Sunday, September 29, 2013

A retired teacher on fads (Washington Post)

Dear Steve,

Thanks for this. Given the distractions that teachers and their students face, both those that come from students who misbehave, perhaps because they know no better, and from adults (like superintendent Sherman) who should know better but do even worse than those students, it is a miracle that teaching and learning continue in many of our classrooms -- or at home, where more distractions abound. 

What keeps teachers going?  For many high school regular ed. teachers,
Patrick Welsh, the author of the Washington Post article you forwarded to me, sums it up. 
A passion for communicating one’s subject matter to the next generation isn’t among the 74 items on Alexandria’s Curriculum Implementation Walk-Through Data Collection list, which Sherman, who left Alexandria schools last month, used to evaluate faculty. But it’s what all great teachers have in abundance. And it’s what will keep them going when the next wave of reforms comes rolling through.

But then, he taught for over forty years. So he must be yet another know-nothing, as per Bloomberg, Klein, Rhee, Duncan et al.

Note added:

I only take issue with the adjective "great". The mythologies surrounding the "great teacher" are counterparts of that surrounding the "bad teacher".  There has been as much time wasted and chaos sown searching for the former as there has been in attempting to weed out the latter. Central to all of this is the idea that the "bad teachers" are the problem.  This assumption has never been challenged publicly by our teachers' unions, working with parents to draw attention to the real problems that plague the schools.

Those of us who have taught for a while in different circumstances have learned humility.  Our performance has varied widely, depending on a host of circumstances, which include:

  •  the subjects and levels taught (often far from that for which we were certified);
  •  the student body -- with all its varied strengths and deficiencies, including many with zero knowledge of English in language-intensive classes;
  •  our administrators and the policies that were rammed through, often punitively, that we had to accommodate to varying degrees;
  • the time available to teach the content;
  • even the number and type of rooms we taught in -- often on different floors;
  •  the resources available (including appropriate textbooks, review books, a sizable chalk or white-board , this being a threatened commodity in many schools of late, and the machines to print out the handouts that so many of us have to painfully create and self-publish, continually reworking them over the years, as what is available fails to meet the ever-changing needs of our students); 
  • and our own personal lives, including caring for family members and being short of sleep -- the quantity and quality of sleep being, in my experience, often a better determinant of how the school day goes than any amount of lesson planning, matched only by the resources available. 
All of us have had "great teachers" and ones not so great when we were students.  But we realized that, given the resources made available traditionally to students (textbooks being the primary one), we were responsible for our own education, through our own work, in school and at home. So we learned not to wait for "great" teachers to get educated.  Provided the teacher knew his/her subject (which was usually the case) and cared, we were satisfied.  We regarded parents in the same light, cutting them some slack.  Were our parents "great"?  Some of them, some of the time.  But they mostly did what they had to do, often under difficult circumstances, and we were grateful for that.


Saturday, September 28, 2013

On Discipline

On Discipline

Hello Vonny,

Thanks for reading my stuff, for replying and for your comments, which are of course valid.  Let me explain why I did not explicitly list and discuss discipline.

I mentioned, in my sending, that the the reasons for the twin tragedies in K-12 education include:

(1) social problems;

(2) structural problems.

(Blog readers:  Please see the post, The Two Tragedies of K-12 Education and their Causes , which is at: . )

I then went on to say that I would address, in that sending, only the structural problems.

I did this because to attempt to address the social problems would have taken too long and would have diverted attention from the structural problems.  I personally think that the social problems are the hardest to deal with, and the primary reason why schools are failing.  But the structural problems also have to be addressed. It is like a car -- it won't run without tires -- but you also need gas in the tank.

Social and structural problems cannot be completely separated.  But we may do so for purposes of analysis. It is like the human (animal) body -- the organ systems are ways in which we artificially divide up the complexity.  Although one cannot really separate organ systems in practice, either anatomically or physiologically, they are useful conceptual divisions, with a lot of accumulated knowledge organized around them.  They are useful for physicians, as well as for patients and their relatives.  

The conceptual division of the complexity of the vertebrate body into organ systems is also useful for students learning biology.  Indeed, especially given that textbooks still organize much of their material around this, I would venture that it is essential.  But this is a point completely lost on the designers of the "Living Environment" curriculum that has replaced the traditional Regents Biology one in New York State, with organ systems almost completely stripped out of the syllabus -- along with much else. 

Now there's a structural problem in K-12 education, festering now for more than a decade, with no resolution, or even acknowledgement, in sight!  (This is not to say that the prior syllabus was optimal, especially given the impossibly tight time-allotments for science in this country.)  Similar situations may be found in mathematics curricula and elsewhere.

