Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Teaching Is Not a Business

leave a comment »

Trying to fit all experiences or relationships into a single model can lead people seriously astray, though the view of those who attempt such a thing is that they have found The Secret. I recall someone I once worked with who would interject into any discussion the question, “Who’s the customer?”, thinking that this was always clarifying. She insisted that in any relationship or transaction, one party could be identified as “the customer” and that everything would become clear: parent-child, spouses, teacher-student, military commander-subordinates, and so on: just identify the “customer” and you would know what to do.

Now we’re seeing everything viewed through the lens of a profit-making business with competitor. A pastor with a church? It’s a business! Diversify, fight competitors, try loss-leaders, ….  A teacher and a class? It’s a business! etc. A married couple? It’s a business!…

I’ve talked before about the importance of frames. When you choose a particular perspective from which to examine a situation or decision, you have framed it. Frames highlight some aspects (things within the frame) and hide other aspects (things outside the frame). For a thorough (and interesting) discussion of frames, I recommend Winning Decisions, by Russo and Schoemaker. (Inexpensive secondhand copies at the link.)

David Kirp, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools,” explains in the NY Times ways in which teaching differs from a business:

TODAY’S education reformers believe that schools are broken and that business can supply the remedy. Some place their faith in the idea of competition. Others embrace disruptive innovation, mainly through online learning. Both camps share the belief that the solution resides in the impersonal, whether it’s the invisible hand of the market or the transformative power of technology.

Neither strategy has lived up to its hype, and with good reason. It’s impossible to improve education by doing an end run around inherently complicated and messy human relationships. All youngsters need to believe that they have a stake in the future, a goal worth striving for, if they’re going to make it in school. They need a champion, someone who believes in them, and that’s where teachers enter the picture. The most effective approaches foster bonds of caring between teachers and their students.

Marketplace mantras dominate policy discussions. High-stakes reading and math tests are treated as the single metric of success, the counterpart to the business bottom line. Teachers whose students do poorly on those tests get pink slips, while those whose students excel receive merit pay, much as businesses pay bonuses to their star performers and fire the laggards. Just as companies shut stores that aren’t meeting their sales quotas, opening new ones in more promising territory, failing schools are closed and so-called turnaround model schools, with new teachers and administrators, take their place.

This approach might sound plausible in a think tank, but in practice it has been a flop. Firing teachers, rather than giving them the coaching they need, undermines morale. In some cases it may well discourage undergraduates from pursuing careers in teaching, and with a looming teacher shortage as baby boomers retire, that’s a recipe for disaster. Merit pay invites rivalries among teachers, when what’s needed is collaboration. Closing schools treats everyone there as guilty of causing low test scores, ignoring the difficult lives of the children in these schools — “no excuses,” say the reformers, as if poverty were an excuse.

Charter schools have been promoted as improving education by creating competition. But charter students do about the same, over all, as their public school counterparts, and the worst charters, like the online K-12 schools that have proliferated in several states, don’t deserve to be called schools. Vouchers are also supposed to increase competition by giving parents direct say over the schools their children attend, but the students haven’t benefited. For the past generation, Milwaukee has run a voucher experiment, with much-debated outcomes that to me show no real academic improvement.

While these reformers talk a lot about markets and competition, the essence of a good education — bringing together talented teachers, engaged students and a challenging curriculum — goes undiscussed.

Business does have something to teach educators, but it’s neither the saving power of competition nor flashy ideas like disruptive innovation. Instead, what works are time-tested strategies.

“Improve constantly and forever the system of production and service”: That’s the gospel the management guru W. Edwards Deming preached for half a century. After World War II, Japanese firms embraced the “plan, do, check, act” approach, and many Fortune 500 companies profited from paying attention. Meanwhile, the Harvard Business School historian and Pulitzer Prize-winner Alfred D. Chandler Jr. demonstrated that firms prospered by developing “organizational capabilities,” putting effective systems in place and encouraging learning inside the organization. Building such a culture took time, Chandler emphasized, and could be derailed by executives seduced by faddishness.

