Education: A process rather than a product

My colleague David Perrin has published an op-ed in EdWeek where he points out the value of thinking of education as a process, rather than thinking of education as the creation of a product.

Process is what education fundamentally (and etymologically) is, an “educing” or drawing forth of intellectual potential through the cultivation of habits of mind. Habits of mind can be fostered in a variety of ways, such as writing, researching, using project-based learning and cooperative learning, connecting new learning to personal interests, generating multiple solutions to problems, playing devil’s advocate, finding joy in discovery, and recognizing the integral roles of metacognition, and even failure, in the learning process. This list is nowhere near exhaustive, as all of these processes, and many others, are vital to education. Yet few of them register well, if at all, on a standardized multiple-choice test.

The processes of teaching and learning can be messy and nebulous—if not impossible—to quantify. They are also unglamorous; they will never grab headlines the way that national sports championships, or even educational test results, do. As long as politicians and society insist on reducing “success” in education to the product of test scores, dedicated teachers, like Coach John Wooden, will have to block out the noise of “winning,” so that they can focus on the quiet yet vital processes of teaching and learning, regardless of what the scoreboard reads.

 

‘Beowulf at Breakfast': A poem

This famous poem-story, written in about 850 A.D. in the Old English/Anglo-Saxon language (and translated into modern English below by Seamus Heaney), is about a Nordic warrior tribe’s battle against the monster Grendel. This poem uses a solid, stolid language – lots of one-syllable words, concrete words (rather than abstract), and consonant-prominent words often repeated within the line.  For example, in translation:

Lines 442 to 455:

If Grendel wins, it will be a gruesome day;

he will glut himself on the Geats in the war-hall,

swoop without fear on that flower of manhood

as on others before. Then my face won’t be there

to be covered in death: he will carry me away

as he goes to ground, gorged and bloodied;

he will run gloating with my raw corpse

and feed on it alone, in a cruel frenzy

fouling his moor-nest. No need then

to lament for long or lay out my body:

if the battle takes me, send back

this breast-webbing that Weland fashioned

and Hrethel gave me, to Lord Hygelac.

Fate goes ever as fate must.

The assignment I gave myself (and, later, my students) was to write in the word-style of “Beowulf,” but in an everyday (not military) situation. I wanted to use Beowulf’s forceful language but not his subject matter. Here, then, is my poem “Beowulf At Breakfast”:

Back at my house-lair, I go to food-room

and gather eat-stuffs to break my night-fast.

Steel pot clangs hard on steel stove grate.

Flames cast blue light ‘neath flat pan-side.

Still-water soon leaps with boil-chaos; a song

of water-splash and fire-sputter dances away.

Whence I hear this ear-noise, I click knob

to off and pour steam-stuff into tea cups

and pour more soak-stuff onto flat oat-grains

in clay bowl. Also, there is syrup of maple

(or black-strap molasses) and raisin of grape

and butter of cow-milk and dust of red-bark

to boost my tongue’s taste-lust for else-dry oat parts.

Two Mute Girls: TV shows better without the sound

Dateline: A few minutes ago this evening.

Am currently watching “Two Broke Girls” with my TV’s sound on mute. Am enjoying this show far more as a series of absurd mime-tableaux than I ever liked it as dialogued sitcom. My wife said she’d like to know what’s going on, but there’s no way that knowing what these clichéd characters are doing would be more fun than my guesses of what they’re doing.

“It’s worse than being naked; I’m wearing polyester,” said the tall actress. My wife has turned on the sound and now the weirdest thing is the fake laffing at the nonjoke jokes.

Freeing myself to write honestly by not publishing now

Cover of a journal, most likely one that contains content that would be unflattering to me.

Cover of a journal, most likely one that contains content that would be unflattering to me.

When I write nonfiction, such as this text I am writing now, I become a character in the text. What the narrator “I” says here in this text are things that Matt Hagemann himself means. What I write and mean takes on a power, a legitimacy, because I, Matt, a living person of (hopefully) respectable reputation, said it.

However, everything I say or write also may change what you, the reader, think of me as a writer and also as a person. If I say outrageous or inflammatory things, you may think poorly of me (and you may even seek to discredit me or get me fired from my job, as has happened to some people).

Fiction writers and poets, by the way, have the “poetic license” to separate their creating selves from their narrating selves. This frees these writers to say terrible things in their characters’ voices and not have this necessarily reflect on the writers themselves, but also, what these characters say does not have the force of a claim made by a real person.

So, when I publish a text that I claim to be nonfiction, I am aware that I’m tying this text to my reputation. So the safest thing would be to say nothing at all. I could be a consummate professional and never say anything controversial.

And, really, I’m starting to think that that’s not all that bad of a way of living. I have written before about how I’m learning to not express my opinions in certain situations. And I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how what I have to say, at any particular moment, may not be all that valuable or useful. I have moments of wisdom, but also moments of arrogance, egotism, and worse. The world may be a better place if it wasn’t so easy to express ourselves to, essentially, a world-wide audience via the Interwebs.

And perhaps this is a rather obvious sort of insight, but I’ve long felt that my opinions were valid and useful and interesting to others. (This may be a personality flaw encouraged by my liberal arts education and by my family’s practice of frequent debates, and also by my self-confidence encouraged by my male-privilege!) For a while after college, I thought that the ideal writing job for me would be as a news columnist, where I would get paid to tell others what my opinions were.

Now I’m glad that I didn’t overexpose myself in that way. After all, it’s very easy to say or write things in the present that I would later come to regret. I’ve been noticing in myself lately how, when I read something that questions or criticizes something I believe or value, I’ll react almost instinctively with a self-righteous urge to defend or promote my own views.

But I am holding myself back more lately from actually responding. I’m getting better at seeing criticisms as merely alternate views, views that are not necessarily any more correct than my views, and that my views are not necessarily correct, either. The world may be ultimately unknowable, and so all ideas may be inadequate. Thus, I can let go of conflicts I’d start by opposing others’ ideas.

I remember reading something about the Buddhist idea of “nonattachment to views,” that one did not need to hold onto certain ideas or attitudes, because the holding on made one suffer. But lately I’m also thinking that it’s not just that I’m attaching to views, but that views are attaching to me, and I don’t want to define myself by my views.

So what I’ve realized lately is that I am less interested in expressing my views in public. I still have ideas, opinions, judgments, etc., but by writing them in my journal rather than blogging about them, I am able to keep from attaching these views to me. I would prefer to be seen as someone who doesn’t have strong opinions — I’d prefer to be seen as just a person — rather than being seen as “that liberal” or “the radical teacher” or “that crazy son of a bitch.” (Maybe there is some wisdom in that old Disney line, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”)

But I do still express myself in my journals. And sometimes these journals are interesting. But I don’t want to publish things that I feel strongly about now, because I might not feel strongly about them later. If what I write is valuable in a timeless sense (and I hope it is, because I’m not interested in writing news or news analysis or in being the first person on the Internet to make a certain clever joke), then it’ll still be valuable weeks or years from now, and I can write down my ideas now and edit them later. Letting time lapse is a great way of knowing what it is that I really WANT to publish.

And even if an idea seems interesting to me once the urgency of its newness has passed, I don’t necessarily want to defend or promote the idea. I’m not trying to sell something here. The idea should speak for itself, and so I don’t really want these ideas written by a Then-Me to be associated with Now-Me.

Of course, that’s not fully possible, but one idea I’ve had is that the separation in time between the writing and the editing not only gives me the perspective I need in order to edit, it also creates separation for the reader. What I wrote 20 years ago is clearly not the product of who I am today. This allows me to edit and publish my nonfiction with a little bit of the distance that the fiction writers enjoy. I can treat my old writings as those of the Then-Me character (who doesn’t need to be as suave and wise as I’d like to think I am now!), and those writings don’t directly reflect on Now-Me.

If I were to write and publish as Now-Me (as I’m writing and publishing this post), I would feel a need to present myself as a reasonable, intelligent, well-spoken, professional sort of person. This presentation of self is basically the creation of a persona of me, not the full me. It’s basically impossible to reveal the fullness of my expression, and I’m not sure anyone really wants or needs that (for example, how interesting are most people’s self-presentations on various social-media platforms?). While some artists are praised for revealing themselves, for being “honest” or “raw,” I’m not sure most people can really live like that — I feel that I’d be less honest if I were publishing in real time). If I wrote my daily journals on a blog, I’d be self-censoring to a great extent. I gotta have privacy in order to be free, and then I can later edit my writings for the benefit of my readers — while protecting the professional career I need now to keep myself fed, warm, and writing!

Inglish speling iz ridikyulus and herts lerners

According to this article, “written English is great for puns but terrible for learning to read or write,” and

Adults who have already mastered written English tend to forget about its many quirks. But consider this: English has 205 ways to spell 44 sounds. And not only can the same sounds be represented in different ways, but the same letter or letter combinations can also correspond to different sounds. For example, “cat,” “kangaroo,” “chrome,” and “queue” all start with the same sound, and “eight” and “ate” sound identical. Meanwhile, “it” doesn’t sound like the first syllable of “item,” for instance, and “cough” doesn’t rhyme with either “enough,” “through,” “furlough” or “bough.” Even some identically spelled words, such as “tear,” can be pronounced differently and mean different things.

Masha Bell, the vice chair of the English Spelling Society and author of the book Understanding English Spelling, analyzed the 7,000 most common English words and found that 60 percent of them had one or more unpredictably used letters. No one knows for sure, but the Spelling Society speculates that English may just be the world’s most irregularly spelled language.

As a high school English teacher, I find it difficult to explain (particularly to students who are still learning the language) the weirdness of why “lead” sometimes rhymes with “led” but also rhymes with “leed,” and why “read” is spelled the same but pronounced differently in present and past tenses, and why it’s impossible to know how to pronounce “wind” unless it’s being used in a context.

Now, I’ve been a pretty good speller since grade school, and I’ve even trained and worked as a copy editor and proofreader, so I feel pretty comfortable with the usages myself, even if I can’t remember certain esoterica, such as whether the “L” in “cancelled” should be doubled or not. And, of course, it doesn’t matter to pronunciation or meaning whether the “L” is doubled or not.

But I feel bad for my students who struggle with these needlessly complex spellings, and also, as I’ve said before, the more I teach poetry-writing and paying attention to the sounds of words, the worse my own spelling gets.

And to show my solidarity with the bad-spellers, or, let’s say, creative spellers, I write the date on my classroom whiteboard with various spellings of the name of the current month: Febrewairi, Ffebrooairy, Phebrooaree, Ghebruairie (when the “gh” is as it is at the end of “enough” — which reminds me of the classic joke about how to pronounce “ghoti” as “fish,” when the “gh” is from “tough,” the “o” is from “women,” and the “ti is from “nation”).

But even where words have been imported from other languages, such as the name “Julius Ceasar,” we for some reason haven’t kept the original Latin pronunciation (YOO-lee-us KYE-sahr). And when Classical Greek works like “The Odyssey” was translated, why did the translators spell “Circe” and “Cyclops” with “C”s instead of the “K” sounds that may have been closer to the original Greek pronunciations?

Some people have tried to simplify or reform English spelling. It hasn’t gone very far, clearly. Perhaps that’s because those of us who got used to the weird spellings resisted change because we got used to recognizing “although” and would be slowed down when reading “altho” — or maybe those who seek to establish rules for formal English usage like to keep these complexities because, well, having learned them shows that one is educated, and those who don’t use the needlessly complex rules reveal that they haven’t submitted to learning the needlessly complex rules.

Another thing I’ve learned from teaching is that, most of the time, I can figure out what my students mean even when they don’t follow the grammar and spelling rules. In other words, regular language users can make sense of variations that would render a computer program meaningless to a computer.

I’ve actually seen some student misspellings that point out aspects of language that I hadn’t noticed before. For instance, I recently read a student’s work where he had spelled “seriously” as “seariously” — and I’d never before noticed that there was the sound of burning (well, searing) at the start of the word “serious”– which struck me as a poetically rich misspelling.

This Atlantic article also points out how arbitrary are the source of some odd spellings:

Written English has also evolved—but mostly in ways unrelated to the changes in the spoken language, thanks in part to shenanigans and human error. The first English printing press, in the 15th century, was operated by Belgians who didn’t know the language and made numerous spelling errors (such as “busy” in place of “bisy”). And because they were paid by the line, they sometimes padded words with extra letters; “frend,” for example, became “friend.” In the next century, other non-English speakers in continental Europe printed the first English Bibles, introducing yet more errors. Worse, those Bibles were then copied, and the writing became increasingly corrupted with each subsequent rendition. English spelling became a chaotic mess, and successful attempts to simplify the spelling after that were offset by events that made the language harder to learn, such as the inclusion of many alternate spellings in Samuel Johnson’s influential English dictionary. Unlike many other languages, English spelling was never reformed to eliminate the incongruities. In a sense, English speakers now talk in one language but write a different one.

And this article also shows that the complexities of English can make real difficulties for even those native speakers learning to write formal English, as compared to the speakers and writers of some other languages.

As a result, there’s no systematic way to learn to read or write modern English—people have to memorize the spelling of thousands of individual words, file them away in their mental databases, and retrieve them when needed. A small percentage of people excel at this skill, but for most children in English-speaking countries, learning to read and write their native language is a laborious and time-consuming exercise.

Moreover, English-speaking children then spend years progressing through different reading levels and mastering the spelling of more and more words. That means it typically takes English-speaking children at least 10 years to become moderately proficient spellers—memorizing about 400 new words per year—and because they forget and have to revise many of the spellings they’ve previously learned, “learning to spell is a never-ending chore,” Bell says.

On the other hand, the American concept of “reading level” doesn’t even exist in countries with more regular spelling systems. In those countries, children become faster readers as they recognize more and more words by sight, Bell says, but they don’t need to have an idea of how a word sounds before they can read. The same goes for writing: In countries like Finland, children “continue to improve their vocabulary and use of language, but because they spell by rules rather than imprinting the right look of words on their brains, they can spell any word, regardless of whether they have met it before or not,” she says. The speakers of slightly more irregular languages such as Spanish, for instance, still need a small fraction of the time to memorize the exceptions in those languages compared to English.

That’s bad news for English-speaking societies, which represent about 6 percent of the world’s population. First of all, the amount of time and energy devoted to learning to read and write could have been spent learning other things. Then there’s the failure rate—the number of people who never become fully literate in the language. “One predictable consequence of any difficult-to-master system is a higher failure rate,” Bell writes on her website. “Skills that require a special aptitude are learned well by only a few. With perseverance, many others can become quite good at them, too, but a substantial number never get beyond the basics, no matter how hard they try.” (People with certain learning disabilities struggle even more: A 2001 study found that people with dyslexia have greater problems with English than with languages with more regular orthographies.)

That wouldn’t matter so much if we were talking about something recreational, such as juggling. But literacy is integral to modern societies. Schools have consequently endeavored to teach children how to read and write at younger and younger ages, but Bell says that’s problematic because children mature and learn at very different rates. It also steals time away from more developmentally appropriate activities for young children.

TV show ratings in my house tonight

I’ve never been asked to be one of those TV viewers whose preferences are magnified to represent a section of the viewing public. Well, about 30 years ago, I did watch my mom fill in the TV-watching diary she was sent (which diary was fairy easy to keep when we had no remote control and thus kept watching the same channel unless some human was motivated enough to walk across the room to change it).

But I’ve watched a heck of a lot of TV since then and I’d really like to be able to report it to somebody so I don’t have to keep remembering it all.

What follows are my family’s TV viewing for Tuesday, 10 February 2015. Programmers and advertisers, make use of this what you will.

6:00 p.m. Central Standard Time. How It’s Made rerun, Science channel. This show earned a 100/100 (rating points within my household/share of household TVs currently on that were tuned to this show).

6:30 p.m. How It’s Made rerun, Science channel. I think I stopped watching how steel wool gets made, or maybe it was after watching how the stove got put together.

6:45 to 7:00 p.m. The data gets a little hazy here, as the data storage was fallibly human.

7:00 to 7:35 p.m. On VH1, watched a rerun of Saturday Night Live from 1986 (Season 12, Episode 08), with host William Shatner. I also got out my smartphone to see if Season 12 cast member Nora Dunn was still alive and acting. According to Wikipedia, she is.

7:35 to 7:50 p.m. Got bored with 29-year-old SNL rerun, and started noticing on some news sites both that Jon Stewart had some funny comments about the Brian Williams anecdote-fiasco and also I read that Stewart announced today he’s quitting as host of  The Daily Show, and so I watched last night’s The Daily Show via on-demand feature from my cable company. (Also, my wife came home from work about this time and watched this with me, so the viewing audience for The Daily Show in my household doubled over the size of the audience watching old SNL rerun.) We fast-forwarded through commercials and stopped watching before the interview segment.

7:50 to 8:00 p.m. I think I was checking Slate.com on my smartphone during this time.

8:00 to 8:30 p.m. Watched new (I think) episode of our local FOX station’s broadcast of New Girl, where Nick Miller hosts a bar crawl and loses his shoes after throwing them at a squirrel, he thinks.

After 8:30, realized that I’m old and tired and wanted to blog more than I wanted to watch anything else on the telly.

So, here it is: raw data of a very particular, highly unrepresentative viewer’s habits.

‘If you don’t start pretending to learn, I’m gonna start trying to teach’

By the end of the school week, my patience wears thin. I’m not proud to admit this, but last Friday I threatened a student with my pedagogy.

The normally bright student said she didn’t know how to answer a grammar question that we had studied just a few weeks ago. I said, “If you don’t start pretending to learn, I’m gonna start trying to teach.” (I don’t quote myself very often, but after I heard myself say these words, I thought they were worth writing down.)

After a few more minutes of the punctuation worksheet, she begged for mercy: “You don’t have to pretend to teach anymore because I just learned something,” she said.

P.S. When I used the word “pedagogue” in class the other day, this same sophomore student thought it cute that I was suddenly talking about a “pet goat.”