Sunday, July 23, 2017

Two Modes of Thought

Two Modes of Thought

I will describe here, at some length, what will appear to most readers to be rather obvious: that we, and probably many other animals, have at least two easily recognizable modes of thought.

The two modes are not mutually exclusive. They are, nevertheless, complementary. Each mode has its strengths and its limitations, and we normally call upon each as needed.

I will give several examples of each of these two modes of thought. Mainly towards the end, I will briefly touch upon how the existence (and so also the properties and importance) of these two modes is increasingly ignored or neglected in our schools, and on how this affects the education of our students.

Readers who are interested might also want to read the discussion between Peter Isackson, Sherman Pridham and myself in the comments section of one of Peter's Facebook posts, the one at: 

-- Arjun

We can walk and chew gum at the same time. And some of us may even be able to juggle balls while doing so. But most of us cannot thread a needle while riding on a galloping horse, or learn the calculus while playing ping pong.

There are  modes of thought that are in some ways analogous to ways of seeing. As we walk or drive, our vision takes in many perceived objects and movements around us at the same time. We are aware of all of these simultaneously. This is as "non-sequential" as we get, perhaps, in our perceiving. In the language used for computers, our eyes and brain are "parallel processing".

However, this is a relatively diffuse awareness, very sensitive to movements in the periphery, but without sharp focus on any one object or movement.

If we wish to thread a needle, or shoot an arrow at a target, or avoid hitting the person crossing the street in front of us, we switch to a different kind of vision--that of central focus. The rest of the field becomes more of a blur, which we ignore in relation to the object of our attention, which stands out in sharp, precise detail.

It is the same with thought.

When we first learned to drive a car, especially a stick-shift (manual transmission) car, as some of us will remember, we needed to put our full, conscious attention on each action--including (for stick-shift vehicles) steppping on the clutch pedal while releasing the gasoline (accelerator) pedal, and going through the complex spatial arm-motions of manually changing gears.

We also had to focus on controlling our speed by using the gas and brake pedals, while steering and avoiding other cars, etc. Many of us probably found it difficult to do all of these things at once; we tended, instead, to focus on each immediate or primary task, while losing partial sight of, and so also full control over, the others.

The whole thing was rather daunting, though surely also exhilarating in its way. Adrenalin levels were high, we clutched the steering wheel tightly, and we could only do this for a while before being exhausted.

If we had already watched our parents or others driving, or had driven toy vehicles as children, this first experience of driving an automobile on the roads might have been less stressful and more successful.

But after we had driven for a few months, definitely a year, we might have climbed into our car after work and then thought freely about this and that as we drove, seemingly effortlessly.  We might then have found ourselves, almost miraculously, home, with little conscious memory of how we got there.

As we were driving, we might have been thinking about other things that concerned us, looking at the things we were passing by on our route or otherwise occupied. Yet we took all the correct turns and did all the other things needed to get from our workplaces to our homes--doing all of this without much conscious effort--unmindfully, as it were.

What had happened was that we had been able, by practice, to delegate all the main sub-tasks involved in the task of driving a car to parts or modes of our body-mind that did these in parallel, with speed, and without need of fully conscious monitoring and correction. So our conscious focus gave the "top-level" command, so to speak, "Go home.", and the "mechanical" parts of what was needed were carried out smoothly and rapidly at "lower levels".

This left the conscious focus free to attend to other things, including vital ones--such as noticing that there was someone (nowadays, perhaps with a cell phone in hand) stepping into the street ahead of us.  We could then take appropriate action.

In the absence of such urgent demands on it, the conscious focus was able to dwell on other things, including on past events and future plans, or simply on the experience of observing and being.

We can see the same shifts occurring, over time, when we learn to play a ball game--and go from being a complete novice, trying to get the bat to connect to the ball, and then, once that is mastered, trying to direct the ball. It is only much later that most of us reach the stage where we swiftly notice a weakness or opening, and seemingly "will" the ball towards it.

All that is needed for what follows is, at this stage of experience, carried out smoothly and subconsciously at speed, with the conscious focus left free to observe and strategize.

It is as if the bat and the ball have become extensions of our limbs and so of ourselves. It is of course the same with a car and with musical and other instruments. One seems to become aware, also, of a sort of "life" in each of these things that are inanimate.  We learn to recognize and pay attention to minute signals from these entities--and to respond, consciously or subconsciously. So there is a sort of expansion of self that goes beyond mere control.

So we see that there are parts or functions of the mind that can be likened to a well-designed set of computer subroutines, or to parallel processing. This mode of functioning can do a lot of things simultaneously, and at great speed. We may call this the "subconscious parallel processor" mode.

Then there is another mode of thought that is more like the linear flow of the main program. By necessity, this is a serial (sequential) process. This is because it can only attend to one thing (or a very small set of things) at a time.

But it can focus on detail; it can fuss over things, ponder, correct, etc.

It is usually very slow, compared to the mode described earlier. It can coexist with that other mode, and may perhaps be a special part of it--a vital one, accompanied by full awareness.

We may call this the "conscious focus" mode (as we have been doing).

Each era has had its analogies for mental function. I have fallen into the computer and programming metaphors, complementing a visual one. We should of course understand that these are just metaphors. We do not really know how minds work.

We do not even know what minds are--or what mind is.

Can the knower know itself?

These two modes of thought are evident also in language. Most of us listen to and speak our first and (practiced) second languages without any conscious awareness of the tremendous amount of mental processing that must be going on. We hear someone speaking, and we know what is meant by it. We think a thought and, even as we are thinking it, that thought might emerge as speech.

But if we we were to study language in detail, as we might do when formally learning a second language, we would see the tremendous complexity of it, at many levels. The conscious focus cannot deal with this complexity.  The subconscious parallel processor can.  This can occur without even a conscious thought, without our conscious awareness of all the work that the mind is doing.

So when do we use which of these two parts or modes of our minds--which may be just two out of many more?

Well, when we are learning something for the first time, or when we are checking a mathematical proof, or otherwise making sure of logical consistency, or threading a needle, or making sure that a carpentered joint is fitted correctly, or when we are listening, with care, to someone describing the difficulties they are facing, or listening with attention to a lecture on a subject that is new or difficult for us, we need then our full conscious focus. We would not succeed without it.

When we are walking, running, driving, playing a competitive game, and even in the acts of speaking and listening, we need also the speed and the breadth of the subconscious parallel processor to complement the sharp (but slow and sequential) attention provided by the conscious focus.  This is of course also true of practiced writing, reading, typing, etc.--indeed, all activities that require practice and habituation.

We could not live without the subconscious parallel processor. But we would be very limited without having also the conscious focus to call upon.

This duality of mental functioning is unlikely to be confined to humans. As we observe domesticated animals, such as cats and dogs, go about their lives, or watch the interactions between lions or eagles and their prey on our screens, we can infer that very similar abilities must be present and functioning in these and other animals.

The subconscious parallel processor mimics, to a degree, the largely unconscious functioning of the rest of our body-mind, from our breathing and our heartbeat (over which we do have some conscious control), "down" to the cellular and molecular levels. However, unlike some processes that we are born with, the processes it deals with have to be learned.  Habits and skills of observation and action, and more, have to be formed and honed.
The point of this long description, of things that should be quite obvious, is that we are animals with minds having certain abilities and limitations, and this should at least be taken into account, even as we should also admit that we are faced with mysteries that cannot be reduced to the crude metaphors of our or other eras.

