Monthly Archives: May 2014

Teachers Who Hate Knowledge

“Kids don’t look to teachers for knowledge anymore; Google can provide knowledge.” — Eric Jensen, 10/13/13

This much misquoted and oft retweeted comment from Eric Jensen’s blog post of October 2013 keeps getting under my skin. Jensen’s original post is excellent (please read it), but it is about education’s role in reversing poverty, not about eliminating content from teaching. I love learning from other teachers on Twitter, but it seems like many of them are trying to eliminate content knowledge from the curriculum and focus only on innovation and creativity. How do they suppose students are going to create anything when they know nothing? In their urgent quest to focus only on the higher-order thinking skills from Bloom’s Taxonomy, they forget why the visual representation of Bloom’s Taxonomy is a pyramid: higher order thinking skills must rest on a wide base of knowledge.

Each year I assign my sophomores an essay by Harold Bloom about Macbeth. (From Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human) This brilliant essay is a model of the sort of thing I’d love to see from my students when they write their critical essays. It features an incredible original thesis (Macbeth’s violence against children is an acting out of his sexual dysfunction) brilliantly supported by close reading and evidence from the text. But all of this rests upon Bloom’s broad and masterful knowledge of Shakespeare’s oeuvre and the whole darn Western literary cannon. How can we expect students to do writing like this that expresses their creativity if they haven’t read widely? Bloom’s essay rests atop a methodology that draws heavily from Freud, too. My students haven’t read Freud yet.

When I taught AP Art History, an essay assignment I created asked students to compare a modern church designed by a contemporary architect to medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque churches they had studied earlier in the year. I was very proud of that assignment; to perform well students needed to use skills from all of the levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. The “evaluation” that they were doing required them to demonstrate a mastery of terms we had studied, compare and contrast floor plans and elevations, and consider how sacred spaces affect the worshiper. A student couldn’t write the essay without having read the chapters in our text on Early Christian, Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance art and architecture, and they needed to do research on the contemporary architect they had been assigned in order to make sense of this strange, modern building they had been assigned.

The real issue here is the extent to which we should be teaching content. I agree that the shift away from asking students to learn by rote towards a style of teaching in which students have to exercise critical thinking skills is an improvement. However, it isn’t enough for students to Google the fact they need when they need it. Students need to actually learn content in a particular sequence (“curated,” so to speak, by experts) in order to create the necessary context within their minds to do more advanced work down the road. This may require memorizing a sonnet by Shakespeare, or some of the Periodic Table, or the multiplication tables, or the state capitals, etc. Just because we can outsource a portion of our memories to the internet doesn’t mean that the right path is a race to the bottom in which we never ask students to commit content to their long-term memories. We might even (gasp!) use a little class time to cover content now and then. While I don’t dedicate much time in class to rote learning of content knowledge, sometimes it is necessary, and that doesn’t equate to outdated or poor teaching.


Thoughts on the University

Latest post written by my erudite colleague, Ralph Lelii.

by Ralph Lelii, English department

Jacob Bronowski, in his profoundly humane 1973 BBC series entitled, The Ascent of Man, ends the final installment in dramatic fashion. He returns to the lake behind the ovens of Auschwitz, a place of human evil where several members of his family, along with millions of others, were murdered. In the sediment of the lake lie the dumped ashes of thousands of corpses who were burned by the Nazi’s. Bronowski walks into the lake, reaches his hands down into the sediment, pulls up a handful of dripping ash, and says with great depth of feeling, “This is what men do when they are certain. This was not done by science. This was done by arrogance. When men believe they have the knowledge of Gods, this is how they behave.”

This visual moment was a powerful transition in my own intellectual life, and it led…

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End of the year is close

It’s Commencement Weekend, and I’m manning the desk in the deans’ office on a busy Saturday. We have seniors packing their rooms to ship out tomorrow after lunch, we have rising seniors attending leadership training, and we have lots of underclassmen just trying to enjoy a long Memorial Day weekend.

I’m thankful that I was able to enjoy an hour of #satchathack this morning (the usual #satchat hosts took the day off). The topic was about inauthentic 21st century classrooms that just bring in a lot of technology and trendy methods without meaningful learning objectives, etc. I might occasionally fall prey to that myself, but I’m never guilty of adding a column for “Creativity” on a rubric (because I scrupulously eschew rubrics). I love the irony of that move and the fact that rubric practitioners don’t get the irony. 

The summer blogging assignment for rising sophomores is ready to go, but I feel this nagging sense that there is more to do. The books are in the bookstore, the details of the assignment are about to go live on our  school web site . . . What have I forgotten? I had a sudden insight this morning that I should add some “prerelease” prompts to the central site on our LMS so that students can start blogging even before the actual summer begins. I’ll do that when I finish this post. I need to schedule times to help students build their blogs (if they actually need help, which I doubt), and I need to crank out a letter to parents. 

Meanwhile, I’m still waiting to hear what’s going on with the Adaptability Project. I wonder when the selection committee will share the identities of the participants. 

I didn’t get accepted to this summer’s Google Teacher Academy in Atlanta. I think it was tougher to get into that thing than it was to get into college! I am completely honest with myself about my mediocre qualifications. Furthermore, I could have done a better job on the (challenging) application. My one-minute YouTube video was hastily shot, and my application essays weren’t my best work either. I can still work on becoming a Google Educator this summer by taking their online classes and exams, and I think that’s a worthy form of professional development. I’ll also be participating in the #TABSchat summer book club (provided it really happens). 

