Jun 272011

I admit it, I read the funny pages first thing on Sunday morning. Okay, maybe I should first admit that I have a daily subscription to the newspaper and read it cover to cover every day. But, on Sundays, I read the comics first.

Yesterday’s Doonesbury was an instant classic in my mind, worthy of my comics wall. Here is a link to it. I will wait while you read the whole thing. … … …

I know, right! They nailed the problem with memorizing random facts in only 5 panels. The other 3 are there just to be funny and set the mood, but panel 3 and 7 are the set up and punch lines.


The three panels in between show Zip’s friend asking some random questions on science, philosophy  and history, along with the fractional seconds it took Google to spit back the correct answer.

I took an informal poll last year in my class year, and around 50% of the class had smartphones that could access the internet. The rest of my learners could text questions to Google and get answers back (they had texting, most of them did not know they could do that) and all of them knew about Cha-Cha.

So what are the “Profound questions about what it means to be a student?” Here is my weak attempt at listing some.

  1. In an era where every learner has never known a time when information was not immediately findable, why do we (teachers) spend so much time asking learners to memorize formulas and facts?
  2. The comic makes an implicit assumption that faster is better. Is that correct? Is it important that a learner memorizes a fact and can recall it on demand, even if that means more time?
  3. The other assumption Zip makes is that Google or Cha-Cha are more accurate than his own brain, memory, understanding. Is that correct? I know I have asked questions in my classes and some learner says, “Why should I do that, I will just Cha-Cha the answer.” My response was, “Go for it, get your phone out and do it.” [That shocked the heck out of him, but he did it, and Cha-Cha failed!]
  4. Is there a middle ground? Can there be vital things they need to memorize, important things they don’t, and less important info they can look up?
  5. Is the goal of the lesson understanding (in the context of UbD) or rote memorization?
  6. Finally, what evidence is necessary for demonstrating the difference between the two in 5?

I think Doonesbury fit very nicely in my current PLN content discussions. Now it is time to do something about it.

Apr 242011

I kind of reached a breaking point last week. No, wait. I did reach a breaking point last week. I will no longer sit by when I hear people say obviously wrong things.  You know, the kind of wrong things about teaching and what affects teaching you hear every day if you watched Faux News. But this is also a cautionary tale. What to expect when you start actually confronting the ideologues.

Really, I have had enough. I am not the only one. Chris Lehmann has a great piece on the fact that both sides of the issues are not that far off, but the rhetoric is out of control. Otherwise sensible people are saying some incredibly stupid things simply because they have bought into the rhetoric. Things like, “No more taxes”. That is stupid. Americans are taxed at the lowest rates in over 60 years.

That is a fact. Not an opinion. The evidence can be found in 30 seconds with a Google search. Heck it is even published nationally in local newspapers. PolitaFact, a very unbiased source, found the same thing.  And PolitaFact’s article is very nice because it includes sources that can be checked.

So, we are paying the lowest tax rates in the modern history of our country and people are screaming for them to go lower? Why would that be? What is the effect of lowering the tax rates more? After all, the evidence, again, non-partisan evidence, shows that one of the major causes of the deficit we are running right now IS because of tax cuts!

image Source

Yup, you read it right. That GIANT brown area in the middle of the graph shows that a MAJOR cause of the deficits that are killing schools right now (no taxes, ugh, must destroy schools to balance budget) is the Bush Era tax cuts.

So why are they screaming for lower taxes? What would the purpose be? After all, Dick Cheney is on record saying, “Deficits don’t matter.” The Republicans used to love deficits. So of course they want to cut taxes more. It creates more deficits, and they can use those deficits as reason to attack schools and education more!  That is a personal opinion that I am not going to support now. Of course, as they realize the Industrial Revolution is over, and what they really need is a smarter population, this will backfire on the ideologues.

So, on to the problem. I have in my news feed a site called InvestorJunkie. I watch it because I teach a unit on financial mathematics, and I really like to read a broad range of ideas to make sure I am up with the current knowledge on financial issues. The learners ask TONS of questions on a huge range of topics, and InvestorJunkie generally does a great job at covering a lot of good investor ideas.

But the other day, he posts a typical screed of the ideologues rant, “ugh, taxes bad, no raise taxes.” Of course, he gives some good ideological arguments with the standard graphs, and says the typical statement, we have a spending problem, not a revenue problem (despite all the evidence to the contrary, we have a spending AND REVENUE problem).

