Monthly Archives: December 2011

Read Banned Books

Having looked at 2010’s list of most-challenged books,  I’ve decided that I need to read more of them. Anything that someone wants to ban is worth at least a look. I’m sad to say I haven’t read any of these except for the first Twilight book (which I will maintain had very accurate late-teen-years dialogue). Several of my friends have been thrilled that The Hunger Games is turning into a movie; I think I’ll start there.

Perhaps I’m lucky in that I’ve never had anyone say “How can you be teaching this to my child?” It’s one of the benefits of teaching math, physics, and chemistry. I’ve heard “Do you think they can handle this?” often enough (hint: yes), but never has someone implied that my choice of mathematics topics is morally wrong.

It makes me want to teach an English class. It seems to give one the option to be far more provocative, even “transgressive,” (what a beautiful word) and have more people recognize that that is indeed what’s happening. English teachers can say, “We’re going to read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and contrast it with the bible’s Song of Solomon” and get a reaction – or if not, they can just put And Tango Makes Three on the summer reading list. Instead, in physics, I’m limited to suggesting things like year-long project-oriented courses, or courses that begin from quantum physics, or using The Cartoon Guide to Physics as a textbook. The academics blink confusedly but the parents don’t get it. Sigh…

Physics and chemistry might have the best toys, but English teachers get to “corrupt the youth of tomorrow,” and there’s no cool factor that can beat that.


Sudbury Schools

One of my goals for this blog is to provide a view into different ways of learning and teaching, and how different schools or non-schools are set up.

Before I get into this, I want you to know: as someone who loves alternative education in general, I’m unlikely to be completely unbiased in any of these reviews. I’ll try to present some pro-and-con, but primarily in the links that I post rather than in the central description of the school and its methods.

With that in mind, I present the first installment:

Sudbury Valley Schools

I’ve been fascinated by the Sudbury Valley School approach since I first heard of it. Here’s the basic way it works:

  • Students must be at the school for the state-mandated time per day and days per year.
  • Adult staff are on hand. (There is no teacher/staff distinction.)
  • The school is democratic. Everyone gets a vote in the running of the school: staff, students, and parents, one vote each.

And that’s more or less it. There are no regular classes; thus, no grades or homework. There are occasionally classes taught by staff or by students, but no “Algebra II” or such. The hours of the school allow flexibility in when students arrive and leave. When students are admitted to the school, there is a vote (typically just a formality), but no lengthy vetting process. Instead, the student (and family) faces the central question: “Can I learn in this environment?”

The original school is in Framingham, Massachusetts. If I refer to SVS, that’s them. If I refer to “a Sudbury school,” thats a school that uses their general model. There are some Sudbury schools in other locations, with varying degrees of success, as is common when trying to spread an approach to a school.

I got to visit SVS during one of their open houses. As with many New England private schools, it’s centered around a single old building. There’s a kitchen, a pool table downstairs, a TV, some computers, a dance studio, and thousand upon thousands of books lining the walls. There are some outlying buildings as well; barns and such where student bands often practice, a small pond.

Something one might not expect from such a “hippie” school: there are rules for everything at Sudbury. Everything. You want to use the computers? You need to be certified for the computers. You want to use the crayons? You have to be certified for crayons. (Naturally, the process is not exactly strenuous.) Want to fish in the pond?… It seems like the sort of thing that might be overwhelming if you’re not used to it. In the “How to Run a Sudbury School” book that they sell there are dozens of pages devoted to the various signs and notes that are hung up around the school. There are also informational items around, such as reports from the judicial committee posted near the room where they meet.

The school stretches across a wide age range, from grade school through high school. There is no attempt to segregate by any measure. Ten-year-olds can easily serve on the judicial committee, or learn computer programming if they so desire.

The core idea of the school is, essentially, that students are mental sponges that pick up knowledge and ideas all the time. Children learn, it’s what they do. Their students learn to read, but not because they’re in classes for it. They learn because reading is so mind-bogglingly useful that to do the things they want to do, they realize that they’ll need to learn how to read. Those who want to go to college study for the SATs, or apply to schools that don’t care about them, because that’s what you have to do if you want to go to college.

