All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


23 August 2011

A Possible Explanation for Grading in Education Departments

From the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, via Inside Higher Ed, via Instapundit, we are invited to read about "Grade Inflation for Education Maj and Low Standards for Teachers". Professor Cory Koedel (Economics, University of Missouri, PhD from UCSD) is essentially writing commentary on a statistical report from the New Teacher Project.

I looked around the internet briefly, searching for the original data report. I was unable to locate it. So take everything I have to say with a grain of salt. But Koedel's analysis has a hole in it so large that I could pass the complete corpus of Aristotle through it and still have room for a Winnebago.

I wonder why it is that anyone would expect education majors to have the same grades as anyone else. Do you expect the grades in "Advanced Metamorphic Pressure Studies" and "Rocks for Jocks" to be the same? Of course not: some classes are just easier.

Likewise, we might expect some majors to just be easier, or to have different grade profiles. Physics is harder (for most people) than Qual Sociology. Chemistry is harder (again, for most people) than English/Crit Theory. Philosophy is very easy to pass, but extremely hard to do well in. Some subjects have bimodal grading distributions. None of this should necessarily be a cause for alarm, I think. At least I've not been given any real reason to be alarmed by this report.

Koedel seems to be operating from the assumption that all majors should be equally challenging -- or at least in the same ballpark. But that doesn't strike me as an obvious truth. Should every major be as challenging as is necessary to teach its corpus of knowledge?

Now Koedel's premise might be true -- maybe we should make sure every major is equally challenging. But you have to convince me of this. You can't just assert it. Why should they be equally challenging? Is there something about challenge itself that is necessary to learning?

Koedel seems to think that the answer is "yes":
Grade inflation is associated with reduced student effort in college—put simply, students in classes where it is easier to get an A do not work as hard. This is not surprising, and a recent study by Philip Babcock quantifies the effect.8 He shows that in classes where the expected grade rises by one point, students respond by reducing effort, as measured by study time, by at least 20 percent.9 It is straightforward to apply Babcock’s result to the data from the two schools depicted in figures 1 and 2. If the grading standards in each education department were moved to align with the average grading standards at their respective universities, student effort would rise by at least 11–14 percent.

We are thus supposed to think that a rise in effort would be a good thing. As I said, maybe it is. But I'm not necessarily convinced. Koedel admits that...
...(f)or the increased effort to be beneficial, it must be the case that either the content of classes taught in education departments adds direct value in terms of teaching quality, or teachers gain other skills indirectly as a result of a more demanding college experience (for example, skills in time management or improved work ethics).

Let's put aside the big, difficult question: for increased effort to be beneficial to whom, exactly? (My completely unfounded suspicion is that Koedel would reply by saying something like, "beneficial to the involved parties".) What we are given are two options for justifying greater effort: better results in teaching, and better results in something that I'll call "life skills" -- time management, work ethics, learning to follow instructions, etc.

He admits that there's no real evidence for the first option. Nevertheless, he seems to think it's probably true anyway, a position that I actually find somewhat dubious. I'm not convinced of the value of education majors generally. Saying that you could make better teachers by having more of an already ineffectual curriculum of training is like trying to make up a per-unit loss in terms of sales volume, as the old joke goes.

The second option is odd: that effort could have value if it imparts what I'll call here "life skills" (time management, following instructions, etc.). Teaching life skills by themselves is just weird: I could assign my students 300-page, handwritten papers with all sorts of ludicrous formatting requirements (like every fourth word has to be in a different color ink). And I could make them write about the quality of their toe jam. This would "teach" them all sorts of time management skills, as well as valuable skills in following arcane directions. But it's jackassery of the highest order. And the meaningless of it all would probably undermine whatever lesson is being taught, assuming there was a lesson.

Life skills are taught best doing something substantial and relevant; when students do work, the doing of the work might impart life skills, but the work itself should be a substantive end; an education course should teach about education, or its simply a fraud. If you wanted to just learn life skills, you could take a class called "Life Skills 101".

