Friday, April 23, 2010

Training or Teaching? Part 2: Learning is self-training

I talked a little bit about training in Part 1 of this series, mostly in the context of external training (trainer-trainee). In this installment I will be discussing true learning. Learning is simply self-training.

A learned behavior is the most ingrained of all trained behaviors. So-called bad habits like nail biting or hair twirling start almost by accident and snowball from there. A child under stress learns by chance the act of chewing ones nails alleviates stress. This works because anxiety/panic is a discomforting feeling that tells us our needs are not being met. Doing something always relieves the feeling of anxiety more than doing nothing. Chewing your fingernails is doing something as far as the brain is concerned, so it creates a small amount of relief from the anxiety. This behavior can become self-rewarding enough to become routine, and the longer is is routine, the harder the habit will be to break. Woe to the kid who learns to disrupt class for attention and something to do at an early age!

True learning occurs only when the person wants to learn something for themselves. Initial interest in the topic is what usually sparks true learning, but not always. Creating conditions that help generate initial interest is the key to unlocking the door to lifelong learning and the true job of a teacher. Consider the kid who comes home from his field trip to the natural history museum enthralled with dinosaurs. He suddenly wants a dinosaur toy, pajamas, cereal, lunchbox, etc. What happens when we present the kid with a colorful book with pictures and lots of information above his "grade level"? The kid isn't going to know the difference other than he might need help with the book at first. I envision the kid pointing and the parent helping them to understand the books "tricky" parts. That is true learning at its best!

Learning is consciously directing the brain to produce new behaviors that bring a person closer to a self-defined goal. The kid mentioned earlier wants to learn about dinosaurs because he finds them interesting, not because mom tells him its important to learn it, not because he needs to know it for a grade, and definitely not because someone was going to punish or reward him if he doesn't learn 'enough'. He is truly learning for himself. A kid that learns something because someone else told them to will only learn until the person is happy, a kid who wants to pass will only do enough to get a D, but the kid who wants to learn for himself has no externally imposed limit.

Experiments have been done on dolphins and creative learning behavior. Dolphins were basically brought into a tank for a certian time limit. Researchers would then feed the dolphin it's favorite fish when it performed an original trick for the session. To get fish in the next session, the dolphin would have to perform an original trick. Predicably, the dolphin of course first tried what it did the first session, but without reward. When the dolphin did a different trick it started getting fish again. This pattern continued with the dolphin always trying last session's trick, but when the desired outcome was not achieved, the dolphin would then try a different trick and acheive success for the session. Eventually the dolphin ran out of tricks and for 15 sessions recieved no fish at all. It would sometimes swim in circles, sometimes try to splash researchers (misbehave), sometimes sit in the center of the tank and do nothing. Ocaisionally the dolphin would frantically try tricks to get a fish. 15 sessions went by and the researchers described the dolphin as looking "despondent". On the 15th session the dolphin by chance performed an original trick and was rewarded. Eureeka! The dolphin learned it was it's creativity that was being rewarded, not just performing tricks. In it's excitement at the end of the session it returned to its normal tank and began practicing and inventing tricks to impress the researchers. Eventually the routines became so elaborate and complex researchers had to end the experiment because they could no longer tell what was an original or new trick. Dolphin art!

This experiment was also done with humans. Upon figuring out that original behavior was rewarded the participants expressed releif moreso than excitement. The relief of the participants is obviously the result of a change in attitute from "I can't do this" to "I can do this." That's what everyone needs to feel for true education to occur. Sometimes that means the student will be frustrated, but the end result is worth the wait. It won't do to "rescue" students from frustration. Abraham Lincoln once said "give me 6 hours to chop down a tree and I'll spend the first 4 sharpening the axe." Instead we teachers often run in with a chainsaw to get the tree started for the kid. The result is that the kid never learns how to do it for themselves.

Who do we want our children to be like? The dolphin or the lion? (see part 1)

Teaching works with the nature of the child while training attempts to alter the nature of the child though pleasure and pain. The benefits from working with nature are obvious. Let's say the dinosaur kid mentioned earlier could not read well. A teacher would find books about dinosaurs for the kid to read choosing books carefully that help improve the child's reading level. The trainer would begin by having the kid write, repeat, and memorize the letters and phonics sounds of the English language with the goal of helping the child to eventually get up to level and be able to read the books on dinosaurs he likes. Who teaches the kid to read more effectively? Ever teacher knows this is common sense.

Teaching is about opening doors for students in the hopes they will step though them to see whats on the other side, not about shoving lines of kids though a revolving door to a place they don't want to go. Teaching requires trust from all parties involved.

The problem with goals in education is that they are always set by the wrong person. Student learning goals are set by the teacher. Teacher learning targets are set by the district, school board, government, or administrator. Administrative targets for attendance, graduation rates, etc. are set by the district. It's like we don't trust someone else to set a fair goal for themselves so we make it for them and blame them when they don't accomplish 'their' goals. Maybe they didn't accomplish the goal because they resented arbitrary goals being unfairly imposed on them, maybe it was directives from management that conflict with the reality of the situation from an employee's perspective, maybe the goal was genuinely impossible. Whatever the reason, low quality is the result. In order for quality to emerge in an organization there must be some shared goals, communication, and vision, but in education it seems like everybody is obsessed with watching everybody else to make sure they are doing their job instead of focusing on their own. Blame may help people hold onto their jobs in the short term, but it isn't going to save public education.

As for core standards like reading and writing, I am convinced that they can be taught in context of the child's interests. Its ridiculus to standardize curricula when all that is needed is to meet the student's needs. We can set standards at a district level, but we must allow students and teachers to work together with some degree of freedom to meet those standards.

Look at the appalling lack of respect we observe in schools. It's been going on since before the time of Aristotle who opined about the unlearned disrespectful youth of his day. Students' knee-jerk, no-thought, reactive, impulsive behavior is nothing new. They have been busy learning and misbehaving to reach their goals in line with their own agendas for millenia. They are young so their goals are often short term and do not usually align with a teacher's goals.

