Bertrand Russell: “Education and Discipline”

Is there any more famous English philosopher of the 20th century that Bertrand Russell?  Certainly, it is hard to think of a philosopher who occupied a larger space in our collective imaginations.  Probably, readers are most used to seeing Russell connected with the peace movement, logic, or perhaps his religious skepticism.  Russell’s writings on education and schooling, though slim, are worth reading. Partly because he is a joy to read; partly because they are not so far from accepted wisdom even today.  The selections below are from his 1935 essay, “Education and Discipline.”
On the debate between “natural” education or something formal and (perhaps) strict:

“The arguments in favour of a great degree of freedom in education are derived not from man’s natural goodness, but from the effects of authority, both on those who suffer it and on those who exercise it. Those who are subject to authority become either submissive or rebellious, and each attitude has its drawbacks.

“The submissive lose initiative, both in thought and action; moreover, the anger generated by the feeling of being thwarted tends to find an outlet in bullying those who are weaker. … The effect upon the educators is even worse: they tend to become sadistic disciplinarians, glad to inspire terror, and content to inspire nothing else. As these men represent knowledge, the pupils acquire a horror of knowledge, which, among the English upper-class, is supposed to be part of human nature, but is really part of the well- grounded hatred of the authoritarian pedagogue…

“Rebels, on the other hand, though they may be necessary, can hardly be just to what exists. Moreover, there are many ways of rebelling, and only a small minority of these are wise. Galileo was a rebel and was wise; believers in the flat-earth theory are equally rebels, but are foolish. There is a great danger in the tendency to suppose that opposition to authority is essentially meritorious and that unconventional opinions are bound to be correct: no useful purpose is served by smashing lamp-posts or maintaining Shakespeare to be no poet. Yet this excessive rebelliousness is often the effect that too much authority has on spirited pupils. And when rebels become educators, they sometimes encourage defiance in their pupils, for whom at the same time they are trying to produce a perfect environment, although these two aims are scarcely compatible.

Russell argues we should find some middle ground between free-range classrooms and overly regimented ones:

“What is wanted is neither submissiveness nor rebellion, but good nature, and general friendliness both to people and to new ideas. These qualities are due in part to physical causes, to which old-fashioned educators paid too little attention; but they are due still more to freedom from the feeling of baffled impotence which arises when vital impulses are thwarted. If the young are to grow into friendly adults, it is necessary, in most cases, that they should feel their environment friendly. This requires that there should be a certain sympathy with the child’s important desires, and not merely an attempt to use him for some abstract end such as the glory of God or the greatness of one’s country. And, in teaching, every attempt should be made to cause the pupil to feel that it is worth his while to know what is being taught-at least when this is true. When the pupil co-operates willingly, he learns twice as fast and with half the fatigue. All these are valid reasons for a very great degree of freedom.”

Yet, he says, we shouldn’t indulge the natural impulses of youth to excess:

“It is easy, however, to carry the argument too far. It is not desirable that children, in avoiding the vices of the slave, should acquire those of the aristocrat. Consideration for others, not only in great matters, but also in little everyday things, is an essential element in civilization, without which social life would be intolerable. I am not thinking of mere forms of politeness, such as saying “please” and “thank you”: formal manners are most fully developed among barbarians, and diminish with every advance in culture. I am thinking rather of willingness to take a fair share of necessary work, to be obliging in small ways that save trouble on the balance. Sanity itself is a form of politeness and it is not desirable to give a child a sense of omnipotence, or a belief that adults exist only to minister to the pleasures of the young. And those who disapprove of the existence of the idle rich are hardly consistent if they bring up their children without any sense that work is necessary, and without the habits that make continuous application possible.”

And he seems to be against (radically) democratic classrooms:

“There is another consideration to which some advocates of freedom attach too little importance. In a community of children which is left without adult interference there is a tyranny of the stronger, which is likely to be far more brutal than most adult tyranny…This is perhaps the most important argument against the abdication of the adults.”

