Checking In with more Brain Writing


Science continues to apply its trade to how we think.  I am not entirely on board, but the results provide plenty to think about, such as this article:


It is More Real than Real

I am losing touch with my students.  Perhaps every fifty something teacher goes through this, but on this blog, all that matters is what I am going through, right?  Anyway, I am losing touch with my students who are losing touch with reality.  In contemplating what goes on in theater almost a hundred years ago now, the French playwright, Antonin Artaud coined a somewhat odd phrase that is now an assumption in my student’s minds.  He said that when a play works, it brings us into (using his French) la realite virtuelle, or as we say it all the time in English these days, Virtual Reality.

A play is supposed to seem as if it is really happening even though we, the audience, feel ourselves in the seats of the theatre, see the stage and curtains, and can usually perceive that those are merely players on the stage.  Nonetheless, if done right, we cringe, laugh, smile, and “ah” at all the right moments because we are virtually in the play’s reality.  My student rarely leave the theater these days.

Of course I am fussing about those screens.  My school forbids them to use their phones except at lunch (which seems to heighten their sense of addiction to them), while instead steering them to the 60″ screen in the classroom (there are three of them in our lunch room!) and the 10″ screen on their iPad.  I am not trying to undo all this technology, but I do see the results.  Most of my students feel more alive in virtual reality than in real life.  Their bodies come to a complete stand still while their online presence flits about at lightning speed.

This presses the student to have to sort out what is real and what is not.  In a conventional theatre, that is not too hard, because the play comes to an end, the lights come up, and out we walk.  But VR today wants us to stay.  It is profitable to the makers of the VR that we stay all day, and on into the night; forever if possible.  It ensures their advertising dollars, fees, subscriptions, etc. keep flowing in.  Sure, they have to update it to keep the experience fresh, but that is the point, right?  Real life does not update on our terms and with focus group determined improvements.  The closest thing to such updates we get real life are real changes: circumstances actually change and we cannot reverse the flow.  In VR, there is always some type of reset.

The sad fact is that most of my students like their virtual selves more than their real selves.  So what is there to be done?  I find pushing one form of VR against another can work.  The virtual realities of the Homeric world, or Virgil, or Dante, or Shakespeare, or even Harry Potter provide a differing kind of reality than what the student is faced with daily.  These texts, if entered into, demonstrate what is common to all men, what is unique about the text’s world (and thereby pointing out the oddities of our own current world as well), and most powerfully, what it means to live in the real world.  I think a lot of what should be dealt with in education these days is helping our students compare reality to all the various forms of VR that are out there, and helping them see that only real Reality is worth living.  We have to be the voice that keeps talking truth to them while they find their way out of the virtual maze.

Negative Gold

Morals are a normative concept highly affected by the groupthink of society.  At least that is how I am seeing it from within my current classroom experience.  Students, parents, and teachers all think (sometimes out loud, sometimes privately, sometimes together) about morals whenever education is truly happening.  The consideration of “ought” and “should” are vital to the forming of a wise and virtuous soul.  But the American democratic spirit is such that we really don’t want to be all alone in a room thinking about these things, but seeking to find out what the consensus on morality is around us.

Alright, enough high fallutin’ philosophy.  One clear change in my experience from when I was a student in the classroom up to today as teacher is the growing absence of the negative.  Most notably is the scarcity of the word, “no.”  Let give an example to hopefully spell out what I am seeing.  Students are given a clear assignment and then need time to work on it.  We do a lot of writing in my world.  Along with the assignment is the clear direction, “You all should be thinking about your own thoughts here.  So ‘no talking.'”  In my mind as teacher, “no talking” rules out any talking.  But not to the average high school student today.

Some hear in this instruction that the teacher would like it if everyone kept it down to the dull roar, but no talking surely does not apply to me because what I have to say is important.  Others believe that I mean they should not talk to me, which is fine because they were going to ignore me anyway.  The slightly more adept group believe this means talk quietly, because whispering is not the same as talking.  Along this line are those who talk here and there, but only when they have a really good reason.  All of this, to me, misses the main term in the instruction, “no.”  And now I am back to my philosophical spot:  I have to believe that society is raising parents, and thus children, who are deaf to the negative.  All we want to hear is positive, so we ignore anyone uncouth enough to speak a negative in our direction.  “No” is just a feeling, a way some people vent.  It has no existential meaning.  I am sorry, but no, this is not correct.

I have made up my mind to be more negative.  Not because I am old and cantankerous, but because I wish to push back against the false notion that life is one long “yes.”  You mean it isn’t?  No, my friend, no.


Object-Oriented Coding and the Classroom


Many a conversation just seems to happen at the wrong moment.  Right when a dozen things are converging on my mental space ruled by the panic monkey, in walks this great discussion and I have to scramble to make room for it.  But often as not, when I do, I learn something seminal to everything else.  So today I took on a brief discussion of why size changes everything, that morphed into a discussion of scalability, and then into my introduction into object-oriented computer programming.  I suggest that a few minutes with this article will be of help in what I have to say after.

Many of the things I see going awry in my own teaching or in education at large seem to be issues of scalability.  What works at one size or form of education, falls apart in another context.  Getting one computer to consistently do your bidding is comparatively easy to getting a building full of them working right.  If programming is just 1’s and 0’s, why are most IT guys bald?  Why, if it was a homerun in Class A did it fail in another class?  Not everything, mind you, is explained by the scale, but the issue of size is important enough to think about.

