The Limits of Education Debate

I haven’t been writing much on education lately, except when talking about literature or things happening at Varga. The reason is not at all a loss of interest. Rather, I see limits to the general debates. There’s no way to determine whether the curriculum should be more or less demanding, or whether there should be more or less group work, etc., except in relation to what already is going on. If you have a vapid or nonexistent curriculum, then there’s good reason to fight for something more substantial. If you have a substantial but overpacked curriculum, then you might instead call for more flexibility. If students do nothing but listen to the teachers all day long, then you might call for some different kinds of activities in the classroom. But if the classroom and school day are already frenetic with social activities, then you wish for more focus, listening, and quiet. Now, not all education views are reactive and relative. Some principles and practices are good more often than not. But many arguments can be resolved through simple attention to the context. What is the current situation? In what ways does it go to extremes? What counterbalances might be needed?

When I first started writing critically about education, I was responding to a particularly dogmatic “philosophy” that had taken over the NYC school system: the notion that students should be working in groups nearly all the time and that “teacher talk” should be kept to a minimum. Even teacher-led class discussions were looked down upon as being too teacher-driven. This is ridiculous; yes, it’s good to bring students to a point where they can lead a class discussion or initiate a group activity, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with teaching them things, posing questions, showing what it means to go farther into the subject. Moreover, there is no reason why students should have to work in groups in every lesson. Some group work is fine. But not all learning takes place in groups, with others talking around you. Sometimes you need room to think on your own, sometimes to listen to an extended presentation.

The Hungarian system has plenty of problems of its own. But at Varga I have found it possible to strike a combination of instruction, class discussion, and other activities. No one has a problem with that; to the contrary, they support it. I also enjoy a combination of specificity and flexibility in the curriculum: there are things I am required to teach, but I generally find room and time to include works of literature, creative writing, and more.

Many people here, students and teachers alike, believe that the system needs to be modernized. But they would balk at the idea of arranging the desks in pods and requiring small-group work in every lesson. The idea that students should be initiating the activities would likewise strike them as absurd, even though some of this would come welcome. It’s understood that students have things to learn from their teachers, and if these teachers hold discussions in which they hear and welcome different points of view, then that in itself is “modernization.”

It is easy, within a school and culture that values subject-matter knowledge, to have lively lessons, because all you have to do is open up discussion, and the students have lots to say. They speak thoughtfully, with attention to the text and the questions at hand. You can ask them to do this in small groups, and often this will also work well. But in systems where basic knowledge and self-discipline is lacking, then these same activities can go awry. In those cases you have to give a lot of attention to basic knowledge and basic habits. That doesn’t mean that’s all you can do, but you need to do it, and this needs to be understood and supported.

I suspect that good education has to do with a combination of opposing principles: receiving instruction and asking your own questions about it; thinking on your own and working with others; following the curriculum plan and making room for other things. The right combination is not easy to find; once found, it cannot be propagated very far. A school can have it; sometimes even a school district can have it. But educational ideas and methods tend to degrade when spread too zealously; someone takes them to extremes, another person reduces them to something banal, someone else misunderstands them entirely, and someone else insists on them (or resists them) no matter what the context. For the ideas to work well, they need to be taken in proper measure, with an understanding of where they came from and why.

I think back fondly on the schools where I taught in NYC: especially Columbia Secondary School (where I taught and led the high school philosophy program), but also the middle school where I taught for my first three years and the elementary school where I taught for a year (after which I left teaching for two years to write my first book). In all of these places, I found ways to help my students both learn essential material and do interesting work. But the elementary and middle schools were under great pressure from the system; even though the principals liked and supported my work, there were continual mantras (in training sessions and elsewhere) about being a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.” To this day I don’t understand why you should have to be just one or the other.

Speaking of sages on stages, I have often marveled at my colleagues’ eloquence here. When they have something to say—for instance, at a faculty meeting or in a presentation—they deliver complete, polished speeches (without referring to any notes). I have noticed this in other contexts too. Why are Hungarians such good orators? (Not all are, but the tendency is striking.) I suspect that part of it comes from heaing so many lectures throughout their lives. They understand what it means to say something substantial and cohesive. This is comparable to people who spend a lot of time listening to classical music and jazz (or other long forms). They develop an ear for the long form.

Now, brevity has its virtues too. There’s no need to speak at length all the time. Nor should all lessons be filled with lecture. But if you don’t hear people speaking beyond a few sentences at a time, then you might not know what it means to do so, or to listen to it. Few consider how the lecture can actually prepare students for the time when they, too, will need to make an argument or give an explanation. The turns of phrase, the rhetorical rhythms, the movement from part to whole or vice versa—all of this can help students in the world.

