Are Mindsets Really Packageable?

growth-mindset-cheerJesse Singal  posted a new piece (on the original URL) correcting his previous assertions about “growth mindset.” He acknowledges that he relied too much on a BuzzFeed article by Tom Chivers instead of doing his research. He discusses some of the research that he overlooked and encourages us to read Carol Dweck’s new post defending her theory.

I commend him for the self-correction but think he went overboard in replacing the article. (Granted, he didn’t delete the original; he links to the JPEG of it. Still, it’s effectively gone; it doesn’t appear in his archive.) The reasons for questioning “growth mindset” (as both a serious theory and a fad) go far beyond the momentary or trivial. His mode of questioning may have been limited, but it was a start.

What is the real problem here? Dweck, by her account, has conducted the research carefully, conscientiously, and skeptically; unfortunately, she says, the theory has been misunderstood and misapplied by teachers. (I’ll get to that in a moment.) But the theory rests on a dichotomous proposition: that there is such a thing as “growth mindset” as opposed to “fixed mindset,” and that people have one or the other. I propose that people have a mixture of both–and that, rather than driving everything we do, they accompany or follow other drivers.

As I said yesterday, it makes sense (as a teacher, student, or anyone else) to focus on one’s capacity for improvement rather than exclusively on static achievement. But (as I also said) the latter has a place as well. It matters to do something well, period, regardless of how much we have “grown”  toward it. I want my poem to be good. Yes, I want my poetry to grow as well, but if the individual poems do not move, intrigue, provoke, or delight, I don’t care a whit about the growth. A person needs a combination of “growth” and “fixed” mindsets.

On his new blog Statistical Thinking, the Frank Harrell names one of the problems in the field of statistics:

Subject matter experts (e.g., clinical researchers and epidemiologists) try to avoid statistical complexity by “dumbing down” the problem using dichotomization, and statisticians, always trying to be helpful, fail to argue the case that dichotomization of continuous or ordinal variables is almost never an appropriate way to view or analyze data.

I wonder whether he would say that “growth mindset” theory suffers from dichotomization; I have not yet seen this particular question addressed, but everything in my experience and knowledge tells me that mindsets are complex and that the complexity can be productive.

Beyond that, the very focus on mindset seems to miss something. In a calculus class, I do not want the professor to talk about mindset. I want her to talk about the actual problems. Now, it does make a difference if she implicitly recognizes that students can improve, that their performance on the test is not an ultimate statement about them. She can convey this in all sorts of subtle ways. But my own mindset will be much more vigorous and hopeful if the professor focuses on the subject.

Some students may benefit from explicit instruction in mental habits and attitudes. Others pick up on all sorts of implicit suggestions and cues. So yes, schools should carefully consider what messages they are sending. But they should also exercise caution in implementing psychological theories that at best approximate the truth or bring out one aspect of it.

Dweck states that her early optimism over school implementation faded when she saw how poorly teachers and parents understood growth mindset:

Although we were originally optimistic about teachers’ ability to readily apply growth mindset in their classrooms, we began to learn things that tempered this optimism. We began to see and accumulate research evidence that the growth mindset concept was poorly understood by many parents and educators and that adults might not know how to pass a growth mindset on to children, even when they reported holding it for themselves.

I do not think she meant this, but it’s easy to take her words to mean, “those benighted teachers and parents fail to understand our scholarship.” She does imply, in any case, that the problems with implementation are at least partly due to teachers’ and parents’ misunderstandings of the concept. She points to a survey suggesting that teachers have little confidence in their ability to teach growth mindset in the classroom.

But what if this misunderstanding and lack of confidence came from the very weaknesses and limitations of the theory? What if it were true that mindsets cannot be so easily divided, and that we benefit from their combination? Perhaps teachers and parents are picking up on this possibility; perhaps this intuition, or something like it, was behind Singal’s original post.

I leave off with the question: Are mindsets really packageable?

