Monday, December 31, 2012

THE MIND OF STUDENTS; Houston, Texas; Madison, Wisconsin


 Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
31 December 2012

What is on the minds of our students? We mostly have no idea. The Edupundits all seem to agree that the most important variable in student academic achievement is teacher quality. But isn’t the most important variable in student academic achievement really student academic work in the end?

The teacher can know a lot about her subject, can speak well, tell wonderful stories, have good control over the class, and so on, but if the student is thinking about something else, what is the result?

I have known first-rate teachers whose students didn’t do any work academically and mediocre teachers who had some students who achieved a lot academically.

All those hundreds of people spending many millions of dollars and countless months of effort on teacher assessment never seem to wonder what is going on in the minds of our students in a given class. How many times has an evaluator, visiting a class to judge the work of a teacher, ever thought to ask a few students, in those moments, what they know about the current subject, or even what they are thinking about at the time?

The Hindus say the mind is like a drunken monkey, and even a sober mind is pulled in many directions at once, by memories, worries, ideas, desires, impressions of all kinds, and even, occasionally, by the subject matter of the class the student is sitting in. But the point is that while we are teaching, even though we may get a student question from time to time, or we may ask a student for a comment from time to time, during the vast majority of the time we spend teaching, we have not the slightest insight into what is occupying the minds of almost all of our students while we are teaching our brains out.

A recent study found (mirabile dictu) that students who don’t come to class learn less than students who do. But the fact is that even when students do come to class, their attention and their minds may very well be absent from class. There are countless objects of interest to distract the minds of students from the current work of any class as presented by the teacher.

This is not to say that wonderful teachers cannot draw and hold the attention of almost all the students in their class for amazingly long stretches. But students have many concerns, both personal and academic. Not only the next athletic event, or personal relationship, but even the subject matter of the next class or the last class may occupy the minds of some or many of our students while we teach.

Teaching and learning are at least as subtle and complex as brain surgery, and the surgeon has one single anaesthetized patient, and the help of four or five other professionals, while the teacher may have thirty conscious high school students and no one to watch for signs of student distraction, if any...As every teacher knows it is ridiculously easy for a student to show every sign of serious attention while their mind is actually kilometers away on some other matter entirely.

Stitching knowledge and ideas into the existing mental and memory frameworks of students is a lot more difficult and intricate an undertaking than most of those designing teacher assessment projects even want to think about, but it is the actual daily venture of our teachers.

My main interest and experience are with history at the high school level, so I am not sure what bearing my suggestions would have for calculus, chemistry, or Chinese language courses. But I believe that the attention of our history students can be captured and rewarded by asking them to read at least one good complete history book each year, and to write one serious Extended Essay-type history research paper each year while they are in high school.

If they read and report on a good history book, the chances are that they will have given it their attention, and learned some history from it. If they write a 6,000-word history research paper (and I am regularly publishing 8,000-15,000-word papers by secondary students from 46 states and beyond), they will clearly have had to give the historical subject of their research their attention, and they will have learned some history (see: student academic achievement) in the process.

Of course, we should continue to try to recruit and retain the top 5% of college graduates as our school teachers, and we should encourage them to teach their hearts out. But unless we begin to look more closely in an effort to discover what, academically, is going on in the minds of students, we will continue to ignore the main engines of academic work in our schools. I hope one or two of our more elite and well-funded Edupundits may give this idea a passing thought or two.


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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

UNMENTIONABLE; Madison, Wisconsin; Houston, Texas


Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
4 December 2012

Since the disaster of the Marxist/Victims-history standards produced by UCLA in 1996, which were censured by a vote of 99-1 in the United States Senate, (the one negative voter thought the “standards” were even worse), History has become, in the comment this year of David Steiner, former Commissioner of Education in New York State, “so politically toxic that no one wants to touch it.”

This situation has developed in part because every tiny little multicultural group in the country is outraged if their history does not receive equal (or better) treatment in any history textbook, and in part because the late Howard Zinn’s proudly Marxist textbook of United States History has sold more than 2 million copies (not bad for an anti-capitalist who believed “private property is theft”).

Most of those who write about the dashing new nonfiction reading suggestions of the Common Core lament the altered and unreasonable burdens on English teachers, and they all seem to have forgotten that most of our high schools have both History departments and History teachers as well. But it seems to be inconceivable and unmentionable that our History teachers might dare to assign history books (nonfiction) and history research papers (nonfiction writing).

The story of how all reading and writing became the complete monopoly of the English Departments is surely a long and complicated one, but however it developed, it seems clear that our History departments have given away any responsibility for assigning books and research papers they may once have owned to the English teachers.

In an October 24, 2012 article in the Wall Street Journal, Michael S. Malone argues that even tech company CEOs are now looking for people who can tell stories (about their enterprise, their product, etc.), and so Mr. Malone of course looks to the English departments to offer the needed expertise in storytelling:

Could the humanities rebuild the shattered bridge between C.P. Snows two cultures and find a place at the heart of the modern world's virtual institutions? We assume that this will be a century of technology. But if the competition in tech moves to this new battlefield, the edge will go to those institutions that can effectively employ imagination, metaphor, and most of all, storytelling. And not just creative writing, but every discipline in the humanities, from the classics to rhetoric to philosophy. Twenty-first-century storytelling: multimedia, mass customizable, portable and scalable, drawing upon the myths and archetypes of the ancient world, on ethics, and upon a deep understanding of human nature and even religious faith.