Every successful educational initiative of which I’m aware aims at strengthening personal bonds by building strong systems of support in the schools. The best preschools create intimate worlds where students become explorers and attentive adults are close at hand.

In the Success for All model . . .

Continue reading.

UPDATE: Another inappropriate frame that’s in common use: a war. The War on Drugs made us view drug users as “the enemy,” so drug addiction (except for alcoholism) was treated as a crime rather than as a medical condition. The War on Poverty seems to have transformed itself into a War on the Poor, who of course are where poverty is found. The War on Christmas views non-Christians—and insufficiently enthusiastic Christians—as the enemy. With “war” as the dominant frame, many effective approaches are never exampled.

Yeah, do take a look at Winning Decisions. Very useful book.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 August 2014 at 6:51 am

Posted in Business, Education

The future of the liberal arts college?

leave a comment »

A very interesting article for anyone who’s been to a liberal arts college, and particularly anyone who’s worked at one.

I remain, however, VERY skeptical of profit-oriented companies operating certain services (schools, colleges, hospitals, libraries, and others). The impulse to cut costs tends to lead to bad outcomes.

UPDATE: One doesn’t want to make too much of a single sentence, but I found this sobering: “In a humanities class, they need to learn the classical techniques of rhetoric and develop basic persuasive skills.” Notice that learning analytic skills that help in understanding—and explaining—difficult ideas is not even mentioned. The goal seems to be to train good salesmen.

I am unimpressed.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 August 2014 at 12:01 pm

Anki, a great tool for learning a language (and much else besides)

leave a comment »

Anki (free) is a terrific tool for learning anything that requires some level of memorization—which almost everything does, but particularly language: vocabulary must be learned, and though the affix system of Esperanto helps a lot, the roots must still be learned.

Take a look a these excellent comments on Anki and its power.

And note this partial list of decks available:

Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 11.53.51 AM


It should be noted, however, that it’s a very good idea to build your own deck from the book you are working from: it helps you learn the material just from building the deck, and it’s also convenient that the deck matches the book.


Written by LeisureGuy

11 August 2014 at 11:33 am

Asking teachers to fix poverty and family breakdowns

leave a comment »

The US seems obsessed with placing total responsibility for educational outcomes on teachers, generally ignoring what happens outside the classroom and in particular the problems that come from living in poverty and/or in a family that has broken down to the point it cannot provide emotional and psychological support. Matthew Di Carlo at the Albert Shanker Institute notes:

Roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).

Now, to be clear: this does not mean that teachers aren’t really important, nor that increasing teacher quality can only generate tiny improvements. The holder of the title of Most Influential Schooling Factor, even in the big causal picture, exerts substantial influence. More practically, school-related factors are the only ones that education policy can directly address.

Juana Summers has a very interesting article at NPR on a longitudinal study that follows children from a young age into early adulthood in order to discover the key factors that result in good outcomes:

Education is historically considered to be the thing that levels the playing field, capable of lifting up the less advantaged and improving their chances for success.

“Play by the rules, work hard, apply yourself and do well in school, and that will open doors for you,” is how Karl Alexander, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist, puts it.

But a study published in June suggests that the things that really make the difference — between prison and college, success and failure, sometimes even life and death — are money and family.

Alexander is one of the authors of “The Long Shadow,” which explored this scenario: Take two kids of the same age who grew up in the same city — maybe even the same neighborhood. What factors will make the difference for each?

To find the answer, the Hopkins researchers undertook a massive study. They followed nearly 800 kids in Baltimore — from first grade until their late-20s.

They found that a child’s fate is in many ways fixed at birth — determined by family strength and the parents’ financial status.

The kids who got a better start — because their parents were married and working — ended up better off. Most of the poor kids from single-parent families stayed poor.

Just 33 children — out of nearly 800 — moved from the low-income to high-income bracket. And a similarly small number born into low-income families had college degrees by the time they turned 28.