Image credit: YouTube video: “Growth Mindset Cheer!

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

Update: In an Education Week article (and perhaps elsewhere as well), Dweck acknowledges that we have mixtures of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. But does she consider that the very mixture of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets may play a beneficial role in our lives? This came up in the comments; I will dedicate a separate piece to the question within the next few days.

Teachers Prefer Extraverted Students? Says Who?

In her TED talk and her book, Susan Cain claims that, according to research, “the vast majority of teachers reports believing that the ideal student is an extrovert as opposed to an introvert.” (The two quotes differ slightly but have the same gist.) I found this dubious, so I looked for the source. In the notes to Quiet, she provides the following citation:

Charles Meisgeier et al., “Implications and Applications of Psychological Type to Educational Reform and Renewal,” Proceedings of the First Biennial International Conference on Education of the Center for Applications of Psychological Type (Gainesville, FL: Center for Applications of Psychological Type, 1994), 263-271.

I hunted for it online and found it (not through a Google search but through a search of the catalog of the Isabel Briggs Myers Memorial Library. Here’s Meisgeier’s description of the study in question (on p. 267):

A study in which 91 teacher interns (teachers) were asked to identify  their ‘ideal child’ type using the Murphy Meisgeier Type Indicator for Children (MMTIC) and the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) produced many interesting results. After taking the MBTI to identify their own type, teachers took the MMTIC choosing each response as they thought their ‘ideal child’ would choose – that is, the  ‘ideal child’ they would or do like to teach.

On the E/I scale, there was no relation between self type and the ‘ideal child’ type. That is, teachers who were E did not define the E child as ideal significantly more often than teachers who were I. In fact, 71% of the teachers who were I described an extravert as the ‘ideal child’ type as compared to 80% of the E teachers. Only 15.5% of the I’s selected the I type of child as the ‘ideal child’. Overall, 76% of the teachers chose E as the child type  which differs  significantly  from  a  50-50  split  (chi-square  (1)  = 23.3; p  < .01).

The paper goes on to discuss the results on the S/N, T/F, and J/P scales. After summarizing the results, the authors comment: “The very idea that a teacher carries an unconscious ‘picture’ of an ideal child into the classroom suggests that there would have to be children present who were perceived as less than ideal. Where that is the case, all of the learning that takes place in that classroom will not be academic for it seems highly likely that each child also will learn how he or she is viewed by the teacher.”

Whoa… But the study required teachers to indicate personality type preferences! It doesn’t seem quite right to assess teachers’ personality preferences and then bemoan the preferences’ existence. In addition, nowhere does the description address the following questions:

  1. How were these 91 teachers selected?
  2. To what extent did they represent the span of grade levels and subjects?
  3. What were the questions, and what were the options in the responses? (I tried to access the MMTIC Instrument, but its web page states that “The MMTIC instrument and reports are available for use only by adults who are 21 years of age or older, have a four-year degree from an accredited college or university … and have successfully completed the MMTIC® Certification Program.” The last criterion excludes me!)
  4. To what extent did the responses fall somewhere in the middle (with teachers indicating a preference for a mixture of traits)?
  5. Were the questions framed in a classroom context? For instance, was “extraversion” associated with speaking up in class discussion? (That could be highly misleading; many students with tendencies toward introversion might speak up in a class that interests them.)

All of this merits inquiry. From a vague study of 91 teachers–described by the very creator of the Murphy Meisgeier Type Indicator for Children–we can draw no conclusions about teachers’ preferences.

It may well be that teachers in some settings show a preference for certain aspects of extraversion. But what kind of preference is this? Is it preference for an type of person, or for a certain quality of class participation?  To what extent does this preference depend on context–of subject matter, topic, lesson, and situation?

Granted, many students have been judged negatively by teachers. Some (not all) of my elementary and middle school teachers judged me for my social ineptitude at the time. In high school, things changed; because of the increased intellectual focus, I was in my element, and the teachers recognized and appreciated this. Teachers’ judgments make a mark, but they may have more to do with the exigencies of the lesson than with anyone’s personality type.