In object-oriented coding, a programmer sets up his program so as to run in the same way, whether it is one or many.  At whatever size of operation, the program behaves in a such a way as to avoid conflicts mounting as it gets larger.  I think the classroom teacher must work in much the same way.  I think this is why the seven liberal arts are so important.  When I am teaching from a place focused on these seven arts, which all learners need at every level of education, then no matter the age of the student or the size of the class, we are headed for success.  When I get distracted by new ideas, or my own thoughts, or the one hundred and one other distractions that can pull a class away from these seminal arts, we start to have conflicts and frustration.

If the programming is done right, size does not matter.  If the lesson plan is sound, the students will benefit.  I am not sure where all this will head in my mind, but that is what pushed itself into my day.  Have fun thinking about computer coding! (Hey, CC, did I get this discussion down right?)Coding-and-Children

From Idea to Act

All teaching implies that the learner is moving from thought to action.

No human finds rational contentment in simply knowing facts. The simple individual fact begs us to connect it with other facts. So there is a movement implied in the act of teaching. We go from learning, to understanding, to acting wisely based on the understanding we have gained from our knowledge.

The arts and sciences (review what I mean by these terms here) are related in that no matter what we learn, we see movement inherent in the act of teaching, or learning. We seek to act upon what we know. It is the confused impetus to the common classroom question, “When am I ever going to use this stuff.”  I won’t be hard and fast with it, but I might guess that the student is asking because the teacher has been less than clear about how what they are studying is related to living a good life.

Everything we know about the physical world implies a moral response. If two and two are four, how should I live? If geckos eat bugs, how can I live more wisely in this world? Only when all four sciences are operative can I truly determine how to then act, and only when I have the necessary abilities to seek the truth can I hope to find it.  I would thus insist that gaining facility in the seven liberal arts is way more important than gaining any amount of familiarity with a given science.  Let me step one more step out on the ledge and say that no real grasp of any of the sciences is possible apart from some ability in the liberal arts.

And this brings us back to my singular point: by gaining the ability to be free (from the liberal arts) or gaining any knowledge (in any of the sciences by my right use of the liberal arts), I am naturally, almost without thought, moving toward some act on my part.  I don’t think you really know anything if it is not moving you to do something based upon that knowledge.  Let the discussion begin.

Coming Attractions (or…Can I Get Some Followers, Please)

I take a moment to warn those who read my teaching blog that a friend and I are taking to the podcast world very soon.  Jason Dulworth and myself are going live with Backporch Education Podcast on Tuesday, September 4th.  You can learn more about this enterprise either at our website or on Facebook.  Here are the links (hope you will decide to give us a listen and then follow us).


Facebook: @backporched

Getting to the Core of the Problem

I am standing on the outside looking in, but it seems to me, from what I have read and heard, that Common Core has a number of reasons for being brought into existence.

A) New is always better – the Progressive spirit still dominates education, as it has for over a century now. Though its jettisoning of tried and true methods and ideas has killed education, it still declaims that the latest idea will fix the problems its ideology has made for itself.

B) Confusion of Science and Art – I won’t rehash the article linked in the title to this point, but Common Core wants to solve the issues caused by leaving the Liberal Arts (which focus on word and number) behind and making everything into a discrete set of information (a science, by definition). In its own literature, this compulsion is clear: they don’t want kids learning about math, they want them to become mathematicians.

C) Catching up means running differently – this is an old fallacy, but a persistent one. If US students are behind in math, we need to teach math (or English) differently. And this means reinventing, never going back to earlier ideas (even though I will contend that the goals of CC are very similar to older goals from the past).

D) Control is necessary for real reform – if there is a problem with education, the post modern mind says that centralization is the only way to fix it. At its core, CC is about control of American education. Show where I am wrong, but that is clear from its behavior.  The desire these days to bring everything to some global standard is misguided and wrong.  It can’t be done.  It hurt the very students it is trying help.

If the above is true, then what am I to make of Common Core?  Again, I am outside looking in, but more and more I feel the pressure to adopt, conform, get with the program.  Every aspect of professional education is applying this pressure: textbooks, journals, teacher training, the marketing of education, etc.

I don’t have a lot of specific answers, but I think seeing American educational theory as divided into three parts, rather than two, might help.  Typically when I talk about US ed history we talk about traditional vs new, or pre-progressive and post.  But I don’t think that is true any longer. Here is how I am seeing it now:

Pre-1850 America only educated about 10% of its youth formally outside the home.  That highly aristocratic education was almost purely the European model, handed down from the Greek, Roman, Medieval form of Western education.  I would call it Classical.

As the Enlightenment birthed a new mind and America became industrialized, Progressivism came to the forefront of educational ideals, and this was molded along Prussian practice.  The German model has held sway up until recent times, maybe the early 1980’s.

The current model is another major paradigm shift.  It no longer pulls from what other nations are doing directly, but rather seeks to approach the art of teaching scientifically.  It is the Data model.  Common Core is its biggest baby yet.  There will be larger ones before it falls apart.  In the end, data does not offer solutions, it only offers numbers to be manipulated.

If we are trying to get students to become better thinkers, better users of language and number, than we need to bring them to the unity and harmony of thought best cultivated by the Liberal Arts.  Making every kid a mathematician, or author, or anything is not an education that liberates.  Rather it molds them into what the system wants them to be.  To keep America “on top” is not a good enough goal.  To be able to control what goes on in every school is great for those who make money through the control, but lousy for students seeking to become free and educated people.  We should move toward robust generalizations not data driven specifics.

Other thoughts on Common Core from my blog can be found here, and here, and here.