Ph.D program vs. Time-Life book

…I attended a political theory Ph.D. program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Something happened there. One day I was reading a Time-Life book about the painter Goya. I forget who the king was at the time, but he was one of the few enlightened kings of Spain. In the capital, there was a lot of crime. Men wore these big capes and hats, which made for a great disguise. The king was mad about all the crime, so he made that outfit illegal, but then there was a riot because me were so attached to the capes and hats. So the king repealed the law. He found a new adviser and said, Look, youve got to stop all this thieving. The new guy said, Don’t worry, Your Majesty, I got it covered. And the next day, he made the cape and hat the uniform of the executioner, who worked out in the open every day. People stopped wearing them just like that. Nobody wanted to be identified with the executioner. And I thought, I’ve learned more in reading this one stupid page in this Time-Life book about Goya than I have in my Ph.D. program. So I quit.

– Walter Mosley, interviewed in The Paris Review.

Lighting Their Fires

I just reread this review of Lighting Their Fires by Nat Torkington, which had this very valuable list of “lessons” for children (and their parents). It’s a child-rearing book, which I haven’t read, but that I’ve already benefited from. So:

The lessons for parents and kids:
* punctuality,
* use time valuably,
* care about and learn from the past,
* repeat and repeat the values,
* embrace an art and learn time management, focus, etc.
* put away distractions,
* develop a personal code of behaviour (he uses Kohlberg’s six levels of motivation)
* radio, models, board games, getting good at music and other arts, reading all build focus. TV and games do not.
* the importance of decisions and that they be good ones,
* to recognise that they are making decisions every day,
* spotting and discussing decisions in novels, plays, and movies,
* if something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well,
* actions have consequences, there are good outcomes and bad, strive for excellence, lose the sense of entitlement,
* consider your alternatives,
* in the arts, try for excellence not adequacy,
* allowances not tied to chores—chores are responsibility, and the reward is the job well done,
* identify substandard work and require it to be done to standard, otherwise there are no standards,
* be self-less,
* work with groups not individuals, so all can recognise and appreciate and celebrate the hard work of others,
* do the right thing for the right reasons,
* be able to do the right thing without acknowledgement or praise (humility),
* to be able to delay gratification.

Along the way, lots of great quotes. Over the library of Thebes: “Medicine for the Soul”. Mark Twain’s alleged line, “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.” Martin Luther King, Jr: “If it falls to your lot to sweep the streets, Sweep them like Michelangelo painted pictures, Like Shakespeare wrote poetry, Like Beethoven composed music.”

Storytelling, Narrative and the Utility of Knowledge

Why are we so intellectually dismissive towards narrative?” he asks. “Why are we inclined to treat it as rather a trashy, if entertaining, way of thinking about and talking about what we do with our minds? Storytelling performs the dual cultural functions of making the strange familiar and ourselves private and distinctive. If pupils are encouraged to think about the different outcomes that could have resulted from a set of circumstances, they are demonstrating usability of knowledge about a subject. Rather than just retaining knowledge and facts, they go beyond them to use their imaginations to think about other outcomes, as they don’t need the completion of a logical argument to understand a story. This helps them to think about facing the future, and it stimulates the teacher too.

– Jerome Bruner

Jerome Bruner died this week. He had lived well into his 90s and was working until the end.


Further Reading:
Actual Minds, Possible Worlds Bruner argues here that there is too much emphasis on the logical, rational and scientifically oriented parts of cognition, and too little on what he calls its “narrative” aspects, which are the source of all great storytelling, drama, myth and persuasion.

 

 

Acts of Meaning In which Bruner asks us to focus not on the mechanistic, computer-inspired way of looking at thinking, but give our focus to the rich, evocative, meaning-making aspects of our minds.

Bloom’s Taxonomy of Cognitive Processes

I have been thinking about thinking, and found this useful taxonomy by Benjamin Bloom, who in 1956 devised a taxonomy to discriminate between levels of cognitive thinking. The article notes that although the original intention of the taxonomy was to facilitate communication between educators and psychologists in the area of test construction, research and curriculum development, it has been found to be useful in distinguishing areas of study and classroom activities based on the taxonomy.

Bloom’s Taxonomy consists of six levels:

Knowledge
Recall or recognition of specific information

Comprehension
Understanding of information given

Application
Using methods, concepts, principles and theories in new situations

Analysis
Breaking information down into its constituent elements

Synthesis
Putting together constituent elements or parts to form a whole requiring original, creative thinking.

Evaluation
Judging the value of ideas, materials, and methods by developing and applying standards and criteria

There’s a path from the lower-to-higher level thinking, knowledge to evaluation which can be led by teachers through the use questioning, discussion and tasks.

