Tag Archives: education

Best History Book Ever: Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari

Everyone should read this book. Its full title is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and it is exactly that, but it also somehow manages to be both a work of philosophy and a very entertaining read.

Harari writes with a clarity and wit rarely seen in academic writing, or any kind of non-fiction. Reading it is a delight, but that is not the main reason why you should do so.

Even if it were a struggle to wade through, it would be worth it for the content. In this book, millions of years of evolution and thousands of years of human history are analyzed, organized, and woven into a fully comprehensible tapestry, enhanced by an original perspective.

Multiple times, during the course of reading Sapiens, I found myself thinking, or even saying to someone nearby, “I guess I knew that, but I never looked at it quite that way.”

If you, like me, are a devoted fan of history, this book won’t provide you with much new information, but it will give you a new perspective on what you know. If you think history is boring and history books are unbearably dry, this one will very likely change your mind.

In any case, every human should have some idea of what the history of humanity has been, and this is by far the best overview I have ever seen. If you read every new history book, or if you have never read even one, read this one!

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College and Career Readiness is the Wrong Goal

There’s a question I’ve been mulling lately. If the people who say that AI and related technologies are going to put most people out of work, and that a successful human future requires the decoupling of employment from income, are right, what kind of education system best serves the people of that future?

I think what would be best for them would also be best for us, now. It would be one in which “college and career readiness”, if it even exists as a concept, is a byproduct of a good education, not the purpose of it. It would be one in which students learn how to learn, how to evaluate information, and how to coexist with other people. They would learn that human beings created civilization in its many forms, and that they, as human beings, share in the ability and the responsibility to maintain or to change it.

It would also be one in which the STEM subjects, the arts, athletics, and the humanities are all considered equally important, and not necessarily separate from each other. All of them expand our capabilities. All of them build neural connections. All of them can benefit society in different ways.

I would like to stand up particularly for the humanities. With the exception of what has come to be called Language Arts, they seem to be considered expendable. I understand why STEM has become so glorified, and I fervently believe every child should learn to create art and music and should participate in some kind of sport, but understanding ourselves as humans is of at least equal importance.

Many people who choose to study math or science say they did so because of the clarity, or objectivity, or the definitive right answers. Of course, when you advance in those subjects you realize those things are illusions, but they seem real to a beginner, and they are beautiful, in their way. Those were the exact reasons I chose not to focus on those subjects. They seemed sterile, too perfect, lifeless.

I did not struggle with math in school. In fact, I was very good at it. It is a testament to the cultural perception of the humanities as lesser that I feel compelled to say that. The easiest thing I ever did in my life was high school geometry. I was the bane of my teacher’s existence because I rarely paid attention in class (I was definitely not “engaged”), and yet I had something like a 105% average. I more or less enjoyed learning calculus in high school. I thought it was kind of cool, but also kind of boring.

I chose the humanities because they are messy, and imperfect, and subjective. I love the fact that there is never a definitive answer. I find it fascinating that people can have such different perceptions of the world, and that they can find it so difficult to understand each other. I love languages, cultures, religions and philosophies because they are expressions of human beings in all our diversity. I love literature because stories are so quintessentially human, and history because it is a collection of stories. I love the humanities because I love humans, individually and as a species, and I will never completely understand them. They (I suppose I should say we) provide a challenge that will never end.

Recently, I came across this article about a study showing that learning philosophy improved the math and reading skills of elementary school students. By philosophy I don’t mean learning about philosophers, but considering existential and ethical questions about truth, justice, loyalty, etc. I am not surprised at these results. This kind of questioning is the basis of critical thinking, which is fundamental to deep learning.

I am not attempting to discount the importance of STEM. By all means our kids should learn to code. I am learning a little myself. I am just suggesting that in a world in which technology is advancing at such a rapid rate, and changes on the scale of the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions are happening on fast forward, consideration of who we are and what kind of society we want to have matters as much as what roles we will have in the new economy.