And yet it’s possible to overdo this, or to do it poorly; lectures are not “the answer.” No single thing is. In fact, there isn’t an ultimate answer to these education conundrums. It’s better that way; if there were an ultimate answer, education itself would go to sleep.

Questions of Community

There are several related idols in contemporary culture: the group, the team, and the community. Each one has a different character, and each one has benefits and dangers.

I have discussed the pitfalls of group work on numerous occasions–most recently, in an interview with The Guardian (UK). I do not mean that group work is necessarily bad; it is just overemphasized. Thinking on one’s own–or participating in a whole-class lesson–gets short shrift.

In addition, I have discussed problems with the concept of a team. Teams have their place (many places, actually), but not every group or association is a team, nor should it be. Much important work is done by individuals and can be shortchanged by a team.

In relation to the above, I have also examined how collaboration differs from group work, and how belonging and apartness combine in education.

Today I will look at a somewhat touchier subject: community. Community, as I understand it, is an association of individuals with a loose common bond, be it geography, a common interest or attitude, or some other common characteristic. To many, community is an automatic good; what could possibly be wrong with having something in common with many others and, on account of this commonality, being part of a larger whole?

Indeed, there is much to be said for it; many of us have longed to be part of a community of some kind and have rejoiced when we found one. But the word can be misused.

For one thing, as David Bromwich points out in Politics by Other Means (1992), it can be invoked manipulatively, for ideological ends. (Sometimes the “community” invoked might not even exist as such.)

Or the word might be invoked in reference to the most popular activities or views–and not in reference to the outliers. In my experience, “Support your community” rarely means, “Support the individuals within it.” Instead, it seems to mean, “Support those things that the majority supports, those things that draw a crowd.” I do not mean that the things that draw a crowd are unworthy–but a true community should have room for more. A genuine community, as I understand it, would honor its minorities, dissidents, independent thinkers, and others who don’t fit the group. There are circles within circles; the largest subcircle is not the whole (unless it is, of course).

I am likewise wary of communities where the members, because of the very nature of the bond, conceal important thoughts by choice or necessity–for instance, a “supportive community of writers” where everyone is supposed to praise everyone else. There must be room for genuine criticism; support should not be equated with applause.

Or take a workplace. Is that and can it be a community? It depends; at various jobs, I have become friends with my co-workers. Sometimes the entire staff has bonded. But no matter how warm the workplace, one must remember that at some level, it is a job. There is work to be done. Friendship and fellowship can form within it–but that should not be the expectation.

All of these pitfalls can be addressed with careful use of the word. There are different kinds of community, each with its offerings and restrictions. If one uses the word carefully, one can avoid being deceived by it. But there is still another danger.

Belonging to a group is meaningful only if some true fellowship exists in it. Fellowship between two may be the best and strongest kind. As Emerson writes in his essay “Clubs” (the ninth chapter of Society and Solitude), “Discourse, when it rises highest and searches deepest, when it lifts us into that mood out of which thoughts come that remain as stars in our firmament, is between two.” Yet a community often interferes with the fellowship of two (or with solitude, for that matter); the individuals come under pressure to include others in their group, to level out their conversation, to accept the common denominator. If a community can make room for friendship and idiosyncrasy, if it does not try to smooth everyone down, if it recognizes that some affinities will run deeper than others, then it can be strong.

 

Room for Debate: Balanced Literacy

The July 2 edition of Room for Debate (New York Times) addresses some of the controversy regarding Balanced Literacy. The panelists are E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Pedro Noguera, Lucy Calkins, Claire Needell, Mark Federman, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and myself.

A few days later, Alexander Nazaryan’s op-ed on the subject drew impassioned responses as well. As I read comments on the various pieces, I saw a need for definitions and distinctions. For example, group work is often equated with collaboration, but the two are not the same. I explain the difference (or part of it) on Joanne Jacobs’s  blog.

Standards Count as Complex Informational Text, Says Leader

Green Lake, NY–In response to schools’ complaints that they have not yet received a viable, affordable Common Core curriculum with actual texts, district superintendent Mike Vnutri announced that the students should be reading the very standards. “It’s informational text, and it’s complex enough,” he said. “Plus I have it from higher up that everyone’s supposed to be reading the standards several times in every class, so you’re killing two birds with one stone. Sorry about that metaphor; I happen to like birds.”

In a recent model Common Core lesson for a tenth-grade literature class, students spent a lesson reading ELA standard RL.9-10.4: “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).”

