Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Getting Off Autopilot: Ours is Definitely to Reason Why

(originally published at

A survey of helpful websites tells me that the opening sentence of a paper should be “attention grabbing” to “pique the interest of readers.” It also tells me that it’s my “big chance to be clever.” Sadly, I’m not feeling very clever today, so I’m going to rely on the cleverness of someone who came long before me.

As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  That may be a little extreme—I’m sure there must be some value in living totally in the moment, unburdened by reflection and self-doubt.  My cat seems to enjoy it. But thinking about our lives does give life some weight, some meaning. We were blessed (or cursed) with the ability to reflect, and as far as we can tell, we’re the only animals possessed of that gift (or burden). So we might as well put it to use.

Unfortunately, Socrates also said, “All I know is that I know nothing.” And I don’t believe he was a young man when he said it. So perhaps a lifetime of self-examination isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

It’s a funny thing about knowledge. Often, when we learn something new, we crystallize the idea in a memorable and easily-repeatable format so that we can remember it, and so that we can bring out our little gem of wisdom and share it with friends. Unfortunately, nuggets of knowledge leave out a lot of nuance and complexity, and can end up leading to mis-understanding.  We may know the full meaning behind our words, but our listeners may have no idea what we’re trying to teach them. They’ll remember the catch-phrase, but they may not understand it. And after multiple re-tellings, we may even forget the meaning behind the words.

I think we are most guilty of this when we’re explaining rules and procedures to students. We want our charges to be able to remember basic facts and processes quickly and easily, so we give them short phrases—often in rhyme. For example:

“Ours is not to reason why; just invert and multiply!”

That’s how I was taught to divide fractions. That’s how a shockingly large number of Americans have been taught, and are still being taught. And why not? It’s effective; I can still do it, decades after first learning it. I don’t know why I’m supposed to invert and multiply, or why it works, or what it means, but my helpful little rhyme tells me not to worry about asking why. It’s not important for me to understand that a fraction is, itself, a little division problem—that ½ means “one divided by two.” It’s not important for me to remember that the relationship between multiplication and division mirrors the relationship between addition and subtraction. I don’t need to understand how numbers work; I just need to remember the rhyme and do as I’m told.  

I’m sorry to say that after an entire K-12 education in “just doing it,” I am now one of those adults who says he “doesn’t do math.” And this is criminal, because what is math, really? It’s just a language we use to solve problems in the world. God knows, we all have to solve problems, so we should probably all learn to be fluent in that language. I’m trying to get better, now, in my fifth decade of life. I shouldn’t have had to wait so long.

We’re in the middle of a battle, at the moment, between the authors and advocates of new standards that demand rigor and conceptual understanding in math instruction, and a variety of angry adults who want to know why their children are being asked to figure out nine different ways of solving simple math problems. It doesn’t take much investigative reporting into credit card debt, house foreclosures, or picture-based cash registers in fast food restaurants to figure out that adults in this country are, by and large, Bad At Math. But that doesn’t stop us from getting angry at anyone who dares to teach our children differently than we were taught. This is, I suppose, the legacy of learning nursery rhymes that tell us never to ask why.

Here’s another example of autopilot instruction from elementary mathematics…

“If you need to multiply by ten, just add a zero” 

It’s not a rhyme, but it’s memorable. Is it true?  Sure. If you want to multiply 237 by 10, all you have to do is add a zero at the end, giving you 2,370.  That works. Don’t ask why it works. Don’t worry your little heads about what it means. Just do it.

Unfortunately, the approach stops working after a while.  Decimals become a problem, because obviously, 2.37 x 10 is not 2.370.  Of course, you could learn another little rule about where to put your zero when you’re dealing with decimals. But at a certain point, it starts being counterproductive to add codicils and amendments to your nursery rhymes. You could just learn something about how numbers work, and then you wouldn’t have to worry any more.

I’m picking on math instruction, but teachers can go on autopilot in the humanities just as easily. How many times have you heard (or said) the following to explain the difference between a metaphor and a simile:

“A simile uses like or as”

All of my English teachers phrased the distinction that way, and I’m pretty sure I used the phrase myself, back in the day. And it’s accurate, as far as it goes. It’s a true statement. It’s just a useless one. It doesn’t teach you anything.

A simile uses like or as…but why? To do what?  That’s the part we seem to leave out. And it’s not an inconsequential part of the equation. A metaphor is a complete and unlimited comparison between two things. It says Thing 1 is Thing 2. A = B. Love is a rose. That guy eating pizza over there is a pig. Because the phrase puts no limit on the comparison, it implies that the comparison is total: love resembles a rose in all of its aspects and attributes. That guy eating pizza has every possible characteristic of a pig. A simile, on the other hand, precisely because it uses like or as, puts a limit on the comparison. If love is as fragile as a rose, then the resemblance is limited to that fragility. Love is neither red nor flowery nor thorny nor green-stemmed. And if it is thorny, well, then, “Love is as thorny and fragile as a rose.” How’s that?  And the guy eating pizza? Maybe he only eats like a pig.

Every time I explain this to someone who claims to have “never gotten poetry,” they thwack their forehead and say, “D’oh!” Which, incidentally, is exactly what I do when someone finally explains a math rule to me in language that makes sense.

Our autopilot parroting of rules isn’t limited to esoteric topics. Poetry is difficult. Outside of school, not everybody reads it or writes it. But how about simple paragraphs? Everyone has to write a paragraph, now and again. And what’s the rule that so many English teachers give their students to remember? 