So you would find it hard to thread a needle if I were to constantly jog your elbow, or if you were riding on a galloping horse. And most of us might find it hard to read a book or an article on a subject that was new or difficult for us, when surrounded by others speaking loudly in a language that we understand.

The conscious focus is not being allowed to form and sustain itself, being distracted and diffused instead.  We might feel frustrated and acutely aware that we cannot succeed in these circumstances. This, by the way, is similar to the situations that prevail, too often, in the classrooms in many of our schools--especially nowadays.  Is it any surprise that many students and teachers become discouraged and lose confidence?

So also, without much practice, most of us would not be able to play a game or a musical instrument or speak or understand a language, in a way that others might find passable or bearable.  This is because the subconscious parallel processor has not yet been able to learn, assimilate and automate the required set of skills--or even been able to learn to recognize the elemental set of objects to operate upon.


As we should also surely understand, facts and skills are also needed. The modes of mind described before cannot operate on vacuities or on general abstractions alone.

A language has words and relations between words. Carpentry has tools and materials and their uses. Theoretical physicists may use logic and mathematics, but they also try to test both their assumptions and the validity of the logical chains they have used by comparing the results they obtain with experimental data.  A musician has to learn to use an instrument or his/her voice and also has to learn pieces passed down through the years.

For several decades, and continuing even till the present, the learning of the multiplication tables was de-emphasized, indeed discouraged, in the schools. Then the mathematics teachers in later grades would complain that their students, except for a few exceptional ones, or those coming from schools or countries that operated more traditionally, could not handle the topics being taught and lacked even in basic number sense, seemingly lacking in mathematical ability and so also in confidence in that field.

Part of what was and still is occurring is that a student learning algebra cannot as easily fall back on a mastery of arithmetic to make sense of algebra. So also, a student learning physics is bogged down in the mechanics of solving equations and so is not free to focus on the other things of importance.

The subconscious parallel processor has not built up its powers in this field. The conscious focus has to try to do its work instead, slowly and painfully. It is not free to learn; it is not at ease to respond to questions or even to formulate questions. The student is therefore likely to be dismissed as being "dumb".

Indeed, he or she has been, perhaps unwittingly, but nonetheless successfully, dumbfounded--struck dumb.

Such a student might lapse into diffidence and apathy or might vent his/her frustration in other ways.

We normally expect that both the span and the depth of a child's attention will increase with age. But this can only happen in circumstances where a certain degree of diligence is expected and the intrinsic reward of successful accomplishment--such as one gets from persevering at a difficult mathematics problem and finally solving it on one's own--is routinely experienced.

Some might in fact still argue that that traditional academic practices, such as the learning of the times-tables, are surely a waste of time and a turn-off in the age of calculators, which have now been with us for decades, and of computers, which already are listening and speaking to us.

I will not try to argue with them here. I will only say that vehicles have been with us for a long time. But should we then forego our legs?

What explains the acquiescence, even the support, of many of our citizens to policies and actions made by a government--on the social, economic and foreign policy fronts--that harm their own long term interests, not to speak of others within the country and, especially, in far away places, in ways that are often of life-and-death importance?

One may argue that this acquiescence and wrongheaded support is due, in large part, not to any lack of intelligence or critical faculties on the part of the citizens, but rather to a lack of acquaintance with the basic facts of geography, history, politics and economics.

Some might argue there are no such facts--only conditioned perceptions. Again, I will not try to argue with them here, except to say that they are, in my opinion, seeing only part of the whole truth in this matter.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Reflections—on teaching, learning and more

Reflections—on teaching, learning and more

The following was an e-mail I had sent to colleagues at my school this summer.

I have removed last names to protect privacy.

I have also added quite a few things, increasing the length, but hopefully not the comprehensibility, of these reflections.

I have, however,  inserted headings, hoping to create a semblance of sectioning, so as to guide the reader through my meanders.  The headings are as follows:

A) My father's website and the last two books he authored

B) People at the school

C) The public schools, the transmission of cultureand cultural diversity

D) Informal learning, the acquisition of the first languageand the nature of learning 

E) Changes in learning ability with age, the need for formal learning—and more on the schools

F) Information and technology

G) The acquisition of ethicsand our socioeconomic malaise
H) Some final thoughts on hierarchical command structures such as those in our school systems


A) My father's website and the last two books he authored

My father's website is at .  Being a teacher, I conceived of it as an educational resource, of use not only to photographers, historians, anthropologists and others with specialized interests, but also to the public in general and to students in the schools and colleges.

That link came out garbled, for some reason, in the earlier sending.

I had worked on the website from 1998-2004, beginning with my father's exhibition in 1998 in New York City, curated by Ram Rahman, and finally also incorporating, after my sister Monua's passing in 2004,  my father's last exhibition while alive—in the year 2000, in San Francisco.  Monua had made that final exhibition possible and had aided her father with it, in every way.

I had also worked on the website, briefly, in the summer of 2012, to include my father's obituaries from the New York Times, etc.  Sadly, there were none for my mother, who had preceded him, by about a month, that same year.

My mother (born Sobha Dutt) had helped my father (Sunil Janah) in ways that are too many to recount here, not only in his physical survival, but also in his work.  His last two books, The Tribals of India and Photographing India (both published by Oxford University Press) would not have taken form, let alone seen publication, without her long and arduous involvement in them.  This was especially true for his final, sadly posthumous, epic work.

Members of my mother's extended family, my parents' longtime English friend, Dr. Brian Watson, my father's attendants and others were of great help to my parents, in many ways, in their final years in California.

Many more years of effort need to be put into the website and, more importantly, into my father's life's work.  This is needed, so that his documentation, carried out through decades of labor, is more widely available to current and future generations, especially in the subcontinent but also elsewhere.  Hopefully, they will be wiser from this and will also use it with wisdom and caring.

My mother had not wanted me to put large, good quality images on the website, so these are scarce (though present) there.

B) People at the school

How is Sandra doing?  Hopefully, Diane is fully recovered from her own ordeal.

I was most saddened to hear of Louie's passing. He always had time to be of assistance and to crack a joke.

If I had been my old self, after returning (in 2009) from many rather stressful years of leave, mostly in California, I would have sat in Louie's classes and learned the many wonderful things he taught, including hardware-related matters.

I remember attending, many years ago at another school, Ramin's skillfully woven after-school college-level C++ programming classes, taking notes, doing the assigned homework and taking exams along with the other students, many of whom were also my own students during the school-day.

C) The public schools, the transmission of cultureand cultural diversity

One does not perhaps realize this, but the public schools had, by default, become the depositories and transmitters of much of the cultural traditions, including the academic and vocational knowledge, that make us what we are.  This had occurred as our communities were being atomized.

Those cultural traditions are best passed on in an atmosphere that is not pressured, and where respect prevails between and among teachers, students and parents—as well as for the subjects being taught, some of which appear to be new but still have roots going back thousands of years.

If our species is at all special, it is largely because of these cultural continuities.  We do not face the world newly hatched and alone, but, hopefully, much more than most other species do, informed by the experience and thought of many generations that preceded us.

This was and still is true among tribal folk, whom we wrongly regard as "primitive".  We have much to learn from them. Sadly, our own smaller human cultures are vanishing at a rate almost matching the extinctions of the biological species.