Here’s some more useful information

  • The school’s official FAQ
  • Wikipedia’s pages on the SVS and Sudbury Schools in general. I include these to note that these pages are on the low end for Wikipedia articles, so seek other sources as well.
  • An article from the Seattle Times about the Clearwater School, a Sudbury school
  • A review of a book about SVS’s graduates. The comments are also worth reading.
  • An article on the school from Psychology Today.
  • An opinion article in the journal Science Education.

I would be glad to answer what questions I can.

An Appreciation

I’m not a fan of tolerance.

No, wait – let me continue.

Tolerate: to allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference.

I’ve often heard people talk about diversity, especially in school environments, in terms of “tolerance.” People talk about “teaching tolerance.” There’s a bumper sticker for it. This is something I’m glad I never learned during my high school education, because I think it’s the wrong word. What people are trying to do here is not wrong; I just don’t think they’re calling it the right thing.

Where I went, instead of tolerance for other cultures and beliefs – that is, instead of just allowing others to continue without interference (as if we had a right to interfere but decided not to); instead of mere forbearance – we learned appreciation.

Appreciate: To recognize the full worth of. To be grateful for. To understand (a situation) fully; recognize the full implications of. To rise in value or price.

When the holidays came… the holidays came. It wasn’t just Christmas, it was Hanukkah too. We knew when it was Ramadan, we knew when the Chinese New Year was. The dining hall was decorated; there were announcements at School Meeting; we learned the stories of other people’s cultures.

When National Coming Out Day came around, we knew that too. We were there for the first National Day of Silence; I still remember a girl in my Russian class who carried around a little whiteboard that day. We had a cross-dressing dance, and I was there, when I finally became brave enough.

This is what I want to teach. This is what I want my children to learn. I don’t want them to say “Ugh, here come those people. I guess I’ll tolerate them.”

I want my children to appreciate others. To recognize their worth, and to have their own worth grow because of it.

Teachers Can’t Stop Bullies

Bullying has been a big-ticket item this past year, from grade school through high school and even hazing and abuse at the college level. I wanted to put my two cents in, because I think that the reaction we usually see is ineffective.

Most of the reaction I’ve heard of from schools and parents involves two ideas:

  1. Schools creating anti-bullying policies, and/or
  2. Teachers needing to be more active in stopping bullying.

I just don’t think those work. I think there are good things that can be done, but those aren’t them. Let’s start with what we can’t do, because I want to get the chaff out of the way before we get to the wheat.

  • Policies cannot stop bullies. This is partly because bullies do not read them or care about them, but mostly because accomplishing things is not what policies generally do. What a policy does is give a school administrator or PR representative something to point at when talking to outside press and officials. A policy is something to show that you’re trying to address the problem. Policy does nothing about the actual problem, it’s just a talking point. You don’t need a policy in order to act.
  • Zero-tolerance policies just make the issue worse. That’s how we’ll end up with kids who aren’t really bullies getting suspended for a few angry words, the way kids with Swiss Army Knives get suspended under no-weapons rules or second-graders get suspended for “sexual harassment” while kissing on the playground. It shows a lack of understanding and a lack of compassion. Zero-tolerance policies create the sort of reaction you expect from a badly programmed science fiction robot, not from a school full of intelligent, caring adults.
  • Teachers can’t stop bullies just by being more vigilant and reactive. Having been the target of bullies when I was a student, let me tell you – they’re fairly bright when it comes to simply not doing what they do in front of teachers. It can happen after school, on the walk home or in the dorms. It can happen literally behind teachers’ backs. It can clearly happen online, and people genuinely care about the online arena much more now than they did when I was in college.
  • I’ve also been a teacher myself. Living at schools with such a tight-knit communities, I know that catching bullies and telling them to stop is like… it’s like mowing the weeds instead of pulling them out. It’s like stomping the mushrooms when the actual fungus lives underground. It’s like cutting off the top of an iceberg and expecting the remaining 90% of it to sink. If a simple “hey, stop being a bully” or even a sit-down conversation is sufficient, you’re dealing with a very rare and lucky case. (Important note: bullying was not a major issue at either school I worked at, but it did happen from time to time. They’re teenagers, after all.)

