Pedagogical Time Travel

Yesterday I attended two professional development sessions (one online, one in person) hosted by the school district here in Szolnok. The presentations were clear, eloquent, and heartfelt. The content, to my surprise, brought old back memories of professional development sessions in New York City in the years 2005-2009 or so. In particular, there was extensive mention of learning styles, 21st century skills, cooperative learning, and positive feedback. (I did not hear a word about the Danielson Framework, growth mindset, or grit, which came into prominence a little later.)

I have long questioned and criticized the extremes to which the above concepts have been taken in the U.S. (Some of them are questionable from the start.) I don’t see Hungary taking them to extremes any time soon, nor do I see any intention to do so later.  So I am not particularly worried at the moment. But I found the situation interesting and thought-provoking.

Many Hungarian educators and others believe that the current system here is too rigid, stressful, and punitive, and that Hungary needs to prepare students–at many levels and with many different needs–for the demands of the current world and workplace, as well as for democratic participation. I recognize all of this. But it is possible to transform the system without knocking it down entirely. One of the strengths of Hungarian education is the substance of the curriculum. Granted, there’s too much cramming and too little choice–but high school students learn history and literature, physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, foreign languages, geography, art, music, drama, ethics, civilization, physical education, and more. In class discussions, I have found that they are able to draw on their knowledge from other subjects when making arguments or analyzing a text. It would be a shame to lose most or all of that. As I have argued many times, you can’t think critically if you don’t have something to think about. You also need patience with challenges–including the discipline of reading carefully, working on a problem until a solution comes through, or listening to an extended presentation.

My own teaching is a combination of the traditional and the “progressive” (for lack of a better word). I believe strongly in subject matter but also believe in taking time with texts and ideas, hearing different perspectives, pursuing a greater understanding. I bring literature, music, and drama into my language teaching–because language is nothing without them. I am also continually criticizing my own work, adjusting it, thinking about ways to do it better, and learning from colleagues.

This is possible at Varga because students do have a basis (and ample focus and patience), and the school is supportive. When the basis or support is lacking, the cohesion breaks down. You might have a class of 25-35 students, 10 of whom are eager to take on any challenge, another 10 of whom are happy to do what is required to pass, and another 5-15 of whom are so far behind, or so unused to sustained concentration, that they disrupt class unless given something basic to do. So you are told to differentiate. But differentiate what? In the U.S., the curriculum writing is often left to the teachers themselves–so that there is no unified understanding of what students are supposed to be learning. Only those schools and districts that set out to develop a curriculum, or that adopt one from elsewhere, actually have one. This is especially true in English; while many schools have book lists in common, there is not one literary work that you can assume students will have read by the end of high school. I have managed in such situations–for years–but much of my energy went into preparing materials, managing the classroom, calling parents, and getting through the day. And even with that, I taught students language, literature, drama, and philosophy, directed plays, and more. (Columbia Secondary School was and is different–it does have curricula, and the students have a foundation.)

It is interesting to see education from several sides and through time. You can do all sorts of interesting things in class–and with homework assignments and projects–when you have a foundation and good working material, and when you put thought into your approach and respond to what is happening. So I see good in what Hungarian schools are trying to do right now. I also see good in what they already have. Is there a way to bring together the best of both–to make the curriculum and pedagogical approaches more flexible, without losing the substance or falling for a fad? Yes, it is possible; good schools over the centuries have done this. Yet it cannot be taken for granted, nor does it ever reach stable perfection. It will go sharp and flat, we will flub a note or two, and we must retune, practice, and play it, again and again.


Image courtesy of NBC News.


Rush and Lack: The Common Core’s Foreseeable Fall

In 2011, 45 states had signed on to the Common Core State Standards; by the fall of 2016, only 20 states were still planning to use the Common Core-aligned assessments. While only a few states have officially revoked the Common Core, the general support has visibly and audibly crumbled.

What went wrong here? Much has already been said about the great expense, the swell of resistance to excessive testing, the longstanding resentment of federal mandates in education, the confusion around implementation, and much more. I will highlight the effects of rush and curricular lack.

I was briefly involved with the development of the CCSS. In 2009 I served on the English Language Arts Work Team; in this role, I proposed titles for the list of suggested books, reviewed drafts of the standards, and provided commentary here and there. I was not part of insider discussion, nor did I commit to supporting the standards in my writing. (In fact I stated outright that I would need to retain the freedom to say whatever I wanted about the standards; this was never contested.) I supported aspects of the standards in principle but was wary of possible corruptions, all of which came true.

