The more we use the Web, the more we train our brain to be distracted - to process information very quickly and very efficiently but without sustained attention. That helps explain why many of us find it hard to concentrate even when we’re away from our computers. Our brains become adept at forgetting, inept at remembering. Our growing dependence on the Web’s information stores may in fact be the product of a self-perpetuating, self-amplifying loop. As our use of the Web makes it harder for us to lock information into our biological memory, we’re forced to reply more and more on the Net’s capacious and easily searchable artificial memory, even if it makes us shallower thinkers.
The changes in our brains happen automatically, outside the narrow compass of our consciousness, but that doesn’t absolve us of the responsibilities for the choices we make. One thing that sets us apart from other animals is the command we have been granted over our attention.
[David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon Commencement Address discusses this exact issue (without the technological rationale for its existence).]
Amar (all great achievements require time).
A short film about Amar, an Indian boy who is 14 and top of his class. Someday he’d like to be a professional cricketer, but for now he’s the family’s main breadwinner, working two jobs six and a half days a week on top of attending school in the afternoons. This short observational documentary is a simple journey with Amar through his daily life.
The ironic life is certainly a provisional answer to the problems of too much comfort, too much history and too many choices, but it is my firm conviction that this mode of living is not viable and conceals within it many social and political risks. For such a large segment of the population to forfeit its civic voice through the pattern of negation I’ve described is to siphon energy from the cultural reserves of the community at large. People may choose to continue hiding behind the ironic mantle, but this choice equals a surrender to commercial and political entities more than happy to act as parents for a self-infantilizing citizenry. So rather than scoffing at the hipster — a favorite hobby, especially of hipsters — determine whether the ashes of irony have settled on you as well. It takes little effort to dust them away.
Well worth reading - http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/17/how-to-live-without-irony/
A lot of similarities and parallels with David Foster Wallace’s essay ‘E Unibus Pluram’:
“Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.” This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it. But irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks. This is why Hyde seems right about persistent irony being tiresome. It is unmeaty.
…make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us. The reason why our pervasive cultural irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All irony is a variation on a sort of existential poker-face. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit “I don’t really mean what I say.”
…The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. The new rebels might be the ones willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “How banal.” Accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Credulity.
Bernie Sanders interviewed by Bill Moyers.
Anther education-related article that I’ve enjoyed lately. I think it contains a lot of lessons for people thinking about US education reform, as it provides a very different perspective for considering what successful teaching is, what hiring standards should be, how much training and schooling should be required, how teacher compensation should work, and particularly questioning the focus on testing that dominates so much of the ed reform agenda.
“Whatever it takes” is an attitude that drives not just Kirkkojarvi’s 30 teachers, but most of Finland’s 62,000 educators in 3,500 schools from Lapland to Turku—professionals selected from the top 10 percent of the nation’s graduates to earn a required master’s degree in education. Many schools are small enough so that teachers know every student. If one method fails, teachers consult with colleagues to try something else. They seem to relish the challenges. Nearly 30 percent of Finland’s children receive some kind of special help during their first nine years of school. The school where Louhivuori teaches served 240 first through ninth graders last year; and in contrast with Finland’s reputation for ethnic homogeneity, more than half of its 150 elementary-level students are immigrants—from Somalia, Iraq, Russia, Bangladesh, Estonia and Ethiopia, among other nations. “Children from wealthy families with lots of education can be taught by stupid teachers,” Louhivuori said, smiling. “We try to catch the weak students. It’s deep in our thinking.”
After being told of the American reform system’s obsession with data and statistics as a driver of change, policy and financing and asked how he thinks Finnish teachers would respond to such methods, a long-time principal responded:
“I think, in fact, teachers would tear off their shirts, if you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.”
And to back this talk up:
There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school. There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions…
“Americans like all these bars and graphs and colored charts,” Louhivuori teased, as he rummaged through his closet looking for past years’ results. “Looks like we did better than average two years ago,” he said after he found the reports. “It’s nonsense. We know much more about the children than these tests can tell us.”
That bigger-picture/humanistic ethos seems to permeate even the political level of education in Finland, as:
Finland’s schools are publicly funded. The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians. Every school has the same national goals and draws from the same pool of university-trained educators. The result is that a Finnish child has a good shot at getting the same quality education no matter whether he or she lives in a rural village or a university town. The differences between weakest and strongest students are the smallest in the world, according to the most recent survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “Equality is the most important word in Finnish education. All political parties on the right and left agree on this,” said Olli Luukkainen, president of Finland’s powerful teachers union.
