‘Get Sober and Stay Sober’

The late Jacques Barzun was a hero of mine. I discovered two of his books, Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, and Teacher in America, while in education school. He was a witty and firebrand salve to what I then saw as the well-intentioned silliness of much of the curriculum.  He argued for literacy, that reading was central to knowledge, and that complexity always trumped superficiality.

There is hardly a week that goes by that I don’t find myself wondering if my actions would please the old man.

While I think his arguments would carry more weight with empirical evidence (a project that, while imperfect, is gaining steam), I have not really lost my love for Barzun.  Of course, having spent years in the field and earned a PhD performing social science research, I think he would say I’ve become brainwashed – or, as he liked to say, brain soiled.

His frequent writing on teaching and learning revealed many passions. Two that persist in my mind are his hatred of verbal inflation (“teaching” becomes “education,” for example), and his insistence that schooling be concerned with clear, achievable aims.

In his own words, as perfect as always:

“Teaching is the art of the possible… Give up utopianism, get sober and stay sober, and think of all the released time at your disposal, clear of committee meetings and the reading of reports.  Think of all the restored energy, free from wild or platitudinous guidelines.  The serious energy crisis of our day is that with so much human effort expended, the nation gets so little work done – in business, in government, in the schools.  We are busy bodies and low achievers.” (Jaques Barzun, Begin Here, p. 109)

(Image by Adrian Pike)

Making Water Flow Uphill?

“In engineering, control exists in adjustment to natural law. It does not mean making nature do our bidding. We do not, for example, dig channels in the expectation that water will flow uphill; we do not put kerosene to put out a fire… with respect to physical phenomena, control involves the selection of means which are appropriate to the nature of the phenomena with which we are concerned. In the human field, the situation is the same, but we often dig channels to make water flow uphill. Many of our attempts to control behaviour, far from representing selective adaptations, are in direct violation of human nature. They consist in trying to make people behave as we wish without concern for natural law. Yet we can no more expect to achieve desired results through inappropriate action in this field than in engineering.” –  Douglas McGregor (1960), The Human Side of Enterprisep. 8-9.

How many school administrators, in their interactions with teachers, are acting as if they can make water flow uphill?  

How many teachers, in their interactions with students, do the same?

What would a science of performance, that took into account the human side of schooling, look like?

The Power of ‘No’

“Unweeded soil undoubtedly grows wondrous things that nobody can predict. Such things we have in abundance, but it would be a rash man who would call it a harvest.” – Jacques Barzun, Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning, p.27.

Schools can be breeding grounds for well-intentioned distractions.  Everyday it seems, a new task is added to the list of what schools are supposed to achieve collectively, and what individual teachers are asked to do in their classrooms.  Each new problem of adolescence, or new technological product, brings a call to build new programming.

We act as though adding is more important than perfecting; a school that boasts more ought to be better, we think.

The reason for confusing more with better is not obvious.  My guess: it seems disloyal or lazy (or worse, opposed to the success of children) if one suggests a reduction in programming.  But I think those most loyal to the core principles of a school are often very careful about cluttering up our practice.

It’s likely we could achieve more of what matters by doing less of what doesn’t.

We do ourselves a favour if when we walk around our campus each day, we ask ourselves:

– Do we need to do X?

– Is X advancing our mission, or is it merely a well-intentioned distraction?

– What does it take to do X, and what could we be doing instead?

– And maybe most important: How can we tell the difference between core practices and distractions? (Sadly, I think even in the best schools, faculty and leadership would not share a coherent idea of what the school’s core mission is.)

The Power of ‘No’

Sometimes we need to say “no”; doing so is often the most loyal, committed thing a person can do.  We would do well to heed the lesson of opportunity cost, and ensure that we don’t succumb to conspicuous program inflation that sometimes grips our schools.

We need to beware our voice finding expression only in the celebration of mere increase rather than the slow and steady perfection of teaching and learning.

If you could drop three things from your schools, what would they be? And what could we spend that energy on instead?

That Artful Science

One of the more important developments of the past generation in this and other fields is the insistence that we get better at what we do; further, to do so it would be a good idea to know more about the basic science behind our work; and that practitioners should be supplied with the fruits of that scientific research.  Sometimes this is called Knowledge Mobilization (or, in some fields, Research Translation, a not-dissimilar idea).  The problem: there has been only a tiny uptake of scientific practices in a lot of fields, chief among them education.