Although this is not in itself a literary text, every literary text should be paired with informational text anyway. According to sources, it is even acceptable to leave the literary text out. This standard satisfies complexity requirements; when fed into text analyzers, it shows an eleventh-grade level and could thus be considered a “stretch” text: too hard for struggling readers, but within reasonable range for many others.

In order to ensure that all students leave the classroom with an understanding of the text, teacher Ernesta Pourtous announced, at the start of the class, that the goal of the lesson was to understand all of the words in the standard, which she then read aloud. She then asked each student in turn to repeat the goal of the lesson. She noted where they stumbled over words.

“Now,” she said, “when you encounter an informational text that has difficult words, there are several strategies you can use. One is to look the words up in a dictionary. That’s not the strategy we’re going to practice today, because we don’t have dictionaries in the classroom. Instead, I am going to teach you a four-step exercise: Identify, Predict, Align, and Define. You can remember it as IPAD.” There were giggles in the class.

For the next activity, she had students copy the standard from the board and carefully circle the words they didn’t know The circles had to be complete (or they would have to start over), and any student who did not circle “figurative,” “connotative,” or “cumulative” would lose a point. She circulated the room, taking photographs so that she could document that every student was hard at work. At the end of the ten minutes, she told students to hold their sheets of paper in the air. Circled words abounded.

Next, she took a minute to touch base about how it felt to succeed at an activity. Tessie Moran, a tall girl with dark bangs in the corner of the room, spoke quietly about how she now knew that she could do it. (There were hidden microphones in various locations.)

After this, Ms. Pourtous instructed them to turn to their partners and predict the meanings ot the words. “At this point, you are allowed to say what you think they mean; there are no wrong answers,” she told them. “But I do want to see everyone talking.” Soon the room was filled with noise. Five minutes later, she called for silence again. A student raised his hand.

“Yes, Jose?”

“Why aren’t we reading a sonnet or something?”

“It’s no use reading a sonnet if you don’t have a Common Core-aligned goal. The purpose of this lesson is to help you get your goals in place. That will make you college and career ready. If you want to read sonnets, you’ve got to do the hard work. Which leads us to the hardest part of the lesson: alignment.” She explained that now their task was to align their definitions with those of their classmates. First, they would compare notes in small groups. Then they would rotate to other groups–three times. Once they had completed all of these alignments, everyone would have an identical list of definitions. Through group influence, she said, these definitions would become more accurate over the course of the activity.

She then circulated as students conferred excitedly on the meaning of “connotative.” “I think it’s like a suggestion,” one student said; the others nodded and copied him. “Now, how do you turn that into an adjective?” Pourtous asked the group. Once they arrived at “suggestive,” she moved on.

At the end of the class, she had them all post their identical definitions on the walls. They had defined “figurative” as “imaginary,” “connotative” as “suggestive,” and “cumulative” as “piled up.” The room was now decorated with words and their approximate meanings.

“You see,” said Superintendent Vnutri, after displaying the video at a principals’ meeting, “every single student was involved in this lesson, and every single student walked out with a better understanding of the standard. Do you see how it was all in their hands? This is vastly more productive and student-oriented than having a teacher stand at the front of the room and yap about Shakespeare, or engage in dialogue with just three or four students.”

“I’d like to hear about the Shakespeare, myself,” a principal ventured.

“Sure you would,” Vnutri retorted. “You’ve just got to remember that this isn’t about you.”

 

Note: I made some edits to this piece after posting it.

 

District Mandates Innovation in All Schools

New Fork, NY—Responding to the lack of innovation in some schools, and the multiple definitions of innovation in others, the New Fork Department of Education has ordered all schools to follow a streamlined, data-driven innovation rubric that spells out precisely what an innovative school and classroom should look like.

“It’s time for every school in this district to become innovative,” said schools chief Frank Lubie. “There is no excuse for doing the ‘same old, same old,’ or dibbly-dabbling in your own special thing. Innovation is research-driven, we know what it is, and it’s time for everyone to get on board with it.” Any school in the district that has not become innovative by 2015–2016 will lose fifty percent of its funding.

What does an innovative school look like? First, its bulletin boards must look innovative. “Every bulletin board must have a task, a Common Core State Standard, and a rubric, along with graded student work with a recent date,” said Lubie. “Not one of those items can be missing.” Just how is this innovative? “Research has shown that innovative schools have bulletin boards that conform to this standard,” he replied. “That’s why we call them innovative schools.”