Of course, it's possibly to make an assignment harder than it really needs to be in order to learn/demonstrate mastery of the actual course syllabus. That way, you're getting more effort, and better life skills training, than you would if you just had an assignment that reflected the substantive issues in the course alone. But that seems silly and wasteful.

The second option -- life skills -- doesn't look like it's going to work as a justification.

So really, the first option is the only option: increased effort is only going to be valuable if the material itself generates some sort of benefit. But as I said, I don't see why we should think this, and Koedel gives us absolutely no reason whatsoever to think it's the case.

As I said at the outset, maybe education courses are easier because the subject matter (what is the subject matter of education courses, anyway?) is simpler and actually requires less effort. But Koedel doesn't even entertain this idea. No, for him the easier grading is itself a problem:
It seems difficult to argue with the notion that low grading standards in education departments at universities are bad for students in K–12 schools. But Weiss and Rasmussen documented these low standards over fifty years ago, so this has been an ongoing cultural norm for some time. What is causing the problem, and what can be done to fix it?

It's not difficult to argue with that notion; I'm doing it. I'm arguing (not entirely sincerely, mind you -- I don't have an informed opinion on this precise subject) that the low grading standards are just fine for the subject. Indeed, the fact that this has been a cultural norm for some time suggests (but does not prove) that maybe it's not really a "problem", after all. Maybe learning how to teach someone to read is actually kind of easy compared to, say, learning how to synthesize polymers or learning to parse one's way through a paragraph by Kant.

As I indicated earlier, I'm not really endorsing this view substantively. I'm just flabbergasted that Koedel doesn't even seem to think it's an option, and instead decides that what's really needed is for every major in college to require roughly the same amount of effort.

That's a weird idea, even for an economist.

Bad Joke of the Day

A brand new bit of not-quote funny from your original spinner of jokes, Michael Lopez (who is perfectly aware that someone, somewhere, probably made this joke up first):

Why are some rocks so emotional?

I don't know. Why are some rocks so emotional?

Because they're sedimental!

I'm here all week.

22 August 2011

Accountability and Obligation

This is the sequel to my prior post, Some Thoughts on Accountability and Prepositions. As promised, this post is about what obligations teachers actually have, and whether it is reasonable for them to take those obligations on.

In the last post, I claimed that many people speak vaguely of holding teachers "accountable", but that the only reasonable interpretation of that position is to think that the teachers owe their schools a duty to produce student achievement. Now I want to talk briefly about what sort of obligation that is. (Keep in mind that while I don't think that accountability has anything to do with enforcement of obligations per se, as I said in the last post, I'm assuming, arguendo, that being "held accountable" includes being subject to enforcement measures/punishments that are appropriate to the obligation.)

There's a saying that comes in many forms: "Don't let your ego write checks that your body can't cash", "Don't let your mouth write checks that your soul can't cash", etc. All of these sayings amount to the same thing: a caution not to take on obligations that are beyond you.

Now, "beyond you" can mean many things. If I promise someone that I'm going to run 100m in 9.5 seconds, well, that's just beyond me. It's just not going to happen. It probably wasn't going to happen before my catastrophic car accident, and it sure as hell ain't gonna happen now. However earnest my intentions, I'm simply not capable of that level of performance.

But there's another sense in which things can be "beyond me" -- the sense that something is completely outside my control. I could promise, for instance, that my wife will show up at a banquet. That's dicey business, and the reason that it's dicey business is that I'm promising that someone else will do something.

Now I can physically drag my wife to the banquet over her protests (maybe). I might have to cripple or kill her if she was resisting enough, but it's conceivable that I can deliver on the letter of my promise without my wife's cooperation. That's not really what I promised, though. The spirit of my promise is that my wife would show up and at least pretend to do so voluntarily. That means that I'm going to have to persuade my wife. Maybe I'll have to guilt her into it. Maybe I'll have to bribe her.