On student discipline:

“If you have the sort of liking for children that many people have for horses or dogs, they will be apt to respond to your suggestions, and to accept prohibitions, perhaps with some good- humoured grumbling, but without resentment. It is no use to have the sort of liking that consists in regarding them as a field for valuable social endeavour, or – what amounts to the same thing – as an outlet for power-impulses. No child will be grateful for an interest in him that springs from the thought that he will have a vote to be secured for your party or a body to be sacrificed to king and country. The desirable sort of interest is that which consists in spontaneous pleasure in the presence of children, without any ulterior purpose. Teachers who have this quality will seldom need to interfere with children’s freedom, but will be able to do so, when necessary, without causing psychological damage.”

And some sympathy for teachers. While few would agree with his stronger claim here, I’m sure that teachers reading this would find a smile creep across their faces:

“Unfortunately, it is utterly impossible for over-worked teachers to preserve an instinctive liking for children; they are bound to come to feel towards them as the proverbial confectioner’s apprentice does towards macaroons. I do not think that education ought to be anyone’s whole profession: it should be undertaken for at most two hours a day by people whose remaining hours are spent away from children. The society of the young is fatiguing, especially when strict discipline is avoided. Fatigue, in the end, produces irritation, which is likely to express itself somehow, whatever theories the harassed teacher may have taught himself or herself to believe. The necessary friendliness cannot be preserved by self-control alone. But where it exists, it should be unnecessary to have rules in advance as to how “naughty” children are to be treated, since impulse is likely to lead to the right decision, and almost any decision will be right if the child feels that you like him. No rules, however wise, are a substitute for affection and tact.”

Futurizing Education

I’ve written before about the importance of “getting sober about what schools can do. Schools are places where students learn to do important things they otherwise would not be able to do. Students learn to read and write; to paint; to play sports; to become numerate; to debate; to form argument, use evidence, and join important academic conversations.  Schools do all these things and more.  We should be collectively proud; despite all their failings, the outcomes of schooling rival any other important social enterprise.

Yet, the the current narrative goes something like this: schools are trapped in the 20th century and need to embrace the future.  They need disrupting.  Throw out the old playbook.  Let the streets run red with the blood of the sacred cows of schooling.

Doubt me?  How much effort has been expended on coding in schools?
A recent screenshot of articles on coding from a leading online teaching publication.

Granting the differences in aesthetics, and the discussion of “growth mindsets,” what are the fundamental differences between the coding craze of the 21st century and this from the 20th?

Disruption Thus Far: What Have The Results Been?

Hard to say, but let’s look at one aspect of futurizing education that we were told would revolutionize schooling: online learning, especially through large-scale, sometimes free MOOCs.  The results have been awful: students performed less well in MOOCs than in traditional classrooms.  And MOOCs seem to be especially hard on students who struggle with traditional classrooms. As I’ve written before, one of the largest studies found that roughly five percent of students completed such online courses.

Of course, schools can and should explore ways to improve practice.  We should, as Atul Gawande says of medicine, we should look for ‘positive deviants – teachers and schools that achieve more than the average – to learn what works and scale it up.  But surely that is where progress is to be made: keeping what works, improving what doesn’t, and slowly ensuring a greater quality of education for all.  

And let’s remember the negative connotations of the word “disrupt,” as well as the commercial interests involved in that project of “throwing into disorder” a schooling system that has better reliability than the industry trying to remodel it.

(Image: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F031434-0006 / Gathmann, Jens / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Prepare for the Online Rapture?

This week, a lively piece on educational technology by Michael Godsey appeared in the Atlantic.  It is wide ranging, but the central premise is clear and familiar: technology will fundamentally change the way teaching and learning is done.  Godsey, when describing what he tells college students interested in teaching, is bleak:

I tell this college student that in each classroom, there will be a local teacher-facilitator (called a “tech”) to make sure that the equipment works and the students behave. Since the “tech” won’t require the extensive education and training of today’s teachers, the teacher’s union will fall apart, and that “tech” will earn about $15 an hour to facilitate a class of what could include over 50 students. This new progressive system will be justified and supported by the American public for several reasons: Each lesson will be among the most interesting and efficient lessons in the world; millions of dollars will be saved in reduced teacher salaries; the “techs” can specialize in classroom management; performance data will be standardized and immediately produced (and therefore “individualized”); and the country will finally achieve equity in its public school system.