Daniel Willingham, a Harvard-trained cognitive scientist, represents what can be possible when thoughtful experts produce clear and usable guidelines for daily practice  His book, Why Don’t Students Like School? is a superb piece of work; it shows how research can meaningfully inform very practical decisions in schools, without being either overly diluted nor overly technical.

He is centred on a fairly conventional view of what schools are and what they can achieve.   He is not prone to fad; he insists on evidence for his claims.  As such, he has argued against a set of likely untrue ideas about cognition and learning – learning styles for one, bless him – and argues that many of the problems related to learning (particularly reading) are related to a clack of subject knowledge.  He provides a compelling and thorough account of the challenges of working memory, something that many teachers have been told is important but without much explanation.  His clarity and evidence is a welcome antidote to the esoteric products of many publishing houses.

Perhaps most admirable is his scientific worldview – without such a view, the other fruits would not be possible.  Just listen to how he describes the role of science in improving schools:

Education is similar to other fields of study in that scientific findings are useful but not decisive.  An architect will use principles of physics in designing an office building, but she will also be guided by aesthetic principles that are outside of science’s realm.  Similarly, knowledge of cognitive science can be helpful in planning what you teach and how, but it is not the whole story.


Not the whole story – but I see two ways that cognitive science can be useful to teachers.  First, knowledge of cognitive science can help teachers balance conflicting concerns.  Classrooms, after all, are not just cognitive places.  They are emotional places, social places, motivational places, and so on.


Second, I see principles of cognitive science as useful boundaries to educational practice.  Principles of physics do not prescribe for a civil engineer exactly how to build a bridge, but they let him predict how it is likely to perform if he builds it. Similarly, cognitive scientific principles do not prescribe how to teach, but they can predict how much your students are likely to learn.  If you follow these principles, you maximize the chances your students will flourish.


Education is the passing of accumulated wisdom of generations to children, and we passionately believe in its importance because we know it holds the promise of a better life for each child, and for us all collectively.  It would be a shame indeed if we did not use the accumulated wisdom of science to inform the methods by which we educate children… Education makes better minds, and knowledge of the mind can make better education.

– Daniel Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School, pp. 164-5



Why Changing the Carpets Will Not Improve Schools

Abbey Lanes https://www.flickr.com/photos/abbylanes/3335173723/

We all want (even) better schools.  But anyone close to the challenge of improving schools knows that often part of the problem is not too little inspiration but too much.  Attempts to improve bring a flood of well-intentioned ideas.

“We should have a later start to the school day”

“We have to teach 21st century skills”

“We need more creativity in our classrooms”

… And so on.  Some, or all, might be valuable.  None might be.  But more important than the question “would any given idea work?” is “would this idea work better than any other possibility?”

In other words, to use the phrase of John Hattie, which change has the best impact?

Elizabeth Green recounts one experience from Doug Lemov, a prime mover in US Charter Schools.  Lemov took a group of highly motivated teachers to…

one of the crown jewels of the no-excuses world: KIPP Academy in New York City. Created by David Levin and Mike Feinberg, two early Teach For America corps members, KIPP was a perfect model of both the zero-tolerance discipline approach and the sermonizing school-as-pep-talk culture.


Yet when Doug asked the Syracuse teachers about the trip, he found that the visit had not proved instructive.  The teachers had seen plenty of things – the arrangement of the reading rugs, the colours of the uniforms.  But… they had not seen the things that they needed to learn.  “I just remember thinking, ‘Holy shit.  That’s what you took away?’  The things they took away were so random, and if you ranked the most important things about a high-performing school from 1 to 100, they had seen number 63, number 84, and number 47.  As opposed to numbers 1, 2 and 3.” (Green, Building a Better Teacher, p. 172)

I think teaching is where medicine was several generations ago: our dreariest days are behind us.  Our best systematic research efforts are underway.  The better districts and systems are using the best evidence, and are thriving on the best international measures of student success.  And at the level of the classroom, the mindset of the practitioner is (hopefully) no longer that mere enthusiasm for children is sufficient to be a good or great teacher.  These are all welcome improvements over previous eras.