If, instead of treating limited research findings as fact, Cain and others looked into questions and persisted with uncertainties, we could have interesting discussion. Semi-intellectual discussion seizes quick answers like real estate. That’s part of the problem with TED: its emphasis on quick answers. I will say more about that soon.

Update: I finally posted a review of Cain’s Quiet on Amazon.

I made a few changes to the last paragraph long after posting this piece.

Our Unwitting Teachers

Ninth grade was a tumultuous year for me. Too much to go into here–but many ups and downs. In the spring, I discovered that I enjoyed running track. Though bad at sports overall, I had good endurance; I was one of the few in the school who could run a full mile, at a good pace, without stopping. (Later I brought it up to three.) Through running, I got to know a few students outside of my usual circles. They chose to run with me because they trusted that I wouldn’t stop halfway through. As we were running, we had short-winded conversations about all kinds of things.

One day I was running with a girl who had lost a family member a few years before. We were talking (inasmuch as we could) about life, and she said, “I want to experience everything–both the good and the bad.” Given what she had been through, this moved me and stayed on my mind afterward. I thought about how everything we go through can contribute to who we are; all of it, taken properly, can be a gift, no matter how difficult it seems at the time. I thought, also, of the ending of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, which I had just read in class.

A month or two later, toward the end of the year, I decided to tell her that her words had helped me. I asked whether she had a few minutes to talk. She agreed and went with me to the “fountain room,” a luminous nook with French windows and doors, in a corner of the hallway near the drinking fountain. I told her what I have said just here. She looked surprised and happy but didn’t say much.

Later, when she signed my yearbook, she wrote: “You have been a source of knowledge about myself this year. Your talent and persistence has inspired me and helped me be calm and level headed. You told me that I helped you–well, telling me that made me cry that night in bed, because just earlier I had been chastising myself for being insensitive and unresponsive to so many people that were sensitive and yet very far away from me. I am so glad that I was able to do something for you. You deserve happiness and if I was able to help you attain that end, then I am happy.”

We were each other’s unwitting teachers. At the time, I wondered just how much people held back from each other, how many good things they could say to each other if they dared. Years later, it seemed to me that such inhibitions might have a place, that they might make room for the understood, the understated, and things that don’t go easily into words.

Now I see it in both ways. There are many who have taught and helped me and probably do not know it. Maybe it is a shame that they do not know it; maybe it is for the better. Sometimes the one seems true, sometimes the other, but I never know for certain which one holds.

Overall, we hold back from telling people what they taught us; thus, people have little idea how much they bring to others. Yet there’s no way to delimit “how much” these teachers bring; the students themselves do not know. So, speaking and holding back can both be wrong. But there is no wrong in perceiving one’s teachers: taking in their particular words  and cadences and returning to them over time. There must be good in noticing these things without trying to capture them, without trying to say exactly how much or what they mean.

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

Teaching and Physical Presence

I don’t comment on blogs and online articles as much as I once did. But when I do, I am still left with a feeling of dissipation, which starts with the knowledge that I spent time and thought on comments that, in retrospect, seem limited, even foolish, and that did not get through to the other participants. I am left with the sinking thought, “Oh no, why did I do that?” The most recent example is the comment thread on Leon Wieseltier’s column “The Unschooled” (online title: “Education Is the Work of Teachers, Not Hackers”).

One of the main points of his piece is that students need actual teachers—not virtual teachers, not scripted teachers, not stand-ins for teachers, but teachers themselves, in the same room with the students. They are essential precisely because they give us something that daily life (online and offline) does not. Once we leave school (be it high school, college, or graduate school), we make our way through life without formal teachers, for the most part. It is our teachers who help us prepare for this independence.