So let me talk about what I think does work.

When I was bullied myself, back in the 7th and 8th grades, the one thing that worked best was another student. I had a table full of kids picking on me on a semi-regular basis. If any teacher had told them, they would have stopped for five minutes and then gone back to giving me grief as soon as the teacher’s back was turned. However, one of my friends from grade school was one of the “cool kids” in middle school.

He told them to knock it off. They did. Simple as that.

Students are our best allies when it comes to shaping school culture, and school culture is a powerful way to reduce bullying.

The schools I worked at had relatively little bullying because it was less acceptable there. Bullying was just flat-out not ok. This is a commendable attitude among teachers, but the important part is that the attitude extended to the students. When bullies came into the school they generally didn’t find a clique of like-minded thugs to hang out with, or if they did, they found out that said group was most definitely not the “popular” group. Again, I’m not saying there was no bullying where I worked – there certainly was some – but it was less common and less severe than at most other schools. The two schools have very different cultures, but the idea that bullying was unacceptable was a common element.

As teachers, we can act against bullying, but we can’t do it alone. Playing whack-a-mole or cops-and-robbers is a waste of our time. The fight against societal issues happens at a societal level, and we need to engage our students in creating the sort of society that stands together. We need to make it unacceptable to be a bully within the social fabric of the school. This does not mean that we can stand by and watch things happen, because some things need to be addressed immediately. It does mean that we can’t stop with “hey, knock it off” and imagine that we made a long-term difference.

There are a lot of good ways to do this. It’s one thing that many religious schools get right, in my mind. That’s not how I’d choose to go about it, but I’ve never heard of bullying happening at (for instance) a Quaker school. Another option is to get genuine discussion going throughout the school about the topic, perhaps in all English or History classes. Talking about bullying in class takes time away from the curriculum, but, to be frank, so does a funeral. I know which one I’d rather have on my conscience. Ask a class full of students to really talk about bullying and you’ll find that most of them find it despicable. We need to get that response out in the open more often. Another approach with some potential for success is pulling a group of influential students into the office of the head of school (or principal, or what have you) and asking them how they intend to fight the problem, and what you can do to help.

We as teachers need to have the guts to truly connect with students and their lives.

There are many ways to improve a community and build a better school culture. There are many ways that we can help – as teachers, as administrators, or just plain as adults. We cannot solve this problem ourselves, but we can be part of the solution.

Seeking Experts

Are you an expert on a particular type of alternative education? Did you attend a Waldorf school? Do you homeschool your child? Do you work at a Montessori school? If so:

One of my goals for this blog is to have articles about different types of school (and non-schools). However, I’m not an expert in every type of education. If you’re interested in writing an article about your area of expertise, let me know in the comments here and I’ll be glad to post it for you.

Here are the guidelines:

  • You should present the core ideas or methods of this approach.
  • You can talk about details, but please don’t go over 1000 words.
  • Being pro-your-school in your discussion is ok, but no gushing. Try to be more informational.
  • You should provide links to more information. These should present both “pro” and “con” responses. Bonus points for scholarly articles.
  • Schools and school systems outside the US are definitely of interest.

I intend to write articles on traditional boarding schools, the Hyde School model, and the Sudbury Valley model myself, but if you’d like to contribute to those, that would be cool.

Exponential Growth

Middlebury College’s president got some press a while ago for capping the increase in tuition. Specifically, any tuition increases were capped at 1% over the Consumer Price Index, the standard measure of inflation in the US.

I’m not sure if whomever proposed this doesn’t understand exponential growth, or if Middlebury’s president didn’t understand it, or if he thinks that we don’t understand it, but I do, and let me explain it to you. Most of my data comes from Middlebury’s website, or comes directly or indirectly from the census bureau.

Middlebury’s total cost in 2010 was $50,400. This is a “comprehensive fee” that includes tuition, room, board, fees, and so forth. I’m going to assume that they won’t sneakily put massive increases into things other than tuition.