First of all, states were rushed and pressured, through President Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative, into adopting the standards. (I admire President Obama but consider this one of his biggest presidential mistakes.) The problem with such rush is that it strips you of the ability to act wisely. In 2010 I wrote an op-ed,”The Problem with ‘Race to the Top’ Is the Race,” for the Washington Post; I stand by those words today. The third paragraph reads,

Indeed, we should be willing to shake things up to improve the schools. All depends on what we shake and how. We may well be shaking up the wrong things, or the right things in the wrong way. There is great danger in the rush of Race to the Top. To compete for funds, states must embrace reforms that haven’t been fully tested, reforms rife with problems, reforms in which they may not even believe. In other words, thoughtfulness and integrity are pushed aside. This is deadly for education.

Second, the whole initiative was conducted backwards. You can’t have standards until you establish what you are going to teach. Standards outline the abstract skills–but those abstractions mean little out of context, especially in English language arts. I do not mean that there should have been a national curriculum; that probably would have been dreadful. Rather, any standards should have been grounded in an understanding of the subject matter that would be taught over the K-12 years.

If you do not ground the standards in subject matter, then your tests, too, will be ungrounded; instead of testing what the students have learned, they will test generic skills. Schools will have to scramble to figure out what might be on the test and how to approach it.

How do you establish subject matter for an entire country? Well, perhaps you don’t–but you can start by publishing a few model curricula as examples. By “curriculum” I do not mean the typical mess of lengthy descriptions, unit plans, lesson plans, and so on, but rather a clear and simple outline of the content and sequence of instruction.

How did this curricular lack come about? I imagine that the Common Core leaders realized that a national curriculum would be politically doomed. So instead of putting forth a curriculum, they simply stated, within the standards, that a curriculum was necessary. Curriculum proponents frequently quoted those words–but unfortunately (as Robert Pondiscio has noted) it isn’t enough to say “you gotta have curriculum, folks.” People have wildly different understandings of–and experience with–the word, concept, and practice.

This equivocation led to a big mess regarding nonfiction. The standards stated that by grade 12, 70 percent of students’ reading in school should be “informational.” The standards clarified that this applied to the students’ reading across the subjects, not in English class–but English teachers were receiving the message, from many directions, that they should include much more “informational text” in their classes.

When the type of text (here “informational”) precedes its very substance, something has gone awry. Why not focus on choosing excellent texts for students–fiction, drama, poetry, literary nonfiction, according to the content of the courses? Why the pressure to include more “informational” text per se? (Not all nonfiction is “informational”; I would not call Mill’s On Liberty “informational text,” for instance, but that does not diminish its value.)

There were certainly political reasons for the emphasis on “informational text.” In 2012, the Council on Foreign Relations issued a report titled “U.S. Education Reform and National Security,” which called for education reform that would serve national security. This conspicuously  included greater emphasis on “informational text.” In Forum, no, 5 (2012), I joined Rosanna Warren, Lee Oser, David Bromwich, John C. Briggs, Robert Alter, Helaine Smith, and others in challenging the assumptions and recommendations of this report.

The standards’ two problems–rush and curricular lack–go together. The standards’ glaring flaws were not worked out prior to their implementation; thus states, districts, and schools had to bear the brunt of the confusion. Here we are, with a lesson learned and unlearned again and again: Like subject matter itself, education policy requires careful thought, open dissent, and dialogue.

Note: I made minor edits to this piece after posting it. I later changed “dissension” (in the last sentence) to “dissent.”

The Secret to Education

rainydayThe Secret to Education … that One Thing that will Change Everything … the Great and Shocking Truth … one by one, I reject these titles, until I finally pick the first, just for fun.

It is a dim and rainy day (photo taken just now); before I take off for New Haven, where I will be spending the afternoon and evening, I thought I would put together some thoughts on teaching.

I taught for approximately nine years in New York City public schools: first at a middle school in Boro Park Brooklyn (for three years), then at an elementary school in East New York, Brooklyn (for one year), and then, for the last five years, at Columbia Secondary School, where I served first as curriculum adviser, then as philosophy teacher and coordinator.

In addition, I taught for several years in other contexts. I taught first-year Russian at Yale for a year (as a graduate student), second- and third-year Russian at Trinity College in Hartford for a year (as a Mellon Fellow), and literature for six consecutive summers at the Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. (This is ongoing.) Finally, I taught English in Kyrgyzstan for a summer and taught elementary enrichment summer school on the Crow Reservation in Montana.

