Saturday, April 30, 2011

What they’re learning

A friend of mine often walks a first-grade boy home after school. The first-grader is always saying how much he wishes he were as smart as Girl X and Girl Y. Finally my friend asked him, “What makes you think they’re smarter than you are?”

“They never get in trouble,” the boy replied.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


Six-year-old: Can I eat this lollipop?

Parent: Where’d you get it?

Six-year-old: School.

Parent: They gave out lollipops?

Six-year-old: ’Cause we were good.

Parent: What do you mean, good?

Six-year-old: Being quiet.

Unfortunately, this scene has been a common occurrence at our school this year. Not everyone gets the lollipop, by the way -- only the ones who are “good.”

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Kids as machines

Aristotle argued that a falling body accelerated because it grew more jubilant as it found itself nearer home, and later authorities supposed that a projectile was carried forward by an impetus, something called an “impetuosity.” All this was eventually abandoned, and to good effect, but the behavioral sciences still appeal to comparable internal states. No one is surprised to hear it said that a person carrying good news walks more rapidly because he feels jubilant, or acts carelessly because of his impetuosity, or hold stubbornly to a course of action through sheer force of will. Careless references to purpose are still to be found in both physics and biology, but good practice has no place for them; yet almost everyone attributes human behavior to intentions, purposes, aims, and goals.

--B.F. Skinner, in Beyond Freedom and Dignity, 1971

I remember how eye-opening I found that paragraph when I first read it, as a college student. The idea that human behavior might be understood as governed by physical laws in the same way that falling objects are; that even the most “consciously chosen” act might be the unavoidable effect of some preceding cause; that “intentions, purposes, aims, and goals” and even free will itself might be an illusion -- this was enough to keep a good liberal arts student up at night. For a time I was so fascinated with Skinner that once, finding myself in Boston, I called him -- he was in his eighties but still working at MIT -- and asked him to lunch. (He declined.)

It’s tempting, in retrospect, to compare my reaction to Skinner with this scene from Animal House:

But that would be too harsh on my younger self. I still think Skinner’s ideas are thought-provoking, but I don’t believe -- and never did -- that we can better understand our fellow human beings by focusing only on behavior and by discarding the concept of the mind.

Somehow, of all the philosophies that mankind has developed over the millennia, Skinner’s behaviorism -- which sees the mind as an illusion -- is the one that now rules the world of education. My kids’ school, for example, like schools nationwide, tries to get the kids to comply with school rules not by reasoning with them or engaging them in the process of developing moral standards, but by simply rewarding the behaviors the school wants. What difference does it make why the children are complying? Intentions, purposes, aims, and goals aren’t real.

The behaviorists’ central idea -- that people’s thoughts and feelings don’t matter -- has taken on a life of its own in educational practice and policy. It’s reflected, for example, in the “more is better” philosophy: if six hours of daily instruction is good, just think what seven or eight could do! There’s no reason to inquire whether the children might be bored, or whether they might rebel against this forced instruction, or whether it might teach them that learning is an aversive chore, or whether they should be given more autonomy over their own learning. Much of our educational debate today assumes that the kids are essentially machines: we just need to decide what we want them to learn, and then make them learn those things. If you suggest that we should consider how this type of education makes the children feel, and what values it instills in them, you will be seen as soft-headed, sentimental, unscientific -- you know, like Aristotle.

For all its influence on educators, behaviorism hasn’t transformed society as Skinner dreamed it would. Even under our now absurdly lowered goals -- can we achieve short-term increases in standardized test scores? -- it has no great success to claim. But I’ll give it this: we sure have moved beyond freedom and dignity.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The school district’s new blog

Our school district has recently started its own blog, which you can find, along with the superintendent’s Twitter feed, here. The blog’s subtitle is “Child-Centered : Future-Focused.” In response, Merriam-Webster has removed these phrases from the dictionary and declared them officially meaningless.

No posts yet on those child-centered shortened recesses and ten-to-fifteen-minute lunches.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Second to none

Hypothesis: Iowa City has the shortest elementary school lunch periods in America.

Somebody, please, prove me wrong in the comments.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

“Because they’re scared”

I recently reread John Holt’s first book, How Children Fail. Later in his life, Holt became one of the most prominent advocates of “unschooling,” but he wrote this book much earlier, when he was working as a math teacher in conventional elementary schools. Parts of it are dated or off-putting or preachy, but it’s actually a great read, largely for his description of the kids' efforts at pleasing, placating, and evading their math teacher (as opposed to learning their math).

