ScienceBlog reports on research showing that humility is key to effective leadership. A few excerpts:

Although the leaders were from vastly different organizations — military, manufacturing, health care, financial services, retailing and religious — they all agreed that the essence of leader humility involves modeling to followers how to grow.

The researchers found that such leaders model how to be effectively human rather than superhuman and legitimize “becoming” rather than “pretending.”

A follow-up study that is forthcoming in Organization Science using data from more than 700 employees and 218 leaders confirmed that leader humility is associated with more learning-oriented teams, more engaged employees and lower voluntary employee turnover.

Although the research is focusing on leader humility, it points out the a result of leader humility is learning—not only by leaders but also by followers.

This research fits in well with Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Here are a few excepts from his book:

Problem-posing education affirms men and women as beings in the process of becoming—as unfinished, uncompleted beings in and with a likewise unfinished reality… The unfinished character of human beings and the transformational character of reality necessitate that education be an ongoing activity. (p. 65)

dialogue cannot exist without humility. ... Men and women who lack humility (or have lost it) cannot come to the people, cannot be their partners in naming the world. (p. 71)

Dialogue cannot exist, however, in the absence of a profound love for the world and for people. (p. 70)

As can be seen, Freire goes beyond humility to include either elements of learning: dialogue, love, and elsewhere in the book, faith, hope, and critical thinking. For a little more on this, see Jim Knight's Requirements for Dialogue, in which he comments on Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

A few other interesting reads (and excerpts) on humility in teaching:

Cunningham, Lawrence. My lifelong lesson in humility

In fact, being a worthy professor is a lifelong exercise in humility.

The true humility of the teacher (and, equally, the administrator) becomes manifest when we have an open eye and a soft spot for the shy students who turn in barely satisfactory papers. The cultivation of that kind of humility (the word itself has an etymological root that calls to mind “earthiness") gives the serious teacher a certain slant on things which says, in effect, that this person is worth my attention although my reputation will not be buffed up because that student will not get a medal at the annual convocation.

Hare, William. Humility as a virtue in teaching

Some teachers, then, seem so assured of their own authority that humility is completely absent from their perspective on teaching, while others seem to have translated humility into a denial of their right to critically assess a student's response. Some, however, manage to hit the mark exactly and capture the delicate balance between authority and humility which teachers must strive to attain.

Reilly, Brendan M. (2007). Inconvenient truths about effective clinical teaching. Lancet, 370: 705-711.

If our profession is serious about lifelong learning, we must recognise that learning can’t happen without humility. Teachers who humbly think out loud help to show the way.

Roland Fryer, Professor of Economics at Harvard, conducted research on how incentive pay affected teacher and student performance. From the abstract:

Financial incentives for teachers to increase student performance is an increasingly popular education policy around the world. This paper describes a school-based randomized trial in over two-hundred New York City public schools designed to better understand the impact of teacher incentives on student achievement. I find no evidence that teacher incentives increase student performance, attendance, or graduation, nor do I find any evidence that the incentives change student or teacher behavior. If anything, teacher incentives may decrease student achievement, especially in larger schools.

In explaining these results, Fryer considered four possibilities, concluding,

we argue that the most likely explanation is that the NYC incentive scheme, along with all other American pilot initiatives thus far, is too complex and provides teachers with too little agency.

In other words, if people don't see a strong, direct connection between incentive pay and teaching, it won't motivate them to do teach better, and if they don't perceive themselves as in control over what and how they teach, then they won't be motivated to improve their teaching.

That fits in with the Learning and Fun post on Feynman, Daniel Pink's detesting of the question, "What is your passion?", and the perspectives of self-determination and flow (see, for example, Where Does Curiosity Go? and Engagement and Flow).

In short, to improve at one's work (or anything else), people need to feel that they in control of their lives and their work.

The Stanford Center for Teaching and Learning has an excellent email newsletter for professional development with respect to, as the name indicates, teaching and learning. These articles can also be discussed at Tomorrow's Professor Blog. Here's an example of their newsletters (the most recent emailing) titled The Ten Worst Teaching Mistakes, which are:

  1. When you ask a question in class, immediately call for volunteers.
  2. Call on students cold.
  3. Turn classes into PowerPoint shows.
  4. Fail to provide variety in instruction.
  5. Have students work in groups with no individual accountability.
  6. Fail to establish relevance.
  7. Give tests that are too long.
  8. Get stuck in a rut.
  9. Teach without clear learning objectives
  10. Disrespect students.

The newsletter is somewhat brief with each item receiving a 1-3 paragraph explanation of the item. For instance, on disrespecting students, it states,

How much students learn in a course depends to a great extent on the instructor's attitude. Two different instructors could teach the same material to the same group of students using the same methods, give identical exams, and get dramatically different results. Under one teacher, the students might get good grades and give high ratings to the course and instructor; under the other teacher, the grades could be low, the ratings could be abysmal, and if the course is a gateway to the curriculum, many of the students might not be there next semester. The difference between the students' performance in the two classes could easily stem from the instructors' attitudes. If Instructor A conveys respect for the students and a sense that he/she cares about their learning and Instructor B appears indifferent and/or disrespectful, the differences in exam grades and ratings should come as no surprise.

Even if you genuinely respect and care about your students, you can unintentionally give them the opposite sense. Here are several ways to do it: (1) Make sarcastic remarks in class about their skills, intelligence, and work ethics; (2) disparage their questions or their responses to your questions; (3) give the impression that you are in front of them because it's your job, not because you like the subject and enjoy teaching it; (4) frequently come to class unprepared, run overtime, and cancel classes; (5) don't show up for office hours, or show up but act annoyed when students come in with questions. If you've slipped into any of those practices, try to drop them. If you give students a sense that you don't respect them, the class will probably be a bad experience for everyone no matter what else you do, while if you clearly convey respect and caring, it will cover a multitude of pedagogical sins you might commit.

The article also gives references for further reading, most of which can be found online:

  1. R.M. Felder and R. Brent, "Learning by Doing," Chem. Engr. Education, 37(4), 282-283 (2003), http://www.ncsu.edu/felder-public/Columns/Active.pdf.
  2. M. Prince, "Does Active Learning Work? A Review of the Research," J. Engr. Education, 93(3), 223-231 (2004), http://www.ncsu.edu/felder-public/Papers/Prince_AL.pdf.
  3. R.M. Felder and R. Brent, "Death by PowerPoint," Chem. Engr. Education, 39(1), 28-29 (2005), http://www.ncsu.edu/felder-public/Columns/PowerPoint.pdf.
  4. R.M. Felder and R. Brent, "Cooperative Learning," in P.A. Mabrouk, ed., Active Learning: Models from the Analytical Sciences, ACS Symposium Series 970, Chapter 4. Washington, DC: American Chemical Society, 2007, http://www.ncsu.edu/felder-public/Papers/CLChapter.pdf.
  5. CATME (Comprehensive Assessment of Team Member Effectiveness), http://www.catme.org.
  6. M.J. Prince and R.M. Felder, "Inductive Teaching and Learning Methods: Definitions, Comparisons, and Research Bases," J. Engr. Education, 95(2), 123-138 (2006), http://www.ncsu.edu/felder-public/Papers/InductiveTeaching.pdf.
  7. R.M. Felder, "Sermons for Grumpy Campers," Chem. Engr. Education, 41(3), 183-184 (2007), http://www.ncsu.edu/felder-public/Columns/Sermons.pdf.
  8. P.A. Cohen, "College Grades and Adult Achievement: A Research Synthesis," Res. in Higher Ed., 20(3), 281-293 (1984); G.E. Samson, M.E. Graue, T. Weinstein, & H.J. Walberg, "Academic and Occupational Performance: A Quantitative Synthesis," Am. Educ. Res. Journal, 221(2), 311-321 (1984).
  9. E. Seymour & N.M. Hewitt, Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997.
  10. R.M. Felder, "Designing Tests to Maximize Learning," J. Prof. Issues in Engr. Education and Practice, 128(1), 1-3 (2002). http://www.ncsu.edu/felder-public/Papers/TestingTips.htm.
  11. R.M. Felder & R. Brent, "Objectively Speaking," Chem. Engr. Education, 31(3), 178-179 (1997), http://www.ncsu.edu/felder-public/Columns/Objectives.html.

All in all, this newsletter is a great resource for teachers.

Two recent articles are asserting that traditional methods of certifying and selecting teachers do not work well and that alternative methods may help.

The 'Certified' Teacher Myth

Like all unions, teachers unions have a vested interest in restricting the labor supply to reduce job competition. Traditional state certification rules help to limit the supply of "certified" teachers. But a new study suggests that such requirements also hinder student learning.

Harvard researchers Paul Peterson and Daniel Nadler compared states that have genuine alternative certification with those that have it in name only. And they found that between 2003 and 2007 students in states with a real alternative pathway to teaching gained more on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (a federal standardized test) than did students in other states.

The authors conclude that strict certification standards hinder teaching competence. It's not clear why doing so would achieve that effect. Yet, as mentioned in What Works in Teaching, one study found that TFA teachers outperformed experienced, certified teachers. And another recent study found a somewhat similar finding: Alternative route teachers who took an intensive course on teaching outperformed experienced, traditionally certified teachers in some subjects (not all), with math again having the greatest differences.

The authors state that those states with genuine alternative certification have more minorities teaching, and assert that minority students benefit from having minority teachers. I'm guessing again, but what would make sense to me is that alternative route teachers have experience in their subject matter that enhances their instruction. Even so, the results of these intensive courses call into question the present methods in schools of education of preparing teachers for the classroom.

Most Likely to Succeed: How do we hire when we can't tell who's right for the job?

This article (via Stephen Downes) compares selecting future teachers to predicting who will become a star quarterback in the NFL. With respect to the NFL, prediction has more failures than sucesses. Yet they have easily identifiable criteria for selection, years of statistics to refer to from when the player was in high school, and then in college, and videos of their performance over time on the field. In contrast, for future teachers, the criteria are more vague, there are no years of statistics, and no videos of their performance over time. However, even if there were such evidence, we still wouldn't be able to predict who would be a good teacher any more than they can pick a quarterback:

The problem with picking quarterbacks is that Chase Daniel’s performance can’t be predicted. The job he’s being groomed for is so particular and specialized that there is no way to know who will succeed at it and who won’t. In fact, Berri and Simmons found no connection between where a quarterback was taken in the draft—that is, how highly he was rated on the basis of his college performance—and how well he played in the pros.

Of course, the difference between good teachers and not-so-good teachers has implications for what students learn:

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a “bad” school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You’d have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you’d get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

And certification and degree level doesn't make a difference in teaching quality, either:

A group of researchers—Thomas J. Kane, an economist at Harvard’s school of education; Douglas Staiger, an economist at Dartmouth; and Robert Gordon, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress—have investigated whether it helps to have a teacher who has earned a teaching certification or a master’s degree. Both are expensive, time-consuming credentials that almost every district expects teachers to acquire; neither makes a difference in the classroom. Test scores, graduate degrees, and certifications—as much as they appear related to teaching prowess—turn out to be about as useful in predicting success as having a quarterback throw footballs into a bunch of garbage cans.

That graduate degrees have an effect on teaching ability seems to call into question an earlier post stating that a thorough knowledge of subject matter was one characteristic of outstanding college teachers. But not necessarily. We would need to see what sorts of graduate degrees are being considered, whether there is a difference between a masters degree in education and one in the subject matter. And also how well one did in the graduate level subject matter courses.

From another perspective, I'm reminded of my first year teaching English in Istanbul to students admitted into Marmara University, an English-medium institution. Before they took courses in their majors, they had to take an intense, six-hour-a-day course for eight months to learn English. It's really not possible, but that's what the students had to do. Anyway, I had just finished my master's in Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) (plus I was certified in science and biology at the secondary level) in which I was introduced to a variety of theoretical courses, including a few that covered methods of teaching ESL. But no practice. I found myself flying by the seat of my pants, using very little of my graduate education. Apparently, education separated from contextualized practice is of little help, and soon forgotten.

Actually, it makes quite a bit of sense. Doctors have four years of medical education, and then at least three years of intense internship under the supervision of experienced doctors—specialists considerably more. Would anyone really want to undergo an operation by a doctor who knew the book procedures backwards and forwards but had no experience in surgery? Engineers, after graduating, go into the workplace surrounded by more "practiced" engineers and learn through a combination of doing, observing, collaborating, and being supervised. And so on for other disciplines. But teachers, after their education, which although it includes a semester or two internship, go into the classroom doing alone—generally not observing other teachers or team teaching—and receiving limited supervision.

Learning follows a power-law relationship:
Anderson and Schunn in their article "The implications of the ACT-R learning theory: No magic bullets" (pdf) state that there are three learning processes governed by power laws:

1. Power Law of Learning. As a particular skill is practiced there is a gradual and systematic improvement in performance which corresponds to a power law. ...

2. Power Law of Forgetting. As time passes performance degrades, also according to a power function. ...

3. Multiplicative Effect of Practice and Retention. Most important, the Base-Level Equation implies a relationship between the combined variables of amount of practice and duration over which the information must be maintained. ...

This implies performance continuously improves with practice ... and continuously degrades with retention interval .... Most significantly the two factors multiply which means that increasing practice is a way to preserve the knowledge from the ravages of time.

Naturally, learning and practice need to be on target, as Albert Ip comments:

My daughter's swimming coach puts it very well: "Practice makes your stroke permanent. If you practise bad technique, you just become a more efficient bad swimmer with the bad stroke. It is even more difficult to unlearn the bad strokes."

With that caveat in mind, it's obvious that doctors and engineers follow up their book education with considerable practice in the presence of others, observing others, and receiving feedback from supervisors who see their work on a frequent basis. Other factors being equal, their environment supports learning, practice, and retention. Teachers, on the other hand, generally work alone in an environment that doesn't support collaboration, frequent feedback, or observation of others. Even if their education courses were terrific, the Power Law of Forgetting ensures that the content of all but the most recent ones is likely to be forgotten. It certainly was in my case in Turkey. And what if they don't forget, are they implementing it correctly? Or practicing "bad technique"? Without targeted feedback, they may simply become "more efficient bad" teachers.

As opposed to credentials, the most important element in good teaching, according to this article, was feedback:

Of all the teacher elements analyzed by the Virginia group, feedback—a direct, personal response by a teacher to a specific statement by a student—seems to be most closely linked to academic success. ... [Not simply] "Yes-no feedback ... which provides almost no information to the kid in terms of learning."

In quite a few ways, the necessity of feedback, especially immediate feedback, makes sense (although see Harold Jarche's post noting the importance of the when and how of feedback). It's necessary for flow to take place, and it's an important part of developing procedural knowledge (according to ACT-R Theory). However, the ability to give appropriate and immediate feedback in the classroom cannot be measured before one begins to teach—thus, the problem in ascertaining who will be "good" teachers on the basis of credentials. Perhaps what is needed is ongoing professional development that focuses on giving feedback. As Downes comments,

there seems to be nothing that prevents us from either teaching these strategies to new teachers, or evaluating them in teachers put up for tenure.

Perhaps instead of taking two years of education courses, students might replace them with

  • one more year of subject matter courses,
  • a one-year internship in a work environment appropriate to their major, and
  • an intensive summer course right before teaching.

Once teaching, they would receive

  • a year of close mentoring with respect to feedback and other elements in that course, thus contextualizing their education and not letting it be forgotten,
  • professional development that includes ongoing feedback and collaboration throughout the school year, and
  • professoinal internships in their discipline either during the summer or perhaps a semester internship every four or so years.

Of course, I'm just speculating. But the fact that alternative route teachers can outperform experienced traditional route teachers, especially in math and the sciences, indicates that, at the least, we need to understand

  • why alternative route teachers who undergo these particular training programs are outperforming experienced teachers in some fields and
  • how traditional teacher training can be improved.

Somewhat related posts:
Just-in-time Learning
Engagement and Flow
Learning with Examples

Excerpts from the 21st Century Learning: Going Global conference.

A Global Education
Three keynote speakers shared what their organizations were doing with respect to helping young people collaborate across countries in their learning and education.

Milton Chen, Executive Director of the George Lucas Educational Foundation (i.e., Edutopia), on "globalizing the curriculum"

"Globalizing the curriculum" is not about inventing new courses or departments but globalizing the curriculum, finding international connections in what you do.

"Learning without borders" is not simply crossing geographical borders, but it's learning about yourselves.

Michael Furdyk, Co-Founder and Director of TakingITGlobal, has a vision of young people "shaping our world," and asks,

If young people were actively engaged in all aspects of society, and thought of themselves as community leaders, problem-solvers, role models, mentors and key 'stakeholders' ... how would the world change?

Ed Gragert, Executive Director of iEARN (International Educators and Resource Network), talked on "Bringing Global Awareness into the Classroom":

Students move from learning about other cultures and languages to ....
Learning through interaction with other cultures.

Their organization helps schools and students in different countries collaborate on projects and produce student videos on a topic because

When students teach other students what they know, they learn better.

And he asked us to imagine,

What if the next Secretary of Education created a policy to enable

Every school in the US to be actively engaged with at least one other school in another country ...

The Digital Generation and Digital Learning
Two more keynote speakers, both from the Rutgers University Writing Center, presented on how education needs to change in this digital age: Paul Hammond, Director of Digital Initiatives, and Richard Miller, the center's Executive Director and Chair of the English Department. Richard Miller, who is known for his seven-minute video, The future is now: Presentation to the RU Board of Governors, noted that an academic monograph typically sold 246 copies, while his video had been viewed more than 9000 times and concluded, "It's the most important intellectual work I've ever published in my life."

We're not interested in the accessed information [on the Internet] ... What we're interested in as compositionists is, How do we get our students to work with this information ... how to make connections with the information they have in order to produce something of their own. ... to make use of this rich, rich media ...

What we're interested in is composing. How do we train people to make meaning in a withering firestorm of information? We need new ways of teaching, new ways of thinking about writing. But what technology allows us to do is, It allows us to dream in new ways.

A panel on "Digital Choices Define a Generation" included Scott Seider, Assistant Professor of Curriculum & Teaching at Boston University, Barry Schwartz, Professor of Psychology at Swarthmore College, and Jo Hoffman, Associate Professor of Education at Kean University.