The median household income in the US in 2010 was $49,445.

The average rate of inflation in the US is 3.16%, averaging since 1958. Median household income grew at 0.04% over inflation since 1989. Naturally, these things fluctuate a lot as the market goes up and down, but those are the averages.

We can use this average to estimate the future tuition at Middlebury, and the future median income in the US. Here’s a graph.

Tuition forecast graph

If Middlebury’s tuition increases at their capped amount, the cost of going to school there will pass $100,000 per year in about 2027-28. This would be fine if we were all making $150,000 per year, but as you can see, we’re not.

More instructive, perhaps, is the gap between median income and tuition:

Tuition Gap

You can see that by 2040, tuition at Middlebury will cost about 35% more than the median household in the US makes per year.

Sadly I don’t have good data for the amount of financial aid available and how that changes by year, but unless it grows at more than 1% over the inflation rate, it’s not going to help.

It is a truism in science that exponential growth can’t continue forever. Eventually the graph turns either cyclic or logistic, and the growth stops. Inflation is a special case; it can keep going forever because we can just revalue the currency to take some zeroes off the end of the bills, as Mexico did with the “new peso” in 1993. When something’s cost regularly increases at more than the rate of inflation, it will eventually need to stop because no one will be able to pay for it.

Exponential growth is a real killer. Middlebury’s plan is better than the average college’s increase. The average for four-year schools is about twice the inflation rate, which would lead to a massive disparity of 160% by 2040. However, it still doesn’t genuinely make the school more affordable.

The only way to make your school more affordable is to have your tuition increase at less than the rate of inflation. Anything more is still exponential growth.

(Note: After this was posted I edited a few items for clarity.)

Getting What You Pay For

No doubt I’ll want to use that header again some day…

Anyway, here’s a link that has much to do with higher education, both in the way that some places work and in the way that other places would like to be perceived as working.

Random Reward

Great googly-moogly. Folks who handle internal promotions must find this sort of thing fairly insulting to them, but you can’t argue with the theoretical results. Now the trick is getting people to actually test it out and see whether it works, because I’m guessing that most places won’t go for it.

I think this is one thing that schools handle fairly well, at least in theory: you don’t promote a good teacher out of a teaching job and into one that involves pushing paperwork or talking to parents. You find someone who’s good at pushing paperwork or talking to parents, and give them that job, letting the teacher stay in the business of teaching. It creates some resentment from time to time, but it’s still common practice in education.

The drawback is that schools (and all other workplaces) incentivize higher-level positions with better pay, benefits, retirement, and so forth. Therefore, anyone who isn’t drawn to working in management has to ask themselves the question: do I want to pass up this money?

It would be one thing to stay in a lower-level job and not move to management if there were no particular intrinsic benefit to management. If the pay was the same, you liked your current job, and management sounded like a royal pain in the butt, then you wouldn’t be driven to make the leap. If your current job was getting boring and/or getting into a management position seemed more interesting, you might want to move up even without the promise of more money. Unfortunately, this isn’t how it works. Between assumed seniority, “responsibility pay,” and a desire to separate management from non-management economically, management-level positions are strongly incentivized.

Most cultures also have an expectation of ambition that provides social pressures to move up the ladder. You have to intentionally swim against the current to stay in a position you like. This can be easier or more difficult depending on your economic situation and the workplace culture.

The school workplace may be a good place to test out the random promotion hypothesis. Choosing a department head (for example) at random rather than by seniority might give some departments a needed breath of fresh air, and it’s not like someone who hates the job can’t just resign from it. Choosing your administrators from the least skilled teachers isn’t a terrible idea – they know the system, they’re probably committed to education, they just can’t cut it in the classroom. Leave the great teachers where they can help most, and move other folks into positions they might be more suited for. Flatten the pay scale. It would be an interesting experiment.

I doubt we’ll try it.

They’re not all there (nor should they be)

First, a link to one of my favorite teaching poems. Not that I have a lot of them.

Did I Miss Anything?

(The FAQs linked to at the bottom of that page are also worth reading.)