So, after all this time (which pales in comparison to many teachers’ experience), what would I say that our schools need? I say emphatically that there is no one answer. None! I have no secret, no great solution.

Or rather, if there is one thing schools need, it’s good judgment: the ability to recognize good curricula and practices and apply them discerningly.

One truth presents itself again and again: teaching requires focused, quiet thought, which the school systems do not emphasize or honor. Yes, teachers need to collaborate, but to do so well, they also need to think about the subject on their own. This has little room in the school day; if you want time for quiet thought or focused study, you have to find it on your own.

Nor is “more time” the answer; there has to be a strong understanding of what that time is for. A teacher’s work must be perceived as intellectual. For that to happen, there must be more time for intellectual life overall. That will not come overnight, nor will any one reform bring it closer.

With all my skepticism, I do have a few ideas. They are not mass solutions, but they could set an example for many.

I would start with a good curriculum: that is, not a script, not a pacing calendar, but an outline of the concepts, works, and problems to be studied, along with the major assignments and projects. I would find schools willing to adopt the curriculum and education schools willing to base their program on it. This curriculum is not meant to be constricting; rather, it builds flexibility, as it gives everyone a working base.

Prospective teachers would begin by studying the actual subject matter of the curriculum (before thinking about how to teach it). They would learn it backwards and forwards, pose questions about it,  give presentations about it, and attend lectures and seminars. They would study their own subject matter and another subject (and possibly a third). Those already familiar with the subject matter would study it at a higher level.

The following year, they would translate the curriculum into lesson plans, practice giving lessons, and serve as student teachers at participating schools. They would not have to reinvent the wheel year after year; if lesson plans already exist, they might review them and modify them for their own teaching. They would develop more than one way to teach a given topic and would anticipate student questions and errors.

Then, when they entered a school, they would be well prepared to teach not only the subject but the actual curriculum itself. They could put their efforts into their new responsibilities.

Of course there are problems: what  if there aren’t enough education programs or schools? What if some district mandate comes along and topples  the curriculum that was constructed with such care?

Any number of things can go wrong; this is no magic solution. Still, I see promise in (a) having prospective teachers focus first on subject matter, then on curriculum and pedagogy and (b) having schools and education programs work with a shared curriculum. To some extent, this is the approach of the Dallas Institute’s Cowan Center and (in a different way) the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Such an approach takes time, but this is precisely the right kind of taking of time: going far into subject matter and figuring out how to bring it to students.

Free Will and Education Reform

George Henry Hall: The PomegranateThe question of free will bursts open into question upon question. What does it mean to have free will? To what degree do we exercise it? How can we know? For all the swarms of ideas on the subject, there seems to be agreement—among philosophers, theologians, poets, psychologists, and others—that whatever freedom we might have, we do not control other people or the outcomes of our actions (and if we could, it would be unwise). What a refreshing thought—and what a far cry from today’s education reform, which insists on our ability to control others’ results!

Literature from ancient Greek drama to contemporary psychology warns about illusions of control. In Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (in Robert Fagles’ translation), the Chorus sings, “And neither by singeing flesh / nor tipping cups of wine / nor shedding burning tears can you / enchant away the rigid Fury.” Rabbi Hanina states in the Gemara of Berachot (33b) of the Talmud, “Everything is in the power of heaven except the fear of heaven.” (There are numerous interpretations  of this statement.) In recent centuries, literary, philosophical, psychological, religious, and sociological writings have emphasized the futility (or danger) of trying to control others.

Yet much of education reform assumes we can and should control others–in particular, their measurable achievement. This assumption is profoundly wrong. To rate teachers on their students’ test performance is to distort the educational endeavor. Teachers influence students (and their influence is great); they do not cause students to do well or poorly. (It’s one thing to analyze the results; it’s another to convert them by formula into a rating.)

“Very well,” someone might respond, “so you’ve admitted that teachers influence students. Are you saying this influence doesn’t matter?” Of course it matters; it gives meaning to the work and helps teachers heed the alarm clock in the mornings. Still, whenever the student steps out to do something—take a test, give a presentation, or read further on the subject—this is the student’s action, not the teacher’s. The student has the credit and the dignity (or should).

“In that case, teachers might as well throw up their hands,” another might say. “If they aren’t held accountable for results, why should they bother trying?”

