Monthly Archives: November 2011

Bitter Truth

This is a powerful and incisive article about the Penn State rapes. I encourage you to read it.

I was referred to this by an old colleague of mine two weeks ago. I decided to make it today’s post, not just to take up space on a schedule, but because too often this sort of thing is the “news of the day” and is then swept under the carpet. We hear about all manner of events that we should be raging against, remembering, keeping firmly in mind as we create the world that we and our children will live in… and instead they fall off the radar.


Minecraft Education

Presented without comment:

Link courtesy of this fellow.

Twenty Days and a Stack of Flash Cards

I know a secret teaching technique, which I can share with you.

With this technique, I can get any students to pass any standardized test in any subject. Not only will they pass, they will do exceptionally well. I guarantee a 95% or better. I can use this technique even in subjects that I don’t understand very well.

The technique is very simple. It requires only a few components. It does require a lot of time on the part of the students, but we won’t need a classroom or any special materials.

All I require is a few copies of the test, a copy of the answer key, twenty days, and a stack of flash cards.

At this point you have probably guessed the technique, but wait – I can do more.

I can also harm these students’ understanding of a complex subject. I can wreck not only their comprehension of fundamental concepts, but their long-term recall, their motivation, and their very understanding of what it means to “do” that subject. I can ruin their ability to do well in that subject so badly that others will spend years trying to undo the effects if the students don’t just give up first.

I can do this very thoroughly.

And I can do it in twenty days.

The same twenty days. Without changing my approach at all. It’s like a two-for-one sale.

Answerable Questions


Will Higher Education Be the Next Bubble to Burst? (from the Chronicle of Higher Education, 2009)

may eventually be answered by this:

Financial Crisis Observatory

The first article definitely resonates, but when hearing predictions of future events I do get reminded of other articles, like The Online Education Bubble… from 2001. So just because people are saying something will happen doesn’t make it true. As someone who is interested in eventually starting an educational institution, I’d really like to link 1 and link 2 interact and hear a prediction. It would be especially interesting to see in the arena of online education, which I’ve heard folks say may also be in a bubble state. (No link for that one; that’s just hearsay.) It has such tremendous growth that even large institutions are starting to take it seriously, years after substantial meta-research on its effectiveness. See my previous post about education as an evolved organism .

If you want to hear a little more about link #2, check out this entry from the arXiv blog: Econophysicist Accurately Forecasts Gold Price Collapse . If you’re a sci-fi fan, you should also consider this link: .

Why I Don’t Believe in Dress Code

In a move that will make me less employable, I wanted to talk about why I don’t believe in dress code, why I think it’s a bad idea, and why I think it’s… well, not immoral, but of dubious moral value at best.

Many private schools (and some public schools these days, especially inner-city schools) have dress codes. The most typical code in the US is a business-oriented one, which is what I’m going to be talking about today when I refer to “dress codes.” I’ll spend some time at the end talking about other types that I find less offensive.

A business-oriented dress code is one that asks students to dress “respectably,” in the manner of bankers, lawyers, salespeople, and store managers. Typical requirements are split down gender lines. Boys are asked to wear slacks or khakhi pants, a belt, “dress shoes,” and a button-down or polo shirt. Some schools add a tie and jacket. Girls dress code varies substantially, but is typically designed with the goal of covering most of the body and distracting fewer boys in class. Some schools still require dresses or skirts and cardigans. Some sllow girls to wear boys’ style dress code; others do not. Some schools maintain the same standards throughout the academic year; others alter them for weather, special occasions, or “good behavior.”

As someone who enforced this sort of dress code for three years, I can tell you that the amount of weaseling and petty rebellion it encourages (primarily amongst the students) is monumental. In my tours of various schools I actually had a school administrator tell me that their staff psychologist recommended keeping dress code because it “gave the students something to rebel against.” When I was in high school (using that phrase makes me officially old), students and teachers organized buses to travel to Washington DC so students could join in a protest on the Mall. That is a school that believes in the value of student protests and rebellion. Give your students something worthwhile to rebel against; don’t encourage them to complain about their shoes.

Other schools have their own reasons, from preparing students for a particular career to preventing gang violence. Whether dress codes work for those reasons is a valid educational research question. The answer seems to be “yes” when it comes to the violence issue. I think there are viable alternatives and I’ll talk more about that below.

Most dress codes leave some room for interpretation. Even the typical boys’ dress code is far more vague than one might think. Administrators end up spending valuable time talking about ridiculous topics like whether a fish tie and button-down Hawaiian shirt should count as dress code, and whether “boat shoes” (whatever those are) are allowable footwear. What a waste of time.