I remember the day not long ago when Ruth opened my eyes. We had been doing math, and I was pleased with myself because, instead of telling her answers and showing her how to do problems, I was “making her think” by asking her questions. It was slow work. Question after question met only silence. She said nothing, did nothing, just sat and looked at me through those glasses, and waited. Each time, I had to think of a question easier and more pointed than the last, until I finally found one so easy that she would feel safe in answering it. So we inched our way along until suddenly, looking at her as I waited for an answer to a question, I saw with a start that she was not at all puzzled by what I had asked her. In fact, she was not even thinking about it. She was coolly appraising me, weighing my patience, waiting for that next, sure-to-be-easier question. I thought, “I’ve been had!” The girl had learned how to make me do her work for her, just as she had learned to make all her previous teachers do the same thing. If I wouldn’t tell her the answers, very well, she would just let me question her right up to them.

Holt’s thesis is that kids who do well in school exhibit certain habits of thinking: they see the math problems as interesting puzzles or challenges; they’re willing to be patient, and can tolerate the uncertainty of not knowing the answer right away; they check their calculations against their own judgments about what makes sense. But a lot of kids show very different traits: they see the math problems as a threat; they can’t sit patiently with a problem but will do whatever it takes to make it go away; they cling to their calculations even when the answers are preposterously wrong.

Gradually, Holt concludes that his unsuccessful students are actually being perfectly rational. They see the math problems as a threat for good reason, given the embarrassment and shame they have experienced from their previous attempts. They’ve rationally calculated that the best bet is not to invest in finding the right answer, but to cut their losses, and they’ve developed strategies -- clever ones! -- to minimize the resulting anxiety and embarrassment. The quick answer may not be right, but it makes the problem go away, at least temporarily. “Their business was not learning, but escaping.”

In the end, Holt feels defeated by these students. He can make them work on their math, and he can reason with them and explain math principles until he’s out of breath, but he can’t make them buy into the enterprise; he can’t make them want to learn. He can’t force them not to experience school -- not to experience him -- as a threat. “We, and not math, or reading, or spelling, or history, were the problem that the children had designed their strategies to cope with.” Realizations like those led him eventually to decide that force itself is the problem -- that school, by forcing its tasks upon them, had created these “dull” children.

Make what you will of his conclusions. What leaps out of the book, when you read it today, is how unusual it now seems for someone to recognize that kids are volitional actors, as opposed to just objects to be acted upon. In this age of “Make ’em learn” and “Drill, baby, drill,” who talks anymore about the kids’ emotional responses to what schools make them do? Who recognizes that the kids might have their own feelings about our various schemes for improving them, and might react to them in ways that defy our intentions? Holt wrote:

For many years I have been asking myself why intelligent children act unintelligent at school. The simple answer is, “Because they’re scared.”

Isn’t there plainly truth in that statement? How have we ruled it out of the discussion?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Market-oblivious “conservatism”

Do conservatives believe in the free market? Yes. Do they understand how markets work? Sometimes I wonder. Judging from the news coming out of Wisconsin and Michigan, they seem to think that the key to improving public education is to make teaching as unappealing a job as possible. I don’t doubt that they can cut costs by breaking teachers’ unions, and that they can take away teachers’ job security, and that they can micromanage the classroom from the top down to the point where teachers are simply script-readers. (Example here.) But one stubborn fact remains: they can’t make people become teachers. Because teaching is bought and sold on a market. If you cut compensation and job security and make working conditions miserable, talented people will simply choose to do something else, and we will end up with teachers who are worse at what they do.

I think that doesn’t bother these “reformers” because, deep down, they don’t think of teaching as skilled labor. Their natural authoritarian bent leads them to think in terms of top-down models, where all the hard thinking gets done by high-level administrators, who then give teachers their marching orders. How hard is it to read from a script? No reason to treat that as a profession. It doesn’t matter if talented people go elsewhere, because teaching doesn’t take talent. So we can cut compensation without lowering quality at all!

These aren’t Free Market Conservatives; they’re Free Lunch Conservatives. They just can’t admit one of the basic principles of the free market: you only get what you pay for.