“A paragraph has five sentences”

First of all, no it doesn’t. Not always. And second of all, if you think it has to, then why? Why five, exactly? What kind of sentences are they? Just five random sentences in any order, as long as there are five? We don’t define sentences by how many words they contain; why would we define paragraphs that way?  There are children in classrooms all over the country who are getting papers marked as incorrect, just because some novice teachers or aides are implementing a rule that they, themselves, don’t understand. A paragraph isn’t a numerical equation. It’s an elaborated or explained idea. A sentence states an idea, but a paragraph explains and illustrates and perhaps defends that idea. Once it has done its job sufficiently, the paragraph is done.

The Five Word Rule

Here’s one more rule I love:  If you encounter five unknown words on a page of a book you’re reading (again with the fives), you should stop reading the book, because it’s too difficult for you and it will only frustrate you.  We can call it the Five Word Rule. Yay! Simple to name, simple to remember, simple to apply. Unfortunately, it’s nonsense. I encounter words I don’t know all the time. That doesn’t stop me. The key to comprehension is ideas, not words. If I can get the gist of a sentence without knowing one particular, strange word, then I’m fine. If I can get close to the meaning of a word using context clues, so much the better. What I need is the idea contained in the sentence. If I get that, I’m understanding what I’m reading.  So if on a single page I encounter five sentences that I can’t make sense of, then I might be inclined to set the book aside. Because the sentence is what contains the idea that I need to understand. And if I’m missing five ideas on a single page, I’m not getting much out of the book. What the Five Word Rule teaches children is that they shouldn’t have to work to understand something. Why bother figuring out context clues? Why think through the meaning? Just count up to five and chuck the whole book. Go back to Dr. Seuss or something—something you already know how to read.  Treading water is fun.

I’m being a little harsh here, I know. There are teachers all over the country who are using the Five Word rule thoughtfully and carefully, and are teaching their students to work and grow and learn. In fact, there is probably nothing wrong with any of the rules I’ve picked on here, if they are used thoughtfully and purposefully. But that’s the whole problem. They’re not, far too often. When we fall back on easy rhymes and catch-phrases and use them in place of actual explanation and illustration—actual teaching—we’re in trouble. We’ve switched over to autopilot. And we need to catch ourselves, when we do that. We need to wake up, switch back to manual control, and drive our instruction.

Philosophy can be lovely and eloquent until you have to live by it. Saying that the unexamined life is not worth living puts quite a demand on us—any of us, regardless of our profession. It asks us to stop going through the motions and really listen to the things that come out of our mouths. It asks us to watch ourselves as if from across the room, and say, “Does that make sense, what I’m doing? Is that a good thing to do?”  It’s not a comfortable or a pleasant activity, but it’s a discipline we should all develop, even if it’s only once a year. It seems to me that as educators, we should be role models of examining actions and re-thinking positions. Just because we’ve said always something in a certain way or always taught some things in a certain order doesn’t make it right. Every once in a while, we need to stop, and think, and decide.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Accountability for Thee, But Not For Me

(originally published at


When I lived in Arizona, there was a controversial program wherein cameras were posted on key roadways to catch people speeding.  I got caught doing 50 MPH in a 40 MPH zone, and had to attend an online driving school to clear my record. I was mightily annoyed, because as far as I was concerned, I was driving safely. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one who was irked. The Republican governor attacked the camera system as being an “invasive” holdover from her Democratic predecessor, and the program was shut down.

Accountability is a funny thing. We love it in the third person, but we often hate it in the first person.  We don’t need oversight and regulation; the rules are for those other people. We encounter this attitude all the time, from the grocery store checkout line to massive Wall Street banks. We want law and order, but we also want the freedom to do whatever we choose, because—well, darn it—we’re good people, aren’t we? Kind and thoughtful and wise?  Sure. You can trust us.

In general, we have no problem obeying rules we already agree with; it’s the rules we don’t like that we tend to violate. And how much we like a given rule may depend on all sorts of contingencies. The express line at the grocery store may be fine in theory; at least it’s fine on days when the store isn’t crowded and we’re not in a rush. But if we feel pressed for time, well…now it’s an inconvenience, and we’ll fight with the checker to let us go through with our 37 items. Unless there’s already another rule-breaker in that line, gumming up the works. Then we’ll curse that person for being selfish, and skulk back to where we belonged in the first place.

The Categorical Imperative

It would be lovely to think that we’re capable of restraining ourselves without outside authority or interference—that we can all be relied upon to do the right thing in all cases.  The Golden Rule has been around for a long time, after all, and we learn it at an early age. But obviously, if we all abided by that rule, people wouldn’t be hogging the express line with their 37 items.

Immanuel Kant said, back in the 18th century, that we should choose only those actions we’d be comfortable seeing implemented as a universal law. That’s the Golden Rule on steroids. If I feel it’s okay to speed whenever and wherever I want to, then I should be comfortable with everyone doing it.  And if that thought is unpalatable or frightening to me, then I shouldn’t be speeding, myself.  

But I do speed. The sad fact is that we can’t be depended upon to let logic rule over our baser instincts—not all the time. For good or ill, we need rules and laws to restrain our impulses and provide some external, objective standard to follow. And we need to hold ourselves and each other accountable for living within those limitations.

In an organization like a business or a school, accountability isn’t just about living together in peace and harmony; it’s also about working together towards a common goal and getting things accomplished. The minute you move beyond doing everything yourself, you need some kind of accountability to ensure that important things get done. Without accountability, people end up stomping around the office, muttering, “If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.” And who wants to be (or listen to) that guy?

Let Them Teach

Accountability—tricky in the business world—is even trickier in the world of education.  Who do we have to depend upon, and who depends on us? Are we accountable to our students or our principals, our parents or the local board of education, or are we only accountable to the state? In theory, it feels like “all of the above;” in practice, it sometimes ends up as, “none of the above.”