If we didn’t need our education system to sort our children into jobs, what would we want it to do? What would an educated person look like? Might she be able to distinguish truth from fiction? Might he be able to consider points of view other than his own? Would she know what’s actually in the Constitution and what isn’t? Would he know how the three branches of our government are supposed to interact, and understand why?

We wouldn’t all agree on the answers to these questions. The process of creating and maintaining a public education system is necessarily messy and political (calls to keep politics out of education are foolhardy; what is more politically charged than decisions about what and how to teach our children?) and difficult. It will never stop being so, but isn’t that all the more reason to take the challenge seriously?

There is a lot of talk these days about moonshots, and references to JFK’s speech in which he said we do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” a sentiment I certainly appreciate. Have you ever read or listened to the whole speech?

He said that America needed to be the leader in the space race, but not just for military or economic superiority. He said, “there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man,” but that part seems to have been forgotten, or at least confined to a quiet corner.

Keeping up with technology and making sure our kids will have sources of income are obviously matters of survival, so of course they should be at the top of our priority list, but so should making sure our world and our society are worth surviving in. The purpose of learning about what people have done and thought before is not to glorify them, or to dwell on the past, but to understand how we got here, and to learn from their good and bad decisions. One of the clearer lessons of history is that as the percentage of people with power and luxury shrinks, and the percentage of people in frustration and misery grows, violence and chaos and danger for everyone become more and more inevitable. Making our society functional and fair is, in the long run, necessary for our survival. The sooner we come to understand that, the safer we will be.

Another thing JFK said in that speech is, “I think that we must pay what needs to be paid. I don’t think we ought to waste any money, but I think we ought to do the job.” Trying to find ways to make our education system work on less and less money is a false economy. There are ways money is grievously wasted in our current system, and that needs to be changed, but a good education always has and probably always will require investment. I know, I know. People don’t want their taxes to go to educating other people’s children, especially if they don’t agree with the way they are being educated. It’s a problem. It’s hard.

So what should the purpose of our education system be? I think it should be to help us create the best, most sustainably prosperous human civilization we can. That means working hard to make sure no one’s talents go to waste, and that all children are prepared, not just for colleges or jobs that may or may not exist, but for life as adult human beings. Creating such a system will be very, very difficult, and the process will never be complete, and that is exactly why we should pull ourselves together and do it.

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It’s 2016!

Amazing holiday travel experiences, followed by extended recovery from jet lag and a nasty cold I picked up, have kept me from blogging for all of January, but now I am well and ready to express my random thoughts again.

Most of my thoughts right now are ones of hopeful optimism. It’s a new year full of new opportunities. Hooray!

What I am most hopeful and optimistic about is that I think the vicious divisiveness of the education debates may be starting to change. I see indications that some of the education reformers who have allowed their fervent belief in their good intentions to blind them to the damage they have done may be opening their eyes, at least a little.

I am very excited about an undertaking called Education Reimagined. It grew out of work done by an organization called Convergence, which brings together people on opposing sides of important issues to try to solve big problems. In 2013, Convergence brought together 28 people with widely differing views on education to start their process. Over the course of many meetings over two years, the group managed to forge a shared vision, and a few months ago they launched Education Reimagined to promote it.

So far all they have done is put out a few newsletters and a lot of tweets, but I am looking forward to what they will produce in the future. In the meantime, theirs is a pretty great vision, and I recommend checking it out.

 

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What Teach For America Could Learn From Peace Corps

In 1993, when I was a shiny new Harvard grad with no career direction except a fervent desire to help people, I joined Teach For America (TFA). It was a brand new organization then, modeled at least in part after the Peace Corps. The plan was to send smart, idealistic, young people to teach for two years in school districts that were difficult to staff. It has since succumbed to extensive mission creep, as Gary Rubinstein has eloquently explained, but that was the idea at the time.