Seider looked at identity issues for the digital generation. On the plus side, digital media can have these effects:

boyd (2007): "The need to write one's online idneity into existence can encourage self-reflection" on who you are or how you want to present yourself.

Stern (2007): On-line profiles and blogs push people to articulate what they believe in.

James et al (2008): Young people empowered by ability to tell their stories online and can be encouraged /comforted by feedback.

On the negative side:

James et al (2008): Exploration carried out "in a digital public before a vast and unknowable audience" The internet changes the stakes.

Perceived by many youth as "low stakes" but ...

boyd (2007): Internet and persistence, replicability , searchability, and invisible audience (potentially there forever)

May be difficult for young people to fully grasp potential consequences (reputation), ...

Exploration can more easily cross into 'deception'

Pretending to be someone else while interacting/flirting with peers

Overreliance on feedback (what Turkle (2008) refers to as 'tethering')

Lack of time for autonomous reflection

Barry Schwartz, who wrote The Paradox of Choice, talked about having choices was good but how having too many choices has three negative consequences:

  • Too many choices paralyzes one's ability to make a choice.
  • Too many choices negatively affects one's performance and ability to make good decisions.
  • Too many choices leads to regret about the choice you did make or will make.

He gave research examples of (1) how people who had too many choices to make, say in their 401(k) plans, would simply not choose one and lose out on matching funds from their employer, (2) how students who had 25 topics to choose from in order to write an essay wrote worse than those who selected from only 6 choices, and (3) how people who had too many choices tended to regret their choice more than those with fewer choices because as time passed they felt that the alternatives that they had passed up would have been better.

With respect to today's digital generation who have too many choices, he noted the following consequences:

Significant rise in the incidence of depressiona and suicide, both of which are appearing at younger and younger ages

Substantial increase in the rate at which college students are flocking to counseling centers

Palpable unease in the reports of young college graduates, who seem to lack a clear idea of what they are meant to do in their lives. Often this is manifest as anxiety disorder

And finally, in upper-class adolescents, whose family affluence makes anything possible, there are the same levels of drug abuse, anxiety disorder, and depression as there are in the children of the poor.

The solution is what he called "Libertarian Paternalism." That is,

It will become more common that people do nothing. So set it up so that when people do nothing, they get what they want, which is better [psychologically] for them.

He gave the example of organ donors in the U.S. and in Europe. In the U.S., about 98% believe that donating organs at one's death is a good thing to do, but only about 8% do it because they have to opt in on their driver's license to do it, while in Europe, about 90% (?) do it because they have to opt out of the default of donating one's organs at death.

Much to think about!

Diane Ravitch in Good Intentions, Ignorant Elites, and Scoundrels (via Downes), writes,

We live in a dangerous and dark time for schools. In many districts, the gears of power are controlled by non-educators who don't have a clue. They madly embrace testing and data and data-driven instruction because they have not a single idea about how kids learn and how teachers teach and what conditions are necessary to promote teaching and learning. This new breed also populates some of our nation's leading think tanks. Most of them have never taught; have never been in a classroom since they were students; know nothing of the history of education and nothing about research, but they know how to fix the nation's schools.

These assertions are true to some degree. I can certainly compare such non-educators with educators who have never taught ESL students, who have never learned another language, and know nothing of the research on second language acquisition, but they believe that ESL students can become fluent in English in just a few years.

What Works in Teaching?
At the same time, I can also understand why many could care less about the history of education and its research. Just look at the reading wars of "whole language" vs. phonics approaches, the math wars of "whole math" vs. traditional math curricula, and other education wars that pit "progressives" vs. "traditionalists" (see Hirsch's The Roots of the Education Wars). These different camps know educational history and research. Yet, they—just like Ravitch and Meier—disagree on how to educate students. Unlike the scientific consensus on F=ma, which works well in most cases (and in those cases it doesn't, there is a scientific consensus on why it doesn't work), there is no educational consensus on the best approaches to teaching students. Or, if there is, it's torn apart by political and ideological clashes.

Without a consensus among educators on what works and without consistent results, it's quite natural that non-educators will step into the fray with their own ideas of what might work. And that doesn't always mean that they do not consult with educators or "don't have a clue." Within the Gates Foundation, for example, the Program Director of Education in the U.S. is Vicki Phillips, who has been a district superintendent in Oregon, secretary of education and chief state school officer in Pennsylvania, and a middle and high school teacher, and she has a doctorate in education. Instead, it means that the core of what works in teaching may be more a matter of common sense than than the insights of educational research, a common sense that says that the foundation of what works in teaching is a knowledge of subject matter and relationships of trust and respect between teachers and students.

What Works is Subject Matter Knowledge
Ravitch also blasts Teach for America:

[Superintendents] will tell you that they are going to change "the quality" of teachers by recruiting Ivy League graduates and Teach for America folk. They are going to push out all those experienced fogies, so that their newbies have no one to learn from, no one to show them the ropes, no one to help with knotty day-to-day problems.

I posted on this before, but some research shows that Teach for America teachers are better than experienced teachers. In Making a Difference, we read,

The findings show that TFA teachers are more effective, as measured by student exam performance, than traditional teachers. Moreover, they suggest that the TFA effect, at least in the grades and subjects investigated, exceeds the impact of additional years of experience, implying that TFA teachers are more effective than experienced secondary school teachers. The positive TFA results are robust across subject areas, but are particularly strong for math and science classes.

Apparently, the further the subject matter moves away from every day experience, as in the case of math and the sciences, the more important subject matter knowledge becomes in teaching. And apparently, subject matter knowledge is more important than knowing the history of education and its research. (For similar findings, see Teacher Quality.)

Not that TFA teachers have no knowledge of pedagogical practice. Ravitch exaggerates the newbies not having someone to show them the ropes. From the Making a Difference article,

TFA corps members participate in an intensive five-week summer national institute and a two week local orientation/induction program prior to their first teaching assignment.

In recent years, TFA corps members have also engaged in on-going professional development activities provided by TFA and whatever other supports school districts provide new teachers.

Now the average 3-credit semester course takes up 45 hours a semester. The 5+2 weeks of training, assuming a 40-hour training week, comes to 280 hours or a little over 18 credits (or six courses) of practical educational training. That's not insignificant. Regardless of the training they receive, the research is clear on TFA teacher outperforming experienced teachers at the secondary level. It makes one wonder, as Stephen Downes did concerning these results,

What does this say about the efficacy of teacher training?

Or perhaps, we should wonder about the efficacy of teacher training provided by schools of education as compared to that provided by TFA.

What Works is Relationships and Attitude
It would be easy to continue and pick holes in the rest of Ravitch's sound bites, but I'll leave that discussion for the comments already on her article. Instead, note that she says that Meier's success with small schools was due to her "singular passion" (which is also likely a factor in the success of TFA teachers).

Deborah Meiers (In Schools We Trust) wrote:

Standardization and bureaucratization fuel the very distrust they are aimed to cure. (p. 2)

Students need to be around teachers they can trust and teachers who ask questions as learners, too. (p. 14)

These points are not considered often enough. Researchers research methods. Meier practiced relationships of respect and trust, and had the attitude of a learner. Method without such relationships and attitudes will run into walls of resistance to learning.

Relationships and attitudes are also underscored by the book What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain, Vice Provost for Instruction and Director of Montclair University’s Teaching and Learning Resource Center. This book reports on outstanding teachers from various disciplines across the university, including medical and law schools. Obviously, these professors did not have a background in educational history or research. Yet they stood out. Here is a list of characteristics of teachers who stand out (excerpts from pages 15-19):

Without exception, outstanding teachers know their subjects extremely well.
Exceptional teachers treat their lectures, discussion sections, problem-based sessions, and other elements of teaching as serious intellectual endeavors as intellectually demanding and important as their research and scholarship.
Simply put, the best teachers expect "more." ... they avoid objectives that are arbitrarily tied to the course and favor those that embody the kind of thinking and acting expected for life.
While methods vary, the best teachers often try to create what we have come to call a "natural critical learning environment. In that environment, people learn by confronting intriguing, beautiful, or important problems, authentic tasks that will challenge them to grapple with ideas, rethink their assujmptions, and examine their mental models of reality. These are challenging yet supportive conditions in which learners feel a sense of control over their education; work collaboratively with others; believe that their work will be considered fairly and honestly; and try, fail, and receive feedback from expert learners in advance of and separate from any summative judgment of their effort."
Highly effective teachers tend to reflect a strong trust in students. ... Above all, they tend to treat students with what can only be called simple decency.
All the teachers we studied have some systematic program—some more elaborate than others—to assess their own efforts and to make appropriate changes.

As the book points out, these characteristics are driven by attitudes towards their research, their teaching, and their students, attitudes of respect, trust, and beliefs that they are still learning and that their students can learn.

What Works in Teaching and in Life
None of this is to say that educational theories of learning belong to the dustbin. They guide my own teaching practices. It would waste time to develop my pedagogy through trial and error alone instead of taking advantage of what others have already learned.

Instead, the point is that although educational theories can build upon a foundation, a foundation must be in place first. And the foundation of what works in teaching—or any other endeavor—is a command of subject matter knowledge, respect for others, and an attitude of learning.

American Educator has a 19-page article titled Teaching English Language Learners: What the Research Does and Does Not Say (pdf) by Claude Goldenberg, Professor of Education at Stanford University. The article looks at the findings of two reviews of the research, one by the National Literacy Panel and the other by the Center for Education, Diversity, and Excellence. Here's an excerpt from the conclusion:

Although there are numerous areas in which there is insufficient research to guide policy and practice, we can lay claim to some things that matter for the education of ELLs. Chief among these is that 1) teaching children to read in their primary language promotes reading achievement in English; 2) in many important respects, what works for learners in general also works for ELLs; and 3) teachers must make instructional modifications when ELLs are taught in English, primarily because of the students’ language limitations.

Practically, what do these findings and conclusions mean? In spite of the many gaps in what we know, the following is the sort of instructional framework to which our current state of knowledge points:

  • If feasible, children should be taught reading in their primary language. Primary language reading instruction a) develops first language skills, b) promotes reading in English, and c) can be carried out as children are also learning to read, and learning other academic content, in English.
  • As needed, students should be helped to transfer what they know in their first language to learning tasks presented in English; teachers should not assume that transfer is automatic.
  • Teaching in the first and second languages can be approached similarly. However, adjustments or modifications will be necessary, probably for several years and at least for some students, until they reach sufficient familiarity with academic English to permit them to be successful in mainstream instruction; more complex learning might require more instructional adjustments.
  • ELLs need intensive oral English language development (ELD), especially vocabulary and academic English instruction. However, as the sidebar on critical unanswered questions explains (see p. 12), we have much to learn about what type of ELD instruction is most beneficial. Effective ELD provides both explicit teaching of features of English (such as syntax, grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, and norms of social usage) and ample, meaningful opportunities to use English—but we do not know whether there is an optimal balance between the two (much less what it might be).
  • ELLs also need academic content instruction, just as all students do; although ELD is crucial, it must be in addition to—not instead of—instruction designed to promote content knowledge.

A new study reports on the success of career school programs (Erik Eckholm, NY Times).

Now, a long-term and rigorous evaluation of nine career academies across the country, to be released in Washington on Friday, has found that eight years after graduation, participants had significantly higher employment and earnings than similar students in a control group.

Researchers believe that those who initially expressed interest in the academies may have shared similar motivation to succeed, whether or not they were chosen for the special program.

But this also suggests that something about the academy experience, apart from educational achievement, promoted greater success in the job market. One likely factor is the exposure the academies provide to a range of adults in real workplaces, said J. D. Hoye, who directed a “school-to-work” initiative for the Clinton administration and now heads the National Academy Foundation, which advises career academies on curriculums and other topics.

“The students see what work is like, and they build a network of caring adults at school and in the workplace,” Ms. Hoye said.

Students seem to benefit from being part of a special, small group, said Mark Bartholio, the academy director. Many do not pursue finance careers but instead go into teaching, social services or criminal justice, he said, but one graduate said the accounting skills he learned in the academy had enabled him to help start a small business.

This reminds me of Deborah Meiers (In Schools We Trust), who wrote:

Standardization and bureaucratization fuel the very distrust they are aimed to cure. (p. 2)

Students need to be around teachers they can trust and teachers who ask questions as learners, too. (p. 14)

And it reminds me of Deci & Ryan's self-determination theory in which motivation is affected by autonomy, competence, and social relations.

We often talk about making learning meaningful with a view towards connecting school learning to students' interests and activities, but meaningfulness can be stimulated by positive social relations and dampened by negative ones.

Home Schooling Debate
Stephen Downes wrote a brief note on his opposition to home schooling and has received quite a bit of flak about it, both in the comments to his post and elsewhere. I asked,

Can you expand on your position and provide some evidence for your claims?

He then made a 16-minute video On Home Schooling to detail his position and make it clearer, but although his position is clear, he doesn't seem to have any evidence for his opinions.

In a later note, he wrote of those writing elsewhere that the post by Dana Hanley was "the most constructive," and it is fairly thorough. Stephen plans to follow up with a more detailed response later, so let's see what evidence he has then.

Using Videos
On another note, his video made it clear to me that when using tools, we need to consider what they have to offer, how they can add to our message, and what we lose when using them. Videos can do things that mere talking cannot. Just consider MIchael Wesch's video, Web 2.0 ... The Machine is Us/ing Us. It would be impossible to get across the same meaning compressed into this video into a print-only text (unless perhaps it were book-length). A print-only text could only write about the meaning while this video shows the meaning while texting about it.

In contrast to Wesch's video, Stephen's video added nothing to the meaning that could not have been accomplished in a text-only medium. In fact, it accomplished less for three reasons:

  1. With print, I can easily cast my eyes up and down (scrolling if necessary) to clarify and confirm the meaning, while with a video I have to stop it and replay it if I miss or don't understand something.
  2. With video, I need to take notes to be able to see the whole picture while reviewing and reflecting on it instead of being limited to a sequential input of ideas.
  3. Videos require more time for listening than print for reading.

All three reasons involve time. This time requirement of viewing and understanding videos means that if they are to be used, they need to offer something that cannot be obtained in print only, something that is worth the extra time investment, such as using talking videos or podcasts with language learners who need the extra aural practice.

In addition to my posts on NCTE and NWP, quite a few others posted on their experiences there, too. See NCTE's list of bloggers who posted

Apparently, graduate students are starting to use blogs more in their classes. At Formoosa WPMU Blog is a list of blogs apparently maintained by graduate students in Taiwan studying second language issues. Some apparently stopped writing this summer (class ended?), but others are continuing (perhaps a new course?). Altogether, they review quite a few journal articles, create lesson plans, and write on other items of interest to TESOL folks.

Similarly, at the University of Toronto are the GRAIL (Graduate Researcher's Academic Identity Online) blogs:

The overall goal of this project is to develop a set of social and technical tools that support the formation of an online community to engage graduate students in activities related to educational research across course boundaries and throughout your degree program.

This group of blogs is more wide-ranging in their topics than just TESOL, but still focused on education and learning. There's a lot of value here.

Learning Math via Sudoku, Music, and Web Design
In Who Needs Maths?, Andrew Hodges, maths lecturer at Wadham College, Oxford, states that mathematics would be better learned through logical puzzles like Sudoku and adds,

"We should be trying to find ways of equipping children with the basic maths they will need to function adequately in society. ... We should be looking at ways of teaching maths skills through other media, such as electronic music and web design, that are more relevant to most students."

Learning and Exercise
Use it or lose it! If you want to keep your mind in good shape, you need to use it, and there are recommendations from playing crossword puzzles to using your non-dominant hand for combing your hair. But did you know that you need to use your muscles to keep your brain functioning well? The article Lobes of Steel (New York Times) reports on research showing that regular aerobic exercise "boosts memory and cognitive processing speed" in both mice and people due to increased neurogenesis.

Students Remixing Teachers on YouTube
How would you like to be videotaped without your knowledge and then find yourself on YouTube? Students are now posting videos of their teachers on YouTube. Vaishali Honawar has a lengthy article, "Cellphone taping a classroom threat".

Faculty Grating Habits
From a study on Professors' Most Grating Habits, here are the top ten:

  1. Poor course organization and planning.
  2. Poor teaching mechanics (for example, poor use of the blackboard or speaking too fast, softly, or slowly).
  3. Lecture style and technique, including being too wooden or long-winded.
  4. Poor testing and exam procedures.
  5. Negative mannerisms, including attire and verbal and nonverbal tics.
  6. Monotone voice.
  7. Poor use of class time (for example, coming in late and stopping early).
  8. Intellectual arrogance--talking down to or showing a lack of respect for students.
  9. Being unhelpful and not approachable.
  10. Unfair or confusing grading process.

Yesterday, I was at the Third Annual Conference on Islam in the Contempary World: Fethullah Gülen Movement in Thought and Practice. Fethullah Gülen is a Turkish visionary, scholar, and teacher. People presenting on his movement came from different religions (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism), and they talked on topics ranging from religion to politics to media to education, analyzing his teachings and writings, and comparing them with other major religious figures, such as Meister Eckhart and A. J. Convers. My paper looked at the character education in the U.S., character as formed in the Gülen movement schools, and suggestions on integrating character education into schools.

Character education in the U.S. has been a mixed bag. In part, it's because character education does not always have values and ethics as the focus, but rather focuses on character as essential for business and eliminating discipline problems in the schools. In other words, it has a materialistic foundation. In addition, character education for many, probably most, focuses on the students and not the schools nor their staff. I've cited Dwayne Huebner, curriculum theorist and professor emeritus, Teachers College, before, but he's worth repeating. From the book The Lure of the Transcendent:

First, recent discourse about moral and spiritual values in the classroom is incorrectly focused. That discourse assumes that there is something special that can be identified as moral or spiritual. This assumption is false. Everything that is done in schools, and in preparation for school activity, is already infused with the spiritual. All activity in school has moral consequences. The very highlighting of the need to teach moral and spiritual values in schools implies a breakdown not in the spirituality and morality of the student, but a breakdown in the moral activity and spirituality of the school itself, and of the people in control of the school. Those in control of the schools cover their own complicity in the domination system by urging the teaching of moral and spiritual values. They do not urge that the moral and spiritual climate of the schools, which they control, be changed. ... The need is not to see moral and spiritual values as something outside the normal curriculum and school activity, but to probe deeper into the educational landscape to reveal how the spiritual and moral is being denied in everything. The problem in schools is not that kids are not being taught moral and spiritual values, the problem is—the schools are not places where the moral and spiritual life is lived with any kind of intentionality. (pp. 414-415)

If character education is to be effective, the character of administrators, teachers, and staff is foundational. Telling others to develop character but not to work on one's own character is hypocrisy, and students are not unaware of double standards.