The demand is there, but the question is whether the traditional humanities can furnish the supply. If they cant or wont, they will continue to wither away. But surely there are risk-takers out there in those English and classics departments, ready to leap on this opportunity. Theyd better hurry, because the other culture wont wait.

Where did we lose the understanding that History is all storytelling, with the additional benefit that it is based on evidence, which is not always so important with fiction? Mr. Malone mentions English and classics departments (“classics to rhetoric to philosophy”), but perhaps for him History has lost its membership in the Humanities? He wants “imagination, metaphor and most of all, storytelling...and myths and archetypes of the ancient world,” but he leaves unmentioned the sources of the greatest true stories (nonfiction) ever told in the world—our Historians.

Nevertheless, he is in the mainstream of those who, when asked to think, talk and write about reading and writing in the schools, faithfully and regularly default to the work of the English department and its wonderful world of fiction as the only place to introduce nonfiction!

When did the ideas of having our high school students read an actual complete History book or two and write an actual History research paper or two disappear into the woodwork? The result is that our students arrive in college poorly prepared to read nonfiction books and to write the required term papers, not to mention their inability to do any research.

Neil Postman tells us that “Cicero remarked that the purpose of education is to free the student from the tyranny of the present.” That freedom seems more and more out of reach among those who cannot even think about History, which has made History the most unmentionable among all the necessary academic subjects in our schools.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Master of None

Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review

In 1968, the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts, awarded me a degree, saying I was a Master of Education. In those days, it was possible to get such a degree at the age of 22 or 23, after a year of course work. Now, what does that mean: “Master of Education”?

Michelangelo finished his immortal Pietá at the age of 21, so perhaps he was a Master of Sculpture at that age, but it is said that he was around marble dust even as an infant, and he had been carving sculptures in marble for many years by the time he was 21.

My understanding is that in Medieval guilds, it took some time to be acknowledged as a Master in any of the crafts. One had to serve a number of years as an apprentice, then some years as a journeyman, then, if ready to do so, it was necessary to offer a “Master–Piece” of work, which, if accepted by the other Masters of the guild, could earn for the craftsman the rank of Master in that craft. Of course these days we throw around the term “masterpiece” without much thought of what it meant, just as we can call something a “classic” when it is brand new, or even a soft drink. J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” is a classic, but then these days so are one version of Coke, and the Army/Navy game.

The degree of Master has to be earned over time even now in other fields as well. The one best thing for me that came out of my time at the Harvard Ed School was the recommendation by my advisor, a kindly professor of statistics, that I read Professor Eugen Herrigel’s book, Zen in the Art of Archery. This fine book lead me to a lifelong interest in Zen and related subjects. But I have to say that one cannot become a Zen Master of Archery, or of any of the arts, not to mention meditation itself, by the age of 23 after one year of study.

But surely there are better parallels to the Master of Education. What about earning one’s Master's license in the Merchant Marine? No, that takes a long time and a lot of hard work, too. What about becoming a Master Sergeant, for instance in the United States Marine Corps? Well, no, that takes quite a while and a lot of experience and knowledge as well.

I worked with a high school student once on the Boston’s North Shore, who needed to graduate early because she had been accepted in a Master Class with the violinist Fritz Kreisler. Turned out she had been flying very early in the morning twice a week to study violin at Julliard in New York. She had been invited to join that small Master Class, but it was a chance to study with a Master, not a quick trip to a Master’s Degree of her own in Music.

There is a famous story around now, speaking of Master musicians, of a teacher in Los Angeles, I believe, who took his class to hear a Master cellist in concert and to meet him afterwards. The story says that one of the students asked him how he came to be such a good musician. And the cellist said, after a pause, “Well, first, there are no shortcuts.” But then he was not talking about the path to a degree as a Master of Education, on which, I would argue, shortcuts are the order of the day, and have been for many decades.

Some academic Master’s programs try to redeem their right to the name by requiring a thesis (a modern imitation of the Master–Piece). Perhaps in physics or in molecular biology, such a thesis could really demonstrate mastery of the subject. But my Master’s program in Education did not require a thesis, and the general opinion is, I understand, that most theses written in the field of Education do not rise to the level of mastery required in the hard sciences by any stretch of the definition.

I would conclude with a couple of suggestions. First, when educators who are Masters of Education, including me, talk about educational mastery, it might be useful to retain some skepticism over whether they know much about mastery of any kind in any field. Second, we might consider whether to try to make a Master’s Degree in Education mean something one day.

And finally, I have to confess that, after nearly thirty-five years of work in education, I have come to the view that Mastery in education is very hard to achieve. If we pretend otherwise, by passing out meaningless degrees, we end up by avoiding most of the many serious questions about how we might actually get better at educating the children in our charge.