Furthermore, the vagueness of girls’ dress code is not confined to the way I defined it above. At most schools with a dress code, girls are allowed much greater latitude in their choice of dress. For some reason we have no problem telling boys what to do, but we treat girls like delicate little flowers when every indication is that women have an emotional fortitude that matches or exceeds men’s. We also teach girls to cover up rather than teaching boys to grow up and act with respect. Both of those gender items are really a point for another day, I suppose.

Gender divisions also further marginalize students who don’t fall into traditional gender roles. At many schools girls can wear the boys’ dress code, but not vice versa. Boys who identify as girls, and sometimes vice versa, face a battle that starts with the school administrators, rather than ending there.

Students don’t like dress codes. I couldn’t care less about that. They don’t like homework, either. Most of them don’t like either writing or mathematics; tough luck, they need both. The issue is not whether we are trampling our students’ wishes, but whether what we are doing is the best thing for them in their lives. Schools shape lives.

The biggest problem I have with dress codes is this:

If we are trying to teach our students how to judge others based on their appearances, dress code is the right way to do that.

That is, in a nutshell, why I feel that dress codes are one step away from being outright immoral. The idea that we should respect people because they are dressed like bankers and businesspeople, in this day when so much of our economy is in shambles because of the actions of bankers and high-ranking businesspeople, seems rather silly. That choice of dress code also implies that people like artists, musicians, and mechanics are not worthy of emulation, and thus, by extension, of respect. A dress code based on an artistic aesthetic has exactly the same problem, with the opposite people as targets of derision.

Teachers, from kindergarten through the professor level, are role models. Students emulate their teachers in word and deed. (Note: they don’t always obey, but they do watch what we do, and they do emulate.) So when a teacher berates a student for dressing a certain way, other students learn that lesson: people who dress a certain way are not worthy of respect.

Dress codes are moral statements. They teach students to care about what people wear, and to judge the inner selves of others based on that outer presentation.

Dress codes teach disrespect at a fundamental level.

Now, I’m ok with restricting students’ dress to a certain extent. If you want to say, “Students must wear clothing that covers them from shoulder to knee,” that’s fine with me. (I’m also fine with Hampshire College’s clothing-optional days, though I don’t particularly need to see it, and I think it’s a bad idea at the high school level.) “Everyone must wear footwear” is a health issue, no argument from me. If you want to say “No swear words,” that’s fine too. Want to protest and make it a First Amendment issue? Fine: T-shirts are like TV and radio in that they are a broadcast medium for whatever’s printed on them. Swearing on broadcast media is legally restricted to late night hours; I have no problem with doing the same to T-shirts. It’s when you start asking students to dress a particular way and calling that “respectable” that you start actively teaching students how to judge others.

I’m also ok with an out-and-out uniform. On the day you show up, the school hands you a wardrobe full of the clothing you’ll be wearing, with size upgrades as you need them. Nothing else is allowed – not your own socks, not hair clips, not finger rings or earrings. If you want to really level the playing field and make clothing a non-issue, this is the way to go. No wiggle room, no personal expression, fewer arguments than a dress code. The male/female division (if there is one) would still be a question, but one fairly easily solved. If you want to be authoritarian, this is, in my mind, the right way to go.

Finally, I’m not insensitive to the issue of gang colors and the possibility of school violence, nor to the issues of students who do not yet respect their bodies or those of others. I’m incredibly insensitive when it comes to someone telling me who I should or should not respect. Handle it another way, please.

Research on the effectiveness of dress codes is, as with many opinion-laden educational issues, easy to find and fairly contradictory. Here are a few sources, chosen primarily for their density of references:

Teachers make the Worst Students

Having run and assisted teacher training in a variety of situations, I can safely say: teachers make the worst students.

Oh, we may look innocuous and attentive, but we’ve learned from the worst. We pick up habits from every bad student we’ve ever had. The next thing you know we’re passing notes – “Do you like me? Circle one.” Or talking during class, or grumbling about what we’re asked to do, or working on something else when we should be learning. We decide that whatever’s going on isn’t worth our time, and that our side conversations are more important. Oh, let me check this text message, it’ll only take a second.