With respect to developing character, three elements I looked at are: action, reflection, and intention.

Action is crucial for entraining character. It's not different from any other activity. It's not enough to watch basketball in order to play it: We have to play basketball. The same with character.

Action needs to be guided by reflection. As Fethullah Gülen state, people need "to review and re-evaluate the established views of man, life and the universe." They need to think about why particular situations require certain actions in order to be ethical and how different situations might require different actions. Influenced by context, principles can be expressed in different ways in different situations. And people need clear objectives with respect to values and ethics. As Gülen writes, even "founders and directors of institutions should frequently remind themselves of why the institutions were established, so that their work does not stray from its objective, but remains fruitful." If that's true of established character, how much more so for young people developing their character.

In addition to action and reflection, intention is important. In her book Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System, the philosopher Alicia Juarrero defines actions as “behavioral trajectories constrained top-down by an intention” (p. 151), and the notion of intention and meaning is a self-organizing landscape, which means that interdependencies are entrained via reciprocal interactions and ongoing feedback between internal dynamics and the driving environment. Without training one's intentions, actions will be haphazard across contexts, diffusing, perhaps halting, the development of character.

The crucial importance of intention is recognized in Islam, too. It's the topic of the first hadith in Bukhari’s collection of hadith: "The reward of deeds depends on the intentions and every person will get the reward according to what he has intended." The role of intention is seen by the courts, too. For instance, intention separates between premeditated murder and manslaughter. So, it's no surprise that Gulen asserts that without "a specific intention to do so, [an action is] unacceptable to God." Thus, behaving morally is not enough. That's pretty much common sense to parents whose children often say, "I promise" without any real intention of doing so when they want to escape the consequences of their actions.

None of this should be new. Still, it's not easy to develop a program that integrates action, reflection, and intention in a way that is not indoctrination but a balance between teachers teaching and students acting autonomously.

Related posts:
Character Education and Love
Code of Ethics
Self-determination Theory and Character Education

U.K. Chief Rabbi Johnathan Sacks talks about the threat to democracy from multiculturalism in his new book, "The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society":

Multiculturalism promotes segregation, stifles free speech and threatens liberal democracy, Britain's top Jewish official warned in extracts from his book published Saturday.

Jonathan Sacks, Britain's chief rabbi, defined multiculturalism as an attempt to affirm Britain's diverse communities and make ethnic and religious minorities more appreciated and respected. But in his book, "The Home We Build Together: Recreating Society," he said the movement had run its course.

"Multiculturalism has led not to integration but to segregation," Sacks wrote in his book, an extract of which was published in the Times of London.

"Liberal democracy is in danger," Sacks said, adding later: "The politics of freedom risks descending into the politics of fear."

Sacks said Britain's politics had been poisoned by the rise of identity politics, as minorities and aggrieved groups jockeyed first for rights, then for special treatment.

The process, he said, began with Jews, before being taken up by blacks, women and gays. He said the effect had been inexorably divisive.

"A culture of victimhood sets group against group, each claiming that its pain, injury, oppression, humiliation is greater than that of others," he said.

From the back cover of the book:

"Multiculturalism has run its course and it is time to move on." So begins Jonathan Sacks' new book on the future of British society and the dangers facing liberal democracy.

Arguing that global communications have fragmented national cultures and that multiculturalism, intended to reduce social frictions, is today reinforcing them, Sacks argues for a new approach to national identity. We cannot stay with current policies that are producing a society of conflicting ghettoes and non-intersecting lives, turning religious bodies into pressure groups rather than society-building forces.

Sacks maintains that we will have to construct a national narrative as a basis for identity, reinvigorate the concept of the common good, and identify shared interests among currently conflicting groups. It must restore a culture of civility, protect "neutral spaces" from politicization, and find ways of moving beyond an adversarial culture in which the loudest voice wins. He proposes a responsibility-based, rather than rights-based, model of citizenship that connects the ideas of giving and belonging.

Offering a new paradigm to replace previous models of assimilation on the one hand, multiculturalism on the other, he argues that we should see society as "the home we build together," bringing the distinctive gifts of different goups to society as a whole, and not only to our particular subsection of it.

Sacks warns of the hazards free and open societies face in the twenty-first century, and offers an unusual religious defense of liberal democracy and the nation state. A counterweight to his earlier The Dignity of Difference, Sacks makes the case for "integrated diversity" within a framework of shared political views.

The notion of "integrated diversity" reminds me of Maria Rosa Menocal's book "The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain" in which she writes about the "authentic multiculturalism" in medieval Spain that occurred through processes of tolerance, dialogue, and acceptance of "contraries."

Her notion of authentic multiculturalism ties in well with a "responsibility-based, rather than rights-based, model of citizenship." We hear all too often people clamoring for rights without regard to any responsibility they might have. It's more of a "gimme, gimme" attitude instead of a "giving and belonging" attitude. Not that rights must not be protected in a democracy, but rather they must be balanced by a sense of responsibility for a liberal democracy to exist.

Related posts:
The Downside of Diversity
Multiculturalism and Prejudice

We're all familiar with the notion of first impressions and how the first day of class is crucial for setting the tone for the entire semester. But how does it work?

Primed by our senses
Part of the answer can be found in Benedict Carey's article "Who's Minding the Mind? (New York Times via Will Thalheimer), which reports on psychology experiments showing that people are primed by their senses:

The study participants, college students, had no idea that their social instincts were being deliberately manipulated. On the way to the laboratory, they had bumped into a laboratory assistant, who was holding textbooks, a clipboard, papers and a cup of hot or iced coffee — and asked for a hand with the cup.

That was all it took: The students who held a cup of iced coffee rated a hypothetical person they later read about as being much colder, less social and more selfish than did their fellow students, who had momentarily held a cup of hot java.

And the article gives quite a few more examples of how sounds, smells and sights can prime us, for instance:

In one 2004 experiment, psychologists led by Aaron Kay, then at Stanford University and now at the University of Waterloo, had students take part in a one-on-one investment game with another, unseen player.

Half the students played while sitting at a large table, at the other end of which was a briefcase and a black leather portfolio. These students were far stingier with their money than the others, who played in an identical room, but with a backpack on the table instead.

The mere presence of the briefcase, noticed but not consciously registered, generated business-related associations and expectations, the authors argue, leading the brain to run the most appropriate goal program: compete. The students had no sense of whether they had acted selfishly or generously.

More sensory hardwiring
We're hardwired by our senses in many ways, one of which is beauty. The "waist-hip ratio (WHR) is a significant factor in judging female attractiveness" (Wikipedia). Symmetry is apparently a factor in judging beauty, too, not only in humans but also in other species (Feng). "[A]ttractive scents - like the smell of freshly baked bread - are already known to keep customers in a store for longer (New Scientist). Music affects us, too. In one piece of research, it was shown that labeling wines with flags representing country of origin (France or Germany) and playing French accordion and German beer-hall music on alternating days affected sales:

"Despite an overall bias in favor of French over German wine sales," they soberly reported last week in the prestigious science journal Nature, "French wine outsold German wine when French music was being played, whereas German wine outsold French wine when German music was played." What may be even more significant is that only six of the 44 customers who consented to fill out a questionnaire admitted that they had been influenced by the music.

The Power of Precedent and Cultural Norms
Similarly, students subconsciously notice cues about the instructor, about their classmates, and about the general classroom environment that prime them to act in particular ways. Of course, later sense impressions can also have an effect, perhaps contrary to the earlier ones. However, once a group, such as students in a class, has established a precedent, or culture, for particular ways of acting or feeling about writing, that precedent has a strong effect on later actions.

In The Psychological Foundations of Culture, Holly Arrow and K.L. Burns look at how small groups establish behavioral norms. Using both complexity science and Alan Page Fiske's social relational models of culture (see Social Relations and Classroom Activity for a brief explanation) as a basis, they studied four groups of college students playing social poker. These groups, for different reasons, formed different norms in their groups. Once formed, however, those norms tend to stay in place, although they can be disrupted.

A combined authority ranking/communal sharing model was popular but persisted. The group stuck with this norm not because they were happy, but because dissatisfaction did not translate into coordinated action. The market pricing/communal sharing norm disappeared when a dissident dyad shook up the system.

In other words, it takes effort to oppose or change norms, once they've been established. Remember the Stanley Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments? Just as our senses prime our actions subconsciously, so do societal norms.

What does that mean in practice? At the minimum, we should work at becoming more aware of how all that we do--from our appearance to our habits and attitudes to our gender--affects our students and us. (See here and here and here and here.) Actually, we're quite aware when an occasion is important to us. Few of us wear less than business attire when in a job interview or in court (see, for example, Judging by Appearance).

Of course, as noted in Trout's satire, How to Improve your Teaching Evaluation without Improving your Teaching!", we could approach this in a manipulative manner. That's not the point. As Robert Rosenthal, Professor of Psychology, remarks in his biographical blurb:

For nearly half a century I have been fascinated by the psychology of interpersonal expectations; the idea that one person's expectation for the behavior of another can come to serve as self-fulfilling prophecy. Our experiments have been conducted in laboratories and in the field, and we have learned that when teachers have been led to expect better intellectual performance from their students they tend to get it. When coaches are led to expect better athletic performance from their athletes they tend to get it. When behavioral researchers are led to expect certain responses from their research participants they tend to get those responses. For almost as long as I've been interested in interpersonal expectations I've also been interested in various processes of nonverbal communication. In part, this interest developed when it became clear that the mediating mechanisms of interpersonal expectancy effects were to a large extent nonverbal. That is, when people expect more of those with whom they come in contact, they treat them differently nonverbally. Some of our most recent research on nonverbal behavior has examined "thin slices" of nonverbal behavior -- silent videos or tone-of-voice clips of about 30 seconds or less. Some of our more recent work with these thin slices shows that we can predict, using 30 seconds of instructors' nonverbal behavior, what end-of-term ratings college students will give their instructors. From thin slices of doctors' interactions with one set of patients, we can also predict which doctors are more likely to be sued by a different set of patients. Finally, jury verdicts can be predicted from the nonverbal behavior of the judges as they instruct the jury.

Similar to our senses instinctively priming our behavior, our nonverbal behavior reflects our (often unconscious) attitudes and expectations, which in turn, prime students' behavior and performance. We need to "mind our mind," to become more aware of our habits, attitudes, and expectations, from the first day of class on in order to help spark the intellectual performance that our students are capable of.

Most of us are aware that diversity of ideas can lead to innovative solutions to problems in work environments and learning in educational environments. But diversity apparently has negative effects. Based on interviews with almost 30,000 people in the U.S., Robert Putnam, professor of public policy at Harvard, has found that diversity in a community has its downsides (via EdNews.org).

Diversity is proportional to

  • less voting,
  • less volunteering,
  • less giving to charity,
  • less working on community projects,
  • less trusting of one's neighbors, and
  • less civic well-being.

How much less? "In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings." Although we might expect trust to lessen between different groups, Putnam found that trust lessened "even among members of the same group."

These are serious findings. Diversity is important for creativitiy and learning. At the same time, it creates friction and distrust. As noted in the post Multiculturalism and Prejudice, promoting multiculturalism has a side effect of increasing prejudice for some people. Somehow, while maintaining respect for all cultures, we, our schools, and our communities need to emphasize and teach what we have in common instead of our differences.

Related posts:
Multiculturalism and Prejudice
Authentic Multiculturalism in Medieval Spain
Economic Diversity Raises Test Scores
Collective Intelligence vs. Crowd Dumbness

Baroness Susan Greenfield, the director of the Royal Institution and a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, considers the notion of learning styles to be "a waste of valuable time and resources" (Julie Henry, Telegraph via Education News):

According to Susan Greenfield, however, the practice is "nonsense" from a neuroscientific point of view: "Humans have evolved to build a picture of the world through our senses working in unison, exploiting the immense interconnectivity that exists in the brain. It is when the senses are activated together - the sound of a voice is synchronisation with the movement of a person's lips - that brain cells fire more strongly than when stimuli are received apart.

"The rationale for employing Vak learning styles appears to be weak. After more than 30 years of educational research in to learning styles there is no independent evidence that Vak [visual, auditory, kinesthetic], or indeed any other learning style inventory, has any direct educational benefits."

Thirty years without independent evidence!

Commenting on student-centered learning about a year ago, I said that learning styles were not as important as the modality of the task:

When I began school more than a few years ago, I never "discovered [my] own learning styles." I still don't know what my learning style is. And it doesn't seem to have slowed me down as far as learning is concerned. When I think about the activities in which I engaged: studying various "book" subjects, taking Wood Shop, playing baritone horn in the band, and being on the wrestling team in high school, if there is such a thing as a learning style (at least in a way that it significantly affects learning), it seems obvious that the modality of the activity decides what "style" of learning should be employed.

As Greenfield states, "our senses [are] working in unison." A little bit of reflection confirms this: When playing baritone horn, I was using my ear for music, my eyes for reading music notation and watching the director, my fingers on the valves and lips on the mouthpiece for controlling the pitch, and my entire body for correct posture. And it didn't matter which of my "learning styles" I preferred. I had to use what was needed for the modality of playing music, in this case auditory, visual, and kinesthetic modalities working together.

Greenfield is not alone. Daniel Willingham, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia (American Educator), says,

What cognitive science has taught us is that children do differ in their abilities with different modalities, but teaching the child in his best modality doesn’t affect his educational achievement. What does matter is whether the child is taught in the content’s best modality. All students learn more when content drives the choice of modality.

Willingham's article is worth reading in its entirety, but two of his points are:

  1. Some memories are stored as visual and auditory representations—but most memories are stored in terms of meaning.
  2. The different visual, auditory, and meaning-based representations in our minds cannot serve as substitutes for one another.

They seem clear enough. Despite the pervasive belief in the effectiveness of teaching according to students' learning styles, there's too little, if any, evidence supporting it--not to mention that the most important variable in learning is "time on task" (see The Expert Mind). From a pedagogical perspective, it seems Greenfield is right: Learning styles is nonsense.

Update of related articles (via ict-echo):
Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning : A systematic and critical review
Stephen Draper's "Learning Styles (Notes)"

The Guardian has an interesting article, "Paul Sniderman: Identity Crisis" (via EdNews.org". Sniderman is the Fairleigh Dickinson Professor of Public Policy at Stanford University. According to Sniderman,

"While any society will always have its fair share of bigots, we also found that governmental multiculturalism made the problem worse. By arguing that all groups in society should be allowed to live according to their own beliefs and customs, they were encouraging people to see themselves as different from one another. And not just a little bit different, but fundamentally different. So it fostered a them-and-us attitude to politics." ...

what also emerges from this study is the thinness of the line between difference and prejudice. "We found that views typically held by otherwise tolerant Dutch people - that Muslims treated women badly and were too authoritarian with their children - were counterbalanced by Muslim attitudes towards the Dutch," says Sniderman. "Muslims believed the Dutch were disrespectful towards women and failed to discipline their children properly. So this wasn't about prejudices held by religious fanatics on both sides; it was a genuine conflict of values between two communities. It was the focus on these differences, through the pursuit of multiculturalism, that tipped the balance towards prejudice in some cases." ...

The biggest predictor of integration and social mobility in the Netherlands is the ability to speak Dutch ...

"[western governments] should legislate less for how they want people to feel, and more on the things that really matter, such as educational opportunity."

So, although multiculturalism's intent is to promote respect for diverse cultures, its results can be that of prejudicing people against those who are different.

Keith Burnett responded to my response on his preference for being a Guide on the Side as opposed to Sage on the Stage:

I’m both in different parts of the lesson. I think that many people assume that PowerPoint use implies Sage role, and I was trying to provide counterexamples.

That Burnett did well, and it's also clear that he plays both roles, choosing the role appropriate to a student's stage in the learning process.

Unlike Burnett, however, not everyone seems to understand that both roles are appropriate. If you google the words "sage stage guide side", you'll find more than a few links to titles saying "Guide on the side, not Sage on the stage." Here's a typical example from the Internet Time Group:

an instructor’s energy should be channeled to become the medium whereby the discovery of learning is facilitated in a student-centered environment. No longer a "sage on the stage, " the online instructor becomes a "guide on the side," helping others to discover and synthesize the learning material.

Discovery learning is simply re-inventing the wheel. The time spent in "discovering" could be better spent using the wheels that have already been designed.

Here's another one, an excerpt from an article in College English by Alison King:

In most college classrooms, the professor lectures and the students listen and take notes. The professor is the central figure, the "sage on the stage," the one who has the knowledge and transmits that knowledge to the students, who simply memorize the information and later reproduce it on an exam-often without even thinking about it. This model of the teaching- learning process, called the transmittal model, assumes that the student's brain is like an empty container into which the professor pours knowledge. In this view of teaching and learning, students are passive learners rather than active ones. Such a view is outdated and will not be effective for the twenty-first century, when individuals will be expected to think for themselves, pose and solve complex problems, and generally produce knowledge rather than reproduce it.

There's some truth in this perspective. We've all had classes in which we took notes, crammed for an exam, and regurgitated information on the exam. The problem, however, is that this is a caricature of lecturing. Not all lecturers assume that students are empty containers, and not all use lecture as their only mode of teaching. Interestingly, the same people who promote this perspective are often the same ones who give presentations in lecture mode at a conference.