When you think you might influence (but not control) your students, there is all the more reason to try. You get to share in something that is not your own, something that goes beyond you. When a student does well, you have the honor of contributing to it in some way; when a student does poorly or runs into difficulties, you have sorrow and the self-questioning. Honor and sorrow and self-questioning and responsibility inspire me a great deal more than the publication of teachers’ “value-added ratings” in the newspaper.

It is not just that they inspire me more; it’s that they serve as better guides. I don’t know, and have no way of knowing, how great my influence will be or what form it will take (beyond concrete and immediate learning). That is all the more reason to put thought and effort into my lessons: I am participating in something partly knowable, partly mysterious, but in any case larger than myself. If I had wanted a predictable effect on things, I would have become a chocolatier, a producer of delight and cavities. Even then, my results would not have been uniform.

Yes, of course I want concrete learning to come out of my lessons; of course I want to see evidence of it. Even so, I do not make it happen, nor do I set its limits. Even less do I control what comes out of that learning.

Many economists would disagree. A 2011 study (by Raj Chetty, John N. Friedman, and Jonah E. Rockoff) concludes that teachers affect not only students’ performance on tests, but also their college attendance and future earnings.  Granted, they say “affect,” not “cause,” but then they extrapolate: “Replacing a teacher whose VA is in the bottom 5% with an average teacher would increase the present value of students’ lifetime income by more than $250,000 for the average classroom in our sample.”

I think of D. H. Lawrence’s  “Pomegranate”: “Do you mean to tell me you will see no fissure?”

I respect these scholars and acknowledge the care that went into the study. Still, its projections assume minimal variation among students, little that could interfere with their earnings, and little room for them to choose their directions in life. Presumably, if teachers could “increase” students’ lifetime income by more than $250,000 (a projection based on limited data), then we could boost the economy just by replacing the low-ranking teachers. We could replace our way to a better world.

But what if the students’ lifetime income didn’t increase as expected? What if these students faced layoffs, job changes, and life difficulties, or chose professions that didn’t pay especially well? What could one replace then, for better outcomes? Perhaps one could give each of their choices a value-added rating (in terms of how much income it produced) and demand that they make lucrative life choices. Someone would have to chase after them and make sure they did so.

What if illness and war and death got in the way? Well, one would have to replace those students who got sick or died, or who grieved the death of others. No room for mortality (or aging) in the picture, especially if it interferes with earnings.

We are left, then, with those select few who don’t age, fall ill, or die—and who, without fail, take actions that bring them more money.

We are down to no one—but there, in that world of none, we have attained prosperity!

Happy are those who do not inhabit that world.

Big Change Coming Down the Pike, District Leaders Say

Templeton, NY—At a convocation of 10,000 public school teachers, district officials announced that a big change was coming down the pike. “Don’t think for a second that you can keep on doing things the same old way as before,” said Chancellor Mike Peremena. “It didn’t work then, and it isn’t gonna work now. If you try to resist, you’ll get knocked flat on your butt, just wait and see.”

Asked by a teacher just what the change entailed, Peremena guffawed. “Wouldn’t you like to know,” he said. “Yeah, I bet you’d like to know. That way you can get busy obstructing it. All I can tell you is, there’s no way around it this time. You may think you’ve got a way out, but that’s your own delusion, which’ll burst before you know it. It’ll burst in your sleep. It’ll burst in the middle of your formal observation.”

“Does it have to do with the tests?” another teacher asked.

It always has to do with the tests,” he snapped, “but there’s much more to it. You can be sure of that. Don’t think for a second that you can get away with your Sudoku, your naps in the teachers’ lounge. There’ll be test prep, all right, but it won’t be easy. No more rocking chairs and Facebook and bubble gum.”

”What if we’ve been doing good work?” a voice from the back of the hall asked. “Why do we automatically have to change, if we’ve been teaching well?”

Peremena roared a long roar. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that line,” he said at last, wiping his nose. “Every single teacher thinks she’s God’s gift to the classroom, apparently. Well, look at the results. If you were all so special, would we see these dismal results?”

“No, but our school—”

“Your school nothing. Your school… Ask your principal about your school. If your principal says anything good about your school, just send ’em to me. We’ll fix the situation.”

At this point Deputy Chancellor Marcy Verandering stepped up to the podium. “Let’s give Mr. Peremena a big round of applause for being here today,” she said. “You’re a generous guy, Mike. You gave us your precious time. And now I’d like to finish off by clarifying a few details.” The room clicked into hush.