What this points to is that competition and data are not the drivers of excellence in education and teaching in Finland - instead a more enlightened appreciation of how important education is to the country as a whole and the sincere civic and political commitment to that task seem to be the primary forces behind its outstanding results. And just to reinforce that the difference between system-wide mediocrity and excellence may in fact be (at least partially) attributed to those intangible attitudes and values that cost nothing:
Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union. Yet Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States.
And while it may be gross to generalize 62,000 teachers share one unified teaching philosophy, I would safely bet more teachers in Finland have this outlook on teaching than in America (in large part due to the test-crazed culture):
“We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test,” said Pasi Sahlberg, a former math and physics teacher who is now in Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture. “We are not much interested in PISA. It’s not what we are about.”
Another similar quote:
Even many of the most severely disabled will find a place in Finland’s expanded system of vocational high schools, which are attended by 43 percent of Finnish high-school students, who prepare to work in restaurants, hospitals, construction sites and offices. “We help situate them in the right high school,” said then deputy principal Anne Roselius. “We are interested in what will become of them in life.”
Speaking to the time-burden and over-extension issue that teachers face in many US public schools, there’s this:
Teachers in Finland spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms than American teachers. Teachers use the extra time to build curriculums and assess their students. Children spend far more time playing outside, even in the depths of winter. Homework is minimal. Compulsory schooling does not begin until age 7. “We have no hurry,” said Louhivuori. “Children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out?”
This portrait of Finland really throws into relief the idea that testing and data can be a driver of everything in teaching and ed reform - and forces you to start considering questions about what all this myopic testing is missing, what is it causing educational leaders and policy makers to overlook, and whether it really dehumanizes and saps the practice of teaching of what it should be focused on: to teach kids to love to learn, to teach them not how to take a test but to be successful in life, to instill a natural curiosity, to focus on those non-cognitive, soft, everyday skills that make happier human beings, and most importantly, to see your students as human beings first and foremost.
On top of that that, this outlook is accompanied by a stern professionalism and respect for the complexity and high-skill-levels of elite teaching - the required training, funding, and supports determined by the state reflect that appreciation and seriousness. Higher-standards, more pay, and more training for one of the most difficult and demanding jobs I can imagine is logical in my book:
The school receives 47,000 euros a year in positive discrimination money to hire aides and special education teachers, who are paid slightly higher salaries than classroom teachers because of their required sixth year of university training and the demands of their jobs
Apparently this came about in the 1970’s, as:
in 1979, when reformers required that every teacher earn a fifth-year master’s degree in theory and practice at one of eight state universities—at state expense. From then on, teachers were effectively granted equal status with doctors and lawyers. Applicants began flooding teaching programs, not because the salaries were so high but because autonomy and respect made the job attractive. In 2010, some 6,600 applicants vied for 660 primary school training slots.
Other clever reforms that they enacted were:
[In] the mid-1980s, a final set of initiatives shook the classrooms free from the last vestiges of top-down regulation. Control over policies shifted to town councils. The national curriculum was distilled into broad guidelines. National math goals for grades one through nine, for example, were reduced to a neat ten pages. Sifting and sorting children into so-called ability groupings was eliminated. All children—clever or less so—were to be taught in the same classrooms, with lots of special teacher help available to make sure no child really would be left behind. The inspectorate closed its doors in the early ’90s, turning accountability and inspection over to teachers and principals. “We have our own motivation to succeed because we love the work,” said Louhivuori. “Our incentives come from inside.”
Again, returning to that idea that the push towards educational excellence can be driven by forces other than market and data and competition (although a counter argument might be that that is the only way to get anything done in the US as it is impossible for government to exert that kind of top-down control over education policies that may be initially required to reboot the system, as Michael Barber identified as a issue holding the US back).
I also think there’s a much larger and messier lesson in there about the extensive role of the government in alleviating the destructive effects that low socio-economic status and immigration can have on families and children (there is undoubtedly nothing near the depth of disadvantage like American urban poverty in Finland). As part of the article states:
It’s almost unheard of for a child to show up hungry or homeless. Finland provides three years of maternity leave and subsidized day care to parents, and preschool for all 5-year-olds, where the emphasis is on play and socializing. In addition, the state subsidizes parents, paying them around 150 euros per month for every child until he or she turns 17. Ninety-seven percent of 6-year-olds attend public preschool, where children begin some academics. Schools provide food, medical care, counseling and taxi service if needed. Student health care is free.