Of course, the reformers are just treating teachers the way they treat kids. It’s all about dictating, never about negotiating. Giving people autonomy is just a sign of weakness. The little people shouldn’t expect to have input into how they are treated; their job is just to obey. That the little people might react to this approach -- teachers by leaving the profession, kids by rebelling against the entire enterprise of learning -- is simply wished away, or used as an excuse for an even firmer crackdown.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Reader blogs?

I have only the vaguest idea, from the site counter, who might be out there reading this blog. But I wonder: do any of you have blogs of your own you might like to mention here? I’ve listed a few of my regular reads over in the sidebar (“Sites to Check Out”), and in my last post I linked to a great blog about music. If you’d like to point out your own blog, or someone else’s for that matter, whether it’s about school or something else entirely, go ahead and post the blog’s address in a comment to this thread.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The saddest song

This was choral concert week at our elementary school. I admit that I’m not the biggest fan of these school concerts; the desire to make large groups of children sing in unison just seems a little creepy to me. Making matters worse, the songs often seem to have a propagandizing or indoctrinating purpose. I still get a kick out of my kindergartner’s performance of “I Love to Eat My Veggies” last year. (“I was just moving my lips,” she told me afterward.)

This year, mixed in with songs about penguins and pizza, we heard renditions of “Brush Brush Brush Your Teeth,” “Wash Your Hands with Water and Soap,” and “Drug-Free Me.” (One woman said, “What about all the kids on Ritalin?”)

But even I was unprepared for one of this year’s fifth- and sixth-grade songs, “Why Music?” The song started with some relatively innocuous verses:

Do you know what music brings to us
As we learn, as we go?

Do you know that music plays a part
In the way we can grow?

Do you know why?
Do you know why?
Why music?

Then, one by one, students came up to the microphone to speak these lines:

Everyone knows that music is part of a well-rounded education.

But did you know that music can improve our learning?

Music can help us make better grades.

You know what’s coming, don’t you?

It can also help us perform better on standardized tests.

Music training enhances brain function.

Music is a core academic subject, just like math and reading.

Music students are more likely to achieve academic honors and awards.

Music students are more likely to achieve higher math and verbal SAT scores.

Another chorus, then:

Music education can help us integrate learning across the curriculum.

It can help us learn to pay attention, persevere, and solve problems.

Music may contribute to a more positive self-concept.

It can help us improve our social skills and teamwork.

It can help us express our feelings in a creative way.

Schools with music programs have higher graduation and attendance rates.

Music students are more likely to plan to attend college.

According to a Congressional resolution, music should be available to every student in every school.

Search the lyrics in vain for any indication that music might be meaningful, fulfilling, moving, beautiful, or fun. We make music because it raises our test scores and gets us awards. Baby Einstein lives!

I have to believe that the music teacher doesn’t actually think that this is why the kids should learn about music. I assume that music funding is so beleaguered that she feels compelled to put these words in the kids’ mouths in hopes of making her case in the only way our educational policymakers might hear it -- which only makes the song even sadder.

Another parent was so bothered by the song that he blogged his own response, with good suggestions for better ways to choose concert songs. (One of his tips: “Just don’t pick songs that nobody in the history of the world, including now, has ever loved!”)

You can listen to an excerpt from the song here. Just click on “Play MP3” -- it doesn’t cost anything, except a little part of your soul.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Juvenile justice

I recently sent this letter to the principal of my kids’ elementary school (I’ve added hyperlinks):

I just want to express my concern about something that I heard recently happened at Hoover.

Another Hoover parent told me that her fourth-grade daughter came home from school visibly upset. When her mother asked her what was wrong, she described a series of events that had happened in class that day. It started when one boy was playing with an eraser (she called it a “Japanese eraser”) when he wasn’t supposed to be. The teacher took away the eraser and put it on her desk, apparently intending to give it back to the boy at the end of the day. At some point, though, the eraser disappeared from her desk. The teacher told the kids that she would leave the room for three minutes, and that she expected the eraser to be on her desk when she came back. But it wasn’t. So then she told the kids to search the desks and backpacks of their “elbow partners” -- the kids they sit next to -- for the eraser, which they did. She also asked them to empty their own pockets. The eraser was never found. The girl was very shaken up by the whole event.

