Sunday, February 24, 2013

What is Teaching?

Chris at A Blog About School has been asking the question "What is Teaching?"

Here's what teaching seems to mean to too many of the teachers I've encountered.  I'll express it as a loop (for non-programmers, the steps in the loop will be repeated as long as the condition after "while" remains true):
while (the sun rises in the East) {
make the kids do something;
judge their performance.
Of these two steps, "judge their performance" is the most important. A teacher's job is to grade the students' performance; a student's job is to acquire good grades.

One of the causes of Older Daughter's depression is the constant grading at Friends Omphalos. For instance, Older Daughter's English teacher wants the kids to bring the book they're discussing to class, so he compels the behavior by giving the kids a grade, worth as much as a quiz, depending on whether they remembered to bring the book. Older Daughter, of course, forgets to bring her book and loses a quiz grade. As a "generous" gesture, the teacher says she can get most of the points back if she remembers her book next time.

Last year, her Science teacher had the kids make a web page as a project. He designed an elaborate rubric giving points for every aspect of the project; one that I remember is the kids could get a certain number of points for having a good picture on the page. This teaches neither science nor web design, but it does generate grades.

The constant grading ensures that the student experiences school as an unrelenting stream of demands made by those in authority over her, followed by constant judgement of how well she fulfilled their demands by their often opaque and unpredictable standards.

It's as if your boss told you to dance the tango and then docked your pay when you flubbed it.

What does any of this have to do with learning?

Friday, February 22, 2013

A. A. Gill on Tweed

From Previous Convictions, by A. A. Gill. The chapter is "Shooting". (For the Brits, "hunting" is performed while riding a horse (e.g., fox-hunting), while "shooting" is performed without a horse.)
Shooting clobber is that peculiarly English thing: studied, posed, rubbish. ... Every single bit of shooting kit should look like it has been put on in the dark by a depressed Method actor. To look this ridiculously ghastly takes great application, and just in case you're ever caught out by an invitation to shoot stupid birds in England, here's a tip: the central mystery of shooting is not skill — nobody gives a fig whether you can shoot or not as long as you don't kill someone who was at school with your father. And it's certainly nothing to do with food or hunter-gathering, or love of fresh air, or nature, exercise, or, heaven forbid, male bonding. Male bonding is one of the things Englishmen carry guns to deter.
The central mystery, the core belief of shooting, is tweed ... Compared with the lightweight, temperature-controlled, breathable, waterproof, utilitarian, stylish and comfortable materials readily available for all sorts of outdoor fun and games these days, tweed is antediluvian lunacy; it's like wearing thatch.
Englishmen will tell you with tears in their eyes that because it works for sheep and their grandfathers, tweed is unimprovable. This is a hairy, ignorant lie. ...
First and last, tweed is hellishly uncomfortable ... It's invariably far too hot, except for those mornings when it's bloody freezing. An Englishman claims tweed is magically water repellent. It's not. It's water absorbent — not the same thing. And as shooting takes place in the Arctic monsoon season, it gets an awful lot to absorb. A decent tweed jacket can suck up three times its own weight in liquid and then retain it like a miserly camel. It will also smell like a miserly camel. ...
Ideally a tweed should be inherited. You should wear your father's or the remnants of your grandfather's. There is no such thing as tweed that fits — it just sags. There is, though, one big plus with tweed; the cleaning. It's very simple. You can't do it. You can't dry-clean tweed, because it turns into chipboard; you can't put it into a washing machine, because it morphs into a dinosaur's fur ball. The recommended method for cleaning tweed — and I'm not making this up — is to "lay it in a cold bath and then dry it flat." Well, I'm sorry, but what in all creation was ever cleaned by being laid in a cold bath? And it would take eighteen months to dry out laid flat.
... The English also make their keepers, beaters, pickers-up, flagmen and stops (all servants) dress up in tweed, like extras and suspects from an Agatha Christie mystery. ... Shoot servants all have to wear the same pattern so they trundle around the heather and the bracken looking like a game of hide-and-seek played by scatter cushions.

The New Rat Race

From a comment on the NYTimes article Not Just a 'Feminine Mystique': (as usual, the comments are better than the article):
Cheryl of Huston:

My cry of rage would be, "Why did it all become such a huge rat race?"

When I grew up (I am 48), my father's one job, with regular hours (home by 5), provided health insurance, enough income for a comfortable, middle-class life for a family of 5 and for retirement.

Meanwhile, my mom went to college as an adult at a good state university. It cost a few hundred dollars a semester. Even then, that was no big deal.

There was enough time for them to be with their kids and to hang out with extended family. They renovated houses, made art, participated in local government, grew extensive gardens, even kept bees as hobbies.

There was no angst in our house about where we kids would go to school. We went to the local public schools, where the teachers were not overwhelmed by huge class sizes and where they did not grade using rubrics. I remember getting papers back where it seemed like they had written more in commentary than I had written in the paper itself.

And getting ready for college? I didn't worry about grades, I wasn't inundated with homework, it never occurred to me to participate in an extracurricular because it would look good. In fact, my friends and I all had part-time jobs strictly so we could have walking-around money. I walked into the SAT cold, without having taking any kind of test prep, and took it once. I submitted all my applications myself. This got me into a great college.

Why is everything so hard now?

Friday, February 8, 2013

No Feedback Loop

One of the biggest problems I see in schools today is the complete lack of any meaningful feedback loop. Schools and teachers do their thing, and they have some result; but there's no effort to correlate what the teachers do with the result they have, and then change what they do in an effort to get closer to the desired result.

For instance, the teachers might assign reading logs, and the result is that kids hate reading. Surely that indicates it's time to try something new? Apparently not, because no matter how many parents might tell them so, the teachers simply refuse to believe that their actions have the result they actually have, rather than the result teachers want them to have ("the kids will learn time management skills!")