Taking the well-schooled to school.

Oh, boy. Every so often, the media will wander over to Sudbury Valley School, and produce something like this, which flushes out people, even Catholics,  who write stuff like this.

The fundamental error in reasoning here is that a caricature of the Sudbury Model is held up for comparison to an idealized never existed in reality traditional classroom school. For over 40 years, critics have labeled Sudbury a ‘Lord of the Flies’ school, which is not only ignorant, but ironic – Lord of the Flies is about what happens when kids from a really “good” school – an elite English boarding school – are allowed, for once, to control their own behavior. Having only the examples of their teachers to follow – dominate, humiliate, control – they don’t do a good job.

In other words, people are attempting to mock Sudbury by reference to a work that is a satire on traditional English education and culture – rigid class structures, violence lurking just below the surface, the strong preying on the weak.  On the contrary, Sudbury in practice is the opposite of the English boarding school experience, and aims precisely to educate kids on how to behave when the choice is their own.  Continue reading “Taking the well-schooled to school.”

School and Technology

Another one of those infopiles of loosely-related pseudo knowledge.

I’m reminded of the story of how prisoners in ancient China soon died if they were sent to one of the better prisons, but survived a lot longer if sent to poor prisons (have no idea if the story has any basis in reality). According to the story, the better prisons fed the inmates white rice – considered better quality stuff, but with much of the nutrition removed. Poorer prisoners got brown rice – low class food, but with much more nutrition in it.

So, is it a good idea to have kids spend hours on computers in school? Or are we just giving them white rice, as it were?

Note that our technological boom over the last few decades has had a lot to do with technological learning being almost completely unstructured. Just look at the lives of the various pioneers – Bill Joy stands out for having had an academic career, of sorts, but even he mostly did what he wanted to do. The others are a bunch of drop-outs and misfits who spent a lot more time by themselves tinkering in the garage or pounding on a keyboard. If only they’d have had access to a modern educator, we’d all still be using slide rulers…

So, yea – providing computer access to school kids is a great idea, so long as it’s completely unstructured: let them surf what they want (within legal limits), let them figure out what programs interest them, let them figure out how to use those programs, let them ask for help when they need it: that’s an educational program proven to work.

All the computers in the world won’t help kids learn much if they’re managed the same way other subjects are managed. We need to let them chew on brown rice, as it were.

Guess where and when this little quote is from:

Against Homework

“A child who has been boxed up six hours in school might spend the next four hours in study, but it is impossible to develop the child’s intellect in this way. The laws of nature are inexorable. By dint of great and painful labor, the child may succeed in repeating a lot of words, like a parrot, but, with the power of its brain all exhausted, it is out of the question for it to really master and comprehend its lessons. The effect of the system is to enfeeble the intellect even more than the body. We never see a little girl staggering home under a load of books, or knitting her brow over them at eight o’clock in the evening, without wondering that our citizens do not arm themselves at once with carving knives, pokers, clubs, paving stones or any weapons at hand, and chase out the managers of our common schools, as they would wild beasts that were devouring their children.”

Curious? After the break:

Continue reading “Guess where and when this little quote is from:”

The Piano Lesson

Learning to play the piano is hard – it takes years of practice to get really good, and months of practice just to get to the point where you can even play a non-childish song or two.

Yet millions of people, over the years, have become quite good at the piano, almost without exception using more or less the same approach:

– Take lessons from a piano teacher for half an hour to an hour once a week or so;

– practice from 15 minutes to a half hour a day.

Following that method, you can pretty darn good in a few years. Of course, if you want to get really good, you eventually must ramp up the practice to several hours a day – but even without a grueling practice schedule, you can get pretty good at 30 minutes a day. You just have to be consistent about it for a number of years.

Now, it’s almost a truism that music and math are related talents. I’ve even heard it said that they are the *same* talent. Yet, with rare exceptions, we teach math – I should say, attempt to teach math, since it almost always fails – by lecturing to students as a group for 40 minutes to an hour day after day, year after year, then assigning math homework which, in high school, can run into several hours a night. We do not work one-on-one with a student for a limited time once a week and then give them lots of space to practice on their own, as we do with piano.

