Search This Blog

Dec 22, 2011

The treasure trough of secrets

Today was one of the rare days with no meetings, and very low flow of emails. Days like that are best used for cleaning up old entangled messes and for general organizing. It is time to look into the priority list, and pull some things from the bottom of it. It is surprising how important are some of the tasks that in the middle of a crazy semester never come up to the top of the to-do list. Here is an interesting error we make - certain tasks seems insignificant not because they are, but because no one pressures us to do them. But I venture to speculate that for some of the most important things we can do there is no external pressures. No one will pressure you to write that poem, or to read that book you always knew are important.

For example, for a long time, we all thought the assessment instrument descriptions need to be edited - both for length and for consistency. They were pretty well written originally, and therefore there were always many more pressing issues to be dealt with. So today I thought I'd bite the bullet and try to clean them up. While the result may not be impressive to any of you, I was surprised how much fun it was for me. Looking at forms, rubrics, descriptions, and trying to figure out how to make them shorter, more economical, and yet detailed enough to be useful. There is a quiet and meditative quality to this. The tiny discoveries - oh, we may not need this document at all; let's just use that one for the same purpose! - these discoveries are probably similar to those of cooking or gardening, or re-writing a syllabus. They are too small to be of importance to anyone else, and are not really worth communicating to others. But we all have those. They make life enjoyable; they constitute a small treasure trough of secrets we all carry in our heads.

This reminded me, when I was about 5, my preschool buddies and I used to hide little things - candy wraps, buttons, bids - in the playground somewhere, in the dirt. Most of them were probably immediately forgotten, but some we then remembered and dug out - for no purpose, just to know one can have a little thing that is just his, and may sometimes be shared with one or two friends.

My holiday wish to you is to have a quiet moment to remember something small that is not for sharing with others. Because there is no one to judge, you can treasure it as much as you want.

Dec 16, 2011

Neither evil nor stupid

An explosive headline today: Providence Goes to War over Charter Schools. Another bitter fight over charter schools just ended in Cranston. People get passionate about educational reform. Yet there are more and less productive ways of debating.

In every class I have taught for the last ten years or so, student are advised: "Do not assume your opponent to be evil or stupid." Indeed, if you question your opponent's intentions and integrity, why engage in a debate? Evil has to be fought, not debated. If you think your opponent is just an idiot, a dialogue is just as pointless.

A good starting point is this: my opponent has the best intentions and really believes in what she is advocating; she is as intelligent as I am. But my opponent has a different set of experiences, and access to different information, so his opinion is different because of that. My job is to educate the opponent on how the world looks like from my point of view, but also learn why and how he came to his conclusions. The point of the debate is not only to change her mind, but also to admit the possibility of changing mine.

The charter school debate is the classic example of mismatched assumptions. The whole idea of charter schools has been presented to the educational community in the early 90-s as way to establish some space for experiment and innovation. On these terms, many believed it was a good idea. However, some people started to suspect that charter schools intend to gradually replace traditional district-run public education altogether. For example, in New Orleans, 71% of students attend a charter school. Under this assumption, most educators including me would object. The question remains - what is the intent? The proponents say the intent is still the same, the opponents say the intent has shifted. The intent is very difficult to know, and consequences of public policy do not always coincide with its intent. Like any organization on the face of the Earth, charter schools want to grow, regardless of their leader's actual intent.

My objections are theoretical: Education is not a typical market of consumer goods, and consumer choice just does not work as intended there. Unrestricted choice leads to development of concentrated educational ghettos. And as the most active and engaged parents move their children and resources to charters, traditional schools will look worse and worse. They will keep larger and larger proportion of special needs, homeless, and just very poor students with weaker family and community supports. However, FSEHD partners with several excellent charter schools, and I admire their accomplishments. A good school is a good school, and all educators have much to learn from the best of charter schools. As long as they remain a relatively small player, the negative systemic side effects will not be significant and the benefits outweigh the cost. I do not know what is the proper size of charters should be within the public school systems, but definitely not 70%.

A productive debate about charter schools should assume the integrity of intentions on both sides. It also has to focus on the real issue at hand: is this a small scale experiment or an opening act of the total charterization? I think if serious legal guarantees were developed to ensure the limits of charter schools' growth, there would be less opposition. With such guarantees, a large district like Providence can afford another charter school without crossing the threshold.

Another critical point: teachers and parents from traditional schools should see a tangible benefit of the innovation and experimentation promise. The good charters create many of excellent solutions, but there is no mechanism for spreading and adopting them in traditional schools. Charters and district schools are fairly isolated from each other, which breeds mutual suspicion, and defies the whole purpose of charter experiments. This has to be a dialogue of equals, where the best practices of traditional schools are treated with the same respect as those of charters.

Dec 9, 2011

Writing shorts

Yesterday, I have written 50 emails (29 on Wd, 35 on Tue, 43 on Mn), a reference letter, and worked with two differed groups on a conference program, and on a new program policy. I also put together an application form, and made a couple of Updates entries. It cannot be all that good. In fact, rest assured, most of it was not good. Even marginally decent writing takes time. Paradoxically, shorter pieces may not need less work than longer ones. In fact, proportionally speaking, shorter pieces should take much more time than longer ones. Much of misunderstandings can be avoided if we took time with our short communications. An unclear email can open a floodgate of clarifying questions. It can also create confusion, errors, hurt feelings, and many more unintended consequences.

We write more shorts because our readers are not likely to read longer ones. I love an occasional New Yorker article because it is longer than a usual magazine piece. I am assured though that the author put hundreds of hours into developing it, so it is usually very good. But an email longer than half a page is very unlikely to be read thoroughly if at all. A 20-page policy is assured a pompous oblivion. Web sites with hundreds of pages will linger unvisited. We are forced into the world of shorts, and most of us are as graceful there as an elephant in a china store.

No one teaches us how to write shorts. It is a special skill, one that becomes more and more important with time. As the nature of communication changes, “Twitterature” becomes its own art form. It will develop its masters, its own sets of rules and its own beauty and elegance. I always require students to write longer papers, just because I want to know their thinking, and to make sure they can construct a more complex argument. But now I am thinking that we should also teach them the art of brevity. The problem is not in lack of time; it is the lack of skills. The task is putting the same amount of thought into a shorter text. English is already a very economical language, with a long tradition of economical, direct and clear writing. Yet the skill does not come by itself. We can marvel at Twain’s on-liners, or Hemingway’s laconism, and yet unable to produce anything like that.

Yesterday, the Cabinet (Monica, Susan, Karen, Eileen and I) spent more than an hour writing this one page document. And note, it went through two drafts already. Why so long? - Because writing is thinking. Language stimulates our imagination, and we are better able to imagine scenarios – intended and unintended – of a policy when we’re working on explaining it. One may believe we think first, and then write our thoughts down. This is not true, of course; no thought arises outside communication, and no thought can be expressed without interpreting. Now, is our one page an example of good writing? Probably not in the aesthetic sense of the word. But we at least walked out of the meeting with some common understanding on what we want to be communicated.

Let’s try to pay attention to our short writings. It is a matter of proportion: the author should take at least twice as long to write something as it takes the reader to read. I know – we won’t be able to cope up with student and each other’s emails, you think. But I bet we’d need fewer exchanges, if we thought a little better about the message that starts it all.

Dec 2, 2011

Negative bias or What’s good?

My work often involves thinking and talking about problems that need to be solved. As a result, the problems come up more that their absence. This creates a bias – all the good things I know tend to be less prominent; their picture in my mind less detailed. For example, a faculty member told me that she had some great students this semester, and she observed some great lessons. But of course, the reason she was in my office was to discuss one troublesome student, which we did at length. Now I know a whole lot about the one problematic student – her history, her attitude, her errors, - but almost nothing about the good students, other than they are good. After all, we don’t need to do something about them. And I don’t think it is just my situation. Most of my colleagues also tend to worry about the things that do not work; while the positive things rarely need discussion or great analysis. Excellent papers or lesson plans are just less memorable than the bad ones, because the latter contain possible clues for how to improve.

The media’s negative bias has been known for a long time: it is hard to sell good news. It is especially difficult to sell good news if they are not really news. For example, imagine a headline “America remains a democracy with functioning legal system,” or “Rhode Island’s public schools continue to accept all children.” Does not work, right? The tendency to take good things for granted is an evolutionary trait. If it is warm and there is a fresh water lake nearby, you would be wasting your time and energy constantly reflecting on how easy it is to keep warm and on the lack of thirst. All cultures have celebrations to balance the negative bias by setting aside some time to reflect on positives. All religions also make a point of thanking their gods for the blessings. But the very fact that these mechanisms exist tell us about the initial imbalance.

The problem is that we are all working a little too much, and trying to solve too many problems. The negative bias contributes to too much stress, because less and less space remains for reflecting on all good things. The traditional cultural resources for restoring the sense of balance are not sufficient anymore. This is why we should all practice a form of cognitive restructuring, or reframing. I hereby declare a new rule. Every time one of you comes in to my office, you must tell me what is the best thing that happened to you lately; describe in some detail. I will do the same when I come to you. Instead of greeting each other “How are you?,” Let’s use “What’s good?” If we start with those conversations, perhaps the problems may appear in their proper proportions, and we won’t stress over the small stuff. You can tell I am getting into the holiday spirit. It’s all the music in the mall.