Posts Tagged ‘Art of teaching’


October 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Earlier this week the NYTimes Op-Talk section featured an article by Anna North titled “How Brain Myths Could Hurt Kids”. The article described three brain myths that are prevalent among teachers and potentially damaging to students:

  1. We only us 10% of our brain
  2. Some learning disabilities are genetically linked to brain structure and cannot be remediated
  3. Students learn best when the teaching approach matches their learning style.

Drawing from the findings of Paul Howard-Jones, an associate professor of neuroscience and education, North’s article dispels each of these myths and does so in a fashion that is not demeaning to teachers nor blames them for this. Instead, Howard-Jones makes the following points:

“Something we have to get across to educators is the fact that the brain is plastic and the fact that its function, structure and connectivity changes as a result of education.”

“There is something kind of ironic here,” he added, “that we place such an emphasis on science education, and yet the science of learning is very often not included in the training of teachers.” And as he notes in his article, accurate neuroscience information can be hard for teachers to get, because it often appears only in specialized journals.

To dispel neuromyths, Dr. Howard-Jones advocated a collaborative approach: “We need messages, ideas and concepts that are constructed together by neuroscientists and by educators.” And, he said, “we need a field that actually combines concepts from both of these areas in a meaningful way.”

I know that Dartmouth College is making an effort to bridge this gap between neuroscience findings and applications in education and have long believed that teacher education program content could be enhanced by placing a greater emphasis on emerging research in child psychology and neuroscience. But there is one obstacle that neither North nor Howard-Jones acknowledge: these myths have taken root because they are “agreeable fantasies”. The notion that we could all be geniuses if we only drew on more of our neural capacity… OR that it is impossible to teach a segment of the population whose brain scans show they have neural deficiencies… OR that matching teaching styles with learning styles will yield better outcomes… each of these could make it easier to accomplish the goal of getting all CAPABLE students to a higher level of learning and sorting out those who are INCAPABLE. One other obstacle in place now: removing the myth from the minds of teachers. A bad myth, like a bad habit, is hard to displace. Once a mental model takes root in the mind, even though are brains ARE plastic, once a neural passage is dug in, re-routing it requires conscious effort.

North’s article concludes with this paragraph:

A former teacher himself, Dr. Howard-Jones was clear on one point: “These myths are not because teachers are stupid.” Part of his goal in writing about neuromyths was to emphasize how important teachers are in the drive to dispel them. The ultimate message of his article, he said, was, “we’ve got a problem here, and it can only be solved by neuroscientists and educators talking to each other.”

Let the conversation begin!

Culture Labs: An Idealistic Disconnect

October 19, 2014 Leave a comment

Dave Edwards October 17 post in Wired posits that American Schools are Training Kids for a World that Doesn’t Exist, which, on one level is nothing new, but on another level is more true than ever.

In 1967 Marshall McLuhan wrote that “When faced with a new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the recent past. We look at the present in a rearview mirror.”  I was a college student at that time, learning Fortran on a mainframe computer that was programmed using cards. I was taking discrete required prerequisite courses that would result in my being trained to meet the standards of a mechanical engineer at that time. The high school I graduated from two years earlier didn’t have a computer anywhere on campus and was organized the same way as it was in the 1930s. Both my high school and my college were preparing me for a world that didn’t exist when I graduated, doesn’t exist today, and hasn’t existed for several decades. So the fact that schools today are training kids for a world that doesn’t exist is nothing new.

That said, at the K-12 level, we are failing miserably to prepare students for today’s world. Why? Because while colleges have arguably updated their approaches to learning as evidenced by the description of the “culture labs” in the Wired article, K-12 schools are stuck in the factory paradigm of the 1930s and are being held accountable for delivering a circa 1930s education.