Oddly, we do use something much more like piano lessons to teach people in college – at least, the amount of time students get to work on their studies outside the classroom is more like the ratio of piano lessons than like high school. In grad school, it’s gets even less like high school and more like piano.

Once, on a business trip, I sat next to a man who was doing some really hairy wave function type math around some sort of sensor he was consulting on. I asked him how he learned all that math. He told a story of having joined the Navy, having gotten good scores on an aptitude test and getting assigned to work in the radio room. From there, he took whatever classes were available, worked his way through a number of increasingly technical jobs, adding, along the way, to his math chops – until, to my pretty-good-at-math eyes, he was a master.

His closing comment: ‘It’s just like leaning the piano – just do a little work on it every day, and you’ll get good at it.”

Great Colleges, Poor High Schools

Ever wonder how it works that our country has hundreds of great colleges admired all around the world, and yet has high schools and grade schools that are routinely disparaged in comparison to those of other countries and constantly said to need reform (and more money)?

As mentioned in an earlier post, up to 50% of the students admitted to elite colleges are placed in remedial classes in their freshman year. Keep in mind, these are kids who sport GPAs well north of 4.0, have taken many ‘college prepatory’ AP classes, and have spent thousands of hours doing homework – and they need remedial help to do basic college-level work.

So, how can it be that these kids a) have not mastered what the college considers basic reading, writing and math skills, yet b) are decorated veterans of high school, the best of the best?

A couple of ways to look at this:

– First, that high school doesn’t teach the skills you need for success in college;

– Second, that, for many students, this lack of skills isn’t damaging to their future academic success. Haven’t seen any numbers, but I imagine that the remedial classes do meet with some success – that at least some of the students who arrived on campus academically unprepared take the remedial classes and go on to succeed (at the very least, the college would be heavily invested in making sure that happens).

The important note here is that elite colleges routinely succeed in a year or less in teaching skills that 12 or more years of schooling before college – including successfully completed advanced placement classes – failed to teach.

There are a number of reasons colleges succeed at what are alleged to be the same tasks at which high schools, even and especially *good* high schools, routinely fail, even when we’re talking about elite students.  So what’s so different about how colleges teach things than how high schools teach them?

– Ratio of in-class time to out of class time: The most fanatical high school students approach 1:1 – 6 hours of class time to 6 hours of study outside of class in a typical day. College students run more like 1:3 – 2 – 3 hours of class a day, with 6 – 9 hours of studying for the more ambitious students.

– Flexibility: High school students are expected to put in their 6 hours of class time a day every day for 4 years. College students can adjust their loads and arrange their schedules to meet personal preferences and needs. The 5 and even 6 year college plans are available if need be.

– Freedom: High schools student have minimum freedom in their choices of what to study, with many required classes and few really free choices. College students have much more freedom to study what interests them.

So, to ask the obvious question: instead of endlessly tweaking pre-college educational models, why don’t we replace them with the tried-and-true college model that is the envy of the world? Way less time in the classroom, way more freedom and responsibility. This would also have the benefit of actually preparing kids for college, which the current model demonstrably fails to do.

The Ultimate Homework Assignment – for Parents & Teachers

(aside: I could footnote the hell out of this, but since you can confirm what I’m saying here by spending about 5 minutes with Google, I’ll leave that part for you as extra credit’)

Case Study:

Over the last few decades, the homework load on school children has increased, to the point now where, on the one end, it is not unusual for high school students to spend 6 or more hours a night on homework and, on the other, for 3rd graders to get an hour or more of homework.

