→ "Do schools kill creativity?"

In this old TED talk, Sir Ken Robinson discusses the impact it has on children that schools still value very narrowly defined academic skills:

And the second is academic ability, which has really come to dominate our view of intelligence, because the universities designed the system in their image. If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly-talented, brilliant, creative people think they're not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn't valued, or was actually stigmatized. And I think we can't afford to go on that way...

I believe our only hope for the future is to adopt a new conception of human ecology, one in which we start to reconstitute our conception of the richness of human capacity. Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won't serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we're educating our children.

How can schools adjust to value all the skills our students possess, not just those that will get them into college?

→ "Why Flunking Exams Is Actually a Good Thing"

Giving "pretests" has never been a big part of my teaching (and with Latin, there's really not much point when students are such novices). But there's research that suggests I may want to give it a try in my World History courses.

But the emerging study of pretesting flips that logic on its head. “Teaching to the test” becomes “learning to understand the pretest,” whichever one the teacher chooses to devise. The test, that is, becomes an introduction to what students should learn, rather than a final judgment on what they did not.

→ "What’s the job of teacher? The crying need for a genuine job description."

I like the late Grant Wiggin's attempt to write a genuine, outcomes-based job description for teachers:

An educator must arguably cause four things in learners:

  1. greater interest in the subject and in learning than was there before, as determined by observations, surveys, and client feedback

  2. successful learning related to key course goals, as reflected in mutually agreed-upon evidence

  3. greater confidence and feelings of efficacy as revealed by student behavior and reports (and as eventually reflected in improved results)

  4. a passion and intellectual direction in each learner

This is a great starting point, and one could add a few more points specific to teaching at a Jesuit school like mine. Importantly, Wiggins also makes clear what is not the job of the teacher.

With a genuine job description we can finally tackle a great problem in education, the common view that the job is to cover the content. No: marching page by page through a textbook (or the written curriculum) can never be your job as a teacher – ever. The textbook or curriculum is written completely independently of your goals and students; it is a generic resource that merely pulls together a comprehensive body of information and lessons in a package for use by thousands of people with varying needs all over the United States.

Whither Scarcity?

I was born in 1983, so for my childhood there existed only three Star Wars movies. From as early as I can remember, there were no movies I loved more. But I didn't actually own them; there were no cheap copies to go buy, so I had to rely on the local video stores to rent them whenever I wanted. At least a couple times a month, I'd head to the video rental section at Schnuck's or Doy TV Repair. God forbid they were rented out when I wanted them–I'd have to wait days to watch them.

I wore out these copies from the video stores. They had to be repaired a couple times, if I recall.

I wore out these copies from the video stores. They had to be repaired a couple times, if I recall.

So like most kids my age there was nothing except those three movies to foster my obsession with all things Star Wars. That changed in 1997 when filming started on Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Entirely new Star Wars movies? That was unfathomable. The still-new-to-me Internet connection at home meant I spent hours (and it did take hours over dialup) downloading that first trailer.

Of course, The Phantom Menace and the rest of the prequel trilogy was mostly disappointing. The anticipation for each movie was in many ways better than the movies themselves. When the first trailers came out for Episode II and then Episode III, I was excited each time. Because no matter what happened, these were Star Wars movies. This wasn't James Bond, with dozens of movies, some good, some not. Once this prequel trilogy was over, who knew if there'd ever be any more? It had been 16 years between Return of the Jedi and Phantom Menace, and there was every indication that Revenge of the Sith would be the last Star Wars movie for a long time.

Of course, in October 2012, The Walt Disney Company purchased Lucasfilm, and announced there would be a brand new trilogy. Like so many others of my generation, that anticipation I felt as a kid returned the moment I saw the first trailer for The Force Awakens.

And yet, there's something very different this time (in addition to me being a grown adult). That scarcity that made the original trilogy, and to a lesser extent the prequels, so special is nonexistent. Already they've announced that there will be "Anthology" movies in the midst of the new trilogy, with two announced so far, meaning there will be at least one new Star Wars movie released every year for the next few years.

Of course I'm going to see all of them, and many of them will be good and some will be really excellent. But knowing that Star Wars is now just another Disney franchise makes it harder to get excited about any individual movie. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is facing the same dilemma. When there's such saturation, it's difficult for any single movie to stand out. If you didn't like Age of Ultron, that's OK, because Ant-Man will be out soon, and then Captain America: Civil War with most of those same characters. There have been some great Marvel movies, and some surprises, but there's a predictability and a sameness to them that will almost certainly seep into these new Star Wars movies as well.

I remember being genuinely excited about moving away from home so I could eat an entire package of Oreos without my parents telling me no. Of course, I quickly learned in college that sometimes it's best to not eat all the Oreos (I learned that lesson with many different foods and beverages, really). Point is, I'm glad there will be more movies set in the Star Wars universe that I've loved since I was a kid, but I will miss having the opportunity to really miss them.

→ "Instead of Framing ‘Failure’ As a Positive, Why Not Just Use Positive Words?"