As I’ve noted in earlier posts, there was a debate about the direction education should take in the 1930s between the progressive forces who advocated the approaches of John Dewey and the more “scientific” methodology of Lewis Terman. In shorthand terminology, Dewey advocated discovery learning– constructivism— while Terman advocated the use of standardized tests to sort and select students based on how they compared to their age cohorts in learning a prescribed curriculum. Dewey lost the debate and as a result standardized tests have dominated the education landscape ever since.

And here’s the sad reality: if Dewey had won culture labs would have been “discovered” decades ago and would be in place now in every school, But instead, in the name of efficiency we insist on administering standardized tests to students throughout their schooling to categorize them based on a uniform learning curve. Too bad!

Dealing with Bad Behavior

October 11, 2014 Leave a comment

Over the past few days I read two interrelated articles about how our country handles misbehavior in schools and in our society in general.

“Juvenile Injustice”, a Slate article by Dana Goldstein describes the problem of youth incarceration in rural states by telling the story of Junior Smith, a West Virginia teen whose struggles with addiction and mental health issues resulted in him behaving badly out of school and ultimately being put in jail for an altercation in the high school he attended. Goldstein doesn’t hold back on her descriptions of Junior Smith’s behaviors: he smoked dope, took too many pills, robber a neighbors house, bullied a student to the point of suicide in a previous high school he attended, and admitted to swatting a classmates “…groin with an open-faced palm” in the altercation that ultimately led to his imprisonment.

What was particularly appalling about Junior Smith’s “crime”- an altercation in the classroom that was not even reported to the Principal in the school— was how it was reported to the police:

The scuffle hadn’t attracted the attention of the teacher, and Junior didn’t think much about it afterward. What he and his parents did not know was that the other boy had reported the incident to Chad Kennedy, a county police officer who worked full time at Philip Barbour High School and who was paid, in part, by a federal “juvenile accountability” grantintended to assure “individualized consequences” for juvenile offenders, including community service and mediation. But those were not the consequences for Junior.

After the classroom fight, Kennedy launched an investigation of the conflict. He prepared a report for a judge, who on Feb. 27 signed an order for Junior’s arrest. That afternoon, Junior walked out of school in handcuffs.


Goldstein didn’t pursue the question of why this became a law enforcement issue instead of a school discipline issue, but from my reading the criminalization of misconduct is one of the consequences when police officers are assigned to school without having to work under the leadership of  the administration.

Goldstein DID emphasize that it was Smith’s addiction and depression that was the root cause of his behavior and further emphasized that had he resided in another state he would have likely received treatment for his illnesses instead of time in prison. While the injustices visited on Junior Smith are hard to read about, it WAS heartening to read that in most states the rate of juvenile incarceration is on the decline. States are assigning fewer and fewer students to prison… but…

The second article I read on this topic in The New Inquiry, “Carceral Educations”  by Sabrina Alli posits that this diminishment in incarceration may be the result of public education’s widespread use of discipline systems used in penal institutions and the increased number of youth who are under the direct supervision of probationary officers. Alli asserts that school discipline systems establish “…(r)espect for authority and deference to police dominate (as the) the educational goals of this violent educational system that measures success through standardized testing and student interactions with an omnipresent security apparatus.”  Alli later offers this particularly bleak description of urban public school environments to drive her point home:

Schools serve as one of the essential institutions of surveillance intended to criminalize children in economically disenfranchised communities. They can be miserable places for young students, who are gratuitously yelled at by teachers for not getting to the classroom rug fast enough for reading instruction, or for not “tracking” (a term that means follow with your eyes) their teachers when spoken to. Hallways are unnaturally silent and filled with ­military-style straight lines of small children forced to keep their arms rigid against their sides. Rather than academic discipline, obsession over students’ conduct forms the dominant attitude that controls these learning environments, which are often staffed with inexperienced teachers. Students’ home issues and the stereotypes of poverty supply the fictions by which teachers can excuse ourselves for our classroom failures. Even restorative-­justice models of discipline, adopted in some public schools as a more humane alternative to school suspensions and student arrests, signal a system fixated on behavior and control versus learning and exploration. The language of “harm” and restoring justice should not be necessary over infractions that occur in school.