We learn in ecology that biological diversity is essential for the survival of an ecosystem and so also for the biosphere. Information is transmitted both genetically and culturally—especially for birds and mammals, and even more so for primates, including humans. Should we let ourselves be complacent, then, about the loss of cultural diversity that is occurring all over the globe? When a language dies, it takes with it almost as much as when a species dies.
D) Informal learning, the acquisition of the first languageand the nature of learning
There is a difference between wisdom and knowledge, although in certain matters they do go hand in hand.

The basis of both is the informal learning that takes place within the family and, in earlier times, within the village or extended clan. The learning of the first language, always locally pitch-perfect, miraculously so, is the basis on which all later abstraction is built. It is perhaps the greatest intellectual accomplishment of our lifetimes, yet it is mostly completed within the first few years of our lives.

Parents and others do not have to get teaching certificates or degrees to teach this great body of abstraction, that has within it the seeds of all others. Teaching and learning are things that most mammals and birds do instinctively. Humans excel at this.

Of course, one cannot teach what one does not know, and one cannot teach if one does not have the desire to do this. Similarly, one cannot learn when one does not want to. One can be tricked or forced into doing some learning—but that won't get us far.

The mechanics of mind and brain are too complex, mysterious and fluid to admit of rigid prescriptions.  One cannot write on water. There is a flow that takes its time and does what needs to be done.  Conscious, subconscious and unconscious processes are involved. The desire and the will, along with the traditional virtues, are needed.

That central mystery needs to be respected.  Left alone, humans (and many other animals) will find  ways to teach and learn what they need to teach and learn. The process, like all human things, is a messy one—neither for show nor for rating.

Being able to walk, use our hands and fingers and do other physical things, including talk, hear, and truly see, are also wonders—miracles—that we share with many other species.

E) Changes in learning ability with age, the need for formal learning—and more on the schools

The learning of other languages and skills, later in life, often proceeds very differently.  As the ends of our long bones begin to set at puberty, so also do certain aspects of our mental structure. Malleability is sharply decreased.

I came to this country, 41 years ago, at age 23, but still speak (and think and act) much as I did when I got off the plane then.  My late sister came here a bit later, but at a younger age—18.  After a few years, she had little trace of accent left in her speech and was otherwise far more westernized in many things.

However, as certain faculties are lost or reduced, others arise and are developed which can take their place.  Experience, knowledge, the ability to deal with abstractions, the ability to focus deeply and maintain that focus for extended periods, and to persevere despite setbacks—all of these normally increased as a child matures, and this process could be extended into adulthood.

However, current trends seem to be working against this natural maturing process.  So we have not only children, but also adults, with severe attention-deficit syndromes.  This is, I believe, a sort of survival adaptation to the world we live in, and we are also purposely led towards this by socioeconomic pressures and manipulation through the media.

At the same time, the pressures and distractions of samskara—having to deal with survival and all the duties and worries that follow, come in the way of the kind of learning that came naturally to us as children—if we were lucky enough to have had a childhood not plagued with unbearable hardships and conflicts.  This was so, even for past generations.

Almost every culture developed subcultures of formal learning.  This was particularly evident in civilizations that preserved ancient languages for religious or other purposes.  These had also often developed formalized systems of scholarship, statecraft, priesthood and medicine. There were formal disciplines of music and dance and of spiritual, physical and martial training. Formal learning also had its place in apprenticeships in the specialized traditions of the other skilled crafts and arts.
All of these formalized systems drew from and supplemented the more informal folk traditions, which remained as the sources.  Formal and informal traditions interacted and evolved.

One might be tempted to think that formal education proceeded only under the tutelage and sponsorship of affluent individuals and of royal courts.  While it is true that teachers and students of the formalized disciplines often became dependent on such sponsors, the larger truth is that some in the ruling elites were either clever enough or enlightened enough, and had resources enough to provide such support, often for their own uses or ends.

The apparent divergence between classical and folk or popular traditions is a superficial one. The emergence of economic classes, often also associated with rule by a foreign or removed elite, was what led to the dichotomy between "high" and "low" cultures.  This was aggravated by urbanization and industrialization, which was accompanied by the destruction of rural communities and their folk traditions.

Schools for formal learning, with or without affluent private or state sponsors, have been around for a long time. The schools and universities of our time are extensions of these.

It is rather unfortunate, however, that the industrial factory model also came to be applied to formal education, especially in the schools. Despite all the touted reforms that have come and gone, often creating more confusion, disruption and havoc than anything else, this, along with the hierarchical organization of the schools, has not changed.

Formal education is a powerful thing.  But one should ask, for what end is this power being used?  And one should also ask why so much of that power is dissipated, even as the lives of teachers and students are consumed and wasted.
The many disciplines created by humans have been able to perpetuate themselves through specialized systems of formal learning, even as they have continually evolved.

It is difficult to make generalizations about such systems or give prescriptions for them. They have each developed, over time, through human experience, effort and ingenuity.  What might work for teaching and learning carpentry might not work for mathematics—and vice versa.  Also, what works for little children might not be suitable for teenagers, might be unbearable for older folk, and so on.

F) Information and technology

Methods of communication and storage of information have arisen and evolved and have assisted in learning and teaching—both informal and formal.

Just as in farming and industry, the rise of new technologies has impacted education.  This is nothing new.  But the rate of change that humans can deal with is now an issue worth considering.

Technologies take time to mature and be assimilated.  Technology should serve humans, rather than the other way around.  Technology can be used to liberate but also to enslave.  It is best if a technology is transparent, robust and locally reproducible.

These common-sense observations are just as valid in education as in other areas of human activity.

Vehicles may have their uses, but we should not forget that we have legs, that we need to use these organs, and that these should be used, rather than vehicles, whenever possible.

Black boxes that do magical things may have their place in our lives, but it should not be a central one.  We should not become dependent on them.
G) The acquisition of ethicsand our socioeconomic malaise
The acquisition of an ethical framework is, I believe, just as important as the acquisition of the first language. This too is usually acquired very early in life, again mostly through informal learning.  It is based on empathy, sharing, equity and the Golden Rule—things that some children come to early, others late or perhaps never.  Without this framework, humans would not have survived in the past. Yet, in the world we have created, full of transient interactions, it appears to be, too often, more of a handicap.

The ethical, reflective person is too often considered a fool and a nuisance.  Cosmetic or superficial considerations are given greater weight.  Personality trumps character.  Speed and efficiency (both desirable qualities) trump diligence and caring (even more desirable ones).  Impatience rules. Patience is devalued. The short term gets precedence over the long term. Self-interest triumphs over collective survival.

The basic trust and respect that is needed for peace within oneself, family, co-workers, friends, a community, a country or the world is lost and replaced by mistrust and hostility.
Workers, on whose labor  the wealth of the human world was built and continues to be built, are divided by ethnicity, gender, age, profession, economic stratum and region or nationality.  Adults are reduced to children, artisans to factory workers.

Seeing things in black and white, rather in all the shades of gray, is preferred. This makes life apparently simpler—but also more boorish. Black and white can also change places rapidly, as can love and hate, as we see around us too often, both in personal affairs and in public ones.

Modern, mechanized war, with all its horrors, is perhaps the worst manifestation of this.  Europe seemed to have learned its lesson, especially in its eastern half, after it inflicted on itself, in two world wars in the last century, what it had wrought on the rest of the world. That lesson appears to be wearing off, even there.

H) Some final thoughts on hierarchical command structures such as those in our school systems

Questioning, verification, examining what we are asked to do in the light of compassion, reason and experiencenone of these things are considered to be the right and duty of employees, including teachers in the schools.  There is often little or no provision for input from the public and from practitioners at the policy formulation stage, nor is there adequate provision for feedback and correction from these in the policy implementation stage.

