Heroes

In this post I am going to discuss a pet peeve about the use of language–the use of a particular word. I am an avid tennis player (even if not particularly good). I get the magazine Tennis, and there was an article asking some tennis stars who their heroes were. The large majority of them named tennis or other sport stars from the past. I have found this use of the term hero to be quite common.

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What is a hero? We can go to the dictionary, but that is problematic in that a) the dictionary offers several definitions, and b) dictionaries are not the arbitrators of definitions but the recorders of them—dictionaries decide definitions by their usage. My experience has been that the word hero is often used the way I described above.

However, for me, that use of hero is simply a synonym for idol. What I would like to reserve the term hero for when it includes two other criteria besides (and some dictionary definitions do include these, especially if you look up heroism, or heroic, rather than just hero). These are that it is done in the service of others, and that some risk is taken.

While I admire Roger Federer as a tennis player, and he may even be an idol or someone I want to be like as a tennis player, he does not fit my definition of a hero. His becoming one of the best tennis players ever took and takes an enormous amount of dedication and talent. But he did not take any what I would call significant risks—his life or future was not put in danger by his working to be a great tennis player. He did it for himself—no one is saved by his great tennis playing.

I see this phenomena of people naming idols—often media and sports stars—as common, true from kids to adults. I wonder if this is just a different idea of what hero means, or part of out focus on media and sports stars in our culture.

One common answer kids, and others often give, though, does fit my definition. Parents! Parents do fit the hero definition of mine! Having a child is a big risk—no one really comes prepared for what it means to be a parent. It is a big sacrifice! The work of a parent is to put one’s child before oneself.

Do you have a pet peeve about a word you feel is misused? What is it and why?

Multi-graded Classroom

We think of the age-graded classroom as so normal, as if it is just the natural order of things—and forget that it is a relatively recent modern invention.

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The first public schools were mostly small one room buildings with kids of all ages and a teacher. This was mostly done not out of any belief in multi-aged classroom, but since most people lived in rural areas, schools were not likely to have more than a classroom full of kids from the town and surrounding farms, and their attendance often sporadic.

The age-graded classroom was a product of two simultaneous and connected changes in society: urbanization and industrialization. In a primarily agricultural society, there were too few students in close enough proximity to fill up more than a class or two, especially given that most did not spend much time in school. Most of what anyone needed to know could be, and really had to be, learned at home on the farm. Basic reading, writing, and arithmetic were all that was needed from school for most people, and not to a very sophisticated level.

Urbanization meant more of the population was living in larger cities, which meant schools could have larger enrollments. With more of the population living in large cities, now in many places there were enough children of one age to make a entire class or even more than one. It also meant more people’s jobs were working for someone else, and so schooling seemed more important as well. Further, since parents were working outside the home, they needed a place to send their kids.

Industrialization brought with it as well the idea of assembly line efficiency. It only made sense to apply the modern ideas of such efficiency to the classroom, especially given having so many children in one place. Curriculum was designed along these lines, where all teachers could give the same lessons to all the kids of a certain age in the proper order.

Soon this way of doing things, where students were grouped by age and taught subjects and content in a linear order, became what seemed the natural order of things. Multi-graded classrooms were now just an inconvenience of the few places left rural enough not to be able to have age-graded classrooms, or in larger schools to avoid hiring extra teachers when the numbers did not work out to have a complete class at every grade, putting the extra kids form two grades together.

When most teachers are now assigned such a combination grade class they dread it. After all, it is gong to mean two different curricula they have to teach; kids of different ages to manage; more different groups. How to instruct one group while keeping the other busy doing something meaningful? Given the paradigm of teaching as the delivery of curriculum, these fears are probably realistic ones.

However, if one has a different paradigm, multi-graded teaching can be wonderful. In my third year of teaching, when I had a second grade, I asked to keep my students the following year. I found it a huge advantage to start the year knowing my students. I felt I developed a much deeper relationship with these students. I could start the year right off and take them on from where they were. Classroom management was easier since we had already established the classroom norms. Having students for two years was a blessing.