How many of us have responded to the endless parade of mandates and initiatives with external obedience but internal rebellion—going through the motions to keep up appearances, but then closing the door on the new “flavor of the month” initiative and doing whatever we feel is the right thing to do? How many of us have grimaced during principal walkthroughs, sure that our administrators don’t have enough understanding to pass judgment on our performance? How many of us have reacted to larger, state-level evaluation systems with even more scorn? How many Defenders of Teachers have responded to all of this with blog posts and tweets that say, “Leave them alone! Just let them teach!”

“Just let them teach” suggests that outside evaluation is unnecessary, burdensome, and perhaps even dangerous. It implies that only teachers can understand and assess their own day-to-day actions, because the job is too complex. We do not seem to say that this particular evaluation tool or process is flawed; we say (or at least we imply) that the entire idea of evaluating teacher performance is foolish.

But is that true? Are we educators so strange and unique that our work simply cannot be evaluated?  I mean, even the wizards-in-training at Hogwarts had to pass their O.W.L. exams. If their performance could be assessed, surely ours can.

Defining Accountability

In his book, Winning with Accountability, Henry J. Evans describes in detail what it means to hold yourself, and others, accountable—and why real accountability is crucial for any successful organization. For him, accountability simply means being reliable: knowing that when someone says she’ll do something, the thing gets done. When there is real accountability, Evans says, little checking-in and checking-up is required. Accountability creates trust. 

Evans says that the first piece of the “accountability puzzle” is clarity.  He talks about the importance of being specific in making requests or promises. If you aren’t clear and specific in explaining what you need, your odds of getting exactly what you want are slim. If your people are aiming at a moving target—or a target they can’t see—you’re bound to end up disappointed.  Evans also talks about the importance of being precise when discussing deadlines.  Say you ask for something to be completed “sometime today,” expecting it in your hands in mid-afternoon. Instead, you get the finished work at 6:00 PM. You’re annoyed, but the person completing the task feels satisfied. There is instantly a gap between the two of you. That’s true of promises as well as requests. If you tell someone you’ll deliver something “later today,” instead of, say, “by noon,” you create the possibility of misunderstanding. And misunderstanding erodes trust.

Evans also talks about ownership. He says that you can’t be truly accountable for something you don’t own. Maybe you only own a small part of it. Whatever you own, you can be held responsible for. But if you don’t have real autonomy in how the work is done, you don’t really own it, and you can’t be held fully accountable for the final product. Or if ownership is conferred ambiguously on members of a committee, with no clarity around what is expected from whom, then no one ends up being truly accountable.

Finally, Evans talks about being open and public about expectations and commitments, about making sure everyone knows, and everyone understands clearly, what has been asked for and what was been promised.

Accountability in Teacher Land

Already you can see where accountability can be problematic in the world of education. Doctors and lawyers operate within well-established and universally-accepted norms of practice—so well-accepted that proven violations can result in a loss of license to practice. Teachers have nothing like that. It’s nearly impossible to lose one’s teaching license because of shoddy practice. In fact, the word “malpractice” doesn’t even exist in our world, partly because we can’t all agree on what “best practice” actually is—which is shocking, given the amount of research that has been done in the field, from Marzano to Hattie. We should know what works and what doesn’t. In fact, we do know what works and what doesn’t. But if you are a teacher, what you believe about instruction is usually a personal concoction, brewed from a recipe consisting of your own background as a student, the training you received in college or graduate school, the influence of a mentor or senior teacher, and the years of experience you’ve had in the classroom. Your definition of “good practice” may or may not agree with the definitions of your fellow teachers in the building, or the view of your principal, and it may or may not coincide with the definition laid out in whatever teacher evaluation system your state has adopted. So already, we’re in trouble. If there is no agreement or clarity about what the job of teaching means and entails, the situation is ripe for miscommunication and disappointed expectations. This is why we have instances of teachers preparing detailed, standards-aligned lesson plans, only to be dinged during a walkthrough because the standard hasn’t been written in the upper right hand corner of the white board.

How about being open and public with expectations? Do we see that in our schools?  I would have to say, “Not really.” Far too often, teachers feel caught in a trap between what is said publically (“All students will be imaginative, creative, critical thinkers and problem-solvers with a rich base of content knowledge,”) and what is actually expected (“If your kids don’t ace those standardized tests, your job is on the line,”)—and usually, the private expectation is the one that ends up mattering. To compound the problem, if principals are not strong instructional leaders themselves, they may not know how to set explicit expectations for what they want. They’ll want the school to “improve.” They’ll want the students to “do better.” But they may not understand what those things really mean, or how to help teachers and students get there (witness the misunderstanding around what a “standards-based lesson” is, from the paragraph above).  And even if they are instructional leaders, if they don’t have school-wide agreement as to what constitutes best practice, nothing is likely to change.

All “Quid,” but no “Pro Quo”

One puzzle piece that Evans doesn’t discuss, but which I find incredibly important, is the piece I call, The Right Tools for the Job. Maybe he feels it’s so obvious that it doesn’t bear mentioning, but it’s massively unfair to hold someone accountable for completing a task if they don’t have the resources they need to do it. And that is something we see in our schools every day.  We expect excellent, thoughtful, inspiring teaching, while treating our teachers like assembly-line factory workers. We set rigorous goals for literacy, while shuttering school libraries. We talk about global citizenship, but react in horror if a teacher tries to bring too much of the outside world into the classroom. We hope for curious, well-rounded, soulful young children, but slash funds to expose them to music, theatre, and arts. We talk about 21st century skills, but we ask our schools to manage with 20-year-old computer equipment and shaky Internet connectivity locked behind a restrictive firewall that prevents science students from researching “breast cancer.”

Sometimes, the problem isn’t just the lack of tools; it’s the setting of completely unattainable goals. Recently, Dr. Sean McGrew wrote about the legacy of No Child Left Behind, and the many reasons why the goal of “Adequate Yearly Progress” was a “useful fiction,” that could never really be achieved. As he said, “a metric that is not what it seems to be is confusing and dangerous.” 