Again from the excerpt:

According to the current constructivist theory of learning, knowledge does not come package in books, or journal, or computer disks (or professors' and students' heads) to be transmitted intact from one to another. Those vessels contain information, not knowledge. Rather, knowledge is a state of understanding and can only exist in the mind of the individual knower; as such, knowledge must be constructed--or re-constructed--by each individual knower through the process of trying to make sense of new information in terms of what that individual already knows. In this constructivist view of learning, students use their own existing knowledge and prior experience to help them understand the new material; in particular, they generate relationships between and among the new ideas and between the new material and information already in memory (see also Brown, Bransford, Ferrara, and Campione 1983; Wittrock 1990).

And again, we can say, yes, students construct their understanding and in terms of previous experience. However, this does not mean that they cannot "generate relationships" from the information in lectures to their own experiences. If lectures are "bad," so are books and any other "containers" of information.

When students are engaged in actively processing information by reconstructing that information in such new and personally meaningful ways, they are far more likely to remember it and apply it in new situations. This approach to learning is consistent with information-processing theories (e.g., Mayer 1984), which argue that reformulating given information or generating new information based on what is provided helps one build extensive cognitive structures that connect the new ideas and link them to what is already known. According to this view, creating such elaborated memory structures aids understanding of the new material and makes it easier to remember.

It's not clear that one way of engaging with new information is more likely to be remembered than another. This is an interpretation. Anderson and Schunn in their article "The implications of the ACT-R learning theory: no magic bullets" (pdf) note that it is much more likely that any better remembering is due to more "time on task" rather than the notion of self-constructing as opposed to learning from provided examples, and they write:

There are no magical properties conveyed upon a knowledge structure just because it was self-generated. If all things were equal it would be preferable to have children learn by generating the knowledge (due to the redundant encoding). However, because of difficulties of generation and dangers of misgeneration, things are not always equal and it can be preferable to tell the knowledge.

None of this is to oppose the "guide on the side" perspective. Rather, there is a time and place for being a sage and for being a guide. Repeating mantras is no more than educational indoctrination.

Jason, reporting about Mike O'Connell's article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, has a post worth reading on this issue and ends nicely on this note:

In short, I think we need to get beyond the “sage” and “guide” dichotomy, and use both for truly effective teaching. One cannot just impose a set teaching style when it doesn’t work. It behooves teachers at all levels to consider what really works (or what might really work), drawing upon the makeup of individual classes and individual students to make the course truly memorable and meaningful. Otherwise, we’re just playing with techniques, and using unwitting students as guinea pigs.

Perhaps you've heard about the recent article in the New York Times, "Seeing no progress, some schools drop laptops". That is, students had not shown any improvement "on grades and test scores" as a result of laptop initiatives. Alex Reid at Digital Digs has an excellent response:

So basically the teachers couldn't figure out how to use the technology in the classroom. Not surprisingly, as a result, the technology did not have much of an impact on outcomes. It is not surprising that the teachers have no idea what they are doing. Why would we imagine that they would? ...

As I've said before and will say again (here and later, no doubt), it's not about delivering the same old curriculum with a new technology.

Why should I use books in my classroom? Lecturing works much better. Students hide magazines inside the covers of their books. They look at the wrong pages. They copy text out of the book and plagiarize. They can't do any of those things when I'm lecturing. The book is just a box that gets in the way of my one-to-one relationship with my students.

Sounds pretty funny when it's put that way, huh?

As Reid notes, it's not clear that laptops will aid learning effectively; however, "our children will live and work, and yes, learn, in these networked environments." So, it's not a question of whether to incorporate technology into our schools. But two questions we do need to answer are:

  1. What are the best ways to introduce our children to the networked environments they will "live and work" in?
  2. What are the best ways to introduce our teachers to using networked environments to facilitate learning in school?

Yesterday, our English Department held an institute on Cultural Literacies in the 21st Century. One of the speakers, Janice Fernheimer, an assistant professor in the Department of Language, Literature, and Communication at Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute, gave an excellent presentation, "Teaching the Raven Using Technology".

As she noted, it's easier to go from the known to the unknown. So, she introduces students to Poe's Raven via a YouTube clip on a Simpson's episode that is based on the Raven. In addition to the typical discussion questions, she provides links to other online sources discussing the Simpson's episode, the Raven, Poe's crafting of the Raven, readings that give different perspectives on different aspects of Poe's poem. One linked website even has various manuscripts of the Raven, underscoring the concept that texts are not fixed entities but evolving ones.

This presentation shows clearly some of the advantages of using the web for teaching and learning, such as:

  • providing access to otherwise unavailable materials,
  • facilitating a critical understanding by bringing together various viewpoints side by side,
  • linking the known popular culture to the unknown academic culture, and
  • integrating visual modalities like videos

If all I had to go on was the research on Error Correction in L2 Writing, I wouldn't do it. There's simply insufficient evidence to justify such an investment of time and effort.

However, research on learning, expertise, and motivation has garnered an impressive amount of empirical evidence for the positive effects of feedback that meets certain criteria. Before making suggestions on how to structure grammar feedback, let me summarize criteria on learning and motivation for guiding that feedback.


  1. Learning occurs sequentially through three stages of declarative, procedural, and automatic knowledge.
  2. Acquiring expertise in any field, including a second language, requires extensive practice.
  3. Practice is made effective through
    • accurate diagnosis of the task/rules,
    • examples and understandable explanations for the task/rules, and
    • feedback based on the examples and explanations.
  4. Effective time on task is the most important factor in learning.
  5. Learning occurs best when re-iterated at intervals.


  1. Motivation is important because it encourages persistance on task.
  2. Motivation is promoted by
    • clear goals,
    • autonomy,
    • tasks that challenge one's competence without unduly frustrating, and
    • feedback that is immediate and informational.

Grammar Feedback Guidelines

Correctable Grammar

Grammar feedback in L2 writing should target only those items that are rule-governed and for which examples and clear explanations can be found. Subject-verb agreement is one such rule. Style is not.

Structure of Feedback

Dana Ferris (2003) breaks feedback into direct (the teacher giving the answer) and indirect (which ranges from merely noting the location of an error to using editing symbols to more explicit directions, such as use “future tense here.”). She says that direct feedback is preferred for beginning students, while indirect feedback seems to have better effects for intermediate and advanced students, likely because students must think about the errors and engage in self-editing (Ferris, 2003).

To some degree, if students think about an error, they're constructing declarative knowledge. But are they diagnosing the rule accurately and time-effectively? It would be better to first have the rules accompanied by examples and explanations that they continue to refer to. No doubt, Ferris and most instructors refer students to their grammar textbooks, but I'm thinking that students should construct their own textbooks to use grammar feedback more effectively.

Grammar notebooks: Students should maintain grammar notebooks with these examples and explanations, adding to the notebooks as new rules, examples, and explanations are covered. Extra space or pages should be available for students for revision. For instance, if an error was a case of misunderstanding, perhaps the explanation for the rule in their notebook should be revised. Or, if a rule doesn't seem to fit neatly into rules, examples, or understandings previously given, then students can revise the rule, create a new rule, make new examples, or write new understandings. In this way, students can acquire the requisite declarative knowledge, and the notebook becomes a textbook emerging out of, contributing to, and individualized to their own learning.

Goal logs: Students can keep a goal log, in which they set grammar goals and track their improvement over time. Seeing improvement is motivation, and seeing the same error repeatedly can help students target that error, review and revise their grammar notebooks accordingly, and determine strategies for reducing its occurrence.

Program-embedded feedback: Notebooks and goal logs should be used across courses in a program to provide the continuity and repetition needed of reading, writing, and revising understanding across different contexts to proceduralize grammar.

Frequency of Feedback

One problem with learning to write is that unlike sports, chess, and video games, feedback does not occur immediately or even often. Up until now, in my own classes, I generally only give grammar feedback on their major paper assignments, which means they get grammar feedback at the most every 2-3 weeks, and even that occurs several days after the paper is turned in.

If time allows, consider having students write for 5-10 minutes every class and then checking their work or perhaps checking their classmates' work. But instead of having them check for all errors, have them check for one specific error according to class needs. On days with less time, consider using a student example, perhaps from another class. Re-iteration of rules, or anything else, at spaced intervals is crucial for learning. This sort of task would work well for homework, too.

Note that while I grade the grammar component on a major paper assignment, I do not grade it on other assignments. Although the reality check of a grade is a given in most educational institutions, most feedback should be informational rather than evaluative. Otherwise, intrinsic motivation can be dampened.

Grammar Instruction

General lessons on grammar do not fit the criteria above. However, Ferris (2003; cf. Hinkel, 2004) suggests that mini-lessons may be useful if they have the following characteristics:

  1. Mini-lessons should be brief and narrowly focused …
  2. Instruction should focus on major areas of student need, rather than minor fine-tuning.
  3. Lessons should include (minimally) text-analysis activities so that students can examine the target constructions in authentic contexts and application activities so that they can apply newly covered concepts to their own writing.
  4. Instruction should also include strategy training to help students learn to avoid errors and to self-edit their work. (p. 157)

An example of a single task incorporating these guidelines and the criteria above would be one centering on the reporting of an interview (adapted from Hinkel, 2002). A mini-lesson could look at grammatical structures in interviews, such as tenses and reporting verbs. Examples would be given along with understanble explanations. Students would then analyze interviews in newspapers or magazines, focusing on tenses and reporting verbs and comparing to their examples. Next, they would interview someone and write a report of the interview. Finally, students would compare how they used tenses and reporting verbs to the grammatical findings of their earlier analyses and examples in their grammar notebooks.

The key diffferences in the original task and this one is (1) establishing declarative knowledge appropriately and (2) integrating feedback into the task via students' grammar notebooks. Many tasks in textbooks and elsewhere can be reframed to incorporate the learning and motivation criteria above.


Feedback is crucial for learning any activity, including languages. There are “no magic bullets” to accelerate learning. Rather, appropriate feedback helps students spend “effective time on task,” thus eliminating wasted time and effort.

Disclaimer: Because these suggestions are the recent result of my reviewing these theories and considering their application to error feedback, I haven't implemented them yet. This summer I intend to work on reframing the way I provide feedback and implement my new understanding in the fall semester. After doing so, I hope to provide some feedback here on how it went.

Call for feedback: If you have tried any of these approaches or others based on these theories, email me and let me know how it went, both successfully and unsuccessfully, and I'll post your experiences here.

All Error Feedback Posts in this series:
Error Feedback in L2 Writing
Error Feedback in L2 Writing: Scant Evidence
Error Feedback: Theory
Error Feedback: Skill Acquisition Theory
Error Feedback: Motivation
Error Feedback: Practice
Error Feedback: Bibliography

Jay Mathews, in "New teacher jolts KIPP", writes about Lisa Suben, a new teacher in the KIPP schools, who had her math students jump from the 16th to the 77th percentile in a single year. That's an unbelievably huge jump! How'd she do it? Theoretically, she says:

"My primary goal as a teacher is to help my students understand the reasoning behind math rules and procedures. I have several core beliefs about this: (1) Understanding is constructed by the learner, not passively received from the teacher. (2) Understanding is built by making connections between as many strands of knowledge as possible. (3) Understanding is galvanized through communication. (4) Understanding is only valuable when you reflect on it and question it."

Items (2) and (3) are related. That is, communication can (but need not) present more strands of knowledge to enter the picture that allows more connections to be made. It's not the connections per se that build understanding but rather the contradictions among them. Contradictions are the driving force of learning. On item (4), reflecting and questioning can improve one's understanding, of course, but most understanding is unconscious. That doesn't make it unvaluable.

Suben translated her theory into the following practice:

The core of her method is the workbook she produced last year on the fly. It "lets students build their own notes and create their own examples. It is incredibly active learning," she said. They were encouraged to write down the meaning of important terms and strategies they used that worked with certain kinds of problems.

Suben, I imagine, is differentiating between a traditional lecture form of teaching and Deweyan "learning by doing". It's not clear that one type of learning is more active than another. All learning is active. Of course, I can also imagine that students focus more on something they are "doing" as opposed to "receiving," and thus they spend more "effective time on task," the crucial element in learning. Thus, Suben's having her students create their own notes, examples, and meaning is an excellent way to (1) focus them more effectively on the tasks at hand and (2) bring them into contradictions between their declarative and procedural knowledge (see ACT-R Theory) and so improve their understanding.

Related posts on the five-paragraph essay:
Forget IQ. Just Work Hard!
The Expert Mind
Learning: A State of Disatisfaction
Learning with Examples

David Warlick at 2¢ Worth has got his Rubric Builder running again. He's still putting on the finishing touches, but what he writes sounds promising:

Rubric Builder is a tool kit that enables members to construct their own rubrics using an improved interface.  Once the rubric is completed:

  • Its author can generate a URL that will link to a web display of the rubric. 
  • The tool will also generate HTML code that can be pasted into a WebQuest or blog, to make the rubric a part of that web page. 
  • Rubric Builder also provides a rubric calculator, enabling the teacher (or student) to click the levels of performance for each objective and calculate a weighted score.

All rubrics are public and are available under a Creative Commons Attribution, Non-commercial, share-alike license.  Members can search the database of nearly 50,000 current rubrics, select one that appears to be a good starting place for the rubric they need, and then clone that rubric and edit it for their immediate needs.  It is a sharing community environment.

It’s not completely finished.  I’m still tweaking the carburetor.  Ok, I know, they don’t use carburetors any more.  But the system is ready for folks to come in, join, or just search for existing rubrics by keyword, or, if you used the original Rubric Builder, you can enter your access code and call up many of those rubrics you built years ago.  You are also welcome to join by signing up.  This will enable  you to build your own rubrics and clone the rubrics of others.

Rubrics are a good way to avoid halo effects in grading, to make grading transparent to students, and provide feedback students on areas in which they're doing well and areas that need work.

Sometimes, I wonder about the cute titles that accompany books, but in this case, it is appropriate. Zen and the Art of Public School Teaching is written by John Perricone, a longtime high school teacher and a holder of a 6th degree black belt. From an interview conducted with Michael Shaughnessy (columnist with EdNews.org), Perricone says his most important message is,

The concept of "philosophical identity." It is my thesis in both my book, and my address that we 'teach who were [sic] are', and that it is our 'philosophical identity' -- our sense of mission or purpose that we envelop ourselves in each day as we enter the classroom (or lack of same) which ultimately distinguishes those who find joy and passion in the teaching profession from those who find drudgery and simply pick up a paycheck every two weeks. So, both in my book and in my Keynote address, I take my audience on an introspective journey looking first at their identity as a human being, then as a teacher, and then we look to see if and where those lines intersect.

This notion of philosophical identity is closely tied to his perspective on values in teaching:

That every human life has intrinsic worth, value, and dignity and that it is our job as teachers to give our students those tools and insights that will enable them to live their lives at the fullest and deepest expression of their humanity. If that isn't the ultimate goal of education, I'm not sure what any of us are doing in this profession.

"We teach who we are." And who should we be? From Attending to the Inner Life of an Educator: The Human Dimension in Education (pdf), Avraham Cohen's dissertation, are several responses, one of which is a poem by Rumi:

The Guesthouse

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all;
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Related posts:
Sacrifice and teaching
Ants Have Teachers
Code of Ethics

Deborah Meier ("Protecting Public Schools", Forum) talks about the need to support our public schools. Her article should be read in its entirety but here are a few excerpts:

"Reformers who urge us to drop the pretense of a local connection between schools and their communities lead us into dangerous territory."

"Reformers of all stripes sometimes forget that the genius of our democracy is in sustaining the tensions and balances between various sources of power—including the power  of us “ordinary” people."

"That language of “for, by and of the people” may sound sentimental, but be wary when you are told that we cannot “compete” in the world unless we give up our commitment to democratically controlled public schools as mere wishful thinking."

None of this is new, but it bears repeating as folks so easily forget the necessity of including all shareholders in pubic schooling processes.

Marvin Minsky, professor of media arts and sciences at MIT (from an interview in Technology Review via elearnspace), stated:

What surprises me is how few people have been working on higher-level theories of how thinking works. That's been a big disappointment. ... I think people look around to see what field is currently popular, and then waste their lives on that. If it's popular, then to my mind you don't want to work on it. ... The main idea ... [is] resourcefulness. Unless you understand something in several different ways, you are likely to get stuck. So the first thing ... is that you have got to have different ways of describing things. I made up a word for it: "panalogy." When you represent something, you should represent it in several different ways, so that you can switch from one to another without thinking.

Higher-level theories of cognition, especially in artificial intelligence, is not an area I'm familiar with. Even so, the notion of not jumping on the popular bandwagon seems to be a good one if we wish to advance in our understanding of pedagogy and learning. Right now, web 2.0 is popular, but for about six months, I haven't read much that is pedagogically new in this area. One exception is that of Dave (Academhack) and Jenn (Expos-i-story), who have introduced the browser Flock (with Wordpress) as the key element for bringing blogging into Jenn's composition course. Students will load Flock onto a flash drive and thus be able to blog from any computer using Flock and also through its RSS capabilities be connected to one another. The idea of a flash drive carrying one's blogging and RSS tools around is a good one and freeing oneself from one's one computer is a good one in some respects.

Most innovation, like that of Dave and Jenn's, is the remixing of already present ideas and practices, small ripples upon the surface of pedagogy and learning. Small as they may be, they're still an improvement upon our present practices. So, what ripples are you and I creating in our teaching that differ from what's popular with the web 2.0 crowd or elsewhere? And how can we represent it in more than one way?

Ben Feller ("Study says teacher training is chaotic", Boston Globe) writes about a study conducted by Arthur Levine, former President of Teachers College at Columbia University, asserting that teacher education is "deeply flawed." (For the report, go to The Education Schools Project.) The main points are:

  • a lack of common required skills in teacher education programs
  • low admissions standards
  • disengaged college faculty
  • inadequate practice in the classroom, and
  • inadequate supervision

I can identify with inadequate supervision and the lack of practice in the classroom. When I went to Turkey to teach English armed with my masters degree, I knew the theory but had had zero practice. In Turkey, I was scrambling every night to figure out what I would do the next day. And there was almost no communication among teachers to resolve what I should teach, and so subsitute in a way for a mentor.