But my ability to manipulate her into doing what I want her to is far from unlimited. Certainly because of the nature of our relationship, I can expect a certain amount of influence, and it might even be likely that I can convince her to show up. But there's always the possibility that, for one reason or another, she just won't be moved to attend, and I will have failed to deliver on my promise. My mouth wrote a check that my soul couldn't cash -- in this case because the ultimate outcome wasn't really dependent on me.

Things would have been different if I had simply promised to make my best efforts. Promising best efforts (in good faith) is not promising results, and any promisee accepts a promise for results that aren't 100% in the control of the promisor is either (1) ignorant, (2) filled with faith, or (3) really accepting a promise for best efforts anyway, despite what is said.

You should be able to see where this is going now: in order for teachers to be "accountable" in the way I discussed yesterday, they need to have a duty to produce student achievement. That would be all fine and dandy if the students were beanstalks or 1974 Pontiac engines or some other sort of insentient matter. But the students are autonomous, sentient agents. They get to make their own decisions (in a strong, narrow sense) and their learning is, in great part, up to them. It is not entirely in the teachers' power, any more than my wife's attendance is entirely within my power.

Teachers can manipulate students in various ways -- they can coerce, cajole, coax, conspire, and a whole host of other words that don't begin with "c". Teachers can attempt to make learning easier. They can attempt to demonstrate the worth of their subject. They can try to make it entertaining. They can be the best teachers in the world, but the final decision as to whether there will be any learning of the subject at hand isn't up to the teacher.

So why would we expect a teacher to be "accountable" for student results, or the improvement of student achievement? Why would a teacher promise such a thing, even implicitly, and why on earth would any administrator accept such a promise?

It seems likely to me that most teachers never made any such promise, and don't view themselves as having made that promise. This is why you see so much push-back from teachers on issues of accountability. It's not that they don't want to be good employees and good teachers, or that they are lazy or unmotivated. It's that the promise for which enforcement is being sought in the name of "accountability" isn't one that they think is either realistic or legitimate.

Teachers (and I'm generalizing here) likely see themselves as having made a promise either for "best efforts" or, at the outer limits, for actual results that are within their control: something on the order of "I will deliver objectively interesting and informative classes and will present the curriculum in a manner that, in my best professional judgment, will maximize the return on any attention and effort the student wishes to invest."

The question, then, is whether the position of public school teacher carries with it the more unreasonable obligation of guaranteeing student results, simpliciter. In other words, does a teacher, merely by agreeing to take the position of teacher, assume responsibility for things that are, ultimately, beyond his or her control?

I rather think that a lot of people think that the answer to this question is "yes", and that many of those people think that the answer should be "yes". They think that teachers should be held accountable for student achievement, even though actual student achievement is highly dependent on the student himself. Now if the teachers voluntarily take on this obligation, they are acting wrongly because they are writing checks their souls can't cash. But as I said, I don't think teachers do undertake this obligation, at least not knowingly. And an obligation that is both unrasonable itself and held against someone who is in no position to reasonably make it cannot be a morally legitimate obligation.

All of this, of course, depends on whether or not student achievement really is something that is highly dependent on the student himself. I think that is so obvious that it hardly bears mentioning, but it's conceivable, I suppose, that I am mistaken about this. Nevertheless, I am not going to offer an argument in its defense, at least not here, not today.

I'm not trying to get teachers "off the hook" for their legitimate responsibilities, and I'm not denying that there are a lot of teachers who really don't meet (and some who don't even make a good faith effort to meet) their reasonable, legitimate obligations. I think holding teachers "accountable" for legitimate obligations is perfectly fine, and that it should even be a policy priority. I'm merely arguing that it's unreasonable to hold teachers accountable for things beyond their control. Such attempts ignore what it means to be legitimately "accountable" for something in the first place.