Most of what I learned from teachers, I owe to their physical presence as well as their intellect. What sets the classroom apart from other situations is, first of all, of someone who not only knows the subject well but strives to bring the students into it; second of all, a focus on something interesting in itself, whatever its applications may be; and, third, the allowance for thoughts in formation. I will focus here on this last point and its usual absence from online discussion.

In the classroom, you can say something that is incomplete, flawed, or utterly incorrect. This can contribute to the overall discussion, as the goal is not to score points but to arrive at greater understanding. A teacher or professor welcomes errors or limited assertions as an opportunity to probe further. (This requires, of course, that the students participate conscientiously and thoughtfully, instead of speaking haphazardly or bluffing.) What’s more, once you have said something in the classroom, it vanishes; unless you have made a particularly memorable point, or unless the teacher has picked up on it, it does not follow you around. (This is a good thing.) It is possible, in such a discussion, to clarify terms on the spot; to interject questions; to return to the text or problem; and to glean things in the speaker’s tone and facial expressions. The teacher, who has a longer and broader perspective on the subject than the students do, is able to bring together seemingly disparate points and take the discussion further. Sometimes the teacher does most of the talking—in some of my favorite courses, this was so—and that does not degrade the discussion.

In everyday face-to-face conversations, many of these features may be present. Two or more people may well learn from each other in person. There is room for tentativeness, as most of what is said gets left behind. The point is not only to learn but to enjoy each other’s presence. The teacher in such settings may well be absent—and so topics may be broached lightly or in depth, with or without accuracy or probing.

Online discussions are a different matter. There, the participants often do not know each other; often they hide behind fake names. Aware that their comments may remain on the website forever, they try to be right and to defend what they say. Because this can be extremely time-consuming with little reward, they also try to do it swiftly, without too much thought. Such commenting is different from letter or email correspondence, which is based on mutual regard, including the regard of adversaries. In far too many online discussions, mutual regard is absent. Worse, a great deal of online discussion is about nothing at all, or about a dizzying cascade of topics.

I am glad that I spent years in classrooms with teachers. When online discussions discourage me (and they often do), I remember that there is a different way of discussing things, a different way of handling ideas that are in formation. This has to do with examining and correcting oneself, sharpening one’s language, and finding the right mixture of integrity and openness. It is similar to what George Kateb describes as “self-possession” in Human Dignity:

By that term I mean the awareness of oneself as susceptible to intimidation and mental capture. One must catch oneself if one is not to conform thoughtlessly to codes, customs, and practices; if one is not to yield to the self-imposed tyranny of compliant habit; if one is not to give in to the inevitable pleasures of simplifying ideologies and the agitation of shifting fashions. One’s dignity rests on the ability to resist being too easily ensnared, and to avoid being a target of solicitations. One has to engage in self-examination in order not to succumb to false needs and wants; one must struggle hard and with only a modicum of hope to discover what one truly needs and wants and thus to approach somewhat more closely to being oneself rather than being a poor imitation of oneself and hence an unconscious parody of oneself.

Such self-possession is far removed from self-justification or self-insistence; to catch oneself, one must have guides to one’s own folly. One can find such guides in books, but one also needs their voices and gestures and faces; the nod, the quizzical look, the ability to pick up on thoughts in the room and show where they might go. Physical presence is not a good in itself, but it contributes to the “spirit of liberty” (in Learned Hand’s sense).

This good is too important a gift to give up. If students do not know what a class discussion or lecture is, they may confuse online bickering, or even face-to-face shouting, with true exchange. Many already do.

Puttering, Responsibility, and Beauty

In a recent satirical piece, I described an imaginary movie called “Won’t Quiet Down” (a dark spoof on “Won’t Back Down”), in which two disaffected students launch a “student trigger”: namely, they talk nonstop in class until the school, weary of efforts to “engage” them, converts itself into a computer lab without teachers. This was not a commentary on my own students, though some of them do get chatty. Rather, it was a tongue-in-cheek look at the consequences of distractedness and disruption in schools and beyond. It was also a parody of propaganda films, so the message was intentionally crass. But it had a serious element.