When a kid throws a paper airplane the goal is increase his power, freedom, and his reputation (love/belonging), and fun. The long term consequences like detention or a call home, usually do not usually interfere with his original goal and therefore are deemed inconsequential unrelated annoyances. He'll deal with those later and find some way to resist and frustrate the people who imposed those consequences. He'll show them! In the meantime he feels throwing the airplane and the accomplishment of his goal were well worth it in the end. He never reflects on his behavior or all the energy he will waste getting even. He doesn't think about the damage to his relationships with others caused by his actions. He believes the world is out to pick on him and he is a pawn in a game. What a shame! What a waste of potential!!!

When people do not agree to be trained their response is to learn to beat the system. This is common sense and it is universal. When people have no say and are given orders they resist. How often do employees assume the boss is up to no good or has an agenda when he is really just doing something his boss told him to do?

Our students don't know how to do so many important things for themselves, but I think if they know just 5 things, they could honestly choose better, happier lives for themselves.

Students need to know...

...They all have 5 basic needs: Survival, Freedom, Fun, Love/Belonging, and Power; and EVERYTHING they do from breathing to homework to laughing out loud is an effort to meet one or more of those needs.

...How to set clear goals for themselves that satisfy their needs in positive, productive ways and think about what success would look like before action is carried out.

...How to make a long term plan that addresses potential problems and will get them what they need and carry it out.

...How to honestly evaluate if their choices and behavior used in carrying out the plan got them what they wanted. Feelings are our built-in guide. Feeling happy means success; feeling sad, depressed, frustrated, angry, anxious, panicked, "sick", etc, are our body's way of telling us we are not getting what we need. These negative emotions are also social signals that tell us we need help satisfying our need(s). Being stuck in these negative emotions and constantly relying on others will eventually be interpreted by others as a form of control and destroy the relationship.

...Frustration means its time re-evaluate your goals, form a new plan, carry it out, evaluate the result and repeat as needed. The key to success is the ability to turn frustration into a reachable goal.

The above 5 items are called the GPAR process (Goal, Plan, Action, Result)and students are already doing it every second of their lives. Whatever the student's behavior is: doing homework, participating, dancing on a table, talking in class, etc. You can bet that at some point the student had a goal in mind, then chose a behavior, carried it out, and realized doing the behavior made them feel very happy (met a need in some way, at least for the short term.) If repeating the behavior continues to get the same or better results, the behavior will become self-trained into the student's brain. The behavior will be permanent so long as students continue to believe everything they do is not their fault because they "couldn't" control their behavior. When students learn to extend the GPAR they are already doing into the future and reap the positive feeling that comes from achieving long term goals, they learn what it means to be successful.

Better family structure will help students be successful, but only enough to please their parents. The key to successful education isn't just better families, its getting students to learn for themselves and in so doing becoming true lifelong learners. The student who learns for themselves has no limit!

You Learn for Yourself and yourself alone.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Training or Teaching? Part 1: External Training and Behavior

I have spent a lot of time researching the difference between teaching and training in working toward a master's degree. I'd like to clarify that I feel that both are important, but teachers most of all should know the limitations and applications of both in everyday life. The structure of our modern schools allows for little authentic teaching to occur outside of the realm of training. I hope that teachers who read this to connect their own experiences with brain theory.

Training uses pleasure and pain to achieve a desired response to a particular set of environmental conditions. The purpose of training is to get the trainee to perform an action or set of actions with as little thought as possible. Although it is impossible to eliminate all thought from "doing", it is possible to almost entirely eliminate thinking from the "doing" process in a limited environment. Any major change in the environment or situation could result in paralyzing stress on the trainee. A new situation demands thinking which the pure trainee is ill-equipped to handle. Training by it's nature takes thought out of the equation. If the environment is sufficiently different, the trainee will forget their training entirely and look to their own nature and experience for answers. Little thought needs to be given to the trainee's needs by the trainer because every trainer has but one goal. Get the trainee to always do what they say well and without question through practice/repetition. The ultimate goal of training is impossible because the trainee will always have free will, but training is such that a partial goal will reap varying degrees of success. A well trained basketball team that trusts their coach 95% does better than the one that doesn't trust their coach at all. Training has applications in nearly all sports, the military, animal obedience, the safety of young children, police forces, firefighting, emergency medicine, etc. It is impossible to train anyone who doesn't agree (at least reluctantly) to the training. People trained against their will learn to frustrate and antagonize the system and take every opportunity to do so.

Training does have drawbacks that are rooted in the brain and the methods used in training. The biggest one being the ability to think for one's self and problem solve. Training is about following. A good trainee does what he or she has been told without question. Problem solving and thinking for yourself are processes that require some degree of leadership over self and thus no amount of training will develop these skills.

Animal training is a good example. A lion is trained with meat and the whip. Lions have a need for survival; eating and avoiding bodily harm are high on their survival list so they will "agree" to be trained in this way. The trainer stands tall, looks intimidating, and uses his posture and nerves of steel to establish trust with the animals. When the lions begin to trust him the training begins. No trainer starts with the difficult tricks first. In order for the lions to be ready for those they must first learn the basics: How to stand on a pedestal and wait for instruction, how to follow the trainer properly, how to go where the trainer points on command, and so on. As the lions' brains become accustom to these behaviors they begin to do them without much thought.

