Monday, October 20, 2008

Trouble in the Garden

Back when I used to live in East Dallas, I'd often drive by Stonewall Jackson Elementary school on Mockingbird Lane. It's a fairly nondescript little school, but it sports a terrific garden that's visible from the street. I'd often see folks from the community, as well as the children, puttering around, and I was always amazed at how lovely, inviting, and verdant it looked.

Recently, however, the Dallas Independent School District--in response to its own idiocy concerning budget mismanagement--has decided to curtail this highly successful outdoor learning program despite clear evidence of its success.

Although Mark Painter will still try to maintain the garden after school hours (being paid by the PTA instead of the district) the overall stupidity of this move is indicative of how shallow our current approach to education has become. Experiential learning has been shown to enhance the learning process, especially in science and maths, by connecting students with real-world problems to which they can apply principles and concepts. Despite the fact that American students, especially those in urban areas, are scoring lower than ever on high-stakes exams in the sciences, this seems like the dumbest possible move any school district could make.

For examples of how programs like this work, I suggest looking at the University of California at Davis's Science, Technology and Environmental Literacy Workgroup, or at the Wildercom website developed by James T. Neill, a psychologist and environmental educator from Perth, Australia.

American students continue to be outscored by their counterparts in other countries, as shown in a recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam in science, and they trailed even further in mathematics. For details on the data, see the PowerPoint presentation by Andreas Schleicher, who analyzes the 2006 data in excrutiating--but rather interesting--detail, available on the Alliance for Excellent Education website. Schleicher is the director of PISA and head of the Indicators and Analysis Division of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Directorate for Education. Further resources are available on the link.

I am certainly in no position to offer a great deal of advice about science teaching, except that I spent years working with kids at the Heard Museum and with the Plano ISD outdoor education effort. But I also love science, and I know how eager children are to understand the natural world. Our inability as a nation to inspire our children to understand scientific principles and seek careers in science will ultimately lead to our own intellectual poverty.

Ill-advised cost-cutting measures like closing down the garden program at Stonewall Jackson are simply going to turn around and bite us in the backside unless the educational bureaucracy starts paying attention to what really works.

Photo: a kitchen garden not unlike the one at Stonewall Jackson, by Jean-Noël Lafargue, via Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Some Thoughts on Plagiarism . . . and how to avoid the problem in the first place

We live in an age of instant information accessibility. “Answers”—that is, facts, data, information—are only a Google search away. Almost inevitably, most commonly-used search terms lead directly to Wikipedia which, for all its democratic possibilities, is still only an encyclopedia. And encyclopedias are for high school, not for college.

The consequences of instant accessibility include impatience when it comes to refining searches, developing meaningful search strategies, and varying resource use. We’ve imbedded short attention spans into our children, and they are becoming increasingly impatient with research that takes “too long.”

I’m pretty sure that further consequences to the instant access phenomenon include a diminishing of wonder; many of our student lack the basic curiosity that leads to truly creative thinking, and because their reading is restricted primarily to popular culture, they lack the breadth of knowledge that used to lead to innovative connections. Couple this with impatience, and the result is a reduction in critical thinking and the acceptance of the “easy way out.”

Imagine this scenario: A student is given a standard paper topic, such as “Discuss the use of irony in Huckleberry Finn.” The student’s first impulse is to plug “irony” and “Huckleberry Finn” into a search engine and the results appear within nanoseconds. What happens next is the root cause of plagiarism. Not fundamental dishonesty, or profound laziness (although these certainly can be factors), but the sheer ease of cutting and pasting, and the perception that recombining the material from the internet magically makes it somehow original and acceptable.

For reasons that are much more complex than I want to go into, our students have been brought up to believe that learning should be fun—or, worse, entertaining. If they’re not having fun, and the task is taking too long, it’s just annoying. “This is boring,” I hear my students say, more often than I care to.

What these kids don’t understand is that, in the words of the American Arts & Crafts designer Dard Hunter, “Boredom is a matter of choice, not circumstance.” In fact, the choices that students are allowed to make often engender boredom, and initiate a cascade of problems that all too frequently lead to plagiarism.

So much for theory. How about solutions?

I would like to propose the possibility that the more innovative the assignment, the less likely plagiarism is to occur. For example, instead of assigning a hackneyed writing topic like “Discuss the use of irony in Huckleberry Finn,” how about asking students to pose questions that arise from their reading of the story? Why did something happen the way it did? Why were certain conditions present in the story? What makes Huck such an interesting character in the first place? Or instead of assigning a research paper on a general topic like “decorative glass” or “the history of the A-line dress,” find out if students are at all curious about anything related to the range of topics under discussion in the course. If they aren’t curious, perhaps the instructor could suggest questions that he or she has always wondered about.

A general rule to consider is that if the instructor finds grading the paper boring, the student certainly didn’t have much fun writing it—and probably didn’t learn much in the process. I have made it a commandment never to assign a topic that my students have not generated themselves, or that I’m not interested in enough to guide them toward looking for meaningful answers.

Another strategy involves asking students to evaluate all sources included in their bibliographies. I usually ask for general bibliographies (which students annotate to show me how they used each source) rather than works cited pages because they give me a better idea of the range of sources the student has consulted in the process of conducting research. In writing classes, for final research papers, I ask for both. I restrict the number of web sources in most cases, and usually require that they use a variety of media: films, print articles, books, interactive media (CD ROMs and DVDs). I hold research workshops where we discuss strategies for locating information and using the results. For material located on the internet, I require website evaluations to determine the quality of information presented: who wrote the article? What are his or her credentials? What is the source of the webpage—Personal? Educational? Business? Commercial? The annotations provide this information for other media—who wrote the book or directed the film? How is this material relevant to the research problem?

Ours is an institution that fosters creativity. We should therefore make a concerted effort to avoid assigning work that encourages students to think in clichés. Meaningful research, and original projects and writing, can only arise from engagement with the material. Our challenge as educators, therefore, is to provide good examples for our students. Initiate more creative projects that call for non-standard solutions; pose challenging questions that require students to break out of their “comfort zones” and into the real world of uncomfortable questions. A great deal of what I learned about teaching came from being an Olympics of the Mind coach, and having to guide seventh-graders through a series of problems without suggesting what they should do. They had to solve the problems themselves; all I could do was ask questions. My team members didn’t ever win the competition, but they did get creativity awards because their ideas were often both strange and beautiful.