My TFA cohort of Corps Members (CMs) met that summer in Los Angeles for training. My memories of it are a bit vague, but I remember living in dormitories, observing classes, and sitting in circles for self-reflective discussions. There was a little bit of student teaching, too.

When training was over, we were placed in groups and encouraged to spend a lot of time together. Four of us were sent to the same very small town in Louisiana. One of the other CMs and I shared a house, and the other two shared an apartment. We saw other CMs in our region often, to share teaching ideas and for emotional support.

The most difficult thing for me was the unexpected culture shock I experienced. I had spent a year as an exchange student in Thailand, so I knew what it was like to try to navigate a foreign culture, but I was unprepared for the degree of cultural difference there could be within the United States. I was overwhelmed by teachers yelling at students, parents encouraging children to fight, and most of all by blatant racism. I had never experienced any of those things, and I was at a complete loss. I ended up reacting mostly by feeling superior, trying to model kinder behavior, and being woefully ineffective as a teacher.

I tried a number of other career paths, didn’t particularly like any of them, and fell almost accidentally into teaching English as a Second Language, which I loved. In 2005, I joined the actual Peace Corps, and I was sent to Macedonia as a high school English teacher. I was surprised to discover that the way Peace Corps operates is almost the exact opposite of the way TFA does.

During training, each of us lived with a different host family. We had technical training for the jobs we would have, and lessons on language and culture. Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) work under something similar to the Star Trek Prime Directive. They are never to interfere with, try to change, or disrespect in any way the cultures in which they are placed, even if they disagree with the values reflected there. This is reiterated constantly throughout training. We were taught to begin our time at our sites by being polite and observant, by listening more than speaking, by getting to know people in our communities and letting them get to know us.

Each PCV is assigned a Counterpart, usually a colleague, in my case a teacher at my school. The PCV and the Counterpart work together, and the Counterpart introduces the PCV to other people in the community. There are unlikely to be other Volunteers nearby. Peace Corps purposely does not send multiple PCVs to the same locations, so that they are not tempted to spend all their time with each other. The whole point is to integrate into the community, to come to know and befriend people there.

Trying to understand an unfamiliar culture is a long process with many stages. I had experienced something similar during my year in Thailand. After a few months, you tend to feel that you have a pretty good grasp on it. You start to explain it to people back home with the air of an expert. After a few more months, if you have continued to listen and learn, you realize that you have been wrong about almost everything, that what you thought were deep insights were just surface observations colored by biases you didn’t know you had. After about a year you begin to be able to understand how things really work in your community. There is a sort of running joke among PCVs about this: at the end of the first year of your two year commitment, you start to understand how things actually function; at the end of the second year, you may finally be able to provide some real help; just at the moment when you are becoming useful, they send you home.

There are some things I would change about Peace Corps. For example, I would like it to become a mutual exchange program, in which people from other countries come here to help us too. There is an inherent power differential in an interaction in which WE (the powerful) help YOU (the powerless). If it’s a reciprocal relationship it is more like friends helping each other. Some people think the commitment should be longer, but many PCVs extend for a third year, as I did, or even a fourth, and the third of Peace Corps’ three goals is “to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans,” which is hard to do if you don’t come back to the U.S. Some think the commitment should be shorter, but that is a terrible idea. There are more minor changes I might also like, but I think Peace Corps is one of the relatively few organizations that are actually making a positive difference in the world.

As a PCV I witnessed many development projects by many organizations, and they generally followed the same pattern. The organization offers to provide something new (computers! wifi connections! training in new methodologies!) They spend a lot of money and take pictures to put on their websites, where they report the great success of the project. Within a few months or a few years, the computers are broken and there is no money to fix or replace them, the wifi is of no use because the electricity is always going out, and the new methodologies have made no appreciable difference, if they are even still in use. Those generous people never bothered to find out if their gifts would actually be useful, and they are long gone, but their “successful” project lives forever on their website, and no one outside of the community they “helped” ever knows what happened after they left.