Incessant talk runs into serious trouble. It can’t honor things, because there’s no “sacred space” for them (to quote someone with whom I spoke recently). There’s no sense of a time for quieting down and listening. Thus, there’s little room for taking anything serious in. Instead, people vie to be heard—but no one’s listening anyway, so no one gets heard. This is an exaggerated representation, of course, but it’s largely accurate.

The problem is not just that people talk, talk, and talk. (Nor is it a problem of extraverts versus introverts, as many who qualify as introverts have a great propensity for chatter.) It’s that there’s so much rush, so much overload of work and information, that people don’t even have a chance to ruminate, to sift through experiences, to read books for pleasure and interest, or to test out ideas. I have discussed this in my book and elsewhere; I see it as one of the primary problems of education.

Teachers and students have little time to think. They scamper from one thing to the next. During the week, I am on a gerbil wheel; I can think of little more than the things I have to get done for the next hour and next day. Over the weekend, I have hundreds of assignments and tests to correct. (I really mean hundreds, since I have about 260 students, whom I teach twice a week.) I love teaching philosophy; at its best, it’s illuminating. Listening to my students discuss the Book of Job, Pascal’s Wager, and Kant’s categorical imperative has given me hope. These kids are reading and pondering the texts and analyzing them keenly.

But what I don’t have, and what they probably don’t have, is time to putter around. (Today’s an exception. I am intentionally puttering today, since I need it badly. I don’t teach on Fridays, and last night I was at school until late for a glorious Hispanic cultural evening.)

Most of my good ideas come out of puttering. I love to mull over lesson planning: I read the text, think about it, think about different ways to present it and things to pull out of it, think about how my students might respond to it, and start to shape the lesson from there. I putter when coming up with ideas for writing and when revising existing pieces; they take various shapes in my mind, and I seize the one  that seems best. Puttering allows me to reread books, listen to music, memorize a poem, work on a math problem, and so forth; and each of these activities can expand into something more.

Of course, you can’t spend your whole life puttering. You must also be able to pull things together under pressure. I like deadlines and performances for that very reason. Sometimes they bring things out that would not have been brought out otherwise; at the very least, they can help you get things done.

But I long to take my time with things, including lesson planning. I consider this a staple, not a luxury. Yet our society seems to treat it as either a vice or an afterthought. As a culture we place more value on doing, doing, doing than on thinking; more value on certainty than on uncertainty; more value on saying something than on taking something in; and more value on results of any kind than on slow and soulful labors.

Throughout the school system, throughout the country, from what I have seen and heard, teachers strain under unreasonable workloads, as do students. Not only do teachers have large classes and many of them, but their “prep” time during the day comes to little, if anything. In urban districts, a quiet place to work is a rarity; teachers often share classrooms and may not even have a desk. As for students, they are in class every minute of the school day except for lunch. They stay after school for electives and sports. Then, when they get home, they have several hours of homework. Students with college aspirations must build resumes and portfolios; in many cases, they must show not only their academic ability and interest, but their ability to lead a club, initiate a project, and speak on video. On top of it all, they have many digital distractions.

I do not recommend eliminating homework or extracurriculars (or, for that matter, technology), but something has to give. How is it that in high school I took Latin, Greek, French, history, physics, math, and English (sometimes two English courses at once), practiced cello for two or three hours a day, sang in the school choruses, participated in sports, and still had time to take long walks, see friends, and write stories and poems? Part of it is that the school trusted us with free periods during the day, so our schedules were not packed. Some of our frenzy today comes from a perceived need to fill everyone’s schedule, to make everyone accountable for every moment.