One of the most useful assignments I ever undertook as a college student in philosophy was to argue a statement from a viewpoint opposite to that I held. Doing so forced me to see the other side of the question, and made me aware of the perils of faulty reasoning. But it was also extremely difficult because I wasn’t at all comfortable looking through someone else’s eyes (or thinking through someone else’s brain). If we want our students to understand the use of irony in Huckleberry Finn, we need to get them to think about what’s ironic in their world first, but then to wonder what Huck would do in a situation similar to ours. Or, the student might wonder how he or she would react given technological limitations of Huck’s historical moment. The idea is to get them to think about irony not just as an important literary trope used in this one work, but also as a source of humor, drama, and satire in the world as a whole.

The main reason I’m seldom confronted with plagiarism is that my students have to write about how they solved the problems I pose. Occasionally I get someone who tries to turn the assignment into a research paper by cutting and pasting information out of Wikipedia or a website, but that’s not the assignment, so the student fails that segment of it. But if they follow the guidelines and write about what they did and why, I generally get a higher level of writing, and the results are frequently rewarding, both for them and for me.

If, as I suspect, students tend to plagiarize out of laziness rather than larceny, we can go a long way toward nipping it in the bud by simply making it unlikely. Truly original assignments and questions that tap into our students’ innate curiosity might very well minimize the problem. If our students have to account for their thinking process, by always showing thumbnails, storyboards, process drawings, outlines, notes, and other preliminary efforts, they won’t copy other people’s material because it won’t fit into the process. This approach requires more grading, because instructors have to be involved throughout the process, but it’s a lot better than having to take the time to hunt down the sources of suspected plagiarism. It’s also a more positive approach, because it doesn’t ask us to view every student as a potential thief!

However we go about it, the challenge is not to make the effort punitive. Students need to understand why plagiarism is a bad idea; they need to be shown how it hurts creativity; they need to respect the work of others in the same way they expect other designers to respect theirs. We’re faced with a generation that’s grown up sharing information and networking in numerous ways. The democratization of communication will continue to open up challenges to our notions of intellectual property. But students need to know that it’s beneficial for all concerned to acknowledge the role of other people’s creativity. Nobody says they shouldn’t make connections; but they need to understand that by giving credit where it’s due, they’re contributing to the transformation of information into true knowledge.

Photo credit: Old books from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, by Gnosus; The Bookworm, by Carl Spitzweg, 1850. Both via Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The End of Metaphor?

Before tonight's debate, which I probably won't watch (it's really hard on my blood pressure; instead, I read transcripts the next day. I do, however, occasionally watch with the sound off to see what body language looks like), I decided to get something off my chest. So far I've hesitated to blog roughshod into politics because some of my best and most beloved friends and family espouse views that differ significantly from mine. In truth, despite my often apparent "leftiness," I'm a fairly conservative person--in terms of family values, hearth, home, all that stuff. And despite my fairly radical anti-capitalism (at least capitalism as it has emerged since the Industrial Revolution), I have a lot of views that folks might think of as pretty conservative.

One of these concerns the idea of democracy. I think, in essence, that Socrates and Plato were right. Democracy doesn't work unless the populace that practices it is educated; otherwise you get mob rule. A person can't get a whole lot more conservative than siding with an ancient Greek dead white guy.

Today, of course, participation in governance is the birthright of every citizen in this country and in other modern democracies and social democracies. Citizenship entails responsibilities as well as rights--which is as it should be--although many seem to forget the responsibility part in the heat of political campaigns.

At any rate, at the risk of offending all sorts of people, I'm going to go out on a limb here and tell you why I think John McCain and (even more so) Sarah Palin are not good prospects for leaders in a modern democracy--especially one trying to maintain a place of power and prominence in an increasingly global economy.

It has to do with metaphor. Human beings, whom I like to refer to (as a species) as homo translator (man the translator, or metaphor-maker), rely on metaphorical thinking. As I've noted previously, there are two basic ways human beings learn stuff: by hearsay and by experience (Socrates develops these two varieties of education in The Republic). We learn when people tell us stories about what they and our ancestors have done, and we learn by doing things ourselves (remember chemistry lab?). Both of these ways of learning provide us with examples from which we can extrapolate ideas and apply them to new situations. Both similarities to and differences from other situations (ones we're more familiar with) help us to understand what's going on.

The value of formal education is that it expands our repertoir of examples by encouraging us to learn many more stories than we get locally (from family and friends, and in our own time). These stories add to our "cultural pool of metaphor" (the term comes from Gerald Holton) by including information from a much vaster range of people and from a much broader temporal spectrum than we could ever actually experience. We couple those stories with our own "local" learning and experience to gain a more broadly-based, richer education. I won't go as far as Plato and Socrates in saying that popular knowledge doesn't really count; but I will say that book-learning and wider exposure to the world prepare leaders better than does hanging around at the local saloon, drinking a Bud Light. Not that pub-crawling isn't good for philosophy; without the taverns in Edinburgh, the Scottish Enlightenment might never have happened, and Adam Smith might never have written The Wealth of Nations.

As I was saying, these combined modes of learning form the foundation for the kind of education needed to run a democracy. If some people have vastly diminished learning resources, they can't participate as completely or as well. And this is one of the abiding difficulties facing modern democracy: making sure every citizen has the opportunity to become well educated and to participate in governing his or her country.

The word "populist" has recently exploded into our common vocabulary to describe a particular kind of political candidate. It's gone beyond an earlier description of someone who rises from the working or middle classes and represents the concerns of most citizens. Very recently it has come to refer to someone who's not only not a political insider, but also not an "elitist." Populists of this description don't necessarily have much of an education, but can draw on even fairly restricted experience because they "know what it's like" to be an average Joe, to be like "everyman" (or "everywoman"). They don't have to know about tough subjects like economics, because they'll have people to advise them.