Next, all classrooms must have a four-square chart on the wall. “It can serve various purposes,” said Literacy and Innovation Coach (LIC) Sally Onwys, “but it must be clearly visible, and it must be used.” One purpose was to show students how to write a paragraph. “In the middle, you’ve got your topic sentence,” she said, “but it’s in a diamond, so it’s still a four-square chart. Then you have an opening supportive sentence, two more supportive sentences with evidence—that’s the most innovative part, since no one used evidence in the past—and a summary sentence. Do that for four more paragraphs, and you’ve got an innovative essay in an innovative classroom, all thanks to the innovative chart.”

What if a student finds that a summary sentence is not needed, or that two supportive sentences do the trick? “That student will still have to follow instructions,” Onwys replied. “What’s good for one is good for all. To summarize: Even a student who sees no need for a summary sentence should write one, for the sake of our collective innovation rating.”

Speaking of collective innovation, all desks in an innovative classroom must be arranged in pods, until the neo-furniture arrives. “There should be no detectable front of the room,” said Onwys. “Students should have nowhere in particular to look except at each other. This will stimulate collaboration and group thinking.” In addition, all students would wear RFID tags so that they could be tracked at any time, for greater success. Additional monitoring might include discussion tracking (by computer programs that detect keywords), engagement measurement by means of skin conductance bracelets, and other items.

As for content, every innovative classroom must focus on informational texts. “We’ve got to catch up with the information age,” said Lubie. “Literature’s all very nice, and we’ll still teach it. But those kids have to be reading informational text every day.” To eliminate the cost of photocopying, and to provide texts at each student’s instructional level, schools would give each student an iPad with an interactive reading comprehension program. There would be no need to waste precious instructional time with class discussion; instead, teachers could circulate around the room and make sure students were on task. A typical check-in might sound like this:

Teacher: So, what strategy is Flubby teaching you today? [Flubby is an empathic animated tutor.]
Student: Today Flubby is teaching me the strategy of finding the main idea.
Teacher: Are you applying that strategy to an informational text?
Student: Yes.
Teacher: Let’s see.
Student (pointing to a highlighted sentence on the screen): Here’s the main idea.
Teacher: Great!

The teacher then makes a mark on a checklist and proceeds to the next student.

For Lubie, a strength of the innovative classroom is its lack of ambiguity. “We don’t have to worry about being misrated and misjudged,” he said, “because it’s obvious who’s innovative and who isn’t.” Nor is it necessarily time-consuming; the district has purchased five thousand Innovative Learning Packages that meet all of the specifications. A school need only set it up and use it. “If the district becomes entirely innovative, as we require,” he added proudly, “the time soon will come when it knows no other way.”

Noise and Its Discontents

A few weeks ago, during a lesson on Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I played my students a DVD of the Lucerne Festival Orchestra performing the fourth movement of Mahler’s Symphony no. 3, which has “Zarathustra’s Roundelay” as its lyrics. At first, the students were somewhat giggly; then a hush came over the room. We were all taking part in something extraordinary. Afterward, I felt rested and restored; weeks later,  I carried the music in my mind.

It’s a truism to say that we live in a noisy world—but noise has become the default in our lives. We acquiesce to having many conversations and activities at once; to focus on a single thing seems brazen. Yet something like Mahler’s Symphony no. 3 requires full focus; insofar as we have pushed such focus away, we have pushed away the music too.

Lately I have read, on blogs and in magazines, various insinuations that certain people—classified as Highly Sensitive People—are especially affected by noise. To me, that’s a diversion of the problem. Yes, noise affects some more acutely than others, but it affects everyone; it scatters our thoughts, work, conversations, meals, commutes, and sleep. As we (as a society) lose the practice of quieting down, we also break up others’ quiet.

But let’s backtrack a little and take a look at what noise and quiet actually are. The words are often used loosely to encompass visual stimuli as well as sounds. This is legitimate; I will explain why.

The word “noise” apparently derives from the Latin nausea (“disgust, annoyance, discomfort”). That is one theory, anyway. Another is that it derives from the Latin noxia (“hurting, injury, damage”). Let us think of it as something cacophonous to the ear or eye or mind—a pile of clashing stimuli. So, if I am reading an article online and am interrupted by flashing ads and popups, I consider the experience noisy. If I am at a concert, and my neighbor is checking messages on her illuminated handheld device, I am bothered by what I would call noise. You can have a chorus of a hundred and no noise; you can have two people interrupting each other—and noise aplenty.

The opposite of noise, then, is not silence, but harmony and integrity. A focused class discussion is harmonious in that the people listen to each other, build on each other’s points, and refrain from distraction. The harmony need not be perfect. In a concert hall, there will be sounds of rustling programs and feet, or even the occasional squeak of the bow on the string. That doesn’t turn the performance into noise. Nor do dissonant musical intervals, necessarily. You can have a dissonant piece that is nonetheless harmonious in a larger sense. Noise destroys the harmony and integrity of something.

Quiet is not silence; it is a kind of rest. You can be quiet while giving an animated speech; the quiet underlies the speech. It is that which allows you to collect your thoughts and perceive the audience. Without the quiet, it’s difficult to collect or perceive.

So, what are the intrusions on the quiet? What accounts for the rise of noise?

One of the biggest culprits is acquiescience: the attitude that “that’s just the way it is today.” I often hear people say that because we live in a world of multitasking and constant digital communication, we should simply go along with it, in the classroom and everywhere else. Stop holding on to the old ways. Adapt to the new. Have more group work. Have kids text about Shakespeare. Have many conversations going on at once. Even explicators of the Common Core—or many of them–tell teachers not to be the “sage on the stage” but instead to “facilitate” while the students work in groups.

I have never advocated for lectures as a primary pedagogical format in secondary school. When I defend lectures or the “sage on the stage,” I defend them as part of a larger collection of approaches. That said, they merit defense. One great benefit of the lecture is that it allows students to listen to something, make sense of it in their minds, come up with questions and counterpoints, etc. Also, there are some true sages in the classroom. I don’t claim to be one—but I have had teachers to whom I wanted to listen for hours because they inspired me so much.

When the quiet and focus are in place, a host of possibilities arises. The teacher can shape the presentation; she has the latitude to approach a question obliquely, since she doesn’t have to meet the a demand for instant entertainment and sense. The students start to see how one idea leads to another; the sustained thought enters into their reading and writing. This makes room for serious joy and accomplishment.

Outside of school, whoever reads a book for an hour or two without interruption, practices an instrument with full concentration, or stays away from email for a full day, not only has a treasure, but holds it out for others to take as well.

For these reasons, I will continue to fight the noise on many fronts, external and internal. It may be a losing scrimmage, but if I can win here and there, it will be worth it.

 

I made a few revisions to this piece long after posting it.

District Leader Calls for Inhumanities

Rhino Falls, Wisconsin—Citing a global trend toward ruthless school and workplace practices, Superintendent Mark Sequor called on for a steep increase in the inhumanities throughout the K–12 grades. “It’s time we not only caught up with Singapore and China, but showed them who’s who,” he told an assembly of 10,000. “Our kids think they have lots of meaningless tests? They should see the tests the kids in Korea take. Our kids think they have too much homework? Compared to other kids, they’re on permanent vacation.”

To catch up with the rest of the world, says Sequor, the schools need an inhumanities emphasis even more than a STEM emphasis. “STEM might still give you a few stargazers,” he explained; “whereas a course in inhumanities will keep every child on task.”

The inhumanities, Sequor continued, are at the heart of the Race to the Top competition, which awards funding to districts that race into flawed reforms without really thinking them through. “The whole point here is to get ahead, not to succumb to lazy thoughts,” he explained, “and so, by embracing the inhumanities, we’re really going the extra mile—faster than anyone else, I’ll add.”

Telos Elementary, a model school in Rhino City, allows visitors to witness its inhumanities curriculum in action. The day is filled with rapid and strictly timed activities, where students from kindergarten on up must turn and talk, repeat, rotate, move to the next station, repeat, summarize, and get in line. “We can’t let them get dreamy,” said Holly Vide, the school’s inhumanities coach. “We need to have everyone engaged. Also, in the workplace, they’ll be switched from task to task or even fired, so we need to prepare them for that reality.”

By second grade, students are already learning to cheer over their data. “You’ve got to get into their heads that the statistics are what count, so to speak,” Vide said. “The biggest thing in their world should be that graph at the front of the room, showing their rise or fall in scores. This mindset will prepare them well for high school, where they have to spend months preparing for the SAT. They learn to live for the score. That’s called achievement.”

In middle school, students refine their social ostracism skills. “Group work helps everyone spot the non-team-players,” said Sequor. “For this reason, it’s important to have group work in every class. Once you’ve spotted the non-team-players, you can exclude them and get on with your project.” The excluded students will receive low grades for classroom collaboration. “This is an important red flag for colleges and employers,” he said, “and it allows us to boost our credibility. If our team players are doing well, and we’re doing due diligence in classifying our non-team-players, then we’ll keep our good ratings.”

Once students enter high school, they are expected to do everything, he said. “Every high school student, in order to have a fighting chance in life, must have top grades, top test scores, leadership credentials, an array of extracurriculars, athletic prizes, community service hours, and at least ten things that go above and beyond what everyone else is doing. Can you be a person of integrity and character and do all of this?” he asked with a rhetorical flourish. “Of course not. That’s part of the point. Integrity and character are relics of medievalism. I think it was the medieval writer Flannery O’Connor who said something about how integrity lies in what one cannot do. We live in a ‘can-do’ era. A ‘can’t-do’ attitude is simply out of bounds.”

According to some critics, it’s the “can’t-do attitude” that makes room for thiings like reading, pondering, or playing an instrument. “No one who does anything substantial or interesting can do everything,” said Brian Emerson, a professor of English and an opponent of the inhumanities movement. “There must be areas of ‘no’ and failure.”

“That’s a quaint idea,” responded Sequor, “but it amounts to a bunch of fluff. Substantial and interesting things? Those are subjective terms. We have to take a hard look at the era and go where it goes.”

The era was not available for comment, but one of its representatives repeated its recent press statement that “following is leading.” We would have mulled over the words, but a whistle blew, and everyone scurried on to the next task.

 

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

A Different Way of Being with Others

Lately I have seen slews of articles about the need to teach “social-emotional” and so-called “non-cognitive” skills in school. According to many educators and theorists, schools should emphasize teamwork, cooperation, collaboration, communication, and all sorts of other social things. These arguments (or the ones I have seen) evade an essential point: that schools should give students a different way of being with others, a way of coming together for something interesting and beautiful.

Teen socializing can be one of the most miserable experiences in life. If you don’t fit in, you have several options: to try to fit in, to take pride in not fitting in, to ignore the whole thing, to experience shame, or to build friendships over time. Many young people do a combination of all of these—and still go through school with a sense of rejection that stays with them for years, even decades.

Many schools respond by making more room for social interaction. But such social interaction has the same pitfalls as regular teen interaction, unless it is elevated in some way—that is, founded on something compelling, such as a work of literature or a piece of music. In that case, the students come together as participants and witnesses, as people with ideas and questions.

I dimly remember my eighth-grade English class, at a school I entered that year. Aside from a year in the Netherlands (when I was in sixth grade), it was the first time I was happy in school. We read The Sword in the Stone, Henry IV, Antigone, The Glass Menagerie, and much more. Through the discussions, I came to know my classmates, and they me, in ways that would not have otherwise been possible. Something similar happened in other classes, in chorus, and in our production of Romeo and Juliet. We were given room to think about something, to appreciate something, to work on something substantial. There was still peer pressure and ostracism. Still, regular social life took second or third place to this other way of associating, which allowed strong friendships to form.

Some insist that group work in the classroom achieves the same end: it gives students a structure for their socializing. But group work often degenerates into regular socializing with a task added on. Too often, the group members shut out the student with the unusual idea (who, in many cases, would get much more done if allowed to work alone). I have said this many times before, but it still needs to be said. Group work in itself has no inherent good. I know the sinking feeling of being asked to “turn and talk,” or to pick up my things and go join a group to fill out some chart. Why not stay put and think for a few minutes? Why not discuss a question in full forum?

Proponents of group work often assume that the students are better off without the teacher. If  a teacher leads a discussion, that’s fine, they say, but it’s even better if the students take charge. I am not at all opposed to student-led discussion; rather, I find that it requires long-term preparation. A teacher, having perspective on a subject, can draw out ideas that students might not recognize as worthy. She can help raise the level of the dialogue. Once they have seen this happen (many times), they understand what it is. It has little or nothing to do with “Accountable Talk” or other formulaic kinds of discussion. It has a great deal to do with listening closely (to the comments and the subject matter) and giving the ideas honor, direction, and perspective.

What about the idea of the school as a “team”? Well, teamwork has its place, but again, it is not transcendent or even good in itself. Just as much as students need to work together, they also need to think and act on their own. The solitary and communal aspects of learning are closely related; they find their shape through the endeavor itself. Yes, there are times when you need to learn how to work together (on something specific)–for instance, how to act together in a scene, or how to conduct a physics experiment together. Still, the teamwork skills (if that’s the right term for them) will be determined by the work at hand. Teamwork as a generic skill does not exist (or if it does, it’s dreary).

There is no denying the social aspect of schools. If coming together in a building and a room were not important, then there would be little need for schools in the first place. One could rely on computerized instruction, tutoring, and other services. Still, schools should offer more than the purely social; they should give students something worth learning and doing together, something beyond the peer group and its limited, limiting judgments.

Why Do Teachers Stay?

We hear a lot about why teachers leave the profession. What makes them stay?