I left out discipline (although it comes under the purview of focus, as lack of discipline dissipates focus) because I could not begin to address it without bringing in the social problems.  And in this country, this issue is tied up with issues of race and class (although the issue cuts across all these boundaries) and one cannot talk sensibly about it without running into all manner of defensive reactions and arguments without end.

That said, one has also to address the social problems -- and discipline belongs more squarely in that discussion.

I had mentioned the primacy of informal education -- which included not only the first spoken language, which all of us appear mercifully to master unless we have severe problems -- but also, as I mentioned, ethical understanding.  In this area, many of our students appear to be lacking -- or operating from a different set of ethical principles than, say, I do -- based more on satisfying the immediate or apparent needs of the self, with little regard for the rights of others or for one's own responsibilities.

When ethical understanding is present, one can appeal to it -- a mere momentary pause or a gentle look suffices. When it is absent or perverted, discipline has to be enforced, ultimately by intimidation.  And this is a losing battle, with the teacher placed in a most unfortunate position.


The Two Tragedies of K-12 Education and their Causes

The Two Tragedies of K-12 Education and their Causes

K-12 education in this country has long been a war zone. This has produced two ongoing tragedies. Firstly, too many students, especially in "troubled" school districts and schools, do not get a formal education that prepares them for survival, college and citizenship. Secondly, too many teachers, along with their students, become either collateral damage or intentional targets in the ongoing war.

The reasons for this include:

1) social problems, with historical and economic roots, that enter into the classrooms and make teaching and learning almost impossible;

2) structural problems that have been neglected as waves of "reforms" have created chaos and stupefaction.

I will (begin to) address here only the structural problems.

Formal education is not a replacement for informal education (which includes the acquisition of the first spoken language and ethical understanding).  It is on this informal education that all else is based.

That said, formal education, though limited in scope, provides the student with access to the skills and knowledge -- and hopefully the wisdom -- that have been acquired by our species and have been formalized into disciplines. For academic subjects, the three R's are the entry points into those vast and expanding reservoirs.

A beginning point for understanding the commonsense needs of formal education may be found at

On Teaching

Please see, in particular, the "Note added", which lists some starting requirements.

But there are also other issues, including those of:


 time and pacing;
 familiarization and habituation;
 feedback and correction;


This is not yet one more inane list of items that teachers have to try to incorporate into their lessons.  It is a partial list of basic, commonsense requirements that have long been recognized, by humans all over the planet, as needed for formal education in structured, sequential disciplines. In academic areas, these clearly include mathematics and many of the sciences.  But there are many other fields in which the listed principles are applicable to some degree.  That said, there may be others in which they are of far less importance.
The purpose of this listing is not to impose these things on teachers, who may or may not find them of direct use in their work, but rather to draw attention to them and to provide a formal basis for advance for those teachers who do find these things to be useful.

More attention to these issues would make work (and so also life) easier and more meaningful for sincere students and teachers of formal, structured disciplines. Many teachers have always recognized these requirements and tried to implement them. But they have been increasingly dis-empowered and forced to do this surreptitiously.  It is time that those who wield power in K-12 education in this country acknowledge these issues. This will not happen by itself. Collective pressure from parents and teachers will be needed.

I will try to delve into these issues, in outline and in detail, later.  I have not listed them in any particular order of priority, except for the first three items. These first three are meta-educational -- but, without them, all the rest is meaningless. Also, the last two items are not afterthoughts.  They are essential -- but room needs to be made for them, without sacrificing or compromising the rest. This is not the teacher's job, primarily -- it is the job of those who design curricula.

Finally, this emphasis on structure should not be taken to be an emphasis on rigidity.  Learning and teaching are joys as well as labors. They are fluid in their very essence.  And that is what gives them their power. If one were to free these processes from the constraints that have been put on them by various rigid methodologies, students and teachers could focus instead on learning and teaching, firstly as instinctive, joyful endeavors, but secondly, also as part of valuable heritages that should not be discarded.

They might then experience some degree of liberation. They might also then have a chance to rediscover, rather naturally, these traditional requirements of the structured disciplines, if their learning and teaching involves these.


Arjun (Janah)  < >

Friday, September 20, 2013

On Teaching

On Teaching

-----Original Message-----
From: Arjun Janah <>
To: ken
Sent: Fri, Sep 20, 2013 9:01 pm
Subject: Re: Syria

Dear Ken,

Thanks for asking. Teaching, like learning, is a joy as well as a pleasant, though often arduous, labor. It is part of our biological heritage, shared with many other animals, but especially highly developed in us. There is an instinct to teach as well as to learn, and it is commingled with parental and altruistic instincts.  So most members of our species are both good at it and enjoy it. It requires no specialized training. Mothers teach their children, and siblings teach each other, instinctively and well. (But please do see the "Added Note" below.)

So these intrinsic rewards persist. However, the situations in the schools, which are education factories, here and elsewhere, in the past and in the present, rarely are and rarely have been the best of environments for teaching and learning. That said, public education lies at the heart of much of whatever success this country and others have had in bringing the gifts of formal education to the masses.  It should be noted that formal education is by its nature limited in scope, being complementary to and dependent on informal education.  This latter includes the acquisition of the first spoken language and ethical understanding, and forms the base on which all else is built,

Over the past several decades, the situation in most public schools in this city and elsewhere in this country (and no doubt in many other countries as well) has deteriorated to the point where little remains of whatever virtue once existed in them. This is not to say privatization is the answer.

I will not go into the causes of this deterioration or the arguments for maintaining healthy and vigorous public schools. That would take too long and also be beyond my powers.

But pathology is rarely enjoyable. It behooves teachers and parents to work to make the situation better. This again cannot be done without an understanding of both the pathology and the potential. Unfortunately, this understanding does not exist publicly. It only exists underground, suppressed and fragmented. 

You may compare the situation of sincere teachers with that of well-intentioned, patriotic (in the best sense of the world) soldiers sent into a war zone.  Most armed conflicts are pathologies -- in every sense of the word. The soldier may find moments of solace, but the more he understands the pathology, the less solace he will have. It is the same with teachers.

A situation which should be one of helping children, doing what is in their best interest, and of sharing the accumulated knowledge, insights and skills of generations past -- and of one's life's labor and experience -- is turned into something else -- something that is, in fact, harmful to the children and degrades and corrupts the cultural transmission, substituting myths, gimmicks, confusion and diffidence for facts, disciplines, clarity and confidence.

Children, just like adults, cannot, beyond a certain point, be either forced or tricked into learning anything of substance. Compulsion, pressure and fear are enemies of insight, learning and creativity. At the other extreme, an aversion to any kind of intensity and duration of effort and attention, and a catering to this aversion, are also inimical to any depth of understanding, indeed, to any kind of maturing as a thinker or feeler.


Note added:  My comments regarding the lack of the need for any specialized training for teaching should not be taken out of the context of this correspondence with my friend Ken. I was referring to teaching in the general sense, as a basic life activity of our species, just like learning.  We are naturally good at both these activities. That does not mean that any person placed in a public or private school, either as a teacher or a student, will be able to teach or to learn. That is another story -- being less a commentary on our deficits as teachers and learners than on the commonsense requirements of various fields and levels of formal education and on the problems, issuing mainly and continually out of our societies, that plague our schools.

That said, one might venture that teaching and learning will occur rather spontaneously and effectively if the following conditions are met, which I list in no particular order, recognizing that this may be a partial listing at best, and that some items may not be applicable to certain subjects and levels:

(1) there is an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust between teacher and student;

(2) the teacher knows the subject that he/she is going to teach (without going into the meaning of "knows" -- which is clearly situation-dependent);

(3) the teacher has a strong desire to help the student learn the subject;

(4) the student has the pre-requisite knowledge and skills to learn the subject at the level taught (which involves attention to sequence);

(5) the student has a strong desire to learn the subject;

(6) the student and teacher are left alone to learn and to teach (and this includes many things, being about relaxed, yet sustained, focus);

(7) there is sufficient time available (and this also includes many things -- including both student time and teacher time);

(8) there are means by which the teacher gets to know what the student has learned/not learned and provides feedback and correction -- and there are means by which the student has his/her questions answered and concerns addressed;

(9) there are resources available (this again is no small thing -- including, in the case of formal education, sensible curricula, textbooks, materials, equipment, etc...).

This may sound absurdly utopian. But without these, or without at least bearing these in mind as ideals, it is difficult to have any enlightened vision and to make any meaningful progress. With these things, or things like these, in mind, we can actively work towards a better environment for teaching and learning in the schools and elsewhere. Without such ideals to guide us, all we can do is react to external pressures. We can then either acquiesce and act as executors, or else take, at best, defensive actions.  In the first case, although we are supposed to be teachers, we are behaving like soldiers, carrying out orders to the best of our abilities.  In the second case, we are continually on the retreat.  We can dodge and weave, but sooner or later we are pushed, individually or collectively, into corners or over precipices. 

Of course, the use of "student" in the singular, as I have done here, may also be considered criminally absurd. In a typical public high school here in NY city, a regular ed. teacher sees over 150 students each day. And they are often not the same students on Monday that one saw on Friday. (If one teaches labs, for example, one may see, in an extreme case, 25 different sets of 34 students, or a total of 850 students in a week.  And if your school has been shut down, the wisdom of Bloomberg and his chancellor Klein -- now replaced by Walcott -- will have you wandering for years from school to school, seeing hundreds of brand new faces each week.)  A regular-ed guidance counselor typically "counsels" and programs around 500 students. (My figure in this last case may be dated -- and low.)

The Teacher