The consequence of this, in wars, in corporate and government factories and offices, and in school systems,  is the compounding of errors, often fatal errors. These occur because the drivers are basically driving blind, and the systems are operating under a hierarchical command paradigm, reinforced by fear and subservience at every level.

The much-ballyhooed "data-driven" structures are also of little use in an atmosphere of fear, which leads to a focus on numerical data and even the manufacture of data so as to please superiors and avoid punishment.

Meanwhile, the nonsense that passes for pedagogy, with its constantly recycled and repackaged focus on "methods of teaching",  "facilitation", (so-called) "higher-order questioning and critical thinking", "application of technology" and much more, continues to muddy and confuse, even as basics, that clearly need attention before any of these things are addressed, continue to be grossly neglected.

Punitive elements in evaluation based on high-stakes testing of students and rigid, superficial and meddlesome forms of teacher observation are helping to make our schools even more hellish for both sincere teachers and sincere students, while the main causes (other than these two afflictions) for the problems that plague so many schools are still not addressed, let alone acknowledged.

I will not go into these causes here, as that would require another essay, based on my own experiences and observations in teaching (and learning) in the schools and universities over the past four decades.
Before I discuss the causes of the problems, I should also clarify what I mean by "the basics" in education. That also requires a separate, though related, discussion.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Enslavement and Freedom — a Worker's Personal Perspective

Enslavement and Freedom—a Worker's Personal Perspective

Formal education, much like the broader and surely even more important informal education on which it stands, is a means by which humans transmit their cultures across the generations. Just as sexual reproduction transmits genetic information, gathered over eons of biological evolution, so also do teaching and learning transmit the cultural information that has been gathered over the ages.  

This is by no means a passive process.  Teachers and learners continually shift roles.  We learn from one another, albeit different things. Indeed, we often find that adults learn almost as much from children as children do from adults.  And what is learned is a river in flow. Each generation bends it this way and that, adding tributaries and branches, while floating upon its waters the little boats of their own devising, which the generation after marvels at or discards.

Teaching and learning are, for humans as for many other animals, instinctive activities.  Parents do not need formal training to teach their young, nor do children need to be taught how to learn.

That said, one cannot teach what one does not know. And one has to be willing and able to spend the time needed to teach something. Nor can we truly learn something well, unless we are also willing and able to spend the time needed to learn it.

One might be forced to learn, and one might also be forced to teach.  S
adly, this is what prevails in much of compulsory education and even elsewhere, where learning, or at least its semblance or certification, is sought only for very limited ends.  
Although teaching and learning of a sort can appear to proceed under such circumstances, they then become part of the process of human enslavement, rather than of liberation. And just as slave labor cannot usually match the labor that is free, so also is learning through compulsion a poor substitute indeed for learning from volition. 

Between a teacher and a learner, there is an interaction that has in it an all-important component that (for lack of a better term that is not species-centric) we might call "human".  It is good if this human interaction is based on mutual respect.  Again, it is possible for students and teachers to learn and to teach while disliking one another, even intensely. But this is a sorry state of affairs, that is difficult to sustain.

Just as sexual relations between those who lack respect and affection for each other cannot endure for long without much psychological detriment, so also will students who disrespect their teacher fail to get the best of what that teacher could offer them, and so also will a teacher who disrespects his/her students fail to get the best from them.

Human cultures have devised means to propagate themselves, just as biological entities have. This holds for our crafts, languages, religions, social mores, arts, music and more.
In particular, our formal cultures, such as the formalized counterparts of all of the things previously mentioned, as well as the academic disciplines, especially those of mathematics and the sciences, have developed formal means of education for initiates.  These serve to propagate and further develop the formal structures.  The means by which our human disciplines do this might be called, collectively, "formal education".

Although there may be some common features that these specific systems of formal education share with one another and with informal education, one should beware of making generalizations here, especially prescriptive ones.
Given our ignorance of  the nature and workings of sentience, to try to capture the richness of its manifestations and the diversity and specificity of their means of transmission in a set of generalized, prescriptive rules for formal education is a futile endeavor.  To try to enforce such rules is to kill the life that is being transmitted.

This is is as much a sin as it is to prescribe and enforce rigid rules for sexual procreation, including "how to's" for sex that we must follow.  It takes all the fun, all the joy, out of a natural, largely instinctive activity, debasing it and changing it into a thing of dullness and dread.

One should also always remember that formal education, however lauded, is but the thin, sweet icing on the cake of learning. That cake is largely baked, not in our schools or other places of formal education, but rather in our homes and communities.  It is this informal education that is the basis of all else that comes after it.

This includes the miraculous acquisition of the first language, which is probably the greatest intellectual achievement of a human's lifetime, and yet is something that is shared almost equally among all members of our species.

This first language, with all the abstractions that it embodies, contains, within itself, most, if not all, of the concepts and tools needed to master the most formal abstract constructions of our species.

Unlike logic, which is probably inborn ("hard-wired" in computer-analogy), language has to be acquired, although the templates for it are surely also inborn.  It does not have to be a spoken tongue, as the languages used by the deaf demonstrate.  But it does have to have a structure that parallels those of other human languages, which, despite their surface differences, share much in common.

But informal education also includes the basic tactile and other physical skills that most children have acquired by the time they come to first grade.  And it also includes the ethical framework of the child's family and community.  Again, although the templates for morality are probably just as inborn as those for language, the specifics of the moral scheme and outlook depend, in large part, on the child's own background exposure.

All of this assumes that the child who comes to school has had a stable, functioning family and a wider local community to sustain and nurture him/her physically, emotionally and mentally.  But this assumption may be false. This is especially true in our times.

It is still, however, a great mistake to think that formal education in the schools can substitute for the far more essential informal education traditionally provided by the family and community.
In particular, removing a child from that familiar environment, severing the ties that have developed or were developing, and substituting for this whatever may be supplied by a (boarding) school and its attendant (often alien) culture does at least two harmful things:  it creates an emotional trauma, and it constitutes a violent break in the continuity of the child's ancestral human culture.

If this cleavage affects not only a few children but most children in the community, and if it lasts--if the wound is deep and broad enough and does not heal
--it can succeed in killing that culture.

The death of a human culture is almost as much of a loss as that of the human tribe itself that had developed and was sustained by that culture. Indeed, without the culture, there is no tribe.
A cultural annihilation is as real and as tragic as a biological one.  This is true for all social species, including our own.

With all of that said, it would be a mistake to blame the schools alone for the cultural extinctions that are proceeding, much like the biological ones, all around us. The forces of commerce, of empires, of nationalisms and more are the main drivers of the extinctions. Schools may abet this in places. But they can also serve to slow this or at least to ameliorate the effects of these onslaughts.

I got the clip at the link below from my niece, Malini, who has also taught, like me, in the schools--but in India rather than here in the U.S.A..  I encourage you to view it, while keeping in mind that the makers of the piece are projecting a particular point of view—an important one, too often overlooked, but one that cannot, like any point of view, encompass the whole reality.

Schooling the World -- Part 1/7 

In the clip, the principal of the Moravian missionary school in Ladakh (Indian Tibet) tries to explain his own perspective, which is by no means a simplistic one.

But as he is speaking, the clip shows Ladakhi children reciting Christian prayers and doing drills (in what appears to be a morning assembly at the school) as if to belie what the principal is saying.