There are surveys and studies of this topic, but they focus on general tendencies and gloss over some important points. To understand what causes people to stay in the profession, you have to consider what teaching is, what the current teaching profession looks like, and how well the two match up.

Last week I received my professional teaching licenses in English Language Arts and English as a Second Language. (I had “initial” licenses up to this point.) This is no momentous event; the professional licenses aren’t effective until September, and I could have obtained them a few years ago if I had applied. Nonetheless, it felt like a crossing of some kind. I realized that I was in teaching for the long term, although I might take breaks now and then.

My story may seem atypical on the surface. I will tell it briefly in order to bring up two conditions that keep me in teaching at this point: substance and time. Teaching is an intellectual endeavor, among other things; a school that makes room for intellectual life will likely retain many teachers.

Before teaching in New York City public schools, I taught as a graduate student, as a Mellon Fellow, and in various other capacities. I came to public school teaching with a Ph.D. in Russian literature. I had already decided against an academic career (that is, at a college or university) and had worked in fields as diverse as counseling, publishing, and computer programming. In my own time, I had written stories, poems, and songs, translated poems from the Lithuanian, written computer programs, and played music alone and with others.

I was drawn to teaching because I had enjoyed it in the past and because it drew on my interests and experience. On a given school day I might be teaching my students to sing in harmony, leading a discussion of Antigone, explaining the logic of subordinating conjunctions, and speaking Spanish, Russian, and English. In this regard, I have not been disappointed. But the work was consuming and exhausting (with classroom control, paperwork, meetings, numerous mandates, and so forth), and the citywide curriculum, especially in ELA and ESL, had little to do with subject matter. There was inordinate emphasis on process (group work, creation of “graphic organizers,” use of technology, and so forth) and so-called reading strategies. No one cared what you taught (within reason), as long as you used these strategies and processes. This meant a degree of freedom on the one hand and skewed priorities on the other.

Wanting to write about this, and not having adequate time, I left teaching for two years. I wrote and published a book: Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture. Now I am back in the classroom, part-time, as a curriculum adviser and philosophy teacher. This spring I put together and co-taught a unit on the question “What is the good life?” in which students read Seneca, Chesterton, Plato, and Tolstoy. I have been shaping the philosophy curriculum as a whole and will be the philosophy teacher for the high school grades next year. I will still teach part-time but will add one day to my schedule.

There is much more to all of this, but I want to emphasize what a difference it makes to teach something interesting, to have time for my own work and projects, and to be reasonably well rested. All of this, for me, is worth the part-time salary, but it is not a viable option for many. (It’s difficult to support yourself on a part-time salary, and part-time positions are scarce.) It may not be viable for me over the long term. This leads to the larger question: how could we make teaching intellectually stimulating and physically sustainable? Such a change would attract people to the field and would likely keep them in it.

Let us look first at how schools could take the exhaustion (or at least a good part of it) out of teaching. First, principals and other leaders should distinguish the essential from the inessential. Do not come into classrooms with checklists of items that teachers must have on the wall and words you expect to hear uttered. Do not insist on pedagogical models that might not suit the lesson. Instead, focus on the subject matter, the students, and how the teacher is bringing them together.

Second, recognize that teachers cannot be and do everything. In many schools, teachers are expected, on top of their regular loads (which are already grueling) to teach electives, run evening and weekend events, call parents every day, and even go to students’ homes. In addition, they are supposed to participate in meeting after meeting: department meetings, grade-level meetings, “inquiry team” meetings, faculty meetings, and more. They are also supposed to be “lifelong learners” in the officially sanctioned sense of the term—attending professional development sessions, taking approved courses, and so on. As if that weren’t enough, they must collect “data” on their practice: lesson plans, student work, tests, conference notes, and videotapes. There’s too much crammed in here—too many activities, too many roles. In the meantime, many of the treasures of education get sent to the storage room.

What’s neglected here, besides health and sanity, is the quiet mulling over the subject and the lessons. Thinking about mathematics, thinking about literature—that’s a luxury, even a frivolity, in the current system. But if you want to attract teachers who are devoted to their subjects, then you have to make room for thinking about these subjects. Subject matter cannot be an afterthought; it cannot be relegated to the summer weeks.

In connection with that, a school needs a substantial, challenging, beautiful curriculum. The difference between teaching Plato’s Republic and teaching “reading strategies” is like the difference between taking people to see a superb  play and selling a fake theater ticket to “whatever.” Schools must not sell fake tickets to “whatever.” They must have a curriculum worth teaching and make room for teaching it.