Earlier in the article Alli describes her experiences working in the field of “re-entry”. Here’s the opening paragraph detailing what “re-entry” is and what its goals are:

Re-entry’s primary goal is to induct people back into the workforce once they are released from prison or are mired in the bureaucracy of one of the state’s “community supervision” programs, which include jails, probation, parole, or ATIs (alternatives to incarceration). In practical terms, re-entry provides “services,” broadly construed, to economically disenfranchised people who are targeted by the police and as a result are under some form of surveillance by the carceral network.

The next several paragraphs describe “re-entry” as she witnessed it, and concludes with this:

In order to “reform” and teach participants to become men, the program where I taught had a strict code of conduct with arbitrary rules that begin to disappear the higher up you climb up the income ladder. We regulated behavior on the principle described by Foucault and practiced by Bratton: “The least act of disobedience is punished and the best way of avoiding serious offenses is to punish the most minor offenses very severely.” If a participant came 15 minutes late to class or to a worksite, they were sent home without a paycheck. Instead of fulfilling the primary function of teacher, which is to educate, or case manager, which is to help connect people to social services, we became what Foucault called “technicians of behavior: engineers of conduct, orthopedists of individuality. [Our] task was to produce bodies that were both docile and capable.” We were training students to become capable employees, emphasizing “skills” such as lowering your cell phone ring in public or avoiding certain tattoos. We were training them to become employable by teaching them to follow the orders they would be subjected to as “low-skill” and low-wage workers.

So whether you are incarcerated within four walls or placed in an ATI program the expectations are the same: docility and following directions are preferable to questioning and creativity. Is this what we want from our students? Will this help us become economically competitive? Can we change the way we treat students in schools to reflect what we REALLY want from them once they are out?

The Strike in OH

September 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Late last week I wrote a blog post offering advice to my niece who was about to go on strike in an  unnamed school district in Ohio. I decided NOT to list the name when I wrote the post because I help out some hope that there might be an 11th hour settlement in which case my generally universal concerns about strikes would be applicable. But…

The strike occurred on Friday and over the weekend she— as a parent in the Reynoldsburg School District where the strike is occurring— received the following email (with my emphases added) over the weekend:

Notification from: Reynoldsburg City Schools

Dear Reynoldsburg families,

My administrative team and school principals have spent the weekend adjusting our plans to engage students in learning at school while their teachers are on strike. Although it is understandable, the heightened emotional state and corresponding behavior of some of our older students demands that we structure our school days differently to help everyone focus on academics. Students’ cooperation is absolutely essential. Please review these plans and talk them over with your children ahead of time.

High Schools
At the high schools, we will introduce a highly structured environment until students are more comfortable with the situation and regain their composure. We have reassigned some administrative staff to the high schools in order to facilitate our plans for the next few days. 

  • Students will be greeted on the bus or at the door by an administrator or Reynoldsburg staff member who will escort them in groups of approximately 30 to a classroom, where they will spend the day together.
  • Students will be provided assignments to complete – which will count toward their core course grades. Over the next 1-3 days, all students will receive a laptop and online curriculum. The online work will be much more customized to their individual learning needs.
  • Breakfast and lunch will be delivered to students in their classrooms.
  • Restroom and exercise breaks will be provided on a schedule.
  • Students who are insubordinate will be suspended.
  • Shuttles between the two campuses will be suspended for at least Monday and Tuesday. Students may take a bus home from whichever campus they are on. Students who need to know their home bus assignments will be able to get them from administrators on Monday, but it would be helpful if you looked up your student’s route ahead of time:

In an effort to assist us with our plans for safety, Reynoldsburg police will begin actively enforcing truancy laws on Monday. If you as a parent decide to keep your child out of school for any reason, please keep them home. Students who are causing distractions, especially near any schools, may be taken into custody by police. Police tell us that they will attempt to contact the students’ parents first. If unsuccessful, they plan to take students to Children’s Services until parents can be reached.

