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.

Lectures, Teams, and the Pursuit of Truth

One of these days, soon, I’ll post something about teaching. Since I’m not teaching this year, I have had a chance to pull together some thoughts about it.

In the meantime, here are a few comments I posted elsewhere. First, I discovered, to my great surprise, that Andrew Gelman seeks to “change everything at once” about statistics instruction—that is, make the instruction student-centered (with as little lecturing as possible), have interactive software that tests and matches students’ levels, measure students’ progress, and redesign the syllabus. While each of these ideas has merit and a proper place, the “change everything” approach seems unnecessary. Why not look for a good combination of old and new? Why abandon the lecture (and Gelman’s wonderful lectures in particular)?

But I listened to the keynote address (that the blog post announced) and heard a much subtler story. Instead of trumpeting the “change everything” mantra into our poor buzzword-ringing heads, Gelman asked questions and examined complexities and difficulties. Only in the area of syllabus did he seem sure of an approach. In the other areas, he was uncertain but looking for answers. I found the uncertainty refreshing but kept on wondering, “why assume that you need to change everything? Isn’t there something worth keeping right here, in this very keynote address about uncertainties?”

Actually, the comment I posted says less than what I have said here, so I won’t repeat it. I have made similar points elsewhere (about the value of lectures, for instance).

Next, I responded to Drake Baer’s piece (in New York Magazine’s Science of Us section), “Feeling Like You’re on a Team at Work Is So Deeply Good for You.” Apparently a research team (ironic, eh?) lead by Niklas Steffens at University of Queensland found that, in Baer’s words, “the more you connect with the group you work with—regardless of the industry you’re in—the better off you’ll be.”

In my comment, I pointed out that such associations do not have to take the form of a team—that there are other structures and collegial relations. The differences do matter; they affect the relation of the individual to the group. Not everything is a team. Again, no need to repeat. I haven’t yet read the meta-study, but I intend to do so.

Finally, I responded to Jesse Singal’s superb analysis of psychology’s “methodological terrorism” debate. Singal points to an underlying conflict between Susan Fiske’s wish to protect certain individuals and others’ call for frank, unbureaucratic discussion and criticism. To pursue truth, one must at times disregard etiquette. (Tal Yarkoni, whom Singal quotes, puts it vividly.) There’s much more to Singal’s article; it’s one of the most enlightening new pieces I have read online all year. (In this case, by “year” I  mean 2016, not the past twelve days since Rosh Hashanah.)

That’s all for now. Next up: a piece on teaching (probably in a week or so). If my TEDx talk gets uploaded in the meantime (it should be up any day now), I’ll post a link to it.

Don’t Criticize–Retire!

One of the most disturbing traits of our era is what I would call “age nationalism”–a belief that if you do not support the more recent innovations, whatever they may be, you are out of step with the times and should go away.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Steven Conn, a professor at Ohio State University, criticizes colleges’ current tendency to hold students’ hands and tell them exactly what they need to do to get that A. He cites the “writing rubric” and the endless “learning objectives” as examples of this trend.

I support his viewpoint. The pros and cons of rubrics aside, I was struck by the snide tone of many of the comments on Conn’s article. Their attitude was, “Rubrics are what we do now, and if you don’t like it, you shouldn’t be teaching.”

Here’s a quote from one such comment:

It’s not exactly clear why he went into teaching. –Sounds more like he wanted to get paid for reading his favorite books and discussing them with students who can process those books unassisted. The (educationally) rich just get richer.

Dear me. So a professor who expects students to come to class prepared–who expects them to be able to read and write and study–must be elitist and spoiled?

Here’s another comment (quoted in full):

I found myself, by the end of the article, hoping you would retire soon from teaching.

A rubric sets guidelines and documents expectations. It’s not an “outline” nor is it there to promote grade inflation. What you confuse as helicopter teaching is sound practices. A rubric provides the student with an assurance that you are organized.

If you were employed outside your safe ivory tower, and in the real world, you would see that the rubric you so disdainfully snub as making soft students is really management by objectives (MBO). It’s how people retain their employment.

What is this? A professor who doesn’t think in business terms (e.g., “management by objectives,” or MBO) is supposed to retire from teaching? Who will question the jargon, then? Apparently no one–for in this person’s view, the “real world,” or his version of it, has the final say.

There are many more in a similar spirit–and others that are more courteous, and still others that corroborate the author’s points. But what stands out is these commenters’ insistence that someone who questions the current trend should not be teaching at all. The reasoning, apparently, is as follows: “Teaching is X; Professor Conn does not seem to exemplify X; therefore, Professor Conn should not be teaching.” They do not stop to ask whether teaching really is uniformly X, and whether they can judge, on the basis of an op-ed, whether or not Professor Conn exemplifies X.

Long before rubrics entered higher education, there was a difference between small liberal arts colleges, which prided themselves on their nurturing atmosphere, and large universities, which emphasized scholarship. Many institutions sought and found a middle ground: a research institution with support systems for the students, or a college that fostered outstanding research.