“Nobody here likes change,” she began. “Most of you will fight it tooth and nail. You’ll insist that your current practices are good and right. You’ll defend the status quo. But a special few of you will turn into change agents. You’ll give up your old ways. You’ll do whatever needs to be done for the kids. Let’s have no ambiguity here. The change agents are the heroes.”

A commotion had started up in the back of the room. People were exclaiming and whirling around. “Good God,” said Verandering, “what is going on here?”

In strode a tall, blond, young-looking man. He walked down the aisle and up the steps to the stage. He nudged Verandering aside, cleared his throat, and began.

“Thank you, Ms. Verandering,” he said, “for introducing the change. It was my idea, as you know, and I’m the one who funded it. As of this moment, you and Mr. Peremena are fired.”

“But I supported this change from the very start—”

“That’s the problem. If you think you support it, you aren’t really taking it in. This is the type of change that scares people out of their breeches. The true change agent admits to being scared.”

“But wait,” pleaded Verandering, clutching the rail of the steps. “Wasn’t it just a mandate about items to be posted on every classroom wall?”

“You’re clearly a change resister, because you snitched.”

“That wasn’t my—”

“That’s what they always say. You snitched. Goodbye.” To the audience: “Your walls must be updated by tomorrow. They must have a success symbol, a learning strategy, three graphic organizers, the Common Core standards, exemplary work from every student, and a class roster with test scores. And evidence of technology. All of this must be on the wall by 8 a.m.”

“But that’s nothing new,” an elderly teacher ventured.

“Of course it’s new! Who says it isn’t new? It’s new as new can get. You’re the one who isn’t new. Let’s see the new you. Let’s see how you take to change. We’ll come by your rooms tomorrow morning. You had better be ready and perfect. Your strongholds and defenses are gone. A big, huge change is coming down the pike! You had better embrace it before you sleep. Good night.”

To Save Kids, District Adopts No-Sitdown Policy

One Monday morning, teachers at 100 public schools in Magnesia, Texas, walked into their classrooms to see no desks there. Some of them, thinking that they had lost their jobs, went to the principal’s office for an explanation. There they saw a consultant in a business suit, who informed them that they still had their jobs but would not be allowed to sit down any more. All teachers were directed to watch an informational video—standing up, of course—before the ringing of the first bell.

“We are here to serve the kids,” said schools chancellor Lewis Mensonge, who stars as himself in the video. “Sitting down does not serve the kids. It sends them the message that your own comfort comes first.”

“Desks are relics of the traditional model,” added his deputy Christine Lawaai, “which served only a small percentage of the kids. We live in an era of active engagement for every child. This means that teachers should be up on their feet and moving around, without exception.” The video showed a teacher striding swiftly around a classroom and peering over students’ shoulders as they wrote. “If this teacher sits down at any point,” she said, “at any point, then some child is being failed. Some child’s needs are not being met. And so we must enforce the rules with all available means.”

Video cameras would be installed in classrooms, and all classroom doors were to be kept open at all times. If a student caught a teacher sitting down, he or she was encouraged to take a picture with his or her cellphone—which the student could use in school for this purpose only. “We urge children to be proactive,” said Lawaai. “Their own education is at stake.” Children who took photos of a seated teacher would receive a laptop and other rewards.

The video then showed a meeting where Mensonge was presenting the new policy to a group of principals. “When are teachers supposed to grade work or plan lessons?” asked one visibly distressed principal.

“Look,” said Mensonge, “do you see me sitting back and reading policy papers, or writing up a speech? I bust my [bleep] every day, if you’ll forgive my language. I’m traveling around from school to school and from meeting to meeting, getting work done. The stuff you have to do sitting down is for the evenings and weekends, not for the school day, when there’s no time to lose. And quite frankly, if teachers aren’t prepared to give every one of their evenings and weekends to these essential tasks, then they shouldn’t be teaching. There are a million other outlets for their lackadaisical lifestyle. We won’t be footing the bill.”

“How will they have any energy left in the evenings, if they haven’t sat down all day?” asked another principal.

“You are clinging to old language and thinking,” Mensonge replied. “We are looking at a paradigm shift here. We need to start using our power words. If the teacher collapses from exhaustion, then she wasn’t fit to be a teacher in the first place. It’s painful at first to be tough,” he said with softened tone, “but once you do it, you see the real changes happening. You bring in a cadre of teachers who don’t tire. You see kids learning who never learned before. You wish you had done all of this from the start. That’s when the real pain comes.”