Accountability only works if it’s a two-way street, and yet in our schools, teachers are expected to “own” a student’s academic performance, regardless of that child’s background, previous experience, unique abilities, and special challenges—and they are expected to effect change for that child without the time, resources, or support needed to do the job effectively.  

What happens when a person is given unclear or unreasonable expectations, and is then denied the resources needed even to make an effort at meeting those goals?  If teachers come to realize that the game is rigged against them, and that the consequences of failure are extreme, is it any wonder that some of them resort to cheating  to protect their jobs and their students?

Salutary Neglect

Does this mean that we should just leave teachers alone and “let them teach?” Yes and no. It would be lovely if we could stop driving teachers crazy with This Year’s New Program at the school level and This Decade’s Political Initiative in Congress. It would be nice if we could stop threatening to fire them if they don’t achieve the impossible. But leaving teachers alone shouldn’t mean leaving them isolated and unsupported. That’s not good for anyone’s practice. And we shouldn’t say that oversight and management has to stop at the classroom door. The “shopping mall school,” where every teacher operates like an independent contractor and does whatever she thinks is best, is not good for the children who move from teacher to teacher.

As educators, we’ve got to get over the thought that what we do is too complex to be explained, or that we are only accountable to ourselves. If there can be professional standards and protocols for conducting brain surgery, there can be professional standards and protocols for teaching. Just because we haven’t figured them out yet doesn’t mean it can’t be done. The systems laid out by Robert Marzano, Charlotte Danielson, and James Stronge are all good efforts at capturing the domains and competencies of teaching. Each has its strong points and its limitations. Unfortunately, the states that have adopted these systems—and then turned them into quantitative, punitive instruments of judgment—have, to some extent, wrecked what’s good about the rubrics, obscuring their value as tools for professional growth. The states that have fetishized student test scores over qualitative observations have made it plain that good teaching is less meaningful than test prep, whether they’re willing to admit it or not. So if teachers aren’t buying in, it’s not really much of a surprise.

As Henry Evans made clear, a culture of accountability is a culture of trust, where every member of an organization knows what is expected and what she, in turn, can expect—a culture where everyone can be relied upon to do good work. That doesn’t just happen; it has to be cultivated and managed. And when it exists, heavy-handed evaluation tends to disappear, because we hold each other (and ourselves) accountable to high standards all the time, just as a matter of course.

In 1775, Edmund Burke coined the term “salutary neglect” to refer to the British government’s practice of “leaving the Colonies alone” to flourish without heavy-handed interference (a practice that was, by 1775, rapidly disappearing). He said it was clear that the flourishing Colonies owed “little or nothing to any care of ours,” and had not been “squeezed into this happy [successful] form by the constraints of watchful and suspicious government.” It’s true that the Colonies were doing just fine without his paternalistic guidance. But he was wrong that the Colonies owed nothing to Britain. They were not operating in total isolation and independence; they had developed, over a long period of time, a system of self-government based on a variety of historical models, from those of the ancient Greeks to those of their British cousins, and those of their neighboring Iroquois. They had an effective set of norms at their disposal, and they were doing good work for themselves and for the mother country. The wiser heads of Parliament suggested that they be left alone to continue flourishing. Others disagreed and decided to “squeeze them” harder into more rigid compliance and obedience.

We all know how that turned out.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

In Defense of Poetry…or: Metaphors Be With You

(originally published at

We’ve seen countless news stories and blog posts about the importance of improving science and mathematics instruction in our country. We’ve argued about the emphasis within the Common Core State Standards on complex, informational text. Here at Catapult Learning, we’ve built professional development programs to help teachers enhance literacy instruction in science and social studies. Everywhere you look, people are up in arms about our need to prepare students better for a complex, technological world.

I have no argument with any of this. I think it’s all correct, all on-target, and all necessary. And yet…

And yet, I think we’re missing something. We definitely need to help our students handle a wealth of concepts and content across all subject areas.  But the place where many students have trouble is the grey area where facts are contradictory or confusing—where meaning isn’t quite clear, or shifts from moment to moment—where the truth of the matter lies not in “this or that,” but in “both things at the same time.”   

Why do we have so much trouble with this? Because we don’t teach enough poetry.

I know, it’s a radical proposition. It’s ridiculous. Poetry barely makes an appearance in the Common Core standards. It’s laughable—it’s esoteric—it’s a relic of an earlier, gently humanistic world. You don’t need poetry to get an MBA, write a legal brief, develop the next generation of massively-multi-player games, or design a higher-capacity car battery. So who needs it?

We do.

Why Poetry Matters

Poetry lives and thrives in the grey area of ambiguity—the place of always becoming but never quite being. That’s what it does best. It hints; it suggests; it insinuates, often without resolving into anything concrete. Whether it rhymes or scans or just dumps words onto a page, what makes poetry poetry is its ability to hover in a place where things can be and not-be, both at the same time.

 Take a look at this stanza from E.E. Cummings:

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

Look at lines 2, 3, and 4. Notice how they suggest two sentences without quite settling down into one or the other. If this were prose, it would say, “Who pays any attention to the syntax of things?” Or it would say, “The syntax of things will never wholly kiss you.” Cummings jams the two sentences together, with “the syntax of things” as the pivot of the seesaw. It’s both ideas at once; it’s neither idea absolutely. It lives in a weird limbo of thought that you can’t quite pin down. That’s what poetry can do.

If you don’t grow up with a facility for understanding how words can do this, you may find poetry irritating—as my 9th grade students did, years ago, when I tried to teach this poem. My students were maddeningly literal—and not just about poetry. No matter what we were discussing, they wanted to know: What does it mean? Is it this or that? It must be this or that! Everything had one meaning—one answer—only. And it was my job to hand it to them.