When I was a high school student considering colleges, I wanted anything but a college that would coddle me. I applied to two universities, early action (Harvard and Yale); got into both; and chose Yale on the basis of visits, course syllabi, conversations, and instinct. I stumbled at various points in college–but that was part of growing up, intellectually and emotionally. Those were not grade-crazy days; getting a C on a college paper was considered a worthwhile experience.

Today we hear a lot about “grit” and the “importance of failure”–but students also hear that a B in high school–or any kind of lopsidedness–will limit their college prospects. They are told to take risks, but–as a recent fifth-grade test passage put it–to learn to be “smart” risk-takers, weighing the pros and cons of the risk in advance. One can try to avoid senseless, ill-conceived risks–but there’s really no such thing as smart risk-taking. It’s a contradiction in terms. A true risk involves the unknown, sometimes a lot of it. I remember, about 18 years ago, when a friend was going to Bulgaria for the summer. At a sendoff dinner, someone asked him what he hoped to get out of his trip. He replied, “I don’t know. That’s why I’m going.”

One has to have seen a different era to recognize that many students today are afraid of being on their own, afraid of anything less than an A, afraid of not knowing exactly what is expected of them. Not everyone is afraid; I see some students forge ahead with less concern about their grades than about what they learn. But they come under continual pressure to think and act on others’ terms.

The comments quoted above show hostility to intellectual independence–both that of the professor, who is putting forth a legitimate view, and that of the students. I do not mean that that any objection to his view is hostile. It is possible to defend rubrics without telling him to retire, or without insinuating that he is out of touch with the “real world” and clinging to some fading dream.

The “real world” is not what any particular group decides it is. It is continually tested and approximated. Those who put forth unpopular views, or who question current trends, are themselves affecting the real world by stretching the bounds of the possible.


Note: I previously referred to the professor as Steve Conn–but see that his byline is actually Steven Conn. The error is now fixed.

The Elephant in the Reform

Elizabeth Green’s recent article and book excerpt “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?” has drawn keen responses from Dan Willingham, Robert Pondiscio, and others.Still, one problem needs more emphasis: the lack of focus in the classroom. Math, like most other subjects, requires not only knowledge, but concentrated and flexible thinking, on the part of teachers and students alike. With this in place, a number of pedagogical approaches may work well; without it, pedagogy after pedagogy will flail. The ongoing discussion has upheld a false opposition between old “rote” methods and (supposedly) new methods devoted to “understanding.” It is time to see beyond this opposition.

By “focus,” I mean concerted attention to the topic at hand. This is not the same as perfect behavior; I have known some “wiggly” students who were clearly thinking about the lesson. Nor does it mean passive intake; to the contrary, it can involve a great deal of questioning, comparison, imagination, and so forth. Such focus is largely internal; in this way it differs from what people commonly call “engagement.” A student may be highly focused while doing nothing physically; a student may be visibly active (in lesson activities) but not thinking in depth about the subject.

After leading into her discussion with a story, Green asserts that reforms such as the Common Core will fail if teachers have not been properly trained to implement them. “The new math of the ‘60s, the new new math of the ‘80s and today’s Common Core math all stem from the idea that the traditional way of teaching math simply does not work,” she writes. Improperly trained teachers will turn them into nonsense or, at best, a set of rote procedures:

Most American math classes follow … a ritualistic series of steps so ingrained that one researcher termed it a cultural script. Some teachers call the pattern “I, We, You.” After checking homework, teachers announce the day’s topic, demonstrating a new procedure: “Today, I’m going to show you how to divide a three-digit number by a two-digit number” (I). Then they lead the class in trying out a sample problem: “Let’s try out the steps for 242 ÷ 16” (We). Finally they let students work through similar problems on their own, usually by silently making their way through a work sheet: “Keep your eyes on your own paper!” (You).

Green contrasts this with a “sense-making” method used by the elementary school teacher and scholar Magdalene Lampert:

She knew there must be a way to tap into what students already understood and then build on it. In her classroom, she replaced “I, We, You” with a structure you might call “You, Y’all, We.” Rather than starting each lesson by introducing the main idea to be learned that day, she assigned a single “problem of the day,” designed to let students struggle toward it — first on their own (You), then in peer groups (Y’all) and finally as a whole class (We). The result was a process that replaced answer-getting with what Lampert called sense-making. By pushing students to talk about math, she invited them to share the misunderstandings most American students keep quiet until the test. In the process, she gave them an opportunity to realize, on their own, why their answers were wrong.

Like many others, Green confuses the outer trappings of the pedagogy with its internal intent and sense. A teacher at the front of the room, doing a great deal of the talking, could push the students’ thinking much more than a teacher who has them struggle on their own. Within each of these approaches, there can be variation. What makes the difference is the teachers’ and students’ knowledge of the subject, their willingness to put their mind to the topic at hand, and their flexibility of thought. (Willingham does address teachers’ knowledge and flexibility–but more needs to be said about the students’ own attitudes toward the lesson.)

The “elephant in the room” is our devotion to damage control in the name of something lofty. We are trying to repair situations where students are not doing all they can to master the material. Likewise, we are shaping the teaching profession to be more managerial, athletic, and social than intellectual. There’s a lot of mention of “collaboration”–but nothing about thinking about the subject on one’s own.