And as we're proceeding under the (false but apparently widely-accepted) notion that being held accountable is the same as being subject to enforcement, you can't legitimately punish teachers for failing to deliver on an obligation that's not morally legitimate. Obviously, you can treat teachers like the Whipping Boys of old and punish them for things they didn't do, but then you really are just bullying. (And I mean real bullying, not just some pattern of ill-defined, nebulous behaviors that some education writers rhetorically call "bullying".)

The bottom line: You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. And you can hold your stablehand accountable for leading your horse to water, but only an idiot would hold the stablehand accountable for making the horse drink.

21 August 2011

Some Thoughts on Accountability and Prepositions

Everyone says that they want "accountability" in education: teachers must be "accountable", administrators must be "accountable", even parents must be "accountable". This sort of talk often leaves me feeling... unsatisfied. Let me explain why.

Now, one of my favorite fallacies is the fallacy of the missing preposition. It something that I came up with one day when I was watching Babylon 5. There's a great scene with Lyta Alexander and the Vorlon Ambassador. He pretty much dismisses her, and then we get the following:

Lyta: Damn it, I have earned some respect!
Ulkesh: Respect? (pause) From whom?

It's the missing preposition fallacy: Lyta thought she deserved respect in the abstract, but forgot that respect is a two-place predicate, and that some particular entity has to go into the second place which may or may not make the statement false. People make mistakes like this all the time.

When was the last time someone said to you, "It'll be great!" and you thought to yourself, "Great for whom?" Or "This is really important!" and you thought, "Not to me." These are all examples of the MPF. This fallacy, which is, basically, taking a statement like "I love Betty" and universalizing one of the objects so that it comes out as "Everyone loves Betty" or, more conversationally, "Betty is loveable" (yeah... to you), might have a real name somewhere -- but I call it the Missing Preposition Fallacy.

Anyway, I see the workings of the MPF in almost every discussion of "accountability" in our schools. Accountability is a three-place predicate (at least). X is accountable to Y, for Z. And X gets held accountable to Y, for Z.

So if teachers are "accountable" for dismal student learning outcomes, then they must be accountable to someone in particular. Who is that? The school? The state? The parents? The student? To whom exactly are teachers supposed to be accountable?

One way to answer this question is to ask ourselves what it means to be "accountable" for something, and further, if it is any different from being "held accountable". Here's what dictionaries say, though I warn my readers that dictionaries are guidelines to words' intended meanings, not authorities.

Accountable: 1. subject to the obligation to report, explain, or justify something; responsible; answerable.; 2.capable of being explained; explicable; explainable.

We can dispense with the second definition. The first definition is pretty much what you'd expect from looking at the word: a person is "accountable" if their actions can, at least metaphorically, be charged to their karmic "account", that is, if they have some sort of duty to someone else. That duty, that obligation, is really the foundation of what it means to be accountable. In the absence of a duty, there can be no accountability.

To be "held accountable", then, is just to be recognized by the person towards whom one has some duty or obligation as being responsible for that duty or obligation.

Being held accountable, by itself, tells us nothing about punishment or enforcement mechanisms. Punishment/enforcement comes into play because (and only if) the person to whom the duty is owed has legitimate authority to enforce the duty.

If you promise to bring me a cup of sugar tomorrow, I can "hold you accountable" for your promise. Your promise created an obligation. That doesn't mean I have the authority to burn down your house and kill your pets if you forget to drop it off. The obligation carries with it, in the context of our interactions, its own enforcement mechanisms. I get to express a certain amount of disapproval, perhaps. Maybe I can call you up and legitimately guilt you into bringing it over RIGHT NOW -- if the situation calls for it. Maybe I just get to tease you about it once or twice.

The point is that it is the duty or obligation, taken in its context, that defines the right to punishment or enforcement. There need not be any enforcement mechanisms whatsoever. I can rightfully hold someone accountable, but be absolutely powerless to do anything about it without committing a moral wrong. We might imagine that politicians who do things in bad faith are an example of this: the corrupt politician is accountable for his actions, but those to whom he is accountable are powerless to act.