The repetition of behavior is very important to training because of the way the brain works. The nerve cells in our brains have small gaps between them called synapses. These gaps are needed because they act like switches that control the flow of electricity in the brain. Nerves communicate with each other via chemicals called neurotransmitters. A nerve on one side of the synapse releases neurotransmitters which then travel the gap to the other nerve and the message is communicated. The longer this chemical exchange takes, the more delay we experience in producing behavior, giving us more time to think about other possibilities. Repetition of a behavior physically alters the brain so that the nerve cells involved in that behavior move closer together thus shortening the synapse gap and making the behavior happen more quickly, eliminating extra think time. It is a mistake to think that any trained behavior is cemented. No trained behavior is instant, there will always be time to think. A person who has bitten their nails their entire life will almost instinctively put their hand in their mouth when nervous. This is a self-trained behavior, and the key to changing it is to start training the brain to realize when it is happening and to stop. When nervous, the brain is going to want to take the path of least resistance, nail-biting. These relapses occur because the nail-biting neurons are still close together, but eventually with practice the training for realization will become more second nature than the nail-biting behavior. If you have spent years biting your nails it may take years to practice realizing your are biting your nails and stop. Over-eating, hair twirling, shouting in a classroom, etc. are all examples of self-trained behavior.

Teachers and psychologists stress the importance of catching negative behaviors when the child is young because it is harder to retrain than it is to train. To retrain themselves a person must believe their behavior is bad and be willing to replace it with a new one. Self-control is essential to the re-training process. Since self-control requires self-leadership, external training cannot be used alone to re-train an engrained behavior. Can a person who has not practiced self control retrain themselves? It is possible, but only if the person truly wants it enough. Even then it is a struggle, because the brain always wants to take path of least resistance. Over time the neurons involved in the negative behavior may distance themselves a bit from less frequent use resulting in small amounts of un-training but the person will always have to vigilant. Un-trained just means "out of practice" or "rusty". If they do the negative behavior again the brain will speed-learn and the behavior could reassert itself. Re-training is about the brain learning a new positive behavior neural pathway better than the negative behavior pathway it is currently used to taking to enact real long term behavioral change.

In the same way, it is a mistake to think that the lion is not choosing its behavior. Because the repetition has made the behavior easy, the lion chooses the path of least resistance. A new situation will increase the resistance of the trained behavior, perhaps long enough for the lion to think up a different behavior and choose that instead. The behavior the lion chooses will certainly be one that is well ingrained in its nature.

Let's take for example the lion who has been trained to open its mouth on command. This lion knows that opening its mouth in its limited caged environment on the command of a trainer produces pleasure (or did at one time with meat) The trainer may even feel confident enough to stick his head in the lion's mouth, but what happens when someone brings an old fashioned flash-bulb camera and the light bulb explodes with a loud flash and a pop? This unexpected change in the environment gives the lion think time. Lions that are stressed out in the wild do not sit still on pedestals with their mouths open. Their mouths are closed and they are alert. The lion may choose to close his mouth on the trainer. We all know what lions do when they feel something struggling in their jaws. Incidentally, the most common cause of a trainer being mauled is when the trainer trips while walking backwards. Something as simple as a trainer falling is irresistible to the lion and all of the training in its feline head evaporates as it's true nature comes forward.

I acknowledge the animals themselves are the main attraction, but there is also an element of drama. If training were 100% effective terrible accidents would never happen, and the drama and tension would be lost. Many trainers will not work with a lion who has mauled someone because the lion will always know that killing the trainer is an option and the more practice the lion gets at this, the more likely it will attack. A trained Orca named Tilikum mauled and killed 3 trainers before being retired as untrainable.

So here is the million dollar question. Are your students trained into creating the appearance of "good behavior" while inside their nature to be kids and goof around is just below the surface eagerly waiting for an opportunity to express itself in negative and unproductive ways? What do trained kids do when they have a substitute? What do they do when they have a fire drill after a snowstorm? What do they do when you have an activity with rubber bands? What do they do when one person in a lunchroom throws food? What do they do when they go to college? Is it possible to train our students to behave in every conceivable situation? If so, is that the goal of our public education system?

What if students no longer fear the teacher's punishment or accept their bribes? What do we do with these un-trainable students? Appallingly the current solution in the US is to stick them in self-contained classrooms, give them an alphabet soup of labels that tell the kid what's "wrong" with them, and sometimes drug them into proper behavior. Wake up people! Maybe the kid doesn't learn because he thinks its a waste of time and wants to disrupt the class because its and easy way to impress a girl he likes. That is not a label or a syndrome, its common sense! The kid has already figured out he doesn't have to do anything you tell him to do and accepts the consequences. The answer isn't finding bigger consequences! It's finding a way to meet his needs with the goal of him valuing and choosing learning. Maybe the answer is to pair the two because she is an A+ student. He doesn't want to look dumb, does he? The short term goal is to get him to learn for the girl he likes, the long term goal is to get him to connect that the learning itself feels good by asking him how he feels about his learning, listening, and helping so he will learn for himself.

Some teachers will say that training is an important step that must happen if real teaching is to occur. I would take issue with that. In my experience training just begets more training. When students learn that training is the game they tend to apply what they learn from it universally to other aspects of education and begin to expect it. In fact they may be begin to demand it both because it is familiar and because it transfers almost all personal responsibility to the trainer. By high school students are so good at frustrating and defeating the training model that all of school is becomes a game of cat-and-mouse to get a letter (A, B, C, or D) with minimal effort. Students see training and school seem to go so hand-in-hand and they begin to confuse training and authentic learning altogether.

As evidence consider the kid who can do the problem: 2+3x=14 but has no idea how to do 15=7x+1. Why is that? If the kid has truly learned the processes of inverse operations and equality, this should be a slam dunk. I think is is obvious to any math teacher what is going on here. The kid has learned and memorized an order of doing (training), not a learned a way of thinking. Students are applying their behavior training from follow the rules (sit down, take out a notebook, be quite, take notes) to the learning of math itself. Why else would the order and position of the variables matter so much to them? Students who have been trained into math compartmentalize each kind of problem: "this is what I do when the x is first, this is what I do when their is no number in front of the x, this is what I do when the x is on the other side, etc." When given a story problem outside of their training these kids raise their hands and ask teachers to "set this problem up for them so they can solve it." That's a BIG problem! No one is going to be there to set it up for them in the real world, so by clinging to these repetitious training exercises instead of encouraging open-ended and dynamic real-world problems what are we teaching them? If they can't use the math for anything then I guess we are teaching them how to move X's and Y's around to look pretty and NOTHING ELSE!

Why? There are 2 reasons. First is because we were trained in this way. A few of us honed the curiosity inherent in our human nature and explored math on a conceptual level, but most of us did not. I once had difficulty figuring out how and where a student had made a mistake on a problem involving the area of a triangle. A seasoned 10 year math teacher 'corrected' me that the area of a triangle A=.5B*H was one half the base times one half the height! I was once at a professional development where my group was asked to develop an activity for a computer. Since our activity involved a falling object, and I was in charge of the technology side of the lesson I asked if another group member could make up some real world data for an example by taking a parabolic model and making the data "off" by a little bit to simulate human error. "Any parabola will do, it doesn't have to be earth gravity", I told them. Not a single one of them could do it. "I'm not good at physics", one of them said. That means 3 certified math teachers out of 4 had no idea how to apply simple algebra 1.

Second is that training is so much faster and easier than the alternative. The trainer does not have to take into account the trainee's needs. (although ones who do will have more success) The trainer only needs to find out the students 'stops' and use them to 'force' the student to 'learn'. Johnny isn't learning well so I'll talk to his coach and he won't play basketball again until he can do what I tell him. Sheniqua likes photography, so I'll talk to her photography teacher and let her leave class 15 minutes early to take pictures outside, but only if she does what I say.

Seasoned teachers know that training is almost always made easier when they build and cultivate a relationship with their students. (I think this is why elementary teachers have more success than high school teachers. They have more time to develop relationships and if students destroy their relationship with their teacher there is greater impact on their everyday learning) It seems there is something need satisfying for teachers and students to care about one another and this relationship makes even the hardest training seem easier. The essence of that is the core of real teaching and authentic learning and will be discussed in my next post. True teaching is channeling the nature of the student itself to produce positive outcomes, not trying to change the nature of the student using punishment and/or bribes.

Trained kids cannot adapt to even the simplest changes in routine. This is why so much emphasis is on structure in modern classrooms. Structuring the student's life at school becomes the teacher's job under the training model. The essence of personal responsibility is delegated to an authority figure and it is deemed acceptable by pretty much everyone involved!!! It's not acceptable because unless students learn to set positive goals for themselves on their own (which takes practice), they won't set their own goals or structure their own lives because we insist on doing that for them! This essentially leaves them always looking for some external source to control their behavior and structure their lives for them. (perhaps they'll find a controlling abusive husband, an unhealthy spirituality, join the military for the wrong reasons, or lean on mom and dad forever for structure instead of self-reflecting and growing as a person)

The inability of students to adapt to new conditions is shocking! Students fail simple standardized tests because they 'look different' than normal tests. If they can't do that, what happens to them when they leave school and the knowledge they got there was trained into that particular school environment? What happens when a professor doesn't mark them absent and call home? What happens when The instructor doesn't make special interventions for them when they struggle? THE STUDENT LOSES when we take the easy way by training instead of teaching.

Training isn't all negative. Their are many positives of training. In sports the field and rules do not change. When they do change is is relatively minor and the athletes have plenty of time to adjust their training. The grace and beauty of an athlete free in action is a site to behold. Unencumbered by thought they fly effortlessly down the field awing fans everywhere.

The policeman who is in a shootout or the firefighter who runs into a burning building risk life and limb to save others. When asked by a news reporter after the fact about how they manage to stay cool under fire they will almost certainly say "it's all training"

The well trained EMT assesses the situation and applies medicine quickly to save lives.

The soldier trains for combat is many situations. Elite soldiers can learn to tame every conceivable condition: wind, rain, heat, freezing cold water, exhaustion, etc. The training of these brave men and women protects us and the freedoms we enjoy.

It is for those reasons and many more that we should never get rid of training, but...

...Getting rid of thought is not something we should be doing in the classroom! EVER! PERIOD!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Survival in school. GET THE PICTURE!

The famed TV survivorman Bear Grills said that in order to survive in the wild you have to have a tangible goal, a reason to continue. Survivors should keep a personal vision of themselves outside of their current circumstances. Picturing yourself at home with your family, going back to a job you love, or even playing fetch with your dog can help keep a positive mindset in a life and death situation. A vague goal of "getting home" or "surviving" will not do. In fact, Mr. Grills keeps a physical and mental picture of his family with him at all times because he knows better than anyone that in the most intense survival situations, without a clear picture of something powerfully positive, a negative mindset will cloud a person's judgment leading to certain death. That picture is key to getting out of a survival situation and back to living your life.


Survivors ALWAYS try to maximize their gain while minimizing their risk and effort, they seize every advantage and always look for weakness in others. In fact, many predator and prey animals have developed anatomy for this very purpose. Looking like something poisonous, camouflage, elaborate displays of strength, and warning sounds are just some of nature's genius at work minimizing risk and maximizing survivability with minimum effort.

Survival is rooted in the idea that we can control completely someone other than ourselves. The truth is the only person we can really control is ourselves, which is why no survival tactic in the animal kingdom is 100% effective.

When we pretend we can control others (especially for long periods of time), we set ourselves up for failure and frustration before we begin. When that failure is realized and we feel our weakest, we go into survival mode, putting on our own elaborate displays, camouflage, warning sounds, and displays of strength. Our schools are no exception.

I want to begin by saying that the following does not apply to everyone. I bow to you, the parents, administrators, teachers, etc. that put your reputation and lively hood at risk by facing reality with brave eyes and steel nerves. May you long survive!

So how does this self preservation play out in our schools?

The survivalist parent: These "good" parents' goals are to maximize their son/daughter's grade with minimum effort on their part. They have nothing to lose and everything to gain by being aggressive. Most people assume that a letter grade is an actual indicator of learning (This is one of education's biggest problems: the grade-focused mindset). The survival of these parents' reputation as "good parents" depends on these letters. Someone will suffer until that letter is something more than an F or a D. They work hard to tear down teachers, administrators, and schools by creating scenes and public relations nightmares. These parents will not face the reality that they cannot control their children. They must blame the system because to do otherwise would be their 'death' as a 'good parent'. They find creative ways to sue districts using central office to bully principals and principals to bully teachers into giving them what they want: letters on a sheet of paper once per quarter that make them and their son/daughter feel good. As an added bonus they may even become hero-of-the-moment for their child. These parents create elaborate excuses for their child and cause massive damage to schools politically and culturally by playing teachers, students, and administrators against one another and creating an atmosphere of fear.

The survivalist teacher: To survive as a teacher means keeping your job. Teachers have it worst of all when it comes to survival. The teacher's survival depends on controlling 70-240 students per day, but again the only person we can control is ourselves. Children know teachers can't fail them all. Teachers soon realize that less than 10% of students genuinely want to learn. Though cultivation of personal relationships they may be able to get this number as high as 30%, and with the other 20% willing to do just enough to get by, that leaves them with 50% of students who don't deserve an F- in the teacher's book. To survive as a teacher, one must lie to themselves or rationalize their inflation of grades because to fail more than 30% of students will conflict with the administrator's goal of high GPA numbers and graduation rates. This could result in bad evaluations, probation, extra work for them to show improvement on their part, and constant monitoring. To avoid this slow and agonizing death most teachers are 'content' to pass enough children to camouflage the fact that they couldn't do the impossible: Make every student excel in curricula that was dictated to them by the district and is about as interesting as watching paint dry. A few are outright evil. Not only do they pass children, they befriend administrators and point them toward other potential 'prey' to avoid scrutiny themselves. These scum sucking parasites of the teaching world tend to target teachers who make them look bad: the ones who work hard and do their best despite all odds. It doesn't matter how good a teacher you are, teachers are given so many things to document and do, once targeted, there will always be something a misguided administrator (who's too overwhelmed to see the truth) can pick at.

The survivalist administrator - Administrator survival is a numbers game to keep their job, and their school funded and operating. The administrator quickly learns that doing things like increasing test scores and changing the culture of a learning environment are complex problems that require cooperation of staff, a vision, a plan, and an effort and a willingness by all involved to carry out the plan. Plans can take years to bear fruit (years they aren't given) and they carry loads of risk. Public relations is the way to survive. Their goal is to control everyone in the school to produce immediate results. Again the only person we can control is ourselves. So when this plan inevitably fails, administrators are quick to point fingers at problem teachers and support staff, buddy up with political allies in the district, and do everything in their power to boost the numbers the district will be looking at. Attendance, Overall GPA, suspension rates, special ed scores, graduation rates, WKCE test scores, etc. If a kid is failing to attend, transfer him to another school. If a kid needs a credit to graduate, hassle the teacher, then change the grade in the computer so the kid walks down the aisle. If a parent is upset give them what they want, its not worth the risk of them calling the district and a lot easier to throw some teacher under a bus! Meeting their own goals better than their rivals on paper means avoiding district scrutiny and assures survival from the district lion.

The district: To survive as a district you must find measures of success that the public will accept. Since little authentic learning is happening in our schools, these measures must seem like ideals worth working towards, but have little to do with actual student learning. Good graduation rates, suspension/attendance rates, test scores, etc. Seem like things to strive for and have public appeal, but have almost nothing to do with how much our students are actually learning, what skills they have, or what they are capable of doing with what they learned.

To survive public scrutiny, you must use statistics in ways that confuse and obscure the truth. I believe the word for this was coined by Steven Colbert as "truthiness". Even if an overall 2% gain is technically statistically insignificant, the public doesn't need to know that! The headline is "District test scores show modest improvements with significant gains in a few schools." Pretend 90% of students go to school A and the other 10% go to small charter schools B-Z. Even if the WKCE scores dropped an astronomical 40% overall, if most of these small charter schools show even .0005% improvement the headline is "70% of district schools show improvement on WKCE!"

Its easy to write this and think I am angry at the people themselves. For the record I am not. I just look at them as survivalists in a system that pits them into roles of predator and prey. These people have always been well intentioned and didn't go into education to survive. Its just where they found themselves. A joyful hike in the woods became a survivalist nightmare when they found themselves lost. Somewhere the mentality of "play not to lose by making things look good" took over the strategy of "play to win by educating our youth". That defined goal of student learning was lost.


Somewhere in their pocket there is a faded torn and weathered picture LONG forgotten. It has a student smiling and showing off his group project with a blue ribbon dangling from it. It has a class filled with joy, laughter, school spirit, pride, and a sense of accomplishment from a job well done. If has a principal shaking the students hand and playing with the project himself. It shows kids learning for the joy of learning. Where did we put that picture?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Why's school important? The student perspective of school.

Ask a student "why school is important?" and you will get a lot of different answers. If you think deeply some of them they could lead you to a worldview-shattering realization about what students perceptions of the world are. I urge teachers to ask students this question 1-on-1.

Students almost always say the reason school is important is "to get a good job and/or make more money or go to a good college" Ask the same student how school will help them to do those things and most will have little in the way of a descriptive answer. You might hear "by getting good grades" or a vague "by learning" answer. Rarely a student will answer that "learning allows you to do more things that's why school is important." If you ask that same student why learning is important and they will most likely say "to get a good job or go to a good college." Its all very circular and a more vacuous than we teachers realize. Do students realize that the learning is why you are capable to "do" college and "do" a job or is their concept simply a progression that happens and your done when you are not smart enough to do more: Elementary leads to Middle leads to High school leads to College leads to Good job? If the latter is their mindset and the transitions we offer students from primary to high school are basically social promotion (they are), why would them actually making effort to learn enter into that equation? What message do we send kids when the importance of learning is something teachers talk about but the reality is such that practically everyone who brings a pencil graduates into the next level of school. If students believe that their intelligence is a constant (not growing or dynamic in any way) isn't it a matter of them just passively sitting by and seeing how far their smarts will allow them to make it in school?

The funny thing is that a lot of us would have said the same things I hear students say today. Like them, we didn't think much about what our answers meant in real life for us either. If a teacher asked me why is school important, I would have just parroted what adults told me school was for. My goal in answering would have been to get the question "correct" to make the teacher happy with me. Other students have told me that they would parrot the correct answer just to "get the teacher off my back". In other words to avoid the potential personal criticism a teacher may give them for their own personal understandings and goals, students will tell the teacher what they want to hear. As well meaning teachers, we would want to help the child align their thoughts and goals correctly. Students often tell us what we want to hear to avoid frustrations like looking ignorant, being criticized , etc. It's something experienced teachers are always mindful of. I didn't think to analyze the students answers when I first started asking this question. I felt students were on the right track when they said "to go to a good college and have a good job". I was wrong because I didn't dig deep enough!

So here is the million dollar question for readers: "Based on what you have personally heard from kids do they have an understanding of the purpose of school and learning?"

From my experience I would say no. The purpose of learning is to gather knowledge and apply it to acquire skills that extend your ability to do things.

Language is a tricky thing. I can see why some people might say "the purpose of high school is to learn so you can go to college." The sentence makes sense, but think about how that language could be interpreted by literal minded students. Some students may even read into this sentence and see cause and effect. "The purpose of high school is... to go to college."

Language is a larger factor than most give it credit for in this misunderstanding. Look at a lot of ways we talk about education in the context of learning. For example, compare the following sentences that convey the purpose of education.

"High school is important so you can go to college and get a degree. Then you can get hired at good job doing what you want and have a successful life."

"High school is important because what you choose to learn and do there helps you develop skills that allow you to 'do' college. You can choose to learn advanced skills in college that make it easier for you find a job you like and live a successful life."

Look at how weak the language we use is in the first sentence. you "go to" college you "get" a degree you "have" a successful life. The way this is worded these things seem to happen to you as if you have no control over your life. Isn't this is the reactive I'm-a-victim thinking we so often complain about in our students? Compare that to the language in the second phrase. Its a bit wordy, complex, and maybe not very poetic (I welcome suggestions) but it is reality. We choose what we learn. College is not just some place you go like the mall it is something you do and work at. We learn to get skills. Having knowledge means having skills that can lead you to live a successful life. Sadly, many students don't see it that way and the language we are using isn't helping.

Let's teach our kids why learning is important! (Send me any ideas that are successful, I welcome them) Here is a mini-lesson to try with any kid or group of kids. The final point of this mini-lesson for students is to get students discussing the connections between learning, skills and boredom; The more you know, the more fun life can be.

Ask them...
1) "Do you get bored easily?"
2) "Do you think that doing nothing or not being able to do anything is boring?"
3) "Do you like being bored?" (younger audiences)
4) "Is playing your favorite game boring?"
5) "Would it be fun to play a new game if you didn't know any of the rules?"
6) "How would you know if the new game was really fun or not?"

Give them time to think about each question seperately as needed especially number 6. To know if the game is really fun we would have to learn about the game by reading the rules, watching others play, or playing it yourself. A good follow up question might be "Is watching others play, reading directions, and playing a new game learning?" Its only though learning that we can know if things are fun. We could miss a lot of really fun games out there if we don't learn much about them to see if they are any fun.

Doing nothing is boring.

You can't do what you haven't learned.

You CAN'T imagine the fun you could be having if you knew more!

Friday, March 5, 2010

The myth of "the basics"

What's WRONG with math education?

Before I talk about why I want to define what I mean by the phrase "doing mathematics". Stephen Wolfram defines doing mathematics as a 4 step process ad I agree with him. Doing mathematics is...

1) Finding a problem in the real world.
2) translating the real world elements into the language of math using formulas and symbols.
3) Computing the answer.
4) Reinterpreting the answer's value back into the real world to help solve the problem.

I think we have lost sight of what mathematics is all about. We now have machines to free us from the drudgery of step 3. We no longer have to fixate on it as we did in the past. In the days of pencil and paper it was extremely important to focus on step 3. There were no machines to do step 3 and it was very difficult to compute answers. Procedures were made and proven to allow mankind to extend his ability to compute ever more difficult mathematics. Some Mathematicians have built their careers almost exclusively on creating and proving abstract computational procedures for step 3.

Mathematics has developed and grown as a field because it solves problems in the real world, and computing is just a part of that process. From here I will be talking about what I observe in the classroom and how it compares with "doing mathematics". I will also analyze some of the arguments used to perpetuate and justify the status-quo of mathematics: procedural step 3 thinking and technological obsolescence of content.

I want to point out that what I am advocating is that we switch how we handle and do step 3. Instead of using paper and pencil, we use computers to do the computing work. Every other step in doing mathematics will remain the same. That may mean instead of making the assignments like "solve for x" we ask questions with higher cognitive demand like "write a real world story problem that uses the equation below and a person would need to find x". The difference here is that to answer the second question, you really have to know what the symbols of math mean. Students often limp their way though the procedures of math by memorizing processes without attaching meaning to the procedure. A student may memorize the procedure of finding an average as "add all the numbers together then divide by how many numbers there are." That's great, but what good is it if they don't know that the average is the exact center or balancing point of a set of numbers? Faking math by memorizing a bunch of steps superficially is common crutch for students. Asking questions like the second one above ensure that the purpose and concept behind a math idea is learned because in order to answer the question you need to understand math, not just be good at memorization.

"What if the computer is wrong? How would anyone know?" is another excuse that is often given for the "reason" we need to do things by hand. This is a silly argument when you think about it. Why stop at computers? How can we trust your own hand calculations? How can we trust mathematicians? How can you trust the internet? How can you trust your eyes, you could be delusional couldn't you? You can be forever agnostic about everything if you want. The fact is, its easy to point to a time when computers failed while ignoring that they are thousands of times more accurate and faster than humans at the same computational tasks. If some person can find an error with Mathematica, does that mean all computers everywhere are dangerous and will destroy math? It doesn't seem to be true of hand algorithms. When we get those wrong we acknowledge it was a mistake and correct it. We don't abandon hand algorithms and move back to stones and abacuses for counting, so why would computers be any different?

"What if everyone just trusted computers all the time? That's dangerous to trust computers to such a high degree all the time. If we don't teach our students how to do things by hand how will they verify the accuracy of computers? People won't be able to think!" You might think I am crazy, but I have heard this argument more than once so I will address it. Forgive my sarcasm but in society we have books, a primitive form of data storage. Should all of the world fall into the chaos that will "surely" follow by trusting a computer to solve for X and it failing to do so, people could read these books. Some people even learn things like math by reading books alone. In fact, I think some people will want to learn the hand algorithms because they find them interesting.(Wouldn't teaching that class would be a math teacher's dream!?!) Unless all math books are destroyed these hand algorithms will not be lost.

I think its questions and lines of reasoning like the last one that really tell it like it is. People do not know the difference between knowledge that everyone should know and knowledge that only a few people need to know. The current math procedures could be taught in a math history class where the inventive and ingenious people who developed them would get the honor in history they have earned. Now most of their names are hardly mentioned because we are to busy drilling everyone on ALL the algorithms.

"The basics" in math is this undefined hazy ideal that seems to impede progress in math education. No one would EVER put up with in a class that was not so abstract. What would you say if you wanted to take a class to basic computer class and on the first day the teacher gave you some computer chips a soldering iron and began teaching circuit dynamics? In the afternoon you were taught binary and machine code. You wanted to learn how to use Microsoft Windows, but when you tell the teacher this he teacher assures you that in order to REALLY understand Windows you must first master machine code and later MS DOS, then you might be ready to learn Windows NT then Windows 2000, then Windows Vista, then Windows 7, but only if you get your doctorate. Would you pursue such a program or would you look at all the people you know, realize that none of them know machine code but still know enough about computers to use them and then drop out? This is currently what happens in mathematics education. Is it any wonder why our students don't want to learn math? THIS IS UNACCEPTABLE! No one would take a computer class like the one above unless it was a special course in computing history. So long as that was the only program available, those that did would probably make a lot of money, but their success wouldn't be because machine code was the bedrock of the industry or gave them new insight into programming. It would be because few people would have the patience to deal with that kind of program. Fewer people in the program means higher demand for qualified people and thus higher wages, but students learning of machine code and soldering could have been better spend on other more important concepts like object oriented programming, system design, program architecture, etc.

If this program were like math education today students would complete their mostly irrelevant coursework, the professors would see that the few students who completed the program were successful and confirm their beliefs about just how important it was for students to know "the basics" of computer design. Even a few of the students who liked their machine code classes would extol how useful it was that they learned the basics. Since their were no other programs out there that didn't obsess over the basics, there would be no way to tell just how useful the basics really were in creating competent computer operators. If no another program was skipping the basics to teach more useful and practical information would we assume that there was no other way to teach it as we currently do in mathematics education today? Is it really necessary to get good with a soldering iron and circuit boards for you to use a computer? Is this knowledge everyone needs to know or some people need to know?

So why all the confusion? Why is it that math never seems to move forward?
What's wrong with mathematics education is simple: everyone is totally obsessed and hung up on step 3. Since step 3 is taught almost exclusively in the classroom from day 1, often the people who get into math fall in love the the procedural elegance and exact nature of the subject. Even though we now have computers to to the drudgery of calculation, they still extol computation by hand as some kind of virtue, while ignoring the actual application of math to the real world by glossing over steps 1, 2, and 4. Simply put we have not moved math into the age of computers; We must teach all 4 steps of mathematics in balance. Bringing math into the computer age will also make math accessible to the general population, democratizing math and opening exciting possibilities. No longer would mathematical analysis be restricted to the few who learned hand procedures. Anyone who had an understanding of math terminology and relationships could analyze data or use data to make decisions.

The age of computers has made hand calculation obsolete. If you don't believe me go to and punch in an equation try "3x+2=8" Magic. Check out the introduction video here.

It is amazing what will happen in the future! We could be awestruck by its possibilities or fearful what will math teachers do when free websites like Wolframalpha are available to them 24/7 on smartphones. In 10 years, most US citizens will have a smartphone, are we going to force more algorithms down the throats of people who don't want to learn them or will we strengthen the rigor of our math curricula and make mathematics accessible to people who don't have the patience to learn the computational end of math but thrive on steps 1, 2, and 4. Which is better for the economy: fear and no change or change and possibility?

Math is one of those subjects that people think does not change over time. I would agree that the theoretical foundations of math have not and may never change, but how we teach math, how we learn math, where math is applied, and technology are factors that do change the game of math education. Fortunately, technology has long changed the game for mathematics for scientists and engineers, but it has not for students. Technological advances are being made at an exponential rate and we need more mathematically competent people to operate and understand these complex machines.

Are we producing people fluent in the concepts of math? The answer is a resounding NO! From my experience, most people have no concept of math beyond it is working with numbers or doing problems like "solve for x", "simplify the expression" or "rationalize the denominator". You would think these procedures were all made of gold and absolutely necessary to understand math the way some math teachers and professors talk about them. "They need to know the basics" is appealing rhetoric, but are students able to do the basics?

A simple look at the NAEP, TIMMS or PISA (international math and reasoning tests) we see US students' scores doubled by their rivals in other countries. It's pretty obvious students are not getting the basics (or much else) out of math classrooms today. I don't think foreign born students are twice as smart as us or that some sort of genetic advantage evolved in the last 100 years. There is nothing wrong with the American student!!!! They have every right to be bored to tears with hand algorithms they are forced to learn in exchange for a letter on a sheet of paper. (A,B,C,D,F) Especially after they have been shown that a computer can do it in a second. Nothing highlights our dismal failure to advance math curricula forward like the poor scores we see in the US today.

The students we do produce are can barely compute all the rigorous procedures and algorithms we teach them at all much less explain why and where we would apply those procedures. Basically, we cram computation down their throats, claim is important to know, and punish them when they choke on it. We busily teach them that doing math like solving equations by hand is very important, but then after we spend hours and days in the classroom teaching them these pencil and paper procedures, we then show them how it can be done on a calculator in 20 seconds. After all that, its more than unfair to be expected to be taken seriously by students who rely on technology everyday. Shouldn't technology make these manual calculation units easier and shorter? Shouldn't the questions we pose to students be becoming more conceptual and real-world based as technology frees them from the drudgery of manual calculation? According to most mathematics educators today, the answer is no.

I will end with some good news. We may be behind as a country, but no one is where they need to be in this math debacle. Other countries are busy teaching their students the same "by hand" procedures as we are. Some like Japan do not allow calculators, and I have even seen Japanese students wasting hours working abacuses with lightning speed and precision. (apparently while calculators are cheating abacuses are not)

Why do other countries seem to destroy us in math? Its a good question that demands an answer. This could be a thesis, but I will briefly discuss some of the reasons. Most countries scores benefit from the educational systems they have in place that test students after elementary school and then place children in different educational "tracks". Often only the students who are on an academic track take the tests for the country. Students who are on a good track and like mathematics do not have to contend with the poor behavior of students who don't want to be there. This is a huge advantage. Another factor I feel is not often discussed is why Asian countries do so well on tests is language. Many Asian countries have languages that are made up of thousands of symbols. The order of symbols and their placement in relation to each other acts a lot like an algorithm to change word meaning. Math symbolism may come easier to them because many of the learning techniques they use in language (memorization and word order) happen to be useful in math symbolic manipulation.

Another reason for the decline of education in the US is the abundance of supplies Americans have. Most poor families in the US still own a TV, have enough to eat and drink, and have access to shelter. To them physical survival is not really the issue.
In other countries the poor have much less. It is obvious that education creates opportunity to move up in social standing. People who are rich are educated, and vis-versa. To our uneducated and media brainwashed youth, learning seems a lot less appealing then waiting for your big chance and making it big. Their ignorance of probability aside, it is a matter of values. Whenever our youth have the good life already they take it for granted and don't look at the factors that may have bought their family to their current status. In China the children of the middle class are already refusing to work in school. In Japan there is the increasing problem of Japanese youth not learning the full Japanese language. In Japan this language is what all academic books are written in!

Teachers keep hope, math education in the world is not much better than in the US. We now have a choice: will we move forward by using technology in place of hand algorithms, or will we forbid it until students can do everything by hand? Will we move forward or backward?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


I am dedicating this blog to all the hardworking teachers out there who work tirelessly to the bone just to get all that is expected of them done, particularly urban teachers. I am especially proud of those who not only get it all done, but still dedicate time to helping students by being innovative and creating meaningful learning experiences for their students. They work long hours for students who do not seem to have any intrinsic motivation at all. They live in frustration as students bash a subject they love but still push though it to teach it anyway; They want their students to learn. Most are forced by policy to teach some particular topic on a particular day like a robot by a district that 'knows best". All too often teachers work in an environment that feeds them disrespect from all sides: student, administrators and parents and punishes them when they choke on it. In some urban areas teachers have to all but beg a student to learn just one fact. (How good it feels to think you may have accomplished something) They are blamed for what others do or fail to do. They are underpaid, overworked and rarely have the support and materials they need. Public education is a sinking ship! To those who stay in it anyway bailing water to help our children, You are heroes!

I have been a math teacher for 7 years. I will likely keep teaching until this June because I lost faith in the systems ability to right itself from the inside. I don't believe anything short of gutting whats there and restructuring the way we all manage from superintendent down to teachers in the classroom will solve the problems our great nation faces. Education is a mess, until I feel like I can be productive as a teacher again I will not return to the profession. There are also other personal factors involved with my choice to leave like starting a family.

Teaching is the hardest job in the world!!! PERIOD!

One fellow at a bar I was visiting said "Teaching is easy! Once you get started you just have to dust off lesson plans and do the same thing every year until your 3 month vacation" People like him have no knowledge of the reality of any classroom. It kind of reminds of when Rush Limbaugh told a caller that the price of his recent doctor visits were less than the cost of an SUV and were perfectly reasonable. Hey Rush, $15,000 is a lot of money to OTHER people.

Attention teacher haters: I have a challenge for you! Name one other job where you are charged to manage a bunch of workers who don't get paid anything, are forced to go to work everyday, can't usually be fired, aren't usually screened before they are hired, and, worst of all, know if they don't work it will be you who is blamed for it. As a manager you can't use tough language or physical force to get them to work. You are also held accountable to at least three entities who often have conflicting interests. (peers, parents, administrators, district policy, state standards, district standards, etc.) In addition, you will have to pay for all of your training and must take college courses to keep your job.

Good luck!

The purpose of this blog is to create awareness of and spread ideas that educators may find insightful and helpful. To this end, most of my posts will be about or connected to at least one of the following ideas.

1) Choice Theory and the Deming management model must used in education.

2) Math must "grow up"! I mean that as a statement of where math is and also as a challenge to professors and others in the field to be aware of technologies ever-changing role in the process of mathematics. Currently we are teaching things "by hand" that students have no use for. They have calculators. Soon they will all have access to smartphones 24-7 and free websites like (which can solve most math problems like a click of a button.) What will happen when a kid can just punch in "2x+3y=5 and 5x+3y^2=9" into a search bar and get an answer? Maybe we should spend our time on meaningful problems in the REAL world and leave raw, intense computing to... computers. Maybe that's why they call them computers, because they compute for you. Isn't that the point?

I will address these points in posts to come, but I hope you will find this blog insightful, witty and most of all I hope it give you faith to keep moving forward. You are not alone.

Keep the faith.