I myself attended Jesuit missionary schools in India.  I do not think I was unduly harmed or brainwashed by that experience--leave alone converted to Christianity.

However, I had other formative experiences  in my childhood, living with my extended family in a city in India, and being in contact also with village folk and so with traditions and cultures other than that to which I was mainly exposed in the schools.

If I had been deprived of those other experiences, that would have been a great loss for me personally. If the same had occurred to the majority of the local populace, there would have been a break in the continuity of those traditions and in those cultures--and what then emerged might not have been better.  This would be true--perhaps even more so--if the schools had been purely secular ones.

Of course, the schools are just one part of the "remaking" process by which state or corporate powers refashion human beings to serve their interests.  "Successful" empires have been in this business for a long time.
This is a complex issue. As in all things human and cultural-political-economic, the simpleminded answers to questions that arise are often insufficient.

I have been teaching students in the U.S.A for four decades--first, from 1975 to 1983, at the universities and then, from 1987 to now (2015) at the public high schools here in New York City.  That's most of four decades, spent teaching for a living.

Particularly while teaching in the schools, the job has consumed my life, including evenings, weekends and holidays. I have put most of my life energy into it. I have had little time (except for the six years when I was on unpaid leave, being mainly with my ailing parents in California) for anything else, including vital personal things.

However, looking back over the decades, while I do not regret the hard, honest work I put in for my students in the schools, I do believe that I was doing it in the wrong place, under the wrong circumstances.

I also learned from my students over the decades, perhaps more than a typical student might have learned from me, in the daily forty or so minutes, usually for just a term or a year, that he or she spent in my classes (with more daily time, usually at home after school hours, studying and doing the homework I assigned). 

But in somewhat better circumstances, my students and I could have learned from, and been of help to one another, far more than was possible in the factory-schools in the past century--and even more so in the current one.

The schools of men, like their temples, can be doors to liberation or to greater servitude. Just as religion can be used as an arm of the power structure that reinforces its might, so also can the schools be used.

The feeding chains that operated in our feudal villages have been superseded or complemented by even more hierarchical and enslaving power structures in our factories, mines, offices and other workplaces, and also in our schools, churches and of course police and military forces.

Schools can help students learn the skills they need to survive in a world where formal education has become a necessity.  Schools can also help to widen and deepen students' perspectives, reinforcing and broadening the respect, tolerance and understanding they should have learned at home and from their communities.

Beyond the literacy and numeracy that have become essential, and not discounting the technical skills (in both traditional crafts and new technologies) that schools might also provide, schools can serve as windows to the broad, yet detailed, views of history, politics, economics, the sciences and more that generations past have labored to discover and elaborate.

Many of the public and the private schools in this country and elsewhere have, to their credit, been all of this and more.  Whether or not this was by design or the through the efforts of dedicated teachers and students, these achievements should be recognized and celebrated.
The public schools, in particular, have opened the doors to some of the best offerings of our human cultures to (almost) all, including those who, from lack of means or from longstanding discrimination, had previously been denied this access.  This fact is often obscured or forgotten.  

Over the course of the last century, public schools have been pathways to higher education and to the professions for hundreds of millions in this country and elsewhere. This is an achievement that is perhaps without parallel in human history.

But schools have also served the purposes of empire, of state power and of corporate power. They are used to indoctrinate our young in the ideologies that the ones who fund the schools think fit -- be these theologies, including rabid, intolerant ones, or secular creeds, including those of narrow nationalisms or all-devouring capitalism.

Yet, in our present circumstances, in too many places where the powerful forces of commercialization, industrialization, urbanization, deculturization, homogenization, alienation and atomization have done their jobs, the schools (along with, to some extent the churches or their equivalents) are all that are left of the larger human community. They are all that remain to substitute for the villages in which we used to live.

This is particularly true for migrants--be these to faraway cities in "one's own country" or across national borders, often even to places across the planet, where one might feel as if one has severed all of one's human connections and cultural roots forever.

But those like me who view the schools in this light must do so without voicing this view, and also, to a large degree, without being able to act in accordance with that view.

Like soldiers in the armies, like workers in the factories, like priests in the church hierarchies, they must do as they are told, at least on the surface, or else be punished. Each of us has to earn a living to survive. So we are economic slaves.

I should say that I have never succumbed to this in toto, and indeed perhaps not at all. This was because, by force of will and labor, I was able to make room for what I felt I needed to do--which was often very far indeed from what I was expected to do.

As a high school physics teacher, I tried to focus on what the students needed to learn the subject, one that I had studied and worked in myself for many years before turning to teaching in the high schools. This meant filling in and clearing up many logical gaps and fuzzy areas in the curriculum, while also compensating for the deficiencies the students had in their academic backgrounds.

All of this took years of labor and much ingenuity to figure out. But the population of students, and so also their needs, kept changing, often dramatically, so one had a constantly shifting target audience.

There were many years, especially in this century, when I taught only subjects other than physics. It took quite some time to get the overview on these that I had acquired in physics, as well as to understand the deficiencies in the curricula and in the students' backgrounds (including very limited or no knowledge of spoken English) and how to remedy these.

Indeed, I found that, among other things, I had, perforce, entered the authoring and publishing business, steadily having to render complex material in simplified English as well as in translations to other languages.  This had to be done on the run, under the daily pressures of the job, adding to the time spent in reading and correcting student work on evenings, weekends and holidays.

These were just some of the nuts and bolts of teaching that I had to constantly attend to.  I will not go in detail into the practical circumstances that made this difficult--including the lack, too often, of suitable books, and the teaching of several subjects out of license, with my five daily classes being in a number of classrooms and on a number of floors. 

Then there were the pressures from above to conform to what teachers were expected to be doing in the classroom--the constant "how to teach" focus that never seemed to let up and could be a great distraction. 

And there were the human issues in dealing with the children and their needs and behaviors, which would need a separate essay.  Suffice it to say that the factories that the schools have long operated as allow little time and leisure for the kind of personal mentoring many students clearly need.

And then, especially in this century, there was the overemphasis on standardized testing, with teachers not only told "how to teach", but also pressed to cut out any content that a sincere teacher might deem as essential background or breadth, but which was deemed "non-testable" and so not fit to be taught any more.

Finally, there was the extreme time-pressure that increased as budgets were cut and the periods-per-week accordingly shortened, until this became so unbearable that those who tried to teach sincerely, according to conscience, taking due time for review and practice, so students could digest what they had learned, found themselves in deeper and deeper trouble.

Teaching and learning are natural, spontaneous human activities that are meant to be done at leisure, with attention and care.  The same can be said about eating, lovemaking and, surely even more so, the care of children, elders and the ailing. 

Factory workers have long been forced to work at unnaturally high speeds in assembly lines, so as to maximize production and profits. When this view of "efficiency" is extended into teaching and learning, 
a life-and-soul destroying situation is created.  The same might surely be said of high speed, "efficient", factory-style health care.
Humans, like other animals, function in several modes or gears. In the survival mode that we go into when we are fighting or racing to survive, we cannot properly attend as we should to the other things, including nurture, that are best carried out in more tranquil, peaceful modes, in slower gears.
I had to do to deal with all of this, while shielding my students from the pressures and the "fast-food", smartly-packaged yet junk education that would have resulted if I had given in to these pressures.

One should note also that most of what I felt inwardly compelled to do was done "under the radar", so to speak, as it did not conform to what I was expected to do.
On too many occasions, especially of late, when a supervisor discovered what I was doing, I would get in trouble.  This added an increasing element of fear to what may perhaps be termed as "guerrilla teaching" -- the truly hard, unacknowledged,  subsurface work I felt I had to do, and which I should have been able to do openly, without fear of punishment.