The first bell rang. Teachers proceeded to their classes and watched the children file in and take their seats. One teacher leaned against the whiteboard as she took attendance. A cell phone flashed; within minutes, security guards had arrived to escort her out.

In a phone interview, Mensonge said that teachers would soon be required to wait on students during lunch. “It’ll motivate the kids to succeed,” he said. “They’ll think to themselves, ‘I can do better than that. I can be better than that.’ And that’s what we want them to think.”

Is It Possible to Care Only About Data?

This isn’t a satirical piece. (The last two posts were.)

I meant to say something about the comment I reposted the other day, the one that appeared on Eduwonkette’s blog in January 2009. The commenter warns against that sly sort of conformity that can take over a person in academia—the temptation to say those things that will lead to publications, speaking engagements, and grants—and urges Eduwonkette (and all of us, I suppose) to remain willing to admit to error.

It struck me as a wise, thoughtful letter from someone who knew a thing or two. Two sentences, though, gave me pause, not because I disagreed with them, but because I saw room for qualification: “But you didn’t want to play the policy game. All you cared about was data.”

Now, the person was addressing the comment to Eduwonkette, but I want to consider it more generally. It is easy to see how the first sentence could be true for someone. Many of us don’t want to play the policy game. The second sentence—is it possible? Does anyone with a serious interest in education care only about the data? Would that even be a good thing?

I have noticed a common assumption on both (or multiple) sides of the education debates: that a person should “follow the data,” and that a reform or policy is viable only if it has “evidence” to support it. (Evidence and data are not identical—the word “data” is often misused—but that’s another matter.)

It makes sense that one should look at the evidence behind any initiative. Why should anyone pursue a reckless, unproven reform on a large scale? Why subject schools and districts to experiments that have little evidence in their support? Granted, one has to experiment now and then, but one should do so with caution.

But “evidence” has meaning only in relation to your goals and values. Evidence supports or does not support a conclusion—but that conclusion must have some bearing on your aims. For instance, a certain kind of instruction could be correlated with higher artichoke consumption, but unless you’re trying to get the kids to eat more (or fewer) artichokes, this won’t mean much. Often policymakers speak in terms of “achievement” and “success”–but achievement of what? Success at what? They are usually referring to test scores—a limiting goal, given the nature of the tests.

If your goal (or one of the goals) is to give students background in literature, mathematics, science, languages, history, and arts, then the evidence of the curriculum’s worth can be found in its content and the lessons. If students are reading Chaucer, if the teacher is leading lively discussions and directing students’ attention to Chaucer’s word-play and satire, then the good is self-evident (if you think learning Chaucer is a good thing). But this goal is fairly unpopular with with those who want to see quick, concrete results.

Another goal might be to prepare students for the challenges of adulthood, such as college or the workplace. Hence “college and career readiness.” Policymakers supporting this goal might ask employers and college admissions officers what they seek in their applicants. They would then judge curricula and instruction by these criteria. Such an approach makes sense on the surface but has flaws; employers and admissions officers may take certain kinds of knowledge for granted and not think to mention them. In addition, the point of getting into college or getting a job is to start building one’s life (not just to get in). Thus, one needs qualifications that transcend the immediate ones.

If the goal is to prepare people for civic life, then the evidence-gathering becomes trickier still. One might ask: who are the people whose editorials get published, who hold political office, or who speak at town hall meetings? What kind of rhetoric and knowledge do they show in their writing and speaking? What kind of education did they have? This is faulty, though, because there are many ways of participating in political and cultural life besides writing editorials, holding political office, or speaking at town hall meetings. If civic participation means engagement in constructive discourse on matters of public concern, then we’re in better shape, as we can identify the attributes of such discourse and the knowledge required for it. Even so, we might disagree over the priorities and emphases.

One could stick with the goals that carry the clearest evidence—graduating from high school, getting a job, etc.—but such goals justify only the most basic and pragmatic sort of education. Some would say that’s just plenty; if students want more than that, they should find it on their own. But that would put vast numbers of students at a disadvantage. Those who could afford a fuller education would study literature, history, languages, and so forth (in private schools or in wealthy public schools), while others would have little exposure to such things.

Thus it makes no sense to speak of “evidence” except in relation to what one is trying to do. Once one has established the goals, there are still more challenges, since the appropriate evidence can be difficult to define and gather. Much of it shows itself only over a long period of time. Much of it comes from individual experience. Many people dismiss individual experience as limited and biased, but it also has strengths, if we treat it responsibly.

