All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


16 December 2011

The Fundamental Choice in Education

I'm doing some thinking and some reading this morning. That's what philosophers do when we're unable to write coherently. And one of the things I've been thinking about is the problem of subsidization, namely, the iron-clad rule that if you subsidize a behavior, you get more of it.

We've got a compulsory school system. For all sorts of reasons, I think this is a terrible idea. But, following the rule of Chesterton's Fence (see McArdle's discussion here if you aren't familiar), it's not enough merely not to like the compulsory nature of school. We should attempt to understand why we have it before we tear it apart.

The easy (mostly false) answer is that we're in a quasi-facist state that wants to control its youth and brainwash them into service to the Leviathan. But that's only a very small part of the story.

We mostly have compulsory education because there are parents out there who won't send their kids to school otherwise, because some families would put their kids to work and deny them the supposed benefits of sitting in a desk learning from "highly qualified" teachers. So to prevent these kids from missing out on these opportunities, to prevent the sort of feudal social calcification that such behaviors breed, we institute mandatory schooling.

But now we run into the subsidization problem. You can think of mandatory schooling as a form of subsidy, a subsidy for the behavior of not valuing education. On average, if you don't value education, and your kids don't value education, your kids are going to have a less economically productive and, I think, less meaningful life. They may grow up with a narrower world view and a provincial focus. (That might have been an ironclad certainty in the days before the inter-tubes; now I think it's just a risk.)

But if you mandate education, you are taking away these penalties that normally attach to the failure to value education. You're subsidizing the attitude.

And that means you're going to get more of it.

And really, it's just common sense. Compulsory education is "free" (or appears so to most people), and you have to be there whether you want to be or not. Does that sound like something valuable? Something that's not just given away, but given away to everyone? Valuable things are usually kept locked away, with restricted access. Things like Harvard. Harvard gets locked away behind some walls and an admissions committee. Harvard's valuable.

It's a natural sort of thought to think that the schooling offered by your neighborhood public school isn't valuable. The subsidy creates more of the attitude whose effects it is designed to ameliorate.

Now, because we have compulsory schooling, you can't threaten to kick someone out of the school. Not really. Sure, there are the extreme cases involving guns, knives, and things like hugging or flying an American flag that might run you the risk of permanent expulsion, but by and large expulsion is a rare bird, and it's almost never EVER given for mere non-engagement, for absolute, total academic failure.

What if it were? What if we told students who were, say, 12 or older, "You don't want to be here, and you don't want to learn? Go ahead and get out of my classroom. Leave."

I've floated this idea with people before, and I generally get something along the lines of the following in response: "Too many kids would just walk away from school and we'd have hundreds of kids on the streets missing out on their best years for learning."

I have to say, that's a damn good point, and it gives me pause (which is why I'm not quite ready to fully endorse something like the idea I just sketched out). But I also think it overstates the case somewhat. Yes, there would be kids on the street. But we'd have stopped the subsidy of the poor attitude towards education, so there would (if my hypothesis is correct) be far fewer people who didn't want to deal with school. School would become something seen as more valuable by most people, precisely because you wouldn't have it by default. It would be something you'd have to work for.

Private schools don't have this problem, because they kick people out all the time. And the students are paying to be there. Expulsion is a credible threat.

It's sort of like nuclear weapons. If you have one, and people believe that you're going to use it, you almost never have to use it. Likewise, I think it's possible that once you've credibly tossed a few students out on their ears, the number of students who would seek or deserve such tossing is likely to decrease dramatically.

This strikes me as the fundamental choice facing American Education: to subsidize or not to subsidize the non-valuing of school and education. For the last century at least, we've come down firmly in the subsidization camp -- to the point where I'm not sure people (including me) are even able to clearly understand what would happen without the subsidy. It's affected our culture, our institutions, our views of what school is supposed to be.

Let me be perfectly clear -- or at least as clear as our President is when he says those words: I am not advocating ending the subsidy. I'm advocating that we look at the way we think about it, and ask ourselves the following questions:

1) How many of the panoply of woes currently afflicting (or at least supposedly afflicting) our educational system in this country is a direct result of this subsidy?

2) How bad would things really get if we ended it?

3) And finally, given the answers to the previous two questions, is it still worth it keeping the subsidy?

The answer may well be "yes". I'd just like us to think openly and clearly about the matter.

Gratuitious Repost: Practice, Failure, and Evaluation

(This is a wholly gratuitous re-post of something I wrote for Joanne a few months back. I'm putting it here because it's one of my better posts, represents some of my clearer thinking, and... I just spent 35 minutes searching around the internets trying to figure out where exactly I wrote it. I'd like to be able to find it in the future. So here it is.)

I wanted to take a few minutes to ruminate more deeply on something I said in passing in a comment thread a few weeks back. Here’s what I said:

When a student has not been allowed to fail, they will learn that failure isn’t something that can happen. When a college professor gives them an F, the result is confusion.

Unfortunately, failure *is* something that can happen, regardless of the attitude one takes towards it in primary and secondary school. It happens with devastating results, sometimes. Now, school is supposed to be a place where you can fail without devastating consequences, where you can learn from your failures and become better at things, but failure in school is often seen these days as a devastating consequence itself. (e.g., YOU RUINED MY CHANCE TO GET INTO HARVARD!)