This pattern will be readily recognizable by anyone who has worked for more than a few years in public education. I imagine people in all kinds of tough circumstances have suffered through multiple well-intentioned attempts at “help”. Something I learned as a PCV that I never had the chance to learn as a CM is that people who have lived a long time in a difficult situation know a lot more about it than people who have just arrived, and that if those people (let’s call them “veterans”) are cynical and jaded and seem to have given up, they may have good reasons.

That is not to say we should accept that cynicism as inevitable, just that rather than condemning people for it, we might want to look into the conditions that created it. I discovered as a PCV that the best way for me to be of actual help to the people in my community was to support them in trying their own solutions, to be more cheerleader than instructor. The most rewarding moment of my time in Macedonia was when some students, at the end of a project they created and managed, said that the best thing about it was, “You made us feel worth something.” They didn’t need my ideas. They had plenty of good ones. What they didn’t have was a sense of agency or confidence that their ideas were worth trying, and there I was able to help.

People don’t choose to be cynical and jaded. It is something that happens to them after repeated experiences of frustration, of not being heard, of no-win situations. It doesn’t mean they don’t care. It happens because they do. Hidden beneath what is really exhaustion may be brilliant ideas and the strength and wisdom to carry them out. Real solutions to a problem have to come from the people with the problem. People from outside don’t know enough about the situation, and their “solutions” will work at best temporarily, and more likely not at all. They may even make things worse.

TFA is an excellent example of good intentions making things worse. The TFA narrative is that the neighborhoods it serves have “failing” schools, implying that the teachers there either are not smart enough or don’t care enough to teach the students well. There is explicit talk about how terrible the culture is in those schools. The idea is that if you come in with a better culture, one of “high expectations” and “no excuses” and “rigor”, everything will be better. No one asks how the culture got that way. If there is a “bad” culture in a school, it is a result of bad conditions, not of bad people. I believe most people at TFA truly want to decrease inequity in our society, but their faith in their good intentions blinds them to the fact that they are actually maintaining or even increasing it. T. Jameson Brewer has documented this very well.

TFA and Peace Corps both take in young, idealistic people with a zeal for helping others (although Peace Corps is making admirable strides in recruiting more experienced Volunteers), but they train and place them in nearly opposite ways. TFA nurtures the idea that CMs are a select group, smarter, more driven, and more altruistic than most, and keeps them close together so they reinforce each other in those beliefs. Peace Corps, on the other hand, gently leads PCVs to understand that they know much less than they think they do, that difficult situations are more complicated than they initially appear, and that there is often wisdom underlying what may at first be baffling behavior. TFA encourages CMs to achieve, to make measurable change as fast as possible. Peace Corps encourages PCVs to listen, to show respect, and only then to contribute what they can to the communities in which they are placed. To put it in data-centric terms, the inputs may be similar, but the outputs are very different.

I find it sad that TFA has become one of the forces contributing to increasing inequity and the degrading of teaching as a profession. It started out with such promise. Perhaps there is still hope, though. On the TFA website, it says that about ten years ago it added “respect and humility” to its list of core values. So far I have seen no indication that anything is different, and I suspect that the size, wealth, and power of the organization will prevent its making any radical changes, but I am lucky enough not to have become cynical or jaded, so I still believe that anything is possible.

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Yes, Mr. President, Tests Must Be “Worth Taking”

I am glad President Obama has admitted that there is too much standardized testing in our public schools. He has produced a “Testing Action Plan” to address this issue. He wants our testing policies to be smarter, and he and his advisors have come up with a set of guiding principles to that end. Every one of the principles is both something I agree with and something the administration’s policies directly contradict, but it would take hundreds of thousands of words to address all that, so I will focus on just the first principle, that tests must be “Worth Taking”.

This, in fact, is the essential issue. The fact that there are too many tests is just a symptom. One sentence in the definition of this principle gets to the heart of the matter: “And assessments should provide timely, actionable feedback to students, parents, and educators that can be used to guide instruction and additional supports for students.” Indeed.

A problem with any large scale standardized test is that the results are never immediately available. The further the test departs from a pure multiple choice model, the longer it takes to score, and the greater the time gap becomes. The results of the standardized tests currently in use are generally not available for months. Even someone who has never taught should be able to understand that “feedback” that is not received until the next semester is by definition neither “timely” nor “actionable”.

On top of that, for most of these tests, students and teachers are not allowed to see which questions were answered incorrectly. There is no way to know whether the student actually wasn’t able to answer the question, or just misread it, or filled in the wrong bubble on the answer sheet, or was too tired to concentrate by that point. A test score is just a number. It is of no instructional use without detail and context.

Let us drop the facade that these tests are intended to be of any use to the students who take them or their teachers. If they are of use to anyone, it is policymakers and high level administrators who want some way to compare the performance of students, teachers, and schools. That is a perfectly understandable goal, and I actually support it. I just don’t think these tests are the best tool for achieving it.

We already have a more reasonable test for this purpose, the NAEP, which uses sampling and has no stakes automatically attached to it, and for which no one does any test prep. It provides information that is as reliable as most of the best standardized tests, which is to say, fairly reliable. I am not aware of any standardized test that has ever been proven to provide truly reliable information about anything other than socioeconomic status.

I have purposely used the word “test” and not “assessment”, because these words are too often used interchangeably. There are many kinds of assessment other than tests. Tests and reports and anything else that is essentially paperwork will never give the full picture of what is happening at a school. You have to actually go there and observe and talk to people, and you have to do it for a significant period of time, and more than once, and sometimes without warning. It does not have to be more complicated or more expensive than the thousands of hours and billions of dollars that have been spent on testing companies and consultants in recent years. Similar things have long been successfully done in countries such as the UK.

Mr. President, the problem is not that there are too many tests. It is that the tests, by your own definition, are not worth taking. Why is it so difficult for otherwise intelligent, thoughtful people like you and your advisors to understand that?

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Data is not a thing.

Many supposedly highly educated people do not understand data. They use it all the time, rely on it, even revere it to a level that approximates worship, but since they don’t understand it, it becomes merely fuel for confirmation bias. Any study that tells them what they want to hear is “hard data”, and any study that doesn’t has “flawed methodology” or is otherwise suspect.

In education, one of the current buzzwords is “data-driven”. As with most buzzwords, its meaning is unclear. The picture that comes most immediately to my mind is of those drivers who go off a bridge or into a lake because their GPS told them to, but I actually support the concept, if not the name. I just don’t think it is anything new. The tools may be new, but not the concept.

The fundamental thing about data that most people don’t seem to get is that a data point is not actually anything in and of itself. It is a symbolic representation of something, and like all symbols, it can mean a lot of different things. The data-related skill a teacher needs to use is data interpretation, and this is something all good teachers have always done.

If one student fails a multiplication test, it may be because she doesn’t understand multiplication, or because her mother just died, or because the boy behind her kept pulling her hair during the test, or for any number of other reasons. A good teacher who knows her students will have a pretty good hypothesis and then investigate. If a whole class fails a multiplication test, it may be because they don’t understand multiplication, but it may be because the test was confusing, or because there was a big earthquake that morning and they couldn’t concentrate. Again, a good teacher will have a pretty good hypothesis and then investigate.

A single test score is rarely a reliable indicator of anything. Aggregated test scores more frequently indicate something, but what exactly they indicate is not obvious. This is more true the more impersonal and standardized the test. I have written questions for standardized tests. It is an extremely difficult thing to do well, because you can never predict all the possible ways a test taker could misunderstand the question, and no question ever tests only one skill. For example, a teacher who knows his students well can craft math questions that use only vocabulary the students know, phrased in ways the students will understand. The teacher can then be fairly sure that the questions are actually measuring the students’ ability to do the math. This is not true of a test developer unaware of those particular students’ language skills.