Recent studies indicate that homework contributes little (high school)  to nothing (grade school) to either short term (standardized testing results) or long term (doing well in college) academic success. Repeat, just to be clear: doing homework will contribute nothing to the academic success of grade school age children, and very little to the success of high school students. (Note: elite colleges currently assign up to 50% of incoming freshmen – that would be the freshmen with the 4.3 GPAs, a dozen AP classes under their belts and thousands and thousands of hours spent doing homework – into remedial math, English and writing courses. What’s wrong with this picture?)

Conversely, for children, getting enough sleep (8 – 10 hours a night) contributes mightily to academic success, not to mention general health and happiness.

Also, time spent in unstructured play, and especially time spent in quiet enjoyment of family life correlate very highly to both future happiness and academic success.

Finally, the price for homework is exactly and explicitly a reduction or elimination of time spent in unstructured play, sleep and the quiet enjoyment of one’s family (aside: anybody ever fight over getting a kid to do homework, or poison home life with worry and nagging over homework?).

Assignment: given the above, explain:

– why parents, teachers and administrators passionately argue for the importance of homework, even and explicitly when the above facts are made known to them;

– explain why teachers who unilaterally decide to eliminate homework are, without exception, derided and ridiculed by parents and other teachers, even when test scores in their classes IMPROVE.

Getting the answer to this question correct is the key to understanding the nature of educational dilemma we’re in.

Race to Nowhere, the movie

Website here.

Movie was good. Yard Sale of the Mind says: Check it out. Saw this movie for free with a bunch of parents, kids and teachers at a local high school. 30 minute comment period followed.

Honesty check – despite what I write below, I got choked up at several points in the movie. The emotions are real, the tragedies are real, and my heart went out to all the suffering kids and parents portrayed. So, please keep that in mind as I get medieval (you know, relentlessly and compellingly logical – just like they did in the medieval universities) on this movie, and especially on the audience.

Race to Nowhere is a documentary intended to get people to change their behaviors in order to reduce stress on school children. It tells us much more, and on different topics, than the creators consciously intended.

On the surface, it’s a 90 minute story of tragedy – of children whose childhoods, health and even lives are destroyed by the relentless pressure to succeed in school. Their parents contribute important interviews. Teachers and experts are also shown, some even brought to tears by their frustration and sadness with what they see happening to kids, but they are minor and largely irrelevant characters in this tale, used to voice a few key concepts.  At the end, we see a series of timid ideas scroll across the screen for making schooling a kinder, gentler people factory.

While the idea of change is actively promoted, it’s not too hard to see that change, to the makers of the documentary and, especially, the audience,  means the absolute bare minimum needed to make everybody feel better about doing the same old things. One teacher in the audience went to lengths to say that the issues in the movie were ‘complicated’ and later added that she’d asked her own classes, after viewing the trailer, if they felt stressed – and most of them said they did not. This teacher was evidently entirely immune to irony: presenting kids with the Cliff Notes (the trailer) of a very emotional movie, a movie in which a series of child psychologist speak at length about how hard it is for kids to talk to adults about emotional issues, then asking them a potentially embarrassing question in front of their peers – she gets the answer she wants to hear from kids who have spent years learning to regurgitate what their teachers want to hear.  Her cluelessness was truly awesome.

More about the audience later.

Continue reading “Race to Nowhere, the movie”

A silly little thing called ‘Democracy’

Few days back, posted the following on the Discuss Sudbury Model list on Google lists, in response to what I saw as an attempt to characterize Democracy as desperately needing a degree of benevolent nudging (or ham-fisted collectivist thought control, take your pick) in order to prevent the powerful few from dominating the disinterested many. Of course, it wasn’t put that way – that’s me trying to be funny. You should see my haircut.

Anyway,  thought it might be of interest to all those people out there not reading this blog:

You raise real issues that have gotten a lot of thought. Churchill’s quip about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others is applicable here as well, but:

The problems you describe have been apparent since the inception of democracy – surely, the Athenians were well aware of them, as were the founding fathers, as are the people involved with Sudbury schools. In more general terms, it’s a question of balancing the interests of the few against interests of the many (or, as your examples, the interests of another few). The counterbalances are also pretty well understood (my opinions here – there’s no magesterium for the Sudbury world, I’m sure other disagree):

1) natural, unaliable rights. There are certain things the democracy shall not do. Period. No voting on it.