If we want to relieve some of this pressure and live more sanely, we need to move from accountability (where you must give moment-to-moment account of your actions, on someone else’s terms) to responsibility (where you honor your conscience and duties, relying primarily on an internal guide). Accountability has its place, but as a way of life it will squeeze the best out of us and drive us to exhaustion. Responsibility is much more difficult to build and sustain, but it allows for tranquility, though it puts us to serious tests.

But building responsibility—in society as a whole—is a complicated matter. It involves strengthening one’s solitude and learning not to give in to every passing craving or demand. It also requires having something to live up to, something worth the responsibility, something beautiful to carry as though it were our own.

Note: On March 5, 2013, I deleted the original first paragraph, as it was about the blog, not about puttering.

To Save Kids, District Adopts No-Sitdown Policy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elitism Versus Populism in Education

In a recent post (now deleted), I discussed what I saw as an anti-intellectual tendency in education. I gave only two examples and didn’t go into the complexities of the matter. (I later became dissatisfied with the piece.) In particular, I didn’t make a clear distinction between anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism. The two overlap and combine but are not identical.

Anti-elitism involves distrust of privilege and its distortions. In education, the elite are those who come with money or make a great deal of money; who hobnob with Bill Gates and Arne Duncan and take part in various wealthy organizations; who have strong media connections and can get op-eds in the big magazines; and who don’t teach day in, day out. They need some knowledge of education, or they lose credibility, like Cathie Black, who briefly served as NYC schools chancellor. Yet they don’t have to do the daily work of planning and conducting lessons, calling parents, correcting papers, setting up rooms, or rushing around to make photocopies and gather supplies. On the other hand, precisely because they don’t have to perform all these tasks or deal with so many youngsters, they have room to write, do research, think ideas through, and deliberate with others.

It’s reasonable to be suspicious of elites, especially when they talk about the need for better teachers. Their degree of material comfort, compared to that of teachers, staggers and addles the mind. Some of them may work hard—I have no doubt that Wendy Kopp and Geoffrey Canada do—but they do not have to grade 200 homework assignments over a weekend. They don’t have to worry about where the chattering is coming from in a room, how to introduce students to Aristotle, or why a certain student isn’t handing in homework. Nor do they have to worry about being judged by students’ test scores—on tests that have little to do with their subjects. Working in the quiet of your office, or even giving talks around the country, carries nothing of this pressure or exhilaration. It has its own pressures and rewards. I am not diminishing the work of good education leaders—but put them in a classroom for a month, with all of the responsibilities, and many would find themselves overwhelmed.

On the other end of things, we have populism, which opposes elitism tooth and nail. Populism is essentially a belief in the virtue, authority, and wisdom of the people. Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell characterize it as an ideology that “pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity, and voice.” Populists say (this is my paraphrase, not that of Albertazzi and McDonnell), “look at those people making all that money and enjoying all that power. What do they know about our concerns? Why should they be telling us what to do? Why aren’t we the ones setting policy?”

If you don’t sympathize at least a little with a populist outlook, then you are missing something. There’s every reason to be wary of the ultra-powerful, and to yearn for more popular influence over public affairs. But populism has its pitfalls, too. For one thing, it presumes to know who the people are and what they want; it assumes that they more or less agree, when in fact there may be deep divisions among them. Second, it values certain ideas because they (presumably) come from the people, not because they are good. Along these lines, it may dismiss good ideas merely because they appear to come from the elite. Third, it places high value on group thinking and majority rule; those who don’t fit in or who hold independent views are regarded with slight suspicion. (Granted, elite groups and policymaking bodies have plenty of their own groupthink; I highly recommend Irving L. Janis’s book on the subject.)

So, anti-populists, or skeptics of populism, champion independent thought and intellect; they remind us of the “tyranny of the majority.” They point out where popular and populist movements have gone wrong, how they have gotten swept up in an illusion of consensus and truth, when in reality they were deluded and divided. The anti-populists have a point, but they, too, can get carried away. They can distrust anything that looks like a popular movement, even if it’s well founded and badly needed.

How could we bring together the best of elitism and populism, so that we could evaluate ideas on their own merit, allow for individual voices and group efforts, and honor those who devote themselves to education, especially teachers? First, we would have to put an end to the education racket. In many circles, education reform has become lucrative, with consultants making more than a thousand dollars a day. This is obnoxious at best, crippling at worst. Second, when the New York Times and other publications have “panels” on education topics, they should not only include teachers in the discussion, but bring them to the forefront. Third, we should take ideas on their merits, instead of judging them by the speaker’s position and connections. Fourth, we should respect independent thought. No one should be spurned for differing from the group. We are more likely to respect and understand independent thought when we discuss something substantial—so let’s have more discussions of subject matter itself.

These are only preliminary thoughts; I intend to think and write more about this topic.

 

N0te: I made a few edits to this piece long after posting it.

District Announces Value-Added Bazaar

In a major urban district that requested anonymity, teachers will be required to attend a bazaar in order to purchase the value-added formula that suits them best. (In education, value-added formulas are used to rank teachers on the basis of their students’ test score improvement.)

“It’s ‘bazaar,’ not ‘bizarre,’” said Superintendent Elmer Bozard, whose initial proposal inspired a major donation from an anonymous celebrity, an “influencer” who thinks education is important.

(Readers may be wondering: how can the urban district remain anonymous, now that Bozard has revealed his name? Answer: Bozard is as yet unknown to the education world. He just graduated from the Broad Superintendents Academy and has never been a teacher or principal. His appointment is still unannounced, as the previous superintendent has yet to be officially fired.)

“This is sheer innovation,” Bozard went on to explain. “Ever since we started rating teachers with formulas, we’ve been getting numerous complaints about errors, inconsistencies, absurdities, you name it. So we got together in a secret focus group with industry leaders and came up with this new idea: Let the market be the formula.”

At the Value-Added Bazaar, teachers will view demos of each formula and speak with a value-added consultant. After purchasing their own personal formula (prices range from $10 to $1,000), they will take a personality test. This will match them with a Holistic Evaluation Knowledge Consultant (HEKC) who will manage their Holistic Evaluation Needs. “Research has shown that teachers are valid people, but that they resist change,” said Shelly Speranza, CEO of Valid People, Inc. “So our consultants begin by affirming the teachers as people. Then they tell them that if they want to stay human, they will have to change, because humans change. For consistency’s sake, we make sure that our evaluations match the value-added ratings.” Consultants earn a minimum of $1,000 a day, but each teacher will only have to pay $100 a month for the services.

Although teachers may choose the formula that rates them “effective,” the sum total of ratings will lead to the firing of 50 percent of the teachers. “You see,” explained Speranza, “each time a teacher is rated effective, someone else is rated ineffective. We tally up each teacher’s ‘ineffective’ ratings and divide down the middle. The ones most frequently rated ‘ineffective’ will have to go.”

“Brilliant!” exclaimed the economist and movie actor Brian Handshake. “We’ve been dying to find a way to get rid of teachers so that student achievement can shoot up to the heavens. Now they can get rid of themselves!”

Curiously, teachers have not shown excitement over the bazaar. “I’ve got to prepare a lesson on Blake,” said a high school English teacher. “I don’t have time for this.”

“We’ll hype it up a bit more,” said Bozard, when we passed on her comment. “We’re planning to give out a lot of goodies there.” Noting that teachers often pay out of pocket for required bulletin board supplies, he has ordered a large supply of bulletin board backing paper, colorful borders with stars and animals, staples, construction paper, pushpins, and ready-made rubrics and standards.

In addition, at the bazaar, a leading software and hardware company will be offering to inject microchips in teachers for free. “When they let us track them, we know they’re not hiding anything,” said Bozard. “Their disclosure level isn’t part of the value-added ratings yet, but their HEKC will be informed of it and will treat them accordingly. Over time, their personal lives will figure into their ratings as well.”