Many people discussing education these days use the term “data” to mean “test scores”. They also use “technology” to mean computers and smartphones and the like. Both usages annoy me. A pencil is technology too. So is a book. In the same vein, the fact that a particular student’s father is in jail is data. The fact that another student’s mother has cancer is also data. Neither is a reason not to try to help the students do their best work, but both are possible explanations for a student’s low performance on a particular test, or a particular series of tests. This is one of the many reasons no test should have high stakes attached to it. All tests provide data, but not all of it is of any use, and there are other kinds of data that matter at least as much.

This is why I don’t like the term “data-driven”. What is the alternative? Utter obliviousness? All good teaching is guided by data, but that data may come from many sources. If a teacher needs a computer algorithm to know how his students are doing, then either he is not a very good teacher, or he has too many students. (I will digress here to mention that the studies I have seen that “prove” that class size doesn’t matter tend to look at the difference between having, say, 18 students in a class and having 22. No, at that size, the difference is not significant. Why don’t they look at places like the LAUSD, where class sizes of 35-40 are not unusual? Is there a difference between 20 students and 40? You betcha.)

I’m not saying computer algorithms can’t be useful for teachers. They can, but they are not reliable enough to supersede good judgement based on daily interactions with students and all the other data available to teachers in the course of their work. One of the rallying cries of people who protest high-stakes tests is, “Students are not data points!” The reverse is also true. Data points are not students. Test scores are just representations of particular students’ performance on particular measures at particular times. They may indicate situations to investigate, but they are not sufficient evidence to declare students or their teachers failures.

Here is some data:

Self-described education reformers have used many millions of dollars to successfully influence education policy over the last couple of decades. While claiming to want to make teaching a more attractive career, they have promulgated a narrative that blames the gross inequities in our public education system on lazy, uncaring, unintelligent and/or racist teachers who are too hard to fire, and the unions that protect them at the expense of children. They claim that high-stakes tests are the best way to determine who these bad teachers are.

Experienced, dedicated teachers, even the recipients of prestigious awards, have been leaving the field in droves, some even discouraging young people from entering it. Now we are seeing reports of growing teacher shortages.

Are these events related? There is not enough information here to be sure, but I could make a pretty good hypothesis.

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Genealogy Personalizes History

I love history. I have even made my living as a history teacher, but until I finished high school I thought I hated the whole subject. That was because my history teachers made it incredibly boring. It wasn’t entirely their fault. They taught it the same boring way they were taught, which is also the way it is usually presented in textbooks, and the way standardized tests tend to incentivize it to be taught. I’m sure most of us can remember an interminable series of names and dates, kings and battles we were supposed to memorize.

It was only later, when I started reading books about history by choice, that I realized that I actually find it fascinating. History is not about lists of events. It is about human beings and their lives. It contains the word “story” because it consists of stories, and who doesn’t love a good story?

That is why, when I teach history, I always try to approach it through something the student already finds interesting, whether that be weapons or fashion or music or politics or anything else. History contains all of it.

I am also fascinated by genealogy, for the exact same reason, that it consists of human stories. I have been a genealogy hobbyist for many years. I find that while when I mention history, many people start to tune out, when I mention genealogy, most people perk up, especially if I can tell them something about their personal genealogy. We are all interested in learning about ourselves. I think that would be a great way to introduce history in schools.

Most elementary school students have a family history project at some point. I still have mine in a file somewhere, and I still remember interviewing my grandparents and drawing a picture of an heirloom punchbowl to put on the construction paper cover of my report. It amazes me that those projects rarely lead to any further exploration of history. It’s a great way in. History is something we are all living through, as our parents and grandparents and great grandparents did before us. It is not a separate thing that happens only to famous people.

Researching my own genealogy has taught me a lot about history, particularly about mistaken assumptions we tend to make about previous eras. I have a lot to say on this topic, which is why I am starting a new genealogy category on the blog. I hope some readers will find it interesting. I will certainly have fun writing the posts.

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