The inability to handle ambiguity carries over into prose, of course. Poetry is a great place to learn it, but great writers make use of it everywhere. I remember teaching a Ray Bradbury story called “The Dragon,” in which two knights in armor prepare to battle a terrible dragon. The dragon they describe breathes fire, has one horrible, yellow eye, is impervious to knives or spears, and travels the same path between two towns every night, mowing down anything in its path. In the final moment of the story (spoiler alert), as the knights attack the monster, the scene switches perspective, and we see two engineers on a train, mystified at the apparition they’ve just seen. Two knights in armor! They came out of nowhere. It happens every night. So weird.

“Ahhhh,” good readers say. The dragon is a train. The train is a dragon. Cool! But my students did not say, “Cool!” They didn’t get it. 

I read the story to them again. They still didn’t get it.

I listed the attributes of the dragon and the attributes of a train, side by side, on the board. Now they kind-of got it. But they wanted to know: “Was it really a dragon or was it really a train?”

My answer was, “Yes.” They were not amused.

They weren’t stupid kids; they just couldn’t process the idea that a thing could be two things at once—that it could exist in a strange netherworld of sort-of-being where both things (and neither thing) were true.  There may be different perspectives, different points of view, but one of them always had to be “true.”

I think that’s a very limiting way to see the world. And it’s not just a Humanities issue. Our inability to hold two contradictory ideas in our minds keeps us from grappling with the world in all of its confusing, ambiguous mess. Our belief that all things have clear explanations and definitions that are absolute and exclude all other explanations or definitions makes us partisans on every topic of discussion, from education to climate change to religion to science.  There are always two sides, and your side is always the right side, and the other side is always the enemy. It’s a terribly reductive and simple-minded way to see the world, which is infinitely complex and strange.

The push to bring more primary source text into our science and social studies classes—to rely less on textbook syntheses and summaries—is motivated by exactly this understanding that students need to analyze competing and contradictory points of view, to learn how to compare, assess, and, ultimately, deal with areas where a single, simple solution is not reachable. But if we, as their teachers, do not have a facility for dealing with ambiguity—if we are not comfortable living in the grey areas—then we are going to be ill-equipped to help our students navigate these texts. They will be saying, “But what’s the answer?” And we will feel compelled to give them one.

Against a Flat World

Of course, poetry and metaphor deal with much more than just contradiction or ambiguity. Metaphor is about association and resonance and connectivity. The snow is a blanket upon the earth. The blanket keeps me toasty warm. Toast is…well, maybe toast is just toast. But you get my point: metaphor creates connections and resonances among the things of the world. It catches us up in a net of relationships.  It makes the world vibrate: touch one string, and another hums along. Where there is no metaphor, though, nothing is like anything else, and nothing reverberates. The world just is—a jumble of discrete objects on a lonely plane of thing-ness.

When the world is reduced to discrete things, the only logical response to imagery is to accept it as factually true or reject it as nonsense.  Either the thing is a dragon, or it’s a train. End of story. And sorry, Ferdinand, those are not pearls that were his eyes. They’re just eyes. The “sea change into something rich and strange” is…not.

On the plane of thing-ness, this approach makes sense. But the third option, beyond true and false, is vitally important. There is truth in poetry that’s very different—of a completely different nature—than the factual truth of journalism or history. When we see the snow as a blanket upon the earth, we think of winter differently: we catch the importance of that period of the growing cycle; we feel what it means to slumber, to hibernate, to wait in the warm, dark place for spring to come. We know something that’s beyond mere facts.

Our inability to understand imagery and metaphor makes it difficult for us to use imagery and metaphor to construct meaning.  We risk losing the power of the stories that form the foundation of our culture. Modern monotheists will lose a lot if they simply dismiss ancient Greek mythology as nonsense.  You don’t have to believe in the literal truth of the pantheon of gods to learn something vital and true about the forces that drive human behavior.  Atheists and agnostics will lose a lot if they throw out the Bible as being “un-true.” There is profound truth and wisdom in the Exodus story, whether it happened historically or not. In fact, if you spend your days arguing about whether or not the Red Sea could have parted, you miss the whole point of the story.

To become free, the Israelites must cross a threshold that cannot be re-crossed. When the sea closes behind them, they are forever severed from Egypt. They can only move forward. Why is that important? Because almost immediately, the Israelites start whining about how hard it is to be free, and how much they’d like to go back. In fact, the entire slave generation has to wander in the desert and die out before their children can be considered “free” and worthy of entering the Promised Land.  There is wisdom in this imagery—wisdom that our political scientists and pundits could learn, whether they believed in the literal truth of the story of not. What might they discover? That overthrowing or escaping a despot does not, by itself, make a people free. That without time and safe distance to learn freedom, people return to despotism. That in all times of profound change, people yearn for the old things they knew and understood—even if they didn’t like them very much.  You can say all of that factually, but the image of the sea closing behind the Israelites and the desert opening before them says it so much more powerfully.

Sometimes poetry tells us that there is no answer. And that’s fine, too. Sometimes, describing the mess accurately is the best thing we can do.  “Describing the mess,” is how Samuel Beckett once defined his job, when asked what his strange plays were all about. But he described the mess in ways no one before or since has managed. There are moments in “Waiting for Godot” that speak truth to me far more profoundly than what I’ve found in philosophy books.

 So listen. I’m all for better math and science education. I’m all for historical literacy. But we live in a world that can be oppressively fact-filled. Knowing the structure and architecture of a thing is not fully knowing it. There are thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, not just one. There is more to life than “the syntax of things,” as Cummings called it. It’s important to gather ye rosebuds while ye may. It’s important to hear your being dance from ear to ear. We’re not here for all that long, and there is so much—so much—to learn.
After all, as Cummings says at the end of his poem, “Life's not a paragraph / And death i think is no parenthesis.”