Middle/Junior High Schools
Beginning Monday morning, administrative staff will assign students laptops and assist substitute teachers in accessing online curriculum. The software provided will be highly personalized to each student based on their academic needs, so it should seem more relevant and challenging to the students. Students’ work and participation will count toward their grades in core classes. More structure will be introduced where necessary. Students, for example, might not change classes until they are more settled and comfortable. 

Elementary schools
Elementary schools will be the highest priority for new substitute teacher placements until all children can be returned to their regular classrooms. Principals have provided lesson plans for all grade levels and subjects and will focus on ensuring that those plans are being followed. Grades on those assignments will be recorded and turned in to principals. We expect to reintroduce engaging learning activities for students. We are working with some of our long-time partners to bring activities to the schools as soon as this week. 

Despite what you may have read or seen on TV, it is important to know that as I toured buildings on Friday, the first day of the teacher’s strike, there were many students who were highly cooperative and supportive to their peers and substitute teachers. They handled this very confusing situation with the pride and respect that we expect.  

Please understand that my top consideration is the safely and well-being of our students. In a structured environment, we expect to be able to help students acclimate to the situation more quickly so that they do not fall behind academically. We look forward to returning to a more normal schedule as soon as possible. This is a difficult time for everyone and a confusing one for some students. Parents play an important role in making sure that students come to school focused and ready to learn. We urge parents to remind their students that the most important thing they can do during this time is to continue to learn.


Tina Thomas-Manning, Superintendent

I was a school superintendent for 29 years so I have a certain degree of empathy for the position the Superintendent is in. She needs to do everything possible to keep the schools functioning while the strike is going on. I understand the pressure she faces on all fronts.

But I was also an adjunct teacher who trained administrators at a SUNY Graduate School of Education … and in that capacity I offer this feedback to Dr. Thomas-Manning: re-read this memo and look carefully at the messages and meta-messages.

  • Laptop computers can replace high school and middle school teachers. Computers provide students with lessons that are “…much more customized to their individual learning needs” at the high school level and “…more relevant and challenging” at the middle school level,
  • Structure is important. A more structured environment is needed to ensure that students “do not fall behind academically”
  • Elementary education is more important than high school education. Computers won’t be used at the elementary level and elementary schools will receive “…the highest priority for new substitute teacher placements”.
  • Principals can write lesson plans as well as teachers can
  • We’re going to be tough and uncompromising during this strike: We want the police to arrest your child if they are “causing a distraction” during school hours, so you better make certain that if you don’t send them to school that you keep them in your home… and… We will suspend your child if one of our substitute teachers believes your child was “insubordinate”
  • “Community partners” are supporting us in this strike
  • Substitute teachers without certification or training can do as good a job as certified, qualified, and experienced teachers.
  • We’re expecting this to last a while 

Here’s my concern for Dr. Thomas-Manning: the strike WILL end at some point and teachers WILL return to their classes. Re-read this memo, look carefully at the messages and meta-messages, and start working on the message you will deliver when the doors open and the REA teachers return.


All in the Family: Abridged Version

September 13, 2014 Leave a comment

My favorite economics blog, Naked Capitalism, featured a lengthy post by Steve Frasier, an author and blogger for TomDispatch, where his post originally appeared. The post is worth reading if you are interested in the history of the robber barons of the 19th and 20th centuries and how they contrast to the tycoons of today. I’ve cut to the end of the post, where Frasier describes the tycoons of today who want to “up-end the public school system”:

But the tycoons who founded the Street’s most lucrative hedge funds — men like John Paulson, Paul Tudor James II, and Steve Cohen, among others — are also determined to up-endthe public school system.  They are among the country’s most powerful proponents of charter schools.  Like J.P. Morgan of old, these men grew up in privilege, went to prep schools and the Ivy League, and have zero experience with public education or the minorities who tend to make up a large proportion of charter school student bodies.