I challenge him on it. I repeatedly ask him to explain how going back to the tax rates of the Reagan years would be bad. I give him the evidence. I ask him to explain again. And again. I point out some assumptions he makes about peoples value. He confirms those assumptions. He asks if I have a plan, or just attack him. I give him a plan. He ignores it.

And then he bans me, because I didn’t fall into his neat idea of a teacher who is willing to fold under pressure. Okay, not his words. He calls me a troll and says he rebutted my points and I failed to answer his. [Can I tell you how funny that is? I teach competitive debate. My debaters are among the top tier in the league. I laughed for days!]

So the moral of the story, my fellow teachers, is when you stand up for yourself and knowledge, be ready to be called names. Be ready for the ideologues to attack and deflect and do everything but answer your points. Be ready with the facts and the evidence from non-partisan and business sources so they can not challenge the credibility of your evidence.

They will still not read anything you have written, but we need to stand up for knowledge instead of hysteria, truth instead of opinion, and the fact the world is changing on the ideologues, and they need to join the 21st century.

And we need to start reframing the education debate instead of allowing the ideologues who have created the problem to frame it for us.

Mar 192011

I don’t often post political issues here, but I was doing a bit of reading this morning and felt the need to consolidate some of the posts as well as express some opinions on the issues.

Of course, we all read the news, and know of the constant and abusive attacks on teachers and education by a certain political party. It is unfortunate that the person who is best showing the rampant hypocrisy of the that party is a comedian! None of the traditional news outlets are highlighting the fact that the Republican party has framed the debate very carefully as an “us vs. them” situation where “us” really is incredibly rich vs. the “them” of educators. Jon Stewart’s “Crisis in Dairyland” shows  this incredibly well. (Teachers v. Wall StreetFor Richer and Poorer, Interview with Diane Ravitch and Angry Curds.)

During  the height of the Wisconsin tragedy, I had a very impassioned discussion with some wall street type folks here.  What I realized out of this discussion is that they are brain dead. No seriously. Brain dead. Walking zombies who have come to the conclusion that it is okay to break contracts with teachers, but not with them, that they have no clue what it takes to educate, and that the entire problem with education can be solved by simply throwing a couple of bucks at teachers if the teachers raise scores on a test.

Of course, the wall street banker assumed that everyone is motivated by money, and that the only type of motivation that is allowed, possible, or important is extrinsic motivation. Motivate the teachers to teacher better and all the problems are solved! Yippee!

But wait! This assumes that the truly important people in this discussion have only to sit there and allow the supremely motivated teacher pour knowledge into their heads like wonderfully passive little widgets. What a terrific idea! (I guess we know why the bankers have brought our country to near ruin through the banking crisis. See what I mean; brain dead zombies.)

And then Tim Stahmer posts on his blog about a couple of studies done on extrinsic motivation and education. Guess what! Extrinsically motivating teachers is a recipe for failure! Why? Because the motivation of the TEACHERS is irrelevant. It is the motivation of the LEARNERS that matter! Throwing a few bucks at me will not mean my learners are more motivated!

So let’s look at these studies. Maybe the studies were severely biased, and that is the problem. The Washington Post has an article on one of the studies, (and here is a pdf of the story in case it disappears.) Wow, $15,000 is a lot of money! That is over 1/3 of my salary right now, and yet that huge amount of money did not cause students to do better? Imagine that? Paying the teachers did not cause the learners to do better!

But that is just one study. Not too conclusive at all. After all, one study in one school district means really nothing in the grand scheme of things. So Harvard does another study in a different school district. Guess what. Same thing. (here is the pdf text of the study.)

When are Michelle Rhee and company going to be thrown in the trash bin where they belong? They really have no plan, just more tired and wrong conclusions that do more damage than success. That is clear. If you read the book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” it is pretty clear they are causing significant damage to education.

But then, the brain dead zombies don’t want a good education system, do they? They want a system where they can teach creationism and can create good little worker bees who will be satisfied with low pay and no benefits. It is the educated citizen who demands more.

Lest you think that I am just complaining without offering a suggestion for improvement, I offer the following article. Bill Ferriter is a person who does suggest a positive vision for improving education. It is not an easy, magic bullet like merit pay. It is a hard slog. Structurally change how we teach. Change what we teach.

Yes, we can learn a lot of lesson from handwashing. Unfortunately for reality, it is not easy, but it is worth the price of admission.