Some people would say that this means that he's not accountable at all, though. Some people think that "to be held accountable" means, roughly, "to face enforcement measures for your obligation." That's simply not true, as I've just discussed. But let's say we grant this.

If teachers are to be "held accountable", that means that there is going to have to be some sort of enforcement mechanism to enforce their obligation. That means it's even more important than ever to identify the person to whom they have this obligation.

Let us assume that the obligation is to raise student academic achievement. (Let us also put aside the notion that any teacher who undertakes an obligation to bring about a result that is not within his or her power is a moron. I will talk about that in another post.) To whom is this duty owed?

From a purely legal standpoint -- and it is the law with which we must be concerned first and foremost because much of the enforcement that people wish is the sort of enforcement that requires the law's blessing -- the teachers only owe their duty to their employers. A parent or student cannot sue a teacher (currently) for failing to generate that particular student's academic success. (The relation there would be 1-1; obviously, a teacher would not owe Student A a duty of any kind for Student B's success absent some extremely special circumstances.) But employees have a duty to their employers to do their jobs.

Teachers surely have a moral duty to parents and students, and that moral duty carries with it its own enforcement mechanisms: the parents and students can rightfully say bad things and think ill thoughts about a teacher who breaks the obligations. But that's not what people want. They want penalties with "teeth" -- financial penalties like reduced salaries and unemployment.

So the legal enforcement will have to come from the school. The teachers must be accountable, then, to their schools. (Though there can obviously be all sorts of non-legal enforcement of various moral obligations.)

The picture, then, is something like this: The teacher has an obligation to the school to produce student achievement. The school can hold the teacher accountable for this obligation, and can enact enforcement measures if it is not met.

My point, really, is just to point out that vague talk of "accountability" is non-productive. When one speaks of accountability, one needs necessarily speak of specific obligations owed to specific entities. One needs to ask if the obligations that are being described are real, and if real, if they are reasonable. One needs to consider what sorts of enforcement mechanisms, if any, are or should be available to meet the specific obligations that are owed to the specific entities.

No one just "gets held accountable" -- they are always held accountable to someone, for something. That's just how the word, how the concept, works. Ignore it at your peril.

In my next post, I will look more closely at the obligation that teachers supposedly owe.

19 August 2011

The Stupidest Sentence I've Read All Week

On the previous incarnation of this blog, I had an occassional feature called "The Weekly Dumb-@$$." Now that I'm older and wiser, I shan't continue with such sophomoric rhetoric. Now I'll just weasel it in on the cheap by talking about how I used to use it, and then putting that casual reference next to this mind-blowingly stupid sentence from an article by... well, there's no author listed. It's some staff piece from

Which is probably part of an explanation how you can end up with this: (the sentence in question is in bold font)
Thousands of students are facing the problem of necessary remediation as they enter college. Roughly one of every three entering a public two- or four-year post-secondary school will have to take at least one remedial course, writes Leanne Italie at the Associated Press.

Doing so dramatically increases the odds that he or she won’t graduate, according to a March report from the nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education.

You might have thought that taking a remedial education class (assuming you need one) would drastically increase your chances of graduating, because, you know... it's part of the requirements, and fulfilling requirements for graduation tends to increase one's chances of graduating.

Now there's a charitable way to read this sentence. We could take "doing so" to mean "having to take" rather than "taking". So "having to take at least one remedial course" drastically decreases your chances. But that interpretation has a problem. The phrase "doing so" is active, and "having to take" is, semantically if not grammatically, passive; it's the equivalent of "being required to take".

Second, and this is an issue for either interpretation, having to take the class doesn't change anyone's odds. It just helps signal what those odds actually are. So saying that it "increases" the odds of not graduating is just false.

13 August 2011

Big Thinking, Little Thinking

There's been a lot of commenting recently on a NYT opinion piece by Virginia Heffernan. (See these posts at Joanne's and Rachel's sites, respectively. Cedar Riener's post at Rachel's site is particularly interesting and worth reading.)