What I appreciate most about teaching today is that I have a few engaged colleagues with whom I discuss on an almost daily basis what's going on in our classrooms and how to improve our pedagogy. In addition to the problems that Levine found, I would suggest that aspiring teachers should be organized into support groups to learn from one another and perhaps even continue to support one another after graduation.

The Ornament

When you think of tolerance and multiculturalism, does Medieval Europe come to mind? Probably not. Yet, Maria Rosa Menocal's (professor of Spanish and Director of the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University) book The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain makes precisely that claim. Weaving together tales from medieval Spain, Menocal illustrates how three different religions built a "first-rate" culture of tolerance that influenced Europe for centuries to come.

Menocal intertwines "culture of tolerance" with F. Scott Fitzgerald's notion of a "first-rate" mind, writing,

the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time ...

[that] contradictions--within oneself, as well as within one's culture--could be positive and productive. (pp. 10-11)

Contradictions, Menocal asserts, were responsible for the flowering of art, intellect, and tolerance towards others in Medieval Spain: Muslims, Christians, and Jews interacted openly and freely, keeping a strong sense of identity, yet assimilating features of other cultures that they admired. In Medieval Spain, tolerating contraries led to great philosphers like ibn Rusd and Maimonides, who wrestled with the contraries of faith and reason. Maimonides, with his Second Law, or Mishneh Torah, would be called a "second Moses." Moses of Leon struggled with the traditional Halakah and came up with his Sefer ha-zohar, The Book of Splendor, a systematic compilation of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition. The study of the living language of Arabic generated once again a Hebrew that was "the language of a vibrant, living poetry" (p. 109).

Such "first-rate" contraries resulted in "authentic multiculturalism." Jews, such as Hasdai ibn Shaprut and Samuel the Nagid, were viziers in an Islamic government. Alongside Arabic--a language of state, love, and religion--existed other religious and vernacular languages. This multicultural environment preferred freedom of religious expression to political correctness; "incongruity in the shaping of individuals" (p. 11) to a "strict harmony of ... cultural identities" (p. 277); "to pose difficult questions rather than to propose easy answers or facile morals" (p. 274); and so on. All of these contraries and others touch upon so many issues in education and modern life, such as assimilation vs. heritage maintenance, multiculturalism vs. traditional canons, political correctness vs. freedom of expression and of religion, bilingual education vs. immersion, and so on.

The authentic multiculturalism of Medieval Spain arose from tolerance of and dialogue with others. Yet, tolerance and dialogue are not givens, as this culture of tolerance eventually fell.

WHAT HAPPENED? HOW AND WHY DOES A CULTURE OF tolerance fall apart? How did a people come to abandon a culture rooted in an ethic of yes and no, so readily able to love and embrace the architecture or the poetry of political enemies or religious rivals, so willing to read good books regardless of the library they came from? All the answers are themselves bundles of contradictions.... Perhaps all that can be said with any conviction is that in the combination of spectacular successes and failures presented by this history lie tales of both warning and encouragement. (p. 266)

The notion of contradictions being essential for tolerance and creativity, and also for learning (see Learning: A State of Dissatisfaction) underscores the need to inject uncertainty and novelty into the classroom, not so much as to be overwhelming but enough to promote the flow of learning.

At the end of the book, Menocal writes, "Every reader will take away different lessons from the tales in this book." Indeed.

Below are some reviews that offer other readings of and lessons from The Ornament of the World

What do you think? Should schools have codes of ethics or not?

David Warlick does and has posted an attempt at a Code of Ethics in "Getting Right Down to It". The four basic principles (expanded with subprinciples) are:

  • Seek truth and express it
  • Minimize harm
  • Be accountable
  • Respect information and its infrastructure

One wouldn't think that these principles would be controversial. However, Stephen Downes disagrees with codifying them. Let's look at his main points:

Yes, they can, but what is it that distinguishes a code of ethics from, say, instruction from a teacher or parent? It is one thing to tell people what they ought or ought not do - even I do that. And quite another to codify that. When something like ethics is codified, then this gives people room to be 'ethical' by watching for loopholes or playing legal games. It is better to adhere to the spirit of an ethic rather than the letter, to be ethical by holding your behaviour accountable to your own sense of good and right, not some arbitrary third party construction.

This is setting up a false dichotomy. Yes, "It is better to adhere to the spirit of an ethic," but that doesn't mean that should be no letter. I would prefer to see the possibility of the spirit informing the letter, and the letter informing the spirit, with each mutually reinforcing the other.

Also, as far as codes leading people to watch for loopholes as distinct from telling people to do, you should meet my seven-year-old son. He remembers everything I tell him to do and not to do, and is constantly formulating exceptions. So, we might consider codes simply as the pragmatic recognition of the fact that not everyone possesses or "adhere[s] to the spirit of an ethic." Thus, rather than being "arbitrary," they often are evolving adaptations by a concerned party to historical evasions of ethics. Having said that, it would be appropriate to bring the other concerned party, the students, into the writing (and ongoing re-writing) of a code of ethics.

Because the rules will never be complete. Freedman writes, "Surely the starting point is to instil the ethical value of citing sources with permission, before bringing in the obvious exceptions?" But if the rule has exceptions, then the rule, as stated, is wrong. Shall we start listing exceptions? No, because then we could never stop? Another rule, then? No, because it, too, will have exceptions.

Why should rules be complete in order to be valuable? Rules should be considered as prototypes that offer guidance rather than perfect completeness. In fact, we should consider exceptions not as endless problems, but as endless opportunities for learning. When an apparent exception arises, we can question the rule and the exception: Is this action really an exception? Why? In what ways does this exception inform our understanding of the rule? Should we change the rule or simply, noting the exception, complexify our understanding of the rule?

There is a reason we leave application of the law to the discretion of judges and not merely to adjudication of fact. The interpretation of referees and umpires rather than electronic sensors. Why we often appeal to the 'spirit of the law' rather than the letter. Why we think sticking to 'the letter of the law' is cheating.

This example of judges contradicts Stephen's position. Without laws, there would be no need for judges to interpret their application. Following this logic, there would be no need for laws. Conversely, with laws and rules, we and our students have the opportunity to interpret them, reflect on them, and grow in our understanding of the principles involved in their formulation.

The only 'morality' a person follows is his or her own, a feeling that this or that is right or wrong. Any appeal to an external sourse changes the definition from 'morality' to 'authority'.

This is a red herring. No one creates their own morality de novo. Morality is constructed on the basis of interactions with external sources, such as family, community, social institutions, and culture. (Consider the Vygotskian perspective that the social plane exists before the psychological plane.) In addition, morality is not static but changes over time with experience, that is, with interactions with external others. When people perceive an external source as having legitimate authority and persuasive reasoning, over time they may come to integrate the external position as part of their identity and thus their own morality (see self-determination theory).

Rules are normal, and so are exceptions. Consider rules for writing. When a paper is important, I go back through my paper with one rule (e.g., topic sentences and coherence) at a time looking for how well I have followed it. This practice of following rules helps my writing become clearer and more persuasive. Yet sometimes I see a need to break the rules. Life and writing are too complex to understand in their entirety. That's why we reduce the complexity down to manageable prototypes, or rules. So, of course, rules have exceptions. But until the "incomplete" rules have become automatic, it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to understand where the exceptions exist. Learning is a matter of complexifying one's understanding of prototypes, and external guidelines can help scaffold the process.

Still, we might ask whether rules (with their exceptions) are sufficient for all contexts. Perhaps, for some purposes and contexts, stories might work better. I'm reminded of Shell's Global Scenarios:

The Shell Scenarios are carefully crafted views of the future. They provide a tool to explore the many complex business environments in which companies work and will be working. During the last 30 years our Scenarios have helped us and others to link the uncertainties we hold about the future to the decisions we must make today.

Along these lines, The Farmer’s Wife a children's story by Idries Shah, exemplifies the potential of stories for teaching ethics. In this story, a farmer’s wife drops her apple, which rolls into a hole. Unable to get it out, she asks a series of animals and objects (bird, cat, dog, bee, beekeeper, rope, fire, water, cow) to help her. However, each one in turn refuses and is called “naughty.” Finally, she asks the bird to peck the cow. Being naughty, the bird obliges and sets off a cascade of actions in reverse order of animals and objects, returning to the bird again, building up to the point at which it is expected that the last (and first) animal, the bird, will retrieve the apple. However, instead, at the last second, a wind blows the apple out of the hole, “And everyone lived happily ever after.” This short story juxtaposes (1) asking according to one’s own interest with asking according to the recipient’s interest (or nature), (2) allegedly naughty beings (and the good farmer’s wife) with living happily ever after and (3) an expected outcome from a linear cascade of causes with unexpected chance.

Stories like this one hold our interest better than rules, stay in our minds longer, and, when well-crafted, contain contradictions that exemplify the complexity of ethics.

Still, neither stories nor rules are sufficient. A spirit of morality in the schools and communities is crucial. Without it, people will, as Stephen wrote, look for loopholes, because in such a case, the stories and rules do not reflect students' environment, which seems to be the case in general, at least in the U.S. From Thomas Lickona's book Character Matters, the "2002 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth" reports that in high school, 75% of students cheat on at least one exam; 40% steal from a store; and 40% will "lie to get a good job." Jeffrey Selingo in his article "The Cheating Culture" (Prism Magazine), reported that in the mid-nineties, cheating at least once was around 82% for engineering students and that it has been rising since then.

So, despite laws and existing rules, students are, as Stephen wrote, following their "own" morality. And as I wrote above, an individual's morality is not created de novo; it's the result of interaction with others and environmental pressures. So, what are schools and universities to do? Speaking on character education, Dwayne Huebner (curriculum theorist and Professor Emeritus, Teachers College) is worth citing at length on this point:

First, recent discourse about moral and spiritual values in the classroom is incorrectly focused. That discourse assumes that there is something special that can be identified as moral or spiritual. This assumption is false. Everything that is done in schools, and in preparation for school activity, is already infused with the spiritual. All activity in school has moral consequences. The very highlighting of the need to teach moral and spiritual values in schools implies a breakdown not in the spirituality and morality of the student, but a breakdown in the moral activity and spirituality of the school itself, and of the people in control of the school. Those in control of the schools cover their own complicity in the domination system by urging the teaching of moral and spiritual values. They do not urge that the moral and spiritual climate of the schools, which they control, be changed. That teachers do not feel the freedom to be critical and creative is a sign of their enslavement to other principalities and powers. The need is not to see moral and spiritual values as something outside the normal curriculum and school activity, but to probe deeper into the educational landscape to reveal how the spiritual and moral is being denied in everything. The problem in schools is not that kids are not being taught moral and spiritual values, the problem is—the schools are not places where the moral and spiritual life is lived with any kind of intentionality. (The Lure of the Transcendent, pp. 414-15)

I'm not quite sure what Huebner's perspective is on intentionality, but Alicia Juarrero in her book Dynamics in Action: Intentional Behavior as a Complex System defines actions as "behavioral trajectories constrained top-down by an intention." Behavior—the enactment of meaning, moral values, and beliefs—results from a self-organizing process of a person’s history of reciprocal interactions with his/her environment, a process in which interdependencies between intentions and actions, individual and society, are entrained. If intentions are not regulated and are not followed by action, people will follow the thoughts, intentions and actions of others. In other words, people conform to their social environment unless they intentionally, and persistently, will to do otherwise. That's all that students are doing, conforming to their environment.

So, again, what are schools to do? Although schools, too, have interdependencies between themselves and their communities, they must take the initiative in entraining their intentions and actions to match the ethics they wish their students to embody. That's not easy to do. Most learning is unconscious. Thus, when breaking old habits to form new ones, it's helpful to structure support into the environment that promotes conscious intention and reflection. Rules and stories can be two such types of support. They remind us of prototypical actions that we wish to emulate, as in the case of David Warlick's principles. Thus, there is no essential dichotomy between ethics and rules or stories. All are useful, in fact, necessary: The spirit provides the motivation to act ethically, and stories and rules (along with experience) provide the support and knowledge to do so.

For other links on this topic, see David Warlick's response to Stephen Continuing the conversation on ethics, and also via Stephen Downes, see Terry Freedman's response to Stephen and Susan van Gelder's post.

Diana Schemo (NY Times, "Public Schools Perform Near Private Ones in Study") writes:

The Education Department reported on Friday that children in public schools generally performed as well or better in reading and mathematics than comparable children in private schools. The exception was in eighth-grade reading, where the private school counterparts fared better. ...

Students in private schools typically score higher than those in public schools, a finding confirmed in the study. The report then dug deeper to compare students of like racial, economic and social backgrounds. When it did that, the private school advantage disappeared in all areas except eighth-grade reading.

In other words, socioeconomic background is the primary "determiner" of academic success or failure. These findings echo those in the California study (see "Bilingual Education vs. English Immersion: A Draw"), which stated,

"the strongest predictor of academic underperformance" is poverty.

I wonder how poverty is linked to attitude. William Raspberry, retired columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote about the Attitude Gap:

Speaking frankly and helpfully about the academic achievement gap between black and white students is a lot harder than it ought to be.

It is particularly hard if it is true -- as I believe -- that the gap has less and less to do with racism and more and more to do with the habits and attitudes we inculcate among our children.

I remember reading another article by Raspberry in which he attributed the academic achievement of military children to their attitude that although they recognized the existence of racism they still felt that success was possible. Although I couldn't find it, parts of it seems to have been picked up by Casondra Brewster:

Syndicated columnist William Raspberry attributed military kids’ high academic success ratios of good grades and moving on to college to, in his words, "... an unusual degree of academic success because they hold to an unusual degree of the empowering belief that they are in control of their destinies." Raspberry also attributed military school children’s success to the presence of parents "who are both self-disciplined and accepting of military discipline."

Is the relationship between poverty and attitude one similar to "learned hopelessness"?

Recently, I posted twice about education leading to immaturity (Education Leads to Immaturity and Education Leads to Immaturity cont'd) and commented how in some ways it made sense. Initially, I was thinking of students (not all, of course) at my former university, when I was a student and had little responsibility. But a friend of mine pointed out that students don't need to have responsibility in school governance to experience responsibility. When I think of my ESL students, many of who are interpreters for their parents, many who have their own families, and many who are juggling full-time jobs while going to school, obviously these students have responsibility and maturity. (None of this counters the notion that students should be involved in their education and have more input into its relevance.)

So, I went back to the article at Discovery News, where Jennifer Viegas reported that Bruce Charlton, the theory's creator, would soon have an article in Medical Hypotheses on his theory (Charlton is the editor-in-chief of the journal). And from there I went to the article "The rise of the boy-genius: Psychological neoteny, science and modern life" (2006, volume 67, issue 4, pages 679-681). If this is the one being mentioned, it turns out that it was not a researched article but an editorial with only anecdotal evidence. Perhaps Charlton is on to something, perhaps not. However, I will spend more time thinking through and researching articles I read before responding with an "unfinished" mind.

"Teaching 'the least boring job'", according to a survey reported in BBC News:

The Training and Development Agency for Schools questioned more than 2,000 graduates aged 21 to 45, finding more than half were regularly bored at work.

Those in administrative and manufacturing jobs were the most frustrated, followed by marketing and sales employees.

Teachers and healthcare workers were the least bored.

Graduates working in the media, law and in engineering were middle of the "boredom scale". ...

When asked why they found their job interesting, 81% of teachers questioned said it was the challenge of the role and the same proportion said it was because "no two days were the same".

Of course, this needs to be balanced by the fact that "Half of Teachers Quit in 5 Years" (Lisa Lambert, Washington Post) due to "poor working conditions and low salaries."

Jentis, now a stay-at-home mother of three, says that she could not make enough money teaching in Manhattan to pay for her student loans and that dealing with the school bureaucracy was too difficult.

"The kids were wonderful to be with, but the stress of everything that went with it and the low pay did not make it hard to leave," she said. "It's sad because you see a lot of the teachers that are young and gung-ho are ready to leave."

Those working conditions lead to teacher burnout. A search at Amazon.com resulted in 419 books on the topic of teacher burnout.

So, teaching is enjoyable, as long as conditions are permitting. I've been more than fortunate in this regard. I get to dream of better ways of engaging my students in learning to write, to implement those ways, and to see those dreams come to fruition.

Jennifer Viegas in Serious Study: Immaturity Levels Rising (Discovery News) writes on the increasing phenomenon of psychological neoteny, a state of remaining immature and retaining childlike behaviors. The article quotes Bruce Charlton, the theory's creator and a professor in the School of Biology at the University of Newcastle:

“By contrast, many modern adults fail to attain this maturity, and such failure is common and indeed characteristic of highly educated and, on the whole, effective and socially valuable people," he said.

"People such as academics, teachers, scientists and many other professionals are often strikingly immature outside of their strictly specialist competence in the sense of being unpredictable, unbalanced in priorities, and tending to overreact.”

Charlton added that since modern cultures now favor cognitive flexibility, “immature” people tend to thrive and succeed, and have set the tone not only for contemporary life, but also for the future, when it is possible our genes may even change as a result of the psychological shift.

The faults of youth are retained along with the virtues, he believes. These include short attention span, sensation and novelty-seeking, short cycles of arbitrary fashion and a sense of cultural shallowness.

Cognitive flexibility goes hand-in-hand with immaturity? Perhaps the converse would be true, too: Maturity goes together with cognitive stubbornness. I wonder if I can increase my cognitive flexibility by working at becoming more immature. What does this mean with respect to school curricula and to learning?

Engaging Minds I'm re-reading a fascinating book, Engaging Minds: Learning and Teaching in a Complex World. It's a book that intertwines learning theory and pedagogical practice. In it is the following claim:

Teachers must themselves know what it means to engage in a particular practice before they can teach it. Whether writing poetry, conducting a scientific inquiry, or whatever, being able to engage learners in disciplined study demands a well developed sense of what is involved in such engagements. One needs more than a textbook and a teacher's manual. To teach how to write, one must have written. To teach mathematics, one must have participated in mathematical inquiry.

The authors are not saying that teachers must be professionals in their discipline but that they must participate in the discipline to understand how to structure learning environments specific to the discipline.

As a composition instructor, I do my own sorts of writing. I submit manuscripts to be published, I post on email listservs, and I blog. In fact, the reason I began to blog was because I wanted my students to blog, I wanted to understand what blogging entailed. However, as a teacher of second language writing, I don't engage in writing in a second language. I've studied quite a few languages, but have had limited experience writing in them.

It might be interesting to have myself do what I have my students do: read blogs and keep a blog. (I might hold off on writing publicly for a while until I achieve an intermediate level of proficiency again, as it's been some time since studying my last language.) And I could perhaps join a listserv. The difficult part might be getting sufficient and targeted feedback. I wonder,

  • How much time would I need to invest?
  • How much time would be needed to obtain insights that would inform my teaching practice?
  • How would the insights gained compare with the insights obtained from just reading the literature and listening to my students as they learn to write in another language?
  • Does learning to write programming code count?

A little while ago, my seven-year-old son asserted on doing his homework,

I'm so smart. I have everything in my brain.

However, about ten minutes later when I asked him to tie his own shoelaces, he said,

I can't. I know the first part, but I don't know the second part. Is it the thumb or two fingers?

His comments reminded me of the book The Embodied Mind by Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, which posits a fundamental circularity between cognition and experience. There is no disembodied mind directing our actions: All knowledge is enacted via experience.

Eleanor Rosch gave a talk at the American Psychological Association a few years ago titled "What Buddhist Meditation has to Tell Psychology About the Mind". She ended her talk with some quotes from the autobiography of Peter Ralston, a world martial arts champion:

One: The starting point: ambition, focused intention “As a teenager I wanted to be the best fighter in the world. Period!”

Two: Recognition of the unsatisfactoriness of the ordinary conscious way of doing things. (May come with success) “Around that time, I would go to classes and fight black belts and win, but still feel like I lost…Something wasn’t right…. I was winning from natural ability, but I wasn’t winning because I really understood anything…”

Three: Finding the unbiased mind beyond fear and desire. Opening perceptions. Appreciation. “It was in that situation that I first learned to drop fear of getting hit, or of winning or losing… What that did was open up my perception to what was really happening. I just saw a fist coming and I’d move…When I’d get worried about it, I’d get stuck somewhere and get hit… It’s a beautiful secret, an exacting and tremendous feedback.”

Four: Expansion of the knowing field. Also some change in sense of time. “…abilities like being able to read somebody’s disposition accurately started to come. The moment they would think to hit me I would stop them. That’s it. Handled. I just kept finishing everything before it got started.”

Five: Actions from awareness; simply knowing what to do and it’s always appropriate “New abilities started to arise… I didn’t have to be cognizant of any movement on their part, psychic or otherwise, to know what to do. I just knew. That blew me away. I didn’t have to perceive a thing…very simple, very simple.”

Six: Comes full circle; transformation of the original ambition and intention “I decided that if I were to continue to do this, I wanted to start contributing what I did and what I knew in a much larger way. I wanted to transform the martial arts in the world into a place for the development of the human being, and of honesty.”

Quite a bit of what Ralston says is similar to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work on flow, a process of total enagement in an activity for its own sake with the result that one feels a sense of satisfaction and loses track of time. Flow has eight dimensions, not all of which must be operating at once (from EduTech Wiki):

Clear goals and immediate feedback
Equilibrium between the level of challenge and personal skill
Merging of action and awareness
Focussed concentration
Sense of potential control
Loss of self-consciousness
Time distortion
Autotelic or self-rewarding experience

It seems obvious that Ralston often enjoyed the state of flow. Many athletes do, as do video gamers, gardeners, and others. According to Csikszentmihalyi (quoted by Jamie Chamberlin in the APA Monitor), however, flow is not typical:

'A typical day is full of anxiety and boredom,' says Csikszentmihalyi. 'Flow experiences provide the flashes of intense living against this dull background.'

Elsewhere, Csikszentmihalyi wrote,

It is not that students cannot learn, it is that they do not wish to.

And they don't, because school is seldom a place of "intense living." Of course, work isn't, either, but that's not the point. If we wish for students to enjoy learning, then it would help to design our classes so that they are more conducive for states of flow to occur.

Sometimes, the system just works against states of flow. For instance, my ESL students are expected to reach levels of English that, although possible, are often more than challenging due to obligations constraining their study time, such as working 20, 30, and 40 hours a week. In addition to working full time, most of my night students (and some of my day students) are married (or single) with children.

Still, another condition for flow is clear goals and immediate feedback. As I look at my composition syllabus, those goals are probably not clear enough to my students, and feedback is usually delayed. It shouldn't be too difficult to make the goals clearer, but it's more difficult to give immediate feedback on essays. I usually grade them on the weekend, and so there's a 5- to 7-day delay.

What would be interesting would to develop a software tutor for writing that could provide immediate feedback and guidance. John Anderson et al. has an interesting article "Cognitive Tutors: Lessons Learned". The article discusses different tutors (algebra, geometry, LISP) used to facilitate student learning and mentions a few problems:

Students' own attitudes to the tutor classrooms are quite positive to the point of creating minor discipline problems. Students skip other classes to do extra work on the tutor, refuse to leave the class when the period is over, and come in early.

Isn't it terrible when motivation becomes a problem? A tutor application for writing would likely be harder to create than it is for math. Math has right and wrong answers, and the wrong answers can fall into different types of errors for which a tutor can be programmed to respond. Writing is fuzzier than math. It's not right or wrong: it's more or less effective. But if it could be done, it would have the advantage of many of the conditions for flow.

Another possibility would be to create video games in which writing plays a major role. James Gee, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, in his book "What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy" strongly supports using games in education. Christine Simmons ("Video games seen as way to train, learn") reports that the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) "has developed three 3-D video games to be used for training and education," two of which are for firefighting and immunology. On the latter one:

"Immune Attack," places players on a tiny vessel that can travel inside the human body. The game aims to educate high school, college and graduate-level students in immunology. The goal is to find and attack dangerous bacteria, said Kay Howell, vice president for information technologies at the FAS.

Shaffer et al. have a paper on "Video Games and the Future of Learning". As they note:

The American Army, a longtime leader in simulations, is building games like Full Spectrum Warrior and America’s Army —games that introduce civilians to military ideology. Several homeland security games are under development, as are a range of games for health education, from games to help kids with cancer better treat themselves, to simulations to help doctors perform surgery more effectively. Companies are developing games for learning history (Making History), engineering (Time Engineers), and the mathematics of design (Homes of Our Own).

I doubt that most of my students would be interested in a game designed simply to write better. But what if writing were a crucial element in the game? Perhaps games for journalists, business managers, lawyers, and others for whom writing is an integral part of the job? Or perhaps redesign existing games to put the focus on writing? I have more questions than answers. But Shaffer et al. comment on the implicit learning theory behind video games:

Video games thus make it possible to “learn by doing” on a grand scale—but not just by doing any old thing, wandering around in a rich computer environment to learn without any guidance. These forms of learning, associated with progressive pedagogies, are bad theories of learning. Learners are novices. Leaving them to float in rich experiences with no guidance only triggers the very real human penchant for finding creative but spurious patterns and generalizations. The fruitful patterns or generalizations in any domain are the ones that are best recognized by those who already know how to look at the domain and know how complex variables in the domain interrelate with each other. And this is precisely what the learner does not yet know. In Full Spectrum Warrior, in contrast, the player is immersed in activity, values, and ways of seeing. But the player is guided and supported by the knowledge built into the virtual soldiers and the weapons, equipment, and environments in the game. Players are not left free to invent everything for themselves. To succeed in the game, they must live by—and ultimately master—the epistemic frame of military doctrine.

So, we need a game in which students "live by—and ultimately master—the epistemic frame of" a rhetorician. Hmm. I think I would enjoy, playing that game.

On a final note, educators, myself included, often try to ease students' way into materials as much as possible, thus sometimes (often?) "dumbing down" their learning. In an article on Wired, James Gee comments:

The secret of a videogame as a teaching machine isn't its immersive 3-D graphics, but its underlying architecture. Each level dances around the outer limits of the player's abilities, seeking at every point to be hard enough to be just doable. In cognitive science, this is referred to as the regime of competence principle, which results in a feeling of simultaneous pleasure and frustration - a sensation as familiar to gamers as sore thumbs. Cognitive scientist Andy diSessa has argued that the best instruction hovers at the boundary of a student's competence. Most schools, however, seek to avoid invoking feelings of both pleasure and frustration, blind to the fact that these emotions can be extremely useful when it comes to teaching kids.

Also, good videogames incorporate the principle of expertise. They tend to encourage players to achieve total mastery of one level, only to challenge and undo that mastery in the next, forcing kids to adapt and evolve. This carefully choreographed dialectic has been identified by learning theorists as the best way to achieve expertise in any field. This doesn't happen much in our routine-driven schools, where "good" students are often just good at "doing school."

How did videogames become such successful models of effective learning? Game coders aren't trained as cognitive scientists. It's a simple case of free-market economics: If a title doesn't teach players how to play it well, it won't sell well. Game companies don't rake in $6.9 billion a year by dumbing down the material - aficionados condemn short and easy games like Half Life: Blue Shift and Devil May Cry 2. Designers respond by making harder and more complex games that require mastery of sophisticated worlds and as many as 50 to 100 hours to complete.

"Hover[ing] at the boundary of a student's competence" and challenging students "to adapt and evolve" with immediate feedback put players in a state of flow. Hmm. Would it be possible to design an entire course as a video game?

Although I use Tinderbox, a note-taking tool, primarily for taking notes, generating ideas, and my weblog, I have been considering how to use it with my classes in terms of class management and curriculum design. Keith Burnet (via Mark Bernstein) has some ideas on using Tinderbox for curriculum design in math:

My hope and summer project is that by refactoring the Maths topics ruthlessly, I can get to a set of small hard nuggets of Maths (a sort of irreducible set of base vectors) that can be rearranged and strung together in different combinations to suit the learning styles of all the various students we see at College. To continue the analogy with Extreme Programming, I hope to associate a class time factor with each note so that you can ‘price’ a route through a topic quickly.

Some months ago I brainstormed topics in GCSE Intermediate Maths with students and a selection of textbooks. I am now beginning to group the grains together and establish links between the topics. So far we have a mind map for the Shape module with three different kinds of link:

  • A contains B (red)
  • A is related to B (blue)
  • A contrasts with B (snot green – the colors can be customised)

Soon I will be able to add a fourth kind of link – StudyNext – that will provide a thread through the material. Perhaps there will be a number of threads to suit different learning styles.

Here's a screenshot of his project:


As Keith notes, the ability to re-arrange the ideas and threads linking them in a visual conceptual map allows "structure and relationships ... to emerge," thus facilitating curriculum design. Fantastic!

Often, I wonder, Why don't my students get it? Why don't they see what I see? Perhaps it's because they're not looking where I am.

Well, just the other day, I wasn't looking where I should have been. Trying to find my car, I zig-zagged through the parking lot, turning my head left and right. Where was my car? I couldn't find it. I finally stopped, looked left and right again, didn't see it, but just as I started to walk again--I looked down and there it was: one foot in front of me. If it'd been a snake, it would've bit me.

Similarly in language "seeing," I remember while in Istanbul I once asked a minibus driver in Turkish if he would go by Mecidiye. Each time he answered, "No speak English." On the third time, an elderly man behind him leaned forward, saying, "Türkçe konusuyor" (He's speaking Turkish). And then the driver could understand me. He had been listening for English, not Turkish. He hadn't been hearing where the other passenger was hearing.

And the converse is true, too. We don't understand why our students don't get it, because we aren't seeing where they're looking. To be able to see with them (and they with us), our most valuable skill may be that of listening to our students, listening to understand what they understand, in order to build a bridge between our understandings.

Amit Paley ("Homework Help, From a World Away: Web Joins Students, Cheap Overseas Tutors", Washington Post) writes on the thousands of students who are accessing tutors in other countries via the Internet. The rhetoric for and against is interesting:

"We don't believe that education should become a business of outsourcing," said Rob Weil, deputy director of educational issues at the American Federation of Teachers. "When you start talking about overseas people teaching children, it just doesn't seem right to me."


Teachers unions are vigorously lobbying for legislation that would make it more difficult for overseas tutors to receive No Child Left Behind funds. Weil, of the American Federation of Teachers, said after-school tutors should be required to pass the same rigorous certification process as public school teachers.

"Quality control doesn't end at 3 o'clock when the school bell rings," he said. "If you need a highly qualified teacher in school at 2:59, you should have a qualified teacher as a tutor after school at 3:01."

In response, Burck Smith, CEO for Smartthinking, an online tutoring company, states:

"We can do better service, more consistent service, and at a better price."

Smith says he believes that eventually schools will outsource their office hours, review sessions and other aspects of instruction to teachers that might be located anywhere in the world. Right now, about 20 percent of Smarthinking's 500 tutors are in countries such as India, the Philippines, Chile, South Africa and Israel.

"This is no different than what happens in any industry. Labor gets stratified," Smith said. "And that leads to the democratization of education, because the lower prices for tutoring means the rich and poor can access the same services."

The arguments against educational outsourcing appear to be two: quality control and it's not right. The arguments for appear to be democracy, and it's better and cheaper.

All of these, even if true, are red herrings. Take the quality control argument, for example.

In an hour-long session that cost just $18, the Indian tutor, who said his name was Mike, spent an hour walking Del Monte through such esoteric concepts as confidence intervals and alpha divisions, Del Monte recalled. He got an A on the final exam. "Mike helped me unscramble everything in my mind," the 20-year-old said.

It's highly unlikely that Del Monte (or other students or their parents) would continue to pay $18-20/hour if he had not "unscrambled" those concepts and done well on the test.

The real arguments, as usual, are power and money: Who controls education? Who gets the NCLB money? These are serious and important issues. As a U.S. educator, I'm biased: I lean toward supporting our educational system and keeping the money at home. Still, I would like to see better rhetoric than a fictitious quality control and "it's not right."

These sorts of arguments remind me of an essay I read last week by Dorothy Sayers, "The Lost Tools of Learning" on a not-yet-in-operation website named "Tools of Learning." Presented at Oxford in 1947, Ms. Sayers said:

Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy throughout Western Europe is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined? Do you put this down to the mere mechanical fact that the press and the radio and so on have made propaganda much easier to distribute over a wide area? Or do you sometimes have an uneasy suspicion that the product of modern educational methods is less good than he or she might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible?

Have you ever, in listening to a debate among adult and presumably responsible people, been fretted by the extraordinary inability of the average debater to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side? Or have you ever pondered upon the extremely high incidence of irrelevant matter which crops up at committee meetings, and upon the very great rarity of persons capable of acting as chairmen of committees? And when you think of this, and think that most of our public affairs are settled by debates and committees, have you ever felt a certain sinking of the heart?

And she ended with:

What use is it to pile task on task and prolong the days of labor, if at the close the chief object is left unattained? It is not the fault of the teachers–they work only too hard already. The combined folly of a civilization that has forgotten its own roots is forcing them to shore up the tottering weight of an educational structure that is built upon sand. They are doing for their pupils the work which the pupils themselves ought to do. For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.

To move past the rhetoric of outsourcing or any other issue, people must be able to learn for themselves. But how do we teach people to learn for themselves? What does it mean to learn for themselves? Is that "critical thinking"? Many "scholars" are good are critiquing positions other than their own, but not so well their own position. Somehow learning for oneself needs to include an attitude of learning, not treating any partticular position as sacrosanct, even one's own.

An attitude of learning, I'm thinking, needs to be joined with an attitude of respect toward and concern for others. Such an attitude can open one up to other perspectives instead of clinging to one's own position (see my post "Experts predict no better than non-experts"). I'm not sure attitudes can be taught. They seem to be more like viruses that get caught.

My last two posts have talked about listening to students. I just came across Susan Black's article "Listening to Students" in the American School Board Journal. She writes,

Giving students a voice in classroom decisions -- such as suggesting themes and topics to study -- and in school policies -- such as homework regulations -- makes schools less autocratic and more democratic. And democratic schools, researchers say, tend to have fewer discipline problems, more civic involvement, higher student engagement, and higher achievement. Plus, schools that genuinely seek and appreciate students’ ideas are more likely to see their school improvement plans succeed.

In contrast, schools that silence students can lead to their dropping out.

Students’ words matter, says Carole Gallagher of Indiana University, Columbus. In a 2002 study, she discovered that most school dropouts have been “systematically silenced,” not only in curriculum but also in how their schools are run.

Teachers in an Ohio middle school decided to listen:

By listening to their students, these teachers learned to look at them through a different lens that brought the kids into sharper focus. As a result, the teachers said they became less judgmental, more patient with their students, and more committed to helping them succeed.

The teachers also began to think more about their students as individuals, selecting strategies based on information they had gathered from the kids.

Part of motivation, according to self-determination theory, is autonomy and social relatedness. Teachers need to interact with students in ways that recognize the social, not simply the authoritarian. And students need some voice and control over their learning activity. How to achieve a good balance between competing needs to faciliate learning takes a lot of listening to all the voices concerned.

I came across this folk story at a testing blog, "Know Enough to be Dangerous":

The Three Tradesmen

A great city was besieged, and its inhabitants were called together to consider the best means of protecting it from the enemy.

  • A Bricklayer earnestly recommended bricks as affording the best material for an effective resistance.
  • A Carpenter, with equal enthusiasm, proposed timber as a preferable method of defense.
  • Upon which a Currier stood up and said, "Sirs, I differ from you altogether: there is no material for resistance equal to a covering of hides; and nothing so good as leather."

Every man for himself.

Rather than "Every man for himself," I would say "Every man from himself." That is, it refers to individuals' (and theorists') chains of experience that constrain their ability to think and learn, much like my son's interpreting situations in terms of his own experience, and again showing the viability of radical constructivism as a theory.

von Glasersfeld, drawing upon Piaget, was the architect of radical constructivism. According to this theory,

  • Knowledge is not passively received either through the senses or by way of communication;
  • Knowledge is actively built up by the cognizing subject;
  • The function of cognition is adaptive, in the biological sense of the term, tending towards fit or viability;
  • Cognition serves the organization of the experiential world, not the discovery of ontological reality. (Radical Constructivism: A Way of Knowing and Learning, 1995, p. 51)

These four principles refute that notion that one can access--or make progress toward increasingly accurate representations of--objective reality or truth. Rather, we simply construct models and revise those models as we interact with our environment. So, radical constructivists use the term "viability" to represent how well one's models fit one's experiences with the environment. For this reason, "good" teaching results from the ability to listen to one's students and respond to them in ways that help them construct viable models for their school experiences.

Similarly, "good" theory building results from the ability to listen to other theorists and respond to them in ways that helps one create a new model that is perceived to fit our experiences better than our previous models.

Friday morning, I'll head out to a two-day (actually two half-days) conference at the University of Amherst Massachusetts: Conference on Teaching, Writing, & Technology, K-College

New technology is providing new venues for writers and for teachers of writing, offering us all exciting possibilities and different perspectives on what writing is, can, or should be. As tech-savvy students post blogs and teachers engage with new software to organize their courses and share student writing, technology challenges our definitions and practices of writing instruction. The Conference on Writing, Teaching, and Technology, K-College, will be an opportunity for teachers from all grade levels to share ideas, methods, and projects on integrating technology effectively into the writing classroom.

Kathleen Yancey and Charles Moran will be featured speakers. A couple of sessions will focus on first-year composition and one will look at the use of weblogs in the classroom. Looks like I'll have an opportuntiy to learn.

In a few weeks, our English Department will have a poster session on "Best Practices" in teaching. Mine will be on using blogs and wikis. Of course, I present the usual rationale for using blogs and wikis, but for me the highlight of presenting this poster was reviewing my students' blogs and seeing again how they were able to tie their writing into their own interests. One of my students, for example, has an active interest in things Japanese, applying the name "yukiseguchi" to her blog. She wrote about how to wear a kimono ("Flutter your sashes") and geishas and inserting great images, too.

Despite appreciating my students' posts, one thing still troubles me: Few of these students continue to blog after the course ends. Nancy McKeand (Random Thoughts) asks, Why aren't we all blogging?. There's no easy answer, but it's unlikely that we're all made from the same mold. Some like sports, others music, and others, still, video games. One of my students moved from blogger over to myspace, where she is still active.

Perhaps we shouldn't worry about whether students like blogging or continue to blog. When in high school, I enjoyed basketball, but I didn't like the speed drills. However, they were great for developing my stamina. And perhaps that's how we should consider blogging. That is, Is there some benefit from blogging? Besides, we could also ask how many of our students continue to write essays after graduating. Should we, then, stop requiring essay writing? Hmm. I'm assuming that writing essays has some benefit. Does it?

Valerie Strauss ("Putting Parents in their Place: Outside Class", Washington Post) writes,

They are needy, overanxious and sometimes plain pesky -- and schools at every level are trying to find ways to deal with them.

No, not students. Parents -- specifically parents of today's "millennial generation" who, many educators are discovering, can't let their kids go.


Teachers and principals in the early grades began noticing changes in parents in the 1990s. Parents began spending more time in classrooms. Then they began calling teachers frequently. Then came e-mails, text messages -- sometimes both at once. Today schools are trying to figure out how to take back a measure of control.

My first thought when reading this was, Take back control? You must be kidding. When I enter my 6-year-old son's school, they are in full charge. I have to push a buzzer by the locked door, wait for them to open the door, and then go directly to the main office to explain my business. Now, I appreciate that security for my son. I wouldn't have them change it. But what "measure of control" is left for them to take back?

My second thought was, Well, there are "abusive" and "intrusive" parents. At the exteme end are those parents who riot at sports games and assault and even shoot their children's coaches. And I can imagine at the less extreme end are others who interfere with the running of schools and the education of the children.

Even so, I get the feeling from this article that the schools and teachers (not all, mind you) are not receptive to parents coming to school unless asked, sort of a "closed door" policy. From NY's Channel 13: Concept to Education, we read advice for teachers to work with parents:

It is important for teachers involved in family and school partnerships to truly play the role of "partners"-- working with parents as equals rather than coming from a position of power and authority. It is also important for teachers, who may be working in very wealthy communities, to be able to work effectively with parents who may be very empowered, both economically and politically. Either way, teachers should come to see parents as resources rather than adversaries, which unfortunately happens in many schools. Teachers and families can improve outcomes for their students and children by working together on the common goals of improving the education of children. Through this process they will learn to understand differing communication styles prevalent in various classes and cultures.

Note that this excerpt assumes that some teachers, and I would include schools, see parents as "adversaries." That's a rather odd position for a school to take.

This adversarial position is found at the university level, too:

"Our aim is not to tell parents to let go completely because, of course, parents want to be an integral part of their children's entire lives," said Walter of Seton Hall, where orientation includes sessions for parents and students -- both separately and together. "Rather, it is to discuss how to be involved in their children's lives, while allowing their children to learn the life skills they will need to succeed in college and beyond."

Note that Walter says they don't want to "tell" parents, but that is exactly what the educational institutions in this article are doing. Most discussions like these occur between "experts" and "non-experts" with the implication, You should listen to us. We know what are are talking about while you don't.

Of course, I would hope that the schools know more about education than most parents do. That's their job. Yet, the amount of involvement of parents is related to cultural expectations, too. In some countries, children live with their parents until they marry. In fact, while in Turkey, I heard of some families who moved to the city where their teenager entered a university so they would be able to continue to live together. I've never noticed or heard that they didn't pick up "life skills." I'm not sure educational institutions are "experts" on what amount of family cohesiveness and interaction is suitable for "succeeding in life."

Someone who knows considerably more about the workings of public schools than I do said that districts generally want parents to become involved, although in some districts, "Parents are a pain in the neck." These tend to be districts with parents who are well off and accustomed to telling others, including school staff, what to do. She asks, "When do parents belong in schools? What's their proper function?" Those are good questions. Certainly better than beginning with the assumptions in "Putting Parents in their Place: Outside Class."

I've always wondered how well most writing instructors would do if we had to write what we have students write,say, for example, a coherent, developed essay in 30 minutes. Well, today, I'm wondering how most of us would do at writing about a presentation we attended, at least writing in such a way as to be interesting and useful.

Another thing I've wondered about is why do presenters at conferences read papers to the audience. I know it's standard practice in many disciplines, but if someone is going to just read, I'd just as soon have the paper and read it in my own time. Having academic papers read to one is simply boring! I'm at the TESOL conference in Tampa right now, and the difference in my interest level is inversely proportional to my being read to.

One interesting presentation was by Jennifer Granger, who is teaching as a Fellow at a university in China. To improve students' vocabulary, listening and research skills, and cultural knowledge, she uses episodes from "The West Wing." Besides TV being more interesting than textbooks, she writes, "This drama series promotes critical thinking, as well as shows different facets of American culture, history, and language usage." It's not just listening. They read about the series from several websites, including one with transcripts of the episodes. They look at current online magazine and newspaper articles related to the episode. And so on. I wish I had had her as a teacher when I studied my foreign languages.

Sometimes, simple methods work well for students. Students often have problems analyzing the information in their readings, especially if the amount of text is large. Gigi Taylor, a doctoral candidate at Purdue University, in her presentation "Teaching Academic Writing" suggests having students construct "Key Point Charts," a grid in which author's names are at the top of columns and "salient points" are on the left side. In this manner, students can visually compare the same point across authors to see the similarities and differences.

Thinking a little more about the notion of sacrifice and teaching from Ants Have Teachers, I was reminded of Albert Schweitzer, who said "all progress demands sacrifice, which has to be paid for by the lives of those chosen to be offered up." Bertrand Russell, speaking of progress, said, "There is only one road to progress, in education as in other human affairs, and that is: Science wielded by love. Without science, love is powerless; without love, science is destructive."

Granting that exceptions exist, I don't think we see much of this sort of teaching, that is, teaching guided by sacrificial love. That's why Fethullah Gülen asserts, "Education is different from teaching. Most people can teach, but only a very few can educate." That is, only a very few will love enough to sacrifice in order to teach.

Perhaps that's too strong a claim for some. Kevin Ryan, founder and director emeritus of the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University, writes, "While I'm not suggesting that teachers be saints, they should take their moral lives seriously by modeling upright behavior." I wonder why the word "modeling" is used instead of "living." It suggests that teachers need to act contrary to their real character. After all, if one "lived" uprightly, one would not need to be reminded to model their behavior. As Huebner writes, "If we live our values and reflect responsibly on our life together, what need have we to teach values?"

Uprightness, for me, involves right behavior and relationships with others. Although not a one-to-one correspondence, the notion of right relationships is connected to social relatedness, which, in Deci & Ryan's self-determination theory, is an intrinsic need (along with autonomy and competence). From another perspective, right relationships involve trust. Deborah Meiers (In Schools We Trust) has some pertinent thoughts here:

"Standardization and bureaucratization fuel the very distrust they are aimed to cure" (p. 2).

Students need to be around teachers they can trust and teachers who ask questions as learners, too" (p. 14).

Instead of focusing on teaching teachers so much about teaching, education schools should work at developing character in future teachers. Huebner states that to improve teaching, "we must attend to the teacher." The problem, of course, is the "we," who must also have character. Perhaps this is why Kevin Ryan doesn't ask that teachers be saints.

The National Geographic News reports on research that claims that " Ants have teacher-pupil relations."

In a tandem run, the lead ant only continues forward when frequently tapped on its legs and abdomen by the following ant's antennae. When a gap appears between the two, each adjusts its speed to close it.

The researchers show that the lead ant in the tandem pair could reach the food stash four times faster when not slowed by a follower.

But the follower ant finds the food faster than when searching alone and is ultimately able to quickly run solo errands. The process likely increases the fitness of the entire ant colony, the researchers say, by making the ants more efficient.

From this, the researchers define teaching:

[Franks] and Richardson write that "an individual is a teacher if it modifies its behavior in the presence of a naïve observer, at some initial cost to itself, in order to set an example so that the other individual can learn more quickly."

In addition, the Bristol researchers say that teaching involves a two-way relationship between the teacher and pupil.

I'm wondering how often human teachers modify their behavior at any cost to themselves. And, How often is teaching "a two-way relationship" in formal institutions of learning?

Will Richardson comments on Steve Dembo's comments on absenteeism in classes that podcast their lectures online. Steve asks a good question,

When the lecture, presentation slides and notes can all be shared online, what SHOULD a higher education class look like?

Will ties this into the need to reinvent ourselves and teaching, ending with,

To be honest, I have a secret wish that when my kids get old enough for college (in about 10 years), that they'll have consumed all of the necessary consumables and just be showing up to classes that focus on actually taking an active role in the learning. What a concept...

That's part of the key, that students are prepared to take an active role in their learning. Many, perhaps most, students have been trained to be spoon-fed and find it frustrating to be asked to become active learners and even resent it. Actually, this is not just students. Time is so important to me that I often prefer the spoon-feeding for areas that I'm not familiar with. And that's part of the key, too: not overloading students with a massive memory overload so they opt for the easy way out.

Barbara Ganning jumps in on this topic, too, mentioning possibilities for classroom activities. She ends on,

Ah, the possibilities are limited only by our imaginations and by our grasp of the goals of formal education and our specific course objectives ( of course we are often hampered by state mandates and standards). As Maxine Greene has said repeatedly, "Scholarship is intensely creative." Shouldn't teaching be so, too?

Tim Frederick (via Bud and Nancy) are discussing the "lies" teachers tell their students, one of which seems to be saying "this is an important book." They make some good points, which I'll come back to, but first I want to look at some of the assumptions being made.

According to Tim, this is called a lie because: "How did we become so arrogant as to think we had the right to say which books were important to read and which aren't? "

I'm not sure we should consider arrogance as a form of lying, and I'm not sure that it's rights that are the issue. Shouldn't it be responsibility? That is, teachers have the responsibility (and are accountable to parents and society) for selecting those books that will best enable students to learn. Actually, depending on the grade level and subject, school administrators often do the choosing of books for the school's curricula, books that must meet a state's criteria, as determined by state departments of education.

Tim adds:

What disturbs me most is that when we say this, we take a little power away from students AND hurt their critical thinking. Shouldn't they decide what's important and why? That can be empowering, as well as exercise the critical thinking muscle of evaluating. They would have to be able to justify their reasons for thinking a book is important and we can share how other people define "important". Students can further evaluate others' criteria for "importance". How many perfectly good lessons surrounding this are thrown away when we decide what's important?

Part of this argument is a value judgment of "empowering" students, of appealing to egalitarian values. In the classroom, however, such an appeal should be secondary to principles of learning. No research on learning is cited in these claims, nor is any evidence given to support that "empowering" students will help them learn better. To be fair, Bud just wrote a few paragraphs, not an academic essay. However, with such strong claims, I'd like to see a little evidence.

Another assumption without evidence is that saying "This is an important book" somehow "hurt[s] their crtical thinking." Actually, this assumption is a shift from the perspective of teachers wanting students to read "good" books to a position on the value of "critical thinking," as if these positions were exclusive. Of course, I can imagine teachers who pontificate without inviting students into the discussion, but that's not at issue here.

There is no getting away from the teacher's responsibility. Consider Bud's last sentence, "How many perfectly good lessons surrounding this are thrown away when we decide what's important?" Who decides what are "perfectly good lessons"? If we carry this perspective to its conclusion, then we should have the children evaluating the criteria for "perfectly good lessons" and the criteria for good teaching. In fact, we should listen to the commplace saying that one learns best by teaching, and we should just have the children do the teaching, too. Then what would the teachers do?

Now looking at the positives of Bud's argument, It does make sense that students need to learn and evaluate "how other people define 'important'" and also develop critical thinking. The issue is how to do this. Perhaps we can draw from ACT-R learning theory. Anderson and Schunn (2000) write,

There are no magical properties conveyed upon a knowledge structure just because it was self-generated. If all things were equal it would be preferable to have children learn by generating the knowledge (due to the redundant encoding). However, because of difficulties of generation and dangers of misgeneration, things are not always equal and it can be preferable to tell the knowledge.


Thus, ACT-R's theory of procedural learning claims that procedural skills are acquired by making references to past problem solutions while actively trying to solve new problems. Thus, it is both a theory of learning by doing and a theory of learning by example.

Simply providing the learner with examples is not sufficient to guarantee learning in the ACT-R theory. The sufficiency of the production rules acquired depends on the understanding of the example.

Anderson and Schunn add, "For competences to be displayed over a lifetime, time on task is by far and away the most significant factor." That is, learners must practice a lot, whether critical thinking or other skills. The problem is one can practice the wrong skills, in which case "practice makes imperfect." In other words, learners need feedback and at times explicit guidance to make their practice effective. Of course, they can get that when they choose their own books. And now we're back where we started: How does the teacher choosing a book hurt students?


Anderson, John R., & Schunn, Christian D. (2000). The implications of the ACT-R learning theory: no magic bullets. In R. Glaser (Ed.), Advances in instructional psychology (Vol. 5). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Philip Langlais, vice provost for graduate studies and research at Old Dominion University, (The Chronicle of Higher Education via OLDaily) argues for the need for institutional guidelines and faculty involvement in his article "Ethics for the Next Generation." His first and last paragraphs follow:

Troubling reports about the ethics and professional conduct of university presidents, faculty members in fields as diverse as history and the sciences, and biomedical researchers have been sharing space in news columns recently with accounts of the greedy misdeeds of business and political leaders. The scrutiny has begun to reveal such gross misconduct as plagiarism and the falsification and fabrication of data in the hallowed halls of academe and research laboratories. Indeed, the Department of Health and Human Services reported in July that allegations of misconduct by scientific researchers in the United States hit an all-time high in 2004. ...

Higher education has a critical responsibility to focus on educating our graduate students about ethical obligations and professional standards. We cannot rely solely on professional associations or regulatory watchdogs to fulfill this critical need. Our graduate students will soon occupy key positions of leadership and authority in society: Consider that, in 2002, according to the Council of Graduate Schools, nearly 1.5 million students were enrolled in American graduate and professional programs. They will become our college professors; they will train the next generation of our college professors, elementary- and secondary-school teachers, and the administrative leaders of all levels of education. Their knowledge of professional standards and their ability to be aware of and deal with ethical issues will promote integrity in our workplace and enhance the stability of our social fabric for many generations.

Three thoughts:
1. How does this article fit in with George Will's emphasis on knowledge and Schulman's emphasis on education emulating its sibling professions?
2. Will training in ethics be sufficient in a competitive winner-take-all environment?
3. Will training in ethics make up for those who haven't had integrity developed in their character from childhood?

Will Richardson talks about the needs of schools in general, to "Change or Die." He writes,

But one thing that struck us over the weekend was the lead headline in the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal: "How U.S. Auto Industry Finds Itself Stalled by Its Own History." And there was a great subhead: "A Need to Change or Die" The article talks about how GM and Ford are struggling in most every aspect of business as they "grapple with past practices." Here are two icons of the industrial era who are staring reinvention or expiration in the face.

Obviously, the leap to education here isn't a big one. Imagine this headline instead: "How U.S. Education Finds Itself Stalled by Its Own History." Here we are, faced with all sorts of new challenges, stuck in a system that seem unable or unwilling to change. We've mastered this assembly line method of teaching, programming all of our students in basically the same way throughout their time in school because that was the easiest way to do it. We didn't have unlimited information or content or ideas, so we created a curriculum that suited the needs of the day. Problem is, life outside the classroom has become drastically different. Life inside hasn't very much.

This is fascinating for me because it shows how filters work in how we support our positions. Schulman, for example, who decries the re-invention of education schools and says they should emulate siblings like business schools, left out this notion that businesses were facing "reinvention or expiration." Actually, "re-engineer" was a buzz word in business just a few years back.

Will wants schools to just feed the students "knowledge," which to me sounds like the old assembly line model, although it need not be. Still, the knowledge taught in schools is often different from the knowledge needed outside schools to the point that it is seen by students as irrelevant. By "contextualizing" knowledge in the real world, it may become relevant, perhaps even useful.

I wonder how we can remove our filters.