From KQED's Mind/Shift blog:

Failure, in education as well as general society, is a negative word. To fail means there is finality in being unable to meet standards or objectives for a task. Whereas in general society there is a dichotomy between success and failure, in education there is a spectrum. To not meet all expectations in business (except perhaps in the “fail fast” tech industry model) may be deemed a failure, and one from which to reconvene and try again, whereas in education the endeavor is not a failure but a space between full success and failure, one from which to reconvene and try again, in the spirit of effort. Failure is a foundational element of assessment in education, the letter F as important to the spectrum as the letter A.

As I'm (finally) reading Mindset, I've been thinking a lot about how to help my students be more resilient. The language used, especially around effort and what constitutes "success", is a big part of that.

→ "A good bucket brigade"

From Cory Doctorow (via Seth Godin):

A good bucket brigade allows everyone to contribute at their own pace, and the more contributors you get, the better it works.

I think I am fortunate to work with teachers who understand this. It's also important school leaders feel this way, and see themselves as part of that same bucket brigade.

Homework Follow-up

A student asked me today about my blog. "Don't you write it for teachers?"

I've never specifically thought about my target audience much, but yeah, I suppose most posts are for teachers. It's not that I'm specifically avoiding writing for students, I just don't think I'm the right person to target the 16-year-old-girl demographic. Which made it all the more surprising when my recent post about homework was not only read by some students, but shared by them. I had three different girls stop me in the hallway and say they really liked the post, and one even went so far as to tell her teacher to read it too.

In that post, I specifically avoided suggesting that teachers should never give homework. If I had said that, it would be obvious why my students agreed so strongly. Instead, I simply suggested that teachers should be more aware of the realities their students face. The fact that students responded so positively to that message tells me they would welcome the chance to engage their teachers in this line of dialogue.

When I was in high school, one of my classmates asked our World History teacher why he never gave surveys to the students at the end of the year like other teachers did. His response: "What does a 16-year-old know about education?" While he may have been particularly blunt, his opinion wasn't rare. Most of my colleagues now are more open-minded than that, but that attitude persists. And yes, after almost ten years of teaching, I do know more about education than my students, but that doesn't mean some of them don't spend time thinking about how they learn just as I think about how I teach.

So whether it's homework or grading policies, I've started more frequently asking students what they think. "How long did this assignment take you? How much do you think it should be worth? What's a good assignment to finish up this unit?" It's not that I've given over my lesson-planning to my students, and I still override them pretty frequently, but I'm definitely a better teacher now that I'm able to have those conversations with them. My first few years of teaching I didn't always have that confidence to ask their opinion, but after a few years of being humbled in the classroom, that's no longer an issue. I welcome their take, and it's often more thoughtful than I'd expect.

Which takes me back to my conversation this morning:

"Don't you write it for teachers?"

"Yeah, I guess so. Why?"

"It just seems like the teachers who need to read it the most probably won't."

We try to teach our students to be "open to growth", and we teachers need to model that too. I don't think there's anything special about my blog, but I'm definitely a better teacher for having sought out a variety of opinions. Yes, even (especially) those of teenagers.


Our online gradebook displays grades with one decimal point. And according to the company's online forums, many teachers and college professors around the country are quite upset with this lack of precision. How can a teacher possibly rate a student's performance if they don't know if their grade is a 92.44% or a 92.45%?

For me, grading is one of the hardest parts about teaching. It's not easy to assign numerical grades to students' work, especially knowing just how many students tend to conflate that grade in the course with their value as a person. (Not that we teachers should get any sympathy from students for this–their job is hard too.) Anything we teachers can do to make it more objective removes a bit of that psychic burden.

But we have to admit that there's always a subjective quality to grading, from the creation of the assessments to the grading of them. We can try to limit the subjective portion, but my fear is that using our fancy digital gradebooks to give more precise numbers only gives the illusion of objectivity. "I'm sorry, Bertha, I know you're a great student, but you only earned 89.99% of the available points this semester, so that's just not an A."

Some teachers are fine with that philosophy, and that's OK. Of course, there has to be a cutoff between an A and a B somewhere. I just don't have the confidence to say that I didn't "cost" them a hundredth of a point somewhere over the course of the semester. So much as I try to ensure that each assessment is precisely written and then graded consistently for every student, I'm not perfect. What if I was a little hungry when I read Bertha's essay, and I marked off a few more points than I did on somebody else's essay of similar quality? Or what if a single multiple choice question on a test was unclear, with two possible correct answers?

There's nothing wrong with teachers who don't have these same doubts as I do, and are completely comfortable with highly precise grading scales. But I can't help but wonder if this has the potential to be an example of the "False Precision Fallacy":

False precision (also called overprecision, fake precision, misplaced precision and spurious accuracy) occurs when numerical data are presented in a manner that implies better precision than is actually the case; since precision is a limit to accuracy, this often leads to overconfidence in the accuracy as well.

It's entirely possible (likely even) that I'm wrong about all this, but acknowledging the inherent subjectivity of grading rather than fighting it has given me peace–I don't lose sleep when I give students the benefit of the doubt.