The piece is, essentially, Ms. Heffernan's endorsement of an argument that is made by Cathy Davidson in her book, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, which I freely admit that I have not read. I also admit that I should read it before making this blog post, but I have a lot of things I have to read this weekend and I just don't have time for the book. I am thus going to rely on Ms. Heffernan's synopsis of Ms. Davidson's arguments. The argument seems to go like this, as best I can tell. It's hard because I'm having to create what I think are some of the implied premises.

1. It is not knowable what sorts of careers our society's children will have because the technological and economic landscape can be expected to change quite quickly.

2. Any given educational approach or method is only going to be best-suited for some particular set of jobs and/or activities; apprentice systems might be best for trades, while collaborative activities might be better for certain types of businessmen.

3. From 1 and 2, we cannot know what sort of educational approach or method will be best-suited to the jobs/economic activities that children will have in the future.

4. Teachers have, in the past, assigned a certain type of solitary, inward-looking work, typified by the "term paper".

5. Modern students write terrible term papers.

6. Modern students write very elegant, insightful, and persuasive blog posts. They also demonstrate a great deal of intellectual agility and originality in their collaborative, digital work.

7. From 3 and 4, teachers do not know that the "term paper" teaching in which they are engaged is in fact the teaching best-suited to their students' futures.

8. From 5, 6, and 7, it seems likely that digitally-oriented, collaborative work can't be ruled out as a form of teaching that isn't best for students' futures, and at the very least, it seems like it can obviously function as a way to practice certain important skills.

9. From 8, we should re-orient teaching to de-emphasize things like term papers, and emphasize things like blog posts and digital media creation/criticism.

So like I said, that's the argument. I'm being as charitable as I can be, but obviously it's got some holes in it. For instance, 9 and 3 seem to to be contraries (thought probably not contradictories), because if we have reason to think a course of action is the best one, and if it is, then it seems we can know what the best course of action is. There's also the inexplicable move from "students enjoy/demonstrate skills while doing X" to "X is probably a good way to teach", that seems to rely on some form of "If X is an easy way to teach, then it's a good way to teach."

Some of these problems might be Davidson's fault -- she's an English professor, not a philosopher. But I'm willing to bet that most of it is just Heffernan's being sloppy.

Still, I didn't write this post just to cast aspersions. I wanted to talk about why I think that the discussion that Heffernan is attempting to have in her piece is profoundly misguided. I think that the arguments presented rest on the idea that literary thinking, skill at writing, and all the other wonderful things we try to teach students, is fundamentally the same whether they are writing a blog post or writing a term paper. In other words, the skills that are being taught are the same, and what changes is the way in which they are acquired.

Now this might, at first blush, seem to be contraindicated by Heffernan's own words:

The new classroom should teach the huge array of complex skills that come under the heading of digital literacy. And it should make students accountable on the Web, where they should regularly be aiming, from grade-school on, to contribute to a wide range of wiki projects.

She expressly says that it's an entirely different set of skills, whereas I'm saying that she believes that they are essentially the same skills. Clearly, the burden is on me to demonstrate that I'm not just putting words into her mouth. I think that she and I are using the word "skills" in two different ways, here. She is using "skills" in a narrow, precise sense: the skill of putting together a Quicktime Video, for instance, or the skill of composing a jingle. I am using "skill" in a much broader sense -- as referring to certain types of general aptitudes: argument, logic, rhetorical persuasion, grammar, and so forth. When I talk about skills, I am talking about the sorts of things that are contrasted in this sentence:

After studying the matter, Ms. Davidson concluded, “Online blogs directed at peers exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant and persuasive prose than classroom assignments by the same writers.”

The "skills" here are putting together an elegant sentence, being persuasive in writing, having original ideas, mastering grammar, etc. And the same skills that are not demonstrated in term papers are being demonstrated in the "digitial media" work that is under discussion.

