Pride and Precipice

A splendid collection of essays has just come out in the fifth issue of FORUM: A Publication of the ALSCW. Edited by Rosanna Warren and Lee Oser, the issue bears the title “What Is Education? A Response to the Council on Foreign Relations Report, ‘U.S. Education Reform and National Security'” and includes contributions by David Bromwich, James Engell, Rachel Hadas, Virgil Nemoianu, Helaine L. Smith, Elizabeth D. Samet, myself, and others. I am honored to be part of this, not only because of the  topic, but also because of the caliber of the other essays. They lift the overall conversation.

The CFR report, the work of a task force headed by Joel Klein and Condoleeza Rice, maintains that we must reform education in order to address a national security crisis. They propose that schools, curriculum, and assessments be restructured for the sake of national security. Such a proposal would be laughable if the task force leaders didn’t have so much clout. That’s why a response is needed: this is no joke. (See also Diane Ravitch’s response in the New York Review of Books.)

The FORUM contributors do not constitute a collective. Each one speaks independently. There are common concerns without a position statement or platform. I have dreamed of this: to speak alone and with others. I have longed for a public forum of this kind.

I have also dreamed of being pushed a bit–of being challenged to refine my thoughts. This collection of essays does that as well.

But I also recognize that there’s no need to be afraid of a modest contribution. To say something as well as one can at a given moment, about something that matters–there’s glory for you, as Humpty Dumpty would say.

Much needs to be said. Whatever the needs of national security, we should try to educate beyond these needs. As soon as education subordinates itself to a limited  goal or demand,  it is lost.

No to Multiple-Choice Music Tests, But….

I’ve been following some of the recent news about the development of standardized music tests. Dana Goldstein’s Slate article met with responses from Diane Ravitch, Sara Mead, and Nancy Flanagan; many teachers and others offered comments. From what I’ve seen, most commenters oppose standardized tests in the arts because it emphasizes conformity over creativity, serves the wrong purposes, and restricts arts curricula. They do not oppose arts assessment in general; to the contrary, they argue for various kinds of thoughtful assessment.

I agree that multiple-choice tests are no way to assess arts performance or understanding. They could possibly serve to assess a small portion of the learning, but not the whole. That said, I believe some kind of common, standardized assessment has a place and could do a great deal of good. I will focus on music here.

My licenses are in ELA and ESL, but I have brought music into my teaching from the start. In my first four years of teaching, I directed my English Language Learners and other students in three musicals and a play that involved music: The Wizard of Oz, Oliver!, Into the Woods, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For many of these children, it was their first time singing in harmony or performing on stage. Some did not know at first how to judge whether they were in tune, so I included some ear training, which led to moments where things “clicked.” I also taught them how to breathe when singing, how to project their voices, and how to shape phrases. Some of them had great intuition for this and went far beyond my teaching. We practiced those songs again and again, and by the time the students could sing them, they were proud, amazed, and joyous. (Michael Winerip wrote a moving article for the New York Times about my students’ rehearsals and performance of The Wizard of Oz.)

The “assessment” here was built into the rehearsals and, of course, the performance. The audience could see how much the students had put into these productions and how much they had learned. Some of it was specific, concrete learning (such as scales, arpeggios, rhythms, and lyrics), some of it less tangible. Some of it came from the students and their own understanding; some, from the hours and hours of practice, and some, from the encounter with specific pieces, songs, and plays. The students were not only learning how to sing and perform, but also gaining exposure to musical theater, American and British culture, and (in the last case) Shakespeare. Some of this could be tested fairly easily; some of it, not easily at all.

I hoped to give my students certain kinds of music instruction I had missed. That sounds a bit odd, because I was unusually fortunate. I began taking cello lessons, at school, at age 8 and continued with formal study for another ten years. I spent two summers in the Young Artists Instrumental Program at Tanglewood, played in the Greater Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, played duets with a friend, studied with a member of the Boston Symphony (a wonderful teacher), sang in choruses, and played in the Yale Symphony Orchestra as a freshman at Yale. As an adult, I have played in various ensembles and bands, recorded with some of my favorite songwriters, and written songs. But it is painful to realize that I still have many technical flaws—due in part to my continued scrambling with fundamentals.