Don’t even get me started on role-playing exercises in a teacher training session. Talk about a minefield. Left to their own imagination, everyone brings in the worst attitudes from the snottiest kids from every class they’ve ever taught. Three jerks can ruin a class; imagine when everyone in the room is channeling twelve years of dissatisfied students. If you train teachers, and your intent is to run a class on classroom management, this is simultaneously your gold mine and your Hindenburgh – a gold-plated, explosive gasbag, if you will. Student attitudes begin to bleed over into teacher attitudes, and feelings get hurt as someone embarrassedly slinks back over the line of decorum. If your intent is anything but dealing with attitudes, you’ll need to set some explicit guidelines before you start.

Why are we like this?

After all, we’re adults – we get to be the “deciders” now. Why do we end up making such poor decisions? What makes us think that the things we’re doing are more important?

Who did we learn that from?

Who did they learn it from?

Sex Ed

To continue the trend of making myself less employable, I present this article from the New York Times:

Teaching Good Sex

I’m a firm believer in:

  1. The need for high-quality sex-ed courses (and health courses in general),
  2. The general failure of abstinence-based teaching, and
  3. The need to treat “young adults” as if the phrase “young adult” had meaning beyond being another word for “teenager.”

But wait, you may be saying. Even “medium adults” and “old adults” have difficulty talking about sex! It’s not a comfortable topic; we have trouble bringing it up with our partners, our closest friends, our therapists… Billions of people in hundreds of cultures have trouble with it. Why should we imagine that teenagers can talk about sex in a mature manner when most full-grown adults can’t?

That’s backwards thinking. Most of us have trouble talking about sex because we never did, not in ways that matter. It’s like saying, “Most adults aren’t healthy, why try to teach children to eat right?” or “Most adults have trouble with math, why expect kids to learn past basic arithmetic?” The job of a teacher is not to aim for the gutter.

Teach a teenager how to have a mature conversation with their boyfriend/girlfriend about sex, love, and relationships in general, and you improve more than one life.

“Flipped” Classroom

There’s a very nice infographic over at Knewton about the “Flipped” Classroom idea. I won’t summarize it here; go read it, it’s worth your time if you haven’t heard the idea before.

Good thing: Puts the burden of learning new material on the student. Forces them to pursue answers to their questions rather than just get them answered by “the authority.”

Bad thing: Harder to implement in larger courses. Motivation to pursue answers needs to be explicitly addressed.

Good thing: Has the potential to break up larger courses, which are typically lousy anyway.

Bad thing: Home time and school time would need to be rebalanced, especially in highly-structured environments like boarding schools. It really does take some time to get new material. Five hours of class a day and then five hours of homework would be a little more onerous than what we usually have in the US.

Good thing: The rebalancing is worth doing. Also, for some countries (esp. China, Korea), that would be a decrease in the homework load.

Bad thing: Directly collides with other homework-related initiatives (e.g. Race to Nowhere)

Good thing: Does not collide with the spirit for most of those things, just the way they’re usually presented, because they’re presented in relation to the existing standard for homework.

So, overall, I think it’s a neat idea that needs a support structure around it before it can succeed at the institutional level. Worth trying out at the individual-course level.

(Originally found the link through GraphJam.)

Education as Evolved Organism

Today’s post is a reflection on an article in Educause Quarterly: Is Higher Education Evolving? The core idea is that the educational system as a whole has some similarities to a culture – like a bacterial culture, not a social one – of evolved organisms, who adapt based on the evolutionary pressures on them. I recommend giving it a look, because it provides an alternative viewpoint, and I always find those useful.

An evolutionary pressure is essentially (and remember I’m not a biologist) something that forces a species to change. Often this “change” happens when half of the species dies off because the temperature changed, and the other half just happened to be prepared for the change. The action of evolutionary pressures depends on an inhomogeneity in the group that’s evolving – if everyone is exactly the same, then they’ll all die or live as a group. If some of them are different (as is the case with living beings), those whose differences allow them to withstand the pressures will survive to pass on those differences. Those that can’t survive might find a new niche elsewhere, if they’re lucky. More often they’re doomed. Evolution is a harsh mistress.

It is a sad statement about my level of optimism today that I can see only two real evolutionary pressures acting on education: politics and money. The quality of education delivered is not an evolutionary pressure.

The action of politics is clear in the proliferation of increase regulations and required standardized tests, among other things. Politicians come in with (in some cases) good intentions: to hold schools to a standard. Teachers who don’t want to teach to those tests either knuckle under or leave for greener pastures, and thus the schools evolve to fit the tests. Some of them evolve in unexpected ways, such as when teachers help their students cheat on the Regents Exam. (This is not speculative. A friend of mine worked in a school where this happened. She quit.)