The following year I switched school districts and was assigned a first grade. But as the year progressed, I started scouting among the other faculty for a teacher that might want to join me for teaming for multi-graded classrooms. My idea was to do a first/second, and keep half of my students, but the teacher I found that was willing to try this with me did not want to do first, so we ended up agreeing to do second/third. After doing that for several years, I also had years where I did 4/5, 4/5/6 and 3/4/5.

The big difference in the paradigm that makes one seem advantageous over the other is a belief in how people learn. Much of schooling is based, mostly implicitly, on a belief in learning as a linear process, generally passed from teacher (or any form of directed instruction which can be in the from text books, workbooks, or even computer programs as well as a teacher) to pupils. In this paradigm, teaching a group where everyone is around the same level is most efficient for delivering the correct instruction.

Another paradigm of learning—one which follows most of our out of school learning, is that we learn in communities of diversity, where different people have different levels of knowledge and ability, and just different ways of approaching and looking at things. We learn in this context by doing purposeful activities along side others—learning with and from them. If this is your paradigm for how learning takes place, then you will see multi-graded classrooms as an advantage rather than hardship.

As in moving up a grade with my students, my multi-grade classroom meant that I already knew half of my students. I could see how they were maturing, what they needed. In many ways knowing I had two years with them meant I had more patience for the natural differences in how children develop at different rates.

Learning is also to a large degree built on trust. Real trust is something that comes over time and with two years that trust is also deeper. This goes for the teacher’s relationship to the family families as well as the students themselves. In having my students for two or three years, I found the trust level increased exponentially.

Then there is socialization to how the classroom runs. With half the children knowing the routines, the other half easily learn them as well, as they can follow the lead of the students who were with me the previous year.

In terms of curriculum, for much of it, I use a thematic approach. A thematic approach allows students of a variety of interests, abilities and styles to approach the theme in their own way at their own level. When students are reading real books and literature rather than text books, they naturally find the books that interest them—and a book that is too easy or too hard is not interesting. The same goes for writing, using a writer’s workshop model. For math, students would have self-paced workbooks for arithmetic, and I would do on-the-spot grouping for particular skills, as well as thematic projects for the whole class to work together on. Themes could be anything from building a town, creating houses, studying bugs, investigating the environment, learning about the solar system, studying the peopling of the America’s to name just a few that I have done. The possibilities are practically endless.

In the multi-graded classroom, less-able students have more experienced and knowledgeable students to model and guide them, who are just enough above to act as effective models. The more-able students, in helping guide the less experienced, actually learn even more in the process of offering such help and guidance. It creates a form of having to meta-cognize—think about their own knowledge—in helping others. Teaching can actually be the most powerful form of learning.

In summary, multi-graded classrooms offer a variety of advantages: Getting to know students and families better; allowing more time to work with students; building greater levels of trust; easier classroom management; creating a more natural environment where those of different abilities learn from and with each other; and built in peer tutoring.

For these various reasons multi-graded classrooms can offer a more powerful environment for learning than a standard age graded classroom.

Intelligence

What is intelligence? Can we measure it? Do some have more of it than others?

I have just started to reread Stephen Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man” If you have not read it—it is a must read, especially for anyone who calls themselves an educator.

intelligence test

He starts with two main points—or fallacies. One is the fallacy that intelligence is a thing at all. Rather, it is a construct, an idea. Intelligence is actually no more or less than we define it as.  The other fallacy he points out is ranking—as though there is some linear range, like height or weight on which to line up intelligence.

Our ideas of intelligence are socially and culturally created as well as historically situated, as Vyogtsky pointed out almost a century ago. Intelligence is only what we define it as. Our ideas of what it is are firmly entrenched in our belief systems, in our cultural paradigms. And also due to this any test of intelligence is to some degree a tautology. How do we prove someone is intelligent? Their score on the IQ test. How do we know that the IQ test is valid? We designed it so that those we “knew” were most intelligent got the highest scores and those we “knew” were less intelligence got the low scores. This is as true today of IQ tests as it was of the previous methods of measuring intelligence (craniology for instance). New versions of intelligence tests and even other forms of standardized testing are assessed on whether the same group that did well on the previous version do well on the new versions, and the same for those who did poorly—the curve needs to stay the same. If a different group does better on new test items (which are beta-tested first) those items are discarded as invalid (unless of course the test designers decide they want a different group to do better or worse).