There was a strange discrepancy in my training. Along the way, teachers told me that I was musically gifted; some waxed euphoric about my abilities. Yet, for the first four or five years, each new teacher told me that I had learned just about everything wrong and had to start from scratch. Though I practiced and practiced, I did not overcome this scourge. Several times, when auditioning for a particular teacher or for admission to a music school, I was rejected flat out because of my poor technique. The main problem was that I had no technical core. Teachers had taught me different ways of holding the bow and fingering, but until high school, no one taught me the underlying principles of relaxation, breathing, and fluid motion. Also, I tackled difficult pieces early on before I was ready for them. Most of my teachers let me do this, as they didn’t want to stifle my enthusiasm.

It would have been great if I had learned some fundamentals at the outset, in my first few years of study. It would have been even better if cello teachers generally agreed on what those fundamentals were and insisted that their students master them. I don’t fault my first teacher; she gave me the gift of an introduction to the cello, and I have no way of judging now how well she taught me. I do fault a system that treats children as non-serious amateurs until they prove otherwise, and that lacks consistency in early instruction.

I have seen other approaches to music instruction. In high school, I spent a year in Moscow and attended music school in addition to regular school. My teacher in the U.S. had suggested that I study with the great Natalia Gutman. Thrilled and honored by this suggestion, I called her shortly after our arrival and spoke to her in halting Russian. She told me graciously that she wasn’t taking on students and recommended that I audition for admission to the pre-conservatory school.

The cellist who listened to my audition said my technique was seriously deficient. He referred me to a good district music school, where I was placed in the fifth grade (in regular school, I was in the Soviet ninth grade, the equivalent of our tenth or eleventh).

The school followed the Soviet music curriculum. I spent almost the entire year on the Goltermann Concerto in B minor (not one of my favorite pieces). I played many technical exercises, practiced about four hours a day, had private lessons twice a week, and took ear training and music history classes as well. My teacher wouldn’t accept a note even slightly out of tune. “Chishche! Chishche!” (roughly, “Cleaner! Cleaner!”) she would cry out. I adored her and appreciated her demands. She appreciated my creative work as well; when I brought in a composition one day, she took time out of the lesson to have the accompanist play it. At the end of the year, I performed before a jury, as all students did; I was awarded the highest possible grade.

I do not glorify the Soviet system of music instruction. (The curriculum was too rigid; I should not have spent a whole year on Goltermann.) One thing I do applaud: there was a common understanding of what good technique entailed and in what sequence it should be taught. This did not impede musicality or joy; my classmates at the music school delighted in what they were doing, partly because they were learning to do it well. The performance before the jury was scary but also exciting. (If I remember correctly, the jury recognized expressiveness as well as technique.) My musical experience there was by no means limited to music school; I attended many concerts on my own, including performances by Gutman herself. Her performance of the Shostakovich sonata stands out among my memories.

What does this have to do with assessment in the arts? A certain kind of standardization at the beginning levels, conducted in the right spirit, for the right reasons, and with room for exceptions, would help young students enormously. Now, music instruction in schools takes many forms and directions. A school may lack resources for instrumental instruction, so it may focus on singing (granted, the voice is an instrument), theory, music appreciation, and music history. Or it may offer band and orchestra electives to those who already play. That’s a separate issue in itself; since music instruction can mean so many different things, there’s no single test, multiple-choice or otherwise, that can measure it. But let’s say a school does offer violin, cello, piano, trumpet, and other lessons. Shouldn’t it have a clear understanding of what the basics are, an understanding that it shares with other schools? Shouldn’t it have a way of testing the students along the way, to make sure they’re learning properly? Wouldn’t this open up possibilities for students, instead of closing them off?

The Biometric Bracelet and the End of Daydreaming

Children won’t be able to get away with daydreaming much longer. If their mind wanders “off task,” a sensor will catch them.

News broke recently that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded $1.4 million in grants to researchers who will experiment with “biometric” bracelets in middle schools around the country. (These bracelets send a small electrical current across the skin and then measure the electrical changes as the wearer responds to stimuli.)  The researchers intend to use them to measure student “engagement” and to determine which parts of a lesson (or reading or other activity) show higher engagement levels than others. Supposedly, through analyzing engagement levels in this manner, the researchers can deliver recommendations for raising engagement overall. The Reuters article explains:

Teachers could, for instance, use the bracelets to monitor student response to a video or a reading, then use that data to spark a lively discussion by zeroing in on the most engaging points, said Rosalind Picard, a computer scientist at MIT and a co-founder of Affectiva, which makes the sensors.