Money as a pressure shows up in all sorts of unexpected places, but the clearest and most recent example is the explosion into online education. Where there’s money to be made, companies sprout up or move in to make it. Another example comes from the Aero/Astro department at MIT – as they began losing students, they changed the department to make it more appealing, and now the students (and their money) are back. Money may not be the motivation for the exact changes made, mind you. Teachers and professors and department heads genuinely want to educate their students. However, money is the pressure that forced the change.

As an educational researcher, I have to say that I don’t see quality of education as a believable evolutionary pressure. Unless it becomes a matter of public outcry (politics) or students become unemployable (money) or seek their schooling elsewhere (money), most schools and teachers (and universities and professors) are content to do what they’re doing now. The “revolution” in physics education research started about 25 years ago. The evidence that the standard lecture model simply doesn’t work is overwhelming. 25 years into the revolution, how are 99% of physics courses taught? By standard lecture. Even the opportunity for an overwhelming gain in the effectiveness of education hasn’t made a dent in what we do.

Let me say that again: we know how to teach better and, as a whole, we don’t. But this online thing? That’s where the money is. Let’s do it right now.

I’m a cynic today, but the lesson is this: if you want to change education, go into politics or business.


P.S.: Troy Roddy has a variant viewpoint over at The Art of Education, which is also worth a look. He’s talking more about “education” in the conceptual sense; how we view it. I’m talking about it more in the practical sense; the methods by which we achieve it.

Why Change is Hard

I write a lot about the need for innovation and variety in education. It’s something I really believe in. However, I’m not totally insensitive to the difficulties faced by those who would like to create real change in their schools, districts, and states. There’s a lot of inertia in education at any level, and fighting it takes perseverance and leverage. Educational change can also be a challenge on a personal level, and that’s what I’d like to talk about today.

Imagine someone with a deep southern drawl, or a strong Boston accent, the sort of thing you have to grow up with. If you move away, as people point out (i.e. make fun of) your accent you will likely start to pick up a “General American” or “Midland” accent; what most of us think of as “no accent.” The more time you spend away from home, and the more schooling you have, the more likely you are to drift away from your original manner of speech. Spend a weekend at home with your family, however, and you’ll be pahking the cah in Hahvahd Yahd in no time (which, as many Bostonians will tell you, is a good way to get towed). It’s not just a mannerism, it’s a deeply ingrained pattern of speech. You talked that way when you were a kid, your parents talked that way, all your friends talked that way, and it just comes back naturally.

Teaching is similar. All teachers have gone through a substantial amount of schooling, and most of our schooling was by lecture. Unless we spent time in the most progressive of schools and avant garde of colleges, we ended up spending a lot of time with teachers talking at us en masse, and us taking notes or working problems. Lecture is how our teachers were taught themselves, and they’ve passed it on to us.

And because of that, it’s comfortable. To someone who has been lectured to for a dozen years and more, lecturing feels like teaching. Active engagement, directed discussion, contract evaluations, even laboratory setup, all those things take work and can feel strange. Lecturing (especially if you’re very good at it or very bad at it) is practically effortless compared to constantly watching ourselves and correcting our actions and words to fit into a new pattern. It’s not really that the methods themselves are that much more difficult for us; it’s the change. Changing to adopt a new mindset takes years of work.

Some of that inertia we have to overcome when we want to change education? Some of that is inside of us.

This is what makes a “community of practice” so vital. If you want to shed your old accent, you can’t do it while living at home and talking to your relatives. You can do it by moving out of the house and socializing with new groups of people. At times it will be uncomfortable and difficult. Teaching is the same way – you can’t give up an old mentality by surrounding yourself with people who still think and work that way. You know you want change, but the old ways are just so comfortable. We need people to kick us in the pants and remind us to put down the PowerPoint and start giving students time to really respond to our questions.

Think of it as grass-roots change. I would propose that it’s easier, even faster, to get most of the teachers in a school system on board than it is to attempt to change the system directly. Teachers don’t have to want to teach things your way, they just have to want some room for innovation, the chance to stretch their wings and be creative. Our practice is not about carving words in stone; our practice is giving people the tools to be intelligent. Each of us has something to add when it comes to that. Creating pockets of modern teachers, these communities of practice, is something we all need to spend time working toward, for our own benefit as well as for the students.

For those hoping to make a mark on future generations of teachers, I’ll leave you with a quote: “In every book of history, it is written how it’s done: if you want to change the world, you need only change the young.” If you teach with innovation and creativity, your childrens’ teachers will teach with creativity, and that’s a good thing.