Although I might perhaps have been at an extreme end of the teacher spectrum, I am sure 
many other teachers have found themselves in somewhat similar circumstances, where hard work is not only not rewarded, nor even just ignored, but punished.

But all that quiet work I had to do was more feasible during the times when the schools here were not as regimented and oppressive as they have become in this century, under pressure from both the political parties here (even more, from the federal level, under Barack Obama than under his predecessor, George W. Bush).

That old "marching to one's own drummer", that following of conscience (with all the labor of love that it entailed) is no longer possible. This is why, along with health problems, no doubt caused in part by years of sustained stress, shortage of sleep and overexertion, I am finally almost at the point of giving up this long, but now clearly lost, personal battle in the schools. I will soon be either forced to retire or else be kicked out more violently.

One should remember that humans, throughout the world, taught their children how to speak their ancestral languages (perfectly) as well as to survive and to be humans in the full sense of the word, without help from the formal schools of the state or other organizations.

In this, we were no different from other animals. So also, wolves teach their young, mainly by example, how to communicate, survive and show respect and compassion--to be wolves in the full sense of that word.

I might be considered insane or reactionary, but I think we we were probably far better off when we were, especially in this regard, as the few surviving wolves still hopefully are.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

On Ed Reform—The False Hypothesis

On Ed Reform—The False Hypothesis

—a conversation on Facebook between my friend (DR)and myself (AJ).  He teaches in a college and I teach in a high school.  I have edited and added to my comments in places, for the sake of language and clarity.

AJ (preface to post):  We're caught between the Republicans and the "corporate Democrats", such as this specimen below—Rahm Emanuel, once Obama's right-hand man in DC, now back in Chicago as its mayor.  Here in New State, we have Governor Andrew Cuomo—a politician whose views differ markedly from those of his late father, Mario.  Both are into their second terms in office, with electoral campaigns and  ongoing positive publicity funded by powerful backers with deep pockets.

DR: Think of the alternatives...

AJ:  The alternative in Chicago was not a Republican (Chicago long having been a Democratic stronghold) but Karen Lewis, the unusual leader of the CTU (Chicago Teacher's Union). The teachers in Chicago had been radicalized by the damage Arne Duncan had wrought there, and they finally had thrown out the old, compliant union leadership in union elections and brought Lewis' CORE caucus into power in the union.

After he was elected for his first term, Emanuel went after the teachers’ union. So Karen Lewis found that her only chance of effectively pushing back lay in running in the primary for mayor when he came up for his second term. She was quite popular. But she had been under extreme stress for several years and finally could not run in the primary, because she was stricken with brain cancer. She supported Chuy Garcia, a relatively unknown entity, who did well at first, thanks to the increasing realization that Rahm Emanuel was a "corporate Democrat" who had aligned himself with the affluent elite and worked to further their interests

However, big money and the Democratic machine came to Emanuel's aid, and he defeated Garcia. Typically, Emanuel then went after the teachers even more, firing 2000 of them as his opening salvo.

It is open war now in this country against teachers and their remnant unions and against public workers and their tattered unions in general. The charge is led by Republicans, but many Democrats are not far behind. With Bloomberg gone, our Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo (who fell rather far from his father Mario's tree) has been the attack dog at the New York State executive level, with Rupert Murdoch and others egging him on.

After 28 years in the profession, I am more than ready to call it quits before I drop dead on the job, but I might have to struggle on (an understatement) for another term.

DR:  You have a point. But I expect that even a Karen Lewis or Chuy Garcia wouldn't have a feasible answer for real educational reform which I think needs to be done through something like the Finnish model...

AJ: In my time, I solved what appeared to be intractable problems in physics, not because I was "smart", but because I had gone through my years of study, and went about my work systematically, diligently and with quite a bit of thought and care. But after having worked most of the last 28 years in a school system, I think that the problems here haven't even begun to be acknowledged, let alone addressed. Instead, there has been one distraction after another, each contributing to the problems and tending to create chaos. The latest reform movement, involving highly aggressive and powerful political and financial forces, might end up giving the death blow, in the cities, to education at the K-12 level.  This might then also happen in suburban and rural places in this country.  In short order, this will also affect the universities.

DR: As mentioned before, the lack of preparation is apparent in my introductory economics classes. Many students cannot understand simple graphs or do simple calculations like a percentage change in a variable from one year to the next. Colleges spend a large amount of money on remedial programs, especially in math. It's a huge waste of resources; doing the same thing twice or more. The U.S. spends a huge amount of money on education at all levels. That alone isn't the problem.

AJ: It's exactly the same story at the high school level, and probably in junior high and elementary as well. At each level in the sequence, the teachers tend to blame the teachers before them as not having done the job—and in the schools they also blame the parents.

Meanwhile, the school teachers as a whole have been targeted as incompetents who should either improve or be fired. Many teachers are being forced out. As the word gets out about the impossible pressures on teachers in the schools, I predict there will be a teacher shortage—unless the economy tanks and no other jobs are available.

The hypothesis behind most past educational reforms in this country, especially the current one, is that the causes of the alleged or real problems in K-12 education lie mainly in our weak curricula, our outdated methods of teaching and in the poor quality of our teachers.  Increasingly, there has been a focus on teacher incompetence, although things like Common Core try to address the curricula, while the obsession with “teaching methods” continues on its perennial, unproductive course.

I could say a lot about the curricula and about the teaching methods. But let me say that the traditional curricula in NY State and city, thirty years ago, were hardly "weak" by any standards, or at least in comparison to what I experienced during my fairly rigorous (though still of course flawed) education in India.  I should also say that the teaching methods in use then and earlier, while surely not perfect, were effective then—and still are.
Subsequent misguided efforts to strengthen curricula and to improve teaching methods have greatly hurt whatever strengths there were in K-12 education in this country.  On the curriculum front, these efforts include, especially, the ill-thought-through Gates-Feds-Common Core (which the leaderships of the teachers’ unions—the AFT and the NEA—embraced) and its hurried and awful implementation.  On the pedagogical front, one should point to such things as the “Workshop Model” that was made into a diktat for quite a few years in the NY City schools, and the “Danielson Framework” that has more recently been adapted to straight-jacket and punitively assess teachers in NY State and also in other places.

The main reason for this harm was that there has been little or no provision for input, feedback and correction to educational policies forced down the throats of teachers and students.

When one takes what might possibly (in certain circumstances) be a good idea and makes this into a rule to be followed no matter what, then one kills whatever good there was in that idea. One also gives birth to a great number of evils.

But more and more (and indeed throughout our history, but never so viciously and wrong-headedly as in this century), the working hypothesis for educational reform has been based on the assumption that the root of the problems in K-12 education lies in the incompetence of teachers and the recalcitrance of their unions. This is what has been broadcast daily through all the media, and what has been embraced by politicians and even by a considerable segment of the public.

Once one accepts this hypothesis, then the solutions being applied follow:

(a) identify the "incompetents" and fire these;

(b) try to "improve" the “marginal ones” and also the others, via on-the-job training—what is called, in the schools, "professional development".

This is, imho, a classic case of a mistaken hypothesis (as to the cause of an ailment) that is reapplied, time and time again, to affect a "cure", although experience has shown us that the past cures based on this hypothesis failed to work. This should have led, in a logical and sane world, to some suspicion regarding the validity of the hypothesis.  But we don't live in such a world.