Such use of sensors in educational experiments is by no means new. Researchers at MIT, Arizona State University, and UMass Amherst have been developing “affect-aware tutors”—cartoon characters that respond to the students’ moods. Various sensors (including a mental state camera, posture analysis seat sensor, pressure mouse sensor, and skin conductance bracelet) detect the user’s state of mind; the cartoon character then responds. If a student shows frustration with a math problem, for instance, a cartoon might pop up with an expression of concern and say, “Gee, that was difficult. Would you like to try something easier?” (I discuss this in the eighth chapter of my book.)

Now, something is deeply wrong with all of this—in fact, there’s so much wrong with it that it’s difficult to get it all into a short space. But I’ll give it a try. Many more responses can be found on Diane Ravitch’s blog (for instance, here and here).

First of all, these bracelet sensors are invasive. Students (and people in general) have a right to their own thoughts and thought patterns. Yes, a teacher may demand attention in the classroom, but what goes on inside a student’s head remains his or her own business. Yes, sometimes doctors use sensors to test us, but they do this with our consent, for medical reasons. Privacy is a complex subject; what belongs to each of us alone, and what belongs to society? The answer cannot be determined through science; it is an ethical and philosophical matter. We must use our best judgment and conscience when drawing the line.

Second, engagement in itself is not necessarily a good in the classroom; higher levels do not necessarily mean more learning. Engagement comes in many forms and has complex rhythms. There is fleeting engagement—entertainment—that fades as soon as object moves away. There are behaviors that do not look like engagement but actually are (a student may look off to the side in order to think about something the teacher just said). A student working at home on a difficult problem will have ups and downs of engagement—puzzling over the problem, trying this approach, ending up in a rut, shaking the head, getting up and walking around, sitting down again and trying another approach, and finally figuring it out. All in all, engagement is secondary to what’s actually going on (which we must interpret with full mind).

Boosting engagement could even degrade instruction. Rosalind Picard (mentioned in the quote above) imagines teachers using the bracelets to determine the most “engaging” points of a reading. They can then zero in on these points in class discussion. Have the researchers spoken with teachers and professors of literature? Do they know how literature works? The most engaging points are not necessarily the most important ones. Sometimes subtle details prove essential to the story. Sometimes the ending confuses the reader at first and then suddenly makes sense. When selecting points of a story (or essay or other work) for discussion, one should think about the story itself, not the engagement levels. A “lively” discussion driven by “engagement data” could be supremely shallow.

Finally (for now), these efforts to neasure and boost engagment may rip up the last remnants of daydreaming. Some might say, “so what?” but there’s a lot at stake here. Many of us need to daydream in order to solve problems, try out possibilities, imagine scenarios, puzzle over words, or even just be by ourselves now and then. Much pedagogy discussion assumes that students should always be “on task,” that they should be hard at work toward a specified goal. When I was in school, this wasn’t so; for one thing, there weren’t so many tasks. You came into class to listen to the teacher and take part in discussion. Your mind could drift now and then. Sometimes the teacher would say, “What’s on your mind?” and you could say, “oh, nothing” or else divulge your thoughts.

One of my favorite daydreaming scenes occurs at the end of the first chapter of Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White:

The children ran out to the road and climbed into the bus. Fern took no notice of the others in the bus. She just sat and stared out of the window, thinking what a blissful world it was and how lucky she was to have entire charge of a pig. By the time the bus reached school, Fern had named her pet, selecting the most beautiful name she could think of.“Its name is Wilbur,” she whispered to herself.

She was still thinking about the pig when the teacher said, “Fern, what is the capital of Pennsylvania?”

“Wilbur,” replied Fern dreamily. The pupils giggled. Fern blushed.

The researchers and their funders may have forgotten the gentle wisdom of this story. We need to defend such wisdom against all things that push it away. Researcher or salesperson, if you come to my classroom with a biometric bracelet, I will invite you to read Charlotte’s Web with me. Or Seneca’s letter “On the Shortness of Life,” which is about “idle busyness”—that is, empty engagement. Or Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters” (“Why should we only toil, the roof and crown of things?”). As we read, neither of us will wear a bracelet or make graphs of our engagement levels. That shrill, simplistic science will stay out of the room.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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