she had any literature on the theory, and she showed me a book article that also assured readers that “10:2” was “research based.”
Later that night, I decided to do a bit of internet research just to see if I could find any studies that had validated the “research based” 10:2 idea. What I found was that a certain article (telling us the practice was “research based”) cited another article (which told us that same) which cited another, which cited another. Each article cited the other as proof of the 10:2 theory, but none actually had any proof of the 10:2 theory.
My point: “research based” is practically an empty term in the field of education. Obviously, teachers are in no position to find out what research actually says, and (as the example should illustrate) most of those who tell us what the “best practices” are seem also to be quite gullible when it comes to figuring out what the research says. (I think my mentor teacher, a very smart woman, just heard enough people say that 10:2 was research based that she had no reason to check for herself, and they probably heard it from their friends, and so on.) (more…)
Recently, I was talking to my new neighbor who is a PhD student in one of the hard sciences (microbiology or some such). We were talking about what our career aspirations were, and he asked whether I wanted to be on the teaching or research side of academia. Without giving it a thought, I said “teaching,” and was actually quite alarmed at how quickly I said it.
Those who know me, or have read much of my blog, know that recently I burned out of public school teaching (right on qeueapparently, because there is alleged to be such a thing as the two year teacherBut even after that, I cannot shake my desire to teach (and would notwant to). When I read teacher biographies I still get the semi-jealous feeling when I read of being in the classroom. Long and short, there is a part of me, it seems, that has teaching in the blood.
Not literally, though. None of my relatives have ever been schoolteachers of professors. So , if it is not “in my genes” what is it that makes me like to teach so?
Some might say that there is a perfectly egoistic explanation to why teachers teach. One viewpoint says that teachers like the feeling of power and authority that they get from teaching. There is a little truth to this, as one of the things I love most about teaching is the ability to be theatrical and a showman in front of students and the feeling I get when their attention is captured. So, yes, there is a small thrill to being the “center of attention.”
But anyone whose been a teacher knows that loving to be the center of attention can lead to as much headache for teachers as joy. In fact, some might say that thsoedesirous of being the center of attention should otbe teachers because teachers so rarely are the center of attention in the classroom. We fight for attention, duking it out with joke-tellers, chatter of last night’s party, the ADD student that can’t stop interrupting, and…general boredom. Yes, there are times where we get to be the center of attention but I do think that any teacher who teachers for these moments is miserable the rest of the time. Long and short: we do not teach because we like being the focus of the room. (more…)
I love philosophy…and then I don’t. I hate philosophy…and then I want to read it. What’s up?!?
I first fell in love with philosophy while working in a Nashville bookstore. My first purchase was Camus’s Myth of Sysyphus. (I tried Heidgegger’s Being and Time when in high school, but didn’t understand a word.) I very much disagreed with Camus’s pessimistic assessment of life but was intrigued about the world of ideas I saw behind it. I read more and more. I loved it.
Then, while in graduate school, I specialized in political philosophy. I read the classics of Aristotle, Plato and Grotius, the works of Marx, Bastiat, and Locke and current works by those like Marcuse, Nozick, and Guttman. I also read outside of political philosophy in moral philosophy, philosophy of science, philosophy of jurisprudence, etc. The more I read, though, the less conviction I had that philosophy was capable of solving, instead of obfuscating, any problem it touched. I hated it.
To illustrate my turn around, let’s look at a problem in moral philosophy (which I still regard to be one of the most insoluble branches of philosophy, even if it is the most relevant to life). Moral philosophers are often busy looking for a system – an algorithm – that will explain how to make correct judgments of rigiht and wrong. But such systems, it seems to me, rest on a huge presupposition: that the morality of complex humans, who evolved our instincts and sentiments over millions of years, can be reduced to a system rather than, say, a hodge-podge of conflicting impulses. (Think of how many moral dilemmas, for instance, involve the complex pull of two impulses: selfishness and altruism. Both seem a natural part of us, and to assume that a non contradictory system of morality is possible assumes that these two are, somewhere, reconcilable. But what if they are not? Why do they have to be?)
And once you admit the possibility that a noncontradictory and theoretically clean system of ethics may not be possible, the jig is up. Once one entertains this real possibility, then it literally becomes quite hard to seriously read attempts to construct such a theory.
And that is one reason I fell out of love with philosophy. (more…)
In the 1970’s, “open space education” was the rage. In the ning, ’80’s, it was “whole language education.” IN the 90’s, “learning styles” and “multiple intelligences” were the buzzword. The last 10 years have seen “brain-based education” and several other fads hit the field of education with full force. (A disttrict in which I taught bought in, a few years ago, to the “Capturing Kids Hearts” program offered by motivational speaker Flip Flippen. It was junked within two years.)
Even critics note these ideas have valid points. But they were often adopted without data – without balancing the claims of competing teaching techniques – and then taken to extremes. That resulting pendulum swings are prompting a reevaluation of how educators adopt new practices in the classroom.
One reason the author sees for the field of education’s quick trigger in adapting unproven fads, is that “[a] large number of unjuried professional journals let inadequate research pass uncritically. Key decisionmakers, like urban superintendents, typically hold jobs for three years and feel pressed to show results fast.’
I have several other speculations to add to the list in order to explain education’s peculiar susceptibility to the latest and greatest fads.
First, as a teacher myself, I know firsthand how overwhelming and “full tilt” a profession teaching is. Even the best teachers are often fighting uphill battles day in and day out, trying to get this student engaged, that student to catch up to the class, and this student to stop throwing pencils across the room. Now, imagine someone – a rhetorically savy speaker with a service to sell – telling us that they have the program that will save us the headaches and heartaches.
Of course, we are all a little susceptible to programs – weight loss, addiction, etc – that offer a magic fix. And education, being a field beset by constant uphill struggles, is rife with ready consumers. Just tell us what the magic pill is and we’ll swallow it. (more…)
Jonathan Hawkins, the creator of the PalmPilot and Graffiti handwriting software it uses, has written a book outlining a very interesting theory of what intelligence is. “On Intelligence” takes a non-behavioral (intelligence is not the same as intelligent behavior) and non-computational (intelligence is more than the ability to compute) approach to intelligence. Instead, he views intelligence as the ability to make predictions by taking stored memories and predicting future outcomes based on those memories. Hawkins suggests, uncontroversially, that this ability comes exclusively from the neocortex and, more controversially, that all operations we call intelligent can be reduced to the ability to make and adjust predictions.
Here is my review of the book, which I gave a four out of five stars on amazon.com
Jonathan Hawkins’s concern in “On Intelligence” is to outline a theory of what intelligence is that differs from ones floated around in various artificial intelligence (AI) circles. First, most theories of how to build “intelligent machines” focus exclusively on “intelligent behavior” without focus on the “thought” that must be behind it. (Think about Alan Turing’s test of an intelligent machine: if its behavior seems intelligent to humans, it must be intelligent. Purely behavioral.) Also, Hawkins is concerned that those few AI folks who have given thought to what intelligence is, apart from behavior, see intelligence as “ability to computer” and analogize it to a computer. But, Hawkins rightly notes, what we see as human intelligence -ability to synthesize disparate information, create novel solutions, apply old knowledge to new problems – is much more than computation. (more…)