I was at a talk by MIT’s Dean of Engineering and (because it’s 2011) one of the hot topics was distance education. He had this wonderful statement that was something to the effect of, “Our students are great at distance learning. They’re already doing it right now – some of them from their dorm rooms.” A somewhat uneasy and embarrassed chuckle went around the room.

I personally had a great attendance record in college. I think there was only one class session that I intentionally skipped. I think my girlfriend had something to do with it. I know other folks who considered the class sessions optional, and I know of courses (especially in Computer Science) where class sessions were genuinely were designed to be optional.

I’m divided. On one side is piles of research on the educational worth of interacting with teachers and interacting with one’s classmates. On the other side, we are confronted with the crappy way we teach. Despite mountains of evidence that the “stand and deliver” lecture is ineffective, we seem disinclined to change. Peer instruction and interactive teaching methods do work, verifiably better than traditional lecture, and people just ignore them.

Students miss class because they can. They didn’t miss anything important; nothing that they can’t just make up later or take a point or two off their grade for.

Distance and blended education are taking off primarily because many professors and students would, at this point, love to give up on face-to-face. Cheaper and easier? Let’s do it!

Of course, if it’s cheaper and easier and no worse, then hell yes, let’s do it, and do it ASAP. Today I’m wondering whether we might as well just take that final step and chuck the face-to-face classroom altogether…

…except that I know personally just how much impact a good teacher can have in a face-to-face interaction.

I have no answers today; I’m just writing about the questions.

Depth versus Breadth

Here’s a list of the courses I took in my undergrad career whose topics I use regularly in my job:

  • Media Arts Studio
  • Theory and Practice of Radio
  • Human-Computer Interface Design
  • Computer Science 1
  • Physics 1 and 2
  • Chemistry 1
  • Math 1 and 2

These comprise just over a quarter of my undergraduate course load. It struck me the other day that I will never use the majority of what I learned in my college courses. If I were a professor, I suspect I would be in the same situation – just replace the first three courses with upper-level physics electives relating to my research. An examination of my graduate coursework fares no better.

Note that I was a physics major, and was hired for a physics education position, so my work theoretically should align fairly well with my major. The last three lines were courses required for my major; the others were not. I have used information from several upper-level physics courses, but not more than once or twice per month, and not for calculation (which was the primary goal of the courses). I use far more high-school knowledge, especially from my English courses, than I do from anything in college or graduate school. There’s definitely knowledge from (e.g.) Physics 1 that was cemented by Intermediate Mechanics and Advanced Mechanics, but nothing that actually originated in I-Mech or A-Mech makes it into my daily work. (Thank god.)

Now, I pride myself on being a generalist, and most jobs out there are fairly specialized (at least until you start doing them and realize you need all this other stuff to do it right). There’s no conceivable job that could use all of my undergraduate courses. Perhaps being the only professor at a one-room-schoolhouse-style university. However, one quarter still seems like a pretty low proportion, especially since most of these courses have no prerequisites.

I really do believe that individual courses need to focus on depth rather than breadth. There’s research to back that up as well – the more topics you cram into your course, the worse students learn them. However, given my own experience, a major or a college or high school curriculum as a whole may not need much depth.

The wonderful side of this is that it makes little difference what I do with the other 70% of my coursework! I took all sorts of things that I simply enjoyed taking, rather than thinking that they would come in handy some day. Lo and behold, the top four courses on my list. Packing my education with more physics courses might have made more physics-oriented jobs available to me, but would not have changed my fitness for the jobs for which I was qualified. The down side is that I look at a lot of my education and say, “Well, uh… not sure why I took that when I could have taken something more fun.” It seems that there’s an equal chance of it being useful in my job.

Since a single person’s experience does not make for a good overview, I’m curious as to how this goes for other majors. I would imagine that Computer Science, for instance, might give one more practical knowledge that comes up on a more regular basis. Perhaps Accounting, or Linguistics, or some other function-oriented rather than knowledge-oriented major would fare well on such percent-wise comparisons. I’m also curious as to how folks feel about their upper-level courses reinforcing their lower-level courses.

I welcome feedback on this issue, both on the poll and in the comments.