2) subsidiarity. As Wikipedia puts it: an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority.

An example that sprang to mind while reading your posts: US sugar producers, a tiny percentage of the population, have historically gotten laws passed which have the effect of imposing a sugar tax on everybody else, to the benefit of the US sugar producers. Absent these laws, we’d all pay a lot less for sugar (we’d import it all), and many if not all US based sugar producers would go out of business.

So, the questions become: are rights being violated? Is this decision being made at the appropriate level?

In the first case, I’d say yes, rights are being violated – effectively, one group of people is seizing the property of another group for their own benefit. In the second – since when is it a national level issue whether some local companies go out of business or not? Are we really going to agree that sugar production is some sort of national security issue?

Of course, there are counter arguments. But it’s telling that issues such as these are currently settled by weighing the wallets of the political contributors involved without any reference to principles at all.

In Sudbury schools, there are generally only three levels of Democracy – individuals, with their rights, groups with their goals and plans, and the school as a whole. The students, in the JC, school meeting and just in the rough and tumble of life, learn through doing that, in order for the school to run properly or even survive 1) everybody has rights which must be respected; 2) things work better if the ‘national’ level democracy (school meeting) leaves as much of the details as possible to the local level democracy (corporations and groups); 3) there are some ‘national’ level issues, such as adherence to the general laws of the land, that must be dealt with on a ‘national’ level.

So, I’d argue that, from a practical perspective, Sudbury students get far better training in the proper deployment of Democracy than any other students anywhere. They don’t get that weirdly abstract and rosy view of government I recall from ‘civics’ classes, a newsreel-like ‘progress marches on’ view of government fundamentally antithetical to functioning democracy. Instead, having experienced the work involved in a real democracy, they are less likely to mistake what goes on in America, at least at a national level, for any kind of real democracy.

This is a good thing, in my opinion.

Plato and that crowd…

This happens regularly: Somebody with a fleeting or better acquaintance with Plato or Socrates will mention how crazy they were about something, and that, while maybe paying lip-service to the ongoing need not to neglect history, will say that, really, we’ve got it all a lot better figured out now-a-days.

Don’t know whether to laugh or throw up.

Couple examples: One gentleman on a discussion group I’m in is just positive than Plato via Socrates is a deceitful apologist for the Athenian elites, using his wiles to seduce people into trying to behave virtuously in some pure, abstract sense that happens to play into the hands of the people who have power. His proof-text is the Republic. He also thinks the Socratic Method is a fraud, because Socrates always leads his interlocutors by the nose wherever he wants to go.

Another: today’s NYT has an opinion piece dragging Socrates into the current fray over censoring excessively graphic and violent video games in California. Socrates, again in the Republic, speaks in favor of heavy censorship of – of all people – Homer, for the harmful way the Iliad and the Odyssey portray heroes and gods. The comments section contains a whole bunch of Plato-bashing, or worse, Plato-dismissing. (You bash somebody who’s views you care about at least on some level, granting them in the process some degree of respect; you dismiss inferiors.)

The text of the Republic reveals, in that mysterious way the written word has of conveying information, that it’s not as simple as all that. Read a bunch of Socratic Dialogues (I’ve read them all at least once), and it gets more curious – that Socrates guy is not above pulling somebody’s leg, or even toying with people who imagine they’re in his league, but aren’t. His major goal, when he has one, is to leave people not so sure about what they were sure about before they spoke with him. As far as imparting a coherent philosophy to his talk-buddies, that doesn’t seem real high on his to-do list. The overall impression is: this is a really, really smart guy who is picking his spots – he’s  way too smart to read some rote summary of his views to all comers. regardless of where they’re coming from. He uses whatever it is that his interlocutor is interested in as a means to – what? Getting them to think a little, maybe?

