All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


09 June 2011

Mass Differentiation

Kids and young adults don't understand expertise, that is, they don't really understand how wide the range of human ability in a given area really is. They can't, because they don't have any real experience with it. Even if they are experts in something (I'm thinking of, say, teenage chess phenoms), they haven't had a lot of experience with other experts, and they (probably -- I'm having to guess at this point) think that they're just better than other people without understanding how much better. They might understand that, say, LeBron James is an expert, or that Gary Kasparov is an expert, but they don't really "get" how much better an expert is at something than a non-expert.

Just by way of example, a bright high school graduate might think that they understand world history -- after all, they've taken three classes in it since 7th grade, and they got A's! Oh sure, there are people who know more history. But it's just a matter of studying a little more. Then they go to college, and they realize that they didn't know much history at all. But now they've majored in history -- surely they know history now! Well -- not so fast. Now they decide to go to graduate school, let's say. Now they come to understand that even undergraduate history majors don't really know that much about history.

And it's right about then that they start to understand that it's not just history: it's everything. An expert mechanic can often tell what's wrong with your car just by listening. An expert plumber can finesse a stuck snake out of a pipe when you and your five friends couldn't get it out with all the tools and effort in the world. An expert juggler can do things that the juggling club in college never dreamed of.

Humans can get very, very, very good at things. It's part of our DNA -- we learn, and we adapt. But it takes time for us to develop a sense of how good people can get at things (and how narrow of a focus an expertise can have). It takes experience and exposure and thought to really understand how wide the various gulfs of human talent and ability are.

But if that's true on the macro-level, I think it's also true on a smaller level. I don't think that people generally appreciate the size of the ability gap between a smart and well-prepared student and a somewhat dim and ill-prepared student. It's enormous. There are 8th graders who know more math (and better) than a lot of 12th graders will ever know. There are 10th graders with a greater understanding of poetry than a lot of people will ever know. And there are students who only in high school get to the level of academic ability where most of their classmates were in 6th grade.

It's not just a matter of talent, either. Academic ability, or as some people call it, "cognitive ability", is a combination of natural mental aptitudes (flexibility, memory, etc.), practiced aptitudes, actual knowledge, and motivations. There are plenty of really "bright" kids out there with good mental flexibility, decent memories, and a little practice at being clever who are actually low achievers because they didn't (or don't) have motivation or background knowledge; they have, often through no fault of their own, squandered some prime learning years. It's easy to think that, with just a little extra work, you can get these bright kids "caught up" with their more advanced peers. (There was a commenter on one of Joanne's posts a short while ago, BenF, who made this exact point in the context of a discussion about AP classes for everyone.)

But it's a mistake to think that. What you're seeing isn't just talent that hasn't blossomed; you're seeing an achievement gap that is the result of years of differentiated development. The well-prepared 6th grader isn't just better prepared than the ill-prepared 6th grader: he's years ahead, even if they have identical natural mental potentials. And the kids who are really at the bottom of the class aren't just behind, requiring a little more attention and motivation: they're years behind, even by 6th grade.

Knowledge and ability builds upon itself. It's like compound interest in that way. If you've had a lot of enrichment very early, and a lot of exposure to knowledge and a lot of social motivation to academically excel, you're going to be able to take advantage of the time in grades 1-3 in a way that isn't going to be possible for your less-well-prepared classmates. While they're learning to sound out words, you're going to be reading books, acquiring more knowledge, thinking more things. And that gap is only going to grow. And once again, this is true in reverse of those at the bottom end of the ability spectrum -- whether they are there for reasons of natural deficiencies, social reasons, or simple lack of knowledge: they are going to fall further and further behind even their average classmates because they are still learning to recognize letters.

So what are the consequences of all this if I'm right? Well, for starters, it seems like "Differentiated Instruction" (by which I mean the practice of teaching at multiple levels within the same classroom) is made even more difficult than people already think it is. You might think that not only should we break apart subject-specific classes in terms of ability level, but that we need more levels. Maybe instead of a year-long algebra class for everyone, what we need is a six month algebra class, a year-long algebra class, and a two-year algebra class. Maybe we need to divide up the grades into more grades, K-24 instead of K-12, and allow kids (with parent approval) to simply test through some grades if they want.

Computer instruction offers a wealth of possibilities for supra-individuated instruction. I don't personally think it's any sort of panacea, and I think that there's something vital and important in real-life student-teacher contact that can't be duplicated with recorded lessons and flashing programs. But technology is at its best when it makes what we are already doing easier to do -- and if a computer network can help a teacher keep track of a larger variety of students, then maybe that's a good thing.