George Will joins the bandwagon decrying the state of teacher education in his article "Ed Schools vs. Education." His solution for improving the quality of education: "Close all the schools of education."

Will cites liberally from Robin Wilson's article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on education schools discriminating on the basis of personal beliefs and "dispositions." It's not clear how many education schools are like the ones cited in Wilson's article, but it is more than troubling if prospective teachers are disqualified on the basis of personal beliefs that conflict with those of the school's.

Somehow, Will jumps from this obvious problem to the claims, "The permeation of ed schools by politics is a consequence of the vacuity of their curricula," that education "is about "constructing one's own knowledge" and "contextualizing knowledge," but never about knowledge of things like biology or history."

I doubt that education schools are not interested in "knowledge." Rather, knowledge is an obvious, and therefore assumed, goal. The question in education, then, is, How can we help students acquire knowledge?, and thus the emphasis on "constructing" and "contextualizing." I remember while newly arrived in Turkey, someone asked if I would like some tea (all in Turkish), and I replied, Thank you. Alhtough I waited some time, no tea came forth, because while to me "Thank you" included "yes," in Turkish culture, "Thank you " means "No, thank you." Knowledge is very much contextualized.

I can imagine areas in which I would like to see education schools change. I can think of quite a few ways in which I'd like to change my own teaching practices. However, shallow hyperbole does little but re-inforce the closed mindsets of those already on the bandwagon.

Lee S. Shulman, President of the Carnegie Foundation for theAdvancement of Teaching and professor emeritus at Stanford University (via The Education Wonks), states,

Teacher education does not exist in the United States. There is so much variation among all programs in visions of good teaching, standards for admission, rigor of subject matter preparation, what is taught and what is learned, character of supervised clinical experience, and quality of evaluation that compared to any other academic profession, the sense of chaos is inescapable. The claim that there are "traditional programs" that can be contrasted with "alternative routes" is a myth.

We have only alternative routes into teaching. There may well be ways in which the teaching candidates of Teach for America or the New York City Fellows program meet more rigorous professional standards than those graduating from some"traditional" academic programs.

Compared to any other learned profession such as law, engineering, medicine, nursing or the clergy,where curricula, standards and assessments are far more standardized across the nation, teacher education is nothing but multiple pathways. It should not surprise us that critics respond to the apparent cacophony of pathways and conclude that it doesn't matter how teachers are prepared.

I am convinced that teacher education will only survive as a serious form of university-based professional education if it ceases to celebrate its idiosyncratic "let a thousand flowers bloom" approach to professional preparation. There should be no need to reinvent teacher education every time a school initiates a new program. Like our sibling professions, we must rapidly converge on a small set of "signature pedagogies" that characterize all eacher education. These approaches must combine very deep preparation in the content areas teacher are responsible to teach (and tough assessments to ensure that deep knowledge of content has been achieved), systematic preparation in the practice of teaching using powerful technological tools and a growing body of multimedia cases of teaching and learning, seriously supervised clinical practice that does not depend on the vagaries of student teaching assignments, and far more emphasis on rigorous assessments of teaching that will lead to almost universal attainment of board certification by career teachers.

The teacher education profession must come to this consensus; only then can accreditation enforce it. Commitment to social justice is insufficient; love is not enough. If we do not converge on a common approach to educating teachers, the professional preparation of teachers will soon become like the professional education of actors. There are superb MFA programs in universities, but few believe they are necessary for a successful acting career.

Schulman's announcement was brief, and so room was not available to develop his assertions, but on the surface, he makes quite a few claims and assumptions that are illogical.

1. Variation is conflated with chaos, and thus variation leads to a less than desirable level of quality in programs.

2. Standardization of curricula across the nation is equivalent to quality.

3. We must be like our sibling professions.

4. The initiation of new programs is equivalent to reinventing teacher education.

My brief responses are:

1. There is no evidence that variation diminishes quality of education. However, if diversity is good for learning, then one would think that variation of programs would be good for education. Of course, both should be supported by research.

2. One can standardize bad quality. Of course, Schulman is not thinking of that. I imagine that standards for content knowledge can be established, but how does one establish standards for creating rapport with students, for motivating students, etc.? Schulman says "love is not enough." I agree, but it is essential. Too much a focus on rigorous standards (and what's rigorous, something made more difficult?) will cause love to fade into the background, and so too the quality of teachers. As it is now, outside of a few educators, love is not a part of teacher education at all. Schulman's mentioning it is a red herring.

3. The claim that we should be like others is an appeal to the status of the other professions. It is not a consideration of whether education might (or might not) require other ways of achieving quality . Nor does it consider whether the siblings' professions methods are appropriate to education. It's simply assumed. Not to mention that the media constantly report on how, at least in business, college does not prepare students for the real world of work. We might argue that education colleges do not prepare students for real teaching in real schools, but that does not mean that we should be like other professions.

4. Nothing is invented de novo but builds on previous pedagogy. All new knowledge builds on what came before, is an integration of older sources. Still, it's not altogether odd that Schulman decries new programs. One favorite education bandwagon is "multiple intelligences," a theory that has no research supporting it.

Many with Schulman question the quality of teacher education programs. Although it's hard to imagine anyone denying the need for content mastery and good student teaching experiences and supervision, I'm not sure that equating quality with conformity to particular standards will achieve it. In any particular ecology, there are usually a variety of species. Should this concept apply to education programs and schools?

The notion of "converg[ing] on a small set of 'signature pedagogies' that characterize all teacher education" is one that has potential. If all species evolved from the four building blocks of DNA and all social interaction is governed by four relational models (Fiske), then there may just be a few crucial pedagogies that when combined in various ways allow for effective teaching in different contexts. But what would they be?

Returning to the theme of education, it's safe to assume that not all character education programs are successful. Lynn Revell (2002), who conductied research at 12 schools (seven elementary and five high schools), reported that high school students tended to be “cynical or sceptical about specific character traits promoted by Character Education,” especially those students in non-magnet schools who were even “hostile” (pp. 427-428), despite the similarity of programs across schools and the enthusiastic support of parents and school staff. Leming (2000) reported that a literature-based character program promoted cognitive skills among elementary students, but had “mixed results” with respect to affect and behavior. As Kohlberg (1999) states, reasoning is necessary for moral judgment, and moral judgment for moral action; however, moral reasoning and judgment are not sufficient for moral behavior. That is, one may be able to judge a situation correctly in terms of moral principles and still not take moral action, most likely because principles are not integrated into one's identity.

Deci and Ryan's Self-Determination Theory would assert that for individuals to pursue ethical values, internalize them as their own values, and integrate them into their self, their behavior must be self-determined and the environment must satisfy psychological needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness, with autonomy referring to the volitional “experience of integration and freedom” and relatedness referring to “the desire to feel connected to others—to love and care, and to be loved and cared for” (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 231).

Thus, we return to the concept of love as an essential component of leading students (and ourselves) into developing character.

The effectiveness of character education programs, according to Lynn Revell (2002), remains unclear. Conducting research at 12 schools (seven elementary and five high schools), Revell focused on issues of citizenship and identity and reported that high school students tended to be “cynical or sceptical about specific character traits promoted by Character Education,” especially those students in non-magnet schools who were even “hostile” (pp. 427-428). Despite the similarity of programs across schools and the enthusiastic support of parents and school staff, students’ attitudes toward the programs’ tenets varied according to personal experiences in their communities.

Besides experience, it seems likely that other factors are likely at play, too. One factor is that character education is almost nonexistent in teacher preparation programs (Milson & Mehlig, 2002). Teachers and schools have little, if any, theoretical or practical experience in implementing character education. Although expertise is required to teach a “subject,” it apparently is not required to teach character. Second, and just as importantly, many proponents of character education programs focus on the students and neglect the character of school staff. (Exceptions exist, for example, Lickona and Meier.) And one wonders how schools and teachers simply acquire character if they did not already possess it. Huebner (1999) is worth citing at length on this point:

First, recent discourse about moral and spiritual values in the classroom is incorrectly focused. That discourse assumes that there is something special that can be identified as moral or spiritual. This assumption is false. Everything that is done in schools, and in preparation for school activity, is already infused with the spiritual. All activity in school has moral consequences. The very highlighting of the need to teach moral and spiritual values in schools implies a breakdown not in the spirituality and morality of the student, but a breakdown in the moral activity and spirituality of the school itself, and of the people in control of the school. Those in control of the schools cover their own complicity in the domination system by urging the teaching of moral and spiritual values. They do not urge that the moral and spiritual climate of the schools, which they control, be changed. That teachers do not feel the freedom to be critical and creative is a sign of their enslavement to other principalities and powers. The need is not to see moral and spiritual values as something outside the normal curriculum and school activity, but to probe deeper into the educational landscape to reveal how the spiritual and moral is being denied in everything. The problem in schools is not that kids are not being taught moral and spiritual values, the problem is—the schools are not places where the moral and spiritual life is lived with any kind of intentionality. (pp. 414-415)

Quite naturally, students would be cynical about programs that attempted to transform the students’ character but not the character of the school itself. Of course, the moral activity and spirituality of communities is important, too. For character education to be successful, we need to return not simply to ideals but to the intentional living out of ideals by schools and communities. And the foremost ideal is that of love.

The requirement of love for a “sane society” was emphasized by Erich Fromm (1955). With love come attitudes, such as “care, responsibility, respect and knowledge” (Fromm, 1955, p. 33). Likewise, Bertrand Russell (1961) considered love and knowledge essential for character and progress: “There is only one road to progress, in education as in other human affairs, and that is: Science wielded by love. Without science, love is powerless; without love, science is destructive” (p. 158).

Without love, any attempt to inculcate character values is driven by goals of material success, such as providing “skilled workers” and avoiding discipline problems. Such goals are not necessarily detrimental to education. However, when love is not the guiding principle, these attempts to instill values are no more than indoctrination designed to produce obedience rather than character (Kohlberg, 1999; Kohn, 1999), attempts that do not work but instead promote cynicism, skepticism, or hostility.

For the ideal of love to live in schools, there must be a shift away from the school as a factory in which teachers view students as objectives rather than human beings, a factory in which knowledge is produced and tested rather than character constructed (cf. Huebner, 1999). Instead, there must be a move toward schools and educators who not only have a mastery of their subjects but also embody character and love.

I presented a paper this weekend at a conference at Rice University: Islam in the Contemporary World: The Fethullah Gülen Movement in Thought and Practice. My paper was on the educational aspect of his movement, which has founded hundreds of schools and seven universities around the world.

It was an amazing conference. Participants included well-known scholars, a former Minister of Education from Turkey, and the Vatican Secretariat for Inter-religious Dialogue, and there were official representatives from the Republics of Georgia and Tataristan. As amazing as the participants, more so were the multitude of college student volunteers working behind the scenes to make things flow smoothly.

My paper looked at character education in the U.S. and moved to a consideration of how the the Gülen schools might adapt to be successful in a U.S. context. Basically students need to learn to reason morally (just as they would learn to reason in any particular subject), but that they also need to take action on their reasoning. Not really much that is new, but ideas that are not always acted on. I'll have more on that later. Right now I'm preparing for my next conference at Roberts, LA: Complexity Science and Educational Research. I'm going to consider the role of tagging in class interaction, group formation, and learning.

Alan Finder (The NY Times) reports on the jump in reading and math test scores in Wake County, NC, a jump that is attributed to economic diversity accomplished by busing.

"Low-income students who have an opportunity to go to middle-class schools are surrounded by peers who have bigger dreams and who are more academically engaged," said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who has written about economic integration in schools. "They are surrounded by parents who are more likely to be active in the school. And they are taught by teachers who more likely are highly qualified than the teachers in low-income schools."

Reading through the article, we can see people's values at play: white vs. black, choice vs. quality education, choice vs. busing, success measured by property values and corporate support, economic diversity as a proxy for racial diversity, and so on. We can also wonder whether those with bigger dreams are being influenced by those with "smaller" dreams. We might ask where the teachers in previously low-income schools went? Did they quit to make room for the "highly qualified"? Or, like the students, did they become influenced by the "highly qualified" to raise their "teaching" scores?

However, it's more interesting from a complexity theory perspective of clustering and diversity. Clustering often leads to segregation: people feel more comfortable with what's familiar, and that includes ethnic and racial familiarity. Diversity can lead to creativity and innovation, and as seen here, increased test scores. (It should be remembered that the top scores likely aren't increasing, but the overall scores are due to lower performers achieving more.) In some sense, the fitness of the school ecology is improving through rearranging the system's structure.

Somewhat paradoxically, a central tenet of complexity theory is self-organization with no central control. And yet in this case a central, top-down order has improved the system's fitness. Of course, we don't know how that order came about: whether initiated from the school superintendent or deriving from the input of many stakeholders. Even so, along the lines of Juarrero's enabling constraints, greater complexity results from structure. Thus, on a smaller scale, we might consider how to structure diversity and interaction among different groups in our classrooms.

Hal Varian (NY Times) reports on a study of teacher effectiveness. An unsurprising finding was that some teachers are more effective at improving student test scores than others.

What was surprising is that

easily observable characteristics like having a master's degree or a passing score on the teacher certification exam are not correlated with teacher effectiveness.

This reminds me of something I read some time ago about there being only a 2 % correlation between MBA GPAs and their success in business. More than textbook knowledge, social skills played a role in being successful. If something similar is at work here, then shouldn't education schools help their students learn what will make them effective teachers?

Varian cited the report's finding that the "most important single influence is experience," although it isn't clear whether that means that teachers learn by doing or ineffective teachers quit teaching.

Of course, it could be a combination of both. Still, these results indicate, at least to me, more apprenticeship and less theory (not none) is one approach education schools should take. The other indication, which I mention in the previous post, is one in which I'm not sure that education schools can play much of a role. That is, effective teachers are those who sincerely care for their students and have a considerable amount of patience in working with them.

I submitted my paper on the Fethuallah Gülen educational movement. The more I think about the less confident I am that the public school system will change for the better. The difference between Gülen-inspired teachers and most others (not all, of course) is sacrificial love. Other teachers "model" character, they live it. Students are not deceived, and surrounded by a culture of individualism, corporate greed, and political scandal, there's little reason for them to become any different. It's great to master content knowledge and teaching strategies, but to motivate students to want to master "school" knowledge, teachers must love them.

None of this is new. Schweitzer, Russell, Fromm,Huebner, and others have all said the same: living a life worth living requires knowledge and love. As Russell (1961) put it,

There is only one road to progress, in education as in other human affairs, and that is: Science wielded by love. Without science, love is powerless; without love, science is destructive. (p. 158).

Alan (of Learning Circuits Blog and based on Elliot Maise's Learning Trends) compares CNN to Education.

I would not suggest that higher education institutions need to operate like CNN, but I find it fascinating to read Elliot Masie's observations of how CNN dealt with the flow of content and information in the wake of Hurrican Katrina. ...

The question is, will educational institutions be one of these organizations [that assemble content]? Below I have take some of Maise's descriptions of CNN and put them besides a gross and likely over generalized observation of higher education. Yes, there are numerous exceptions and counter examples to every one of my points, but as a whole, when you read how CNN operates and put it besides how your higher education institution operates, the contrast should be rather vivid.

He compares the tools used for assembling content, the formats, recency of content creation, content repositories, and the development cycle. Of course, even in the media there are differences between Time Magazine, The New York Times, and daily TV news. Much more so when peer review scrutiny is added in for scholarly works. And there are large differences in the technical skills of students and the specialization and skills of professionals.

But I wonder what we could adapt. For instance, how would letting present classes having access to previous classes' work in addition to the occasional student examples provided change the dynamics of learning, especially when students know that their work will become part of the repository? Would there be more engagement? Interaction? New networks?

George Siemens at Connectivism wonders about the group think that may occur from the possible moving away from centering agents toward our own inclinations of aggregating information:

What happens when we no longer share centering agents? What happens when all of my information comes only from sources that promote view points I already hold? I am concerned that this process is creating a serious divide in the ability of people to dialogue and share common understandings. Now, if I'm so inclined, I can listen only to perspectives of my own political party. If I follow Rush Limbaugh or Daily Kos, I can receive a constant message that assures me that I am right, and the other side is wrong. I think this is dangerous. The breakdown of common understanding and dialogue poses a real risk to the civility of society.

Educators have a role to play in encouraging learners to consume information from differing spectrums of thought. We are starting to see the emergence of some centering agents for individuals (bloglines) and rudimentary centering tools for groups (del.icio.us). Whatever our view or perspective, as learners in a global stage, we need to move (at minimum) to dialogue with those around us. The closing of public information spaces into private, like-minded thought communities is discouraging.

Anemona Hartocollis in The NY Times asks, "Who needs education schools?" She states that education schools have research agendas rather than pedagogical, courses on theory rather than practical practicums, ideological biases rather than an emphasis on subject matter, and so on. One of the more interesting perspectives was that of a professor at Emporia State University in Kansas, one of the better schools:

Ms. Azwell says medical training is a good analogy for what Emporia State interns go through. "They get no sleep," she says. "They're working 24 hours a day. There are those who have no money because they can't work a job, so they're not eating. They're in a classroom 8 to 4 every day. They really think they're going to die."

I can appreciate the need for intensive training, but it's rather odd that getting no sleep and thinking you're going to die are characteristics of a program that will promote learning. Still, there is much to think about in this in-depth article, especially the general trend of education schools to focus on theory and ideology rather than giving future teachers the tools they need to be successful in the classroom. What are future teachers learning and how does that affect our schools?

In the article, Diane Ravitch, states,

The idea of "preparing excellent teachers who are excellent in their subject," she says, has been overtaken by other concerns - "professors wanting to be respected in the university, and teachers' colleges wanting to become places where research is done and to be agents of transformational change."

"At the end of the day, what would principals and parents value most?"

No doubt, Ms. Ravitch, has her own ideology, but it is worth considering what sort of balance should be achieved among research, ideology, and practice in schools of education.

  • What do we want to teach future teachers so that their future students will learn?
  • What sorts of academic practices lead to better learning?
  • Obviously, theory alone is not enough, albeit it is important. But should it outweigh actual practice in preparing teachers?