If students in a classroom are all putting their mind to the topic at hand (not because the teacher has “engaged” them but because this is what they do as a matter of course), and if the teacher knows the topic thoroughly and has considered it from many angles, then the learning will come easily–if there is a good curriculum, and if the students have the requisite background knowledge. That sounds like a lot of “ifs,”–but it comes down to something simple: when you enter the classroom, you have to be willing to set distractions aside and honor the subject matter. Honoring it does not mean treating it as dogma. It means being willing to make sense of it, ask questions about it, and carry it in your mind even when class is over.

If the above conditions are absent, then that is the problem, period. It is not a question of who is doing the talking, or how well or poorly the teachers have been trained.

Suppose I am a math teacher. (I am not and never have been; I currently teach philosophy.) Suppose I am teaching students to solve a problem of the following kind: “A train travels an average of 90 miles per hour for the first half of its journey, and an average of 100 miles per hour for the entire trip. What was the train’s average speed for the second half of the journey?” First I must establish that by “half” I mean half of the distance traveled. Then I must start to anticipate errors and misunderstandings. (Someone will likely offer the answer “10 miles”; another might offer “110 miles.”) I must be able to get other students to explain why these are not correct.

Then how to proceed? I ask the students what information we have, and what we are trying to find out. We know that the journey consists of two equal parts. It doesn’t matter how long each one is, since we are looking at speed, not distance traveled. So, we will call it d, but we are not going to try to find out what d is. It does not matter here.

Let t1 designate the time taken (in hours) by the first half of the trip; t2, the time taken by the second half, and t the total time.

So, we know that d/t1 = 90 mph for the first half. Thus, t1= d/90.

We don’t know what d/t2 is for the second half, since we don’t know the train’s speed, or rate (r) for the second half. Thus, t2 = d/r.

We know that 2d/t (total distance divided by total time) = 100 mph. Thus, t = 2d/100.

We know that t = t1 + t2.

Thus, t = 2d/100 = d/90 + d/r. (One could call on a student to perform this step.)

Thus, 2d/100 = (d/90 + d/r).

Thus, 2/100 = 1/90 + 1/r. (Divide both sides by d.)

Thus, 1/50 = 1/90 + 1/r.

Thus, 1/r = 1/50 – 1/90.

Thus, 1/r = 4/450. (Some students might arrive at 4/45–important to be alert to this.)

Thus, r = 450/4 = 112.5 mph.

As I lay this out, I can see some of the misconceptions and confusion that might arise. Some students might remain convinced that we need to find out what d is. Some might assume that t1 and t2 are equal. Some might grasp the steps but not know how to go about doing this themselves. Some might not know how to check the answer at the end.

But if I go to class prepared to address these issues, and if the students continually ask themselves (internally) what they understand and what they don’t, then even this amateur lesson will get somewhere–unless the levels in the class are so disparate that some students don’t know what an equal sign is. Of course, doing this day after day is another matter; a teacher needs extensive practice in the subject matter in order to prepare lessons fluently.

I am not proposing a magic solution here. Attention is not easily come by, nor is flexible thinking. Nor is curriculum or background knowledge. (Math teachers will probably point out errors of presentation and terminology in my example above.)

But if we ignore students’ obligation to put their mind to the lesson (in class and outside), teachers’ obligation to think it through thoroughly, and schools’ obligation to honor and support such thinking, we will continue with confused jargon and hapless reforms. Moreover, classrooms that do have such qualities will be dismissed as irrelevant exceptions.


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

Update 8/23/2014: In response to a reader’s comment, I changed “elementary school teacher Magdalene Lampert” to “elementary school teacher and scholar Magdalene Lampert.” It was not my intention to understate her academic credentials–or to comment on her work.

Why “Turn and Talk” Instead of “Pause and Think”?

A recent New York Times article describes a classroom observation in which a teacher supposedly made good transitions between “turn and talk” activities and lecturing. (She was criticized, though, for not asking more open-ended questions.)

I commented on this article, despite being unable to access it from my home computer (I’ve exceeded my limit of free NYT Digital articles) and having great trouble with my iPad’s touch keyboard, which seems to invite typos. I criticized this new evaluation system for being very much like previous ones—for emphasizing processes and activities over the content of the lesson. I asked, while I was at it, whether “turn and talk” was a worthwhile activity in the first place.

Of course its value depends on its relation to the lesson topic—and, to a large extent, on how it is conducted, if it absolutely must be conducted. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I’ll explain why I think “turn and talk” should cede at least some space to “pause and think.”

A “turn and talk” activity usually goes like this. A teacher poses a question of opinion or something else that’s easily answered. Then she says, “Turn to your partner and talk about it! Come on, let’s hear everyone talking!” Then she circulates to make sure they are “on task”—that is, talking about the subject. Within thirty seconds or so, she stops the discussion and maybe asks students to “share out.”

While the “turn and talk” is going on, the room is full of noise. You can’t hear yourself think. Also, you know that anything serious you begin to say will probably be cut off in midsentence. It is better not to bring up an idea that you care about. It’ll get lost in the rush and tumult.

