Do “Great Books” Still Matter?

by Robert Pondiscio
December 11th, 2008

Britannica Blog, too often overlooked, continues to impress with its thoughtful writing and conversation on education.  With writers like Dan Willingham and Karin Chenoweth, it’s unabashedly intellectual, broad and wide-ranging, and refuses to cater to the allegedly short attention span of the online reader.  This week, to mark the publication of Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam’s new book, A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, the B.B. sets many minds to work on the question, “Do ‘Great Books’ still matter?”

Robert McHenry, former editor-in-chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica, observes that any discusssion of the very idea of “Great Books” comes down to a single (and singular) question:  What is education for?

Do we educate our young so that they will find gainful and rewarding employment? Do we educate them so that they will be good citizens? Do we educate them so that they will have disciplined and well-stocked minds? Do we educate them mainly to get them out of the house?

Echoing McHenry, the president of St. John’s College, Christopher B. Nelson, reclaims the liberal arts ideal, reminding us that too many of us in education, in our relentless focus on test scores and outcomes, risk losing our way.  Try not to cringe as Nelson describes the chairman of the business department of a small “liberal arts” college saying to one of his sons,

“My job is to make you into the best product that can be sold on the market.  You are raw material and I am the producer and together we must make a product that we can go out and sell.  I want to help you get the best price for your mind and body when you graduate from here, in competition with all the other products from all the other colleges.”

In a certain sense, there is nothing wrong with this approach, Nelson writes.  ”More people should have this.  Almost all of us need to work in order to live.  But life is more than earning a living.  One ought also to be concerned with making a life worth living.  So, the problem with this kind of education is that it is just not enough,” he concludes.

Lastly, for teachers who, inevitably, question the relevance of Great Books to low-income, immigrant, or minority learners, English professor Bruce Gans has a reply.  Observing the “tragic intellectual and cultural handicaps” that have hobbled his students, Gans administers a curriculum based on Mortimer Adler’s famous reading list.

The most serious form this terrible damage takes is that my students as a consequence are unexposed to the ideas, questions, and meditations on the human condition these major figures have contributed and from which millions of the educated have gleaned a deeper and more useful understanding of themselves, of others, and of the long and painful evolution that has brought us to our current stage of civilization and human freedom.

“Insofar as the Great Books are concerned, they will continue to deeply reward those like my students who study and understand them,” Gans writes.   And to those who dismiss them?  ”One calls to mind the Middle Eastern expression: the dogs bark, the caravan passes.”

Stopping a Bad Idea In Its Tracks

by Robert Pondiscio
December 5th, 2008

“A lie can get half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes,” said Mark Twain.

Dan Willingham does the education world a good service, stopping a bad teaching idea in its tracks.  If you saw yesterday’s ASCD Smart Brief newsletter, which goes out to hundreds of thousands of educators, you may have read the lead item, “Students can benefit from tackling hardest material first.” It concluded that, “while most teachers progress from easier topics to more advanced ones, that may not always be the best approach, according to a new study.”  A man bites dog story if ever there was one. 

There’s just one problem: That conclusion is not supported by the study, which was done by Greg Ashby, an internationally recognized expert in how people learn new categories.  On Britannica Blog Willingham calls BS on this half-baked idea:

Ashby is interested in differences between two types of categories: those for which one learns an explicit rule (e.g. tricycles have three wheels, bicycles have two) and those categories that one learns almost intuitively, and for which one cannot articulate the rule by which one makes a judgment (e.g., the difference between paintings by Klee and paintings by Kandinsky).  Ashby doesn’t use these sorts of categories, however. He uses more figures more amendable to experimental control such as those shown in the figure. The finding in the article is that for the intuitive categorization (like Klee/Kandinsky), subjects learn better if they get the more difficult-to-categorize stimuli first, and the easy stimuli later. For the explicit category (like the bicycle/tricycle) the order doesn’t matter.

Ashby didn’t make any claims about education, notes Willingham, who contacted him for “to be sure that I wasn’t missing something.” Ashby’s reply:

“I believe it is much too premature to apply our results to classroom instruction. First, the work needs to be generalized to natural objects and real-world information of the type encountered in classrooms. Second, we found a benefit for initial training on difficult items only for a certain specialized kind of learning that is probably rare in classroom instruction. The goal of most classroom instruction is to convey explicit knowledge to students, and our research found no benefit to training initially on difficult items when the knowledge to be gained is explicit.”

It’s not hard to imagine how this broad, unsustainable idea — tackle the hard stuff first — could be misapplied.  For example, as a justification to continue to have kids attempt Algebra before mastering basic math.  Kudos to Willingham.

How Not to Evaluate Teachers

by Robert Pondiscio
November 3rd, 2008

UVA professor and Core Knowledge board member Dan Willingham, who routinely graces this blog with his observations, is now blogging over at Britannica Blog.  His first post is up today, and it’s a barn burner: How NOT to Evaluate Teachers.  Plans to evaluate teachers based on standardized test scores are “fatally flawed,” he writes.

Obviously, the measure cannot be based on a one-time test score, because a student’s achievement is a product of (at least) his home environment, neighborhood, and prior schooling. So you must try to assess how much the student learns over the course of the year. But these “value added” measures bring lots of thorny statistical problems. For example, suppose your plan is to administer a test in the Autumn and one in the Spring, and to compare them to see how much students have gained. Well, some Autumn test-takers will have moved by the Spring.  Can’t you just ignore those scores? No, because low-income students are more likely to move than high-income students, and low-income students tend to score lower. So if you ignore missing data, you’re biasing the estimate.

Dan lists other problems that he says are old stuff to statisticians, and concludes ”there’s nothing wrong with using value-added measures in research, with all the caveats of the method understood, as one in an array of tools to address a research question. But using it as a measure of an individual teacher’s efficacy is foolish.”

School 2.0

by Robert Pondiscio
October 26th, 2008

There’s a thoughtful and important conversation going on over at Britannica Blog about how — or if — Web 2.0 will transform education, as well as the changing roles of student and teacher in our emerging digital age.  The series of essays from boldface names in academia including Michael Wesch, Mark Bauerlein, Dan Willingham and David Cole is mercifully light on the smugness and pie-eyed utopianism that is typical of most writing on education technology.

“While most of our classrooms were built under the assumption that information is scarce and hard to find,” writes Kansas State University cultural anthropologist Michael Wesch, ”nearly the entire body of human knowledge now flows through and around these rooms in one form or another.” 

We are enveloped in a cloud of ubiquitous digital information where the nature and dynamics of knowledge have shifted. We can acknowledge that most of our students have powerful devices on them that give them instant and constant access to this cloud (including almost any answer to almost any multiple choice question you can imagine). We can welcome laptops, cell phones, and iPods into our classrooms, not as distractions, but as powerful learning technologies. We can use them in ways that empower and engage students in real world problems and activities, leveraging the enormous potentials of the digital media environment that now surrounds us. 

Emory University’s Mark Bauerlein, the author of The Dumbest Generation and a reknowned digital skeptic responds that “no generation has experienced so many techno-enhancements and produced so little intellectual progress. Still, in spite of these underwhelming numbers, pro-tech advocacy continues. The disappointing results come years after the initial launch, and so people forget the promises put forward about how technology would transform learning. But with school budgets tight and student writing in critical condition, we need more accountability in the initiatives and more hard skepticism about learning benefits. And we need a lot less fervor for tools and screens that have only existed for a few years and whose human consequences are yet to be determined.”

The genie has long since left the bottle argues Steve Hargadon, founder of the Classroom 2.0 social network.  “What is abundantly clear is that no matter what our schools are currently doing, most of our students are already actively involved in this content creation and conversation outside of school.”  University of Virginia psychology professor Dan Willingham, with his singular gift for separating the transformational from the merely trendy notes:

At the heart of Hargadon’s vision—and Michael Wesch’s—is the collaborative student project, and this idea has been prominent in American education since 1919, when William Kilpatrick published his classic essay, “The Project Method.” Kilpatrick and his followers would recognize most of Hargadon’s list of advantages for Web 2.0 learning: engagement, authenticity, participation, openness, collaboration, creativity, personal expression, discussion, asynchronous contribution, and critical thinking. Most or all of these advantages accrue not from Web 2.0 in particular, but from its collaborative nature, and from the fact that students have a significant voice in selecting and shaping the project.

“The question is really whether Web 2.0 makes the student project more likely to succeed than project-based learning did before Web 2.0,” Willingham writes. 

The most persuasive point in the series so far arguably comes from Michael Horn, the Executive Director of Innosight Institute and co-author of the recent Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. 

If we hope for computer-based or online learning to have a positive impact and fulfill its transformative promise at scale, we need to implement it in a counterintuitive way by deploying it disruptively — that is, by allowing it to compete against non-consumption, where the alternative is literally nothing at all. Once there, it will predictably improve, and at some point, it will become good enough to handle more complicated problems and supplant the old way of doing things.  This is how all disruptive innovations transform their field.

Horn cites examples of education non-consumption advanced courses that many schools are unable to offer, small, rural, and urban schools that are unable to offer breadth, home-schooled students and those who can’t keep up with the regular schedule of school, and those who need tutoring, among others.


Deep in the comments section of one of the essays, Karin Chenoweth of the Education Trust offers a thoughtful coda to the entire conversation: “The last thing we need is a generation of students who are able to synchronize their dance moves with millions of other people on YouTube but still have no idea of their roles as citizens in the most powerful democracy in the world–or, for that matter, what a democracy is and how democracies differ from the other ways humans organize their societies.”