So that's why I think that this argument is, fundamentally, one about how we should go about teaching some one, important set of skills.

I just happen to also think that it's a mistake to think that term papers and blog posts (a term I use as shorthand for a whole range of digital work of the kind argued for in the article) are teaching the same skills.

Forgive me while I switch into analogy mode for a second. I find this a very persuasive way to make points.

Term papers don't teach grammar and writing, any more than marathon training teaches you how to move while remaining upright. True, marathon training is a type of moving while remaining upright, but it's a very specialized type, and you can't really engage in it until you've mastered the basics of walking and running. And once you do, it's an entirely different kind of movement. And it's not just learning how to perform some repeated movement, but how to approach the entire race: running twenty some-odd miles is a single action, and it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In marathon training, you don't learn to run, but how to run a really long distance. In this way, marathon training is imparting a fundamentally different skill than, say, training for the 100 meter dash.

Anyone who tries to teach someone to run by teaching them how to run a marathon is asking for trouble. First you learn to walk, then you learn to run a few meters. Then once you've got that down, you can start learning the intricacies of sprinting, or the intricacies of long-distance running. But if you can't run to begin with, well, there's no point in more specialized training.

There are similar points to be made about writing. Before you can write a term paper, or even a decent blog post, you have to have command of the rules of grammar; you have to understand what it means to put a single idea down as a sentence. That students are (supposedly) able to do this in blog posts (again, I'm using that term as a proxy for a whole host of performances) is evidence that the students have mastered the basics.

But writing a term paper isn't about mastering the basics. If writing a sentence is about getting a thought down on paper (and I think it is), it's about getting a very small thought down on paper. Students in their early years learn to write things like "I enjoyed going to Disneyland" or "The leaf is green." These are small thoughts.

Learning to write, say, a two or three paragraph essay/blog post is learning to write a medium-sized thought. But the important thing about the project isn't learning to write the thought -- if you can write the sentence, you can write the essay. The important thing about the shorter project is that you're learning to have the thought. The writing is the easy part; it's the thinking that's hard.

That students write great blog posts, or that they can put together great five-minute satire, tells us two things: (1) They've got the basic process of translating thought into media down; (2) They've got pretty good skills at having medium-sized thoughts.

Term papers, on the other hand, are exercises in BIG thinking. A twenty-page paper requires that a student have an extended thought -- one that requires twenty pages. A fifty-page paper requires an even bigger thought. And a book requires a goddamn lot of thinking: the book itself is a record of the very, very, very large idea that the author possessed.

But if students aren't any good at big thinking, then when they are asked to write a term paper, they're going to crash and burn. Even their grammar will be awful. This is to be expected: when you ask someone who can run 100 meters to run a marathon, they become unable to even so much as stand up after a while, let alone walk, let alone run the 100 meters that they've been able to do so well before.

So term papers are really exercises not in writing, but in thinking. They are demonstrations of the ability to think an extended thought -- an argument that has more than two premises, or that synthesizes more than a handful of evidential propositions. Big thoughts are hard; they are conglomerations of propositions and speculations held together by the laws of logic and evidence.

That Ms. Davidson's students write terrible term papers doesn't mean that the term paper is a bad teaching tool; it means that the students don't have the capacity yet for thinking that sort of big thought.

And they aren't going to get it writing blog posts. They're only going to get it by having a teacher walk them through the process of liking their thoughts together in ever-larger assemblages. They're only going to acquire that skill through practice and instruction in that particular skill.

Davidson (or Heffernan) isn't really arguing that we should teach the same skills with different methods; that's just what they think they're arguing for. What they're really arguing is that we don't train marathon runners, that we become a nation of intellectual sprinters, content with our short little bursts of clever, well-formed prose.

Which may well be right; that might be the best course of action. Maybe we should stop trying to think big, extended thoughts and focus on the fast, the punchy. But what we are presented with is not an argument for that course of action, but a mere proclamation that we should stick with sprinting, since we seem to be good at it.

