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.

My Teacher Hates Me

I just listened to a former student of mine being interviewed on a podcast.  She is brilliant and talented biophysicist (all because she had me as a teacher in middle school, of course) and the interviewer got her talking about her college experience.  The former student related two types of teacher experience.  One teacher worked with her over a long period of time to help her grasp the subject, encouraging her and telling her she could get it with hard work.  The other professor suggested the student quit and try something else.  I was reminded again of how powerful the relationship between students and their teacher is, for good or ill.

I regularly hear this discussed in professional education.  The argument seems to center on what a teacher should be doing to ensure that he is rightly relating to his students.  Of course, administration wants students beating down the doors to be in all the teacher’s classes, but that is a false expectation.  A school, as a community, reflects all community.  It is not built well by following the feelings of the moment.  It is a formally structured place of trust.  I don’t trust a teacher because she is really cool, or gives me French fries (true anecdote), or her class is easy.  I trust her because she is just, honest, and obviously cares about me.

But our society does not teach this kind of trust.  It rather emphasizes what I will call “pop community.”  Our narcissist and consumerist society trains us to care only about now, not later.  A good teacher is future oriented.  What the student will need in the future is way more important than momentary feelings of fun and happiness.  I don’t deny how much fun you can have while pursuing great education, but the learning provides the fun, not vice versa.  And sometimes the difficulty of what is being done does not feel very good at that moment.  Education is a study in delayed gratification, and that idea is just un-American these days.

Pop community is unable to maintain the formal structures true community demands.  In pop community, it is the next “high” that is being sought.  Ordinary is tantamount to boring, and boring is the greatest sin of post-modernism.  The perfect indicator for this issue is the daily question, “Are we doing anything fun in class today, teach?”  My reply is normally, “Yes!  We are going to learn.”  The moans follow.  And yet, and yet, usually years later, but sometimes not that long, the student returns to say, “I hated that while we were doing it, but it has proved so helpful since.  Thank you for making me do what I did not want to do.”  Real community has leadership (in schools, teachers) who constantly direct the members (students) toward the future.  And this can’t just be in practical terms, because school is about life, morals, eternity, etc.  But why are formal structures necessary?

Problems are ubiquitous.  Students face them every day, just like their parents and teachers.  If Mr. Smith has a problem with teaching, he seeks counsel from his principal or department chair or office mate.  Dad isn’t sure how to handle something, he knows who in the community to talk to: Mom, boss, pastor, lawyer, etc.  But teens have it tough.  They have come recently to see that all people are flawed, and thus they have a crisis of trust.  So they are just learning how to rightly judge who they can trust.  Structure in community should help guide this.  If they have an issue about college, they should go to the college counselor.  If they have a spiritual issue, they take it to the priest.  If they are struggling in class, they should go to the teacher.  Ah, but there is the rub.  If their criteria for judging who they can trust is based on feelings (who makes me feel good, secure, cared for) then a teacher whose subject is difficult can often seem daunting.  They may even believe that because they are doing poorly, the teacher “hates them.”  People who love them do everything they can to make them feel good, right?  If the students have been trained to judge in this way, the teacher really is in a tight spot.

The problem, as I see it, is that we live in an informal place.  Folks, and especially kids, don’t think formally about where to go.  If they have a problem, the whole world should care and every adult will hear about it.  The first one to actually listen becomes my counselor, at least for that issue.  Many schools seek to formalize by establishing assigned counselors, advisers, group leaders, lunch buddies, etc..  But I don’t think relationships are systemic.  The art of teacher/student relations is just that, an art.  I think it is more caught than assigned.

The Greeks boiled all this down to three qualities that when embodied in a good person produce a wise counselor.  For a teacher do have good relationships with his students, he must evidence logos, pathos, and ethos.  The logos is a strong sense of what is logical, the ability to think through problems and given good advice.  Pathos is the emotional feel for what is needed, the ability to listen and then analyze and synthesize the situation while putting the student at ease.  And ethos, which I think is the key, is the character of the counselor.  Because the student has seen the teacher behave in a trustworthy and just manner, they know they can trust them.