Friday, June 6, 2014

Allowing Ourselves to Learn

(originally published at

Among trial lawyers, it’s considered gospel that you should never ask a question that you don’t already know the answer to. When you have a witness on the stand in front of a jury, you don’t want any surprises. 

In the classroom, we often behave as though we were trying a case. We ask students questions to find out what they have learned, but we already know what they should have learned, and how they should answer our question. Unlike the lawyer, if we don’t get the answer we’re looking for, we just go to the next student and keep asking the question until we get the answer we want. What we don’t do, nearly enough, is stay with the first student and find out why he said what he did. And that’s interesting, because while we relentlessly repeat the question whose answer we already know, we ignore the real question in the room, whose answer is a mystery to us.

Some new textbook materials and classroom activities have gotten a lot of snide attention from critics of the Common Core State Standards lately, because they seek to explore how a student is thinking more than they seek a particular response.  Obviously, it’s good to hear a student say “four,” when you ask her what two plus two is. But the right answer isn’t necessarily proof that a child understands what she’s saying, or what it means. She could be guessing. She could have heard her friend whisper it. Or, more likely, she could have memorized the answer without really understanding how the numbers work.  Our students do a lot of math without really understanding it. When teachers say things like, “Ours is not to reason why; just reverse and multiply,” they are creating a generation of people who can do things, up to a point, but who don’t really know what it is they’re doing.

We all know, and complain about the fact, that the No Child Left Behind era gave us a world in which Tested Things matter more than anything else, where the purpose of the classroom is to prepare students to respond correctly and quickly to particularly phrased questions on explicitly defined Things.  I worked in one high school that suspended all classes, the month before the state assessment, and put students into large groups to drill sample test questions all day, every day. Unsurprisingly, the students did fairly well on the tests. But when I casually asked one of the kids a question about a Tested Thing in a slightly different way, from a slightly different perspective, she had no idea what I was talking about. She was only programmed to respond a particular way to a particular kind of input. She was a test-taking robot.

Do we really need to raise our children to be robots? Can’t we make robots just fine, out of non-human materials?

We’re all trying to move away from this kind of test-obsession mindset, and I applaud the efforts to find new and richer ways to assess student thinking. But the problem is much larger than standardized testing or “teaching to the test.” If our classroom assessment remains within the realm of narrowly-defined questions with ready-made answers, we will always be teaching to the test. Because every minute of every day ends up being a test, with a single, overhanging question from the teacher: Can you give me what I want?

In our desire to be meticulous (planning every lesson carefully) and our need to be accountable (to lesson templates or pacing plans), we end up structuring our curriculum as a tale that has already been told. Before anyone walks into the room, we’ve set objectives, listed content to be learned, plotted out final assessments, and even created sample papers that demonstrate what good performance looks like. We do all the work; we play all the parts.  What do we even need students for?

It seems to me that, outside of the courtroom, the questions that are really worth asking are precisely the ones we don’t know the answers to. Questions that lead to answers that might surprise us—because they come from minds not our own. That doesn’t mean that fact-based questions aren’t useful when trying to assess student learning. Of course they are. You can ask what two plus two is. Please do. But why not add a little, “why did you say that?” or “how do you know that’s true?” after you get your answer. Why not learn a little something, yourself?

This is not just a classroom problem. In our desire to shield ourselves from criticism, discomfort, or harm, we end up protecting ourselves from ever learning anything new. We are told what to think by our parents, then we are told what to think by our teachers and our friends, and then, once we leave school, we often just…stop. We tell Pandora what kinds of music we like, and it makes sure we never have to hear anything different. We tell Amazon what kinds of books we like, and it does likewise. We go see movies based on actors we’ve liked in the past, or stories we’ve seen told before, or genres we find reliably entertaining. Anything that feels too strange, we avoid. When we want to learn what’s going on in the world, we watch Fox News or MSNBC, but rarely both. We hear only the opinions we already know we’ll agree with, and sample only the culture that feels comfortable. Technology has made it possible for us to be safe from ever re-considering an opinion or developing a new taste. It’s not that we ignore or shun dark alleyways that might lead to new experiences; we don’t even see them. We are building a world in which we never have to see them.

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, entitled, “When Music Was Strange,” the author recounts her teenage exploration and experimentation with different styles of music in the 1970s, under the tutelage of a Yoda-like friend who said things like, “People don’t know what they like; they only know what they know.” He would bring new albums to the author and say, “You have to check this out!” And sometimes the author loved the music, and sometimes the author hated it. But she tested out new things and learned what it was she truly liked. In her article, she ruminates on how rare that kind of experience is, these days.

As adults, how many of us are willing to give new things a try, when a friend brings something strange into our orbit and says, “You have to check this out?” (Assuming we cultivate friends who have different tastes, opinions, and backgrounds). As teachers, how many of us consider it part of our job to bring The Good Stuff (however we define it) to kids and say “Check this out!” to them?  Not just because it’s the next thing on the pacing plan, but because it’s a doorway to a world, and it might just be an important doorway for this student, or that student.

In a world of Wikipedia and Google and MOOCs, is our primary function really to deliver pre-selected facts and rehearse skills? Is that why we are necessary? When people looking to save money challenge us and say, “What do we need teachers and schools for, anymore?” what is it we’re going to offer as our defense?  That only a living, breathing teacher can bring a child to learn her times tables? Do we actually believe that? And is that all there is?

It seems to me that our most important role, no matter what technology may come along, is to serve as Mentor Learners—role models of restless, insatiable curiosity, demonstrators of persistent and careful exploration. We don’t have to be the keepers of the answers anymore—the simple answers are out there, readily available. We need to be the keepers of the questions—the tough questions—questions like, “what is justice?” or “how can you know something is true?” or “what does a flower mean?” Those questions are the eternal flame of civilization, and it’s our job to pass that flame along—to light new wicks with every generation—and to nurture those little flames into roaring health by giving them the intellectual tools they need to chase after questions from childhood through adulthood.

