The Challenges of Rhetoric

It is the thesis of this book that change — constant, accelerating, ubiquitous — is the most striking characteristic of the world we live in and that our educational system has not yet recognized this face. We maintain, further, that the abilities and attitudes required to deal adequately with change are those of the highest priority and that it is not beyond our ingenuity to design school environments which can help young people to master concepts necessary to survival in a rapidly changing world.
from Teaching as a Subversive Activity, by Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner

Those words were written in 1969, but they fit much of the rhetoric around the need for change in education today. I don’t mean to argue with the central premise — that we have the potential to significantly increase the value of education in the modern world. It’s the means to that end that are interesting, and there are plenty of ideas around.

Sir Ken Robinson argues articulately for creativity. Sal Khan presents a new vision of a classroom. Will Oremus thinks adaptive learning software is amazing. And they’re each pretty convincing. Here’s some of their rhetoric:

We have built our education systems on the model of fast food. This is something Jamie Oliver talked about the other day. There are two models of quality assurance in catering. One is fast food, where everything is standardized. The other is like Zagat and Michelin restaurants, where everything is not standardized, they’re customized to local circumstances. And we have sold ourselves into a fast-food model of education, and it’s impoverishing our spirit and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies.

If I’m a teacher I don’t want to give the same lecture.. it’s crazy to have everyone giving the same lecture if you can do it one time and so what we’re seeing in classrooms is it’s kindof liberating teachers so instead of giving a one-size-fits-all lecture to a bunch of students, some of them lost, some of them bored, now they can assign this as homework and then the kids can come into the class and actually do homework there and actually interact and actually take advantage of the fact that there’s actually people in the room there that you can get help from.

A few wrong answers to a given type of question, and the program may prompt them to read some background materials, watch a short video lecture, or view some hints on what they might be doing wrong. But if they’re breezing through a set of questions on, say, linear inequalities, it may whisk them on to polynomials and factoring. Master that, and ALEKS will ask if they’re ready to take a test. Pass, and they’re on to exponents—unless they’d prefer to take a detour into a different topic, like data analysis and probability. So long as they’ve mastered the prerequisites, which topic comes next is up to them.

These are all pretty convincing arguments for a change in the way we do education, and there are plenty more. But they’re largely uninteresting to me. I would argue that we have a glut of new ideas to improve education, and we have an apparatus to disseminate these ideas, in clickbait, buzzword form, to a larger and larger audience. What we don’t have is a robust debate about how ideas work in practice, where and when they work best, and what support structures are most effective — the nitty gritty of taking any of this and making it happen in the classroom, and actually work for a broad cross-section of students.

I remember the first time I used the “notice/wonder” protocol in my class. It was my first year teaching, and I asked students to notice and wonder about the video in “You Pour, I Choose“.  I was pretty excited, having read the blogs and watched videos of people talking about inspiring problem solving and engaging students.
Screenshot 2016-01-04 at 1.39.06 PM.png

It was a disaster. I didn’t have the classroom culture to promote that type of discourse. Students made silly comments, or were just confused because I had never asked them to do anything like it before. I ended up backtracking, then walking the class step by step through the problem I wanted them to solve, and circumventing all of the meaningful mathematical thinking I had wanted to see.

That was a hard lesson, for my students and for me. I learned a great deal, but the biggest lesson is that all of the praise in the world for how amazing notice/wonder is doesn’t translate into great teaching without a set of tools for knowing where, when, and how to execute it.

Those conversations are hard. The headlines are less catchy, the takeaways are more subtle. But I worry that the wheel of fads in education is spinning faster and faster, and we’re losing the opportunity to actually make the best use of new ideas before moving on to the next one.

I’m not much for new year’s resolutions, and this is as close as I’ll get. I’m sure I’ll spend plenty of time thinking and experimenting and writing about teaching this year. I want to spend that time looking at rhetoric with a critical eye for the practicalities of moving from ideas to the classroom, and taking any of the many great tools out there and figuring out the details of how to make it work for students every day.

4 thoughts on “The Challenges of Rhetoric

  1. dormanmath

    Love the comments about three of the big thoughts in education today! And I like the analogy to catering to the unique set of students/circumstances etc. Another analogy I’ve heard was that education today is like the Big 3 automakers… we need a Tesla.

    Reply
    1. dkane47 Post author

      We might need a Tesla… but Tesla didn’t come about because someone decided electric cars would be great, and then convinced everyone to buy it before the car was tested. If Tesla does earn significant market share, it will be over time and through a great deal of effort, iterating on designs and maximizing benefits while minimizing drawbacks. That’s pretty different from how many educational paradigms are communicated today.

      Reply
  2. Brett Gilland

    I would start with this as regards the quote above: One major difference between Zagat/Michelin restaurants and fast food is the cost. It takes manpower to differentiate at that level. And you aren’t liberating the fast food worker by placing Zagat quality requirements on them with their high volume and low resources.

    Also, adaptive learning systems are closer to fast food than Zagat/Michelin. Tell me when the first 4 star rating gets offered for a restaurant that is fully automated to adjust for your tastes (without significant human input) and then we can start to talk about whether it is good enough for education.

    Reply
    1. dkane47 Post author

      Even beyond being cost-prohibitive in many cases, I think there’s an argument to be made against Zagat/Michelin models of education in that hyper-personalized learning can also set low expectations for certain groups of students, and allow students to go through their education without challenging themselves to expand their horizons and explore ideas they wouldn’t have chosen on their own. It has its place, but I want to temper the rhetoric for the potential of personalized learning with acknowledgment of its pitfalls.

      Reply

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