The uni-dimensiality of intelligence has currently fallen into controversy, but it is as unprovable as intelligence itself—it is nether true nor untrue—since “intelligence” is what we define it as, we can choose to define it either way, and to categorize the different dimensions as we find useful.

The same is true of another assumption of intelligence—that it falls along a “normal curve.” This is a logical assumption based on other natural traits, such as height and weight. But we should not lose fact that it is another unprovable assumption, not a fact (and actually presupposes there is a thing called intelligence to measure and put on such a curve).

Because intelligence is a cultural construct, any test of it will be therefore biased toward those who share the knowledge, assumptions, world views and paradigms of the dominant culture. This again is unavoidable. A test has to have content, and any content exists in some context.

Because of these attributes of intelligence, I find the use of any measurement of intelligence highly suspect. When used to sort people in any official way, it is dangerous to a democratic society.

Sharing Economy

The term the sharing economy is thrown around a lot these days with new forms of online interactions. I would like to discuss here what it is and what it is not. The idea of a sharing economy is really very old. In fact, until the advent of capitalism, most people worked on some form of a sharing economy—I share with you what I have and you share what you have.

Sharing-Economy-Cover1-620x350However, these days all sorts of unregulated business, especially these that use the internet, are being referred to as the “sharing economy.” There are such things as Air B&B where people rent out their homes or rooms in their home. Another popular one is Uber and the like where people act as private taxi drivers using their own cars.

The rationale for calling this “sharing” economy is that these are things people have anyway and now they are “sharing” them with others.

However, the idea is really not “sharing” in the traditional sense of the word of what is mine is yours, but rather of making extra income. I do not see the primary motivation of these new businesses (which is what they are) as oh, i have something extra that I can let others have or use, but rather, a need for money. Such  businesses charge real money, and often use the advantage of not being regulated to undercut established businesses or offer a service where traditional business does not exist or do not find profitable. This is what in the rest of the world has always referred to as the “grey” market.

I actually see the growth of this economy not as a paradigm shift away from competitive capitalism, but more as the underbelly of that system, born in this country particularly out of a weak economy where many families can no longer support themselves due to the shrinking of decent paying jobs in the regular economy. Such grey markets have always been a large part of the economy of third world countries. I may have extra time without regular employment, yet I own a car, so I become an Uber driver. My kids have moved out and I have extra room, and am struggling on my fixed retirement, or low wage job—so I rent out my extra rooms.

However, this can actually lead to a downward spiral of income and job security. Regulated taxi drivers and their companies have large overhead and rules to meet. Their jobs are reduced when people can pay half the price to an Uber driver. The same with hotels and inns. Uber drivers and Air B&B types have no job security, no pensions, etc.—as it is based on the idea of it being “extra” income. And in the Air B&B market, some commercial companies are now buying properties in urban markets to run unregulated hotels, undercutting traditional hotels. They do not have to meet all sorts of regulations (as of yet) and do not have unionized protected employees.

I have a different idea of what a sharing economy really means. An authentic sharing economy is about bypassing the monetary economy. I have something that others can use, so I share it with others; others have something I can use, they share it with me. Examples of this from the relatively recent past might be a “roof raising,” when farmers and homesteaders built their own homes. While most of the house a man cold build himself, when it cam to putting up the roof, help was needed. The neighbors would come out and lend a hand. They knew when they needed something similar their neighbors would be there for them as well. No payment was given or expected.

Another example is farming cooperatives, where no one farmer could afford the some of the expensive machinery and they would pool resources and share them. Or even help plow each others field, or help at harvest time.