This is only a fraction of the conditions that could keep a teacher in the field. Teachers often cite an orderly environment, parent involvement, supportive leadership, and more. I bring up curriculum, appropriate priorities, and time for thinking and mulling because they don’t get enough attention. Too many pundits enjoy postulating that if you just paid teachers enough or dangled bonuses before them, you could get the best ones into the classroom and keep them there. They forget that teachers don’t want to sell their souls—or, for that matter, their minds.

The Solitude of Good Collaboration

Not long ago, I attended a meeting where a teacher presented her own definition and explanation of “analysis.” She suggested that other teachers do the same: think about analysis on their own, put their best definitions and explanations together, and then bring these ideas to the next meeting. As I listened, I understood what she was after. She realized that the discussion would be more productive if the teachers first thought alone about the matter. In other words, she saw that collaboration requires an element of solitude—an idea that seems obvious but is often forgotten.

We hear, over and over, about the need for cooperative learning and collaborative planning. In a recent article in the Atlantic, Jeffrey Mirel and Simona Goldin put forth the familiar argument that teachers want to collaborate, bless their souls, but end up spending most of their non-instructional time alone, in their isolated rooms. It is time, they say, to create more opportunities and resources for collaboration. But why do Mirel and Goldin pit solitary work against collaboration? Take away the former, or reduce the time for it, and the latter will lose meaning. Meetings will gravitate toward the lowest common denominator—that which everyone can readily understand and accept.

In many schools, teachers are required to spend time in teams every day, but there is no protection of solitary time. Most of the day is taken up with instruction, meetings, and various other tasks and duties. Even when alone in the room, the teacher is usually gathering materials and correcting student work. One of the most important parts of teaching—mulling over the subject itself—gets pushed out to the edges of the day.

Yet is this very mulling, this solitary relationship with subject matter, that preserves the integrity of teaching. When we bring our own work and thought to the group, the group does not hold us back; it does not reduce what we have to say, since we have already worked it out in our minds. “Conversation will not corrupt us,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “if we come to the assembly in our own garb and speech, and with the energy of health to select what is ours and reject what is not.” To have “our own garb and speech,” we must know what it is; to have the “energy of health” for selection, we must be able to restore and strengthen ourselves alone.

When teachers have insufficient time for thinking alone, they are more susceptible to group errors and group jargon. Suppose teachers were trying to come up with a definition of “analysis.” If they did this as a group, without thinking alone first, they would end up with a collection of scattered thoughts, which they would then try to cobble together. They might arrive at something like, “Analysis is a higher-order critical investigation in which a thesis is substantiated with evidence and clear connections are made between the evidence and the thesis.” That is difficult to detangle, as many group statements are. But if they took the question into their minds, played with it, figured something out, and then brought their thoughts to the table, they could arrive at a good working definition. (Note: dictionaries offer multiple definitions of “analysis”—so even after looking it up, one must think it over.)

One teacher might say, for instance, that analysis is the act of breaking something into its elements. Another might say that it is the act of inferring generalities from specific details. Still another might say that it is both: that it involves relating details to the whole and vice versa. Still another might define it as the examination of a phenomenon’s structure. As they considered the ideas that had been presented, they might see truth in all of them. Analysis, they might conclude, is the systematic explication of a relationship—for instance, between a part and a whole of a literary text or between a historical event and its possible causes. Having arrived at a plausible general definition, the teachers might supplement it with specific definitions to suit the situation at hand. This is not likely to happen without solitary thought.

By bringing solitary thought into their collaboration, teachers not only enhance their own work but set an example for students. Students, too, will learn more from each other if they know how to think and work alone. Let us suppose that, in a music class, students are considering how the sonata form plays out in the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 (“Pathétique”). To do this well, they are best off listening to it alone, without distractions, several times. The form (introduction, exposition, development, recapitulation, coda) is not difficult to discern. When alone, they will hear its particularities: the key changes, the textures, the transitions from one theme into another, and the subtle, less tangible changes of color and mood. Then, in class, they can point out what they found; one student may have noticed something that others did not. The teacher will be able to alert them to still more subtleties and patterns, which they will be able to appreciate. It is not only time with the material that they need; they need private, nonsocial time with it, time without peers nearby to condition what they think and say.

We must halt the collaboration screech-wagon and pursue greater thougthfulness instead. The visible signs of collaboration are not the only ones; taken too far, they impede good work. There is something vast in a bit of quiet: a chance to absorb, practice, and tinker. At its best, it takes us past our narrower selves, allowing us to see our mistakes and misconceptions. There is no need to shove it aside, no need to disparage the thing that allows us to bring something to others.

  • “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

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    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 February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish 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.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    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.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    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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