Cover Letter for the Adaptability Project

Independent schools have lost their sustainable competitive advantage. Once upon a time, our schools were pipelines to the elite colleges and universities, but those days are over. In truth the old system that protected the competitive advantage of independent schools was built on restricting higher education access to people from racial, ethnic and religious minorities, immigrants, and the working classes. Even if George School’s commitment to equality sought to defy this system, it benefited from it nonetheless. The gradual demise of the old boys’ network that restricted access to elite universities is greatly to the betterment of society, but it is also a challenge for schools like ours. If young people are as likely to get into Stanford from their local public high school as they are from a venerable boarding school, what then are we offering? Those of us inside the independent school world know the answer to that question: We offer small classes, a safe environment, academic excellence, a true intellectual milieu, incredible facilities, extraordinary teachers, astonishing diversity, a spiritual component, etc. Yet we are forced to confront the question: Is our business model at risk?

Today we find ourselves in a wide-open, competitive market in which many public, charter, and online schools compete with us on an ever-shifting playing field. New, disruptive players are emerging who promise better results for a lower price tag, and even if they are ultimately proven to be offering an inferior education, they still have the potential to lure many families away from traditional institutions like ours. We can protest all we like that a real classroom with experienced teachers is better than an online experience staring at a computer screen, but if the tide is rolling in that direction, all our protestations will just leave us with a mouth full of sand. With our once-strong competitive advantage eroded, we now exist in a world of “transient advantage” described by Rita Gunther McGrath in The End of Competitive Advantage.

We can navigate this shifting landscape thoughtfully and intentionally, on our own terms, or we can ignore it and find change forced upon us. We can identify what is essential and indispensable about our school and carefully tend to it, or we can find ourselves helplessly behind and unable to catch up. In our faculty meeting of 5/5/14 when Nancy introduced the Adaptability Project, there was a question from Terry about the language of what is “central” versus what is “peripheral.” My mind flew to the part of my/Scott’s presentation to the George School Board (“Trends in Education” 4/26/14) about industries that have been disrupted by technology. As we explained, The New York Times Company has seen its revenues halved over the past decade as a result of turmoil in the “old media” world. As they have desperately tried to hold onto their center (i.e. their world-class, eponymous publication) they’ve been forced to sell off the Boston Globe and (at huge losses), and they’ve killed their International Herald Tribune brand. Their gorgeous and architecturally innovative new headquarters in midtown Manhattan (designed by “starchitect” Renzo Piano) they’ve sold off to raise cash, so they now find themselves tenants in what was supposed to be their iconic home for the next century. What might it look like for us if we found our revenues cut in half over the period of a decade? To protect the center of what we do, we very well might hold a fire sale for the “north coast” properties, rent out our facilities so aggressively that our community would lose free access, and reduce financial aid. The school would likely survive, but only with many bitter compromises. Do I truly lose sleep over such a future? Yes.

This new landscape is a challenging one for teachers who got into the profession hoping to find stability from year to year and shelter from the shearing winds of change. Remaining relevant requires more than just reading the latest book on how students learn or attending the usual conferences. For the first twelve years of my career, I wouldn’t have been a good candidate for this project. But beginning three years ago, I’ve been on a new path. As changes in my personal life led to soul-searching and opportunities for growth, I began to look around me at how my profession and the wider world had changed. Influenced by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha’s book The Start-Up of You, I’ve embraced a permanent beta mindset.

I’ve been gigging. I spent one year as a dorm head, and now I’m in Year Two as an assistant dean. I’ve spent three years representing the faculty on the GSB and the Finance Committee. I’ve served on search committees for nurses, admissions people, the Dean of Students, the Director of Institutional Advancement, and the Director of College Guidance (the latter as clerk). I’ve given a major presentation to the George School Board and led a new initiative to bring blogging to our students. I’ve demonstrated leadership by putting myself in front of my colleagues to help show the way forward on issues regarding educational technology. While I know that I have many, many colleagues who are better qualified to describe the ineffable nature of what is unique and special about the George School of the past, I hope to have a stake in describing what will be essential to the George School of the future.

Although I am excited by the opportunity to participate in the Adaptability Project, I must admit that I have my doubts about its chances for success. McGrath is clear that busting silos requires changing the way in which a business goes about distributing its budget, but that is not within the faculty’s purview for decision-making. Just as McGrath describes in her book, our resources are “held hostage” within our divisions and departments, but firms that have adapted to the new world of transient advantage adjust their budgets in real time, and the necessary resources to seize strategic opportunities they manage centrally. While the team that we are assembling for this two-year project is being encouraged to dream big in terms of strategic planning, there is no guarantee that we will be able to roust ourselves to take action on that plan. Furthermore, agility is a key characteristic of firms that have mastered the world of transient advantage. Our decision-making process is an integral element of our identity, yet its plodding pace may prohibit us from exploiting opportunities identified by the Adaptability Project team quickly enough. If tapped by the selection committee to participate in the project, I will work with spirit and optimism, but I must also hope that another team, an administrative team perhaps, will be doing parallel work to put in place the necessary conditions for our project to take root.