More recent forms of the sharing economy might be barter networks. While most of these do include some sort of exchange of an alternative “currency” (often in terms of hours of service rendered), they attempt to equalize the inequalities or the worth of some people’s time over others inherent in our current capitalist system. In some an hour is an hour, no matter what service is rendered. In others, their might be some leeway for differentials. Some even have no such accounting.

A real sharing economy is about thinking not how can I make the most money, but about how can I use my resources and skills in a way that contribute to others, giving back to my community. Capitalism is based on a competitive model, how can I get the most for myself and beat my competition. The sharing economy is based on a cooperative model, how can I help others.

Financial Crises and Austerity

Have you noticed that while it is the rich and powerful that create nation-wide and even worldwide financial crises through their greed and desire for quick profits at whatever cost, it is the working class and poor that are expected to pay for the mess they create?

In the U.S., where austerity measures have been mild by comparison to much of the world (and therefore the recovery actually stronger), even here it is the pensions of working people that are being attacked, as well as services to the most needy and vulnerable that are cut. Infrastructure that the common people rely on) are let to go to ruin–public roads in poor shape, pubic school budgets cut into the bone, public transportation cut, etcetera.

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In Greece we see now that they are being forced to those same “solutions” only in even more extreme than we have–pensions cut, jobs lost, other social services cut. Public property sold of to private interests.

Not only do the rich not pay for the disaster brought on by their greed, we find that in the long run (or really not that long) they use these disaster for further profit. The banks are bigger and richer than ever. In Greece, for instance, private interests use this to take over what belongs to the public.

Austerity does not work, as it actually takes money from those who would spend it, and puts it in the hands of those who already have more than they know what to do with–except buy themselves more toys and consolidate more wealth and power.

Until the assumptions of global Capitalism are questioned, examined and overturned, such injustices will continue.

Gifted and Talented

In a previous post I discussed one aspect of the Special Education population. But another end of it are those we call “gifted.” I often hear from teachers I work with that the gifted students are shortchanged in our educational system, though like other “special needs” students Federal law states that schools are required to attend to the special needs of these students as well.

According to the Federal definition “The term ‘gifted and talented,” when used with respect to students, children, or youth, means students, children, or youth who give evidence of high achievement capability in such areas as intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity, or in specific academic fields, and who need services or activities not ordinarily provided by the school in order to fully develop those capabilities.”[1]

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The National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC), the main advocacy group for gifted education, makes very explicit their belief in the genetic nature of giftedness and their belief it the accuracy of Intelligence Tests. They are also clear that they see this population as underserved by schools, stating, “America [is unable] to properly meet the needs of its most able students.”

My problems with the gifted education label are several fold. One is that it assumes a “fixed” belief in intelligence. These students are, by this term “gifted” in the sense that they are born superior intellectually in some ways—these gifts and talents are in some way innate. I find this problematic from both a scientific standpoint and from a moral standpoint. The idea that some people are born smarter is not an established fact, despite the claims of the NAGC, though it is a very popular concept and one that most of us intuitively believe. The fact is that whether some are born with more or less potential, we do know as a fact that our experiences –our education—has a huge impact on our intelligence, and that it can change at any age. In other words, I believe virtually all students can be gifted and talented if given the opportunity, and more importantly, there is no way to sort ahead of time those who can be and those who cannot. We can only measure what someone can do and has learned so far, and so we have no accurate way test for potential However, our assumptions that we do can become self-fulfilling prophesies in both directions.

Just as with learning disabilities, the label is highly subjective. As can be seen, the definition is quite vague. The “objective” part comes from scores on standardized achievement tests and IQ tests, both of which I find highly suspect.[2] Intelligence tests, and standardized tests cannot and do not measure some real object, but a construct, and idea. They are designed by people who had and have a predetermined notion of who should do well and who should not. If the results do not give the expected results it is the test that ends up being changed. The definition is also highly subjective in terms of how one decides a particular student “gives evidence of high ability” in the non “academic”  areas—who gets to decide if one is artistically gifted, etc.