10 August 2011

Philosophy Joke: Low-Hanging Fruit

So I fully admit that this is sort of an obvious joke for philosophers, and I have doubts that I'm the first to come up with it. But I'm claiming independent invention. I made this up while I was working on a paper today. Here it is:

Luke Skywalker is sitting in the swamp reading some action theory. He scratches his head, puzzled, and looks over at Master Yoda, who is cooking some beans.

"Master Yoda...", whines Luke, "I don't quite understand. When is it that I actually do something? I mean, if I start to Φ, then I haven't Φ-ed, yet, so I'm not really Φ-ing. But if I stop Φ-ing, then I'm not Φ-ing any longer, I've only Φ-ed. How do I Φ?"

Master Yoda looks over and says, "Told you this already, I have. Do, or do not. There is no Φ."

I'm here every night...

01 August 2011

Differentiation, Again

There's a discussion going on at Joanne's about differentiation again, inspired by this witty little essay about how "differentiation" is the new magic buzzword (cf. "diversity").

I find some sympathy with the article's main points, I actually don't have a problem with the notion of differentiation itself, but I am opposed to it insofar as it is ever going to be practically implemented. (In this way, you might think that my opposition is similar to my opposition to communism, which would be great IF everyone were saints. But they aren't, so...)

I wrote a little while ago about the wide variance in human ability. There, I proposed not just tracking through classes, but opening entirely different kinds of schools to deal with different types of students. Now, obviously that's a resource-intensive solution.

Let's say the budget's strapped, there's no more cash, and you have this wide variety of student ability and only one teacher, one classroom. You're going to have to use "differentiation" -- it's just not practical to have separate classes because you can't afford that many teachers. What are your options?

Let's say you're teaching a geometry class. That's what the schedule says, and that's what you're being paid for. The powers that be have sent you two students, the first (let's call him Johnny) with a 3rd grade math ability, and the second (Timmy) with a 9th grade math ability. They're both in your geometry class.

The teacher has three options, as I see it:

First, the teacher can teach the geometry class to the Timmy, and more or less ignore Johnny, who's not going to understand a damn thing. Timmy will get an A or a B, most likely, and Johnny will just fail. Granted, he shouldn't have been in the class to begin with, but times are hard and this is the classroom that had an open chair.

Second, the teacher can teach a remedial math class. Johnny, if he works hard, will get a B or a C, most likely, and will develop his math abilities perhaps as far as 6th grade math. This is a great outcome for Johnny. Timmy will either get an easy A or an F, depending on whether he decides to revolt in his boredom or not.

Third, the teacher can "differentiate" -- teaching geometry to the Timmy, while running Johnny through a remedial math program. This requires a lot more work from the teacher, but hey -- times are hard and this is the job that's available. And maybe the teacher can pull it off with skill and aplomb. Maybe both the students get A's or B's, or at least C's.

Now the problem: The second and third cases both result in grades being given for a class called "Geometry" that in no way reflect the student's accomplishment in geometry. In the second case, both grades are effectively fraudulent. In the third case, only Johnny's grade is fraudulent.

I'm not a fan of fraud. Frankly, I prefer good, honest robbery. SO what's our solution, given that times are hard and we can't afford more teachers and more classroom space?

I should think it obvious. Have the teacher just teach two classes at once. Put both students in the teacher's classroom at the same time, but enroll the second student in geometry while you enroll the first student in remedial math.

There's no rule that says the classroom has to be the class. The class is just a curriculum, the teacher, and the students following it. There's no reason two different classes can't occupy the same spatio-temporal location.

And if you call the courses what they are, well... you're not committing fraud anymore. And I think that's a good thing.

This is obviously not what I consider an optimal solution. I prefer heavily tracked classrooms and even schools, as I said. But I also admitted above that my preferred solution costs money, and if we aren't going to pay for the best, let's at least do the best we can in the world of the possible.