But for profound changes, we need to stop thinking at the level of changing the colours of the carpet when making the thousands of day-to-day decisions that impact our schools.  We need to be sure we waste no time implementing changes that actually work, and politely ignore those that have a smaller effect size.  We have only so much time.

I’m Curious:

How many meetings have you been in where number 63 on the Most Important Initiative list wins out over numbers 1, 2, and 3?  

Do we have the capacity in our schools to know what are the most important factors to drive improvement? How would we tell the difference between numbers 84 and 1? 

And how do you build a culture of insisting that changes are improvements, not just changing the carpets?

What Invisibilia Teaches Us About Schooling

Just this week, NPR launched its newest program, Invisibilia.  Billed as a show that “explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions,” it is another in the Radiolab and This American Life mold.  It might not get the listeners that Serial did, but it is a thoughtful addition to the stable.

The inaugural episode is about dark thoughts – the disturbing thought impulses all of us have like imagining jumping in front of a subway train.  For most of us, these thoughts are mere curiosities.  But for a few, dark thoughts plague and haunt, and can ruin lives.

Interesting enough, but what does Invisibilia, Episode One, tell us about schooling?  Lots.

1. First, the Mission of Schooling is Aided by Considering Thoughtful Examples from Other Fields

Schooling, like any complex human endeavour, is a challenge requiring a wide range of skills developed through a wide range of human inquiry: meeting the needs of students relies on psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, social work, and a host of other fields, in addition to subject knowledge.

The practice of schooling is a kind of compound craft.  When teachers are alive to helpful examples outside the schoolhouse, powerful insights can follow.  I make no further conclusions except this: maintaining interests in a diverse set of fields if likely to pay dividends for any classroom teacher.

2. It Establishes the Indescribable Helpfulness of the Helping Professions

An effective set of helping professions – include medicine, social work, psychiatry, and schooling, to name a few – is the mark of a civilized society.   Rightly so.

This particular episode focuses on mental health interventions.  But any teacher could see parallels: teaching is an act of help, first and foremost; some methods work better than others; and our job as teachers, individually and collectively, is to find ways to match the best practices of the field with our individual students (or, in the case of the podcast, patients); and, most important, these professions are, at their best, life changing.  We should not forget that.  Not every day, maybe, and not for every single person, but on the aggregate, yes.

Schooling matters.  Hilarious critiques from the writers of The Simpsons aside, schooling, like the other helping professions have turned human existence from what was often a dreary, dull, or downright awful affair into something remarkable.

3. It Shows that Practice is Often Lacking Evidence

The episode traces the historical development of one helping profession: psychotherapy.  They point out that there have been successive phases of what was considered effective practice.  If you had walked into a therapist’s office in 1950, you would likely have received some version of Freudian therapy.  This therapy might have delved into “root causes” of emotional disturbances; probably, it would have involved fairly long explorations of childhood or family trauma, all in the name of looking for insights.  It took a long time.  And, as it turned out, worked no better than pretty much any other treatment (including no treatment at all; we get a little better with time, anyway).

In the 1960s, Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, working independently, and finding Freudian therapies unhelpful, developed variations of what would turn out to be Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.  The truly short version: they decided that perhaps instead of searching for root causes, they could instead ask patients to dispute their negative thoughts.  Using inspiration from the ancient Stoics (Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus especially), these two developed a system where patients use reason and evidence to challenge their negative thoughts.  And, as it turned out, it worked – so well, they developed a coherent system of therapy that has helped millions.

Beck and Ellis now reside at the top of the most influential psychologists of all time.  More important, CBT has been validated in thousands of studies and systematic reviews.  It works.  Better than Freudian approaches.

The tale is an example of this maxim: evidence matters.  If we are to improve the lives of people, we need the best treatments, rooted in evidence.  The parallels to schooling could hardly be more obvious.  So many of our most celebrated practices – take, for example, the more complex and esoteric forms of cooperative learning – are rooted in insistence, not evidence.  And others, which have been thoroughly maligned – direct instruction, for example – have been shown in the largest systematic studies to be near the top of the list of effective practice. (See, for example, John Hattie’s work synthesizing 800 meta-analyses of teaching practice).

