This is Dedication to Service

One volunteer I met, Liz Clegg, was running a center for women and children—it was the most reliable place in the Jungle to find, among other things, diapers and face cream—out of a sky-blue school bus that the actress Juliet Stevenson had bought on eBay and then donated. Clegg, a wiry fifty-one-year-old former firefighter from England, has lived on the road since she was seventeen. In the summer of 2015, she attended the Glastonbury music festival. Appalled by the “fuckload” of stuff that people had left behind, she filled her trailer with cast-off tents and sleeping bags and drove straight to the Jungle, intending to donate them. “I’d seen in a Sunday magazine that they needed camping equipment, and Calais’s, what, three hours away?” she recalled. “You couldn’t not do it.” She ended up staying.

Most volunteers left the Jungle at night for safety, but Clegg was there full time, serving as a nurse, bodyguard, counsellor, and surrogate mother to the camp’s hundreds of unaccompanied children, almost all of them boys. At one point, she lived in a shack with half a dozen kids. “We had to sleep with knives,” she told me.

—Lauren Collins, “The Children’s Odyssey” in The New Yorker

Passion Does Not Equate With Knowledge

It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates, and another for me to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban without knowing what I’m talking about. Sloman and Fernbach cite a survey conducted in 2014, not long after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Respondents were asked how they thought the U.S. should react, and also whether they could identify Ukraine on a map. The farther off base they were about the geography, the more likely they were to favor military intervention.

. . .“As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” Sloman and Fernbach write.

—Elizabeth Kolbert, “Why Facts Don’t Change Minds” in The New Yorker

Smorgasbord: Differences, and Teaching for All

“1960s Ann Arbor Town Club smorgasbord — advertising postcard.” by Wystan is licensed under CC BY 2.0

People raised in different contexts think differently

Western and Eastern societies see the world differently. “If we are what we see, and we are attending to different stuff, then we are living in different worlds.” It may even come down to the difference between a historical context of growing wheat vs. growing rice. BBC

Rich people and poor people see the world differently. Poor people pay much more attention to other people around them. Science of Us

Risk-taking is an adaptive strategy when raised in chaotic environments. “Given that fast life-history strategies are triggered in uncertain situations, a stable environment can work wonders.Nautilus

So you want to become rich in the United States? The best way is to become rich is to be born into the right set of parents. The second best way is to find a rich spouse. The Economist

And the rich are more likely to become entrepreneurs. The Guardian

How we self-classify our own race is problematic for assertions based on race. There’s a tendency for those of mixed descent to self-classify as white. American Prospect

And maybe instead of classifying animals into species, we’d do better to identify them by their key traits and characteristics. RealClearScience

Men’s brains are bigger than women’s. Mindhacks

But there are few differences in cognitive ability between men and women.

Men and women require different types of check-ins to keep long-distance relationships going. Men need face-to-face check-ins, while a phone call is enough for women. The Guardian

Therefore, promoting diversity is key

Once trees in the rainforest are connected with vines, they don’t function as individual trees anymore—at least from the perspective of ant diversity. The Atlantic

Highways may have contributed to rural and urban division in American politics, as revealed by maps. National Geographic

School choice may lead to more segregation. CityLab

As demonstrated by Denver, a much lauded exemplar of school choice. NPR Ed

“The Waltons would have a more dramatic impact on the well-being of children by paying their workers a minimum wage of $15 an hour than they do by opening charter schools and enfeebling community public schools.” The NY Review of Books

Though the use of vouchers may possibly reduce some racial stratification, in a convoluted sort of way. The Atlantic

But vouchers are viewed as problematic even by many of those within the “school choice” charter community. “I’ve worked in charter schools nationally for two decades, and the vast majority of people I know who work in and support charters are deeply troubled by vouchers.” Ascend Learning blog:

Ben Carson could undo past efforts at housing desegregation. The New York Times

A challenge to previous research that suggested that greater diversity generates distrust. The distrust may simply stem from good old prejudice. Scientific American

Unfortunately, training may not be enough to remove racial bias. “There’s no good proof that implicit bias can be permanently unlearned, and little evidence about the best way to unlearn it.” Nautilus

“Having a shared sense of identity, norms, and history generally promotes trust.” The American Interest

“Americans can do better. Remember: America doesn’t just have arguments; America is an argument—between Federalist and Anti-Federalist world views, strong national government and local control, liberty and equality, individual rights and collective responsibility, color-blindness and color-consciousness, Pluribus and Unum.” The Atlantic