So a few questions begin to emerge: if you don't know much about a subject like economics, how are you going to evaluate the advice you're given? If you have no grounding in international relations and understand little about other cultures, how are you going to know if somebody's selling you a bill of goods when his or her advice is to wage war? If you're not conversant with the fundamentals of capitalism, how are you going to negotiate the nuances of the horrifically complex system that has emerged in the last century, and is now compounded by the reality of globalization? If you don't understand basic environmental science, how can you govern in a time of climatic crisis?

As I listen to Sarah Palin stumble around questions in interviews, it becomes clear that she is just not very well educated. She does seem to have plenty of street smarts, and good local political instincts (because she is just like the people she governs in Alaska). Her pool of metaphor is adequate for people who have a passel of kids, drive snow mobiles, work on pipelines, play hockey, and shoot moose (or wolves). But most of the world shares only one or two of these experiences; it's clear, for example, that aside from child-rearing she shares little enough with me. Palin's metaphors are primarily local and extremely hackneyed. She lacks the historical and cultural background that true world leaders need simply to hold a conversation with one another for longer than a brief introduction at the UN. Her entire candidacy is based on strongly held, inflexible religious and political views, and severely limited experience of the world.

John McCain, on the other hand, has both education and experience on his side. Being a graduate of Annapolis ensures a young Naval officer of a solid academic background, albeit one focused on what makes a good military man (and although he graduated near the bottom of his class). A significant chunk of his experience, however, comes from his incarceration in Vietnam, and very few of the rest of us share anything like it. We have no way of knowing how it colored his understanding of the world. His time in prison also looms so large in his life that it seems to have become the central defining metaphor for every other experience. And when I listen to him debate and participate in interviews, seldom do I not hear a reference, either open or oblique, to what he endured and what it taught him. As horrific and impossible for the rest of us to truly understand as it was, it happened half a lifetime ago. His experiences since that time, however, take a back seat to that single, all-consuming narrative.

Because of his less-then-stellar academic record, McCain's educational credentials don't make him susceptible to complaints about elitism. He doesn't have to apologize for an Ivy League education or for a reputation as a thinker. In that, he and Palin share a populist pulpit from which they can make fun of deliberation and intellectualism, and brag about making decisions with their guts or without blinking. And this is precisely where I have a problem.

The careful thinking-through of problems that comes with broad experience is a quality I would like to see in someone who works next to a red telephone and has a button within reach. I do not want somebody who reacts with his or her guts rather than his or her brains. And I want as leaders people who have enough cultural experience to include books like John Hersey's Hiroshima, Herman Wouk's The Winds of War, and films like Seven Days In May and Dr. Strangelove in their library of metaphors.

When we begin to denigrate our public intellectuals and to decry intellectualism as elitism, we are also sending a message that does every child in this country a disservice. When we make fun of smart people, but make our kids suffer the indignities of today's public schools--and then tell them that they have to go to college--we're sending them a very mixed message.

Unless we start electing people with the intellectual substance to solve our economic problems and rebuild our reputation among other world leaders and their constituencies, and until we have a president who's smart enough to evaluate evidence carefully and honestly, we'll continue on the path laid down over the last eight years. And without fresh, complex, vibrant metaphors and examples on which to model an alternative future, there's little hope that things will get better any time soon.

On a conciliatory note, if anyone's still with me after this rant, I'll end with a apt quotation from Editorial Anonymous (a blog on publishing children's books), which sums up my view of party politics:

. . . I don't mind what party people align themselves with. The nice thing about book people is that they're thinking people, and as long as you're thinking, you get to vote however you want. The people who drive me crazy are the ones who vote "from their gut". . . . Thinking people like to talk civilly and intelligently about issues, and as long as you're ready to do that, you're in the club.

A post-debate update, 3 October: I did watch it. And I haven't changed my mind. The main difficulty as I see it is that Palin didn't answer the questions posed; she gave speeches. She also winked and looked cute and tried hard to be folksy. She even asked if she could call Senator Biden "Joe" (he referred to her throughout as "Governor Palin" or "the governor"), so although the exchange was civil and even friendly, it lacked decorum. I'm glad she didn't embarrass herself, and it's clear that she's a quick study. But I'm still convinced that her time has not yet come.

Image credits: Manuscript of Sughrat (Socrates) from a 13th century Seljuk illustrator. Currently kept at Topkapi Palace Library, Istanbul, Turkey; Socrates lecturing, from Raphael's School of Athens, Stanza dei Conservatori, Vatican. Both from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Slouching toward Revolution

I’ve probably mentioned environmentalist and educator David Orr in other posts on another blog, but as I was scooting though my bookmarks looking for something else, I happened on an essay he wrote in 1991 for a special issue of In Context, A Quarterly of Humane Sustainable Culture, and reprinted online in 1996. Orr's article called "What is Education For? Six myths about the foundations of modern education and six new principles to replace them," and it appears in the the issue on The Learning Revolution: Education Innovations for Global Citizens. Although I don't agree with every author of every article, the issue provides interesting insights into the educational climate of the emerging global economy at the turn of the twenty-first century.

This is the situation the editors described seventeen years ago:

It takes only a glance at the newsstands to know that education is in deep trouble. In France, 250,000 students recently took to the streets to protest unsafe conditions and reduced education budgets. In the U.S., public schools in some parts of the country are being all but abandoned by those who can afford private alternatives. And around the world, education - preparing the next generation to lead productive and fulfilling lives - too often suffers from being on the short end of a dwindling resource stream.

Sound familiar? The editors then envisioned a revolution in learning that could meet the demands of a changing world; it wouldn't necessarily involve a huge economic investment in technology, but rather "a shift in the way we understand what it means to learn and to teach" and changes in "our ideas about learning."

The hope reflected in these articles, including Orr's, is palpable, and is grounded in a move away from long-held beliefs not only about education, but about economy in general. Education becomes not merely a means to becoming rich and famous, but toward something much more important and (the essays suggest) fulfilling.

