Eduspeak Is Canned, Not Candid

by Robert Pondiscio
May 29th, 2009

Candor and straight talk are rare in education, and euphemisms abound, observes Maureen Downey, the education columnist for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.  At one level, the jargon can be amusing, such as the habit of referring to one of the buildings at her son’s school as the cottage. “Personally, I would describe the place where fifth-graders attend class as a trailer,” Downey writes. ”But then, I’m not an education professional.”   More seriously, she notes that happy talk and edubabble contribute to parental mistrust of schools.

My husband and I once had a 10-minute sidewalk chat with a school consultant working at a local elementary school. After a conversation about psychometrics, scaffolding, formative assessments and zone of proximal development, we walked away asking one another, “What was she saying?”  The use of education jargon serves as a defense mechanism, to keep parents at bay and to establish from the onset who is the expert and who is the amateur. It becomes a way to silence questions and squelch opposition.

Downey wonders if ”beleaguered and scapegoated” educators can afford to be honest and forthcoming.  ”If principals admit to unhappy parents that a new teacher is not proving effective,” she points out, ”they may also have to tell those parents that they’re stuck with the teacher anyway, since it’s not an easy task to replace staff midyear.”

The Importance of Solitude

by Robert Pondiscio
May 28th, 2009

A favorite canard in education is the one about Rip Van Winkle waking up after one hundred years’ sleep and easily recognizing a classroom.  It’s probably more accurate  to suggest, however, that if old Rip were suddenly jarred awake, it would be due to the noise from a nearby elementary school, with its incessant hum of group work, collaborative learning, and nonstop “turn and talks.” 

What our classrooms have lost, writes Diana Senechal in an Education Week essay, is badly needed quiet time for thinking, reading, and problem solving.   “It is not at all good to be visibly ‘engaged’ at every moment,” she notes.  “One also needs room to collect one’s thoughts and separate oneself from one’s peers.”  She wonders why there is so much emphasis on socialization in education and so little on solitude, when both are important to learning?

Solitude should not become a fad; that would make some of us wish we had never brought it up at all. The shift toward solitude should be subtle, not screeching. Don’t abandon group work, but take it down from its altar. Make room for quiet thought and give students something substantial to think about. The children will respond. Also, recognize teaching as a thinking profession. There is no reason for teachers to sit in groups filling out Venn diagrams during professional-development sessions when they could be doing something more interesting on their own.

It’s an excellent point.  Now, turn to your neighbor and tell whether you agree or disagree…

Diana is a teacher at a Core Knowledge school in NYC.  And if you haven’t been reading her thoughtful guest posts for Joanne Jacobs over the past week, take a look.

The Taking of English 101

by Robert Pondiscio
May 28th, 2009

“Dad, what does ’pervasive’ mean?” My daughter asked me the other day.  pelham-1231

“It means something that’s all over.  Like a bad smell.”

“So pervasive language is bad language?”

What had caught her 11-year old eye was a movie poster for The Taking of Pelham 123.  She said the movie was rated R for “pervasive language.”  I was reasonably certain she was mistaken.  Perhaps the poster said “pervasive foul language?”  No, she insisted.  It just said “pervasive language.”  I forgot about the exchange until I found myself  standing on a subway platform yesterday evening.  The Child was right:  pervasive-language1

Pervasive language?  You mean there’s talking in every scene?  Well, thank goodness for the warning!  I want my summer blockbusters full of chase scenes and explosions, thanks.  If I want dialogue, I’ll just stay home and watch Masterpiece Theatre.

A quick Internet search shows the MPAA has been using “pervasive language” to justify “R” ratings for at least 15 years. A 1994 movie titled Once Were Warriors earned an R  for “pervasive language and strong depiction of domestic abuse, including sexual violence and substance abuse.”  Still, just about every movie since Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer has featured pervasive language.  Perhaps it’s an appropriate warning for David Mamet or Woody Allen movies, but it’s hard to justify as a synonym for “offensive” or “foul throughout.”

A common teaching strategy is to have kids use context clues to puzzle out the meaning of unfamiliar words.  It helps if those words are used correctly.

Six Reasons Merit Pay is Unfair

by Robert Pondiscio
May 26th, 2009

President Obama loves merit pay.  So does Arne Duncan.  Editorial writers from coast to coast support the idea proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger  that “teacher employment be tied to performance, not to just showing up.”  Dan Willingham wanders into the fray with his latest video, “Merit Pay, Teacher Pay and Value-Added Measures,” and offers six reasons why “value added measures sound fair, but they are not.”

The political winds certainly seem to be very much at the back of merit pay plans.  Months or years hence, there may be a temptation to describe the “unintended consequences” of such plans.  Call them unintended, but not unanticipated.

Vox Populi

by Robert Pondiscio
May 22nd, 2009

One problem with the mastery assessment argument is that all too often students who choose not to do homework, attend, etc., then fail traditional assessments but are granted “alternative” evaluations. It has been my experience that few of these alternative methods measure mastery but are simply social promotion poorly disguised as legitimate accomplishment.”   Peter on “standards-based grading

This may explain why parent education is such a powerful predictor of student success. It’s a lot easier for a kid whose parents are doctors, lawyers, or teachers to see the connection between education and jobs, than it is for the child of someone struggling in a low-wage job to understand that education could make a difference for them.”   Rachel on What’s My Motivation?

Wallace is essentially mounting the “transferable skills” defense of the humanities. While she may not have used any “21st-century skills” language, her arguments bring her into the same terrain. Skills developed through intense engagement with specific academic content become useful in very different areas. Might some of those skills even outlive some of the content knowledge that helped incubate them?”  Claus von Zastrow on In Defense of the Liberal Arts

I don’t mind schools promoting the idea of volunteerism, even expecting it as prerequisite for some honors, but requiring it? That seems the sort of thinking we would expect from people who have no logical problem with “mandatory volunteerism.”  Brian Rude on Service Learning

I Have a Dream

by Robert Pondiscio
May 22nd, 2009

“It would have chilled Martin Luther King’s blood to see how the struggle for equality has been narrowed into a race for higher test scores in a society that abandoned Lyndon Johnson’s ‘War on Poverty.’” 

Them’s fightin’ words.

What’s My Motivation?

by Robert Pondiscio
May 22nd, 2009

Teaching middle school students that academic performance is a key to their future job prospects is more important to student achievement than helping kids with their homework, according to a new study.   “Instilling the value of education and linking school work to future goals is what this age group needs to excel in school, more than parents’ helping with homework or showing up at school,” lead researcher Nancy E. Hill, PhD, of Harvard University tells Science Daily. She examined 50 studies with more than 50,000 students over a 26-year period looking at what kinds of parent involvement helped children’s academic achievement.

I clearly recall my late father making sure he instilled in his son the value of education. And the links he established between school and future job prospects were clear and unambiguous:

“Get your @#$%! to school!  Do you want to be a #$%@! bum your whole life?

Does that count?

In Defense of the Liberal Arts

by Robert Pondiscio
May 21st, 2009

Less than 10% of college degrees are now being awarded in the Humanities, but former Semiotics major Lane Wallace, a writer and editor for Flying magazine, passionately disagrees with those who would deride a liberal arts education as impractical.  Writing in The Atlantic, she describes an epiphany that came when she took a leave of absence from Brown to travel, and found herself working in a corrugated cardboard factory in New Zealand.

In a flash, I grasped the true value of a college degree. It didn’t matter what I majored in. It didn’t even matter all that much what my grades were. What mattered was that I got that rectangular piece of paper that said, “Lane Wallace never has to work in a corrugated cardboard factory again.” A piece of paper that was proof to any potential future employer that I could stick with a project and complete it successfully, even if parts of it weren’t all that much fun. A piece of paper that said I had learned how to process an overload of information, prioritize, sort through it intelligently, and distill all that into a coherent end product … all while coping with stress and deadlines without imploding. 

In an increasingly global economy, Wallace writes, more than just technical skill is required. “Far more challenging is the ability to work with a multitude of viewpoints and cultures. And the liberal arts are particularly good at teaching how different arguments on the same point can be equally valid, depending on what presumptions or values you bring to the subject,” she concludes.

Wallace’s biggest accomplishment, however, is to have mounted a smart and spirited defense of liberal arts education without once using the words “skills,” “century,” or “21st,” or combining them in the same sentence. 

A grateful nation thanks her.  Liberally.

Coming Soon to a Screen Near You

by Robert Pondiscio
May 21st, 2009

“In a world where ed reformers think merit pay is the key to improving student outcomes…”

The summer’s biggest blockbuster?  Dan Willingham is about to give his patented YouTube treatment to the issue of performance pay for teachers. Tongues will wag. 

While you wait for that, check out Dan’s latest over at Britannica Blog, which takes up the question of whether ”common sense” can be taught.  The short answer:  “To some extent, yes,” he says.  Because of the complexity of human thought and how we face unfamiliar problems and situtations, smart people will do dumb things.  “But with sufficient practice, people can come to recognize the types of errors the reflective mind makes, and learn to avoid them,” Willingham notes.

Goal Standard

by Robert Pondiscio
May 21st, 2009

Run, don’t walk, over to Joanne Jacobs where the talented Diana Senechal is guest-blogging for Joanne between now and May 29.  Diana, a teacher at a Core Knowledge school in NYC, has been a frequent contributor here on the Core Knowledge Blog and one of the more original and thoughtful classroom observers in the edusphere wherever her comments appear.

Check out her thoughts about why failure is important, and today’s  post on goal-setting for students.  Apparently, New York City schools now require every student to have explicit, written learning goals in every subject–and to show or recite them on demand. 

The goal requirement blurs the line of responsibility. Who is responsible for the learning? If teachers must set goals for students, then students do not have to set goals for themselves. If the learning doesn’t happen, students can simply say that they never got their goals or never discussed them in conference. The focus is on documentation (what was sent out, discussed, and signed) rather than the subject matter and the learning of it.

“A goal can be vital or banal,” Diana concludes.  “Mandating it (and setting the language for it) tips it in the direction of banality.”

This is a classic example of my First Law of Bad Education Practice, which holds there is not a single good idea in education that doesn’t become a bad idea the moment it hardens into orthodoxy.  Diana nails the reason why this is ironclad law: once the focus is on documentation (Student goals? Check!) it’s all about the To Do list.  The first, immediate casualty is whatever made the idea powerful in the first place.