That’s a problem. Certification should be the secondary mission of schools, not the primary mission.

There are really three different points here.

First, there’s an assertion that failure is always a possibility. That’s probably true: one can avoid failure only by never attempting anything not guaranteed success, which is itself a sort of failure… at life. We’ll come back to this in a moment.

Second, there’s an assertion that school should be a place where failure is constructive. That’s a much dicier proposition. We all know the old saying: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” If you don’t know it, you should learn it, because it’s a good saying. But there’s another saying, too: “Insanity is trying the same thing over and over again expecting different results.” If you consider both of these sayings together, the resulting imperative seems to be something like “If at first you don’t succeed, keep altering your approach until you do.” And that’s really great advice.

Of course, there are times when you don’t want to have to try again. Operation Overlord comes to mind this time of year. No one wants to fail when they’re invading Europe; it’s too expensive, too much is on the line. Failure isn’t an option in such situations; if Eisenhower was pushed back into the sea and tens of thousands of soldiers died for naught, well, it would take great presence of mind to say, “Let’s try this again, but put the seventh division over here this time.” No, you drill and practice as best you can before the big invasion, and try to work out the possibilities of failure in a low-consequence environment.

Whether success is a must or merely a goal depends on the consequences. That last-second three-point shot isn’t a laboratory for experiment because the game rides on it; if you’re a professional NBA player, you’ve already had all the consequence-free practice money can buy. Now’s the time to succeed.

School, I’d like to argue, needs to be a place for consequence-free practice. My favourite analogy for academic education is martial arts; it’s not actually an analogy, because I think they’re the same thing. Schools essentially are (or, I argue, should be) kung-fu academies for the mind. When you walk into a martial arts dojo, you practice. That’s not to say you don’t get hurt: people get hurt all the time in practice. That’s how you can tell that the practice is really good practice: you’ve got all sorts of bumps and bruises. But they aren’t the sorts of bumps and bruises you get when you’re on the ground in an alley doing your level best to drive your elbow through someone’s temple before they choke you to death.

So I’m not saying school should be completely consequence-free — but the stakes need to be lower than they are in the environment for which one is training.

And oddly, they aren’t. They’re higher. Yes, it’s true that how you do in college, say, matters more than how you do in high school. But that’s only half the story, because where you do how you do in college depends on how you did in high school. If you get a 3.9 at Yale, then yes, that makes up for your 2.1 in High School. But good luck getting in to Yale. And that’s because high school (and, let us be frank, to a great extent college) is a certification system, which brings me to my third point.

High schools have three jobs, really. First, they need to keep the kids off the streets, corralled, and out from underfoot. I personally find this role of the high school to be both demeaning to the teenagers, counterproductive to actual learning, and immoral.

Second, High Schools need to instruct their students in a certain body of knowledge. Now, this body of knowledge is schizoid in the extreme, and it’s created substantially by committee, so it’s not what anyone would call a “coherent” body of knowledge. But there needs to be some teaching going on, some imparting of skills, some training for the rest of one’s life. This is the function I consider absolutely primary.

Finally, High Schools give diplomas: they certify a certain level of competence. Just how much competence they certify and how worthwhile their certifications are will vary from school to school and is the subject of many an essay, op-ed, and book. But that’s the third job, and it’s the certification that is driving all the consequences that I was talking about above. I want to argue that the certification mission is substantially interfering with the education mission, precisely because it is causing the practice itself to be less practice and more real-performance. That “F” on your English essay should be a signal to try again, to rewrite it with a new technique, a new approach. Instead, it’s 20% of your grade, which is 4% of your final GPA. In other words, that ONE essay that you just wrote is .8% of your final GPA in high school.

Bruises acquired in a martial arts dojo during practice heal, and the students emerge stronger, wiser, and more skilled. The bruises stay in the dojo, and in the mind of the student. We need to figure out a way to keep students’ failures inside the school, to give them more opportunity to practice — just practice. How many ungraded assignments that get substantial feedback have any of you given in the last few weeks? In my entire high school career, the only ungraded practice I had was in French. Everything else was graded, it went on the record, it became part of my certification.

That’s super-useful if you’re the person depending on the certification, and you just want people with natural talent who pick things up right away. But it’s horrible for the student who might need a little practice.

Of course, you might question (as many of my students do when we discuss these things) whether students would actually do any ungraded practice assignments. That argument — that grades are primarily about motivation — seems to me at once to be a good one and to prove my point. The reasons that grades motivate is because they matter. If they didn’t matter, they wouldn’t motivate. But the fact that grades matter (and that everything is graded) is precisely why I think there’s a problem.

I’ve gone on long enough for a blog post. Too long, probably. But I wanted to try to get my head around some of these ideas and I think it’s helped.

11 December 2011

"Students' Mastery of Learning Outcomes"

I read that phrase today here.

I want to point out something: students master skills, games, texts, the weather (if they're divine), and all sorts of other things.

But people don't "master" "outcomes". It's just not the sort of thing that gets mastered, because outcomes are just the results of mastering other things.

Some might say that I'm being nitpicky. But words mean things. And if you can't speak/write clearly about what it is you're doing, odds are high that you don't really have a clear idea of what you're doing in the first place.