While we find students from low-income backgrounds and minorities overrepresented in the learning disabled category, we find them underrepresented in the gifted and talented category. This is likely due to two factors—one is the high correlation with scholastic and testing success and socio-economic status. The other is the ability of higher SES families to advocate for getting their children the advantages of the gifted and talented label.

Another major problem I have with the label is similar to my issue of the label learning disabled—labeling students and the message it sends. Do I really want to send the message that some students are “better” and more valuable than others? Separating out kids as smarter and dumber I think is not good for a democratic mentality. This elitist mentality is very clear if you read any of the literature put out by organization supporting the idea of giftedness.

Just as importantly, I also dispute that “gifted” children need a different kind of education than other students. Virtually every suggestion I hear for “gifted” children I think is good for all children, and in fact maybe even more so for those who are having schooling difficulties.

The argument for gifted students is that they are not challenged in regular classrooms, and do not have opportunities to pursue their gifts and talents. Given the current state of most public schools—especially one’s serving low-income schools, I could argue that almost all students need services not provided by the schools to develop their “intellectual, creative, artistic, or leadership capacity.” The idea that only certain, gifted, children should have their leadership abilities fostered sounds dangerous to a society that is trying to be democratic. And in a civilized society, development of creativity and the arts should be for all.

The types of strategies generally supported for gifted students are more open-ended tasks, projects, problem solving, etc. These are all strategies supported by progressive educators for all students. Gifted advocates argue that the general curriculum holds back and bores their students. Well, teacher-centered, textbook, rote learning approaches bore most kids.

Rather than create special opportunities for some students to receive enriched educational opportunities, I would extend such opportunities to all students. Many successful progressive schools, often working with very disadvantaged students, work from that premise with outstanding results. (See my list of innovative schools for examples. Central Park East was also one of the first schools to implement full inclusion for students with disabilities back in the early 1970s.)

[1] No Child Left Behind Act, P.L. 107-110 (Title IX, Part A, Definition 22) (2002); 20 USC 7801(22) (2004)

[2] Read Kohn, Alfie. The Case against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000 and on IQ tests, Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton, 1981.

Loving Learning: Book Review

Loving Learning:
How Progressive Education Can Save America’s Schools

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by Tom Little and Katherine Ellison
Norton
2015

Tom Little, in collaboration with Katherine Ellison, has written a very nice book about Progressive Education. To start with, it is just easily readable. Not only is it readable but it is quite enjoyable as well. While authorship is given to Tom Little (co-founder of Park Day School) and Katherine Ellison (journalist), it is written in the first person from Tom’s perspective. At 200 pages of text (plus some useful appendices), it can be read leisurely in just few days.

Tom helped start and then direct a small independent progressive elementary school in Oakland California. At the end of his career he decided to tour the United States visiting other schools that identified as being progressive or that he thought met the definition of progressive. This book is the outcome of that tour. Sadly, Tom died of cancer shortly before the publication of this book.

The book starts out giving Tom’s history of becoming a teacher and founder of Park Day School. He weaves into this a brief history of progressive education since the late 1800s of John Dewey and Francis Parker. In giving us this history, he also gives us a definition of progressive education.

In an early chapter he give us six core strategies which he distills as “passed down form Dewey, Parker, and the other pioneers, and still in robust practice at progressive schools today” (p.52). In sum these are: Emotions as well as intellect; Student interest as a guide; ban of standardized testing and ranking; real-world endeavors; integration of curriculum and disciplines; and active civil participation for social justice. He illustrates these ideas through the rest of book.

However, mostly what this book does is describe what progressive education looks like, using anecdotes from Park Day School as well as many of the other progressive schools Tom visited. He uses these stories to illustrate the points about what progressive education is and can be, and why it is so vital to both a solid education and to a democratic society. In this way it reminds me of the style of two of my very favorite books in education, Deborah Meier’s The Power of Their Ideas, and Ron Berger’s An Ethic of Excellence. All of these books are told in conversational tone, using the authors’ own experiences to illustrate important big lessons about what education can and should look like.

If you want an easy and enjoyable read on the power and practice of progressive education, then you must pick up Loving Learning.