My point here is not that we should disregard evidence or data. That would be irresponsible. Rather, we should ask, evidence of what? What are we trying to do, and why? What sort of information would help us see whether or not we are accomplishing it? How should we go about interpreting such information? How can we stay true to our goals but admit to mistakes and misunderstandings? How can we speak and work with those whose goals are different?

Why Must Everything Be an Innovation?

Today, on his Education Week blog, Rick Hess argues that “not all innovations are created equal.” To merit attention, an innovation must be “game-changing, sustainable, and replicable.” I question all of this, including the underlying premise that innovations are what we need in the first place.

Must an idea be an innovation in order to have value? Of course not. Many of the best ideas in education are old ones–or else subtle modifications of old ideas. In many cases the innovation, if it exists at all, is slight. That does not detract from its importance.

An example: last year I observed a physics class where students were given pictures and asked to identify the force or forces acting on the objects. As they worked on this, I saw them making some key mistakes. I pointed this out to the teacher, and he said, “Yes, that’s what they usually do.” He wasn’t worried. When they came back together as a class, he took took time to discuss their reasoning with them. It was clear, as the discussion progressed, that the students were “getting it”–precisely because they had made the error and now saw why it was an error. It was one of the most illuminating lessons I have watched. The teacher didn’t do anything revolutionary; rather, he followed some complementary principles (letting the students struggle on their own and then walking them carefully through the problems) and exercised good judgment when doing so.

One could turn this into a Big Innovation (along the lines of “discovery” learning): Teachers, stop teaching students the right answer. Let them make mistakes, and then reason through the problems with them. But that’s exactly the sort of idea that goes wrong when taken large. One has to  know when to let kids make these mistakes and when to set them on the right track. One have to give them some direction, or they will be all over the place, and it will be difficult to bring them together for a fruitful discussion. This lesson worked beautifully because there was a basis for it and because the teacher knew how to do it right. He didn’t teach every lesson in this manner.

Why must a good idea, innovative or not, be replicated on a large scale? That takes away the very spirit of innovation, which involves, at the very least, the use of one’s best judgment. Tell others to copy a model, and you’re telling them to shut off part of their thinking. It makes more sense to translate a model–that is, to carry some aspects of it into new situations–than to replicate it.

I remember a professional development training–or series of trainings–where we were put in groups and taught how to perform “jigsaw” activities (where each group’s work would form part of a whole). We were then told to go implement it in the classroom the very next week, and come back and talk about what we had done. I found this peculiar. Why must I implement a “jigsaw” activity, unless it makes sense to do so? Instead, I reported on a project that my students had just completed. It involved elements of the jigsaw but was not a jigsaw activity per se. The final result was a collection of mystery stories the students had written (a feat for these English language learners, and a delightful collection). I brought the booklet to the next training; the trainer asked, “But how did you use our strategies?” I tried to explain that I had used elements of them, but that was not enough. It wasn’t that she held a higher standard; the “jigsaw activity” we had learned in training resulted in a bunch of charts that we then put on the wall. The content wasn’t what mattered here. What mattered (to the trainers) was that we replicate the “strategies.”

Later, I found myself adapting the “jigsaw” idea for certain lessons–for instance, when conducting a mock session of Congress. It seemed much more fruitful to me to wait for the right opportunity–and to make adjustments to the model as needed–than to just go and implement it because someone told me to do so, without regard for lesson topic. I see this error often in professional development; the trainers expect teachers to go and do exactly what they say, when a less literal implementation would actually be more interesting.

A good idea need not be new or grand, nor need it be replicated exactly, in order to have value. Why, then, does our education rhetoric scream “new, new, new” and “big, big, big”? The reasons are many–and the results disappointing. Many reforms tout themselves as innovations that will revolutionize the classroom and change the face of teaching and learning. This is a setup; first of all, revolutions carry losses, often severe and unforeseen; second, when you tell others to copy your idea exactly, you’re robbing them of the freedom you yourself enjoyed when developing the idea.

Why not take a more modest tack? Why not value tradition along with innovation and see how the two combine? Why not recognize the thoughtful, small-scale reform that may inspire many others but cannot and need not be copied?

Scaffolding or Teaching?