Eventually it will be possible to purchase value-added formulas at regular grocery stores. “We expect many more brands over the next 5-10 years,” said Handshake, “and it’s important to keep the market fluid. So you can expect to see machines dispensing cards with barcodes. Teachers will just scan them against their chips, and the calculations will begin.”

The Mayor’s Dream Dialogue

The New York State Legislature has passed a law prohibiting the publication of teachers’ test score ratings but allowing parents to view them.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg isn’t happy about this. He has decreed, therefore, that principals and assistant principals shall call all the parents to inform them of their right to see the scores.

Now, I am sure he has heard from many a reputable source about the problems with value-added ratings and the importance of regarding them skeptically. Yet he remains convinced that these ratings hold Truth.

But what makes him think principals agree with him? What makes him sure that they’ll say what he wants them to say on the phone? What does he hope they’ll say?

Perhaps he is hoping for a million conversations like this:

Principal: Hello, may I please speak with Leonora Thonge?

Ms. Thonge: Speaking.

Principal: Good morning, Ms. Thonge. This is Principal Eigenvalue of your son’s failing school P.S. 2345. I am calling to tell you that you may come to the school to view your teachers’ value-added ratings–that is, the ratings based on test score data.

Ms. Thonge: Oh, please tell me now! I have been desperate for the truth!

Principal: I would like to… but the ARIS database is down, and I am not allowed to give you the information over the phone. The union has my hands tied, you see. That’s one of many reasons why you should consider a charter school for Bernard.

Ms Thonge: I understand. I will be there shortly.

(Half an hour later, in the principal’s office.)

Ms. Thonge (weeping): His English and math teachers are both below average? And I thought they were so intelligent, so caring…

Principal (handing Ms. Thonge a box of tissues): There, now. It’s common for parents and students to think well of a teacher. That’s why we need the data to set the record straight.

Ms. Thonge: Are you sure these ratings are correct? I have heard that they are often wildly inaccurate.

Principal (in a confidential whisper): Don’t believe it. These are based on hard data and state-of-the-art formulas, and that’s as true as true can be.

Ms. Thonge: But what am I to do now? Where am I to take my Bernard, my poor little boy?

Principal: Well, as you may know, we’re a turnaround school. This means we will be firing half of the teachers soon. The ones we keep will be the ones with above-average ratings. I’m the Interim Turnaround Principal and won’t be here much longer myself. So you are welcome to wait it out. However, it’s a gorgeous day, and I suggest you go shopping!

Ms. Thonge: What do you take me for? Do you think I want to buy anything after hearing this shattering news?

Principal: No, no, I meant school-shopping! You can ask for their value-added scores and choose the school that promises the most growth for Bernard. I will recommend a few for you.

Ms. Thonge: Do they have a Shakespeare program, like this school does? Bernard loved the Shakespeare so much. He sometimes had the whole family act out scenes.

Principal: Shakespeare isn’t on the test. That’s part of what dragged  our school down: tearching things that weren’t on the test. The schools I’m recommending are completely test-aligned–or will be, once they start. They’re all brand-new. This will be good for your son. There won’t be any history to hold him back.

Ms. Thonge: Oh, thank you, thank you for putting my son first!

Principal: Thank the data. Without the data, none of this would be possible. We would all be trapped in our human ways.  In fact, I’m about to go to Data Mass, which starts at noon. You are most welcome to join me.

Ms. Thonge: Thank you! I will join you in adoring the data, from which all blessings derive, and then I will check out some schools. Oh, what a day of joy! Before we head over, do you mind if I ask you something off script?

Principal: Off script? I’m a figment of the mayor’s dream! I don’t know how to go off script.

Ms. Thonge: Let me put it this way. What do you really think about all this?

The principal flushes into life, and they end up talking for another hour. The mayor, still dreaming, waves his arms and shouts, “Cut! Cut!” but to no avail.

The End

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.