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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Frank Bruni thinks kids are too coddled; I think kids are too tested; The Times fight for Common Core again

It seems if you write for the NY Times you must about why Common Core is wonderful.  I don’t know why. Sunday Frank Bruni wrote a column about how today’s kids are coddled. I couldn’t agree  more. Every game ends in a tie. No one can walk anywhere by themselves. Now I am done agreeing with Bruni. Here is some of the nonsense he wrote:

I behold the pushback against more rigorous education standards in general and the new Common Core curriculum in particular. And it came to mind when Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently got himself into a big mess. Duncan, defending the Common Core at an education conference, identified some of its most impassioned opponents as “white suburban moms” who were suddenly learning that “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good.”

So, this is absurd. Common Core is being fought against because it means school is testing testing testing and  what is being tested it boring at best and basically stultifying.
 If you follow the fevered lamentations over the Common Core, look hard at some of the complaints from parents and teachers, and factor in the modern cult of self-esteem, you can guess what set Duncan off: a concern, wholly justified, that tougher instruction not be rejected simply because it makes children feel inadequate, and that the impulse to coddle kids not eclipse the imperative to challenge them.
More nonsense. People are fighting because mathematics is being rammed down the throats of kids who will never use it. Because science has been reduced to rote memorization and because reading has been made in to a painful activity.
The Common Core, a laudable set of guidelines that emphasize analytical thinking over rote memorization, has been adopted in more than 40 states. In instances its implementation has been flawed, and its accompanying emphasis on testing certainly warrants debate.

NO. They emphasize memorization and testing. How would like to take test sall day Frank? How would like to learn things that you didn’t want to learn just because some testing companies  have realized that that stuff is easy to test?
What’s not warranted is the welling hysteria: from right-wing alarmists, who hallucinate a federal takeover of education and the indoctrination of a next generation of government-loving liberals; from left-wing paranoiacs, who imagine some conspiracy to ultimately privatize education and create a new frontier of profits for money-mad plutocrats.

Come on. Common Core is not right wing issue any more that it is a left wing issue. It is a business issue. Bill Gate is behind it and big money is at stake. The idea that kids can learn what interests them to learn is out the window. How is that a political issue?
Then there’s the outcry, equally reflective of the times, from adults who assert that kids aren’t enjoying school as much; feel a level of stress that they shouldn’t have to; are being judged too narrowly; and doubt their own mettle.
That is a weird idea. Kids should enjoy learning. Of course not. Terrible idea right Frank?
Aren’t aspects of school supposed to be relatively mirthless? Isn’t stress an acceptable byproduct of reaching higher and digging deeper?  
No, stress and learning are unrelated. Were you stressed from writing this column Frank? Did you learn anything from writing it? Will you learn anything from what I am writing? Will you find it stressful?
Before we beat a hasty retreat from potentially crucial education reforms, we need to ask ourselves how much panic is trickling down to kids from their parents and whether we’re paying the price of having insulated kids from blows to their egos and from the realization that not everyone’s a winner in every activity on every day.
This has nothing to do with the Common Core issues. The curriculum is awful. See if you can pass any of the tests.
David Coleman, one of the principal architects of the Common Core, told me that he’s all for self-esteem, but that rigorous standards “redefine self-esteem as something achieved through hard work.”

Achieved through hard work that you want to do not that you are being made to do. Hard work that accomplished a goal that you have not that someone else has for you.

And they’ll be ready to compete globally, an ability that too much worry over their egos could hinder. As Tucker observed, “While American parents are pulling their kids out of tests because the results make the kids feel bad, parents in other countries are looking at the results and asking themselves how they can help their children do better.”

They will be able to compete globally? In the math competition? We aren’t teaching them computer skills or business skills or entrepreneurial skills or invention skills or even social skills. We are teaching them test taking skills, so maybe they will win the math prize. Hooray!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

People are excited about or afraid of online education because…

I learned something yesterday. (This is not an everyday experience at my age.) I met with a group of faculty from a university that was thinking about adopting some of my online learn by doing curricula. I don’t typically meet with faculty about this because in general faculty don't care about educational change and they aren’t the decision makers anyway. I learned that I had been invited to talk with the faculty to allay their fears about online education.

I hadn’t really thought about this before. Of course, I know that faculty at places like San Jose State are objecting to MOOCs for a valid reason. MOOCs are providing canned lectures to students that are essentially faculty job eliminators. Stanford may be pushing MOOCs but they surely won’t be using them much. Faculty need to lecture in order to pay the bills. At places like Stanford, the faculty care about research and… did I mention research? They should be happy to not have to lecture. But, if they don’t who will pay their salaries? Some superstars can pay their own salaries from their research funds, but the average faculty member is actually being paid to teach, despite the fact that they get no respect for it and often do it badly. Stanford will muddle on and will be around for a long time. Not so San Jose State, which could easily disappear if State officials widely adopt MOOCs.

So, at the meeting I had with a good, but hardly Ivy League, private college, the faculty were afraid. I didn't realize what they were afraid of exactly for a while.

It was me.

They were afraid of me. They were the kind of faculty that dominates the educational landscape but not the kind of faculty that I have encountered in my professor’s life at Stanford, Yale, and Northwestern. While research dominates the life of faculty whom I have lived with, teaching dominates the life of the faculty with whom I was talking yesterday.

They were worried that if their university adopted my online master degree programs they would lose their jobs. After listening to me talk for a while (I was still at this point oblivious to their concerns,)  they started making odd statements like:

So you think that the problem at universities is that their isn’t enough good teaching?


Your on line courses wouldn’t take away our jobs?

Hardly, we would need you to supervise the new mentors you would have to hire.

And my last and favorite:

Isn’t this the way people have always learned and universities always used to teach?

Yes. Exactly. Mother chimps teach their children by showing them what to do and then helping them do it. Professors teach PhD students one on one, supervising their work as they try things out. No one gives lectures to their children at home.

Online learning, in my mind at least, was always supposed to make learning more fun, more relevant to each particular student, and was meant to require a heavy investment from faculty to improve the nature of the university by better teaching. This does not necessarily mean more teaching, but rather individualizing teaching just in time in a way that online learning makes possible. 

So this is another thing MOOCs have screwed up. They have put faculty in fear of losing their jobs (rightly so) when the real issue is how to use online learning to improve the teacher-student experience.

Here is a picture of me doing one on one teaching with my grandson. I am teaching him how to handicap a horse race:

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Charlie Trotter taught us what creativity and entrepreneurship are all about; school has nothing to do with either

I don’t usually write obituaries and this isn’t one, but it starts off that way. Charlie Trotter died yesterday. For those that never heard of him, he was one of the most inventive chefs I ever met. Here is the obit in the Times:

I met Charlie when I moved to Northwestern. He had opened his restaurant a year or two earlier. I loved his originality. Everything he prepared was unusual and unique for you. By that I mean he never served a customer something he had served him before. He once forced me to eat Halibut. I said I didn’t like Halibut and he said it was coming anyway and if I didn’t like it I wouldn’t have to pay. It was great and I happily paid.

I held my 50th birthday party at Charlie’s. I handed him the menu for my 40th (which was in Paris at Robuchon, the best in Paris at that time). I said he needed to beat what Robuchon had done because most of my current guests had been to my 40th as well. And beat it he did. He was  a great chef. I really liked him.

But that is not why I am writing this. I am writing this for all the young people out there who don’t know what to do with their lives and who think the answer is more school. 

While his food was great, for me he serves as a lesson to people who want to entrepreneurs, who want to be creative, or who simply have a passion for something. Here is a brief bit about him from the Chicago Tribune:

“I thought cooking out of a cookbook and following a recipe was not unlike doing a math problem: You had to measure everything out; you had to follow the directions meticulously; you couldn't deviate; otherwise the recipe wouldn't work,” he says. “So I cooked that way for about six months, and then I began to realize: Hey, tomatoes are out of season, so I'm not going to use tomatoes — I'm going to find something else to use. Or, I don't want so many mushrooms in the dish, so I'm going to cut back on the mushrooms.”
Trotter worked as a waiter, a bartender and a host at some Madison restaurants before ending up back on the North Shore. At that time restaurant work was considered more of a blue-collar pursuit — it certainly wasn't among the preferred professions for the New Trier set — but Trotter found his experiences “really cool” and considered having a go at it.
“What's the worst that could happen?” he says he thought. “I can always go back to graduate school or business school or law school or something.”
Full article to be found here:

School isn’t going to get you where you need to go. You yourself will have to do that. You have to decide what you care about, who you are, and jump into it with both feet. When you are ready, find a great teacher. And when you are find you are good at it, do it your way and don’t be dissuaded.

Charlie Trotter was the best at what he did and he loved doing it. He had to learn how to cook, how to manage people, how to deal with customers, and how to run a business. He had his own unique style that he kept improving. I ate there four or five times a year while I was at Northwestern. During those 11 years the restaurant was constantly changing. A 1989 meal was not very much like a 2000 meal. He was clearly satisfying his toughest critic (himself) all the time.

Eventually he spawned so many imitators (including many people he had trained,) that he created a lot of competition for himself. This happens to people with a strong vision who have great drive. It doesn’t always end prettily but the ride is great fun.

To be a creative, successful, entrepreneur never stop learning. School has very little to do it with it. 

As I said to Milo the other day “do you know who your most important teacher is?” He looked at me and said “you?”

“No,” I said, “it is you.” Be your own best teacher. Charlie was.