But learning for what? We are already far too skilled in exploiting the Earth for human ends, yet we are still terribly ignorant about the real basics of life - how to live sustainably on this planet, and in peace with each other. So whether you consider yourself an educator, a learner, or a concerned citizen, this issue is for you; for if the insights and technologies gathered here were put to the service of healing our societies and the planet's life systems, they would spark a revolution of enormous - and beautiful - proportions. We hope you'll participate in making that vision a reality.

Needless to say, the revolution never seems to have arrived. What Alan AtKisson describes in his introductory essay is still very much the case:

We are in a time when the destructive power of our ignorance is casting cold shadows across our knowledge - and the integrity of many species, cultures, and natural systems is being eclipsed in the process.

David Orr's response (from a commencement address he delivered in 1990) remains current, and his observations could have been taken from this morning's headlines:

The truth is that many things on which your future health and prosperity depend are in dire jeopardy: climate stability, the resilience and productivity of natural systems, the beauty of the natural world, and biological diversity.

Add to this a rapidly failing economy here in the United States (which promises to engulf much of the rest of the world unless it's properly addressed), and then make note, as Orr does, of the fact that these crises were not effected by uneducated people. The environmental and economic "challenges" (to use a word popular in educational circles today) have been wrought by a particular kind of ignorance against which our current forms of education do not insulate us.

People actually seem to be twigging to the idea that book-learning is not in itself the sole source of experience and wisdom. I can't help but blame the popularity of self-proclaimed populists like John McCain and Sarah Palin (and even George Bush) on the perception that those ivory-tower elites have gotten us into this mess (even if they were Conservative elites, they were still from Yale and Harvard). Never mind that we've had eight years of folksy leadership from a guy who was elected in part because he was the kind of fella you'd like to have a beer with, and we're considerably worse off as a result. It's the perception that counts, and it dogs candidates like Harvard-grad Barack Obama, who gets advice from pundits to "dumb it down." (I actually heard a commentator suggest this on Hardball the other night.)

It is rather ironic that some of our problems are actually grounded in knowledge, or at least in our tendency to read philosophy uncritically. Orr points to Francis Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes as sources for our traditional separation of human beings from the natural world--and notes that these are the foundations of modern educational theory, "foundations now enshrined in myths we have come to accept without question." He goes on to discuss six: Ignorance is a solvable problem; with enough knowledge and technology we can manage planet Earth; knowledge is increasing and by implication human goodness; we can adequately restore that which we have dismantled; the purpose of education is that of giving you the means for upward mobility and success; and our culture represents the pinnacle of human achievement. His careful explication of each of these presumptions is worth reading and considering.

Even though the revolution he was advocating in the '90s still hasn't occurred nearly twenty years later doesn't mean that the solutions he poses aren't still possible or necessary. The six principles he considers as solutions include these: All education is environmental education; the goal of education is not mastery of subject matter, but of one's person (from the Greek notion of paideia); knowledge carries with it the responsibility to see that it is well used in the world; we cannot say that we know something until we understand the effects of this knowledge on real people and their communities; "minute particulars" and the power of examples over words are important (my variation on this principle is "you are what you do," and because we are by nature metaphor makers, example carries enormous weight); and the way learning occurs is as important as the content of particular courses.

I'm doing Orr an injustice by simply listing his problems and solutions. But I hope that by doing so, I will pique my readers' interest strongly enough for them to engage in a careful reading of his essay. And then, for homework, go on to read his book The Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture, and Human Intention. It's an education in itself.

Photo credit: The abandoned Granger elementary school in Tucumcari, New Mexico, by Wordbuilder. Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Education in the Kitchen

Sometimes parents seem to abandon common sense when it comes to feeding their children. In this country, for example, and in a growing number of developing countries throughout the world, breastfeeding is sadly not necessarily the first choice for feeding infants. In China, the increasing number of babies fed with formula has led to yet another food-contamination crisis--this time over formula tainted with melamine.

The inability to nurse a newborn is rare in cultures where breastfeeding is seen as appropriate, natural, and preferred, and where mothers have the unstinting support of their physicians, nurses, families, and communities. And while it's true that breastfeeding is on the rise in the United States, mothers still only nurse for a few months and are then anxious to wean their kids to solid foods, usually those promoted most heavily by Big Baby Food--even though breastfeeding exclusively for five months or so, and then very gradually introducing other foods, helps curb obesity and food allergies. (Statistics on the advantages, prevalence, and duration of breastfeeding in the U. S. are available through the Centers for Disease Control and through La Leche League International.)

What brought all this to mind, in addition to the increasingly alarming news from China, was an article in last Sunday's New York Times: Six Food Mistakes that Parents Make, by Tara Parker-Pope. In it she tells of a child whose preschool diet consisted of chocolate-laced "meals" of all varieties (just as some friends of ours once fed their daughter pizza almost exclusively)--because that's all he would eat. It turns out to be easier to feed your kids whatever they want in the interest of feeding them something rather than nothing.

Having picky eaters at all is, of course, a reflection of an affluent society with an overabundance of choices. Starving children eat anything they can; only the rich have children who demand chocolate for breakfast. But almost every parent experiences some degree of food-fussiness, and Parker-Hope's article is full of great suggestions on how to avoid conflicts.

Most of the advice is common sense, however, and if we were less concerned with just getting our kids to eat, and more concerned about what we're teaching them about the role of food in their lives, we'd probably have healthier, less demanding children. Of course, they'd have less fun manipulating their parents, too--but I think it would be far more enjoyable to interact with kids by teaching them how to choose and prepare foods wisely than by trying to force them into patterns that can lead to decidedly unhealthful ways of viewing food in general.

For example, kids--like all human beings--are metaphor makers. If we tell them to eat one way, but eat another ourselves, they arrive at an inevitable conclusion: my mother's a liar. By following the diet du jour, but insisting that our children eat something different (a more "balanced" meal while we have at the Atkins packaged dinners), we're falling into the old "do what I say, not what I do" trap, which has no consequence other than to make parents look as if they have no control over themselves.

My own biggest mistake was not being more generous in the kitchen; I tended to see it as my own domain, and seldom encouraged my kids to cook with me. Another was to follow a highly restricted diet, albeit for ethical and religious reasons. While my children were growing up I was a vegetarian; not only that, I kept a Kosher home, which further restricted the types of cheese and other products I bought for home consumption. I did have the good sense to pretty much let the children eat whatever they wanted outside of the house, but I knew the jig was up when they started hanging over the meat counter at the grocery store, drooling longingly over the steaks.

The compromise was happy chickens. I had abstained from meat not because I thought there was something morally wrong with eating it, but because I couldn't take the responsibility for killing it myself and therefore thought I had no right to eat it. The Kosher part was for community; I wanted any friends of any degree of Jewishness (or Gentility, as it were) to be able to eat at my table. Eventually, however, I realized that I could serve cold vegetable meals on glass plates to my Orthodox friends, and buy organic, free-range meat without suffering too much guilt. By that time, however, my children's habits were firmly in place, and I'll have to wait for grandchildren in order to do it right.

But anyone with small children can use mealtime as a teaching and learning experience, and not just about food. Maths can be taught through baking; history and geography can sneak into a meal based on a particular ethnic cuisine; even films and literature can provide foundations for a meal--through books like The Joyce of Cooking, the Nero Wolfe Cookbook, and It Came From the Kitchen. Art history's a natural: try constructing a meal based on a painting, or dive into recipes from one of the many artists who loved food: Vincent van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Claude Monet.

Common-sense eating can easily become part of a natural education: from the growing of food to understanding its history and culture. For background, parents can consult websites like The Food Timeline, Betty Fussel's, The Story of Corn, H. E. Jacob's Six Thousand Years of Bread. And then there are the likes of The Philosopher's Kitchen (Recipes from Ancient Greece and Rome for the Modern Cook) by Francine Segan (who also wrote Movie Menus and Shakespeare's Kitchen), Jean Bottéro's The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia, and James Davidson's Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (the link to the latter is to its first chapter). Simply having books like these on the shelves of one's house can prompt discussions about food, history, nutrition, culture, science, and any number of topics among parents and children.

Parker-Pope notes in her article that the more kids are involved in food preparation, the more likely they are to eat what they make, not only at home, but elsewhere. I can't think of a more powerful schoolroom, in fact, than a kitchen in which children are welcome, and a garden in which children help to grow what they eat. Home-schoolers have a wonderful opportunity to integrate all manner of learning while simply caring for home and hearth; but even kids in traditional schools can reap enormous benefits from being included in meal-planning and preparation, and from accompanying their parents to grocery stores and/or farmer's markets to help select the food they'll eventually eat.

As it turns out, cooking and eating provide not only the basic framework for survival in the world, but for learning about it as well. Think of how much smarter we'd all be if we actually mastered the skills necessary to plant, harvest, prepare, and cook most of what we eat--just like our pioneer ancestors had to. Sharing food among family and friends grounds community, and offers a deeply resonant metaphor for living, teaching, and learning well.

Images: A Helping Hand, by Eugen von Blaas, 1884; Mary Cassatt, Maternité, 1890. Both from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Learning Posts from Owl's Farm

Before I decided that I needed a separate blog on teaching and learning, I posted frequently on education at my first blog, Owl's Farm. Since its inception a little over a year ago, its focus has shifted from being primarily on William Morris, to being primarily on the ideas associated with what geographer Yi-Fu Tuan calls topophilia, or love of place, and on philosophical considerations regarding place and home. And although my interest in education is tangentially related to where I was born and how I was brought up, I finally decided to create a blog devoted entirely to the process of learning in and about the world.

And so, in order to avoid repeating myself too much (a tendency toward repetition is an unfortunate consequence of aging), I thought it might be helpful to post links to my educational remarks from the Farm, with small glosses on what they were about. In that way, both I and my readers can refer back to them if necessary, and they're all tidy and handily available, in chronological order.

Dismantling the Boy Farms (26 June 2007): a riff on William Morris's philosophy of education, grounded in his own experience at Marlborough.

Paying Attention
(15 September 2007): something of a rant on the inappropriate and/or expedient use of technology in the classroom.

The Assessment Obsession (23 December 2007): the first of several ruminations on the current trend in education to teach to the test, focus on assessment rather than content, and related issues.

Surviving Plutopia (22 April 2008): an Earth Day reflection on current conditions. I go off on several points here--including Philip Pullman's view of education.

Building a Better Schoolhouse (2 May 2008): inspired by the community-based education movement in England, which provides a preferable alternative to "No Child Left Behind."

The Age of Endarkenment (2 June 2008): a lament about the lack of curiosity among our young, and the growing lack of interest in knowing much.

The next couple of months were taken up by house-recycling efforts, but during that time the idea for The Owl of Athena started brewing and I eventually began to channel my educational musings over here. So far the feedback has been helpful, but I do hope to get more students involved, and direct the conversation toward the comments section of the blog, rather than casual conversations in the hallways.

The educational world is changing, both locally and globally, and I'm looking forward (and not always quaking in my boots) to seeing what happens over the next few months. It should be, as they say in China, interesting.

Images: A Roman relief of a school, and a woodcut from the title page of Wenceslaus Brack: Vocabularius rerum, 1487. Both from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Telling and Doing

While reading Gary Snyder's book of essays, A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds (1995), I happened on one called "Amazing Grace," in which he talks about two kinds of learning: hearsay and experience.

The essay was originally written as the preface for Donald Philippi's translation of Songs of Gods, Songs of Humans: The Epic Tradition of the Ainu (an aboriginal tribe in Japan). Snyder's primarily interested in the role of the oral tradition in preliterate societies, noting that it is "not memorized but remembered" (his emphasis) and thus that

. . . every telling is fresh and new, as the teller's mind's eye re-views the imagery of origins or journeys or loves or hunts. Themes and formulas are repeated as part of an ever-changing tapestry composed of both the familiar and the novel. Direct experience, generation by generation, feeds back into the tale told.

This "together hearing" partakes of both aspects of learning, bringing hearsay into the realm of experience, in the context of the group of listeners.

Of course, in many such societies, myth and "actuality" also meld, so that "myth" doesn't mean "lie" as it does in the technologized West. It's part of experience in that it helps a people understand who they are, how they became, and how they are related to the space they occupy. The process is, in fact, far more intellectually challenging, I think, than the kind of rote learning we teach our kids: memorize "facts" out of "textbooks" removed from history and experience and unrelated to what we do, except by some theoretical thread that asserts: "You'll need this in the real world."

In fact, mythically grounded people often seem to be much more learned about their environments and their traditions than we in the ultra-modern world are. I frequently ask my students how many of them could survive for two weeks in the wild, how many know anything about local flora, how many have ever seen the Milky Way or would recognize it if they did. Every time I ask, one or two answer positively, down from five or six a decade ago. While more of them seem to understand why we should recycle, and why fossil fuels are problematic, few of them understand the underlying problems themselves very deeply. Throwing plastic bottles into a recycle bin, and turning thermostats up in the summer and down in the winter are about as far as the real recognition goes.

Any education for the future must, therefore, involve re-familiarizing children (and all students) with the natural world. If we keep losing the connection--covering up experience with cloaks of synthetic fabrics or artificial heating and cooling--we lose one of our most important ways to learn. Not only that, but hearsay can't fill in the gaps, because the tellers have already removed themselves from first-hand experience. They've been driving cars and air conditioning their homes all their lives. One would hope that there have been a few camping experiences or walks on the beach, but in our increasingly urbanized and sub-urbanized environments, even those experiences are becoming less frequent.

One of my fondest memories when my son was young was a week-long stint as a counselor at an outdoor camp run by the school district. In order to make sure that he got to go, I volunteered to herd seven prepubescent boys through the week's activities, and to share a screened in cabin (open to all the elements but bugs) with them. For the entire time we walked everywhere, ate minimally prepared foods, picked apart owl pellets, swam in a lake, and learned about the prairie environment we all inhabit. There was more of it then, but the children came away with a much stronger physical sense of where they lived then. I hope it's still with them, as it is with me--but only a select few got to enjoy the experience, and I'm not sure it's still available to kids today.

Gas prices are currently limiting car travel, which in most cases is a good thing--but the situation is also driving more children into movie theaters and air-conditioned game rooms during the summers instead of allowing their parents to take them on camping trips or visits to national parks (like the one to Yellowstone I got to take with my grandparents when I was about seven). People's lives are now generally more crammed with work and scheduled activities as well, which diminishes the time kids can spend out of doors simply goofing off. And very few children have even the foggiest idea of where their food comes from, because they've never had a real garden--or if they did, it was filled with flowers and ornamental shrubs for reasons of property values.

I think this is why efforts like that of Alice Waters's Edible Schoolyard program are so encouraging. If more children are provided with opportunities for first-hand experience in learning vital skills and ways of living, they will encourage their parents to do so as well. Just as the neighborhood kids in my town are significantly responsible for increasing their folks' participation in local recycling efforts, kids who learn about food production and growing processes can help re-introduce their families to traditions and values that are falling by the way as we insulate ourselves more and more from the natural world.

There's even a neologism that covers the phenomenon: Nature Deficit Disorder. Gardening is a great remedy for the affliction, and I can't think of anywhere better to start than by looking into what Alice Waters is doing, and taking a look at the gardening-with-children segments of the Heirloom Gardner blog.

If our kids can gain experience in providing real basic needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, and community, they will learn more from acquiring the skills involved (such as soil preparation, cultivation, plant recognition, measuring and building, cooking, sewing) than they can from reading even the best textbooks in math and science. If they can learn to explore their own backyard environment, and spend some time looking at the night sky (both with the naked eye and with with tools such as binoculars and telescopes), they will be far richer than if some textbook author predigests the information for them and they have to spit facts back on a test.

Here's my homework assignment: invite Grandma or Grandpa or Great Aunt Matilda (or an elderly neighbor if you don't have grandparents handy) to dinner, and urge him or her to tell your children what it was like when they were little. Ask them what kinds of stories their parents told them, and what big events occurred when they were young. This probably won't work with your jaded teenagers, but the ten- and eleven-year-olds I shepherded through a week of outdoor learning were wide open for experiences and stories. There will never be a better time to start opening them up to different, more enriching possibilities.

And then, go out and plant a garden.

Image credits: John Everette Millais, The Boyhood of Raleigh, 1870 (Tate Museum). Raphael depiction of the original bard, Homer, from the Parnassus, in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican. Both from Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Home School Alternative

I've written a great deal over the years about education, and although I am by profession a college teacher, I am profoundly concerned about how young children are taught in this country. After having struggled through elementary and secondary schooling for my own children, and using band-aid solutions to the problems I didn't know enough to figure out how to solve then, I finally (in the '80s) discovered William Morris. I'd already encountered the legendary John Holt, and had suggested to my teenage daughter that she simply drop out of school and we'd get educated together, but she was already too well ensconced in the American high school experience to want to leave her friends "behind."

For the most part, though, she'd made her own way, even in high school. She didn't participate in any organized extra-curricular activities that I can remember, preferring instead to get a job and take responsibility for her own economic education. After a disastrous first semester in college, she quit to work at data entry and took courses part-time at a junior colleges until she had begun to build a career as a crackerjack administrative assistant for a home-building company's information technology division, and then decided to earn a BFA in interior design. I'm immeasurably proud of her, because her choices were all hers--not those of a system which seems to be designed to turn out mediocre workers in a consumer society.

If I had it to do all over again, I'd have schooled both of my kids at home. Although there are alternatives available (such as Montessori, and both of my children went to Montessori schools during their pre-public school days), they're usually very expensive and frequently have waiting lists. And as more and more wealthy parents discover the richness of these curricula, the population of these schools becomes more and more uniform: upper middle class and monochromatic.

Home-schooling has become the refuge of strongly religious parents who fear the corrupting influences of popular culture on their children, and I can't say that I blame them. I drove by a high school this week, where youngsters were gathering for orientation outside of a gym, and quite frankly it looked like a convention of underage hookers and their pimps. The girls were barely dressed (it is, after all, summer in Texas), and the boys were tricked out in very expensive jeans and rock-star shirts. A fleeting memory of school uniforms made me sigh, and I drove on.

But uniforms aren't the answer either. They offer an egalitarian solution to economic disparity in some school populations--but it didn't work in the Catholic school I went to. We purchased the material for our uniforms and had them made--and rich girls had deeper pleats (that didn't fall out and look scruffy halfway through the day) because their parents could afford extra fabric, or better tailors. Uniforms also promote a vaguely military sensibility, and perhaps they do limit the development of imagination. However, the girls I saw in front of the high school were each wearing slightly different versions of the same "uniform" anyway: tight jeans, skimpy baby-doll tops and multiple underwear straps, set off by a small variety of shoulder bag styles.

The United States seems to possess an almost schizophrenic notion of childhood. Young children need to be both over-stimulated and over-protected. "Young adults" need to be initiated into consumer culture and visually sexualized, but must also stay chaste until marriage. No wonder so many people want to pull the plug on public education and seek an alternative.

The good news is that with the development of the internet and the proliferation of excellent educational websites, coupled with growing educational opportunities in public institutions, parents have a raft of resources available to them. It's quite possible for well-educated parents to develop their own curricula and augment them with informal classes in art museums and nature centers. Many regional museums have also developed educational websites with suggested activities and, occasionally online courses. Universities like MIT are making college courseware available online, and bright kids everywhere seem to be taking advantage of it.

Parents who are less well-prepared to create their own lessons can now take advantage of a multitude of curricula available through growing home-school networks and websites. Some of these have a decidedly limited framework, but many encourage the kind of wide-ranging exploration that highly creative parents seek.

Children who stay home also have time to engage in the most educational activity of all: reading. Combined with regular physical activity out of doors, such as nature hikes and gardening, home-schoolers can learn the way our ancestors did. Not constrained by standardized tests that stifle creativity, home-schoolers have the opportunity to learn art and music, to explore the nature of mathematics instead of engaging in the rote memorization of formulas. If kids don't have to spend half their day going to and from school and to and from classes within the school building, they can read, or learn about germinating seeds, or create a blog (!), or practice the piano--or choose from any number of activities that will educate them far better than sitting in a classroom with thirty other children, preparing for a high-stakes exam that will teach them exactly nothing except how to memorize information without having digested it properly first.

One of the main arguments against home-schooling is that kids won't get properly socialized. My response to that is socialized into what? Early sexualization? Rabid consumerism? Classism? Racism? Bullying?

In the nineteenth century, William Morris decried the institutionalism of British public (i.e. private) education, and the degeneration of boarding schools into "boy farms." We haven't come much further than that in our public schools, where kids are squeezed into patterns of expectation, and are "educated" primarily by their peers. Do we really want our country to be led eventually by a generation who spent their school years penned into a room with a single adult as a model? Why not teach our children by example? They can surely be better socialized by spending high-quality time interacting with intelligent adults, rather than letting their chums "teach" them about birds, bees, life, the universe, and everything.

My own childhood was hardly idyllic, but my fondest memories involve large amounts of time spent with my parents and their friends. Being taken to the Foreign Correspondents Club in Taipei for lunch, or accompanying a group of adults to a local lake for a day of swimming and conversation were common occurrences, and taught me that adults really do enjoy conversing with children who have grown up being treated like reasonable human beings. And when we weren't interacting with adults, my brother and I had the opportunity to explore our surroundings on our own; when we were really stumped for something to do, we'd put on elaborate plays and pretend to be everything from Arthurian knights to samurais to children in Enid Blyton stories. Of course, we could only do these things because we'd read the books that gave us the ideas in the first place. Perhaps the best part of our growing up is that we didn't have access to television until we were teenagers. Now, there's an idea . . . .

And so, for my friends Sheryl and Jenny, who have been or are beginning to home-school their children, you have my deepest admiration for your imagination and your courage. You give me hope when there frequently seems little to be hopeful about. And for you I'll continue to post information and resources on home schooling when I find them in my own unending search for ways to develop a truly humane (and human) way to help our children survive difficult times and craft a better future.

Image credits: James Tissot, "A Little Nimrod," and a little girl reading by Jessie Wilcox Smith, both from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Assessing Assessment

I was preoccupied last week with helping to fight fires at school, lit by the departure of not one but two academic directors, and the chaos of a fairly new phenomenon: what's called a "mid-quarter start," in which new students enter the program and take a couple of classes twice a week for five weeks. Two hundred newbies descended into our hallowed halls, causing overflows in the already-packed parking garage, as well as disconcerting room changes. In all fairness, I don't think anybody expected 200 people to take advantage of the opportunity to enter at mid-term. But the problem's exacerbated by the necessity of sharing our facilities with another college in the corporation's stable. Things should get better when they get their own building (Somewhere Else, we sigh, collectively). The new students, though, seem to be dealing well with the confusion, and the "old" ones have grumbled but gone on with their work. We are, on the whole, an adaptable lot.

In the meantime, we're halfway through the normal quarter, and chest-high in assessment activities, both institutional and pedagogical. The institutional part seems to be going along swimmingly, as we streamline our process and as the various components of the school get used to it and learn how to hold up their end. In the classroom, however, I'm in the midst of a struggle between numbers and ideas.

How do I determine if or how well my students are grasping the information and ideas I'm presenting in class? A few years ago, as my classes grew in size and my level-two students were clearly not absorbing the material we covered in the level-one class, I began (reluctantly) to test them. I'd much better ask for design projects that test their ability to apply principles to real-world problems, but they ended up only learning what they needed for a given project.

My initial exams were really tough, and resulted more in abject terror than in real learning (even though I weighed exam grades very lightly in the end). So I decided to couple my insistence that students maintain workbooks of images and notes with exams both at midterm and at the end of the quarter. Here the results were much more satisfactory, especially since I allowed them to use their workbooks to take exams and tied their scores together: what you get on the exam is what you get on the workbook, since the exam is only going to be as good as the workbook.

For a fair amount of time, this seemed to work. Students diligently inserted images into "image lists"--pre-printed forms that list basic information about each work we view, with space for a sketch or a picture of the object, and another space for notes. To help them out, I link every image I show in class to a source on the web. Try as I might, I can't get most of my students (who are already paying a premium to attend the school in the first place) to plunk down $130 for a survey textbook and another $90 on a history of graphic design. So I maintain a course website with resources to help them locate the images and additional information--and to show them what reliable information on the web looks like.

As I said, this worked for a while. But lately I've noticed that some students are blowing off completing the workbooks, imagining (on what evidence I can't imagine) that they'll remember all the images and information and be able to take the test without engaging in the process I designed to help them absorb what they need. No amount of describing my own experience in art history classes (or descriptions of having to walk to class nine miles uphill in the snow) seem to be persuasive enough to get them to accomplish the task independently.

And so I am instituting a separate workbook grade, based on completion of the slide lists, to be assessed after each exam, at least in the first-level course. I'm doing this in direct response to an observed phenomenon with clearly apparent impact on the quality of learning that takes place in my classroom.

Why am I telling you all this? Isn't this what we always do? My answer to both of these questions is that this is an example of the kind of assessment most teachers automatically do. We don't need statistics to tell us when things are going badly or well. But the Assessment Regime (I'm borrowing this term from a dean at a local community college) maintains that without numbers, we have no way of tracking whether or not our students attain measurable outcomes. This assumption is, of course, poppycock--except to those who seem to have spent so little time in the classroom that they really do not understand how it works, or who have focused almost exclusively on theory without much in the way of practice.

I'm not saying that all teachers, just by being teachers, are capable of this kind of reflective assessment (which is what I've begun to call it). It takes practice and experience--but it can be taught by example (and every teacher needs to spend time with a mentor, or have good models to emulate). But being able to realize when students are not learning as well as they should be is a basic qualification for teaching. Anyone who can't see or who ignores signs of trouble shouldn't be a teacher in the first place.

I'll continue this topic later, and pose some further questions about effective ways of gaging student success (another phrase that's become a buzzword) that don't involve their taking standardized, one-size-fits-all exams. But I wanted to inject this particular notion into the conversation: that good teaching requires a kind of internalized thermostat capable of setting off alarms when negative change occurs, and that alerts us when a particular stratagem works especially well. It may not be measurable in any quantitative way at all, except that it's grounded in carefully designed parameters of success and failure, such as in an outcome rubric that indicates expectations and outlines the means of accomplishing goals.

We are only wise, Plato taught, when we recognize the limits of our own understanding. Knowledge requires lifelong learning, the continuing use of what we learn at any given point. Assessment needs to be processual--not marking particular achievements at particular points, but rather establishing the ground for ongoing, complex learning. If my students leave my classes with a basic vocabulary and a foundational set of critical skills, I don't really care if they remember the exact date on which Pablo Picasso finished the Demoiselles d'Avignon. But they'd bloody well better remember how important that painting was to the future of art, and what made it possible for Picasso to paint it in the first place. How does one test something like that on a multiple choice or a true/false exam?

Image credit: Detail of Raphael's School of Athens in the Stanza della Segnatura of the papal apartments in the Vatican, featuring Plato (left) and Aristotle, two of the first educational theorists, both of whom were quite good at the practice of teaching as well--judging from their students. Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, August 23, 2008


I know now why some people have more than one blog. I've had two going for a few months (one of which is a bit over a year old), but as we get used to writing down and organizing our thoughts (so as not to simply spout), it becomes apparent that these thoughts often occur in categories: life, the universe, everything, etc.

So I've decided to make a blog out of a third category: my working life. I am by vocation, if not simply by accident, a teacher. I once wanted to teach middle school earth and life sciences, but I realized early on that I would not be able to put up with public school bureaucracies, as much as I admired the possibilities and underlying purpose of public schools. In some of my graduate education classes I also ran into people who were entering my field (I was focusing on environmental science at the time) only because they needed to teach a class or two in order to coach. Now, I've got absolutely nothing against coaches, being married to someone who coaches part time because he loves tennis at least as much as he enjoys philosophy. But I am firmly convinced that truly good teachers teach what they know best and for which they harbor a genuine passion. Teaching history only to be able to coach football is, therefore, problematic; but most of us have grown up having been taught economics or biology or history by somebody who would really rather have been out at the pool blowing a whistle and training a future Michael Phelps. Perhaps this helps explain the gradual decline in interest in the liberal arts among today's young folk. At any rate, I ended up abandoning the idea of teaching pre-pubescent teenagers for a career in the education of their future selves.

And here I've been for the last twenty or so years. The experience has proven both rewarding and exasperating, and I currently share it with students and colleagues I admire and respect. So this blog is for them. In it I'll expound my pedagogical philosophy, my anxieties about the future of education and the future of the generation(s) I'm currently teaching. I'll probably even rant about the ambiguities of proprietary education, the politics of teaching in a troubled and changing world, the angst brought on by the current preoccupation with assessment. It will be unfailingly honest because I'm too old to be worried about ruffling anybody's feathers. But neither will I attack unfairly, accuse without reason, or complain without offering alternatives. Part of what I teach is logic, and I promise to present only cogent arguments.

I will herein share ideas about how to learn, think, and write well, the importance of curiosity to creativity, the necessity of knowing something about the past, and the joy of discovering the new and unexpected. I welcome comments and input from colleagues and students; perhaps in time we can expand the blog into a community of contributors.

I reserve the right to moderate comments and ask for revisions when I think an observation needs further reflection. I will not post comments that ignore grammar, syntax, or spelling conventions--although I'll be happy to help anyone compose a comment he or she would like to make. Please do not let my own vocabulary or writing style intimidate you (as has happened to some of my students who've wanted to respond to my other blogs). It's just that I've been writing for over fifty years, and grew up in a vastly different world than that of either my students or my own children--who are now older than most of my students and some of my colleagues.

Those of you who join the conversation are welcome to discuss any of this with me in person if you're located within the architectural framework of a certain more-or-less International Style building in north Dallas. But to everyone who happens upon The Owl of Athena, welcome.

Photo credit: The image began with a Flickr photo by Juicystyle of Cape Sounion in Greece, showing the temple of Poseidon at dusk.