And teach everyone well

A project-based learning critique: “if we’re designing schools and syllabus for the real word, that means teaching everyone well, not just a fraction of the lucky sperm club.” Tom Bennett’s blog:

The JUMP Math curriculum speaks to just that type of whole-class design, and is showing strong signs of success. “Our data shows that if you teach to the whole class, the whole class does better.” Quartz

Along the same lines, I argue for a focus on an inclusive, rigorous curriculum and expectations for all students as the best way to support students with disabilities, rather than focusing on abstract, idealized models. Schools & Ecosystems

Acquiring knowledge and then thinking about how it fits into what we already know helps boost our attention. PsyBlog

Here’s 20 observable characteristics of effective teaching. TeachThought

For faster learning, interleave studying with sleep. BPS Research Digest

Napping, after all, is just as effective as cramming. BigThink

And if you want to grow new brain cells, go running instead of lifting weights: PsyBlog

“a well-targeted tree campaign could be of the smartest investments a hot, polluted city can make.” And those plantings should be well-targeted to improve air quality for schools. Vox

Another smart investment? The buildings we house students in. “People know that their physician plays an important role in their health, but sometimes building managers can play a nearly equal role,” says Allen. “The janitor of a school, for example, has a big impact on the health of those kids.” National Geographic



A Good Question for a Teacher to Ask

“Enjoying space.” by simon73 is licensed under CC BY 3.0

“When teaching the course, I always imagined that one of my students would someday be US president. I would pause before entering the lecture room and ask myself, ‘Twenty years from now, when one of these students is the most powerful person on Earth, what will I regret not having taught? How will I consider today’s lecture a failure?’ Then I would think of the day’s message and make sure it was well understood by all.”

–Physicist Richard Muller, in an interview in Physics Today

A Pigeon Tale and a Growth Mindset

“I asked Cher what had made her think that the Pigeon story could be a kids’ book. She paused, then said, of her work at the time, ‘There were two classrooms, the same size, the same kinds of kids in terms of age, background. Every day with their lunch, the children got a cookie that came in a cellophane wrapper. In one of the classrooms, the teacher would come around with scissors and snip the cellophane off each cookie wrapper. In the other classroom, the teacher said, ‘Absolutely do not touch those wrappers, do not help the children open them. These kids are motivated, they can open these cookies themselves.’ Sometimes there was a lot of struggle. The cookies might be pulverized by the time they were opened. But they were opened, each one of them. I knew kids could desire, fail, be angry, thrive. I knew that this was territory that made sense for them. Those Pigeon emotions made sense to them—that told me something.’ ”

—Rivka Galchen, “Fail Funnier” on children’s book author Mo Willems in The New Yorker

Experience is Relational and Subjective

Because neither ‘memory banks’ nor ‘representations’ of stimuli exist in the brain, and because all that is required for us to function in the world is for the brain to change in an orderly way as a result of our experiences, there is no reason to believe that any two of us are changed the same way by the same experience. If you and I attend the same concert, the changes that occur in my brain when I listen to Beethoven’s 5th will almost certainly be completely different from the changes that occur in your brain. Those changes, whatever they are, are built on the unique neural structure that already exists, each structure having developed over a lifetime of unique experiences. (Bold added)

–Robert Epstein, “The Empty Brain” on Aeon

Epstein’s challenge to the “information processing” model is highly relevant to education and worth considering the implications of. I would pair this reading with the quantum theory of QBism: QBism challenges the notion of an “objective reality,” suggesting instead that reality lies in the eye of the beholder.

How we go about stitching the country back together

So how do you think we go about stitching the country back together?

Well, the most important thing that I’m focused on is how we create a common set of facts. That sounds kind of abstract. Another way of saying it is, how do we create a common story about where we are.

. . . It requires better civics education among our kids so that we can sort through what’s true and what’s not.

–President Barack Obama, in an interview with Rolling Stone the day after the election

Give teachers some privacy

By PICOL- PIctorial COmmunication Language ( [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By PICOL- PIctorial COmmunication Language (, via Wikimedia Commons

“…many trucking companies use cameras that automatically record a driver whenever there’s sudden braking, swerving or speeding up. But in one company Bernstein studied, the videos never go to management and are not used in performance reviews (unless the driver is texting-at-the-wheel dangerous). Instead, a team of coaches, whose only job is help drivers improve, receives the videos. Drivers, he says, like and trust that the system is there to help them, because it keeps their mistakes within a trusted circle of people who are not wielding power over their lives.

…In instituting these four forms of privacy—privacy within team boundaries, privacy limits on employee data, privacy in decision-making, and privacy about time—the organizations Bernstein studied refused the temptation to observe (or try to observe) everything. That refusal did not cost them profits or effectiveness. Instead, respect for privacy enhanced their success.”

–David Berreby, “Want People to Behave Better? Give Them More Privacy” on PsychologyToday

Observations of teacher practice have become a rote chore of paperwork to try and please accountability mavens. Those same mavens then get in a huff when they don’t find a whole bunch of teachers rated ineffective.

How about you just let teachers observe one another and give each other feedback, and administrators just sit in on that process every now and then? You might find that to be much more effective than the rigmarole of compliance that teacher evaluations have become.

On Venture Capital and Education

By Jim Gordon [CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
If you care about education, it’s worth paying close attention to what’s going down in Silicon Valley. The hyperdrive capitalism of venture investment, with its raw focus on the rapid scale of the highest performing and rapid failure of all the rest, parallels and in some ways informs edtech and charter models.

There’s certainly a healthy and necessary space in education for a private marketplace of rapid iteration, scale, and fail. But there’s also a necessity for the less efficient but robust, slow-growth, long-term models of public schools.

In The New Yorker there is an interesting piece on Y-Combinator’s Sam Altman relevant to this. It’s interesting purely as a biopic, but scattered throughout are insights into the driving mindsets and ethics of Silicon Valley. Let’s take a closer look at some quotes from the article with the frame of education in mind.

Altman, as he nursed a negroni after dinner, had his own warning for the timid: “Democracy only works in a growing economy. Without a return to economic growth, the democratic experiment will fail. And I have to think that YC is hugely important to that growth.”

Democracy needs a heck of a lot more than just a viable economy. It needs strong civic institutions and an active citizenry that has a shared understanding of how to engage with those institutions and of their purpose. Public education should serve the public in cultivating shared civic knowledge and values.

. . . In his book “Hackers & Painters,” Graham calculated that smart hackers at a startup could get 36x more work done than the average office drone—and that they would, therefore, eventually blow up employment as we know it. He made this sound patriotic and fun; how could an oligarchic technocracy go wrong?

Indeed? How could a focus solely on only the most productive and efficient members of society go wrong? In education, imagine if we only invested in the most gifted and talented. The rest would be herded into service professions or unskilled labor. A meritocracy! Wait. Isn’t that more or less how things used to be before the advent of a public education . . .

. . . And he told me, “It’s bad for the companies and bad for Silicon Valley if companies can stay alive just because they’re [associated with Y-Combinator]. It’s better for everyone if bad companies die quickly.”

This is a driving philosophy of venture capital and rapid scale that Silicon Valley pursues. Scale the few most successful ventures rapidly, and fail the remainder. With schools, we could only invest in and scale the ones that demonstrated strong academic performance — all the rest we would close. Sounds good, right? Kids should only be in schools that have demonstrated their worth.

But there’s a problem with rapid scale in terms of sustainability:

. . .The truth is that rapid growth over a long period is rare, that the repeated innovation required to sustain it is nearly impossible, and that certain kinds of uncontrollable growth turn out to be cancers. . . Every great startup—Facebook, Airbnb—has no idea why it’s growing at first, and has to figure that out before the growth stalls. Growth masks all problems.”

A school could be high performing, but not such a great place to be.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for markets in the education system. A market doesn’t have to mean Silicon Valley style scale and fail.

A more sustainable model can be seen in an article in the NY Times about MailChimp.

…it’s possible to create a huge tech company without taking venture capital, and without spending far beyond your means. It’s possible, in other words, to start a tech company that runs more like a normal business than a debt-fueled rocket ship careening out of control. Believe it or not, start-ups don’t even have to be headquartered in San Francisco or Silicon Valley.

. . . You can simply start a business, run it to serve your customers, and forget about outside investors and growth at any cost.

Schools that do this work are the ones that get better: they put their focus on service to their students and families and adapt accordingly.

But there’s other ways that those who abide by the scale and fail model are investing in, recognizing the limitations of a brick and mortar approach.  Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen (you may have heard of AltSchools?) lays out the long-game for software and tech in the education industry in this Vox interview:

Primary education in the US is a monopoly. It’s a public sector monopoly with very little competition. Even the charter schools end up under sustained attack for violating the monopoly. You see this most recently in New York with De Blasio trying to shut them down. A government-sponsored monopoly is not easy to move.

. . . New technologies tend to vaporize on impact with those institutions. The last thing a unionized public school wants to do is to fundamentally change how they operate. Of course they don’t want to adopt new technology. It’s antithetical to the philosophy.

So the solution? Software!

Look, there’s great potential for technology in the education sphere, and I think experiments like AltSchools and Udacity are well worth making. But Andreessen’s premise here is false. Having worked in NYC public schools for even the short length of time that I have, I’ve seen so many tech fads get readily embraced by educators and districts that it’s become ridiculous. Rather than “vaporizing on impact,” new tech fads rather seem to become desperately embraced and then just as hurriedly discarded. Harried educators and administrators would love it if a SMART Board or data system or robot would magically and rapidly improve the outcomes for their kids!

But I do think Andreessen makes a more balanced analysis and point here:

We can’t revamp the entire system. Nobody can. But I think more and more, there are gaps in what the current system can accommodate compared to what people actually want. There are opportunities to build on the edges, around the sides, parallel systems. And at the very least introduce choice. In the best-case scenario, it becomes a real challenger to the status quo.

I fully agree that there are massive gaps and many opportunities to better serve our nation’s students, and I for one welcome the evolution of edtech and tools and software, as well as the vibrant niches of effective charter models and networks. But we’re on a quixotic mission if we’re shooting for supplanting public education systems, rather than supplementing them.

The argument for why this is so can be viewed in statements that Barack Obama and Vox’s Ezra Klein have made about the function of public institutions vs. private ones (I’ve posted this before):

President Barack Obama at the White House Frontiers Conference:

The final thing I’ll say is that government will never run the way Silicon Valley runs because, by definition, democracy is messy. This is a big, diverse country with a lot of interests and a lot of disparate points of view. And part of government’s job, by the way, is dealing with problems that nobody else wants to deal with.

. . . sometimes we get, I think, in the scientific community, the tech community, the entrepreneurial community, the sense of we just have to blow up the system, or create this parallel society and culture because government is inherently wrecked. No, it’s not inherently wrecked; it’s just government has to care for, for example, veterans who come home. That’s not on your balance sheet, that’s on our collective balance sheet, because we have a sacred duty to take care of those veterans. And that’s hard and it’s messy, and we’re building up legacy systems that we can’t just blow up.

Ezra Klein in an interview with Tyler Cowen:

I will say one thing about both government and private-sector production, which is something that I do think is important is there is an advantage to being willing to do kludgy, difficult, somewhat unpleasant things.

. . . As you say, there’s an attraction — recognizing the government is inefficient — to just saying, “Well, let’s just do cash transfer for everything. Let’s go UBI for everything.” But there is a lot that government does, often not that well, that somebody needs to be doing, because a lot of the people you want to help are actually really difficult to help. This is something . . . this is one of the things I believe strongly in policy that we underrate.

A lot of what we’re trying to do in government is not help people who want “free stuff,” but is help people who are actually very, very difficult to help. This is particularly true in health care.

And particularly true in education. The work of education is a slow, complicated, incremental process that will benefit from new technologies, software, and schools, but that will not rapidly scale, and provides a public service that makes rapid failure of massive amounts of schools or students a nonviable option.

Integrated schools as a stabilizing force in times of chaos

A beautiful post on the benefits of integrated schools. Read the whole thing.

The experience of being a part of a diverse and inclusive community is equipping me and my kids to go forward and connect and speak up in a world of difference, however messily. We proceed respectfully, and with eyes and ears wide open. We disagree, and we discuss. Our days have more texture, more color, more depth. There is tension, yes, and sometimes confusion; there are hurt and bad feelings, and there are misunderstandings. But there has also been so much joy. Despite the instinctive resistance to leaving “the comfort zone,” which all of us have, when we persevere through that feeling, we profit. It is the right thing to do. But it also feels really, really good.

. . . integrating our nation’s schools is not the whole solution — but I believe it’s a powerful step that will have a powerful ripple effect. I believe that integrated schools can have a powerfully stabilizing and sustaining effect in a time of chaos. I’ve already seen how my own community has anchored me, and many others, during this tumultuous past week. It is a place where we know we have a common investment in our future. It is a place where we talk and think about justice. It is something real and tangible in an increasingly virtual world. It is spiritual infrastructure.

–Kelly Bare, “A Divided America Gave Us the Problem of a Donald Trump Presidency. Integration is the Solution.