This could go on and on.  I will end it for now with an anecdote.  One of my own sons once declared his current teacher hated him.  He was set back a little when I asked him to prove it.  “Well, Dad, I can just tell.”  “Great, what are ‘tells’ you are referencing?”  “Huh?”  “What has the teacher done that shows he hates you?” The ensuing discussion led us through several things, including difficult assignments, some instances of injustice, and few specific moments of what eventually were shown to be misunderstandings.  I think he learned some real lessons once we got to the point that trusting the truth enough to talk about issues meant that he could solve the issue, rather than building it up into drama that leads to bigger problems.  Our society rarely teaches kids to really talk to the source; it promotes the deception that gossip is better than conversation.

I Beg to Differ…

A Look at the Modern Notions of Differentiated Curriculum and Instruction

I wish there were easy answers to educational problems.  But such panaceas (for that is usually what easy answers are), while often served up in journals and websites, usually fail in practice.  When one human seeks to teach another, complexities abound.  But maybe not as many problems exist as we are wont to create. Modern educational parlance bandies about theories regarding the unique differences of each student.  This is the modern franchise in education called, “differentiation.”  The call is for every teacher to meet every student “where they are.”  On the surface, this is sound advice.  Trying to meet someone where they are not is frustrating to say the least.

In this blog post I am going to try and limit myself to highlight the questions and concepts behind this large discussion.  This does not purport to be an in-depth look at the issue.  But I find in my own educational journey that the concept cannot be avoided, so some conversation maybe helpful.  I will limit my overview to the problem, the proposed solution of “differentiation” and how it can be seen both in a macro and micro form.

Differentiation in education has been defined by one its main advocates as:

“…a teacher’s reacting responsively to a learner’s needs. A teacher who is differentiating understands a student’s needs to express humor, or work with a group, or have additional teaching on a particular skill, or delve more deeply into a particular topic, or have guided help with a reading passage—and the teacher responds actively and positively to that need. Differentiation is simply attending to the learning needs of a particular student or small group of students rather than the more typical pattern of teaching the class as though all individuals in it were basically alike.”[i]

This concept came from within the Progressive educational reforms of Constructivism.  Amy Benjamin noted this in her early work on this concept:

“The theory that guides differentiation is constructivism: the belief that learning happens when the learner makes meaning out of information. That may sound too self-evident to deserve mention. Of course, learning involves making meaning out of information. What else would learning involve? Well, if you’ve ever seen a kid memorize definitions for a list of “vocabulary words” without having the slightest idea of, nor any intention of learning, how to use those words in context, then you know what learning is not: We do not know the meaning of a word, the significance of a historical event, or the applications of a math process just because we have memorized a set of words.”[ii]

Every educational act comes from some philosophical conclusion, implicit or explicit.  Of course, every teacher wants to every student to understand what is being taught.  But just how different is every learner?  The old discussion in Western Civilization about the nature of the One and the Many is really what is being considered in this specific theory.  Is every student so unique that no generalizations are helpful?  Should all students be held up to universal standards of the True, Good, and Beautiful (the notion of One ultimate standard), or should they each be taught to be so unique as to constitute a loose collection of individuals (the notion of the Many)?  Let us not fall for a bifurcation here, because the wisest course of action seems to be both.

If education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue, which it is, then the pursuit of true wisdom and virtue has both a unifying (harmonizing) principle to it, as well as one that ennobles the individual as a person, unique and singular even as he is a part of humanity.  The traditional approach has been to preserve the best of the past in the current generation (through education) so that both the One and the Many are able to flourish.  The more progressive approach, running through Dewey and Piaget, came to emphasize the Many over the One, rejecting the idea that there was One reality in preference for multiple meanings derived through personal experience and introspection.

I have always benefited from Blessed John Paul II’s take on this issue: “The segmentation of knowledge, with its splintered approach to truth and consequent fragmentation of meaning, keeps people from coming to an interior unity.”[iii]  He believed the Many are best served in the One, Who is Christ.  Again, this is not to pit one against the other, or to state that either is necessarily “bad” but rather that the fulfillment of both the One and the Many is a complex and difficult task.

So this brings us back to the roots of the Differentiation solution.  If every student has to construct their own meaning out of disparate facts (create their own narrative for reality, if you will) then the teacher must adjust instruction and publishers must produce materials that each student can use in unique ways for their “original work.” In essence, as JP2 was saying, we necessarily fragment knowledge, and students who gain that knowledge, into disparate individualities, each with their own unique take on reality.  But if, instead, all students share a great more in common than differing in unique individuality, the teacher uses these commonalities to the learner’s advantage.  But this theory has been generalized enough.  Let us get more specific to the classroom.

How do we meet the student where he is?  And where do we take him from there?  If education is in fact an act of leading, as the Latin educare (to lead out) implies, then who is leading and to where?  Newish ideas of differentiation seem to place the student as leader in the classroom, being the one who dictates how the teacher is to teach.  If the student seems to best make meaning out of auditory queues, then let the ears abound.  But if he is graphically oriented, then images take center stage.  I understand the compulsion here.  The teacher’s main task is determining the needs of the student and then meeting them.  But at this very point of such strong sounding pedagogy, failure is found.

I will keep this short by asking just a few questions.  How does the teacher’s own learning bias affect this theory?  Can a “spatial” teacher effectively teach a kinesthetic learner?  How does adjusting the instruction to the learning style prepare a child to become an adult, where such adjustment will not occur?  Can all instruction fit the various learning styles, or by adhering to this theory are we necessarily making certain areas of study outside the scope of certain learning styles?  I could go on, but I will end with a brief discussion of my main concern about any theory that over emphasizes the Many.

Returning again to the concept that JP2 was developing, if the goal of wisdom and virtue is harmony with the world and its Creator, then education should be leading the teacher and learner toward that harmony, or unity.  To say it simply, the Many should be more and more becoming the One, in Christ.  Real learning is bringing together disparate “facts” into one complete and unified cosmology (vision of the created order).  In meeting the student where they are, it is to bring them (and myself, as teacher) to unity with the One that matters: Christ.  The goal is not to leave everyone in their own personal place, but to bring everyone to the place of unity and harmony.  It fascinates me that in pursuing macro differentiation, we have may have produced a problem much bigger: a disunified and discordant society.

And at this point, I think I can point out the solution for the problem given.  I am not sure if a free and pluralistic society can actually obtain enough commonality or One-ness to bring about the harmony I am setting up as the goal here, but we should come much closer than we currently seem to be headed.

To be sure, students come into our classrooms today with less in common than perhaps was true a generation or two ago.  The over emphasis on individuality even as we pressure all toward conformity, which is the unique pool Americans swim in, has resulted in confusion.  How could it not?  When we preach that “you are a unique and original, one-of-a-kind person” while asking all learners to fit within the narrow confines of college entrance criteria (which causes a great deal of conformity, even though these criteria constantly change), confusion is going to come.  And with it comes frustration.

How is a teacher to get all their students to some level of basic college readiness, especially when we are looking at secondary and higher education, which inherits from younger education a varied body of learners?  Is it true that each learner can be categorized into one of seven learning styles?  Well, a human mind can do endless acts of wonder when it comes to classification.  But can these learning styles become authoritative and perhaps even inviolable?  Is a learner destined to learn in only one main mode?  I don’t think this case has been made.

I think I would distinguish between “micro” and “macro” differentiation.  The complex web of lesson planning which entails making allowance in every lesson for all learning styles is the “macro” version.  Wise use of multiple forms of presentation in order to fully set forth an idea is the “micro” version.  Let an expert in “macro” present their view:

“The goal of differentiated instruction is to match the curriculum with individual student needs. A learning contract allows students to access the same curriculum as their peers, but provides outcomes that are tailored to each students’ learning styles. For example, the contract would include a students’ skill level, their interests, and their learning style. The teacher would then use this contract when planning his/her lessons. For example, if a teacher was planning a research lesson, one student may research their information using the web, while another would use book. The teacher would take into consideration how each student learns best, have it be visual, kinesthetic, tactile, etc.

Differentiated instruction takes time. Teachers need to constantly observe and assess students to get know how each individual learns best and execute classroom management accordingly. To save time on planning lessons and activities that will reach all learning styles try budd[y]ing up with another teacher. One teacher can plan activities that will address the visual and tactile learners, while the other can plan activities that will address the kinesthetic, and oral learners. Then these teachers can swap ideas. Differentiated instruction requires a lot of forethought, but it can be an attainable method of learning if you use a few the above strategies.”[iv]

Placing this kind of weight on the shoulders of any teacher is going to move them quickly to a place of frustration and fear.  But I don’t think teaching and lesson planning needs to be this complex.

Let’s simplify things a little.  Perhaps the confusion has come from poor practice?  A good classroom must present multiple modes of learning to all its students, not because Piaget’s chart dictates such, but because human learning occurs best in such modes, regardless of his “learning style.”  To bring a student to understanding, the lesson must first prepare the student for the lesson through various modes, most notably questions and types.  A student does not understand until they “see” the idea being taught.  Teaching fragmented facts is never learning.  There must always be connections: a narrative if you will.  And the good teacher re-presents the idea in multiple ways until all the students have “seen” it.  The “end” of the lesson comes when the teacher is assured of its completion by having the students represent the idea of the lesson back to the teacher.  If it is not clear enough, more types and questions are presented until the teacher is satisfied.  This is learning.

But most of us who teach were not taught this way.  Many of us came through the period of educational efficiency that thought its students best learned through the factual equivalence of a fire hose.  Lots of notes led to long “objective” tests.  Thus the machine was created to grade all those bubble tests.  Memory became a means to a different end than in its forbearers.  Instead of placing types of the true, good, and beautiful at readily available use within the heart of the student, which was the traditional use for memory, it was now used to store vast amounts of useful information at least until it had been tested.  And out of that came the notion that Johnny just does not memorize well.  He learns better by _____ learning style goes here___ . This was just bad practice, and we rightly have rejected it.

Returning to questions and types as the source of our teaching will necessarily provide different students with different entry points into the lesson.  Let me exemplify this quickly.  Ask any two students an open-ended, thought-provoking question about any subject: math, science, literature, etc.  They will not hear it, think about it, or respond to it in the same way.  That much about the “differentiation” solution is true.  But the good classroom does not keep the question private, right?  The public question receives hearty discussion from the diverse minds in the room, and before you know it, the predilections of each student (each one’s unique inner thinking environment – call it learning style if you will) bring new and varied understanding to the group.

I think this is why my father’s one room schoolhouse produced a superior student to today’s highly ranked, tested, and grouped student.  How can one teacher handle such a varied group of kids?  By allowing good pedagogy to gain its strength from the various ages, abilities, and predilections of the students.  It is much harder in some ways, but not near as tedious in my estimation.

So the best solution is lots of open questions in a classroom that is safe enough to support real discussion.  Of course the students will need coaching on the skills necessary for this classroom: how to listen well, how to speak wisely, how to think, etc..  But the lesson plan which produces this is less like what is described above in the “macro” model, but rather adherence to the notion that less is more.  To summarize, I don’t believe we need to have students each making their own meaning, but rather learning that leads them to live in harmony with reality.  Less stating of facts, more exploration of ideas and their questions, and above all, more coaching in how to think, read, speak, listen, and write are the best solution to the different students who walk into our classroom each day.

[i] Tomlinson, Carol A., and Susan D. Allan. Leadership for Differentiating Schools & Classrooms. Hawker Brownlow Education, 2006.

[ii] Benjamin, Amy. Differentiated Instruction: a Guide for Middle and High School Teachers. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 1951.

[iii] Paul, John. Faith and Reason: Encyclical Letter of Pope John Paul II … Fides Et Ratio, of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Relationship between Faith and Reason. Catholic Truth Society, 1998.

[iv] Cox, Janelle. “Classroom Management: Creating Differentiated Instruction.” TeachHUB,