His main concern is that teachers will be displaced by the tremendous amount of teaching resources easily found online.  From both free and pay channels, from Silicon Valley tech firms and traditional publishers alike, there is already a greater volume of educational material, more expertly designed, than any individual teacher could hope to create in a thousand lifetimes.  The conclusion: teaching will be so thoroughly disrupted that in a decade or so, only teaching “techs,” like those described above, will exist.

But despite his concern for the safety of his profession, it seems clear that he thinks such a system might produce excellent results:

I think to myself: These resources are already good for education, and they’re only getting better. Part of me is really excited that in two decades, the giant interactive classroom computer screen that I foresaw is going to be far more sophisticated than I can possibly imagine. Why should I stand in the way of crowdsourced lesson plans and professionally edited video tutorials? Shouldn’t I stop trying to compete as an individual “sage on the stage,” appreciate the modern efficiency of today’s resources, and re-invest my time as their enthusiastic “guide on the side”?

Tempting to think so, and somehow the fear carries within it optimism: optimism that such a system would ever work as well as our current models do.  The most fervent promoters of MOOCs, of Khan Academy, of blended learning, of a thousand things meant to improve student outcomes, have a rapture-like faith in these technologies.

They will arrive!  They will be better!  It is only a matter of time!  Prepare!

Yet the evidence hardly merits such optimism.  In a recent large-scale study of one million students taking MOOCs, only 5% actually completed their courses.  They didn’t persist very well when facing challenges.  They stopped doing on-line quizzes to rehearse the things they were learning.  They had one of the highest failure rates of any educational setting – ever.

The reasons for the massive MOOC failure are likely many, but I think a large part of it is the essentially social nature of teaching and learning.  We learn from those who we respect, who hold us to account, who we look forward to seeing, and sometimes those we look forward to challenging.  When students are given the tremendous freedom platforms like MOOCs are imbued with, many of the traditional mechanisms of student engagement and accountability disappear.

Last week’s Planet Money tells the story of a young man, Demetrius, who goes away to community college: only to find that independence is harder than it looks:

CHACE (Planet Money): There are a few classic reasons why only 1 in 3 students makes it through community college. A lot of students run out of money and quit. Some have a sudden family problem. Their kid gets sick or a spouse loses their job. Demetrius had another issue that everyone talks about – motivation.


Nobody was in Demetrius’ life to say, hey, maybe you should go back to studying. This was the biggest difference between high school and college. No one is collecting your homework. No one’s making sure you’re keeping up with the reading. And as Demetrius went to fewer and fewer classes, nobody seemed to notice, at least according to him. Then a relative died. He had to go back to New York City for the funeral, told everyone in the family school was going great, went back to college, but he never went back to class.


DEMETRIUS WILSON JR.: I thought I could get it together, but I couldn’t. I basically checked out. I stopped going for the most part. There’d be times where I would just be in my room, like, I would just sit in there and cry. And at the same time, it made me feel worse ’cause I knew I was failing. I knew I screwed up in my first semester.

And the independence required and offered by the technological rapturists is many times more extreme.  Even the founders have acknowledged the disappointment.  Maria Konnikova, in an excellent piece in the New Yorker, quotes Sebastian Thrun, one of the pioneers in the field, on what happened to MOOCs:

“We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished,” he told Fast Company in an interview. “We have a lousy product.”

I agree.

At my most generous, I see the insistence on the impending technological rapture as yet another attempt to find a silver bullet, or worse – to “revolutionize” a field that is already fairly successful, to “disrupt,” as if we forgot the negative connotations of the word.  At my most cynical, I see it as the dream of those in the world of educational technology to increase sales.

But in the plainest view, the least judgmental view, we need to acknowledge what is thus far the provisional truth about online learning: for the average student, it does not offer what traditional schooling does.  It has not succeeded.  Teaching and learning are likely too relational, the average human brain too reluctant to engage in deep thinking, for students to, on a large scale, benefit from online platforms as well as they did – and do – from traditional means.

It might be possible to imagine a future where the technological classroom is run by a teacher-cyborg, able to do what the ed tech folks have been promoting.  That rapture might come.  But then, I doubt it.  And why not just build better schools through improved teaching, something we know a tremendous amount about, is practical, and will likely work?

To borrow an analogy from my spouse, we now have more fitness technology than we ever had – from wearable technology like Fitbits to virtual trainers to YouTube videos on workouts – and yet people still hire coaches and trainers.  We want something only another human being can provide.  What’s wrong with that?

105091321_6bbb2cf7c2_z(Photo: RedCraig)

We Hold These (Which?) Truths…

A recent editorial in the Toronto Star came out, strongly, against the apparently en vogue practice of conservative parents sending a letter to school asking to be notified if certain hot button subjects are likely to come up in their children’s class. The Star’s view:

Ontario has tried hard to accommodate parents with conservative religious views who want their children excused from sex education classes. Typically, that means some students head to the library when the health nurse comes to talk about condoms.

But now a small group of parents who are angry that they lost the battle to keep support clubs for gay students out of the schools are taking things to a new level by demanding the right to pull their kids out of a wide range of classroom discussions that do not conform to their particular beliefs.

Their demands are impractical, indeed unacceptable in a public school system. Everyone from the education minister down to individual principals must push back against this pernicious trend.

Something called “traditional values” form letters are trickling into boards across the Greater Toronto area from conservative Christian and Muslim parents. The generally ask that schools notify them before teachers deal with certain subjects, including evolution, the environment, wizardry or any discussion that portrays gay relationships as “natural, healthy or acceptable.”

This demand for prior notice is unreasonable. The schools need to be able to deal with these matters as they come up.

What’s a teacher to do when a student starts reading his English essay about Harry Potter flying his broom to the recycling depot? Whistle down the reader while the class is cleared of objectors?

Moreover tolerance and respecting differences is not something kids learn at 2 p.m. on Tuesday and then move on. It is imbedded, quite rightly, into the curriculum. No teacher should have to cover up a family drawing by a young girl with two moms, so as not to offend other students. How would the young girl feel to be told that some of her peers aren’t allowed to see her family portrait?

“A little person can draw a picture of her two moms or two dads, for example, and feel safe and accepted,” says Education Minister Laurel Broten. “That’s what happens in classes across Ontario and that’s what should happen.”

She’s right. But for it to remain that way, the education system must push back against this growing pressure from those who want to impose their agenda and censor what children are taught. The public schools serve a broader community.

We get that some may not accept the theory of evolution. That they may object to a novelist’s characters. Or that they may not be supportive of gays. But the public school system teaches science and literature and tolerance, and it must remain free to do so.

Khan Academy – Again

Once again, the media has fallen all over themselves to praise Khan Academy – the internet sensation I’ve written about before. There’s nothing new in the clip, really, except the praise is even more extreme than before, the promises more grand.

Their motto? “A free world class education for anyone, anywhere.” A while back, I was more starstruck that this experiment could yield results. But now I’m moving towards skepticism.

Done watching helpful mini-lessons online constitute and education? No. Are these going to change how schools are structured? I find it hard to believe.

Why? There are lots of reasons I’m skeptical. A few simple ones: the format is suitable for rule-following exercises (calculus, economics), but I think the format would invariably suffer when dealing with any material that requires judgment (literature, history, and actually much of what schools teach). Student motivation is often the most powerful impediment to success, and watching videos in isolation seems as likely to succeed with many kids as traditional homework. It downplays the importance of reading, independent thought, and (despite what Khan says) human interaction. As a general panacea, it seems very unlikely to succeed in the terms Khan and others imagine it will.

There’s no textbook! And no teachers lecturing at a blackboard!
Aside from the problem of students not reading as much when they watch Khan’s videos, it suffers from the exact problem textbooks do – it is one way, one-size-fits-all, static communication.

But Khan’s a revolutionary!
Except there have been very similar methods of presenting concepts – remember filmstrips? – for two generations.

But it lets teachers ‘flip’ the classroom!
Perhaps. But by providing readings, teachers in most fields – history, geography, English, etc. – have been flipping the classroom since school began by providing low-order material for future higher-order tasks.

But Khan’s videos are engaging!
Perhaps. But I think this is likely a classic example where adults think technology is more important than young people do.

But Khan has measurement on his side! His online modules provide feedback teachers can use!
I fail to see how this is (very) different than giving math worksheets. And academic studies in measurement (very legitimate, powerful studies), involving millions of students over decades, already exist.

But, while the Khan academy is currently mostly about math, the modules could easily be about history of English!
Again, perhaps. But most of the fascinating aspects of many fields involves an interpretation and expression (essay writing, for example) that surely defies computational assessment.

But Khan says it will allow teachers to be coaches and mentors, not just transmitters of facts through lectures!
Anyone who has casually strolled through schools, or glanced at pedagogical texts, knows Khan is no revolutionary on this front.

I want to know the effect size of Khan’s work. Just because it seems cool to thirty-and-forty-somethings who did incredibly well in school does not mean it will have the desired effect among the students we most worry about – are the low-income, disengaged students clamouring for YouTube videos about fractions? Where is the promised revolution? How is this not just a better version of what many teachers have been doing since the 1960s?

Not to be outdone, John Green of young adult fame created a video set similar to Khan’s – but it is more interesting to watch. And more humorous. But it suffers from the same problem – when it strays from math, it proposes a relatively static view of interpretation.


One of the most interesting stories to come out of the world of technology relies on nthing more complicated than YouTube. 

Last year, the founder of Khan Academy, Salman Khan, won a $2-million award for his work in providing schooling to the masses.  In order to help a relative across the country who needed some tutoring with school, he created a series of videos posted on YouTube – while he was working at a hedge fund.  Since then, his more than 1,200 clips have attracted over 53 million views.  Last September, Google awarded him a prize for changing how schooling can occur.

But more important than simply providing a place for students to get extra help, these sorts of initiatives point to a fascinating set of possibilities.  People like my school’s Director of IT, Charles Fowler, points out that we might be able to use techniques like this to shift our classroom practices.  If students came to school having seen simple-but-powerful clips like these, what might be possible in the classroom? What other interesting things might we do in class, things to extend and deepen our understanding, if the comprehension bit is already taken care of at home?  Imagine: get the basics at home, do something interesting with it at school.

Here’s a great clip from PBS on Khan:

Early Bird, Meet Worm

One high school in Toronto, Eastern Commerce, has embraced the experiment so often lusted-after by contemporary youth: a late start to allow students to sleep in.

The experiment, which began in the fall of 2009, is an acknowledgement by educators that the biological clocks of teenager leave them sluggish in the morning. The Canadian Pediatric Society reported in 2008 that high school students need nine to 10 hours of sleep a night and may struggle in school if they don’t get it.The Toronto District School Board is monitoring Eastern’s experience carefully, comparing marks, attendance and lateness before and after the project started. It is a small school, with only 450 students, 80 per cent of whom come from out-of-district, which can mean long commutes. Many are drawn by Eastern’s stellar basketball teams.Early indications are that there have been some positive changes.The school reports the Grade 11 math failure rate has dropped from 45 per cent to 17 per cent.

All good news – though, the sample is too small and the duration too short to declare a success beyond this institution.  And probably this is the sort of more flexible thinking that would benefit schools of any sort on a range of issues.  Many of our assumptions about schooling are untested – most of the things we do, including our start times, are merely historical accident.

But I wonder: while it is true that sleep helps teens, and it is true that teens don’t get enough sleep, is it a sustainable answer to merely start later in the day?  Won’t the teens who went to bed at 2:00 am now just go to bed at 3:00am?  While historical accident is not a good enough reason to persist with something that doesn’t work, the burden of proof typically resides on the side of change.  I’m not sure I’m convinced there is something substantial at work here, though given the cost of the experiment – nothing – I’d like to see this tested more widely.

The Curse of Giftedness

In the minds of most people, including many teachers, being gifted is something to celebrate – being gifted means school will be easier, you’ll excel beyond your peers, and maybe even enjoy remarkable success in the world beyond school.  But to teachers who have spent much time teaching students who are gifted, the reality is not always so charming.  Students who are gifted often stagnate (or worse) in a mainstream classroom, becoming disruptive and surly and not learning very much.  Yet, whenever money or personnel are assigned to teaching gifted students, there is usually a hue and cry from the parents of students who suffer learning disabilities.

Two recent articles bear out this debate.  The Globe and Mail reported on the perils of being gifted, providing some compelling evidence that gifted students need much in the way of support.  Tralee Pearce reports that “a growing group of parents, educators and critics say striving parents should be careful what they wish for. The downsides of both special gifted programs and of childhood giftedness itself are leading some to question the logic behind the label…. In many cases giftedness is not a badge of distinction so much as a life problem that needs solving. And in the struggle over definitions and scarce educational resources, they are the ones who could get left behind.”
“Parents of gifted children are calling the new Primary Gifted program, which is currently being piloted at Charles R. Beaudoin Public School in Burlington and due to roll out to other schools in September 2011, “fabulous”.
But parents of children with learning disabilities, behavioural issues or autism spectrum disorder say the board is giving unfair advantage to gifted children at the expense of their kids.
“I think it’s creating a two-tier system,” says former school board trustee Philippa Ellis, who voted against the new program at a November board meeting. “It’s saying that some children’s needs are more important or worthy of more service and attention than other children’s needs.”
If we are to say, as most do, that not all students fit into one mold, that we need to ‘reach every student’ (the Government of Ontario’s new educational slogan), then we need to be serious about helping students of all sorts.  Case in point: every faculty of education in this province has special education certification classes for teachers – tailored for students who suffer learning disabilities.  There is only one that currently has a course on how to teach gifted students.    And Ontario’s largest faculty of education and educational research institution, OISE, has one instructor who specializes in gifted education – and she only teaches one course.  Under such a set of assumptions and educational biases, there is surely something cruel in our (legal) insistence that gifted students go to school and learn exactly like the rest of us.
It shouldn’t be special education just for those who struggle with disabilities – if we want to embrace special education, it should be for all those who are not being served by the system.

Ken Robinson, Again

Any commentator on Ken Robinson is obliged to repeat at the outset all the accolades already heaped on him; mostly, that he is a ‘genius,’ a ‘transformational educator,’ a man of such great insight that it is a pity educational reformers don’t listen to him as much as they should. And without question he is funny.

With the preliminaries out of the way, a critique can begin: as I’ve written here, Ken Robinson’s ideas are at best lovely and whimsical interpretations of the realities of teaching and learning, and probably, a remarkably unhelpful oversimplification of the facts.

This clip, his most famous, demonstrates the product in all its glory. Listen to some of his pronouncements with a critical ear and you’ll find much to shake your head at. (Schools kill creativity, schools are only interested in educating the mind, dancing is equivalent to algebra, and so on…)

Ken Robinson is, not surprisingly, available for hire. His website lists his speaking agents, both in the US and in Europe. Not that he has a vested interest in cultivating an audience, come what may, even if his ideas strain credibility. That would be crass.

Ken Robinson – Part I

Everyone loves Ken Robinson. Sorry – Sir Ken Robinson. Here’s another clip where he takes on the educational establishment, avec his usual panache and stand-up-comedy prowess:

As with most ‘visionaries,’ especially those who make small fortunes speaking to a popular audience, he makes a lot of sweeping statements, straw-man arguments, and logical sleights-of-hand. Entertaining, certainly hopeful, but frequently illogical. Part of the trouble with educational discussions is that collections of ideas like this reach the level of religious truth and those who look askance at what is sometimes obviously silly (98% of young children are ‘geniuses’ and school ruins them) run the risk of seeming hostile towards children themselves. If you’re suspicious of whimsy, you might be a (harmful) old crank.