So what are the real problems in K-12 education? And how can they be resolved?

I have, in the past, categorized and listed the major problems and then suggested how to go about resolving them. But no one pays attention to teachers--including, sadly, teachers themselves.

All of society has to be involved in this, and that has to start with teachers educating the public (something that by training they should be good at) as to the reality in the schools—and the origins of that reality.

By the way, there are many bright spots in that reality, along with the shadows.

Unless the basic respect and the feedback-and-correction mechanisms are restored, there will be no progress in K-12 education in this country. One need not go running to look at other countries' models,  no matter how successful these might appear. One can of course try to learn from them. The basic genius, experience, wisdom and knowledge within each country—indeed, within each community—can be utilized.  But this cannot be done in an atmosphere of fear and coercion.

Criminal insanity seems to be the hallmark of much of what we hail as "progress".  It's only when we actually come, with open hearts and minds,  to live, work and compassionately observe what goes on  in the killing fields of the wars, or in the farms, factories, schools and offices, that we begin to see the full horror of the situation, along with the idiocy that led to it.  We will then also surely notice the things that are to be admired, which yet get little or no attention.

We might then also begin to see, in all humility, what needs to be done to end the idiocy and the horror and to further what there is of good.  This cannot truly be done by others than those who are in the midst of it themselves.  However difficult that might appear, anything else is at best a patch-over, a temporary fix that will not hold for long.  More often, it is something that will worsen the situation.

DR:  I don't blame the teachers. It's varsity sports!

DR:  I got into serious trouble for failing an athlete...

AJ:  I think that big-time, high-pressure sports are more of a problem at the college level than in the schools.  I have had no big issues with most of the kids on the teams—except for some of the football players.  I had a few cases where the boys went home so tired after long hours of grueling after-school practice, plus a long commute by train and bus, that they could do no homework. I also had some football players in my lower-level classes who spoke English fine, like high school teenagers, but when I looked at their written work, it was at 2nd grade level at best.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving Thoughts -- On Turkeys, Teachers, Soldiers and Conscience

Below is the preface to some verses I wrote, last Saturday, that might be of particular interest to teachers. I added this preface for those working in the schools here.  Hopefully, they are off  today for Thanksgiving, this being the last Thursday in November.

President Barack Obama, by the way, stood with his daughters yesterday, to publicly declare that he was using his executive powers to pardon, not just the usual one lucky Thanksgiving turkey, but two of them. 

The word "pardon", though now accepted for this annual presidential event, seems very wrong. Surely, it is we, not the turkeys we routinely slaughter or have slaughtered for us without compunction, who need to be pardoned -- or perhaps not pardoned. 

But who are we to quibble, who are set to gobble the poor gobblers?  I'll be cooking salmon today, rather than turkey, and so will be needing my own pardon -- from the Big Fish in the sky.

In the early to late 2000's, when I was away on leave for several years for my parents, but subbing day-to-day whenever I could return to New York, I used to be called, quite often, to a local school that actually had a teacher's lounge -- a rare thing here in New York City.

Sitting in that lounge in my off-periods, I used to observe the teachers and at times chat with them.  In those days, they were somewhat less hard-pressed than they are nowadays, although still of course continually busy.  In that setting, I made the acquaintance of an amiable senior teacher, who made some remarks that I still remember.  Let me call him Bob.

Bob told me about a past colleague of his, who had joined the profession, as quite a few did at the time, to avoid or lower the chances of having to go to Vietnam.  This must have been in the 1960's or early 1970's.  As also could happen, this young man was given some difficult classes, with rowdy students who made life very difficult for him.  In addition, he faced the usual indifference or worse from the administrators and even colleagues.

One day, this young teacher came in rather late for work.  When Bob asked him what had happened, this is what he said:

"I was sitting in my car for half an hour, wondering whether I should just go and sign up for the war, whether that might be less of a hell than this."

That young man probably made the right decision, however difficult, at the time, by coming in to face the daily, but hopefully not deadly, fire at the school job.  After all, soldiers were coming back from 'Nam in body bags every day.  And those who survived were at times damaged for life, physically or mentally -- or both.  That can happen to teachers too, but less commonly than to soldiers during a war.

Of course, the foreign wars of more recent times, though lower in bodily casualties for our troops, seem to be wreaking just as much mental havoc among them, judging from the suicide rates.  Most soldiers, like teachers, don't like to talk too much about their experiences, perhaps for similar reasons.

There was something else that Bob said, which might explain quite a bit about what we see around us.  Once again, it applies to both soldiers and teachers.

"Oh, you've got to hang up your conscience with your coat, when you come into the building."

This was in response to a question I had, even then, about how we could go about our jobs in good conscience, given all that was set up wrong or was going wrong, even then, for the students -- and also for their teachers.

That remark of Bob's seemed cynical to me at the time, and still does. I never could do as he prescribed, which might explain a lot of my woes over the years.  But perhaps what he summed up so picturesquely is how one survives in the schools, as a soldier might do in a war zone.

I learned, the hard way, to keep my mouth shut (most of the time), but I never could do the same for my heart. I don't think that this situation -- of a closed mouth, but an open heart -- is that uncommon among teachers, although sometimes I wonder.

Following conscience, one tries to do what seems right, but this can be a very hard path to take, both as regards the workload that ensues, and from the attitudes of one's "supervisors", many of one's colleagues and, as can happen more frequently than not, from quite a few of one's students. One can work and work and give and give, expecting little in return, except to be left alone to do one's job.  But even this is rarely granted, and the psyche can only take so much punishment before it becomes discouraged or rebels.

Of course, there are always those, if one takes care to notice, in all of these three categories -- "overseers", coworkers and pupils -- that do no harm, do their jobs and might even be appreciative and supportive. But human nature is such that we notice, much more, those who behave in highly negative ways, often through no fault of our own.
So one has to continually tell oneself to disregard those folk, or at least not let their attitudes, words and actions unduly affect us -- and focus instead on the others.

One can act, to some very limited degree, as a therapist to one's troubled students -- but one can hardly do this for those who are colleagues and "supervisors" and act like mean-spirited bullies.

So this continual re-adjustment of perspective, to notice the good around us rather than the bad, is easier said than done.  This is our work environment, where we are also expected to be productive -- and we have students who need to learn a subject and pass tests that might seem impossible, not only for them, but for those of us who want to be able to help all of them who are willing, not just the better-prepared ones.

The physical and mental noise around us, including in our classrooms, often drowns out the weak and faltering signal, however much we may labor to keep it extant.  Part of that signal is the transmission of culture from one generation to the next -- including values -- the latter more by example than by speech.  The other part, from our (teachers') point of view, involves the reception, on our part, of whatever our students, including the quieter ones, are trying to, or need to, communicate to us, often silently. 
This is a conversation that needs some peace and quiet in order to proceed.  We can neither speak in a meaningful way, nor listen and notice as we should, without this physical and mental tranquility. 
I should note that not even speech and its comprehension can be taken for granted with many of our students, recently arrived from distant lands.
Some of us are fortunate to have found -- or made, with a bit of luck and quite a bit of effort -- a niche in which we can function. Others are not so lucky.  I suppose it might be the same for those who go to war.

Be that as it may, as pressures mount in the schools, those of conscience or those faced with impossible working conditions might find themselves in a situation not dissimilar to that young man sitting in his car.
Of course, the job pays much better than it did in those days, and there's no draft.  We have drones now.  But all the old problems and pressures in the schools are just as great as they were then, with naught having been done about them over the years -- and many new ones have been added, that tax even more our strength and our conscience.

So here are some verses, from last Saturday.  I am sending them out today, on Thanksgiving Day, when one should perhaps also take a moment to think of the birds and the beasts, including us humans -- and our history on this and other continents.

Karma--Part II


Saturday, June 28, 2014

Let Teachers Find their Ways that Work

Let Teachers Find their Ways that Work

I wrote the comments below after reading the post reached via the link:

[Ed Notes Online] Shades of 2004: Balanced Literacy Plus High Class Sizes a Recipe for Failure [3 Updates]
I have worked for close to three decades as a teacher in the high schools in New York City, including several years on family leave, working as a day-to-day substitute teacher and as a substitute para-professional (teacher's assistant).  These many years in the schools, working with students of diverse backgrounds, have been a learning experience -- and also a humbling experience. 

Whatever successes I was able to glean for myself and my students did not come easily, except under the best of circumstances, which were short-lived for me and may elude most teachers.  But what I did learn, and rather quickly, is that what worked for me might not necessarily work for other teachers -- and vice versa.  And what worked with a particular subject, grade level and student group might not work with one that was different in one or more ways. Indeed, as teachers have repeatedly found, what worked in period 2 might not work in period 3, even though the factors mentioned above appeared to be basically the same.

As a high school teacher teacher, I have taught, usually, close to one hundred and fifty or more students (mostly regular-ed) each day, usually in at least two subjects. Too often, I have had curricula to teach that were far too broad, given the time available and the multiple and varied educational deficits the students generally have.

These deficits become clear if one cares to collect and
carefully check homework, ask and encourage questions to and from all students and get other kinds of feedback. But, as sincere teachers know, all of that takes a great deal of time and effort.  Most of the advocated shortcuts give a very superficial picture, at best.

Given all of this, I rarely found time to interact, closely, one-on-one, with any one student, during my class-periods, for more than a minute or two a day. This was because other students -- and the much maligned task of  traditional "teaching" itself, also needed attention.

The main exceptions to this were:

a) during small -group or individual tutoring, usually before or after school hours, with or without pay;

b) during silent reading and writing assignments, provided the more restive students in the class allowed the relative quiet needed for this, permitting me to circulate and quietly be of some help to individual students or to pairs. 

When I was "subbing" frequently in schools where teachers were kind enough to leave such assignments, I got to know some students rather well.  I learned much about them that was surprising, sobering and intriguing.

But if I were truly able to focus more on this individual interaction, I think I would have found yet more that would surprise me -- of individual strengths, weaknesses and varied human circumstances.

I have given this particular, individual history because it is all I truly have on which to base my understanding in these matters of formal teaching and learning in the schools. I am sure that the experiences of others will have been different. 

Nevertheless, I will now dare to use my own personal experience as the background for, or springboard to, a rather sweeping general statement, with which I think most teachers with some experience will agree:
Teaching and learning are difficult enough, again except in the best of circumstances. So it is best to let teachers and students find their particular ways.  

There is no harm in exposing them to ways that are different from the ones they use -- but one should exercise forbearance in this.  Impositions do far more harm than good. 

Again, what I say is based mostly on my particular personal experience teaching (mainly) the sciences in the New York City High Schools for the past 27 years.  Others may or may not agree with the generalization I made above.  That is all for the good.  I would like to hear from them.

Teaching and learning, formal and informal, constitute the active, participatory transmission and development of human culture.  This includes outlooks, values, languages formal and informal, skills of diverse kinds, disciplines and their organized knowledge, the wonder of exploration and questioning and the sincere and difficult search for non-trivial answers... 

As such, teaching and learning are far too vital, for our collective and individual survival, to be left to the mercies of fads, dogmas, zealots, careerists and yes-persons. 

There are no substitutes for the traditional virtues long recognized as needed to be students and teachers who are truly sincere and successful (in the humblest sense of that last word). These include, of course, sincerity, respect, attention and diligence on the part of both teacher and student. The teacher, even more than the student, needs to have an open mind and an open heart. 

This may sound utopian. But without these things, or at least without these things as guideposts, we lose our way and wander into the deserts of cynicism and cruelty.

But neither teachers nor students can succeed for long if the structures and resources needed for formal education are lacking or counterproductive -- or if the social fabric is torn beyond repair.

I have touched on these things earlier, for instance in the post:

On Social and Educational Pathologies
I should remark here that formal education, with all its strengths, is no substitute for the informal education that was traditionally obtained from the home and the community.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

On Social and Educational Pathologies

This was a comment I made in response to a perceptive article by Robert Reich (a former U.S. Secretary of Labor). That article can be found via the link at the end of this post. I have lightly edited my original comment and added the title.

On Social and Educational Pathologies
Thanks for making these points, Robert Reich. A word about the schools in poorer (or even not-so-poor) areas: as part of the war against workers in general, and public workers and public institutions in particular, the public schools and those who teach in them have been targeted.

The scapegoating of teachers is so widespread that the real problems in the schools, with causes both social and structural, are unaddressed and even unacknowledged.

Those who suffer from this are primarily the sincere students -- and, along with them, the sincere teachers. Fortunately, there are still many in these two categories -- but they are both endangered species.  The recent punitive "reforms" might finally make them extinct.

The schools have little control over the social pathologies that enter into the schools and doom them. This has to be addressed by the communities -- and that entails sustained, collective effort to stem and reverse the alienating social tides that have been generated, largely, by commercial forces over generations and whose destructive effects have been similar to that of hurricanes. This effort needs to be sincere, and yet humble, open-minded and open-hearted -- a genuine grassroots movement of recognition, healing and empowerment, rather than a "cure" imposed from "above".

This is not an easy task -- but one sees little talk about this beyond the occasional sermons in the local churches, and there appears to be no regional or national organized effort to speak of.

The schools do have some control over the structural problems afflicting K-12 education. These include, in the high schools, a long neglect of commonsense concerns about traditional things such as:

-- respect, civility and integrity;
-- warmth, nurturing and collegiality;
-- purpose and choice;
-- sequence;
-- focus;
-- time and pacing;
-- familiarization and  habituation;
-- feedback and correction;
-- diligence and perseverance;
-- success and the building of confidence;
-- reflection, questioning, exploration and application.

Unfortunately, the administrative layers in the school systems have been more preoccupied with toeing the line to keep their jobs and clamber up the ladders, focusing on surface appearance rather than on content and humanity. 

More and more time has been directed at mostly unnecessary supervision of teachers, dictating "methods" of teaching and at the same time demanding improved passing percentages and test results. From all of this, fraud, superficiality and outright cruelty -- to both students and teachers -- are becoming the norm.

This is not an atmosphere in which teaching and learning, both of which involve relaxed yet sustained attention -- and also, at times, playful creativity -- can survive, let alone flourish.  Basic honesty, empathy, responsiveness and independent thinking are becoming increasingly scarce.

Two clearly observable (and linked) symptoms of the educational pathologies that have been generated by all of this are:

(a) the obsession with testing;
(b) the micromanagement and punitive evaluation of teachers.

The well-financed attempts to privatize the public school systems and to attack teacher tenure are part of what threatens to further demolish whatever remains of value and integrity in K-12 education in this country.
The schools, already afflicted with multiple problems that are almost impossible to handle without collective recognition and effort, are being made into even more hellish places, with all that has heart, tradition and value forcibly extinguished.