We traveled to Baltimore to spend time with two of the people whom Alexander and the team tracked for nearly three decades. Here are their stories: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 August 2014 at 9:54 am

Ignorance of the other as the foundation of hatred—and why Esperanto works

with 2 comments

A friend sent me a link to this story (and click the link: it’s worth reading), and it made me reflect on how people get to know and understand one another—i.e., by conversation.

The idea that hatred is rooted in ignorance—seeing others as “types” or caricatures rather than as actual human people whom one knows, people engaged in daily life much as oneself—seems quite true to me.

Indeed Esperanto was created by Ludwik Lazarus Zamenhof, a Polish Jew, to enable Jews and Poles and Russians to talk to each other, removing language barriers. (Zamenhof was born in Poland in 1859, and lived through several brutal pogroms.)

Zamenhof was never so naïve as to believe that speaking a common language would be a sufficient condition for peaceful coexistence (cf. the War of the Roses), but he thought it was a necessary condition: people separated by a language barrier too easily misunderstand each other and each other’s intentions, each group projecting its fears on the other.

Zamenhof’s success was to a degree the result of a series of chance occurrences. I see five key steps.

First, as he struggled to create a language (it’s harder than it looks), he decided that, rather than adopt a logical structure (cf. Loglan and Lojban), he would develop a consistent structure (simple rules, no exceptions) that mimicked the structure of some natural (evolved) languages. By taking this approach, he avoided some big pitfalls by tapping into deep structures that emerged from the gradual evolution of language. (Those who went with purely logical languages made satisfying creations from the viewpoint of logic, but generally such languages are difficult to learn and to speak well, and often even their creators have difficulty speaking the language.)

Zamenhof’s second big insight involved vocabulary: creating words for everything is tough. So he developed a very clever panoply of affixes that can be attached to word roots to create new words—thus from a single root you easily derive a multitude of words.

One example I like to use is the nonce word “lacigemulino,” which a fifth grader in San Mateo used in a reply to her Esperanto teacher. (Esperanto turns out to be a great introduction to learning any foreign language—see this article.) The teacher had asked whether she was working the students too hard, and the girl replied, “Ne, vi ne estas lacigemulino.”

Ne = no, vi = you, ne = not (negation), estas = is/are, and lacigemulino = woman who has a tendency to make people tired:

lac- = the root: laca = tired (adj), laco = tiredness (noun), laci = to become tired, to tire (verb), lace = in a tired manner, tiredly, and so on.

-ig- = to cause: e.g., boli = to boil (as in “the water boils”), boligi = to (cause to) boil (as in “I boil the water); lacigi means “to cause tiredness”

-em- = to have a tendency to

-ul- = a person, an individual

-in- = feminine ending: hundo = dog, hundino = bitch

-o = noun. All nouns end in -o, all adjectives end in -a, all infinitives end is -i, etc.

And rather than create a ton of roots from scratch, he borrowed roots (sometimes simplifying them) from natural languages. One result of using a system of affixes is that the Esperanto dictionary is considerably smaller than natural-language dictionaries since a single root produces a multiplicity of words through the use of affixes.

Zamenhof’s third great advantage over other language creators arrived somewhat in disguise. He had everything pretty well worked out when he left home to go to medical school. (He became an ophthalmologist.) When he returned home from school and asked about his notebooks and other Esperanto materials, his father told him that all that stuff had been burned because it was foolishness. All that Zamenhof had done had been utterly destroyed. (You can see how, at first blush, this probably did not seem like such a great advantage.)

That would have stopped many, but Zamenhof started again, but this time knowing all the things he had learned in his first attempt. He was able to begin anew, with a clean slate, and this time knowing everything he had learned in his first attempt. In effect, he created Esperanto 2.0, which I’m sure avoided many problems and inconsistencies and awkwardnesses that were in the destroyed first version.