But if we, ourselves, are not curious enough—and brave enough—to question our own preconceptions, prejudices, and tastes—if we are not willing to wonder and wander down strange by-ways to discover hidden magic (even, perhaps, some interesting magic offered to us by our students, who may, themselves, feel like saying “Check it out!”)—then how can we be role models of anything other than drudgery? 

I’m sure that in my more desperate and exhausted moments, I snarl at wide-eyed optimists and say that “college and career readiness” just requires a silent obedience to the agendas and directives set by other people. But deep down, even on my worst days, I know that’s not all there is to life.  I know I can’t let it be all there is.

“People don’t know what they like; they only know what they know.”  Those words need to be put on a poster that we can point to whenever a child complains that he doesn’t like something (whether it’s Algebra in school or Chicken Vindaloo at home). We only know what we know. And we don’t know enough.

In or out of school, it seems to me that the most important question is not, “What do I know?” It is, “What can I learn?”

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Teaching for Transfer: Take Your Learning Out For a Drive

(originally published at

Once upon a time, I worked as a secretary at a New York investment bank. There were two types of people who seemed to hold that job: Lifers—the middle-aged women who had been working as secretaries forever; and Dilettantes—the youngish painters and writers and musicians who needed a paycheck to support their art. I was one of the Dilettantes.

I started on the job a few months after the company had provided PCs to all of the bankers and all of the secretaries for the first time. The Lifers treated these machines as if they had been dusted with a fine coating of bubonic plague. They wanted nothing to do with them. They learned how to do a handful of required tasks on the computer, but they relied on their old typewriters for everything else. We Dilettantes, however, tended to play with our computers. They were new and shiny, and we were bored. So we experimented with functionality, we tested capacity, and we learned how to do all sorts of non-work-related things with them. We goofed off, in other words. But as a result, we became proficient and confident users of the new machines, and were able to serve the company and our bankers pretty efficiently. It was a great education for someone like me, who had never done anything with computers beyond some very rudimentary word processing.

Here’s another story: I was shopping for a new car (this is also some time ago) and was interested in getting a Mini Cooper. I researched it online, then went to the dealership and learned all I could about the car. Then I was taken out for a test drive. As we neared a sharp turn, the sales agent turned to me, grinned, and said, “Gun it!”

 “What?” I said.

 “Gun it. Take the turn too fast. Go on.”

So I did. I slammed on the accelerator and the little car whipped around the corner like a go-kart. The sales agent laughed. I laughed.

“You gotta find out what the machine can do,” she said.  “You can’t really know it, otherwise.”

Two anecdotes, one lesson: information is useful, but we learn best by playing.  Life teaches us this lesson so often that we don’t even notice it. But those of us who care about lessons for a living—do we notice? Do we incorporate this learning when we teach? If we’re good, we build structured lessons that lead students towards te independent and competent practice of skills and use of knowledge. But do we give students a chance to play with what they’ve learned—to see what it can do? I doubt many of us do. How can we? Once the kids have learned X, it’s time to move on to Y. Play time is wasted time, we’ve been told.

When I use the word “play,” here, I’m not talking about educational gaming, or playing-a-game-in-order-to-learn. I’m talking about playing around—playing with your learning—using your learning as the raw material of your play. Exactly the kind of thing that many people feel is a waste of time. 

Think about what it means to play with something—what it means at the most elemental level. When a child gets a new toy (even if it’s just a cardboard box), she immediately starts to experiment with it, to test its limits. Will it bend? Will it stretch? Can I turn it inside out? What happens if I throw it off the porch? They aren’t doing this to destroy whatever little thing we’ve bought for them; they’re doing this to find out what the thing is. Only by manipulating it and testing both its capacity and its limits can they really understand what it is they have in their hands. Sadly, far too often, our response is to grab the toy away from the child and tell her to behave. “It’s a fire engine. All right? The ladder goes up and down, like this. See? Now just leave it alone.”

Or we teach a child a new word, like “dinosaur,” and he starts saying, “dinosaur, minosour, flynosaur, cry-no-more, die-so-sore” and so on, until we lose our minds and beg him to shut up.

But this is exactly how children learn—from the time they’re born. They play with objects. They play with sounds. They put things in their mouths so that they can know them with all of their senses. They tear things apart. They stack large things on top of small things, over and over again, until they learn that they have to stack smaller things on larger things in order to build a tower. Children are born knowing how to learn this way. And then they come to us, and we make them stop. Unless they are artists, in which case, somehow, against all odds, they continue learning about the world by testing it and stretching it and playing with it. I’ve seen a twenty-something Bob Dylan take a phrase he’s just seen on a storefront and play with it just the way the child above did with “dinosaur,” and the look of joy on his face (and in his entire body), as he drives the words into absurdity and towards poetry, is wonderful to behold. He doesn’t have a pre-set idea about the words; he just plays with the words and discovers what they can do for him.

We want to build some level of expertise in our students, but author Daniel Willingham points out that building expertise is exceedingly difficult, because true experts think abstractly. They don’t simply access pieces or lists information; they think in patterns and shapes. Donald Schon talks about how expert practitioners, faced with a new challenge, draw upon on a repertoire of prior experiences and responses, and do it without consciously thinking about it at all. He talks about the “tacit knowledge” that experts have—the things they know without knowing how they know it. This is how they can see patterns within the structure of a problem, and identify a solution that will make the best sense, because it made sense in a similar situation some other time—and the similarity often lies hidden in the deep structure of the problem, not in the surface details.  In fact, similarities in surface details are what can often sidetrack and confuse novices, sending them towards the wrong solution (this may be why that old adage tells us that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing). Doctors see this happen with medical students all the time.