Not wanting to leap to conclusions, the girl’s mother asked another parent whether her child had said anything about the incident. When that parent asked her child what had happened, she heard substantially the same report.

Before I say anything, I want to make it clear that I don’t want this to be taken as a complaint about that particular teacher. Even if the report is accurate, I know that she is a really hardworking working teacher who’s done a lot of great things for kids at Hoover, and nobody’s perfect. (I haven’t cc-ed her on this, but you’re welcome to share this email with her.) My goal is not to get anyone in trouble, but just to make the point that there are good reasons not to engage in searches like the one the girl described, and to make a plea that Hoover, as an institution, give some thought to what it’s teaching the kids by the way it handles disciplinary issues.

I think some people roll their eyes when I talk about kids having rights that schools shouldn’t infringe. (It’s my strong sense that the search, if it happened as reported, would violate the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution.) But I don’t mean it in some abstract or technical sense; there are good reasons why third- and fourth-graders should be afforded some privacy, even when they’re in school. It’s very possible that some kids that age would have things in their backpacks or pockets that they would not want their classmates, or even their teacher, to see. Kids with medical issues might have medications; girls approaching puberty might have feminine products; anyone might have a diary; etc. There is no reason the kids should give up that kind of privacy as soon as they walk into the school, especially in a situation where there was no reason to believe that any particular child had taken the eraser, and where so little (an eraser!) was at stake.

As you already know, I’ve been concerned for some time that Hoover, in the name of keeping order in the classrooms and hallways (and, ultimately, of raising standardized test scores), is overemphasizing the values of passivity, obedience to authority, and unthinking compliance with rules. That’s one of the main reasons I objected to the implementation of PBIS, and to the use of the Social Thinking curriculum, and why I’ve expressed concerns about the way Hoover uses its character education program. At one level, my concern is that the kids are simply being misinformed: The fact is, we don’t live in a country where you have to blindly obey authority figures, and we don’t live in a country where there are no limits on what the government can ask of you, even if you’re accused of stealing, and we don’t live in a world where docility and unquestioning compliance with rules are the most highly valued qualities. But I worry that Hoover kids are being given quite the opposite impression, on a regular basis.

So you can see why it pains me to think of eight- and nine-year-old kids willingly complying with their teacher’s instruction to search each other’s private possessions to ferret out a thief. I would feel much better about what kids are learning at Hoover if at least one child, if told to search her classmates’ backpacks, were to say, “No, I’m not going to do that.” Given how much Hoover emphasizes obedience and authority, though, I’m afraid that’s too much to expect of them.

It seems to me that Hoover is unduly afraid of acknowledging limits on its authority over the kids, as if it would somehow lose face, or descend into chaos, if a kid were to get away with stealing an eraser. Civil liberties, individual autonomy, and constraints on authority are an important part of what makes us lucky to live in America. Why not make Hoover a place where the kids are not just told about those values, but actually experience them? Wouldn’t that be much more educationally valuable than keeping the lunchroom and hallways quiet, or catching eraser thieves?

Thank you for listening.

The principal’s response:

Thank you for taking such time to explain your concerns. I hope you know I am open to feedback, both positive and constructive. I AM listening and will continue to reflect upon this situation with your concerns in mind.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Quote for the day

“The kids will never become who you want them to be. They will become who you are.”

I don’t entirely agree with that quote. The kids, if all goes well, will become who they are. But to the extent that schools and teachers and parents do have an effect on them, I think this quote probably gets it right more often than not.

Bogush’s insight seems to have entirely escaped today’s educational policymakers. There is an ends-justifies-the-means ethic to No Child Left Behind: just do whatever you have to do to get those scores up, or else. Is anyone surprised that, at the Washington D.C. schools that were held up as success stories because of their increased test scores, the tests turned out to have a suspiciously high number of erasures by which wrong answers were changed to right ones?

Closer to home, when I complained about our school’s elaborate behavioral rewards program (PBIS), I was concerned not only about the behavior it rewarded -- docility, unquestioning obedience, and mindless compliance with rules -- but also about the behavior it modeled: using bribes, rather than reasoning and persuasion, to get other people to do what you want them to do; devaluing language (“Stellar Job!”) to get your way; treating other people like objects to be manipulated rather than human beings to be engaged.

If the kids are going to become who we are, we need to worry more about who we are.