That, to me, seems like an approach that truly does see the students in schools as human beings, first and foremost.
All of this interesting comparative food for education reform thought.
I agree with so much of this piece:
Are we expecting too much of our teachers? Schools are clearly a critical piece — no, the critical piece — in any anti-poverty strategy, but they can’t go it alone. Nor can we do school reform on the cheap. In the absence of any bold effort to alleviate the pressures of poverty, in the absence of any bold investment in educating our children, is it fair to ask that the schools — and by default, the teachers — bear sole responsibility for closing the economic divide? This is a question asked not only in Chicago, but in virtually every urban school district around the country…
As we slash services in deeply impoverished communities and reduce school budgets, how can we expect that good teachers alone can improve the lives of poor children? Poverty, of course, can’t be an excuse for lousy teaching. But neither can excellent teaching alone be a solution to poverty…
We need to demand the highest performances from our teachers while we also grapple with the forces that bear down on the lives of their students, from families that have collapsed under the stress of unemployment to neighborhoods that have deteriorated because of violence and disinvestment. And we can do that both inside and outside the schools — but teachers can’t do it alone.
While I’m on a education reform article binge, figured I would post a few more than have interested me recently. Really liked this Paul Tough blog post from a blog he was writing way back in 2008 for Slate. Gives a nice overview of two divergent strands of thinking on education in general and education reform. In Tough’s estimation, on one side:
you have people who think that the most important determiner of educational success is demographic. I’ve heard from a lot of teachers these past two weeks who have voiced this feeling: Low-income students come to them from broken homes and dangerous neighborhoods with poor reading skills and a slack work ethic, and it’s just not fair to expect teachers to achieve high-quality results with those students.
This perspective is backed up at the academic and policy-level by:
a group of scholars and social scientists who call themselves the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education. They call for increased spending on early-childhood education, health care, and other social supports instead of an emphasis on school reform alone.
Basically, a broader, sociological picture of what children and students are dealing with outside of the classroom that causes underperformance inside the classroom. This party is a strong, strong advocate of early childhood intervention programs, as they frequently cite (very scary) data on how impactful the first few years of a child’s life can be on their future outcomes.
On the other side of the debate, you have a more school-centric perspective of:
people who say that talk like that is nothing more than a convenient excuse for continued educational failure, a way to perpetuate an unaccountable school system. They say there’s lots of evidence, especially coming out of some new and innovative charter schools, that we can make a huge dent in the problems of poor kids using extended class hours and intensive teaching methods.
This places more of the burden on teachers and principals and superintendents and those within the education system to better their practice, make necessary adjustments, to be smarter about how they educate. The academic and policy-level front for this push is:
the Education Equality Project, led by Joel Klein, the New York City schools chancellor, and the Rev. Al Sharpton. They call for legislative changes that would enable the people who are creating those successful experiments: more charter schools, the kind of teacher-pay reforms I wrote about last week, increased school choice.
Surprisingly, these two ‘movements’ are often at odds with one another. Paul Tough sees things differently, and sees a lot of common ground and complementary aspects of the perspectives (as do I). Here is his very reasoned and intelligent take on both:
To those in the Broader camp: Let’s admit that our public schools could be serving poor kids much, much better than they are today, and that in order to do that, they need a radical overhaul right away. Let’s agree that the best charter schools, like KIPP and Achievement First and Green Dot, have found a whole new way of educating disadvantaged children, and that it works. So, why not embrace looser contracts like the one proposed in D.C. and the one adopted in Denver. Help persuade teachers to give up some job security in exchange for more pay. Help the school systems get rid of poor-performing teachers—not just a few of them, but a big swath, the whole bottom tier. And to replace them, let’s create alternative certification programs and encourage unconventional career paths that will attract the kind of committed young overachievers who actually want to teach in the most challenging classrooms but can’t stand the thought of slogging their way through a couple of years of education school.
To those in the Education Equality camp: Let’s admit that alone, even the best charter schools can’t fix the crisis in the nation’s worst urban neighborhoods. Let’s agree that if we truly want to be data-driven, we should accept the data that say that the most effective time to intervene in a poor child’s life is in infancy, before that child ever gets into the school system. So, why not apply some of your intelligence, passion, organizational talent, and financial resources to building out-of-school supports like prekindergartens, parenting programs, and family counseling? Let’s figure out how to take the accountability methods and organizational structures you’ve brought to middle schools and apply them to preschools. Let’s figure out how best to provide poorly educated and overstressed parents with new strategies for preparing their kids for school. Let’s build a new kind of no-excuses school, one that is integrated with an early-childhood program and a strategy to improve the surrounding community.