Thus, for Willingham, there is no easy route to expertise, or the “transfer of learning” from one context (the curriculum) to another (a state test, or a real-life problem). The only way to develop expertise is through patience, persistence, and a variety of experiences.

Variety seems like the key, to me. If we reach the Independent Practice stage of our lesson and give students a worksheet of, say, 20 math problems, how much variety is likely to be included? More often than not, we’ll be asking students to practice the one or two things we’ve taught them, in two or three different ways (if it’s a decent worksheet; sometimes it’s all just one way). But in a practice set, kids don’t get to play; they simply respond and react to what we’ve given them. They answer….but they don’t ask. They don’t take the car out for a test drive.

When you play with the content—randomly, without agenda or pre-determined goal—you have a chance to stumble upon the patterns that lie within it—the things that make it tick. You engage in a dialogue with yourself about what you’re doing:  “If I do this, then that happens…but now, if I do that, this other thing happens. That’s interesting…”

There have always been educators who have advocated something like a play-centered curriculum or structure of schooling. A.S. Neill, who founded the Summerhill school in the early part of the 20th century, believed that learning should never be forced on children—that they should be free to stumble upon an interest organically and then have teachers and other adults on hand to feed them what they need to satisfy their curiosity.  Neill found that his students often came to skills like reading later than their non-Summerhill peers, since they weren’t forced into it, but once they started learning, they learned quickly, catching up to and then overtaking their peers.

Rudolf Steiner’s Waldorf Schools took a somewhat similar, if more structured approach, using creative play as the driver of learning. There are probably many more examples, in all sorts of alternative schools. But what if you’re in a more traditionally-structured school and classroom? What role can “play” play in a more old-fashioned lesson?

I think it can play an important role, even if done in small doses. Any chance a student has to stretch and twist and play with what he’s learned is a chance to understand things better. For example, let’s say you’re teaching young students about digraphs, pairs of letters like th, sh, and ph that create a single sound.  A traditional, old-fashioned lesson would teach these letters and sounds, provide examples of their use (perhaps writing words on a whiteboard and underlining the digraphs), then have students find the digraphs is a set of words on a whiteboard or a worksheet—first working in pairs or groups, then working independently.  And that’s fine: by the end of the lesson, I know that when I give you the word, you can find the digraph. You’ve learned something—but in a fairly narrow and limited context.

How can a little bit of play help? What if I asked kids to tell me some words that use the digraphs, rather than just responding to the words I give them? What if I asked them to give me three words that use sh at the start of the word, and three others that use it at the end---plus a bonus for anyone who can think of a word with sh in the middle? What if I asked them to try to think of a word that used one digraph twice (“shush”)—or two or more of digraphs together (“thrush”). Maybe if they can’t come up with a real word, they can invent a word and provide a cool definition for it.  Maybe if they can’t come up with a real word, you can point out that some letter combinations don’t seem to occur much in English (is there a word that uses both ph and sh, other than the new computer term “phishing?” I’m not sure). Maybe they can try to write a song or a poem using as many digraphs as possible.

The exercise here isn’t about building vocabulary or learning how to spell; it’s about playing with sounds and figuring out what works and how it works. It’s about working something until you feel like you own it. It’s about treating learning like silly putty—pulling at it, stretching it, seeing what it can do. It’s about allowing time for some semi-structured goofiness to see what sparks might fly, what a-ha moments might occur. It’s about letting students take their learning out for a little test drive, and maybe letting them take the turn a bit too quickly, just to see what happens.

With older students, one area where I always saw a lack of play was in the teaching of metaphor and simile. Students rarely understood the difference between those terms, other than the fact that similes used “like” or “as.” That’s about all the teacher would ever tell them—possibly because the teacher didn’t understand the difference very well herself. But the difference is crucial; it’s the difference between whole-to-whole comparison (“he’s a pig,” or “the snow blanketed the earth”) and part-to-part comparison (“he eats like a pig,” or “the snow warmed the earth like a blanket”).  Letting students play with imagery is a great way to help them nail down this difference. Throw an image at them and ask them to use it as a metaphor. Now as a simile. Now can you use it to represent something completely different? How far can you stretch it? What has more “give” to it, a metaphor or a simile?  Can you come up with an extended metaphor—one that works at such a large scale that it can rule over an entire poem or story, like E.E. Cummings does here? (perhaps a tad inappropriate for school, but you should see what happens when teenage boys figure out what the poem is actually about.) We ask students to write poems for us (sometimes), but we rarely ask them to dig into what they’ve written and play with their own language, re-writing it and twisting it this way and that way, as Dylan does in the video clip.

How about mathematics?  Teachers like Dan Meyer have been advocating for removing some of the support and scaffolding from our math questions to engage students in genuine problem-solving, which requires some inquiry, some experimentation, and some play. Instead of giving kids the measurements of a picture frame and asking them to solve for the area, why not give them a sum total of wood and tell them they can cut it up any way they want to, to create their own picture frame, as long as they’ve used up all the wood.  Now, what size picture can it hold? What if you cut it up differently? How many different ways can you do it, and how large a picture can you manage to hold? What does that tell you?

It’s that stretch, that plasticity, that manipulation of academic material as though it were silly putty, that leads students away from responding and reacting and leads them towards the possibility of a spark—an a-ha—a moment where they might discover something important, deeper than the factual answer to a particular question. This kind of play can help push students deeper than the surface details of one particular situation, down towards the underlying patterns and what Aristotle called the first principles—the nature of a thing; what it is and why it is and how it works.

And yes, I did just use “silly putty” and “Aristotle” in the same paragraph, claiming they were somehow related. I stand by it.  

We learn the world by playing with it.  Are we willing to let some play into our classrooms and let our students get their hands dirty…figuratively or literally?