Also, the chances are fairly high that your “turn and talk” partner won’t do anything to challenge you or push your argument a few steps further. The point is not to work with ideas, but to show that you’re talking, period. Supposedly talking is good, even if you aren’t saying much.

Then what? After a “share” or two, the whole discussion is swept under, as though it didn’t matter. The lesson moves on to the next activity.

“Turn and talk” is meant to draw out shyer students who wouldn’t necessarily speak out in class discussion. But is this hubbub an improvement? For some, it might be; others, however, might want to run out of the room. Proponents of “turn and talk” ignore the possibility that a student who stays silent in class discussion may actually be thinking.

Yes, it is possible to be intellectually active without saying a word out loud! In fact, whole-class discussions allow students and teachers many possibilities. A student might stay silent on some days and speak up on others; the teacher might leave her alone one day and call on her the next. Yes, some students may feel intimidated speaking up in front of the whole class—but if the focus is on the subject, and not on the social relationships, many students will participate. (I include silent participation in this.)

Why should anyone be forced to talk before he or she has something to say? A few years ago I audited a physics class; on the first or second day, the professor posed a question and had us talk to our neighbors about it. I knew that I didn’t know the answer to the question; it seemed my neighbor did, but the activity concluded before she could explain what she knew. I would have loved to listen to the professor’s explanation in that instance.

I favor whole-class discussions and lectures because they allow one to focus and build on an idea, and because they suit my subject matter (philosophy). It is true that other classes in other subjects (such as languages) might benefit a great deal from “turn and talk” and similar activities. It is also true that most subjects could use “turn and talk” sparingly. The problem arises when everyone is supposed to incorporate “talk activities” in the lesson.

Also, it does matter how the activity is conducted. At its best, “turn and talk” resembles the Jewish practice of hevruta, or studying religious texts with a partner. Such “turn and talk” is not frenetic or noisy; it allows for pauses and silence and lasts longer than thirty seconds. Hevruta has substance because it is about something substantial; the same could be said for a good “turn and talk” session. (If I were to try to institute good turning and talking, though, I’d give it as an assignment, so that the students could go off to a quiet place with their partners and discuss a topic without rush. But then, where is that quiet place, and when are the students not rushed?)

On the whole, I consider “turn and talk” activities painfully superficial and wasteful, but I recognize that they, like so many other oversold procedures, have a time and place.

Note: For the sake of consistency, I kept “turn and talk” unhyphenated throughout this piece. There’s a good argument for hyphenating it when it functions as an adjective, but that seemed too jittery.

Teaching in Vastness

I am ambivalent about Parker J. Palmer’s 1998 book The Courage to Teach, but I return to it as I assemble thoughts on teaching. I treasure passages in this book and admire its durability overall. Palmer makes a vitally important argument: that good teaching comes from the teacher’s identity and integrity. There is no single “successful” pedagogical style; one teacher may teach through lecture and another through dialogue, but if both are deeply connected to the subject and aware of themselves and their students, they can both do powerful work.

A teacher, says Palmer, works on the border between the public and the private—“dealing with the thundering flow of traffic at an intersection where ‘weaving a web of connectedness’ feels more like crossing a freeway on foot. As we try to connect ourselves and our subjects with our students, we make ourselves, as well as our subjects, vulnerable to indifference, judgment, and ridicule” (18). To ward off this danger, according to Palmer, we tend to disconnect—and this disconnectedness hurts education and those involved in it.

All true—but when I read Palmer’s words, and continue to read, I get restless for something more. (He recognizes the danger of sounding pat–but falls into that trap repeatedly.) Yes, identity and integrity are essential to teaching, but there’s something beyond both of them. To have identity and integrity, you must go into something larger than yourself. To hold up at the intersection between public and private, you must be aware of something beyond public and private, something that transcends the two.

Or maybe this is not necessary for all; I have no way of knowing. What is it, though? What is this space or sound or presence that can shape a teacher’s work?

Every day in the classroom, I run up against my own imperfections: I make a mistake, misunderstand something that a student said, get slighly irritated, answer a question too quickly, or find myself combating something internal—an area of ignorance, an excess, a sadness, even a rampant joy. In the moment, there’s nothing much that I can do beyond using my best judgment, which is far from perfect. Then, later, when I sort through the events of the day, something else happens.

I don’t just “reflect” on what went right or wrong. That’s an important (and much touted) part of teaching, but only a part. Reflections, after all, must be informed—and where does that form come from? First, it comes from immersion in subjects—any subjects. I learn as much about teaching philosophy when immersed in Russian or Hebrew as I do when reading Machiavelli. Learning to consider the sounds, shapes, roots, and different meanings of words—learning their tones, weights, and connections—all of helps the teaching. Also, when I study anything beautiful or important, I find out, all over again, what education means and how it happens. That said, there are special reasons to immerse myself in the specific subject I teach—to read and reread Machiavelli, Locke, etc. I find out, over and over again, that there’s far more than I presented or even suggested in the lesson. New lesson plans light up in my mind.