4. It Shows the Importance of the Research Cycle

Research, especially in social sciences, often proceeds like this: an idea is proffered, it is employed, it is tested, it is refined, it is employed, it is tested, it is refined… The history of treatments for mental health issues reflects this cycle, so do those in medicine, and I would argue the history of schooling does, too.  At least, when it is at its best, it does (and at its worst when it assumes something to be true without good reason).

The point: Treatments in mental health have not reached their zenith, and neither have schooling practices.  Improvements will likely come with a heavy dose of applying the best practices with diligence and care, and on the margins, testing new ideas.  Cognitive behavioural therapy was once one of those new ideas.  With large-scale testing proving its superiority over other forms of talk therapy, it is now the norm.  Until a discovery on the margins has been shown to be superior, which in my view it has not, it offers the best hope to improve people’s lives.

Technical improvements in schooling will come, and we should greet them smilingly. But proceeding with a keen eye for evidence and an understanding that most new research produces results less effective than most current practice will help us from innovating our way to an inferior system.

Medicine and Schooling

I am fond of arguing that medicine and teaching have a lot in common.  Of course, they are both helping professions; at their best, they both rely on evidence; they have the capacity to change lives; and they do so within a social framework – all of us learn better from teachers we have relationships with, and medicine is surely the same.

There is no one more able that Atul Gawande to tease out the similarities.  (He has drawn the comparison explicitly in piece “Personal Best” in the New Yorker, which I’ve already written about.)  Gawande represents a helpful mental model of professional practice: he understands the tension between the importance of long-term research projects and the immediate goals of improving practice with existing knowledge; he emphasizes the need for diligence, persistence, and getting results; he thinks practitioners should also approach their work with a scientific mindset.  He is also alive to the human side of practice.  He is able to weave quantitative and qualitative evidence into a satisfying narrative of, in this case, how medicine can improve; but the corollaries to teaching are obvious to anyone.

The following quotations are from his 2007 book, Better.  While he intends none of these to even tangentially relate to schooling, anyone who has spent any time in schools will see the corollary.

I. On the Importance of Diligence

“Betterment is a perpetual labour.” (9)

II. The Data-Improvement Connection

“In medicine, we are used to confronting failure; all doctors have unforeseen deaths and complications.  What were not used to doing is comparing our records of success and failure with those of our peers.  I am a surgeon in a department that is, our members like to believe, one of the best in the country.  But the truth is that we have no reliable evidence about whether we’re as good as we think we are.  Baseball teams have win-loss records.  Businesses have quarterly earnings reports.  What about doctors?” (207)

III. High Expectations

“The paradox at the heart of medical care is that it works so well, and yet never well enough.  It routinely gives people years of health that they otherwise wouldn’t have had.  Death rates from heart disease have plummeted by almost two-thirds since the 1950s.  Risk of death from stroke has fallen more than 80 percent.  The cancer survival rate is not 70 percent.  But the advances have required drugs and machines and operations and, most of all, decisions that can easily damage people as save them.  It’s precisely because of our enormous success that people are bound to wonder what went wrong when we fail.” (105-6)

IV. On the Superior Value of Applying Current Knowledge vs New Research

“To be sure, we need innovations to expand our knowledge and therapies, whether for CF of childhood lymphoma or heart disease or any of the other countless ways in which the human body fails.  But we have not effectively used the abilities science has already given us.  And we have not made remotely adequate efforts to change that.  When we’ve made a science of performance, however – as we’ve seen with hand washing, wounded soldiers, child delivery – thousands of lives have been saved.” (233)

V. Applications for Schooling?

Imagine what we could do as a field if teachers adopted this mindset.  Imagine the coherent and purposeful improvements we could make if we, as a field, took on the set of dispositions and assumptions embedded in his words above.  Imagine how we could move from the fairly random collection of hot topics in education towards a “a science of performance.” (233)

Building a Better Teacher (II)

The year 2010 was important to me in a lot of ways: I started a PhD program in educational theory and policy, I started this blog, I moved schools, and I read Elizabeth Green’s Building a  Better Teacher article in the New York Times Magazine.  Such was the importance of that article that I include it in the list above.

Why?  It said just about everything I wanted someone to say.  That schooling could be understood as more than just folk practice; that good teaching techniques could be scaled up and popularized; that with the creation of a shared vocabulary describing effective practice, we could – probably quickly – make big gains in the quality of our schools.  And these ideas – explicit and implicit – all set against the background of the assertion that schooling is important.