It may be wishful thinking, but that’s where I believe Obama is trying to push his party. And I do think it’s a path toward a real solution to some of the problems that seem most unsolvable—not only in our schools, but in our inner-city neighborhoods as well.
Good stuff, as always, from Paul Tough. That middle ground between acting in the best interests of children both outside and inside of the classroom as the dual misson of education reform is a position that Tough articulates better than anyone I’ve read. Yes, it’s a greater challenge, but it’s what will work. Along those same lines, here’s an extended quote from an article Tough wrote in the NY Times in 2011 that articulates the same premise:
‘So why are some reformers resorting to excuses? Most likely for the same reason that urban educators from an earlier generation made excuses: successfully educating large numbers of low-income kids is very, very hard. But it is not impossible, as reformers have repeatedly demonstrated on a small scale. To achieve systemwide success, though, we need a shift in strategy.
The reformers’ policy goals are, in most cases, quite worthy. Yes, contracts should be renegotiated so that the best teachers are given incentives to teach in the poorest schools, and yes, school systems should extend the school day and school year for low-income students, as many successful charter schools have done.
But these changes are not nearly sufficient. As Paul Reville, the Massachusetts secretary of education, wrote recently in Education Week, traditional reform strategies “will not, on average, enable us to overcome the barriers to student learning posed by the conditions of poverty.” Reformers also need to take concrete steps to address the whole range of factors that hold poor students back.
That doesn’t mean sitting around hoping for utopian social change. It means supplementing classroom strategies with targeted, evidence-based interventions outside the classroom: working intensively with the most disadvantaged families to improve home environments for young children; providing high-quality early-childhood education to children from the neediest families; and, once school begins, providing low-income students with a robust system of emotional and psychological support, as well as academic support.
School reformers often portray these efforts as a distraction from their agenda — something for someone else to take care of while they do the real work of wrestling with the teachers’ unions. But in fact, these strategies are essential to the success of the school-reform movement. Pretending they are not is just another kind of excuse.’
Blog post is here:
And NY Times article is here:
Stumbled across this interview with Sir Michael Barber from 2005, one of the ‘lead architects’ of Tony Blair’s New Labour education policy from 1997 to 2005, and all around interesting guy/education reform expert (he was head of the National Teachers Union for years, has published books, and now works in consulting). I found it to be an interesting take on how to go about education reform, what his beliefs are, and how the system and reform in Britain differs from America and what his thoughts are on where America should go. As the article opens:
England’s education system has undergone rapid and ambitious reform in the past decade. In 1997, a newly-elected Labour government, led by Prime Minister Tony Blair, enacted a series of major, centrally-driven education reforms, including national strategies to improve student learning in literacy and math in early elementary school, efforts to turn around failing schools, and teacher training and pay reforms. These reforms have produced impressive results: By 2000, only three years after Labour began its reforms, the lowest performing school districts in reading were outperforming the average in 1997.
Many of the educational challenges facing the United States today—poor performance relative to other developed nations on international assessments, the need to turn around low-performing schools, and the challenges of educating an increasingly diverse population—are similar to those England’s education reforms have successfully tackled. As a result, we have much to learn from the English school reform experience.
Barber breaks down his vision of how to turnaround a failing system and failing schools (or at least how they tried to in New Labour):
If you cut the New Labour education reform into three slices you could say the first was about standards and accountability. The second was about collaboration and capacity-building (securing the supply of teachers, improving teachers’ pay, creating opportunities for schools to collaborate, investing in professional development, building capacity in the system, etc.). And the third is about market-based or quasi-market reform. And I think that’s a reasonable sequence actually.
In my thinking, American education reform is stuck in this first phase, implementing Common Core Standards, data and test driven evaluations and pay, more rigorous standards of teaching, publishing test scores and school grades publicly, etc. Making schools and teachers accountable for their results. But as Barber inforces, this is just a phase:
The basic premise of our first phase of education reforms was that in order to achieve a certain minimum floor you have to first set those standards top down and drive them centrally. I think that was right and the results were impressive, but you can’t keep doing that forever. You have to move on.
What he argues such a education system would need next is:
a way of improving the education system that didn’t need to be constantly driven by government…to develop self-sustaining, self-improving systems, and that led him to look into how to change not just the standards and the quality of teaching, but the structures and incentives. Essentially it’s about creating different forms of a quasi-market in public services, exploiting the power of choice, competition, transparency and incentives, and that’s really where the education debate is going now.