There’s still another kind of immersion. When I go through the events of the day, I find myself in a silent, private dialogue—not with myself, really, or with God (I don’t claim such direct access), but with something a little beyond myself. I am able to sort out not only the practical aspects of what I did that day, not only the ethical aspects, but something else, something that puts the events in their proper place, a place I wouldn’t have seen on my own. Without this, I would lose perspective and become overwhelmed.

For example, last week, in one of my classes, I found myself telling my students about a dream in which one of the assistant principals appeared. (The subject came up because had just popped in the classroom a moment earlier, and a student had mentioned having a dream about him.) My dream was strange and brief, with no embarrassing events. It wasn’t too far off topic, since we were discussing Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, which is filled with dreams of a kind.  Still, I felt a bit off kilter after telling it. I didn’t know whether I had done the right or wrong thing.

From a practical standpoint, it was a bit of a digression, but it didn’t do any harm. From an ethical standpoint, it was mostly harmless, though it feels “gossipy” to tell about a dream that involves a colleague, even though the person isn’t really involved at all. That said, there was nothing gossipy about the dream, in which I was the conductor of a mostly empty train, and he was giving me driving advice (I think).

But there’s something else to reckon with, beyond practical and ethical matters. I recognized, as I went into rumbling thought, that I was feeling unwell on that day and that my gauges were a little off. I also saw that I was starting, in general, to relax around my students and tell them stories now and then—and figuring out when and when not to do so. There would never be a final, fixed answer, but I was finding my way. This meant that there would be errors, or semi-errors, or things that seemed like errors. It is an important question, when and when not to tell a story, since we are made of stories. I loved the stories that my teachers and professors told me over the years. They didn’t distract from the subject; rather, they made things more vivid overall.

How is this different from “identity and integrity”? It differs from them only insofar as it is their source. I find, again and again, that I am up against immensity, or maybe not up against it at all, but walking and thinking in it—and that this is the honor of teaching. Those running the system ask us to show results, to show that the students have moved from point A to point D. That is a reasonable request, if put in its proper place. Palmer would add that a teacher should teach from the self–a self that inhabits the subject. Yes, I grant that as well. But there is something beyond the self, an invisible teacher without lessons, maybe, who shakes me out of my limited senses and points out signs of life.

What Makes Man Human, and Where Was the Teacher?

It is difficult to interpret one’s childhood events correctly. There’s the danger of distorted memory, superimposed details and meanings, admixtures of other people’s interpretations, and so on. So I haven’t commented, so far, on the “What Makes Man Human?” uproar I started in fourth grade, even though I have thought about it often. (Actually, I wrote about it once—and then deleted what I wrote.)

My school had adopted the MACOS (Man: A Course of Study) curriculum. We learned about the Netsilik Inuits and their way of life. We studied various animals: salmon, baboons, and so on. Parts of this were quite interesting. But then the teacher posted a piece of chart paper on the wall with the question “What Makes Man Human?” Students were to list their answers below the question. As I remember it, this list generated some excitement.

I found the exercise silly, so I added No. 20 to the list: “Nothing—human is just another word for a person.”

My classmates reacted with outrage; several took it upon themselves to chide me and erase my entry. Just where the teacher was at this time, I don’t know. I wrote about the incident; it’s the only writing from that time that I still have.

Afterward, I was encouraged by adults to pursue this matter further: to demonstrate that humans were not as distant from animals as we commonly assume. I took on this challenge for a little while, but that was not my original point. At the most obvious level, I was pointing out the redundancy of the question. If “man” and “human” are synonymous or close to synonymous, then it makes no sense to ask what makes man human.

At another level, I think I wanted to shake things up. I realized that the answers would be predictable, so I wanted to throw in a justified surprise. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate this at the time, but I remember the desire to break through the humdrum predictability of it all.

I understand, looking back, why my classmates were so upset. They had taken this assignment seriously and were offended that I had not. Beyond that, they may have taken my response as an insult to humanity itself. They may have thought I was saying that there was no such thing as a human being. They had every reason, in that case, to be ruffled.

But the irony is that they responded by erasing my words. One human attribute is the ability to challenge common assumptions and to break from the norm. (Animals have this ability too—take, for instance, the lone penguin in Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World—but it’s more pronounced in humans, or so it seems.) My classmates decided that my response was not acceptable and therefore had to be obliterated. If they thought I had demeaned humanity, well, they demeaned it doubly.

I recognize that I was being provocative on purpose. I recognize, also, that my classmates had good intentions; they took the assignment seriously and were trying to do it well. The problem lay in the posing of an important-sounding question that was supposed to evoke humdrum responses. When, under the pretext of “critical thinking,” you squelch that very thing, you create a mental trap. The only way to think critically, under such conditions, is to criticize the very undertaking—and the student who does so will not be thanked by peers.

Where was the teacher? That is my lingering question. The school had a cozy and lax atmosphere; we wandered around and did what we wanted, more or less, as long as we completed certain activities. I was somewhat miserable, not because I needed to be told what to do, but because I missed the exchange with a wise adult. Peers were not good judges of each other or of subject matter. Their judgments were often based on what made them comfortable or uncomfortable as a group.

I see similar problems in schools today. Students need an adult’s guidance; they need to be lifted above their immediate judgments and preferences. Teachers offer perspective, among other things; they help students see the value of things that fall outside the norm. If anything makes man human, keen questioning does, and this takes vision, practice, and gumption.

The Precipice of Teaching

On a good day, when I go before one of my classes and give a presentation, students pelt me with pertinent questions. At least one of them stumps me. In some cases, I am missing a piece of information; in others, I knew the answer (or various answers) once but have forgotten. In others still, I haven’t considered the matter before—or find that the question topples everything I was saying, or at least a good chunk of it. Finding myself stumped is one of the best parts of teaching; for the students, much depends on how I handle it. Being able to say “I don’t know”—but also being able to hold my own—tells the students that adulthood is not just a realm of rules and answers, nor is education.

I could give examples galore, but I generally refrain from describing my classroom experience on this blog. I want to keep confidentiality, for one thing; for another, I don’t see this blog as a diary. I would not keep a public diary; it would be superficial. But closing off that option opens up others. I will look today at the precipice of teaching and how many of the educational fads aim to sand it out of existence.

You go before your students with the knowledge and understanding you have at a given time—what you have learned until now, what you have thought about, and what you can pull together for the moment and in the moment. You offer something to them and then start up discussion. They learn from you what it means to pull thoughts and knowledge together into something coherent. They look for missing pieces, contradictions, pitfalls in what you have said—and that’s exactly what they should be doing.

But teachers are under great pressure to abstain from direct teaching altogether—or to teach generic skills, which rarely provoke such questions; or to “individualize” instruction so that each student is working at his or her own pace; or to teach from a script, so as to preclude uncertainty or error. I will take a look at three of these tendencies. I have discussed them at length in other blogs and articles but not specifically in relation to the “precipice.”

According to proponents of “student-centered education,” a teacher should not do much talking. Instead, she should get the students talking as soon as possible—in groups, in pairs, in whole-class discussion—and refrain from passing judgment on what they say. She should not present herself as an authority figure, as someone who knows a subject; instead, she should indicate through every gesture that she and the students are learning together. Or else, if she does give a presentation, it should be very brief and should touch on the points that the students absolutely need to know before they begin their own work. Lecturing verges on crime, since it encourages passivity.

Now, that is nonsense on many levels—but I will address the question of lecturing. I wouldn’t dream of lecturing to high school students for the entire period, day after day. They need dialogue. But a twenty-minute presentation, at the start of a unit or topic, strikes me as entirely appropriate. If the students learn how to listen to me, and how to assemble and question what I am saying, then they will also be better prepared to listen to the books they are reading and to themselves. If they never have to listen to a teacher for long, then they never find the edges of what she is saying. Both they and the teacher drown in a bog of patness, where nothing gets challenged and nothing seems controversial. Even if the students debate questions, they respond to snippets, not ideas; they wield sticks, not dodecahedra.

Next, we have instruction that focuses on skills. Instead of leading a discussion of the nature of folly in Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, a teacher might announce that the point of the lesson is to relate details to the whole—and might then read a passage, identify a detail, and show how it relates to the text’s overall meaning. Students would then practice doing this on their own, either with the same text or with a variety of texts. This approach has numerous problems and limitations; first of all, you miss out on a great deal if you do not discuss the actual substance of the work. You flatten it if you treat it as a means to a skill. (Of course one should encourage students to relate details to the whole–but it’s another matter to subordinate the text to this.) When it comes to precipice, there just isn’t any. Unless a student challenges your own “modeling” of the skill, there isn’t much at stake in what you are teaching. It can’t go very wrong, precisely because it can’t go very right.

I’ll skip over individualized learning, since the problems there are similar to those discussed above, and proceed to the last one, scripted instruction, which doesn’t get much publicity lately but has some diehard devotees.

Proponents of scripted curricula argue that such programs have proven results—so if you use a different curriculum and can’t show equal or better results, you are shortchanging your kids. I have entered many regrettable arguments over this (regrettable because they go nowhere) but will point out, first of all, that results have meaning only in relation to a goal. If you want students to learn what Plato and Aristotle had to say, that’s different from wanting them to show progress on standardized tests of reading comprehension. The two goals may not always be at odds, but at times they might. “Results” in the abstract mean nothing. You must explain what you are trying to do. Part of what I want to do is introduce my students to intellectual life. Can I do this through a script? Possibly, if the script is of high intellectual quality. I could take, for instance, a lecture by a scholar, work and think through it, adapt for my class, and present it with full credit to its author. But even there, I would stay open to the risks of posing and answering questions. If the script forbade such departures, or if it reflected poor thinking about the subject, I would not teach from it, period. I would rather leave teaching altogether than subject myself or my students to this. The safety here is of a deadly sort.

Some may say that a script minimizes the damage that comes from faulty instruction–and that it’s better to say things right than to use your own mind and get it all wrong. Well, if things are that bad, if my own knowledge is so poor that my lessons would mislead students, then I would want to gain competence or go do something else. To me, there is no point in pursuing a profession in which I cannot use my mind to the fullest. Give me a routine day job, with limited hours, so that I can then do what I want in my own time. If I am to work as a teacher, putting most of my life into it, then I should be able to create my own lessons. There should be room for that much joy.