Further, while I loathe the whole ‘deconstruction’ thing with every fiber of my being (see: Sokal Affair), it doesn’t hurt to ask: what was going on in Athens when Socrates wrote this stuff? A little context can often shed a whole different light on things.  Surely it is not a coincidence that he describes an ‘ideal’ city in the Republic that is a purified and glorified reflection of Sparta, which happened to be occupying Athens at the time this dialogue is set? Every Athenian child took in with his mother’s milk that Athens was glorious, free and brave, inhabited by the most god-like men yet to walk the earth – and here it is, under the heel of Sparta, always caricatured by the Athenians as a bunch of thick-headed rubes whose only claim to fame was success in war.

( BTW, the Athenians had been winning the war with Sparta they had just lost for years before they overreached (hey, just like in those Greek Tragedies!) and screwed it up with hubris. Maybe, you know, this whole ‘is Sparta really better than Athens?’ question was on everybody’s mind.)

So Socrates, in keeping with his behavior in *virtually every other freakin’ dialogue* uses what’s on everybody’s mind to get the thinking going – he premises his arguments on *Sparta’s* premises, purified so as to appeal to his audience. He then takes his buds through the long path to where those premises lead. Where they lead is NO FUN AT ALL. No Homer. No families. No freedom. Nuthin’

And leaves it at that. Because, again, he’s a really smart guy.

Schools. Culture. Science.

Speaking of stating the obvious: we rely more and more on schools and science the more our culture dies. This is a mistake, as explained below.

What’s slightly less obvious: the success of schools and science (however that success is defined) is a result of a successful culture. What obscures this truth is the sometimes silent, sometimes shouted from the rooftops claim that, somehow, successful schooling *results* in good culture and good science.

To quote Shrek: Yea, likes that’s gonna happen.

If you find the above assertions incoherent or even blasphemous, recall that there’s a huge array of interests and individuals who’s livelihood depends on schools holding a sacred spot in our society – these people have pretty much pushed the rational opponents of schooling (e.g., Orestes Brownson) off the public stage entirely. and we can’t entirely discount the presence of a Stockholm Syndrome – having been prisoners of schools for well over a decade, we cut deals to save our psyches.  The upshot: posing the perfectly reasonable question of what, exactly, school is good for is far more emotional for most people than can be explained by the question itself.

Let’s say you start with culture instead. For an extreme Catholic example, look at St. John Bosco – he worked with abandoned and orphaned boys. The very first thing he did was create a culture – he knew that there was no point in trying to start a school until the boys belonged to something, felt affection and obligation to something. So, he and his brother teachers first and foremost treated the boys with respect – no bullying, no making them receive the Sacraments for their own good, no harsh discipline. Next, Bosco and Co provided a vivid, constant example of what a meaningful adult life was like – they were happy, hard-working, intimately involved in the lives of others, caring for the weak.  It is within this context that ‘schooling’ took place. The primary material  goal of Bosco’s  education was to get the boys a job – again, a job is just one important way we have a meaningful roll in our culture. Only as a secondary goal were academics pursued.

To recap: Bosco, a great lover of children and famous for his ability to connect with them,  knew that the major lack in the lives of these boys was family – the smallest unit of culture – and that that lacuna must first be filled before any other progress can be made. Because the boys lacked families, they also lacked any means for joining adult culture – namely, they couldn’t get a job, which meant they couldn’t get married and raise a family (couldn’t, as it were, attain FNG status! See, it’s all connected!).  So Bosco worked to reconnect the circle that was broken for these boys – by becoming family for them, by helping them get a job, he enabled them to join that great interlocking chain of family circles we call a culture.

Science, in the context of culture, is just another useful craft. The mythology tries to convince us that great scientists are some sort of James Dean style outcasts, operating on the fringes of culture and fighting off culture’s ignorance in order to lead us, kicking and screaming, into the future. This is historically utter nonsense, but hey, who learns history any more?

QED: School and Science succeed because of culture.