It also introduced me to Doug Lemov.

In August of this year, her book-length treatise arrived.  Green captures much of the spirit of our age; an age of insightful non-fiction devoted to ideas, public goods, and private folly.  I see in her Atul Gawande and his insistence that we can improve through carefully guided practice and feedback (as well as the possibility for scaling up good practice); I see in her the insight of the brilliantly scathing piece by Jill Lepore on the silliness of favouring the magic of “disruption” over steady gains; I see a better-evidenced Malcolm Gladwell, touching on broad social themes with an eye for the compelling anecdote.

It holds (at least) these truths:

  1. The best teachers are made.  They are, to use the dichotomy Green attributes to Lemov, strivers.
  2. Continuous improvement is the appropriate model to follow.  Slow, steady, thoughtful adjustments.
  3. Data is key. Either quantitative or qualitative.  But you need to have a measure of what is working.
  4. An interesting and sustainable model for individual improvement is teachers teaching teachers.  With little hierarchy.
  5. The thing that matters is the very specific teaching practices, what Hanushek called the black box of teaching.  What happens in the classroom between teachers and students, and students and their peers, is what schooling’s success rests on.

There are a lot of books written about schooling, but this is one of the few that takes a granular view of the thousands of small decisions teachers need to make to improve student outcomes.  It is not merely the elucidation of one teacher’s view about her teaching practice, but rather a synthesis of the history of a movement to improve schooling (one that does not stretch back too far, actually).  And its conclusions point to a more hopeful future; while the outcomes of schooling rival the other helping professions, we stand at an interesting an exciting point in time, within striking distance of codifying and disseminating the best teaching practices.  Green’s book is a very satisfying (if incomplete) survey of what has been done, what needs to be done, and (at least tentatively) how to do it.


Is This Working?

(Now that I’ve finished my thesis and defended, I’m ready to return to the interwebs.  I begin again by revisiting a few ideas that first got me interested in the artful science of education.)

A recent installment of This American Life has a topic near and dear to all teachers: student discipline.

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On the surface, this is a delightful radio hour dedicated to the question of student discipline.  Par for the course, the good folks at This American Life have produced a compelling narrative.  But the anecdotes of discipline recalls so many important debates in education (and mimics many in social sciences, generally) that further unpacking is merited.

Some obvious truths: This American Life is a truly superb production that generates excellent reporting (and Ira Glass has a soft spot for schools); student discipline is a key concern for all teachers; discipline is a difficult task that defines the range of academic possibilities (if the kids are poorly behaved, nothing much is possible).

More important than any particular response to discipline challenges, however, is the set of profound questions this podcast asks outright – and hints at, too.  Namely: what should be the goal(s) of education? How would we know if something is working?  What evidence matters?  Should we scale up good ideas, or treat each school as a unique setting?

The first question is key, but laughably too broad for this space.  But the second, third, and fourth questions are important, answerable, and sadly asked very infrequently.  If we’re going to continue the remarkable improvements in schooling, we need to approach these questions – and others – with the kind of systematic rigor of those like Michael Thompson.  Profiled in the podcast, Thompson is the director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, and uses data sets millions large to shed light on, in this case, the “school to prison pipeline,” linking discipline practices of schools to higher incarceration rates.  He brings a scientist’s mind to the question, insisting on high-quality evidence to address complex questions about schooling effectiveness.

We might quibble with a few aspects of this – is Texas representative, for starters – but in general terms this is exactly the kind of inquiry that will lead to better schooling outcomes – and a more just schooling system, too.  We need to stop treating schooling like medicine in the 19th century.  We need to insist on evidence.  (Indeed if our goal is social equity, no greater ally could be found.)

The point is this: the question – how would we know – needs to be asked.  About all educational practices.  Not to be churlish and quarrelsome, but to remind ourselves that, like all ongoing human inquiries, schooling provides provisional truths, subject to verification and falsification.  If not, if we just go with our gut, if we fumble like the well-meaning folks in this radio hour with no systematic methods of inquiry, we have little hope of improving an institution that can lay claim, at least fractionally, to nearly all human success.