More or less, utilizing the forces of the marketplace to drive progress and excellence and standards - of course no school should be allowed to ‘fail’, but to at least structure some inherent accountability. Ideally, choice leads to equity. This market-place-ish structure would also apply to teachers and the incentives that would exist to reward good teachers and to retain outstanding teachers, to attract the best and brightest college graduates into the profession. I like how he acknowledges human capital as a very important aspect of reform.
Perhaps the most interesting claim he makes is about the length and commitment required of real reform efforts:
Probably the most difficult political challenge, though, is just how hard it is to stay the course when the going gets tough. Most big reforms take eight or 10 years. You can make an impact in three to four, as we did, but to really transform a system it’s going to be eight or 10 years. How you stay the course—not just through changes of party but also with ministerial turnover in one party—is a real issue.
Seems like an impossible task in America with so many conflicting interests and political levels and political shifts. On the subject of America, Barber hits on two major problems - those political difficulties/impossibilities of scaling up reform in the American political system:
The biggest problem in the U.S. is how you get reform to scale. The U.S. is full of fabulous boutique projects, but in a sea of underperforming systems. In England, because we don’t have federal-state separation or the separation of powers between the legislature and the executive, if you’ve got the design right you can have a big impact. And Labour in 1997 had a big majority, so it demonstrated you could do reform at scale very quickly.
By contrast, I’ve recently been in California, which is almost the same size as England in school population, and was struck by the impossibility of doing anything remotely coherent when you’ve got a state commissioner of education directly elected, a governor directly elected separately, a legislature with a different set of views, and then some powerful mayors. It’s not anyone’s fault—there are some brilliant education reformers around the U.S., including in California—but to do anything coherent in a context like that is so much more difficult.
And the second problem he identifies is the fact that local property taxes, by and large, fund public schools, so logical redistribution of resources is impossible:
The other fundamental flaw that I think is absolutely devastating in the U.S. is that because so much of the school system depends on very local taxation, the distribution of funding is inequitable. You can see how it originates in 19th century American history, but it is a big problem. Even the best education laws are only leveling up to the same funding per pupil so that high-poverty areas have funding on par with other communities. Whereas, in any sensible system you’d spend more money per pupil in a high-poverty area than another area. The Conservatives [in Britain] were in power from 1979 to 1997, and they never questioned that. They always thought it was absolutely right to spend more on areas of high poverty than other areas.
Definitely a flaw that is ‘taken for granted’ often, so nice to get a refresher that it doesn’t have to be that way. It seems in America the ethos can be ‘the richer deserve their privilege and their right to a better education, whereas the poor deserve their poverty and do not deserve the right to a quality education’. Beyond fucked-up.
One of the last things he said that really interested me was about how to carry out turnaround projects, intervention projects and hard-line school reforms in failing schools. It’s about much more than what you do, but how you do it:
you have to be clear when you intervene what you are attacking. If you intervene in a school district that is badly managed, then you don’t want to make it a generalized attack on every teacher and every community. For example, when we did an intervention in a local authority, the Minister and I would go to the school district and we’d get all the head teachers [principals] in one room and say, “This is not an attack on the head teachers in Leeds or Liverpool. You, the principals of the schools in this area, have an important challenge to rise to, which is achieving higher standards for all your children and what this report says is the school district isn’t giving you the tools, support, and capacity to do your job that we know you want to do and we want you to do. And so our job is to sort out the school district so you can do your job better. And we’re not going away until the problem is solved.” Now that’s a very different thing from saying, “You are all rubbish,” which is how it feels if you just publish the report and keep out of the way.
And then whenever those interventions got underway I would then go to that place maybe once a month and visit schools and talk to head teachers. I would ask: “How is it going? What do you feel about it? Are we sticking by our commitment to you? Do you feel the change happening in the way you want it to?” That’s really, tactically and morally, absolutely basic. We didn’t do that for the first one, but then we realized you have to do it. There are things that come out of the experience, nothing to do with the way the law’s constructed. How you construct the emotion around these things is enormously important.
I like that line about “how you construct emotion around these things is very important”. I also like the point about open lines of communication and collaboration in the reform process, keeping teachers voices heard and expressed. Teachers need to feel an investment in the process too, and they very often have invaluable feedback as to how the implementation is being carried out in good and/or bad ways. Nothing to do with the accountability standards themselves, just how they are enacted.
The full transcript is here at Education Sector:
And another Guardian article on Barber I found from 2011 is here: