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.