Students look to a teacher not only for what they have to learn right now, but for what lies ahead, in the subject and in their lives. Consciously or not, they take cues from a teacher’s manner. If a teacher can go to those places of uncertainty, grapple with difficult questions, admit to error, or give a fuller and richer explanation than the initial one, then they start to sense that life does not get all packaged up as soon as they reach a certain age. They grasp that you don’t just learn a subject and set it aside. It keeps following you around and pestering you; it makes you turn around and say, “what, what, what?” and then it holds up something you’ve never seen before, something that makes you drop your hands and stand still for a little while.

Tradition Without a Last Word

In yesterday’s comments on the second chapter of David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means, I ended with a conundrum: “When a school lacks such a tradition [of literary study], and wishes to develop one, it must do so artificially at first, by importing a curriculum that the teachers have not yet made their own. Such a curriculum may seem superficial and stagnant–and may even be so. The question is whether it can come to life over time, as teachers and students find their way into it.” Three paragraphs into the third chapter, Bromwich brings up a similar but more complex problem:

But a difficult paradox holds together the idea of a nonrestrictive tradition. Before it can be reformed intelligently, it must be known adequately; and yet, unless one recognizes that it can be reformed, one will come to know it only as a matter of rote—with the result that the knowledge of a tradition will seem as unimaginative a business as the knowledge of an alphabet or catechism.

In his book, Bromwich is talking mainly about higher education, yet the paradox of curriculum and tradition applies to K–12 education as well. The problem is this: in the loudest diatribes of the right and the left, tradition is either upheld as an authority or bashed as an authority. Bromwich defends tradition not as an authority but as a context for thoughtful discourse, solitude, independent thought, and self-knowledge. Unfortunately such an idea of tradition has been losing ground in higher education; instead, universities have been rewarding specialized and marginal knowledge in the name of professionalism. If you have a niche, you are marketable. Your work may not be understood by your colleagues, but that’s part of the point.

At the same time, many academics have come to see their institutions as microcosms of society; thus they attach great political importance to their choices within the classroom. The outside society, in the meantime, has lost much of its former nerve for informed discourse, so it relegates this formerly public activity to closed institutions. Thus, in a twisted way, the most virulent academic opponents of authoritative tradition have an entrenched authority of their own.

Like the book as a whole, the chapter is subtle and intricate; a summary does it poor justice. But I would like to take on this idea of tradition versus authority and suggest that, while no tradition should have ultimate authority, a certain kind of authority may be necessary for an open and changing tradition.

At the start of the chapter, Bromwich distinguishes between “the traditional study of the humanities” and “the study of tradition in the humanities.” The two concepts, he observes, are too often confused and mixed together. “Attacks on the first,” he writes, “tend to shade into attacks on the second, without understanding the very different challenge this entails. At the same time, defenses of the second often try to cover the first as well.”

The confusion he describes has grown worse. People on the right and left attack “traditional schools” (which of course house traditional pedagogy and traditional curriculum) as though they even existed and were all of a kind. The very word “traditional” carries negative connotations. Many proponents of free-market education use it with disdain today, implying that some thuggish gang of recalcitrant teachers has been thwarting rapid change and “results.” Many progressives distrust it too; they hold that traditional things impede the creativity and initiative of the child. So, when defending tradition, one ends up defending, willy-nilly, both traditional pedagogy (if there is such a thing) and traditional curriculum. In fact, under current conditions they are often of a piece.

The reason is this: to read anything of substance, you have to be willing to quiet down and listen—not only to the teacher, but to the book itself. I mean “listen” in the sense of taking the words, sounds, patterns, structures, and ideas into your mind, making sense of them, raising questions, following those questions as far as they will go, and reading again. So, for a little while at least, the book or the teacher has to become the authority—in that you will shut up for that short stretch of time to hear what it or he or she has to say.

It is temporary authority, yes. But it is still authority. If a student does not believe that he has anything to learn from a book or teacher, then he might as well keep on talking and talking and talking. For me, that has been the most dispiriting aspect of being a teacher: that some students will not stop talking, during class, about matters that have nothing to do with class. They see neither the subject matter nor the teacher as an authority. Most of my students over the years have not done this, but a few have. Such talk, when it persists, can ruin a lesson. The common “strategies” go against the grain of what I am trying to do. Keep them busy at every moment, some advise. Hold them accountable for every step. Never leave them without something to do, something that will have consequences for them. I reject this as an overall approach (though I have to use aspects of it for survival). It is unfair to the students who come in prepared and willing to learn. Not only that, but it shortchanges the subject matter.

So a certain sense of authority, a certain kind of respect, is essential even for intelligent questioning of authority. To question authority well, you have to know what it is. To know what it is, you have to pay attention to it. To pay attention to it, you must give it temporary authority (which may seem like a lot of authority to some).

There’s even more reason to uphold a certain kind of authority. I wish I could take one of Bromwich’s courses. I wish I had done so long ago. I would do this not just to be in the midst of the thoughts and insights of peers, but primarily to hear what he had to say, to read the books he had chosen for the course, and to sense the effect on class discussions and my own thinking. A professor brings something to the students’ own thinking that wouldn’t be there otherwise—and so, in a different way and at a different level, does the schoolteacher. Our best teachers’ words and gestures stay with us, even after we begin questioning aspects of what they say. They have a lasting authority of a kind.

But Bromwich is criticizing a different kind of authority–a rigid, closed world, be it a “culture of assent” (that clings to a “canon”) or a “culture of suspicion” (that rejects anything suggestive of a canon). Both have a set of “socializing codes.” Neither one is tradition as it should be. “Traditions are made of something more,” Bromwich writes. “They offer, in fact, a kind of solitude, and a kind of company.”

Yes–and the solitude and company require a sense of measure:  a sense of when to listen and when to speak, when to question and when to hold back from questioning. This is not a question of propriety; it does not follow absolute rules, except for basic ones. The proportions come with time, and they are not fixed. They require, at the outset, a willingness to defer (in some ways) to something that one does not yet know. I don’t think Bromwich would disagree. This is, indeed, an aspect of the paradox that he brings up at the start of the chapter.

Note: I revised this piece on November 20.

For an index to the eight pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here.

It’s Too Hard!—No, It Isn’t

In education discussions, when I have suggested that students read Sophocles or Thomas Hardy or study a Newton theorem, people have often exclaimed, “That’s too hard!” (Andrew Hacker provoked outrage when recommending that high schools drop algebra on account of its difficulty, yet variations of his attitude run rampant.)

These works and subjects are not in themselves too hard. Of course, some aspects are quite challenging, even for scholars. Others are easy for a layperson to grasp. There’s a wide range in between. Part of the point of education is to absorb something, to take it into your mind, so that you can return to it later with more understanding.

What I find puzzling is the knee-jerk reaction “That’s too hard!” Why deem anything too hard until you’ve given it a serious try—that is, more than a try? And what’s wrong with a bit of difficulty? Of course if something is too hard, then it’s out of reach for students. But more often than not, when people say “too hard,” they just mean “mildly challenging.”  

In education we often have to consider opposing or counterbalancing principles. One principle is that students need background knowledge in order to comprehend what they read and learn. A good curriculum (such as the Core Knowledge Sequence) builds such knowledge in a thoughtful and logical manner, so that students are prepared for the next stage of study.

A counterbalancing principle is that one can plunge into a seemingly difficult problem or text and figure it out—or at least a great deal of it. Through doing so, one gains insights into the subject beyond the problem. 

To illustrate this, I opened a fairly challenging book to a random page, to see what I’d find there and what sense I could make of it. The book is The C Programming Language by Brian W. Kernighan and Dennis M. Ritchie. It is considered a classic of computer science. On page 113, the authors provide a function that returns a character string containing the name of the n-th month. So, if n = 5, the function will return “May.” Here’s what it looks like:

/* month_name: return name of n-th month*/
char *month_name(int n)
            static char [name[] = {
                        “Illegal month”,
                        “January”, February”, “March”,
                        “April”, “May”, “June”,
                        “July”, “August”, “September”,
                        “October”, “November”, “December”

              return (n < 1 || n > 12) ? name[0] : name[n];

Now, it helps to know just a little bit about programming syntax and logic. But even without that, you can figure out a few interesting things. First of all, look at this list (which is called an array—but you don’t need to know that right now). The first element of the list is “Illegal month.” So, if the elements of the list were numbered 1, 2, 3, and so forth, your function would return “Illegal month” for n = 1 and “January” for n = 2. That doesn’t seem to be what we want.

But look at what it says a few lines down:

return (n < 1 || n > 12) ? name[0] : name[n];

This is clearly telling us to do something specific if n < 1 or n > 12. We’d expect that it would be telling us to return “Illegal month.” We can therefore surmise that “name[0]” refers to “Illegal month.” We can deduce from this that the numbering of the list (the array) begins with 0. The 0th element is “Illegal month”; the first element is “January,” and so on. That is indeed how arrays work.

So now we can interpret that line as follows: “If n < 1 or n > 12, return the 0th element of array ‘name,’ that is, ‘Illegal month’; otherwise, return the n-th element, which is the character string containing the name of the month.”

From there, we can grasp what the syntax actually means. We see that the double lines indicate “or”; the question mark, “if”; and the colon, “otherwise” or “else.”

I grant that I am cheating a little, since I already understand some of this stuff (which is rudimentary anyway; the book gets more challenging than that). But on many occasions, I had to make sense of the above syntax just as I am doing right now. I could bring in a hundred similar examples from literature, languages, mathematics, history, physics, and music.

Again, I’m not saying that we should study computer science or any subject haphazardly. My point is that in many cases, when something seems difficult, you can figure a great deal of it out with a bit of effort. Not only that, but it’s important to do so; such challenge is part of the nature of the subject. A first-rate curriculum includes beautiful, perplexing, and sometimes daunting problems.

What’s the fun of learning, if you don’t get to delve in and struggle a bit? Where’s the reality, if you are never seriously confronted? Where’s the illumination, if the answers are right there before you? Where’s the awe, if nothing is beyond your grasp?

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

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)



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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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