The article also notes that while students need to be exposed to experiences at all levels of the Taxonomy, opportunities to work at more advanced levels are vital for gifted students. Often their advanced knowledge and comprehension skills enable them to progress more rapidly to higher levels of thinking, such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

Teachers dislike creative children

Do teachers dislike creative children in spite of their assertions to the contrary? 96% of teachers say that daily classroom time should be dedicated to creative thinking. And yet they seem biased against the very children whose thinking is most creative. At school, creative children are punished rather than rewarded, and the system seems designed to extinguish creativity. In spite of all the lip service.

The characteristics that teachers value in the classroom are those associated with the lowest levels of creativity. Teachers want students to be responsible, reliable, dependable, clear-thinking, tolerant, understanding, peaceable, good-natured, moderate, steady, practical and logical. Creativity is not moderate or logical. It is associated with characteristics such as determined, independent and individualistic, people who make up the rules as she goes along, divergent rather than conformist ways of thinking. You can read some of the research in this article.

120229-Finger-Painting

For good reason Ken Robinson’s talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity? is the most viewed talk on the TED web site. “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original,” he says, and rightness and wrongness, as anyone who has ever received a graded paper can attest, is the very backbone of education.

The gulf between rhetoric and reality isn’t really that surprising.  It’s nearly impossible for a teacher, outnumbered by his charges, to help the rebels and mavericks flourish in an environment requiring more supervision than vision. The system is set up for teachers to prefer the obedient.

 

Sesat School in Wired

homeschooling - the cooks

I’m happy that Jason Tanz, who has written before about the sharing economy, wrote an article about homeschooling for Wired Magazine: The Techies Who Are Hacking Education by Homeschooling Their Kids. It gets across the entrepreneurial and DIY nature of the self-taught, and how the future will require us to be more inventive, take responsibility for our own education and be more entrepreneurial in our lives, education and pursuits. We were also happy that our micro-school, Sesat School, was included in the article.

Most of my interview was not included in the article, and unfortunately the one quote that was included made it seem as if I were endorsing an exclusive, privileged education that readers should “feel free to roll [their] eyes” about. Nor am I anti-public school or anti-democratic. This was unfortunate.

My public school education included a love of poetry and classical music–I was not homeschooled, and in the article it is implied that my experience has something to do with homeschooling. It did not. I was speaking in the context of what was good about public school education, and how being different didn’t hurt, but helped me in life.

In the interview with Jason I had said that the “gifted children’s programs”, in which I had participated in public school, were elitist and that all children should be able to participate in them. In many ways it was a reaction against privilege that led me to homeschooling. One of the many reasons I started looking into homeschooling — or independent education, as it is better named — was that I was repelled by the line of limos outside the private schools in the morning.

I was especially happy about this paragraph:

Problems arise, the thinking goes, when kids are pushed into an educational model that treats everyone the same—gives them the same lessons and homework, sets the same expectations, and covers the same subjects. The solution, then, is to come up with exercises and activities that will help each kid flesh out the themes and subjects to which they are naturally drawn.

The best part of the New Jersey public schools “gifted program” was exactly that.

I am grateful that Jason wrote this article. It does a great service to homeschooling in general, and delineates its entrepreneurial and DIY ethos very well. I just don’t want to be the poster child for its “privilege”– the very thing I’m resisting.

Test-taking at school

David Guterson, a high school teacher, and a homeschooling father of four, questions the validity of standard test-taking in school, which is meant to measure the quantity and quality of a student’s learning during a certain period of time. He writes:

I point to the results of an informal experiment I have conducted five time in a ten-year teaching career. In this experiment I give a test on Friday, an ordinary objective test (true-false, matching, fill-in-the-blank, multiple choice) preceded by a Thursday review session and a week full of reminders that this test is on Friday, don’t forget to reread this or that, to study these notes, to review this handout, to get plenty of rest, to see me if there are questions; I am furthermore explicit all week long about both the form of the test and its subject matter. In short I prepare them to meet the test in the time-honored tradition of high-school teachers.

Friday evenings I take their completed tests home. Over the weekend I grade them. On Monday, with no prior warning of any sort, I give them the same test and ask them to take it again. Monday evening I grade those, staple them to the Friday exam, and hand both back to students.

None–no one–has ever received an equal or higher grade on the test administered on Monday. Most in fact, receive a considerably lower grade, missing, often, twice as many questions on Monday as they missed on Friday.

As I had suspected. 🙂 Now, testing the ability to take tests has some value. It’s some indication of the willingness of a person to study and prepare. It’s some measure of short term memory, though not, obviously, long term memory. Guterson’s point is that learning is a mysterious process, difficult, if not impossible, to measure. And yet homeschoolers repeatedly test higher on these tests than children attending traditional school.

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