The fourth great advantage of Esperanto was also born of what seemed at the time to be a difficulty. When Zamenhof was ready to publish his first book about the language (La Internacia Lingvo, por Doktoro Esperanto—i.e., The International Language, by Doctor “One Who Hopes”), he took the book to the Czarist censors to obtain permission to print. “What is this, exactly?” they asked, and so he explained. But what the censors got from the explanation was the Zamenhof had created a “secret language” that could be used by … well, by saboteurs, radicals, people who wanted to change things—all the bogeymen of the Czarist regime. So the censors forbade the publication of the book (the publication of which of course had the goal of making sure that the language was NOT secret, but censors and other authoritarians look at the world through a distorted lens—cf. DHS).

For five years Zamenhof was blocked from publishing the book, and in that time he translated large sections of the Bible, Shakespeare, Dickens, and other literature into Esperanto. This work—putting the language into practice—inevitably led to a lot of polishing of the language: new roots, new ideas, and so on. So he had five years to take Esperanto 2.0 to Esperanto 3.0, as it were, and he used it.

After he finally was allowed to publish, the language proved to be enormously popular because with Esperanto 3.0 (in effect) the language really was easy to learn and easy to speak; it was expressive and had a pleasant sound (the vowels being based on Italian vowels). People all over Europe were drawn to learning the language because they saw the benefits of having a single second language as a bridge language, especially a language easy to learn and to use—and (important point) a language that is politically neutral. (Evolved languages tend to carry political implications—cf. the imposition of national languages on many peoples during the colonial period. For example, in Zamenhof’s Poland the Russian language was more or less forced down the throats of Poles and Jews, so Russian was not simply a language but also a sign of conquest—and to the Poles and Jews, a reminder of being conquered and subjugated.) Using a neutral language as a bridge language allows people to keep their various mother tongues and still communicate effectively with those who do not know that language, by both parties using an easily learned international language.

The first international Esperanto Congress was held this week 109 years ago: 5-10 Aug 1905. At the Congress Zamenhof gave an address (in Esperanto, of course) that impressed the participants as a great and emotional moment. The Congress itself was pretty emotional—so many participants had learned their language around their kitchen tables, working in isolation, and when they arrived at the Congress they were by no means certain that they could in fact communicate well in Esperanto. To some extend they were bowled over by the fact that it worked.

The fifth key step occurred at that very Congress, which issued a Declaration, written by Zamenhof and reviewed and revised by a Conference committee, that defined the book Fundamento de Esperanto (Foundation of Esperanto) as the defining foundation of the language: a book (NOT the creator of the language) would henceforth be the authority on the fundamentals of the language.

The Fundamento had been compiled by Zamenhof before the Congress. It contains a Foreword, the Basic Grammar (from 1887), Exercises (1894) and a Universal Dictionary (1893). The Declaration defines an Esperantist as “a person who knows and uses the Esperanto language regardless of its intended use.”

The importance of defining an impersonal authority can best be understood by looking at what happened with other created languages. Others who created a language usually could not stop tinkering with the language (the same sort of tinkering that Zamenhof had done in the years before he was allowed to publish his book), which made learning their languages nigh on impossible and caused people to lose interest. In addition, language creators generally guarded their languages jealously and insisted on total control of any changes—they became, in effect, tyrants ruling over (and guarding) their own language realm, and this tended to repulse potential supporters.

Zamenhof, in contrast, presented Fundamento de Esperanto, along with Fundamento Krestomatio de la lingvo esperanto (a collection of writings in Esperanto) as the authority—not himself personally. This step gave Esperanto the sort of stability that natural languages have by virtue of cultural inertia. Zamenhof thus provided a stable foundation and authority for the language, and then—vital point—he stepped back. “Esperanto belongs to the Esperantists,” he famously declared—“not to me” implied.

Those five happenstances are why Esperanto succeeded so wildly in its early years. Then came the Great War, which disrupted many things, but dealt a heavy blow to international efforts in peaceful cooperation. Ground was regained following the Great War, but first the Great Depression and then WWII impeded Esperanto’s growth, which has always been driven internationally.

Lacking Esperanto, international agencies such as the UN are left the with the enormous cost burden (and ineffectiveness) of supporting a myriad of interpreters of various languages, along the cost of translators of written materials along with the cost of printing translations of all official documents in the official languages of the UN (Arabic, Standard Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish). (It turns out that having one’s language made an official UN language is a matter of some prestige, so more “official languages” may be added, along with the concomitant cost.)

The same sort of language-interpretation and language-translation costs plague the EU. A Norwegian merchant who wants to work with a Greek firm may not be able to find a Norwegian-Greek interpreter, so the usual workaround is to get (say) two or three interpreters to bridge the gap (e.g, one Norwegian-German interpreter, one German-French interpreter, and one French-Greek interpreter, though of course a Norwegian-Greek interpreter would be ideal—unfortunately, also rare). Moreover, contracts must be executed in two languages (CEOs are reluctant to sign contracts they can’t read), with lawyers making a killing off various subtle differences between two languages. Think how much better it would work if Esperanto were available as a common interlanguage, its intended purpose.

For more info, here’s a brief biography of Zamenhof. And here’s a site that offers (free) instruction in Esperanto.

UPDATE: A couple of interesting questions posted on Quora, with multiple answers:

Does knowing Esperanto help with learning any other languages?  (See also this Wikipedia article.)

How has learning Esperanto changed your life?

And from a response to another question on Quora, “What is the most important thing when choosing one of two languages to learn?”:

On the other end of the spectrum you have a language like Esperanto, which is so easy that you may grow to like it while studying, in the same way that people grow to like things that they’re good at. A lot of people start learning Esperanto for curiosity’s sake or for no other reason than “why not” and then later become really fervent proponents of the language, which also has to do with the culture of course.

And US readers note

Written by LeisureGuy

8 August 2014 at 1:48 pm

Well stated: The larger picture on Ira Glass’s thoughtless comment on Shakespeare

with 2 comments

And well reasoned and clear sighted. Colin McEnroe writes in Salon:

Maybe it’s a watershed moment when the smartest guy in public radio lets slip the dogs of his inner Cartman. Where were you when Ira Glass tweeted that “I think I’m realizing: Shakespeare sucks?”

Shakespeare is having a hell of a summer. More Americans probably know “The Fault in Our Stars” than know the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves. And now this.

The backlash was swift. The New Republic called Glass a philistine, and the New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead – although mostly concerned with Glass’ repeated use of “relatability” as a criterion Shakespeare failed to meet — wrote that “the Bard of Public Radio expressed himself like a resentful millennial filling out a teacher evaluation.” Glass walked his anti-Shakespeare tweets back. The first of them is gone from his feed. For the record it was: “@JohnLithgow as Lear tonight: amazing. Shakespeare: not good. No stakes, not relatable. I think I’m realizing: Shakespeare sucks.”

John Waters once told David Letterman he had a friend in prison. “How long will your friend be incarcerated?” asked Dave. “Oh, life,” said Waters. Letterman: “So more than a traffic violation?” “Everybody has a bad night,” said Waters.

On that basis, we can dismiss most of the charges against Glass. In the last quarter-century, nobody has provided a better answer to the question, “What else can radio do?” From the 20-minute (swallow hard) “relatable” human dramedy to the full-hour “deep dive” (a phrase to which we will return), “This American Life” has earned its spot in the public radio penthouse. When it’s good, it’s as good as radio gets.

Which is why you want Glass to have a different reaction to Lear. You want him to say, “Hey, I didn’t really get that. Maybe we should do a whole show about King Lear. We could ask Sam Waterston to go up to people in the street and do the ‘Come, let’s away to prison’ speech. And the relationship between a king and his fool, that’s a segment! Hey, we already call them Act I, Act II, etc.”

Continue reading. In the original (at the link), the above has a myriad of links. Go there for links.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 August 2014 at 1:33 pm

Posted in Books, Education, Media

Turns out, one laptop per child is not an educational panacea

leave a comment »

Details here.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 August 2014 at 12:13 pm


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,269 other followers

%d bloggers like this: