Saturday, March 29, 2008

Saturday Smile, Part II

Pearls Before Swine. What's not to like?

Saturday Smile, Part I

Arizona politics. It's not as in-your-face as New York, God knows, but the quotes can be just as quotable. If you heard our governor, Janet Napolitano, on NPR's Wait Wait Don't Tell Me last month, you know what I mean.

Here she is on illegal immigration and the much-ballyhooed Wall of Eternal Security that the administration says it's going to build on 700 miles of our southern border:
Show me a 50-foot wall and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Articles We Don't Need to Finish

...or even start, to be honest. Just take a look at the title and the abstract:

Multilevel Approaches to Documenting Change: Challenges in Community-Based Educational Research
In this article, we used a multimethod, multilevel analysis to document the underlying dynamics of specific alternative learning contexts to identify generalizable principles while allowing for local variation.

Barely even English, right? And trust me, the actual text of the article is just as bad.

And this is from the online journal of Teacher's College at Columbia University—the education school of an Ivory League university.

I’ve deleted the names of the authors out of a (possibly misguided) sense of mercy. But if I had the two authors here with me…say, chained to a drainpipe, with copies of The Elements of Style stuffed and duct-taped into their mouths…by which I mean only, if I had their absolute and undivided attention…this is what I think I would say to them:

Look, I know...using jargon and ed-speak makes you feel hip and with-it and in-with-the-in-crowd, whatever in-crowd you're trying to be in with (your professors, maybe? I can’t imagine who else would want to read this crap). But we're talking about education here. Teaching and learning. If the language you use obfuscates things more than it clarifies them, isn't it by definition contrary to your alleged purposes?

I’m just asking.

The sad thing is, this article is actually trying to discuss something important (yeah, I did break down and read it…well, some of it…despite the title for this post). It’s about some real, life-or-death education issues for low-performing, minority students. You don’t need the pomp. You don’t need the lofty language. If it’s really important, Just Say It.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Searching For the Cow While Riding the Cow

This is pretty amazing stuff. A brain researcher becomes her own patient and has to study--from the inside out--what's gone wrong...using as an investigative tool the very brain that's gone wrong:

In the course of four hours, I watched my brain completely deteriorate in its ability to process all information. On the morning of the hemorrhage, I could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any of my life.
If you happen to find brains endlessly mysterious and strange, as I do, the video is very much worth the 18 minutes. One of the things I find most interesting about her experience is that, with the left side of the brain's silence during her stroke, she experienced a radical loss of distinction: she couldn't tell where her body stopped and the world began; she couldn't tell the difference between words and background on a card. The world stopped being a million separate and discrete things and became, for a moment, one stunning wholeness.

If you take a look at the scrap of dialogue on the left hand side of this blog, you'll see a very similar sort of thing, from more of a Zen/religious perspective. And if you look at the very bottom of the page, you'll see a quote from Walt Whitman that hints at the same thing.

"Nirvana..." says our lecturer. "I found Nirvana...but I'm still alive..."

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Going for an English

Courtesy of BoingBoing, from the British variety show Goodness Gracious Me.

No particular reason for it. It's just funny.

Rude, sure. Insensitive, absolutely. And all the better for it.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Idiots on Parade

Call it whatever you like. I call it child abuse.

The Things We Do Not Do

We were invited to a shabbat dinner last Friday night by the parents of one of Thing 1's new friends at school. This was strange for us on a number of fronts. In the first place, Thing 1 has only been in this school since January, and we're just starting to know various parents. In the second place, we don't really do the whole shabbat thing. Oh, we light candles from time to time, and remember to say blessings over wine and bread--on special occasions. But our Friday nights can be as busy and chaotic as any other night. We may be out at a restaurant. We may (if we're lucky), have a babysitter feed the kids so that we can go out to see a movie or something. The fact of Friday night--the fact that it is supposed to be special--passes by without notice most of the time.

The dinner turned out to be absolutely lovely--good food, wonderful company, and easy, friendly conversation all around. The kids all got along and behaved themselves admirably. And while there were some rituals which were odd--they being Conservative Jews and we being Reform, nothing was uncomfortable. Yes, we did ritual handwashing before dinner. Big deal? Hardly.

What was a big deal was the whole thing put together. Taking the time to make and share a large, tasty dinner with family and friends. Taking the time to acknowledge how blessed we are--not only for food and drink, but also for our children (and I mean really acknowledging it: placing our hands upon their heads and wishing them strength, knowledge, and honor). Taking the time to go around the table and share with the group what was best about the week. Taking the time to sit, and be, and share--and not to rush around, always worrying about the Next Thing and barely paying attention to what's in front of you.

These are the things we do not do, as a rule. And we suffer for it. And it makes me wonder: what must it be like to really observe the sabbath, as our forefathers intended it? What must it be like to just STOP? To stop everything. For an entire day. To let time crawl by at its natural pace--to let a day unspool at a normal rhythm, and to breathe in and out with it. To have no agenda for a day other than to live out a day, fully, and to acknowledge its absolutely mundane glory and wonder. To sanctify time.

You can argue that God gave us the sabbath, or that our forefathers were clever enough to create it and label it as God's to ensure its observance. Either way, it's an invention worth noting. Because, left to our own devices, we cannot help but fill our time with business, or at least busy-ness. We do need some sort of external force to cajole us into emptying a period of time, whether it's 20 minutes of meditation or a day of "rest." And it's hard to do by yourself--hard to take the day off work if you know everyone else is open for business--hard to resist the many temptations of Activity if you're the only one resisting.

I think it would be an interesting experiment some weekend. Saturday or Sunday, I don't much care. Twenty-four hours of just being together--playing, reading, going for walks...whatever.

But with trumpet lessons, karate lessons, knitting classes, and religious school, just to name the Fixed Activities, I can't figure out when we'd ever have the time.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

They Might Be Giants

Geez...first Arthur C. Clarke, now this:

The Oscar-winning British stage and screen actor Paul Scofield has died at the age of 86. Scofield, one of the finest classical actors of his generation, won his Academy award as well as a Bafta, in 1967 for his role as Sir Thomas More, the 16th century Lord Chancellor executed by Henry VIII, in the film of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons.

Scofield was always wonderful. His King Lear--wonderful. His Nazi colonel trying to steal all of France's art--wonderful. But in this particular role, Thomas More, he stood alongside Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird as a role model of Absolute Integrity for me.

When I first saw the movie as a teenager, it was quite clear to me--crystal clear and irrefutable--that this was what manhood was all about, if it was about anything. Not macho posturing, not physical intimidation, not swaggering bravado, but quiet strength, deep self-knowledge, absolute integrity, and the willingness to stand firm for what was right, come what may. Because a legacy of Right was ultimately better protection for your family and your country than a temporary sense of comfort and security.

It also confirmed for me--along with Mockingbird and the example of my own, personal Atticus Finch--my father--that nothing was more awe-inspiring in the human animal than our ability and willingness to Make Law--and live by Law.

Yes, I know, the authors of the Torah have God delivering the commandments to us and saying, "Behold, I set before you the blessing and the curse, life and death. Therefore, choose life, that you and your people may live." But whoever or whatever may have inspired their writing, they were written by us. By us--as a defense against our own aggresive appetites. By us--as a way to live peacefully together, rather than endlessly at war and alone. We did that. And we don't give ourselves enough credit for it. All we see are the weaknesses, the breaches, the times we don't live up to our ideals. And there are plenty of those. But our ability to see those ideals--and want them--and set them down as codes to live by...that's nothing to take for granted.

I've certainly lived more by the breach than by the observance. But a man's reach must exceed his grasp, right?

So I'll leave you with Thomas More (as imagined by Robert Bolt), who did live (and die) by those principles:

William Roper

So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More

Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper

Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More

Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's! And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

Me, too.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Training vs. Learning

While snooping around the various tubes of these Internets, I came across the following line in a post about self-education:
“That’s not education; that’s training.”

This particular post comes from a writer most of you would consider pretty far right of center...maybe even far right of right. But then, people on the left can't even bring themselves to type the word "training" when discussing education. "We don't train our children," they say. "They're not puppies."

We all know that discussions of educational matters in this country swing from one extreme to the other, barely pausing at the reasonable center to acknowledge it exists. All education is either Inquiry-driven and Discovery-centered, or rote, mechanical memorization (to the left). All education is either traditional and content-rich, or flabby, non-rigorous playtime (to the right).

I think one of the reasons this happens is that both sides are trying to put two different things into a single category. So they pick the category they like and attack the thing they've forced into it, that doesn't even belong there...and they blame it for not belonging.

There is a difference between training and learning--at least the way I choose to define those words. You need training to acquire and hone a physical or mental skill. You need to be taught how to do it, you need to practice doing it, and you need to keep doing it until it becomes second-nature--until it becomes unconscious. To me, that is the defining characteristic: if it is a skill that can become autonomous and unconscious, it falls under the heading of training.

There's more here than you might think. It's not just decoding phonemes or memorizing your multiplication tables. It's also typing, riding a bike, and taking driver's ed.

This can get confusing, because layered on top of the trained skill is the second category of learning. Learning is never unconscious or automatic. Learning requires active thinking and pondering and deciding. You can--and constantly do--think about things you've been trained to do.

Example: when you drive to work every day, you do so (most of the time) on autopilot. You listen to music, you talk to your carpool-mates, whatever--and you often have no conscious memory of the road behind you. But when it starts to rain, or some jackass in front of you slams on his brakes--all of a sudden, your conscious mind takes over, and you start thinking about your driving. Autopilot gets turned off. How can you tell? Simple: you turn off the music and tell your friends (or kids) to shut about for a minute, because you "have to think."

Have to think? Weren't you thinking before?
Not really. And that doesn't mean you were asleep, or driving dangerously.

I'm defining consciousness the way Julian Jaynes does, more or less, in his impossible-to-prove-but-endlessly-entertaining book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Trust me, it's a lot more accessible and fun than it sounds. Even it's a load of crap, which it may well be. As a metaphor for how we think, though, it's fascinating.

By Jaynes' definition of consciousness, most of what we do every day is unconscious. To him, the idea of consciousness is the (seemingly) unique ability of humans to self-dramatize--to imagine a "mini-me" inside their heads, whom they talk to, reason with, ask questions of--a "second self" that rides along inside their heads, watching, reacting, and thinking about what takes place. It is for this reason, he argues, that we often remember events in our lives as though from a distance, in the third person--because we both lived it and observed it. Consciousness is the ability to stand a bit outside of experience and think about it objectively--even while living it actively. As opposed to, say, a cat, who just wanders around and does things based on reflex and instinct and need, but does not ponder on it, and say, "hmm, I think I'll go kill that pesky mouse." Or, "Why, oh why, must I keep killing mice?"

By that definition, a whole hell of a lot of what we do during the day is unconscious. When I scratch my itchy nose, I just do it--the way a cat just does things. Things like that don't rise to the level of conscious need, with my mini-me saying, in my head, "Dude, scratch your nose already."

So: driving. Our unconscious minds are big and complex and can handle things like driving. They have to. We cannot do complex things like this without relying on our unconscious. You can't consciously think about all the aspects of driving while you're doing it: the gas, the break, the clutch, the rear-view mirror, the left side mirror, the right side mirror, the steering wheel, the signals, what's going on to your left and right, what's going on in front, what's going on behind. To do so would make you not only crazy, but also a lousy driver. You simply can't handle that much information simultaneously. The tasks that can be automated--the things that can become habit--get pushed back to the unconscious, so that the things actually requiring your attention can be handled by mini-me, up there behind your forehead, saying "Dude, keep an eye on that Hummer. I think he's drunk."

Or..."Dude, you should NOT have had that last margarita. You're all over the road. I swear to God, if we get out of this thing alive, I am NEVER driving drunk again."

And this is something profound. This is evaluating the world around you, evaluating your ability to perform your skills in a variety of contexts, and drawing conclusions about what you should or should not do in the future. This is learning. Learning, defined this way, cannot be prepackaged and predigested. Learning is--and must be--and can only be--what happens when you apply thinking to training.

Looked at this way, then, training is not some right-wing, parochial, anti-learning throwback. In fact, high-level, critical thinking is impossible without basic training. You can't think interestingly or creatively about how numbers work if you don't know your numbers. You can't drink in the imagery and wordplay of e.e. cummings if you're still trying to figure out how to pronounce each word. You have to nail down the basic, trainable stuff first, to free up your conscious mind for thinking about those things.

And this is not simply an elementary school issue. As you go through school, new skills arise, demanding new regimens of training--all the way up to medical or engineering school, for some people.

Do we need inquiry and discovery and play in our elementary schools? Of course. Children are astonishingly capable of critical thinking at very young ages (I can cite many examples from my own Things). But we can't ask them to love reading literature before we teach them how to read. We have to teach them how to read fluently and effortlessly, so that they can stop thinking about the reading itself, and start thinking about what they're reading. So stop fighting phonics, for crying out loud. Stop trying to build pretty houses without foundations or beams.

And guess what? Older kids need to learn the basic rules of grammar, so that they can stop struggling with how to put a sentence together and start playing with sentences. Too many teachers want them to play with structure without every learning that there is a structure. And the play is fun, so why not? And the grammar training isn't, so why bother? But educational decisions are not supposed to be made according to what is most fun to teach. (yeah, I know--that's obvious, right? If only it were.)

This also informs the way we look at artificial intelligence. Computers are astonishingly capable of being trained. They can be taught to do millions of things, and to do them at lightning speeds. The hard part is the conscious part. Can we get computers to be conscious--to think about what they've been trained to do or what they've downloaded into memory, to reflect upon that information, to draw conclusions--in short, to learn? Maybe yes and maybe no. For now, anyway, computers are a hell of a lot more trainable than we are. But only we can think about we've downloaded and what we've done, and learn from it.

It's a shame we do it so rarely.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

But Money Matters More

While we're looking at U.S. maps, here's a nice one to ponder, showing discrepencies among the states--and within each state, at the county level--in terms of per-pupil school funding.

Regardless of our individual feelings about NCLB and public schooling in general, let's try to agree on this much, at least: You cannot ask for equal outcomes if you don't provide equal input.