My suggestion is just this: we need to seriously consider that our student population is far, far more varied than we typically think, and we need to consider adjusting our institutions to meet this hyper-heterogeneity. We should give serious thought to whether opening different types of schools in the same district isn't a good idea. And I don't just mean arts magnets and tech magnets and so forth. I mean outright different types of educational institutions: remediation-intensive boarding schools, two-year high schools, half-day math schools and half-day reading schools -- I hate to use a cliche, but I'm talking about really outside-the-box sorts of institutional change, with smaller, more individualized schools and sub-schools. I'm already seeing some motion in that direction across the country, but I'm also seeing movement the other way: common core curricula, de-tracking, etc.

Of course, another reaction to my arguments is that we should just stop pouring resources into doing anything other than helping those who are on the lee side of this gaping ability chasm. After all, they're not only behind, but moving more slowly. And to some limited extent, I think that we've adopted this approach. We stick the bright, well-prepared kids into the same class and tell them to sit down, shut up, and be quiet. (We have to keep them off the streets, after all.)

In our more reflective moments, we hope that they will help their less advanced bretheren -- and we stupidly think that this will help close the ability gap. This, actually, has to be one of the silliest ideas I have ever heard. Do people who advocate this not remember the second principle of teaching? You never learn a subject better than when you teach it to someone else. If we were serious about closing the ability gap, we'd lock the bright, motivated, and/or well-prepared (pick two) kids in a room by themselves and turn off the lights for 8 hours a day.

Anyway, this is just a blog post. I'm not professing to have all the solutions to the world's ills. Heck, I don't even have a solution to what Mrs. Johnson should do with her 4th period class, because, frankly, I'm not an expert in her 4th period class the way she is (or should be, we might hope). I'm just an attorney and a philosopher and an educator thinking hard about a problem, and what sorts of things might work as solutions.


Cedar said...

I think you are quite right about most of your ides about expertise here, but I disagree with some of your conclusions.
If you are interested in learning more about the cognitive psychology literature on expertise, and how it applies to education, I would highly recommend Dan Willingham's book "Why Don't Students Like School"
Your point about people having little experience with expertise is actually wrong. Everyone is an expert in a few things by the time we are 10 or 11. The first is face perception. All of the criteria for expertise that you implied in some of your descriptions apply to face perception (immediate, holistic, specific). The second (for most) is that reading looks a lot like expertise. We can read whole words, immediately, and use all the letters in the word, as well as the surrounding words.
But you are absolutely right that people have very little insight into their own expertise. Moreover, they often have very little insight into teaching beginners.
I agree that it is tricky deciding how much tracking to do, and that "the rich get richer" is a cognitive rule, as well as a financial one. I am not sure that super-differentiated classroom is the best option, but I agree that we should be distributing resources differently if we want to even attempt to redress growing inequality. (I would say the same thing about financial policy too)
Interesting post. You are really cranking them out!

Michael E. Lopez said...

I've read Willingham... he's got a very, very flat definition of "expertise" (e.g., face recognition) that makes us experts when compared, say, to Frogs.

But 10 and 11 year-olds aren't even expert-face-recognizers by the standards of someone who has years of dedicated practice at facial recognition -- someone who can pick out a person just on the outline of their jaw, for instance.

I guess what I'm talking about is some form of relative, rather than absolute expertise.

I'm not sure anything's the "best option" -- I'm not even sure we have a "best option" at this point. I'm just putting out what seem to me to be good ideas.

Thank you for all the comments!

Cedar said...

Ok, interesting.
Willingham's definition of expertise is (I am pretty sure) one of the least controversial, most consensus-based parts of his description of how cognitive science applies to education. That definition of expertise is not really his, but rather Herb Simon's, Anders Ericsson's, and most cognitive neuroscientists.
For example, face expertise (and just about any other kind of visual expertise) results in more holistic processing. What that means is that you take in the whole thing at once. Face experts (i.e. everybody) are amazing at distinguishing between faces (actually, between faces of their own race, but that's a different story), but actually not so good at jaws. The same holds true for dog show judges, car experts, chess experts, or greeble experts (lab created creatures). Visual expertise facilitates more immediate, holistic processing. 11 year olds have already had years of dedicated practice recognizing faces, and so they do look like experts.
I think some of the same points hold for cognitive expertise (like a subfield of medicine, or an academic subspecialty)
But I think your original point still holds, that part of what increased knowledge allows, is an increased ability to gain knowledge. The more you know, the more you can learn, whether you are an expert or not. This is a very hard fact to deal with for a universal schooling system that values equal outcomes (or at least sees inequality as something to be reduced). I think what you are saying (and I totally agree) is that this is a real uphill battle.