No matter.  After all, some of these people make several million dollars a day.  What an elixir!  They are joined in this educational crusade by fellow business conquistadors of less imposing social backgrounds like Mark Zuckerberg, who has ensured that Facebook will remain a family domain even while “going public.”  Another example would be Bill Gates, the most celebrated of a brace of techno-frontiersmen who — legend would have it — did their pioneering in homely garages, even though the wonders they invented would have been inconceivable without decades of government investment in military-related science and technology.  What can’t these people do, what don’t they know?  They are empire builders and liberal with their advice and money when it comes to managing the educational affairs of the nation.  They also benefit handsomely from a provision in the tax code passed during the Clinton years that rewards them for investing in “businesses” like charter schools.

Our imperial tycoons are a mixed lot.  They range from hip technologists like Zuckerberg to heroic nerds like Bill Gates, and include yesteryear traditionalists like Sam Walton and the Koch brothers.  What they share with each other and their robber baron ancestors is a god-like desire to create the world in their image. 

As I’ve noted in several posts, some of the motives of some edu-philanthropists are noble… but their reliance on their OWN way of thinking and their perpetuation of the factor school model are doing a grave disservice to public schooling. My advice to the tycoons: listen to the teachers, Principals, and parents of children who struggle in school. They know more than you do about the fixes that are needed.

Governor Brown’s Appeal

September 2, 2014 Leave a comment

CA Governor Jerry Brown and AG Kamila Harris are appealing the decision of Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu to abandon tenure in CA as part of his Vergara vs. California lawsuit brought “on behalf of children” by Students Matter, an organization largely underwritten “…by a Silicon Valley technology millionaire, David Welch.” Mr. Welch’s logic is that since the schools serving students raised in poverty perform poorly on standardized tests it MUST be the poor teaching that causes this and the poor teachers are in the classroom because they have “tenure”.

But here’s the problem with the ruling: contrary to the judge’s assertion in rendering his decision it isn’t based on any factual information. Read this paragraph (with my emphasis added) to see where I draw this conclusion:

In a one-page appeal filed late Friday afternoon, Mr. Brown and the state attorney general, Kamala D. Harris, argued that a decision of such scope needed to be made by a higher court, and that the judge in this case had declined a request by the governor and attorney general “to provide a detailed statement of the factual and legal bases for its ruling.” 

Presumably if the judge HAD provided the “detailed statement of the factual and legal basis for the ruling” AND Brown and Harris were convinced the facts and legal basis supported the ruling they might have thought twice about proceeding with an appeal… but absent this analysis, even though the judge claimed the evidence was “compelling” and “shocked the conscience”, the ruling should be challenged.

I am sure it is no accident that the timing of this appeal– which was driven by the timing of the lawsuit– comes as the gubernatorial election is about to begin. I am sure that the billionaire computer magnate figured out that Brown would be forced to either abandon the teachers or “fight against the removal of incompetent teachers” in the coming months. Kudos to Jerry Brown and Kamila Harris for standing up to evidence based decision making!

Teaching Nocera

July 29, 2014 Leave a comment

Joe Nocera’s NYTimes column today is titled “Teaching Teaching“, the provides an overview of a forthcoming book by Elizabeth Green. Ms. Green’s book, “Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone),” talks about efforts underway to improve the teaching of teachers. The book emphasizes that teaching is a skill that can be taught and SHOULD be taught effectively before a teacher is assigned to a class of students. The article has three flaws, which I hope to address with three separate comments.

First, the article does not mention the contradictory and wrongheaded approach to teacher training being taken by the “reformers”, who want to deregulate teaching and eliminate certification. This, when combined with the overemphasis on standardized tests, leads new teacher to teach-to-the-test instead of meeting the needs of each student.

Secondly, Nocera’s article makes no mention of the need for aspiring teachers, and ESPECIALLY aspiring urban teacher, to learn behavior management skills. Until and unless a teacher can control student behavior in a classroom nothing will be learned.

Finally, Nocera’s list of best education books of the past few years does not include Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch…