About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Learning Society

This is condensed from my new book Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education and was printed as a commentary in Inside Higher Ed on September 27th, 2012.


The farmer, the mechanic, the manufacturer, the merchant, the sailor, the soldier … must be educated – Philip Lindsley, President of the University of Nashville, 1825

            Since the early days of the Republic, adult Americans have been seeking ways to further educate themselves after their (successful or unsuccessful) formal education is over. For intellectual stimulation, social benefit, or occupational advancement through the learning of specific job skills, we as a people seem driven toward self-improvement and have created a staggering number of ways, both superficial and substantial, to achieve it: from self-help books to correspondence courses to continuous incarnations of mutual improvement societies (lyceums, mechanics’ institutes, chautauquas) to classes in university extension.

            Unions such as the Knights of Labor and farmers’ political organizations, most notably the Grange, had considerable educational programs. There was the public library movement, and agricultural extension, and experimental colleges for working people. Private occupational or proprietary schools arose and grew. The public community college began in 1901 and expanded rapidly through the mid-twentieth century, and the G.I. Bill opened two- and four-year colleges to a remarkable number of returning veterans, changing the nature of American higher education in the process. There are literacy programs, and work-force development initiatives, and adult schools that offer everything from basic education to courses on local geography, French cooking, and navigating the Internet. As historian Joseph Kett put it in The Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties, a sweeping account of this multi-strand tradition, in the same way that “democracy seems only to whet appetites for more democracy,” so too “each advance in educational opportunity” sparks desire for more education.

            I have spent the last two years in a poor, urban community college with some of the current participants in this long tradition of self improvement. Many of the reasons this new generation are at the college are deeply troubling: inadequate K-12 schools, limited youth and apprenticeship programs, unemployment, and the effects of poverty on neighborhoods and families. They are seeking a second chance at education because, in various ways, their first go at it was unsuccessful.

Sam is sitting outside of the college’s library, talking to two older women. I know him from the welding program I have been observing.  He has been doing so well, that, with the recommendation of several of his instructors, he got a job tutoring in the Reading Center. That’s where he met these women, Dorothy and Zoe. Sam is helping Dorothy figure out what classes to take next term, so I talk briefly to Zoe – blue nail polish, cigarette, animated – about the basic skills courses she has to take. She gets serious and says she wants to learn math, finally wants to learn it. She likes coming to the college, she continues, “didn’t know it would be this good.” She waves her hand across the area with the coffee cart, the library benches, the stairs to the Humanities building. “I like it. This is nice.”

Sam and I excuse ourselves and walk into Humanities where his English class will start in a few minutes. He tells me that the work in the Reading Center has blown him away. What an honor it is to help people – especially people older than him – develop a skill that they’ll use the rest of their lives. He is thinking about getting a bachelor’s degree in counseling or adult education that will enable him to continue to do this work, to help other people become better educated. Maybe he can support himself as a welder while he’s in school. “Who knows,” he says. “I never thought I’d be doing this.”

There is a lot riding on the success of Sam, Zoe, and Dorothy, for them and for our economic and social structure. Yet in these recessionary times, the influx of all these students – many in need of academic remediation and other services – is a source of great consternation to policymakers and educational administrators. Just about everything I’ve read or heard on the topic frames it as a problem.

            While acknowledging the significant budgetary and institutional challenges involved, it is also possible, shifting to the historical perspective provided by Joseph Kett, to view the swelling enrollments in a positive light. This new population is more diverse – especially by race and ethnicity – than most of those who have participated in these types of educational movements and institutions in the past. They represent an advance in educational opportunity, an example of educational democracy whetting the appetite for more access, more possibility, more of a chance to learn new skills, master new bodies of knowledge.

A phrase you'll read in educational tracts from right after the Revolutionary War and into the 1820s and 1830s is "the general diffusion of knowledge," a call to spread learning across the young Republic. Though expressed in sweeping terms, this democratizing of knowledge didn't apply to all, either by law or because of the realities of social stratification. Sam and company are pursuing their goals within the constraints of the social order as well, but opportunities are open to them that weren't there for their forebears, and they are embracing these opportunities. There is much talk in our time of the United States becoming a “learning society.” Management consultants write about “organizational learning”, and adult development experts champion “lifelong learning.” The focus of this talk tends to be on professionals, and managers, and people with a baccalaureate degree and beyond – mostly members of the middle and upper-middle classes. But if we’re serious about our country being a learning society, then we need to include all of its members.

Will the college provide people like Sam, Dorothy, and Zoe with the kinds of instruction and services they need? Will there be decent work for them at the end of their journey? Will we give these students a vital second chance – and through them realize the second time around a broad-scale societal commitment to the general diffusion of knowledge? We live up to our egalitarian ideals when the answer is yes.

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Monday, November 26, 2012

A Cab Ride in Vegas

So I'm in Las Vegas for a conference, staying in one of the swanky hotel-casinos, perpetual nighttime, flashing lights, bells and buzzers, erotica that's not erotic, manufactured enticement. Fear and loathing, straight up.

           It is about 10:30 on a Saturday night, and I'm getting a cab from a restaurant in one hotel on the Strip back to my hotel. The scene is controlled mayhem. People from everywhere, it seems, are streaming in and out, many with drinks, "after five" attire to bermuda shorts. Groups of young women in stiletto heels are getting into two Hummer stretch limos heading to bachelorette parties. Men in hotel uniforms bark commands and blow whistles, directing a swirl of traffic, cabs and town cars and those steroidal Hummers. The whole vehicular cluster is drenched in testosterone.

           The next cab in line is a small one, my cab. I slide in, relieved to be out of this mess. My cabbie is a slight woman, weathered face, mid-to-late 40s, looks to be from Central Asia. She is soft-spoken and cordial and talks to me with a quarter-turn of her head, keeping both hands on the wheel. The larger cars are unforgiving as we circle toward the exit, and she navigates carefully, defensively. Once out on the Strip, which is moving at a crawl, I start up a conversation.

           At first, given her pronunciation and limited vocabulary, I think she might be a fairly new arrival to the States, but it turns out that she has lived in Las Vegas for 25 years, working most of the time in the restaurant industry. She's only been driving a cab for six months. I ask her how she likes the new work, and her answer leads to another question or two, and here's what emerges.

           There was a lot of stress in the restaurant business, she says: the managers, the customers, complaints about the food. Driving a cab has less of that. You're more on your own – though there's stress here too, she adds. She keeps both hands on the wheel the entire time, eyes on the road. When we approach a yellow light, her fellow cabbies gun it, but she stops, explaining that if she gets in an accident, she could lose her job. Somewhere in this flow of conversation, she repeats – with a little apologetic laugh at the contradiction – that there's less stress driving a cab than in the restaurant, but that there's stress here too. A different kind of stress, I ask? Yes, she says, a different kind of stress.

           As we speak, her vocabulary increases markedly, and we end up talking about the economy in Las Vegas, the terrible housing bubble, how it devastated so many, the recession, the slow, slow comeback. All the while, we're surrounded by a creeping stream of revellers, honking, yelling from car windows, booze, the lights, lights, lights.


           I thought about that short ride off and on all the next day: Both hands on the wheel, the slight turn of her head, the unfolding, semantically and syntactically elaborated conversation about making a living in Las Vegas. I assumed my driver was new to the country, that her English was pretty limited. But as is always the case when people feel just a little more comfortable, so much can open up. I was familiar with her contradictory attitudes about work from my mother and so many other blue-collar and service workers – her parsing of different kinds of stress, and her relief to have new work that, however, kept both of her hands tight on the wheel.

           A former student of mine is a union organizer in Las Vegas, and he pointed out to me that cab drivers, as independent contractors in a Right to Work state like Nevada, have virtually no protections. It is possible that when she worked in the restaurant industry, she was a member of the Culinary Workers Union, the largest union in the city. If so, she gave up whatever protection she might have had for work that, in some ways, creates less stress for her. 

           One other factor in this job change is gender. I didn't see another woman cab driver in the loud flow of vehicles through the hotel roundabout. The next day I was telling the cabbie's story to a friend I had made in Vegas, someone who until recently had worked in the casinos, and she said it was very unusual to have a woman driving at night, for there have been some robberies, and one cabbie was murdered. So my driver was fighting the odds on several levels, trying to make a living catering to people like me. She had to choose between one stressful job over another, the better option exposing her to danger, threading her way through a bad economy, laying low, not taking any chances, being cordial to people who rush into her city for short bursts of pleasure, many of whom barely notice her, part of the vulnerable, semi-visible human machinery that animates a strip of illusions in the desert.

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Friday, October 26, 2012

Inside The Remedial Classroom

This post is an abridged and edited section of my new book, Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education. It appears as well in the "College Issue" of Dissent , Fall, 2012. 
* * *
            There is a lot of attention being given these days to remediation in higher education. “Failure to Launch,” reads one representative headline, “Community College Students Can’t Meet Higher Goals.”
The numbers vary but, on average, suggest that about 35-40% of students in state colleges and universities are held for one or more basic skills courses. The numbers increase in the community college, typically 60% and higher. So roughly half of post-secondary students in the United States need some assistance in order to do college-level work.

These numbers are alarming; however, some form of remediation has existed in American higher education for a very long time, and, by some estimates, the numbers have remained modestly stable. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, more than 40% of entering students were involved in a preparatory program. In the 1970s, Berkeley was holding about 50% of its students for remedial English. On some campuses, the numbers are going up, and that increase can be accounted for by the declining conditions of some K-12 districts, but, also, by an increase in the number of people attending college: people who, a generation or two ago, would not have thought college possible or economically necessary. Here’s one telling statistic: Over the last thirty years, the percentage of people over 40 attending college has more than doubled.

Placement in basic English, reading, or mathematics is definitely affected by educational and economic inequality. Yet, in one national study 24% of students from the top income quartile took one or more such courses. Likewise, students who had a strong pre-collegiate education were also held – 10% of those from the top quartile of scorers on one national achievement test were held for one or more remedial courses. Both across and within basic skills classrooms, the students are a varied lot.

For students, basic skills courses extend time in school. They must take courses that typically earn no graduation or transfer credit, and if they have financial aid, they use it up. At the legislative level, it is the expense of large numbers of basic skills courses that is propelling remediation onto the national stage. But several studies suggest that the entire remedial effort accounts for 1 to 2 percent of the country’s higher educational budget – that’s a lot of money, but not at the catastrophic levels the headlines lead us to believe.

Legislative outrage is fueled not only by expense, but also by a string of reports showing that the success rates of students held for remedial courses is not good. For example, of those students placing at the lowest level of basic skills, especially in more than one area – math, English, reading – only 16% complete the entire remedial series. Yet, the research findings on effectiveness are mixed, and do show that for many students who are not severely underprepared (particularly in reading, the core academic skill), basic skills courses can make a positive difference in persistence and success in college.

The students who are the focus of the reports on remediation are represented in the aggregate, in statistical averages. Let us meet some of them by going into the kind of classroom that raises the most concern in state houses: one of the most basic English courses in the remedial sequence. The instructor, Mr. Quijada, is asking for the definition of a word in an article the students are reading.

* * *

            “Forlorn,” Mr. Quijada reads, looking up from the article. “What’s ‘forlorn’ mean?” “Desire,” says the older man in the middle of the room – glasses, graying dreadlocks pulled back – then in the same breath adds “longing.” “Close, Leonard,” Mr. Quijada replies, “longing can certainly lead to being forlorn.” Casually strategic, Mr. Quijada looks to the last row. “Kimberly, it’s good to see you back. Do you want to add to Leonard’s definition?” Kimberly shakes her head, softly says “no,” and looks to the young woman in the hoodie next to her who answers, “Sad… it means to be sad.”
This is English 55, the most basic of the three remedial English courses at this community college. Upon entering the college, students take a standardized, multiple-choice placement test in grammar, reading comprehension, and mathematics. This test can clear them to take the credit-bearing, transferrable course in English or mathematics, or, as is the case for almost 90% of the students at this college – a college that serves one of the poorest populations in the city – the test can slot them into some level of remedial coursework.

The ages of the students in English 55 range from 19, right out of high school, to two people in their 50s. Some have had poor educations, and some are still learning to write English. Some have a learning disability. There is a student with a hearing impairment in front with a signer. Some have been away from school for a long time and haven’t taken a standardized test in decades. Some are misplaced; they write and read pretty well but test poorly. And some, unaware of the significance of the test, take it quickly and haphazardly, eager to get it over and get onto the next thing on their list: the counseling office, financial aid, childcare, or work. Hardly anyone knew about the test beforehand, and no one prepared for it.
For their first assignment, Mr. Quijada asked his students to write a short essay about the main obstacle that might prevent them from passing the class. The papers reveal quite a range of skill. There are a few that are deeply flawed, and at the other end of the spectrum are competent essays with well-crafted sentences and paragraphs. The rest fall somewhere in-between: some with sentence fragments, some with problems in phrasing, some not well-developed.
The features of their writing tell a story about the quality of the education these students had before coming here, and the content of the essays gives a glimpse into their lives right now. Five or six write pretty frankly about scaling back on club life or on sports, video games, and overall hanging out. But all the rest reveal weightier challenges. Several express concern about poor skills, how hard writing, and reading, and studying have been for them. One young woman writes about the loss of her family and subsequent struggles with depression – “How can I live without my parents?” Some write about trying to provide for their families, and two single parents wrestle with pursuing their own education without compromising the care of their children: “I want to succeed in life,” one writes, but “I will sacrifice anything for my child.”
The obstacles most students mention have to do with money: rent, bus fare, a car breaking down. People with families worry about child care. Others mention school supplies, books, and for those who have computers, the price of ink for the printer. There’s Internet fees and phone bills – I know from trying to reach students at the college how often Internet or phone service is temporarily shut off. And a lost job or health crisis would be devastating. One or two bad breaks could destabilize their plans for school. There’s little room for mishap.
Yet the desire in the essays, the can-do optimism is striking. You can attribute some of it to the school-paper formula: end on an up-note. And there’s a big dose of positive thinking here that can gloss over the depth of the challenge some of these students face. Still, they write of “taking one step at a time” and “learning from my mistakes.” “By taking this English class,” writes a single mother who was laid off last year, “I will become a better writer and I will get the skills that I need to reach my goals in life.”
* * *
A lot of low-income students entering community college come from schools that are struggling. A recent study of Southern California’s 51 community colleges by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project documents “a harmful cycle of segregation” whereby low-income students of color from low-performing high schools attend nearby community colleges that have low rates of certificate or degree completion or transfer. Such students are not only underprepared for college in terms of traditional bodies of knowledge and skills, they also get short shrift on other kinds of knowledge that are less clear cut and obvious.
When you start teaching at a college like the one we’re visiting – or, for that fact, a lot of colleges, two- and four-year – you soon notice some student behaviors that are puzzling, even strange, certainly counterproductive. There are students who have trouble keeping track of assignments and deadlines. Some misjudge – at times by a wide margin – the time it will take to do an assignment, or they work like crazy on one assignment and let others slide. Their note-taking is erratic or sparse – yet some might think they’re taking good notes. They don’t ask questions, don’t seek help, don’t go to your office hours, even when you underscore the need to do so. Part of what is puzzling is that some of the students in question seem committed to their education. You can’t chalk up their behaviors to a lack of motivation or engagement.
As with any complex practice – from baseball to weaving to singing opera – you learn how to do it well by doing it and doing it over time, typically in some sort of formal or informal setting with guidance and feedback from others who are more skilled. The same holds for learning how to be a student in the formal setting of school.

            Over the years I’ve come to understand that a key dimension of underpreparation is that some students have learned how to attend school in a routine and superficial manner, but haven’t had the kind of education that teaches them how to use their mind in certain systematic and strategic ways, how to monitor what they’re learning and assess it, and just the tricks of the trade of functioning effectively in this place called school.

            We typically talk about this sort of thing in terms of “study skills” and “time management,” and we attempt to remedy problems related to them through orientation programs or workshops. And students can learn useful techniques for scheduling your day or highlighting a textbook. But what I’m after is something that includes techniques but is more of an orientation to learning, a way of being in school. So what can seem like a lack of engagement or lack of focus can be more accurately understood as some of the results of a less-than-optimal education.           

In Mr. Quijada’s Basic English class, it turns out that several students – including the older gentleman who volunteered to define “forlorn” – dropped the class because they couldn’t master its auxiliary online platform. Two more students just stopped coming. Of the remaining 25, eight didn’t pass: They missed too many classes, or didn’t do the assignments, or did poorly on them. Many who did pass followed Mr. Quijada into the next course in the remedial series, and some of them did well – including the young woman who wrote of her depression and the older woman who had been laid off. But one single mother quit to take a job; another young woman who was doing good work got pregnant and dropped the class right at the end of the semester.

            Because of failure and attrition rates like these, there are calls to reconsider and possibly narrow the wide mission of the community college, including its open admissions policy. And some observers question the nation’s recent “college for all” ideology.

            The critics of college-for-all are right in claiming that some students come to college without clear goals or direction.  Because of the open-door policy of most community colleges, there are students who arrive with academic skills that are so limited that even with basic skills courses and tutorial support, their chances of success are minimal. They need to be in a literacy program or Adult Basic Education. Other students enroll in college because they aren’t sure what else to do: They couldn’t find a job; their parents pushed them; their friends were going. With an uncertain future and few options, why not college? And some people enroll in college, particularly the community college, to get a financial aid award. They stay a few weeks and quit coming. Yet other students might have a specific goal in mind, a major or an occupation, but have a thin or inaccurate understanding of the course of study or the demands of the trade.
These are examples of types of people who arguably shouldn’t be going to college – at least at this stage of their lives. But they are also examples of the failure of other institutions in our society – or the lack of an appropriate institution at all – to help young people develop into adulthood. Students who come to college with fuzzy goals have probably had minimal counseling in high school. (Some beleaguered schools have a student:counselor ratio of 800 to 1, or worse. In under-resourced community colleges the ratio can jump to 2,000 to 1.) As for those young people with an unrealistic or incorrect understanding of a course of study or occupation, if their high school can’t provide such an orientation and if their family networks do not give them access to good information, where can they get it? Our society does not provide a range of options after high school for young people to grow in productive ways. We lack, for example, a robust system of occupational apprenticeships or a comprehensive national service effort. The military becomes for many our defacto occupational and service program.

            As for those coming to college to collect financial aid, doesn’t that practice to some degree reflect weakness in economic policy and job creation as well as inadequacies in the social safety net? Several quite successful students who came out of Mr. Quijada’s classes revealed to me that they’ve had to use their financial aid money to pay medical bills or keep their parents afloat.

            Acknowledging all the above, it is still a significant problem that a number of students attend for the wrong reasons. In some cases, however, these students find their way. Once you’re on the campus meeting new people, being exposed to fresh ideas, feeling the pull of opportunity – surprising things can happen. An instructor at another college across town tells this story: An honored African-American Studies professor died, and the college put on a memorial for him. One of the speakers was a man who explained that when he got out of prison and was kicking around, he decided he wanted to fix up his car. He found out that he could get financial aid, which he then used to buy a coveted set of chrome rims. During his first term, he enrolled in a course from the professor, and it pulled him in. He took another course and the older man began to mentor him. He continued in school and got his Associates degree. Even a guy setting out to scam the system can get turned around.

* * *

            I’ve taught for a very long time in a wide range of settings, kindergarten through graduate seminar and one thing I’ve learned is that there’s usually more to a student’s poor academic performance than meets the eye. The man who falls asleep in class is working the night shift to support his family. The young woman who doesn’t turn in assignments worries to the point of physical distress about revealing her poor writing skills. The guy who seems distracted, unfocused, flakey even, is wrestling with parental expectations about his major. The class clown; the sullen, withdrawn type; the girl who’s above it all, whatever – they all have something else going on.

            We tend to characterize these behaviors in a shorthand way, a way that both describes them and implies causation. A student “lacks motivation,” or isn’t “serious,” “committed,” or “disciplined,” or is “unfocused” and “scattered,” or is “immature,” maybe “lazy.” We’ve done this sort of thing for a very long time. Early nineteenth century educators referred to the poor common school performer as a “shirker” or “loafer;” in the last half of the nineteenth century the terms shifted a bit from a student’s character to development and intelligence: The poor student was “immature,” “sleepy-minded,” “dull.” As we move through the twentieth century we get a wide range of terms, from “dullards” to the more sociological: “alienated” and “socially maladjusted.” And so it goes. This way of describing academic performance can blinker our analytic vision. The terms lead us to think we know more than we do about a student’s behavior and circumstances and thereby limit our ability to create effective interventions.

            Remediation in higher education has been present in some form before there were yell leaders and fight songs. Remediation is not new, and unless we have an unprecedented transformation of our social order, it will be with us for some time to come. As we have seen, there are many reasons that lead people into classrooms like Mr. Quijada’s. To respond fully and well to them, we have to know them better, move beyond the ready-made labels and explanations and understand how they got into Basic English, or Basic Math, or Reading. Some of Mr. Quijada’s students would have benefited from richer academic support including technology support. Others needed more targeted counseling and mentoring. Yet others desperately needed coordinated social services – and just basic employment assistance.

We also need to do a better job – and Mr. Quijada is good at this – of drawing on these students’ strengths, the many experiences and qualities they bring with them. In that next course in the remedial series taught by Mr. Quijada, one of his students wrote about his return to college. He had been working regularly and had not been in school for many years, had no desire for it. Then the unexpected happened: He got laid off. Despondent, ashamed, his head bowed he went to talk to his brother who encouraged him to go back to school. Why not? It’s now or never. He did and discovered he liked it. Three or four months later his brother called him forlorn to tell him that he had just been laid off too. Well, the student said, you should join me, come back to school. “So I’m glad he took my advice. If not, he would not be sitting next to me writing this paper.”

Now, that’s something to write about.

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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Writing about Teaching and Learning through the Details of Classroom Life

Every once in a while, I post something on writing, and I get a lot of positive response. So let me post one more. This is something I wrote a while ago for The Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media. It was part of a primer for journalists new to the education beat, but I think the advice in it is relevant for anyone writing about classrooms. The illustrations in it come primarily from my Possible Lives.


“Detail,” wrote Beat novelist Jack Kerouac, “is the life of literature.”  And of education, as well.  I want to offer suggestions about how detail cannot only animate an education story, but provide insight into the thought processes of students and teachers.

These days, talk of teaching and learning is dominated by test scores, rankings,  standards and guidelines, and about how student transience and socio-economic status correlate with achievement.  Such data are important but not the key to getting at what goes on in schools. For that, reporters need to use their training to keep their eyes and ears open—and focus on the transaction between student and teacher. Let me suggest four prisms for observation: the classroom itself, the ways teachers talk to students, the lives of students, and the lives of teachers.

            The room.  Classrooms are so familiar to us that we can easily miss the significance of obvious things, like how desks or tables are arranged. So, suggestion one: follow the anthropologist’s adage and try to make the classroom strange, unfamiliar.  
I begin by sketching the room in my notes, starting at the door; sometimes, I’ll even take a photograph. I focus on details that reveal something about a teacher’s creativity and resourcefulness. For instance, in a third-grade bilingual classroom in the California border town of Calexico, teacher Elena Castro had set up learning stations – math, reading, art, etc. From the arrangement, I could see that a student’s day would mix whole-class instruction with rotation through the stations.  I was struck by the way every part of the room had a purpose and enabled students to explore their interests and access areas where they needed help. Also, clear from my sketch, Mrs. Castro had positioned her desk (“The Teacher’s Workshop,” she called it, revealing in itself) so that she could survey the room while privately attending to the student sitting alongside her.  Finally, there was Mrs. Castro’s skill in using meager materials – old tape recorders; unmatched encyclopedia volumes; small, wobbly tables—to fashion a vibrant classroom.   
            Scientists sometimes say that nothing interesting goes on in a neat laboratory.  I think the same could be said of classrooms.  Look for the physical residue of learning. Are any books lying around open, and do you see them in places other than the bookshelf—for example, by the science displays or the plants and animals, if the classroom has them?  Are there scraps of paper here and there with writing on them?  What about the remnants of projects?  Here’s a snapshot from a first-grade classroom in Baltimore:
The table itself was small and cluttered with the remnants of experiments past, the messiness of good science.  There was a cluster of acorns and orange and yellow gourds, the head of a big sunflower, a bird’s nest, some stray twigs, the corpse of a newt—carefully laid out on cardboard and labeled—five or six small magnifying glasses, several Audubon Pocket Guides, and a pile of crisp maple leaves. 

Of course, there’s a point past which messiness drifts into chaos.  Also, grade-level, subject, and teacher’s style matter.  I remember an Advanced Placement literature class in Chicago.  The students were reading Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.  There was hardly anything on the walls; the desks were turned inward, forming a circle.  But the discussion was electric—this charged talk on a barren stage was a story in itself. 

            Teacher talk.  As a teacher myself, I’m fascinated by the way talk can impede or advance learning.  Watch how a teacher models the analysis of a problem. Does he think out loud? Walk the student through the process? Or simply tell the student what to do?  Here’s an example from an electrical wiring class in Phoenix:
Hector, in a quarter-twist of his torso, arms over his head, is trying to fasten a conduit strap into tight quarters.  “Mr. Padilla,” he moans, “the screw won’t go in.  Dang.  I can’t get leverage!”  Jim Padilla rests his foot on the bottom rung of the ladder, one hand on the rail, watching… “Try a smaller screwdriver, Hector.”  Then, “Turn the hammer sideways.”  Then, “No? Well start the hole with a nail.”  Mr. Padilla intersperses these suggestions with homilies and exhortations: “Hector, there’s more than one way to get milk from a cow, verdad?”  And, “I’m not gonna let you give up.”  And, eventually, Hector does get the vexing strap affixed.

            Studies have found that the most common form of teacher-student interaction is this: the teacher asks a question, often factual (“Is freedom of speech a guaranteed right?”), a student answers (“Yes, it’s in the Bill of Rights.”), and the teacher evaluates (“That’s correct.”).  This kind of questioning has its place, but if it predominates, learning, not to mention classroom vitality, is narrowed.  Look for questioning that is interactive and opens up a wider range of thinking.           

An ongoing study of mathematics instruction at UCLA is demonstrating that it’s not so much the teacher’s immediate response that counts—e.g., “How did you get that answer?”—but the question that comes after the student has explained her answer.  I try to keep a record of the kinds of questions a teacher asks and get a sense of sequence.  Rich questioning and exchange signals a teacher’s respect for students, and students pick that up; in my experience, the students then mirror that respect for each other.  Intellectual respect is a wonderful topic to write about.  See if you can sense it – or its absence – in the air.  

            The students.  Whatever you do, make sure to spend time with students. Find out about their responsibilities and duties in jobs, hobbies, church, and home.  Ask what languages they speak, whether they’ve immigrated, if they travel, what kind of knowledge they’re exposed to at home, from childrearing practices to craft traditions to parents’ talk about work. I’m always curious as to whether they have opportunities in the classroom to use the skills and knowledge they develop outside of school.  Conversely, I want to know if they have opportunities to use school-knowledge out in the world, bringing a new perspective to the familiar.  A nice example is the teacher in a Montana one-room schoolhouse who sent his students out to do scientific observations of the plant life along the creek that ran through their valley.   

            Try to talk with students while they’re working on something; general questions  about schooling will likely elicit the generic “it’s boring” or “it’s OK.”  But if you can get students to talk about what they’re doing while they’re doing it, you might get some insight into learning. 

            I also find it valuable to keep eyes and ears open for the cognitive nugget in student chatter that surrounds a classroom assignment.  I’m thinking here of an experiment in a chemistry class in Los Angeles.  While students were flirting and humming and apparently just going through the motions, they were also – if you listened closely – revealing their knowledge of the principles embodied in the experiment.

            I always remind myself to be cautious about my choice of words in depicting students’ lives and communities.  Besides the ethical reasons, it is easy to slip into standard story lines – the heroic teacher, the disaffected kid, the blighted community – that simplify a complex reality.  I remember sitting with two girls and listening to a news story about their school.  The piece was sympathetic, but in characterizing the school’s challenges the reporter called the surrounding community a “wasteland.” The students were shocked, then angry.  They knew about the unemployment, the disrepair, the gangs—who knew better than they?—but also felt that the reporter missed so much.  “This isn’t a wasteland,” one said, “We live here.”  Eliciting their take on things might have led to a more nuanced story and would have provided yet another insight into their intelligence and ability to analyze their own surroundings.

            The teacher.  Teaching is such a familiar occupation—we’ve all been exposed to lots of it—that we can fall into the trap of thinly representing the work, missing some of the skill involved. So, as with classrooms, I recommend the anthropologist’s strategy of making the familiar strange.

First, ask yourself what it would require to do what you’re observing.  Take, for example, the work of the primary teacher.  Most depictions address her kindness and patience, or her nice way with children, or the problems the children bring into the classroom.  But few focus on the work’s cognitive demands and complex interactions.  Here’s a moment from a primary grade in Los Angeles:
Ms. Cowan was all over the floor, on her haunches, kneeling, turning quickly on her knees, stretching backward, extending her line of sight.  “Count those out, Joey.”  “Watch, Sebastian, what happens when I do this,”  “Mantas, show Brittany what you just did.”  It is remarkable, this ability that good primary teachers have: to take in a room in a glance, to assess in a heartbeat, to, with a word to two, provide feedback, make a connection, pull a child into a task. 

Second, ask teachers about specific classroom events.  “I was interested in that question you asked,” you might say, “what were you trying to achieve with it?”  Or, “Is there something about that student that led you to ask it?”  Or “I saw this, what do you make of it?”  “Do you remember what you were thinking?”  Questions like these can reveal teachers’ broad strategies and goals, give insight into their moment-to-moment decisions, and reveal their underlying values and beliefs. 

            Third, explore these values by asking teachers about their own histories, particularly what school was like for them.  I also find it fruitful to ask about their first year of teaching: the big surprises and revelations, the crucial role an older teacher played.  I’m interested, too, in the things they struggle with, their professional dilemmas, or the kid who has them tied up in knots. 

            I find these stories compelling, especially the ways teachers’ histories and experiences interact with the work they do in the classroom.  There are all sorts of human interest moments—a teacher’s first-year hell, a teacher going back to work in his community—but I also look for intellectual and ideological complexity: the teacher trying to reconcile her fundamentalist religious beliefs with Darwin, the teacher who creatively integrates into her curriculum standardized tests that she deplores.  These are stories worth telling. 

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Thursday, September 27, 2012

Bridging the Academic Vocational Divide

This commentary recently appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education (9/10/2012). It is drawn from several chapters in my new book, Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Higher Education.


Since the passage of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational Education and Technology Act of 1990, there has been a concerted effort to enrich the vocational curriculum with academic content. Today there is a new burst of energy around “contextualized learning,” the attempt to make a particular subject matter more relevant and comprehensible by teaching it in the context of another subject – for example, teaching mathematics through fashion or automotive technology. A lot has been achieved, but I think attempts to integrate the academic with the vocational curriculum will be limited or subverted unless we address the cultural and institutional factors that created the academic-vocational divide itself.

            For a very long time in the West, there has been a tendency among intellectual elites to distinguish between physical work and technical skill – labor, the mechanical arts, crafts and trades – and deliberative and philosophical activity, which emerges from leisure, or, at least, from a degree of distance from the world of work and commerce. The distinction carries with it judgments about intellectual acuity and virtue. This distinction runs through America’s cultural history – odd in a country with such a strong orientation toward practicality. It was evident when Post-Revolutionary War mechanics were portrayed in editorials as illiterate and incapable of participating in government, and it contributed to the structure of curriculum tracking in the twentieth century comprehensive high school.

            At the post- secondary level there is a long- standing tension between liberal study and professional or occupational education. Is the goal of college to immerse students in the sciences and humanities for the students’ intellectual growth and edification or to prepare them for work and public service? With the increase in occupational majors since the 1960’s, the vocational function is clearly in ascendance, yet you don’t have to work in a two or four year college very long to sense the status distinctions among disciplines, with those in the liberal tradition, those seen as intellectually “pure” pursuits – mathematics, philosophy – having more symbolic weight than education or business or, to be sure, the trades.

            This tension plays out when arts and sciences faculty are brought together with faculty from occupational programs. The way subject areas and disciplines are organized in school and college leads future faculty to view knowledge in bounded and status-laden ways. And there is no place in, let’s say, a historian’s training where she is assisted in talking across disciplines with a biologist, let alone to a person in medical technology or the construction trades.

            These separations are powerfully reinforced when people join an institution. The academic-vocational divide has resulted in separate departments, separate faculty, separate budgets, separate turf and power dynamics. Now egos and paychecks enter the mix. These multiple separations lead to all sorts of political conflicts and self-protective behaviors that work against curricular integration. And it certainly doesn’t help that efforts at integration are often framed such that the academic side will bring the intellectual heft to the vocational courses, a laying on of culture.

            If these conflicts are mild, there are still limits in the way curricular integration typically proceeds. From what I’ve seen, the work of integration tends to stay at the technical, structural level: where in carpentry or nursing is math used, and how can we teach it in that context? This is a reasonable focus – the specific work that needs to be done. But one could also imagine discussing the ways carpentry and nursing are mathematical activities. Or how the math being learned can transfer to other domains. Or how thinking mathematically opens up a way to understand the world: carpentry and nursing, but also employment and the economy, social issues, the structure of the physical environment. There is a tendency to teach mathematics in vocational settings in the most practical, applied terms, and to locate the further mathematical topics I raise as the domain of liberal study.

            The academic-vocational divide also leads us to think about vocational students in limited ways: They are narrowly job-oriented, hands-on, not particularly intellectual. This characterization is reinforced by loose talk about learning styles. Now, it is true that a significant number of vocational students did not have an easy time of it in school and can barely tolerate the standard lecture and textbook-oriented classroom. It is a grind for them when, in pursuit of a degree beyond an occupational certificate, they must take general education courses.

            But dissatisfaction with the standard curriculum does not necessarily indicate a lack of interest in liberal arts topics. We have countless examples of people, young and not-so-young, coming alive intellectually when the setting is changed, from museum-based educational programs to staging Shakespeare in prison. And the change in curriculum and setting doesn’t have to be that exceptional. I think of a welding student in his forties, a tough, goal-oriented guy, who excitedly told me about a field trip for his art history class, and his amazement and pleasure that he was able to identify architectural structures by period and knew something about them.

            If we sell our students short, we have done the same with the vocational curriculum. Despite all that John Dewey tried to teach us, we often underestimate the rich conceptual content of occupations. One of the powerful things about contextualized learning is that it forces us to articulate the conceptual dimensions of the vocational course of study. Likewise, occupations have a history and sociology and politics that can be examined. And they give rise to ethical, aesthetic, and philosophical questions: students confront traditions and standards and have to make decisions about right action; they make aesthetic judgments; they are moved to reflection about the power of the tools and processes they use and what deep knowledge will enable them to do; and they begin to identify with and define themselves by the quality of their work.

            As I noted, faculty on the liberal studies side of the academic-vocational divide aren’t primed by their training to see all this, and, sadly, vocational education itself has participated in this restrictive understanding. The authors of an overview from the National Center for Research in Vocational Education conclude that historically “[V]ocational teachers emphasized job-specific skills to the almost complete exclusion of theoretical content.” And as a profession, vocational education has kept from its curriculum the study of the economics, politics, and sociology of work, further restricting the education of its students.

            The assumptions about work, intelligence, and achievement that underlie a curriculum are as important as the content of the curriculum itself. A lot of historical debris has kept us from bridging the academic- vocational divide – now is the time to start sweeping it away.

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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

My New Book: Back To School

I have a new book coming out in about two weeks and want to let my readers know about it. It’s called Back to School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education. The publisher added this “reading line” to the cover An Argument for Democratizing Knowledge in America. The title and reading line give a pretty good sense of the book’s purpose: To both champion and improve those institutions that provide a second chance at educational success, particularly the community college and adult school. This purpose is embedded in a broader purpose: to remind us in these budget cutting times how fundamental such institutions are to our nation’s definition of itself as an egalitarian, second-chance society, and to our social and economic vitality. I reprint below the short preface and the table of contents.


Preface to Back to School

            This is a book about people in tough circumstances who find their way, who get a second… or third… or fourth chance, who, in some cases, feel like they are reinventing themselves. Education can play a powerful role in creating that second chance.
            At a time when public institutions are held in low regard, and schools at all levels are under assault – for good reasons and bad – Back to School demonstrates what education can do…even though it was often earlier schooling that let people down. The stories in this book affirm the transformational potential of the college classroom, the occupational workshop, the tutoring center, the mentoring relationship.
            One of the defining characteristics of the United States is its promise of a second chance; this promise is central to our vision of ourselves, and to our economic and civic dynamism. When we are at our best as a society, our citizens are not trapped by their histories. Sadly this possibility is contracting, partly because of a damaged and unstable economy but more so because of our political response to the economy. There are better ways to respond and to foster the growth of a wider sweep of our population. I hope Back to School points us in that direction.


Table of Contents

Preface. Second Chances

Introduction. Why Going Back to School Matters

Chapter One. Adult Education and the Landscape of Opportunity

Chapter Two. Who Should Go to College?: Unpacking the College-for-All Versus Occupational Training Debate

Chapter Three. Full Cognitive Throttle: When Education for Work Ignites the Mind

Chapter Four. Who We Are: Portraits from an Urban Community College

Chapter Five. Overcoming Bad Ideas: Toward Success with Remedial Education and Bridging the Academic-Vocational Divide

Chapter Six. Improving the People’s College

Conclusion. A Learning Society

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Writing About Education

            For quite some time, I have been teaching two graduate courses to help students in education write more effectively, both for professional and general audiences. Professional writing in education, and in the social sciences generally, is not known for its eloquence, yet the issues written about – from child development to the economics of higher education – are hugely important. So all of us involved in education, from teachers and administrators to researchers to school board members, need to get better at writing about what we know best.

 I get asked about these courses a lot, so I thought it might be useful to reprint here a (slightly edited) section from a commentary I wrote about them for the journal College English (January, 2010). In the article, I focus on students in the midst of graduate study, but the general principles and the techniques could apply easily to teachers, administrators, and members of school boards.
* * *

Education includes areas of study as different as history and developmental biology and psychology…as well as economics, linguistics, anthropology, political science, sociology, statistics, and more.  It is not uncommon for a student to study several of these disciplines, acquiring their vocabularies and modes of argument along the way, acquiring as well the authority of disciplinary membership.  But education is also intimately connected to broad public concerns, and the majority of students in education very much want to affect educational policy and practice.  How do they turn, and tune, their voices from the seminar room to the public sphere?  As they try to do so, they find themselves smack in the middle of a whole set of questions about communication: about writing, voice, audience, and the tension between the language of specialization and the language of public discourse. 

I hadn’t been in UCLA’s ed school for very long before these tensions became a focus of my teaching.  Student after student in child development, or language policy, or the study of higher education sat in my office expressing a desire to make a difference in the world, to communicate with the public about educational issues that mattered deeply to them.  But they didn’t know how to do it, or, to be more exact, worried that the specialized language of learning theory, or critical social thought, or organizational behavior that they had worked so hard to acquire both certified their authority in the academy and tongue-tied them when it came to writing for non-specialists.  Some also worried that these new languages – the syntax and vocabulary, the conventions and stance – left no room for a personal mark, for the deeply felt beliefs that brought them into education, for passion.

            The first course I developed helps students become more effective scholarly writers.  And while it certainly addresses everything from conventions of citation to summarizing a body of research literature, it also assists students in framing a tight argument and questioning it, in thinking hard about audience, in appropriating stylistic devices and considering the grace as well as informational content of their sentences.

            The course is structured like a workshop, and each student begins by reading aloud a piece of his or her writing, even if half of it is charts and statistical tables.  Because so many students in education come out of the social or psychological sciences, they rarely, if ever, had the opportunity to think about their writing as writing and not just a vehicle to hold information.  I want them to hear their writing.  I urge them to find other scholarly and non-scholarly writers they like and read them like a writer, noting and analyzing what it is they do that works – and then incorporating those writers’ techniques into their own work.  At the end of the quarter, I think that the primary thing students acquire is a rhetorical sense of their writing; style and audience are more on their minds. As one student put it so well: “The course got me to think of my writing as strategic. Who am I writing to? Where do I want to take them with my argument? How can I get them there?”

The second course shares a good deal with the workshop on scholarly writing, but is designed to help students in education write for the general public. The goal is to produce two pieces of writing: the newspaper Op Ed piece and the magazine article. Students can vary these for online media, but the purpose remains the same: to draw on one’s studies and work in schools to write for a wide audience a 700-800 word opinion piece and a 1500-2500 word magazine article. Students are also required to familiarize themselves with appropriate outlets and submit to them.

To streamline our discussion here, I’ll focus on the opinion piece, though my students and I go through the same process and make some of the same discoveries in writing the magazine article.

On the first day of class, I distribute a variety of opinion pieces – and encourage students to subsequently bring in ones they find that catch their fancy. We operate inductively, reading the selections and looking for characteristics and commonalities.

Students immediately notice the brevity and conciseness of the opinion piece (versus the longer, more elaborated writing of their disciplines). Claims and arguments are made quickly and without heavy citation or marshalling of other research relevant to the topic. Evidence is present in the opinion piece, of course, but it will be one or two key statistics or examples or reports, or a telling and crisp quotation from another expert. How, then, does one select a sample of evidence that is vibrant yet still representative? Or, more challenging, how does one deal with conflicting evidence within significant space constraints?

Students also notice features of the Op Ed genre, particularly the “hook,” the linking of the piece onto an event in the news. And, in some pieces, the “turn,” that point where the writer, having summarized current policy or perception, turns the tables and offers another way – the way the writer prefers – to think about the issue at hand.

Opinion pieces are written in all kinds of styles and voices – from polemical to didactic to ironic – but students comment on the commonalities in language, the accessible vocabulary, the lack of jargon (or the judicious use of it, always defined), the frequent use of colloquial speech – always for rhetorical effect. Along with diction, they note the syntax of sentences – often not as complicated as they find in scholarly prose – and the short paragraphs (versus paragraphs that in scholarly writing can go on for a page).

This attention to style leads to experimentation: incorporating metaphor, varying sentence length, the strategic shortening of paragraphs. It also contributes to a heightened appreciation of revision and a commitment to it. “By the time I got done with my piece,” one student said, “every sentence was changed. It does you no good to hold onto your precious words.”

One thing I love about teaching this course – or the one focused more on scholarly writing – is how easily, readily big topics emerge, topics central to the kind of work the students envision for themselves. We might be talking in class about the kind of evidence to provide, and that discussion balloons to the issue of authority, of demonstrating expertise. Or we’re down to the level of the sentence, mixing long sentences with short ones, or even the effective use of the semi-colon or the dash, and suddenly we’re talking about how someone wants to sound, to come across to a reader.

This concern about how one comes across has a lot to do with identity, a fundamental issue at this stage of a graduate student’s development. What kind of work do I want to do? How can I sound at least a little bit distinctive while appropriating the linguistic conventions of my discipline? Who do I want to write for; how narrowly or broadly will I think of my audience or audiences? Who am I as an educator?

Another gratifying effect of the course is the cross-over effect that always emerges: The students begin to apply the lessons learned in this class on popular writing to their academic prose. I encourage a kind of bilingualism, the continued development of facility with both professional writing and writing for non-specialists. But, as well, there is playback from the opinion piece and magazine article onto the writing students do for their disciplines.

They learn, for example, to present their argument quickly, tersely, without the scaffolds of jargon, catchphrases, and a swarm of citations. This honing of language can have a powerful effect on a writer’s conceptualization of the argument itself. What exactly am I trying to say here? What is the problem I’m trying to solve? What is the fundamental logic of my study? Writing the opinion piece, one student observed, “helped me think deeply about my topic. It’s so easy to string a lot of fancy words together that look really important, but don’t really have substance to them.”

I’ve been writing about the crossover from the opinion piece to academic writing, but the crossover works in both directions. Students gain a heightened sense of the potential relevance of their work to issues of public concern.

The fostering of a hybrid professional identity – the life lived both in specialization and in the public sphere – is something I think we as a society need to nurture. The more opinion is grounded on rich experience and deep study, the better the quality of our public discourse about the issues that matter to us. 

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