There has been uproar recently about teaching prescriptions arising from the Common Core State Standards. In a guide for publishers, David Coleman and Susan Pimentel (the main authors of the standards for English Language Arts) discourage teachers from engaging students in “pre-reading” activities. Students should focus directly on the text, without distraction. Teachers may provide “scaffolding” (that is, necessary information or other instructional support) but should not do anything to replace the students’ actual reading. Coleman and Pimentel revised the guidelines in April in response to criticisms and concerns. But the revised version still assumes that an informational lesson or the offering of insight is “scaffolding.”

Not all direct instruction is scaffolding, though. The very term “scaffolding” implies that students should ultimately be doing the work on their own. Teachers provide temporary support to help them get there, then take it away when they don’t need it any more. For instance, a teacher might provide vocabulary words and their meanings, then provide the words and have the students look them up, then have students identify and look up words on their own.

But when  we study literature, our independent reading is only part of what we do. We learn, also, from classmates and the teacher. Their insights add to our own. In college and graduate school, the professor is supposed to offer insights into the text. This isn’t “scaffolding.” This is teaching and scholarship.

As students advance in a subject (let’s continue to consider English for now), two things happen at once. On the one hand, they become capable of handling the material independently at a certain level. On the other, they come to recognize that there’s more to be grasped. Certain kinds of instruction do indeed “scaffold” the material to help the students gain basic understanding. Other kinds take them beyond that basic understanding. The categories overlap, of course.

So the question becomes: what are we teaching? There’s a difference between literacy and literature instruction; the one focuses on reading; the other, on interpretation of specific works. In the elementary years, literacy may be the focus. Students read across the subjects and build knowledge along the way. They reach a point where they can pick up a book, read it with little help, and answer questions about it. Teachers should give them essential background information so that they ultimately won’t need such help. But as they advance through the grades, the focus of English class moves toward literature. The point now is to help them see things in a work that aren’t obvious even after a careful reading.

Given the differences between literacy and literature study, where do “pre-reading” activities (activities that prepare for the reading) come into play? When should they be avoided? Certain kinds of “pre-reading” activities distract and deflect from the text, no matter what the level. I have seen lessons that did everything but delve into the book. Students looked at the picture on the cover, made predictions about the text, connected these predictions to their own lives, and on and on. I saw a lesson on Maya Angelou’s poem “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me” where students spent most of the time making lists of things that scared them. I have seen “genre” lessons—even in first grade—where students learned to determine a book’s genre and make guesses about its content before reading it. (I have seen similar activities, albeit a little fancier-sounding, in some graduate school courses.) Often I have wanted to say: “For crying out loud, let’s read the book!”

But information provided by the teacher can be interesting and helpful, even essential. Many works assume knowledge on the reader’s part, so it makes sense to give students this. I assume that the original audience of Homer’s Iliad knew who Athena was and where Troy was. They also understood, at least instinctively, what dactylic hexameter was; they grasped not only the story line, but its cadences. Why not give young students (and older students) such an entrance into the reading? If students already know their Greek mythology, why not revisit it? And if the teacher knows Greek, why shouldn’t she recite a little of the original Homer for them? Wouldn’t that give them a sense of its sounds and rhythms?

Some information may not be essential but may bring students farther into the text. This spring, when teaching Leo Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich to tenth graders, I brought in a passage from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. I wanted the students to consider Aristotle’s idea of virtue as a mean, then look at the “happy mean” of Ivan Ilyich’s life and consider why this is so different from the sort of virtue that Aristotle describes. Granted, the students could have read Tolstoy’s story without the Aristotle passage. They would even have understood that Ivan Ilyich’s “happy mean” was not so happy. But the juxtaposition with the Aristotle gave them a greater sense of Tolstoy’s irony and of Ivan Ilyich’s miserable situation. I would not call this scaffolding.

Nor would I call “scaffolding” what my college professors have taught me. I remember reading Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose” for the first time, in Russian. The professor pointed out the skewed logic as she read passages aloud and laughed herself to tears. We were all capable of understanding the Russian text. But she pointed out Gogol’s subtle logical tricks and wordplay—things that made us pay all the more attention. Yes, I would have enjoyed Gogol even without this instruction, but it was this practice of listening to certain passages, hearing her comment on them, reading them again to myself, and thinking about them some more that made me fall in love with his work. I ended up writing my dissertation on Gogol.

So, we have two complementary truths, two aspects of education. One is that schools should bring students to a point of independence. Another is that the independence is fullest and richest when we continue to learn from others. The Common Core State Standards, and education policy overall, should acknowledge this latter truth.

  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

  • Always Different



    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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