For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.
— H.L. Mencken
Over at The Atlantic, Philip Howard is trying to convince us that America’s education problem has a simple cause and a simple solution:
America’s schools are being crushed under decades of legislative and union mandates. They can never succeed until we cast off the bureaucracy and unleash individual inspiration and willpower… Successful teaching and good school cultures don’t have a formula, but they have a necessary condition: teachers and principals must feel free to act on their best instincts.
Mm. Jim Keegstra was acting on his best instincts—does Mr. Howard think he should have been free to continue doing so? Or what about teachers who ignore bullying: should they be free of bureaucratic “interference”? How about teachers who are themselves the victims of bullying or worse by school administrators: shouldn’t they have somewhere to turn? Yes, a lot of bureaucracy is pure empire-building, but a lot of it has been created after someone was badly hurt in order to prevent a recurrence.
I complained a lot about the pettifogging backside-covering red tape at U of T when I was there—in fact, it’s one of the main reasons I left. I used to complain about having to wear safety goggles in the chem lab, too, until I met a guy who lost an eye when a beaker blew up. I agree that 90% of the time, 90% of the regulations are unnecessary. The problem is, we don’t know in advance which 90%. If Mr. Howard can convince me that he does, and that clearing away all that bureaucracy won’t make life easier for slackers, predators, bigots, and bullies, I will personally operate the shredder on his behalf.
I’ve been reading Beneath Ceaseless Skies, an online SF&fantasy magazine, for about a year now. Most of the stories are pretty good, but there’s a sameness to their style that’s starting to weary me: they all feel as if they were written on a drizzly Sunday afternoon by someone who would really rather be penning paeans to J.D.Salinger for the New Yorker. Meanwhile, Michael Chabon (a one-time darling of that set) is now writing the kind of kapow! adventure story that was, for many decades, the mainstay of SF&fantasy.
On April 1, 1942, George Orwell wrote:
Connolly wanted yesterday to quote a passage from Homage to Catalonia in his broadcast. I opened the book and came on these sentences:
“One of the most horrible features of war is that all the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting…It is the same in all wars; the soldiers do the fighting, the journalists do the shouting, and no true patriot ever gets near a front line trench, except on the briefest of propaganda tours. Sometimes it is a comfort to me to think that the aeroplane is altering the conditions of war. Perhaps when the next great war comes we may see that sight unprecedented in all history, a jingo with a bullet-hole in him.”
Here I am…less than 5 years after writing that. I suppose sooner or later we all write our own epitaphs.
I have a lot of respect for Heather Payne (founder of Ladies Learning Code): she’s working hard to get women into technology, and has been more creative about doing it in 12 months than I’ve been in 14 years. I’m therefore reluctant to disagree with her publicly, but her most recent post said this:
I find it pretty interesting to note that most of our Lead Instructors and Mentors are in a teaching role for the first time ever when they join us at a Ladies Learning Code workshop. And no one on the Ladies Learning Code team has a background in education. The funny thing about that is that it might be why what we’re doing works.
Respectfully, no. What LLC is doing works as well as it does because:
- It has attracted a really talented bunch of inventive, open-minded, hard-working people.
- It’s one day or one week, not four years.
- Everyone in the room really wants to be there.
The first explains itself, so let’s look at the other two. A night out or a weekend away is very different from being married; similarly, one jam-packed day of new, new, new is a whole ‘nother thing than a four-year university program that’s trying to cover all the bases, including the ones learners don’t think need to be covered. (They’re often right, but not as often as they think.) The kind of energy and engagement I see in workshops (of all kinds, for all ages and backgrounds) simply doesn’t last for months or years.
Second, I believe that about a quarter of the students in any university program would rather be elsewhere (if not more). They’re in class because their parents told them they had to go to university, or because they’re worried about being unemployable if they don’t have a degree, or because whatever they’re doing seemed exciting two years ago when they picked their major, and they think that if they switch tracks now, those years will have been wasted. That, combined with peer pressure in high school teaching most teenagers never to appear keen about anything a grown-up is telling them (unless said grown-up is disreputable), sets the tone for the student side of most university classrooms.
The faculty side—well, as Eleni Stroulia said, we’re here to do research, they pay us to teach, we spend our time on administration. Most grade school teachers, and many university professors, are passionate about teaching—just look at the 60-hour weeks they put in. But many others have burned out, have discovered that they don’t like it as much as they thought they would, or (at university) have always regarded teaching as a tax they have to pay in order to do the research they love. And while I can’t speak for K-12 from first-hand experience, promotion in most universities really depends primarily on your research, no matter what’s in your employment contract about “teaching” and “service”.
So, do things like LLC work as well as they do (and they do work very well) because the people leading don’t have a background in education? I don’t think so. Would they work better if their organizers and instructors could ace the Audrey Test? I don’t know; I don’t think it would hurt, but I wonder if what formally-trained educators are taught is more relevant to the cross-country trekking their learners are expected to do than to workshop participants’ sprinting. What I do know is that we’d all benefit from more thoughtful analysis of what works and what doesn’t at various scales and for various learners.
Marcus Lau and Maxwell Elendt, two high school students whose science project I was mentoring, picked up a silver medal at the Toronto Science Fair on the weekend. The project was titled “Headshots: Detecting Concussions with Accelerometers”; in it, they hooked an off-the-shelf accelerometer up to a hockey helmet, put it on a mannequin’s head, and had people of various ages and sizes whack it with a hockey stick and/or their fist in order to see what kinds of impacts they could produce. It was a lot of fun, and I think they learned a lot about how to work with real-world data. Congratulations on the prize—it’s well deserved.